Communist Work in a Covid Crisis: A Framework

Perspectives for the CWO as discussed in its AGM, November 2020

Submitted by Internationali… on February 10, 2021

A pandemic is a test for any mode of production. It is a particular test for a system mired in economic, political and social crisis. SARS-CoV-2 has thus found the capitalist system wanting. Not only were most countries across the world slow to respond to the swiftly spreading contagion, but the last few decades of cuts and negligence due to the chronic crisis of accumulation prepared the environmental and sanitary conditions for a pandemic that epidemiologists have long predicted.

The Crisis Preceded the Pandemic

Still, there remains the ironic fact that the Covid crisis has provided capitalism with a new grand alibi for its failings. As we indicated in the Perspectives we adopted in November 20191 , the entire global capitalist system, which has been at the end of a cycle of accumulation for almost half a century, was already heading for some new meltdown. And on top of this, episodes of popular resistance, if not outright class war across the planet, were on the increase as 2019 ended.2 Even during the pandemic the unprecedented unity of young black and white workers over the state murder of George Floyd and the many strikes across the world calling for better protection have demonstrated that the working class has not vanished from the historical scene. In many countries, from France to Australia, the ruling class is aware of the social danger as evidenced by steps to extend police powers and militarise police units.

So, even before all the expenditure (or issuing of money) by the world’s states to meet the pandemic, global debt was already three times global GDP. In 2019 it hit a new record of $255 trillion.3 By April 2020 it had reached 331% of global GDP.4 Thus across the leading capitalist economies debt has now reached levels “not seen since the Second World War”.5 And this is not just due to the pandemic. Between 2012 and 2016 global debt increased by $6 trillion but in the following 4 years (to September 2020) it increased by $52 trillion of which only $15 trillion has been added in the first 9 months of this year.6 It took the UK 40 years to pay off the bulk of its 1945 national debt. That was only possible thanks to two decades of the longest secular boom in capitalist history which was then followed by an inflationary surge which devalued much of that debt. Neither of these conditions are now in operation.

Does debt matter? It could to the 16% of global firms (including some banks) now considered zombies (up from 10% in November 2019). They exist only to pay the interest on their debt which never diminishes and only negative interest rates allow them to function at all. Any rise in interest rates would finish them off with all the consequences for jobs that would follow. Negative interest rates are themselves a reflection of an economy in which the low rate of profit means that profitable investment opportunities are scarce.

Another Failure of the System

Few capitalist states (and these are notable as exceptions) have understood how to handle a pandemic. The priorities of most governments have been to keep production and the economy going whatever the cost. This has only highlighted the inadequacy of the health care provision which exists after decades of cutbacks by governments of all parties. According to the Nuffield Trust, Britain had 480,000 beds when the NHS was formed in 1948. In 1987-8 it was still 299,000 (according to the Kings’ Fund) but in November this year the Guardian reported7 that this had fallen to 127,225 with one of the lowest levels of intensive care beds amongst the wealthier nations. The population has grown by 17 million in the same time period. No surprise then that fear of overwhelming these services has motivated more action than any concern to keep the death rate down.

It is not as if there were not plenty of exercises, studies and research which pointed to the inevitability of a pandemic (even one of the SARS type) but these were wilfully ignored by a ruling class already struggling with how to manage an economy in deep crisis. As we recently wrote in our broadsheet Aurora,

"Capitalism’s continuous plunder and destruction of the natural environment is forcing animals such as bats, rodents and other small creatures into our cities. They bring their diseases with them and pass them on to humans. We have no immunity to these new viruses and the result is epidemics like SARS, MERS and the present pandemic Covid-19. Capitalism is the real mother of the virus! The effects of Covid-19 have been devastating. By November more than 50 million people worldwide had been infected and officially 1.2 million had died. These figures are certainly a big underestimation. In addition the IMF estimates the pandemic will plunge 90 million more people into extreme poverty, which means being forced to survive on less than $1.90 per day." (Coronavirus - Axe Falls on the Working Class)

Historical precedents suggest that the immediate fallout from the pandemic will continue into 2022. The social and economic costs, not to mention the increase in mental ill-health, will be enormous and last longer.

We cannot predict the precise consequences of the pandemic (the efficacy and speed of deployment of the vaccines now on their way into production will determine that) and we don’t want to play the OECD/IMF/World Bank/etc. game of issuing predictions for growth (or the lack of it) which have to be revised every week. Currently they are saying that the global economy will contract by 4.4% but China’s will record overall growth of over 3%. What we do know is that the consequences for the working class are already dire and are going to get worse.

