Pandemic and Class Struggle in 2020

31 December, 2020

Ontario, Canada

The year began across Europe with a full-scale industrial crisis and with the GDP of the Eurozone dragging on about an inane 1% of growth. The Spanish government outlined the guidelines of its plan to attack pensions and in France, the Macron reform was met with a frontal resistance by the workers. The first signs of the impact of the epidemic in China, delays in deliveries and plant closures, were accelerating a crisis that was already underway even before the first signs of the epidemic began in Europe and the Americas.

By the end of February accumulation was already threatened all over the world. Imperialist tensions were growing more radical. Hospital overcrowding and shortages of equipment in Asia and Europe were evidence of the deterioration of the general conditions of exploitation of labor during the years of austerity. In the following days the brutal fall of oil prices announced the coming debacle. In that week, between half-truths and calls to the Sacred Anti-Viral Union, governments struggled to delay the inevitable. On March 9 Conte declared general lockdown in Italy. On the 14th Sanchez did the same in Spain… without including the closure of non-essential production. From the first moment it became clear that the anti-covid strategy would prioritize saving investments over saving lives.

From then on, governments, in different ways and forms, from the democrats in the United States to Putin in Russia, would play at denying the obvious during two pandemic waves, one or two hasty lockdowns and a back-to-school operation which proved lethal: the spread or control of the pandemic depends on social conditions and therefore on political decisions, not on individual responsibility.

The combination of pandemic and rampant crisis pushed the states to recover the figures of the big companies and pushed the petty bourgeoisie to oppose public health measures, not because they were insufficient, but because they were devastating for their businesses. In the context of the pandemic, it became increasingly clear that the only ones really interested in stopping the virus and saving lives without conditions were the workers.

The struggles of the petty bourgeoisie in 2020

Denialist demonstration in Madrid last August.

During 2019 a series of popular movements from Chile to Iraq, had captured media attention and proposed against the increasingly autonomous developments of workers’ struggle the old nationalist and democratic model of the people. That is, the petty bourgeoisie, now adorned with all the discourses of the global ideological offensives, presented itself as an alternative direction of the political body. It was a repetition of the previous years’ petty-bourgeois revolts in an even more inoffensive version. In fact, the ruling class did not cease to praise its ability to impose transversality (=avoiding autonomous expressions of the workers) and played to a tee its attempts at imperialist co-option (USA in Hong Kong, Iran in Iraq, etc.).

By 2020 the model was essentially exhausted. It is difficult for the petty bourgeoisie to exercise general political leadership when their interests are increasingly opposed, violently opposed, to those of the workers. In February, before the pandemic, the mobilizations of farmers in Spain campaigned for the rejection of the minimum wage. And although during the lockdown they recovered margins and profits, their whole discourse revolved around the need to pay miserable wages and destroy production -and quality of production- in order to be profitable.

But the most characteristic -and anti-human- movement of the petty bourgeoisie in 2020 was denialism. First within the U.S., and then almost immediately in petty-bourgeois neighborhoods in Spain, protests detests defy lockdown and label the -insufficient- public health measures as oppressive. In principle, they are mobilizations of well-to-do and conservative sectors, wrapped in national flags and with stale rhetoric. But they will soon be replaced by a new profile: younger people, with liberal or artistic professions, hipster couples who carry their children with them and who reject, to begin with, the use of masks. The influence of Bannon’s people is evident in Madrid, but especially in Serbia, where a coalition of anti-vaccine parents and hooligans from the Red Star’s ultras – a meeting point of the far-right and the lumpen- assaults the parliament. In Germany, they demonstrate at the gates of the Bundestag surprising locals and strangers alike with their heterogeneity and their ability to bring people together. The delusional character of their speeches, many of them imported from the United States, frightens the conservative heart of the petty bourgeoisie. This internal fracture is what once again sends them to the fringes, a wide marginality, more and more comfortable thanks to some governments that – against all logic of public health – accept in principle that the vaccine, when it arrives, will be voluntary.

In the fall, the spotlight shifted to another type of denialism not even requiring conspiratorial arguments: shopkeepers and hoteliers protest against the few restrictions arguing that they will bankrupt their businesses. It is the typical murderous myopia of the shopkeeper who does not even care whether his customers die as long as they make a good purchase before entering the ICU. But the media feeds it. They are happy to have a social force that allows governments to legitimize the idea that a balance must be established between saving lives and saving investments. In Italy and Spain at some moments and sectors – the owners of night bars and clubs, traditionally associated with the lumpen – mobilizations threaten to escape from the hands of the state and end up in pure night-time vandalism, but these owners are still reasonable people who modulate their anti-humanity for a price. They end up reaching an understanding with the state without ceasing to offer a mournful spectacle every night on the news. This is a very useful show to cover up the tedious and terrible daily figures of the dead.

