A general strike is on the horizon in the US — but what happens after could change everything

The pandemic is making Americans question the logic of capitalism in a way no one could have imagined a month ago

Published March 31, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30, 2020 in New York City (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30, 2020 in New York City (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The global coronavirus pandemic has exposed a massive fissure in society, one between human life and economic value. Which do we value more? We certainly know where many politicians and titans of finance stand; hence the appeal from many of them to shorten the period of social distancing and send everyone back to work.

"Our country wasn't built to be shut down," said President Trump at a White House briefing, assuring the public that "America will, again, and soon, be open for business."

Senior chairman of Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein, a registered Democrat who recently announced that he would vote for Trump over Bernie Sanders, tweeted:

Extreme measures to flatten the virus "curve" is sensible-for a time-to stretch out the strain on health infrastructure. But crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue-and beyond. Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.

Even more disconcertingly, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, suggested on Fox News that it would be reasonable for the elderly to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the economy:

I'm not trying to think of it in any kind of morbid way, but I'm just saying that we've got a choice here, and we are going to be in a total collapse, recession, depression, collapse in our society. If this goes on another several months, there won't be any jobs to come back to for many people.

These kinds of callous remarks have been met with obvious outrage from workers who are being exposed to unprecedented risks on the job. But they've also provoked consternation from scientists and public health professionals, who are struggling to be heard over the clanging of the New York Stock Exchange bell. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, told the New York Times: "You can't call off the best weapon we have, which is social isolation, even out of economic desperation, unless you're willing to be responsible for a mountain of deaths."

"Can't we try to put people's lives first for at least a month?" Caplan continued.

The vast majority of people are likely to agree with Caplan: putting people's lives first makes a lot of sense. Which raises the question: why is this even a matter of public debate? What kind of social system do we live in that forces us to ask whether we can put people's lives first, for a month?

That forces us to question what our society's underlying values really are. This is very relevant to the sudden shift in how we think about work. Suddenly, we're all questioning what kind of work is actually "essential" and what isn't — that is, what kind of work we value as a society. Healthcare workers, those who give us access to necessities like food, toilet paper, and soap, all perform radically essential functions for our continued existence — even if those who do this work are usually granted lower status than those who design smartphone games and engineer luxury vehicles.

Nevertheless, there is a vast gulf between such "human values," and what constitutes economic value in a capitalist society. To understand how we came to live in a capitalist society that is poised to sacrifice millions for the sake of profits, it is always a good idea to look to capitalism's unparalleled critic, Karl Marx. "Every child knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish," he famously wrote in an 1868 letter.

But Marx wasn't just making the basic point that we need labor in order for a country to function. Neoliberal ideology has made this seem like a radical claim today, but it was actually taken for granted by the dominant economic thinkers of the period.

Marx was trying to argue something much more specific about how labor happens, as he started to lay out in the next sentence: "And every child knows, too, that the amounts of products corresponding to the differing amounts of needs demand differing and quantitatively determined amounts of society's aggregate labour."

In other words, different needs are met through different types and different durations of labor, which are all portions of the labor everyone has to do in society as a whole. Our society needs a certain amount of toilet paper, so a corresponding amount of labor time has to be devoted to manufacturing it. We need another specific amount of canned beans, which calls for another amount of labor time, so everyone's combined labor time has to be divided up accordingly. From the vantage point of meeting a society's overall needs, each individual labor process is best understood as a portion of this aggregate labor.

Finally, with an extremely dense sentence — bear with me, we'll try to make sense of it — Marx came to his central and original point: "the form in which this proportional distribution of labour asserts itself in a state of society in which the interconnection of social labour expresses itself as the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange value of these products."

What does this all mean? Marx had presented the whole argument systematically in the first volume of "Capital," which he published the year before this letter. As we've just established, the reproduction of human life — the meeting of people's subsistence needs — requires people to perform labor. That labor has to be organized and allocated socially somehow; otherwise, people won't be able to coordinate to do all the different kinds of tasks that are required to meet the diverse needs of the whole society. The overall labor that everyone in society performs has to be distributed in proportions that correspond to the society's needs.

