Governments are trying to save their national capital, striking workers are saving human lives

20 March, 2020

Chery workers in strike in Brasil.

Faced with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, states are organizing “shock” economic plans that are actually massive income transfers from labor to capital as the ongoing imperialist conflict deepens and takes on new forms. The logic of capital means that the more this epidemic spreads, the more reluctant the states become to actually enforce confinement in the only way possible: closing down businesses. But by refusing to do so they have set in motion the working class, which has responded with the largest international wave of simultaneous strikes in a century.

The states’ criminal reaction…

Last night on BBC Boris Johnson persisted in his “strategy” of avoiding confinement at any cost. Britain already counted 144 dead and 3,269 infected, but Johnson and his scientists no longer talked about achieving “herd immunity”. Partly because relapses and contagion of new patients by theoretically “recovered” ones make it difficult to sustain. But mostly because the government’s own circulating papers estimate that the National Health Service (NHS) will eventually handle eight times as many patients as it can manage given its capacity. The result of a sharp increase of nearly eight million patients in a constantly overcrowded system can only be a worsening of mortality and an escalation of death figures beyond the hundred thousand. It is not even easy to predict numbers. One doctor wondered “how many people will die because we accepted to work on the brink of collapse for too long?“. Significantly, many migrants, including Italians, preferred to leave their jobs and give up their residence permits rather than stay in the UK in the face of such a prospect.

In Germany, Merkel’s speech on the national TV channel two days ago made it clear that the German bourgeoisie is well aware of what it is dealing with…

Germany has an excellent health system, perhaps one of the best in the world. But our hospitals would also be overwhelmed if too many patients with severe coronavirus disease were admitted in a short time. These are not abstract figures in a statistic, but a parent or a grandparent, a partner. They are people. And we are a community where every life and every person matters.

But when it comes to the truth, every person “matters so much” that confinement is not imposed, let alone business closures, only mass acts and some trips are restricted, presenting the measure as an “extraordinary sacrifice of democracy” that would be extremely dangerous if extended to compulsory confinement. This sudden and hypocritical concern worthy of an irresponsible anarchoid is combined with the sober estimate, stated by the Chancellor herself, that if this were to continue, between 60 and 70% of the population would be infected without any scandal or mass protest. But if there is no scandal or protest, it is only because the German numbers are hard to take seriously: many infections and practically no deaths. One of three: either the Germans have a very unlikely genetic immunity to covid-19, there is a mistake in the numbers because of their method of calculation or the epidemic started in so many simultaneous outbreaks that it has not yet had time to cause deaths but they will come anyway and in bulk soon. Obviously, misinformation about the real risks of death for hundreds of thousands of Germans is no “danger to democracy”.

Comfort ship of the US navy that will sail to New York.

Pretty much the same thing happens in the United States. Let’s not forget that the much-vaunted confinement decreed by the state of California not only does not affect businesses… it is voluntary and will not be monitored by the state. Like Trump’s anti-epidemic actions, this is more “security theater” than real action. If they do anything, it’s to highlight structural shortcomings. For instance, the promised deployment of hospital ships to New York, that is, the use of the military, not only shows the absence of minimally scalable health and emergency systems, it shows that even the military is not capable of responding, in any one place, to a health emergency: hospital ships will take several weeks to arrive.

And on a national level, the reader is probably able to imagine the scene. Not only is there a lack of ventilators throughout the country, but the absence of a universal health system means that in any of the spreading scenarios, the saturation of the hospitals will be almost immediate and with it the increase in mortality. Mortality and contagion will be aggravated by a massive precariousness fueled even more by the health crisis itself… and by the Trumpist shock plan which, like those elsewhere, is attempting to fix the damage to the national capital by organizing a massive transfer of income from the workers to capital through coordinated fiscal and monetary policy.

The confinement declaration appears in Argentinian TV.

