By J. Mirasol
We’re at war, so we hear across the globe. But how can we understand the current crisis, and the reactions of states? What are the prospects for workers? Can we expect a return to normality? And if so, what would this normality look like? This is the first episode in a series of articles. Here, we will discuss the crisis and its management by states. The next part will focus on the hypothesis of a revolutionary way out of this crisis. Next, the question of insurrection, and finally the nature of the revolutionary movement.
The current health and economic crisis is one in a long series of disasters. Everything indicates that this will continue as long as the reign of the possessing class lasts.
This reign is based on the constraint imposed on the vast majority of people living on this planet to exist only as commodities to sell. The existence of most people therefore only has value as a commodity.
But a minority cannot rule by force alone.
Between political regimes as diverse as France, China, Algeria, South Africa and Argentina, there is no clean break, no stark division. Rather, there is a gradient of repressive measures against the population and measures of its integration into the state apparatus, distributive measures and measures of control. All of this can change very quickly according to current needs. The responses to the Covid-19 crisis are an illustration of this: necessity becomes law.
Limits on the brutality of the law, on what the authorities make or let the police do, on the way states treat their opponents, repress social movements, are not determined by a question of democratic legality.
These limits are linked to the zone where the contestation takes place, to the position of power in this zone, in short to factors of time, space and economy. In China, the ruling class1 can at the same time deploy the army, lock up and massacre Uighurs and practice brutal police repression, but carry out something closer to “European-style” policing in Hong Kong, a world financial center.
But even in the most repressive regimes that use terrorist methods against the population, there will still be the need for building trust.
The trust of as many people as possible, producing of a social consensus, can be gained here through various means. In some places, it will be through the electoral process. Elsewhere by integrating a fraction of the population into the state apparatus, into the army, or by promising access to pensions, jobs, housing, cheap energy, free health care, or even the promise of improved living conditions.
In any case, it is a question of promising crumbs in exchange for ensuring integration and social peace, that is, exploitation at the highest level of capitalist profitability. But there is less and less to redistribute.
This redistribution is the nationalized share of the wage, paid in the form of insurance. It is also the one that has tended to decline the most in recent years. Thus, everywhere in the world, pension, health and unemployment insurance have been rolled back under the repeated offensives of capitalists aimed at reducing the maintenance costs of the workforce, i.e. wages, to a minimum, in order to restrict them to the nominal wage, which is also often on the decline. This leads to increasing impoverishment.
There is no point in deploring the political choices of the wealthy. Their choices are born of a class necessity: to maintain a rate of profit allowing a sufficient return on capital, by playing on the variable of wages. However, the quantity of capital in circulation is so much greater than the available quantity of profitable investments that the crisis is inevitable.
A crisis occurs acutely about every ten years or so, and capitalists are less and less able to erase its ravages between bouts of fever.
Thus, the Covid-19 pandemic came as a trigger, but the crisis was latent.
In 2008, it was the impoverishment of proletarians in debt up to their throats that caused the collapse of the American real estate market in a wave that then overwhelmed the world.
In the spring of 2020 it is the global health systems, the capacity of capitalist society to keep proletarians alive, that are in turn collapsing under the sudden pressure of a pandemic.
States facing the crisis: opportunism & disaster management
The Covid-19 pandemic took off from China, in the industrial city of Wuhan, and followed the same trajectory as the world’s production lines. So it is not surprising that among the first outbreaks outside China are industrial areas in Germany, Italy, France, the USA (although it is rather difficult to get reliable information).
However, it is not so much in the circulation of production that this phenomenon is remarkable, because the chains of contamination are multiplied according to other dynamics. It is in the way and the moment in which states act, and confine populations that it seems possible to identify a model. Two imperatives seem to be met: the maintenance of order and the limitation of losses for capitalists.
The management of these two imperatives differs at the level of each “national” capitalist formation according to economic specificities, the productive apparatus, the local mode of state organization, history and – an important point – according to its place in the global division of labour.2
Before we even talk about the different political declinations, let us start by talking about the ideology of crisis management by states and capitalists. As the dominant ideology, it casts a macabre shadow over all reasoning.
Governments, as well as hedge funds, major banks and companies, operate on the basis of models. They propose statistics of probable deaths, then introduce a series of variables. These scenarios and projections are used in the press, which translates them into popular language. For example, atrocities such as “The range of probable deaths in the USA is between 200,000 and one million” can be read in newspapers.
This utilitarian ideology is then broken down into a range of country-specific programs.
