The Spark

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

Facing the Coronavirus:
A Bankrupt Ruling Class

May 4, 2020

This article is a translation of a major article appearing in Lutte-Ouvrière, the newspaper of the French revolutionary communist organization (Trotskyist). We reprint it because it speaks clearly to the situation that revolutionaries in this country and around the world confront in the midst of the coronavirus crisis/economic collapse.

The quarantine forces those who stand on revolutionary communist ideas to find ways to go on propagating their ideas and carrying out their activity, adapting their methods to the circumstances.

These circumstances came about due to the rapid spread of a previously unknown virus, but in a situation marked by the severe shortage of basic protective gear like hand sanitizer and masks. There are also shortages in the hospitals, from ventilators to basic anesthetics like curare, and even shortages of disposable gowns for healthcare workers. The entire hospital system found itself unprepared to deal with an unknown pandemic, after years of being weakened by deliberate policies imposed for the bourgeoisie by its political servants in successive governments. They pushed to cut costs, forced hospitals to bend to finance, and kept eliminating beds and personnel. All of this pushed hospital and nursing home workers to fight back for months.

It seems clear that the so-called coronavirus crisis will drag on, with the end of the quarantine pushed back, spread out, and fragmented. Macron recently set May 11 as the date for beginning the process of ending the quarantine. Whatever happens, the fact he announced it shows his goal is to clear a path for starting up the big workplaces, something which the representatives of the big bosses are loudly demanding. Even the government’s evocation of children’s needs to justify a partial reopening of the schools is poor cover for its real concern, which is “liberating” parents from having to care for their children so they can go let themselves be exploited.

The pandemic will pivot into the economic crisis, which has already begun. This crisis certainly existed well before the coronavirus appeared! But the coronavirus crisis is the factor that has unleashed its brutal worsening.

The Epidemic and the Government’s Contortions

What will happen in the coming weeks and perhaps months depends both on the evolution of the pandemic, which scientists are for the moment having trouble grasping, and on the government’s reaction to it.

Trying to obey the wishes of the big bosses, while trying to appease public opinion, the government has tied itself in knots pursuing a schizophrenic policy.

The desire of the big bosses and the big shareholders was recently expressed by Roux de Bézieux, president of the major employers’ federation: the profit machine must be restarted as fast as possible. Many companies have been carrying out production, including of useless or even harmful goods, in spite of the quarantine. But the ones that temporarily closed clearly want to put their workers back to work. The French auto company PSA symbolizes the general desire. The big U.S. auto corporations push in the same direction. Coronavirus or not, competition and the laws of the market continue. For capitalism’s biggest predators, this period and its uncertainties offer many opportunities. It would be naive to think they wouldn’t take advantage of the situation to make their workers pay for the crisis. If there has been one constant in the history of capitalism since it imposed itself as the dominant mode of production, it is this: the push to make the workers pay.

The pressure of public opinion takes shape in a contradictory manner. It is expressed through a relaxation of quarantine measures, but also by the reaction of scientific milieus. The government is torn between the pressure of the bosses and that of the scientists, who disapprove of its half-measures, of its hesitations, and above all of its inability to provide healthcare workers with the equipment they need.

The Political Activities of Lutte Ouvrière

This is the context in which the political activities of Lutte Ouvrière take place today. We should not let our own specific activity, based on the class struggle and revolutionary communism, fade into the background, neglecting it, even forgetting it. Taking part in volunteer work and community associations is commendable, and we have a great deal of respect for those who do it. But volunteering in soup kitchens and housing rights organizations is not fighting for the construction of a revolutionary communist party. Fortunately, thousands of people are led to devote their time and energy to selfless social activity.

The coronavirus crisis has shed a light in this field also. Within the world of labor there have been treasures of initiative, imagination, and desire to work for the collective good. These are buried treasures, initiatives which are suffocated and frustrated by the bourgeoisie and its state, by its social structure which is hierarchical from top to bottom. The leadership of society is monopolized by the social class whose interests are directly opposed to collective interests. It infuses all of society with an individualism and a dog-eat-dog mindset which corrupt social life. The particularity of revolutions is that they liberate the creativity of the exploited. Our convictions as revolutionaries are largely founded on this. This creativity can show itself spontaneously, bringing forth militancy, not only in revolutions, but in other circumstances also. But outside of revolutionary periods, there are infinitely fewer women and men who continue to raise the banner of social emancipation and to advance its cause.

It is important that we continue our own fight, finding the means to do it, adapted to the constraints of quarantine. There is a vast field for initiatives, using the multiple possibilities of modern instruments of communication. Nonetheless, this is basically not a technical question. With more or less difficulty depending on the period and the relations of force between classes, the revolutionary workers’ movement has always found the way to put forth its ideas—because, in the final analysis, they express the class interests of the exploited majority.

Continuing to do so in this situation is all the more important because, faced with the government’s negligence, many more workers than usual are asking questions and looking for answers. It is important that they hear another voice besides that of the bourgeois press or state media, important that they hear what we have to say, which is that responsibility for the crisis lies not only with government that mismanaged the situation; the responsibility lies with the whole social organization based on private property in the means of production, on the pursuit of profit, and on exploitation.

