How can the left respond to the corona crisis? A plea for forceful opposition to the »crisis solution« of the ruling class
The text was first published in German.
Translation: Kate Davison, Einde O’Callaghan
The German government is responding to the corona crisis with emergency measures that do not do justice to the situation. The Merkel government for a long time underestimated the dynamics of the corona pandemic (like almost every government) and then reacted with the wrong means, which reveal its primary concern: to protect the economy. Instead of immediately putting up a protective shield for people and pushing for massive expansion of public services, especially the health system, the responsibility for containing the corona pandemic is being individualised. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s appeal to the individual »to take it seriously« fits well within the dogma of neoliberalism. But shifting the responsibility for containing the pandemic onto the individual is wrong. Containing a pandemic is a political issue, not an individual one.
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This is precisely why a strong left-wing opposition is needed in the corona crisis. The left now has the task of offering people options for action in times of quarantine and a state of emergency. Trust, respect and solidarity are important ideals to hold onto if we are to overcome the corona crisis. The corona pandemic is neither a national nor a European phenomenon; it has long since become a challenge for all of humanity. The left must now learn quickly to fight under these changed conditions. This means supporting and networking internationally, but also locally. At the same time it should explain and clarify the structural causes of the corona crisis: The symptom is corona, but the disease capitalism.
Almost everywhere in the world, those in power are taking repressive measures to combat the corona crisis. Resorting to deploying the latest autocratic means of control via the police and military is a hallmark of catastrophic capitalism that has gone off the rails. Yet repressive measures such as border closures, increased surveillance or curfews are of little help in the current circumstances, distracting from the real tasks and at the same time creating new problems. The demands for curfews are particularly counterproductive. »Stay at Home« is an important campaign. Everyone should immediately join in for their own protection and for the protection of others! But it is absurd to ban people from going outside in their leisure time while at the same time keeping silent about the fact that millions of workers in factory buildings and service companies with hundreds of people must continue working in one room to produce things that nobody needs urgently at the moment. The psychological impact of such measures is also potentially devastating. A curfew increases the risk that the current emergency regime will lead to more mental illness or domestic violence. It is one of the biggest conceivable encroachments on our fundamental rights. Moreover, the question arises as to how it will be enforced: Spain is using the army and drones to monitor the population. Israel has given its secret service access to all mobile phone tracking data in order to enforce the curfew. All movements of Israeli citizens are now being monitored. The corona crisis must not be allowed to become a free ticket for the erosion of democratic rights. In Italy, the curfew has not led to a reduction in the number of people infected. The demand for a curfew reflects the obvious perplexity of politicians in dealing with the corona virus and disproportionately restricts civil liberties. Despite the pandemic the democratic freedoms and civil rights that have been won must not be sacrificed, but must be resolutely defended.
»Social distancing« is an important element in combating the spread of the virus. However, as virologists and health experts have explained, it does not require total isolation in one’s own home. On the contrary: as long as distance to others is maintained, it is even recommended to go out into the fresh air. So a general curfew bypasses the actual problem, and instead creates numerous new ones: »social distancing« must not lead to »social isolation«. But for many people, especially for the old and sick, curfews can mean just that. At the same time, »social distancing« is also a class issue: in a villa with a garden or a large apartment with a balcony, a curfew is easier to bear than for a single parent with two small children in a two-room apartment in a high-rise block. Instead of relying on repression, the government should create the social conditions so that all people, especially workers, could learn and apply the principle of social distancing. How could this be done? The government of the Canadian province of Quebec is paying 573 Canadian dollars (362 euros) per week to all workers in the province who are required to isolate themselves. The application is filled out online and the money is in the bank account within 48 hours. Instead of restricting freedom of movement, the federal government could distribute protective suits, masks and disinfectant free of charge to all people in risk areas and large cities.
The emergency measures being taken by those in power are highly contradictory. On the one hand, public life is being severely restricted: cafés, restaurants, universities, schools, playgrounds, shops, cinemas and day-care centres are being closed, on top of general curfews. On the other hand, health protection for employees is being neglected. Millions of people still have to go to work and are thus exposed to working conditions that are harmful to their health, although their work isn’t really crucial to the system as a whole. It is a contradiction to demand »social distancing« on the one hand and yet allow »social contact« in industrial companies or in many service sectors on the other.
