March 20, 2020 | 14 minutes read

COVID-19 exposes the rot at the core of the capitalist system

The COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare the insurmountable contradictions of imperialist capitalism in the 21st century. As the working class, we must make demands that assert our right to survive.

COVID-19 exposes the rot at the core of the capitalist system

We cannot independently decide the pace at which history is marching. Besides accelerating the onset of the largest crisis in recent history, the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare the insurmountable contradictions of imperialist capitalism in the 21st century, and makes clear more than ever the need for socialist revolution. Particularly in the imperialist fortresses of Britain and the US, the last few days prove that both these countries objectively cannot withstand this crisis due to the inordinate scale of the parasitic relationship these imperialists have with the oppressed world, which forms the basis of their economies. Here in Britain, the government is deliberately mismanaging its response both with regard to public health and to social welfare, as will be discussed in the following paragraphs in more detail.

At the time of writing, Britain is a fair distance behind the World Health Organisation (WHO), having only on Monday 16th advised the population to begin social distancing. There is still no testing for COVID-19 in Britain other than for the most severe cases which require hospitalisation; even those who self-isolate after showing symptoms will not be able to know with certainty if they have the virus or not, thus they may still be liable to be infected or infect others upon ending their quarantine. This is largely because this is only a recent retreat from the previous official government policy to essentially let the virus infect the majority of the population. According to official documents leaked in late February, marked as a "reasonable worst case scenario", showed that the government saw a death toll of up to 500,000 vulnerable and elderly people as potentially necessary in order to gain herd immunity. This term refers to the effects of mass vaccination, not to the effect of letting a lethal virus spread through the population, which has never been tried and is scientifically proven to be untenable. Rather than make choices that benefit public good, British policy is simply to delay the point where both production and consumption collapse due to widespread social distancing and isolation, as well as avoid overloading an NHS that has been plundered for decades by the private sector and sabotaged by austerity. Indeed, its "mitigation" strategy, which abandons the possibility of containment and moves to delay the peak of the outbreak, could still see 250,000 dead. The change in strategy was further influenced by the Imperial College research report, which now accepts that ICU units will be overwhelmed by early May no matter what.

The absurdity of the “herd immunity” strategy is particularly astonishing. As Monthly Review Press author Rob Wallace declares in a recent MR Online interview, “a campaign of active neglect would kill hundreds of thousands of the very vulnerable the Tories claim they wish to protect. But destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire that, unable to follow China and other countries in putting up a fight, pretends, as I wrote, that its failures are exactly the solution.”

This is not meant to imply that the correct demand is for more aggressive curtailing of rights from a country like Britain. This has been the hallmark of a weak, ineffectual left that has been demanding stricter measures and more curtailing of democracy from an imperialist regime that has already spent years strengthening police powers and its border regime. “Pause the System”, seemingly a very transparent XR front, put out a vague call to “put the UK into lockdown”; meanwhile, Shadow Treasury Minister Anneliese Dodds has said Labour would support Emergency Powers and in which police and immigration officials would put people in “appropriate isolation facilities”. These demands amount to asking a government with a known interest in eugenics to grant itself more power. They demonstrate that, when push comes to shove, liberals and social democrats will stand with the capitalist class, no matter how profoundly depraved what they are proposing may be.

But in fact, it is not wholly correct to say that Britain is failing to take action: the recently announced Coronavirus Emergency Measures bill includes measures such as allowing the government to close airports, increasing the powers of police and immigration officers to arrest and detain anyone suspected of infection and take them to “a suitable place” for testing, decreasing the number of approvals needed to detain someone for mental health conditions, as well as expanding the number of people who can certify a death and curtail the right to an inquest. These are powers that a state like Britain can and will abuse: they are not safety measures but foundations of the slow and steady creep into fascism, as they can and will be used to further the assault on the working class and its most oppressed elements in favour of preserving capitalism, stifle dissent and the right to protest, and strengthen the already-brutal border regime. As well, the strategy of "herd immunity" itself is, at its core, a programme of eugenics. Rather than placing emphasis on care for those people most vulnerable to the virus, it abandons them to their fate. It is needless to say that the goal is not, for example, to arrest people in general for showing symptoms, but rather to make the arrests the government was planning on making anyway, under the pretext of suspected infection with SARS-CoV-2. We cannot demand that this government do an uninhibited test run for disaster capitalism. In this context, there should also be clear opposition to the mass deployment of troops to enforce a lockdown – unions should work directly with local government and health bodies to ensure the provision of essential supplies.

