The politics of "war"

Submitted by AWL on 30 March, 2020 - 9:41 Author: Martin Thomas
Trump and Bolsanaro

Since 12 March, so for two and a half weeks now as we write on 30 March, the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths has been increasing exponentially both worldwide and in the UK.

Worldwide the numbers of cases and deaths are both doubling about every week. In the UK, the number of cases is doubling about every three and a half days, the number of deaths about every three days.

The neatness of the pattern is probably coincidental. Country case-counts vary widely with the width of testing, and if the figures were accurate the death graph would lag behind the cases graph rather than tracking it.

But no one, however expert, knows how long at least some approximation of this pattern will continue. Things may well get worse as the virus spreads to poorer countries.

Where and when adequate technology is deployed, it looks like the virus can be checked. South Korea’s total of active cases has been going down since 11 March. China’s, since 17 February. The figures from China are doubtful, but are unlikely to be so far out as to make an actual rise into a decline. Singapore and Taiwan have kept their numbers of cases low.

We are not experts on the merits of the different public health policies in different countries; and the minute and total surveillance of cases in Singapore, for example, may work, but could not be replicated by other governments even if they wanted to.

We are qualified to say that failing to override the interests of private profit, neglecting the worst-off, and being inattentive to medical science, will make things worse.

That makes US president Donald Trump, and similars like Bolsonaro in Brazil and Modi in India, a menace to the world.

They are not necessarily laxer about lockdowns. Modi has ordered a three-week total lockdown in India, banning all public transport. Social media report policemen beating up vendors, smashing shops, deflating the tyres of vendor carts. (The least-locked-down major country, in fact, is Sweden, with a Social-Democratic government, and public health authorities with considerable independence from the government).

But the Trump types are erratic and demagogic. There is no real chance that a lockdown in India for just three weeks will more than temporarily pause the virus. Modi has made no real provision to sustain the worst-off, or even for people with non-Covid-19 serious conditions to continue to get to hospital. Only recently Trump was talking wildly about quelling the virus by Easter.

Maybe a competent police state can check the virus (at a cost). Barring that, a serious effort requires democratic control and informed public scrutiny and debate.

Yet Trump’s approval ratings have risen since the epidemic exploded. So have Boris Johnson’s.

This is wartime, or early-wartime, rally-round-the-leader politics. The pattern of history is for late-wartime, or after-war, politics to be more rebellious. Not always and completely, but generally. The “Khaki Election” of December 1918 in Britain, just after the end of World War 1, returned 379 Tory MPs: but even that brought big gains for Labour and the then revolutionary-nationalist Sinn Fein.

Current economic conditions are also more like a warped war economy than a regular slump. A large chunk of the usual workforce are out of their usual work and sustained meagrely at state expense. This time those “out” are at home rather than in the armies, so less at risk than those “in” rather than more so.

It is possible to reconvert a war economy without a full slump: it was done, with troubles, but done, in Britain after World War 2. After World War 1, by contrast, we had continued Tory-dominated coalition rule, with a determined scrapping of wartime economic controls and the “Geddes axe” on public spending from 1922. Unemployment rose to 20% by April 1921 and stayed high through the 1920s.

The outcome depends on the activity and the strength of the labour movement. Already, in France, where the labour movement is sparkier than in the UK, president Macron has been forced to suspend his pension cut plans and promise, for “after the crisis”, “a massive plan of investments for our hospitals... deep and durable”.

No going back from the social provision forced from the government by the epidemic! Rather, a going forward to better and more complete social provision, democratically controlled!

The wealth-creators

The phones of “property specialists”, so we hear, are “hot with requests from the super-rich searching for Scottish castles, mansions with bunkers, Cotswolds manor houses with moats, uninhabited Caribbean islands to buy, superyachts for a long charter…”

And those, we are told, are the “wealth creators”. Yet the essential economic “wealth-creation” is still being done in health care, in food supply and logistics, in public transport, and in other sectors. By the workers still on the job.

Where the workers are not on the job, the “wealth-creation” has stopped. Whether the capitalist “wealth-creator” has stuck around or fled makes no difference. It’s stopped.

Our labour, and the resources of nature, are the essentials. The capitalists draw out wealth rather than put it in.

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