During the capitalist crisis that began in 2008, left-wing observers never tired of pointing out that, when translated into English, the two Chinese symbols for the word “crisis” meant “danger” but also “opportunity.” In medical terms, a crisis is precisely that critical moment when it is decided whether the patient will die or survive.
The current pandemic is both an economic and medical crisis. To be more precise, it is a stress test of the health systems in the OECD countries — and the economic order to which they are subject. In recent decades, they have reduced hospital bed numbers by half — despite their aging populations. The average number of beds per 1,000 population has fallen from 8.7 in the 1970s to 4.7 in 2015: recent figures are even worse for Italy at 3.18, the United States at 2.77, and the UK at 2.54. These are the traces of not just ten years of austerity, but more than four decades of neoliberalism.
The 2008 crisis soon became much more danger than opportunity, for the mass of working people at least. There were cuts in pensions and in the health system, public hiring freezes, reductions in minimum wages, and the erosion of collective bargaining agreements in Southern Europe. This was all done in the name of restoring competitiveness, as well as reducing public debt — which had only become a problem after the bank bailouts.
So what of today’s crisis? The dangers are obvious. Neoliberalism is not dead simply because balanced budget amendments are temporarily suspended, governments are now expanding massively in fiscal terms, and even nationalizations have been brought into play. Governments already did all of that in 2008; two years later, the bill for the corporate and bank bailouts was presented to the masses.
Today, the powerful are openly telling us what they’re doing. Donald Trump says: “The government intervention is not a government takeover. Its purpose is not to weaken the free market. It is to preserve the free market.” In 2008, a hidden austerity measure was in place already at the onset of the crisis, due to balanced budget amendments; today the state of New York has introduced harsh austerity measures including $1.3 billion in budget cuts in education and social services.
With the socialization of corporate debt already underway, the risk is that the same will happen as after the 2008 crisis. This will, indeed, be the result if trade unions and the Left do not press, in massive numbers, for the protective shield for companies to be linked to the assertion of public control. This would mean the transfer of company shares to the public sector and state financing through measures such as the reintroduction of wealth taxes. In this sense, the crisis presents many dangers — but also definite opportunities.
The first such opportunity owes to the fact that the COVID-19 crisis shows whose work is really necessary to keep society running — which groups of workers are, like the banks in 2008, “too big to fail.” Internationally, politicians are suddenly applauding the working class: nurses, supermarket cashiers, warehouse workers, logistics workers, garbage collectors. Meanwhile, farmworkers are exempted from lockdowns and closed borders and are being flown in to help with harvesting.
Workers are on the front lines of this crisis, providing for society and endangering themselves and their relatives with infection and death. The families of the professional-managerial class are experiencing firsthand what it means to care for a horde of children in day care facilities, kindergartens, and elementary schools. But nobody is missing the suits who work at the stock exchanges, in consulting firms, or in law firms serving large corporations. Those who were made invisible for years — whose job security was “too rigid,” whose wages were too high, whose health care needs were too expensive, and whose pension claims were too greedy — are suddenly heroes.
This change in discourse is significant, even compared to the post-2008 crisis. 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 and class consciousness of the wage-dependent masses: those who are too big to fail should be paid better! This means across-the-board $15 minimum wages in the United States and €13 minimum wages in Germany; it also means facilitating unionization through card-check procedures and things like the Employee Free Choice Act in the United States and, in Germany, expanding collective bargaining coverage in de-unionized sectors like retail and logistics. There is also space for deeper guarantees, like ensuring that only companies that fall under collective bargaining are awarded government contracts as caregivers, etc.
This is, indeed, something new. The defensive position of the Western labor movement since the neoliberal turn has seen the disappearance of the self-esteem represented in Georg Büchner’s rallying cry, “Workers, wake up and recognize your power! All wheels stand still when your strong arm wants it!”
On the political left, such an understanding has been largely replaced by pity for the working class —a focus on its vulnerability and the ways it is deprived of agency, rather than its central role to all society. Rarely has the Left returned to the language that it is workers who, alongside nature, create all wealth. The lines of “Solidarity Forever” telling us that “when the union’s inspiration” has grabbed the working-class majority, “there can be no greater power anywhere beneath the sun” — an understanding missing from much leftist discourse. Yet today, we are seeing a new “workers’ pride” — something extremely important!
