by Alex Collins
COVID-19 continues to spread, triggering a crisis that is not only catastrophic but international in scale. As an international system, capitalism proved completely unprepared to deal with this kind of pandemic. Even as the disease spreads, the cracks in our social structures deepen, which will have lasting impacts for years to come. The most obvious and heartbreaking part of this is the staggering loss of human life across multiple continents. However, there are a number of other economic and social repercussions the world will face in the days to come. While we must stay at home as much as possible in order to reduce the spread of COVID, socialist organizers also must begin organizing immediately, in order to prevent the crisis from deepening, and to create a broad movement which can fight for a better world.
Unconsidered with the human cost of profit, capitalism has for centuries neglected the needs and security of the working class. Its failure to guarantee the health and safety of the people left them vulnerable to this illness. But it also created an economy that could not respond to the health needs of the people. A system based on limitless growth requires the constant consumption of commodities, and beyond that, a constant flow of profit derived from the exploited. For this reason, capitalism has been described by Marx as “vampire like”, only able to survive by feeding off of the working class. Faced with the loss of its preferred meal, the vampiric capitalism shudders and shakes.
At the first sign of trouble, neoliberals and neoconservatives spend money like Keynesians. Except, rather than simply trying to insure everyone in society can spend money (keeping the economy going), they consistently take the opportunity to give more money to the rich. For example, the stimulus bill passed on March 27th aids real-estate investors by reducing their tax burden. In the long run, this will only contribute to the precarity of poverty.
The Federal Reserve and Federal Government have spent trillions of dollars to keep the economy on life support. Unfortunate that universal healthcare, more needed than ever in the midst of a global pandemic, was deemed too expensive. The message should be clear: our lives are worth less than corporate profits.
Despite these stimulus attempts, the economy is still suffering, and hurting working class and marginalized communities the most. It is impossible to know just how deep or long lasting the effects of the pandemic and accompanying depression will be in these communities.
We need to be organizing those who are affected, and providing as much support and mutual aid as possible.
In less than a month, over 16 million people have filed for unemployment. The system in place is not designed to provide the kind of support necessary to help these individuals, and certainly not this many. Already the government is struggling to handle the volume of requests, and this is likely just the beginning.
Industries which have been hit especially hard include the service industry, hospitality, healthcare, social assistance, retail, and construction. Restaurants, music venues, construction projects, and other workplaces have been shut down, with no clue as to when they’ll reopen. In some cases, they never will, leaving many of those laid off without jobs to return to.
Other occupations are even more precarious. Artists and entertainers, many of whom have to work service jobs in order to survive as is, are unable to perform, go to their studios, or create. Many dancers and other sex-workers are also unable to work, and are at increased risk if they continue to work. Unprotected in the best of times, these groups are being deliberately excluded from the already small relief efforts.
Without income, how will these people pay rent?
While many are unable to work, others are forced to work long hours in close proximity to the public, putting people at further risk. Again, healthcare workers are disproportionately affected. People who work in transportation and public services, such as bus drivers as well as those who distribute food and other goods are greatly affected by this as well. Nowhere is this more clear than grocery stores.
These workers were overworked and underpaid before this crisis. Now sending them to work is a major hazard to their health and wellbeing.
As people lose spending power, and our already crumbling infrastructure continues to break down, their ability to buy or even find food and other essential goods may be at risk.
As such, the immediate tasks of the socialist movement are to organize these groups and take steps to ensure that they have access to food and shelter. This can be done through the forming of unemployed councils, labor unions, tenants organizations, and by building up collective farming infrastructure.
During the Great Depression, unemployed councils and similar organizations were formed. These groups mobilized hundreds of thousands of unemployed people, leading to protests on both local and national levels. These helped shift popular opinion about the role of society in protecting the unemployed, and put pressure on FDR and other politicians to increase the scope of the New Deal. While these groups faded as employment increased, they served as training grounds for organizers that would later join the labor movement.
Organizing these unemployed councils now will allow us to advocate for further relief and protections for the unemployed, and may even allow us to lay the groundwork for a stronger labor movement in years to come. The service industry, which has proven difficult to organize, has had some of the highest rates of lay-offs. These former service workers, if organized now, may be easier to organize later.
Tenants unions and other advocacy groups can protect renters and help ensure people have the shelter they need. While a rent freeze and an end to evictions may be the most immediate goals, they ultimately are a mere pause. Should evictions resume before the working class has a chance to recover economically from the crisis, many would find themselves at risk of increased debt or homelessness. As such, tenant organizations should be working to grow the movement, advocating not only for rent freezes during the crisis, but rent reductions after the crisis is over.
Healthcare and grocery workers were in need of greater pay and benefits before the crisis began. Now more than ever, they need greater access to sick leave and hazard pay. Having been deemed “essential”, there is no better time for these workers to organize for better conditions. Strikes and walkouts are going to be more effective than ever. A mass grocery clerk walk out could demand anything and likely get it.
With all that being said, it is crucial that leftists DO NOT SCAB at this time (or any time). If you hear of walkouts, or any other form of agitation at this time do not cross the picket line. Do not order from websites whose workers are agitating. Consider cancelling subscriptions to Amazon in solidarity with their strikes. If your neighbors are rent striking, join them even if you are employed. Collective action only functions when it is done on a large scale. The strength of the working class lies in our numbers.
Finally, food insecurity is likely going to be exacerbated by this crisis. Leftists should be planting and growing as much food as possible. If people are still trapped in their homes in three months, or if there is a protracted recession or depression, people will need food they cannot afford or find. As such, the left needs to increase its food production as quickly as possible.
We need to prioritize our urban spaces toward growing food. This is an excellent time to shift our agriculture to a more green model. Small, collective urban gardens and farms can be planted with organic food. Leftist collectives should also build rooftop gardens, basement hydroponic gardens (which can be used not only to grow nutritious vegetables like peppers, but also to raise fish like tilapia), chicken coops, and greenhouses. Leftists could also establish seed share programs and education in order to help working class people start their own urban gardens.
Mutual aid is more important than ever, and so is the sense of community we build when we organize collectively. Unemployed councils, tenants unions, workers unions, and urban collective farming will not only help us reduce the damage of the current crisis, but leave us in a better position when it ends. The current crisis shows clearly just how little the system in place responds to the needs of human beings. As scary and terrible as the current situation is, through organizing we can strengthen working class communities. A better world is possible, we only have to build it.
Photo Source: https://mutualaiddisasterrelief.org/2018/01/