The spread of COVID-19 to the United States earlier this year both triggered and exacerbated the economic crisis which has been building up for decades. Around 50 million workers in America have been thrown out of work since the start of the lockdown, the great majority of whom have no alternative source of income for the necessities of life.
A meagre $1200 “stimulus cheque” was issued by the federal government in March – this, at a time when the average rental price of a flat is over $1400 per month, and the average mortgage payment is around $1500 per month. Slowly but surely, as savings and credit have dried up, non-repayment rates have risen, and by July just under one third of Americans were failing to meet their housing payments in full. The spectre of homelessness (which had already risen by over 140% in the decade preceding the pandemic) now looms over the heads of many American workers.
Thus, for instance, evictions in the city of Milwaukee are up by 37%, and by May the homeless population of San Francisco’s “tent cities” had already tripled in comparison to its pre-lockdown level. Life in such conditions is hardly conducive to social distancing, and homeless shelters, like care homes and prisons, have been ravaged by COVID. Coronavirus mortality amongst residents of homeless shelters in New York is 61% higher than the city’s average. At a single homeless shelter in California, over 90 residents were found to have contracted the virus. In Las Vegas, the homeless were initially “sheltered” in the open air of a parking lot in the shadow of several vacant casino-hotels.
We can see that the working class has been presented with the following “choice”: return to work, enrich your masters, and maintain the roof over your head, at the risk of a slow and painful death in a hospital bed that you probably cannot afford to occupy; or don’t return to work, join the growing ranks of the homeless and itinerant, and in so doing make yourself even more likely to contract the coronavirus and die. Damned if you do, twice damned if you don’t – and that’s if the police don’t get their hands on you first.
On May 25th, four armed agents of the American state crushed a man to death as he cried out for his late mother. Police killings of black people – particularly black men – are not uncommon occurrences, but the casually brutal and arbitrary nature of George Floyd’s murder was particularly outrageous. What followed was a wave of riots, demonstrations, and protests against police violence on a scale unknown to America since the 1960s.
Faced with such a crisis, the capitalist class and their state have two tools at their disposal: repression and recuperation. Whilst using one hand to brutally suppress any riots which pose a threat to its bottom line of investments, the capitalist class uses its other hand to draft heartfelt statements in support of “black lives”. Since the unrest began, police forces across America have murdered dozens of people in the name of “law and order” – a thinly veiled euphemism for capitalist property relations, the same property relations that the police were enforcing when they murdered George Floyd over a $20 note. At the same time, the chief executives of Citibank, Nike, JPMorgan Chase, and Walmart are all quite happy to release saccharine statements (or perform similarly asinine gestures such as “taking a knee”) whilst consigning untold millions of people of colour all over the world to lives of unmitigated drudgery in the name of capital accumulation. They do so whilst perfectly secure in the knowledge that their investments both at home and abroad are protected by a colossal militarised security state. It is for this reason that the call for “police abolition” can only ever be a utopian and unrealisable demand within a capitalist society. So long as the objective basis for policing continues to exist – and such a basis will necessarily exist so long as there are relations of private property to enforce and maintain – the police itself cannot be abolished. Abolishing the police requires the abolition of capitalism.
The Working Class
Through all of this, our class has not been dormant. Besides the cross-racial solidarity demonstrated in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the past few months have seen significant working class resistance. Much of this has been without – and indeed against – the established labour movement and the unions, particularly the monolithic AFL–CIO which has once again demonstrated its true class allegiance by standing firmly beside the police unions. But so long as these protests and strikes remain unconnected and directionless, the twin strategies of repression and recuperation will continue to be effective. Only when the working class acts in full solidarity across racial lines as a class will it be able to move forward to secure its own means of existence, whether from the ravages of disease, unemployment, and homelessness on one flank, or from the brutally racialised enforcement of the private property regime on the other.
The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 52) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.