Writing in 1918, Lenin reflected on the ârottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy of capitalismâ.Â Â In the same text he wrote also of bourgeois democracy being âa paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploitedâ:Â The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.Â Â 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.Â Â
At the time of the lockdown, about a third of the workforce was designated as âcritical workersâ â engaged in health and social care, as well as in transport, food distribution and retail.Â Â Unlike others who could work from home, most âcritical workersâ 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.Â 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.Â Yet the hypocrisy continues, with âinflation bustingâ pay rises announced for some public sector workers, including doctors and teachers.Â But nothing for many others in the public and private sectors who have been on the front line:Â Â 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.Â Â But along with exploitation and low pay, we also confront the reality of âcritical workersâ being exposed to Covid-19 and dying as a result.Â 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.Â Â Stockpiles not replenished were allowed to become obsolete.Â 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. Â Â Â 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 Stateâs failure to provide basic protective equipment that revealed ârottenness, mendacity and hypocrisyâ.Â Â Our inadequate labour laws failed to require employers to have in place occupational sickness schemes, leaving workers dependent on statutory sick pay of only ÂŁ95.85 a week. Â Â Workers with mild symptoms of the disease were thus expected to choose debt and immiseration as the price of altruism.Â Â Bad employment practices are a risk to public health, as well as the health of the workers themselves.
Equally offensive â and equally a threat to public health – are the funding arrangements for the delivery of public services.Â Â Public services have been outsourced to profit-making international service companies.Â These companies have led the way with the commodification of labour â using workers only as and when needed.Â 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.Â 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.Â Â 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.Â Â Nowhere is there a better example of Leninâs thesis in The StateÂ that the bourgeois democracy is a âmachineâ used by businesses to âmaintain their powerâ.Â Â And nowhere is there a better example of Leninâs thesis that the more democratic the State âthe cruder and more cynical is the rule of capitalismâ.Â Â On the eve of the lockdown, the âdemocraticâ House of Commons authorised ÂŁ266 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.Â Since then we have seen only the abuse of union leaders â 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.Â At the same time, there has so far been no response publicly from the government to maintain State intervention to protect jobs.Â 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.Â Â Yet the response of the neo-liberals is as predictable as it is risible.Â Â According to Sajid Javid â some-time Tory Chancellor writing in The TimesÂ just after the lockdown started â âthe free market is the only way to revive the economyâ, insisting that after the pandemic has passed âwe must not allow the Left to win the argument about wealth creationâ.
That was followed by a Daily TelegraphÂ columnist writing a week later in celebration of Marco Datini, a 14thÂ century Italian entrepreneur, who âemerged from the plagues of 14thÂ century Tuscany an even richer manâ.Â Said to be the âforerunner of the modern businessmanâ, Datini was âproof that if there is one thing as adaptive to change as viruses, itâs capitalismâ.Â We now know who has paid with their lives and livelihoods as a result of Covid-19.Â Â 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.Â Â It is true that billions of pounds have been spent on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and other measures designed to bail out business.Â Â Indeed some cling to the naĂŻve 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. Continue reading