Professor Keith Ewing: Covid-19 has exposed a failing state

Professor Keith Ewing, president of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

Writing in 1918, Lenin reflected on the ‘rottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy of capitalism’.   In the same text he wrote also of bourgeois democracy being ‘a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited’:  The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.   While of course Lenin knew nothing of Covid-19, the wisdom of both observations has been brutally exposed by the pandemic, as badly exploited workers have been failed by the State, with their trade unions both increasingly marginalised and vilified.  

At the time of the lockdown, about a third of the workforce was designated as ‘critical workers’ – engaged in health and social care, as well as in transport, food distribution and retail.   Unlike others who could work from home, most ‘critical workers’ had to be physically present.

Although not true of all critical workers, a large number were in low paid employment, dependant on the minimum wage.  Moreover, as a group, their income had fallen by 4% over the last ten years compared to 0.3% for all workers.

At the moment of its greatest crisis the government was thus demanding that the greatest sacrifice should be made by those who were least well rewarded and in some cases those most vulnerable.  Yet the hypocrisy continues, with ‘inflation busting’ pay rises announced for some public sector workers, including doctors and teachers.  But nothing for many others in the public and private sectors who have been on the front line:   care workers, food production and distribution workers, bus drivers, and a host of others.

Others still – such as taxi and delivery drivers as well as others in the gig economy – are waiting on a UK Supreme Court decision in the Ubercase argued last week to find out if they qualify for the statutory minimum wage, or to receive holiday pay.   But along with exploitation and low pay, we also confront the reality of ‘critical workers’ being exposed to Covid-19 and dying as a result. This is due in part to the unwillingness of government to keep people safe – the first responsibility of the State.

Successive Tory governments have failed to maintain the most basic personal protection equipment.   Stockpiles not replenished were allowed to become obsolete.  The government had no domestic capacity to manufacture PPE, and failed in its emergency legislation to take the power to requisition private property to manufacture and distribute essential equipment.    It was thus forced to rely on over-stretched global supply chains, these based in part in seems on the gross exploitation in Malaysia of Burmese migrant workers.

But it was not only the State’s failure to provide basic protective equipment that revealed ‘rottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy’.   Our inadequate labour laws failed to require employers to have in place occupational sickness schemes, leaving workers dependent on statutory sick pay of only £95.85 a week.   Workers with mild symptoms of the disease were thus expected to choose debt and immiseration as the price of altruism.   Bad employment practices are a risk to public health, as well as the health of the workers themselves.

Equally offensive – and equally a threat to public health – are the funding arrangements for the delivery of public services.   Public services have been outsourced to profit-making international service companies. These companies have led the way with the commodification of labour – using workers only as and when needed. Hence the explosion of agency workers employed in different locations, inadvertently exposed to the risk of carrying disease from one site to another.

Add to which the exclusion of trade unions over many years.  True, the unions were inspirational in helping to secure incomes during the initial stages of the pandemic for nine million workers with their proposal for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.   But although a real feather in the cap of leading trade unionists, the Scheme as introduced gave no rights to workers, it being entirely at the discretion of the employer whether to enrol workers under the Scheme or to make them redundant.

This was above all else a scheme to protect big business, workers its secondary beneficiaries.   Nowhere is there a better example of Lenin’s thesis in The State that the bourgeois democracy is a ‘machine’ used by businesses to ‘maintain their power’.   And nowhere is there a better example of Lenin’s thesis that the more democratic the State ‘the cruder and more cynical is the rule of capitalism’.  On the eve of the lockdown, the ‘democratic’ House of Commons authorised £266 billion government support to business, no questions asked.

Yet while trade unions nevertheless won plaudits for preserving incomes, this was to change when Johnson returned to duty and workers were being coerced back to work.  Since then we have seen only the abuse of union leaders – notably in the NEU – insisting rightly on the need to ensure that proper steps are taken to protect the health and safety of their members.  At the same time, there has so far been no response publicly from the government to maintain State intervention to protect jobs.  On the contrary, jobs are now slipping away on a daily basis.

