Not since 1918 has a pandemic as serious as the current outbreak of the coronavirus hit the world. And it has hit it hard. It has so far infected over 750 000 people globally and killed almost 40 000. We must consider, these numbers are a conservative estimate.
Many thousands more have been killed. With the outbreak of the virus, hospitals and ICU’s have been overwhelmed, meaning doctors have to prioritise who is and who isn’t treated. How many more people, for example have died from heart attacks, cancers or strokes and other diseases, that may otherwise have been treated? We don’t know.
The crisis confronts us as a crisis of the healthcare system. Even in the wealthiest most advanced capitalist countries, the healthcare system is overwhelmed. For years neo-liberal cuts and the monetisation of healthcare have led to this outcome. There is a chronic shortage of hospital beds, ICU’s, ventilators, trained medical professionals and even basic PPE.
Secondly, the crisis is economic, completely shaking the global financial system to its core, the outcome of which is still unknown, but likely very grim. Millions of workers have been laid off with very little guarantee of ever being able to return to work. The coming period will be more painful than the GFC or anything else in living memory of most people.
The democratic framework of the most liberal of capitalist countries will be severely tested. Most likely, it will be stripped bare with the most authoritarian forms of rule imposed on us. Freedom of movement and association could well become restricted in the long term, with power concentrated in the hands of autocratic rulers, such us Trump in the US, Urban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey for example.
How do we meet this crisis?
The response from our existing political institutions is absolutely cretinous. For example, $715 billion has been granted to QANTAS, while the following day it laid off 20 000 of its workers with zero compensation. The losses of private corporations will continue to be socialised.
The ALP is completely silent. The state governments of Victoria and Queensland have been complicit in holding mass public gatherings, but also in continue to pursue infrastructure projects that could be put on hold. They have failed to provide any material protections for workers health or incomes.
The response from trade unions has been less than even tepid. It’s leaders seem oblivious to the dangers workers are facing every day from this virus, but simultaneously refuse to meet their membership. The peak body of our trade union movement, the ACTU have abrogated responsibility to form a united response to the crisis. Their focus has to been to argue for wage subsidies, but this is merely a device to keep them at the negotiating table.
The trade union bureaucracy has shown its dedication to keeping the wheels of industry rolling, at all costs; for example the CFMEU is urging construction sites (of luxury apartments, no less) to run 24hrs around the clock.
Every traditional institution in our society has failed to meet this crisis. That is because none of the institutions of our society, as they currently exist, are capable of meeting this crisis. The framework of our society is structured to extract private profit, radically transforming the relationship of humanity with the natural world. The virus is a consequence of the destructive subordination of the planets ecosystems, combined with the integration and global connectivity of production processes and distribution.
Our world has been radically changed by capitalism, but what our political and union leaders most wish for is a more moderate and polite virus, that can be bargained with and responded to with incremental measures. Workers have been abandoned by those they most trust to help them in need.
The answer lies in collective solutions and in forming them, we must form our own means of power. It is not difficult to understand the crisis and in seeking an understanding, the solutions become obvious, even if they are too far reaching or “radical” for our leaders to contemplate.
The response must focus on healthcare which is central to the crisis. Although as yet, there is no vaccine, the virus has been successfully treated with a number of therapies. Cuban doctors have been successful in treating the virus with Inteferon Alfa 2B, a drug normally used to treat cancers and other virus infections. Inteferon is the same protein that the body naturally produces when reacting to a viral infection. It supercharges the bodies immune system. Over 45 nations have requested the drug, but US sanctions severely impede its distribution.
Cuba’s philosophical approach to healthcare is important, helping it to overcome its hardships and lack of technological development. Born from revolutionary upheaval, the government assumes responsibility for healthcare for all its citizens. There are no private hospitals or clinics. The health service is available to all.
Cuba’s healthcare statistics prove that their approach works. Infant mortality and life expectancy rates rival the richest countries on the planet. It has an unsurpassed doctor to patient ratio of 150 to one. (Compare that with the US of 2.6 doctors per 1000 or Australia; 3.5 per 1000).
Their internationalist efforts are well known sending more doctors around the world than the WHO. The health of the world is the health of their own people. Curing diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia prevents its spread elsewhere. Cuba recognises the model of the nation-state in meeting peoples most basic needs is a failure. It is absolutely shameful that no other country in the world can meet this commitment to healthcare.