But the working class’s new self-confidence does not emerge as discourse. Rather, it develops through new labor struggles against the unreasonable demands of company owners, especially in the nonessential sectors of the economy.
In Germany, trade unions are fighting for the involuntary part-time work allowance to be increased to 90 percent of previous net income (instead of the 60 percent granted by the government). Other countries have seen wildcat strikes aimed at stopping unnecessary production and forcing governments to negotiate with unions over sick pay: in Italy, workers went on strike at Fiat, in the steel industry, shipyards, armaments, and aviation; in Spain at Mercedes, Iveco, and Volkswagen; in the United States at Fiat Chrysler in Sterling Heights (Michigan), Whole Foods, General Electric, and at Amazon in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere (as in many European countries). Bus drivers in Detroit also successfully struck to ensure that no more tickets need be purchased during the pandemic. In Italy, too, poverty riots forced the implementation of a temporary emergency income. By now, the list of global labor struggles following from the COVID-19 crisis is endless.
But if we have spoken of workers recognizing their power, crises also create fear and reinforce deep-seated social anxieties. They deepen learned tendencies in every human being’s search for the capacity to act.
For some, the crisis shows how we have internalized neoliberalism’s undoing of social solidarity. Preppers and others who can afford it are hoarding seemingly or actually scarce goods such as toilet paper, respirators, and disinfectants. Individuals such as twenty-four-year-old Timo Klingler from Sandhausen, Germany and thirty-six-year-old Matt Colvin from Chattanooga, Tennessee tried to become millionaires by systematically buying up medical supplies. All over the world, people literally have been fighting over toilet paper in supermarkets, and in the German town of Würselen, someone even broke into a car to steal two measly packages of ass-wipes. Ruthless behavior — what the critical psychologist Klaus Holzkamp called the restrictive capacity to act — intensifies in subjects who particularly conform to neoliberal values.
Yet even in this context, new forms of solidarity and socialization are also emerging. In Berlin, people in solidarity are opening food collection points for the homeless in public squares; in Montreal, Canada, neighborhoods have arranged to sing Leonard Cohen songs together from their balconies and windows. In the southern German town of Bamberg, they sing the communist partisan song “Bella Ciao” together on the roofs, in solidarity with Italy. And all over the world, leftists also offer to go shopping or walk pets for their more vulnerable housemates, the elderly, and those with preexisting conditions. Suddenly, we all know our neighbors, and they experience solidarity in a tangible way.
All these new experiences are not only going to (re-)shape subjectivities, but they also represent an enormous potential for future community organizing and right-to-the-city politics, and the social movement–oriented left should reap these fruits. In part, it is already doing so today. In Germany’s Lower Saxony area, Die Linke members are replacing the public soup kitchens and support systems for the unemployed and other people, half of which have now been shut down, through structures of their own, thus ensuring food security and filling the vacuum left by the state.
In doing so, they also remind all of us that the revolutions around Europe following World War I were the fruit of workers’ councils that took form to deal with the problem of collapsed public infrastructure and social provisioning. And if the Left does not do it, the neo-Nazis will: in Bamberg, Bavaria, neo-Nazis from the so-called Third Way have called for “neighborhood support” under the moniker of “solidarity with Germans.”
But this crisis doesn’t only offer opportunities for transformative community organizing at the grassroots level. It also poses the question of changing major structures of capitalism’s economic and social order. This is something the ruling class already worries about. As Britain’s Economist recently stated, “It will become harder to make the argument that the ‘magic money tree’ does not exist . . . If central banks promised to fund the government during the coronavirus pandemic, they might ask, then why shouldn’t they also fund it to launch an expensive war against a foreign enemy or to invest in a Green New Deal?” This bible of liberalism added, “The world is in the early stages of a revolution in economic policymaking . . . The state is likely to play a very different role in the economy — not just during the crisis, but long after.”
But the revolution does not come by itself. The Left must seize this historic opportunity before the crisis strikes back at us in the guise of new austerity measures. Indeed, we have seen this happen before. As recently as 2008-9 the Economist (which Lenin pithily termed the “journal for British millionaires”) had issued the slogan: “No penny-pinching during the crisis, but afterwards a balanced national budget.”