But in capitalist societies — and here you have the weird and complicated reality Marx was trying to explain — this doesn't happen as the result of a consciously determined plan (which might seem like an awfully good idea at the moment). It also doesn't happen on the basis of tradition, as it may have in pre-capitalist societies; e.g., my father was a blacksmith, so I too become a blacksmith. In capitalist societies, the allocation of labor is determined through the exchange of the products of labor on the market.

While the ideologues of capitalism would like us to see this as a natural condition, Marx showed that it's definitely not. It's specific to capitalist societies, because under capitalism people don't have direct access to the things they need to perform this labor: land, machinery, materials. These "means of production," as Marx called them, are owned by a small minority as private property. For Marx, the part of society that we might today call the "one percent" isn't defined in terms of its relative wealth or status, but in terms of its ownership of property..

In short, those of us who don't own the means of production — which corresponds, more or less, to the "99 percent" — are dependent on working for wages to get what we need to survive.

This is why Marx rejected the socialist slogan, which at first glance it might seem like he would agree with, that "labor is the source of all wealth and culture." Nature, he pointed out, is also a source of wealth, and to produce anything through labor, we need to have access to it in some way. But in capitalist societies, only some people are the "owners" of nature! The rest of us, Marx wrote in "Critique of the Gotha Program," "can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission."

Now, the pandemic is making a lot of people question this arrangement. How, exactly does society decide who does what job, and who makes what? Why are there so few ventilators, oxygen machines, masks and coronavirus testing kits being produced quickly in the United States?

The answer is that labor isn't allocated based on what is useful, but by competition on the market for profit. A huge number of ventilators and coronavirus testing kits would be very useful indeed right now, but the free market is having tremendous trouble allocating our labor to produce that kind of thing efficiently. Quite simply, labor isn't allocated based on human need; it is based on the market exchange of its products. And the goal of this exchange is the capitalist accumulation of economic value.

The fact that so much of the labor people normally do from day to day can now be deemed "non-essential" gives us a kind of illustration of how capitalists accumulate economic value. Only a small portion of the total labor done by society, as we're seeing now, is actually required for human survival. But we can't access the products of that labor without money. In other words, we're dependent on the market for survival. Employers need to pay us enough money so that we can access those products on the market and show up to work the next day. But they don't need to pay us any more than that. (That is, unless we demand that they do.) So when the capitalist economy is functioning normally, all of this extra, "surplus" labor we do gets churned through the process of commodity exchange and comes back to the capitalist as profit. This is Marx's theory of exploitation.

As many feminists have pointed out since Marx, this also applies to the kinds of work that might seem to be outside the capitalist job market. Housework and care work have traditionally been assigned to women, and treated as a gift from nature. But this has obscured the fact that these kinds of work also produce a commodity: the ability to work, or "labor-power," which is exactly what we sell to our bosses every time we clock in.

As schools and other public services close due to the pandemic, this "reproductive" labor is expanding rapidly: people will have to spend more and more of their time looking after children and the elderly, cleaning and disinfecting every surface, and stockpiling groceries. If this doesn't happen, there won't be a labor force after the crisis. But capitalists don't expect to have to pay for this extra labor. Sometimes they're willing to let the state pay, in the form of welfare and public services; but they're also eager to find opportunities to privatize these services and make us pay for them ourselves. Fast food, for example, allows people racing between two or three low-paying jobs to substitute a portion of their wages for the time, which they have precious little of, that it would take to cook for their families. As Angela Davis argued, what this actually demonstrates is that we have the technological capacity to make the private burden of housework obsolete, if tasks like meal preparation, cleaning, and child care could be socialized and subsidized. Instead, they fall upon a super-exploited domestic workforce consisting largely of women of color.

You don't have to get through the three volumes of "Capital" to see that this situation is incredibly bizarre. It means that the performance of work which is required for our survival is only done so that those at the top, capitalists, can accumulate economic value.