This recognition that healthcare is a universal right of all people should be the starting point of responding to this crisis. We have the advantage of healthcare being part of most peoples basic political consciousness. No matter how fit and healthy people are, they will need to access healthcare or deal with the healthcare system at some point in their lives. It is an issue that is prominent in every state and federal election.
The crisis of COVID-19 is not simply the potency of the virus, but that it overwhelms healthcare systems that are already struggling to meet existing demands. Our healthcare system is not protecting the health and well-being of people in our society at the best of times. It’s not hard to see why, but also we need to understand the purpose of the healthcare system.
The healthcare system in Australia is not in any sense universal. Medicare and its benefits have been eroded by successive conservative governments. Hospital beds per capita have declined. There has been a deterioration of healthcare provision for decades, even though it has become increasingly specialised.
The private healthcare system should not be considered a supplement to essential services, but as a parasitic growth, stratifying healthcare provision depending on the means of each individual to pay. It is not separate to, but is enmeshed with the public healthcare system, heavily subsidised and integrated with the capitalist state.
Australian’s spent $25 billion on healthcare in 2018, but with wages stagnating and healthcare benefits becoming fewer this amount represented a twelve year low, which should prompt anyone to wonder why its being propped up. The response of the private health care sector to the coronavirus is breathtaking, but follows the logic of the capitalist system.
With the government cancelling by decree all non urgent elective surgery, dozens of private hospitals around the country are being forced to close, laying off thousands of medical professionals – at a time when they are most needed and with appropriate training could be redeployed to meet this crisis.
We should also note that these surgeries, just because they are considered non-urgent, do not mean they are unnecessary. They may include, for example, hip replacements, cataract removals or ligament repairs. Tens of thousands of people are left in pain and also many more unemployed due to this announcement.
The private profit motive
While the private profit motive behind healthcare obviously appears as arrant madness, we need to understand how this situation arose. We can blame conservative governments for making egregious decisions, but the roots of the problem go back to the roots of capitalism itself. Why do we even have a healthcare system at all? If the market is the final arbiter of success, shouldn’t nature take its course and healthcare be left to those who can afford to pay? The idea promoted by PM Boris Johnson in the UK of “herd immunity” would seemingly support that idea – the backlash that followed suggests that most people consider healthcare a right.
The healthcare system arose with the needs of industrial development. Big industry led to a mass concentration of workers into urban centres that were rife with disease and poor sanitation. Outbreaks of disease were often followed by major social unrest.
Tuberculosis, known as consumption or the white plague, having existed for thousands of years, grew slowly during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance displacing leprosy as a major cause of disease. As field workers moved to the cities in the 18th century, the disease spread. The industrial revolution, immiserating the peasantry concentrated the disease in its factories and mills.
Lancashire, Shropshire and Manchester in England had mass outbreaks of disease, most particularly in the cotton mills amongst weavers. Due to England’s dominance of world trade, the disease spread globally (and persists to this day in the third world). The ruthlessness of the mill owners led to mass strikes and demonstrations of cotton weavers, leading to movements for democratic reforms.
The response of the ruling class, faced with these movements, that sporadically took on an insurrectionist character was brutal. Many workers in these revolts, faced an arbitrary and tyrannical justice system receiving lengthy prison sentences or transportation. However, it did lead to a series of factory acts that improved sanitation of city centres and urban areas.
A small number of industrialists bequeathed estates for medical research, which combined with religious charity led to the first modern hospitals. They were certainly not universal. At best, they were accessible by the “deserving poor”, those with a protestant work ethic.
The needs of modern industry required a dependable workforce that could be more easily repaired and reused after injury. With an increasing number of surgical operations possible, injured workers, not only became less of a burden on society, but could be retained for work.
With increasing professionalism and specialisation, hospitals became more secularised and integrated into the state and more dependent on it for funding. By the 1950’s most advanced capitalist countries had established national health systems, most with private and public components (the NHS in England was the result of the Atlee government completely nationalising the health system). The previous three decades have seen a dismantling of healthcare provisions.
