Debate: "Workers' action to impose lockdown"

Submitted by martin on 11 August, 2020 - 11:40 Author: Stuart Jordan and Martin Thomas
Debate

Stuart Jordan: "Social measures require government action. A lockdown by contrast can be imposed by workers’ direct action"

Martin Thomas: "When workers rise up to take control of government policy, it will not be to overrule the bourgeois experts
 and disperse ourselves to our homes"


Stuart Jordan: "Social measures require government action. A lockdown by contrast can be imposed by workers’ direct action"

Martin Thomas argues that although we know that a range of actions over the past few months have brought down the rate of infection, it is not clear what specific measures were effective, what made no difference and what caused more harm than good. A few countries had less severe lockdowns than the UK (notably Sweden kept more children in schools) and had fewer deaths. Moreover everyone, including the epidemiologists, were caught by surprise by the surge in deaths in early to mid March. The government panicked implementing a relatively severe lockdown. We now have more knowledge of the pandemic and if there are future outbreaks the scientists can develop sharper and less disruptive strategies to limit the spread, such as local lockdowns. There is a body of emerging evidence that infected children are not infectious, which suggests it might be worth risking whether schools could be reopened. Put together it appears unlikely that another general lockdown, including school closures, will be necessary. The workers' movement need not prepare for a scenario where the government bungles a second spike. Instead we should focus on winning some real social gains that we know will slow the spread of the virus such as nationalising the track and trace system or winning isolation pay for all.

Here Martin makes two rather large assumptions. First that the scientists will have developed effective precision strategies in time to prevent the next spike. Second, that Johnson’s government will implement these strategies in a competent and timely manner. There remain many unknowns. The governments own advisors are not so confident. The recent Academy of Medical Sciences report suggests a second spike this winter could result in 119,000 deaths. The evidence that infected children are not infectious is insufficient for this Tory government: lockdown in Leicester has resulted in reversing the limited school reopenings. Matt Hancock has said there is evidence of outbreaks in schools. Although we all hope to avoid a second spike or the need for further general lockdown it is far from clear that this will not be necessary in the future. Most importantly we have no faith in the government to implement the safest strategy. There is a clear contradiction between the needs of the capitalist economy and the health and safety of the working-class. This is foundational to our politics but especially apparent at the current time. The government may delay a general lockdown or implement it in an ineffective way in order to protect the incomes and profits of the rich. The move from 2 m to 1 m distancing came from lobbying from pub and restaurant owners rather than from sound science. We have no interest in leaving the when and how of the next lockdown in the hands of Johnson’s government.

The failure to grasp this point is apparent in Martin’s 22nd July article where he claims: “The government seems not to have read the report on pandemic prospects for winter 2020-1 published on 14 July, and commissioned by the government's Chief Scientific Officer.” Presumably this is tongue-in-cheek but it misdirects the readers' attention. The problem here is not the competency of the Johnson administration to read official documents but the contradiction between the imperatives of capitalism and effective pandemic response.

The range of actions available to a government are fundamentally different from the range of actions available to the workers' movement. It may emerge that Sweden had a smaller death count, not because of its looser lockdown, but because it has a more robust social security safety net and other social factors such as less inequality. Even if research into these areas existed (I don’t know of any) and we were confident that these social factors helped slow the spread of the virus, we cannot guarantee that the workers' movement in the UK will have secured these measures in time for a second wave. Both these social measures and the precision strategies Martin hopes for require government action. A lockdown by contrast can be imposed by workers’ direct action. There is an organisational obstacle to this in the form of the union bureaucracy. There is a legal obstacle in the form of the antiunion laws. But the organisational obstacles can be overcome by an effective agitation mobilising rank and file workers. If that agitation is effective it will be because the mass membership have been convinced of a strategy that gets around the legal obstacle: a preemptive ballot now in anticipation of and as an insurance policy against government bungling in the future.

The biggest dispute since the start of the pandemic has been between the government and the NEU on the timing of schools reopening. The NEU leadership did not attempt to organise mass refusal to reopen schools but the strength of their argument meant that they won the support of many local authorities and headteachers. Their lobbying operation, a cross class initiative, has thwarted the government’s plans but not in a way that strengthens the union or builds workers’ confidence. The NEU strategy was successful because of widespread lack of confidence in the government‘s approach and the need for alternative leadership. In this case the alternative leadership was provided by management. We do not trust management to keep us safe and are interested in working-class organisations providing that leadership. The dispute demonstrated the will of workers to contest the when and how of lockdown measures.

Martin and others have argued that to focus attention on control over lockdown timing might distract from other more important strategies. However the main problem facing the workers' movement is not that we have masses of easily distractable militants. The problem is a general lack of engagement with the trade unions. To solve this problem requires direct action, strategies that impel workers to stand together and realise our collective strength. A propaganda campaign to nationalise TTI might attract a few individuals interested in writing letters to MPs, getting signatures on petitions, writing blogposts - necessary work but not the stuff of a mass mobilisation. Some have argued that campaigning for national strike ballots might distract from mobilising workers to refuse work on health and safety grounds. However there is no evidence that teachers or job centre staff have used this right, despite being given information about “section 44” by their union leadership. You may conclude from the experience in schools and DWP that there is no mood to refuse the return to work. But you cannot argue that these workers returned to work because they were distracted by promises of a national ballot.

Martin seems to think there are people who are positively in favour of lockdowns, indefinite lockdowns or lockdowns which last for years. I am not aware of anyone who makes that argument. However there is also no objective need for people to return to work anytime soon, beyond the needs imposed by capitalism. Lockdown has shown that a high standard of living can be maintained by relatively few workers - no-one had to go without the internet, electricity, food, shelter because of the lockdown. In fact, social solidarity and government action through the lockdown has made it easier to access these essentials for the very poor and homeless. There are a list of non-essential services that as socialists we are positively in favour of reopening quickly: a full NHS service, schools, colleges, universities, dentists, opticians etc. Beyond that we welcome a return of workers in the arts, sport, social spaces, hairdressers etc. But many jobs are positively harmful and should be abolished with people's energies put towards tackling the multiple crises we face in the near future: climate change, food sustainability, mental health. We cannot make that happen through an act of will but we should say clearly that we think workers who build weapons, extract fossil fuels, staff airports or work in innumerable bullshit jobs should be given a basic income and options to retrain and do something better. That workers suffer hardship when they are out of work is a political decision. Many of those workers will continue to suffer hardship beyond lockdown due to a mass jobs cull. Lockdown easing does not help the 6.5 million workers at risk of their jobs in the next few months. The capitalist class is clearly very much opposed to lockdown. Our attitude to lockdown should be guided by the political economy of the working-class - the health and life of our class comes before the imperatives of the capitalist economy and we are in favour of defending that position with all the weapons at our disposal including very blunt and imprecise weapons.

I have proposed an agitation for unions to ballot now in order to gain a six month live strike mandate that would allow the workers' movement to impose a general lockdown in response to rapidly changing events. Martin has argued this strategy has no “grip”. I suspect that is now true. Lockdown easing so far has not resulted in a big increase in the rate of infection and it looks like this situation may continue for weeks to come. However, it did not appear this way in May when the NEU was holding mass meetings with record attendance in opposition to school reopenings.

The NEU agitation against school reopenings was primarily based on the general rate of infection in the country. The six weeks balloting period imposed by the anti-union laws prevented the NEU from organising a national refusal to return to schools. An energetic campaign at this point for a national ballot may have had much more “grip” and formed the basis for a rank and file movement within that union that was actively discussing and organising on this basis. That agitation may not have been sufficient to push the NEU leadership in May, but the objective circumstances called for nationally coordinated action: it would have exposed the weakness of the NEU leadership. An energetic campaign for national action (which recognised and discussed the legal obstacles etc) could have gained significant support among rank and file members. Such a movement could have expected to have gained significant support and push the leadership into action at the first sign of a second spike. Instead, Solidarity repeatedly praised the NEU for their “clear” strategy of lobbying head teachers and local authorities whilst busying NEU reps with a 20 page risk assessment. It dismissed talk of a national ballot as a distraction. In the event no schoolworkers refused to work on health and safety grounds (except possibly some Unison members at a school in Tower Hamlets). It is not clear that any of our agitation during this time had a grip; some of it was plain dishonest.

