The pandemic is reconfiguring the world in unprecedented ways. The Left must recognise new realities and reorganise to meet them, argues Neil Faulkner.
12 May 2020.
Behind the welter of ‘we’ll get through this together’ platitudes, Johnson’s 10 May address on the way out of lockdown contained a brutal message dripping with class contempt. Ordinary workers should get back to work and risk contracting the disease. Middle class people could stay at home.
Responding to a campaign by the Tory Right, the Daily Telegraph, and far-right sites like Spiked!, Johnson said that workers whose jobs could not be done from home – like manufacturing and construction workers – should go back to work, but avoid using public transport ‘if at all possible’. There was no hint as to what might constitute safe working practices, nor any indication as to how social distancing might be achieved – next to impossible in many jobs.
Many workers have little option but to travel to work by public transport – in a situation where driving a bus has proved more dangerous than treating Covid-19 patients in hospital. Pictures are already being posted on social media of rammed trains and buses – hardly surprising given the reduced services currently operating. Given that Britain has had 223,000 recorded cases so far, these look like petri dishes for spreading COVID-19.
Nonetheless, many workers will have been driven back to work by a mixture of poverty and anxiety – worried about getting the disease, but also worried about paying the bills or losing their jobs.
Plans to open up schools in a couple of weeks are part of this campaign. They are based on false assumptions about social distancing and the ability of schoolkids to withstand the virus.
The obvious danger is a new surge of the virus. Already, in some parts of Germany, the authorities have had to reimpose lockdown after loosening controls resulted in a near-instantaneous second surge. Johnson is playing Russian roulette with workers’ lives.
Back to business?
Our rulers want an early end to lockdown in the interests of capital. But for 40 years they have been degrading health and care services, ignoring warnings of pandemic risk, and prioritising private profit over public welfare. So the essential infrastructure of testing and tracing to deal with a deadly disease does not exist.
The exceptions prove the rule. South Korea, which implemented WHO advice to test, trace, and quarantine immediately, has contained COVID-19 with only 256 deaths and no lockdown. The Tories are presiding over a death toll more than 100 times that (and still climbing), and an economy so locked-down it is going over a cliff.
Their negligence – in running down the NHS for years, in failing to stockpile for a health emergency that every expert told them was only a matter of time, in doing nothing for the first two months of the pandemic except to peddle crypto-fascist crap about ‘herd immunity’ – now leaves them desperate to end the lockdown before it is safe to do so.
They cannot be trusted on anything because most of what they say is serial lying to cover up a catalogue of failure. One health worker told me she arrived at work in a rage because she had been listening to a Tory minister on the car radio. ‘Everything he said – everything from start to finish – was a lie.’
Needless to say, no-one should trust the Tories now. In the absence of mass testing and tracing, the Tories’ back to work programme makes a second surge, a re-imposed lockdown, and an even deeper recession highly likely.
That said, the ruling class faces a genuine dilemma, which is why the Tory cabinet is split. Easing the lockdown too quickly may simply extend the crisis and worsen the economic damage in the long run. A further sharp rise in the death toll might also harm the Tories politically; this seems to be a particular preoccupation of Johnson.
But this is an argument about what is best for the Tories and big capital, not for the working class. And it is easy to lose sight of this when ‘normal politics’ – which, in however distorted a manner, is an expression of the class struggle – has ceased to operate.
Labour under Starmer has adopted open class collaboration – called ‘constructive engagement’ – on the basis we are living through a ‘national emergency’. He has the backing of some union leaders, like Unite’s Len McCluskey, who told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: ‘We’ve been working with the government. Everybody wants to co-operate… I want the Labour Party to co-operate, just as the trade unions have been.’
Some union leaderships have been much better, especially, as I write, the teaching unions, who have told the Tories they are opposed to reopening the schools before mass testing and tracing procedures are in place. This could be a very significant development: it amounts to workers saying, in effect, that they will decide when work resumes, not the state and the bosses. Let us hope they stand their ground, and that other workers follow their lead.
