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Capitalism :: Economic crisis
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Boris Johnson's speech on 10 May was a watershed moment in the Covid-19 crisis. The moment when the already fraying 'national unity' was further exposed for the empty slogan it really is. Confidence in the government's handling of the crisis plummeted nine points in the week following the speech, and more people now oppose its strategy than approve of it.
The speech was met with incredulity by millions of people watching it on TV. How can it be OK to go back to work safely when hundreds are still dying every day? How can it be possible to safely open nurseries and primary schools when young children have no concept of social distancing and are potential spreaders of the virus?
Why do you have to socially distance when meeting members of your own family outside in the park, but not on the construction site or factory floor? How come nannies and cleaners can go into other people's homes to look after children and clean the house while family members or friends can't come to visit?
Those glaring contradictions, so jaw-droppingly obvious to everyone, are not just because Johnson is a bumbling idiot. They are the consequence of a catalogue of Tory policies and decisions, taken prior to and during the corona pandemic, based on what is most profitable for their big business bankrollers, not what is best for ordinary people.
This explains the desperate shortage of PPE, the poor quality of the PPE that has been made available, and the incompetence of its distribution. It is behind the fatal delay in locking down and implementing mass testing, leading to the highest death toll in Europe. Now the Tories find themselves in an impossible situation trying to square the circle.
Many people were prepared to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt when the pandemic first took hold. But trust and confidence in the government's handling of the crisis were already being eroded by the PPE and testing fiascos, and what effectively amounts to a massacre of elderly people in care homes. It is true that the NHS has not been overwhelmed, but care homes have been, and health and care workers have unnecessarily died.
The independent members of the alternative 'Sage' (the body which gives scientific advice to the government), have described the Tories' latest strategy as "dangerous" and said it will "inevitably" lead to local epidemics and further lockdowns. A second peak in infections and deaths could have a calamitous effect on both the NHS and the Tories' political support.
On the one hand the Tories want to satisfy the capitalist employers who they politically represent, and who are demanding the economy be reopened so they can resume profit making. But at the same time, Johnson and others in the cabinet are conscious of the enormous risk that a premature return to work - when the virus is not under control and mass testing is not in place - entails for the government and even their system.
Hence the tensions, contradictions, somersaults and contortions. They are in a bind of their own making and can find no clear way out on the basis of the capitalist profit system.
The Covid crisis has brought into stark relief the inequalities and inadequacies of that system. A democratic socialist planned economy would be able to match resources to need - producing and distributing quality and necessary PPE; integrating a fully-funded publicly owned system of health and social care; providing mass testing; coordinating and funding research on treatment and vaccines; guaranteeing a liveable income for those who are unable to work, and safeguarding the lives and wages of those who can.
The historically unprecedented economic crisis that is now unfolding, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic but prepared by debt, low investment and the unresolved repercussions of the last recession, will expose the system's failings in a way that will be just as dramatic, if not more so.
A capitalist exit from the Covid measures will inevitably mean redundancies, closures and mass unemployment. We will not emerge into a period of sustained global economic growth as took place from 1950-1973, which allowed the debt accumulated during the Second World War to be gradually reduced. Although it may not happen immediately, for fear of the economic, social and political consequences, at a certain stage a Covid bill will be presented to the working class, whether through tax increases, attacks on wages or cuts in public spending.
A socialist government would write off the public debt and carry out policies in the interest of the working class. To prevent economic sabotage by the markets and the capitalists it would introduce capital controls and nationalise the banks and financial institutions.
Public ownership and democratic workers' control of the main companies in the manufacturing, building, transport, service and finance sectors, would enable the economy to be democratically planned. Jobs could be saved and new ones created where required. Resources could be allocated based on need not profit, while ensuring that the environment is protected. An appeal would be made to workers internationally to take similar measures.
The capitalists fear that this crisis could damage confidence in their system at a level much greater than after 2007-08 - pushing people, especially the youth, to embrace socialist ideas. This dread has been expressed in the pages of their own press. A Financial Times (FT) editorial, for example, wrote that, "mismanaged economies that leave many people behind give fuel to left-wing populists, who see state intervention as a replacement for capitalism, not just a corrective".
The FT, like many sections of the capitalist class, is in favour of a certain level of state intervention as a "corrective" - a necessary evil to be temporarily endured in order to save the system as a whole. But the failings of the capitalist system are so embedded and so severe that this could only provide a short-term respite.
"They only care about profits" on the front page of the Socialist, Haringey, May 2020, photo North London SP (Click to enlarge)
At this critical juncture, a mass workers' party, if it existed, would seize the opportunity to vigorously defend the interests of the working class against the onslaught of both the virus and the economic crisis, explaining how a lasting solution will only be possible by fighting for socialism.
Instead, we have an opposition party led by Sir Keir Starmer and his appointed shadow ministers who are fulfilling their mission as a safe pair of hands for the capitalist class. So desperate are they to appeal to the establishment that they are not even prepared to say that workers should make use of their legal right to refuse to work in an unsafe working environment.
But the FT is right in one respect. The crisis is on such a scale that a combination of struggle and experience can push large sections of workers and young people to question the legitimacy of the capitalist system, and to explore the idea of a socialist alternative. This can be the case even in the absence of a mass working-class party.
But clearly, the building of such a party could rapidly speed up that process. Therefore, the necessity and means of doing so need to be discussed now in the trade unions, in community organisations and among young people and socialist activists.
The crisis has led to a heightened awareness of the potential strength of the trade unions. Even the Economist felt compelled to write about their "new relevance and influence" in an article entitled 'Trade unions are back'.
Understanding the need for collective support to safeguard health and safety in the face of the coronavirus, there has been an influx of tens of thousands of workers into the unions since the pandemic began. Nearly 10,000 joined the National Education Union just in the week following Johnson's announcement that school opening would be extended on 1 June. In some cases, new members are themselves immediately stepping forward to become union reps.
When the union leaders were going along with 'national unity' they were feted by Tory ministers as 'social partners'. Now that under pressure from their members they have been pushed into taking a stand on safety, especially in schools and on public transport in London, they have been vilified by an unholy alliance of Tories, Blairite ex-education ministers, and the right-wing capitalist press.
It is crucial that rank-and-file union members continue to organise to ensure that their leaders do not capitulate under the force of insults and criticism raining down on them from the establishment.
Those workers fighting today for health and safety in the workplaces could form the basis for transforming the trade unions into a militant force nationally - capable of resisting through coordinated national action the attacks which the bosses, and this and future capitalist governments, are likely to attempt to inflict on the working class. If those and other workers were to discuss standing candidates in future elections at a local and national level, that would mark an important step towards building political resistance and the mass workers' party that is needed.
The Covid crisis is leaving no aspect of life unscathed. How we organise now can have a crucial effect on what comes after.
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Article dated 20 May 2020
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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