by Ken Ferguson
· It is said that when the British Army finally lost the revolutionary war with the US they marched away from the surrender ceremony playing a march called The World Turned Upside Down. Maybe time to dust it off once more.
As I write, Boris Johnson is in intensive care with Covid-19 (C-19) and that is, in many ways, an apt metaphor for where this crisis has placed not just the UK but swathes of the developed industrial world.
However the unprecedented crisis flowing from the virus with its lockdowns, social distancing, draconian police powers, empty supermarket shelves and deserted streets also has a particular aspect which is the direct responsibility of the British ruling class.
Under the supposed super-patriot Margaret Thatcher, Britain was the pioneer of industry-trashing neoliberalism, which saw thousands of factories closed, millions sacked, and priceless skills and knowledge cast to the four winds.
Make no mistake, this was a considered policy shift which was bolstered by a servile right wing media which portrayed UK workers as incompetents, lazy and strike-crazed.
Gallons of printers ink and acres of newsprint relentlessly peddled this myth, turning workers into villains and worshipping such supposed titans of industry as the reptilian Rupert Murdoch, anti-gay busman Brian Soutar and soft porn to jet planes Richard Branson.
Long night of Thatcherism
No sign throughout that long night of Thatcherism of calls to applaud any sections of the working class for tending our sick, putting food on our tables or ensuring the lights stayed on.
Of course, this culminated in the war on the miners and their communities, ably assisted by thousands of cuddly British bobbies who swapped into riot gear to crush the strike.
The victory of Thatcher and the forces she represented led to 40 or so years, not just of an ever-growing gulf between a tiny super-rich and insecure poverty pay for millions, but a relentless destruction of manufacturing capacity.
Neoliberalism, with its key belief that all human need would be met by the wisdom of the market, also underpinned a globalism which supposedly enriched the lives of those in developed countries with new products like iPhones but failed to mention the near-slave labour of those making them.
Of course, it nearly all came tumbling down in 2008 when an emperor’s-new-clothes moment revealed that it was a world built on speculation in worthless bonds and insanely reckless lending.
But it didn’t fall because the state (despised by neoliberals) pumped in billions to save it. Twelve years of austerity later we now face the C-19 crisis with a NHS decimated by cuts, chronically short of nurses and vital equipment. The services charged with caring for the elderly are shamefully under resourced with some even suggesting the deaths of the old might be necessary.
In the crisis, public focus has been on issues such as protection equipment for frontline staff, chemicals for testing and vital kit, such as ventilators.
Much has been made of the contrast with Germany where these things appear not to be an issue and many wonder why.
The answer is that unlike the finance short term-ism here, the Germans have maintained a large industrial base producing the necessary test chemicals, protective gear and, in Lubeck, an advanced ventilators factory.
In the UK—lauded by Tories, Lib Dems and New Labour—we moved money around the world and kept a manufacturing base in missiles and bombers… neither much use in the current crisis.
The question then is, after the virus is halted, what lessons will have been learned, not just by policymakers but more importantly by the millions of workers who faced lockdown and are also still offered poverty pay, worship of the super-rich and an ever growing climate crisis?
One thing is certain, in the words of the Financial Times chief economist Martin Wolf, “In war, governments spend freely. Now, too, they must mobilise their resources to prevent a disaster. Think big. Act now. Together,” are going to be essential.
While agreeing with that sentiment, trade unionists and socialists need to add the question: “Act for who?”
As thousands of firms face collapse and millions face the dole, it is time, yes, for unity against the C-19 scourge but also to seize on the experiences of millions through this crisis to fashion a new way of doing things.
The crisis has been a tempest which has ravaged and uprooted doctrines and ideas previously presented as Holy Writ, and whose destruction, at a stroke, smashes to bits Tory myths not in seminar rooms but before the eyes of and in the living reality of millions.
Most important, it has blown away forever that central question faced by socialists throughout centuries of the existence of a “magic money” tree, and revealed that there is a money forest from which billions are daily pledged.
All those human needs—good housing, healthcare, free public transport, abolition of poverty, an end to climate trashing industries—and many, many more which form the basis of a humane society, putting the needs of people and planet at its centre—are revealed as entirely possible.
Worthless Tsars of finance
In 2008, the billions that bailed out the banks came from the people in years of cuts, insecure work, loss of millions of jobs and austerity.
This time it has to be different. The Tsars of high finance and the market driven-world they fashioned are shown to be worthless in the face of C-19 but they are, at this moment, scheming to ensure that the weight of debt flowing from it is once again placed on the shoulders of the people.
Anyone in any doubt about this needs to heed the words of neoliberalism’s Pope, Milton Freidman: “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
We must ensure that it is the super-rich minority and the mega-rich corporations whose wealth picks up the bill, rather than the people.
The experience of millions and the revelations about wealth and power that flow from the C-19 crisis means that the idea of a collective, green, socialist alternative now chime with that experience.
It is the vital task of trade unionists, socialists and all progressive people to seize this reality, and fight to change the world, for good.