I have argued throughout this period that Workers' Liberty might have taken a bolder and more decisive line in the NEU in May if it had not been for our largely unarticulated anti-lockdown position.

Whether the idea of circumventing the antiunion laws by a preemptive ballot has a grip in the future will depend on the shape of the pandemic and the government’s response. What is clear is that the workers' movement has no strategy for dealing with a spike in infections except following government instructions or individual and atomised action: absenteeism, section 44 walkouts.

This discussion although focussed on the issue of national ballots is actually about different perspectives and responses to the current crisis. Martin’s argument appears to me to be an attempt to justify the earlier opposition to school closures in March by an appeal to some more recent epidemiological research: research that is far from conclusive. In fact Workers’ Liberty were taken by surprise by the school closures. Since this time our position has not been dissimilar to the NEU leadership: some verbal opposition to lockdown easing but no effective direct action strategy or even discussion of this strategy. Whenever such strategy discussion is proposed, we get general arguments against lockdowns and school closures.

My concern that Workers' Liberty has become fixated on an early mistake of opposing school closures, a policy that was dropped the moment the Tories closed schools. The attempt to defend that mistake, leaves us with a selective reading of the science and means we are unprepared for all the possible scenarios that this crisis might throw up.

We can expect that this crisis will have significant socio-political consequences. It is at moments like this that mighty organisations are broken and new forces rise up. Our advantage in this crisis is that we might be able to see more clearly than anyone else and may even with our limited forces, with our limited toehold in the mass organisations, have opportunities for shaping events. That requires not only that we remain open to thinking through the dynamics of the pandemic but also that we take initiatives with a bold energy. We should approach the coming period with a confidence that we have a greater grip on events than our political opponents. During discussion in late May Mark Osborn argued “Campaigning for a national ballot, now, would isolate us.” Unfortunately we are isolated and have been for many decades. If only we had more to lose! But opportunities to become less isolated will be thrown up by this crisis. We should attempt to understand the course of the pandemic objectively, not by highly subjective assessments about what we think will “grip” the energy and enthusiasm of workers. The ultimate test of whether our perspectives and strategies is have a grip is by testing them in argument and agitation. Bringing Martin’s anti-lockdown position into view, will aid is in the pursuit of objectivity and may allow us to seize the opportunities ahead with more conviction.


Martin Thomas: "When workers rise up to take control of government policy, it will not be to overrule the bourgeois experts
 and disperse ourselves to our homes"

A story in the memoirs of Lenin's widow Nadezhda Krupskaya is instructive for our socialist attitude to issues of public administration where we lack expertise.

In exile, Krupskaya and Lenin usually rented a room in the house of a working-class or middle-class family with some spare space. Often their hosts were uninterested in politics or even right-wing.

In 1916 in ZĂŒrich, however, they chanced on the Kammerers, "a workers' family [whose] outlook was a revolutionary one and
 condemned the imperialist war".

Wartime Switzerland had difficulties with imports. At one point the government responded by asking everyone to abstain from certain valued foods two days a week.

Unaware, Krupskaya bought the valued food on one of those days. In the kitchen, Mrs Kammerer explained why there was no police enforcement of the abstention:

"Once it has been published in the papers that there are difficulties, what working person will eat meat on meatless days? Only a bourgeois would do that!"

To understand the point, the reader who has a vegetarian or vegan diet as I do must step back from the specific "meat" question. For "meat" substitute any other particularly valued food, fresh fruit maybe.

Noticing that Krupskaya was embarrassed, Mrs Kammerer was conciliatory: "This doesn't apply to foreigners".

Switzerland figured as a more advanced bourgeois democracy at the time, but Mrs Kammerer, with her revolutionary outlook, didn't trust the government. Accepting that there were shortages, she also accepted that there should be rules to deal with them. The government was the only body in a position to formulate such rules. She couldn't tell whether they were the best rules, but out of solidarity with others she wanted to abide by them rather than find a loophole for herself. And that, even though she took it for granted that the bourgeois would find loopholes.

"Ilyich [Lenin]", writes Krupskaya, "was quite captivated by this intelligent proletarian outlook".

A more humdrum example in the same area is an argument we used in the late 1960s when the SWP [then called IS] proclaimed "opposition to all ruling-class policies" as one of the four basic planks for socialist politics.

So, we would retort, we're in favour of ignoring all red traffic lights?

Of course we didn't trust the government on its regulation of traffic. That wasn't a trivial matter. Road deaths ran around 6,000 to 7,000 a year from the 1930s to the 1990s, some 400,000 in total over those decades. The deaths were mostly young or middle-aged people, or children, so road-traffic accidents probably killed almost as many under-70s each year as Covid-19 has so far in Britain. And over decades, apparently without end. Many tens of thousands more were seriously injured, often seriously impaired for the rest of their lives.

(Avoiding lives being cut short in childhood or youth is an especially urgent priority. That doesn't mean that I consider deaths at my own age, 71, from Covid or otherwise, to be inconsequential).

The left campaigned on "social" issues like better public transport, as we campaign for better wages to enable everyone to eat well, and for isolation pay, public-health test-and-tracing, requisitioning of health supplies...

We had no grand alternative scheme for the technical issues of traffic lights and road markings. To this day I don't think the left has a considered view on Monderman's alternative on that question, developed from the 1980s and used a fair bit in the Netherlands but scarcely in Britain.

A workers' government will have to develop detailed policies on traffic lights, road markings, and so on. When a revolutionary labour movement is strong enough to take power, we will also be strong enough to draw on the resources of bourgeois expertise on those questions.

For the moment, however, we just don't know enough. There are plenty of urgent questions which we do know enough about, and we work on those.

Through considerations of that sort, I think, the revolutionary left (much stronger then than now) said nothing about the bourgeois measures against the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-20 (different sorts of lockdowns, face-masks, vaccines thought at the time to have been effective but now known not to have been...)

The pandemic was at its height in Berlin at exactly the same time as Germany's November revolution of 1918, but Rosa Luxemburg's Die Rote Fahne wrote nothing about it. The pandemic, I suppose they thought, was essentially another aspect of the murderous effects of the war and poverty. They knew they had answers to war and poverty, and focused on those.

The epidemiologist George Davey Smith, interviewed in Solidarity recently, argued that the exceptional flu epidemic of 1968-9 (which had a big second wave in 1969-70) should be reckoned as more destructive than the current Covid-19 spread. Some schools were closed, but only patchily. The death statistics were a bit lower, but they would have been much higher if back in those years Britain had had anything like the number of frail elderly people we had in March 2020. It didn't only because back then the vast majority of those who now survive to frail old age died before they could become frail.

I was only beginning to become active in the revolutionary left in 1968-9, but I would have noticed if the left had had a distinctive agitation about the public-health measures to be taken, or not taken, against the flu. It hadn't. As in 1918, we felt that we had many social and political issues we did know about and on which big struggles were underway, and we focused on those.

We can't translate that approach mechanically to today. The internet, much-expanded household delivery systems, and, on average, less-crowded and better-resourced housing, have made longer lockdowns, with "working from home", practicable. We can and must formulate ideas on, for example, workplace precautions (though we can do it only by tapping the best of bourgeois expertise, not by having some special "Marxist hygienics").

There will be "grey areas" between social agitation around the anti-pandemic measures, and comment on the "epidemiological" choices.

The basic truth still holds: with our resources, to attempt to figure as "alternative Chief Medical Officers" is false and can only harm the social agitation on which we are "experts".

Despite what Stuart writes, I have no confidence at all in the government to manage coming "spikes" or "surges" well. But I also have no confidence in myself to give instructions on how to manage it. I try to follow the debates and nuances among the bourgeois experts, but I don't have a "workers' lockdown" to counterpose to their policy variants.

When the SWP (IS) proclaimed "opposition to all ruling-class policies" as their principle, that soon became their stated foundation for agitating against Britain joining the EU, and then for withdrawal. Being in the EU was a ruling-class policy, wasn't it? So we had to oppose it


That led them into supporting the old, discarded (for then: sadly, now revived) ruling-class policy (keep high borders round Britain) as against the new and more rational ruling-class policy.

