Corona has taken over. Despite the fear and panic (or even denial) that has taken hold, one thing is for sure: the cracks of the system are emerging for all to see. How can the left respond in a way that dodges the minefield of strengthening the state, at the same time as ensuring that people are being put before profits? How can self-organised activity, like the community groups that are popping up to help vulnerable people, be facilitated and crucially, be used as vehicles to get our demands met? It’s all very well to reiterate demands, such as for a universal basic income, as well as push for new ones, such as full-waged sick pay from day one. But the question always is: how do we enforce it?
We could simply rely on the fact that a crisis means extraordinary measures are implemeted from the top. We can only capitalise on the shakiness of global capitalism and this pandemic to push for a more equal society if we have a real grassroots power – that extends from mutual aid to workplaces. This means getting rooted in the longer term in our communities – inside and outside the workplace walls.
We thought it would be useful to set out the following categorisations as a possible structure for the ongoing public debate – with the help of comrades. The various aspects are:
1) The ‘scientific debate’: It is important to understand whether the virus is actually new, how dangerous it actually is etc. in order to assess the situation and judge the state’s reaction. At the same time, ‘knowing what Corona is’ is not a precondition to discuss the current developments. We have to acknowledge that the current crisis reveals the power relation when it comes to the monopoly of information: the state and ‘the science class’ are detached from the everyday lives of working class people and with the lack of testing and contingencies for older people, low-paid and self-employed workers, this will prove to be fatal. The debate about the material character of Corona is important in order to deepen the critique from ‘the state is not doing enough’ and ‘the health system is underfunded’ to an understanding that the capitalist mode of production (urban concentration and poverty, industrial agriculture and animal husbandry etc.) is the breeding ground for the virus.
2) The reaction of the state: Here the debate swings back and forth between a justified mistrust in the motivation of the state (‘the state uses the crisis to experiment with counterinsurgency and repressive measures’) and criticism of the inability of the state to do what it should (austerity has destroyed the health infrastructure). We can assume that the repressive measures and the lockdowns are also imposed in order to cover up and counteract the lack of general medical support and equipment, e.g. for mass testing. The state measures have also to be seen on the background of recent ‘popular protests’, from the Yellow Vests to the street protests in Latin America: all anti-government protests in Algeria have been banned; the military is on the streets in France; a three months state of emergency has been declared in Chile, before any fatalities occured and before any other medical measures have been taken. The current Corona regime is not a conspiracy against these protests, but the state knows that they have to be seen as ‘regaining control in the interests of the general public’. We have to avoid making the state stronger than it is. The state measures are contradictory. The political class is squeezed between, on the one side, ‘having to control the population’ (curfews, closing borders) in order to be seen as doing something, and on the other side, the necessity of ‘keeping business running’ (forcing people to go to work, keeping offices open, bailing out companies).
3) The ‘economic’ crisis and the restructuring of geopolitics: We can only understand the state dilemma outlined above if we emphasise that Corona didn’t cause the economic crisis, but that the recession was already on the horizon. The state’s dilemma is aggravated by the possibility of a crash. Within a week, the US Federal Reserve has thrown the same amount of money onto the fire as in the entire period after the 2008 crash – with little result. The difference now is that the state will use Corona as an explanation for the economic downturn. The ability to deal with the economic impact of Corona will reshape the global state hierarchy. The Italian bourgeois press is praising China’s ability to stop the virus, and China is getting major political capital out of bringing masks and other medical equipment there. Instead of being ‘China’s Chernobyl’, their centralised structures and authoritarian style is being lauded as their saving grace in being able to respond to the crisis by building hospitals and tracing peoples’ movements. Correspondence with local comrades revealed to us that the state in China is rather disorganised and the coordination between central and local state weak. Similarly, the EU has been totally unable to offer any political vision or coherent strategy. Trump’s U-turn has also meant losing any scraps of legitimacy he had left. It is true that the crisis is deeply affecting Western demand for Chinese manufacturing, but will China or other countries re-emerge strengthened from this crisis?
