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Coronavirus: Working-Class Internationalism as an Antidote to the Crisis

The coronavirus crisis and the global recession are exacerbating the reactionary nationalism of the imperialist states. The spirit of Donald Trump’s “America first” policy seems to have spread like a virus. On the other hand, the world working class is the only social force that can provide a progressive way out of this crisis, reorganizing production under workers’ control and deepening internationalism.

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In recent weeks, imperialist states have taken unprecedented measures against the coronavirus crisis, such as militarizing cities and imposing quarantines on millions of people. On March 17, the EU undertook another sweeping response, closing its borders for 30 days. This was a response to border closures that had already been undertaken unilaterally, without coordination, by several European states, including Spain, Portugal, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Norway, and Switzerland.

The border closures signaled that one of the pillars of the EU project was entering a coma: the Schengen Area, established in 1995 as a zone of free movement among EU countries. This was presaged, however, during the refugee crisis of 2015, when Austria and Hungary closed their borders as part of a state policy of xenophobia.

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated reactionary nationalist responses. When the virus was identified in December in Wuhan in China, reactionary sectors of the Western press stigmatized it as a “Chinese virus” and even speculated on how other states might use the crisis to their advantage. “This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” said President Trump in one of his first speeches on Covid-19, recovering the rhetoric of a “pure” U.S. threatened by foreign invasion — Chinese, Muslim, Mexican — against which new walls must be erected.

When the pandemic broke out in Italy, Germany and France responded by prohibiting companies from exporting medical supplies, speculating on future hoarding. At the height of the Italian crisis, there was no support; no European summit was held to declare an emergency and send massive medical supplies and health personnel. Thus some of the world’s richest countries responded by reinforcing borders and ensuring national production, even though they were then almost free of the pandemic. In other words, while the borders remained open for the free export of German and French cars, they were closed for the export of medical supplies. The Spanish government, led by the PSOE-Podemos coalition, acted no differently.

Imperialist governments did, however, have the resolve to enact massive rescue plans for their own companies , making available hundreds of billions of euros for new credits and tax breaks. There is no need for another demonstration of the profoundly reactionary character of the EU and the capitalist system as a whole. At the same time, the imperialist states are maintaining blockades on Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, in the midst of this social catastrophe, condemning entire peoples to death.

At various events, the heads of state of Italy, France, Spain, and Germany have been broadcasting on a national channel, using the metaphor a “walled city” and a war against an “invisible enemy.” Each leader appealed to “national unity” and the “war effort,” seeking to infuse national sentiment, as if facing the epidemic would suspend class conflict.

The strategy of confining whole populations under police control, together with the closure of borders, reinforces the common sense of individual salvation or the salvation of stronger nations against weaker ones.

At the same time, the imperialist countries have taken advantage of this health crisis to shield the borders from migration. What Trump or Salvini (right-wing nationalist party Lega’s leader) have been grotesquely agitating and what the leadership of the European Union could not say out loud until now (although the reality has been thousands of immigrants crammed into internment camps on the external borders, in Turkey, Libya, and Morocco, express deportations and the hardening of the laws on foreigners), now finds a forceful justification in the pandemic.

Ultimately, the metaphor of the walled city against the plague presents the virus as a foreign enemy that comes to “invade” us. The logic of the plague leads us to distrust our neighbors (and to encourage the denunciation of those who do not “fulfill” their social responsibility), to distrust even the other who live in our homes and who may be the bearer of that “external” and invisible enemy that infects our bodies.

National States and Large Corporations: An Insurmountable Obstacle

Epidemiologist Peter Piot, one of the first to investigate the Ebola virus, pointed out a few days ago that the Covid-19 pandemic is being addressed with medieval methods: confinement, isolation, and social distancing (and, he failed to say, the militarization of public space). This was an elementary method with which to respond to the great plagues of past centuries, when the lack of antibiotics, technology, and scientific research left no other options. We could add that this crisis is also beginning to be fought with “classic” methods of 20th-century capitalism: unloading the crisis on the working class through massive layoffs. States are now more forcefully confronting each other, borders are strengthening, imperialist nationalism is intensifying, and commercial wars are arising. Keeping all this in perspective, we should not rule out that all this could provoke new wars.

In an article published a few days ago, 1Slavoj Žižek, Global communism or the jungle law, coronavirus forces us to decide, in RT.com, 10/03/2020 Slavoj Zizek stated that “the coronavirus epidemic does not signal just the limit of market globalization, it also signals the even more fatal limit of nationalist populism which insists on full state sovereignty.”

While the pandemic is shown to be a global phenomenon, nationalist “every man for himself” solutions only boycott the international containment of the contagion .

How is it possible that in the 21st century, countries such as France, Italy, and Spain can be short of such elementary goods as cloth masks, alcohol gels, and artificial respirators, while there are companies all over the world that could produce millions of these products right now, and there are internationally developed logistics networks that could supply entire nations in a few days? The answer is that private ownership and competition between large corporations, on the one hand, and competition between states, on the other, have become obstacles to solving these elementary problems.

“One of the fundamental causes of the crisis of bourgeois society,” Trotsky noted in The Permanent Revolution, “is that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the limits of the national state.”

Among the 20 largest multinational companies in the world are pharmaceuticals such as Johnson & Johnson, Pzifer, Procter & Gamble, and Roche, along with retail giants such as Amazon, Alibaba, and Walmart, which have an unprecedented international logistics structure, one that can quickly ship products all over the world. Amazon has even developed drone delivery systems in hard-to-reach areas, but this capacity is not made available for social needs.