Stuart ends up in the same plight. He denounces the Tories - but in the name of their 16 March lockdown policy. His answer to the virus is "workers' action to impose lockdown", or workers' action to impose the Tory policy that the Tories are too irresolute about.

The varying versions of March-type lockdowns were designed, advocated, and implemented by bourgeois experts, not by the labour movement or the left. None of those experts argued that the lockdowns were a good long-term policy. Their reasoning was that the virus was spreading so fast, and so little detected, that hospital systems would probably be swamped, as in northern Italy. Short-term, they had to "throw everything at it", not knowing what would work and what wouldn't, in order to buy time and develop more sustainable and evidence-based ways of controlling the pandemic.

Governments then added pointless "security theatre", like spraying the streets in Iran with disinfectant. If you look across Europe, often stricter lockdowns correlated with worse outcomes. I don't think that is because stricter lockdowns actually caused worse outcomes, but because the more overwhelmed governments felt more pressure to "throw in everything" and to be seen to do that.

It's not the case that more right-wing governments had weaker and shorter lockdowns, and more left-ish ones, more under the influence of labour movements, had stronger and longer ones. It's difficult to see a clear pattern, but many right-wing governments have had severe and long lockdowns.

All the bourgeois experts now reckon that with more testing and a bit more knowledge about how the virus spreads, they have more calibrated options than the shut-everything lockdowns of March (including localised and partial lockdowns). None of them gives guarantees than the less-blunderbuss options will work in all cases. But those options have worked in a number of countries (including many of those which have "done well" in the pandemic so far, and haven't had general lockdowns). They should be tried first.

But, no, for Stuart, our job should be to lever the labour movement into somehow reimposing the Tories' 16 March policy.

How? I think he agrees that the government's reopening of pubs, cafés, and tourism is dangerous, but he would also agree with me that a slogan of general strike (by whom? pub workers?) to compel everyone to stay home and stop seeing their friends, won't work.

Stuart knows as well as I do that mobilising the working class not to take control of the means of production, but to abandon the means of production, leave the streets to the cops, and disperse itself to its homes (and doing that from a startpoint of many workers being already dispersed) is wildly unrealistic. If workers were strong enough to do that, then we would take over society rather than just press the Tories to go back to their old policy and then disperse, leaving it to the cops to enforce our "workers'" policy on the streets. We can certainly win "social measures" long before the workers' movement is strong enough to "lock down" society (or, in real terms, to force the bourgeois cops to "lock down" society even when they don't want to).

Workers can and will accept lockdown measures if scientists explain the evidence and the reasoning, even if we can't really check it, as we accept traffic lights and the rest; but when militant workers rise up to take control of government policy, it will not be to overrule the bourgeois experts
 and disperse ourselves to our homes, leaving the streets to the cops and the means of production to the bosses and compliant workers.

Stuart takes "lockdown" as a simple and well-defined choice, the one and only answer. In fact it's not. Lockdowns come in many shapes. There's the early-2020 lockdown in Wuhan where your family might never see you again if you went out of your house. There's the early-2020 regime in Finland, described by some as "not really a lockdown". Or Norway's official lockdown, described by Norway's public-health chief as "not really very different" from Sweden's official not-lockdown, except that the schools were closed (something the Norwegian government has now said was a mistake).

We have to assume that Stuart wants workers to "impose by direct action" the British March variant, stricter than most but not as strict as Wuhan.

Or at least the best approximation he can get. Stuart campaigns not for a strike by pub workers to close the pubs, or a general strike to ban workers from taking August holidays or meeting friends, but for a strike by school workers to shut the schools. School closure is not lockdown in its "ideal" form, but it is the best available approximation.

There is a certain logic here. Schools are more highly unionised than other shutdown sectors. It is administratively easy for bourgeois governments to shut schools, and, unlike with other sectors, the short-term costs to the government and the capitalists are very small.

In a number of countries in and around March, the first response to the spread of infection was to shut schools, and a general lockdown came later (or not at all).

So, if the principle is just to get as much lockdown as possible, at least up to 16 March British levels, then it makes sense to push on schools as the easiest area to get results.

Despite what Stuart says, I am not "anti-lockdown" in any general way. But equally I am not "pro-lockdown". I accepted the lockdown advocated by bourgeois experts (as a tactic to gain time) because I couldn't second-guess it. Not as the great and general long-term answer. I do not think that more lockdown is always better than less lockdown. I didn't campaign for Britain's lockdown to be made more like Wuhan's, or even France's, and neither did Stuart.

The basic objection about school closures is one that Stuart actually recognises in his article: even though the short-term costs to the government and the capitalists of closing schools are small, the costs to the working class are great.

As Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard and a vehement critic of the US pandemic policy, puts it: "primary schools should be recognised as essential services - and school personnel as essential workers
 primary schools are essential - more like grocery stores, doctors' offices, and food manufacturers than like retail establishments, movie theatres, and bars".

In extreme circumstances, an emergency apply-the-brake operation may include closing schools. As it may, for example, halt non-emergency medical care for a while. At the height of the lockdown, much mental-health provision was shut down. But that is a short-term emergency expedient, not an "answer".

Though many governments shut schools first, and some have reopened schools later than places like pubs and cafés, now the pressure of democratic and scientific opinion (and working-class opinion too, I'd venture to say) has pushed many governments to recognise schools as among the last (not first) places to shut. That is progress rather than regression.

The social considerations could be overridden, at least for short periods, if scientists found that schools were top transmission sites for SARS-Cov-2 infection, as they actually are, for example, for flu.

But the solid evidence is that children and teenagers suffer much less from SARS-Cov-2 than older people. The record so far (possibly deceptive but it's what we have to go on) is that having schools open (as throughout in Taiwan and Sweden, and in most European countries, bit by bit, since mid-April), brings no higher rate of infection to adult school workers than to the general population. Where SARS-Cov-2 cluster sites have been identified, few of them have been in schools.

No-one argues that school children and teenagers are "not infectious". The balance of evidence so far (we can say no more) is that they are less infectious than older people.

So if anything can be opened beyond emergency medical care and food supplies, then the bourgeois experts are right to say that (on we can tell so far) schools should be high on the list. Above pubs and tourism, anyway.

We may get a big rather than small second surge in winter. The evidence so far on schools (as on most things about the virus) is patchy. We may find they originate more transmission than most experts currently think. We are for precautions according to the best scientific advice, and workers' control to keep short-sighted, boorish, lazy, or cost-cutting managers up to the mark.

Indefinitely-long full lockdowns are unsustainable even with a full police state. Even if they were "the answer" in principle, they are not in practice. Even China continued its lockdown in Wuhan for only 11 weeks, from 23 January to 8 April.

We have to live with those facts. We can't want the Tories to gain super-police-state powers, or imagine that (through a ballot under the terms of the Tory anti-union laws!) we can mobilise the working class to impose a Red Terror, not to win a civil war, but to force the recalcitrant members of our class to stay indoors for indefinite months.

Stuart describes full lockdown as bringing few costs to the working class. "A high standard of living can be maintained", he says, in the lockdown.

Most people have had adequate food; have been able to communicate with others electronically; and have had emergency medical care.

No education (other than a bit online). No socialising outside our immediate households. No sex ditto. No culture (beyond Netflix, Zoom meetings, etc.) No live performance art. No libraries. No non-emergency medical care, no routine dentistry or optician care. No new housing. No travel. No in-person political life. Little possibility of workplace action, because so many workforces are dispersed.

To signal to the working class that we consider food plus emergency medical care plus Netflix a high enough standard of living for them, and all else is bourgeois frippery, is not to combat the virus well, but to trip ourselves up. The lockdown has its costs too, and, as with the pandemic, those weigh most on the worse-off.

It is not the case that the lockdowns have narrowed life down to the "good" stuff, and eliminated only "bad" stuff. Finance, advertising, the military, etc. have continued while schools are shut down.

