Responding to catastrophe
Paul Demarty looks at the strengths, and limits, of the left’s response to the coronavirus.
One of the many sins of the modern far left is the ease with which it gets caught up in the foam of the bourgeois news cycle - usually in the form of hyper-optimism about what some ephemeral screw-up by the government means for ‘the fightback’.
In the current situation, of course, it is scarcely possible to avoid being transfixed in this way, and to do so would in a certain sense be immoral (since at issue in part is how we might avoid inadvertently spreading a highly dangerous infection). And, while (to pick one example out of millions) David Cameron will not be judged by history on the ‘pasty tax’ affair - which caused a great deal of excitement for a week, but which you will probably have to Google to remember clearly - it seems perfectly plausible that everyone in charge of a major government in the year 2020 will be judged on their reaction to this sternest imaginable test.
It is also a test for the left. Reading those words in this paper will, I admit, set up an expectation for ‘the other shoe to drop’: in fact, many of the prescriptions and ‘action programmes’ on offer are commendable up to a point, which is perhaps a function of the urgency and real fear we all feel at the moment.
Though we will focus on this country, the matter is surely most stark across the pond. There, of course, we find short and long-term problems likely to make things especially awful. The president, as yet, sees no reason to go beyond chauvinist theatrics; and, while borders are closing all over the world, it is worth noting that Trump seems to have no other ideas (beyond trying to get dibs on treatment through bribery, and supporting some stronger Congressional measures around infection testing). That much can be dealt with haphazardly by individual states, which are taking stronger action; but the longer-term background of a healthcare system that thoroughly disincentivises people from seeking medical treatment is beyond the power of the individual states to solve.
To meet the most urgent political needs of the day, the American left need do no more than it has already - demanding universal medical care, something Trump chooses to ignore and the Wall Street Democrats (generally in the pocket of insurers and pharma companies) - must oppose, for increasingly threadbare reasons.
Beyond that, we read from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), now the largest left group in the US thanks to its association with Bernie Sanders, a raft of proposals: “an emergency moratorium on evictions and on utility shut-offs ... If workers are unable to work because of quarantines, they should not be punished for being unable to pay their rent and utility bills”; a drastic reduction in overcrowding in prisons and detention centres, by “a nationwide end to cash bail and a moratorium on deportations” and mass releases of detainees from the concentration camps on the Mexican border; free vaccines and treatments, as they become available; and paying for all this by “taxing the rich”. The DSA even craftily calls for a bit of ‘creative destruction’: if the pandemic and the oil price war between the Saudis and Russians should wipe out US shale oil, what better opportunity to pivot to American social democracy’s favoured Green New Deal ... ?
Lastly, the DSA encourages its members to practise social distancing, with a series of suggestions about better enabling remote access to meetings and campaign activities, and even linking to the Center for Disease Control’s guide to making your own hand-sanitiser.
This side of the pond, things are not quite so bad - we at least have a health service - but many of the same problems obtain. Instead of the Trump approach - fatuously blaming the Chinese, when the seriousness of the situation can no longer be ignored - we get solemn press conferences, with Boris Johnson flanked by his favoured experts. Yet, until the weekend, inaction reigned, as pointed out by the until recently sleepy People’s Assembly:
Where government refuses to act, civil society institutions, trade unions and ordinary citizens are taking matters into their own hands. We reject the ‘herd immunity’ theory that coronavirus can simply be left to rip through society until enough people develop immunity. Not only is there no proof this will happen with this virus: it is the most deadly and careless approach the government could take.
There follows a thorough list of demands rather like the DSA one - shut schools and colleges, support workers whose jobs are predarious through the dislocation using rent freezes and increasing statutory sick pay; suspend means testing and sanctions in the benefit system; place private hospitals “under the management of the NHS”, with “essential equipment owned by private companies ... pooled as part of the overall effort; private hospital beds should be treated as public”.
The PA also demands that “the outbreak must not be used as a pretext for clamping down on civil liberties” - a statement which is unfortunately left unelaborated, since some restrictions on civil liberties are unavoidable in any robust response to a public health crisis of this sort. Nonetheless, it is worth at least mentioning; we must indeed be vigilant that any powers adopted under a situation of quarantine must be quickly relinquished by a state apparatus that rather tends to hold onto such things.
Many other examples could be adduced: similar demands, especially for the assumption of control over private hospitals, abound around the left press. Even Momentum manages to go this far: “The government must bring all private hospitals and health facilities into emergency public ownership and force pharmaceutical companies to research and produce whatever the NHS needs at cost price,” declared its national coordinating group.
All these statements are decent starting points for a left response - which is, in a sense, surprising, as they are all from opportunist organisations with a tendency to pose right. It is no surprise to find the Socialist Party in England and Wales calling for broad nationalisations - that is its entire political tradition. The shiny happy Lansmanite creeps of Momentum, however, are a different story.
This is, surely, a question of the times. It was thought, correctly to a point, that 2007-08 was the death-knell of neoliberalism. Nobody bothered to tell the neoliberals, however, so the corpse shambled on, doing no end of further damage to social life. That sorry record - in this country, of a benefit system designed to starve people, an NHS running permanently over-capacity, mass homelessness and all the rest - is the bread and butter of the opportunist left, which tends to pose soft-focus left-Keynesian solutions as a ‘radical’ alternative to this policy of despair. (This is still the case with the Green New Deal, for example.)
In this situation, however, left Keynesianism is not merely illusory in the usual way, but patently inadequate. There is simply no way to commandeer the spare hospital capacity scandalously hoarded by the private sector except by emergency expropriations. Though none of the statements mentioned address this directly, there is surely no reliable solution to epidemic panic-buying than some level of rationing and distribution according to need, with strongly coercive action against speculators.
Pandemics, like wars and ecological disasters, expose the elementary problems of coordination that blight capitalism in the face of serious adversity. The minimal solution, if Covid-19 turns out as serious as it seems it might, is a kind of Kriegssozialismus - the pseudo-‘socialism’ of total military mobilisation; except if, like Boris Johnson, you are apparently happy to let hundreds of thousands die, in a gesture of Strangelovian excess courtesy of Cameron’s idiotic nudge unit. Even if the government has backpedalled from that approach, it should not be forgotten - or forgiven - that it was advanced in earnest. Though many bourgeois governments may be forced into far more extensive expropriations than envisioned today even by their left critics, they will do so at a glacial pace, at the cost of thousands of avoidable deaths.
There is a further aspect of this coordination problem which is not mentioned, however. Pandemics - again, like wars and ecological disaster - are intrinsically international political problems. They demand from the working class and the socialist left what is all too often lacking - a serious, class-independent foreign policy. The DSA and PA statements differ in many fine details according to the particular local conditions. The substance, however, is identical. Both demand that the response to the pandemic should prioritise saving lives over narrow measures of economic success; both demand that ordinary working class people ought to be insulated from the resulting economic dislocation and should have access to good medical advice, testing and speedy treatment; both reject chauvinist sabre-rattling; both demand central control over healthcare.
An international campaign around the essence of these action programmes, carried out by a serious fraction of the global labour movement, would have a real chance of forcing recalcitrant governments like Johnson’s and Trump’s to listen up. Here, alas, we are let down by our own coordination problems.