Open Letter to Communists of The Whole World: Total Class War Is Coming
We are urgently calling for a shift in the strategy of all communists that takes into account the new reality created by the emergency measures imposed by the state on the capitalist accumulation process. Because of this pandemic, the state has been forced to shut down the capitalist accumulation process. Workers are off the job not because of a general strike, but because the state has closed all non-essential businesses.
There are millions of workers who are now set free from productive employment; they are unemployed. We need to fight to convert this huge mass of unemployment into free time for every member of society. The alternative will be total class war, the likes of which has never been seen in the whole of the history of capitalism. It will unfold against the backdrop of extreme deprivation and barbarous competition for jobs among the working class as the state tries desperately to reestablish the old relations of production.
It is essential that prominent communist thinkers today take the lead in urging communists worldwide to shift their focus to the urgent need for a radical reduction of hours of labor. This will be necessary if we are to prevent savage competition among the proletarians over jobs when nation states attempt to restart the capitalist accumulation process with billions still unemployed.
The failure of communists to take urgent action right now will result in unnecessary suffering by the working class of every country.
The pandemic public health emergency is NOT a crisis. According to Marx, “crises are always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions” within the mode of production. They arise from the working out of the contradictions within the mode of production itself. This emergency is obviously external to the mode of production. Based on reports, it began with the emergence of a viral infection of unknown origin in the People’s Republic of China, which rapidly spread to engulf most of the world market. The pandemic soon forced most nation states to take aggressive public health measures to contain it. Among these measures were so-called social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. These measures led states to close down many so-called non-essential business operations and confine citizens to their homes.
The public health measures thus interrupted both the sale of labor power and the circulation of capital. To implement a necessary public health measure to contain the spread of a deadly disease, nation states were compelled to interrupt the global capitalist accumulation process itself; they were forced to shut it down.
Now, some may think the mode of production can be restarted. We question this assumption. It is not as simple as they think to restart the capitalist accumulation process. For one thing, no one knows the value of anything. Capital is value in motion, self-expanding value. What is the value of capital that is no longer self-expanding? What is the value of labor power that cannot be sold at any wage? These questions are not settled on a spreadsheet, but in a competitive struggle between and among classes. When people are told to go back to work, that competitive struggle will begin. It likely will not end with the restoration of the normal operation of the capitalist mode of production.
The emergency measures necessary to slow the spread of the contagion has led to the interruption of the process of capitalist accumulation as millions of workers were directed to stay at home and non-essential capitalist firms were forced to close. This has produced an economic contraction that is likely larger than any previous contraction in history. As a result, the various nation states have been compelled to step in and implement assorted relief measures to replace the wages of the working class — lost because of social distancing measures — and to bail out idle and failing capitalist firms that are teetering on the edge of collapse.
These interventions nation states have made to contain the pandemic have given communists the world over the opportunity to approach the coming crisis with a degree of coordination that is far greater than anything seen in recent years. The working classes of every country now face almost the exact same set of difficulties — massive unemployment and lost wages. This calls for the same response: a dramatic reduction of hours of labor in all countries.
The alternative–massive stimulus and relief measures–just will not work for most countries. The capacity of nation states to implement relief measures designed to replace the wages of the working class — lost because of social distancing measures — is not uniform among nation states. The United States, of course, can operate rather freely, since it controls the world reserve currency. Similarly, nations states, like Germany and China, who have accumulated large reserves of foreign exchange, can, if they choose, expend some of these reserves to maintain their national capitals on life support for some time.
Aside from these few countries however, the ability of most countries to run the massive deficits necessary to finance these interventions are questionable. Some countries have standing to borrow in a pinch, but the capacity to maintain their national capitals on life support for long periods of time is circumscribed by foreign and domestic creditors. And at the bottom of the pyramid are the vast majority of nations that have few resources and are utterly dependent on foreign assistance. Communists have to offer an approach that works not just for the rich countries, but for all countries — even, and especially, the poorest.
