Everyone’s feeling a little nostalgic now, especially in Melbourne. Yes, the terminal stage of neoliberalism was pretty bad: unprecedented inequality, a worldwide revival of fascism, the looming existential horror of climate change turning into an apocalyptic reality. But at least we were allowed to go to the movies.
Back then, we just had to worry about our bosses killing us with unsafe workplace equipment today, or with pollution tomorrow. Our big fear was that bosses were taking advantage of the power imbalance of a casual contract to steal our wages. It was a simpler, gentler time, before we also had to think about whether bosses were knowingly exposing us to a deadly pandemic. Before the hyper-precarious employment system would incubate a killer virus in the privatised aged care homes.
So: can we go back to normal? Or if there’s a new “COVID normal”, what is it?
There are two mainstream positions on this. Both are wrong and unsustainable – because both are aimed at preserving a capitalist system. Capitalism is the cause of this crisis, even though the virus is the cause of the disease. Social democratic and extreme right solutions are both aimed at exactly the wrong goal: restoring and strengthening that system.
On the crazed right, the most extreme conservatives want to ignore the existence of the virus and return immediately to “free” market neoliberalism, with a deadly plague as just one more injustice that workers have to endure. At the most inhuman extremities of the movement are the virus denialists, who are most prominent in the US, where right wing Trump supporters with mass followings routinely argue that the threat of the virus is exaggerated and everyone can and should go back to work and back to play as soon as possible. Bill Mitchell, a member of the pro-Trump Twitter army with around 600,000 followers, put it best in a now deleted tweet from 28 July: “The virus is over because I said so. And if we all say so and start ignoring it, it will lose its power over us”.
Mitchell’s positive thinking is really no different from that of Trump’s administration: Trump’s press secretary recently declared that “science should not stand in the way” of schools reopening, in order to get the economy moving again. In Australia, the Murdoch press and elements of the Victorian Liberal Party have taken up the libertarian call. Victorian state Liberal MP Tim Smith, honourable representative of ultra-posh Kew, complained that lockdown revealed Dan Andrews as “a fear mongering, doomsday propagandist, advised by green left activists”.
These are political activists trying to work on behalf of big business as they best understand its interest: let hundreds of thousands of working class people die if it means profits can flow again. Market libertarianism fits neatly with irrationalist science denialism and conspiracy theories, whether they’re talking about a pandemic or global warming. Just by existing, right-wingers like Smith show us all how the profit motive destroys reason, degrades ethics and, if we’re being honest, turns quite a lot of people into real weirdos.
But their mainstream opposition – and it’s a broad opposition, taking in the trade unions, the Labor Party, most of the non-Murdoch press, the Business Council of Australia and the federal Liberals – aren’t the enlightened voice of reason.
They’re currently working together: the two main parties are united in the National Cabinet; the unions and the bosses’ associations continually release joint statements calling for various subsidies and pay-offs. Mainstream institutions, including the mainstream parties, generally accept that the economic and medical crisis demands a rapid shift in policy, including major state intervention.
Some have called for more permanent changes, or hinted at them. The unions, the Greens and occasionally Labor might suggest that welfare increases should be kept in place once the pandemic has passed, or that the job insecurity that has helped spread the disease should be finally ended, or that we should keep those little pop-up bike lanes that are helping people go to work without dying of double pneumonia. That’s all fair enough. Others – especially the Liberals, but sometimes also Anthony Albanese – emphasise the temporary nature of every measure, how keen they are to have a “snapback” after the economy’s “hibernation” ends.
But whether long-term or not, all these policies are aimed at stabilising the system that created this crisis. Workers need job security, decent pay, liveable welfare payments and state-run public services – and bike lanes too. In fact, we’ve had all those things in the past: the golden age of the welfare state, before neoliberalism came and destroyed it.
But that welfare state was also temporary: it couldn’t overcome the contradictions of capitalism, which always puts profit before everything else, whether in a social democratic welfarist form, or in a plague-ridden neoliberal free market. As long as the world is organised into national economies competing with each other for profits, we’ll have wars between nations, we’ll have bosses attacking wages and conditions, we’ll have industries that pollute the planet and we’ll have economic slumps that lead to a destruction of the social safety net.
This crisis has called everything into question. Every aspect of how we organise our lives, our work, our education, our cities and our class struggle is up for being reimagined. The logic of the pre-existing social order has failed the test. So why try to save a system that’s failed?
Nobody in their right mind wants to go back to the economy of 2019. That’s an impossibility: it would just mean a deregulated, dog-eat-dog Great Depression with a plague on top. But we shouldn’t lower our horizons to think that all we can hope for is capitalism-plus: capitalism plus welfare, capitalism plus pandemic leave. Because even with those reforms, we’ll still get capitalism plus climate change, capitalism plus a resurgent far right and capitalism plus exploitation and war.
Capitalism has failed every generation that has lived through it. It’s given us the genocide of the Indigenous population, two world wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, neoliberalism, the financial crisis, climate change and Trump – to name just a few of its greatest hits in the West. Now it’s come up with another all-time classic disaster. Let’s not waste any more time trying to figure out how to make this inhuman system liveable. We don’t have to tolerate this.
It’s time to stop trying to save this patient. Let’s admit the truth: capitalism deserves a do-not-resuscitate order. While we’re fighting for workers’ rights and more equality, we also have to take the first steps on the much more important journey to destroy the system that led us here.