Not unlike the government’s reaction in Chile: “state of catastrophe” without confinement and estimation of future critical cases and deaths as if the country were a ranch with sick cattle. In Argentina, by contrast, the government decreed confinement last night after school and border closures proved insufficient and hospital construction times deemed too long to have any impact on the spread. In any case, Argentina, like all semicolonial countries, adds an extra problem: even if it were to close the productive structure left standing despite the economic crisis -something that the national bourgeoisie wants to avoid even at the cost of thousands of deaths- the 40% of workers in the informal sector would go straight into hunger. In fact, a good portion of them, the most precarious, are already starving.

…and the working class response

A board organizing strike in Electrolux, Italy.

In Italy at this point, it is obvious to everyone that if the death toll is higher than in China, it is because Italian capital is trying to keep exploitation no matter who dies. And thousands have already died. The disaster in Bergamo, where the army has had to intervene in order to bury the bodies that were piling up, is explained, even by the mayor of the city, by the actions of the factory owners… and a law of confinement which, like the Spanish, French or Argentinean law, did not include the closure of factories and workplaces.

It was actually clear from the beginning. And so the strikes that began at Fiat Pomigliano, Leonardo, the port of Genoa, all of Piedmont, Electrolux and the metal spread massively throughout the country.

Workers of Arcelor Mittal during the strike.

The unions could not avoid the strikes by throwing themselves into the arms of the companies and disqualifying the workers together with the president of the industrial employers’ association. Companies from all sectors, from Piaggio to Amazon and from Cornelliani’s textiles to Pozzo d’Adda’s Lear, did not settle for symbolic measures and masks sold by the unions. The extension of the strikes is in fact leading to the closure of the main Italian industrial nodes or, at least, as in Arcelor Mittal, to reductions of more than 40% of the workforce with paid leave.

The movement had its first aftershocks in Belgium. It was followed by a string of struggles in Spain, especially in the automotive sector –Mercedes, Renault and IVECO– jumping this week to electrical appliances –Balay– and aerospace –Aernova. If the movement seems to have slowed down in the last two days, it is because the government immediately began to facilitate temporary layoffs and their extension. That is, temporary layoffs during which the worker will receive unemployment benefits.

In France the first news of the strike came from Amazon in Chalon-sur-Saône and from the famous Neuhauser bakery. Shortly afterwards, the workers stopped Bombardier. The permanent workers will be paid a partial strike at 82% of the salary, although the situation of the temporary employees is not yet clear. The latest high-profile ones are the Saint Nazaire shipyards and the Saverglass factory. There is no sign of stopping. Only yesterday, a worker from ID Logistics, also on strike, declared: “They are sending us to the slaughterhouse”. At least two factories in Austria are also on strike to stop production.

The movement has not remained in Europe. The workers of Fiat Chrysler are on strike in Canada. In Brazil, workers at the port of Santos (state of Sao Paulo), Brazil’s main port, were followed by those at CAOA-Chery and three car assembly plants.

Where are we?

Workers of Mercedes Benz on Strike last monday. They closed the factory.

On the one hand, we have practically all governments trying to evade even the confinement declaration and when they do so they avoid closing down workplaces. Governments that, at the same time as, as in Spain, plan to deny respirators to patients -that is, to deny saving the lives- of the elderly, governments that design and test “shock plans” against the economic impact that are nothing more than massive transfers of income from work to capital to “pay back” capital’s losses.

And on the other hand, we are facing the most extensive, simultaneous and internationalized wave of struggles of the last century. A wave of struggles in which the workers of dozens of factories in at least two continents have raised the same demand that clearly expresses the open antagonism between the logic of capital and its states – to maintain exploitation at all costs, even if thousands of people die – and the logic of the workers – to save lives, avoid spreading the epidemic, avoid infecting families which would condemn the elderly to death.

In other words, the pandemic has suddenly raised the level of contradictions in the system to the point of exposing at least two fundamental truths: the radical antagonism between human needs – the first of which is to stay alive – and capitalism, and the second truth, that workers are the only political subject capable of representing and asserting these universal interests throughout the world.

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