The Virus: Our Perspective – Covid and Class

If you were to compile a list of essential workers that your community has been reliant on during the Coronavirus crisis, you’d very likely not include billionaires, CEOs, businessmen, bankers, economists or the royals or that class of people who live off rent, interest and profit. Your list would include workers we encounter every day and whose occupations we had hitherto taken for granted. Your list would undoubtedly include medical workers, shop staff, ‘bin men’, delivery drivers, those working in power plants or working in front-line maintenance of the technology society needs etc. In short, you’d cite members of the class that sells its physical and mental abilities for a wage or salary in order to live – the working class. In her recent address to the nation about the coronavirus crisis, the queen began her brief message with a recognition of the importance of such workers to a society in crisis and, unwittingly, revealing the utter uselessness of her own institution to society.

We keep the world going

This class, the working class, runs the world and it is important to grasp this fact. It is we, members of this majority class, who build the cities and railway networks, the bridges and roads, the docks and airports. It is we who staff the hospitals and schools, who empty the bins and go down the sewers. It is we who fish the oceans and tend the forests, work the farm and till the land and plantations. It is we, the working class, who produce everything society needs from a pin to an oil-rig, who provide all of its services. If we can do all of this off our own bats, then assuredly, we can continue to do so without a profit-greedy minority watching over us and, more, in our own interests.

To be sure, the ruling class of capitalists and their executive, the governments of the world, have no monopoly on our skills and abilities. These belong to us. Moreover, it is we who are responsible for the inventions that have benefited humanity and the improvements in productive techniques. Most inventions and improvements are the result of those who do the actual work, thinking up easier and faster ways of completing a task, the result of ideas being passed down from generation to generation, each one improving the techniques of the previous. If those who work have given the world so much, in the past say 2,000 years, then how much more are we capable of providing in a world devoid of the artificial constraints of profit? Needless to say, any vaccine for the coronavirus will be the result of the hard work of salary-earning scientists, not some fat-arsed apologist for the profit system.

It is easy to cite the advantages of capitalism over previous economic systems. Many people believe that capitalism, though not perfect, is the only system possible. One thing is certain, though – if we follow the capitalist trajectory, we’re in for some pretty troublesome times. Capitalism has undoubtedly raised the productive potential of humanity and it is now quite possible to provide a comfortable standard of living for every human on the planet. But, to reiterate, capitalism now stands as a barrier to the full and improved use of the world’s productive and distributive forces. In a world of potential abundance, the unceasing quest for profit imposes on our global society widespread artificial scarcity. Hundreds of millions of humans are consigned to a life of abject poverty, whilst the majority live lives filled with uncertainty.

Our ability to imagine has brought us so very far, from the days when our ancestors chipped away at flint to produce the first tools, to the sending of scientific probes to the surface of Mars, the setting up of the worldwide web, and the mapping of the human genome. Is it really such a huge leap of the imagination to now envisage a social system that can take over from the present capitalist order of things? Is it just too daring to imagine humans consigning poverty, disease, hunger and war to some pre-historic age?

Do we really need leaders deciding our lives for us, when collectively we are far more capable of deciding what is best? Do we really need governments administering our lives when what is really needed is the administration of the things we need to live in peace and security? Must every decision made by our elites be first of all weighed on the scales of profit, tilted always in their favour?

Can’t be reformed to work for us

One thing is certain: capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of the world’s suffering billions, because reform does not address the basic contradiction between profit and need. The world’s leaders cannot be depended upon because they can only ever act as the executive of corporate capitalism. The expansion of democracy, while welcome, serves little function if all candidates at election time can only offer variations on the same basic set of policies that keep capitalism in the ascendancy.

Capitalism must be abolished if we as a species are to thrive, if the planet is to survive. No amount of reform, however great, will work. Change must be global and irreversible. It must involve all of us. We need to erase borders and frontiers; to abolish states and governments and false concepts of nationalism. We need to abolish our money systems, and with it buying, selling and exchange. And in place of this we need to establish a different global social system – a society in which there is common ownership and true democratic control of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources. A society where the everyday things we need to live in comfort are produced and distributed freely and for no other reason than that they are needed – socialism.

It is now no utopian fantasy to suggest we can live in a world without waste or want or war, in which each person has free access to the benefits of civilisation. That much is assured. We certainly have the science, the technology and the know-how. All that is missing is the will – the global desire for change that can make that next great historical advance possible; a belief in ourselves as masters of our own destiny; a belief that it is possible to free production from the artificial constraints of profit and to fashion a world in our own interests. And how soon this happens depends upon us all – each and every one of us.

