By Léon de Mattis
This the second part of the text entitled, “Corona Capital.” The first part posed the question of the economic and financial crisis of capitalism and its possibilities of restructuring. Now it is a question of looking at the struggles during the epidemic and its aftermath, when the restructuring of capitalism may begin.
Class struggle: renewal or questioning of capitalist social relations
Before developing this second part, some generalities about class struggle. It opposes two poles of the capitalist mode of production: the capitalist class and the proletariat. These two poles are not sociological entities, but the two sides of the same system and their confrontation is its dynamic. On the capitalist side, the class struggle is carried out directly in the process of work for the extraction of surplus value, but also in a very general way, since capitalism at the present moment takes charge of all aspects of the reproduction of society. Likewise on the proletarian side, the class struggle is not limited to conflicts in the workplace but concerns daily life: housing, education, immigration status, living conditions, etc. It is therefore necessary to understand the notion of class struggle in a very broad way, encompassing, in one pole as in the other, various forms, and not only open conflicts. On the proletarian side, the refusal of labor, certain illegal practices, collective or individual acts of revolt are elements of class struggle. On the capitalist side, law, propaganda and politics are instruments at the service of class struggle.
For the capitalist class, the struggle is only a renewal of the class relation. Capital has an absolute need of the proletariat, which is its creation. On the other hand, for the proletariat, the class struggle is two-fold. On the one hand, as for the capitalist class, it is a renewal of the class relation, but it is this relation that makes the proletariat exist and gives its representatives, the trade unionists for example, their legitimacy. On the other hand, however, and because capitalism is a mode of production full of contradictions, the class struggle can become a questioning of the class relation by the proletariat.
At the outset these struggles think themselves through categories of the dominant ideologies 1.Their demands, even when they focus on basic needs, are a form of integrating protest with an achievable goal: to ask what capital can offer. However, demand struggles, precisely because they are class struggles, also have the capacity to go beyond their beginnings. Overcoming means that the initial demands and ideological representations that prevailed in the beginning become obsolete as the struggle develops. Moving from a partial questioning of one’s condition as a proletarian to an attempt to abolish this condition is not done through a prior awareness, quite the contrary: awareness comes gradually, as the struggle progresses.
Struggles are not homogenous, and some aspects of a struggle may lean towards renewing the class relation while others lean towards questioning it. What seems to be decisive is the capacity to break the established frameworks: to self-organize; to do without unions and representatives; to break with the paralyzing dominant discourses. Before certain ideas, it is certain practices and ways of doing things that make it possible to question capitalist social relations within struggles. Which practices? The answer is never obvious. If, for example, wildcat strikes or riots seem conducive to provoking the necessary ruptures, we must be wary of any fetishism. It all depends on the content that these practices carry in the particular context of this or that struggle.
Here, the objective of revolutionary theory is not to bring in recipes to be applied from outside, but to formulate hypotheses to answer this question: what specific practices within current struggles seem to be able to lead to a form of overcoming? This then makes it possible to take initiatives to bring these practices to life and hope to see them develop. Struggles are often crossed by multiple ways of doing things, and committing oneself to broadening and deepening those that seem most likely to lead to overcoming them is an important objective for those who hope to see the world change in a fundamental way 2.
This very quick introduction is only here to provide a framework for reflection on the analysis of class struggle during pandemic 3.
Class struggle during pandemic
In less than three months, the pandemic has disrupted the daily lives of billions of people. The class struggle has not ceased, because it is permanent in capitalism. The epidemic gives it a specific context: mainly, that of refusing to work in dangerous conditions in order to continue to enrich capital.
Strikes, exercise of the right to withdraw, flee and avoid work are on the increase in the various countries affected by the epidemic. In Europe, recent struggles have mainly focused on improving working conditions in the face of health risks. In Italy, walkouts on this issue have taken place at the Amazon Warehouse in Piazencia, the Fiat factories at Melfi and Cassino; in France at the Amazon Warehouse in Chalon-sur-Sâone and at Montélimar, at the Carrefour de Vitroles; in Spain at numerous Airbus production centers (Getage, Illescas, Barajas, Tablada & Albacete). Similar struggles are reported in Northern Ireland and Belgium (Moy Park food factory in Portadown, bus depots at Liège-Verviers, Delhaize supermarkets in Brussels suburbs). These struggle concern transportation, mass distribution and e-commerce, but also industrial production. In other companies, protest takes the form of workers’ right to withdraw in the face of danger: this is the case in France at the General Electric site in Belfort, or at the Punch Powerglide factory in Strasbourg and in many establishments of La Poste. Finally, in some cases, the demand is not limited to more effective health protection measures, but aims at the pure and simple cessation of production deemed “non-essential”: for example, in Italy, during the strike at the Sevel plant in Val di Sangro, it is the closure of the plant that is being demanded for a period of two weeks 4.
