Amidst growing worker mobilizations worldwide to shut down non-essential economic activity in all countries affected by the coronavirus epidemic, leaders at different levels of the state are divided, factions are forming within governments, and governments are clashing with each other. After years spent selling us “solidarity” between territories and states, this health emergency reveals that the seams of the ruling class itself barely hold without snapping. The bourgeoisie is clearly incapable of directing society anywhere but towards a massacre. But is any of them really pulling in the same direction as the workers who are striking to extend confinement by closing down workplaces? Is anyone really putting saving lives ahead of saving investments?
Social classes today
For a century now, national capital and the bourgeoisie Have been developing their centralization as never before, relying on the state to the point of merging with it in different degrees and forms depending on the imperialist context and the strength of each national capital. The result is the contemporary form of organization of the bourgeoisie and capital: state capitalism. The existence of state capitalism in all countries -from North Korea and China to the USA and Britain- does not mean that the bourgeoisie has become monolithic, nor that its internal contradictions have been overcome. The state contains but does not “settle” them, just as supra-state organizations such as the EU frame and contain, but do not eliminate and often not even mitigate the contradictions between national capitals. What we are seeing today is a first glimpse of how the coronavirus health crisis, and its character as an accelerator of the economic crisis that is dragging down global capitalism, reveals these conflicting interests among different groups and factions of the ruling class within and between states.
In addition, there are contradictions between the interests of the national capital as a whole and the petty bourgeoisie. Under state capitalism, the petty bourgeoisie is no longer limited to the small merchant, the businessman and the academic chairman. In the gigantic business and state structures thrives a corporate and salaried bureaucratic petty bourgeoisie. They are paid a salary, but their task is to organize workers’ teams and groups. Their salary, usually extended through “bonuses” and “options”, is in fact a share in profits and their position is that of a workshop owner and manager who has been absorbed in the unstoppable process of capital concentration.
And above all, the main contradiction of capitalism: the workers and their struggle for universal interests in the face of the increasingly anti-human and anti-historical needs of capital.
Workers and the coronavirus
The worker who sees that the source of infection is the industrial area where he works every day, immediately fears for his family and that of his colleagues. It is obvious to everyone that there is no other way to stop the killing than to close down the company until the spread stops. The workers’ interest is easily understood because it reflects the most basic and universal need: to defend life. And that means closing down the productive apparatus, extending confinement and maintaining essential production so that there is no lack of food and basic supplies to each and every one during the epidemic. The most significant thing? It’s the same from Italy to India.
The business-owning petty bourgeoisie
In the current historical moment of capitalism these measures, so basic and evident, are immediately perceived by small individual capitals as a danger to their survival. And the choice becomes clear to their owners when it comes to choosing between watching their capital being depleted or risking the death or injury of almost a third of “their” workers or their families. For the individual capitalist, owner or investor of his or her personal capital in a typical small and medium sized enterprise of less than 500 workers, the struggle of his or her workers to close down during the epidemic is directly “anti-capitalist” because it endangers the survival of capital “that creates jobs and wealth for the commonwealth”.
Of course, there are also sectors of the petty bourgeoisie that, under a general situation of confinement, prefer to close down because they are left without a market. We have seen these sectors everywhere. The interesting thing is to see how governments like the German or French ones then accuse the small businessmen of being “lazy” and “defeatist” for closing down their businesses.
The petty bourgeoisie and the lower levels of the state
But what is true for the small industrial exporter is not necessarily true for the whole petty bourgeoisie as a class. The corporate petty bourgeoisie and the petty state bureaucrat have discovered the delights of teleworking. They don’t even realize that the main source of contagion is in the workplace. He or she, the center and raison d’être of the universe, has become a hero for not going to the office, sings the national anthem at nine o’clock to celebrate surviving another day without being able to leave the children at school, and seriously believes that the cause of the spread is all those who go out for a stroll for no good reason.
However, the lower levels of the state, “local officials”, even if they are part of the same social class, cannot afford the worldview of official propaganda. In Italy it was the mayors of the most affected areas who first asked the central government to close the factories. Their aim does not consist in maintaining a single business, but in business as a whole, for which it is convenient to avoid social conflicts as much as possible. It is not good for the city’s future capital absorption capacity if the factories rise up one by one with the workers organizing themselves, in most cases, through “wildcat” strikes, that is, outside trade unions, the other state apparatus in the front line.