Experience in Italy clearly shows how dangerous such an approach is. It would be consistent to also shut down industrial production and service companies that are not urgently needed, while also making socially necessary jobs »corona-safe«. This means providing the best possible health protection for all employees who cannot work from home: protective suits, masks, gloves and disinfectant spray must be made available immediately and free of charge to all vital businesses still involved in necessary production and manufacturing, as well as the food and grocery trade and branches providing crucial infrastructure for employees. Corporations that refuse to do so are putting profit before human health protection. Company protests, strikes and self-organisation are important in order to demand and enforce protective measures within companies.
In this crisis, those who are most precariously employed or unemployed need uncomplicated protection. Otherwise, they will be defenceless against the dangers of the corona crisis, and the social divide will deepen even further. Protection must not be a question of money. It has to include: suspension of sanctions by the social security and unemployment offices, suspension of power cuts and forced evictions, an increase of the standard rate of welfare payments, provision of adequate housing and shelter for homeless people, people considered to be »illegal« and asylum seekers in overcrowded reception centres and women’s shelters. No one must be left behind!
When schools or day care centres close, parents cannot work – and are not paid. Particularly with low incomes, the shortfalls are immediately noticeable and the loss of childcare is particularly hard on single parents and women. The left party, Die LINKE, has rightly demanded: »Parents need a wage guarantee for closures.«
The fact that the Federal Government has facilitated and extended the payment of benefits to workers on reduced-hours contracts is by far not enough. On the one hand, it means that, despite the pandemic, work should continue as much as possible. On the other hand, it is unfair that employers are completely exempt from social security contributions while employees are expected to forgo a large part of their wages or salaries. Rather than a protective shield for the economy, we need a protective shield for employees. No one should be laid off, no one should be allowed to work while they are sick. We need unrestricted sick pay for quarantine periods.
At the same time, the corona crisis means acute existential fear for millions of (supposedly) self-employed people and small businesses. Instead of granting banks and corporations unlimited loans worth billions, financial aid must be provided quickly by the state with as little bureaucratic complication as possible. Lost income for supposedly self-employed individuals and contract workers, as well as people in cooperatives and micro-enterprises, must be guaranteed.
Stock markets have collapsed worldwide. Economists are warning of a global economic crisis. The culprit can quickly be found: The new corona virus! But the virus is only the trigger for the crisis. The causes lie much deeper. In fact, world capitalism has been growing poorly for years. Bank bailouts and the cheap money from the central banks prevented the great financial crisis of 2008/9 from developing into a world economic crisis on the scale of the 1930s. The subsequent upswing, however, was the weakest since the Second World War. To declare the virus to be the cause of the acute economic slump fails to recognise that the system has been in a bad way for a long time. The pandemic has merely burst the stock market bubble that was artificially inflated with central bank money.
Now corporations are using the corona crisis to blackmail employees in an attempt to pass on company losses to the workforce. Temporary workers are being deregistered, and overtime hours are mounting. Hotels and restaurants are laying off their staff, flight attendants are losing a relevant part of their wages through reduced-hours contracts, precariously employed workers are losing some, if not all, of their income. The left must work to ensure that it is not the wage-dependent population, but the profiteers of the upward redistribution that has taken place over recent decades who pay the costs of the crisis. This includes demands for higher taxes for the rich and corporations.
The crisis triggered by the corona virus is also hitting society so hard because the public sector has been run down for decades. Economists estimate the underfunding of the public sector in Germany at 450 billion euros. All areas on which the general public is dependent must be removed from the profit interests of the capitalists. In the corona crisis, this applies particularly to all areas of the health and pharmaceutical industries. They must immediately be placed under full democratic control and nationalised in order to function optimally in the general interest now during the crisis. The subordination of the health system to the imperatives of profit must be reversed as a matter of urgency and the nursing care crisis must be effectively combated.