Social welfare is no different. Protections for the working class, whether as workers, renters, benefit recipients etc. affected by the pandemic have been slow, inefficient, or are yet to arrive at all. For example, the 3-month protections from eviction do not actually constitute a rent holiday, and people who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 would still be expected to make up the lost rent by agreeing an "affordable repayment plan" with their landlord. On the point of job losses themselves, in the face of mass lay-offs, the government response has been little other than nicely asking employers not to lay people off. Boris Johnson has instead focused on measures to protect the capitalist class: £330 billion have been earmarked for bailouts in the form of business loans up to £5m, three-month mortgage holidays, and other similar measures. This is already two-thirds of what the capitalist class received in 2008, and a clear sign of the scale of the incoming crisis. The reality is not that a system like that in Britain, i.e. an imperialism so parasitic, and so wrought by crisis, that it finally loses even the slightest pretense of humanity, is unable to deal with the virus. It is simply pursuing an interest that is becoming more and more synonymous with mass extinction every single day: preserving any remaining crumb of profit. The ongoing oil crisis and stock market crash, while not directly caused by the virus, are only making more visible that capitalist imperialism is facing a dead end, as its crisis of profitability cannot be solved through any easy means, as capitalism has nowhere else to go, having colonised and expanded into every corner of the world and every manifestation of human life. Sacrificing the working class to some extent, whether to the virus, or to destitution, is necessary for the system to survive. It is unsurprising that an inhuman system lacks humanity in responding to a public health emergency; there is no public in imperialism because, after all, as we were taught a few decades ago, there is no such thing as society.

Through individual manifestations of cruelty, like vignettes of barbarism, the crisis is showing us the reality of imperialist Britain. Its complete dependence on superexploited migrant labour is shown in the case of SOAS, the London university who told a middle-aged cleaner of colour to “lock the door behind them” and disinfect a room, without being informed that it was a room where a student suspected of having COVID-19 had attended a seminar. Other universities were still forcing immunocompromised teaching staff to come into work late last week. Across the country, workers in industries gravely affected by the virus (i.e. those who depend on contact with the public) are being laid off en masse; those who have not are being forced to go into work, either directly or indirectly by the fact that Britain only pays sick workers Statutory Sick Pay, which amounts to only £94.25 a week. NHS frontline staff are not being tested, which means they are liable to infection and to infecting their own patients, while outsourced staff in the NHS are not being paid nor given adequate protective equipment. Instead of requisitioning private hospital beds, the government will rent them (!!) for £2.4 million a day. Homeless persons will not be able to adequately self-isolate without a home, and their lack of access to adequate medical care will further endanger them, while tens of thousands of empty homes lie unused in the hands of real estate speculators and developers.

Even many of the owners in these industries, whose class position is petty bourgeois (those who own means of production but also work them), will experience economic proletarianisation (return into the ranks of the working-class-proper as they lose their means of production and are forced once again to sell their labour-power to a capitalist), widening the gap between bourgeoisie and proletariat even more and concentrating more of the wealth into an even smaller number of hands. The government is now trying to prevent the collapse of industries like hospitality and entertainment with some of its £330bn bailout package, meaning it will try to save both the insurance industry and the small businesses, leaving only the workers to deal with the crisis themselves. And, with regard to the distribution of necessary supplies, across supermarkets throughout the country, panic buying is leaving vulnerable people without necessities as capitalist distribution and neoliberal individualism drive the prioritisation of self-interest among many consumers.

