The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

From COVID-19 to the Crisis of 2020

May 8, 2020

The following article is taken from Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the revolutionary workers group active in France.

The health crisis is far from over, and the economy and society are sinking deeper and deeper into the crisis of capitalism, with all of its consequences for the working classes. Humanity possesses most of the scientific and technical means to control the pandemic, even if those who claim scientific authority repeat that this will take time and that we must “learn to live with the coronavirus.” But society is caught in the stranglehold of its capitalist organization, with private property in the means of production and rival national states. The direct and indirect damage which capitalism causes is immeasurably greater than that caused by the coronavirus. The proletariat is the only social class with both the objective interest and the power to break this stranglehold and to reorganize society in such a way that humanity would be capable of mastering its own social life.

Beyond the problems specific to the pandemic, it is this reality which must guide the action of revolutionary communists in the task of building the party that embodies this perspective.

The figures which show the decline in global production, the rapid rise of unemployment, the drop in international trade, etc., are already catastrophic. But they end up losing all meaning, since it is obvious that the current crisis of the capitalist economy is on the same scale as the major shocks that rattled it in the 20th century. And all of these elements only provide a snapshot of the state of the crisis at a given moment. They only allow us to glimpse what might follow, or in other words, the chain reactions which the crisis likely to cause.

The most common comparisons have been with the 1929 stock market crash, and with the Great Depression that followed. In fact, although the coronavirus pandemic and the quarantine have had direct effects on production, they have at the same time set off a brutal aggravation of the crisis of the capitalist system, a bit like the Black Thursday crash of 1929 was for the Great Depression.

The French Minister of the Economy made another comparison, this time with the years immediately after World War Two, in order to illustrate the importance of the decline of production in France.

However, this sort of comparison can only be superficial, since each of these episodes in the history of capitalism was different, as was its consequences. All of the periods of crises and economic shocks in our era, besides their diversity, illustrate the extent to which the capitalist system in its senile age, its imperialist age, is incapable of dealing even with the problems coming out of its own functioning, and, even more, with the new problems facing society.

In 1929, the crisis came directly out of the working of the capitalist economy itself. Its productive forces had grown rapidly after the First World War, particularly in the United States, and they reached the limits of the market. During the time of rising capitalism, crises were heartbeats in the life that of the economy and did not halt global progress. They could even bring about a certain improvement in the living conditions of the exploited classes. But this changed in the epoch of imperialism. “The life of monopolistic capitalism in our time is a chain of crises. Each crisis is a catastrophe,” Trotsky wrote in Marxism in Our Time. “The need of salvation from these partial catastrophes by means of tariff walls, inflation, increase of government spending, and debts lays the ground for additional, deeper, and more widespread crises.”

As for the big drop in production in 1944–1945, this was a result of the destruction caused by the second imperialist World War, which in a way ended the 1929 crisis. But it did not do so in the same way for all of the imperialist powers who fought each other.

The defeated imperialist powers, Germany and Japan, faced an unprecedented destruction of their means of production, human just as much as material.

The crisis of 1929 was resolved to the benefit of U.S. imperialism, the leader of the victorious powers. This was an outcome of the war itself, which offered a huge market to big U.S. capital for the production of weapons and supplies. While the European imperialist powers were destroying themselves and Japan exhausted itself in war before being bombed with nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. economy experienced one of the greatest expansions in its history. Once the war was over, reconstruction opened a new market on a European, and even a global, scale. Once again, big U.S. capital was the main beneficiary.

The English and French imperialist powers found themselves somewhere between the big winner that was U.S. imperialism and the big loser that was Germany. Even though they were on the winning side, they had to concede a large share of their global domination to U.S. imperialism.

We will not deal here with the political role of the Soviet bureaucracy and the Stalinist parties, even though it was a major reason that the Second World War was not followed by the revolutionary intervention of the proletariat, unlike the First World War. The war did not result in a change in the balance of force between the international proletariat and the imperialist bourgeoisie. The changes at the international level were limited to shifts in the relationships of force between the great powers (the USSR, which came out of a proletarian revolution, but which had bureaucratized, was at the same time a disruptive element for the global imperialist order but also served to stabilize it).

