How the DSA is responding to the pandemic emergency – III
At one point, I said the DSA author’s People’s Recovery program was “a description of the United States (six months to a year from now) with unmitigated pandemic emergency measures?”
What do I mean by the term unmitigated pandemic emergency measures?
The short answer is that I am using an analogy with the response taken to the outbreak of the pandemic itself. To contain the pandemic itself the authorities have issued a number of stay-at-home orders. These orders confine citizens to their homes when not engaged in activities the state has deemed to be essential. The orders are meant to mitigate or slow the spread of the virus.
But the measures implemented by state and national governments to slow the spread of the virus themselves have an economic cost in that they displace millions of workers from their jobs and paralyze the process of capitalist accumulation world wide. The fascists hope (essentially) that this economic cost is transitory. They hope the accumulation process can be temporarily shut down and restarted much the same way a factory machine can be shut down at close of business one day and restarted when the business reopens the next.
But the economic cost is massive. As of today, in the United States, 33 million workers are known to have been separated from their jobs by these stay-at-home measures. (The actual number is probably closer to 50 million.) If these workers do not get rehired quickly, or if only a part of these workers get rehired, this will lead to a sudden violent alteration in the material conditions of the working class. The collapse of prices that have been so entertaining in the oil market will finally reach the market in labor power.
When I refer to unmitigated pandemic emergency measures, I am referring to what will happen if the state takes no steps to address the situation where 20 or 30 million workers remain unemployed once the stay-at-home measures are lifted and the so-called “economy is reopened”. Historical experience suggest, nation states will make little or no effort to help this massive population of unemployed workers, just as it made almost no effort in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the various countries in the so-called socialist bloc. Which means, tens of millions of workers in the United States, and billions worldwide, will be left without work or income and without any possibility of finding work or income.
The problem is not just the difficulty the virus itself poses for most types of social production — like working in offices, on production lines and in retail settings — nor is it the hesitation customers might have venturing out to restaurants, casinos and ball games again once the stay-at-home orders are lifted. These problems are real, of course, and they do complicate things. These are very real complications, but people are clever and we’ll figure out a way to work around them.
The real problem is that capitalists hate paying wages and if they could figure out how to generate profits without paying a dime to workers they would do it in a heartbeat. And as Benanev and Clegg somewhat clumsily explain, this tendency, built into capitalism, toward eliminating living labor in production, now has become so pronounced that recent recoveries tend to be jobless:
“Today many speak of a ‘jobless recovery’, but if the ‘general law of capital accumulation’ applies then all capitalist recoveries are tendentially jobless. The tendency of “mature” industries to throw off labour, whilst facilitating expanded reproduction, also tends to consolidate a surplus population not fully absorbed by the subsequent expansion. This is due to the adaptability of labour-saving technology across lines, which mean that the manufacture of new products tends to make use of the most innovative production processes. Yet process innovations last forever, and they generalize across new and old capitals, while product innovations are inherently limited in their ability to generate a net expansion of output and employment. Here the problem is not merely that product innovations have to emerge at an accelerated rate to absorb the surplus thrown off by process innovations, it is that an acceleration of product innovation itself gives rise to an acceleration of process innovation.”
Benanev and Clegg actually downplay the extent of the problem of jobless recoveries. In reality, there have been no expansion of wage employment in the last 90 years since the Great Depression without a significant stimulus on the part of the state to generate growth.
Which is a pity, because a jobless recovery under normal condition of the last forty years is bad enough when unemployment is marginal, but a jobless recovery with 20-50 million already unemployed implies a staggering superabundance of workers as far as the eye can see, plunging wages, and scant social space for the sort of militancy most radicals assume would be necessary for a successful revolutionary strategy in the 21st century.
Which means the greatest single victim of the coronavirus pandemic may be the failed communist strategy of the 20th century. Most communists are willing to concede that we are not living in what they call “a revolutionary period”. But this pandemic means there will never be a so-called revolutionary period again. Folks need to get this through their thick skulls. It ain’t happening; an approach that relies in any way on an assumption that there will be a revolutionary period in the future is as obsolete as retail malls.
I don’t think this is difficult to understand. The past forty years of history prove that it was never realistic to think the working class would be radicalized as its economic conditions deteriorated. That’s why we had to be organize and prepared to assume power before conditions deteriorated. The whole point of the preparation period prior to the breakdown (or collapse) of production based on exchange value was to prepare for that event.
You couldn’t wait for a collapse to happen and then begin preparing. Once breakdown occurred, it was too late for communists to begin organizing. The conditions themselves made it highly unlikely that we would succeed. Breakdown meant massive unemployment. This implies sharp competition within the working class and sharply falling wages. It is pretty hard to maintain solidarity under those conditions. After breakdown occurred, all bets were off.
Essentially, that is where we are now with this pandemic: we have been thrown back to the middle of the Great Depression, but with no labor organizations, no communist parties and no hope for a revolutionary strategy based on the 20th century model!