4) Global production and restructuring of work: Corona demonstrates how global production is interlinked and how people move around the globe as part of daily business. These connections had already been under pressure from the US/China trade war and protectionist state policies, but the Corona crisis shows the limits of these national measures. The state has to recalibrate its relation with major corporations, e.g. the state in China used the vast social media and data pool of the big retailers like Alibaba in order to expand social surveillance measures. We cannot cling to old left-communist or third-internationalist theories of catastrophism, in either its pessimistic (‘the end of the working class’) or optimistic iterations (‘this time it’s collapsing! This time the masses will lose trust in it!’). We must rather understand how capital restructures itself, the working class, society and culture to suit the needs of accumulation and the reproduction of the system. All this destruction that we are witnessing creates new products and market opportunities, such as the bio-tech sector (which for now is extremely concentrated in Asia) and home deliveries which are expanding. It is likely that ‘homeworking’ (which in Italy, for example, is very underdeveloped compared to the UK) is here to stay, as it is cheaper to have a certain section of workers work from home than to come into the workplace, and new software makes effective monitoring possible. The Italian government had major factories shut down for a few days while they reorganised production to meet safety norms (e.g. distance on the assembly line, cleaning expanded within the production process). Also Italy might see the further introduction of self-checkout machines, and industrialisation and concentration within bars and restaurants as small enterprises fail and the sector gets rationalised a la London (cafes like Starbucks & Pret A Manger). We must anticipate these tendencies in order to guide our collective political activity.
5) Reactions of the working class: Here we can see that ‘individual reactions’ tend to aggravate the situation (panic buying and hoarding etc.). Wherever workers have an organic form of collectivity they are able to attack the state’s contradictory messages (‘go to work, but self-isolate’). Together with international comrades we will try to document the various reactions of the class: prison protests in Italy, France, Brazil, Lebanon and in detention centres in Spain and Germany; infectious wildcat strikes in the automobile industry, from Mercedes and Iveco in Spain to FIAT/Crysler in Italy to Canada; infectious workers’ shutdowns at Amazon in France, Spain and the US; rent strikes and occupations in various towns of the US. Beyond the question of ‘who pays for and risks their lives during the crisis’ we can see a politicisation of work in the public discussion: what type of work is actually essential? How are the conditions of workers in these sectors (health, couriers etc.)? The question of ‘workers’ control’ re-emerges organically. We can see embryonic forms of ’neighbourhood support’ initiatives, which are important, but also run the danger of merely covering up the unwillingness or inability of the state to organise this work. We can see how the mainstream trade unions will deal with the crisis: in the ‘national interest’ against the workers. In Minnesota the governor has suspended collective bargaining rights, with the agreement of the unions. In Germany the IG Metall failed to back workers at a subsidiary of VW who lost their job when they refused to work five hours weekly overtime for free. In the UK the CWU postal union offered to call off strikes due to the crisis.
6) Reaction of the left: The main reaction of the left has been to raise demands, partly relating to the anti-viral measures (often demanding that the state should enforce social distancing more effectively) and partly about general conditions ‘of the working class’ (sick pay etc.). As we’ve said in the introduction, these demands are being raised without proposals of how to build up pressure in order to enforce them (apart from appealing to the trade unions and the Labour Party in the case of the UK). Calls to form ‘neighbourhood solidarity’ might be more useful, but are often made from outer-space, without deeper roots in working class areas. The recent re-emergence of ‘democratic socialist’ notions of nationalisation as a ‘step towards socialism’ has clouded many brains on the left: the current state measures, e.g. the ‘nationalisation’ of private hospitals in Spain, are hailed as confirming what the left has demanded all along. Leftists like Paul Mason repeat the ‘war rhetoric’ of the government when he demands to build ‘respirators like Spitfires’. The endorsement of the state by the left means that the working class is out there on their own when the same state will curtail the right to strike, fine or arrest people who question the imposed curfews or prohibitions to assemble.
7) What can be done? Comrades are already engaging in documenting and circulating information about working class conditions and reactions in their localities. This is a first step. It is important to ask the question of the class character of this crisis: who will pay for it (bailouts for the companies, peanuts for the poor) and how do you suffer differently according to your class position etc. All this depends on the balance of power. But we have to go a step further and relate to the politicisation of work: which work is essential and why are people who are working in these sectors overstretched? Because few people carry the weight of society on their shoulders! The fact that Amazon is currently hiring 100,000 new people and that grocery delivery companies are booming just confirms that the low paid section of society is supposed to ‘serve’ the rest. We have to ask how the crisis is undermining working people’s acceptance of the holy division between intellectual and manual labour (so-called experts know little about what is going on on the ground; workers on the ground lack vital information: a fatal combination). The question of class power has to reunite with the question of material transformation of how we produce our lives and relationships.