To paraphrase that American officer in Vietnam, the fascists found it necessary to destroy capitalism in order to save it. At a minimum, it is obvious that capitalist accumulation has largely come to a standstill. But here is the thing: capital, as we all know, is value in motion, self-expanding value. How does value in motion come to a standstill? What happens to capital, when value itself no longer circulates as self-expanding value? Can one simply turn capital off, like a light switch, for weeks, or even months, and turn it back on again, once the “All clear” has been given by the public health authorities?
Communists should not be so quick to answer, “Yes.” We have never been here before. And, largely, our immediate actions will be determined by the answer we give. If we assume capital is dead, we will act one way. If we assume capital is alive and just waiting to spring back into action, we will act another way. The unusually swift action that led to the adoption of a relief package in Washington suggests the fascists do not think capital is as resilient as communists seem to think it is.
The Federal Reserve has predicted that as much as 30 percent of workers will be displaced from their jobs as a result of this emergency. It is difficult to tell how much of this has already been realized, since the archaic unemployment reporting system completely broke down in this emergency, according to one media outlet. Basically, the March monthly non-farm payroll report, which tells us how bad unemployment has become, shows that overall unemployment in the United States fell only 701,000 persons (although millions already have lost their jobs over the last two weeks). The reasons for this is the way the data is collected and published by Washington. (The Economic Policy Institute has an article on the problem.)
The horrendous damage actually done to the productive forces by this emergency may be hidden from official unemployment statistics for a month. This is a problem. Often, reality is only real for communists if the government reports it and the media echoes it. But the way the U.S. government collects data is deliberately designed to blunt public perception of things like rising unemployment and inflation (for obvious reasons).
However, we do have access to slightly more reliable proxies. There is the BLS weekly initial jobless claims report which shows unimaginably huge jumps in jobless claims over the last two weeks of nearly 10 million persons. This is more jobless claims than the whole of the 2008 financial crisis.
We can also look at other countries. Israel, facing the same state public health lockdown, has seen its unemployment rate jump from historic lows to 24% in a single month. While Spain has also seen a massive jump in jobless claims that has almost wiped out all employment gains back to its historic financial crisis highs in 2013.
We have other indicators that suggest massive damage as well: the auto industry remains completely shut in, subway ridership is down 75%, airline travel is down 93%, and retail foot traffic is down 97%.
Beyond this, the European services purchasing managers index (PMI), a forward looking survey of purchasing managers in the services sector, is near apocalyptic levels. Italy has fallen from 52.1 to a deeply contractionary reading of 17.4; Spain has fallen from 52.1 to 23; France collapsed from 52.5 to 27.4 and Germany plunged from 52.5 to 31.7.
Taken together, these assorted proxies suggest the public health measures to contain the pandemic are inflicting savage and ongoing damage to the capitalist accumulation process.
Another, less direct reason to expect unprecedented carnage to the productive forces is that we suspect the terrain of the world market has been prepared for this event in the same way years of drought prepares a region for uncontrollable wildfires. The literature has long marked the accumulation of a very large mass of superfluous capital and a very large population of surplus workers, resulting from the transformation of agriculture and the improvement in productivity of social labor in industry, combined with state efforts to engineer continuous expansion of empty labor in the tertiary sector, through massive deficit spending.
The measures taken in the present emergency appear to have punctured a bubble that has been at least nine decades in the making — back to the Great Depression. We cannot overemphasize how significant this situation is. We already have accumulated a huge surplus population from previous economic contractions that have not been absorbed back into productive employment from both the 2001 and 2008 crisis, respectively. The emergency measures taken in response to this pandemic will easily increase those numbers by a magnitude at least. And it is likely that profound changes in the economy predicted to take place over the next decade, (e.g. widespread automation), may now be realized in a matter of months or even weeks.
You do not have to be a catastrophist to understand what has happened here. In two short weeks, capital values have been destroyed and workers have been set free from production on an unimaginable scale seldom seen in a full-blown economic contraction lasting years, perhaps decades. And this has occurred not just in one or two countries, but in almost every nation on the planet and all together. We hardly think anyone contemplating this situation can operate from the baseline assumption that capitalism has survived.