They Will Try to Make the Working Class Pay

After a decade of austerity to pay for the bursting of the speculative bubble in 2008 the situation of many workers around the world was precarious in more than one sense. Obviously the Covid-19 pandemic has affected employment levels and working conditions even more. According to the OECD,

"… millions of people have been unable to go to work, resulting in an exceptionally stark drop in activity and unprecedented job losses. Up to 10 times fewer hours were worked in some countries, compared with the first few first months of the 2008 financial crisis. More than 25m people in the euro area and the US are officially unemployed, according to figures published at the end of September. But economists say the true number of people who have lost work because of the pandemic is far higher, after taking account of those whose jobs are temporarily protected by state- subsidised furlough schemes, those who have dropped out of the labour force and those who cannot work as many hours a week as they would like."8

The UK economy has contracted more than other major advanced economies. In the second quarter the UK economy shrank more than twice as rapidly as the US and Germany and was the biggest contraction since ONS records began. In the UK, under Sunak’s furlough scheme, workers have had several months where they have either received only benefits or 80% of their wages when they were already struggling to pay their bills on 100% of the wages they had. This, and the fact that UK sick pay is “currently one of the poorest in the OECD”,9 means that many have been forced to work when showing symptoms. The government has now reluctantly extended the scheme into next year but for many it will not be enough. It is likely that even after the pandemic ends millions of jobs in hospitality, retail and the motor industry will simply vanish.10

Meanwhile, redundancies have already risen at a proverbial “record rate”. The figures, released in October by the ONS, apply to the 3 months up to August.

"...the number of redundancies increased by 114,000 on the quarter, the biggest jump since such statistics were first published in 1995, while the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits rose to 2.7m — more than double the level in March, before the coronavirus lockdown. The unemployment rate rose to 4.5 per cent, up from 4.1 per cent in the previous quarter and 3.9 per cent a year earlier. This was driven by a fall in male self-employment."11

For 18-24 year olds the rate is over 16%. This is not likely to be reversed (and is more likely to get worse) so the working class will thus be further divided up between those who are unemployed, those with “secure” jobs and those working for agencies on zero hour contracts, etc. Those in “secure” jobs will be under pressure to accept a decline in living conditions from the fear factor of falling into the even worse position of the other two conditions. The problem for the precarious (as comrades found in the Deliveroo strikes last year)12 is how to come together effectively. Meanwhile, mass unemployment has never been a good basis from which workers could fight.

Students are also now having to fight. They have been notable victims of the attempt to keep the economy going come what may. Told to go back to university in order to get in further debt to keep their landlords (the universities) afloat, they have found themselves experiencing conditions of confinement that convicted felons would not accept. Small wonder there are protests from Bristol and Glasgow to Manchester and London.

In short, the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already discernible to us in our perspectives document of 2019 cited at the start of these points. The fundamental issue of the need for capitalism to devalue a sufficient mass of capital to allow a new cycle of profitable accumulation to begin has not been resolved. Instead, state intervention (one of the great features of the decay of the system) has avoided the massive crash that is required. The Schumpeterian moment of “creative destruction” (in Marxist terms, the usual devaluation at the end of a cycle of accumulation) has not happened. Policies such as Quantitative Easing have been applied to avert systemic failure after it was discovered the financial sector was “too big to fail” in 2008. Now as a Financial Times editorial recently, and rather obviously, recognised,

"with the state cushioning the economic blow of the pandemic in most countries, the public realm has seldom been so important… and they go on to call for the state to once again save capitalism. … the best case for state intervention has not been to abolish the market, but to preserve public support for it. An unchecked capitalism would not survive the electorate’s judgment. Sure enough, there have been times since the 2008 crash when popular resentment of inequality, especially among the young, has threatened to spill over into demands for total systemic change. If implemented, Bidenomics (i.e. taxes on big companies and the rich – CWO) would make life more burdensome for business and for high-earners. But it might also avert a larger reckoning further down the line."13

Could there be a clearer expression of the failure of the system? No defence of any of its supposed merits – just keep it going on behalf of the profits system. This will not revive accumulation but condemn the global system, where corporate debt is already a record 102% of world GDP,14 to continuing the same “secular stagnation” we identified in previous perspectives documents.

In the UK there is also the added problem of Brexit. Even its fans accept it will lead to a decline in economic growth in the short term (anything from 0.3 to 5% in 2021 depending on the pundit). The current government appears more than usually incompetent since it has arrived in power because the British ruling class (like so many others around the world) have no solution to the economic stagnation of the system. Thus the fantasy that Brexit will stimulate the economy, once Britain shakes off an EU that was holding it back, was born. It was partly the fear of what the pandemic would do to the plans for Brexit that induced the Johnson government to pretend that “herd immunity” could be established rather than prepare for the cataclysm to come. And when it did come they have handed over billions for the task of tackling the issues like PPE, making masks and track and trace to private consultants who have no health experience, but do have personal connections, or make donations, to the Tory Party. The corruption, waste and incompetence has led to millions of PPE items being thrown away as unfit for purpose, although the government was a lot better at supplying “Do Not Resuscitate” Notices to care homes! Now at the last minute they have forged a damage limitation deal with the EU. It has been greeted by relief by most British capitalists since a no deal exit would have been even worse. As it stands, Brexit is a massive own goal for UK capital and its consequences are still dreaded by most business organisations. As the economy stalls in 2021 the pandemic will give the Little England brigade a face-saving excuse.

