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Pandemic and Capitalism: The Two-Pronged Struggle of the Working Class

The coronavirus poses the question of halting nonessential economic activity and converting production to what is needed to fight the pandemic, along with who should be in control. It turns out that what is essential depends on the class from which you view the situation. 

Matías Maiello

March 30, 2020
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Graphic: Juan Atacho

The coronavirus pandemic has shattered the precarious balance that had been dragging capitalism along worldwide amid tendencies to recession, new drivers of accumulation, growing geopolitical tensions, and a wide cycle of revolts. It is still very difficult to determine the extent and depth that the global health crisis will ultimately reach after the degradation (and commercialization) to which capitalism has subjected health systems. The confusing nature of information, the unreliability of reports from different governments, and above all the absence of mass tests that would allow for reliably mapping the reach and mortality rate of the virus have introduced greater uncertainty into the situation. Given this scenario, with the lives of millions at risk, we assume that the danger is very high. Meanwhile, all signs point to the economic consequences reaching historic levels, with depression, a debt crisis, millions of layoffs, a huge rise in poverty indexes, and so on. Politically, border closures are becoming more widespread, and the authoritarian and Bonapartist tendencies of bourgeois regimes are being exacerbated. In many countries, the organic crises that were already developing serve as background to these moves, as does the recent cycle of class struggle that has developed internationally.

In its report in early March, “The Age of Mass Protest,” the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) think tank points out,

In a great turn of history, protests have been muted in recent weeks likely due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus … The coronavirus will likely suppress protests in the short term both due to government restrictions in urban areas and citizens’ own reluctance to expose themselves to large public gatherings. However, depending on the future course of this likely pandemic, government responses to the coronavirus may themselves become another trigger of massive political protest.

Indeed, so too could the consequences of the economic crisis. Governments that have been hit hard by the class struggle and widely repudiated by the masses, such as Piñera’s in Chile or Macron’s in France, among others, can hardly put their minds at ease even if the streets are now dominated by the army and police. On the contrary, the list of countries hit by the recent cycle of class struggle is likely to expand under the conditions of a much deeper crisis. We are still at the beginning of the crisis, yet the general strike on March 25 in Italy seems to begin to outline this trend, in the midst of a virtually explosive social situation where the precarious and impoverished sectors are being condemned to ever-greater suffering.

The “War” Against the Coronavirus and the Continuation of Politics by Other Means

To combat the pandemic, most capitalist governments around the world are fluctuating between mass quarantines and building so-called herd immunity — that is, mass transmission to create antibodies in the population — as the primary, if not exclusive, weapons of mitigation. Today, about one-third of the world’s population (2.6 billion people) is either under strict measures restricting movement or directly confined to prevent community spread of the virus. At the same time, the big bourgeoisies of these countries are forcing a portion of the working class to produce in nonessential sectors to guarantee their profits. Voices are being raised, in line with the “herd immunity” concept, beginning with Trump himself; he stated that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease,” meaning that damage to the economy (by which he means capitalist profit) will be worse than the health crisis. In fact, during the week of March 16 in the United States, 3.28 million people applied for unemployment insurance — by far the highest number in history.

The options thus posed for the broad majority are either to risk the life of part of the population by letting the virus spread spontaneously, condemn a growing percentage of working people to unemployment and misery, or some combination of the two. In the era of biotechnology, cloning, and decoding of the human genome, these are the alternatives the bourgeoisie offers to combat the coronavirus. In the past two millennia, those actions — mass quarantine and, by default, herd immunity — were employed to contain the spread of diseases against which medicine lacked sufficient resources. It is easy to comprehend the “lack of resources” to deal with the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century,1Translator’s note: The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that wracked the Byzantine Empire, particularly Constantinople (the capital), as well as port cities around the Mediterranean, in 541–42. It killed an estimated 25 to 100 million people over two centuries of recurrence., but without a doubt that means something very different in the 21st century.