A few factories in Italy were shut down in March by working-class action, and a lot more workplaces (including in Britain) had better safety imposed by workers' action. The only case I know of, worldwide, of a whole industry being shut by workers' action was the closure of schools in Queensland, Australia, by the teachers' union threatening an (entirely illegal) strike. (No ballot. The union there is much stronger than the NEU in Britain. Unlike the NEU, it could certainly have closed almost all schools by striking).

But that wasn't the "lockdown
 imposed by workers' direct action" which Stuart recommends. Other lockdown-type measures (which never became as strict as in Britain) had already been introduced under a state of emergency ("bourgeois direct action", so to speak) declared a full two months before the schools were closed. The school closures were the last lockdown measure, rather than the first.

The teachers supported schools still providing for vulnerable children and children of key workers (and those attended in much bigger numbers than under the similar dispensation in England). The teachers were clear that they proposed an emergency short-term measure (in the first place, just to start the next school holiday a bit earlier), not a school shutdown to continue for many months or years until Covid-19 disappeared.

They raised no objection when the state government reopened schools after eight weeks, though some other "lockdown" measures continued in Queensland. University libraries didn't even start reopening until three weeks later. Three and a half months after the schools reopened, universities are still mostly operating on-line only, some courts are still shut, and the state borders are still more or less closed...

If I'd been in a Queensland school at the time, I'd have supported the strike move, because we couldn't know the calculus of risks, and if the majority of workers feared for their and their students' health, better to shut down until they could win some reassurance.

It doesn't follow at all that the Queensland strike threat was the socialist answer to the virus. With hindsight, and observing the experience of Taiwan and Sweden, it might well have been better to keep the schools open, except maybe for the older (16 and 17 year old) students.

Stuart thinks we were wrong not to campaign for closing schools back in March (or February, maybe). I think that's another "we wish we'd started from somewhere else" argument.

We know now that by early or mid-March the British public health authorities had lost track of infections. (Retrospective estimate: maybe 30,000 new infections a day in mid-March, when the authorities were detecting a hundred or so of them). Possibly, if the public-health authorities had been able to track things better, and Britain had imposed a lockdown and strict quarantine for everyone entering the country in early or mid February, infections could have been kept very limited.

But there was no base for "workers' action to impose a lockdown" in February. We, the left, knew even less about the spread of the virus than the public authorities did.

As late as 8 March, we, the left, did not campaign for International Women's Day street activities to be shut down. On the contrary, we mobilised for them.

The left was still preparing to run a big street (anti-racist) demonstration on 21 March. We ourselves were preparing a "No Borders" bloc on that march.

I commented privately to comrades that a broader slogan like "Free Movement" would be better than "No Borders", because we might soon have to support big quarantine measures at the borders. I mooted doing a number of small covid-distanced protests instead of a single crowded march. Wrongly, I kept my comments private. No-one else seemed convinced.

Neil Ferguson and his team from Imperial College produced their report on 16 March (based on, as they said, information got from Italy in "the last few days"). The government moved to a comprehensive lockdown. We accepted that we couldn't second-guess Ferguson (though, with hindsight, it seems to me, he got some things wrong, and with damaging results). We accepted the lockdown. We were critical of it, and opposed some provisions, but we were no more "anti-lockdown" than Mrs Kammerer was "anti" the rules on food or we are "anti" traffic lights. Being as comprehensive as it was ("almost everyone stay at home"), the lockdown was bound to include school closures, and we accepted that.

Would it have been better if we had agitated for school closures, or strikes to force school closures, from mid-February, say? A few schools which identified Covid-19 cases were shut by head teachers, locally and for short periods, in February.

A formal ballot, with its long timescale, could not have helped. At the best, it would leave school workers in "waiting" mode until the ballot result.

Maybe we could have gone for wildcat illegal strikes, as the Australian teachers nearly did? I can't see that would have "worked". But if it had? We might have won something like, say, Poland, where schools were closed from 10 March but the full lockdown didn't come until 31 March. We might have got something like the July picture of schools closed and pubs open, but at the beginning of the first-half-2020 virus surge rather than the end.

That would have been no great gain, either socially or from the point of view of combatting the virus.

We are for strikes, but not because workplaces being idled and workers dispersed to their homes for long periods is our ideal. Generally, we are for strikes so that workers can return to their workplaces on better conditions and strengthen rather than weaken the ties of comradeship among themselves.

Stuart says that in May we should have campaigned for an NEU ballot in May to stop more students returning to school on 1 June. School workers, reasonably enough, were worried because general infection levels were running higher than in other European countries when they reopened their schools.

In the first place, even if the ballot had been held, its result could not have come through until long after 1 June. It couldn't possibly stop the extra students returning.

In the second place, the people aligned with us on the NEU Executive had supported a ballot, but had been in a tiny minority. With the union's democratic channels largely shut down, there was no way the Executive majority could be overturned before 1 June. At the very best, campaigning for a ballot would have been agitation on the lines: "We wish we could start from somewhere else".

In the third place, the arguments of the NEU leadership against a ballot had weight. With the membership largely dispersed, and the ballot being for many members on a choice between staying home and being paid and staying home and not being paid, the probability of a legally adequate turnout was slim.

In the fourth place, running the ballot would have given the employers powerful legal levers against the action actually feasible without a ballot and before a ballot result: using laws like Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to refuse unsafe working.

In the fifth place, workplace-level agitation in some schools, combined with the wish of head teachers and local authorities to avoid trouble, actually got about as much result in keeping students at home ("locking down") as a ballot and a couple of one-day strikes could have got. More important, it also got some progress, in patches, on organising school workers to control their workplace safety conditions. Keeping students at home is not necessarily a big gain (socialist teachers actually wanted more vulnerable and key-worker kids to come into school, not fewer: less lockdown, not more). It is certainly of much less importance than the development of in-workplace organisation.

Possibly an NEU ballot now, maybe disaggregated, which can be organised for with school workers back in their workplaces, can be an asset in helping school workers to be prepared for the multiple possibilities of the coming months. That's a different matter.

Comments

Submitted by martin on Sat, 22/08/2020 - 10:21

There are a number of points of agreement that may help clarify the debate.

First we agree that it is important to listen to scientific experts and be guided by their advice. We don’t believe there is a left wing version of science. Where we differ is that Martin does not appear to have considered the possibility that Johnson’s administration might ignore the scientific advice or be slow to act on that advice in a crisis situation. I think it is very clear that the Tories prioritise the profits and viability of capitalist businesses over the lives of working-class people and this means they cannot be trusted to act according to the science when that advice threatens the economy.

We agree in a general demand to “open the books”. We demand full disclosure of the SAGE advice in real time. Making the SAGE advice public in real time would not only allow the workers' movement important information to judge Johnson’s administration but would also open up public debate among scientists and democratise this debate. Whatever the professional ethics of the individual members of SAGE they are under considerable political pressure. We should be skeptical about the objectivity of a committee that operates in secret and includes Dominic Cummings among its members. The committee may also lack some basic expertise: it includes no molecular virologists and no ICU specialists. But whatever the real or imagined shortcomings of the SAGE committee, we agree to the basic democratic demand for transparency. I suspect Martin will also agree that this demand for transparency should extend not just to the scientific advice but also to other aspects of pandemic response such as the production and distribution of PPE. We should be able to scrutinise the government's plans for a second wave.

In line with the scientific advice, we agree that a lockdown similar to the lockdown imposed in March 2020 is a last resort. I suspect we also agree that certain sectors, such as construction, should be closed before schools and other services that are important for human welfare. Where we differ is that Martin appears convinced that it is unlikely that another lockdown will be necessary, or if it is necessary then we can trust Johnson’s government to implement it in a timely manner and we need not prepare for it. I have argued that it is likely that we will again see escalating infection rates and there is a strong possibility that a further lockdown will be necessary. I do not trust the government to implement it in a timely manner and I think the workers movement should prepare.

We agree that March 2020 style lockdown is not a long term answer. I certainly do not think it is the “one and only answer” and have never argued in favour of a lockdown now or for an “indefinitely long lockdown”! It is an emergency measure when all else has failed. But that emergency might come and it will turn lockdown from an unpopular choice (as it is now with low infection rates) to a necessary measure to save lives. Where we differ is that I think there will be considerable clamour for a lockdown in the event of soaring infection rates. Martin thinks that lockdowns can only be imposed by “bourgeois cops” (despite the evidence of spring 2020).