Imperialist Rivalry

Under lockdown time for many seems to drag, but history never stands still, even in pandemics and it certainly has not been standing still on the imperialist front. Imperialist tensions have been increasing rapidly throughout the pandemic with ongoing wars and minor skirmishes (India/China, Syria, Yemen), military threats (Taiwan) and new upsurges in military violence (Nagorno-Karabakh, Tigray). What is becoming apparent though is the acceleration of the creation of blocs with the Shanghai Cooperation Council (which brings together China, Russia and Iran with the likes of Pakistan)15 beginning to take on a military dimension for the first time and the US actively trying to build an anti-China bloc around the “defence of democracy” with countries like the UK and Australia. US hegemony continues to be challenged even though it remains comfortably the world’s strongest power and, like the British with sterling in the past, it is far from ready to relinquish defending the dollar’s role as the global currency. Nevertheless China’s imperialist march continues, both through “soft power” in Africa and outright aggression in Asia. The recent issue of a government bond in renminbi for the first time turned out to be another minor triumph for Beijing as it was heavily oversubscribed. China’s influence has also increased with the 15 November signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with 14 other Pacific and Asian countries, including US allies, Australia and Japan.

The capitalist powers do not go to war on a whim and only do so when they see that they can destroy “the other’s” capital at the minimum of cost or when they feel that all the other options have been ruled out. For the moment proxy wars, and largely unseen cyberwars are the substitute, but these too pose their dangers. Aside from the possibility of China miscalculating the significance of the (very real) divisions inside the US ruling class, China itself, despite its continued (albeit slowing) growth, is not without its problems. The much vaunted “Belt and Road” initiative which envisaged a $1 trillion investment (seven times bigger than the US Marshall Plan in the 1940s) in infrastructure across Eurasia is now in trouble. China’s state banks were lending $75 billion to client states in 2016. This had fallen to a mere $4 billion in 2019. States like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Malaysia are in discussions to defer debt payments whilst China was sucked into Venezuela’s economic meltdown having lent it $60 billion of the $150 of debt it has now defaulted on.16 Both imperialist giants have serious problems at home and abroad but the ruling elites in both are united in recognising the danger posed by the other. Expect nationalist ideology in all sorts of forms to be racked up from the usual demonisation of “the other” to competition to acquire the vaccine first and blame the rival powers for causing the pandemic. These will be part of the preparations for generalised war.

Environmental Crisis

And in the longer (but ever shorter) term, the environmental crisis has not gone away. Despite some initial lowering of emissions in the light of the collapse of air flights and people working from home/going out less, the increased energy use of the internet has meant that any gains have been nullified. 2020 has gone down as the hottest year on record. The Covid crisis is promoting all kinds of ideas about new ways of working and a Green New Deal but they still don’t grasp the essence of the problem which is that the drive for profits and constant growth is at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. No meaningful changes that could curb climate change can be achieved under capitalism. This is borne out by Johnson’s green energy investment plan of £12 billion pounds which already compares feebly with the £12 billion17 they have wasted on a test and trace programme that has not been fit for purpose. It pales into insignificance when at least a third and possibly two thirds of the promised investment turns out not to be new money. Political hot air will not save a heating planet. If the planet’s ecosystems as we know them — along with any semblance of human civilisation — are to survive, the working class of all countries must overthrow the planet-killing capitalist regimes and establish a world society based on the production for human need instead of profit. For humanity the threats remain all out imperialist war in the short term and ecological disaster in the longer term.

Humanity’s Last Hope – the World Working Class

The only hope for humanity remains the collective struggle of the world working class. At the end of 2019 there were already signs that after 4 decades of retreat it was beginning to rediscover itself in strikes and demonstrations from Latin America to the Levant as we outlined a year ago.18 In these low and middle ranking or so-called “emerging” economies, from the likes of Zimbabwe to Turkey and Argentina, which have borrowed heavily in dollars but generate the bulk of the income used for interest and maturity payments in currencies that depreciate relative to the dollar, inflation will grow. It is the same for those states like Iran which don’t have access to dollar loans. Starved of credit they resort to the printing press as well. Whatever the reason, the resulting inflations will add to economic collapse and life will become even more unbearable and millions around the world will face real starvation. The Covid crisis brought the 2019 resistance to a halt but since then we have seen literally hundreds, if not thousands, of strikes right across the planet both on the theme of “we won’t die for your profits” and against wage cuts. As the emergency measures to combat Covid are phased out many workers are already finding out that we are not “all in it together” and that they will be asked to pay the price either in unemployment or lower wages. There are currently strikes going on around the world, many led by migrant workers who have not been paid in months. Closer to home we are already seeing Heathrow workers having their contracts terminated with the “offer” that they can re-sign for work on worse pay and conditions. They are on strike as we write but this is a very modest legal protest which as long as it is controlled by the union has no chance of victory. Workers will have to take struggles into their own hands if they are to minimally defend themselves, but ultimately what is needed is a global revolt against the capitalist system.