The state’s middle levels
▶ El presidente de la Región de Murcia, @LopezMirasF, ha ordenado el cese de todas aquellas actividades que no sean esenciales para la subsistencia y el abastecimiento de la población. pic.twitter.com/PxpjCn3LIZ
— Partido Popular (@populares) March 22, 2020
In Spain, regional chieftains, the so-called “barons” who run the regional administrations, both in the PP and in the PSOE, were the first to ask the government to stop non-essential economic activity. But there is a catch. The Basque president is quite different from the Murcian president. The Basque president runs an industrial region and if he were to stop non-essential activity, he would have to close down the main companies in the region, the most capitalized and globalized ones. That is why he tried to help industrialists fight the wave of strikes in Álava and Vizcaya. Murcia, on the other hand, protects an industry that concentrates capital in transport, agro-industry and agricultural production, all essential industries. The closure of essential industries would not harm the region’s capacity to attract capital, if anything, it would increase it.
The bourgeoisie and the states’ political apparatus
In general, the political apparatus of the state, and with it the government, represents the national interest, that is, the interest of national capital. Governments are expected to assist in accumulation by avoiding as much as possible any shocks to national capital. In other words, they should put the sustainability of large capital groups and national monopolies first and do their best to make the country attractive to global capital.
This is the common agenda, but of course there are nuances and differences. The current state bourgeoisie is the result of a long sedimentation of property-owning layers. In countries like Germany or Spain this includes from the large landowner ruling classes, who still consider the classical industrial bourgeoisie as beneficiaries of a royal concession, to sectors of the petty bourgeoisie that have become “technocratic” high bureaucracy. To the origins must be added the place occupied in the state: from the political apparatus to the heart of the judiciary and the repressive bodies, each with its own particular interests.
In this case, the objective of the bourgeoisie as a whole is that national capital should be devalued as little as possible and if possible, less than its rivals’ capital. Dead workers in principle are either considered a sad inevitability, as in Britain, or an exhaustive recount is avoided, as seems to be the case in Germany. The primary objective, as we have seen in half the world: is that everything should remain the same in the workplace and in consumption… despite the thousands of deaths. Everything is solved by keeping “serenity” and deploying “experts” with the message that “the common flu kills many people, even more than this pandemic”.
The inevitable result: confinement is decreed too late, there is a multiplication of infections, the number of serious patients increases, the healthcare system becomes saturated… and only as a last resort and if there is a danger of strikes spreading… confinement is extended to the closure of none-essential workplaces, the only way to make it really effective… and even then, in Italy for example, some may reconsider it at the last minute and return to considering even hairdressing salons as essential.
But speaking of the current Italian and Spanish governments, there are more considerations to be considered. During the last years of the open recession in 2008 and especially from the first symptoms of “recovery” in capital accumulation, the petty bourgeoisie, increasingly strangled, demanded a part of the transfer of income from labor that capital was absorbing in order to recover from the crisis. The result has been a real global revolt of the petty bourgeoisie. We saw then the rise of European nationalisms (Corsica, Catalonia, Ireland, Scotland…), the revolt of the “yellow vests”, the taxi mobilizations, the farmers’ protests… and not only in Europe: the petty bourgeois, “popular” revolts spread to America, Asia and Africa.
The Conte government and the Sánchez government are attempts to respond and accommodate with the Italian and Spanish expressions of these petty bourgeois movements. In the case of Spain, Sanchism is trying out a new “social pact” between national capital and the petty bourgeoisie dressed as the left, i.e., pushing for an attack on the basic conditions of life, work and retirement under the discourse of “social justice”. The invention’s fragility is reflected in the heterogeneity of the government and goes beyond the division within the cabinet between members of the PSOE, Podemos, IU and “independents”.
This heterogeneity is what the coronavirus crisis revealed. The press reported today, for example, that the Spanish government was divided between those who want to keep businesses open at all costs, such as Minister Calviño, the former Director General of Budgets at the European Commission, and those who now see the need to restrict non-essential production. The latter are a predictable coalition of technocrats like Escrivá, representatives of the petty-bourgeois revolt like Iglesias and PSOE apparatchiks closely linked to local power like Ábalos and Mate.
But as we have seen, if their positions on closing down non-essential businesses coincide with those of the workers, it is for such different reasons that they make evident the antagonism of the interests that motivate them. In fact, the fact that the government of Sánchez or Conte “has room” for positions in favor of the closure of workplaces is a strategic asset. If the pressure to close down ceases to come from the striking workers and becomes part of a faction of the executive, not only will it be possible to manipulate what is an “essential service”, as in Murcia or Italy, until the concept loses all meaning, but the working class strength gained during the struggles will come to nothing. It will be handed over to a part of the same class that is already discussing how to distribute the burden of reanimating national capital among the workers of each country “when it is all over”.