COVID-19 has shown us we must change the world

Simon Hannah argues there is no longer any time to deliberate and dither, to indulge the false dichotomy of protest or power or the dangerous delusions of nationalist parochialism. It is socialism or barbarism: choose now.

5 April 2020.

(With thanks to Banksy.)


We could be heading into the worst crisis since the 1930s. The world was already approaching another recession, not to forget an environmental collapse and the destabilisation wrought by the lies of far-right populism, but the COVID-19 outbreak has put the foot on the accelerator of these catastrophes. Governments over the world have been caught unprepared, regardless of ideology (‘there are no ideologies in a foxhole,’ as the bourgeois pragmatist declares).

The pandemic has exposed the huge, brutal, and terrible class inequality that exists in our times. The rich get tested and treated first, while older and poorer people (including many working on the frontlines in healthcare and other vital services) are left to die. And while the powerful and celebrities are happily self-isolated in their mansions, working people are piled on top of each other in tenements, favelas, ghettos, and tower blocks.

The pandemic has shone a light on all the serious disparities in our societies: poverty, housing, health care, all of them now shown up. We have been cajoled into accepting that the rich should get what they want even if that means forcing the poor to fight for a space on a hospital bed or beg their neighbours to go to the shop for food.

The millions globally made unemployed are proof of the cruel reality of capitalism. When a system built on profit can no longer make a profit, people are sacrificed on its bloody altars. In the USA, the heart of imperialism and capitalism, elected politicians are openly telling the truth they have long veiled behind obscurantist fantasies – that some people will suffer and die to keep the economy going. In an avowed death cult, the high priests are at least honest about what they are planning.

The massive bailouts in the West are primarily designed to keep businesses afloat; money will trickle through to some in need, but it will be patchy and could take weeks or months to arrive. It is intended to delay a social crisis, not stop it. These handouts reflect the priorities of the bosses and their politicians, not ordinary people.

And when the crisis has passed, they will make working people and the poor pay for the cost of it. They will seek to claw back every penny of the money they ‘gave’ to us in the form of deeper austerity, wage freezes, and cuts to the social wage.

We already know that poor, non-white people, and rural people in the Global South, will be at the end of the queue for any vaccine or treatment.

And even these bailouts cannot be replicated in the Global South. Many countries across Asia, Africa, and South America simply cannot afford billions of dollars to support their people – a consequence of an imperialist world where some countries get rich from the work of others, just as in each individual country some get rich off the work of others. They might (temporarily) ‘save the economy’ in the USA or Britain or France. But many poorer countries will simply collapse.

Towards a police state?

In times of crisis, people feel scared. They support the government in taking whatever actions they deem necessary, including the most authoritarian and potentially violent. People become snitches on neighbours, the police use new tech to track and control the population, and such measures become normalised.

The lockdown measures in some countries are effectively a kill-or-cure approach – a consequence of the failure of adequate testing and contact tracing from day one. Now people are abandoned in homes, some with little food or family or community support.

Despite the Twitter videos of police playing music to raise people’s spirits, in other countries they are firing tear gas. In Kenya, the police shot dead a 13-year-old boy on his balcony. In India, workers were sprayed with bleach on the side of a road, which burnt their skin and damaged their eyes. Everywhere, police are ritually humiliating people they accuse of breaking lockdown rules or curfews.

As the economic crisis begins to tear through society, we cannot let mass unemployment blight communities. Self-organisation will be crucial, not simply ‘community support’ and providing charity, but political organisation and mass solidarity.

In a period of social crisis, if the state cannot provide or begins to collapse, then mass working-class and community-based organisation becomes necessary – to organise food distribution, ensure care for the vulnerable, and agitate against a society that requires such cruelties. We saw an example of this in Argentina during the crisis of 2001, when the government defaulted on its international debt.

We need to renew our internationalism and anti-racism in the face of a nationalist backlash against ‘foreigners’ and the closing of borders (that might stay closed for the foreseeable future).

In Labour, some people say you can be a party of protest or of power, but cannot be both. Well, if you are out of power during a global pandemic with an economic collapse that will affect billions, then you damn well better start to protest alongside all those who are suffering or you – rightly – consign yourself first to irrelevance, then to oblivion.

The lessons of the poll tax movement 30 years ago are instructive. Labour initially stood to one side, then condemned the mass movement. Nevertheless, they benefited from a huge surge in support in the opinion polls – only to squander it in 1992, when their lukewarm politics consigned them to defeat once again.

Against collaboration with the Tories: for mass resistance from below

Is it right that trade unions sign up to ‘class peace’ in a time of national crisis and agree to call off strikes, tying their members’ hands and allowing the bosses to get away with anything? No! In a time of crisis, where so many workers suddenly become ‘essential’, they should not be afraid to make their demands.

Should they, for example, insist on more wages for dangerous work? Yes! Even refusing to work until their members’ get the necessary equipment to keep them safe? Yes! Never let the bosses dictate terms – workers in essential industries like health, social provision, and transport now have more power than ever. Don’t be afraid to use it to fight for your rights!

Applauding NHS workers to show solidarity with people risking their lives in a public health crisis is good. But while clapping we should also condemn the Tory governments that have slashed the NHS for the last decade.

They tell us not to politically ‘point-score’ in a national crisis. The implication? We should ignore the cuts, the negligence, and the class-based priorities of the Tories that have made the coronavirus crisis so much worse. We should ignore the lessons. We should make a virtue of ignorance and denial.

Worse, we should abandon the cause of millions of working-class people – health workers, care workers, delivery workers, checkout assistants, cleaners, and so many other essential workers, along with people in lockdown, without income, worrying about feeding themselves and paying bills.

Really? The Left and the unions should rally round the Queen, the Tories, and the Flag? Keir Starmer should be in cahoots with Johnson instead of leading opposition and resistance? Really?

COVID-19 exposes the class oppression inherent in capitalism. Now is not the time to smooth over the jagged edges or preach peace from the pulpit. On the contrary, the antagonisms are growing, and so they should, and we, the Left, should foster them.

Eventually, COVID-19 will be brought under control, but it will be at a great cost. And after COVID-19 will come, in all probability, a global social and economic crisis the like of which we have never seen. And behind that, runaway climate change. The pandemic has shown us that we cannot carry on in the same old way. They used to say it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Now perhaps we are beginning to imagine, beginning to see and understand, that in fact this world cannot carry on. That it must not.

This is not a time for despair, but a time to organise and act. It is a time in isolation to read, to think, to re-imagine what is possible. And then, the reckoning. The reckoning against the rich who sacked us, the politicians who lied to us, the profiteers who made money from our fear.

It will be socialism or barbarism – pick a side.

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)

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