One of the worst parts of this COVID-19 pandemic to me is that we’re seeing in real-time what happens in a capitalist economy when constant consumption and needless production just stop. It’s ugly. I’ve been trying to explain this to people for a few years now, but I think it’s pretty easy to just assume things are going to be fine and put me in the box as a radical alarmist.
Socialists of all varieties know the power of a labor strike. We understand that it’s the most powerful weapon that workers have in the struggle against the millionaires and billionaires. Labor strikes work because, when you organize one, the owner’s money suddenly and dramatically stops growing. The capitalist machine seizes up because of the owner makes money off of your work and gives you back only a portion of the value you create. This is why strikes elicit dramatic responses—the owner either concedes to labor demands or calls in the police to break it up. If the strike goes on too long, the owner will stop making money, get swallowed up by a competitor, and then be forced to become a worker themselves.
All of that assumes that the strike is organized by labor with an eye toward a concrete goal. There are no concessions here that the billionaire class can offer. This work stoppage is indefinite until the threat of a deadly pathogen can be handled. In practice, this is functioning a lot more like a meandering, uncontrolled general strike, wherein every on just suddenly stops working. The strike isn’t universal yet, but imagine for me a moment that grocery workers and teamsters all went on strike right now. You know that panicked feeling you’re feeling in imagining that? That’s a clear indication that leftists like me have failed.
When you go on strike, your union organizes a relief fund. They arrange to take care of union members as much as possible during the period when they won’t be making money. Many times in history, big communal meals have been made to ensure that workers and their families don’t starve. Here, our prevailing ideologies have turned us all against each other. We sit in our isolated apartments or houses with all of things that we own and never let anyone touch. We don’t have a culture of solidarity and mutual aid, and that’s why when people talk to me about politics the last few years my response is typically, “The most important thing you can do is organize and contribute to networks of mutual aid in your community.” We’re not in position to weather a labor uprising, a revolution, or even an ad-hoc, distributed general strike without a lot of needless suffering and death.
We’re likely heading into something on the scale of the Great Depression—it might even surpass it—but without a militant push from the people, our politicians are unlikely to marshal a sufficient response to the magnitude of the crisis. The recent stimulus bill was mostly a hand-out to business owners and landlords. The politicians are still bargaining amongst themselves and surmising that maybe just a little pressure out of the valve will be enough to keep things from exploding. New Deal? But we can’t raise taxes! Medicare for All? How will we pay for it?!
We have the resources to handle this virus without anyone having to suffer. We could provide shelter, food, basic necessities, continued education, and even entertainment to everyone in this country. Every single person could be living a “middle-class” life, riding out the virus shutdown with bottles of wine and copious movie-watching. But half-measures won’t get us there, and the politicians are going to struggle to provide us half- or even quarter-measures of what we all desperately need because ultimately they work for and report to the corporations and billionaires. One-time cash payments and bailouts for businesses aren’t going to accomplish what we need.