But by producing accounting reports in this way, the millions of deaths are constantly being linked to the damage caused to the economy. These figures are compared with an assessment of the risks that this or that scenario implies for the states. We evaluate the prospects for market gains opened up by this or that model in competition between states or capitalists. Fatalities are only one variable among others. It is a variable that is declining, and there is competition between different types of deaths.
To give a specific example3 – and one that can even be described as “left-wing” on the political chessboard of capitalist management – many voices are now being raised against measures of social distancing in Africa. What is said is that implementing these policies would not be a gain in terms of human lives but would, on the contrary, have a greater cost. But also that the human lives at risk would be those of children, who would be led to die of hunger as a result of the economic crisis that would result from these policies.
These reasonings are correct, or rather, they are valid with respect to their internal logic. They are all based on the famous ceteris paribus sic stantibus, “all things being equal”. That is to say, they are based on a clause that excludes from their reasoning any global questioning of capitalism. This is the “variable” that escapes their analysis: revolution.
The monster of the land of origami.
Before going any further, we propose to illustrate this with a short parable.
In a small town in an imaginary country, most of the population is engaged in origami making. A small minority owns the paper, another employs workers to make these pieces of folded paper by industrial processes. These origami are the currency of the village. We can say in sum that wealth in this town appears as a huge accumulation of origami. You can find everything in origami: tools, artwork, furniture, houses or even some of the components of computers. Why this fixation on origami? Asking this question already makes you a dangerous dissenter.
A monster is attacking this village. On the first day it takes one person. The second day he takes two. And so on and so forth. The possessing minority is scared by the crisis in the origami market because people don’t dare to leave their homes anymore. The price of paper collapses.
The mayor is therefore proposing a plan to help the major origami manufacturers. But with the increase in monster attacks, he also ends up ordering the villagers to shelter at home, which will reduce the attacks.
In the offices of town hall, there is a discussion about how long it will take for the monster to starve to death. Of course, it will manage to eat a villager from time to time, but it is estimated that if the mortality curve of the villagers is lowered below one per week, the monster will be weakened little by little… These projections are not certain. It is estimated that the peak of villager deaths will occur in a little over a month, when 30 villagers will die in one day. Then it will gradually decrease. That is a lot, but we can put it into perspective: this is a large village, with 15,000 inhabitants. In short, we can expect mortality due to the monster to be fairly low, the peak will be only 0.2% per day and at most 2 to 3% of deaths can be expected at the end of this crisis.
Two other scenarios are under consideration. In the first, an algorithm is being developed to determine in which situations the monster attacks, by compiling all the trajectories of all the villagers. This is an unprecedented data recovery effort, but once successful, it will eliminate the risky trajectories, and then the monster will starve faster!
In the second scenario, some say that the village is too poor to organize containment and that it makes more sense to let the monster kill a few villagers. It will only kill the older and less athletic ones and little by little the others will become familiar with the monster and learn to avoid it. Other scenarios can of course develop. They all have one thing in common: the first thing is to maintain origami production. Secondly, not to let the villagers decide for themselves how to deal with the situation, which would be a risk for the village’s ruling class.
The monster specialists are enraged: they proclaim to anyone who will listen that if the villagers arm themselves and stop producing origami to organize a joint strike, they will be able to kill the monster by their combined effort.
Some specialists also explain that the cause of the monster’s arrival in the village is the deforestation implied by the huge demand for origami paper.
But there is one thing that many people still don’t understand. It’s that the main monster in this story is not the one that eats the villagers. It’s the one who makes do as long as his business is going strong.
Different public policies, same logic.
Let’s go back to the different state responses. We propose as a hypothesis that their main imperatives are twofold: to preserve capital on the one hand, and to defend the social order on the other. This means very different responses from one part of the world to the other.
In the central capitalist countries, followed by the bourgeoisies of the poor countries, the populations confine themselves. This begins mainly with the desertion of public places, restaurants, etc. This is in addition to the reduction of global tourism to almost nothing.
Where the state has the means, the management and organization of containment is also a response to the fall in the tourism and leisure economy. By proposing closure and comprehensive compensation, the state protects businesses and limits the effects of the crisis.
Of course, this is only valid in certain parts of the world. In countries where the informal economy is essential, including much of Africa, containment is not at all a given from the point of view of economic preservation. These are often countries where the state cannot afford to distribute enough to make containment policies socially sustainable. Finally, the concentration of the urban population in slums makes containment almost impossible.
We can quote the President of Benin:
Benin “does not have the means […] to support mobility reductions or confinement. …] If we take measures that starve everyone, they will soon end up being braved and flouted.