However, the revolt of peoples in the aftermath of the Second World War was no less than in the aftermath of the First. But nowhere did the masses in movement find a proletarian leadership proposing the overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie as their ultimate goal.

It was this fundamental fact which allowed the imperialist bourgeoisies to get back on top, to consolidate their control over society and to enrich themselves during what have been called the “Thirty Glorious Years,” thanks to the exploitation of their own proletariat, to the pillage of the poor countries, and to the oppression of their peoples.

It was not the laws of the market, of competition, and of profit which allowed the bourgeoisie to restart economic life under its power and for its profit, but it was, in large measure, state control—the very negation of private initiative. But this negation was itself situated within the framework of capitalism and was intended to save the rule of the bourgeoisie. Besides its sovereign role of defending the interests of the class of exploiters against the exploited with the force of its armed bands in uniform, the state expanded its intervention in economic life. It took over the sectors which were indispensable to the functioning of the economy as a whole, but which did not generate enough profits for the owners of capital.

State control played a major role in all of the imperialist countries, including in the imperialist country which prided itself as the homeland of private initiative, the United States. State control during wartime is not just a military necessity. During the Second World War, it was the United States which best illustrated its decisive economic role for the bourgeoisie. After the war, France became its perfect model, with the nationalization of many industries and of energy. At the time, this was above all represented by the French Coal Board, public transportation, communications, and even deposit banks, which amassed capital, planned to a certain extent, and invested in sectors which did not interest the bourgeoisie. The state took charge not only of education (and therefore of the training of the future exploited workers), but also of workers’ healthcare and retirement insurance.

It was this type of state control which became the model which the Stalinists presented as a cheap substitute for socialism. All of the varieties of reformism have taken up this vision of society as the sole alternative to “savage capitalism.” When the French Communist Party was the main party with roots in the working class, it pushed its militants to do the jobs of foremen by telling the workers to work themselves to the bone. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie continued to grow rich under the shadow of the state, until it felt strong enough to begin privatizing sectors that had once been nationalized.

Behind each national bourgeoisie, there is a national state, and behind the national state there is the United States, with its dollar and its economic and military power. This is the axis around which the imperialist bourgeoisie has consolidated its position as the ruling class and has structured the international order.

There is no need to dwell here on the myth of a capitalism without major crises which dominated the vision of the world during the few years of economic growth that lasted from the end of the postwar reconstruction until the new period of crises than started in the 1970s. This myth collapsed with the crisis of the international monetary system and the oil crisis, followed by countless other shocks. A long period opened then, marked everywhere by a multi-pronged offensive of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat, by a reduction of workers’ share in national income relative to that of the capitalists, and by a decline in living conditions for the working class. As for the way in which the global surplus value extracted from the working class is divided up among the bourgeoisie, this has been marked by the growth of finance and the levy it collects.

The current economic crisis is situated in this continuity, but it pushes it farther along, worsening living conditions for the working class and aggravating the financialization of the economy.

The Current Crisis and the Bourgeoisie’s Tricks to Overcome It

“The Central Banks: Last Bastion of the Global Economy,” read the headline of Le Monde on April 29, 2020. Just below, it announced: “The Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Fed ... Are Launching Programs to Support the Economy, Making Previously Unthinkable Decisions.”

One after the other, the imperialist states have thrown themselves into bailing out capitalist companies, “no matter the cost,” as Macron has said, without necessarily even resorting to nationalizations, even temporarily (although this could certainly still happen in certain cases). The money is distributed directly to private capitalist companies.

Under the headline “SOS Companies,” the April 27 edition of Le Figaro writes in its own style what is happening: “Collateral victims of the virus, thousands of them are also finding themselves on life support. It is the state who guarantees their accounts and takes care of their employees.”

We will skip over the fact that the employees are not really taken care of, since their full wages are not paid. From the capitalist point of view, this statement is entirely correct. But if the state replaces the capitalists, just as much to “take care of” their employees as to guarantee their bottom line, what is their purpose, even from the capitalist point of view? Just this sentence from Le Figaro underscores the totally parasitic character of the bourgeoisie.

