Workers dismissed as “low skilled” only a few weeks ago are now “essential” to keeping society running during the coronavirus lockdown.
It turns out that low-status workers such as carers or supermarket checkout staff are critical to people’s lives.
But if society couldn’t operate without workers’ labour, why couldn’t workers run society without the bosses altogether?
Under capitalism much is made of “social mobility”. Yet strict hierarchies mean poor people generally stay poor while the rich remain in privileged positions.
Working class people are then told to “know their place” in this class structure.
They are dismissed as too stupid or selfish to have a say over their own lives, let alone major political questions.
So it’s no wonder that many working class people don’t have confidence in their ability to run things. But that can quickly change when workers take collective action.
By being part of a strike, picket line or occupation, workers feel their power.
In bigger upheavals, people begin to question who runs society and how it operates.
For instance, when the Argentine state defaulted on £90 billion of debt in 2001, politicians recommended another dose of austerity and bosses turned the screws.
But as hundreds of factories shut, workers began taking over their old workplaces under the slogan, “Occupy, resist, produce.”
In the southern province of Neuquen, workers occupied the Zanon ceramic tiles factory.
After a five-month occupation, the factory was renamed “Fabrica Sin Patrones”—Factory Without Bosses—and begun producing again.
Raul Godoy, a Zanon worker and union militant, said the “genuine workers’ council” showed the “capacity of working class people to manage the factories”.
But such workplace councils still operate within a capitalist system where corporations make all the major economic decisions.
For workers to run society would require a socialist revolution.
In revolutionary upheavals throughout the 20th century, workers have formed their own democratic bodies in opposition to the capitalist state.
This was the case in Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936, Hungary in 1956, Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1980-81. In these revolutions, workers’ councils began to act as an alternative organ of political power and to organise society democratically.
We are often told we can’t have workers in charge because we need “experts”.
But a socialist society would still have brain surgeons and scientists working on cures for diseases.
The difference is that workers’ councils could collectively decide to properly resource but also to control and direct these experts so that their work better met people’s needs.
The idea of workers seizing power often seems remote.
But before the coronavirus crisis, a wave of revolt over austerity, neoliberalism and corruption was taking place across the world.
Organised workers were often an important part of the struggle. And people had begun experimenting with new forms of democracy.
Yellow Vests in France organised popular assembles and “Assemblies of Assemblies” of local delegates.
Sudan saw occupations of squares where revolutionary committees organised food distribution, refuse collection and defence against the police. These gave a glimpse of how ordinary people can take charge.
Coronavirus shows how capitalism cannot meet people’s basic needs.
Socialists have to fan the flames of revolt and to win a society run by working class people.