I. Introduction: The Great Manic Depression
One hundred years ago, the twenties were characterized by economic prosperity. Until the stock market crash giving way to the Great Depression, employment and mass marketing rates soared to create a growth of 42 percent between 1921 and 1929.
It was a time to be alive; it was a time remembered as “roaring.” Never had Americans been so liberated from financial turmoils, and with the stock market buzzed speakeasies and jazz clubs in every corner of the rapidly-expanding urban world. The Italian mafia, nursed from the bottle of the bootlegging industry, burgeoned in the same rooms frequented by the figureheads of the modernist literature movement. In the wake of World War I came an unprecedented zeitgeist of growth, the specific nature of which hasn’t been seen or replicated since.
Few parallels can be drawn between the twenties of the past and those in which we find ourselves now — between economic turmoil, political polarization, and plague, the world more faithfully echoes the decade both before and after. What characterizes the time in which we live now — what sets it apart from ninety years ago — is that it is no longer pure depression that looms above the heads of America.
Raging instability threatens the quality of day-to-day civilian life, and in the last year this is something of which the greater population has become sharply aware. The fragility of economics is nothing new, but amidst (in particular) the COVID-19 pandemic we have discovered a more worrisome and much more ancient disease among us: the suffocating presence of an economic system that strengthens, every day, its strangle upon human liberty and livelihood.
II. The Suez and the Colonial Pipeline: Gas Prices in 2021 Signifying a Breakdown
The six-day blockage of the Suez Canal in March 2021 wreaked havoc across the world’s financial fronts. Ever Given, the massive 400-meter container ship that became stuck near the village of Manshiyet Rugola, resulted in the blockage of over 300 vessels.
By Mar. 25 (the day the canal closed), American imports were delayed by three days due to the obstruction of a waterway facilitating an estimated 12 percent of global trade.
According to CNBC, costs totaled approximately $400 million an hour in goods. Container ships such as Ever Greet were forced to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, a route that could total up to 15,000 miles — and which was used prior to the ship’s completion in 1869.
This additional time (which could range anywhere within the span of multiple weeks) posed a threat not only to international commerce, but to the lives of thousands of animals. Livestock onboard, according to EU director of NGO Animals International Gabriel Paun, “will run out of food and water in… two days.”
Most of these 200,000 animals came from Romania, a prominent exporter of live sheep. Several times within the past two years, the country has been reprimanded for failure to take adequate measures to protect animals prior to arrival. The sinking of the Queen Hind in November 2019 resulted in 14,372 sheep drowning (only 180 total surviving the ordeal).
A European Commission audit on Romania observed “a general lack of records in the system of controls to ensure animal welfare during transport by sea to non-EU countries” and claimed “there is no evidence of checks confirming that the animals are fit to continue the journey. The absence of documented procedures, records and support to official veterinarians in checking vessels provide little assurances on the effectiveness of most controls carried out.”
“The Queen Hind was an iconic example of the intrinsic failures of the system,” said Reineke Hameleers, CEO of Brussels-based Eurogroup for Animals, in 2020. “The EU likes to pride itself as a global animal welfare leader, but it still makes its hands dirty with this cruel industry.”
Livestock vessels, according to a Guardian investigation, are twice as likely to experience a “total loss” — when damage to cargo is beyond repair, in this case dead — as standard vessels. Additionally, these ships are often unusually old and have been poorly repurposed to carry animals: the Queen Hind, at the time of its sinking, was 39 years old.
A year before this, Romania exported 70,000 sheep to Persia against the will of Vytenia Andriukaitis (the EU commissioner for food safety at the time). His concern was due to the temperature of the ship’s interior, which posed a heat threat to the safety of the sheep. Andriukaitis Tweeted “proper animal welfare conditions cannot be guaranteed” while urging the public to oppose the voyage, which continued as scheduled. Still, many animals died from the high temperatures. What’s more, they were treated cruelly by unskilled handlers and butchers.
The total number of animal casualties due to the 2021 blockage is still unknown and likely exceeds volumes of hundreds. According to Paun, their lives relied on a quick clearing of the Suez within two or three days of the initial blockage; this was obviously not the case.
Global trade’s excessive trust in supply chain resilience and just-in-time manufacturing became the main topic of discussion following the release of Ever Given. Michael Safi, an international correspondent for The Guardian, described the situation as a “worst-case scenario” that could and should have been avoided.
“Container ships have become huge fast, especially over the past decade,” wrote Safi. “Other than the result of technological advances, analysts say the trend is a hangover from the high oil prices of the 2000s – which led shipping outfits to seek to maximise economies of scale – and the low-interest rates that followed the 2009 financial crash, which allowed companies to borrow the vast sums required to build vessels as long as skyscrapers are high.”
Impact upon human livelihood was noticeable. Gasoline prices rose noticeably within a day of the blockage; again, the economic impact is expected to last for months into 2021 if not longer.