Furthermore, we also propose as a hypothesis that one of the criteria that drives states to organize the cessation of production in so-called “non-essential” sectors is the disruption in the logistics supply chain with China. This break occurs, depending on the industries and zones, between mid-March and mid-April.
In short, it is when these measures do not harm the economy but can, on the contrary, protect it that they are seriously considered. Until now, governments in Europe have tended to focus on the strategy cynically known as “herd immunity” — which aims to allow contamination to take place.
However, as noted above, explaining these policies only from an economic perspective is not valid. It is clear that the imperatives of law enforcement are also a criterion for explanation: governments in China, Korea, France, Italy, etc. cannot afford to give the impression that they are standing idly by in the face of collapsing health systems and the hundreds of thousands or even millions of deaths that this implies. Above all because of the explosion of social anger that could result.
It is therefore both ridiculous and counter-revolutionary to extol the merits of this or that state, the Chinese state or the South Korean state, in their public policies for managing the disease, comparing them, for example, to the USA or certain European countries. The zealots in these states should wait a little before making themselves heard.
In China, the sacrifices of the population and the efforts of workers to try to stop the spread have been immense4. However, the role of the Chinese state in this has been mainly to cover up, to lie, to prevent the flow of information. Its containment policy has been very opportunistic, in line with the production schedule. In the first half of the year, stocks were at their highest levels due to the expectations generated by the Chinese New Year celebrations. Lastly, the Chinese government’s determination to hasten the economic recovery as quickly as possible should be carefully scrutinized. It should be seen in parallel with its determination to set up 5G infrastructures as quickly as possible, to take as much market share as possible, to sell as many goods as possible and to position itself in the post-crisis perspective.
It is not unreasonable to think that this policy of rapid recovery risks accelerating the arrival of a second wave of Covid, potentially as early as the end of August in China.5
In the same way, Korea’s virtuous policy, if it corresponds to a better state preparation, is also to be seen in relation with the progress of the deployment of 5G in this country and the clear will of the government to avoid any disruption in production.
Here, technological development is at the beginning and end of the crisis. 5G infrastructures are used both for population control and the implementation of teleworking systems, but also as a spur to public policies that avoid production stoppages.
We could go on and on describing the cynicism of leaders, showing for example how in some places the imperatives of policing produce containment through terrorist modalities (we think of the Philippines) as the main response of a desperate state to a health crisis that it cannot manage.
Everywhere, the state drapes itself in the “general interest” but only defends the capitalist organization of production, which implies scarcity, misery, and the accounting management of the death that are its results.
Everywhere, after the first moment of panic that also surprised the rulers, the government is seizing the opportunity to implement social measures aimed at further worsening our working conditions.
Thus, we have seen in a significant number of countries the same arrangements being put in place, combining the allocation of some additional resources to failing health systems, the deployment of preventive counter-insurgency measures and coordinated responses to hastily try to avoid a general collapse of the economy by injecting thousands of billions into the banking systems.
On the distinction between essential/non-essential sectors.
In this particular moment of confinement that a significant fraction of the proletarians of the globe are experiencing, we are having the singular experience of a general anti-strike.
We will offer a critique of the union strategy of the general strike in a future episode of this series. But first, we wanted to tackle this strange reversal. The only strategic sectors that function in the case of “total confinement” are also – logically – those concerned by the prospects of a strike of this type.
Some see this as confirmation of the strategic role of these sectors. From a capitalist point of view, they are right. But is the point of view of the revolution the same? The proposal we are making here is that the revolutionary perspective is not a balance of power internal to the capitalist system.
It is an insurrectional eruption that goes beyond the framework of capital. This irruption alone allows for a savage mass strike. (We are not talking here about one-off strikes to obtain protective equipment, for example. Those are frequent and massively supported by all the proletarians).
Without an insurrectional irruption, without a revolutionary class movement that allows us to imagine the proletarians taking charge of the crisis, not to manage it but to oppose it with communist measures, proposing a mass strike of strategic sectors alone means that the workers of these sectors would face, alone, both the state and their own union leadership.
In the absence of these conditions, it is not only out of fear of military defeat that workers do not launch a mass strike. It is also and above all that nothing thwarts the capitalists’ argument that this strike would jeopardize the “war effort”! That it would risk disrupting health care, the hospital, the food supply!6
It’s not a viable strategy. It is at most empowerment, collective affirmation. Rather, we think that what is being demonstrated in a striking way in the current period is that if capitalism cannot function without the workers in the strategic sectors, these same workers cannot overthrow this system without the help of the whole class. They cannot defeat the state without reinforcements organized in action committees (or whatever name they wish to give themselves), surely not on the roundabouts 7, in view of past and recent experiences. These reinforcements are needed to block the roads, for example, or to prevent the deployment of counter-insurgency.
