What kind of society could cope with coronavirus? As is becomingly increasingly obvious—not capitalism.
Covid-19 reveals the limitations of our current system. One of capitalism’s central problems is a lack of democratic rational planning in the interests of the vast majority.
The bosses’ system is a chaotic one—where individual firms or single governments compete for resources in the pursuit of profit.
Firms relate to each other through the market based on what’s profitable, not what we need or the environment can sustain.
So the search for a vaccine for Covid-19 is left to dozens of competing pharmaceutical companies.
There are elements of planning under capitalism, but it is done by a minority to protect their power and wealth.
The US project to build the first atomic bomb coordinated the work of 130,000 people across three countries. But that was done for war—for destruction, not construction.
Today the supermarkets have created a highly detailed and planned scheme of just-in-time deliveries to their stores.
That’s good for eliminating cost and boosting revenue. It’s very bad when there’s a rise in demand and all the shelves are empty.
And rather than capitalism driving forward innovation, it actually holds back progress.
Sars was another form of coronavirus that caused a pandemic in 2002-3. If all those working on treatment for Sars had remained commissioned for the past 18 years we might be further down the road towards a cure for this latest manifestation.
Instead they were moved on to more profitable work.
Two Italian tech firms 3D-printed ventilator valves last week when the Chiara hospital was running out of supplies.
But one of the firms, Isinnova, was threatened with legal action by the company that held the blueprints for the original ventilator design.
Socialism would mean drawing up plans based on the matching of society’s resources and society’s needs. There would not be the obstacle of profit.
Deciding what we need, how it can be produced in harmony with the environment, what should be distributed free now and what wages should be paid are all questions that involve intense democratic involvement.
But developments under capitalism have made this easier.
The internet and forms of mass communication will make is much simpler to coordinate activity, assess plans on the basis of widespread information, and register our views and votes
A great myth is that ordinary people are too stupid or lack the necessary experience to organise society themselves.
The immediate response to coronavirus shows this isn’t true. Mutual aid groups have been set up across Britain, with no input from formal local or national government structures.
It was a similar story when extreme flooding hit parts of Yorkshire and South Wales in February. Emergency aid was organised by neighbourhoods and community groups who identified the need for food parcels, child care, medicine collection and so on.
The community response to the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 is another example of how local residents organised the collection and distribution of aid, supported survivors seeking accommodation and coordinated relief efforts.
In each of these cases, ordinary people show they have the skills, experience and solidarity needed to help others in desperate situations.
And this isn’t something that happens in reaction to a single, horrific event. Across society, and throughout history, there are countless examples of ordinary people organising together and challenging a system that attempts to grind them down.
Revolutionary movements, from Russia in 1917, to Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011, show that it’s possible to take on our rulers.
And every revolutionary movement raises the question of running society in a new and planned way.
In the Paris Commune of 1871 the mechanics and metal workers’ unions argued that equality meant “economic emancipation” which “can only be attained through the formation of workers’ associations, which alone can transform our position from that of wage earners to that of associates”.
The Commune set minimum wages and set maximum prices. It experimented with new forms of decision-making and justice.
It was from his observations of the Paris Commune that the revolutionary Karl Marx saw that the organisation of a future society could grow out of resistance to the old society.
Beyond the organising capabilities that see activists organise food parcels and emergency aid, people are also able to fight together to re-engineer the economy so that it serves need not profit.
The coronavirus crisis is already throwing up questions of how work is organised.
For instance, the postal workers’ CWU union is arguing that its members in Royal Mail could form an “additional emergency service”.
The union argues that workers could deliver medical aid, check on those self-isolating and deliver food bank parcels.
But if Royal Mail is going to be an additional emergency service, there needs to be reorganisation and coordination with local authorities.
Currently, what gets delivered and when is mostly decided by postal bosses and the firms that pay for deliveries.
But the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity for postal workers to demand that all commercial post is halted, and decide to focus their efforts on delivering necessities and health information.
This could only be done fully by a publicly-owned and democratically controlled service, not a private firm.
Democratic planning could transform work under a socialist society.
For a start, it would get rid of the waste and competition that exists on every level of the system.
Production of goods and services in society that aren’t useful, such as weapons, would be stopped.
The health service would need to be planned with the input of the whole of the working class. But it would be managed by workers.
Instead of a “postcode lottery” deciding on whether your child goes to a good school or a safe hospital, socialist planning would mean good services and infrastructure throughout society.
It would mean an end to a system where a tiny minority of people sit at the top of society exploiting the masses of ordinary people.
When resources are shared out fairly, these bankers and bosses won’t be able to hoard investments, mansions and yachts while most people struggle to get by.
When workers truly have this economic and political control, they will able to discuss and vote on the production and allocation of resources—with transformative results.
Workplace councils or neighbourhood assemblies could elect delegates to make decisions.
Bigger decisions would need national or regional bodies.
Critically, these would be filled with people who would be affected by the outcomes of any decisions made—not the millionaire politicians who cut our health service or slash council funding.
And to survive, any burgeoning socialist society—and major planning—would have to be international.
Planning on a scale beyond capitalist nation states has obvious advantages. In the first instance, it would help allocate resources to cope with a health emergency such as coronavirus that carries no passport and respects no borders.
It would bring together discoveries and innovation from across the world.
In contrast, the sanctions and trade wars driven by capitalist rivalries have been intensified even as Covid-19 sweeps the world.
The US has stepped up its crippling squeeze on Iran, limiting its ability to contain the pandemic.
And only international, rational, planning will be able to challenge climate catastrophe.
For example, there could be a large scale rolling out of renewable energy, and cuts in carbon emissions.
Under the current system of short term competition and pursuit of profit, it doesn’t make sense for individual countries to take this course of action.
Ultimately, there’s no blueprint for this socialist world, and the exact form will only be known to those who create it.
Russia after the 1917 revolution began to offer a glimpse of a better world. But it was militarily and economically crushed by collaborating capitalist governments who feared similar movement would crush their rule.
The Stalinist system that grew on the wreckage of the revolution planned the economy undemocratically in the interests of a new class of bureaucrats and state officials, not the majority.
As capitalism fails we need to argue over the immediate issues we face. But it’s also essential to demand that there can be no return to business as usual.
Instead there needs to be a fight for a completely different world.