A “new normality”

29 April, 2020

Spain, France or Italy are already starting deconfinement. The absolute numbers of new infections are in the same range as when confinement began. And deaths are still over 300 a day in all three countries. The danger of “de-escalation” is obvious. But the aim of governments is not to put an end to the epidemic and return to normality when the situation is safe, but rather to recover economic activity, including in the hotel and tourism industry, by accepting to “live with” the epidemic and its consequences as long as the numbers of patients requiring intensive care do not overwhelm the health system. This is the “new normality” that governments are looking for and that will change living conditions, the organization of work and even the international division of labor.

The “new normality”, decreed at a fast pace, by setting the bar for ICUs not to be saturated, means accepting infections and deaths that would not have to occur if confinement measures were kept up. In other words, it means putting investments before lives and passing on the responsibility for new infections, deaths and the aftermath, from the state to individuals, as if it depended on them not being within two meters of anyone else.

Instead of maintaining the kind of social conditions that reduce risk, they throw all responsibility to an atomized society and tell it to change its way of life to try to survive unscathed by an overwhelming epidemic. If it goes wrong, it’s our fault. The message was explicit three days ago in Der Spiegel:

If no miracle occurs, and experience has shown that miracles rarely occur, then the pandemic and its effects will continue to accompany society for months, if not years. In other words, there will be no normalcy like before the Covid until further notice. Our way of living together is too incompatible with further stopping the spread of the virus. Whether it is the way we work together in offices, how we educate our children or let them play on playgrounds, how we celebrate parties or go shopping. Too many pillars of our society are based on the fact that people are (too) close to each other, whether at work, in the theatre or at the football stadium. What can we do? A new standard is needed.

“Interestingly,” that new standard, that “new normality”, further accelerates the underlying trends that capital has been pushing for the past few decades.

Virtualization, teleworking and riders

German Minister of Labor.

In Germany the government has already announced the recognition of “teleworking” as a “social right”: if your work can be virtualized “you” can choose to do it remotely. According to German statistics, 20% of jobs could be virtualized.

In practice, what this means for workers is to assume the costs of the company as their own, to suffer greater atomization and to move to target-based work management systems which are the modern version of piecework. With regard to “voluntariness”, things are not so easy. As is already the case in many service companies, if the company sees the opportunity, it will reduce office costs, leaving tables and space for only a certain amount of workers. You are welcome if you want to work there, but you don’t have an assigned place and nobody guarantees that there will be room when you arrive. Since the workload of the day is set individually, who will risk going there and having to come back? It’s all very voluntary, though.

Of course, the trend also affects the agricultural and commercial petty bourgeoisie, which is forced to make unproductive expenses such as promotion, even if it’s at virtualized fairs, and to incorporate home delivery and online sales services or disappear. The result: more ultra-preccarized “riders” and more capital to be placed in the “delivery” companies.

And, let’s not day that the bourgeoisie does not lead by example, the big companies have also changed the shape of their Boards towards virtuality. Less costs, but above all more centralized control for the corporate bourgeoisie over the companies it manages.

Automation of services

Chinese automated supermarket

With the outdoor cafés and bars having become possible sources of contagion, the conditions seem to be in place to fulfill an old dream of capital: to automate local services such as hotels, mechanics’ workshops and laundries, as reported in The Guardian:

Some technology groups are already experimenting with retail outlets that won’t require payments or human-operated ATMs. Amazon, which has expanded into selling groceries, has a supermarket in Seattle with no payment assistants, relying instead on sensors to track what shoppers take off the shelves, using “exit-only” technology to bill customers and end lines. McDonald’s is switching to self-service kiosks in its restaurants, eliminating the need for customers to talk to workers at the counter. Other jobs where automation has taken its toll include laundry workers, farm workers and tire fitters, among which numbers have dropped by 15% or more, ONS said, as machines have replaced labor.

The passion for “Clean and safe” automated commerce is already on the rise in Asia. Chinese chains are considering full automation of coffee shops. The competitive advantages are cheaper coffees than rivals: 30 yuan for a coffee in a staffed establishment, 9.9 yuan in an automated coffee shop, all in a domestic coffee business that moves a trillion yuan (more than $14 billion). A fantastic placement for capital. But what does it mean for workers in a context of a general fall in demand and plummeting wages? Unemployment.

Renationalization of strategic chains

Since the epidemic started in China and the globalized production chains began to suffer, articles appeared in all media calling for the renationalization of strategic sectors. What in principle was a step forward in the consolidation of the fragility of productive processes in which each phase depends on the previous one and each one is made in a country, in a context of commercial wars, soon became a boom in the discourses of “economic patriotism”. As if this were not enough, the lack of sufficient medical supplies elevated the discussion to a public health problem.

It became clear that the renationalization of productive processes that had been driven by the trade war was going to accelerate and that it would be ” the end of the world economy as we knew it“. Today this is no longer a perspective. A good part of the American and Japanese companies in China have already started “exit plans”.

But renationalization will not be what we were sold by Trump or Bové, the reappearance of thousands of well-paid assembly line jobs. What will replace production in Asia will be highly automated and probably precarious workshops. The point is not to “get jobs for workers” but to create profitable applications for capital. If it is linked to the “green deal” with its dose of subsidies and protectionism, even better for capital: more security after relocalization, more volume to be placed, more productivity in terms of profit per worker. That is, increased exploitation for a few workers in the U.S. or Europe and more unemployment and misery for workers in Asian factories.

And in the medium term…

Spain, one century ago.

The changes accelerated by this “new normality” certainly will not end there. Workers’ holidays will never be the same and the job opportunities that tourism has historically provided will almost certainly be reduced over the next two years. Flights will probably be expensive again for quite a long time.

The old nightmare of the tuberculosis “sanatoriums” will return as part of the health services to cover the need for long term hospital beds. A new real estate sub-sector that will provide an outlet for the big funds and will be assured of profitability with state money. That nursing homes were a slaughtering ground precisely because they applied the logic of profitability “right”? Who is going to remember that when nobody wants to talk about the endless epidemic and every new job, no matter how bad, becomes a treasure?

And there will be more changes imposed on us as a “new normality”. The environments and the rhythms will change, but they will all have at least two elements in common: they will all be subordinated to serving as placements for the fearful masses of accumulated capital, and they will all be different forms, different ways, to articulate a massive transfer of income from labor to capital. “De-escalation” is a brazen and sinister sign that what drives governments is not human needs -starting with not getting infected and dying or suffering sequels throughout one’ s life when it is avoidable- but investments that demand profitability. Universal human needs will never be above the “health of the economy”, i.e. the vitality of national capital, for any national government. There is no room for syllogisms; capital is only an “economic franchise” to exploit workers. And now to exploit us even more. There is no compatibility and there will be less and less compatibility between capital and human needs. These will only be defended by our struggles.


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