This is a tricky definition, because "value" doesn't mean actual wealth — as in more stuff, which could be useful in various ways. It's the pursuit of more wealth in the form of money — which reaches absurd heights in the world of financiers, whose volatile fortunes end up determining our destinies.

The fact that this scenario is bizarre doesn't change the fact that it is real. In capitalist society, people need to be buying and selling commodities for the allocation of labor to take place. In this irrational order, it doesn't really matter whether you're doing anything useful for the world. If you're producing things that others buy, and generate profit for your employer in the process, you're performing labor that's necessary to create economic value. The "non-essential" labor is actually quite essential for the overall system.

In this context, the profit motive actually does determine whether we live or die. Because of market competition, the accumulation of capital requires constant growth and expansion. Capitalists are all in competition with each other, and any capitalist who fails to aggressively raise profits and increase productivity will be pushed out of the market by other capitalists. From the perspective of human values, the statement "life should take priority over profit" is sensible. From the perspective of economic value, life can only be sustained insofar as it facilitates the relentless drive for profits.

But this isn't just a lie that capitalists tell. It's actually the cruel and twisted reality of the system we live in: our needs are met only insofar as there's a favorable climate for the pursuit of profit.

This is what is so peculiar about this pandemic, how it is exposing the irrationality of this system. Even before the current pandemic, capitalism was constantly suffering crises — because competitive accumulation leads to situations in which some industries produce more commodities than they can sell; or capitalists sink investments in machinery that quickly becomes obsolete; or people don't have enough money to buy the commodities they need; or financial growth leads to bubbles that inevitably pop; or the underlying infrastructural requirements for production like roads are not profitable to build. Or, in this case, a virus puts the very existence of human life into question.

This is why governments have to step in, to regulate industry and finance, provide effective demand through spending, build infrastructure, and so on. But they operate in a contradictory situation, because if their activity threatens capitalist profitability, the whole system that actually determines the way people meet their needs could collapse, and they could lose the tax revenue that allows them to fund their programs.

This is the contradiction we're seeing around the novel coronavirus. Social distancing is an absolute requirement for human survival. The labor we do to keep society working is impossible to perform if we're sick, not to mention dead. But at the same time, if the economic crisis continues to become more severe and accumulation grinds to a halt, so will the allocation of social labor. People will indeed lose their jobs. There will be a long-term depression.

The only way to resolve this contradiction within our current situation is for governments to mercilessly take measures that threaten the private property of capitalists and the "free market." The more they take control of the private property of necessary industries through nationalization, provide public services and cash payments, and displace market relations by social planning, the more likely it is that we will be able to mitigate the effects of the pandemic while still allowing people to meet their survival needs. In the absence of such changes, human values are powerless against economic value.

In other countries, these measures are being implemented with some success. But unfortunately, capitalist states — especially ours — are often reluctant to take these measures. Even where these changes are being made on a broader scale — think of the nationalization of hospitals in Spain and Ireland and Denmark's measures against mass layoffs — governments are thinking about restoring conditions for accumulation in the future, and imposing austerity to compensate for their temporary concessions. (Indeed, US states are already making cuts.)

In some cases, there are factions of the ruling class which are willing to threaten the short-term interests of capitalists in order to restore equilibrium: Bill Gates, for example, who advocates for an "extreme shutdown." Other factions of the ruling class, like those in power in Texas and DC, are willing to sacrifice our lives to preserve capitalist social relations. It is entirely possible that the faction of the ruling class which is willing to gamble on mass deaths in order to get the economy running again will succeed in sending people back to work.

The only way we know to ensure that the outcome is one which protects the vast majority of the population which works for a living is to engage in class struggle. This isn't the same as defending human values, which are meaningless in a society governed by economic value. Despite our recognition of what kind of work is really necessary for human life, capitalism is indifferent to this realization; neither capitalists nor the capitalist state will be moved by it. We have to actually disrupt the efforts of the ruling class to control our lives and put us at risk. Appealing to the values of politicians and capitalists won't get us anywhere.

