Editorial: Locked down under capitalism
What would have been unthinkable a few months ago has now become reality. Most countries have been placed under lockdown, where the state has closed down large areas of the economy – shops, cinemas, pubs and restaurants in an effort to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Only food stores, supermarkets and pharmacies are allowed to remain open. Schools have been closed. The police have been given powers to enforce social distancing laws, whereby people are only allowed out for restricted activities, such as food shopping, exercise or attending medical appointments, and they can instruct people to go home and issue on-the-spot fines. For most workers, particularly those in the more developed capitalist states, this is unprecedented.
As the lockdown applies to everyone, then surely we are all in this together? Well, not quite. It is true that it can lead to mental health issues like loneliness and depression. There has been a recorded rise in domestic violence cases. Children being cooped up in the house and unable to play with their friends is not good for their emotional development.
However, like everything else in capitalism, having money can help you ride this crisis more comfortably. Wealthy capitalists can hop on to their yachts and head for luxury havens such as Palm Beach (Chuck Collins, ‘Let’s stop pretending billionaires are in the same boat as us during this pandemic’, Guardian, 24 April). They don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, about being furloughed or how they will pay the rent or mortgage. Even better-off workers can get by more easily by working from home and having more savings to draw on. Poorer workers, on the other hand, are more likely to have to travel to work and tend to live in higher-density housing which puts them more at risk. It is certainly more pleasant to self-isolate in a mansion with large grounds than in a high-rise council flat. Moreover, it is workers who are losing their jobs by the millions and seeing their incomes fall.
Although the lockdown has made it more difficult for workers to come together physically, there is evidence of the emergence of groups offering community and social services. George Monbiot has outlined many instances of these happening globally; students in Prague babysitting the children of health workers; volunteers in Belgrade organising online crisis counselling; in the UK and elsewhere, groups are picking up shopping and prescriptions for the elderly. As these groups are independent of the state and the private market sector, Monbiot refers to them as the ‘commons’ (‘Covid-19 has turned millions of us into good neighbours’, Guardian, 1 April).
What this reveals is what is most important in society. It is certainly not the wheeling and dealing of the venture capitalists, bankers and other ‘movers and shakers’ that we are supposed to look up to, but the useful jobs that doctors, nurses, delivery workers, public transport workers and postal workers do.
Perhaps this insight along with the emergence of the ‘commons’ may provide the seeds of an emerging socialist class consciousness?