One of the ways of looking at this crisis and what must be done to deal with the effects is to look at how governments around the world confronted their enemies in wartime.
This first thing to notice is that they did not rely on the so-called efficiency of the market to deliver results. Early attempts were made to use inducements rather than orders but this approach was soon abandoned.
The governments simply assumed control of production and ensured every aspect of society was subordinated to the one goal of defeating the enemy.
The enemy now is a virus and an economic collapse that have become intertwined.
Defeating the virus is a pre-condition for economic recovery but the state has to take the lead in both processes and nothing can be left to the market and the pursuit of profit which is the only logic of the economic system we live under and know as capitalism.
The world knew a pandemic was inevitable yet health systems in most countries, including New Zealand, had been allowed to decline to a level when even a winter flu which they knew would come every winter would overwhelm them.
This is explained well by Noam Chomsky in a recent article headed Chomsky On Coronavirus: Why Neoliberalism And Big Pharma Can’t Respond.
New Zealand’s per capita level of ventilators and ICU beds were amongst the lowest in the world.
Gordon Campbell deals with this is an excellent article headed: On Our (Fatal?) Shortage Of Ventilators
The March 18 New Zealand Herald reported that:
The number of ICU beds per population in New Zealand has fallen steadily over the last 20 years, with the country now well behind comparable countries, including Australia.
The Ministry of Health has acknowledged the current capacity might not meet demand for a widespread Covid-19 outbreak and on Tuesday announced a $32 million boost, though experts question if it will be enough to bridge the gap.
The article noted that the situation had got worse in recent years in New Zealand despite the alarm bells going off around SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2015 which were also coronaviruses. “Between 2011 and 2018, the rate per 100,000 people declined from 5.98 to 5.14, whereas in Australia it increased from 8.50 to 8.92.”
In Europe the average is about 11.5, with Germany having close to 30.
The low level of facilities was identified in an official Ministry oh Health report in 2005 headed: INTENSIVE CARE SERVICES IN NEW ZEALAND: A Report to the Deputy Director-General, Clinical Services, from the Intensive Care Clinical Advisory Group
Workers need personal protection equipment. Patients will need ventilators and beds. Companies with the ability to make and deliver them should be ordered to do so immediately.
For 150 years, capitalism has always been a system that breeds inequality, racism, war, oppression and exploitation. That’s enough for me to want to end this system. Recent decades have revealed the fact that this system is also incapable of coexisting with the needs of the planet itself as a consequence of global warming and climate change.
The coronavirus has added a new level of urgency. The health care systems of even the richest capitalist countries were ill-equipped to deal with the problem. This was compounded by the fact that capitalism is based on the production of commodities that must be sold for a profit meant that the owners of capital were extremely reluctant to take the public health measures that are needed, in particular shutting their businesses. Work in major export manufacturing in most countries was allowed to continue.
Irish socialist John Molyneaux identifies another reason that capitalism is ultimately the source of the viral epidemics also in an article headed “System Change: Now More Than Ever”:
The coronavirus is not an ‘act of God’ or a natural disaster, nor is it a one off. Rather, it is a consequence of a much deeper crisis in the relationship between human society and nature that has been brought about by capitalism. It is part – the most immediately deadly part – but in the end still a part of the wider rift with nature that also brings us: the clogging of the seas with plastic; the progressive acidification of the oceans; the developing scourge of air pollution in so many cities; and, above all, the threat of catastrophic climate change.
Specifically, the coronavirus is the latest and worst in a series of viral crises including HIV, H5N1 (‘Avian flu’) in the late 90s, H1N1 (‘Swine flu’) in 2009-10 which claimed up to 500,000 lives, MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012 which did not spread widely but had a very high death rate, and Ebola in 2013-16.
