The final months of 2021 were celebrated by the ruling classes across the world, and particularly in Australia, as the beginning of the end of the pandemic. They insisted that society would be returning to normal, saved by the widespread availability of vaccines. Finally it would be possible to live with the virus at minimal human, social and economic cost.
Yet before the year was up, COVID had struck back, forcing the massive celebrations planned for the New Year to be scaled back. For most people, the stroke of midnight was met not with hope but with dread, driven by rightful concern for public health and inflation-driven drops in living standards.
Omicron is driving a wave of cases that is pushing case numbers to record heights the world over. The famed “mildness” of the variant has not prevented it from driving hospital admissions in many countries, and, in Australia at least, deaths, beyond the worst days of the pandemic so far. Even if this wave subsides, there is every reason to expect a new wave or variant down the track. In the absence of a globally coordinated campaign to suppress, if not eradicate, the virus, we remain trapped in a deadly game of Russian roulette, as politicians stake millions of our lives on the unpredictable outcomes of COVID’s evolutionary imperatives.
Just as the roaring 1920s became synonymous with economic and cultural flamboyance, the 2020s are set to be defined by this seemingly endless pandemic. As a result, it looks set to be a decade in which the working class is subject to the most extreme forms of oppression, exploitation and death since the world wars of the early twentieth century.
The past two years have seen the virus cut a terrible swathe through humanity. At the time of writing, researchers at the Economist magazine – not known for its compassion for the world’s poor – estimate that 19.8 million people have been killed by COVID. The pandemic is therefore approaching the death toll of World War I. As in the killing fields of Europe, so it is in the hospitals today: risks are never distributed equally. The major casualties of this virus have been workers and the poor, those who are unable to isolate themselves from dangerous environments, or lack the means to access the full spectrum of care needed to avoid, or survive, a COVID infection.
This is commonly understood as a geographical and national division between the global North and South. Hence the widespread and righteous fury at the ongoing global vaccine apartheid that denies the global South access to lifesaving treatments. There are other examples of this divide; one of the most underreported is the criminal failure of wealthy countries to cancel the debt of the impoverished, which has prevented them from engaging in desperately needed social spending. This has resulted not just in unnecessary misery through the pandemic so far, but also condemns these countries to years of lower growth in its aftermath.
Yet the crisis belies a simplistic third worldist analysis. For instance, deaths per capita in the UK and Italy are substantially higher than in their traditional imperial stomping grounds in Nigeria and Ethiopia, even taking into consideration the discrepancies in testing and reporting. Though there are of course geopolitical dynamics, a comprehensive account of this disaster requires more serious analysis with class at its centre. It is frontline and essential workers – usually drawn disproportionately from oppressed groups – who have sacrificed the most to keep society functioning. This holds true in New York and Melbourne as much as it does in Ankara and Rio de Janeiro. In particular, health workers have borne the brunt of the past two years, facing long hours and high casualty counts, with no end in sight. Little wonder that they are leaving the industry in record numbers.
The pandemic is far from the only example of capitalism’s threat to human life. The spectacle of another failed international climate conference – in a year when Texas froze and Siberia burned – was a reminder of the runaway climate crisis. The plates of world imperialism continue to shift as the West attempts to contain China’s rise, even at the risk of direct military confrontation. At the same time, US weakness – real or perceived – is encouraging Putin, Xi and other players to take increasingly bold risks, most dramatically in Ukraine. Meanwhile, inflation and economic instability threaten living standards in much of the world. This is compounded in poorer nations, where higher US interest rates will turn painfully high debt repayments into insurmountable ones. To top it all off, an emboldened far right is gaining influence in much of the advanced capitalist world, riding on a wave of violent campaigns against the limited public health measures that remain in place.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that a sense of doom casts a pall over society.
It is clear now that this is a protracted, era-defining crisis. While early predictions of a new great depression – made by Marxist and bourgeois economists alike back in 2020 – may have been misplaced, there is no sign that the situation is being resolved. The incredibly rapid development of the new vaccines was heralded as a panacea twelve months ago, but they have revealed themselves to be inadequate. Social distancing, lockdowns and mask mandates have been abandoned or undermined by inconsistent application. The quasi-generous payments doled out in 2020 are history. There is no section of capital that is serious about using the crisis to launch a reforming project. There will be no building back better, as indicated by Biden’s pathetic defeat at the hands of Joe Manchin and an increasingly self-confident Republican party. Beyond these contingent factors, his plans for a weak Keynesian turn were thwarted by a complacent and ill-disciplined bourgeoisie, who prefer to risk a second Trump term than pay marginally more tax.
For the left, the situation is made worse by the pacification of the historic social struggles that shook the world in 2019. Some reached their limits, as with Hong Kong and Lebanon. Others were tamed into gradualist channels, as in Chile, while others, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, were simply violently suppressed. Crucially for the Western left, the wave of struggle around the climate – and to a lesser extent, women’s rights – has been completely squashed by the pandemic. There have been no new issues filling the void of mass resistance so far. Despite COVID being a workplace health and safety issue second to none, few unions have taken the opportunity to organise in defence of their members against callous bosses and governments. While teachers in Chicago and the UK have demonstrated some of the possibilities, overall the workers’ movement has been notable for its passivity in the face of this unprecedented crisis. Worse, some unions have made defending the small number of anti-vax reactionaries among them a priority. For these and other reasons, the workers’ movement shows few signs of a sustained revival even as labour shortages and rising inflation mean that objectively, the conditions for industrial action are favourable.
