We’re living in extraordinary times. The flimsy tissue of capitalist “civilisation” stands exposed. For this pandemic is not an “act of God”; it is a crime of capitalism. Mercenary mass factory farming was long known to breed viral diseases which all too easily spread from animals to humans; and the crisis has exposed the effect of savage cuts in state expenditure – sabotage of the health service and a scandalous lack of investment in protective gear, test kits and respirators. It is the failure of capitalism which is exposed by the rampant spread of this virus, which, ironically, in addition to tens of thousands of deaths already worldwide, has afflicted in Britain the prime minister, the health minister and the chief medical officer, to say nothing of the Prince of Wales. The only protection for the population is to shun society and languish in lockdown, as civilization grinds to a slowdown.
Daniel Defoe published a “Journal of the Plague Year” which had struck in 1665. Jack London and Albert Camus both wrote dystopian novels envisaging such a future plague. In London’s novel “The Scarlet Plague”, written in 1912, a “Red Death” had wiped out civilization at a stroke; uncannily, London’s prediction was not far out even in its timing… in 2013.
In the recent WIN document 2020 VISION, we wrote: “Even if it were not for the social explosions that are coming – the threat of new regimes of terror, repression and war – then in any case environmental degradation is already threatening the very future of humankind.” We’d already been bracing ourselves for slump, conflict, environmental catastrophe, but we had not anticipated the form taken so dramatically by the environmental crisis.
Only rarely – with the Black Death in the 14th century and the flu epidemic of 1918 – has such a simultaneous crisis gripped the entire world. The nearest equivalents were the two world wars, but they pitted countries into mutually antagonistic rival blocs, whereas this pandemic strips bare a common threat to human life and the vital need for humanity in unison to find a common solution.
In Britain, the crisis has exposed an incompetent government, which opted first for a callous disregard of people’s lives, under a garbled pretext of “herd immunity”. It kept the schools open and the tube trains running – both breeding grounds for infection. Meanwhile, it spurned offers of thousands of cut-price respirators from both the UAE and the EU in favour of a corrupt bung to its favoured crony entrepreneur Dyson, and withheld test kits and protective gear even from frontline staff, let alone the population at large. Only after a crucial two weeks did it realise that, having been deliberately starved of funds for the last ten years, the NHS was collapsing under the strain, and that up to half a million plus people were likely to die. So, while pretending it had always been following a carefully staged strategy, it abruptly switched from a policy of “mitigation” to one of “containment” – lockdown. But delay has fatal consequences – as Italy and Spain have discovered to their cost.
Now this shock has virtually shut the world down. Society is gripped in fear, and for the moment everyone is stunned. The immediate reaction is an instinct for compliance, but once this initial reaction wears off it could give way to outrage at a later stage. Things will never be the same again.
It is ironic that it is just at this time of enforced social isolation that the tinsel glitter of contemporary corporate entertainment has been superseded by a general rediscovery of genuine human links: a renewed sense of community solidarity, as shown in the spontaneous springing up overnight of local voluntary street-level self-help groups, improvised community singing and musical performances, and a universally synchronised nationwide demonstration of applause for health workers. This is the psychological foundation for the birth of a socialist society, an impetus for a coming revolution.
The superiority of state planning over corporate greed is exposed for all to see. The party of austerity has been forced to pour billions into lavish handouts. Just as in the wave of radicalisation that swept the world after both the first and second world wars, once the immediate crisis is over and the shock of the emergency recedes, there could be a tidal wave of anger against this rotten system and a determination to build a new society.
This is a historic turning point. But it is not the root cause of the coming revolution. Already before the crisis, there were heroic uprisings on the streets in dozens of countries spread over four continents. That will have proved to be merely a faint foretaste of the historic upheavals to come.