This does not stop some of its spokespeople from complaining. One columnist in Les Échos, under the headline “COVID-19: How to Save Our Businesses from Bankruptcy,” states: “As in every crisis, the companies will resort to going into debt. And yet, what they need is equity capital. It is time to create a public tool adequate to provide them with this.” He continues: “We are lacking a decisive weapon in the government’s arsenal. In order to save our economy, we need a public instrument to invest in companies that need it. A revolution?” he asks. Then he responds: “Certainly, but not by collectivizing.” In other words, he is saying: “It is not enough to lend us money; you must give it to us. The state must not only pay our workers’ wages and our debts, but it must also directly guarantee us the dividends to which we have a right.”

Behind this cynical self-importance hides the anxiety of a second-rate bourgeoisie of a completely second-rate imperialist country faced with the economic perspective which is taking shape. The core of this anxiety is precisely that the policy which consists of using credit and debt to save capitalism in crisis ends up reinforcing finance and its role even more. “It would be impossible to quickly prop up a productive system deprived of capital and saddled with debts,” the columnist from Les Échos continues to groan. He conjures up the “multiple court appearances facing those who might succeed in getting through the crisis,” or the “waves of companies bought up by investment funds.” Behind “the state to the rescue of capitalism,” there looms the threat of the banks and speculative funds, who will mercilessly sweep aside those private companies without the means to resist.

Who Will Finance ... Finance?

The central banks are printing as much virtual money as they want to buy up government debts and sovereign bonds. This procedure is nothing new. It is already the method which the imperialist bourgeoisie used to overcome the crisis of 2008. Le Monde notes that: “In 2007, the balance sheet of the world’s three main central banks—the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed), the European Central Bank, and the Bank of Japan—was $3.4 trillion. In February 2020, even before the pandemic, it had reached $14.6 trillion. And this was just the beginning.” The growth of these figures is a measure of the increasing volume of credit granted to the capitalist corporations by their states. Must it be recalled that, after the 2008 financial crisis and the threat of a generalized banking collapse, all of the governments promised to limit and regulate excessive lending (and therefore the creation of debts)?

But once the storm had passed, carrying off banks the size of Lehman Brothers along with it, the speculative game started up again.

The sums listed in the central banks’ balance sheets are likely to increase by two-thirds in this year alone. And yet, these unbelievable sums will be absorbed by the most powerful financial groups, meaning those with the power to lend to governments. These bonds can be bought, sold, repackaged, and transformed into what are called financial products.

But who will reimburse this mountain of debts which the governments are in the process of accumulating? For the leaders of this class which, up until the current crisis, pedantically preached that debts must be paid, the question has suddenly become far less important. It should be remembered, however, that it was in the name of debt that they squeezed the working classes of a country like Greece and demolished their standard of living.

Some speak of a debt spread out over fifty or one hundred years. Others even foresee having a perpetual debt, which the debtor never has to pay back. Still others, including the most high-profile economists, resolve the problem of debt by denying its very existence. “Money is what is financing the crisis, not debt,” stated Patrick Artus, the chief economist at Natixis, in an interview with Le Monde.

The idea of a perpetual debt is not really new, at least not in substance. The method used by governments of borrowing in order to pay back old debts by creating new ones did not start today. But a perpetual debt would be the official admission that what counts for the creditors is above all to collect interest. If the debts do not come due until far in the future, in 20 or 30 years, the reimbursement of the sum lent out becomes less important than the interest which the creditor regularly collects, which is ultimately much larger than the initial sum. A perpetual debt guarantees to the creditors a regular income, which is itself perpetual. The main reason that this brilliant idea that occurs to the minds of a decaying capitalism is having trouble taking shape in practice is that the bonds which represent this perpetual income, based on sovereign debts, threaten to compete with the mass of other financial products. No matter how virtual they may be, these products and their very real owners are no less in competition with one another. The whole process which has linked financiers and governments closer and closer together does not eliminate competition—just the opposite.

Behind these verbal sleights of hand, the heart of the matter remains: someone still needs to finance these debt payments. This means taking from the population whatever is needed to maintain the parasitism of finance.

