By Andrew Burgin
The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating across the world. Every few days the scope and scale of the disease is increasing. Hundreds of thousands of people are being infected, many thousands have already died and many tens of thousands will die.
In China, where the outbreak was first identified, it has been brought under control, but elsewhere it is spreading rapidly. In its wake the virus is transforming everyday life. The main way to fight it is self-isolation and social distancing. No longer can people socialise as they did. Grandparents cannot help look after their grandkids. The schools are shut. The supermarket shelves are often empty. Bars, clubs, restaurants and all social amenities are closed and will remain so possibly for many months.
The world is turned upside down and everyday life is changed in a way that nobody was expecting.
Swift action in China against the virus gave the rest of the world a breathing space. It gave other countries a few weeks in which to make preparations, but few heeded the warning signs. In the US and Europe, few if any were made by governments. Trump called the virus a hoax. He had already closed the White House pandemic office and last July had withdrawn the only US medical epidemiologist embedded in China’s disease control agency in Beijing. This was a “Chinese” virus and would not infect US citizens. But Europe, not China, is now the epicentre of the virus, and many thousands more will die here than there. In the USA itself there has been precious little testing and the disease is running rampant.
As governments flounder and struggle to stop the spread of the pandemic, ordinary people are coming together in self-help groups, in streets and on estates and throughout the community, to make sure the vulnerable and the elderly are not abandoned. In the UK, thousands of these groups sprang to life almost spontaneously. They are social solidarity in action and are taking some of the strain off local councils who have seen services decimated through central government cutbacks. This is not only heartwarming: it is a cause for hope and optimism.
Society is creaking under the weight of the tasks necessary to protect people in this outbreak. It is ill-prepared. The health service is poorly resourced and short of staff and basic equipment. The medical staff struggle to find protective masks. There are insufficient beds and not enough ventilators. The doctors will have to decide who lives and who dies. More morgues are being prepared. All this stems from years of austerity cutbacks which followed the bailout of the banks in 2008. Over that period there has been a massive transfer of wealth from working people to a small elite in society.
When the government says not to panic, few believe it. When the supermarkets say there is enough food for all, even fewer believe it. The supermarket shelves are emptying. The just-in-time food supply chain is fragile and could easily collapse.
The pandemic has detonated an enormous crisis. It is a crisis not just of health care but of the economy, of our political structures and of society as a whole. It is a global existential crisis of the entire system. It presents a real threat to the continuation of capitalism. Is this an exaggeration? Some argue that the old routines of society will return once a vaccine is found. People will go back to work, production will resume and things will pretty much return to “normal”.
Of course it is possible for the ruling class to recover its position, even from such a deep crisis. But is it also possible now to see an alternative path to a new kind of society? A struggle is now engaged over the future – can this rotten system be ended? For many years this has seemed an unattainable prospect for those on the left. But in the midst of this crisis, the possibility of fundamental social change is posed.
The virus has stripped the ideological mask away from society. Everything that was hidden is now illuminated for all to see. The pandemic unleashes the same social and political dynamic that the world wars did. It accelerates class divisions and class struggle and reveals the real relations of things in society. We can see clearly the social power of the working class. The bankers, the Richard Bransons, the hedge fund managers and the speculators are exposed as the drain on society that they actually are. They add nothing of value.
The real value in society is to be found in those who constitute the actual subject of production, that is in labour itself. It is an ideological sleight of hand that makes the capitalist rather than the worker appear as the motor of production. For those of us on the left, this is a truism that we learnt in our early time in the movement. But the change that the virus creates is that this now becomes apparent to all, as clear as day. Everyone now not only sees it, but they come out on their balconies and shout it, make a noise with pots and pans about it, and whatever else they have to hand. And in Edinburgh they sing it in the form of proclaimers’ songs dedicated to the “unsung heroes” of this crisis – the nurses, the doctors and all those who are keeping society going during this crisis.
Society as a whole recognises the truth: that it can dispense quite happily with the bankers, but nurses are essential. Even the ruling class understands this and sees its own impotence in the crisis. The virus illuminates this essential truth: that working people embody the common decency of humanity.
Millions of people now recognise the uselessness of this system and of those who rule us. “Don’t we need a new form of society? Why are things like this?” This goes beyond leftist propaganda and becomes the talk of everyday life. In the solidarity networks, these questions and these discussions are taking place. “What sort of society do we want?” And when the answer to that question is “not this one”, then something is in the air. A profound change in mass social consciousness is taking place.
The questions keep coming. Why are there no medical masks, no ventilators, no hand sanitizers? Where do we get these things? The answer is simple. Requisition the resources from the private health care system, instruct manufacturers to produce for human need. Society can be organised on radically different lines and serve the interests of the vast majority and not those of a small minority.
This is a potentially explosive situation in class relations. The economic compulsion on the backs of the working class is undermined. Everyone remembers Theresa May saying in the 2017 general election that there was no magic money tree to pay for an increase in nurses’ wages. Now it seems they have found a whole magic money forest to try and preserve their dominance.
So what will happen next? The ruling class senses the danger and is prepared to move quickly and to give ground in order to maintain class rule. They are trying various strategies to preserve their position. At the beginning Johnson and his chief adviser Cummings were both keen on the “herd immunity” strategy which proposed letting the virus rip through society. However, after a public outcry and the publication of a study by epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson and others from Imperial College which suggested the strategy could lead to the deaths of 250,000 in the UK and up to 1.2m in the US, “herd immunity” was shelved. The government withdrew it, declaring that it had never been its strategy in the first place.
The pandemic has driven the world economy into recession, to be followed by a slump outstripping the crises of both the 1930s and 2008. All the accumulated contradictions within the system that drove previous crises are once again brought to the surface in an even more powerful and destructive way. The measures taken to try and revive capitalist economies over the last ten years have built a massive burden of indebtedness into the system which now threatens its collapse. In its wake it reveals the fragility of all the existing political and social structures in society.
The Tories do not have a clear strategy to extricate themselves from this agglomeration of crises. A class truce is proposed by both the Tories and Labour to deal with a national emergency.The Tories are prepared to temporarily suspend some of their sectional interests. The Labour Party, deeply wounded by its election defeat, is keen to present itself as a loyal, constructive and responsible opposition.
Jeremy Corbyn, whom the Conservative Party attacked as a threat to the nation and as an “anti-semite”, now becomes an important elder statesman with whom one can work. You will hear little about the anti-semitism crisis in the Labour Party in the coming period. And Corbyn will be replaced by Keir Starmer, who is very much a politician that leading Tories believe they can do business with. Some argue that Starmer should be brought into a national unity government. They believe that they will need Labour’s help in order to survive this crisis.
This political truce has its dangers for both parties. Both risk being outflanked and surpassed as the catastrophe gathers pace. In this situation, the Labour Party is in a potentially powerful position, but doesn’t yet realise it – or more accurately, it wants to avoid the responsibilities that now rest on its shoulders. It welcomes being asked into the establishment’s inner circles and warns workers to accept and not go beyond what the Tories propose.
But the reality is that labour itself – the working class – is able at this point to exert its social, economic and political power. The Labour Party must represent the interests of the working class in this context. It must lead, because what we are seeing is a shift in the balance of class forces in society, a change that few of us could have imagined only a few weeks ago. Working people are becoming aware of their power and the possibility of uniting with others across borders.
There is a sense that something must really change and a recognition that society must not return to how things were before the pandemic. Another, better world will have to be made.