One of the best-known bits of apocrypha in the Marxist canon, attributed to Lenin (and likely paraphrased from The Chief Task of Our Day), came alive this week: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” A flurry of rapid developments in the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the political conditions facing the American working class upside-down. Faced with an impending recession that deepens with every passing day of bleak Coronavirus news, a troubled nation has quickly thrown decades of neoliberal consensus right out the window. The Trump administration has offered up over a trillion dollars—with a ‘t’—in short-term loans to financial institutions, and any positive impact on the stock market was instantly wiped away. A profound economic crisis, long thought to be looming on the horizon, has arrived in full force, and brought an exceedingly deadly pandemic with it.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has shown just how much damage has been done to America’s public institutions, not just over the past three years of the Trump administration but the last forty-plus of neoliberal capitalism. The haphazard kleptocrats in charge right now may be robbing us blind out in the open, but capital has been patiently hollowing out the welfare state and what remains of middle-class wealth for half a century now. With most of the rest of the world available as a counterexample, the ruling class of the United States has well and truly driven us off a cliff. The privatized state sold all of its useful social democratic bits for scrap through decades of means-testing, privatization and austerity, and now that a once-in-a-generation healthcare crisis is bearing down upon us the capitalist class finds itself out of anything useful to sell to the millions of people whose lives now hang in the balance. All it has left is the empty ideology of the market that figures them to be worth more dead than alive.
The Democratic party leadership has been predictably feckless in its response. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduced an aid package that included paid sick time, but only for workers at companies with between 50 and 500 workers. San Francisco mayor London Breed halted civil court proceedings for 90 days, but allowed eviction cases to continue (Update, 6:30p: eviction cases are now halted for 90 days in San Francisco.) These carveouts are woefully self-defeating, and ominously create an opportunity for Democrats to be outplayed by the likes of Tom Cotton. If we as a society are going to contain the spread of COVID-19, we need to ensure that everyone is able to self-isolate, and we need to manage a slowdown in our economy. Ensuring that a great majority of workers will have no choice but to work through the pandemic makes doing so practically impossible.
These are truly unprecedented times. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign for the Presidency is on the ropes, has taken to delivering Rooseveltian fireside chats to discuss the implications of the COVID-19 epidemic with up to 100,000 supporters tuning in live. Prominent liberals have come to see the complicity of our healthcare system in a catastrophic failure that may endanger over a million lives. How do we make sense of this crisis? What opportunities do we have to correct course? What are the dangers if we do not? And how should the revolutionary left, particularly within DSA, tread on this unsteady ground? This is a critical moment for DSA, and our primary responsibility right now is to organize a militant response.
Seizing the Moment
In the past week, a new social democratic consensus has begun to emerge as the reality of the havoc that COVID-19 will likely wreak on the US became clear. The prospect of an impending economic downturn has spurred many local governments to take swift action to stop evictions and utility shutoffs; several states are also adjusting their unemployment and disability programs to accommodate workers whose livelihoods have dried up overnight. Cities are exploring the use of suddenly-vacant hotels to house people experiencing street homelessness. Demands of our justice and carceral systems are coalescing as well: localities are announcing that jails and prisons will be emptied to reduce the risk of a catastrophic spread of the disease among jail and prison populations, and some cities are announcing that “broken windows” enforcement will be de-emphasized or halted entirely.
At the same time, a new consciousness is emerging around American foreign policy as we have watched the rest of the world respond to the pandemic. Both our senseless blockade of Cuba and our lethal sanctions on Iran are under heavier scrutiny. Cuba has developed an effective treatment for COVID-19, but the US blockade prevents it from being manufactured in greater quantities and ensures that the US will never have access to it. And the US’s sanctions on Iran have had an utterly catastrophic effect on the country’s ability to fight the virus. The cruelty of these sanctions is made abundantly clear as the country is unable to import food and medicine, which are theoretically exempt from the sanctions, due to restrictions on shipping, banking, and technology firms. Both the blockade and the sanctions are already directly responsible for thousands of senseless deaths, and there are surely many to come.
Perhaps most significantly, mass work stoppages are beginning to emerge, not just as a One Simple Trick to destroy the current order but as a practical and even necessary action to protect ourselves. The trend of long-term closures of schools, entertainment venues, and large gathering places more generally suggest that cities are recognizing the need to disrupt civic life to prevent wider spread of the disease, while the threat of mass sick-outs from NYC school teachers suggests that some cities aren’t recognizing it quickly enough. The fact that quarantines have been instituted in many other countries suggests that further disruptions to workers’ routines in America may be on their way.