But we face very serious problems. The health workers have been on the horns of an excruciating dilemma since the beginning of the pandemic. They are dying on the front-lines, along with many of their patients, for lack of test kits and personal protective equipment. But to take any kind of industrial action in response to this would immediately imperil patients. Ditto the care workers.
Precisely because many workers perform socially useful labour – unlike Tory ministers, hedge-fund managers, and landlords – the pandemic has the effect of undermining their ability to fight back.
No return to normal
But this is only a small part of a much bigger problem. The pandemic has the potential to shift the balance of class forces sharply and permanently in favour of the ruling class. Let me explain.
The first thing to get clear is that there will be no ‘return to normal’. We have to assume that endemic and chronic disease is now permanent. It is not simply the immediate danger of secondary surges – real enough. It is that the disease has gone global, that its development is at different stages in different places, and that there is every possibility of it raging out of control in the slums, labour compounds, and refugee camps where hundreds of millions of the world’s most impoverished are forced to live.
COVID-19 may prove to be a hardy migrant, jumping from breeding ground to breeding ground, perhaps mutating along the way, then leaping back to re-infect places it has devastated once before.
There is no guarantee of a vaccine any time soon – or ever. According to US labour activist Chris Brooks, writing in Labor Notes (reposted in Jacobin):
There is a tremendous, unparalleled global effort by scientists to discover and manufacture a vaccine at record speed, but the challenge before them is daunting.
There are no successful vaccines for any of the seven coronaviruses that infect humans, and there are serious doubts among some scientists that it is even possible to vaccinate against coronaviruses. The fastest vaccine ever produced was for the mumps – and it took four years to produce. The failure to develop a successful vaccine against HIV despite decades of research is indicative of how challenging the process can be.
If a vaccine were created in 18 months (possibly cutting ethical corners in the process), it would be entirely unprecedented. James Hildreth, a leading international immunologist, told the Wall Street Journal, ‘I’m very cautious in telling people we will have a vaccine for COVID-19 … All the other major vaccines we have – for measles, Ebola – have taken a minimum of seven years, and some as long as 40 years.’
Multiple health experts say a vaccine is unlikely anytime soon. Producing a vaccine by 2022 ‘is very optimistic and of relatively low probability,’ Robert van Exan, a biologist with decades of experience in this area, told the New York Times.
Or, as Adam Tooze put it in the Guardian on 7 May, the search for a ‘magic bullet’ to vaccinate against COVID-19 – or any coronavirus – is not a matter of ‘betting on normal science, but on a modern wonder, a “scientific miracle”.’
And even if a vaccine does eventually emerge, we will still be left playing catch-up – waiting for a mutant strain that defeats the vaccine, or for a new kind of coronavirus altogether, given that modern corporate agribusiness has become a global industry for creating new and deadly viruses.
No-one knows, but the implications of some of the possible scenarios are awesome: perhaps a new ‘abnormal’ in which testing, social distancing, and restrictions on movement become part of everyday life, with huge impacts on the structure of the economy, the labour process, and the cost of goods and services.
The new class war
All this before we consider the coming economic and social collapse triggered by the current lockdown measures. Much of what is being said about this by leading commentators is worthless. The Bank of England, for example, has cheerfully announced that the British economy, having suffered its worse contraction in 300 years during 2020, which will have made a full recovery by the end of 2021.
This is computerised voodoo. They haven’t the slightest idea what is going to happen. Again, no-one does. What we can say for sure is that the collapse is record-breaking catastrophic. One example: car sales in the UK have dropped by 99%. Another example: six million UK jobs – almost one in four – have been furloughed. A third one: an estimated one million British workers currently have no income at all.
Keynes taught us that economics is not a science. What happens in the economy is the sum of millions of separate decisions, all based on incomplete knowledge and personal quirks, and no-one can second-guess the outcome with confidence.
We can assume: mass redundancies and swingeing wage cuts; deep insecurity and a desire to save not spend; collapsing demand and confidence spreading across the economy; a self-feeding and self-fulfilling depression, as banks, businesses, and consumers assume the worst and rein back. Far more likely than a ‘bounce-back’ is that we enter what Keynes called ‘a permanent underemployment equilibrium’ (his technical term to describe what happened during the Great Depression).
