Column: Online classes and the failure of crisis capitalism

Universities across the country are being forced to balance the health of their students with the economic survival of their communities. We wouldn’t be in this situation if the U.S. had taken the right steps.

Noah Wright is a sophomore constitutional democracy major at MU. They are an opinion columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater.

As COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket in the U.S., setting new case records on a near daily basis, students at the University of Missouri have returned for in-person classes. MU welcomed students back last week, despite the fact cases in Boone County are higher than at any point before the university switched to online classes in March. This is on par with the past few months of the American pandemic response; a belief that the virus will simply go away if ignored.

The situation MU and every other university in America faces is extremely difficult: Administrators have to gamble with the health of their students in order to ensure the doors to their school remain open. Moreover, university officials must balance the safety of their communities with economic survival. The very existence of many American colleges and college towns is entirely dependent on students returning to campus and paying the pre-pandemic price tag to do so.

Colleges like Harvard University have started the semester with classes taking place completely online. To the dismay of its students, this change was not met with a reduction in Harvard’s staggering $50,000 per year tuition. MU has not indicated that they will adjust student cost of attendance even in the likely scenario that classes go completely online. Instead, Missouri students have been expected to foot the bill, as the UM system Board of Curators voted in June to increase tuition by 2.3% for all UM system students in an effort to offset financial losses. In addition, the Missouri state government cut $41 million from state higher education funding as a part of its COVID-19 related budget cuts, a move that is sure to negatively impact students in the future.

The possibility that MU goes all virtual for the fall semester seems incredibly likely given that around 30,000 students have arrived in Columbia, Mo. from across the country. Many of these students came from new epicenters of the pandemic, such as Texas, California and Florida. However, MU administrators have yet to substantially address these concerns because if students were to return home, the economic repercussions would devastate staples of the Columbia economy. Industries like student housing, dining and retail need a large student population to support them, as does the university itself, which is the largest employer in Columbia.

The impossible decision universities across America now face is due to the failure of capitalism in crisis. While it may be tempting to blame cultural individualism and anti-maskers for America’s pandemic response failure, the truth is the blame lies with our elected officials and the capital interests they serve.

For working Americans, bills must be paid whether or not business continues as usual. The “choice” between continuing to work despite the risks or being evicted and losing one’s healthcare is really not a choice. When the government gave $1,200 to every adult in April (except students listed as dependents — it’s not like we have rent to pay or anything) it did not go far enough to meet the needs of the working class. A one-time $1,200 check to workers effectively serves as a direct deposit to landlords for the month’s rent, and it is clear that it was not enough money to make it viable to stay home.

Had the government issued a larger stimulus, suspended rent and utility payments and ensured healthcare to all of its citizens, perhaps it would’ve been possible for the American people to stay home from work for the time necessary to halt the spread of the virus. These meager social democratic policies would’ve saved us much more money in the long term, but instead we are in a hybrid economic shutdown in which those that can work from home do so and the “essential workers” who can’t suffer the consequences. This failure has trickled down and led to the situation universities now face.

Since the beginning of the pandemic shutdown, U.S. billionaires have gained over $550 billion in wealth so far, while some 40 million Americans lost their jobs. It is true that the virus has affected all of us, yet for the elite, business continues as usual. This is not a crack in the system of capitalism, it is the system working exactly how it is supposed to.

Capitalism functions by stealing value produced by laborers. Without a supply of healthy workers, labor can not be accomplished and value can not be created. In short, capitalism depends on the rich gaining more wealth (or as some refer to it, “economic growth”) while simultaneously exploiting the working class to create the conditions in which they will trade their labor for survival. When an economic system survives on endless growth and expansion, a momentary pause in production and value creation could topple the entire house of cards.

This is playing out right in front of us. The truth is that if we were to take the basic steps necessary to end the pandemic — an actual economic shutdown coupled with universal healthcare and basic income — the American elite would be momentarily unable to quench their endless thirst for economic growth. This dichotomy, which comes at the expense of an untold number of human lives, is why capitalism can never address a crisis. This is not simply human greed, it is an intrinsic part of a system that is structured around market growth instead of overall human benefit.

As students return to college towns amid an uncertain future of American higher education, we must confront this reality of crisis capitalism. We must recognize that the struggles we are facing this semester are due to the system working exactly how it was designed to. If we hope to address the crises of the future, namely the climate catastrophe that is an existential threat to all of humanity, we must overthrow this system that values profit over life. Just make sure to wear a mask when you do so.

Please donate to http://criticalresistance.org/donate/ways-to-give/, an organization dedicated to prison abolition and ending mass incarceration.

Edited by Sofi Zeman | szeman@themaneater.com

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