Comparing the balance sheets of large companies and the budgets of states, one finds that 69 of the 100 most important economic entities on the planet are companies, and the 25 corporations with the highest turnover exceed the GDP of several countries. Currently, some of these corporations are competing to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, which may be a source of big profits in the midst of this crisis, but this is hindering the sharing of discoveries and research that, if they were public and collaborative, would advance much faster.

A Working-Class Program for Confronting the Crisis

The pandemic and its immediate economic effects, with its waves of layoffs, the collapse of entire health systems, and hundreds of thousands of deaths, is the umpteenth practical confirmation of the fraudulent and ideological nature of the speeches of all the neoliberal intellectuals, who talk about capitalism as the best possible economic system, and about liberal democracies, completely subject to the will of the bankers and industrialists, as the highest expression of democracy.

The reality is that the capitalists and their governments cannot deal with this pandemic and the global economic crisis on the ground where it should be dealt with. The nationalist and competitive impulses between states and corporations are the opposite of the only measure that can enable cooperation and the deployment of means and energy efficiently: social planning and the collective management of resources, under the democratic control of the working class and popular masses.

Some government measures have already partially conceded this. The Spanish State, for example, has nationalized private hospitals. Other countries have mandated that car makers produce respirators. Thus, amid a crisis, such measures by the bourgeoise pay tribute to the need for socialist economic planning.

It is clear, however, that governments’ commitment to defending private property and profits prevents the ruling political caste from following this path consistently, as would be necessary. Those who today run the state machinery manage the material, economic interests of capitalists, and this makes it impossible to overcome the virus and prevent as many deaths as possible, as well as prevent millions of people from falling into poverty.

These are, instead, priorities for the working class, which almost everywhere continues going to work, showing the importance of the strategic positions it occupies in society. Not only health workers but also the dockworkers, the staff of the pharmaceutical companies, the truck drivers, the logistics warehouse workers, the supermarket cashiers, the cleaning workers, the workers who harvest fruits and vegetables in the fields, and in general, the workers’ battalions in the whole agroindustrial sector, including large food factories, the bank workers, those employed by the telephone companies and internet providers, as well as the workers in industry that could be put at the service of producing all the necessary medical material — all these workers are fundamental to the functioning of the capitalist economy, even in times of widespread state-imposed quarantine.

That is why the only progressive way out of the coronavirus crisis can come from working-class action, both nationally and internationally. And to bet on it, we need from now on to promote an emergency program that allows the exploited and oppressed not to come out defeated, dispersed, and impoverished by this crisis, but rather as an active force, more organized and conscious of its own strength. At the same time, it is the working class that is most exposed to contagion, in conditions of precarious work, with terrible transport systems, without safety and hygiene conditions in the companies.

In the face of the disaster to which the capitalists have led us, it is necessary to show that it is the workers themselves who can take all the necessary measures: not only from the point of view of guaranteeing work, stopping massive layoffs, and maintaining wages, but also providing food and medical resources for the entire poor population — and not only for a rich minority. This will only be possible if workers’ democratic control from below can be imposed in the workplace in an effort to secure and convert production to meet social priorities.

Some small examples are already beginning to emerge, such as the initiative of women shoe workers in Spain who have put their hands to sewing masks for hospitals, or factories recovered by their workers in Argentina who offer to produce gowns, alcohol gels, and other necessary products. These are small examples of a class policy that shines like diamonds in the midst of this crisis, one that must be generalized and made as visible as possible.

The alternative to the capitalists’ “business as usual” program is the nationalization of the strategic economic sectors in the production of essential goods, as well as the nationalization of the banks or the control of foreign trade, to avoid speculation with the trade of respirators or remedies, as is already happening in the world market. But these resources cannot remain under the management of the same governments and parliaments that have allowed this virus to become a global catastrophe: to impose social security and general planning criteria that are favorable to workers, the only possibility is to have committees of workers and consumers control all these resources.

In particular, workers’ control in the pharmaceutical industry is the only way we have of curbing the desire of these multinational companies and the rival powers, starting with China, the United States, and Germany, to make a profit on the future vaccine or of keeping the privilege of access to the vaccine restricted to their own countries, before anyone else.

This process, unlike the way governments and capitalists implement their policies, will require a degree of international cooperation that can take advantage of the international development of productive forces and the capacity to move goods and people that has developed in recent decades with the emergence of the most connected global market in history. The response of the working class to the crisis, and the control of what is produced and under what conditions, which can be discussed and implemented first at the level of a hospital, a factory, or a company, will need to be extended on the national terrain, and ultimately on the international stage, for which it will be necessary to fight for workers’ governments.

The internationalism that we need and that can save humanity is not the internationalism of the transnational corporations, which are even now pushing for more profits, nor is the solution to return to the reactionary nationalism of the imperialist states, which led to two world wars in the 20th century.

The example we have in mind, in these times of crisis and pandemic, is that of the siblinghood and cooperation of the workers of all countries, the “contagion” of the revolutionary processes and the class struggle, as well as the construction of an international revolutionary organization of the working class, the world party of socialist revolution, the Fourth International.

We are facing a new historical period, which updates the epoch of crises, wars, and also revolutions, which are part of the history of the working class all over the world. Until recently nobody could have thought that everything was going to start with a microscopic virus spreading through the world. But in reality capitalism has been sick for a long time.

First published on March 22 in Spanish on Contrapunto.

Translation: Giacomo Turci


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Josefina L. Martínez

Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State, IzquierdaDiario.es.


Giacomo Turci

Giacomo is a journalist from Rome and editor of our Italian sister site La Voce delle Lotte.


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