May 4, 2020
By last week, 30 million people had signed up for unemployment benefits. Another ten million couldn’t get through to state unemployment websites or offices. Ten, perhaps 20 million more aren’t even eligible for the “expanded” benefits.
Add it up: 50 to 60 million people suddenly found themselves without a job. That’s as bad as it got after four years of the 1930s “Great Depression.” But this collapse hit us in six weeks, not four years’ time.
Yes, the crisis was caused, in the first place, by the emergence of a newly discovered coronavirus that first appeared in China. But that virus was turned into a murderous pandemic by government inaction, worldwide, and above all in this country.
This is the beginning of May, four months after the Trump administration was warned by U.S. intelligence that the world could be overtaken by a pandemic, that this virus could infect millions here, causing untold death and economic collapse.
The Trump administration had time to organize the material needed to prevent this from happening. It had time to pump money and resources into the public health system. It didn’t do it. It’s still not doing it. Why not? Because Trump is a self-serving idiot? Maybe he is, but behind Trump is the whole federal state apparatus, which did nothing. Were they all blind, self-serving idiots? No. The government didn’t do it, quite simply, because the health and well-being of the population isn’t its priority.
It’s a disaster. And responsibility for it lies not only with the federal government. Over the last decades, the states stripped their public health departments to the bones. They turned public hospitals over to private, profit-making companies. They cut people off Medicaid—some even bragged about it. The states also cut back staffing in the unemployment offices. They reduced unemployment benefits. They toughened requirements for assistance.
In a society that regularly faces crises, stripping public health, medical services and social services seems illogical. But it obeys the logic of the capitalist system, which is to defend profit at the expense of everything else. Government did what it did, carefully and systematically, in order to devote money, then more money, then still more money to a capitalist class whose own economy was foundering.
Working people paid the price for it. We paid the price long before this crisis erupted. We continue to pay the price with an epidemic out of control, and we pay the price with an economy out of control.
Today, the biggest capitalists want to send people back to work—at the expense of the population—and the states rush to serve them. Some do it brutally like Georgia and Florida; some do it “gently” like California and Michigan, but they all do it.
Pushing people to go back to work without adequate protection from a contagious and deadly virus will certainly increase the number of people who will die. But it won’t make the economy healthy. The virus may have been what laid the economy low, but the capitalist economy was already sick, distorted by the chase after profit, everything else be damned.
The virus doesn’t cause hospitals to lay off today, while people are dying of many causes. Protecting the “bottom line” is what did it. States and cities are cutting people, right in the middle of a crisis when their services are desperately needed. Big corporations are shifting money from production to speculation—in order to keep up profits. That’s why there are layoffs.
We can’t look to the capitalists nor their government to protect us—not from the virus, not from the unemployment.
This crisis has shown us that the only people who have an interest in protecting us are ... us.
We are the ones who know what happens in the workplaces. We are the ones who could work out how to protect our health and safety there. Working as we do to make the economy run, we are the ones who can figure out the answers to unemployment. It’s not rocket science—it just requires that the interests of working people be put first. And we are the only ones who will do that.
The coronavirus/unemployment crisis we face has already shown us we can’t depend on the economic and political systems that spawned them. But there’s a more profound conclusion we have to draw. We have to recognize that in order to defend ourselves, we will have to tear up these systems, throw them out, take up the challenge of creating our own system.