This suggests our options as a class going forward will be to accept an attempted restoration of the capitalist accumulation process by the state or press ahead with fundamental alterations of all existing relations.
The state is determined to restore capitalist accumulation. They will not let anything prevent the return to the pre-Covid-19 status quo. They will throw the kitchen sink at the problem, but we don’t expect much original thinking here.
On track one, we think the state will follow the standard Keynesian recession/depression playbook. That means a huge fiscal/monetary stimulus bolus and massive tax cuts targeted to businesses and the very wealthy. The Democrats and the Republicans will argue as usual over who gets how much of what — as if it makes a difference under wage slavery which slave master gets the actual subsidy. Following the United States, Japan has announced a relief package said to amount to 25 percent of GDP. Italy has proposed a stimulus plan that amounts to an astonishing fifty percent of its GDP. Spain has floated the idea of a universal basic income — but they have been saying the same thing for at least four years.
Anyone expecting any creativity here is likely to be disappointed. We haven’t seen anyone thinking outside the box so far, when it comes to “getting the economy back on its feet.” If creative thinking is going to happen, it will happen only when this uninspired stuff fails. The Obama administration, for instance, never attempted to recover any of the jobs and output lost in the 2008 crisis over its eight years. It just let all of that lost output and those lost jobs go. We expect the Trump administration will do the same.
Meanwhile, on track two, the state will roll out the notorious class warfare wishlist. This starts with elimination of things like the minimum wage, OSHA, and various labor protection laws, as well as some federal version of a right to work law, etc. NLRB, as useless as it is, will likely be abolished or just gutted. (In this vein, Trump’s NLRB is making it almost impossible to unionize in the United States.)
This will be total class war, the likes of which has never been seen in the whole of the history of capitalism. It will unfold against the backdrop of extreme deprivation and barbarous competition for jobs among the working class. Even as we speak, the plans are being laid for this total class war in the White House.
The only way to prevent capitalist accumulation from restarting is to immediately reduce hours of labor. We need to replace the present emergency shutdown of non-essential businesses with a strict reduction on hours of labor of a similar magnitude. By radically reducing hours of labor and imposing compensation through a dramatic increase in the minimum wage, we can at least impose severe restrictions on the scale of any future attempt to reestablish capitalist accumulation.
How this works:
It is estimated that this emergency shutdown of non-essential businesses will eventually lead to roughly 47 million workers being unemployed, furloughed or otherwise idled. This translates into an estimated reduction of GDP by about 30-35% and actual employment by about 30%. The approach we advocate is simple: since we are already looking at a large drop in GDP and employment, we should convert this drop into a dramatic reduction of the 40hour workweek to 24 hours per week. This would impose a reduction of hours of labor on a scale that is similar in scale to the 30% unemployment already made necessary by the public health emergency.
There are five advantages to this approach.
First, the absolute accumulation of excess capital and a surplus population of workers has been stopped for the most part, globally. By locking in a deep reduction of hours of labor at this point, we prevent the capitalists from restarting it. We could go further and reduce hours of labor still more to 15 hours or even 10 hours — imposing draconian limits on accumulation and forcing introduction of automation to compensate for a rapidly shrinking labor pool.
Second, as satellite data is showing, the present level of employment hours is having a dramatic impact on global climate change. Reduction of hours of labor has an immediate impact on this problem that can be visualized noticeably. We would be doubling down on this positive development.
Third, we produce a labor shock effect: as the labor hours supplied to the market fall, wages rise. Writers also are beginning to note that reduction of hours of labor has a positive impact on the cohesiveness of the working class and their ability to organize. This is, by far, the most important factor for communists to think about. Reduction of working hours undercuts competition and fragmentation within the working class by reducing the aggregate amount of labor supplied to capital.
Fourth, reducing hours of labor, especially in the rich countries, will, naturally, cause capital flight. As bizarre as this sounds, this is actually a good thing. Africa, Asia and Latin America need investment. They will not get it unless capital currently locked up in the rich countries is forced to flee to the less developed regions of the world market. A dramatic reduction of hours of labor here will accelerate this process.