Social distancing appeared, at first, to be a kind of passive, potential "general strike": a situation in which many people across industries stopped working and brought the economy to a halt. Since capitalism depends on the exploitation of labor for accumulation, this kind of mass refusal to work poses a fundamental threat to the system.

General strikes, as an active tactic of class struggle, have happened before throughout U.S. history. W.E.B. Du Bois famously described, during the Civil War, a "general strike" of enslaved people who, in one of the most significant events of self-emancipation in modern history, left the plantations and refused to work, forcing the escalation of the war towards the abolition of slavery.

In Seattle — where the US coronavirus outbreak began and where Amazon is now poised to reap record profits from the pandemic, owing to the continued labor of its workers in dangerous conditions — a general strike shut down the city in 1919. This was the year after the Spanish flu epidemic, which had already led to a major shutdown of the city. Starting in the shipbuilding industry and spreading across trades, people all over Seattle refused to work, demanding higher wages. But they also engaged in careful planning to ensure that everyone's survival needs would be met through mutual aid —hospitals would remain open, milk would be delivered, and garbage would be collected. They were not only demanding better working conditions, but were taking back control of their lives from capital.

The Seattle general strike provoked a strong anti-communist reaction, stirring up fears that had been raised by the Russian Revolution two years earlier, and the city government was prepared to use police and military repression to bring it to an end. Ultimately, the strikers found themselves in a stalemate. They had to either escalate their struggle to challenge the dominant political power, or retreat. Union bureaucracies began to withdraw their support. Slowly, people returned to work and the general strike came to an end.

Recently, we appeared to be on the verge of being forced into a general strike by the pandemic, but it quickly became clear that such a measure is a serious threat to the capitalist system. The ruling class now wants to put a stop to the general strike. To preserve social distancing means extending and prolonging the general strike, as Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods workers are announcing this week. Workers at General Electric are reviving the practice of combining the strike with the principle of mutual aid. These workers normally produce jet engines, but management, citing the effect of the pandemic on the aviation industry, recently announced mass layoffs. In response workers at the GE plant in Lynn, Massachusetts walked off the job and, standing six feet apart, demanded that the plant be repurposed for the production of ventilators. In the context of the irrationality and harmfulness of capitalist production, it's the workers who are stepping up to impose rational and life-saving measures.

However, as the 1919 Seattle general strike illustrates, there are strategic problems that any strike will encounter. Disruptions like strikes happen throughout the history of capitalism, and often spur the system to develop and adapt in new ways. Struggles over the length of the working day, for example, forced capitalists to develop technologies that made labor more productive, and generated a leap in development.

It's impossible to say what kind of "leap" may take place today. It may be quite ugly, and will likely involve the transfer of the greatest costs of the crisis onto the most vulnerable of our population. So far, this is exactly the plan. As Naomi Klein recently said, "Political and economic elites understand that moments of crisis [are] their chance to push through their wish list of unpopular policies that further polarize wealth in this country and around the world."

For the refusal of work to actually change the underlying structure of society, there has to be a passage to the political level of organization. There has to be some kind of independent organization which challenges the existing structures of political power and channels the refusal of work into the demand for an entirely different system.

This kind of organization used to be the political party, but it isn't clear what it will look like now. We don't have the mass political parties that existed before the crisis situations of the 20th century revolutions, and the political parties that are part of our existing governments are totally bureaucratic and top-down, and resistant to change. The challenges by figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders have been systematically shut down by elites.

So we need to figure out how to build new organizations that can facilitate and advance the necessary class struggle. Indeed, in this pandemic moment, millions are suddenly realizing how irrational our economic system is. It's inevitable in this moment that we will all be thinking about what an ethical system of values would look like, and how that would determine our response to the pandemic in a more rational world. But for that kind of thinking to be anything more than speculation, we have to first recognize that this can never be realized within the capitalist system, and we have to start to think politically about what it would take to change the system.

By Asad Haider

Asad Haider is the author of "Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump" (Verso, 2018), and an editor of Viewpoint Magazine.

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