Interest payments already take up a growing share of the state’s expenditure. Once again, this is a fundamental evolution of capitalism, which survives by forcing the state to take over a large share of the effort and difficulties of direct exploitation. The state is capitalism’s court usher and lackey, carrying out its dirty work.

Every crisis shifts the balance of forces between capitalists. This is even the fundamental function of crises in the capitalist economy: to reestablish the equilibrium between production and solvent demand. They reestablish it after the fact, even though production takes place through the anarchy of individual initiatives.

Crises are when the dead branches of the economy are pruned back. They establish new relations of force between capitalists. It is during crises that the more powerful destroy or devour the others, that capital becomes more concentrated, meaning that wealth and the means of production become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

The current crisis is also playing this role. A reconfiguration of the different sectors of economic activity is now taking place. The tourism and entertainment industries are collapsing. And many companies in these sectors will not recover.

Even after two months of inactivity, it would be incorrect to consider civil aviation to be a dead branch—especially since the national airlines are among the main beneficiaries of government aid—any more than it would the automobile industry as a whole. But this does not resolve the question of who will survive and who will not. Some companies will disappear, among the airlines as well as the auto manufacturers, and even more of their subcontractors will go out of business.

On the other hand, other sectors, especially those having to do with new technologies, like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft, are experiencing a rapid expansion. So are the giant delivery companies.

Even more important, the crisis is accentuating the financial sector’s domination over the productive sector. However, behind these two ways of extracting from the total surplus value produced from the exploitation of workers, there lies the same big bourgeoisie, at its richest and most powerful summits. While this crisis is pushing the working class into growing poverty and threatens to ruin the middle and small bourgeoisie, the big fortunes continue to grow, and class contradictions continue to sharpen.

The Implosion of the European Union

The three big central banks have gradually taken on the role of the last bastion of the global economy. The Bank of England also plays this role, as does the Swiss National Bank to a lesser extent. But the European Central Bank has the distinctive characteristic that there is not one single state behind it, but the 19 member states of the Eurozone. These states are chained together by common interests but remain competitors and rivals. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, was able to express why all negotiations within the European Union have gotten bogged down: “We are witnessing a widening of the fractures that have undermined the international order for years. The pandemic is the continuation of the struggle between powers by other means.”

This struggle between powers within the European Union, or more precisely within the Eurozone, takes a concrete form around the conditions for access to financial markets.

Not a single state in the European Union—even Germany, the wealthiest one—has at its disposal the amount which it promised to its capitalist companies. The states are counting on borrowing this money in the financial markets. But at what rate? The recent (2010–2011) Eurozone crisis showed that the 19 countries who are a part of it might well use the same currency when they borrow on capital markets, but they do not pay the same rate of interest, which varies according to each one’s power. Even the mid-rate imperialist powers who founded the European Union, such as Germany and Italy, are not all in the same boat.

The collective interest defended by the European Union’s institutions would require that all nineteen member states could collectively borrow at a common rate. However, although official speeches overflow with the words “common” and “collective,” the reality is that everyone is on their own. The ultimatum which the German Constitutional Court issued to the European Central Bank requiring it to justify the purchase of certain bonds, especially those of the poorest countries, is revelatory of the relations between countries within the Eurozone. It is a way of making clear that the wealthiest governments do not have to help those in difficulty.

Rival Thieves Chained Together

The crisis does not diminish competition, neither between big capitalist corporations nor between national states. For the moment, these rivalries are still hidden behind speeches singing the praises of collaboration. What is at stake is, in the last resort, the division of the total surplus value extracted from the working class among the different categories and cliques of capitalists represented by their national states. But all of the fights between thieves over their spoils should not hide the fact that the victims are the exploited classes.

In other words, the coming period will be marked by the offensive of the bourgeoisie as a whole against the working class. The bourgeoisie is not even hiding its intention to profit from the pandemic itself to tip the balance of force in its favor at the expense of the working class. They lengthen the workday while planning layoffs. They are cutting public services still more, even though it has just been shown that society cannot function without them. They are getting rid of the social aspects of bourgeois state control, at the same time that the state is throwing its coffers wide open for the capitalists.