The pandemic and the government’s imposition of quarantine to respond to it—in a context of shortage due to the capitalist functioning of the economy—may be the factor that unleashed the crisis, and yet it also conceals it. Coronavirus will serve as did the famous Black Thursday stock market crash of October 24, 1929. Already parts of the business press point out that what is taking place before our eyes is already worse than what happened in 1929. But they can’t explain profoundly the basic fundamental cause of the crisis.

In the United States, the unemployment level rose by ten million people in the first two weeks! This brutality is unprecedented, even in 1929. Economists are saying that in about 15 days, the unemployment index will have shot up from a little less than 4% of the active population to around 10%. Unemployment statistics all over the world are generally understated, particularly in the United States. Even so, the catastrophic trend which these figures highlight is significant.

We remark in passing that the crisis, which is bringing about the collapse of some capitalist companies, reinforces others. We already have a glimpse of this, watching huge companies like Amazon and Netflix profit from the crisis. On the other hand, the collapse of companies in the tourism and air transport sector, and even to a certain extent the auto industry (particularly the subcontractors), will upset the balance of forces between the great predators of imperialist capitalism. The only thing certain is that the more powerful are infinitely more likely to swallow up the less powerful than the other way around.

In periods of crisis, the capitalist mode of production resolves the problems that result from the anarchic pursuit of profit. After all the pain and suffering, an equilibrium is reestablished between the productive capacities of the economy and its solvent demand. In crises, the capitalist economy sheds its dying branches in order to concentrate big capital into fewer and fewer hands.

Intensification of Class Struggles

What will be the political consequences of this collapse? The only thing we can say is that they will be considerable, but also that they are unpredictable. Already, under the pretext of the fight against the coronavirus, borders have been closed, and the myth of the European Union is dissolving amidst the clash of “national egoisms”—that is to say, the disparate interests of its states. Again, under this pretext of the fight against coronavirus, there is a general evolution toward authoritarianism in political regimes. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, just gave himself the ability to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. Central European countries like Hungary have had only a slight impact on the evolution of the capitalist world, but they have often pointed the direction toward which the rest of it was moving.

The political and human elements for an evolution toward authoritarianism can rest on the rise of the most backwards ideas, which we see today, in the name of religion or otherwise.

Parallel to this, however, the specter of the class struggle reappears. The social democratic reformist intelligentsia has discovered that the working class exists. This “discovery” generally serves all sorts of reformists as the justification for digging up all the old social democratic rubbish, while offering to serve the bourgeoisie.

It is impossible to foresee which political forces the bourgeoisie will use when reactions of discontent—which are scattered for the moment—take the form of social movements, that is to say, intensification of the class struggle. Will the first class to swing into action be the working class, or will it be some category of the petty bourgeoisie whose despair is mounting over the strangling of its livelihood? We can hear workers express discontent or anger here and there, but what seems to prevail so far is worry about the future and being fed up with the quarantine. This has reached the point that some volunteer to return to work, when the constraints of inactivity weigh more heavily than the fear of being infected.

A Bankrupt Ruling Class

What will be the attitude of the big bourgeoisie? Will it choose the reformist and state-based “carrot” or the “stick” of an authoritarian regime? Will it choose to lull the oppressed classes with promises or will it try to crush them? It will probably decide to do both, all at once or one after the other.

The experiences of the past can help us to make a reasoning, but not at all to predict. The national governments of Europe are negotiating plans to restart the economy. They don’t need to consult each other about their generally shared desire to shower the bosses with billions, neither about who will pay for it. It will fall on the exploited classes. But this, which is the common approach of all the governments, will not regulate the power struggle between the different states—as can be seen by today’s discord in the so-called European Union.

Opening wide the state treasury for the big bosses will obviously not be enough. States will resort to nationalizations. This “demand” for state planning—so prized by reformists—has been a weapon for all the bourgeoisies, who knew how to use it during wars. In certain periods, the laws of the market and of competition are not enough to defend the general interests of the national bourgeoisie, and they may even hurt it. Even the United States, the country with the most free-market capitalism, is picking up certain state-run social measures, at least for now.

In France, there is an older tradition in this regard. The government has already taken measures which it calls social (payment by the state to keep people employed, putting off the retirement reform). These measures can’t make up for the consequences of the healthcare crisis for workers, but they are costly for the state. The bourgeoisie currently seems to have decided to accept these measures and finance them by monetary creation, in other words by fabricating fake money on a large scale. But if the discontent of the petty bourgeoisie transforms into anger and provides the bourgeoisie with the means, it may well decide on more violent methods.

It is pointless to play a guessing game. Those who identify with the ideas of revolutionary communism must be capable of confronting intensification of the class struggle. They must keep their political compass, which comes from more than two centuries of the revolutionary workers’ movement. They must do so without impatience, without ultra-leftism, and without mistaking their desires for reality. No one knows when our class will launch itself into struggle, and no one has the power to provoke revolutionary upsurges. But this is what we have to prepare for.

We must be capable of resisting adversity, in the event that the bourgeoisie chooses increased authoritarianism or violence, if the situation provides the bourgeoisie with the means and social forces to impose them. Still more important: if the working class starts to move, the revolutionary communist current must be capable of defending its program and convincing the working masses, in order that they might have the means to take their fight to its conclusion, including overthrowing the power of the bourgeoisie and expropriating it.

The bankrupt privileged class embodies humanity’s past, not its future.