The Capitalists Are Not United
It is now the end of May and so far, COVID-19 has been cited as the cause of death for about 350,000 people worldwide and has infected about 5.5 million people. The global response to the pandemic has been variable, but most countries have introduced some form of shut down measures, which include social distancing and business closures. The economic fallout has been severe. Many businesses will be wiped out, and some industries will take years to recover.
With business closures comes unemployment, and many countries are reporting figures comparable, if not more severe, than the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Workers worldwide are fighting on three basic sets of demands: health and safety at work where they are still working; no losses to wages and conditions where industries are impacted but not devastated; and liveable welfare subsidies for the masses of unemployed. Our fight is with both the bosses, that is, the capitalists, and with the Governments, who act as the agents of the capitalists.
What is slowly becoming clear is that not all the capitalists are united in their strategy of how to both respond to the global pandemic, and how to recover the global economy. Some capitalists are suffering more than others. It seems that even for them, we are not all in this together.
There are two clear sides amongst the capitalists. Those that want to reopen the economy regardless of the speed and spread of COVID-19, and those that want to shut everything down until COVID-19 is all but gone. For ease of writing, we will call these two positions, the Open it Up faction, and the Shut it Down faction. The term faction is not intended to denote a clear, cohesive program amongst a group of capitalists that have sat down and had a chat about their position.
The sectors behind the Shut it Down faction are the monopolies that are benefitting and expanding from the lockdown, increasing exploitation and decreasing overhead costs, while killing off their competitors. They are the retail and supermarket giants, the logistics, distribution and delivery companies, the super flexible gig economy companies, the giant IT and communication companies, the privatised health and medical research industry, the service sectors that can shift jobs to online call centres and work-from-home networks.
The Shut it Down faction has natural allies in the labour movement, and also in the frontline health workers, the white collar workers in universities, schools, hospitals, health centres and all sorts of scientific occupations.
However such alliances will not protect the workers. The Shut it Down faction is not trying to save the lives of workers, it is trying to take over industries. Acquiring the private time and the home locations of work- from-home employees does open some new markets, but it is a marginal development.
Ultimately, the Shut it Down faction will be overtaken by real life world events within a capitalist economy – because capitalism cannot sustain a shutdown for the period of time required to eradicate the virus. In other words, the Shut it Down faction has no plan for dealing with the economic crisis. There is no program of economic restructuring, they are not intending to increase resources for the health sector, and they have no plan to deal with the oil industry or the airline industry.
Meanwhile the Open it Up capitalist faction is preparing to sacrifice millions of workers in its first period of global rule. It has a very short term economic program. It plans to simply re-open businesses and take the infections, deaths, health system crisis and partial social collapse as necessary collateral damage. But of course that strategy has inherent difficulties. Allowing the virus to spread will break the supply chains, so the economy might actually slow down. And out of control infections will make managing companies very difficult. It may also encourage strikes. Open it Up, like Shut it Down, simply allows for a massive increase of monopoly control over the economy as millions of little businesses and hundreds of big businesses inevitably get destroyed or acquired by the companies that are able to shift capital fast enough and efficiently enough.
However the winning sectors under Open it Up are different from those benefitting from the policies of Shut it Down. Open it Up is supported by companies that can’t easily make production safer without massive unprofitable investment or without a slowdown in production. They are the factories with assembly lines, their component suppliers, the agribusinesses, the construction companies, the service sectors that require face to face contact or actual physical contact. Open it Up is also supported by many small businesses that can’t restructure as their assets base is too small, like restaurants and small shops.
Open it Up also creates the conditions for a hard brutal hit against the organised working class, using the time-tested weapon of mass unemployment. But the inescapable problem for capitalism is that the workers are also the consumers. And if workers are impoverished through declining health, wage reductions and unemployment, consumers will be affected just as quickly, and businesses will experience a reduction in profits.
There is another faction. The one that pushes for War. This faction has gained significant media support recently. There are now four fronts on which the War faction is gaining support: War with China, Coup in Venezuela, War with Iran, and a new escalation in the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.
War is the capitalist faction with the clearest program for opening new markets and also has a clear method of maintaining social control. War is strengthened by the capitalist sectors that have been extremely damaged by the shutdown, but still have an enormous assets base and therefore political influence. They are not supporting War because they are more bloodthirsty than other capitalists, but because their interests are not supported by the other factions and their policies. The oil and gas industries, electricity, mining, aircraft manufacturing, air transport, shipping, and heavy industries would all be rescued by War. But many of the sectors currently supporting Shut it Down and Open it Up could also easily transfer their support to War, as war production would open up huge markets for IT and communication, and for manufacturing of all types, for logistics and distribution and for retail and the service sector too. War is therefore the capitalist faction that has the widest base of potential capitalist support from all the different sectors of the economy.
War is not inevitable, but it is also not unthinkable. And historically, it has been an effective way to resolve an economic crisis of this magnitude. The capitalists are not looking to negotiate with workers; they are scrambling for marginal advantage through any means necessary. The workers are looking for defensive positions, and the only viable ones turn out to be independent mass workers positions.
Workers need to deal with rule by the different capitalist factions by advancing different demands to influence and neutralise the base of each capitalist faction. Where Shut it Down rules, the demand must be for social support for the workers whose companies are in lockdown, and the expansion of socially useful programs through restructuring industry. Where Open it Up is ruling, the demands need to be centred on restructuring the economy to make jobs safe, opening occupational health & safety as the main area for struggle globally, with multiple connections between workers and organisations.
If the War faction takes over, the situation will change dramatically for the worse. Workers will need to counter divisions based on nationality and race and jointly demand to stop the war.
Ultimately though, what is required right now is a dramatic restructuring of the economy. Our fight, the workers’ fight, is for an economy structured around the interests of the masses of workers and their families, for health and safety at work, production for need and social development instead of profit, and for a sustainable environment. Realistically the only way this will be achieved is through workers’ control of the economy.