We are on the threshold of one of the greatest economic crises of capitalism, as measured by GDP decline, business closures, unemployment and universal credit applications.   Yet the response of the neo-liberals is as predictable as it is risible.   According to Sajid Javid – some-time Tory Chancellor writing in The Times just after the lockdown started – ‘the free market is the only way to revive the economy’, insisting that after the pandemic has passed ‘we must not allow the Left to win the argument about wealth creation’.

That was followed by a Daily Telegraph columnist writing a week later in celebration of Marco Datini, a 14th century Italian entrepreneur, who ‘emerged from the plagues of 14th century Tuscany an even richer man’.  Said to be the ‘forerunner of the modern businessman’, Datini was ‘proof that if there is one thing as adaptive to change as viruses, it’s capitalism’. We now know who has paid with their lives and livelihoods as a result of Covid-19.   We will find out soon enough who has benefitted financially at their expense.

But in the meantime it seems most likely that the neo-liberal road will be the direction of travel of the Tory government, a government for whom the word mendacious was created to describe.   It is true that billions of pounds have been spent on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and other measures designed to bail out business.   Indeed some cling to the naïve belief that under the Johnson government the spending taps will be turned on forever, and that no austerity measures will be introduced to cut the levels of government expenditure.

The signals from the government, however, are not whether there will be a fresh round of austerity.  Rather it is a question of how much and for how long?    Even more progressive voices appear to have accepted the disciplines of economic liberalism, arguing for what would be only modest changes.  A good example is the Resolution Foundation gingerly advancing minimal reforms such as increasing the level of the minimum wage to the level of the ‘typical wage’.

But this is not an answer to the systemic failures we are now confronting.  Writing on Britain at the time of the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act 1912, Lenin commented in Pravda that a statutory minimum wage ‘cannot bring about any appreciable improvement’, subsequently condemning also in Pravda the statutory minimum as in part ‘a miserable half measure’, and in part ‘a mere deception of the workers’.   These are judgments justified by more recent experience with the inaptly named statutory minimum wage:  it is nothing of the kind.

Rather, what we have is a national minimum hourly rate which does not guarantee a wage, the failings of which are so profound that the national minimum wage is not a solution to any problem.   Equally inadequate are the Resolution Foundation’s proposals for 21stcentury trade boards for sectors such as social care.   This falls far short of the progressive proposals promoted by the Labour Party under previous leadership, and fails to address the deep systemic problems of inadequate wage regulation throughout the economy.

Perhaps the best that can be said of the Resolution Foundation’s proposals is that they are rooted in the late Victorian era in contrast to the neo-liberals who seem to have sunk in the 1850s.   For some, this may be progress of sorts.   But even the IMF’s Kristalina Georgieva has been able to fast forward to the 1940s, urging global leaders to ‘recognise the success of the 1942 Beveridge report, which put forward reforms to raise wealth and health standards across Britain, and was ready to implement when the war was over’.

Social liberalism might be a step beyond the economic liberalism that preceded it.  But a more convincing document from the 1940s is the ILO’s Declaration of Philadelphia, which set out the international Bill of Social Rights.    There we find the commitment of the international community to the principle that ‘labour is not a commodity’, and an undertaking to ensure a ‘just share of the fruits of progress to all’, measures which the UK endorsed and by which we are still bound.

But despite Johnson’s faux commitment at the 2019 general election to levelling up, there is no chance of these ILO principles being re-affirmed, any more than there is any chance of a re-commitment to the third great principle, ‘the effective recognition of the right of collective bargaining’.  Although a swing to social democracy would be welcome, the conditions that made the Declaration of Philadelphia plausible simply no longer exist.   The tripartite ILO is now captured by populist right wing governments, and by global corporations.

The context is the failure to get any form of international co-operation or agreement on how to deal with the health aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO wounded by incessant US attacks.   Given the context, it would be equally impossible to secure any international agreement – for example through the ILO – to deal with worker protection. Trump is interested only in weaponising the ILO as an instrument of ‘America First’, as the press release of his Secretary of State at the ILO centenary celebrations made abundantly clear.

