Politics and the pandemic: COVID-19 could cause an outbreak of socialism

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Does dealing with the pandemic mean it’s too soon to talk about the future? The ever-optimistic Dr Martin Hirst doesn’t think so.

WHENEVER WE BRING UP politics during a crisis, conservative commentators always jump to the “it’s too soon to be discussing topic X” response. It doesn’t matter what “topic X” is or what the crisis happens to be, the prescription from the conservatives is always the same — “we have to deal with the ‘human suffering’ caused by crisis before we can talk about the shape of the future”.

It’s a convenient excuse to deny that there’s always a political dimension to every crisis that plays out in the very uneven ways it impacts on people. Usually, the differential in the severity of the impact is perfectly correlated with differentials in wealth distribution.

The “haves” have a way of mitigating the effects of the crisis, while the “have nots” – by definition – do not have any such means at their disposal.

For example, it is becoming clear that there is a virtual black market in testing for the COVID-19 bug. Money buys private medical services while, for most of us, testing is denied to the point that we actually have no really clear idea how far the virus might have spread in the population.

We have to be able to talk about these issues: about the lack of equality in testing regimes, about the cost of health care and insurance, about the ways in which governments are dealing with the rising mass unemployment and the potential consequences.

Better too soon than too late

If we follow the advice of the “too soon” brigade – who incidentally don’t really want to deal with the “human suffering” either – we would never be able to discuss the questions thrown up by the crisis. We could never challenge the narrative settled on and promoted by a compliant news media and we wouldn’t be able to discuss the huge systemic issues that the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered.

Quite frankly, I’ve been surprised by the rapid expansion of public debate about both the immediate and longer-term implications of the pandemic.

I’m surprised how quickly people have realised that capitalism cannot cope and does not want to provide universal health care.

I’m surprised how quickly people have begun to question the inadequacy of government responses that take away peoples’ livelihood but don’t offer them an adequate safety net.

I’m surprised how quickly people have become angry when they realise that wealth equals health and not having any money means not being able to access good health care.

But mostly, I’m surprised how quickly many people have jumped to the conclusion that capitalism is as much of a viral problem as COVID-19 itself.

This is a shock to me because it flies in the face of the narrative of common sense as expressed in the tabloid newspapers that (unfortunately) set the tone for most public debate — the moral panic about going to the beach, for example.

It is hard for any counter-narrative to break through when all the dominant media voices are in lockstep. That is how the DNA of the News Establishment operates. There is one song sheet and they all sing from it.

So, I’m taking quite a lot of comfort from some of the alternative viewpoints I’m seeing emerge.

Take this piece in Teen Vogue: The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the failures of capitalism. Yes, it does.

What’s really good about Kandist Mallett’s piece is that she is able to link the big picture – the failures of capitalism – to the everyday reality of her life and the lives of people like her:

So our current way of living must end. But we must start with the practical. My rent is due in less than two weeks. How does this current crisis offer a chance to reflect on the longer-term crisis of affordable housing and what can we do now to build a movement to force change?

This is great; it is how we on the Left must relate to people in the here and now. The stark reality of conditions forces all of us to confront questions that a month ago we might not have considered relevant. A question like “how do I pay the rent?” has become existential and the failures of capitalism directly impact many lives in ways that mean they can no longer be ignored.

The bigger picture

What about the global picture? We can easily sympathise with people who closely resemble us, but it’s not so easy to think about the global impacts beyond the world of white people. Non-European countries are also a big blind spot in our media and we need to be aware of that because capitalism is a global system and the pandemic has spread to every part of the globe. The crisis forces us to look and think beyond our own borders. I may never have discovered Professor Ravi Arvind Palat’s blog, After U.S. Hegemony, were it not for the pandemic.

Professor Palat said:

How do people in slums or informal settlements practice what is misleadingly called social (rather than physical) distancing?


Nor do people in slums and favelas have easy access to clean water to practice the hygiene recommended to prevent contagion.

He makes a good point, summarised in the title of this post: Coronavirus and the world economy: The old is dead, the new can’t be born.

This is a reference to an oft-quoted passage from the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci:

‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms appear.’

Gramsci was talking about the social and political crisis that gripped most of Europe in the period between the two world wars of the 20th century and we should not forget that German and Italian fascism was the result. The social forces with the power to grasp the situation and manipulate it to their advantage were not the poor, downtrodden and oppressed.

This is an important point to remember while reading the hopeful accounts of a new world emerging from the ashes of the old when the coronavirus pandemic is over.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves

Therefore, I’m not getting ahead of myself. We are not – currently – on the brink of a global revolution against capitalism, for reasons which are implicit in Gramsci’s observation that ‘the new cannot be born’.

The political conditions are not yet ready for the birth of socialism. The key missing ingredient is that the general working-class population – roughly 99 per cent of us – does not have an explicit consciousness of its own potential political and economic power. Put simply, the global proletariat is not ready to take power.

Here I am also expressing another well-known motto that comes from Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.

This line may never have actually been uttered by Gramsci, but the thinking behind it is laid out in a 1924 article he wrote for the Italian Communist Party newspaper, L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order) with the headline, Against Pessimism:

‘We should take a look at the little that we have done and the enormous amount of work we still have left to do; this should help to dissipate the thick, dark cloud of pessimism which is oppressing the most able and responsible militants, and is in itself is a great danger.’

I’ve always taken Gramsci’s aphorism to suggest that political activists of the Left have to understand the scale of the problems confronting us but remain hopeful.

That’s why it’s never too soon to talk politics and I’m optimistic that the conversation about capitalism’s failures has begun. Socialism is now part of any serious discussion about how we come out of this crisis. It’s a genie that won’t go easily back into its bottle.

As Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, wrote in the preface to the 1888 German edition of The Communist Manifesto:

‘…a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class… cannot attain its emancipation… without, at the same time… emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.’

Dr Martin Hirst is a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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