The official spokespeople for the big bosses are not yet saying openly, or are presenting only as temporary measures, that which other “water carriers” for the bourgeoisie are expressing more brutally. In this way, the Montaigne Institute—the name of which is an insult to the great French Renaissance philosopher—just published its propositions for overcoming the crisis, the most prominent of which are: extending the workday to 10 hours per day and 48 hours per week; eliminating the national holiday of Ascension Thursday; and canceling the All Saints’ Day school vacation.

How is extending the workday supposed to help overcome the crisis? The proposition would simply be stupid if it did not have behind it the idea that workers need to work more and earn less, increasing the surplus valued extracted by their exploiters.

The more prudent servants of the bourgeoisie in the media criticize this sort of proposition as “heavy-handed,” since society has not even gotten past the pandemic. Others state that this would be immoral!

Exploitation is not a moral question, but the basis of capitalist society. Hoping for the bourgeoisie to be more sympathetic towards those whose exploitation enriches it is even more stupid during a crisis than in normal times.

Reformist Merchants of Dreams and Revolutionary Policy

In the comparison between the current crisis and the postwar period in France, there are nevertheless some striking aspects. For one, there are the speeches from all the bourgeois parties about “national unity.” Actually, that’s how to tell they are bourgeois parties, to paraphrase an old French film. In any case, they do this in times of difficulty for the bourgeoisie. Ordinarily, they have to show that they are different from each other so that voters can reject the party in power, which attacks them, by voting for the opposition, which will do the same thing as its predecessor once it takes office. This is the essence of bourgeois parliamentarianism: spin the wheel, make Parliament drone on and on, and continue the exploitation! Change the party in power so that everything stays the same.

Another striking resemblance between the two periods: the language of the reformists. Their representatives are no longer the same, and their links with the working class are even weaker. At the time of the “Liberation,” the French Communist Party (PCF) had an entirely different influence in the working class than it does today. Thanks to the Party and its influence, the reactionary general Charles de Gaulle could pass himself off, if not as a man of the left—which he would certainly have rejected—at least as a representative of the national interest, including the interests of workers. At the time, these people preached that a better future awaited us, despite the present being filled with over-exploitation for workers, ration cards, makeshift housing, and bloody repression for the peoples of Algeria, Indochina, Madagascar, and all those in the colonial empire. It was in the name of this better future that the PCF insisted that strikes were a weapon of the corporations and that everyone needed to be united to restart the economy. It was because it used this language that the PCF was granted a few ministerial posts, before it was chased out of the government in the way that the bourgeoisie uses to get rid of lackeys who can no longer serve them.

Laurent Berger, the General Secretary of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), naively calls for “another division of wealth” in order to confront the crisis, adding: “Our country will need to show much more solidarity than it has in the past.” This plea will certainly bring capitalists like Arnault, Bolloré, Dassault, and Mulliez to tears!

It is almost with the same words as in 1944–1945 that the political heirs of the Stalinists make their appeals today. This can be seen in many tracts signed by the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), which nevertheless passes for the most radical union federation: “For a more just society, and through struggle, we are making happy new days,” “We are inventing the world that comes after,” and “Never again—together we are building a new future,” “For peace, for national solidarity, for the protection of populations.” This language would be more appropriate to priests of all religions: promise paradise, but far off in the future!

As it were, all of the media also uses this sort of language, painting a rosy image of the end of quarantine. It is not for nothing that it has become fashionable to make references to the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) during World War Two and its program.

However, if things only depended on what capitalism has in store for us, then the future is already here!

There are threats of massive layoffs and an unprecedented spike in unemployment, even in the United States.

There is a brutal rise in poverty, even in the richest countries. The major French charitable organizations are overwhelmed, and the large charity network Emmaus is on the verge of bankruptcy for the first time in its history. And this in one of the richest countries in the world!

As for the poor countries, alongside the increase in poverty, there has been a reinforcement of repression against the poorest people, using clubs and bullets. This is done in the name of a supposedly legitimate war against the coronavirus. And the official armed bands of the governments—the police and the army—are behaving like criminal gangs extorting the poor population, even more than they usually do in these countries.

