With each passing day it becomes all the more clear that the Johnson government has no idea how to handle the corona virus crisis. The sense of aimless panic, masked by the fabled ‘stiff upper lip’ of the British bourgeois, oozes out of Johnson with every press conference announcing the latest half-measures. Just as with the flooding at the beginning of the year, the Tory government has met the current crisis with no plan, no urgency and no clue. The days of Johnson smirking at a defeated Corbyn in the wake of the 2019 general election are long gone. The vacuum of leadership at the top of British society is precisely what has lead to the wave of panic buying across the UK. This has gone so far that supermarkets across the country have been forced to move their foodbank and charity collection bins out of public view because customers were stealing from them. The extent of the panic in the UK has moved from the mass hoarding of long-life milk to adults sweeping the shelves clean of baby formula.
After Johnson announced his now infamous ‘take it on the chin’ strategy, the sense of shock and anger amongst working class people was palpable. The idea that we should simply resign ourselves to accepting those around us should die a cruel death to this virus stunned many and enraged even more. What more can be said to condemn British capitalism and their political pawns than the fact that they were willing to write off the lives of thousands of elderly retired workers. These are people who have slogged their guts out for decades to line the pockets of the capitalist class to retire on what meagre pension was left to them, only to have their final years snatched away from them, forced into isolation to die a wretched death. And all of this based on the government’s insistence that there be no disruption to the capitalist system. Close schools? No, it would wipe 3% off GDP. Order bars and restaurants to close? Insurance companies won’t pay out. Go into lockdown? It will cost business billions. The stark contrast between the government falling over itself to pour cash into the pockets of big business, and leaving workers to rot will leave no room for doubt about the priorities of the British state. First, second and third priority is big business and the economy. A lockdown could cause a worse economic collapse than the 2008-09 recession – Johnson’s government will fight tooth and nail to avoid it, even at the cost of thousands of lives.
The Tory government are not masters of the situation, but are staggering from crisis to news conference to crisis, minute by minute, hour by hour. Once, the British bourgeois commanded fleets and armies which conquered the globe; they controlled continents and bent entire nations to their will. Now, they stand in the middle of a global crisis putting out tweets asking for help in producing ventilators.
Every step that the Tories have taken has been under pressure from outside Westminster. The moment the NEU, the teacher’s union, lifted their finger to demand the closure of schools in the UK the Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament announced plans to close schools, followed by Johnson shuffling along behind them. A ripple of school closure had already begun, and a mood of anger was developing which could have turned to industrial action to force the school closure. A well delivered lesson on the power of the organised working class. The lessons of the corona virus crisis will not be lost on millions of working-class people across Britain and the world.
The government’s original strategy of encouraging ‘herd immunity’ by allowing the virus to tear through the population was quickly denounced – not always diplomatically – as essentially borderline quackery by large swathes of the medical and scientific community, including the World Health Organisation. Writing in the Guardian, Richard Horton, editor of medical journal The Lancet, lays out clearly that the scientific understanding of Covid-19 has not only not ‘shifted’ at any point, but has been well understood as a pandemic threat since at least late January. Ever the loyal lapdog, the British press scrambled to cover for the government’s U-turn, with the BBC claiming ‘the science had shifted’ and made not attempt to challenge the very political decisions the government made – prioritising the interests of industry and finance over that of the population. Even at a moment of emergency, with thousands of lives on the line, the bourgeois press prostitute themselves to protect the interests of the state and big business.
We should be in no doubt about the roots of this crisis – both biological and economic. Long before the corona virus emerged, the early warning signs of a gestating crisis of the capitalist economy could be seen. Manufacturing output was slowing long before the pandemic took off, and a number of national economies had already begun contracting. German Marxist website Marx21.de lays out clearly that, just as with the Zika virus and SARS, the root of the Covid-19 outbreak is the hunger of capital for new areas of investment and profit. In recent decades especially, capitalist agri-business has clawed its way into untouched areas of the planet to either hunt wild animals to sell in food markets at a high profit, or it has uprooted entire ecological systems far older than the human race to make way for massive mono-culture farms of crops and livestock. Where these ecological systems effectively acted as firewalls to contain infections which humans have rarely or never encountered, stripping these systems away and replacing them with herds of pig and cattle, with little genetic variety, farmed in cramped and unsanitary conditions – all to maximise the rate of return on investment – has created the perfect conditions for the maximum incubation and spread of the very infections the destroyed ecosystem protected us from.
As the scale of the crisis emerging in China and East Asia became clear, and the virus spread along the tourist routes and global supply chains, the bourgeois on both sides of the Altantic grasped at every penny and dime they could get back out of the stock markets. The scale of the collapse on the New York Stock Exchange was such that the US Federal Reserve shovelled a total of 2 trillion US dollars into the maw at the heart of the American empire. With such astronomical figures, it can be difficult to grasp the sheer scale of this mountain of dollars the US government has thrown at the capitalist system to try and avoid a recession. $2 trillion is roughly equivalent to the entire GDP of Brazil for 2017, enough to clear the entire foreign debt of the US or enough to give every man woman and child in the US over 6,000 dollars each.
The shockwave caused by the corona virus crisis will quickly ripple through the UK economy. Already there are estimates of around 1 million jobs lost in the hospitality industry, with many workers on zero hours contracts handed nothing more than their last paycheck and a ‘thank you, close the door behind you’. In manufacturing, the disruption to supply chains across Asia and Europe means factories like the Nissan plant in Sunderland have shut down production entirely, sending around 4,000 workers home. The picture is the same with Vauxhall, Rolls Royce and BMW plants.
The effect on the political thinking of the working class across the world – however difficult to quantify – will be enormous. It is already clear that in almost every instance the government and big business have set the protection of profit and the state as number one. The silencing of whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang, the emergence of protests in Hubei over inflated food prices, the wildcat strike of 5,000 Mercedes Benz workers in Vitoria-Gasteiz, workers in the construction industry not able to go on sick leave because they have been pushed into private contracting and have no protection, Virgin Atlantic crews told to take eight weeks unpaid leave while Branson goes cap in hand to the government (demanding over £8 billion!), the impact on NHS staff of not having the materials and equipment to protect themselves when treating corona virus patients, the profiteering of stores selling hygiene products, the impact on workers of being forced to go on sick leave at £94 a week while landlords still demand full rent and on time – the list goes on.
Lenin once said “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” This is precisely what is happening before our very eyes. Centuries ago, another pandemic – the Black Death – swept Europe, creating the conditions in which capitalist property relations could flourish amidst the decaying feudal system. Since then the capitalist system has exhausted its revolutionary role of developing production and creating a world economy. Now, capitalism riddled with rot from head to toe staggers from one blow after another, as old age infirmity and senility take their toll. Corona virus, for all its lethality, is simply a symptom of the capitalist system rotting on its feet.
Stuart Leigh – 19 March 2020
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