by Nick Pemberton, 5-4-2020; originally published on CounterPunch on 4-29-2020
This article addresses the return to work advocates and the left’s response to them and the pandemic. Capitalism has always sacrificed workers’ lives. Instead of providing the food and income necessary to stay safe, the bosses and their government are pushing people to work in dangerous conditions (and dumping crops and animals that are also extraneous to them). It’s a system that requires people to make choices that lead to death: work and risk dying or shelter and risk starving. Nick rightly calls for a communist solution based on love for fellow workers. His other writings can be found on Counterpunch.org
Amidst a deadly pandemic set to kill millions of people it is hard not to become reactionary and short-sighted. The coronavirus for all intents and purposes is the new Trump for the libs. On the one hand a force that remains criminally underrated in its capacity for destruction despite its overwhelming popularity and attention from the bourgeoisie. On the other hand a noise that is so loud that it erases all rationality and perspective.
The alt-left response to COVID-19 has been much the same as the as the alt-left response to Trump. The alt-left dismisses both. This is a mistake. Firstly because it’s dishonest. Secondly because it causes the left to lose credibility as the twin dangers of Trump and coronavirus collaborate to kill millions.
However the mainstream left, if there is such a thing, has become quite politically correct in the age of coronavirus which is understandable. However we must be slightly more honest about both how dangerous the virus is and how much capitalism has failed us in our preparation for it.
The left loses for a number of reasons and most of them have to do with corporate power. However there is at least some possibility for populism in these times. The left needs to do a better job at acknowledging class interest in the purest sense.
This brings me to the controversial protests that demand to reopen the economy. On the one hand we have to critique the limited and dangerous definition of freedom proposed by the right wing. The freedom to work was always a slave mentality but the freedom to work amidst the coronavirus is a death wish. The idea of 1% dying (more like 3-4% with our lack of health care equipment and our lack of health care affordability and our refusal to not deport immigrants who seek not to die), well the idea of that 4% dying seems more appetizing to many than potentially 20% not working and a majority having wages or hours impacted.
Doing the math on this makes the right-wing argument to open things up here sound dangerous and absurd. Indeed; it’s nothing short of catastrophic. However the left simply can’t be a reactionary force. It’s simply not enough to say “you can’t work” but provide no alternative. For most Americans there simply is no alternative in the long-term. Unless there is a specifically communist intervention into the lives of everyday folks what the hell are people supposed to do but turn to the private sector at a death clip of 4%?
As privileged as this may sound we can’t simply rush back into the doomsday 4% dead scenario here. Even if there is no other political path forward, we must attempt it before letting Trump lead a genocide.
There is some hope for the necessary mentality of the comrade but it remains within the confines of capital. Take for example the fascist statement that essential workers are heroes for risking their lives for the rest of us. How sick is that? Let people die (supposedly who we consider the “best” people in order to save us?). It just is a stance I’m uncomfortable with. If a doctor or nurse walks out, that’s far more heroic than dying for the capitalist cause. I’m sorry.
So maybe my communism is undercut here by some concern for the particular. It’s no lie that we never got to where we are today without people dying. We never got here without people resisting the rich and powerful and getting killed because of it. Still, to force people into this heroism seems wrong especially if we aren’t also willing to die for the cause.
What is really going on is more encouraging. People are on the front lines not just because of capitalism (I have to work to survive, so who cares if I die in the process) but also because of communism (I am risking my life for you because I love you, even if you can’t return the favor). Such radical sacrifice brings the society forward in a way that can’t be quantified. Just as trauma is long-lasting we never forget those moments where we are loved and we can’t help but be propelled into extraordinary deeds ourselves.
Not that there isn’t cause for alarm. The corporate parties continue to collaborate to shove wealth upward. The Trump administration presents a particularly deadly variety of neoliberalism as it cuts funding to the World Health Organization seemingly because there is a health crisis, it cuts environmental regulations seemingly because the environment finally gets a breath of fresh air after we slow down capitalism for a minute, it attempts to cut abortion services seemingly because it is an administration without regard for life on earth and it furthers the deportation and imprisonment of immigrants seemingly because this helps spread the disease to them and therefore of course to all of us who can therefore of course blame immigrants, praise Trump, etc.
But what the hell is the “other” side doing? The other hot-headed Daddy in the room, Andrew Cuomo? Cutting Medicaid as we speak, proudly blaming Trump while they were the ones who cut hospital budgets and collaborating with ICE to further the incarceration state. Pathetic!