This is how the future which awaits society is already sketched out in the present. Yet again, the coronavirus will only have been a triggering factor. COVID-19 did not create the famine in Africa. The pandemic from which society is suffering is its social organization: this is the reality which all those who tell us of a better world after the crisis are trying to hide. But they will not succeed.

The ruling class itself fears reactions of revolt, which their media spokespeople express. “The World, on the Verge of a Major Social Explosion,” read the April 22, 2020 headline of Les Échos. The signs of this can even be seen in a rich imperialist country like France, despite the existence of many social shock absorbers, with a growing number of clashes between young people from the poor suburbs and the police. They can also be seen in the United States, not only with strikes, but also with tenants in certain neighborhoods of New York don’t pay their rent, since they have been laid off and no longer even have the resources to provide themselves with a minimal level of protection against the coronavirus.

In the poor countries, it is even worse. The April 27, 2020 headline of Les Échos was: “In Africa, Hunger Will Kill Faster than the Epidemic.” These major newspaper headlines reflect a deep anxiety: “The Planet Is Tilting towards Social Crisis” (Le Monde, April 22, 2020).

The coming period is unlikely to contain “happy new days.” It will make the agony of the current capitalist organization of society even more painful for the exploited.

The working class will have to defend itself. By what means? How? This is obviously a question of the balance of forces. However, in the coming period, the bourgeoisie’s arrogance will be the most powerful mobilizing factor to escape from the worry mixed with resignation on the part of the exploited which marks the present. But this could change brutally, in an unpredictable manner. No one can predict which provocation from the ruling class or its political lackeys will create the shock. Revolutionary militants must be prepared to advance their policy.

But for the working class to defend itself, fending off the blows which the bourgeoisie and its state rain down on us, will in the best case only be an eternal cycle, like a hamster running in its wheel.

In fact, it will not even be an eternal cycle, if not something worse, since the gulf between the exploited masses and the summits of the bourgeois oligarchy is widening every day. In the same way, the antagonism is also increasing between the possibilities for human society and the shackles which capitalist organization imposes on it.

On the one hand, production is socialized at the international level to an infinitely higher degree than it was in Marx’s time, and even in that of Lenin and Trotsky. But on the other hand, it remains dominated by private property in the means of production and by rivalries between national states.

Social development demands profound changes in order to break free from these shackles, to overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie and place the means of production at the disposal of the collectivity.

If society cannot progress by following the main elements of its development, it will fall backwards.

What has remained unchanged since Marx’s time, and what has been confirmed throughout history, is that the only social force which can carry out this revolutionary overthrow is the working class.

This is why, no matter how enormous the gap might appear between the power of the bourgeoisie’s dictatorship over society and the means in the hands of the revolutionary current of the working class, there is no other choice worth making for the future than to strive to allow the workers to become conscious of their fundamental political interests. We must make them understand their role in the future of human society, so that a growing number of working-class women and men can organize on this basis.

This starts in their heads, in their consciousness. It means refusing any form of national unity or agreement, since this would necessarily mean the abdication of the exploited before their exploiters. It means no longer following charlatans or sellers of illusions. It means becoming conscious of the fact that, despite its current political disorientation, the working class continues to represent a considerable force, both here and at the international level.

Crisis are powerful accelerators of human history. The current crisis will accelerate and aggravate social struggles. These can take shape in revolts or riots. If they remain without perspective, they can go in circles and only end up worsening the social chaos.

The only other perspective is that which the proletariat embodies: the overthrow of capitalism in its death agonies and the taking of power by the working class.

A social organization, even in its death agonies, can still survive if there is not another one capable of taking its place and allowing humanity to return to the path of progress. In other words, the reign of the bourgeoisie will only end if its power is overthrown by the proletariat. The future of humanity depends on the proletariat’s capacity to find its class consciousness and its will to fight to put an end to the capitalist organization of society. It is the party that embodies that consciousness. Advancing in its construction is the most immediate and unavoidable task.