In prisons, protests and riots have multiplied in the face of deteriorating prison conditions, while releases to avoid prison overcrowding, which is conducive to contagion, are granted only to a very small extent 5.
This movement is obviously not only European: it is global. Struggles have thus begun to improve health conditions in the transportation sector in São Paolo, in call centers in Argentina or among delivery workers in Brazil 6.
Struggles often begin spontaneously, before the trade union apparatus wakes up: for example, at the Fiat factor at Pomigliano d’Arco, Italy, a wildcat strike of one hour is launched in the face of a lack of protection, followed by a four-day trade union strike and then a return to negotiations. The trade unions were torn between the demands of the base and their willingness to appeal to the “responsibility and solidarity” of the workers – responsibility which in concrete terms means, in the words of the general secretary of one of the main French trade unions, “sticking to the instructions given by public authorities” 7. But in a period such as this, trade unions fully play their role of limiting struggles and moderating protest.
The drop in income linked to the suspension of many activities – partial unemployment for some, pure and simple suppression of income for those in precarious employment, self-employed people, etc. – points to numerous financial difficulties in the short term, and has given rise to various attempts at a rent strike and “pay no more” movement 8. If the situation deteriorates further, re-appropriation practices looting cannot be ruled out in some countries. These struggles are defensive reflexes and it goes without saying that the deepening of the crisis may lead to their multiplication, with increased repression in a context of a healthy emergency that transforms more or less all states (“democratic” or otherwise) into police states.
However, as long as the epidemic crisis is at its height, the authorities can use a powerful weapon: blackmail, vis-à-vis endangering public health. For many struggling proletarians, going beyond the immediate demand related to the danger of the situation of scarcity will be difficult as long as the deaths related to the coronavirus add up. Practices that challenge the very premises of the struggle may find it difficult to develop easily in the period of the rise of the pandemic.
Of course, it is not a question of giving up participating in current struggles, especially since the issues at stake – illness, life, death – are crucial and immediate. These struggles are therefore essential, and can be extended to proletarians from all walks of life, including those who are not used to fighting. The idea of disseminating information on these struggles and coordinating this dissemination at the international level is a first step, still very modest in view of the magnitude of the task 9.
Moreover, the struggles of the current period suggest, at least by contrast, show some prospects of overcoming their limits. In fact, these struggles raise not only the question of working conditions, but also that of why we work at all. Refusing to risk one’s health in order to enrich a boss in a sector suddenly judged “non-essential” is not yet the same as refusing labor in general, but it is already questioning what is the basis of the capitalist mode of production: the need to exchange one’s labor power for a wage for tasks that sometimes seem absurd or “useless.”
From our perspective, however, the most important question is what will become of these struggles as we emerge from the epidemic crisis.
Class struggle at the end of the epidemic crisis
First a clarification. It is not a question, of course, of predicting a major wave of struggles at the end of the epidemic crisis, even if, following the example of the aftermath of the World Wars, we can still hope for it. By definition, struggles are unpredictable: they occur when they are not expected and take forms that are often unprecedented. I repeat, the purpose of revolutionary theory is not to tell proletarians what to do, or even to comment or guess what they will do autonomously. Theory serves the actors of struggles by their trying to understand what they are in the process of doing.
This is why it is useful to develop elements of reflection on the evolution of the struggles in progress, and to seek with anticipation, where this evolution may lead. One should not hesitate to take the risk of formulating certain hypotheses, even if it means acknowledging, if necessary, that they were erroneous. The objective is to put ourselves in a situation, as actors of the struggles, to take or join the initiatives that can go in the direction of questioning capitalist social relations.
A second clarification. We must obviously be careful with the notion of “emerging from an epidemic crisis.” Not only does it seem obvious that this will not be in the immediate future, that it almost seems certain that the re-emergence of normality will be very gradual. Periods during which the epidemic subsides may be followed by the return of epidemic waves, with new general or partial confinement. Social distancing measures, closure of certain places, extensive health control and border surveillance are likely to take place over time.
However epidemics do come to an end. The Spanish flu saw three successive waves in 1818 – 1819 before dying out: the last cases were reported in 1921. It is a very gradual end. Even when the Covid-19 epidemic appears to be over, it will be months before we know if a return is no longer possible. It is only some time after the end of the epidemic that we will know for sure that it is really over.
