As summer approaches in the northern hemisphere, the lockdowns are beginning to evaporate. Gyms, bars, and beaches are reopening piecemeal throughout the US, to the gratification of the deranged protesters who’ve spent the last few weeks demanding their right to participate in a plague. Spain, where nearly 30,000 have died of the virus, is to reopen for international tourists in time for the summer rush in July.
On the other side of the world, Australia is also stumbling into a reopened economy. Cafes and restaurants are restarting just in time for the beginning of flu season, Neighbours is filming again, and Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson claim they’ll take the government to court to get the internal borders reopened. Total elimination of the virus might have been possible, but why wait when there’s money to be made, and the conspiracy-mongering discourse of the right has convinced a substantial minority of the population that the disease is a hoax by Bill Gates?
The pandemic isn’t over. Nor are the lockdowns. Speaking to the US Senate in mid-May, the White House’s leading Coronavirus Taskforce member Anthony Fauci warned that premature openings could lead to “little spikes that might turn into outbreaks.” The future course of the virus is unpredictable, but in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, it’s nowhere close to elimination, and has the potential to spread again even faster than when it first emerged from Wuhan.
That means there could be more lockdowns to come, perhaps more like the one from which India is now emerging. Arundhati Roy called India’s lockdown “the most punitive and least-planned lockdown in the world”. Imposed with only four hours notice, then enforced inconsistently by brutal cops on the lookout for bribes, it punished migrant workers and inflamed the government’s pre-existing anti-Muslim culture war while doing little to stop the virus’ spread. More than a hundred million people were thrown out of work in the chaos.
Now the lockdown is over, Indian labourers are being herded back to their unsafe workplaces. With the disease circulating through the country, and as Indian states move to smash up existing legal protections for workers and unions, these workplaces are only becoming more unsafe. The states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhyar Pradesh, together home to nearly 300 million people, have suspended their labour laws for the next two and a half years.
The reopened world economy is ripe for a plague to spread throughout unsafe workplaces, through working-class suburbs where social distancing is impossible, and into mass transport and public gathering-places. It’s an economy in which workers will have to risk their health and lives for the profits of the bosses and the economic stability of the system.
But capitalism can’t give us a lockdown that puts human health first. As the deranged advocates of a profit-first reopening take delight in pointing out: the lockdown comes at a cost. The virus itself kills and maims people, but it didn’t cause the mass unemployment, the economic crash, and all the misery that they bring. This economic disaster will inevitably cost lives as well: unemployment and poverty also take a toll on health and life.
The pandemic seemed to scramble the typical demands of workers and bosses: militant auto workers in Italy were demanding that their workplaces be shut, and leftist activists were calling for restrictions on public gatherings and travel. Whether caused by a lockdown from above, or from the socially responsible behaviour of ordinary workers who fought to establish social distancing and shut down unsafe workplaces, our current form of social organisation means that an effective fight against the disease seems to bring with it the destruction of economic life.
That’s the threat capitalists are now putting to workers: risk your life, or lose your job. It allows bosses’ advocates to position as the friends of workers, who are really looking after our mental health and employment prospects when they try to drive us back into toxic workplaces. But it’s a lie: a PriceWaterhouseCooper survey of US workers found that three quarters of respondents were scared to return. Most were scared that they’d be made sick at work. Others were scared of exposure on public transport, or failing their responsibility to keep their loved ones safe.
The COVID-19 crisis seems unique and bizarre because it came so suddenly, spread so rapidly through the world, and took the form of a frightening and hitherto unknown disease that is still revealing its mysteries as it claims more lives. But it’s only exposing the most fundamental flaw in capitalist society: the organisation of our social and economic life by a class of exploiters who don’t mind if we die as long as their profits keep rolling in.
Labour – our ability to work with each other to change the world – is the essence of humanity. It’s the way we participate in the collective activity of our species and shape the world we live in. It’s “the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence" as Marx put it. But as Marx knew, it’s also more than that. It’s how we understand ourselves and our society. The organisation of labour defines the boundaries of what we can achieve as a species.
We’re now witnessing a monstrous expression of capitalism’s basic law: by and large, human beings can only work with each other if it secures the profits of property-owning bosses. Profits have to keep flowing, whether or not the work that produces them is safe – let alone socially useful, important, fulfilling or free. Elon Musk insists that his Tesla auto plants reopen not because he cares deeply about the psychological and financial wellbeing of his workers, but because his company needs profits even if production costs lives. It’s just the latest version of capitalists claiming to help the poor by employing them in toxic factories and deadly sweatshops.
But how to guarantee that workers will submit to bosses like that, endangering their lives in disease-spreading workplaces? To maintain a society based on dangerous and unfree employment, you need the threat of isolating and unfree unemployment. For workers, being cut off from the workplace doesn’t free them for a life of leisure and self-development: it causes poverty, isolation, depression and anxiety, and is itself a health risk even in societies with relatively strong welfare system.
Work is how we connect with one another. Under capitalism, it becomes a dangerous and unpleasant experience directed towards increasing the wealth and power of our enemies. But as long as society is organised this way, then – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde – the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited. Unemployment is always isolating; the fact that we now can’t socialise without risking our health only makes it more so. And capitalist work is often dangerous – the coronavirus only increases that to extreme new levels. We’re now witnessing a simultaneous ratcheting-up of both the horrors of unemployment and the dangers of the capitalist workplace.
But before the coronavirus, the curse of unemployment and the miseries of capitalist work already cost lives and ruined workers’ health, and they’ll keep doing it beyond the coronavirus too, until we overcome the capitalist forms of both work and unemployment.
For now, many workers are still fighting to keep unsafe workplaces shut. In Britain, where the government is racing to reopen schools as a prelude to reopening the economy despite the country’s high rate of infection and death, 20,000 teachers joined an online union meeting to discuss resisting this dangerous move. And the misery-inducing effects of unemployment can be ameliorated, if not eliminated, by attacks on the hoards of treasure under the ruling class’ control. Heavy wealth taxes could fund important increases to unemployment payments, and bans on private companies profiting from rents, mortgages, and utilities would stop the injustice of people going broke while being forced out of work to protect public health.
But a permanent shutdown of the capitalist economy is not a long-term solution. We can’t rely only on redistributing wealth. If we’re going to survive a crisis like this and eliminate the paradox that it’s revealed, we need to change the production process and reshape how our labour is organised.
Right now that means fighting for workers’ control of health and safety. In any reopened workplace, it should be workers, not bosses, that determine whether the site is opened, what safety procedures are introduced, and how they’re enforced. Only those who work, rather than using the labour of others as a source of profits, can be trusted to put health and safety first.
Of course, that’s a dramatic violation of the property rights of capitalists – even more so than confiscating their wealth to pay for health and welfare. Capitalism is based on the principle that property owners have the “right” decide what happens in the workplaces they own, even if that means infecting workers with a deadly plague. If you don’t like it, you can stay home and starve. That’s the principle underpins the horrific dilemma workers around the world now face. Only by replacing it with a society based on workers’ power and production for human need can we get out of this terrible choice – in the pandemic or in the next workplace poisoning or wave of unemployment. A socialist society – one in which we work freely with one another under conditions of our own choosing and without the market and the profit motive governing what we do and how we work – is the only way to recover our collective humanity, dignity and safety in both labour and leisure.