In the UK, the coronavirus crisis has brutally exposed the significance of the endless cuts to the NHS as well as the incompetence of the Johnson government. From failure to organise protective equipment for medical staff to the catastrophic decision to return elderly COVID-19 patients to care-homes, the shambles of the bespoke track-and-trace scheme and shipwreck of the scheme to re-open schools in England, the government has lurched from fiasco to debacle.
When they finally stopped prevaricating over lockdown, the message was that “we are all in this together”. Then, with families broken up and unable to visit elderly or dying relatives, attend funerals or comfort bereaved loved ones, be at the births of children, hold or attend weddings or visit partners, in a series of demonstrations that there is one law for "us" and one for "them", there was a string of high-profile breaches of the lockdown regulations by government advisors or even family — Stanley Johnson, the Prime Minister’s father, visited his new grandson; Dominic Cummings took his family to visit his parents … and so on and so forth.
Though it can’t be accused of having a coherent or explicable plan behind the measures taken, the government was forced to throw a massive amount of money at the problem. Even towards the end of July, there are still 9 million people on the government’s furlough scheme, being paid 80% of their basic wage not to work. This is approximately the same number of people that went on strike during the general strike in France in May 1968. The cost of the furlough scheme, which is running at £14 billion a month, looks massive, but in context, the government has already given more than £40 billion in loans to companies to help them retain staff and re-open when the lockdown ends. The UK is certainly in crisis. None of the problems of British — or world — capitalism have gone away. 650,000 jobs have already been lost. Even so, the Financial Times estimates there will be 23,700 company insolvencies this year alone and a further 31,500 in 2021. Meanwhile the government’s "Debt Management Office" is planning to issue a record £533bn of debt to “finance the pandemic response”.
These kinds of payments can be made in the short term but will have to be paid for in the long term. And we know who will be expected to pay! Capitalism cannot survive without increasing the exploitation of the working class, creating unemployment and reducing real wages. It is perhaps a measure of how desperate the ruling class is that it is prepared to spend so lavishly now in an attempt to save the system.
The COVID crisis however is merely an excuse, a mask for the real problem which is the ongoing crisis of capitalism.
The Johnson administration was elected to ‘get Brexit done’ and though officially the UK left the EU on 31st January, negotiations have stalled. Britain looks increasingly isolated diplomatically and is now forced to bow to American pressure, for example over the involvement of Huawei in the 5G network. This has increased tensions with China over Hong Kong and obliged the UK to make noises about human rights abuses of the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. At the same time, Russian penetration of UK institutions have gone beyond claims about Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 election. Both at home and abroad, British imperialism is weak and vulnerable.
For the Working Class, There is Another Way
So far, during this period of crisis for the British state, some workers have been moved to resist. There were walkouts at the beginning of the pandemic on some construction sites in protest against poor health and safety practices; there was some action in hospitals against failures to supply PPE; some transport workers were able to force employers (including Transport for London) to fit screens to protect both drivers and passengers; the government’s scheme for a phased re-opening of primary schools (primarily, a way of getting parents back to work) was brought to nothing in a week, as teachers and parents forced unions, then councils, then central government itself, to abandon the plan. In Tower Hamlets, East London, council workers have been striking over new contracts. If the government’s recent announcement of above-average pay-rises to public-sector workers is an attempt to head off further anger, then it has failed. Health workers who were excluded from this deal are already preparing to protest.
But at the moment it isn’t enough. Until workers come together across boundaries of workplace and sector to fight for their collective interests, the capitalists will be able to buy off or crush the partial struggles that arise. The task of communists in the struggles ahead is always to point out the common interests of the class and seek to unite these struggles so that the working class can ultimately challenge the whole capitalist order — though perhaps capitalist disorder is a more apt term.
The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 52) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.