The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are so widespread and multifaceted that many find it difficult to find a way to grasp what is really going on, to find an approach from which to understand what’s happening. We are affected by loss, grief, anxiety, and stress.
What we all know for sure is that we are all going through a time of great change. We find our footing in the certainty that the government response to Covid-19 is part of a war against workers rooted in historical developments.
Since the fiscal crises of the 1970s, Reagan’s push to “drown the government in the bathtub” has found success, enacted by both Republican and Democrat alike. The ideology of neoliberalism has pushed aside the long-held concept of the welfare state: that the government exists to help you when you cannot help yourself. Neoliberalism pushes notions of free-market capitalism, personal responsibility, and hyper-individualism driven by consumer spending and service-sector jobs. And yet, every day it is made more and more clear that those are just rules for us, for the working class. We are told that Medicare for All is simply too expensive, but when the stock markets fail, the rich receive trillions in handouts.
Capitalism can sustain itself only by both squeezing the maximum possible profit from the production process and increasing that rate of profit regularly. This is accomplished by undercutting workers at every stage of the process. Workers, understanding their power, unite to win concessions from capitalists by organizing around working-class issues. Capitalists, fearing the success of workers, seek to either subdue these workers or move their production elsewhere. Like any war, there are advances and retreats on either side.
Every major event seems a perfect opportunity to push back on working-class gains. The gains of high union membership and anti-racist struggles won after World War II were rolled back when trade agreements like NAFTA were introduced and police started to fill prisons during the racist “War on Drugs.” September 11 was an opportunity to gut civil liberties while launching genocidal wars across the world. Hurricane Katrina was an opportunity to push tens of thousands of Black homeowners out of New Orleans to gentrify the city while privatizing schools and busting teachers’ unions. The 2008 financial crisis was an opportunity for the banks to grab trillions while restructuring unemployed workers into “gig economy” jobs.
So how is the working class faring under the pandemic conditions of 2020? So far, more than 40,000 Americans have died from the Covid-19 coronavirus, and the body count has disproportionately been made up of people of color. Prisoners in jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers, as well as elders crammed in for-profit nursing homes, have seen the virus tear through their communities like a fire. Prisoners are digging mass graves in New York for $6 an hour.
More than 20 million have lost their jobs, the majority of them women. While landlords and capitalists receive fat checks, record-low interest rates, and large-scale debt relief, workers without savings or even healthcare are told to make do with a one-time payment of $1,200. Some will not see their money for many months, if ever. The undocumented will receive nothing.
Some are agitating for a universal basic income (UBI), where all workers would receive a certain amount of money per month to boost spending and therefore economic activity. But the one-time “stimulus” payments of $1,200 are not a form of UBI; in reality they are handouts to the rich which are being laundered through the bank accounts of working-class people. USAA, a bank that mainly serves the U.S. military, has already been intercepting checks meant for disabled, elderly veterans who have outstanding debt with the bank. In most cases, the Treasury Department might as well cut out the middleman and directly issue relief checks meant for working-class people to landlords and capitalists.
Maybe some of the essential workers on the front lines providing food, medical care, and other essentials are going to work because of a sense of heroism, or duty, or love of country. Perhaps others are eager to return to work because they desire normalcy and believe in the capitalist system. But the real reason they need to go to work is because of the tyranny of the capitalist wage relation. Under a capitalist system, millions of homes stand empty and millions of tons of crops are plowed under, but if these workers don’t make a wage, they will lose their homes, their food security, and their futures.
This war against workers has been made crystal clear when examining the priorities of those in power that are responding to the pandemic. While states across the country are assuming bankruptcy conditions because of the loss of economic activity, not a cent has been cut from police and military forces. Indeed, Governor Andrew Cuomo has seen fit to hire an additional 500 cops to harass Black and brown youth on the MTA, whose workers are dying at a rate of three per day. Real measures to protect human life and safety have been gutted, such as slashing EPA regulations and the National Labor Relations Board ceasing to hear cases. Despite clemency extended to a handful, prisons still stand packed with humans who have no opportunity to social distance, affecting the health of not only prisoners but also communities outside the walls. Cuts to public health, housing, and education continue at a time when health care, shelter, and education are more needed than ever, simply to save lives. That money is used instead to arrest and imprison communities of color here and agitate for war against working people in China, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba.
No economist will tell you that things are looking good for the working class right now. Crowds of people—mainly white and right wing—have been directed by the President to assemble in front of state buildings in Michigan, Texas, Ohio, California, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. Like lambs to the slaughter, they demand to go back to work because many of them have no other option. Right-wing politicians like Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick have suggested that we be ready to sacrifice ourselves and our loved ones to feed the profits of billionaires like Jeff Bezos, who has amassed an additional $24 billion in personal wealth during the pandemic.
Even after the dust settles, it will be difficult to calculate how much has been stolen from working-class people in the United States. Many workers are questioning the basic foundations of capitalism, which has always sacrificed their lives for profit, but which is now unable to hide its intentions. The racism and sexism that capitalism depends on to sustain itself is becoming more intense and visible.
No event in history has laid bare the contradictions of capitalism more than the pandemic that now surrounds us. The restructuring of all relations to maximize profit has created a reality that is hostile to life. This is the end game of the class war against working people: capitalism cannot sustain the lives of the workers it so desperately needs to survive. We must unite to win back our gains, and keep pushing, because all hands will be needed on deck for the next stage of struggle.