Martin also seems convinced that school closures will be unnecessary in a further lockdown and has collated a number of scientific papers to support this view. Here I think Martin drifts into dangerous ground of selecting the scientific advice to suit his own political position. It is noteworthy that the Tory government thought it necessary to close schools as recently as July in response to local outbreaks in Leicester. If the Conservative government with all their secret scientific advice are not convinced that it is safe to keep schools open as infection rates rise, then we should not second guess the hegemonic view of the scientific community. Of course the evidence might change and there does appear to be emerging consensus that primary school aged children are low risk as spreaders of the virus. However this view is currently a minority position within the scientific community.

We agree that the closure of schools is particularly bad for working-class children who are unlikely to suffer badly if they get the virus. This is another way of stating that school closures are a last resort. Where we differ is in acknowledging the strategic importance of school workers who can impose a rough and ready form of lockdown against government orders. If school workers refuse to work then parents of school-aged children have to take time off to care for children. This in turn would be a signal for other groups of workers to refuse to attend work. It is possible to envisage a very rapid escalation that would pose the question of power.

Martin and I agree to a programme of demands that would undoubtedly improve the pandemic response and save lives: full isolation pay, public ownership and democratic control of social care, release of prisoners etc. However there is no way of winning these demands without something approximating a general strike. The Labour Party under Keir Starmer has shown itself utterly unwilling to pose a political challenge to the government, even a extremely mild social democratic challenge such as demanding full sick pay. Instead all criticism is made on grounds of “competency”. Of course we should fight within Labour to assert some basic working-class politics, but even in more favourable times sharp argument in parliament is never as powerful as mass workers action. We agree that general strike as a slogan is ridiculous posturing, but we are in favour of general strikes and seek ways to generalise and politicise even the smallest trade union disputes.

In this case there is no need to raise the slogan of a general strike. School workers could argue that it is likely that there will be a second wave and the government will fail to lockdown quickly enough. This could lead to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, including deaths of union members. To prevent such an eventuality we cannot rely on the government, or management to keep us safe. We need a legal right to collectively refuse work. Due to the anti-union laws, it is illegal for workers to collectively refuse work without jumping through an elaborate balloting process that can take around six weeks. The antiunion laws make it impossible for unionised workers to respond to an escalating crisis with legal strike action. However, school worker unions could use this lull in the pandemic to win a successful ballot for strikes in the event of escalating rate of infection. A successful ballot would mean a legal right to collectively refuse work for six months from the ballot result. This would then raise the question: when, if ever, should schoolworkers exercise their right to strike and who decides?

I am not in favour of schoolworkers strikes because it is administratively simple and low cost measure for bourgeois government. I am in favour of it because schoolworkers have already shown their willingness to fight the government on this terrain and because school closures are a real and symbolic

If schoolworkers were currently sitting on a national strike mandate then the obvious next step would be to set up a democratic body of frontline workers who would decide when to call a strike. They could demand the programme of social measures we know will limit the spread of the virus: all workers need the right to full sick pay (as exists in Germany), nationalise track and trace, open the books, homes for all, alternative state funded accommodation for those who need to isolate in overcrowded housing etc. They could refuse to return in September until this was organised arguing that children’s education was too important to risk a second wave. As infection rates rise they could demand other sectors are locked down: pubs, construction with a generous furlough package. Again emphasising that children’s right to education should be prioritised. Finally if we reach a similar position to where we were in March 2020 then they could shut the schools.

Others have argued that this is a “million miles from where schoolworkers are at” and maybe that is true. But schoolworkers might travel that million miles if the vaccine remains elusive and there is further bungling of the third and fourth waves. If a second wave is particularly bad then workers might conclude that we need to prepare for future. The strategy I propose would give the trade union movement considerable power. Martin’s arguments point in a different direction.

The lesson Martin draws from the story of Krupskaya snaffling up some meat during the Swiss meat shortages is that “it is instructive of socialist attitudes to issues of public administration when we lack expertise”. It seems to me to be a very odd reading. The issue here is not that the Swiss proletariat lack “expertise” nor that Krupskaya was proposing an alternative policy to voluntary rationing of meat. Krupskaya was admonished by her proletarian host who abided by the voluntary meat rationing despite being aware that many bourgeois households would be feasting on meat during the meat-free days. The moral of the story is that the ruling class often set rules that they then break for their own individualistic gains. But for most workers the principle of basic social solidarity overrides any desire to ape the ruling class’ hypocritical behaviour. Krupskaya in contrast acted like a latter day toilet roll hoarder or Barnard Castle day tripper: someone who puts their own individualistic needs above basic principle of social solidarity.

The moral Martin draws from this story is that sometimes, when we do not have enough information to make a judgement, we have to follow bourgeois orders. In light of this debate about whether workers should attempt to gain levers of control over pandemic response and lockdown measures, this amounts to instructing workers to continue to attend work until the government gives the order to lockdown. We may advise workers to refuse work on health and safety grounds if there is a specific workplace issue (lack of hand sanitiser?) but if the national infection rate is soaring and intensive care units are overflowing then Martin counsels workers to await further instruction from Boris Johnson.

Martin continues this line of thought by suggesting that a movement that was attempting workers’ control of lockdown would have fallen into the mindless position adopted by the SWP in the 1960s: “opposition to all bourgeois policies”. Any workers' movement that felt it had the expertise to second guess the government on when to lockdown during the next wave of the pandemic, is somehow akin to a socialist organisation proposing alternative road traffic regulations.

Martin draws another historical analogy: Rosa Luxemburg did not challenge the German government’s handling of the Spanish Flu. To turn the post-WW1 revolutionary left’s disinterest in the Spanish flu pandemic into a rule for how socialists should respond to the Coronavirus pandemic smacks of a vulgar paint-by-numbers “Marxism” that bears little resemblance to the tradition developed by Martin and the AWL. Martin is surely right that Luxembourg’s approach was a reflection of the general lack of interest in the Spanish flu by the people who survived World War One. It also seems likely that advances in medical science, communications technology etc mean there is now an expectation that pandemics can be managed effectively in a way that was not true for the people of 1918-20. We might also consider that Luxemburg and her comrades operated in completely different political terrain (a time of unprecedented class conflict) that demanded different political priorities. The Coronavirus pandemic by contrast has dominated and disrupted the lives of most people on earth on a scale and in a way that is unprecedented. The government’s mishandling of the pandemic dominates political debate and it is possible to see the political ground shifting very rapidly through the crisis.

It is worth remembering that in May-June this year the NEU posed a direct challenge to Johnson’s government on the issue of when and how to reopen schools. This action prompted right wing demagogue Richard Littlejohn to write “I thought I’d been transported back to the eighties.” (Who runs Britain? RIchard Littlejohn asks as teaching firebrands are exposed for holding ministers to ransom, Daily Mail, 22 May 2020). Although there was no workers' action as such, the school workers' resistance to schools reopening was perhaps the greatest display of trade union power in the UK since the miners’ strike. School workers did not worry that they lacked expertise to challenge the government's easing of lockdown. Despite the weakness of the NEU leadership’s industrial strategy, the opposition to school reopening was very clear and compelling, winning over parents, bosses and local authorities. On this basis the union mobilised members to huge meetings and recruited thousands of school workers and even with their lobbying strategy they were able to significantly thwart the government's plans for schools reopenings. When was the last time a union posed such a challenge to government?

My suggestion is that merely that next time round the union prepares so that it can back up its verbal opposition to schools being open with direct action. If the NEU took this path it would potentially open up the prospect of large scale class conflict on a scale unseen in generations: something approximating a general strike. Martin’s opposition to this is not that it is unrealistic. For Martin the NEU has no business challenging the government on this terrain.

Lastly on school closures in March. In early March there was considerable agitation for school closures among schoolworkers, including schoolworker supporters of AWL. But the majority position within the AWL was active opposition to school closures. Leading AWL schoolworkers argued vociferously against school closures without proposing any positive alternative. This opposition was quietly dropped at the moment when the government announced school closures. But the zombie policy (which is at odds with our commitment to bourgeois science) has continued to influence our responses since.

