In desperate times, take what you can: in this instance, a glimmer of self-awareness from Boris Johnson. After boasting to his MPs that “the reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends”, a voice within his head – or perhaps an alarmed WhatsApp message from an aide – demanded a prompt U-turn as he attempted to withdraw the comments.
While his retreat speaks to concerns of image management, his instinctive advocacy of greed represents a fundamental belief. This is a man, after all, who boasted that nobody “stuck up for the bankers as much as I did” during his victorious bid for the Conservative leadership, and who once declared that inequality was essential to nurture “the spirit of envy” and that greed was a “valuable spur to economic activity”.
However, ascribing Britain’s mass vaccination triumph to “greed” and “capitalism” is simply incorrect. As the British Medical Journal notes, the AstraZeneca vaccine “was originally discovered by Oxford’s Jenner Institute and has received more than a billion pounds of public money”. AstraZeneca was involved in trials and manufacture, but it took no financial risks: as it stated last year, “expenses to progress the vaccine are anticipated to be offset by funding by governments”.
The vaccine programme is being delivered successfully via our state-run National Health Service, while the country’s test-and-trace system has made “no clear impact”, despite private consultants charging up to £6,250 a day and Serco’s profits surging thanks to the £37bn programme.
Indeed, greed and capitalism enter the equation as blocks to global vaccination. Countries such as India and South Africa, plus the World Health Organization, plead for patents on the intellectual property rights of vaccines to be waived to ensure immunisation is extended to low- and middle-income countries. This is not only for the benefit of the people of the global south – whose lives are as sacred as our own – but for humanity as a whole. As we have learned at considerable cost, allowing the virus to circulate increases the risk of dangerous mutations with resistance to existing vaccines. Our own government is among those blocking poorer nations from manufacturing their own versions. Here is greed in action.
Johnson’s comments, however bungled on his own account, serve to highlight a common myth about capitalism. Cheerleaders of an economic system driven primarily by short-term profit – whatever the social or environmental cost – venerate it as an engine of innovation and entrepreneurial flair. That isn’t to deny that capitalism has played an often ingenious historic role: as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels noted in the Communist Manifesto, the capitalist class – having shattered a feudal system that represented a deadweight on human progress – had “accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals”. But today’s great achievements are often the ideas of the state and public sector. Our NHS is often forced to pay extortionate prices for drugs developed at huge public cost: in 2017, it spent £1bn on medicines developed with the help of public investment.
This goes way beyond big pharma. The iPhone is a striking case study of public sector ingenuity: its touchscreen technology, GPS, battery, voice recognition – and indeed the internet as a whole was developed thanks to state research.
Given industrial scale tax avoidance on the part of so many large corporations, here is an argument that needs reiterating time and time again. Without much demonised state largesse, no company could profit. The state provides them with roads and other basic infrastructure, and protects their property. It educates their workforce and, through public healthcare, prevents them from becoming so sick they cannot work. When the financial sector imploded – the greatest private sector failure of our time – the state bailed it out, while the wider population was left paying the costs through slashed public services and social security payments. Other market failures piggyback off state generosity, too: such as a hopelessly fragmented privatised railway system which receives more state subsidies than in its nationalised epoch.
As greed and capitalism pose a devastating threat to human life and the future of the planet – with private companies lobbying against clean air regulation to mitigate the consequences of pollution, which kills millions each year, along with critical environmental protections – Johnson was surely right to stumble. Britain’s vaccination programme should be lauded as it saves lives and paves the way for the restoration of our freedoms. But it is no vindication of either greed or capitalism: indeed, quite the reverse.