We are not talking here of the “revolts” in some European countries of the petty bourgeoisie, shopkeepers, etc., against the lockdowns. Aided by the ultra-right and neo-fascist groups (and in Italy even the Mafia – you cannot make a dishonest buck if there is nothing to extort!) the Covid-denying petty bourgeoisie have only a reactionary, racist and regressive agenda which would be more than enough to make workers lives a misery. The working class agenda is entirely different. But here sectional responses based on this or that firm or union will not be enough. The crying need is for workers to come together in a wider organisation which goes beyond the present resistance against the attempts to make us pay yet again for the failures of the system. The capitalists are already aware of a coming backlash. It is not just in China, Russia or Iran that the state is giving itself increased powers. The French government, for example, tried to make it illegal to film the police doing their dirty work (no more George Floyds?) whilst in other countries like Australia the police are being militarised in preparation for what they expect to be a new phase in the class war. The key question is not whether new social convulsions will arrive but about how well prepared the working class is to meet all the flak that the system will throw at us.

Already many young people are coming to recognise that this system increasingly offers humanity no future. Some are coming to the Communist Left and the ICT has never enjoyed such growth as it is now experiencing. This is a matter of some encouragement after such a long period of class retreat, yet it is only a small beginning, and presents us with enormous challenges. The first of these is to make clear what the struggle for communism is really about. Briefly, this has to include more than the habitual work of exposing the various false friends who emerged from the failure of the last revolutionary wave, i.e. those who defend one or other form of state capitalism (here we think first of so-called Marxist-Leninists – Stalinists, Maoists – as well as Trotskyists who cling to the idea that the USSR was somehow still worth defending). There are also those “left communists” principally inhabiting social media who have not grasped that the struggle against capitalism is not simply about an individual discovering the truth and then holding to a certain position. The way forward has to be made in the real world by a flesh and blood working class. It is the role of revolutionary militants to organise and argue for how that is to be done. Capitalism may provide the contradictions which make life unbearable but socialism will not arise automatically within capitalism. It has to be a conscious act of the one class which is capable of ridding itself of “the muck of ages” in a revolution against the current system and its mores. And, given that consciousness arises unevenly in the working class: now here, now there and over historical time, the only way that consciousness can be retained is via an international revolutionary organisation which defends all that we have politically learned as a class in our various struggles against capital in all its forms. We call it the communist programme. This is not fixed or invariant, much less the product of one or two ‘great minds’, but is built on every experience, both positive and negative, of working class struggle across the planet.

We never cease to repeat that the Internationalist Communist Tendency makes no claims to be the future world party but we do intend to be part of the process of creating it. We are well aware that many self-proclaimed “left communists” do not share our understanding that the existence of an international political organisation is a necessary though not sufficient condition for the success of the future world revolution. We understand their hesitation, given the fact that the Russian Revolution, in its isolation, gave birth to a state capitalist and not a socialist regime. In the end this led to the most bestial of totalitarian dictatorships under Stalin. The fact that the same party that led the onslaught of the working class on the capitalist state also ended up ruling in place of the working class is a lesson indelibly etched on all our minds. Nevertheless, the lesson is not that “all political parties are bourgeois” but that the working class itself must run society through its historically-discovered class-wide organs. The party can guide the class in the anti-capitalist revolution but the social transformation can only be carried out by the class as a whole. “The class does not give away its power to anyone, not even its class party”.19 After all, socialism is not just about a new distribution of wealth but about an entirely different society where the self-activity of its members replaces the passive acceptance of state bureaucracy. But, to get to that point the working class has to organise itself as the revolutionary antithesis and in this the role of the party is indispensable. To argue otherwise is to throw the communist baby out with the counter-revolutionary bathwater.

Even so, the task of communists does not stop with arguing the case for communism. It must also involve participating in all the struggles of the class to widen the base of the organisation and learn with other workers as we move into a new period of history, a history which we have yet to write. Without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary practice but without that practice there is no test of the theory’s validity. Whilst avoiding the excesses of headless chicken activism, communists participate in the struggles of the class not to put forward this or that demand but to link the immediate struggle with the future communist society – the only real victory that the working class will ever win for itself. Our aim has to be to win over more to our ranks in order to widen that work and thus create the basis for the future international as a key tool of proletarian emancipation.

December 2020