Political Reflections on The Outbreak
It is difficult to analyze a complex phenomenon as it is still unfolding. But two months after the onset of the outbreak in Europe it seems that some of its basic features and effects are getting clearer. Therefore we try to draw some consequences to foster a discussion inside the Left.
1. We are not all on the same ship: some are afloat and some are sinking
A virus is shaking the foundations of world capitalism, threatens the ‘Big Powers’ to bring them down on their knees and remind us the true nature of the balance of forces within our society. It also shows the gap between those who are considered a mere productive factor, left home or forced to work (and to risk their lives) depending on market requirements, and those who instead take advantage from the work (or inactivity) of the first and are assured of supplies and assistance the first lack. We are told we are all on the same ship, but in reality some are afloat and some are sinking.
2. Fragility of world capitalism
The coronavirus outbreak represents perhaps the most widespread emergency situation in human history and the broadest crisis of capitalism since its birth. This crisis reveals the fragility of what someone described as the best, someone else as the only world possible. Never before, not even during the two world wars, the whole world population has been exposed to such a subtle and lethal threaten in such a concentrated way. National health services, global supply chains, international treaties are knocked down like pins and we are only at the beginning.
3. The virus demistifies the hypocrisy of the ‘free market’
The virus demistifies the hypocrisy of liberal economic theory and reveals the strict relationship between the effects of the outbreak and a socio-economic structure shaped basing on the dogmas of the ‘free market’. Since the COVID-19 reached Europe people has been splitting up: on one hand those who describe it as ‘little more than a flu’, on the other those who depict it as a pestilence. In fact the issue is not to measure COVID-19 infectivity/lethality in itself, but rather to analyze how its aggressiveness matches with the response of society. From this perspective understating the strength of the virus satisfies market requirements, while emphasizing it helps to minimize the unpreparedness of man and especially the bad performance of our politicians (it also helps media outlets to boost audience). The inadequacy of national health services, following 30 years of corporatizing and budget cuts, amplifies the impact of virus, but is not an effect of it.
4. Capitalism and nature
The pandemics raise also the issue of the relationship between capitalism and nature. Viruses are natural agents and usually cause epidemics jumping from animal species to human beings as human beings, due also to overpopulation, penetrate once isolated ecozones. Animal species living in those areas are integrated into human economy, whose mechanism can increase the spread and the speed of infections. If dominant economic theory considers health (and environment) obstacles for ‘free enterprise’, then possibility turns to certainty.
5. The misleading metaphor of war
The use of war metaphor to describe pandemics is rhetorically inspiring but misleading. In reality war is, especially for the winner, the perfect epitome of Keynesianism: destruction of goods, capitals and overcapacity on the periphery and peaks of production at the center; government debt turning into profits and peace deals leaving debris and thus increasing demand of goods, services and capitals to invest on postwar reconstruction. In other words: a creative destruction. On the contrary epidemics paralyze economy without destroying goods and capacity. Warehouses remain full, but the potential buyers are overwhelmed by debts.
6. Who needs national unity?
However the use of war metaphor reflects a propagandistic need: the call for national unity, where conflicts and disagreements are put aside in front of a common enemy. The ruling class reevaluates its inner solidarity in order to hide under the national flag the shared responsibility for having dismantled national health services and for being totally unprepared to face the outbreak. And also to make people forget that when it was time to get ready politicians were focused on elections. The strength of the call for unity is inversely related to the disunity between those who risk his life and those who comfortably observe life from their headquarter.
7. The limitation of democracy
The call for unity helps also to let people accept unprecedented limitations of the democratic freedoms, temporarily implemented for safety reasons, but not less disturbing. Ironically the most fervent supporters of liberal-democracy celebrate Xi Jinping and the politicians suggest to us that if outbreak is killing thousands of people, that happens not because national health services are in disarray, but because too many people do not obey the rules with all due discipline. It’s not about fascism, of course, but the threaten that the limitation of democratic rights, already underway, be exacerbated, is concrete and takes a more subtle form than Salvini’s quackeries. For instance who can make sure that once we are allowed to leave home (with the virus not yet defeated) strikes and demonstrations won’t be forbidden due to safety concerns?
8. Will the virus strengthen Cina?
China seemed to be the main victim of the outbreak at its onset. Somebody even suggested that the virus would undermine the economic leadership of Beijing, while people longing for Mao and Stalin even summoned a biological attack by the US in Wuhan. Nevertheless China could get out of the crisis stronger. If the results of the shock therapy in Wuhan are confirmed and there isn’t a second wave of infections, it would mean that Beijing has been able to stop the outbreak rapidly. And it would be a success, at least internationally (at domestic level we will see) which allows China to take advantage from being the first to overcome the crisis and even to come to rescue of other countries. While its main rival, the US, was caught totally unprepared.
