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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
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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

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.”
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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, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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