The development of the healthcare sector massively increased the economic role of the state. It has an integrative function allowing greater means of reproduction of labour and furthermore, increasing the dependence of workers on the state for their survival. Healthcare workers, although often marginalised are now one of the largest and most powerful sections of the working class.
However, establishing an advanced and nationally integrated healthcare does not guarantee equality for all peoples. In Australia, the healthcare system has not gone far enough in meeting peoples needs. A large section of the workforce consists of ethnically diverse migrant labour, mostly women with precarious living conditions and social status.
Even with an established national health care system, access to it is by no means guaranteed or universal. Healthcare is severely restricted to Aboriginal people in remote communities, as it is in most colonial settler states. The prison system in which Aboriginal people are over-represented leads to poor social and health outcomes.
Aboriginal people consist of over 20% of the prison population in Australia. The life expectancy of Aboriginal people remains comparable to that of many of the poorest peoples in the third world. Prisons increase the risk of transmission of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. The close confines mean social distancing is impossible for much of the prison population. The same is true for refugees held in mandatory detention.
The most vulnerable in our society need greater protections from disease in order to protect all society. Aboriginal communities need to be able to decide who can be treated in the community. Mandatory detention for refugees must be abolished.
The fight for healthcare is a struggle for social justice
The struggle for adequate healthcare must also be a struggle against racial oppression and for wage equality. The poor health of Aboriginal people must be seen in the broad context of their dispossession. The issue of incarceration and health is interwoven with most imprisonment due to a shortfall in health and social services.
In order to overcome discrimination, healthcare professionals must be deployed to remote communities to test and treat preventable and existing diseases. Housing must be provided that is both safe and sanitary. These measures must be part of an inclusive program that is an educative struggle for all people in Australia against both poverty and oppression.
There are many cultural practices and principles of Aboriginal people that are of benefit to all peoples in Australia. The entire life of a person and their relationship with their community is what needs to be considered, rather than a clinical approach that only deals with symptoms of diseases. Healthcare must be completely nationalised on this basis.
The government needs to establish a single pool of labour that on a voluntary basis can be redeployed where needed. All medical and dental services must be free of charge. The health of people must be considered in all decisions regarding what is built, what is manufactured and how it is distributed.
The government needs to establish a national construction and manufacturing agency. All unnecessary construction, i.e. of luxury apartments, needs to be halted immediately. In this current crisis, workers should be redeployed to build hospitals, emergency shelters and public housing.
Housing should be a right for all people. There has been agitation for a rent strike, but even if successful, landlords will still retain the ability to recoup their losses by raising rents later. Even before this crisis, rents were too high. Rent must be capped according to peoples ability to pay and must not be set by the dictates of a market dominated by big developers. Purchasing power needs to be increased, not simply by increasing wages, but by reducing the burden of housing costs.
On average people in Australia living in capital cities pay 20 to 30% of their income on rent. What is a “fair” amount of rent to pay is very much an open question, but surely that is twice as much as what is needed to allow for a decent disposable income. Unused dwellings should be permanently confiscated and used in the public interest.
The only real solution is to outlaw private landlordism. Tenants should be able to purchase the houses they live in, whether they are publicly or privately owned. Banks should be nationalised in order to maintain the stability of a system of cheap credit. There should be a moratorium on credit card and mortgage debt, with interest free credit available for food and housing.
The advent of the coronavirus lays bare the inequality of capitalism in many ways. While the rich are able to self-isolate in mansions, they are also able to protect their children from the crisis. Meanwhile, public schools remain open as workers who cannot afford to lose any income continue to work.
The Aftermath/ Recovery
It’s hard to imagine that while schools remain open and much of industry continues to operate, that the virus won’t spread further and deeper into the community. It’s hard to imagine, also, that parents won’t lose faith in the school system. The education system faces a risk of systemic degeneration.
Schools should be closed for the duration of this crisis or remain open only for those who have parents working in genuinely essential services. In order to restrengthen the public education system, there must be a massive increase in funding. Private schools should have all subsidies removed. Text books and online learning material must be made available to all students free of charge.
Tertiary education should not be the preserve of the rich, but should be extended to all sectors of the community including, the elderly, retired persons and those with disabilities.
A speedy recovery will not be possible without a mass program of socially useful public works. For example, a more efficient and accessible public transport system based on community needs should be established throughout the country, including regional areas. It should be free for the unemployed, students and those on a pension.