Unfortunately, the German Trade Union Federation (DGB) has so far supported the crisis measures of the Federal Government. The head of Die LINKE’s parliamentary group, Dietmar Bartsch, also said on Deutschlandfunk radio that everything must be done to keep the economy running. In view of the crisis, now was not the time for the opposition to react with harsh criticism: »So what I hear from Mrs Merkel and Mr Söder: ‚We are doing everything that is necessary and possible‘ – that is the sensible approach«, said Bartsch.
It is fatal when the left fails to oppose the policies of the ruling class, especially in times of crisis. There is a threat not only of an economic ‚crisis solution‘ in the sense of the ruling class, but also of an authoritarian turnaround. The trade union movement and the left must not become a state-sponsored advocate of economic aid for banks and corporations and ever new repressive measures, even in the face of the corona crisis, but must organise resistance to them.
The right-wing Alternative for Deutschland is trying to use the corona crisis to spread its racist and ethnic delusions and false reports about the virus. In doing so, it is pursuing a strategy that is by no means new in the history of racist agitation in Germany: fugitives and immigrants are denigrated as carriers of disease and are thus ultimately dehumanised.
The left must resolutely oppose racist agitation. Since the virus is already spreading everywhere, the only sensible thing now is to ensure that the public health system is made so resilient that it does not matter who turns up with an infection.
In the shadow of the corona crisis, the EU continues to seal itself off and increase repression against people seeking protection – with disastrous consequences. The activist group Pro Asyl writes: »In the fifth year of the EU-Turkey deal, tens of thousands of people are holding out in inhumane conditions on the Greek islands. Capacities are virtually exhausted; health care is desolate.«
It is a disgrace when the German Foreign Minister Maaß can bring 100,000 »stranded« German holidaymakers back to Germany with a fleet of aircraft, but leaves the people on Lesbos, in Idlib or on the Turkish-Greek border to their terrible fate. The »Airlift« for German tourists shows what we could do for people who are really in need.
Just four years ago there was great indignation when AfD politicians called for the use of armed force against refugees at the borders »if necessary«. In 2020 this is a sad reality. Instead of criticising the Greek government for the brutal action at the border with Turkey and the suspension of the right of asylum, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, praised the government and declared Greece to be the »shield of Europe«. It is not only in the face of the corona crisis that action must now be taken. There is also a threat of other epidemics in the huge refugee camps where people are crammed together in terrible conditions without sanitary and medical assistance. A large-scale reception programme from Greece, Italy and Libya is needed: the hotspots must be cleared and people seeking protection must be brought to safety.
Every time new viral infections break out, governments, the media and even most medical institutions are so focused on each specific emergency that they ignore the structural causes that repeatedly propel various rather marginal pathogens to sudden worldwide fame. Corona viruses are not an isolated case. The increased incidence of viruses is also linked to the increasing deforestation and massive decline of primal forests all over the world and thus to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. There are ways of stopping this cycle, but they all involve questioning the primacy of profit under capitalism: building decent houses, improving sanitation – the health system, waste disposal, pest control – and the reorienting of food production and agriculture as a whole.
As leftists, we must now organise solidarity. This applies internationally and locally. Neighbourhood initiatives and solidarity groups have already been formed in many cities. Where there are none yet, we should initiate them. This is about concrete solidarity with those who belong to the high-risk groups: Shopping for neighbours and offering help. But it is clear that we on the left cannot replace state structures. It is therefore also a matter of remaining politically capable of action in times of quarantine, of discussing demands with one another and acting in solidarity. The political left has a duty to conduct necessary meetings with caution and in accordance with the rules of hygiene. The reaction of those in power to the corona crisis requires opposition. For this reason, the left should develop alternatives and offer political proposals developed via telephone conferences, live chat and video transmission or video conferences. Despite the »state of emergency« we still need educational material from the left. The political course set in the coming weeks and months will have a decisive influence on future developments. We must heal the metabolic rift that separates our ecosystem from our economy. We have a world to win. Our lives come before their profits.