Disease, Power and Capitalism (II)
by Stefan Bollinger
[This article published in June 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, Seuche, Macht und Kapitalismus (II) - 11 / 2020 - Ossietzky. Zweiwochenschrift für Politik / Kultur / Wirtschaft. - Verlag Ossietzky GmbH.]
Left in dilemma
The world is in a deep crisis. It affects governments and societies, every individual. The fight against a virus seems to make everyone equal, leaving supposedly social divisions, economic crisis processes, and military conflicts in the background. In practice, this equality before the virus does not exist, it can make or kill everyone ill, but those with the golden spoons, the stable Internet connection, and the emergency medical care space are better off than those who were already suffering before the crisis. Even in wealthy Germany, the question arises as to what recipients of short-time work benefits or the barely supported "self-employed" can do. The discrepancy between the hastily produced television reports about successful home office and homeschooling and the reality of ordinary employees or temporary workers who have no home office and no salary or whose possibilities for schooling their children are limited, gives rise to the expectation of new conflicts.
There are many statements that speak of a crisis in society that could open up the chance for a new beginning. Quite a few left-wingers agree with this, who, with the failure of a health system that has been cut to pieces in many countries, with the consequences of a globalization that makes people dependent, now finally see neo-liberalism fail. In the crisis, the market failure of a profit-oriented health care system becomes visible, the consequences of globalization become apparent in a closely interlinked, dependent world.
There will certainly be real and cosmetic changes after the crisis. However, neither the state nor the state-controlled intellectuals, and certainly not the owners of industry and health care, may part with the profit principle. Even if the state intervenes now, some already smell socialist morning air, without a countervailing power, without masses on the streets and a spiritual new beginning nothing will move. And the chances of this are slim.
But also leftists will have to answer more fundamental questions, which after the failure of real socialism are still or again on the agenda for many. Politically, left-wing politicians beyond China and Cuba currently do not have a leading role. In some countries, social-democratic governments bear the (co-)responsibility for both the neo-liberal misery and the current emergency measures - in Italy, Spain, the Federal Republic of Germany.
Theoretical basic question
What role should the state play, where should and must it be able to set limits, also for civil liberties, in order to be able to act in complex situations? We have forgotten this in our more or less vehement criticism of state socialism. Is the state allowed to intervene in the economy, in private life, must it? Democratic socialists and even more so individualists with an anarchist basic understanding do not necessarily like that. The experience with social democracy and party communism would speak against it. The problem, however, is whether grassroots democratic structures or democratic structures in general, can also control authoritarian "slips" by the state and recapture them once the task is done. That would mean, however, to develop grassroots democratic structures, social movements, and elements of self-government in such a way that they are interlocked with parliamentary democratic structures and can intervene in a steering way even in exceptional situations. A balance would have to be found between state fetishism and state rejection.
The state means power, urging the question in whose interests the state acts, even if, as is currently the case, it is massively involved in social affairs out of concern for social unrest and strife. In recent years, shifts in the political spectrum, the strengthening of bourgeois-critical forces in the form of ecological parties, occasionally also left-wing socialist movements, but above all the growth of right-wing, nationalist, sometimes openly racist and fascist forces have suggested that we should speak of a "crisis of democracy" and an increasing inability to steer, a "loss of control" of the state and the ruling classes. Let us disregard the fact that such an approach, a weakening of state control, political decision-making, and implementation on a democratic basis can possibly be a power-political calculation to suggest the helplessness of the state or the economy in the face of compelling economic, ecological or social challenges. In the current existential crisis, it is precisely this state, the economic elites, intellectuals, who prove overnight that they are capable of making decisions (which does not mean that each of the decisions must be consistent), that are able to direct and shape the state - from laws to financial injections - and that are able to make decisions on the basis of the state's power.
Controversy shimmers up when it comes to the question of how quickly one can pant for profit again.