Submitted by martin on Thu, 27/08/2020 - 17:15

School closures do not trigger full stay-at-home lockdowns across society. In some countries it is commonplace to close schools in the flu season, though for weeks rather than for months. In the current pandemic, many countries closed schools without locking down (South Korea, Japan
) or with only soft lockdowns (Finland, Norway, Netherlands
).

Others closed schools some time before locking down. (Example: Poland. School closure 10 March, lockdown 31 March).

When Johnson's plan to open schools more widely from 1 June was largely nixed, that didn't at all stop him reopening pubs, bars, cafés, and restaurants from 4 July.

By now it is widely accepted (even by Stuart in some parts of his writing, though other parts suggest different) that schools should be among the last areas to shut down, rather than the first. That was not something given in advance. It is a result of democratic and scientific argument winning its way against a common instinctive reaction of bourgeois governments to shut schools first, without necessarily expecting that further shutdowns will follow.

Stuart's proposal, if I get it right, is that school workers should "refuse to return in September", or ever until a set of social measures which he says cannot be won "without something approximating a general strike".

He escapes the implication that this would mean schools closed (and school workers sitting at home unpaid, because on strike) for many months or even years by asserting that school workers refusing to return will lead to many other workers also refusing work, to a general or near-general strike which will win a full lockdown, and so to the defeat of the virus. I can't see it. Leave aside the question of whether "full lockdown" and "defeat of the virus" are synonymous (I think not). No school workers' strike, or school closure, in history, has ever shown any sign of generating a general strike. And, as I'll explain, "general strike for a lockdown" makes even less sense than the popular late-19th/ early-20th century radical slogan (opposed by Marxists at the time), "general strike to stop war".

A general strike (with pickets, delegations touring workplaces urging them to join the strike, maybe even workplace occupations) is something very different from a stay-at-home rule. Stuart's proposal would mean that we go on general strike demanding the government ban the sort of picket-line, workplace-delegation, and workplace-occupation activities we employ to run the strike (and other activities too), then hope the government will deliver the proposed ban, and then all go home.

In the 1970s we used to criticise the "General Strike to kick out the Tories" slogan as a "Grand Old Duke of York" move - march the working class up to the top of the general strike hill, then march it down again to a general election. This is more like "march up to the top of the hill, then go back down the hill, go home, and leave the hill to the opposing army".

Elsewhere Stuart talks of this general strike-cum-lockdown (to be triggered by a school workers' strike) as something which is a last resort in the event of a resurgent infection rate, rather than something to be done, come what may, next Tuesday, 1 September. He also talks of advocating a ballot of school workers for the strike, which obviously can't be done before Tuesday.

I don't know how to square that circle. The alternative is not the view Stuart attributes to me that we can't doubt the government's competence in timing a new full-on lockdown (should it be indicated).

I think we can see why by looking at Stuart's mistaken picture of what happened in March.

He suggests that the Tories were pushed into lockdown by a wave of workers' action then. It's just not true.

There was some noise among medical experts, urging a faster lockdown on the model of Italy's 10 March measures, in the week or so running up to the Tories' announcement of lockdown plans on 16 March. Even among medical experts, some who have since been critical of the government were still appearing on TV to tell us that our Easter holidays were safe (Devi Sridhar) or that we must beware locking down too early (John Edmunds).

There was no noise on the left. The left turned out for International Women's Day activities on 8 March, rather than agitating for them to be called off or picketing them to deter attendance. The left was still mobilising for a big anti-racist march on 21 March. Socialist Worker, voice of the SWP, which was among the main organisers of that march, declared on its front page (10 March): "The government must not be allowed to halt protests or demonstrations in the name of stopping the spread of the virus", and called the march off only after the Tories went for lockdown. We ourselves were preparing for a contingent on 21 March demanding "Open Borders"; and (I was wrong on this) I voiced my thoughts that this demand should be qualified by recognition of the possible need for border quarantine measures only in low-key private conversations.

Since then scientists have criticised the government for allowing the Cheltenham Festival (10-13 March) and the Liverpool - Atletico Madrid match (11 March) go ahead. But none of us on the left campaigned for those to be called off. There was no move among the workers at the festival or at the football stadium to strike to stop those events.

Why? We were anxious about the news from Italy, but we were in no position to second-guess the official figures, which showed new infections as running at below 100 a day until 12 March. Everyone knew that there were some more infections than that, because we knew people who were self-isolating with symptoms which might come from the virus (though, on later scientific estimates, only about a tenth of cases with virus-like symptoms are actually Covid-19 rather than another bug). The scientists knew better than we did, but not well.

Not until Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College published their paper on 16 March (to the public at more or less the same time as to the government) did we see that the true figure was tens of thousands and exploding. (Other estimates in Ferguson's work were, so I think hindsight shows, mistaken, but the rapid rise in the death rate after 22 March, plus the fact that deaths from Covid generally come about four weeks after first infection, indicates that he was right about the infection rate being much higher than thought).

There was agitation among school workers in the week 9-13 March about closing schools, as was being done in some other European countries then. I don't think we were wrong to oppose school closures outside the context of a full lockdown.

When Ferguson and his team published their figures, we accepted that we couldn't second-guess them, and so accepted the Tories' move to a full-on lockdown. In the frame of a full-on lockdown (don't leave your home except for essential work or shopping or limited exercise), school closures made sense, and we didn't oppose them.

(In Norway and Australia, where the scientists opposed school closures but the governments imposed them, the lockdowns were always lighter. My older daughter in Brisbane was always able to have her 88-year-old grandmother come round to play cards
 And so it would have been possible to run those lockdowns without school closures. The Norwegian government has since said that it made a mistake in closing schools in March.)

With hindsight, things would probably have gone somewhat better if the government had moved to lockdown on 9 March, and much better if it had done it mid-February, and included strict quarantining of all arrivals to the country.

We didn't know that in February. We couldn't know it in February because we didn't have an alternative "workers'" virus-testing, medical-statistics, and epidemiological service, and in any case we knew little (much less than the bourgeois experts) about the virus and what control measures might work best.

In fact, when Hong Kong health workers struck on 2 February demanding the closure of their border with China, many of our comrades were dubious. Wasn't that just nationalism? Although the demand could later and advantageously have been mutated into one for quarantining rather than border closure, it wasn't. In fact the workers won a partial border closure.

Stuart contests the idea that lockdowns have to be imposed by "bourgeois cops". In Britain, the lockdown which the Tories moved towards from 16 March was very widely accepted - partly, probably substantially, because it was fairly "late" compared to some other countries in Europe. Compliance required little police action, even on aspects of the lockdown which no-one demanded beforehand (e.g. never meet with friends and relatives not in your household, never go on weekends away, etc.)

I doubt that would be true in the event of a repeat lockdown, short of a very large new virus surge. I'm pretty sure it would not be true in the case of Stuart's proposed lockdown, to start next Tuesday 1 September and run until
 well, the socialist revolution. Stuart could not carry out his program unless the cops helped him.

The bourgeois cops, not a workers' militia, have intervened to try to stop "raves" spreading infection in recent weeks. On the Tube now, as "Jay Dawkey" has reported in Solidarity, the workers, though relatively highly organised as these things go, deliberately do not intervene with passengers not wearing facemasks, leaving that to the British Transport Police (who also seem to find the problem too hot to handle). In France, with a bigger police force in proportion to population, over 900,000 fines for breaking lockdown were handed out in the first two months. In Spain there were over a million fines and 8,400 arrests in that period. And those were handed out by bourgeois cops, not workers' militias.

A "workers' lockdown", imposed by workers' militias, exactly timed by workers' decisions, is possible only if we have a workers' government capable of clearing the bourgeois cops off the streets. And, even if the left and the labour movement were a hundred times stronger than they are, there is no possible route to that workers' government through all workers (or all militant class-conscious workers) sitting "locked down" at home. We've long criticised the idea of the "parliamentary road to socialism". The "everyone-stay-at-home road to socialism" makes even less sense.