Fifth, reducing hours of labor will accelerate automation. There is no better way to force capitalists to introduce improved methods of production than to dramatically drive up labor costs. Reducing hours of labor can do this by increasing the cohesiveness and bargaining power of the working class — just as leaving 47 million workers unemployed can weaken the working class, by leaving it balkanized and fragmented.
Finally, we want to warn those who are complacent about an attempt by the state to restart the capitalist accumulation process that the damage done to labor markets in this period is unimaginably extensive. Once this pandemic emergency is declared over, people will be told to go back to work. Millions will already have lost their jobs by then. To give an example: retail brick and mortar is likely never coming back. That’s one out of every four workers in the United States. Where will those workers go for jobs? Forty-seven million workers frantically looking for work at the same time is not something we should ever want to see happening in the United States. But this is exactly what is likely to happen if the emergency passes and restoration of the status quo ante is attempted.
People should be clear that the emergency measures taken to control the pandemic are not the actual crisis. They are only the trigger to the actual crisis. The crisis, i.e., the sudden and forcible adjustment of the global labor market, will begin once the emergency measures to contain the pandemic are relaxed and workers are told to go back to work.
Forty-seven million have been unemployed in the United States — billions worldwide. This implies competition on a scale that is unimaginable to us today. All this has been prepared by the impact of the emergency measures taken to contain the pandemic on capitalist relations of production.
When people are told to get back to work, millions of workers in the United States and billions more around the world will no longer have jobs and no prospect of finding a job. Capitalist relations of production will experience a sudden, sharp and forcible adjustment to this new reality (again, the likes of which we have probably have never witnessed in the history of the mode of production.)
As those who are familiar with Marx’s theory are aware, a crisis is not some sort of magic carpet ride to communism. It is a violent eruption that cannot, of itself, go beyond the limits of the mode of production. We believe this will be the granddaddy of all crises.
There is one idea communists must work on now to prepare. It is extremely important to forge solidarity between workers who are still at work and the millions who have lost their jobs. This effort must be given the highest priority by communists now, before the emergency is declared over and workers are forced to return to the labor market looking for jobs.
We suggest communists everywhere at least form mutual aid funds of workers helping workers to provide mutual aid between the employed and unemployed — no state, church, NGO or charity involvement! (We would even discourage labor union involvement, since they are often controlled by the fascists.) Efforts should be made to take up collections of money, food and clothing at your workplaces to aid the unemployed.
This campaign should be a pure worker to worker mutual aid effort. Committees should be formed covering both workplace and community. People need to facilitate it by doing research in their communities to find out who has already lost their jobs in their community, collect names etc. We want to build ties of solidarity within the class outside the state, church and charities. If these ties are not forged between the employed and unemployed, workers will be set against one another when the crisis hits.
We are urgently calling for a shift in the strategy of all communists that takes into account the new reality created by the emergency measures imposed by the state on the capitalist accumulation process. Because of this pandemic, the state has been forced to do what communists have been aiming to do since the time of the Communist Manifesto: shut down the capitalist accumulation process.
Admittedly, it has happened in a way we did not expect. The impact of the public health measures taken to respond to the pandemic on capitalist relations of production turned out to be a black swan. And it takes a second to wrap our heads around the fact that it happened. Workers are off the job not because of a general strike, but because the state has closed all non-essential businesses. This did not happen the way we expected it to happen. But it happened! The accumulation process has been shut down. This is actually where we are now!
The state has been forced, very much against its will, to shut down all non-essential businesses; to shut down the accumulation process itself. What can we do this very instant to keep it shut down? There are millions of workers who are now set free from productive employment; they are unemployed. We need to fight to convert this huge mass of unemployment into free time for every member of society. The alternative is one relief bill after another as the state tries desperately to reestablish the old relations of production.
We cannot let another opportunity pass us as happened during the Great Depression when capital ground to a halt and workers fought for a shorter work week, but were given the New Deal, Auschwitz and World War II instead.
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