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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.

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