Have we entered the age of enlightened bubble capitalism?
Have we entered the age of enlightened bubble capitalism? Charles Mudede

According to a tweet by Seattle's outgoing mayor, Jenny Durkan, our city has "the lowest cases, hospitalizations, and mortality rates of every major city". This tweet also quotes Governor Jay Inslee linking to a statement from himself, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and the Mayor regarding the Omicron variant.

According to that statement, our enlightened — meaning, cosmopolitan — leaders want us to get vaccinated, wear masks, and maintain our faith in the superiority of science. "Thanks to science," Inslee, Constantine, and Durkan claimed, "we are more prepared to fight this variant than any of its predecessors."

All of this tells us that Seattle lives in a COVID bubble that no variant will disrupt, not even a much-mutated one first identified in the developing country of South Africa. We have reason and science on our side.

What I want to point out in this post is that complete faith in science is not in any way unproblematic.

True, vaccines in general are amazing, and the speed with which the ones for COVID-19 were found and distributed in the West far surpasses the wonders of the "Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals." However, as with these wonders of old, science (and the technologies it generates for the market) is not outside of its historical moment but rather very much at the center of it. And our historical moment, a process of value extraction that began in the 17th century, is shaped by the conatus of capitalism, which is a form of accumulation that has no end in sight.

Far from the minds of Inslee, Constantine, and Durkan is a concept of science that is at odds with a planetary matrix that has the Seattle metropolitan area as a considerable node in the capture and concentration of material and immaterial surplus values extracted from every corner of this world.

And we can describe this emerging urban situation as bubble capitalism. Seattle can have its sense of safety, its low hospitalization rates, and its scientifically informed citizens in a world that continues apace with the concentration and centralization of capital. (Concentration concerns monetary wealth; centralization concerns the means of production.) In short, COVID vaccines are nothing more than a technological fix for a major market failure (race-to-the-bottom global economics), and, as such, their goal is to preserve this market failure.

In this setting, we can see the vaccines as being in the same category as the carbon capture technologies or electric automobiles that the future, as we imagine it, hopes will address and even reverse climate change. These fixes (scientific and technological) only preserve an order of capital accumulation that has been dominant since the early 1970s—or the end of the New Deal and the decline in the West of social democracy. The problem is not so much more masks and better vaccines than the creation of globally empowered institutions (in health, in welfare, in education) that bring order to the present anarchy of nations that capitalists exploit for various forms of arbitrage, particularly wage arbitrage—i.e., cheap products in the West from the cheap labor of the rest.

In the way that the housing crash of 2008 exposed the emptiness of the key components of a post-Bretton Woods project that has shaped developmental economics for the past 30 years, the Washington Consensus (government intervention is bad; weak government is good), COVID-19 is exposing the flaws of uneven development and a system of nation-states that are forced, by competitive pressures, to race to the bottom to attract capital investments and the buyers of sovereign debts. As with the New Deal society, a more even world is one that decreases class power.

Vaccines have, so far, nothing but the maintenance of this international order of surplus-value accumulation. But the Omicron variant of COVID-19 presents a real challenge to this system of uneven development. The question: Is it a barrier or a limit? The global-scale capital accumulation that Seattle enormously benefits from hopes that the vaccines make it the former. You can't overcome a limit.