The cost of the current crisis will most likely be passed onto the shoulders of the working class. About one third of large companies pay zero tax in Australia. It’s time they paid their fair share.
In the scramble to get back to work, many workers will be left vulnerable to the most ruthless forms of exploitation. As I write this today, wharfies at DP World at the largest container terminal in Australia were stood down for asserting their rights not to be exposed to the coronavirus. This bullish intimidation will only get worse.
Unions must struggle against the bosses prerogative to hire and fire. They must also fight against all forms of discrimination. The unemployed in this period must also be organised. Any wage subsidies must be paid directly to workers. Workers should not be penalised for this crisis. Unemployment benefits should be paid at 100% of a workers previous wage.
Voluntary training or “upskilling” must be provided free of charge and on full pay. Unemployment benefits should not be means or asset tested. Workers should not be penalised for saving for a rainy day. Everyone should have an income independent of what their partner earns. Financial dependence increases risks of domestic abuse.
While many of the reforms outlined may be possible within the framework of capitalism, it is unlikely that they would be implemented without a major upheaval. Neither are they any guarantee against more crisis looming in the future. It is time that revolution is openly discussed. The lessons of the 20th century show that capitalism is a dead end. It is destroying the planet.
Capitalism is leading us only, to greater crisis, more war, more environmental devastation and more misery for the big majority of people. It is a system that continually creates misery and alienation. It is true that most attempts to overthrow capitalism have led to failure, but one, many or several failures should not mean humanity has no other option than to accept its fate.
What is required is a revolution that goes beyond a seizure of political power and the establishment of a workers state. Political revolutions are short-lived, but social revolutions can endure.
The capitalist system will have its own way of meeting this crisis; through a greater level of authoritarianism and by passing on the costs of the crisis to the working class. This inevitably means greater austerity and restrictions on our ability to organise. With each step forward for the working class, looms the ever-present threat of reaction.
To eradicate the possibility of future crisis arising, the norms of capitalist production and distribution must be shattered. This is impossible to do, simply by the establishment of a revolutionary government, no matter how radical. Transforming the economic and political structures of society is a complex problem, the success of which, depends on the level of development of productive forces and their strength within a global market. Socialism cannot be built in one country.
A revolution cannot possibly overcome these problems without a long process of transition where consumer goods retain a commodity character and society remains based on the exchange of labour power. For a revolution to be successful and spread throughout the world, it must develop a substantial rise in social productivity that goes beyond simply meeting peoples basic needs.
The technical level and organisation of labour must surpass that of the most advanced capitalist countries. If not, revolutions face stagnation, reaction and collapse or at best remain in a holding pattern (such as Cuba). The cohesion and solidarity of the working class are a revolution’s best defence. A revolution must not only overcome shortages of consumer goods and services, but provide the best quality of products available and the best quality of life in all things. The rewards of labour must be developed with the concept of a social wage; where workers receive and access all the benefits of culture, science and art that can possibly be provided.
It is inevitable, even after long periods of revolutionary upheaval and the establishment of a workers state that the capitalist mode of production continues to reassert itself. The drive for individual enrichment (or even survival) will continue to re-emerge – this will persist as a law of social development, possibly for millennia. This cannot be resolved by a state of “war-communism” or by nationalising every form of economic activity.
Private enrichment through individual enterprise cannot be eradicated through force of arms. Socialism cannot be built without holding the commanding heights of industry -all the major factories, energy producers, social services etc. However, it must prove that the lived experiences of workers in collectively owned (by a workers state) industries are a better way forward.
Work must enrich peoples lives and expand the possibilities that are available to them and in the very least, provide a life that is fulfilling, rewarding and free from oppression in all its forms. Only in the material advantages of socialised labour can old modes of production (such as through sole proprietors) be eliminated. The logic of a nationally planned economy can only be realised with genuine forms of workers democracy.
Although each country has its own specific problems, depending on its geographic location, level of development and resources – the problems arising from the crisis of capitalism are not unique and will continue to occur. It is not inevitable that responses to theses episodic crises will be revolutionary, but when revolutions do occur they will require the efforts of international solidarity to be successful. That is the lesson of the 20th century.