When people emerge from their homes after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic (those, that is, who have homes and the option to stay in them) they will be confronted by a greatly changed global order. A devastating public health crisis will continue to play out and a global economic slump that the pandemic has hastened and massively exacerbated will cast its shadow over the next several years. It will converge with another shadow, thrown by the intensifying climate and broader ecological crisis that is already exerting its impact on populations throughout the world.
Imagining the radically altered economic and political situation that will unfold in the next several years, the last thing I want to do is to fall into any glib sense of confidence. It would, however, be equally inadvisable to fail to consider the enormous crisis of capitalism that has opened up and to weigh the possibilities that this harbours.
On the negative side, we will certainly see staggering levels of unemployment and governments resorting to authoritarian measures to impose austerity as the bill for weathering this storm comes due. It is also true, of course, that left political parties and social movements that might offer a lead are not currently in peak fighting form. However, the shock waves now rocking societies across the globe and the even greater shocks that are imminent will create a situation unprecedented in its volatility, and the prospects for a rapid growth of mass movements fighting for radical alternatives have to be carefully considered.
Who pays for the crisis?
Even in this initial lockdown phase, the failure of governments to prepare for the immediate threat to the health of populations is being compounded by a lack of adequate measures to ensure that basic needs are met. The virus, after all, is disrupting societies that have been reordered according to the dictates of neoliberalism. In Italy, half-hearted measures are being enacted to respond to a rapidly developing crisis of hunger and poverty that is generating social unrest. In the United States, it is reported that a staggering 60 percent of workers will not be able to meet their basic financial needs after just one month of lockdown. The income support measures taken by the Trudeau Liberals here in Canada will provide no support for fully one-third of those who have been rendered unemployed.
At every turn, workers and communities are acting to challenge the failure to meet their needs and provide for their safety. Italian workers have confronted the greed of employers who would keep them working needlessly with nation-wide strikes. Warehouse, delivery and gig workers in many places, including the US, have taken strike action to demand safe working conditions. In many jurisdictions, rent simply can’t be paid. In British Columbia, landlords report that up to 50 percent of tenants are withholding rent. In many parts of Canada, this non payment has taken the form of rapidly organized rent strikes.
Once the immediate threat of the virus recedes, the scene that comes into focus will be one of great economic dislocation: an unpaid bill for a veritable frenzy of public bailouts for corporations, with working class populations facing a sudden and dramatic decline in their living standards and the loss of such economic security as they had previously enjoyed. The downturn is likely to be sustained. It will not be easy to dig out of, especially as its root causes are by no means exclusively attributable to the pandemic. It is vital, moreover, to consider the post-pandemic political landscape not just from the perspective of historically privileged countries.
The impact of the virus in a place like Canada, where the neoliberal decades have degraded public healthcare, will be horrible, but what can be said of countries altogether lacking in basic healthcare provision? The economic fall out will be grim in the Global North but the conditions of abandonment that will beset poor countries is going to be beyond comprehension. In Bangladesh, brand name companies that have grown rich on the sweat and blood of super exploited workers are cancelling their orders and leaving them to starve. The struggles we take up after the pandemic must be deeply infused with the spirit and practice of global solidarity.
What will follow the lockdown period is one of those historical moments when life changes profoundly for millions of people in ways that call everything into question. It is often considered axiomatic on the left that periods of large scale unemployment and economic downturn do not favour an upsurge in working class struggle. However, this will not be any typical downturn. That there will be an offensive by employers and the state is a given. Those who do return to work will face demands for effective wage cuts. Provision for those who remain unemployed will be kept as inadequate as possible. Partial and reluctant measures to enable people to retain their housing, when they could not pay rent or mortgages, will be replaced with a ruthless drive to ensure landlords and banks get paid in full. The attack on public services will be taken to new levels of ferocity.
The other side of the picture, however, will be a popular explosion of a deep and desperate anger at what has happened to working class people and what looms on their horizon. In the full bloom of neoliberal triumphalism, Margaret Thatcher infamously opined that “there is no alternative.” The coming period will make such medicine intolerably bitter to swallow. People are going to ask why this pandemic took the physical, economic and social toll it did, and why measures that could have contained it were not taken. They are going to ask why public healthcare systems were already so starved of resources when the virus struck. They are going to want to know why there were limitless bailouts for corporate parasites, when their own needs were so utterly disregarded. The very severity of the crisis, and the attack it brings with it, will make shocked passivity a very limited option.
The situation is moving very fast and we are all in a political context for which we have no effective point of comparison. This is a time in which mass movements of social resistance, organized around combative demands and radical, socially transformative goals are possible. The strike weapon will be central, of course, but other forms of struggle are also welcome and necessary. In Canada, we have before us the recent example of the economically disruptive actions that were employed in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en land defenders. The pandemic lockdown is generating other models of effective resistance, such as the rent strike. We must not simply prepare for the possibility of such an upsurge but must work to maximize social resistance after the pandemic.
For my entire adult life I have considered myself a socialist, but I also had to accept that the struggles I engaged in envisioned large-scale social transformation as a more distant aim. I never imagined things would change as rapidly as they have in recent weeks.
Last year, there were manifestations of popular resistance in the streets of many countries the world over in what could be seen as a global uprising against the neoliberal order. The deep sense of grievance that was expressed in those struggles was only a prelude to what is now developing internationally. We have been propelled into an historic moment when anti-capitalist thinking can enter the political mainstream in ways that none of us have ever experienced.
This is also a terrible time in many ways, but it is one in which a radical notion of a very different kind of society can shape the practice of powerful mass social movements. Capitalism’s greatest crisis may not be COVID-19, or a global slump, or even climate change. It may be the deep and very ugly crisis of its own legitimacy.