The COVID-19 global crisis has once again exposed the limits of capitalism and its imperialist policy of neoliberal-globalisation. The crisis is an epistemic break that represents a rapture in the seemingly entrenched ideology of neoliberalism. It is no surprise that Lenin’s quote that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen” adorn almost every other article written about the COVID-19 crisis. In a period of just a few month, after decades of neoliberal dogma; free-market fundamentalist were usurped by government interventionism. It turned out that “PR consultants”, “change managers” and “lobbyists” are not particularly useful in combating global pandemics such as the COVID-19. Societies now know what jobs are essential to their health and wellbeing – neoliberal governments can no longer pretend that the “free market” represents the solution to humanity’s problems.
The year 2020 signified a defining conclusion to the end of this decade, a moment where humanity would either irrevocably descend into the abyss or pull itself back from the brink. The new was about to be born, but the old was refusing to die. Either humanity would emerge into a new capitalist nightmare or enter into a period of socialist awakening. Of course, we might experience neither of these scenarios. Like Ernest Mandel believed that the economic and geopolitical crises of the late 1960s and 1970s would signal the end of capitalist hegemony, many of us thought the 2008 financial crisis would precipitate the end of the neoliberal order. Capitalism, however, re-imagined and consolidated itself after each of these events rather than collapse as was expected.
There is certainly a probability that the coronavirus pandemic might give way to an even more bloody capitalist war against populations, a brutal form of austerity. Just as the neoliberal orthodoxy of the post Keynesian welfare state was about reasserting the power of economic elites and protecting them from the adverse effects of the economic crisis of the 1960s and 1970s; it must be expected that the working class will once again be expected to bear the social and economic costs of the post COVID-19 crisis just as it happened in the aftermath of 2008 financial crisis when the bankers and capital were showered with “bailout” money and the working people were given austerity.
Around the world, millions are applauding the heroic efforts of frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19, while this is welcome, trade unionist must demand more. Frontline workers play an indispensable role in the fight against the coronavirus and thousands of them have lost their lives in this struggle. Class oriented trade unions can only do justice to these momentous efforts by calling for deep, systemic changes that will results in better working conditions for frontline workers and healthcare systems that are not driven by the profit motive. Workers cannot accept a return to the old normal that was part of the problems that predated COVID-19.
At the same time, millions of workers have lost their jobs and incomes as a result of the COVID-19 related economic lockdowns and limitations that were placed on many industries and sectors throughout the world. No worker has been left unaffected by the crisis. The latest job loss bloodbath comes on top of an already existing crisis of unemployment spawned by the neoliberal policy of pauperising workers through informalisation, outsourcing and destruction of formal secured jobs; the crisis of unemployment and pauperisation of the working class predates the COVID-19 crisis. Workers are once again asked to fend for themselves during a period of a capitalist generated crisis while business is given “financial bailouts” and other forms of financial concessions.
It is not only workers that are being made to bear the weight of the COVID-19 crisis their organisations too are under siege during this period. Employers in many countries have used the coronavirus restrictions imposed by governments as a Trojan horse to restrict trade union activity, and harass trade union activists that dare to challenge them. Access to workplaces, the right to strike and assemble are all under threat under the guise of “adhering to national COVID-19 guidelines” of countries.
Profit over people, cost over care: broken public system under capitalism exposed by COVID-19
Suddenly, humanity found itself in a transformed world. Empty streets, closed shops, unusually clear skies, and climbing human deaths tolls: something unprecedented is unfolding before our eyes.
The state of national economies is alarming almost everywhere in the world: the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the sharpest and deepest economic contraction in the history of capitalism. To paraphrase The Communist Manifesto, all that was solid has melted into thin air: ‘globalisation’ has gone into reverse, long supply chains, that were previously the only ‘rational’ way to organise production, have collapsed and hard borders are back, trade has declined drastically and international travel has been severely constrained. In a matter of weeks, tens of millions of workers became unemployed and millions of businesses lost their employees, customers, suppliers and credit lines.
