The realities of life under Covid-19 lockdown, whatever the specifics, are strange. Over the last two months or so, many of us will have seen empty shelves in supermarkets where once-familiar products like flour, eggs, soap and toilet roll are seemingly in short supply. Is this because there are not enough of these products being produced? Have the supply lines broken down, so that existing products aren’t reaching the shelves? Are customers buying these things in a panic, leading to temporary shortages? Are speculators buying them, to sell at a profit later?
The shortages people are experiencing have several causes. Businesses have been experiencing increased demand for some products and have not been able to restock as quickly as they have been selling supplies, but this in itself may have several causes. Certainly, consumers have been buying extra to ensure that they do not run out of necessary goods later. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction to the threat of uncertainty of supply – last year in the UK, the idea of a ‘Brexit cupboard’ was being promoted, because it was feared certain goods might be difficult to obtain as supply lines were disrupted. Now Covid-19 is disrupting supply lines, so stocking up is sensible.
These kinds of ‘rational’ hoarding practices, based on perhaps getting a month’s supply of some goods rather than a week’s supply for example, are only part of the picture. Bulk-buying with a view to making a profit is also happening. In a well-publicised case from Australia, a potential profiteer tried to return 150 litres of hand-wash and 4,800 toilet rolls to the supermarket where he had bought them, claiming that he no longer wanted them as his ebay site had been shut down to prevent profiteering.1 This represents perhaps 12 years of toilet roll and at least several years of hand sanitiser for an average household. With some people attempting to profit like this, it is hardly surprising that goods are running short in some places, but we should not be surprised. The essence of capitalism is profiting from the misery of others.
However, there are other causes of supplies running low. Since the 1980s, many businesses have changed their supply model from one where stock was held ‘just in case’ to one where deliveries are made ‘just in time’. The new model, seen first in Japan, was regarded as more efficient and therefore more cost-effective. In retail, it enabled shops to operate with smaller stockrooms. For some goods, particularly perishable produce like fresh vegetables, it can be seen as sensible – there’s no point having piles of goods that go off before you can sell them. However, with little stock kept in reserve, any disruption to supply means that goods rapidly become unavailable.
A further problem to supplies comes from the chain of operations involved in transport and packaging. Many goods, especially agricultural products, are collected from production centres in bulk and packaged off-site. Milk for example is collected in tankers to be treated and bottled in dairies often some distance from the farms. Again, economies of scale are used to justify centralisation of this process, and it’s true that few large plants have less idle time than many small plants – in normal circumstances. But disruptions to supply, such as a problem in having plastic bottles delivered, again cause the process to break down, leading to shortages in the shops.
Added to the lack of basic goods in shops, the dislocation of employment across the world as people have been laid off or had hours drastically cut has left households with greatly reduced income, which has in turn driven up the use of food-banks in many places. In the US, the National Guard has been mobilised to help distribute food, and queues of cars waiting to access food-banks have been making the news in various places, such as San Antonio, Texas.2
The problems caused by the pandemic worldwide highlight the already existing madness in the global market. Vital commodities including fruit, vegetables and other foods are transported enormous distances across the globe, destroying the environment and often being transported from, through or over areas of intense deprivation and starvation. For example, in 2018 vegetable, fruits and nuts priced at £123 million were exported from Kenya to UK.3 In the same year UNICEF reported4 that "In Kenya, 26 per cent of children under five years are stunted and 4 per cent suffer from wasting".
Also in 2018 £357 million worth of food arrived in UK from a bloc of countries in Central America.5 That bloc includes the very countries from where refugees have been forced northwards via Mexico towards the USA largely because of economic hardship. The problems for poorer countries are going to increase as a result of the pandemic. Meanwhile, capitalism is more concerned with markets than human needs.
