by Tom Walker
Many people are now making immediate demands to ameliorate economic suffering in the face of the coronavirus, such as decent sick pay and measures to save jobs. These are vital in the short term, and appear likely to be conceded under mass pressure. Given the sheer scale of the predicted death toll however – some government estimates have shown hundreds of thousands dead in Britain alone – we now need to think much bigger in terms of the total economic overhaul that is now required in the months ahead. We need to call for a shift of all human labour, effort and production into areas such as healthcare, health equipment and food that will aid the effort for our collective survival.
The left is rightly hesitant of wartime analogies – but what we now face is a different kind of ‘war’. Not a war of human against human, but one where the whole of humanity is fighting an inhuman, invisible, deadly threat. Wartime is also the most relevant cultural memory that helps explain the sheer level of economic adaptation that is now necessary if we are to save as many lives as possible.
Where previously the entire economy was turned over to the manufacture of tanks, shells, aircraft and such, now we need to do the same for healthcare, medical equipment, vaccine research, basic supplies and anything else that can help us fight the virus. A rapid switch to a planned economy in such circumstances is not utopian, but simply a matter of survival – finance, wealth, ‘the markets’ and the other fripperies of capitalism are obstacles that, given the situation, states can and must sweep aside.
Workers’ plans for medically useful production
The British government is now putting out public appeals for any company that might be able to manufacture ventilators to get in touch. While this is a slightly pitiful spectacle, it shows two things: one, a realisation even among conservatives that productive capacity needs to be switched now into fighting coronavirus, and two, that our free-marketeer governments currently have little idea what productive capacity exists in society, and where.
The obvious need for such production adaptation stretches far beyond ventilators, and there is an opening here where workers can use their knowledge of production to help come up with ideas of what their workplace could potentially be able to produce.
In the tradition of the Lucas Aerospace workers’ plan – which included 150 designs for alternative products that the workers, organising through their shop stewards structures, had found could be made using existing facilities – it is manufacturing workers themselves who are best placed to know what they could potentially produce that would be useful. That could be anything from medical equipment to face masks and cleaning supplies. Huge amounts of long-term storable food will also be needed, as international supply chains are disrupted.
While economies like the UK are relatively lacking in physical productive capacity, there are still 2.7 million workers in manufacturing, broadly defined. Even relatively ‘light’ manufacturing could be useful, as in the example of the French perfume factories, usually producing expensive brands like Dior, that have just switched production to hand sanitiser for hospitals. Various small distilleries are starting to do the same (since alcohol is a key ingredient). These and other small production adaptations are already advancing each day.
Any group of workers who can produce a plan for useful production on a larger scale could first approach their management – who may even be receptive to plans for alternative production, given the wider economic collapse – and if that doesn’t work they could go public with the plan, as a means of piling on the pressure. If the bosses will not play ball, then the facilities needed could be requisitioned.
Requisition, requisition, requisition
The government’s plan to pay for private hospital beds is an absurdity when few would quibble right now if they used emergency powers to requisition and nationalise the private hospitals, as the Spanish government just has. (It would also be wise to plan to take over hotels, and other buildings that could potentially be converted for use as a hospital.) Similarly, private clinics selling coronavirus tests to the wealthy should be immediately requisitioned, together with their capacity to produce and process tests.
Requisitioning is in essence an emergency power to violate the usual property rights in order to make use of some needed resource. ‘Normal’ capitalist property rights rest on a combination of social consent and armed state enforcement. In other words, if the population at large enthusiastically supports a state takeover of some currently market-operated resource, what formerly seemed impossible can become inevitable.
The notion of requisitioning private hospitals is rapidly going mainstream, but should also be applied to other essential areas of the economy – for example, supermarkets. Supermarkets are already planning to re-focus their stock into the kinds of basics that have become difficult to obtain in recent weeks (tinned and dried food, bread, soap, toilet paper, etc) and are asking the government to lift coordination (that is, anti-cartel) restrictions. The best way for the supermarkets to most fully coordinate what has become an essential role in society, without the distraction of the profit motive, is to merge them into one firm, under state ownership.
We have long called for an economy based on need instead of one based on profit. Now the need is so glaring, and so universal, that there is little other way forward.
Labour without markets
The markets are collapsing – whole sectors of the economy will go bust, such as airlines, bars and restaurants, and so on, one after the other. The mass pause in travel, social events and other forms of ‘non-essential’ spending is causing a series of cashflow crises that is set to rapidly wipe whole industries off the map – and cause mass unemployment of a scale that ought to make a shift away from the current conditionality of benefits and ‘personal failing’ narratives about unemployment starkly obvious.
Markets however are only a representation – through several degrees of abstraction, indirection and sometimes pure absurdity – of the resources that exist in society, whether that is productive machinery, goods, housing or human labour. These things do not somehow magically disappear when the markets cease functioning. They simply need to be reallocated and reorganised.
In the short term, the government has various ‘standing armies’ it can call upon to distribute supplies. The military (unarmed!), police and so on can be redeployed into delivering food, medicines and other essentials to those who cannot leave their homes. While mutual aid networks are useful, the state has hugely more central resources to deploy in such an effort, to ensure no one slips through the cracks. Postal workers’ offer, through the CWU union, to become an ‘emergency service’ delivering medical aid and checking on vulnerable people is an important initiative.
Medium term, the entire labour force in society – at least the part of it that remains able to work – needs to be reorganised around our essential priorities. There are already calls for the government to become an insurer as businesses collapse, but ultimately as unemployment balloons the state should step in to become everyone’s employer. You can call this a universal basic income if you prefer, though for now I would argue that it needs to be attached to a certain expectation of useful labour, where people are able to do so. This basic income needs to be at a living wage or higher (ideally it would just match the current average wage), and there must be no conditionality, so it shouldn’t be possible for anyone’s basic income to be stopped or ‘sanctioned’. Workers can be allocated to anti-virus work according to skill, whether that be in production, distribution, medical research, planning, etc. Some skillsets are directly adaptable, such as cab driver to delivery worker, while others will need to be retrained into essential roles.
We need massive expansion in healthcare capacity in every way possible. We need construction workers to rapidly build entire hospitals, as they did in China. As cases surge into the millions, we’ll also need more doctors and nurses – there is not time for full training, but we could just about squeeze in intensive crash courses in something along the lines of ‘battlefield medicine’, focusing in this case on how to tackle coronavirus and likely complications as best we can. When all this is over, humanity will hopefully want to keep huge reserve forces of fully trained and well paid healthcare workers in case such a thing ever happens again. That is not the only way the economy is likely to change long term if we are successful in fighting the virus through this sort of mass collective effort, but right now what is important is to focus on the year or so ahead.
This is only a short sketch of what I think is necessary. It probably reads strangely if you do not yet realise the sheer scale of what we are about to face. Please develop it as you can, and particularly share these sorts of ideas with workers who are in a position to use their experience and skills in production to create more fleshed out plans. The left and labour movement may not be in power, but its knowledge, its organising and its capacity holds the key to saving as many lives as we can.
This article is taken from a forthcoming issue of Transform: a journal of the radical left.