The political implications are uncertain. Ideologically, neoliberal discourses about the imperative of ‘fiscal austerity’ and the limitations of public service provision of basic social services have vanished while the private sector pleads for unlimited public spending in order to save private initiative. No doubt, neoliberal orthodoxy will get back to normal when circumstances change and memories fade. At that point, state intervention will once again become ‘bad’, and the public sector workers will be ready for another round of job cuts. We will once again be told about the virtues of the free market and the inefficiencies of the state.
Indeed, the pandemic hit after four decades of neoliberal dogma had depleted the capacity of nation states. In the name of the ‘superior efficiency’ of the market, neoliberalism oversaw de-industrialisation in developed countries through the ‘globalisation’ of production by exporting manufacturing jobs to cheap labour destinations under the mantra of; “labour deregulation”. Poor countries were forced to compete in a race to the bottom in the name of “attracting investors, while millions of secured jobs were lost in developed countries. The fragile financial system secured only by state sanctioned fiat money was and still is dedicated solely to short term financial speculation, and not to social wellbeing. It is thus not surprising that the capitalist world economy under the stewardship of neoliberalism finds itself unable to respond to the crisis at hand.
Frontline workers and the public are today paying with their health and lives for the short sighted neoliberal policy of destroying public services such as healthcare through successive budget cuts in social security and public health. The big private Healthcare Insurance companies that were supposed to replace the state in the provision of healthcare are only good at multiplying profits for their shareholders. Privatisation of healthcare undermines the job security and rights of healthcare workers and makes healthcare inaccessible to the majority of people – particularly the working class.
The struggle for quality public healthcare, and the rights of public health workers today is in essence a struggle against the policy of governments to feed the greed of big capital through the commodification of healthcare by privatising healthcare provision. The lives of doctors, nurses and other health care workers, including the broader public, are put at risk by the neoliberal policy of turning the basic health needs of people into business opportunities for big business to profit from. The constant cuts in public spending carried out by the political elites at the behest of capitalist have destroyed social security and public health thus condemning millions of poor people into misery.
All over the capitalist world, governments in collusion with big business are undermining the capacity of states to provide for the basic needs of populations while at the same time threatening the jobs and livelihoods of workers. Increasingly, the role of governments is merely to pass legislation to enable business to profit from the misery of workers and the public. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven once again that governments are there to secure the wellbeing and prosperity of capital and big business; not to look after the needs of citizens.
COVID-19 and the acceleration of new technologies in the workplace
The restrictions on the movement of workers as part of the measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has meant that many workplaces have remained closed. To overcome the challenge of COVID-19 lockdowns employers, particularly those in face-to-face services sectors have had to resort to technological interventions in order to continue doing business. Although employers would like workers to believe that such interventions are aimed at their health and safety, the reality is that these interventions are driven mainly by the imperative to continue doing business and the cost cutting opportunities they present to employers.
New technologies like telework are playing and increasing role in many workplaces in the services and retail sector as part of the strategy to mitigate against the negative impact of COVID-19. This new development has exposed the lack of legal frameworks, as this type of work has up until recently not been part of collective bargaining agreements. Thus workers doing this kind of work find themselves facing health and safety issues, long working hours and generally poor working conditions. Issues of privacy, and the need to learn to use new technologies and gadgets are some of the other issues workers doing this sort of work have to contend with. There is thus clearly a need for more trade union work and focus in this developing area.
The impact of COVID-19 on women, youth and immigrants
National lockdowns have also affected millions of vulnerable workers engaged in precarious work or survivalist activities in the informal economy. Lockdowns have led to these workers losing their incomes and livelihoods and they also do not enjoy the protection provided for by labour legislation or the benefits of social security. The struggle for a universal social security net to protect the millions of workers who find their livelihoods threatened is one of the most urgent tasks of the class oriented trade union.
