How Would a Socialist System Deal with a Pandemic?

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Capitalist governments around the world are taking unprecedented measures. Yet these remain fettered by the anarchy of the market. A socialist society could simply send everyone on stay-at-home, paid vacation for a month or two. 

Around the world, capitalist governments are taking unprecedented measures to deal with the pandemic. To name just a few examples:

For decades, we have heard that measures such as these were simply impossible. Now, these supposedly impossible state interventions in the free market are coming on a daily basis. As one New York Times columnist wrote, “Everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic.”

Nonetheless, these unprecedented measures remain firmly within the logic of capitalism. A capitalist market always requires a state to protect the tiny minority who own the means of production from the vast majority who have to work for them, and also to regulate the capitalists’ competition among each other. Neoliberal ideology tells us that the market should be able to regulate everything — but this has always been a deception used to justify cuts to state programs for the working masses while simultaneously guaranteeing state subsidies for corporations.

The capitalist nature of these measures reveals itself again and again. We see this in:

  • the mad scramble by corporations and states, all vying to develop a vaccine first — and thus to have a monopoly;
  • GM’s demand for $1 billion in order to make ventilators — less than 10 years after getting a $50 billion government bailout;
  • capitalist governments telling people to shelter in place — but also to go to work to make and sell things no reasonable person would consider essential;
  • workers still going to work every day to produce commercial airplanes in France, build luxury condos in New York, and manufacture military arms across the United States.

The world’s response to the pandemic is based on the anarchy of the capitalist market. What we are experiencing is not even remotely “socialism.” It is more like a capitalist wartime economy — but a very poorly organized one, given the advanced decay of bourgeois society.

Socialist Response

So how would a socialist society respond to a global pandemic? To answer this question, it is important to understand that, despite what Bernie Sanders or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez might say, socialism does not just mean a capitalist economy with universal health care and free college. Socialism is much more than a Scandinavian welfare state in which capitalists still own the means of production.

Socialism means expropriating the capitalists and putting all of society’s wealth under the control of everyone. Bourgeois propaganda has always claimed that a lack of competition will stifle innovation.1 The opposite is the case: An economy run democratically by all producers would be able to turn on a dime, without worrying about the property rights of thousands of individual capitalists.

In an emergency situation like we are facing right now, a workers’ government just taking the reins from the capitalists could implement a program that includes:

  • taking over all hotels and empty homes to provide housing for everyone who needs it. Working-class areas in New York are densely populated, while the city is full of empty apartments built as second (or third or tenth) homes for wealthy investors. A workers’ government would encourage working people to appropriate all housing and distribute it equitably, providing help for people suffering from homelessness or domestic violence. Taking over hotels would allow everyone to self-quarantine in safety. 
  • putting the retail sector, including Amazon and grocery stores, under public ownership. Both online and brick-and-mortar shops are making money hand over fist, all of it going to shareholders. By any definition, these are war profiteers. Everyone needs food and basic goods while sheltering in place. Putting all these services under a central workers’ administration would make them more safe. Employees would be guaranteed basic safety protections. Hours could even be cut in half and jobs doubled. Groceries could be delivered straight to people who need them, instead of having everyone wait in line.
  • putting all industrial capacity at the service of fighting the pandemic. This means converting factories for the production of ventilators, masks, and protective gear. This is exactly what workers at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts and at other industrial companies are demanding.
  • centralizing all health care in one system. This would allow all hospital capacity to be put at the service of people in need, regardless of borders. At the moment, we are seeing competition and hoarding by individual nation-states — and even by individual U.S. states.
  • nationalizing the pharmaceutical industry, so that all research for a treatment or vaccine could be shared in one collaborative effort by scientists around the world. This would be the opposite of the current system, in which individual companies — financed by tax money — are trying to find proprietary solutions. We have seen how profit-based medical research fails to provide new antibiotics and drugs that could prevent or mitigate pandemics. 
  • providing for the needs of everyone. The U.S. government is sending out a $1,200 check. But this money (which is being denied to many of the country’s residents) is not enough to cover a single month’s rent for many people. And this kind of “Universal Basic Income” does not get anywhere close to the roots of inequality. Instead, we need a system that produces in order to meet everyone’s basic needs, with no requirement for constant growth and profit.

Finally, a socialist society facing a global pandemic would simply be able to shut down for a month or two, as a kind of hibernation, without provoking a profound economic crisis. Working people around the world could take a long stay-at-home vacation, if needed, while only the most essential tasks were performed. All the factories, ships, roads, and buildings would still be there to be reactivated as soon as the crisis passed. It is only in our anarchic society, in which production needs to grow constantly regardless of human needs, that this kind of pause represents a catastrophe.

Next Steps

When we think about how an economy under the democratic control of working people would be able to respond to a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, we are not just dreaming. It’s not  some religious vision. Across the world, we see a new militancy of workers who are not only shutting down their workplaces in order to protect their own health — they are demanding a radical restructuring of their workplaces in order to protect the health of everyone.

The pandemic is forcing everyone to ask the question: What jobs are essential? What jobs are not essential? And above all: Who decides? It is becoming clear that workers can decide which workplaces need to remain open and which need to be closed. This is really just an “emergency” version of socialism, in which workers control and share all the wealth.

In this crisis, the consciousness of working people is changing rapidly. There is nothing wrong with dreaming about how a rationally organized society could respond to COVID-19 — as long as we do everything we can to make this dream a reality.2 This means workers need to organize our own party and fight for our own control of society.

Notes   [ + ]

1. In fact, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels responded to this criticism as early as 1848: “It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property, all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work. The whole of this objection is but another expression of the tautology: that there can no longer be any wage-labour when there is no longer any capital.”
2. As Lenin writes in What Is To Be Done?: “The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies. If there is some connection between dreams and life then all is well.”

About author

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and this year in English. He is on the autism spectrum.