The chances of the Corona crisis
By Ingar Solty
[This article published in April 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.zeitschrift-luxemburg.de/die-chancen-der-corona-krise/.]
In the capitalist crisis of 2008, left-wing observers* never tired of pointing out that the two Chinese symbols for the word "crisis" translated into German mean "danger" and "opportunity". In medical terms, crisis means the critical moment when it is decided whether the patient dies or survives - even equipped with new defenses.
The "corona crisis" is both an economic and a medical crisis. More precisely, it is also a stress test for the health systems in OECD countries, where, despite aging populations, the number of hospital beds has been reduced by more than half since the 1970s, from an average of 8.7 per 1000 inhabitants*. These are the traces of four and a half decades of neoliberalism and the last ten years of austerity policies.
The crisis of 2008 was also both a danger and an opportunity. In the end, all that remained for the working population were dangers: cuts in pensions and in the health system, public recruitment freezes, reductions in minimum wages, and the grinding down of regional collective agreements in southern Europe - all in the name of competitiveness. And in the name of reducing public debt, which had only become a problem after the bank bailouts.
The question is: what is the danger, what is the opportunity in this crisis? The dangers are obvious. Neo-liberalism is not dead, just because the "black zero" is temporarily suspended, governments in the West are now massively expanding fiscally and Economics Minister Peter Altmaier is even bringing nationalizations into play. The governments already did both in 2008; two years later, the bill for the bank bailouts and state corporate restructuring was presented to the public. Even now, those in power are saying it openly. Donald Trump says: "State intervention is not nationalization of the economy. Its purpose is not to weaken the free market, but to preserve the free market." If unions and the Left do not massively push to link the protection of companies to the transfer of company shares to the public purse, and also to ensure public financing with measures such as the reintroduction of wealth tax, the same austerity policy will be the consequence of the socialization of company debt carried out in the current crisis.
However, this is supposed to be about opportunities. There are opportunities in at least five areas.
First: The COVID 19 crisis shows which areas of society are systemically relevant. Politicians are suddenly applauding the working class: carers, supermarket cashiers, warehouse workers, suppliers, garbage collectors. The workers are on the main battle line of this crisis, providing for society and endangering themselves and their families with infection and death. The middle-class families experience first hand what it means to care for a horde of children in day-care centers, kindergartens, and primary schools. Nobody misses suits at the stock exchanges, in consulting firms or in law firms of large corporations. Those who were made invisible for years, whose protection against dismissal was allegedly too strict, whose wages were too high and whose pension claims were too greedy, are suddenly heroes.
This change in discourse is significant. It is true: Applause does not pay the rent. It is true that international politics is putting up protective shields especially for corporations and less for workers. But there is the potential for a new self-confidence of the wage-earning masses: Those who are systemically relevant should be paid better! In Germany, this means that the minimum wage should be raised to 13 euros across the country and that the collective bargaining agreements in the retail trade and logistics sector must also be guaranteed when public contracts are awarded to private care providers, for example.
The new self-confidence is also highly relevant against the background of the historical defensive position of the labor movement since the neoliberal turnaround. The classic speech "Man of work wakes up and recognizes your power; all wheels stand still if your strong arm wills it!" had also been replaced in the left by a discourse of sacrifice, which produced powerlessness rather than counter-power: the poor Hartz IV workers, the poor temporary workers, the poor workers' representatives, etc. At the moment, however, we are experiencing a new producer's inner pride!
But the new self-confidence of the class does not emerge as a discourse. It is developing through new labor struggles against the demands of corporate bosses, especially in the non-system-relevant areas. In Germany, the trade unions are fighting for an increase in the short-time working allowance to 90 percent (instead of the 60 percent granted by the government). In other countries there are wildcat strikes for production stop and sick pay: In Italy at Fiat, in the steel industry, shipyards, armaments, and aviation; in Spain at Mercedes, Iveco, and Volkswagen; in the USA at Fiat-Chrysler in Sterling Heights (Michigan), WholeFoods, General Electric and at Amazon in Chicago, New York and elsewhere. In Detroit, the bus drivers* also successfully went on strike to ensure that no more tickets had to be bought for the duration of the Corona crisis. In Italy, poverty revolts forced the implementation of a basic income.
Secondly, crises cause fear and reinforce deep-seated social anxieties. They deepen learned tendencies in the search for the capacity to act. For some people, the crisis reveals the internalized de-solidarization of neo-liberalism: Preppers and other people who can afford it hoard supposedly or actually scarce goods such as toilet paper, respirators, and disinfectants, some try to sell them profitably on the black market, Individuals like 24-year-old Timo Klingler from Sandhausen and 36-year-old Matt Colvin from Chattanooga (Tennessee) even try to become millionaires with systematically hoarded medical supplies, in Neukölln people fight over toilet paper in the supermarket and in Würselen a car is even broken into to steal two packages. Elbow behavior, what Critical Psychology calls restrictive capacity to act, is intensified in particularly neoliberally adapted subjects.
At the same time, new forms of solidarity and socialization are emerging: in Berlin, people in solidarity are opening food collection points for the homeless in public places; in Montreal, Canada, neighborhoods are arranging to sing Leonard Cohen songs together from their balconies and from their windows. In Bamberg, the socialist partisan song "Bella Ciao" is sung together on the roofs in solidarity with Italy. Leftists also offer themselves in their houses as buyers for their vulnerable flatmates* - old and pre-ill people.
Suddenly you know your neighborhood and solidarity become tangible and tangible.