A final component of this new moment is the realization that governments have enormous power to act during a crisis—even just the actions that have been taken so far ought to obliterate all prior thinking about what is and isn’t possible. The federal reserve announced over a trillion dollars of relief to markets this week in an attempt to halt the stock market’s death spiral; those announcements, laughably, did nothing to stabilize markets, yet represent the price tag for the left’s most lofty debt forgiveness and nationalization fantasies. More generally, the actions taken by various government bodies to ensure that COVID-19 tests will be available at no cost should they ever become widely available, as well as those taken by private industries to improve the availability of goods and services, have exposed the spurious lie that austerity, rationing, and cost burdens borne by the working class are somehow necessary for the continued functioning of our economic system. In fact, it shows that their abolition may be necessary to keep society functioning.
These shifts are seismic, and represent an opportunity for DSA to adopt a program that suits our rapidly evolving political reality. A new political consciousness, an emerging set of local and national demands, and the rapid proliferation of new mutual aid initiatives are fertile conditions indeed. A new article in Jacobin by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos declares, "Right now, we’re in one of those rare times when sharp, structural change is possible in the heat of the crisis. We’re not in the position we hoped we’d be a few weeks ago. But we can’t let it slip away regardless." This is precisely correct: as the American public and political system awaken to the reality of what we are facing, DSA must think and act quickly. We must stake out a visionary position and use our nationwide network of organizers to advance and defend it, or we will be left in the dust as history happens around us. So, what can we do to make sure the working class emerges from this crisis with the upper hand?
A People’s Recovery
In order to make the most of this moment, DSA should adopt a platform of sweeping reforms to be enacted at both national and local levels to promote the short-term security and long-term empowerment of the working class. The goals of this program must not be just to fix the structural issues that led to the present crisis, but to serve as the beginning of a broader period of investment in our healthcare system; not just to support each other in a time of great need, but to abolish that need; and not just to activate existing coalitions of activists, but to provide a path into a working-class organization for seasoned organizers and emerging workplace leaders alike.
DSA has produced a petition that outlines some of these planks already, and it’s a good start. It adapts our national priorities into a set of demands pertinent to the crisis at hand and calls people to organize to win the solutions it offers. However, I would like to augment the demands of this petition. I, and doubtlessly many others in this organization, believe that for better or for worse, this crisis has the potential to remake American society in monumental ways. DSA should announce a bold agenda for that project, which starts during this crisis but continues long after it. I propose an agenda for a People’s Recovery.
The national demands of this proposed People’s Recovery serve to unify it across the country, but the fights at local levels also serve a crucial purpose: to offer a framework for an organization that can foster militancy and develop leaders at a time when most members of the working class face a very uncertain future. We will need to bring in rank and file union militants, workers who can organize wildcat actions at unorganized workplaces, and unemployed people. We will need an organization that can give them all the tools they need to organize wherever capital is organizing them, whether that is in their workplace, in their neighborhood, or on the dole.
So, with that in mind, here are some early thoughts on the program for a People’s Recovery:
- Medicare for All and total medical debt forgiveness. The lack of guaranteed healthcare in America has without a doubt exacerbated our unpreparedness. Additionally, the impact of COVID-19 on our healthcare system was such that it blocked the usual course of obtaining care for millions more people. We must wipe the slate clean and ensure that quality care is guaranteed, for free, as a right to all.
- A rent freeze and an eviction moratorium. People must be allowed to stay in their homes even if their employment or income has been impacted by the epidemic. Many disability or unemployment programs, including California’s, cover only a portion of past income and are not available to all workers. Supplemental income, whether through paid sick leave, unemployment, or disability, as well as protection against displacement must be available to all, not just those diagnosed with COVID-19. The economic impact was faced by the whole working class, and so must the recovery aid the whole working class.
- A homes guarantee. Never again should an epidemic be used as pretext for violence against unhoused people—the US has more than enough resources to house every single person living on our streets. Additionally, tenants need protections against losing their homes in an economic downturn, and a promise that their lives will not come apart during the next one.