Today, we are seeing the deployment of counter-insurgency. And it will last as long as this division in the class continues. Can this division be called into question during the crisis itself? That is an open question.
Time for the bill
We do not know how long this situation will last. This first wave of propagation will be followed by a second wave. A third wave cannot be ruled out. It is far too early to be sure that the measures restricting movement will remain provisional, or to know how long the provisional will last. On the other hand, it is clear that the end of the “war period” will be a time of social confrontation.
Two hypotheses seem to be valid for this “exit from the crisis”. The first… there will be no way out of the crisis. In this scenario, if we return to the analogy with world war, we can imagine that the war does not end with the “peace” proclaimed by the states, but with its transformation into civil war. Everything will depend on how long this crisis lasts, how deep it is. It is very difficult for us to project ourselves even a year into the future, especially on a global scale, but already it is not unlikely to imagine that some states will collapse.
We are thinking in particular of sub-Saharan Africa, where the pandemic is likely to spread very quickly due to the concentration of urban areas and the difficulty of implementing the famous “social distancing” behavior8. On top of that, this pandemic crisis will be combined with a risk of famine which would accentuate the lethality of the disease, in addition to being a drastic outcome for the population itself.9
We will discuss this first hypothesis at greater length in another episode. Below, we will present the second one. It is quite possible that these two hypotheses will both be partially realized.
Let us assume here that in a relatively large part of the world the first phase of the crisis will eventually come to an end. A new act would begin, a “post-war” period. In this “new normality,” profoundly transformed by the crisis, important contradictions seem inevitable. For the time being, in the urgency to extinguish the inflammation, the shock treatment includes distribution measures and Keynesian-type stimulus plans.
Once the moment of urgency has passed, there will be an immense contradiction between the expectations of a population that has sacrificed itself on the one hand, and on the other, the capitalist need to circumvent any politics that could provoke a default on the payment of the state debt, even partial.
And it is likely to be brutal, because national debt will have exploded in the crisis. From a capitalist point of view, states and unions of states are to be considered like big banks: too big to fail. Therefore, we can only expect public policies that will go radically against the hopes that workers are placing in the end of the crisis.
For currency itself is likely to go into crisis. Remember that the value of money depends on the ability of the state to repay its loans. Currencies, the euro, the dollar, etc., are debt securities issued by central banks on the basis of their holdings of government bonds10. These bonds are considered safe, the government being most reliable payer … as long as it is not itself bankrupt.
States will therefore be placed in an inextricable situation. If they propose to satisfy demands for social peace, if they invest in hospitals, if they build housing, if they maintain policies to distribute money, subsidies, social aid, in short, if they develop distributive public policies, they will see the exchange rate collapse. But if they stop redistribution, it is the democratic legitimacy of their policing mechanisms that will crumble.
As the same causes are very likely to cause the same effects, we can expect a worse situation than the one that followed 2008, with even more horrific austerity plans, accompanied by nationalist speeches, this time with an environmental flavor, to make us accept the sacrifices.
The slide towards street opposition and its violent repression seems inevitable to us: there will be revolts, riots, struggles, wild strikes. In fact, they have already begun.
Defiance of states and managers
We are not in a position to anticipate exactly what form the crisis will take once this first act is over. What we are proposing here are hypotheses.
We believe that the trends already at work before this crisis will strengthen. We are already seeing the first signs. Power will tend to become even more bunkered up and the ruling class will tend to further unify its representation in broad party coalitions of national order by continuing to use all the tools of lies and algorithmic propaganda in order to form blocs of support.
As in the previous wave of contestation, parties are likely to emerge or re-emerge to proclaim themselves the institutional receptacle of contestation while claiming to be the embodiment of the people and the desire for change.
And these two tendencies (bunkered power and pop-up parties) will be able to take turns once again in submission to the State.
We are already witnessing a nascent form of national economic relocation. How will this translate politically? It is difficult to say, but it will surely be expressed in discourses that are at times nationalist and identity-based, and at times environmentalist and local or regionalist.
The exaltation of the people will surely continue, digital democracy will be further promoted. In short, the whole of what already made up the formula of the so-called populist parties yesterday will be renewed.