But the mobilization of the petty bourgeoisie had another important vector in 2020. Election year in the U.S., with the Democratic Party ready to give it all and the polls showing surprising resistance from the Trump vote, the Democrats’ conversation is already centered in March on the black vote. In the press there are successive op-eds warning about both the opportunity and the danger for Biden’s candidacy. They need a movement. And the murder of George Floyd by the police in late May gives them an opportunity. Black Lives Matter is reborn with demonstrations all over the country. For the Democrats, a political expression of the traditions of Anglo-Saxon liberal radicalism, the conjunction is simple: the program of the black petty bourgeoisie is adopted and the discourses of the other parts of the party are accommodated to it. The accompanying campaign of the Democrats tries to present itself as a global movement of rejection because its goal from the outset is the presidential elections. The interesting thing about the global repercussion of this movement is in two keys:

1 As it happened before with feminism, it is no longer a question of movements for equality. The program of the black petty bourgeoisie is no longer universalizing, but essentialist, it is not anti-racist, but racialist to the point of obscenity. It represents a petty bourgeois class which -for historical reasons– does not aspire to lead the bourgeois nation, but to separate within it a little corral it can represent in a monopolistic fashion. They are actually segregationist movements, or as they will call them in France, separatist movements.

2 There is nothing odd therefore in the fact that on its landing in continental Europe and the Mediterranean, hand in hand with the extraordinary American propaganda machine, the discourse is made its own by… the Muslim Brotherhood, who quickly organized parallel BLM movements in France, Belgium and, with much less presence, in Germany and Switzerland. Once again, the contradictions between the U.S. and the European continental powers run seamlessly between ideological and imperialist battles. From the Enlightenment universalist responses and the manifestos of leftist intellectuals opposed to segregationism, one soon passes to a new plan of Republican reconquest of the suburbs, the repression of the Islamist structure and the open confrontation with Turkey. Mélenchon’s identitarian left, which had given shelter and coverage to the racialist party of the Indigenous of the Republic in the same way that it had made Anglo-Saxon essentialist feminism its own, is splitting up and becoming entangled.

The workers and the Covid strikes

General Strike in Tataoine

For workers, 2019 had closed with swords held high and two immediate references: the French mobilizations against pension reforms and growing mobilizations of health care workers around the world, especially powerful by the way, those of the workers of the emergency system in France.

On this fertile ground, the outbreak of the pandemic and the first lockdown produce an immediate reaction – especially in Italy and soon after in France, Brazil and other countries – calling for the closure of non-essential production to prevent contagion in the workplace. These are the first Covid strikes. A chain of struggles spreads quickly across the map. In Mexico, factory workers are once again confronting unions and threatening the entire international automotive production chain. Even in the United States, the need for these struggles to escape union and left-wing control will soon become apparent, first with the strikes of day laborers, then in the automotive industry, and already in August and September among teachers.

In Spain and Portugal, meanwhile, the strike movement is invisibilized and redirected by the unions without major problems: a wave of industrial closures (Alcoa, Nissan) brings the unions into their most classic terrain of job gravediggers and managers of capital following a state logic. They side with some investors over other ones, calling for nationalization or subsidized prices of raw materials to ensure the profitability of invested capital… everything but confronting the supremacy of the company’s profit over the needs of the workers in the only way that can be effective, extending the struggles. Nothing else could be expected. The so-called most progressive government in history, the unions and the large private capitals are already drawing up a new roadmap for Spanish capital and their model is the Moncloa Agreements. Social peace above everything and at all costs. And overall they got their way throughout the year, soon overcoming the first outbreaks of combativeness.

Globally however, the reality is very different. Month after month, the number of striking workplaces around the world keeps growing throughout the year. In June the leadership is in the healthcare workers, but global combativeness is rising so high that in many places it is overflowing sector boundaries. The strikes of the Donbass miners become general mobilizations before being deceived and suppressed. Tunisia enters a phase of strikes and general struggles throughout the country, which are still ongoing today. The next month, strikes reappear and become massive in Iran, especially in the oil sector, despite state repression. Even in the midst of the battle between sectors of the Belarusian bourgeoisie, in the worst political conditions, the class makes itself present in the form of an incipient response. And the most relevant thing: the outbreak of spontaneous mobilizations on both sides of the Libyan front brings war to a halt.

With the back-to-school operation and the first stages of the second pandemic wave, the education sector and Europe will again take the lead, although with an agenda and problems common to what can be seen emerging by the same dates in the USA, Russia or Argentina among teachers. When the second pandemic wave in France becomes a massacre, the strikes in France will begin to show the way. But by that time, with strikes growing worldwide, the center of the global class struggle will have moved to India, where more workers are going on strike than ever simultaneously in the world in a complex panorama of confrontation with unions, alliances with the poor peasantry, and attempts at independent assertion.

A global framework

Call center workers on strike in Brazil.

The pandemic has accelerated the global capitalist crisis and the course of imperialist conflicts, but it has also made explicit a level of contradictions between the workers and the bourgeois classes that is only comparable to that of a war. All capital -small and large, private and state-owned- and the classes that represent it –bourgeoisie, bureaucracy and petty bourgeoisie– have openly shown themselves as organizers and enforcers of sacrificing lives to save investments. The overall response of the working class has been a development of massive and growing combativeness throughout the year. And yet the understanding of the historical meaning and the ultimate potentialities of the moment is still far away, and with it an orientation, a conscious direction of the struggles capable of affirming in the concrete and under the perspective of the satisfaction of universal human needs. There has never been so much work to be done, but it has been a long time since conditions were so favorable for doing it.