If we were in a position to make a socialist revolution in the week starting 1 September, then we would set aside the lockdown rules in order to do it. Once we'd taken power, we would draw on the resources of the scientific experts to draft a new virus-precaution policy. But we're not in that position. And, whatever other route to that socialist revolution there may be, "lock yourself into your home, and the socialist revolution will follow" isn't it.

As it is now, we know of the slight rise in infection rates in Britain only through the bourgeois statistics published by the bourgeois public health authorities, not through a parallel network of workers' virus-testing stations. Hospital admissions and deaths remain low, so in fact we wouldn't know at all if the bourgeois state didn't tell us about the rise.

The lockdowns in Leicester, Greater Manchester, etc. were decreed by the government, with the reluctant acquiescence of local elected representatives, rather than forced on the Tories by workers in those cities striking or such. The statistics that motivated the lockdowns were supplied by the bourgeois authorities, not discovered by workers' inquiries.

Stuart's argument that bourgeois governments won't impose lockdowns unless forced to by workers' action seems plausible, but isn't solid. Almost all bourgeois, indeed almost all right-wing, governments have imposed lockdowns, often very strict ones, and sometimes of course botched and disorganised ones.

In some countries there have been anti-lockdown street protests by the right. But in Sweden, for example, the most vocal pro-lockdowners have been the Sweden Democrats, the country's leading far-right party.

There has been the clowning by Trump, by Bolsonaro, and by Lukashenko, of course. In case of Trump and Bolsonaro, state authorities in their federal systems have imposed lockdowns, leaving the demagogues in the position of having lockdowns but being able to court popularity by criticising them. In the case of Lukashenko, so far Belarus has escaped fairly lightly, I don't know why. In the USA and Brazil, in response to Trump and Bolsonaro, we have not seen strikes by bar and shop workers demanding shutdown, or strikes by unionised workers (themselves mostly still in work, in essential services, or working from home) to demand those other workplaces be shut down. We've seen more general political pressure which, chiming with state and city leaders' wish not to have their state or city be worse virus-afflicted than the next one, has generated local lockdowns.

That is the fact. I don't think it means that our general attitude of distrusting bourgeois governments is wrong, and I'll explain why, but it is definitely the fact.

How can the undeniable fact be squared with our general attitude of distrusting bourgeois governments? Bourgeois governments, even the most right-wing, are not concerned only with next week's production figures for individual capitalists. They are concerned about profit-making possibilities for the longer term and for the capitalist class as a whole.

Conditions where the hospitals are overflowing and turn away patients, as in Italy; or where the army goes into care homes to find the workers have fled, leaving inmates dead or dying, as in Spain; or where filled coffins are dumped on the streets for lack of anywhere else, as in Ecuador, are human disasters, but they are also "bad for business".

No bourgeois government has the possibility of just ploughing through the pandemic week after week, oblivious to corpses on the streets, even if it wants to. Profit-making would collapse in that option, and not just for a few weeks.

Whatever about the current Tory administration, it is not likely that they will plough on in that way. Their lockdowns in Leicester and Manchester certainly suggest otherwise. Of course if things get to the point of the ICUs overflowing, and the government is still passive, then we will agitate for lockdown. But the bourgeois experts, better informed than us, will have been agitating long before us. And they will need to have been doing so, because if the lockdown is left until the overflowing-ICU stage, then it will be far too late. The Tories may be too late, but we probably won't be able to tell they're too late until after the fact. (As in March).

The best option for bourgeois governments is a timely and as-short-as-possible lockdown which reduces infections to manageable levels and allows profit-making to resume soon.

Most capitalists prefer a lockdown - in which they get some form of government aid, furlough money, business-rates exemption, negotiated rent holidays, and such, and their competitors are prevented from grabbing their markets - to having to try to continue the costs of full operation with large workforce absences and great difficulties getting supplies and making sales. Moreover, though top managers can work from home, and rarely visit the shop floor anyway, few factories or pubs or such can operate without managers being on the spot to discipline workers, and those managers would rather be safe at home than stuck in virus-ridden workplaces.

US states and cities imposed lockdowns in the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-9, even though they had little idea what would work and (because there was no internet and "work-from-home") they had fewer options than in 2020. That wasn't because they were secretly "workers' governments". It's because their guesses were guided by the "obvious" bourgeois policy: to repeat, timely and as-short-as-possible lockdown which reduces infections to manageable levels and allows profit-making to resume soon.

Of course we distrust the government's judgement. But as we are now and at any time short of the brink of taking power (at which stage, anyway, we would for a while just ignore virus-precautions and do what was necessary to make the revolution), we lack the means to make finely-timed judgements of infection trends and lockdown details better than the bourgeois experts.

We also lack the authority to get compliance if we tell people (as the Tories actually did, in their own way, on 16 March): "Look, the death rates are still low, but detailed statistical analysis shows that they will explode within weeks, so we must lock down now". If we'd agitated to deter people from going to the Liverpool - Atletico Madrid match, we wouldn't have got it called off. If it were the case that people were more inclined to comply with Stuart, or even the NEU leadership pushed into shape by Stuart's agitation, telling them they mustn't meet their friends or go away at weekends, than with the bourgeois experts telling them that, then a lot of other conditions would be different too. And then, as argued above, we would already be on the brink of revolution, and we wouldn't in fact be telling people to stay home, rather telling them (whatever the virus risks) to come out and seize all the central public buildings.

To focus our attention on preparing ourselves to be the experts on exact timing and location for new lockdowns is to mis-focus. The bourgeois experts may mis-time then, but we are in no position to correct them.

However, when bourgeois governments do lockdowns, they tend, for all the obvious reasons, to try to skimp on the associated social measures: isolation pay, PPE supplies, requisitioning of private hospitals and industry, regular contracts rather than casual employment for care workers, furlough, precautions in workplaces staying open, rehousing for people with overcrowded homes who need to quarantine, housing the homeless, emptying the detention centres and most prison cells, etc. There the road for our agitation is clear. And there, despite Stuart's despairing assertion that only something near a general strike can win much, labour movements have scored victories and can score more.

I detest the government's repeated use of the term "following the scientific evidence", when they do it without citing the evidence they are relying on, and when in fact on many issues scientific opinion is divided or uncertain. (One of the few exceptions is that scientific opinion would be fairly united and certain in opposing Stuart's call to stop schools opening on 1 September in the hope of precipitating an immediate indefinite lockdown. But on other issues there is much debate and much open admission of uncertainty).

I'm in favour of more debate on virus-precaution policies (as there is, for example, in Sweden, whether you think that country's actual policy has been good or bad). I am in favour of the SAGE papers being published quicker. I don't think that has huge importance, though. Actually, SAGE members and other scientists have spoken out independently of the government since early on, and every research paper on the pandemic gets published online immediately. There's a fair bit of debate even in Britain. The problem is not being denied access to the research, but trying to decide which papers to read (no-one can read more than a tiny fraction, even working full-time on it) and making judgements on the balance of the evidence. The SAGE stuff is mainly a record of the synthesising opinions of the scientists on the committee, rather than the substantive research they draw on. SAGE people like Farrar and Edmunds and Semple speak out publicly anyway.

Two other points:

Stuart's choice of construction as a first choice to shut down is an odd one. Although there's little objection to shutting down sites for a few weeks, the construction of new housing (or even cycle lanes, new public-transport routes, broadband-cabling, road repairs) is not something we want postponed for many months or years. No investigation of virus-transmission, as far as I know, has found construction sites (outdoors, generally uncrowded) to figure, whereas some food-processing factories, some warehouses, crowded clothing factories, pubs, bars, nightclubs, etc. do. The bourgeois experts tend to advocate closing pubs, bars, cafés, nightclubs, and restricting social meet-ups between different households, as the first measures, and I'm not qualified to dispute that judgement.

And Krupskaya.

Stuart takes the moral of her story to be that Krupskaya was the Dominic Cummings of 1916, blatantly flouting social solidarity.

It seems odd, then, that Krupskaya should choose to recount the episode (and Lenin's approving comment: was Lenin the Boris Johnson of 1916, then?) in her memoirs, rather than hiding it in shame. And that, recounting it in her memoirs, she recounts not in the spirit of "we all do bad things, and here's an example of when Lenin and I did that", but as a comment on Mrs Kammerer's "intelligent proletarian approach".