Of course, workers are responding with solidarity. RMT tube workers organised to ensure cleaners sent home to self-isolate receive full pay, while the University of London branch of the IWGB trade union published an ambitious list of demands. Renters' unions like the London Renters Union have also been prompt to demand protections for tenants during this crisis. However, the priority of a capitalist government is the preservation of the capitalist system: the working class receives only such benefits as are necessary for that goal, i.e. in their capacity as the producing class, the way one would make sure their farm tools are safely inside during a storm. Humanity is an afterthought, profit is everything. The same is true for countries in the exploited Global South, for whom US and British imperialism have not ceased to form existential threats even during a global public health crisis: at present, Venezuela is still being hit by US sanctions and has been denied £3bn in International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid to deal with the pandemic, while £1bn of Venezuelan gold is still being held by the Bank of England. The crisis in Iran was also undoubtedly accentuated by the criminal sanctions the US has been levelling onto the West Asian nation for years. On the other hand, Cuba is one of the countries leading the global fight against the virus, alongside China, despite the continuation of the 60+ year blockade of Cuba by the US, and was the only country to lend a hand to the British MS Braemar cruise ship, stuck at sea for a week due to confirmed COVID-19 cases on board. Italy, the worst affected European country at this point, has relied on help from all three of these countries, while all of them are, in some way, being targeted by imperialism - proven to be anti-human beyond all doubt.

There are two conclusions to draw from this. Firstly, the illusions of capitalist ideology have lost all credibility. The “job creators” have so far been unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but instead are fighting over their place in line for bailouts: billionaire Richard Branson demanded “emergency credit” of £5-£7.5bn for Virgin while sending thousands of workers home without pay and cutting sick pay from 6 months to 12 weeks. Meanwhile, the effects of the temporary isolation of sections of the working class, both as labourers and consumers, shows that indeed only labour produces value, and that a capitalist economy cannot negate its chief mode of existence: unstoppable capital accumulation and economic growth at all costs. It is essentially asking capitalism to suspend or even abolish itself, out of some imagined selflessness, when it cannot even slow down out of self interest. It requires a healthy working class to maintain production and keep the economy flowing, but a pandemic-induced slowdown is to concede defeat in the face of looming recession. There really is no society. Britain can essentially be reduced to the well-being of the stock market, the rest is just an accessory. It is an imperialist state to the core; however, the severe splits within the ranks of its ruling class, and the need to achieve any profitability at all, are causing an accelerated fall into what can be theorised as the foundations of fascism: the complete merger of state and capital.

It is obvious that current government policy will thus be deadly to workers. It is time for the working class and all oppressed sections of society to receive the protections they need for their survival. Red Fightback makes the following demands to this government:

  • The government must introduce a rent amnesty throughout the duration of the crisis and at least the first three months following the end of the outbreak. (This demand has been updated to reflect the lie told by the government that they would provide a rent holiday, as the Coronavirus Act 2020 has only introduced an extension of the notice period for eviction.)

  • Institute a ration book so that the population are ensured food;

  • All utilities must be maintained free of cost to consumers until the end of the pandemic. Prepayment meters should be remotely set to no longer shut off. The fuel that vulnerable people and families need should simply be supplied, no questions asked. There should also be a ban on new prepayment meter installations;

  • Workers on zero hour contracts to be paid during self-isolation, sick leave, and in case of closure or reduction in service, at a rate the same as the average they have earned over the 12 previous weeks;

  • Debt collection, evictions, including those of roadside Traveller encampments, or any other form of civil or criminal action must be made illegal, beginning now. Traveller and Roma communities should also be guaranteed free access to clean water;

  • The government must not grant the police new powers. If a patient is a danger to public health, placing them in custody endangers them further;

  • Whilst recognising the dangers that death tolls could cause, they are presently not very high. As such, there is no need for the government to allow medical professionals other than doctors to sign off on deaths, to make inquests more difficult or to allow changes to medical staff in any practical sense. The suggestion that there is amounts to fearmongering as a pretext by which to transfer a dangerous degree of power to the state. These measures must not be put in place and the right to an inquest must be ensured in every case of death resulting from the virus;

  • All vulnerable people (the elderly, those already sick, the disabled) must receive support if they are to be placed in isolation. For many, this could amount to a death sentence, social contact being a vital component of their care and a key to maintaining their mental health. We demand that such isolation be complemented by mental health support and medical attention even for those without infection, and that appropriate access for those close to them be maintained. What is to be considered appropriate should be down to the judgement of these vulnerable people;

  • The government must increase the capacity of the NHS so that it will be able to treat patients suffering from Covid-19, and continue the provision of medical care for those with pre-existing conditions, upcoming surgeries or problems distinct from the virus. This includes GP appointments, surgeries, counselling and therapy sessions, the provision of medications and any other services provided by the NHS. The government should requisition, not rent, private hospital beds and equipment, and divert a significant portion of public funding to the NHS;