As epidemiologist, Rob Wallace, has shown in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu, this epidemic of epidemics is a combination of two things that are driven by capitalism – encroachment into the wild and industrial farming methods:
- These viruses originate among wild animals. There is an unknowable number of them because they mutate. In the past we would have been less likely to come into contact with many of them, but as deforestation and further encroachment into the wild happens, we are more likely to come into contact with animals that carry these viruses.
- Industrial farming of animals is happening now on a colossal scale, and it’s increasing. The manner in which these animals are farmed lends itself to disease spreading very quickly. The animals are kept in very close proximity. They also have very little genetic variation, so the immune systems of the animals will have roughly the same response. If one animal catches a virus it is likely to spread like wildfire to all the others. Also, the response to disease is often to slaughter the animals – this means that all of them are slaughtered, and any that might have developed a resistance to disease go with them. Once the virus makes its way to farm animals, it’s a much shorter hop to humans than it would have been from the wild.
The truth is that unless we change our method of farming, and that cannot be done on the scale required without changing our economic system, we are looking at the truly terrifying prospect of recurring and ever-more-deadly viral pandemics.
But we need system change to do that.
A new system must be based on producing goods for need, not profit. We cannot go back to the old ways of farming and producing goods that involve exploiting the planet without limit.
Already companies are announcing closures or mass layoffs and pay cuts. These companies need to be brought back into the hands of the state and placed under workers’ control and management to repurpose them to the needs of tomorrow. We can’t just allow them to fail.
Air New Zealand is already state-owned and needs to become a much smaller airline for the planet’s sake but we should hold onto the skilled workforce and find new ways of doing things including in the air that is less destructive. If workers need to transition to other jobs then this should happen with a plan and the incomes of these workers protected. The workers should be given at least half the seats on the board to make that happen.
How this was done in the US in World war Two is explained by another Irish socialist very well and I would like to quote the article headed “It Can’t Be Done”:
Japanese airplanes bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941. By Xmas, the US economy had been put on a radically different footing.
“It is not enough to turn out just a few more planes, a few more tanks, a few more guns, a few more ships than can be turned out by our enemies,” President F.D. Roosevelt told the country in a radio broadcast on December 10th. “We must out-produce them overwhelmingly, so that there can be no question of our ability to provide a crushing superiority of equipment in any theatre of the world war.”
In 1939, the United States army ranked 39th in the world in terms of military power. The country had not been involved in major conflict since the end of World War One. Its dominant ideology anathematised foreign intervention.
Now, suddenly, the president was setting staggering targets and a giddy change of direction for military production. He dispatched a flurry of orders to owners of industry, trades union leaders, newspaper editors, party bosses, state legislators, etc. – your country needs you to stop what you are doing and join in a mighty effort to equip America to prevail in a global conflict.
The US went on to produce 60,000 aircraft in 1942, 125,000 in 1943, plus 120,000 tanks and 55,000 anti-aircraft guns in the same period – and trained a vast force to use them.
Industries were not asked or urged to meet these targets, but directly instructed. Managers and workers were effectively conscripted.
Roosevelt decreed that all car manufacture was to cease “right now.” In 1941, the US manufactured more than three million cars. Between Roosevelt’s speech and the end of the war in 1945, 139 rolled off the production lines. (Not a misprint: 139.)
General Motors was told to switch immediately to making airplane engines, guns, trucks and tanks. Chrysler was to specialise in fuselages. Ford began frantic re-tooling. The average Ford car, the Model T, had some 15,000 parts. The airplane Ford was now instructed to make – the B-24 long-range bomber – had 1,550,000. By mid-1942, six months after Roosevelt’s speech, B-24s were trundling off the line at a pace of one every 63 minutes.
It can be done.
Shipyards turned out vessels at such a rate that by the autumn of 1943 all Allied shipping sunk since 1939 – US, British, Australian etc. – had been replaced. In 1944, the United States built more planes than the Japanese managed to do during the entire course of the war.
By the end of the war, more than half of all industrial production in the world was taking place in the US and around 80 percent of this was war production.
