As the UK Government declares a lock down in the face of the coronavirus, Simon Hannah argues that we now face two contrasting futures: the authoritarian dystopia that is capitalism’s final and horrifying offer, or the democratic and free society that has long been the dream of socialists.
23 March 2020.
Everyone who lives through the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will remember it. The sense of a global crisis, the fear that anyone could be infected, could get sick and die, a terrifying moment to realise that we are united by a common humanity, a common vulnerability. The sense of a society grinding to a halt as the numbers of infected and dead rises daily.
And yet the viral outbreak has demonstrated more clearly than any socialist propaganda that the society we live in is cruel and inhuman. The lack of resources, the establishment politicians slow to act, and the bosses laying off their workers.
People are being called selfish for continuing to go work when they face a horrible decision between risking infection or collapsing into poverty. We have seen people panic buying, clearing out super markets for food and other essentials. Again, their behaviour is branded selfish, but they act in a context of fear, of desperation. They act out of a growing sense that everything might spiral out of control at any moment – that the veneer of capitalist civilisation might come crashing down, exposing only barbarism and unleashing an even crueller version of the dog-eat-dog world that capitalism promotes daily.
And always circling, the racists and fascists see an opportunity to whip up race hate, attacking East Asian people in the street, promoted by the sneering talk of Trump and Fox News of the 'foreign Chinese Flu'. The conspiracy theories are now enclosing us as quickly as the virus, sowing mass confusion and doubt.
But we have also seen outpourings of solidarity and hope, embryonic community self-organisation to help the vulnerable through a period as close to a world war as most of us have seen. A world war where the enemy is invisible, microscopic, ruthlessly global in its spread. Neighbours support each other, offering whatever they can for people they barely know. Workers volunteer to undertake dangerous services just to save lives, to keep essential amenities functioning.
This is the world we are in now, maybe for months to come. What follows no-one can know. It will be tempting to wonder when it will all go back to normal, but what if it doesn't? What if this seismic shock upturns our societies? The fact is that measures that have been put in place in countries across the world, and these reveal two different worlds that can be built after this crisis.
The seeds of a better future
The first is a stunning and unprecedented reorientation of economics. The UK Government – one of the most uncompromisingly neoliberal in the world – has announced policies that will see the state covering the bulk of workers wages, making £1 billion available to renters, and instituting a moratorium on mortgages. Other countries have gone further, renationalising trains and airlines.
While these measures are not socialist and they are coming from capitalist governments who are desperate to keep the show on the road rather than face a revolutionary challenge to their rule in the months to come, the measures are opening up a debate.
We see that in a genuine crisis, be it a war or viral pandemic, the collective endeavour of a national community (in this case in the form of the state) has to step in, to provide, to organise, to lead. The capitalists are too busy laying off workers and selling their shares.
Australian finance capitalists have made clear to investors what they think is happening; ‘Macquarie Wealth Management, the stockbroking arm of the beating heart of Australian capitalism, Macquarie Group, has warned that “conventional capitalism is dying” and the world is headed for “something that will be closer to a version of communism”.’(link)
Meanwhile, while we don't have to subscribe to such a dramatic reading, the winds of change are blowing powerfully away from the dominant economic views.
We can see that in a time of crisis there is, in fact, a ‘magic money tree’, that we can provide for the sick and vulnerable. But this goes against the entire grain of the last 40 years of Western capitalism.
The measures announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak are a concession to human need, but utterly hypocritical, given the Conservatives have spent a decade destroying the very public services they now so desperately need to fight the coronavirus tearing through our communities. But then, hypocrisy is always the tribute vice pays to virtue.
And even in the USA, the proposal to directly pay people $1,200, similar to a measure in Australia, is a brief glimpse of what Universal Basic Income could provide. The amounts are small (for now), but they totally sink right-wing arguments against UBI. In a period of crisis, it turns out that giving people money to live on just makes good sense.
We can see how a world built not on the priorities of profit and markets, but on the needs of people, of a democratic plan, of the great majority of our society, of working people making decisions, could be possible. Not just possible, but necessary.
