Death head coffee to go. Graphic: Pikist Death head coffee to go. Graphic: Pikist

Lindsey German on the Tory return to work and Trump’s bid for a second term

Back to work or you risk losing your job. That was the message in a Telegraph front page article last week which urged those working from home to return to their offices in order to ‘save the economy’. Just think about this for a minute. There is a great deal of evidence that productivity of those working from home has been maintained or improved, and many companies want to continue with a good proportion of their work being done from home. Many workers would like to do so as well, at least for some days a week. This would reduce journeys to work, cutting down on pollution, and the use of energy in running offices.

But it can’t be allowed because it would mean fewer people buying sandwiches, going to the pub after work, paying expensive train fares, and shopping for work clothes. If anything demonstrates the crazy logic of capitalism it is this. Instead of these activities being an incidental part of what we do as a result of going to work they become the central reason why we go to work in the first place.

The truth is that this model of working – longer and longer expensive commutes to city centre offices, salaries eaten up by all the expenses of living and working sufficiently close to them, whole industries dedicated to servicing these workers – is unsustainable financially, socially, ecologically, and politically. Indeed there was a major crisis on the high streets before the lockdown, with many stores closing. One of the big problems now is the inability or unwillingness of many companies to pay the extortionate rents demanded of them in the big cities and the knock on effects this has for a sizeable section of British capital. 

 The government is pouring billions into subsidising the supposedly free market through its eat out scheme and through effectively nationalising the railways, because it cannot reorganise the system of working without huge costs to some important sectors of capital, and without accepting that its market system is failing. It also fears that working people are becoming used to not having the constant discipline of supervision and management.

Hence the increasing insistence that everything should return to ‘normal’ despite the growing incidence of coronavirus cases in the UK and the fears of much higher levels of illness and mortality. While right wingers and some misguided people on the left oppose the restrictions that come with wearing masks in shops and on public transport, they overlook the real attack on our liberties.

The level of coercion coming from government and media about returning to work and school is the one we should all be worried about. Threats of fines for parents who keep their children home from school, and the insistence from school authorities that teachers should take large classes without any real protection, are the background to schools reopening this week. The pressure on civil servants and other public sector workers is to return to often unsafe offices, which will mean many travelling on crowded public transport. And the threat of job losses is being hung over millions of workers in hospitality, aviation and many more industries.

In just two or three weeks, a million students will return to universities, with most institutions insisting on some face to face teaching. The danger of a spike in coronavirus cases when this happens is very high, given that rising cases seem to be higher among young people at present, who are less likely to be seriously ill from it, but of course will transmit it to more vulnerable people – including university staff. Again, the rationale for this is a business model which needs students to pay full fees and for expensive accommodation, and so to be physically present. The lecturers’ union UCU has rightly come out against this and called for online teaching only this term – although why it has only done so very late in the day is beyond me, when this problem has been obvious for months.

We are heading for a big storm in Britain. There has been an appalling record on coronavirus so far, and it is set to continue. The NHS seems to be in a terrible state to deal with other health problems, as a result of underfunding and shortages. An economy skewed towards hospitality, retail and other services will find itself in major problems and there will be many job losses. The problems in schools and universities are likely to become more apparent as the term progresses.

There are no easy answers for the government. Leaks of Rishi Sunak’s plans to cut the deficit include higher taxes for the rich, a rise in Capital Gains Tax and increases in corporation tax. All of these are anathema to many Tories, who want to protect themselves and their supporters. There is already discontent among Tory MPs over government U turns and incompetence. There is also talk of ending the triple lock on pensions which will further cut what is already one of the lowest pensions in the developed world. This will hit the poorest – especially women – who have no other means of support.

So expect class war out of this ongoing health crisis. If we are going to stand a chance of winning it, the trade unions need to be much further forward in leading opposition, and we need to be prepared to take industrial action to defend jobs and living standards. One of the great ironies of the present crisis is that so much of what has happened in recent months was presaged by Labour policies under Jeremy Corbyn, who was ridiculed for calling for a 4-day week, green jobs, and rises in taxes for corporations and the rich.

Another feature of this crisis is that Keir Starmer is so terrified of being associated with Corbyn that he cannot put forward any radical solutions to the crisis. So he shadows the Tories in every sense – daring to diverge from them only in the smallest of steps. The latest of these is that next year’s exams should be…. delayed by a few weeks! Corbyn came out of the radicalism engendered by 5 years of coalition government followed by election of a Tory majority. It was a reaction to the worsening of working-class living conditions, students’ fees, high rents, and much more.

It did not succeed electorally but that need for change remains and has been much more starkly highlighted by the current crisis.  This time though its dynamic will be much more outside the parliamentary and electoral process – and so much more unpredictable, but also more powerful.

Trump’s poison power play

The US system is built on racism – both through the destruction of vast numbers of Native Americans through settlement and theft, and by the introduction of Black Africans as chattel slaves. Donald Trump understands that this racism is at the heart of the system and – like many before him – is blatantly using it to win re-election. He knows that in a country as segregated as the US, which has never come to terms with its history, talking about crime, law and order, and safe neighbourhoods is code for the idea that black people threaten lives and livelihoods. He is also encouraging the vigilantes who now act as armed surrogate military or police forces, often with the collusion of sections of the actual state, and who last week were responsible for the deaths of three Black Lives Matter protestors in Kenosha and Portland.

The BLM movement which arose after the killing of George Floyd earlier this year has been monumentally important in highlighting state and institutional racism in the US and has spread around the world. It has shown black people organising about current injustices and educating about history. It has also led to a polarisation between right and left, with the right increasingly organised against the movement and often armed. It’s a very dangerous situation and one which requires mass mobilisation and politics to defeat.

Trump hopes he can secure a second term this way. He may do so – the polls are narrow, were wrong last time, and the Democrats look like they are repeating many of the same errors of 2016, not least with an uninspiring candidate who has no answers to the major problems faced by working people in the US. Any fight against racism – which is essential – has to also be a fight against social injustice which can unite people of different nationalities and races against their real class enemy. It isn’t going to come from Biden and the Democrats.  

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.