America was transformed at a pace and to an extent which would have been dismissed just months previously as beyond the range of possibility. It was this, more than any other factor, which was to win the war – the production of what was needed for victory in the quantities and the time required.
It was this which set the US on the road to becoming the world’s super-power.
As many as 16 million men and women were recruited, trained and shipped off to war. Half as many again, 24 million, poured into the defence industries back home – many earning more than they would previously have dared ask for.
Eighteen million women entered the workforce. African Americans and Latinos were brought in for the first time. Union officials policed production.
At the beginning of the war, Gulf Shipbuilding employed 240 men. By 1943, the number had risen to 11,600. The Alabama Dry Dock company went from 1,000 workers to 30,000 in 14 months. In Connecticut, the medium-sized Mattatuck Manufacturing Company switched overnight from making upholstery nails for furniture to cartridge clips for Springfield rifles – three million a week.
The American Brass Company, known for plumbing parts and decorative devices, began producing brass rods and tubes for weapons. The Chase Brass and Copper Company made more than 50 million cartridge cases and mortar shells and more than a billion bullets.
And so on. Patterns of production changed out of all recognition. It can be done.
A union official in Alabama recalled factories clanking and whirring around the clock. “For the workers, it was seven days a week, 12-hour days, 10 hours on Saturday, eight hours on Sunday, on and on, in and out, over and over and over and over again.
“The one thing was to produce material to win the war.”
The economy boomed to dizzying heights. The Depression disappeared in the slipstream of rocketing manufacture. The US was to end the war as the most powerful economic and military force in the world, and with a society different in dozens of ways.
The massive movement of African Americans from the South into Northern industrial centres like Chicago and Detroit generated a cultural as well as an economic shift. New sounds eddied out. It was thus that Motown was born.
Capitalist society had changed but had not been overthrown. Some things stayed the same. Jim Crow still skulked. Women remained oppressed. The gulf between the rich and the rest yawned wide. But many of the changes which happened were to prove irreversible. Things hadn’t quite returned to normal. “Normal” was gone.
It wasn’t that everything changed for the better but that everything changed, some of which was for the better and which we managed to retain.
What had generated this altered state was that the imminence of an existential threat had smashed into the consciousness of a relatively enlightened leadership of the US ruling class which responded as rapidly and appropriately as capitalist thinking allowed.
This is not an exact model for moving forward now. But it has lessons for now which it’s useful to think on.
Can we match the soaring leap in production of armoured cars and ships and ‘planes under Roosevelt with a hike the likes of which has never been witnessed in production of ventilators, masks, protective clothing, testing units and whatever else the NHS tells us we need?
Can we switch en masse into new areas of manufacture appropriate to the scarifying age we live in?
Can we create comprehensive high-quality, home-based education system for now and for future generations?
Can this generation mimic or even outdo the shift in attitudes and assumptions in the US in the 1940s?
Yes, we can. It can be done.
Who will argue now that the future of our society, even of our civilisation, is contingent on ceding power to a super-clever elite rather than on the sweat and genius of the working class?
What class of people would now dare deny a nurse’s pay claim? Or insist that our public services must give way to private enterprise, that need must wait on greed, the market let rip through every aspect of our lives?
In face of the coronavirus pandemic, eternal orthodoxies have become old hat.
Ideology has been twisted back into shape.
However things work out in the coming days, weeks, months, years, struggle will continue at ever deeper levels. It is through the experience of struggle that we will shape the world anew. The defenders of the old order haven’t gone away, but have hunkered down to wait for their hour to come again.
If we steady ourselves, keep focus on the obdurate truths of class conflict, evident through the fog of fear and confusion in and around us, we will better see the outline of the terrain on which we will have to fight.
McCann concluded his article by paraphrasing German socialist leader during World War One. “We will have socialism or barbarism, Rosa Luxemburg warned. Her truth has never loomed so large.”
I can only concur