In most countries women make up the majority of the frontline workers in the healthcare services and care industries. Many of these women doing care work are immigrants who endure poor pay and poor working conditions. Equally, it is women who dominate in the informal sector and occupy the bottom place in production and thus endure the worst impact of the COVID-19 crisis without any social relieve, To make matters worse, studies also show that the COVID-19 lockdowns have also lead to an increase in the cases of domestic violence and abuse against women.
With regard to the youth; even before the effects of the coronavirus the youth made up a disproportionate number of the unemployed in the world. As a result of the high unemployment rate, many young people found themselves engaged in precarious work in the form of agency jobs, temporary work and survivalist activities. The COVID pandemic has thus brought the plight of youth into stark contrast in the light of the current economic challenges facing many countries.
Immigrants too face some of the severest challenges under COVID-19, already before the pandemic they were employed in some of the lowest paying and appalling working conditions. In most instances, due to their immigrant status, these workers are denied the protection enjoyed by other workers. They are easy victims of xenophobic attacks and serve as a scapegoat for rightwing movement to explain the crisis of unemployment in their respective countries and thus also suffer violence at the hands of these groups. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns have only multiplied all these problems for immigrants.
For millions of vulnerable workers at the bottom of the global supply chains, life was already a struggle even before the advent of COVID-19 and the restrictive measures that have accompanied it. The pandemic has only increases the crisis of rising unemployment, growing inequality and poverty, and women, youth and immigrants are among the worst affected workers with regard to these challenges.
Workers and the working class must not accept a return to the old normal that was part of the problem
A number of assertions and predictions that the international working class movement has been making to the world about capitalism has now been proven correct by the Covid-19 pandemic. The WFTU has always opposed neoliberal capitalist globalisation because the privatisation of public services and the export of secured quality jobs to low paying destinations with poor working conditions only serve to undermine the social and economic wellbeing of workers and the working class as a whole. Secured quality jobs, accompanied by a social wage in the form of basic public services (public healthcare provision, affordable state provided public transport and free education up to tertiary level remain vital for a quality life for the working class under capitalism).
The working class struggles against capitalist neo-liberal attempts to make profits from the suffering and basic needs of the people has now been proven correct beyond doubt. History has demonstrated that our position on role of the state in relation to the free market is the correct and humane position. It is now apparent to everyone who cares to know, that neoliberal capitalist globalisation is unable to meet the needs of humanity under both its normal course of existence and during periods of crisis. The market, and private commercial enterprises are not, and have never been, up to the tasks of resolving the problems facing humanity in the 21st century.
At the height of the Covid-19 crisis rather than proving their effectiveness in responding to crises in the world, the capitalist supply chains and markets proved the opposite. The capitalist market for health supplies instead degenerated into price speculation and hoarding of PPE’s thus hampering the global fight against the virus. Even now we see the same commercial logic and greed, from the imperialist camp, with regard to the race to develop a vaccine for the virus driven by competition rather than collaboration. All the signs thus far indicate that the distribution and rollout of the vaccines being discovered is going to take on the form of profiteering for pharmaceutical companies rather than bring the pandemic under control.
The coronavirus has not only brought new challenges for the working class, it has also magnified existing problems. At the same time, the contradictions presented by the crisis present an opportunity for the red trade union movement and the working class to expose the weaknesses of capitalist globalisation as expressed by neoliberalism. The contradictions and hardships ordinary people are subjected to presents optimal conditions to mobilise the working class for better working conditions, a quality life for all and a humane world.
That is why it is not surprising that in spite of the challenges and hardships imposed by the covid-19, trade unions throughout the world have intensified their historical demands and struggles against capitalism. Everywhere in the world, class oriented trade unions are engaged in practical struggles against attempts to restrict trade unions rights and freedoms by governments and business elites.
The WFTU regions and affiliates must continue to mobilise through strikes, protests, seminars and pickets, combining the struggle for the health of the people of the world with our anti-imperialist struggle for a better society. In the past 75 years, the WFTU has proven and continue to prove that no obstacle can bend its unwavering belief in the struggle for a world without exploitation of men by men. As a family of red trade union movement, our ultimate goal is the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist future.