This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
All that seemed solid now seems to be melting. This is the effect of the coronavirus crisis. The governing Tories in the UK cut – but now they spend. They privatised – but now they nationalise.
Many are asking – is this the end of capitalism as we know it? Is this socialism? No – but it definitely starts to show what’s possible.
When forced to recognise the level of the crisis, governments around the world have had to abandon their neoliberal ‘hands-off’, ‘letting the market decide’ policies, in favour of state intervention and spending – something akin to wartime.
In the US, President Donald Trump has even invoked the Defense Production Act, which grants presidents powers to force industry to produce critical equipment. But so far he has said he will not use it.
One pro-capitalist columnist wrote in the Telegraph: “To avert socialism, we must briefly become socialists. We must spend whatever it takes to save free-market liberalism.”
That’s why the pro-capitalist economists, politicians and commentators who attacked Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity programme have mainly applauded the unprecedented actions of Tory prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak.
These measures will raise many questions for the billions who have been suffering poverty, hunger and insecurity. Why can’t governments act in our interests in normal times?
Why, if billions of pounds can be found now to pay some wages and increase benefits, was money not available when we were struggling – and dying – as a result of austerity? Why should these measures only be implemented ‘briefly’ to save capitalism and not to save society?
The Italian government has nationalised the country’s main airline. The Spanish government nationalised private healthcare. President Emmanuel Macron, who has spent his time in office attacking the gains won by the French working class, now says he is prepared to nationalise French companies. In China, government direction increased daily mask production almost six times to 116 million.
In Britain, the railways have effectively been nationalised, at least temporarily, after the government suspended rail franchise agreements to avoid train companies collapsing because of the coronavirus. A few months ago we were told by Tories and Blairites alike that it was policies like rail nationalisation that made Corbyn unfit for government.
Similarly, EU state aid rules, which we were told would confound even Corbyn’s limited nationalisation programme, are being overruled. The European Commission has approved a €50 million Italian aid scheme to support the production and supply of medical devices. With their system threatened by this crisis, the capitalist class is prepared to mobilise everything to try to prop it up.
The NHS has access to 8,175 ventilators, with an estimated 30,000 needed as the virus spreads. The government has ‘asked’ private industry to convert production. Workers facing the sack because of factory closures will ask – why can’t production be re-purposed for socially useful products and to maintain jobs and skills for society?
The capitalist lie goes that without market competition there won’t be ingenuity. But the crisis is revealing the opposite – that it is those who wish to solve society’s problems who are leading, like the doctors who are working out how to make a single ventilator serve multiple patients, not those carefully considering their bottom line.
Reuters describes ventilator production as a billion-dollar “global market”. Capitalist production itself is a challenge to rapid ventilator manufacture.
“We need a plan”
A US doctor writing in the New York Times points to the problems of capitalist production and distribution – “we need a plan” based on collaboration and cooperation. You can’t organise production and distribution for need while big business is putting its own profits first.
Private health facilities in Britain are being mobilised for the crisis. This includes 1,200 ventilators and thousands of workers. But this must be on the basis of social need – not maintaining shareholder profits at a time of uncertainty.
These government measures do not involve the organised working class. Everywhere it is workers who give the lead on demanding safety measures, not big business bosses who put profits and shareholders first. Workers know what is needed by society, and what is possible from themselves and their equipment.
Speaking for big business, a Financial Times editorial says: “For the country to recover from this crisis, companies will need to be able to rely on their workers to help the economy restart.” But workers will ask, why should we help restart an economy based fundamentally on the exploitation of our class by the capitalist boss class? Why should we go back to the lies that there is no money for us, while shareholders pile up billions? Over the decade of austerity shareholders in the 100 biggest British companies doubled their annual take to £110 billion!
The alternative to workers ‘helping’ the capitalists restart the economy is democratic socialist planning of the economy in the interests of the overwhelming majority. The nationalisations that have taken place mustn’t be temporary and with the same old bosses in charge, but permanent and under democratic working-class control and management.
This requires the building of a mass working-class organisation. That might seem difficult right now. But workers organising in every workplace for safety and rights is the first step. That can be linked up nationally and internationally to start to transform society in a socialist direction, to liberate society from the limits of profit-motivated capitalism.