Alejandro Bodart, a leading Argentine revolutionary socialist, argues that the crisis we face presents us with a choice between barbarism and revolution.
21 April 2020.
We are witnessing phenomena of immeasurable magnitudes. Half of humanity is in quarantine, affected by a virus that threatens to claim millions of lives. The economic crisis that has broken out may become the worst in the last 90 years. Nothing will be the same as before. Revolutionary socialists must prepare for what is to come.
At the time of writing (31 March), those infected by COVID-19 number 900,000 and number of fatalities is approaching 50,000. This is partial data, because there is insufficient testing and various governments do not to count deaths that occur in private homes and nursing homes. The most conservative estimates indicate that infections could be up to 10 times higher and the death rate at least 50% higher.
In Italy alone, a study by Imperial College London reports that there are actually already six million people infected, 10% of the population, and not the 100,000 that the authorities report.
Countries and cities that have been symbols of the ‘first world’ and imperialist superiority for decades – New York, Rome, Madrid, and Paris – accumulate sick people and corpses, with their health care systems collapsing and their citizens terrified, incapable of detecting infections on time, lacking personnel, hospital beds, and respirators, choosing who to care for and who to let die.
In Iran, the virus spreads unchecked, while the imperialist blockade prevents the supply of essential supplies to deal with the disease. In India, millions of workers who have lost their jobs and live in subhuman conditions flee from the cities to their villages on foot to try to avoid contagion.
There are already 186 affected countries; in a few more days, no country will be left without sick people and fatal victims.
Well into the 21st century, the lack of health-care resources at a global scale has led to hand hygiene and mandatory quarantines in homes becoming the only means to decelerate the spread of the disease.
Compliance is practically impossible among the poorest people of the Global South, who live in overcrowded housing, without sewers or running water. Expert on the history of epidemics Frank Snowden asked himself in an interview with Argentine newspaper La Nación: ‘How can they wash their hands or isolate themselves in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, in the slums of Mexico City or Bombay, or in South Africa?
We could ask the same about the marginalised towns and neighborhoods of Argentina or any underdeveloped country. Not to mention how millions who work in the informal economy or have become unemployed and will not be able to move freely in the streets will avoid starving.
Pandemic and Economic Crisis
Those in spheres of power attempt to attribute the outbreak of the current worldwide economic crisis and recession to the emergence of the coronavirus. In fact, the pandemic has been the trigger, but not the cause, of a debacle that has been expected for quite some time.
The drop in oil prices is fuel on a fire that has become uncontrollable with the pandemic. We are at the beginning of a process that may end in a great depression similar to, or worse than, that of 1929.
As in 2008, we are witnessing the bursting of a spectacular financial bubble that, this time around, is combined with the greatest contemporary health crisis that humanity has faced. The economic recipes of US and European imperialism in the face of this crisis are similar to those applied 12 years ago, but the magnitude of what is happening has forced them to invest unprecedented sums of money.
Cynically using the virus as an excuse, they have begun to implement billion-dollar bailouts to save the banks and corporations once again, knowing that, given the prospect of ever lower profits in the productive circuit, these funds will most likely turn to speculation, as they did in 2008, and fuel a new crisis in the near future.
We are currently witnessing the complete paralysis of some branches of production and services – such as hospitality, tourism, and air travel – and a drastic fall in international trade. That is why we are seeing increasing layoffs, unpaid leave, pay cuts, and, for informal and temporary workers, a complete loss of income.
But this is only the beginning. When the quarantines end, they will try to make the workers and the poor of the world pay for the bailouts and the crisis – as they have been doing since the 1990s, and on an intensified scale since 2008 – with more job losses, lower wages, greater flexibilisation of labour, more deregulation, and more public-sector austerity to pay debts.
No Government Prioritises Workers’ Health and Economy
The delay in taking action against the pandemic in countries like Italy and Spain and the existence of right-wing governments like of Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s or the centre-leftist López Obrador (in Mexico), who initially minimised the pandemic and refused to implement quarantines to avoid paralysing the economy, have been used by other bourgeois governments to differentiate themselves and show themselves sensitive to people’s needs and not to capitalist profits.
