A trade unionist in Edinburgh recently commented on the new challenges of union organising, saying that in COVID times a few days are like several months. This is very apt. Whilst out in the streets things are eerily quiet, inside, in the houses and the key workplaces we’re going through a huge and irreversible change in consciousness.
Issue 33 Editorial by Ross Walker, IMT Edinburgh
As this is being written, Boris Johnson is recovering from the virus. However over 15,000 have been less fortunate and epidemic models are predicting the death rate to reach over 66,000. This figure, higher than other countries of similar size and infrastructure, is widely agreed to be down to the government’s failure to organise the mass testing required to minimise the outbreak, or to mobilise supplies of personal protective equipment and life saving ventilators, for the three or more weeks during which they knew the pandemic was coming our way.
Across the Atlantic, Trump has handled it even more callously and ineptly than the UK government. The private healthcare system and extreme inequality will leave the US tragically vulnerable, but will also cause mass anger and a lot of problems for the Whitehouse.
The crisis has also revealed the reactionary role of the nation state under capitalism. Scandalously, countries have been competing with each other to develop a vaccine in order to protect the profits of their national ruling class and to gain power and influence over other nations. The so-called unity of the European Union is coming under much more scrutiny after its neglectful treatment of Spain and Italy.
The most tragic aspect of the epidemic is how it will reveal the vicious nature of imperialism. The masses in Latin America, Africa and Asia are far more vulnerable than in the West. The idea of social distancing in shanty towns and slums is a fiction and health infrastructure is a shadow of what it is in North America and Europe. We’re also yet to see the peak of the effects in war torn countries such as Syria, Somalia and Palestine.
Already, the working class have been taking action and leading the fight against the virus, forcing governments to take measures. In Wuhan, where the virus originated, the quarantine was originally enforced by spontaneous initiatives led by the local population who set up checkpoints and roadblocks. In Iran, similar initiatives were used to quarantine whole towns. There have been strikes against non-essential work and insufficient safety measures in workplaces in Italy, Spain, the USA, the UK and elsewhere. In Chile, the trade unions threatened a General Strike unless a lockdown was enforced and in India workers have been leading the struggle to regularise sanitation work.
The capitalist class on the other hand, have been a fundamental obstacle in the fight against the virus. CEOs of supermarkets, postal companies and other key workplaces have been raking it in whilst failing to provide decent safety provision for their staff, resulting in dozens of deaths in the UK and wildcat walkouts including at Royal Mail in Alloa. At the same time, many non-essential businesses have been trying to stay open and force their workers to risk their lives, threatening them with withholding pay if they don’t.
The bosses are revealing themselves to be worse than useless in this situation. Billionaires such as Richard Branson and Tim Martin have been shamed for leaving their workers in the lurch. Businesses that are closing down are often sacking workers or refusing to pay them whilst bosses live very comfortably off their reserves and assets and a new range of government bailouts. The government’s furlough scheme may have saved some jobs, but nowhere near enough. Over a million have applied for universal credit and this number will increase rapidly over the next months. Unemployment will hit record levels. To top it off, landlords, despite getting breaks on their mortgage payments, are continuing to charge rent.
At the same time, a new found respect has been discovered for workers formerly termed “low skilled” (read low waged), such as cleaners, refuse workers, delivery drivers, and caterers. Every Thursday at 8pm the country stops to clap the NHS staff. People are becoming very aware that it’s the working class as opposed to the bosses who are leading us out of this crisis. In other words, people are becoming class conscious.
However mass class consciousness never develops in a pure form. A mood of patriotism has also grown throughout the country as people naturally look to the government to guide us out of this crisis. The Queen’s speech was received well even by people who are normally skeptical of the monarchy and Johnson’s approval ratings have gone up.
People haven’t forgotten that it was Tory austerity measures that left the NHS and other essential public services grossly under prepared for the pandemic, nor have they missed the criminally slow response to the crisis. Instead, many are simply willing to put this to the side for now in order to get out this nightmare. However, this patriotism will turn on its head when the real results of their callousness reflects itself in the death of people’s loved ones.
