The Struggle for a socialist response to the corona virus

The danger is imminent. All the TV, press and news sources say so again and again. Everyone with even an ounce of scientific knowledge admits it, and knows it is so. Yet nothing really is being done.

Two months since the Tory government learned this would happen, now it is upon us. Unemployment is a mass phenomenon, despite official figures that mask the real issue of underemployment as people can’t get the hours they need to secure their existence.

Meanwhile, we are also witnessing the under-utilisation of capital, despite the Bank of England cutting minimum lending rates again and again in an attempt to stimulate investment. But, says moneybags, what good is investment if the workers cannot be exploited? This drying up of capital investment is the flip side of a contraction of the labour supply. Just as much as a major restriction of the supply of oil would trigger a crisis of investment, so does a restriction of the supply of labour power.

In Britain, we have 600,000 Labour Party members in the midst of a leadership contest where at least three candidates are supposedly attempting to canvas their votes; but not a peep from any of our potential leaders has been worth spilling ink to report. Yet with the slightest thought it is possible to see that the solution to our impending danger is readily available. The means to combat it are clear, feasible and easily within our grasp. Yet these measures are not being adopted ‘only’ because these measures would ‘exclusively’ affect the profits of the capitalists and bring into question their right to own and direct the means of production, distribution and exchange.

These methods that would halt the spread of the coronavirus are control, supervision, accounting and regulation by democratic control of the working class, ensuring the proper distribution of resources and the elimination of waste and hoarding. Exactly those things which are not being done because it would hurt the capitalists socially and politically. The moment it becomes clear to the mass of the working class that the bosses and politicians are not needed to ensure production, distribution, and the organisation of society – that in fact they are precisely the people introducing chaos and disorder in society and the economy – all their privileges and power are finished.

Temporarily, the government has nationalised the losses of the rail franchises only for them to be re-privatised as soon as profit can be restored – just as happened with the banks in the 2008 crash.

Where they have been cornered into taking any action, the Tories have only done so, first and foremost, to protect private property and private profit. Saving people’s lives is only an incidental side effect of their property rescue. The Tory’s delay and confusion will kill far more than are saved by the accidental beneficial effects of their property rescue .

The Tories have spent the last 10 years actively sabotaging the NHS, whether that is by privatising any aspect of the service from GP’s surgeries to cleaning, or by downsizing staff levels and cutting worker’s pay with continual under inflation pay rises.

This national emergency is a crisis of the Tory’s own making. They were warned in January of the likely course of events. Instead they chose to downplay the spread and the likelihood of it reaching the UK in order not to disrupt profit making business. These businesses were already cowering under a gathering black cloud of an economic crisis…a crisis they have managed to elude for the last few years with tax evasion, quantitative easing, government subsidies, and debt purchases that only postponed the actual timing and increased the severity of the day of reckoning.

Rather than using this time they had available to prepare the material and human resources necessary, the greed of the capitalists was indulged and the disruption to the NHS continued apace. Personal protective equipment (PPE), drugs and medical equipment should have been made and stockpiled ready for use, and staff recruited and trained. Instead we find cupboards bare and staff demoralised and short-handed. Despite this crisis the Tories continue with austerity plans, closing or downgrading major acute hospitals, reducing numbers of beds, consultants and doctors and making it harder to be admitted to hospital. The cleaners at Lewisham hospital are a case in point. Instead of being reinforced and rewarded for their dedication, the response of the contractor has been not to pay staff.

Even to this day it is apparent the Tories have no plan for meeting this health crisis. The statements of yesterday are contradicted and muddied by the statements of today. Instead of actually being in control of the situation, Johnson surfaces with the illusion of control, while in practice making only the bare minimum efforts to protect people. Meanwhile he is pulling out every stop, regardless of the cost, to protect capitalist property from the necessary measures of democratic workers’ control that would threaten the capitalist property rights. The Tories actions amount to a concerted effort to frustrate that necessary workers’ control.

This inactivity is not a matter of naivety or innocence. It is instead a question of duplicity, portraying themselves as the protectors of people while acting to defend capitalist private property. Are the necessary means of workers’ control beyond the capabilities of the workers in the NHS and the food distribution network? Clearly this is not the case.

If the Tories really wanted to exercise control over the situation, and really put people before profit if only for the duration of this crisis, they have a clear example in that of the conduct of the former deformed workers’ state in China. After a period of dithering and confusion – or outright trying to silence those raising the alarm – the Chinese government realised the seriousness of the consequences of this inaction and acted robustly by leaning on the working class, mobilising huge numbers of people, and declaring war on the virus.