  • Workers in professions which are necessary to combat the virus – that is, doctors, nurses, ambulance staff, cleaners, mental health professionals, delivery workers, workers producing food and medical goods – must be granted a wage increase to reflect the danger that their job now poses for the duration of the infection and no less than three months following the conclusion of the outbreak;

  • The coronavirus is an international medical crisis. We demand that the British government cease in any attempts to politicise it in the pursuit of international objectives – for example, the purchase of companies in the oppressed world which have become cheaper due to the economic crash "caused" by the virus, or attacks upon China's approach to the virus. This is a disastrous and monstrous use of time in the context of what we now face, before we even come to consider its generally repugnant nature;

  • The government must accept and act on medical advice provided by the WHO;

  • No loans, bailouts or assistance to the banks. No austerity measures can be passed whatsoever. The crisis which the shock of coronavirus has served as a catalyst to is the product of capitalism's inherent structural crisis. It is the capitalist class who must pay for the crisis, not those they exploit;

  • Widespread testing for COVID-19, including for asymptomatic people, those who present symptoms which do not require hospitalisation, and NHS frontline staff;

  • No barriers to testing or treatment for migrants;

  • Widespread decontamination of public places;

  • Whilst having no sympathies for the DWP or the Universal Credit system, which have caused widespread suffering and poverty, in order to reduce harm the government must pay Universal Credit on day one to workers laid off due to COVID-19;

  • The DWP must continue to pay sickness benefits whilst assessments are called off, including cases where their award has come to an end and cannot be assessed;

  • Prisons, whether "immigration and detention centres" or Her Majesty's palaces of torture, are breeding spots for the virus. The carceral system in capitalist Britain disproportionately penalises the working-class poor and especially racialised minorities, and is also ineffectual in dealing with the root cause of crime which is overwhelmingly related to poverty. We demand that no outbreak be allowed to proceed without assistance in any of Britain's jails, that every prisoner not incarcerated for extremely violent crime to another person (that is, grooming, rape, murder or grievous bodily harm) be unconditionally released immediately – including all those in custody for so-called "illegal migration"; that violent offenders be released with electronic monitoring tags; and that all prisoners are not placed in any danger or in solitary confinement at any point during this crisis;

  • Stop all sanctions regimes against other states, such as Iran and Venezuela. The pursuance of bourgeois conflicts during a pandemic will severely limit their response, lead to additional deaths, and cause more outbreaks globally;

  • We have already seen in China how domestic violence incidents increased during the enforced lock-down in February. Years of cuts and underfunding have decimated domestic violence charities, and led to increasingly high numbers of victims left without any refuge space to flee too. The crisis of underfunding has increasingly led domestic violence charities to turn away migrant women without citizenship and recourse to public funds, as they cannot access housing benefit to pay rent at a refuge. The COVID-19 crisis will surely exacerbate this situation. We demand the government provide emergency funding to all existing refuges, and provide rent holidays for domestic violence victims currently paying rent across all hostels, or having their rent paid for by social services. We also demand that the government provide additional financial funding for women without recourse to public funds so they can secure a refuge space.

We also need to be clear about the significance of these demands. It is not necessarily that we expect the ruling class to concede to all of these demands, and especially not on any particularly compassionate grounds. However, they are necessary and achievable if capital accumulation is deprioritised. This provides us with a second conclusion: that capitalism has run its course. All that remains is its inhumanity, violence, and indignity; the contradictions of decadent imperialism, unable to imagine its own future, laid bare as the seemingly vital artifices of capitalism prove themselves just that – artifices. The demands of today can be the basic elements of tomorrow’s society. We objectively can build socialism and we can do so more easily than at any time in history. We can and must dare to imagine a better world, yes, but we are at a point in history where we can begin to perceive it with more clarity than ever. It is now up to us to put ourselves, as workers, in a position to build it.

We call on all organisations of the working class (trade unions, renters’ unions and associations, activist and advocacy groups etc.) to co-sign these demands and join us in putting forward a platform for working class liberation in the context of the pandemic. We are demanding our right to survive. If this system cannot guarantee our survival, the survival of the system can not and shall not be guaranteed.