The state is therefore still an important means of power and shaping when one has the power, which obviously does not, however, depend on the democratic choice alone, but on the anchoring of power - in the economy, in the media or as a claim for leftists - in an active society and broad social movements.
Exposing the basic principles of profit maximization
The issuing of labels always works out well in theory and practical politics. For several decades we have been fond of talking about neoliberalism, seeing it as an embodiment of Friedman or Thatcher's selfish, profit-fixed and anti-state capitalism. Now - after the economic crisis of 2007-08 - this capitalism and its state are once again proving to be a potential means of supporting major economic players by means of massive intervention, even temporarily and if necessary, participating in them, i.e. nationalizing them. The state is prepared to cushion social risks for a large part of the members of society by means of massive cash distributions. Obviously, we have overlooked the fact that capitalism is always profit-oriented, but in the shape of its capitalists, managers, intellectuals, the political class, it can be highly flexible, able to throw ideological concepts overboard overnight. For him, power and profit come first, no matter how. But this could be an opportunity for alternative politics, but it also means a challenge to recognize the basic principles of capitalist profit maximization behind the respective ideological clichés and to name and combat the consequences for individual, often individualistic behavior, egoism.
Consider the international and national level
The unloved nation-state is not obsolete in times of globalization, of unlimited capitalism. The national framework (regardless of possible multi-ethnic internal structures) is the place of social struggles, of the defense of social and democratic rights, but also of the ability to settle in times of threat. The internationalist alternative remains necessary and compelling, including today, for example, the common struggle for a way out of the impending economic crisis. But regardless of this, governments and elites are acting nationally despite all the EU oaths, not only the fascist, nationalist forces. And leftists will have to learn again not to let the internationalist level be played off against a national one, whether they like it or not.
The biggest problem remains the theoretical, political, and organizational formation of counter-power under the current and all other conditions. Ironically, one might think that the democratic left did not have to consider it necessary to prepare for illegality. But just as the state did not prepare itself for the not entirely unlikely but now, after all, the not entirely unlikely case of a profound crisis, the parties, and civil society structures are now and for the foreseeable future largely shut down, not only in the parliamentary sphere. As in the last decade (the revolutions of the "Arab Spring" and some color revolutions are prime examples), modern communication technology is being used. Chatting, video conferencing and the production of exciting, usually complex (and not necessarily understandable) texts does not replace political or trade union organization, cooperation, the joint development and acquisition of theoretical or historical positions and knowledge, above all, not the common experience of fighting - with defeats and victories, celebrations and moments of mourning. The classic fighting parties of the labor movement have not been followed by an equivalent substitute. For the social and political struggles in the upcoming economic crisis, the intellectual and organizational tools are missing. The simulation of politics in today's parties, in many civil society structures cannot replace it, is usually geared to the moment or leads to symbiosis with the existing political and parliamentary system.
We do not yet know how the current crisis can be mastered as a medical and social challenge, let alone how long it will last. What is certain, however, is that there is a deep economic crisis, also worldwide, with political consequences. It is possible that Germany, because of its strong real economic power, could restructure itself at the expense of the weaker ones. The willingness to act in solidarity between states, even in the EU, is weak and characterized by egoisms in which the stronger is more able to assert itself.
However, the internal costs of the fight against corona and of economic and social stabilization will also have to be paid by the German citizens. And there is the little prophecy that the bill will be paid by those who do not own the large capital assets. Distribution struggles, the struggle for secure jobs will come, even if the willingness to fight in the face of existential threats and a prayer mill-like repetition of national cohesion and betterment in relation to other countries will play a role and reduce the willingness to fight. The traditional strongholds of the still-working class movement, i.e. the automobile industry, will not be the forerunners of the struggles in view of the home-made problems there. The pressure on Germany from beyond the borders will increase, probably also the pressure of migration. Nationalist ways out will be back in business.
The left must dress warmly, organize itself and grasp the seriousness of the situation, otherwise it will be allowed to continue to accompany its downfall unless it experiences worse.