- End the deadly Cuba blockade and drop all sanctions. The horror experienced by many other nations was in no small part the responsibility of the US, as the sanctions on Iran made the import of food and medicine extraordinarily difficult and the Cuba blockade has for decades crippled their industrial capacity, including the manufacture of an effective treatment for COVID-19. Sanctions against all sovereign nations will have similarly disastrous effects on public health. These must end.
- Close the border camps, end cash bail, abolish prison labor, and make inmate phone calls free. In so many ways, this pandemic has laid bare the senseless cruelty of our carceral state. We demand immediate actions that will decrease the risk of a catastrophic outbreak in jails and detention centers and prohibit the carceral system from profiteering off inmates’ labor and contact with the outside.
- Protections for all workers. The Democrats’ proposal for paid sick leave leaves too many people uncovered: we need at least 30 days paid sick leave for each and every worker to allow all to safely isolate if needed as well as care for their families. Additionally, we need hazard pay and benefits for all workers whose services will remain essential through the crisis: grocery store workers, healthcare professionals, and the many delivery drivers and app-based contractors who will continue to deliver food and supplies during periods of social distancing.
- A healthcare jobs program. We need physicians, nurses, and technicians who can fulfill the promise of quality care for all, not just those who can afford it. We need to invest in creating more healthcare jobs, and ensure that all Americans have an opportunity to work in the field by forgiving all medical and nursing school debt.
- Full staffing at SFDPH. Workers at San Francisco General Hospital have sounded the alarm on our city’s staffing crisis numerous times. It’s time to commit to fully staffing SFDPH.
- Safe staffing at SFUSD. The shortage of care workers and support staff in our public schools greatly increased the number of students, staff, and families at risk for exposure to COVID-19. Teachers, nurses, and other support staff should be focused on their jobs, not acting as DIY crisis responders.
- Implement Prop C - Our City Our Home. San Francisco voted overwhelmingly to expand its social safety net by taxing the largest corporations in the city. The mayor must respect the will of the people and implement it.
- Workplace protections and a jobs guarantee. As of today, San Francisco and five other Bay area counties have instituted a shelter in place order for all residents. Businesses deemed non-essential will be effectively shuttered for at least three weeks, and many workers will have their hours reduced or eliminated in response. Those businesses must have their commercial leases protected, and the workers must have their jobs protected.
The People’s Recovery should seek to enact policy at the highest level of power possible: federally, in order to utilize the government’s spending capabilities, then at the state level, then locally. This is crucial to ensuring that the outcome of a recovery program is a downward, not upward, distribution of wealth. Additionally, the People’s Recovery should form tactical coalitions with groups organizing mutual aid in their communities. At the same time, it should be noted that many organizations that have emerged in times of crisis to serve a vital need have become entangled in the nonprofit-industrial complex that tethers their movement to capitalist party politics and institutional donors. Rather, the movement, if it is to be revolutionary, must be led by the working class.
Take Charge, then Take Power
The last piece of the People’s Recovery rests on one of the central contradictions of the botched COVID-19 response: liberal affection for stories of heroic individual self-sacrifice in overburdened social services. One of the facets of the media narrative around the pandemic in the United States has been the valorization of public workers, particularly school teachers, and their role in maintaining the tatters of our social safety net. This has become an argument against strike actions, and has the effect of shoring up the pro-capitalist bureaucracy that promises to make everything better as soon as possible. The People’s Recovery rejects that arrangement outright: our schools, libraries, clinics, and hospitals cannot continue to take on more and more responsibility for social welfare as they become ever more hollowed out. It instead gives us a mandate to take action in defense of our professions and our training, and strike back against the neoliberal austerity regime that has led to the current crisis in our institutions.
This is not simply a call for insurrection—the call for a People’s Recovery is a call for a durable organization that can rise to the most serious public health crisis of our time. Even when the most disorienting period of this crisis is behind us, we will need a new movement to resist the efforts of the capitalist state to impose its old order on us. We will need a movement that will promise a healthcare system run by and for the working class, and a future where every physician, every teacher, every social worker, and every nurse has a hand in governance. We will win when we establish ourselves as the only credible authority on this crisis and take any action necessary to enact our agenda.
The stakes could not be higher, and the possibilities in this moment could not be more endless. It is time for us to put it all on the line: for the least among us, for our loved ones and comrades whom our rulers are all too ready to sacrifice for the sake of their balance sheet, for a future worth living in. If we fail in this moment, everything might go to pieces. If we succeed, everything could be ours.