A couple other points. First is the difference in age group and how we see this. Young people who rightly see that 10 years down the line, well maybe longer, maybe 25, depends where you live, well we’re all fucked because of climate change. Combine this with the fact that we are less likely to die of coronavirus specifically and our political and generational alienation generally. Well you do get a whole lot of people in a state of limbo; at once mentally off-kilter because of over-medication of a generation, a lonely generation made more lonely, a financially insecure generation made more insecure and a generation with apocalyptic fears seeing them come true. However it’s also somehow all par for the course and therefore is at danger of being underestimated.
Another thing to address. How do we avoid shifting all the burden of the pandemic onto people already stretched to the point of despair? Now take Sweden as a fascinating example. On the one hand they killed a lot of people by not doing social distancing for whatever reason. On the other hand at least so far (this could change) their death rate remains far lower than the US or others because they had previously put the socialist infrastructure in place (with its own ties to free market, xenophobia, the prison of the family and Empire, of course). Cuba is a better model for how to run a country but I digress.
Now this is where we get into going beyond reactionary thinking. Sweden shouldn’t have been reactionary enough to doubt the virus and believe more in the purity of its system than a natural cause. But the West shouldn’t be so reactionary in believing that the social distancing measures now is the only way to slow this. Again and again the burden is shifted onto the people. Rather than spend our days shaming people for trying to work and survive we should be making demands the government takes care of people rather than serve the 1%.
So in that sense the demand that we do give up all our rights to a system that has never taken care of us, well that does seem extremely unfair. If communism was so bad before why must we all sacrifice our rights when the government is busy taking our money and giving it to rich people? These are real questions, but they are the wrong questions. We should be asking what does freedom really look like? The freedom to die or the freedom to love?
Is Sweden free because they let their people die for a grander cause or because they had created in part a society that actually lived out this cause? This is where we must say that the highest ideal of a society shouldn’t be the death wish of sacrifice for the higher ideal whether that be American capitalism, Swedish social safety nets or old school communist revolutionaries. No matter what our cause is, death is tragic.
Furthermore if the cause demands we die for it we have to start asking questions. Why are we willing to do this? Is it because we believe in something greater than our own life? Or is it because we are fooled or forced into this sacrifice? I think crucially that there is no difference between these two states.
Nothing is more foolish than to love, as our essential workers and others are doing now. It’s just as foolish as those demanding to open the economy back up. The difference is the obligation. One has the obligation to the communal. One has the obligation to capital. Even in the face of death, humans are extraordinary. We are fools to the bitter end. Which kind of fool will we be? The kind of fool that fights like hell for our comrade? Or one who fights like hell for his master?
There is no doubt that the right wing working class populism is largely mythic. Much of the supposedly grass roots movement against the virus is done by middle class people with organizations that lead all the the 1%. Protesting for a right to a haircut looks ridiculous but it also looks ridiculous to cherry pick this example. Ask someone in the third world the consequences of half the workforce being unemployed. It’s deadly. Workers lose leverage. Slave labor is the legal work. The illegal economy skyrockets and workers lose all protections. Many just have to beg and of course many more die before their time. Violence and the police state will go up, and think about the levels we had in this fascist shithole when we were all employed.
This is a perspective the left shouldn’t dismiss and we lose our class perspective when we accept the middle class narrative perpetuated by the corporate media that work can simply be delayed or replaced. Even worse would be to accept the ruling class narrative that the private market is the only way to solve our problems. Clearly the market has failed to give anyone a guarantee to the right to survive. This is where we must insist on the end to austerity and the return of communism. Dismissing people who want to survive but don’t want see a path to change the conditions of their dependence on capitalism is a mistake that leaves the left with few allies.
This is why a general strike is needed that asserts that together we are far more powerful than we are apart. No, this certainly doesn’t mean compromising to violent fascists but it does mean understanding the lack within capitalism that fascism fills. In our current example we must understand that because capitalism has failed so dramatically we find people embracing it not because they are privileged necessarily but also because they aren’t.
Things are going from bad to worse in an economic sense, in a political sense and in an ecological sense, and these are all related. As the grip tightens around us the cruelty of the neoliberal order is exposed as a brutal form of violence that is not even ashamed of its white supremacy but instead views it as culture itself in a life that has replaced the living being relationship with the capital relationship. Poor people of the world must unite in a realm outside of the workplace facilitated by capital. This is not just because the present enslavement to capital will kill about 4% of us it is because the long-term commitment to capital carries no guarantees as inequality mounts and capitalist growth intrudes upon the natural world we need to live.
So yes, a protest is necessary. Demanding that we are allowed to die for capital is one form of political engagement, bizarre as it may be. Another form of political engagement could be to demand that we are allowed to live for something other than capital—namely that communal love that is even more contagious than COVID-19. Just as we must imagine new ways to love in the age of social distancing, we must imagine new ways to relate to the material world as we transition from late-stage capitalism to our communist utopia.