Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

How Would a Socialist System Deal with a Pandemic?

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. 

Nathaniel Flakin

April 6, 2020
Facebook Twitter Share

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 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.1In 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.” 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:

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.2As 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.” This means workers need to organize our own party and fight for our own control of society.

Notes[+]

Facebook Twitter Share

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. 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 has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.

Instagram

Ideas & Debates

Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary Eulogy by Clara Zetkin

The great Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was murdered on this day in 1919. Her comrade Clara Zetkin wrote this brief tribute some months later.

Clara Zetkin

January 15, 2022
A meeting in the White House in 'Don't Look Up'

‘Don’t Look Up’: Why the Climate Crisis Isn’t a Comet, and Why That Matters

'Don’t Look Up' presents an opportunity to reignite the climate movement. That means we have to look beyond its creators’ calls for individual action.

Emma Lee

January 1, 2022

2022: More Wealthy People and Far More Poor People. We Need to Fight Back

After almost two years of pandemic, the inequality gap has increased: 10 percent of the global population now receives 52 percent of global income, according to the World Inequality Report.

Luigi Morris

January 1, 2022

As the WHO Warns of an Omicron “Tsunami,” the United States and Europe Enact Irrational and Irresponsible Measures

Record-setting increases in daily Covid infection numbers, with the Omicron variant getting out of control, has led the United States and European countries to reduce quarantine periods and take other measures that put the profits of the bosses over workers’ health.

Juan Andrés Gallardo

December 30, 2021

MOST RECENT

New York’s Eviction Moratorium Ends Today. We Demand Free Public Housing For All

New York’s eviction moratorium expires today, and hundreds of thousands of households across the state are at risk of eviction. We cannot turn a blind eye to a single eviction, and we must demand rent cancellation and free public housing for all.

Emma Lee

January 15, 2022

French Government Gives Crumbs in Response to Historic Education Strike. The Mobilizations Must Continue and Expand!

Tens of thousands of education workers, students, and parents, took to the streets across France on Thursday, January 13. The government is trying to calm the anger with crumbs, but the chaotic Covid-19 protocols and lack of resources remain unchanged. It’s time to keep up the mobilizations and demand that the unions create a battle plan going forward that will involve the entire working class.

Cécile Manchette

January 15, 2022

Ukraine on the World Chessboard

Historically, Ukraine has been strategically important in the confrontation between Russia, the United States, and NATO. Today, as Russia mobilizes its troops to the Ukrainian border, the drums of war are beating. But will Russia invade? This article analyzes the situation from the beginning, addressing the various dimensions of a conflict that is much more complex than it appears, as well as the strategic views of each competing power.

Santiago Montag

January 15, 2022
Karl Liebknecht addressing a crowd in Trotz Alledem from a movie.

This 50-Year-Old Film from East Germany Shows the Last Days of Karl Liebknecht

Karl Liebknecht was murdered 103 years ago. The East German biopic "In Spite of Everything" premiered 50 years ago today and shows his final days.

Nathaniel Flakin

January 14, 2022