Conveniently forgetting the conscious steps it has taken to dismantle and privatise the Chinese bureaucratic command economy, re-establishing capitalism in China and deepening the exploitation of nature and the working class, the Chinese Communist Party dusted off some old ideas. As part of this fight, the Chinese government mobilised 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), inspiring them with the rhetoric of a long since liquidated deformed workers state where the bureaucrats and careerists of the CCP were supposedly the vanguard of the working class. This was in order to get the population as a whole active in pushing the rights of the Chinese and international capitalists aside in order to combat the virus. Utilising tried and trusted state planning and bureaucratic command methods in the emergency, the Chinese state built an entire hospital in a week, and set about mass manufacturing the PPE and medication needed, as well as supplying, deploying and utilising the human resources mobilised by the CCP, temporarily restored to its leading role. None of this was done in the interests of workers in China. The driving concern for the state bureaucracy was to save its own skin in the face of the backlash heading its way as the effects of Coronavirus became known, and they could not keep the situation under wraps.

For the former Maoist bureaucracy in China, shifting into a command economy strategy was far simpler for them than it would be in the capitalist West. The workers in China are familiar with the state intervening in broad sections of the economy (quite where the Chinese state ends and the individual capitalist begins can difficult to decide, but the money always ends up in the same pocket). For the government to mobilise people, material and money towards a specific goal that isn’t profit is the sin of Maoist Stalinism, a deformed workers state with Chinese characteristics, that Britain, the US and the rest hated the most. That is before they embraced the freedom of capitalist exploitation.

For the Tories in Britain, matters stand entirely in the reverse. For decades now, the Tories and the capitalist press have hammered away, day in day out, at the idea that the state cannot help and the private sector does it better. the shift now to large scale state intervention in private property – not bailing out big business but directing production – would be almost beyond the psychological ability of the Tories to conceive of. Even if it were, such a broad intervention in the interests of the majority would detonate 40 years of political and economic thought, and set a dangerous precedent in the thinking of working class people – the state can help ordinary people, and can do it better than business. And yet, inexorably, they are driven toward this conclusion by the scale of the current crisis.

Although Johnson likens himself to Churchill, his conduct in ‘Britain’s hour of need’ and Churchill’s are as different as night and day. Churchill harnessed the capitalists to the needs of the state in order to save British imperialism from invasion and defeat. State planning, rationing and direction of labour were introduced as temporary measures to overcome the worst deficiencies of private property. By contrast, Johnson has harnessed the state to save capitalism; privatisation, free market anarchy, the atomisation of entire communities and zero hour contracts are now installed as permanent features in order to pander to the basest profit mongering appetites of the capitalists. Even as the current crisis sweeps over them, the Tories are trying to free-market their way out of a global pandemic – a disaster which demands international co-operation, centralised planning and distribution of resources, and the mobilisation of coherent self-organising communities.

This is not a” natural” disaster. A crisis that could have been managed has been turned into a potential humanitarian disaster by the Tory’s commitment to “business as usual”. Their commitment is clearly profit before people. There can be no trust in this Tory government in this crisis. They have already broken yet another promise made to halt evictions. Make no mistake, every penny squeezed out of Sunak’s fist will be clawed back with a further program of austerity on the other side of this crisis.

The question then comes up about Labour’s role in the corona virus crisis. If parliament can be sent to work from home – on full pay and expenses! – but builders and delivery drivers have to turn up to work because they are essential, then why is it not the builders, drivers, nurses and cleaners running the country? The government has given itself sweeping powers – perhaps unprecedented in modern peace time – and Labour MPs should be pinning the executive to the wall for every mistake, every mis-step that costs lives. This is, after all, a question of life and death. With a few honourable exceptions, the mediocrities who have clawed and schemed their way into a parliament seat have been silent on the Tory government handing out ventilator contracts to Tory donors (Dyson) when established manufacturers are ignored, they have been silent on the revelation that Johnson ‘signed jurisdiction’ over government projects to Dominic Cummings, silent over the shovelling out of money to private hospitals to use beds and staff after the Tories have cut 17,000 from the NHS (they were at a record low before the crisis), and silent over the murderously incompetent response to coronavirus.

At this time, the leadership candidates especially, Labour should be hammering the government for its response to the crisis, declaring loud and clear the absolute zero confidence they have in the Tory ability to respond to the crisis. What we have had is another round of ‘statesmanlike’ campaigning, focused on parliamentary maneuvers. Faced with the Boris Johnson shaped vacuum of leadership, Labour MPs with the integrity and decency shown by Corbyn, McDonnell and others should be stepping up, day in day out, to publicly challenge every decision made by the government. They should be demanding day after day, hour after hour, the measures needed to protect workers from a crisis brought upon them by the rich, and making it clear that the Tories can be trusted only to line their own pockets. This should be done with the aim of forcing the Tory government out of power. The longer the Tories remain in government, the longer they will distort Labour’s policies by applying them in the crisis to benefit the rich. The longer the Tories remain in power, the longer they will turn a blind eye and an open pocket to the explosive crisis in warehouses and building sites where workers are crammed together, maximising the spread of the virus. The longer the Tories remain in power, the more people will die of this horrific pandemic sweeping the globe.

Rhys Jameson – 29 March 2020

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