In reality, there are more similarities than differences. The health care of the majority of the world’s population has been compromised by ‘structural reforms’ carried out in the last decade of the last century and by the constant budget cuts and new privatisations that have intensified since 2008. The health-care collapse that we are witnessing today is the result of the systematic reduction of health-care budgets, disinvestment in science and technology, shortage of personnel, and lack of infrastructure and basic supplies.
The same can be said of the economy of the poor, who have endured one attack after another against their standard of living and their rights over the years. Now they are the most affected. The only economy that our rulers worry about is the one that benefits the 1% at the expense of the remaining 99%.
The various capitalist governments and political parties that have been in power for decades are responsible for this situation. Every single one, without exception, has prioritised the profits of a shrinking handful of super-exploiters over life and over nature.
A Worldwide Escalation of Repression
With the excuse of the health crisis and the need to guarantee mandatory quarantines, there has been a global rise of authoritarianism and repression. States of siege, curfews, bans on meetings, demonstrations, and movement, and the militarisation of public space by various repressive forces are being implemented in more and more countries. All this has encouraged institutional violence and human-rights violations against the people.
The objective of these measures is to impose social discipline on workers, especially the youth, who have been at the forefront of recent struggles throughout the world. They are preventive, in expectation of the confrontations that the current crisis of the capitalist system will generate sooner rather than later. Governments will possibly try to maintain these measures after the pandemic is overcome.
We have to denounce every abuse and call on workers and the youth not be intimidated. Far from delegating the decisions that determine our destiny to governments and businessmen, the participation of all is needed to respond appropriately and effectively protect our own and our families’ lives.
What We Should Prepare For
Current events are exposing the magnitude of the imperialist capitalist system’s decadence. The crash of 2008 first revealed the system’s fragility. Everything indicates that the catastrophe that we are suffering today will produce much graeter changes.
The (declining) US is in conflict with the rising power of China. But Chinese growth has been slowing for some time and will now take a massive hit from the coronavirus crisis. The absence of the G7 and G20 is noticeable. In Europe, epicentre of the tragedy, the crisis of the EU has prevented it from acting in a unified way. In many countries, provincial and local governments take measures that contradict those of national governments. This ‘everyone for themselves’ phenomenon is an expression of the new times in which we live.
We revolutionary socialists must prepare ourselves for the general strikes, rebellions, and revolutions once the pandemic begins to recede; and for the new situation that these processes give rise to perhaps evolving towards a global pre-revolutionary crisis.
The shock waves of the system’s decay are reverberating in the consciousness of millions. The next few months may be decisive for that mass consciousness to take a huge leap forward. We are already seeing how the last few decades’ prevailing discourse of the advantages of the private sector over the public and of the market over the state is beginning to crumble. A hatred of big business, with its determination to make workers pay again for the crisis, is growing.
Recent events have raised awareness of the need to defend nature over corporate profits, and now, to this imperative, is added the necessity to defend public health against pandemic. The struggles of women, minorities, and radical youth are also driving towards anti-capitalist consciousness.
The pandemic and the economic debacle are putting revolution on the agenda. Vital human needs are asserting themselves in immediate response to the pandemic: massive testing; more hospital beds, respirators, and personnel; safety equipment for all workers; prohibition of layoffs and wage cuts; paid time-off and social assistance for the self-employed and precarious workers; the nationalisation of private laboratories, clinics, and hospitals, to integrate them into a single public health system.
To these immediate needs must be added the non-payment of external debts and the nationalisation of the banks and foreign trade.
While we argue and agitate around these slogans, it is imperative that we also explain that, today more than ever, we need to end capitalism before barbarism becomes irreversible, and fight for a socialist model of society, in which democratically organised working people hold power.
Alejandro Bodart is the coordinator of the International Socialist League (ISL), which brings together revolutionary socialist parties and groups from 20 countries on three continents. He is also the General Secretary of the Socialist Workers Movement (MST) of Argentina, which is part of the Left and Workers’ Front Unity (FIT Unidad), the country´s main left-wing political-electoral force. He has served as a legislator in Buenos Aires, and is Editor of the magazine Permanent Revolution.