We will look back and see that this pandemic was just the opening salvo in a decade of huge strife, with irreversible climate change already beginning to do its damage and other potential viruses waiting to re-emerge. To say nothing of the economic crisis and the damage that will cause.
When this coronavirus subsides in the coming months, there could be a lot of anger, especially if thousands have died. The anger could turn into protests, into a condemnation of everything the Tories stand for, of the system that they propagate. The Spanish Flu pandemic after World War I was also the backdrop for mass strikes in Britain, for revolutions elsewhere. The powers that be will be watching closely, fearful of what comes next.
The seeds of a nightmare
But we have also now seen a darker, dystopian future emerge before our eyes. As the fear spreads from country to country, people clamour for their governments to adopt authoritarian measures. Calls for lock downs, for more sweeping police powers, for the army to be deployed. The government in the UK wants to totally bypass parliamentary scrutiny – to consolidate power into their hands.
The authoritarians, just as much as the socialists, see the crisis as an opportunity. The creeping fascist movement globally can now respond to the virus with powers that they couldn't have dreamt of granting themselves before. And what is more, their own people will call for this.
It is clear that self-isolation was needed to stop the spread of the virus, but the lack of community and civic organisation meant that in countries such as Britain people felt forced to resort to demanding stricter measures from the right-wing Conservative government. The feeling that the state has to become a police power in this situation, to take control and impose order – though understandable – is dangerous.
The government dragged its feet and gave conflicting advice – then they blamed people for not following 'advice'. This is what led to the 'instruction' from the Prime Minister on 23 March that the country was in a lock down, backed up by police powers.
Elsewhere, some have been praising the response of the Chinese government, ignoring that initially they covered up the outbreak, arrested doctors and journalists who reported on it. The lock down may well have stopped the spread of the virus, and the result is that some now look to a dictatorship as the saviour of their people.
If there are more crises such as this one, how long until the 'Chinese model' of capitalism and dictatorship begins to look attractive? In Hungary, Viktor Orban, a grotesque figure of the far right, is pushing for powers to rule by decree, making him an elected dictator over his people.
And the nature of the virus means that the Left cannot mobilise in its traditional ways, through strikes and protests. Some might say it is time to try new forms of organising, but when these constitute only Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, and online petitions, they don't amount to much. Every decisive political question is decided by force, and in a situation of a pandemic outbreak, the state reserves for itself the right to consolidate power in its hands.
It is not that the measures in place will become permanent (though we cannot rule that out). It is that the state in even alleged Western democracies is flexing its muscles, the state of exception becomes the rule, the police powers begin to be used more liberally against different groups.
And in the face of the crisis we see the danger of what the Germans call ‘Burgfrieden’, social peace. The trade union leaders are calling off struggles (as in the CWU). Labour has been largely inconsequential to the national discussion. Now there are demands from some quarters for a unity government, which would render Labour even less able to stand up to the creeping authoritarianism of the Tories. The media have effectively become the government’s mouthpiece – even more so than they were during the General Election.
And the economic consequences of what is occurring are unknown. Some are predicting that this will wipe more GDP off the global economy than the 1929 Stock Market Crash. There is money now to survive the crisis, but the government could just as easily cut the taps and let a recession rip later in the year which could make 2008 seem like a mild economic hiccup.
It goes without saying that we live in dangerous times. The coronavirus outbreak has shaken humanity to its core. We have to survive the coming months, but the networks that are built now, even over video conference calls or messages over the internet rather than face to face, will play an enormously important role in the coming battles. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but there will be powerful forces at work among the capitalists to restore the profitability of their system on the broken backs of the people.
We have to make sure that the disaster that has befallen us is not the end of the matter, but opens the door for a new world. One based on solidarity, internationalism, on democratic economic planning, and not the chaos of bosses and their politicians falling over each other to deal with a pandemic that has now exposed how rotten their system is.
Simon Hannah is a Labour and trade union activist and author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left (Pluto 2018) and Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight against the Poll Tax (Pluto 2020).