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The global pandemic, the class struggle, and the tasks of the Socialist Equality Party

This resolution was adopted unanimously by the membership of the Socialist Equality Party in the United States at its Sixth National Congress, which was held online from July 19 to July 24, 2020. 

Part 3 - March 27–May 31, 2020: The back-to-work campaign and the protests against police violence

27. This analysis was rapidly confirmed by events. Once the bailout was implemented, the focus of the ruling class turned to the imperative to resume full economic production, in order to force the working class to pay for the bailout and finance the staggering levels of fictitious capital generated by the Federal Reserve.

28. The campaign for an end to the lockdown and a rapid return to work was initiated and given political legitimacy by the New York Times, the main media voice of powerful corporate-financial interests affiliated with the Democratic Party. On March 22, with the CARES Act approaching passage by Congress, Thomas Friedman wrote a column titled “A Plan to Get America Back to Work.” Friedman claimed that the United States had “stumbled” into a lockdown. Providing the signal for a massive anti-lockdown propaganda campaign, Friedman wrote:

                         But as so many of our businesses shut down and million begin to be laid off, some experts are beginning to ask: “Wait a minute! What the hell are we doing to ourselves? To our economy? To the next generation? Is this cure—even for a short while—worse than the disease?”

29. Sarcastically referring to “the advice of serious epidemiologists” as “group think,” Friedman began touting a program of herd immunity, only “sequestering those among us most likely to be killed or suffer long-term by exposure to coronavirus infection… while basically treating the rest of society the way we have always dealt with familiar threats like the flu.” Irresponsibly touting anti-scientific nonsense, Friedman downplayed the danger of the pandemic, declaring, “as with the flu, the vast majority will get over it in days, a small number will require hospitalization and a very small percentage of the most vulnerable will tragically die.” Since Friedman wrote those words, the “very small percentage” of fatally infected amounts to over 130,000 deaths in the United States.

30. The line of the “liberal” New York Times was echoed throughout the media. The Wall Street Journal declared: “The crowd that demands the economy remain locked-down until there’s a vaccine, miracle therapy or daily testing of everyone in the country seem to think the government can replace the private economy… the virus will be with us for a long time unless there’s a vaccine, so we have to learn to live with it and have a functioning economy.” 

31. The forcible reopening of the economy coincided with and was justified by the assault of the Trump administration on the World Health Organisation (WHO) the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and on the science of the pandemic itself. Trump’s bombastic and ignorant promotion of untested drugs, such as Hydroxychloriquine and Remdesivir, was taken to frightening levels when he suggested, on April 24, that people inject themselves with bleach and insert ultraviolet lights into their bodies. His declaration that if testing was not performed, cases would not be found, is of a piece with the policy of herd immunity, with the underlying attitude of “let it rip.” Warnings by epidemiologists, virologists and medical staff of the dire consequences of prematurely lifting restrictions were dismissed and ridiculed. Nothing would prevent workers from being herded back into factories, schools and workplaces.

32. The relentless pressure for a re-opening of the economy, the staggering absence of essential equipment or a coherent medical strategy, the sheer incompetence of government actions, and the brutal indifference of major corporations to the health and safety of their workforces, rapidly translated into an explosion of infections and deaths. As for the economic measures implemented by the government, unemployment rose to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Millions of workers became dependent on food lines. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses were deprived of the financial assistance that they had been promised.

33. But for the rich, the pandemic has been a financial blessing. The passage of the CARES Act initiated the most dramatic and fastest recovery of share values in history. Between March and May, the main market indices rose by 30 percent. Discussing the chasm between Wall Street and Main Street, the Economist explained, with unabashed bluntness:

                        Much of the improved mood is because of the Fed, which has acted more dramatically than other central banks, buying up assets on an unimagined scale. It is committed to purchasing even more corporate debt, including high-yield “junk” bonds. The market for new issues of corporate bonds, which froze in February, has reopened in spectacular style. Companies have issued $560bn of bonds in the past six weeks, double the normal level. Even beached cruise-line firms have been able to raise cash, albeit at a high price. A cascade of bankruptcies at big firms has been forestalled. The central bank has, in effect, backstopped the cash flow of America Inc. The stock market has taken the hint and climbed. 

34. Throughout March and April, in dozens of articles and statements, the World Socialist Web Site and the Socialist Equality Party warned repeatedly of the catastrophic outcome of the ruling class’ back-to-work campaign. On March 24, responding to Friedman’s column, it called the policy of the ruling elite a form of “socially sanctioned euthanasia… In the face of the greatest crisis facing American capitalism, the ruling class is revealing itself to be not just parasitic, but homicidal.” On April 11, the SEP issued a statement declaring that “the aim of the Trump administration and the American ruling class as a whole is to ‘normalize’ the pandemic, that is, to acclimate the population to the fact that large numbers of people will die for some time to come…” The death of workers is to be treated as “a cost of doing business, with those who succumb to the disease replaced by others.” 