It will surely promise a redefinition of the relationship between the state and the national community. Nationalism is the electoral promise of state clientelism reserved for citizens who are members of the national community. This is how the electoral blocs are formed: by exclusion. There is every reason to believe that the shift in the global economy towards partial relocation, wrapped up in localist and ecological discourse, will deepen at least on the surface.
As true as the parties that yesterday proclaimed themselves to be for the people have fallen in line, these next avatars will do the same. They are and will be hollow forms, pop-up storefronts. Let’s not let them sell their false hope again.
For when trust is lacking, hope is the managers’ other ammunition. It keeps the population waiting for the big boys of this world to solve the problems. It saves more time, before the naked violence.
They sell us hope, distribute it for lack of respirators. We are given hope that the pandemic will end. An end to the crisis. An end to this disaster or that disaster. But it’s high time to face the fact that these disasters will not end. That we are falling from one to the other at an ever-increasing rate. That mistrust is the order of the day, in the face of states that lie, sabotage and put all the force of their groaning machinery at the service of maintaining the power of the possessors.
To all the comrades around the world who are trying to pave the way for a victorious revolution, we say: the uprisings in Chile, Haiti, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, France… are all experiences and lessons to be learned. One of the most important things we will discuss in a future episode is that movements die when they are limited to the struggle for state reform, for democracy or for the constituent assembly.
So let’s not wait. From now on, let us organize the dissemination of information about our struggles, on practices that work, as a necessity, but also as a trial period. Tomorrow, we may urgently need these kinds of tools, and there may be little time to put them in place. We are faced with a situation where states are putting all their weight on society to keep the lid on exploitation in place. We do not know where the reversal will come from. But we do know that there is anger.
Let’s support mistrust of states and managers. Let’s criticize the peddlers of hope. Let us prepare intelligently, that is, by assuming that our preparation will be insufficient and that this should reassure us and not worry us: we are on the side of the unexpected, and it frightens the managers.
1We use the terms ruling class and possessing class in a specific sense. The ruling class is the fraction of the possessing class that holds effective power. The ruling class generally represents and administers the interests of the ruling class. But there can be variations, conflicts, struggles of tendencies. Finally, the term ruling class makes it possible to target more precisely the fraction of the possessing class that is most firmly attached to the state. We find this distinction everywhere, and various factions of the possessing class struggle everywhere among themselves for the control of the state apparatus. These struggles are regulated in some places by an electoral market, in others by the dynamics of floating alliances within single parties, or by military coups d’état.
2At present, it is difficult to gather sufficient sources to verify this pattern of explanation. It is therefore to be taken only as a working hypothesis.
6While many workers are aware of the gap between the rhetoric of the capitalists and the reality of the mercantile concerns of their bosses, at the present time and without any overall movement, it seems clear that they will not take that risk.
7Notably the yellow vest movement in France. But let’s also mention the book The Roundabout Revolutions, by Eyal Weizman. It shows how this element of the urban environment has been the privileged theatre of social mobilization for many years.
8 In sub-Saharan Africa 63% of urban dwellers (258 million people) cannot wash their hands, according to UNICEF.
10This is a summary of money creation. To be more precise, central banks create the so-called “central” money, i.e. obviously coins and banknotes, but also money that exists only in the form of writing, “scriptural money.” This part of central money, also called “monetary base,”, is produced for private banking institutions, which are obliged to have an account with the central bank, on which they must hold reserves of central money. These reserves are used as collateral for loans. They thus correspond to a percentage of the loans they grant (around 1% in the euro area, but this may vary widely elsewhere). Thus, for example, if the BNP wants to lend a total volume of EUR 100 billion, it must hold at least EUR 1 billion in central bank money in its account with the European Central Bank.
Second, most of the currency issued, around 90%, is created by private banks (BNP, Deutsche Bank, HSBC…). Each time a bank grants a loan, it simultaneously creates a deposit on the borrower’s bank account, thus creating new money. This money is destined to be destroyed as it is repaid by the borrower. The bank keeps the interest. This money is thus created for a given time, by a game of writing, which is the responsibility of the bank. And this responsibility, the bank has the right to engage it because it holds the reserves in central money that we were talking about earlier, which is created by the central bank. Thus, it is indeed the central bank which in the last resort creates the money, the money on which the banks base themselves to lend. And in exchange for this money the central banks create what are essentially government bonds. Thus, if tomorrow the states can no longer repay their bonds, this means that the central bank holds rotten reserves, and, as we have just explained, the entire monetary and banking edifice is guaranteed by these same central banks.