The way I read, Krupskaya bought meat on a "meatless day" because she was unfamiliar with the country (and probably not-too-fluent with the language), expected to see some prohibition notice, and didn't see one. (Something like my younger daughter Molly visiting London from The Hague, and cycling in London in the middle of the road, confident that cars will defer to her as they do in The Hague. Though I made it a rule when she and her sister were small never to tell them to "be careful", she's usually very careful on the streets).

Kammerer explained that the majority of the local settled population would comply without such notices. In sharp contrast to attitudes to migrants current today, she reassured the flustered Krupskaya that she, Kammerer, would not censure a confused foreigner who had inadvertently broken the rules.

No, I think my reading is right. If the Swiss labour movement had been able to take power, then it would probably have gained the information and administrative means it needed to manage the meat shortage a different way. But the Swiss labour movement was not in that position, and the meat shortage wasn't going to trigger revolution however the labour movement dealt with it. So socialists like Kammerer accepted the government measures while remaining critical of the government and of the attendant social inequalities which allowed bourgeois to flout the meatless day rules.

Submitted by martin on Sat, 19/09/2020 - 15:46

Martin has fixed on the 1 September as a date that I am demanding a lockdown. That is not what I am arguing. Perhaps I am being unclear. I’ll try again.

The battle that the NEU fought in May-June 2020 over schools reopening is not over. The pandemic continues. Most people expect a second wave. Most people expect government bungling in handling that wave. A further lockdown, including school closures similar to March-June 2020, may well be necessary. We know the government is very reluctant to implement a lockdown and may delay, thus causing unnecessary deaths. Put together it looks likely that schoolworkers might once again be on course for conflict with government over when to close down schools, with workers wanting to move faster than government.

I am in favour of the NEU backing up this verbal opposition to government with collective action. This was made impossible last time in large part because the antiunion laws impose a balloting period of around six weeks meaning that trade unions are unable to respond to rapidly changing events (like soaring infection rates) with industrial action. (The NEU leaderships reluctance to call any national action in May and their dismissal of a strategy based on health and safety legislation were other factors that prevented industrial action. But the experience in the PCS DWP section where the leadership were much more supportive and vocal about “section 44” suggests the health and safety route will not deliver). It seems reasonable to me that schoolworkers may want to ballot now over health and safety and thus give themselves a six month window within which they could exercise their right to refuse work and shut schools against government orders if we again find ourselves at a point when infection rates are soaring and ITUs are close to being overwhelmed.

A London teacher has recently argued in Solidarity that there should be national strikes in schools to demand improved safety measures now. Such a ballot (which activists clearly think is winnable) would also give the schoolworkers power to respond to a rapidly changing situation as and when infection rates rise.

A live strike mandate would also give schoolworkers considerable power to make more general demands on government raising the serious possibility of winning some substantial social measures such as isolation pay for all etc. A live strike mandate would give school workers a lever of control over lockdown measures and pandemic response. It is in this context that I wrote that schoolworkers could refuse work in order to pursue these broader demands. If they had balloted in May or June and won then the NEU would have possessed this lever of power over the summer holidays and could have threatened to use it to disrupt school returning in September unless demands for broader social measures were met. But these are just highlighting some of the possibilities that would open up if schoolworkers took the small step of backing up their opposition to late school closures/early reopenings with legal industrial action.

Martin says that school closures will not trigger broader lockdowns. Of course a strict lockdown can only be imposed by an authoritarian state through police action. Obviously a bourgeois government could order schools closed whilst leaving pubs and restaurants and other sectors open. But the strategy I am advocating is that schoolworkers give themselves the option of closing schools in defiance of the government during a point of national crisis. In reality this will only be possible with the support of parents and the general public and with general clamour including from epidemiologists and other specialists. The NEU has enjoyed such support in recent months and it is possible that such a moment will come again. If hundreds of thousands of schoolworkers close schools against government orders in the midst of a sharp Covid spike then it may inspire similar action from other workers. It is vanishingly unlikely that this will result in a full lockdown. But even in normal times, school closures (eg from strikes) are disruptive to the broader economy as workers have to take time off for childcare. This effect is enhanced during the pandemic as families are less able to rely on extended family and friends for childcare. If it got to the point where schoolworkers were walking off the job due to escalating infection rates, then the effect it further enhanced. It may lead to similar acts of defiance as other workers take action to close their workplaces. Such a movement would pose a real challenge for government and would pose the question of workers control.

Martin says in his contribution: “Of course if things get to the point of the ICUs overflowing, and the government is still passive, then we will agitate for lockdown.” But without a union with a live strike mandate, we will be agitating for illegal strikes, absenteeism and scrappy s44 walkouts. We will be back in the same position the NEU found itself in May 2020: lobbying employers to shut down workplaces (something a London based NEU activist recently described as the saddest time in his life as a trade unionist).

I believe the NEU should continue to battle on the terrain fought the government in May 2020, prepare for the second wave and future government bungling, and ensure that next time it can back up its verbal opposition to government plans with direct action. If it takes these simple steps, then all sorts of possibilities open up for workers control.

Submitted by martin on Sat, 19/09/2020 - 16:58

Stuart's second text advocated that school workers "refuse to return in September until [various measures were] organised", which obviously weren't going to be organised over the holiday weekend between him writing and start of school. I can only read that as demanding an immediate walkout.

His argument for that walkout was that the walkout would be "a signal for other groups of workers to refuse to attend work... a very rapid escalation that would pose the question of power", i.e. it would in short order trigger a general strike and a socialist revolution.

I read his new response as stepping back from those arguments, and that's good. Maybe he didn't mean to say that in the first place. But traces remain.

On the whole I'm favourable to the idea of the NEU now calling a ballot giving it a mandate to strike in case demands on school virus-precautions are not met. When Workers' Liberty teachers discussed the idea recently, most of those with more experience in the union thought it was not a workable proposition. We'll see.

However, the answer to our current problems cannot be wishing that the NEU had organised a ballot in May. I stand by my arguments above on that. In any case it didn't happen.

The traces remaining of the old argument orbit around the idea that lockdowns are the best, or at least best available, responses to the virus, and therefore "workers' action to impose lockdowns", rather than social measures, should be our focus.

The current resurgence in Europe in fact shows the inadequacy of lockdowns. Spain and France had strict and long lockdowns, heavily enforced by larger police forces than we have in Britain (over a million people fined in Spain).

Order a lockdown, and when the lockdown ends, as it must, unless you have put through social measures, the same problems will recur once you ease beyond the lockdown elements which were ineffectual anyway.

The area round Buenos Aires in Argentina has had a lockdown, nominally strict though very difficult to enforce because of the size of the "informal economy" there, from March right through to today. Virus infections and deaths have continued to rise.

Countries like Japan which haven't had a general lockdown are doing better.

Social measures like

‱ isolation pay

‱ public-health organisation and staffing of test-and-tracing and elderly care

‱ publicly-provided alternative accommodation for self-quarantining people who would otherwise be in crowded housing

‱ furlough pay to facilitate work-from-home

‱ bringing private hospitals, and PPE logistics, under public ownership and control, and increasing NHS pay and staffing

would help a lot with virus-control. They would need to be supplemented by measures of covid-distancing, but on the evidence measures such as closure of pubs, cafés, churches, and nightclubs, and maybe putting universities all-online, would do that.

Full lockdown measures like closing schools and banning people from meeting friends are probably little help.

We should push for the social measures first. Substantial parts of them have been won in many countries.

Lockdowns, everywhere in the world, have been triggered not by workers' action or even by general popular pressure, but by bourgeois governments seeing virus-escalation as likely to get to the point where hospitals may be overwhelmed, and seeing no other quick fix to buy time.

In circumstances like March in Europe, we shouldn't oppose full lockdowns, even though better measures by governments earlier might have avoided them. But they are not our "first-do-this" recipe.

Even stripping off the speculation about a quick escalation to socialist revolution, it is not true that school closures will paralyse factories and offices. Particularly not in a period of mass unemployment where employers can easily find alternative staff. When the Tories reopened pubs and cafés from 4 July, no capitalist in the sector replied: no, we can't do that unless you also reopen the schools.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.