The Left’s task is to propose something more ambitious. We need trillion-dollar investments for the kind of socio-ecological system change that the election program of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Bernie Sanders, and Die Linke in Germany have long been calling for. Indeed, the demand for more and heavy state interventionism is underpinned by the crisis. The fact that private companies are pushing the capitalist profit-maximization principle to its extreme — with the price of protective clothing in Germany rising nineteen times, US pharmaceutical companies doubling the price of coronavirus medication, and privatized hospitals sending some medical staff into involuntary short-term labor in order to receive government funding — makes obvious what the Left has always said, following Karl Marx or Karl Polanyi. Namely, the market under capitalism is not an efficient distribution mechanism, but a means of enriching private corporations at the expense of society and its environment.
The crisis shows the helplessness of the neoliberal state. When the European 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 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 neoliberalized health care system, with privatized hospitals and the closing and streamlining of public ones, did not serve public health, but only the maximization of profits on behalf of shareholders, or the cutting of public expenditures and resources, which then flowed into tax cuts for corporations and the rich.
The need to renationalize hospitals and finance them to guarantee public health is clearly demonstrated in this crisis. And since, among other things, the crisis in the housing market has already shown that the stock-exchange real estate corporations belong in the public sector, the Left should now campaign nationwide and internationally for a program that wants to free the elementary areas of health, education, housing, mobility, and communication from the profit principle immediately. The time has come for progressive nationalization and socialization. This includes the financial sector, because only if we gain control over the financing of socially necessary areas of production will it be possible to ensure that we as a society can plan our future and the future of our finite planet democratically and thus avert the impending climate catastrophe. Overcoming today’s multidimensional crisis — a crisis of civilization and humanity — will be socialist or not at all.
Especially important to surmounting this historic crisis is a turn to an ecologically sustainable and democratically planned economy. This includes the relocalization of production, selective deglobalization, and de-linking. Here, too, the crisis offers opportunities.
Aggravated by the vulnerabilities of just-in-time production, China’s COVID-19 crisis and international border closures have suddenly made essential goods scarce. The crisis shows how the system of private, profit-oriented production endangers 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 war-time economy. In Germany, Volkswagen is now making medical supplies like respirators, as are car industry suppliers Zettl and Sandler, the Thuringian mattress manufacturer Breckle, and the textile companies Trigema, Mey, Eterna, and Kunath. Jägermeister and Diageo and the Beck’s brewery are now producing disinfectants. In America, faced with the glaring shortage of ventilators, the Trump administration has now resorted to the Defense Production Act from the Korean War of the 1950s and is forcing General Motors to produce ventilators.
The same thing is happening in Britain, where Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now had to call on British industry to switch its assembly lines from cars, aircraft engines, dialysis machines, and excavation equipment to ventilators. The only company in Britain that was still producing them, Breas, is based in Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon — material for a tragedy on neoliberalism.
Yet workers themselves are also demanding that they be put to more useful work. Particularly interesting was the case of General Electric, where workers walked off the job with the specific demand of converting to ventilator production — helping the fight against COVID-19 while also averting layoffs.
This crisis therefore now offers the opportunity for a long-term relocalization of production — something also necessary for reducing environmental damage. The task for the Left is to seize the opportunity — and show the craziness of a capitalist rationale where it makes sense to catch fish in the North Sea, process them in South-East Asia, and then sell them in European supermarkets.
The new state interventionism and “war economy”–style production conversion thus tells us how it is possible to transform industry in a socio-ecological direction — if only states wanted to do this, rather than return to “normality” and the untenable status quo ante.
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 who enrich their shareholders by destroying our planet and our societies. The current planning allows a glimpse of a future economic and social order, in which the focus is no longer on profit maximization and the production of commodities on the back of humankind and nature, but on production for our social and planetary needs.
The crisis is therefore a historic opening. But the wind is in the sails of public, planned solutions; success is anything but automatic. Fiscal expansion, economic planning, and industrial conversion will not be sustained, will not be made permanent — will not transform into an economy serving the interests of the social majority and the planet — unless the Left pushes for it now.
As the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his Arcades Project: “Being a dialectician means having the wind of history in one’s sails. The sails are the concepts. It is not enough, however, to have sails at one’s disposal. What is decisive is knowing the art of setting them.”