9. The outbreak overwhelms the European disUnion
The pandemics overwhelmed the European unification process. For the European capitalism that process is the most rational choice, and, thus, objectively necessary to face economic competition with the US and China. As such it doesn’t mean that the ruling classes of the European countries are able to carry it out. So the supposed pro-Europe politicians, after having defeated the ‘sovranists’ at the ballot box, are forced by the virus to implement their demands: end of the Stability Pact, suspension of the Schengen Treaty, rejection of the Eurobond and masks blocked at the customs. On the other hand the ‘sovranists’ find themselves robbed of their slogans and divided once again, each one defending his own homeland. The long-standing confrontation between those who consider EU as a disgrace and those who instead consider it a lifeline gives way to just one certainty: while European ruling classes are playing blame game, European workers are the only one who fight against the outbreak all together. Unfortunately they lack adequate support by the ETUC. In fact European trade unions are missing or even leave the national trade unions confederations follow the lead of their respective establishments.
10. Entrepreneurs ‘come bosses again’
The outbreak wipes out the surviving rhetoric on the ‘corporate responsibility’ as far as the idea that class struggle is a 20th century antique. Traders and industrials pressing on the governments to keep their business running, companies and employers’ organizations trying to take advantage from the outbreak and cancelling workers’ rights and cutting wages: beneath the veil of rhetoric, describing companies as families where handsome ‘entrepreneurs’ invest their own assets for the good of their employees, emerges the harsh reality of ‘bosses’ who extract profits from the labour power of their workforces by any mean.
11. We are (not) the state
The state’s subservience to the economic power we are observing in this crisis blows away the rhetoric claim that ‘we are the state’. ‘The state is rotten’ yelled at two policemen a pair living in the south of Italy few days ago. The husband had to close his shop due to the lockdown measures. His wife’s benefits have not been paid to her by the bank and they kicked the bank’s glasses after that they’ve tried in vain to withdraw 50 euro to buy food. The state, ever stammering when it should hit the élites, but ever ready to loosen the strings on its purse (even in the years of austerity) when they demand to be rescued, does not hesitate to leave home millions of workers, unemployed, lumpen and small shopkeepers without income or with a small subsidy. Marx’s definition of state — a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie — for millions of Europeans has become the most meaningful summary of a concrete experience: ‘I’m trying to protect my health, my boss protects his business and the state is on his side’.
12. The outbreak highlights and amplifies the Italian mismatches
Italia has been the first European country to be hit by the outbreak. This highlighted and to a certain extent sharpened the key features of the Italian mismatches: the fragmentation of the economic fabric and the subsequent huge number of small enterprises and, socially, an oversized petty-bourgeoisie; the large amount of shadow economy (around the double than the French and German one); the state inefficiency. In this context the employees, especially large layers of casual workers and false self-employed and cooperatives workers; even more the lower layers of the ‘middle class’, already squeezed by the 2009 recession; the underclass living in the interstices of the shadow economy (these two latters without any kind of subsidy) will pay the highest price in this crisis. Government measures have already moved a large share of the demand from small shops to large retailers and many small businesses are likely to disappear not just for income losses and accumulated debts, but also because demand could stay under the pre-crisis threshold for long. The first supermarket confrontations in the southern Italy reflect a phenomenon we should not underestimate.
13. It won’t be as before
It seems unlikely that everything will be as before in the next months. It is difficult to make any predictions, but we should consider the most likely scenarios:
- the transition from the emergency situation could spread throughout a quite long period and take place under the threaten of a second wave of infections, at least until we don’t have a vaccine. However we should put epidemics in the list of potential challenges for the future, along with floods, earthquakes and financial crisis.
- health crisis will be followed by socio-economic crisis, but a new round of recession was expected since quite long time and the pandemics will do anything but to deepen it. This is not just an abstract distinction: holding the outbreak the only cause of the upcoming recession, as Mario Draghi does, means to absolve those who continued to implement the policies that had caused 2009 recession in the following years.
- the spirit of national unity (with its related authoritarian features and the censorship on dissent) will continue after the end of the epidemics, as it helps to contain social anger and to hide the huge responsibilities of the ruling classes, who have been subordinating health care to profits for decades.
- social distancing measures have provoked a wave of mass digitalization which will leave its mark and bears in itself the seeds of a remote-controlled society, where everybody could work from home, don’t need to go out, can at least minimize his travels. That implies advantages, but also threatens (consider the effects so called teleworking).
- the workers will get out of the crisis with the consciousness and the strength gained by showing that society overcame the outbreak thanks to them, their sacrifices and those who lost their lives.
- the pandemics highlighted how much vanishing are the borders and that we need a global vision and an operational coordination (at least at European level) to prevent or address the next major challenges. At the same time it showed to millions of people that the ruling classes and the European bourgeoisie, capitalism and free market, are not suitable to reach those objectives.
- the widespread perception that we need more state and the suspension of the Stability Pact represent an opportunity to re-focus the political debate on the issue of social justice. At the same time we can do that only if we get rid of the illusions that state institutions are socially neutral, an impartial referee in the clash of opposite concrete interests. To draw a confirmation of it we just need to raise a simple question. Governments have already announced they would implement stimulus packages of hundreds of billions to overcome the crisis: from which pockets money will be taken? Shall we start from here?