These new spatial compositions in the crisis represent an enormous potential for the future neighborhood and urban policy, and the movement-oriented Left should reap this fruit. To some extent it is already doing so today, when in Lower Saxony and elsewhere Left members are replacing the closed panels - half of them are to be closed - thus ensuring food security and filling the vacuum left by the state. In doing so, they also remind us that the social revolution and the Soviet republics of 1918/19 were the results of workers' councils that were formed to deal with the collapsed supply of the population. And if the left does not do it, the neo-Nazis do it - just like in Bamberg.
But thirdly, this crisis offers opportunities not only for transformative organizing at the grassroots level but also for changing the major structures of the economic and social order. The upper middle classes have been worried about this for a long time. "It will become more difficult [after this crisis] to argue that the 'magic money tree' does not exist. If the capitalist states can spend money limitlessly to fight the coronavirus pandemic, people will ask why governments can't do this, among other things, to invest in a Green New Deal," the Economist recently wrote. The Economist recently wrote that the world is "in the early stages of a revolution in economic policy. The state is likely to play a very different role in the economy, not only during the crisis but long after."
But the revolution doesn't come by itself. The left must seize this historic opportunity before it strikes back at them as a danger and a new austerity policy. As recently as 2008/2009, the Economist, the "magazine for British millionaires" (Lenin), had issued the slogan: "No penny-pinching during the crisis, but a balanced national budget afterward."
It is therefore a question of the future, necessary trillion investments for the socio-ecological system change, as the election platform of the British Labor Party, Bernie Sanders, and the Left Party in Germany have long demanded.
The demand for a state to intervene in this direction is underpinned by the crisis: the fact that private corporations are pushing the capitalist principle of profit maximization to its extreme, with the price of protective clothing in Germany rising 19 times and US pharmaceutical companies simply doubling the price of corona drugs, makes obvious what leftists have always said following Karl Marx or Karl Polanyi: that the market under capitalism is not an efficient distribution mechanism, but a means to enrich private corporations at the expense of society and its environment.
The crisis shows the helplessness of the neoliberal state. When the EU Commission feels compelled to ask individuals with 3D printers at home to contribute medical supplies, the internal decay of the system is revealed. The COVID 19 crisis is, therefore, forcing the states to take unusual measures in their crisis management, such as the nationalization of hospitals by the center-left government in Spain. Obviously, a thoroughly economized health care system with privatized hospitals that were closed down for reasons of profitability, flat-rate payments for case costs, etc. did not serve the health sector, but only the maximization of profits and the saving of public funds, which could then be channeled into tax cuts for corporations and the rich. The need for re-municipalization and out-financing of hospitals to guarantee public health and profit is clearly demonstrated in this crisis (cf. Dück in the LuX Corona dossier). Since the crisis in the housing market has already shown that the large listed property companies belong in the public sector, the Left should now advertise nationwide for a program that wants to free the elementary areas of health, education, housing, mobility, and communication from the profit principle immediately. The crisis is the hour of socialization. This includes the financial sector, because only if we gain control over the financing of socially necessary areas of production and life can we ensure that we as a society can plan our future and the future of our finite planet democratically and thus still avert the looming climate catastrophe. The overcoming of the present six-dimensional crisis as a crisis of civilization of mankind will be socialist or not at all (cf. LuX 3/2019).
Fourthly, an ecologically sustainable and democratically planned economy also includes the relocalization of production and selective deglobalization. Here, too, the crisis offers opportunities. Aggravated by just-in-time production, China's COVID 19 crisis and international border closures have suddenly made essential goods scarce. The crisis shows how vulnerable the system of private, profit-oriented production makes public health systems when medical goods have to be imported from China for cost reasons. The COVID 19 crisis is now suddenly forcing the nation-state to order strategically important productions in a new form of the war economy. In Germany, Volkswagen, the southern German automotive suppliers Zettl and Sandler, the Thuringian mattress manufacturer Breckle and the textile groups Trigema, Mey, Eterna, and Kunath are now producing medical products such as respiratory masks, while Jägermeister and Diageo and the Beck's brewery are now producing disinfectants. In the face of the blatant shortage of ventilators, the Trump administration resorted to the Korean War's War Production Law and forced General Motors to manufacture ventilators. A similar thing is happening in Britain, where Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson has had to call on British industry to switch its assembly lines from cars, aircraft engines, dialysis machines, and excavation equipment to ventilators, as only one company in Britain still produces them. The irony of the story is that this is the Breas company in Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon - what a modern-day tragedy! But according to Aristotle's theory of drama, the purpose of tragedy is that out of (self) pity and fear, catharsis, i.e. purification of the soul, is created!
This crisis thus now offers the chance for long-term relocalization of production, which is also necessary for climate policy reasons. The task for the left is to seize the opportunity and show how crazy a capitalist system is and always has been, in which it is worthwhile to catch fish in the North Sea, process it in South East Asia, and then sell it in European supermarkets.
Fifthly, the new state interventionism and the wartime conversion of the production of the corporations show what forms of industrial conversion in a socio-ecological direction would be possible if only the states wanted them. They show what an eco-socialist government in power could do. They show what would be socially possible if we planned our societies in the long term, instead of leaving their development to the very short-term profit interests of corporations that make their money by destroying our planet and our societies. The current planning allows an economic and social order to shimmer through, in which the focus is no longer on profit maximization on the back of man and nature, but on the utility value of production for our social needs.
The crisis is therefore a historic opening and opportunity. But fiscal expansion, economic planning, and industrial conversion will not be sustainable and will not be permanently transformed into an economy that serves the interests of the many and not the few and protects the planet and not profits - unless the Left pushes for it now. As Walter Benjamin wrote in his Passagework: "To be a dialectician means to have the wind of history in your sails. The sails are the terms. But it is not enough to have the sails. It's the art of setting the sails that matters."
This is the extended version of the article that appeared in the newspaper neues deutschland on April 4, 2020.