We have already been locked into the contradictions of capitalism, too often shuttling between bad options, and COVID-19 makes it worse. It is not only the left that is faced with these contradictions, but also those who are attempting to manage all this. They are botching it, but their incompetence is not accidental. When it is not contrived, which it sometimes is, it flows from the nature of the system they are desperately intent on keeping going, for their benefit. These five contradictions of capitalism are what make the increasing securitisation of society into such a deadly danger, and what make it necessary for us to organise in and against these measures in a way that puts social solidarity at the forefront. For that we need analysis and action, theory and change, praxis in times of lockdown.
1. The economy is torn between the imperative to generate profit – to extract more surplus value from our human labour is the organising principle of this political-economic system – and the need to keep the workforce active, to generate that surplus value that is the lifeblood of the ruling class. So, we oscillate, how else could this play out, between the demand to return to work and limited support for us to stay healthy and productive. One way the ruling class attempts to resolve this contradiction, which does not solve it but simply smoothes it for a bit, is to continue with the ‘herd immunity’ narrative in which the sick go to the wall and the strong survive. Our way through this contradiction is to say ‘to hell with surplus value’ and that kind of ‘growth’ and the kind of economy that relies on it, and to insist on the creative production of a world in which we can all live, the starting point of a decent society, an alternative to capitalism.
2. Capitalism itself is torn between appeals to society as regulative container of conflict and to the individual as the ideological linchpin of competition. Here again we oscillate between herd immunity as what Trump, in a telling slip, called ‘herd mentality’, and standalone resilience in which the message is that if our leaders can beat the virus then so can we. This is the basis of the ideological gap between the collective responsibility urged by the World Health Organisation in which our care for everyone is care for each individual, and the individualist competitive spirit relied on by the right in government in which each separate isolated unit uses their ‘commonsense’ to make sense of the rules. Our way through this is for the collective option, but one which is democratically arrived at through self-conscious appropriation of the means of production and the application of rules in times of emergency that are consistent and clear and understandable.
3. Neoliberal capitalism twists and exploits this kind of situation in order to search for profit in the rubble. It is torn between destruction, a deadly drive unleashed from the early days by capitalism as it tears down existing forms of life in order to rebuild and generate profit for a few, and adaptation in which each worker must find ways of retraining, ‘re-skilling’, living in these precarious conditions. Neoliberalism, remember, returns us to the nineteenth century times of capital accumulation, with a difference. The difference is that, alongside the message that each individual should compete to work and that collective healthcare and welfare support hampers free choice, the state becomes a powerful force, enforcing control, and now the mechanism for enforcing lockdown on its own terms. This is the kind of surveillance and control we resist, not self-destructive individualist breaking of the measures that protect us, but the active refusal of outsourced ‘security’. Defunding of the police means building accountability at every level, in every community.
4. This is where we come up against a key contradiction of the capitalist state, at base a body of armed men designed to protect private property and operate as a gigantic committee for best managing the interests of the class that is tied into that state by a million threads of privilege. The state is now torn between maintaining control, treating its population as if it were a mindless herd, and provoking disobedience, inciting individuals to distrust authority. This contradiction is the running sore of the right governments, the source of the ‘ambiguity’ and ‘confusion’ that so many of us complain about as we try to make sense of the mixed messages. The effect, egged on by government advisors, is to sow distrust, including distrust of expertise, of science itself, and to encourage every kind of irrational ‘theory’ about who is doing what and why. Our way through this is to insist that this is not our state, that it is structurally systematically geared to the needs of those with power and property, mainly white men, and that a broader more inclusive community mutual resource network is needed to build alternative forms of production and distribution and guarantees of the safety of all as the basis of the safety of each.
5. There is an underlying ideological contradiction at work here in the state and in the very economic system it is designed to protect, one which bursts forth like a lanced boil at times of crisis, a contradiction between structural stable sets of relationships – the kind of well-behaved ‘community’ or ‘big society’ that supports the existing order of things – and conspiracy. Conspiracy is demanded and fed by capitalism, already at work in the idea that those with money have it through some uncanny ability to create it out of mid-air, and mobilised at times of threat; it is then as if the problem is not structural, internal to the nature of the system, but the result of someone behind the scenes pulling the strings. This is a dangerous game for government, for conspiracy theory also threatens to rebound against it, but it is willing to play that game if it can channel resentment against others, outsiders. Our way through this is to insist, at every point, that conspiracy theory is a trap, a distortion of our analysis of the nature of this economic system that runs like a machine, and that our open resistance is the diametric opposite of conspiracy.
At no time is it more urgent that we protect ourselves, and that we organise against this rotten system that will manage this emergency in ways that works against us, intensifying exploitation and oppression. This means that we do not refuse ‘lockdown’, but embrace it, claim it, reconfigure it as ‘our lockdown on our rules’, with the rules of the game being our collective responsibility for those who have already been criminally sickened and weakened by a political-economic system that makes the poor pay and the already-excluded suffer. Yes to the masks, symbol of our care and strength and solidarity! Yes to distance as a sign of respect, the basis for working together in a different way! Yes to the new networks of mutual aid that prioritise those as yet reduced to nothing.
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