Here in Australia, the Morrison government is in a struggle for its very survival. It has been badly damaged by its failure to prepare for the disastrous reopening of society, which has resulted in Australia having suffered at times the worst rates of infection, hospitalisation and deaths in the world. Morrison appears as a man adrift, his front bench having deliberately exited stage right, leaving him to face the consequences of their policy choices. It is satisfying to see this cruel and heartless monster, who once awarded himself a boat-shaped trophy for his barbaric treatment of refugees, who brought a lump of coal to parliament as if it were a sacred religious icon, and who has flirted with the anti-vax far right, thrashing around so helplessly.
Yet the hard truth is that an Albanese Labor government offers workers nothing better. Federal Labor have said and done nothing to differentiate themselves from the Coalition since 2019, adopting instead a small-target strategy. They have supported each and every one of the policies and plans that led to the COVID catastrophe we currently face. They also backed the government’s reactionary tax cuts for the super wealthy, and abandoned the very limited and tepid social democratic reforms championed by their former leader, Bill Shorten. Their climate policy is a hollow shell, promising nothing and refusing to offer a plan to achieve it, for fear of alienating the coal and gas industry. The state Labor premiers, who for a time carried a marginally more sensible pandemic policy in the face of corporate opposition, have now overwhelmingly capitulated to the relentless drive to reopen the economy. While WA premier Mark McGowan has maintained the minimal measure of keeping his border with the ravaged eastern states closed, he joins other Labor premiers in having failed to invest in a hospital system that could not cope with the regular healthcare needs of the country, even without COVID. Given all this, and the failure of the Greens to make themselves a force of resistance to the major parties, it will be vital that as many people on the left as possible support the Victorian Socialists campaigns in upcoming federal and state elections.
The most dynamic factor in Australian politics has been the far right. Australia, the country that has been one of the safest throughout the pandemic, has perversely become, in the twisted perspective of the global anti-vax movement, a land of tyranny and dictatorship. Boosted by this international attention, existing far-right figures joined with new faces to mobilise enormous demonstrations on a regular basis. While some on the left were confused by their appropriation of democratic discourse, the violent attack the anti-vax movement launched on the headquarters of the traditionally militant construction union in Melbourne served to clarify the stakes of the moment. In a context of the largest right-wing demonstrations since the depression of the 1930s, the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism has taken small but important steps to cohere resistance to this new threat.
Faced with a difficult situation characterised by escalating crises but an inadequate response from workers and the left, it is worth returning to fundamentals. Marx’s historical writings repeatedly emphasise the significance of crises in the development of human society; they lead to ruptures, instability, they open up the possibility of radical transformations, from above and below, precisely because they are subjectively devastating and destabilising for those who live through them. There would have been a revolution in Russia regardless of World War I, but the catastrophic toll of the war made success more likely, by radicalising the tsarist army and the peasantry on which it was based. A similarly terrible experience drove German sailors to mutiny in 1918, inspiring a revolution that shook the foundations of capitalism in one of the world’s most important countries. The Bengal famine spurred the Indian independence movement to new heights, while the horrors of the Great Depression led millions of workers to revolutionary conclusions. Reflecting on the defeat of the 1905 revolution in Russia, Leon Trotsky describes this contradictory relationship between crisis and progress in the following moving passage:
The whole of history is an enormous machine in the service of our ideals. It works with barbarous slowness, with insensitive cruelty, but it works. We are sure of it. But when its omnivorous mechanism swallows up our life’s blood for fuel, we feel like calling out to it with all the strength we still possess: “Faster! Do it faster!”
The point here is not to make predictions about impending revolutionary struggle, nor to offer pat optimism in the face of a terrible situation. Rather, it is to say that the horrors of capitalism are, in a contradictory and painful way, engines for social change. Regardless of its short-term impact, the bitter experience of the pandemic for billions of workers is itself a social fact of central importance, and will likely have substantial political implications in the years to come. Some will conclude that capitalism is a failed system, others that it is merely radically unfair, and needs drastic reform. Some will not think in terms of capitalism at all, but simply burn with rage at the murderous incompetence of their government. Without predicting the pace of developments, these dynamics can lead to struggle and opportunities for the left as well as the right.
In the meantime, as Trotsky’s quote implies, the left cannot sit back and watch the capitalist machine grind on, but must attempt to make itself a factor in the historical process, at whatever scale is possible at a particular juncture. As part of this approach of building resistance wherever possible, the project of rebuilding a specifically revolutionary current is vital. For surely now, after two years of this pandemic, it is clear that belief in a humane capitalism that protects the lives and wellbeing of its population is more utopian and fantastical than a determined struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the entire barbaric mess.
The Economist 2021, “The pandemic’s true death toll”. https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/coronavirus-excess-deaths-estimates, accessed 24 January.
Henwood, Doug 2022, “No Strike Wave In 2021”, 17 January. LBO News, https://lbo-news.com/2022/01/17/no-strike-wave-in-2021/
Trotsky, Leon 1907, 1905. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1907/1905/