What is capitalism? A bold question to start an article with, for one.
To me, capitalism is many things — an economic system, a social arrangement, a racist, patriarchal devolution of society — but when reduced to its foundations, it is a power structure. It empowers a small minority of wealthy, property-owning and politically connected people and disempowers the vast majority of working people.
This absurd power structure is maintained through force, but it is also maintained by lies. And one lie, the most rotten lie, which sits at the core of capitalist logic, is being wholly exposed by the coronavirus crisis.
The lie is this: The power structure is natural. Low-wage, “unskilled” workers are interchangeable and unproductive, and those who live in decadent wealth are simply earning their fair share relative to their productivity.
Why, then, in a country-wide lockdown where all but the essential workers have been sent home, have the grocery store clerks and trash men and nurses and migrant farmworkers kept working? Where are the hedge fund managers and their ostensibly valuable contributions to society in these times? It is clear, perhaps now more than any time in recent history, that workers — not CEOs — are the engine of our economy.
It’s also telling that after just a week of lockdown, and amidst startling growth in new cases and deaths, President Trump, various state officials and the corporate media are suggesting re-opening the economy. The Lt. Governor of Texas was on Fox News the other day claiming that “lots of” grandparents would be willing to sacrifice their lives in order to restart the economy. The former CEO of Wells Fargo was recently quoted saying: “We’ll gradually bring those people back to work and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know.” These psychopaths want people to go back to work in the midst of a pandemic — to very literally sacrifice tens of thousands of lives — in order to protect their stock market.
Texas Lt Gov Dan Patrick went on national tv & argued elderly people should die for the health of the market. Capitalism is a system that priorities profits over people. This fight is literally a matter of life or death. Battle lines are being drawn. Which side are you on? pic.twitter.com/GI3LQZG7uo
— Chris Brooks (@chactivist) March 24, 2020
Their economy can’t survive without us. It is a house of cards, and if we withhold our labor, it collapses. Never forget the lesson of this moment: If we stand together, we are far more powerful than the bosses. If we stand together, we can win a better, more humane world.
George Orwell famously said (I know, I really need to stop quoting Orwell, but damn it if he doesn’t have some really excellent quotes): “The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that every-one does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”
If you accept Orwell’s assertion, it’s important to consider the implications. We could have enough for everyone. No one needs to go hungry, sleep on the street, work three jobs to make ends meet, go into debt to afford an education or die as a bystander in a bloody resource war. But instead, we have willfully organized civilization so that a small number of wealthy people control the world’s resources, and therefore, hold the power.
The rational solution to this problem is to let workers democratically control the economy and provide for the common good. This is the promise at the foundations of socialism.
So now, in this time of heightened class consciousness, we should embrace Orwell’s mantra. Organize your workplace to demand paid leave, to refuse to work until it is safe. Organize your building to collectively withhold rent until it is frozen. Organize to lift the murderous sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, for we have far more in common with the working people of the world than our bosses and politicians in America. Now is the time to radicalize, to talk to your neighbors and friends about the crises of capitalism occuring in plain sight.
We must embrace the socialist instinct — not just to weather this crisis, but to forge a better, more humane world.
“Socialism or barbarism,” the old slogan goes. The choice now is clear.
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Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.