It is repeated again and again, from Macron in France to Alberto Fernández in Argentina: “We are fighting an invisible enemy.” But what does this mean? On January 10, Chinese scientists published the virus genome on the Internet. South Korea, when its outbreak began on January 20, had the capacity to test 15,000 people every day. This mechanism made it possible to “see” the spread of the virus and contain it, at least in principle. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so much, that country is officially at war, albeit there has been an armistice with North Korea since 1953. The police methods used to control the “infected” are there to remind us of that. Currently, from the bureaucracy of the World Health Organization to the pages of the New York Times, massive testing is considered key to combating the virus effectively, but the tests are still luxury items in short supply.

Far from the warlike discourse with which all governments seek to justify the draconian measures they are imposing on the population, what is really exposed is the class character of governments and their institutions. In 1940, in preparation for the U.S. entry into World War II, Roosevelt ordered the production of 185,000 planes in two years (only 3,000 had been produced in the preceding year); it has been said that Hitler’s advisers thought this was propaganda. By 1945, the United States had built 300,000 planes, manufactured huge quantities of military equipment, and launched the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. Eighty years later, it turns out that millions of tests to diagnose the coronavirus cannot be mass-produced; there are problems even in supplying protective masks to health workers, and ventilators cannot be rapidly mass-produced to supply the entire world demand — even though, for example, more than 6 million automobiles were being produced in the world every month in 2016, on average. It is only after months that Italy, the United States, and Britain have “discovered” that automakers could also produce ventilators.

What has happened over the last few decades is that governments have waged a “war” on public health systems. Now, instead of quickly establishing the means by which to deal with the health crisis and its consequences on the living conditions of the vast majority of people, governments are preparing to grant massive bailouts to the capitalists. Just last week in the United States, Republicans and Democrats signed off on the “biggest bailout in history” — $2.2 trillion, more than twice Obama’s in 2008 — to be divided mostly between the big corporations and Wall Street. Meanwhile, some workers will get temporary increases in unemployment insurance and a one-time government payment of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child — at a moment when the cost of coronavirus treatment is many times those amounts and unemployment has skyrocketed, with millions of layoffs. To paraphrase Clausewitz, if there is, as they are saying, a “war against the coronavirus,” it looks very much like a continuation of the policy of unloading the crisis on the workers by other, increasingly Bonapartist, means.

But it is not that simple. This is not “just another crisis.” The tension between the poles of “mass quarantine” and “herd immunity” expresses, in a distorted way, the immediate contradiction between (1) the political responses of the bourgeois regimes to sustain themselves in scenarios of organic crises or elements of them — in some cases crisscrossed with the important processes of the recent class struggle — and (2) their economic need to protect capitalist profits by any means necessary in the framework of the crisis.

What Is “Essential” Depends on the Class You View It From

Until there is a favorable development such as an effective drug, an available vaccine, changes in the evolution of the virus itself, and so on, it will be difficult for most governments to sustain themselves by calling for herd immunity and taking on the consequential risk. Hence, given the dismantling of public health, general quarantines not only play a basic containment role (in most cases, without even massive testing to determine the extent and spread of the virus), but also the political role, with equal effect, of covering up the consequences of the policies themselves and the current inaction, and in turn are aimed at strengthening the power of the capitalist state in the face of the crisis (police/military deployment, limits on democratic rights, concentration of power in the executive branch). The contradiction is that these shutdown measures immediately affect the profits of many big capitalists — and hence the different responses.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro — like other heads of state — sought to minimize the health problem to maintain normal capitalist functioning of the economy. Most of those who adopted that line in the beginning had to reverse course; the turn Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom took is perhaps the most exemplary of this. There have been “mixed” cases, such as that of Piñera in Chile, who decreed a “state of catastrophe” to mobilize the army while ensuring broad economic continuity. But in Europe, the current epicenter of the pandemic in terms of the number of deaths, countries such as Italy, Spain, and France — where the combination of degraded health systems and inaction became unsustainable — governments decreed quarantines, while the bourgeoisie fought not only for state “rescues” but also for the possibility of continuing to exploit their workers.

A battle is raging over what constitutes “essential activity.” It is a question to which a significant portion of the working class is forced to respond, and that refers at some level to a problem of economic planning in the face of the health crisis. Of course, the answer varies considerably depending on the approach taken. Under the guiding principle of capitalist profit during World War II, for example, big American corporations such as DuPont, General Electric, Westinghouse, Singer, Kodak, ITT, and JP Morgan had no problem providing their services to the Third Reich, just as Esso supplied it with oil and Ford and General Motors plants produced for Hitler.2Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015). They saw themselves as “essential activities” that should continue to maximize profits even given the widespread massacre.

In Italy, which has the highest number of deaths thus far and the population in a virtual state of siege, the Confindustria — the employers’ association — is the same criterion and considered it wholly appropriate to amend the Conte government’s proposal to halt all “nonessential activities.” Confindustria added exceptions for “sectors of strategic importance to the economy.” Thus, that now includes armaments, aeronautics, electrical appliances, the tire industry, large portions of the textile sector, construction and public works, as well as a large part of the machine, metalworking, and iron and steel sectors — without bothering to ensure the necessary health and safety conditions. This emboldening of the bosses corresponds to the action of the “expanded state,” with the complicity of the CGIL, CISL, and UIL union bureaucracies, while the official discourse of “everyone at home” seeks to make invisible that in the midst of this critical situation some 10 million workers are maintaining the functioning of society.

What is new is the workers’ response, which began in recent weeks with wildcat strikes in the metalworking and logistics sectors, and then took a leap forward on March 25 with the general strike promoted in particular by the USB, one of Italy’s “rank-and-file unions,” along with metalworkers of the FIOM-FIM-UILM in Lombardy and Lazio. Large sectors of the workers came out in support; in those regions, strike participation was between 60 and 90 percent. This also included sectors from paper, textile, and chemical industries. Indicative of this support was the appeal signed by more than 400 nurses inviting all those nonessential sectors to join the work stoppage, and themselves joining in with a symbolic one minute of strike. Italy’s Commission of Guarantee on Strikes in Essential Services3Translator’s note: Established by law in 1990, the Italian government’s Commissione di Garanzia is charged with assessing whether a “minimum level of services” is being met when there are strikes by workers in “essential public services.” challenged the strike proclamation, cynically invoking security concerns related to the pandemic and reserving the right to impose penalties.

The big capitalist media did everything possible to make the workers’ action invisible, at a moment when  looting has begun in Italy’s impoverished south and “informal” workers can barely survive. But as Giacomo Turci points out in La Voce delle Lotte (part of the International Network of Revolutionary Online Publications), the strike is beginning to break the reactionary “national unity” that prevails in Italy. This unity is promoted in Italy, as it is in most countries, to hide the fact that the capitalists continue to amass profits in “essential” activities and continue to exploit their workers at any cost — laying them off, condemning the poorest to hunger, and all the while guaranteeing “bailouts” and state subsidies.

Workers’ Control and “Economic Conversion”

The strike in Italy, which is taking place in the midst of the quarantine and the militarization of the country, is probably a first preview of the renewed scenario of class struggle that will take shape — and not only because of the health crisis. It is also because of the deep economic crisis the capitalists are already unloading on the working class, with millions of layoffs — as can be seen, for example, in the record levels of applications for unemployment insurance in the United States and the 1.5 million terminations in Spain. In the context of the quarantines and the struggles around “essential activities,” both with respect to guaranteeing conditions of safety and hygiene in essential places and the refusal of other sectors to accept the criterion of what is “essential” (i.e., profit) to the capitalists, as well as proposals to convert industries to confront the health crisis, the broader issue (and this is fundamental given the crisis) of who organizes production and under what criteria is starting to be put on the table.

The French aeronautics giant Airbus provides a significant example in another of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak. Two weeks ago, workers in some of its subcontractor companies organized to force closures because they lacked minimum safety conditions (a similar conflict is unfolding at Airbus in Spain). Then the company and the Macron government began to pressure for their return to work. As Gaëtan Gracia, union delegate for the CGT Talleres Haute-Garonne, points out, “There is a shortage of masks for health workers, not only in hospitals but also in city services, ambulances, and so on. We have to ask why Airbus was able to secure 20,000 masks?” Workers in several unions have responded by demanding that “all these masks be given to medical personnel as a matter of urgency” and then guaranteed for them going forward. At the same time, these workers have proposed converting production in the aeronautics industry to building ventilators.