States are likely to use this particularity to maintain as long as possible the coercive measures that have been taken around the world: they will only have to invoke the possibility of the resurgence of the virus, or even the emergence of another virus, to justify the prolonging of the state of health emergency. If the hypothesis of the first part of this text is correct see: part 1, the restructuring of capitalism will begin before the end of the state of emergency and the laws of health emergency will be used to impose the reforms that this restructuring will impose.
Sooner or later, however, the sense of danger of the epidemic will recede sufficiently enough to halt the effectiveness of the blackmail noted earlier around worsening public health. As a nurse interviewed by Le Monde on March 22-23rd said: “For the moment we are silent, we are going to the coal mine. But we will present the bill at the end.”
In this period, the struggles will then probably take place in a very particular context, characterized by the accumulated anger at the shortcomings of the State: the austerity that brought the hospital to its knees even before the crisis; the reduction of mask stockpiles for budgetary reasons, etc. It can also be assumed that distrust will be expressed in the face of an economic system which, through the global integration of of production, will have shown to what extent it can foster shortages (of masks, medicine, etc.).
It is true that the evocation of this anger against the State and this mistrust of the economy makes it less possible to predict the content of the struggles than that of the ideologies that will present themselves as protestors, but are really looking to save capitalism. Criticism of government personnel, as if the problem were linked to this or that leader; criticism of capitalism reduced to some aspects (such as globalization); proposals that are supposedly ‘radical’ but which are only about the reconstruction of a national, “local,” or “green” capitalism already offered up. However, once we remember that struggles, in their beginnings, are taking place in the very terms of dominant ideologies, we understand that it is necessary to wait a bit for the exact output of these struggles.
The crux of the matter is to know how practices born in the terms of a dominant ideology can, by their effective power, open a breach in real relations and consciousness. For example, people may initially refuse to pay their rent because of the exceptional circumstances of the crisis linked to the epidemic. This may be justified by the loss of income and the economic downturn, and it may be assumed that when the economy returns to normal, rent will have to be paid once again. But if the rent strike spreads and becomes a new norm, allowing the “return to normal” to be delayed, and the debates on the very legitimacy of rent payments will only multiply. Criticism of property rights, which already existed before the crisis but remained confined to a marginal and abstraction position, i.e. without any effective consequences, may then take on a completely different dimension. The discourse questioning private property now responds to a practice that has become massive and can give this practice the means to deepen further.
Similarly, there are already many current strikes which are concerned with the danger of employees continuing to work in production sectors deemed “non-essential.” The justification for these strikes is initially linked to the particular context of the epidemic: the production of this or that commodity is deemed non-essential in relation to the urgency of the disease. However, here again, if these strikes become widespread, and if at the same time the pre-epidemic “return to normal” is delayed or seems impossible, the question of the usefulness of production, and the need to work for pay, could be posed in very different terms. Work refusal practices that originated in particular circumstances may, as they become more widespread, begin to detach themselves from those circumstances.
The struggles framed by trade unions are less likely to see this type of practice develop than self-organized struggles: it is therefore the latter that we must already research, analyze, scrutinize from a theoretical point of view, in order to formulate, in due time, the most relevant hypotheses on the initiatives to which will be interesting to rally around as proletarians in struggle.
This text, be definition, cannot be conclusive. Rather than come to a single result, it leads to reflection on the hypotheses to be made about the evolution of struggles. This text hopes that it has drawn the attention of comrades around the world to a certain method of arriving at these hypotheses.
1 Because there isn’t just one. Although they compete with each other, they are all equally capitalist.
2 This does not mean, however, that we should despise struggles that we would judge incapable of producing an overcoming effect. First of all because, for the proletariat, the struggle is often linked to immediate needs, and it is not a question of considering these needs as negligible. Then, because defeat begets defeat, while victory, even over partial demands, is the bearer of future dynamics. Finally, because some struggles that do not pay off in their early stage can sometimes hold shocking suprises.
3 For futher developments on this subject see Léon de Mattis, “Critiques en actes du capital,” Utopie 2020, pt. 3. Forthcoming.
4 See the cartography on the site: classeenlutte.org
5 Cartography of prison struggles in Europe: http://umap.openstreetmap.fr/fr/map/prison-cra-covid-19_433971#6/51.000/2.000
6 So that is why Fever is so important.
7 “We are all responsible and in solidarity in the face of coronavirus,” statement by Laurent Berger, General Secretary of the CFDT, on the union’s website: cfdt.fr
8 For example: facebook.com/grevedesloyers2020