III. Cybercrime and Cryptocurrency: New Threats on the Horizon
Again in 2021, gas prices rose following the cyberattack of a U. S. pipeline. The Colonial Pipeline, according to CNN Business, delivers “half of the diesel and gasoline consumed on the East Coast.”
It was shut down after an attack on May 7, in which extortionists hacked the IT network and demanded millions of dollars in cryptocurrency (whose existence, really, parodies the concept of capitalism on paper by reducing the nature of money to obsolete and absurd. The introduction of technological currency, known in this case as Bitcoin, indicates the dollar as it exists now is essentially worthless and carries as much worth as the abstract idea of a highly nonsensical peer-to-peer online system of digital transactions that may or may not be safe).
While the Bitcoin value was retrieved by the federal government, the Colonial Pipeline remained shut down for a week.
Both supply and price of gasoline, upon which millions of Americans rely for fuel to get to work, home and school, remains strained as a result of the pipeline shutdown. As a result of this unforeseen crisis, the economy — and all forced to rely on it — endured long-term hardship.
Cyberattacks are relatively new, but in the time they’ve come to exist they have become rampant in presence and disastrous in consequence. Forty percent of data breaches disclosed in May 2021 involved the use of ransomware: a type of blackmail enabled only by the development of technologies like malware and the increasing value of cryptocurrency.
With new technological advances come new forms of violence, and new instabilities in human safety. They are more frequent and come with heftier prices than ever before.
Given Ever Given was freed the morning of Mar. 29 and the Colonial Pipeline resumed operations after a week — given the system always bounces back, given most civilians probably didn’t even hear of the 128 cybersecurity threats publicly reported in the single month of May — these may seem like isolated and relatively harmless one-time events without lasting long-term consequences. But a look at the past year indicates events like the blockage of the Suez represent parts of a larger-scale breakdown, and we should be treating them as warnings of the dangers posed by commercial reliance upon a single waterway — more broadly, the perils of our world’s submission to capitalism.
When this system sinks, we will take the place of the sheep as the primary casualty. In a way, as the prices of gasoline indicate, we are well on our way. The Great Depression lives as proof we have been forced into such a position in the past, and a warning we will again so long as conditions remain the same.
IV. Capitalism’s Terminal Case of Instability
Safi’s mention of the 2009 economic recession in relation to the blockage of the canal brings to attention an interesting point, one that is more so than ever deeply important to recall: in response to economic turmoil, human society will devise increasingly advanced, and therefore complex, solutions that come with new — oftentimes, larger and more serious — long-term problems.
Rather than solving the problems leading to such a recession, people focused on building larger vessels — on fitting the world to fit the system, rather than the other way around — on obtaining, through any perversions of the world possible, money and power in the form of mass production and exportation.
Industry lay at the forefront of their priorities; it would come at the cost of anything and everything else; this remains the mindset of those diseased by technology. And failing to recognize the limitations of capitalism’s weakness, as well as those presented by the insurmountable strength of the natural world, humanity persists in attempting to implement a system on the verge of breaking down over our heads.
When the economy suffers, we turn more attention to producing — selling — buying more; we rely upon stimulating the very system that has landed us in the same compromising position. This inevitably results in problems created directly by the apparent “solution,” such as the massive-scale degradation of natural resources as we depended on them so heavily for financial stability during the Industrial Revolution.
These complications, as evidenced by the blockage of the Suez, typically aren’t predicted or prevented in a meaningful way (at least, not until long after they have already done irreversible damage).
Before March nothing was done to address the potential pitfalls of ships so large; it is unlikely they will go down in size. Rather, we can expect to see more projects, such as the expansion of the Suez, to accommodate such gigantic vessels. Instead of limiting commerce to prevent these blunders we will keep forcing our environment to adapt to our financial needs, as the human inclination toward excess bleeds into economic policy.
The negative consequences of the events of March 2021 were further exacerbated, and caused to an extent, by the financial desperation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the virus’s first appearance in 2019, the face of the workforce, economy, and education have altered worldwide: online work and schooling are now commonplace. Additionally, unemployment rates skyrocketed mid-2020 to leave 14.8 percent of the population jobless — more than 29 million people, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Hispanic and Latino populations saw the most dramatic increase in unemployment rates, from 4.4 percent in February 2020 to 18.9 percent in April of the same year. Rates of Asian-American unemployment also went up from 2.4 to 14.1 percent: a direct result of racist rhetoric and action arising during the pandemic and fueled by politicians’ unchecked outspoken prejudices.
The small-scale impact is already irredeemably devastating. It appears impossible to contort reason into such a position that it might justify the financial turmoil of roughly eight percent of the U. S. population (not taking into consideration the dependents and families of the unemployed, whose quality of life relies heavily upon the financial standing of their caregiver). This appears even more so the case, that the crimes of capitalist instability against humanity are without hope of redemption, when one considers the inflation rates rising alongside unemployment figures — both the cause of COVID-19, a crisis for which such a conditionally successful model of economics was never prepared.
