Globally, many people are afraid, angry, uncertain, and without confidence in their national leadership. – The Lancet
The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people all over the world in an immediate and deeply personal manner. Close to one-third of humanity is under some form of lock-down. Within one month of quarantine, 60 percent of American workers will be unable to pay rent or buy groceries. Society is thrown into chaos, and the established order is failing to meet people’s needs.
What needs to change? What kind of society do we want, and how can we achieve it? Before we can answer such questions, we need to clarify what went wrong and who is responsible.
What went wrong
To maximize profit, the global capitalist economy is based on just-in-time production and minimal inventory, with no built-in reserve for the unexpected. When crises occur, supply chains break down, profits plummet, people are thrown out of work, and basic essentials become difficult to obtain.
Austerity policies were imposed on the faulty premise that smaller government is better because, it was argued, the private sector can deliver services more efficiently. When challenged by this virus, stripped-down governments and business leaders floundered, while nations with robust public health programs proved better able to contain the epidemic, preserve jobs, and save lives.
Who is responsible?
The capitalist class claim the exclusive right to rule, yet they failed to prepare for COVID-19; they failed to cooperate; they mounted a disorganized response; and they refuse to accept responsibility for the disastrous outcome.
According to The Atlantic, “America’s coronavirus response failed because we didn’t understand the complexity of the problem.” The New York Times stated, “the fundamental force damaging the economy is…an out-of-control virus.”
Lack of understanding did not cause this problem; it was predicted years ago. Nor did a virus cause this crisis. Human actions determine how infections spread and how much harm they cause.
The world spends more than $1 trillion a year on war, yet the World Health Organization reports that only half the world’s countries have a national program to prevent and control infection, including clean water, sanitation, and hygiene standards in all medical facilities.
Eight countries, containing 25 percent of the world’s population, have inadequate medical systems because of punitive economic sanctions. Venezuela is one of them. When Venezuela appealed to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan to manage the pandemic, their request was rejected.
The capitalist class are 100 percent responsible for this global crisis and for every death they could have prevented.
Their reckless exploitation of the non-human world releases dangerous new pathogens. Their drive to accumulate capital creates mass deprivation and encourages the spread of disease. Their competition for profit prevents cooperation within and among nations. When challenged by COVID-19, their house of cards collapsed.
Hell to pay
On March 26, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported,
Millions of deaths and collapsed health care systems will decimate us financially and as a society… The impact effect of business closures could result in reductions of 15% or more in the level of output throughout the advanced economies and major emerging-market economies. In the median economy, output would decline by 25%.
If this projection is correct, then the global economy will slump more deeply and for longer than during the 1930s Great Depression.
In The Shock Doctrine (2007), Naomi Klein describes how capitalists treat crises as an opportunity to increase their wealth and power. This crisis is no exception.
Even as the pandemic rages, capitalists are pushing to restart the economy at the cost of more deaths; cut access to medical care when the opposite is needed; and fund oil extraction instead of public health.
The Environmental Protection Agency gave polluting industries a long-desired gift by suspending enforcement of environmental standards “during the coronavirus outbreak,” with no specified end date. Pennsylvania declared construction on a natural gas pipeline to be an essential service.
Washington moved to seal the border with Mexico, turning back asylum seekers and deporting ‘illegals’ to their countries of origin. The excuse of protecting Americans is bogus, because the number of confirmed cases in the US is greater than all the cases in Latin America and the Caribbean combined.
Authorities are stepping up surveillance and tracking of the population, targeting specific groups, suspending civil liberties, banning public meetings, prohibiting protest rallies, and increasing the role of the military in civil society. The New York Times warned,
leaders across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority.
Restoring profitability after this pandemic will require, “a grinding and deep destruction of all that capitalism had accumulated in previous decades.” Smaller businesses and poorer nations will be driven to bankruptcy, enabling bigger corporations and wealthier nations to absorb them and grow even bigger. Inequality will skyrocket, as billions of people scramble desperately to survive. Brute force will be necessary to suppress dissent.
The working class can go along with this capitalist agenda – profits for the few and misery for the many – or they can choose a different road, one that meets their needs.
Naomi Klein tells us that when crises occur, “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
The idea that the working class could end capitalist rule and manage society directly is not ‘lying around.’ The capitalists have shoved it deeply down the memory hole, and for good reason. Workers have the power to stop the flow of profit, democratize society, and redirect production to meet human needs.
In response to the crisis of WWI, the working class took power in Russia, inspiring a global wave of revolt. The capitalists barely defeated it with a combination of brute force and major concessions.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, American workers mounted a serious challenge to the capitalist system. In order to save it, the Roosevelt administration was forced to concede the New Deal.
Today, the working class are larger and more powerful than ever, forming more than half of humanity and connected through global systems of production and communication.
The concept of workers revolution is far too dangerous to be left ‘lying around.’ It must be dug out from under a shitload of capitalist lies and resurrected in its original form.
Ideas that are permitted to ‘lie around’ are ones that can be ignored or incorporated (even if temporarily) into the existing system. I call these ideas ‘shoulds,’ for example, “They should do x instead of y.”
‘Shoulds’ dominate the liberal left in the form of proposals, plans, and policies that the ruling class should adopt in response to this crisis. These include: protecting jobs and wages; protecting essential workers; expanding public health systems and social programs; a universal basic income; nationalizing industries instead of bailing them out; suspending or forgiving consumer debt, rent, and home mortgage payments; prohibiting evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs; releasing imprisoned refugees and immigrants; ending mass incarceration; ending punitive economic sanctions; forgiving foreign debt; and defunding the military.
