By Mark Buckley
Capitalist governments globally have inflicted a heavy defeat on workers through the pandemic, led by the capitalists in the main imperialist centres and some of their key allies. They have allowed the virus and its mutations to circulate almost uninterrupted, so that worldwide the reported death toll is now well over 4.5 million, equivalent to a major war. The Economist estimates the true death toll at over 18 million, comparable to a world war.
This conscious attack on public health has been accompanied by a major offensive on living standards and a sharp deepening of all types of inequality and discrimination.
In recent days:
- It has been revealed that worldwide 54 million women have lost their jobs through the pandemic, and that women were 28% more likely to become unemployed than men
- The US has announced the removal of unemployment insurance benefits to 9 million workers, with another 3 million suffering a payment cut of $300 per week
- The US Supreme Court has removed a moratorium on evictions, while 6.2 million households owe $16.8 billion in back rent
- In Britain the government will be cutting £20 in weekly Universal Credit payments, in addition to income tax rises and a public sector pay freeze in the last Budget
- The ‘triple-lock’ designed to uplift retirement pensions will be broken
- Now social care is being used to impose an effective tax increase (National Insurance) on all workers, to preserve the inherited wealth of the very rich or well-paid
It is possible that only imminent elections have prevented similar measures in France and Germany, in which case governing parties may try to emulate these attacks post-election.
By contrast, in other countries led by those where the governments and political systems are engaged in the early stages of constructing socialism, there has been a determined effort to prioritise public health. The result is death tolls that are minuscule by comparison, no big waves of unemployment and wages have not been cut. This is a successful and correct policy of putting people before profits.
A class struggle
There is a widespread perception that class struggle is either solely or mainly about strikes, pickets and pay claims. This is not the view of Marxists, and it is a serious political error. In the current context, it has led to a huge ruling class offensive largely going unanswered in the imperialist countries.
It is a classic error, repeated at great cost throughout history including wars, changes of government, reactionary legislation and now, through the pandemic. Lenin derided the notion that economic struggle was the sole or even the main way in which workers are drawn into the fight against the ruling class.
“The very opposite is true. Of the sum total of cases in which the workers suffer (either on their own account or on account of those closely connected with them) from tyranny, violence, and the lack of rights, undoubtedly only a small minority represent cases of police tyranny in the trade union struggle as such. Why then should we, beforehand, restrict the scope of political agitation by declaring only one of the means to be “the most widely applicable”, when Social-Democrats must have, in addition, other, generally speaking, no less “widely applicable” means?” – Lenin, What is to Be Done?
This ‘restriction’ to trade union struggle is long-standing and endemic. Currently it has largely meant no response in the imperialist countries to the huge death toll, even on behalf of trade union members who became infected at work, widespread inaction on the huge attacks on women and ethnic minorities. But because it ducks the main issue, it has also little defence offered even against the huge onslaught of higher unemployment, lower pay and sharply worse working conditions.
In short, there has been a huge offensive by the ruling class in the imperialist centres, and this offensive has largely gone unanswered. The consequent defeat means that those same ruling classes are now able to claim the fruits of their victory, and increase the rate of exploitation significantly, as enumerated above and increasing all types of inequality, discrimination and division to press home their advantage.
A global class struggle
However, the ruling classes in the imperialist powers are not the whole of humanity. Far from it.
In the countries in the early stages of socialist construction, the trends are almost diametrically opposite. Of an official global death toll of over 4.5 million, more than one-third is accounted for by the richest countries in the world: the US, European Union, Britain and Canada.
Yet these countries account for just one in nine of the world’s population. The right-wing governments that act as faithful followers of the imperialists, such as Brazil and India, with a combined official death toll of approximately a million combined (a vast underestimate) make the position even worse.
Taking just three socialist countries, China, Cuba and Viet Nam, whose population is far larger than the imperialist group above, their combined death toll is 24,000. This is despite much lower living standards as well as the murderous blockade imposed on Cuba.
Yet rather than learn from these countries, the imperialist powers’ campaign is to blockade almost the whole of the rest of the world in their effort to deny them vaccines, and keep prices high for Big Pharma. At the same time, they ally with local reactionary politicians, utilising control of the media and mobilising violent anti-vax demonstrations to change policy.
This has already met with some success in Australia, whose own version of the Zero Covid policy is crumbling. But the capitalists will not rest there. China and the others are gaining both a competitive advantage and enhancing their prestige through their handling of the pandemic.
The major prize for the US-led alliance is a reversal of China’s policy. This would undermine China’s competitive advantage arising from putting public health first, as well as severely dent its global prestige. However, since the US death toll is now 650,000, the price of a successful US offensive on this front would have already led to 2.8 million dead in China and rising rapidly. The prospect of such a success for the US seems vanishingly small.
Defeats, but not defeatism
The failure to grasp the scale of the offensive led by the ruling classes in the Western imperialist centres and the failure of the labour movement to act to resist has inflicted a heavy defeat on the working class and the oppressed globally. The burden of that defeat is borne by women, disabled people, the lowest-paid workers and ethnic minorities.
The exceptions are led by the socialist countries, largely following China’s example, of a ‘whole of government, whole of society approach’ to combatting the virus. Following them, and withstanding some pressure from the US and others, is the government in New Zealand, which may be one of the last governments in the world practising social democracy in government, rather than paying lip service to it.
Because of this defeat, the working class and the oppressed will pay a stiff price for the failure of their leaders, a price which is becoming increasingly apparent. These attacks will continue until there is mass resistance.
For socialists, defeats do not lead to defeatism. Instead, a series of tasks present themselves. Every manifestation of mass resistance must be encouraged, broadcast and popularised. At the same time, radicalisation will occur among a minority of conscious layers who are suffering the blows of the current offensive. Most importantly, the main political trend in the Global South is in the opposite direction, led by the socialist countries. Every opportunity to link up with their struggles, both on the pandemic but also against every manifestation of imperialism must be seized.