Times are changing – and we have to capitalise on the opportunity

Zoe McKeown, is the Chair of the YCL’s Lanarkshire Branch

The recent outbreak of Coronavirus, and subsequent global Covid-19 pandemic, have exposed the true failings of neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism. There can be no doubt over the extent to which the past ten years of Tory austerity have decimated our public services and resulted in the social murder of our class. But it has also brought to light some truths on how our society functions currently: in the interest of a small clique of billionaires and multi-millionaires, not the millions of working people. The ideology of the ruling class is one of selfish individualism.

This is not the fault of the people who have succumbed to the ideology of wealth as protection – how can it be when the class war continues to play out in something like testing. The wealthy, the members of the ruling class, upper echelons of the British government and Royal Family are receiving tests despite being symptomless, while our key workers – nurses, retail workers, home carers, teachers – are left to fight this virus without even adequate PPE.

The societal response to the pandemic – in Britain at least – has perfectly encapsulated Thatcherite model of neoliberal individualism and can be best summed up by her quote “there is no such thing as society.” We have all seen, whether in person or on social media, the effects of individualism, as people panic buy in their masses; we’ve all trudged round a dilapidated supermarket only to find the shelves bare of pasta, toilet roll and hand soap. This idea seems to have been inspired by the notion that we can simply buy our way out of a crisis. The irony of stockpiling soap, whilst failing to acknowledge that other people also need to be washing their hands to prevent the spread of the virus, which causes panic, which leads to more stockpiling, can be summed up in one political theory: individualism. The rights of the individual over the rights of the collective, the approach of Thatcher and Reagan, the approach of “I’m alright Jack.” 

Neoliberalism didn’t just reshape the political and economic landscape, it warped the societal and individual mindset among sections of working people from one of collectivism and solidarity to a competition for spending, an endless pursuit to hoard meaningless material goods and wealth, often squandered. This hoarding of hand soap and packets of pasta is the very embodiment of individualistic neoliberalism.  The philosophical framework for neoliberalism was laid by Friedrich von Hayek, the 1974 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics, who argued that human growth and freedom are maximised when institutional frameworks – governments, legislating bodies etc – prioritise the rights to private property, unencumbered trade, and minimal state intervention. 

This was a marked difference from the collectivist approach taken by working pople in Britain and polticians such as Nye Bevan which gave us the hard fought for National Health Service less than 30 years prior. It has continued to pervade society and can be seen everywhere: the blaming of individuals who need to use foodbanks rather than questioning why benefits don’t cover even rent; the ‘bootstraps and social mobility’ mentality of people who grew up in hard times, but bettered themselves through education, or just had good opportunities at the right times; union density at its lowest because “I’m ok, my boss is nice etc.”. It’s clear then that decades of individualism have degraded Britain’s political landscape, taking us from one which founded our beloved NHS to one which looks down on anyone doing worse and seeks imaginary solidarity with the very people causing the oppression and hardship, the ruling class and their Tory Party.

Throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, two clear themes have emerged: there is a tangible difference between the socialist response to the pandemic and the capitalist one. It is important to note that these socialist countries are flourishing exponentially, despite significant embargoes and sanctions placed on them by the capitalist west. Whilst it is clear that this crisis won’t of course hand us socialism on a silver platter, it has the scope to lead to reform of the political landscape of Britain, and the wider world. 

Conversations are changing, and people have seen the way communist countries like Cuba, China and Vietnam have rushed to aid the world, despite the blockades and embargoes our governments have imposed on them for years, as well as dismissing everything that they do as ‘totalitarian’ or ‘anti-human rights.’ This crisis has exposed the truth Capitalism wishes to keep quiet: socialism and planned economies work. Communism works, as it is for the advancement of human society as a whole. It works because healthcare is readily available to all, regardless of wealth. In Cuba and China, they are closer than anyone else to putting together a workable vaccine. China’s planned economy meant they were able to contain the virus quickly, building a new super hospital in just 10 days. That has now been closed by the Chinese government, as they’ve controlled the spread of the virus so effectively, there’s no need for the hospital to remain open. 

Spain’s ruling socialist coalition of Unidos Podemos and Partido Socialista Obrero Español (the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) have nationalised all previously private hospitals and their equipment in a bid to slow the spread of Covid-19. Contrast this with Britain and the US, where we have been told to prepare to lose loved ones, because our health service can’t keep up with the demands. This is not to say that the doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers aren’t doing enough; they are doing the very best they can in an unprecedented time with far too few resources. We are hearing reports from the US that they will start looking at demographics of patients who present with severe symptoms of Covid-19, and they will prioritise the young, fit and presumably wealthy. They have outright admitted that disabled people will not be given a bed or a ventilator if an able-bodied/able-minded person also needs one. 