Such demands should be implemented. However, the ruling class are deaf to any idea that is not profitable or that might undermine their control. They would rather cull a generation of older, frailer people, than suffer a loss of profit. They only do the right thing under threat of mass revolt, and only until they can regain control.
Despite this reality, the intelligentsia persist in the delusion that capitalist priorities are negotiable, because they see no alternative. Positioned as society’s ‘experts,’ they perceive their role as advisors to the ruling class, not as facilitators of working-class revolution. This is revealed in their persistent use of the term ‘we,’ as in, “We are all in this together” and “We should….”
There can be no ‘we’ in a society that is divided into an exploiting class and an exploited class. We (the majority) must choose sides.
Until workers press their demands as a class, the middle class will bang their heads against the capitalist wall, seeking solutions from rulers whose overriding concern is, always has been, and always will be to amass more capital than their competitors, regardless of the cost in human suffering.
The working class
A great many people have ‘discovered’ the importance of the working class, the folks who feed us, transport us, deliver our mail, remove our trash, tend to our sick, and perform the every-day essential tasks that are normally taken for granted. No longer.
Homemade signs and giant ‘Thank you!’ notes chalked on city walls, roads, and sidewalks display a new awareness of who we actually depend on for survival. While capitalists and politicians dither over the cost of care, essential workers are putting their lives on the line to provide what people need.
Appreciating the vital role of workers is not the same as seeing them as a revolutionary class.
Most left reformers believe that workers should be free from abuse, honored for their contribution, and well compensated. However, they do not see the working class as the solution to society’s problems, but as victims in need of rescue. In reality, workers are society’s rescuers.
Workers all over the world are fighting to protect public health against the fierce resistance of employers who are pushing to cut costs and stay in business, prolonging the pandemic and raising the death rate.
Amazon profits are soaring due to the surge in online shopping. Yet the world’s biggest corporation, run by the world’s richest man, refused to implement measures to protect workers and customers. To compel Amazon’s compliance, workers at Whole Foods organized a mass ‘sick-out.’
General Electric workers facing job loss are pushing a reluctant company to convert its closed or underused factories to produce more ventilators.
Transit workers are vital to get essential workers to their jobs. Yet many cities did not provide transit workers with personal protective equipment, sanitize their vehicles, or implement physical distancing, threatening drivers and passengers alike.
Detroit bus drivers refused to work under such conditions. Within 24 hours, they won all their demands, including blocking off the first row of seats, having passengers enter and exit though the back doors, and no collection of fares. As union president Glenn Tolbert remarked, “It caught the ridership off guard, but the strike was for them.”
In every nation and at every level of society, workers are demonstrating that what benefits them promotes public health, and capitalists are proving that what benefits them endangers public health.
Profit-seeking entities cannot solve social problems or cushion society from disaster. Is the solution to nationalize the production of essential goods and the delivery of basic services? Nationalizing something, or putting it ‘under public control,’ means putting it in the hands of the State.
Essential services should be nationalized, because State-managed industries are generally more responsive to human needs than profit-driven ones. However, this benefit has proved to be temporary. Austerity policies imposed in Spain, Portugal, Canada, and the UK cut billions of dollars from national medical systems, to the point that they could neither prepare for the pandemic nor respond to it effectively.
The State is not a class-neutral body that serves the greater good. The capitalist class constructed the State as a weapon to secure their rule over society.
A State that invests billions of dollars on war and billions more on fossil fuel extraction, refuses to provide the basic necessities of life, suppresses protest by force, and incarcerates the oppressed, is a tool of the ruling class. And the master’s tools can never be used to dismantle the master’s house.
Public control requires workers control
There is only one way to ensure that an industry, institution, or service will function solely in the public interest – put it under workers control.
All over the world, medical workers have paid with their lives to manage a disaster created by capitalist incompetence and negligence. Had workers been in charge of the medical system, they would have prepared for this pandemic and moved quickly to contain it. They would have cooperated to provide the public with timely, accurate information and mobilized them to meet the challenge. Afterwards, they would identify any mistakes and implement corrective measures.
The capitalist class cannot tolerate such projects. Any display of workers power would spread faster than the corona virus.
The only way that workers can manage any section of society is to remove the capitalists from power and take control of society as a whole.
A question of power
Capitalists insist that social change happens slowly, if at all. Yet, seemingly overnight, social relations have changed dramatically, and in unforeseen ways. The world is being reshaped. The question is which class will shape it in their interests.
There will be no ‘return to normal.’ The capitalist system is in a downward dive. Efforts to flatten the pandemic curve will also prolong and deepen the economic recession.
The solution is not to counter international competition with national self-sufficiency, because epidemics that arise anywhere can spread everywhere.
The solution is not to tax Amazon or even to nationalize it. The solution is for Amazon workers to remove Jeff Bezos from power and design a health-promoting environment for themselves, their suppliers, and their customers.
As I explain in Rebel Minds, the working class produce all social wealth, form the majority of humanity, and include the majority of people in every oppressed group. A united working class could end capitalist rule, abolish all oppression, and construct a truly democratic, global society.
We must not allow the capitalist class to keep making decisions that threaten our survival. We must put ‘removing the capitalist class from power’ on the agenda. We cannot ‘wait until people are ready.’ We need to get ready now.