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Boris Johnson speaking in May 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

Boris Johnson speaking in May 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

Lindsey German on capitalism committing to its priorities and how we can fight back

‘Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!’ Nothing can be allowed to get in the way of the accumulation of profit, and nothing can stop the drive to accumulate ever more wealth. So Karl Marx argues of the capitalist class in volume 1 of Capital. And nothing explains better the behaviour of the British ruling class in the coronavirus pandemic, where this attitude dominates every response, or lack of it, to the crisis.
 
Lack of preparedness for the crisis was driven by profit, in the form of slashing provision for the NHS and abandoning testing very early on, by 12 March. The inequalities in society have been laid bare. The number of dead from Covid-19 in Britain looks like at least equalling the number of British civilian deaths during the Second World War. The country is second only to Trump’s US in the scale of the deaths. And the victims of this deadly killer are disproportionately working class, poor, and from ethnic minorities. Many of them were key workers, often lacking adequate protection at their place of employment. Testing and tracing of virus victims has been pitiful.
 
With Britain having one of the worst records on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, you might think some caution, humility and even a change of direction might be in order. But as the government stumbles from one failure to another it seems both incapable and unwilling to change course. It is pushing people out of the lockdown and back to work in order to protect the people who already own the wealth. Its effective lifting of the lockdown and the drive to force people back to work is likely to endanger further the lives of many and to ensure that the likelihood of future spikes in the virus occur.
 
The government has chosen this time – when it has failed on every front – to launch a major exercise to get some primary school pupils back by 1 June. This is despite the virus still peaking in some parts of the country and the rate of infection still relatively high. There is much moralising from ministers like Gove and his friends in the media about the harm disrupted schooling and being forced to stay at home is doing to children. There is handwringing over the disadvantages this creates for poor children. But we cannot take any of these arguments at face value from a government which has deliberately made life harder for working class and poor families, which has cut funding for schools and facilities, and which has narrowed the state education system so that it relies ever more heavily on testing.
 
The real reason for demanding the opening of the schools is to get parents back to work. Nothing changes the capitalists’ attitude to making money – even the threat of illness and death – because they are now terrified that dealing adequately with the pandemic will erode their profits. This is why they are picking a fight with the teaching unions (who according to latest polls are backed by majority public opinion in not wanting schools to reopen) and why they are desperate to send early years children back, even though there is only 6 six weeks of term left and even though no private schools are following this example.
 
When the virus first hit, the government was forced to spend money on some public provision, including furlough pay for millions of workers. Any hope that this might represent a genuine change in priorities has been given the lie by the speed with which the government is retreating from those commitments, and this shows what their real priorities are.

In recent days it has been announced that £1bn worth of contracts for goods and services to do with the crisis have gone to private companies without them having to undergo any form of competitive tendering. The government is scrapping the scheme where the homeless could stay in hotels – so they will soon be back on the streets. Landlords’ rent and profits are being protected while those who have to pay their rent are seeing furlough pay cut back further.
 
While privatised rail companies are subsidised but given free rein to do as they want, the government is imposing draconian controls on Transport for London, including government representatives on its board, threatened job cuts and making children, the elderly and disabled pay where it was previously free. This is all part of demanding people go back to work even when not safe.
 
The background to all this is the threat of unemployment and deep recession – which again they expect us to pay for. A leaked Treasury document detailed how this would work – ending the triple lock on pensions, increasing taxation and freezing public sector pay for two years. In other words, working class people will pay more while the rich see their wealth untouched. They don’t want a new normal – they want the old normal. But the old normal represents a failed system which cannot deliver the most basic requirements of many of its citizens, including the right to health, precisely because of the profit motive.

The fight is on to ensure they do not succeed.

The union makes us strong

Here the trade unions are essential to our success. The teaching unions have done a splendid job so far of refusing to accept government edicts and demanding 5 tests to be fulfilled before it is safe to return to schools. Cue the vicious onslaught by the Daily Mail and other papers on their leaders. The transport unions have been holding the line on safety on public transport, especially London Underground. Even the TUC has said that workers should not be forced back until it is safe.
 
We don’t need to imagine what it would be like without these unions, because we are seeing daily reports of employers flouting basic health and safety regulations, of failing to observe any sort of social distancing, and of pressurising workers to carry out their tasks in unsafe conditions. They face little comeback from the authorities – government advice in the crisis is full of the phrase ‘where possible’ and the health and safety inspectorate has been weakened by a series of cuts.
 
So it is very often up to working people themselves to defend conditions – and that means unions. They have many faults – they are often slow and cautious, marked by years of defeat and legal restriction. Their leaders are also content very often to negotiate rather than take more militant action. Their ties to Labour lead them to further caution, and this is likely to get worse under Keir Starmer’s leadership. But they allow workers on the ground some protection and some ability to organise. The present crisis in particular is seeing the beginnings of more rank and file organisation (much more pronounced in the US, where there have been numbers of wildcat strikes in recent years), partly arising from the nature of very localised disputes with individual employers.
 
We are likely to see more of those, but also more attacks on workers, especially through redundancies, as we saw last week with British Airways. These are likely to pose themselves ever more starkly in class terms, as hugely profitable companies continue payouts to shareholders while cutting jobs. The truth is the whole crisis shows the nature of the class system in very stark terms as those at the top of society spend lockdown on idyllic islands or in Scottish castles, while working people are forced into dangerous conditions in order to earn enough to pay the rent.
 
Attacks on the unions will continue because our rulers know unions are the last protection against dangerous conditions. Any attempts to question the priorities of the rich and powerful are met with lies and abuse. But as it goes on, more people will see through these lies as a result of their own experience. And they will see both the necessity and possibility of fighting back.
 
Already unions are growing during the crisis as workers look for collective organisation. Everyone should join a union and recruit those around you at work. It can make a huge difference to the outcome of the next few months.

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Lindsey German

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’.

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