What is to be Done?   This is the great question asked by Lenin in a different dispute with social democrats in very different times from the present.  In answering that question today, it would be worth revisiting the post-October 1917 Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People, published in Pravdain 1918 but attributed to Lenin.   A year before the ‘great powers’ were meekly committing in the ILO Constitution to the principle that ‘labour is not a commodity’, Lenin was demanding that we ‘demolish all exploitation’.

By exploitation, Lenin was not demanding the end to modern slavery, forced labour or trafficking, practices that have mushroomed in modern times to stain deregulated neo-liberal ‘civilisations’.   Nor was he demanding the end to low pay, or the introduction of what the ILO Centenary Declaration refers to as an ‘adequate’ (or subsistence) minimum wage.  Rather, he was addressing something much more fundamental, namely wage labour under capitalist systems of production.

This is a demand that needs to be articulated with clarity, a demand the case for which has been ventilated by the pandemic and the sacrifices that the many have made for the few.   It points to the need to reassess how we value work and reward labour, with a view to promoting equality to reflect our mutual dependence.   The overriding aim in the elimination of exploitation is to promote equality.  But as Lenin wrote in the The Stateshortly after the 1918 Declaration, ‘as long as there is exploitation there can be no equality’.

With that in mind, and in the light of the experience of critical workers, there are hard questions now to be asked:  why is a banker paid more than a nurse; why is a care worker paid less than a stock-broker?   Why?  How can we possibly justify paying the great army of critical workers an hourly rate of £8.20 or £8.72 an hour? To compound the real insult, why is this work undertaken for profit by international capital on behalf of the British state to deliver services to the public?

It is grotesque.   The need is for a system that rewards work in terms of its value to the community, not in terms of an economic calculus, or responsiveness to markets, ‘labour’ or otherwise.  The need is for the wealth created by us all to be shared by us all, for work to be fairly rewarded, and for caps to be imposed on the accumulation of wealth.  All of which would require a massive change in the role of the State, as the expression of our collective interest rather than a source of oppression to protect the interests of a wealthy minority.

The other striking feature of the post-October 1917 Declaration is the commitment to procedures ‘for the purpose of guaranteeing the power of working people’.  Soviet labour law scholars Roman Livshitz and Vasili Nikitinsky were to write subsequently about how such procedures were entrenched to give trade unions the right to initiate legislation on workers’ rights, and to be consulted by government before any measures, ‘there being no case of a law or government decision adopted against the view’ of leading trade unions.

Equally, trade unions were engaged in the detailed sectoral or ‘branch’ regulation of the economy, where decisions affecting workers had to be ‘endorsed by the highest trade union body of the industry’ in question.   Similarly, at enterprise level, ‘labour questions cannot be settled without trade union agreement’.  This was true of collective as well as individual decisions, including the dismissal of a worker which required the prior approval of the trade union committee in the enterprise.

These procedures are just as important as the substance, and an essential means of ensuring the elimination of ‘all exploitation’ as that term was used by Lenin.   They point to the need for a permanently entrenched trade union role in regulation alongside more general representative institutions.   As such they also point to the need for autonomy of economic institutions, if necessary to by-pass the restraints of parliamentary institutions, the subversive purposes in the service of capitalism Lenin exposed with great clarity in The State.

To conclude, Covid-19 has exposed a failing State unable or unwilling to protect badly exploited workers.   At this stage it is by no means clear how great the Covid-19 disaster will be or how many victims it will claim.  But as the crisis unfolds, it is worth returning to the masters to understand what is happening and why, and why the political process yields such little progress.  As Lenin reminds us in The State, ‘once capital exists, it dominates the whole of society, and no democratic republic, no franchise can change its nature’.

It is a sobering insight.

Keith Ewing Professor Keith Ewing is President of the Institute of Employment Rights and the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom.   This article is based on a lecture on Covid-19 and Workers’ Rights: Delivering a Progressive Futuredelivered at the Marx Memorial Library on 23rd July 2020.

Facebook Twitter Plusone Linkedin Pinterest Email
This entry was posted in Campaign For Trade Union Freedom News. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *