In a short couple of months, the pandemic has exploded all the most fashionable arguments that Marxism is out of date.
Remember the argument that the working class didn’t exist anymore? Experts said we were all middle class, or all consumers, or all inhabiting a million different identities. Production, exploitation, and class didn’t matter anymore. In the underdeveloped world, fashionable academic theorists argued that class and exploitation were “Eurocentric” concepts, and that other societies organised things differently.
A recent textbook, Understanding Modern Sociology, explains the prosecution’s case against the class struggle: “Marx is ‘outdated’ because the role of production in defining people’s social locations is of diminishing significance as we have moved into a ‘consumer society’, one in which our identities are now defined by what we buy, wear, eat, play with”.
These sentences feel like they were written centuries ago. They are from the world before COVID-19. Who now feels defined by what they “play with”?
Now, we are all forced every day to think about our role in the production process. Why do we do our job, and who controls our work? If we work in crowded, unhygienic conditions – like Amazon’s warehouse workers, or the schoolteachers of Australia – then why? Is our work serving human need, or only profit?
If it serves human need, then why aren’t we able to decide how we do it, to make sure it is safe and clean? What logic is governing our lives, when nurses working for private hospitals are sacked as the businesses become unprofitable, while ageing construction workers with bad lungs are forced to keep working on commercial projects?
The entire planet is engaging in a debate about what constitutes “essential labour”; workers every day are wondering, if they must keep working, why they are unable to follow the rules that government medical officers insist are necessary for human survival. From the richest metropolis of the imperialist powers to the slums of the global South tormented by centuries of colonialism and underdevelopment, the working class has taken centre stage in the year of the lockdown.
The conclusion is inescapable: society is defined by how it organises the production of wealth. Capitalism produces for profit, not for human need. The most important people in the world are also the most powerless: the ones who produce our food and our homes, who build hospitals and manufacture medical equipment, who heal the sick and look after children.
What we can wear, eat and play with is important, even vital. So are the living conditions of the poor and the dispossessed who exist outside the formal economy. But, as this crisis has revealed, all those things are ultimately defined by how society organises and controls “essential labour”, and for whom.
The pandemic has revealed what we need for a humane society: the emancipation of the working class and the reorganisation of production for human need instead of market logic.
That market logic is now taking a devastating beating. Since the 1980s, we have been told that socialism has been ideologically defeated, planning is impossible, and “free” markets – enforced by dictatorship, if necessary – are the only way to organise a complex society. Now – with some reluctance – politicians trained as the ultimate neoliberals are flipping over into managers of hyper-centralised, interventionist states.
Major capitalist metropolises are locked down, their streets patrolled by police drones to herd pleasure-seekers back into their dwelling-places. The centralisation of supermarkets, airlines and big warehouses means that they survive as something like public utilities yet, madly, are operated to profit their shareholders.
Nationalisations, universal basic incomes and bans on evictions have gone from utopian schemes to daily government announcements. The capitalist state has been forced to intervene dramatically to reorganise and plan every aspect of daily life, because the market simply cannot achieve a socially acceptable outcome.
“Rules that governed our lives, shaped our society and our economy, and determined our prosperity are being smashed”, Peter Hartcher wrote in Melbourne’s Age on 30 March. “Governments have been forced to obliterate the economic and fiscal orthodoxy that’s been painstakingly established since the early 1980s recession.” Neoliberalism had already taken an ideological battering after the 2008 financial crisis, which made inequality an inescapable social question while raising the possibility that capitalist democracy was inadequate. This crisis goes further.
It is not just about inequality. It is about which force will decide the future: the state, big business, or those “essential workers” who are saving our lives, and who, if they were able to cooperate internationally, without the profit motive controlling them, would be able to build a world that could navigate through a crisis like this in a humane, rational and democratic way.
We need a solution that is not just a return to the gig economy of neoliberalism, nor to the nationalist capitalism that came before. The international working class is the only force that can pose an alternative to the free market and to the lockdown state. “Workers of the world, unite!”: that slogan defined Marxism. Now we can see that it’s not just a slogan, but a solution.
We can forget, too, the notion that capitalism ever had, or ever would find, a way to assure stability, to smooth over economic crisis, to avoid a “rupture” that makes revolutionary struggle possible. As the system seizes up and the old order disintegrates, revolution becomes as realistic an option as many, and more realistic than a return to the status quo.
Workers in the first world, who we were told were too comfortable, too bought off, and too content to ever struggle against the system, are now working in places that might expose them to a deadly pandemic, or lining up in dole queues, facing a global crash that many economists predict will be on the order of the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, the administrators of capitalist states are recognising that their old ways of regulating society have failed them. Lenin himself outlined two conditions for a revolution: “The exploited and oppressed masses should understand the impossibility of living in the old way and demand changes”, and “the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way”.
Who would now have the courage to argue against Marxists that we won’t see these conditions come together in the years to come?
In a crisis, when the state is regulating every aspect of daily life, and when disruptions to production threaten to shake the whole system, the principles of workers’ power, internationalism and struggle from below will be vital to inform tactics and strategies. If we understand this, we can go from workers struggling right now to shut down non-essential industries, to workers struggling to reorganise society completely; from class struggle in a global crisis, to the revolutionary reorganisation of society.
“Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn.” The lyrics of the century-old workers’ song, “Solidarity Forever”, have sometimes seemed quaint and old fashioned. But they express the only worldview that matches the reality of the contemporary crisis: “In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold”, it goes. “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.”