In normal times, under normal circumstances, I prefer to focus on the long-term strategy of full communist democracy, constituent power, the utopian possibilities of a fundamental change in subjectivity, etc. In many ways, this is in order to keep these utopian possibilities in view, to make sure they are not lost or forgotten amid the day-to-day economic and social justice struggles so many of us are engaged with. This fits with the narrative of the German Social Democratic Party and the Russian Social Democratic Worker Party at the turn of the 20th century - the endgoal of communism could not be forgotten or ignored in the various political and economic clashes of the period. In other ways, however, this perspective has been “bending the stick”, attempting to counter the weight and influence of pedestrian bourgeois understanding of economics, politics, culture, and society by focusing precisely on the most seemingly unrealistic and utopian aspects of a future society worth building.
But one of the main things we can learn from Lenin is to change our tactics as the concrete situation changes. It remains true that the state is the “committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie as a whole”, it remains true that wage labour and private property must be abolished for the real social and cultural revolution to take place. What we are witnessing today is the effect of 40 years of post-welfare-state austerity, neoliberalism, privatization, consumerism, automation, alienation and isolation. The coronavirus pandemic is showing just how inadequate those projects were in the face of disaster. What we need, in order to prevent the collapse of society, is not utopian programmes or long-term narratives, but concrete socialist measures to rapidly reinstate the social safety net that was put in place during the last fully global crisis, the Second World War.
As always with capitalist crisis, the effects are not evenly distributed across the globe or through society: we are waiting for the disease to fully penetrate the Global South, where countries have long been used as resource-extraction playgrounds and landfills for the capitalist centres. Within the capitalist centres, the division between those of us able to work from home and those with no job protection, no rent protection, no benefits (ar at least no benefits not tied to employment and productivity) are exposing the division between the aristocracy of labour and the real proletariat. In the midst of all this, corporations (always on the lookout for a good thing) are clamouring for bailouts while the homeless are just looking for somewhere to stay. Racism, ableism (especially in the form of falsely-promoted cures, pharma-profiteering, and lack of care towards the immuno-compromised), and the gendered quality of the division between the WFH aristocracy of labour and, say, nurses, are all symptoms of the larger neoliberal dismantling of anything resembling a social safety net and the inability of capitalism to respond adequately to a crisis of this magnitude.
Small businesses are at risk, though the solution for small businesses is also socialism. The small government favoured by the petty bourgeoisie, the low taxes, and lax regulations, are exposing small businesses to the ravages of the crisis. Small businesses should be on board with any socialist measures.
What socialist measures? No bailouts, only nationalization: to create jobs, to keep essential services afloat, to spend our way through the crisis; rent control and a ban on evictions; nationalization of daycare and making daycare free, so that while people are keeping their children at home, they aren’t financially responsible for the daycare’s survival. Universal basic income has been floated for years - under normal circumstances I tend to be against it, as it a) leads to further transactionalization of government services (i.e. Foucault’s governmentality) and b) would be used by employers as an excuse to lower wages. But in the current crisis UBI, along with job protection, is a vitally important measure. There are many other measures that will need to be adopted, but this is a flavour of the kind of thing that will have to happen.
But who will put these measures to government? Our nominally left-of-centre party lacks imagination and has marginalized its most left-wing members; the NDP’s former leader Tom Mulcair eulogized Margaret Thatcher while he was in office, giving an indication of what kind of anti-worker sentiment is acceptable to Canada’s third party. I have long been one who thought there was no hope for parliament and the government, but in times like these we need a party which will push for socialist responses to the crisis. Lacking such a party, direct action, direct pressure will be the watchword. We don’t have to agree with Giorgio Agamben that coronavirus is an invention for the purposes of finally implementing the prison camp towards which modern sovereignty always tends, to recognize that self-isolation and social distancing is going to make it very hard to materially manifest our displeasure. Withdrawal of labour is almost impossible in times like these without job protection, etc (which is why, of course, the German and Russian Social Democrats focused on political freedoms as the “light and air” of the socialist movement). I know here are organizers and agitators currently working on all these problems.
Two sets of measures which, while not necessarily socialist, need to be part of the current response concern climate change and Indigenous sovereignty. Any bailout intended for the oil and gas industry should be immediately repurposed to expand nationalized renewable energy infrastructure. Indigenous sovereignty needs to be engaged with in good faith starting now. Besides the justice of it, capitalism’s complete destruction of any kind of relationship to the natural world (what Marx called the “metabolism” of nature) - fossil fuel extraction, industrialized farming, etc - means that it will require some kind of example if we are to get back to any such metabolic, reciprocal relationship. Indigenous sovereignty has to be a core element in that return.
Communism will always be there, will always be the horizon of true social change and a fundamental reorientation away from institutionalized economic injustice. But as the social and economic problems mount under the current crisis, it is important to recognize the value and significance of concrete socialist proposals. The response by the bourgeoisie and its governments following the Depression and the Second World War was the post-war compromise and the welfare state: the current crisis indicates that, if we want to have a society able to fight for a communist future, we need to have socialism now. Rosa Luxemburg’s stark choice - socialism or barbarism - was only ever hidden from view by the enormous capitalist culture and mystification machine. It was always there for women, for people of colour, for marginalized populations in the centres and on the periphery, for Indigenous peoples. In this crisis - in any crisis - it returns for the rest of us once more in full force.