We have been told not to politicise this crisis, in the same vein we were told not to politicise the 2008 financial crisis, something which working class families are still paying for today through harsh austerity measures – no matter how many times the Tories proclaim that ‘we are all in this together.’ The class disparity has never been more exposed than it is now, where we are seeing wealth ‘workers’, not health workers being tested for the virus – despite being the least at risk. 

The second theme which has emerged as a result of the recent outbreak and subsequent pandemic and lockdown has been a real shift in who we can accurately term a ‘key worker.’ Shockingly, it isn’t bosses or CEOs or even management. It isn’t anyone who profits off of the unpaid, or surplus, labour of others. No, it is the very people who create these huge profit margins in the first place – the retail workers, home carers, frontline NHS staff like junior doctors and nurses, and so many more. Vanishingly few of these workers in a ‘normal’ position, with the exception of senior NHS staff and doctors, earns more than £30,000. Just weeks ago, our government referred to anyone making less than £30k a year as ‘unskilled.’ Now, these are the very people quite literally keeping our country afloat. But again, years of neoliberalism has conditioned and encouraged many working people not to empathise with their fellow workers and these frontline heroes.

The imaginary middle class, created to make those earning £12 an hour look down on those making £8 an hour, is an attempt to distract from the real division between millions of working people and a handful of billionaires and to undermine working class unity. The ruling class don’t want solidarity between working people and that is why they foster the Thatcherite mentality of “I’m ok, so I don’t give a toss about you.” We’ve seen this with ‘Gradism’ within the NHS and other professions, for example, qualified nurses looking down on healthcare assistants or with teachers and teaching assistants. There are two things which are largely unrecognised in these situations: 1. It wouldn’t be possible for them to do their job without the work of those in other roles, and 2. It’s the fault of the government or employers, and the people who earn the entire yearly wage of an average worker 2 days into the calendar year.

Another significant point to note has been Boris Johnson’s adoption of seemingly progressive policies, many of which appeared in some form on Labour’s 2019 General Election manifesto. When these were proposed under Corbyn, they were slated as being unaffordable and purely fantasy, despite backings from several key economists who backed up the idea it was fully costed. Labour’s manifesto would have cost £82.9bn in additional spending on public services by 2023-24 but was nowhere near the 1.2tn the Conservatives estimated Corbynism would cost. We can see this is put down to media spin and influence; one only has to compare headlines hailing Johnson as heroic, and Corbyn’s policies at the time of the last General Election as shambolic. Media spin has resulted in support for Johnson still at a fairly steady 56%, and, just as with Brexit, the bar has already been set so low. Just because there aren’t riots in the streets, or food and medication shortages, Johnson may go down in history as the PM who led us through a pandemic. This could be his Churchill moment, and we need to be at the forefront, and pull back the curtain to reveal an undercurrent of class division, and policies which hinder, not help, the progress for the workers of Britain. 

Furthermore, it is also ironic that key policies like free universal broadband were hailed as unnecessary pre-Covid 19, yet would now go a long way to prevent the harrowing isolation which will be felt, and could arguably go some distance to preventing – in my opinion – the mental health epidemic we will surely see when this is over. Grassroots activism and continuous pressure on the government to adopt some progressive and “soft socialist” policies during this time – such as a Government promise to pay 80% of worker’s wages during this time when the virus prevents them from working, as well as others like temporary mortgage and rent breaks, and local government (temporarily) ending homelessness. This pandemic has further exposed a long-known truth, that these problems can be fixed, the ruling classes just choose not to. Theresa May claimed there was no ‘magic money tree’ for nurses to receive a pay rise, but it seems now that this virus is something which doesn’t discriminate on class lines, that same tree has quickly grown roots and flourished. 

To echo Gramsci, “the old world is dying, and a new one struggling to be born.” One thing is clear: times are changing, and we should capitalise on this at every possible opportunity. We need to not let things slide back into a complacent status-quo, we need to defend the gains for worker’s rights and rent breaks which were hard won during this pandemic. However softly socialist these material gains may seem, they are of course far from perfect, and are still markedly different than anything which would have been achieved under Corbyn. Again, whilst we are under no illusion that this crisis will hand us socialism on a silver platter, we are completely confident it will reshape the political landscape of Britain, and we, as the Communist Party and Communist youth, need to use our power in the wider labour movement to defend the material gains for Britain’s working people during this time of crisis.

When this is over, and things like homelessness numbers are at crisis point, and people are being evicted because they didn’t work enough hours in their zero hours job that week to make rent, we need to be demanding better. We have seen what can be possible, and we should stop at nothing to ensure that it becomes a permanent reality for the working people of Britain, who deserve so much better. 

Zoe McKeown