However, when many people are effectively or actually unemployed, farmers in many places were worried about a labour shortage caused by travel restrictions. In March, UK farmers were reporting that it might be difficult to harvest spring crops6 , leading to the somewhat bizarre suggestion early in April that unemployed circus performers might be called in to help.7 In India, a bumper crop was by the end of March expected to rot in the fields8 because migrant workers necessary for the harvest were being sent home due to the lockdown – to face starvation because they could not be employed – while in the US in April, reports began to circulate that farmers were dumping produce including milk, potatoes and onions9 or even, in a spectacular demonstration of the futility of capitalism, giving away their produce to anyone who was able to collect it.10 In the UK, it was announced that the need for labour was so acute, firms were chartering planes to bring in Romanian fruit pickers in the middle of the lockdown.11
Whether the clowns were also able to help with the harvest was not revealed, but less than 10 weeks after the UK officially left the European Union this was a story that did not play well with those who thought that Brexit would mean ‘British Jobs for British Workers’. One of the reasons given for hiring Romanian fruit pickers was that British workers had rejected the jobs on offer, though given the number of different reasons offered as an explanation, from lack of training to not wanting to move to accommodation on the farm for months at a time, the more cynical observer might be forgiven for concluding that the bosses want a migrant workforce that could be more easily compelled to take the lowest wages and worst conditions on offer.12 Whatever the reason, blaming the working class for unemployment is hardly a new tactic: the Victorian divide between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor is alive and well and living in the hearts of liberal commentators.
The working class is not taking this quietly everywhere. Sporadic resistance is occurring. We have reported on strikes and other actions taken by the working class in response to the crisis over the last few months, beginning in Italy in in the middle of March13 to a brief world round-up later that month14 and a piece from our comrades in North America writing in Intransigence, which mentions several actions there both at work and outside, including widely-publicised rent strikes, which look likely to continue into May.15 Other positive actions which we have not been able to cover in detail have included simmering tensions in India, which is only beginning to suffer the effects of the virus but where the ruling BJP government has already been brutally responding to workers’ anger.16 In France in mid-April it was reported that workers had taken over a McDonalds restaurant to distribute food for free.17 In the last few days stories of workers striking in Mexico have begun to surface.18 It seems that workers at Amazon in the US have re-discovered the tactic of the ‘sick-out’, where instead of going on strike, a large number of people call in sick on the same day.19 Meanwhile in the UK it seems many people may be realising that the way society has been organised up to this point is by no means the optimum. In a recent poll, just 9% of UK workers want to go back to the pre-Covid situation.20 Perhaps more free time (even if travel is currently restricted), cleaner air and less traffic, more working from home and the end of the commute are positive and tangible benefits of the lockdown that people want to continue? There has been massive involvement in volunteer campaigns both for the NHS and local ‘mutual-aid’ groups. Even the now-ritualised clapping for the NHS, the placing of children’s drawings of rainbows and the perception that we have generally become a little friendlier, are perhaps signs that people are trying to find some relief from the extreme social atomisation that late capitalism encourages and the lockdowns have enforced. Having said this, some aspects of this understandable search for community are themselves in danger of being recuperated by the state, especially the campaigns around the NHS which are rapidly becoming part of a new national ideology.
All of the organisations that make up the ICT internationally have been putting forward the same message – we cannot return to normality, because the normality of the irrational and deranged capitalist system is the problem that we need to escape. Our recent graphic expressing that has been distributed in 16 languages. From cleaners, porters, nurses, doctors in hospitals, from food production workers, lorry drivers, shelf stackers, from butchers, bakers to candlestick makers, the pandemic has starkly exposed what communists have been saying since Marx himself: the capitalist system is wholly dependent on the working class. The ruling class and its apparatchiks are a parasitic threat to the world’s health and well-being and need to be overthrown. Only the organised working class has the power to do this, to end capitalism, and in that endeavour an internationally-co-ordinated political organisation is vital for the proletariat’s success. The ICT seeks to be part of that international co-ordination and calls on all those throughout the world who agree to join with us and work towards the destruction of this horrific system of idiocy and oppression.
SJ & KT