Most union leaders have been painfully slow, failing to adapt organisationally to the new situation and often sowing illusions in the government’s completely inadequate measures. They should be working together, putting time, money and activists, into campaigns to shut all non-essential workplaces, prevent sackings and to unionise the unemployed and currently non-unionised workers. If a company is threatening sackings the unions must demand that they open all their books and show us why they can’t afford to keep people on. If they really are skint, they’ve proven themselves to be useless and the demand must be for their assets and profits to be taken into public control and run by the workers themselves. In this current situation, such campaigns would be very popular.
Nicola Sturgeon, always a streetsmart politician, has been a step ahead of Boris Johnson. Holyrood took measures to ban mass gatherings, close schools and close construction sites quicker than at Westminster. This will likely gain her more popularity. Independence is certainly not on the table for now but when the pandemic-fuelled British patriotism is over, the Westminster establishment will lose popularity, and the question will raise its head again.
However it’s not all plain sailing for Sturgeon and the SNP. The scandalous result of Alex Salmond’s trial has highlighted factions within a party known for its unity. On top of this, Glasgow City Council leader Susan Aitken narrowly saw off an internal challenge for her leadership.
However, the SNP’s biggest ticking time bomb is the Growth Commision, the ardently pro-capitalist model for an independent Scotland drafted by SNP bureaucrats and Edinburgh financiers. This free market model was already unpopular with SNP members and the wider independence movement and will be almost impossible to defend to a population who’ve just seen the disastrous effects of austerity and the ‘free market’. This could open up a shift to the left within the independence movement and provoke divisions within the SNPs mass membership.
Many class conscious workers and youth have reacted to Labour’s appointment of Keir Starmer as leader with disappointment, particularly south of the border where the Corbyn movement took on a mass character. Many think Starmer’s victory would be a return to the Milliband days. However we’re entering very different times.
Within a week of his election, a shocking 850 page report into the internal sabotage carried out against Corbyn was leaked. It proved, amongst many other things, that the party bureaucracy was working to ensure its own loss in the 2017 general election. This has enraged much of the party’s rank and file who are determined to see justice and haven’t given up the struggle to turn the party towards socialism.
Starmer’s moderate and bland politics and style may have benefited him in conditions of post election demoralisation, but it will not resonate with working class communities that have bared the brunt of this crisis and will be angrily looking for answers.
This lockdown is the eye of the storm. Forecasts predict a deeper crisis than that of 2008 with a 35% decline in production and at least 2 million job losses. However unlike in 2008, class consciousness and anger will be at a much higher level and this is something that the liberals and reformists leading the Labour party, independence movement and unions are currently not ready for. They will either be forced to reflect the needs of the working class or will be replaced with leaders who do.
This pandemic is toughening people up and showing that solidarity is the way forward. All over, volunteer networks have been set up to help the most vulnerable. People are learning organisational skills that will be of huge value in the upcoming class struggles. At the same time socialist policies such as a fully publicly-owned health service under workers’ control and management, the abolition of private healthcare and nationalisation of the pharmaceutical companies without compensation, will rapidly increase in popularity
At Revolution Scotland, we call for an immediate reversal of the austerity inflicted upon public services and a fully-funded training programme for doctors, nurses, paramedics, medical staff, with decent pay and hours, to increase staffing levels across the board. New hospitals must be urgently built. Where necessary, hotels and mansions should be requisitioned and converted to care homes, sanatoriums, shelters for the homeless and refuges for victims of domestic violence exacerbated by this lockdown. The big supermarkets and pharmacies must be nationalised and put under workers’ control.
The financial resources for this must come through the nationalisation of the banks, finance services and monopolies. Big businesses are sitting on combined cash reserves of over £700 billion – accumulated profits made from the exploitation of the working class. The upcoming unemployment increase could be dealt with by sharing out work without any loss of pay, lowering the hours of the working day. This would also free up more time for workers to take part in democratic workers’ control of their workplaces and wider society, which is necessary for socialism to be built.
We’ll come out of this pandemic in a very different world with a very different attitude. Despite patriotism being spurred on by our governments and media, the international nature of this crisis is without precedent. Workers of the world are collectively experiencing this and will form a bond which will be invaluable in the fight against the world capitalist system that caused this.
It’s no wonder that the ideas of Marxism are gaining ground faster than at any point in the 21st century, with record numbers of people across the world contacting the International Marxist Tendency. Our ideas are more relevant than ever. If you agree with them, get in contact and join. We have a world to win.