Of course, many, even our detractors, will agree that such a socialist world would be a beautiful place to live in, but that ‘human nature’ will always be a barrier to its establishment, because humans are ‘by nature’ greedy, selfish and aggressive. It quickly becomes apparent that what they are describing is not human nature as such, but various traits of human behaviour exhibited under particular circumstances. Socialists maintain that human behaviour is shaped by the kind of system people are brought up to live in – that it is not our consciousness that determines our social existence but our social existence which determines our consciousness. Nobody is born a racist or a patriot, a bigot or with a belief in gods. Nobody is born a murderer, a robber or a rapist, and our alleged greed for money is no more a function of the natural human thought process than were slavery or witch burning.

In general, the ideas the common people hold have been acquired second-hand, passed down from the ruling class above us. This is because the class which owns and controls the productive process also controls the intellectual life process in general. Any anti-social behaviour is likewise influenced by our social circumstances at any given time, i.e., when we are poor, depressed, afraid, lonely, angry and frustrated.

In most cases, those who produce the world’s wealth (some 95 percent of the world’s population) have had that second-rate education that makes free thought difficult – an upbringing that conditions us to accept without question the ideas of our betters and superiors. Indeed, the education system is geared to perpetuate the rule of an elite, insofar as it never encourages children to question and take issue with the status quo. Children may well recite that 8 times 8 equals 64, but how many will ask about the cause of wars or query the destruction of food?

Socialists hold that because we can adapt our behaviour, the desire to cooperate should not be viewed as irrational. We hold that humans are, ‘by nature’, cooperative and that we work best when faced with the worst and that our humanity shines through when the odds are stacked against us. There are millions of cases of people donating their blood and organs to complete strangers, sacrificing their lives for others, of people giving countless hours of their free time to charitable work – all of this without financial incentive.

When the call went out for volunteers to help the NHS during the current crisis, over 700,000 offered their services. Elsewhere, in Britain and around the world, countless millions have stepped forward to help the most vulnerable in society and in every way imaginable and with social media flooded with countless acts of selflessness and solidarity and, often, carried out by those with the least to give.

Today, world capitalism threatens the human race with extinction, if not through existential threats to the planet through nuclear war and climate change, then through the threat of pandemics which lays bare the utter incompetence of the profit system when faced with crisis. The reason this obnoxious system survives is because we have been conditioned to accept it, but we are not born to perpetuate it. Rest assured, no gene inclines us to defend the profit system.

Normality is not normal

It is perhaps ‘natural’ for people to want to return to something resembling a pre-Covid-19 world, to get ‘back to normal’, for family and friends to meet up and continue as before, to love and to care and to share, which is the essence of human nature. But let’s remember what this normality really means for many of us. It is a world where every aspect of life is subordinated to the worst excesses of the drive to make profit on the part of a minority owning and controlling class.

Normality is a world where almost 800 million are chronically malnourished and where 25,000 children die each day from hunger or related illness. At the same time, the governments of the world order the destruction of vast mountains of food to keep prices high, stockpile food until it rots and pay farmers to take land out of production because the laws of supply and demand insist that overproduction is bad for the market.

Normality is a world where some 150 million of our fellow humans are homeless, many sleeping rough on the streets of the world’s cities, with 1.6 billion lacking adequate housing, yet there is no shortage of vacant buildings – countless millions of acres of empty living space in the major cities of the world – and certainly no shortage of building materials or skilled builders and craftsmen presently out of work. Again, we find that the market not only dictates who does and does not eat, but who does and does not sleep comfortably.

Normality is a planet on which over one billion of our fellow humans have no access to clean water and 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation, and the growing scarcity of fresh water is calculated to spark many wars across the globe in the coming decades. Meanwhile, the technology exists to desalinate millions of gallons each day and to set up treatment plants capable of cleaning the dirtiest water. However, there is not much profit in selling something which covers five-sixths of the planet, so the investment never comes.

While millions of children die each year of curable diseases and while we still await breakthroughs in medical science that can cure the presently incurable, we find there are literally thousands of scientists around the world employed in weapons programmes – paid by their respective governments to devise new methods of murder, including germ warfare, the deaths from which could dwarf those of the current pandemic.

The list is as endless as it is insane. At every turn we find evidence of how capitalism destroys us physically and mentally, retarding real human development. At every turn we come smack up against the iron law of our age – ‘can’t pay, can’t have’. At every turn we find capitalism running wild like a rabid dog, infecting all it comes into contact with, a pandemic that is rarely recognised for what it is.

If we return to ‘normality’, let’s hope it is with an increased awareness of our own worth, capabilities and potential, a recognition that it’s the workers who run the world, no matter how seemingly menial the job, and how interdependent we are on each other. Whilst our leaders, in the face of crisis, resemble more each day the character in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, let us not lose sight of the fact it was the workers who kept society going and rid the world of Covid-19.

JOHN BISSETT

From Socialist Standard No-1389-May-2020

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