35. On April 18, the WSWS called attention to comments in the New York Times and in the international press arguing against excessive concern for the protection of human life. One comment in the Swiss Neue Zurcher Zeitung declared that measures to stop the pandemic meant choosing “economic suicide to prevent individual elderly people from passing away a few years earlier,” while another in the German Der Spiegel argued that stopping the pandemic violated the principle that “life is not conceivable without death.” “These are arguments,” the WSWSnoted, “with which Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who committed suicide 75 years ago this month in his Berlin bunker, would have readily agreed.” 

36. The response of the ruling class to the pandemic produced a significant growth of social tensions and class struggle. The trigger for the eruption of mass demonstrations was a series of incidences of police violence. On March 13, police killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky after barging into her home while she slept. In early May, dashcam footage was released of the February 25 murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia by a former police officer and public investigator and his son. Then, on May 25, Memorial Day, four police officers participated in the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the horrific scene captured on cell phone footage viewed by millions of people.

37. The murder of Floyd ignited multiracial and multiethnic demonstrations in every major city in the US, including in the traditionally conservative deep South, and in countries on every continent. After decades of suppression of social protest and class struggle, with the active complicity of the trade unions, anger and resentment burst into the open. While the protests were sparked by police violence, their underlying causes were anger over the protracted and severe decline in living standards, the crushing debt levels imposed upon youth and the bleakness of their prospects for the future, pervasive social inequality and its consequences, the constriction of democratic rights, and the impossibility of effecting meaningful change and improvement in social conditions within the framework of the existing political structures of the two-party system.

38. The Socialist Equality Party welcomed and supported these protests. On May 30, the SEP explained, “These demonstrations—which are taking place in the midst of the pandemic despite the serious risks involved—are a powerful and inspiring manifestation of a deep-rooted commitment to the defense of democratic rights, hatred of fascistic police and the Trump administration, and a profound commitment to the unity of all sections of the working class.” These demonstrations vindicated the SEP’s analysis that a genuinely progressive alternative to the Trump administration could emerge only on the basis of a mass movement from below, and not from a palace coup, instigated from above by the Democratic Party, in alliance with sections of the military and intelligence agencies that are disgruntled over Trump’s handling of relations with Russia and China. In a statement published in 2017, the WSWS predicted:

                             Mass struggles are on the agenda in the United States. Protest rallies, demonstrations and strikes will tend to acquire a general nation-wide character. The political conclusion that flows from this analysis is that the fight of the working class against Trump and all that he represents will raise ever more urgently the necessity of a political mass movement, independent of and opposed to both the Republicans and the Democrats, against the capitalist system and its state.

39. The Trump administration is directly responsible for both the murder of Floyd and the police crackdown on demonstrators. Last October, Trump delivered a diatribe against socialists and the “radical Left” in Minneapolis, supported by cops who waved banners reading “Law & Order vote Trump.” Trump has repeatedly encouraged police violence as part of his efforts to develop a rightwing, fascistic base of support for the policies of the financial oligarchy. In the weeks leading up to the murder of Floyd, Trump promoted far-right demonstrations to “liberate” Minnesota, Michigan, Virginia and other states from any restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

40. At its root, however, police violence—which claims the lives of more than 1,000 workers and youth of all races every year—is a product of class rule. The epidemic of police murder persisted under Obama and takes places in states and cities throughout the country, whether controlled by Republicans or, including in the case of Minneapolis, Democrats. Under conditions of growing social unrest, the police, increasingly integrated with the military, will be used as a force of violent repression.

41. Therefore, the SEP concluded, police violence can be opposed only through the mobilization of the working class against the ruling class and its state. “The fight against police brutality must be fused with the growing movement of the working class against unsafe working conditions, mass unemployment, social inequality and mass poverty. It is a fight against the capitalist system and for socialism.

42. In explaining the historic significance of the protests against police violence, the SEP drew particular attention to the international character of the demonstrations as a reflection of the impact of economic globalization and revolutionary transformations in the forms of communication, the revolutionary consequences to which the ICFI pointed as early as 1988. In a statement published on June 15, the SEP wrote:

                         These interrelated processes have intensified the essential contradictions between the ossified system of national states and the reality of a global economy. Moreover, the process of globalization has created the basis for a unified, international movement of the working class against capitalism. The possibility of the global unity of the working class is not a utopian vision. Its concrete realization arises from the existing conditions of global capitalist production…

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