In the emergency, Britain’s right-wing Conservative government is going for a limited, crude and undemocratic form of “socialism”.
It is overriding market signals and criteria, and being forced to fall back on a bureaucratic and hierarchical approximation of the socialist ideal of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.
In sector after sector, from the (patchy) steps to guarantee incomes for those unable to work, to banning evictions, to acquiring private hospital facilities, to taking over rail franchises to removing competition-law curbs on cooperation between supermarket chains, the Tories’ measures point in the direction of a form of capitalist “socialism”.
It’s a stepped-up version of 2007-8, when the British government, and many others, intervened dramatically in and against the market, effectively nationalising the bulk of the banking system.
At the same time we have the government claiming wide police powers, and bosses using the crisis to push through, for example, a poor wage deal on the Tube which would otherwise face resistance.
But, in plain view, we see that the capitalist market way of running society “works”, even in its own terms, only in its good times and only for some. In the crunch, to operate the vast “socialised” networks of the modern economy, the government has no choice but to fall back on public planning and even (reluctantly) on a degree of workers’ cooperation and control.
Historically, many steps forward for the working class have come in the wake of major crises. In the aftermath of crises, many people don’t want to go back to the crap they put up with before. They think they deserve better after so much hard work and sacrifice. They have drawn conclusions from seeing the state mobilise resources regardless of market logic. They no longer accept that can’t be done.
Thus we got votes for women and working-class men, alongside many trade union gains, at the end of World War 1. We got the NHS, the welfare state and other reforms after World War 2.
But without a strong enough fight by workers, inspired by socialist ideas, the state helps the ruling class revert to its old ways.
After World War 1, the government returned the mines and railways to the private owners. The bosses were more on the back foot after the 1940s, but even then they came back to reverse the gains, under Thatcher.
Starting now, we need an aggressive campaign to insist that the changes made in this crisis – on public control of services, on sick pay and sick policies, on benefit sanctions, rents, evictions and many other issues – are not reversed but maintained and developed further.
In many workplaces, unions and workers who went on the front foot have won important gains from bosses caught off balance, for example on full pay for zero-hours and agency workers when they observe public health advice.
Unfortunately, most of the leaders and the higher structures of the labour movement have instead gone quiet.
If instead of working-class self-assertion, labour-movement inaction dominates, then a sense of “all in it together” social peace, plus the government’s attacks on democratic rights, will help the ruling class cut corners to their own shape during the epidemic, and push back hard for a return to “normal” market rules after it.
Let’s raise the slogan now, “No going back”! That will lay the basis to advance away from the capitalism that brought us this crisis and towards real socialism.
Today’s circumstances make campaigning difficult; but they also make the possibility of victories and the stakes at play higher.
Everyone who considers themselves a socialist or a fighter for the rights of the working class needs to organise and educate for this fight, even if for now it’s only the organising and educating you can do over the phone and online.
The climate and environmental crisis makes this even more necessary and urgent. Accelerating destruction and degrading of natural habitats and biodiversity may well be a factor in the rise and spread of Covid-19, and future epidemics.
The weeks of the crisis have seen a rapid reduction in carbon emissions and pollution, showing there is nothing inevitable in humankind progressively destroying the natural environment. A rationally, democratic planned economy could reduce carbon emissions while providing a decent life for everyone – as long as we eliminate the overblown wealth and power of the few. That is what we must fight for.