If there is one thing that has become clear in this crisis, it is that the working class occupies all the strategic positions for the production and reproduction of society. If in terms of revolutionary strategy these positions are decisive both in terms of their “fire power” for paralyzing the functioning of society, and also as prime spots for bringing together the exploited and oppressed (as we have developed in other articles), they are also decisive from the perspective of the possibility to reorganize society under the criterion of satisfying the human needs of the great majority rather than capitalist profit. As Trotsky explained in an interview with E. A. Ross regarding the Russian Revolution:

[W]e will see to it that the factory is run not from the point of view of private profit but from the point of view of the social welfare democratically conceived. For example, we will not allow the capitalist to shut up his factory in order to starve his workmen into submissiveness or because it is not yielding him a profit. If it is turning out an economically needed product it must be kept running. If the capitalist abandons it, he will lose it altogether, for a board of directors chosen by the workmen will be put in charge.

As a snapshot of the current crisis, it is symbolic that just as Paolo Rocca, one of the leading members of the Argentine bourgeoisie, announced the dismissal of 1,450 workers in the midst of the quarantine, factories under workers’ management that have emerged from the important history of struggles against layoffs and lockouts have already begun to produce basic items needed to combat the coronavirus outbreak. For instance, the workers of R.R. Donnelley (now Madygraf) have demonstrated that they can produce alcohol sanitizer and hospital masks, with scientists and university students distributing them in the most vulnerable neighborhoods and to hospitals. The textile workers of Traful Newen are now producing other masks in large quantities, putting them at the service of the health system. The question of who organizes production and under what criteria will sharpen as both in health crisis and the layoffs and company shutdowns develop, and with it so too will the struggle for workers’ control of production.


Behind the “national unity” that prevails in many countries of the world, the warlike discourse against the coronavirus is intended to hide the war capitalism has waged — and is waging — against public health and the living conditions of the great majority in the last decades. A new wave of massive “rescues” is underway as the capitalists unload the crisis onto the shoulders of the working people. Nationalist and Bonapartist tendencies are being strengthened in the face of the deepening crisis. At the same time, they aim to make invisible the sectors of the working class that are truly on the front lines in the face of the health crisis, in the hospitals and also in the factories, transport, and so. They aim to hide the struggles that are beginning to take place that challenge the spirit of “national unity.” They aim to hide the sectors that are precarious and those workers who are laid off, millions of whom don’t have the “luxury” of quarantining because of overcrowding, poverty, and the lack of basic services. And they aim to hide the fact that countries such as Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba are being crushed by imperialist sanctions in the middle of a pandemic.

In this scenario, it is paramount that we make visible these realities that the regimes and the corporate media are trying to hide behind “national unity” and that we reach millions with an independent and internationalist transitional program in the face of the crisis. We must expose in full the irrationality of this decadent capitalist system, barraged by a widening cycle of class struggle — which all points to new chapters being written — and that raises more and more urgently the need establish a new social order ruled not by profit but by the needs of the great majority of people. This is the perspective from which we publish this weekly magazine of theory and politics, and from which we developed the International Network La Izquierda Diario, with newspapers in 12 countries and eight languages, and from which we are currently setting up LID Multimedia. These are tools revolutionaries did not have in the last century. They allow us to reach millions with these ideas, as the current crisis is illustrating, and to strengthen the organization of revolutionary parties at a national and international level that will, giving the battles to come, be indispensable in the fight to end capitalist barbarism and make the perspective of socialist revolution in the 21st century a reality.

First published on March 29 in Spanish in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation: Scott Cooper


1 Translator’s note: The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that wracked the Byzantine Empire, particularly Constantinople (the capital), as well as port cities around the Mediterranean, in 541–42. It killed an estimated 25 to 100 million people over two centuries of recurrence.
2 Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015).
3 Translator’s note: Established by law in 1990, the Italian government’s Commissione di Garanzia is charged with assessing whether a “minimum level of services” is being met when there are strikes by workers in “essential public services.”
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Matías Maiello

Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).

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