If this is correct, the bosses’ offensive – a whole new phase in the class war – has barely begun. They have already made it clear that millions are going to lose their jobs, and they have started imposing 15% wage cuts on those who remain. This is liable to be the beginning of a massive austerity programme, rolling out over years, to reduce costs and sustain profits – an austerity programme that will not only mean mass impoverishment, but will also be self-defeating, in that it will deepen the depression by driving down demand even further.
They will have three things in their favour.
First, ‘the reserve army of labour’ – the mass of unemployed, underemployed, and precariously employed, which has expanded massively under neoliberalism – is set to explode in size over the next year or so. This will leave all workers with a heightened sense of job insecurity and will undermine their willingness to fight. This, of course, is the historic function of the reserve army of labour under capitalism, especially in periods of crisis.
Second, unlike the power of popular movements, the power of the ruling class is highly concentrated and legally enforceable, both in company boardrooms and in the upper echelons of the state. They can hold a Zoom meeting and decide to cut 3,000 jobs and impose a 15% wage cut on the rest. Or to enact emergency legislation to increase police power and crack down on dissent.
They are few and centrally organised. We are many and socially dispersed. Their power is that of property and the state. Our power is that of the mass. We change nothing at a Zoom meeting. The working class – a subject class under capitalism – must organise, mobilise, and act collectively if it is to defend its interests. How to do this in the context of corona-capitalism and the new class war has become a live political question.
Third, the weakness of the working-class movement – in retreat since the great class battles of the 1980s – has allowed the Right to drive a wedge into working-class communities. There has always been a minority of backward workers who voted Tory. That minority has been enlarged and emboldened by the Far Right – by the global wave of nationalism, racism, and fascism, whose primary expression in Britain is, of course, Brexit.
Having won the EU Referendum in June 2016 and then the General Election in December 2019, the Tory Right have created and consolidated a base of support in sections of the working class. This will make it easier for them to move towards a hard programme of authoritarianism and austerity, laced with racism and scapegoat politics, as the capitalist crisis deepens.
We must stare reality in the face and recognise the strengths of the enemy. But pessimism is not an option. Nor is it necessary.
A new mood?
After 40 years of neoliberalism – 40 years of ‘private greed and public squalor’ – there are signs of a new mood, a growing sense of anger and ‘enough is enough’ across a great swathe of the British working class.
You get a sense of it when you talk to family and friends who are not activists, especially if they are health workers, care workers, or others on the front-line. I find myself having conversations with people I’ve known for ages who now speak with a bitterness I’ve never heard before.
At macro level, too, there are indications of hidden currents circulating in the depths, a possible sea-change in mass consciousness. A YouGov survey reported that 54% of people thought the government was doing a good job in its response to the pandemic. This, at first, seems alarming. Really? How on earth can so many people be so ignorant when the Tories are responsible for one of the highest death tolls in the world?
But drill down, and you discover an astonishing divide, with 82% if those defined as ‘on the right’ thinking the government is doing a good job, but only 14% of those defined as ‘on the left’. Here, surely, is that same, increasingly sharp polarisation between reactionary and progressive voters that we saw in the EU Referendum and the General Election.
Millions of people know the Tories have fucked up. Millions are increasingly embittered against a system geared for grotesque and growing inequality; a system hurtling towards climate catastrophe; a system that has become a breeding-ground for racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
Class is not a social category: it is a fluid process of consciousness, organisation, and struggle. It is not enough for workers to be angry: they must become a force. The working class must organise and fight.
And the task of all serious socialists, all radical activists, is to unite their activists and embed them in the vanguard sections of the working class, doing everything they can to encourage and facilitate class resistance.
The outcome of the world capitalist crisis that has now engulfed us remains open. Everything depends on what we – thousands of activists and millions of workers – decide to do.
Neil Faulkner is a Marxist archaeologist and historian, author of A Radical History of the World, and a revolutionary socialist active in Mutiny.