V. Inflation is a Symptom of Illness Within the System
“Pandemics of the magnitude of COVID-19 are, thankfully, rare,” said sources from the White House Briefing Room. “The United States experienced short bursts of inflation in some prior periods of pandemics or large-scale reallocations of economic resources, such as in 1918—driven by the Spanish Flu and demobilization from World War I… That said, in the next several months we expect measured inflation to increase somewhat, primarily due to three different temporary factors: base effects, supply chain disruptions, and pent-up demand, especially for services.”
The news is meant to be reassuring, that with crisis comes the apparently inevitable consequences of economic turmoil guaranteed to pass (until they resurge) with the natural process of time and recovery. The government considers some inflation beneficial as it is interpreted to imply economic growth on a national scale.
“There are going to be some volatile prints on inflation coming up, and the market is going to react to that and try to decipher what that means,” Sunitha Thomas, national portfolio advisor at Northern Trust Wealth Management, told CNBC in 2020. “We think that’s more cyclical than permanent.”
But when considering the interests of the people as opposed to those of business and enterprise, “some inflation” should not be deemed normal — not when wages consistently fail to adapt to those “cyclical” shifts. It is an indicator that something about capitalism is fundamentally unable to be sustained; it is a symptom of an illness in the system that kills off its own citizens through poverty.
From 2000 to 2018, the federal hourly minimum wage rose to $7.25 from $5.15, which was the equivalent of $7.51 in 2018 — a 26-cent decrease in spending power. The national average cost of college rose from $15,333 in 2000 to $23,835 in that same span. To afford tuition entirely off minimum wage, one would have to work 2,977.28 hours in 2000. Two years ago, that number of hours was 3,287.58.
With the CARES Act in March 2020, the government promised to financially aid “individuals, families, and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Recipients’ response to the CARES Act varied. Some complained the checks came too late, or were too small due to the little purchasing power of $1,200 in the 2020 pandemic economy: in 1700, $1,200 was equivalent to over $77,500. Today, it is not enough to pay 82.9 percent of the population’s federal income taxes, rent a single-person apartment for one month in Chicago, or afford a month’s insulin supply under certain conditions.
The stimulus checks were unable to afford the very things they were meant to help citizens cover: housing, healthcare, and basic survival needs.
VI. Capitalism Infecting Our Ethical Judgment
One Washington Post columnist criticized President Donald Trump’s vehement resistance to the CARES Act delivering stimulus. Jennifer Rubin refers to his pandemic response as an “inexcusable… hissy fit” that left the Treasury Department “‘scrambling’ to get out the checks after Trump’s stalling” when he finally agreed to distribute the stimulus.
It is ironic, given the ways in which war often stimulates the economy, capitalism seems built for peacetime with a lack of disruptions. Though it pulled us from the Great Depression (into which it threw America without warning after the prosperity of the twenties) with the help of World War II, it collapsed under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic — with an estimated cost of $16 trillion in the United States alone (where 60 million claims, in a single year, were filed for unemployment insurance).
The pandemic was only one more installation in a long-winded, desolate story overdue for a final chapter. Capitalism, in cycles of prosperity and recession, continues to straddle a fine line between apparent success and evident failure. A surge in growth pulls us from disaster, only for this economic growth to send the world back into depression (until the next war or hackneyed relief program comes along to save us, for a brief shining moment in history that capitalists will remember fondly).
Such a fragile system could only be sustained in predictable, comfortable office climates and cultures; it has proven in recent years far too dependent on conditions to survive — and when they are less than ideal, when the workforce has to adjust to the state of the outside world, it is hardly effective — and, of course, it is the people who bear the brunt of the burden.
The closure of innumerable small businesses has dramatically changed the lives of citizens, workers, and families for the worse. Rates of unemployment exceeded the predictions of the U.S. Census Bureau, and workers of color were disproportionately laid off first (Asian-American businesses have suffered more so than others as the pandemic fuels anti-Asian racism), with nothing to pull these people from their economic turmoil save a mere $1,400 in stimulus checks provided by the passage of the CARES Act.
VII. Parallels to the Depression
On the topic of the stimulus package, it presents an unsettling number of similarities to President Herbert Hoover’s response (or lack thereof) to the Great Depression in the sense that both men at fault valued the morals of capitalism before those to which all humans ought to be obligated: these men were both infected by ideological adherence that, in their eyes, came before the economic security of their nation’s people.
Hoover’s presidency from 1929 to 1933 is remembered as one of the least successful in history (arguably the worst) due to his bullheaded refusal to extend federal aid to those impacted by the disastrous stock market crash that defined the 1930s.
“Hundreds of narrow economic interests, which Hoover was either unwilling or unable to control, wound up producing the notoriously protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which certainly didn’t a