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Protest, class conflict and Covid 19

6 April 2020

The hypocritical mantra that 'we are all in this together' is slowly being replaced by the equally false concern for the working class and the small businesses not considered 'essential' who need 'help' to return to work. Carefully rehearsed questions by BBC/ITV reporters concerning 'fears about the economy' prompts the British prime minister to patronisingly defend a further period of lockdown to protect the “British people”! Johnston's cant about protecting lives, while Britain's death toll outstrips all other European countries, is typically hypocritical. He unconvincingly plays the straight guy to the devils advocates of the arrayed ranks of the tame media. All part of an orchestrated push to get working class people to “take in on the chin” in the interests of profits. The whole charade is designed to give the impression that he is reluctantly bowing to social pressure for a phased return to “normality” no matter what the conditions.

Their strategy is to some extent working and the mood music has changed. The constant flow of propaganda and massaging of the numbers designed to distract from the release of peak fatality figures in Britain, has subtly masked the shock of at least 1000 people a day dying and has slipped seamlessly in to a phase where the economic impact has been carefully nudged to the fore. The need for a gradual return to work, irrespective of the risks, is now increasingly being mooted, despite the fact that the infection rate is staying stubbornly high and no vaccine is anywhere near production.  Aiding the British Tories is the desperation of many workers and a layer of the middle class and small businesses who have no income and are desperate to begin earning. This is not just a British phenomenon. Across Europe the background mutterings of phased re-openings of primary schools is designed to allow workers to return to production.

There is no argument that essential production must continue. People must receive health care, eat and travel to work but the dissagreement is over how it can be conducted safely, in a way which protects the workers. It is this which impacts heavily on capitalist profitability. This pandemic has focussed attention on where the fundamental fault line lies in capitalist society, where it always has lain, at the coal face of production. Marxists have argued that the point at which profit is extracted from labour is the essential point at which workers must oppose capitalist exploitation. For many years this has been obscured by a reformist protest culture which shyed away from this essential struggle at the heart of class conflict and instead politely asked the government to behave better, seeking reforms, that in the absence of a systematic withdrawal of labour which stopped production and profits, never came. Protests have their uses but they do not replace systematic class struggle, something that the Irish trade union bureaucracy, tied hand and foot to Irish capital, in particular is keen to avoid. Instead, for decades they have refocussed working class activity on their many weekend protest marches and away from strikes and workplace based struggles.

This long term strategy has suddenly and spontaneously been put under the spotlight. The initial outbreak of the virus prompted a spontaneous working class response in many workplaces that gained immediate concessions at the expense of capital. Now with the push on to redefine “essential” workers and return them to an environment that holds the threat of serious infection the adoption of appropriate social distancing models is promised but this comes as a cost to capital and with the systemic inability to provide appropriate PPE for medical staff the prospects for returning workers being treated with anything like the appropriate amount of caution is seriously doubtful to say the least.

Workers, those at work and those returning, have already called for split shifts, the slowing of production and the cutting of working hours without loss to the workers. Sanitary measures are demanded which when adopted undermine profitability, Jeff Bezos of Amazon has complained ferociously about how despite a huge turnover boost during the lockdown Amazon will make a loss this year of approximately $5bn due to similar measures to these being demanded.

With public demonstrations prohibited the class confrontation is increasingly to be conducted at the heart of capitalist production, the interface between labour and capital. Workers pickets, once designed to stop production by blocking companies ability to continue operating, were first deprived by anti union laws of their practical effectiveness by limiting numbers and disallowing gate blocking, sympathy actions and flying pickets. Now as pickets in Dublin are being sent home under social distancing laws they have been disallowed completely.

The bureaucracy's favourite tactic of a 'walk in the park' has been, at least momentarily, dispensed with and has been superceded by Zoom protests or front garden examples of symbolic solidarity.  While having its uses as an organisational tool or for shows of solidarity a zoom meeting does nothing to interrupt unsafe methods of capitalist production or to have the slightest impact on companies plans for a problem free liquidation process. The advent of Covid 19 makes it more apparent than ever that any practical struggle can, unavoidably, only be conducted in the workplace, either through go-slows, enforced social distancing which will interfere with production, strikes and particularly occupations of closed enterprises.

If companies claim they are closing because of falling profits there generally is no argument from ICTU, just a request for a redundancy package. Now as the cost of safety measures push companies towards large scale redundencies or liquidation the question of ownership of the means of production comes to the fore. Why should workers not produce for need instead of profit? Why should public transport not be environmentally safe and free? Why should working hours not be cut with no loss in income? The class struggle is now not just being conducted simply for a 1% payrise, or against redundencies, or speed up, or privatisation but all of these and more, most fundamentally against a threat to health that can seriously debilitate or kill. The choice is increasingly between ensuring capitalist profitability or taking a risk with your health in the workplace. Although the same old referees still dominate the labour movement this is a whole new ball game!

When the effects of the economic depression start to really grind this will multiply in intensity.  Revolutionaries must take their analysis to the fight, which is already intensifying, on the front line of the working class in the workplace, away from the arbitration and conciliation services that have served trade unionists so badly down the decades and which requires the kind of direct action we have already witnessed in numerous stoppages and walkouts. Add to the impact of health issues the closures and redundencies, the curtailment of the education system - with the prospect of bankrupt universities, the psychological impact of the snatching away of educational attainment as a method of gaining employment security, mass youth unemployment and most of all the continuingly dangerous impact of capitalism on the global environment which is becoming so toxic that it threatens the very existance of humanity! We must prepare for the fight of our lives!

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