By Chris Fry
On April 14, as the death count in the U.S. from the terrible coronavirus pandemic raced past 25,000, the New York Times published an article by Scott Paul, head of the American Alliance for American Manufacturing, titled “Why Can’t America Make Enough Masks or Ventilators?” Of course, this question is on the minds of millions of people who are watching with growing disgust as states and hospitals around the country are scrambling for the ventilator devices, vital in a desperate bid to keep patients alive long enough for them to overcome the viral infection.
Watching nurses and other health care workers denied personal protection equipment (PPE) including N95 masks, face shields and gowns has sparked tremendous anger. “Essential” workers at nursing homes, grocery stores, food processing plants and shipping warehouses like Amazon, most of whom are low paid, are denied even minimal protection, which has also sparked nationwide outrage.
Paul points out the obvious:
“Our country is unable to meet an immediate need for critical medical supplies and personal protective equipment in the face of a crisis. The absence of adequate domestic production capacity for things like face shields and respirators, coupled with the frailty of on-demand global supply chains and our utter reliance on them — for everything from the ingredients in our medications to parts of breathing machines — has left us dangerously exposed during an international health emergency.”
While blaming “outsourcing” of manufacturing as a cause for this production quagmire, speaking for his section of the ruling class, Paul’s solution is to discard any relief for the workers and oppressed, and instead assist “domestic” corporations:
“Whenever Congress and the administration decide on next steps for our national well-being, they must move beyond bromides for the working class and put into place a sensible industrial policy, one that combines the power of American ingenuity with the capabilities of public investment.
“Such a policy should incentivize re-industrialization via the tax code. It should encourage it with its traditional power of the purse — which means expanding Buy America provisions that prioritize domestic manufacturers in federal contracting bids to virtually all spending.”
The ventilator shortage and the quest for profits
But is it really a question of “foreign” vs. “domestic” manufacturing of medical supplies?
An April 12th New York Times article titled “A Corporate Merger Cost America Ventilators” by Tim Wu describes how a small company bought out by a corporate giant has had deadly consequences for coronavirus patients today:
“On April 24, 2012, the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s principal gatekeeper for health care mergers, published an innocuous-seeming notice granting a request for “early termination” of its review of a $108 million health care acquisition. Newport Medical Instruments, a small developer of cheap, portable ventilators, was being acquired by Covidien, a much larger American company headquartered in Ireland for tax purposes. Covidien makes, among other things, larger and more expensive ventilators.
“The government’s review was not extensive. One of the lawyers involved, a former F.T.C. staff member, notes that he successfully steered the merger through the F.T.C. “without second request” — without extensive review.
“We now know that approving that merger without conditions had severe costs. It would cripple what had been a prescient federal program, begun in 2007, to build an emergency stockpile of up to 40,000 portable ventilators with the eventual help of Newport Medical Instruments. But Covidien terminated the project, apparently in large part because it was insufficiently profitable.”
Wu goes on to describe how corporate buyouts and mergers have allowed drug companies to impose sky-high prices for needed drugs. And he describes the impact of the recent wave of hospital mergers:
“Perhaps the greatest calamity, in terms of harm done, has been the F.T.C.’s inability over the past two decades to stop hospital consolidation, despite its best efforts and growing evidence of negative effects. In theory a hospital merger might produce welcome efficiencies, but in practice too many hospital mergers tend to yield higher prices and lower quality of care (measured by morbidity), not to mention bed shortages. After a bad hospital merger, patients pay more and die more.”
Despite isolation and “social distancing,” workers fight back
Medical experts point out that overworked and stressed health care and other workers confronting this crisis often face their own immune system being degraded, increasing their own risk of contracting this disease, with even more serious consequences to their health, their lives. Beef and poultry workers, many of them Latinx, must work in extremely close quarters where the virus can easily spread. Nursing home and home health workers must take care of the most vulnerable elderly people, risking the lives of their clients, their families and their own lives, all under the threat of losing their jobs and livelihood.
Yet workers have found ways to struggle against well-sheltered hospital administrators and billionaire corporate owners like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Some have been suspended or fired, but their brave struggle has won huge support among the workers and oppressed.
As more than 22 million workers who suddenly lost their jobs wait impatiently for their meager funds from the so-called “stimulus” package, which mostly goes to the banks and big business, many have been forced into crowded lines to apply on paper for unemployment compensation. Threatened by foreclosures and evictions, many renters, particularly in the oppressed communities, have already joined a massive “rent strike”. Prisoners caged in virus hellholes have been placing signs at windows begging for help.
On April 8, General Electric workers protested outside of GE factories in Schenectady, New York, Dallas, Salem, Virginia, and outside the GE aviation facility in Lynn, Massachusetts. The report said:
“The protesters called for a shift in production, allowing them to go from making turbines, aviation parts and other components to helping hospitals source vitally needed medical equipment. The switch would create and save jobs when GE plans to lay off or furlough a significant part of its U.S. workforce.
“‘Instead of laying workers off, GE should be stepping up to the plate with us to build the ventilators this country needs,” Carl Kennebrew, president of the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA ), which represents the workers, said in a statement. “In the plants that are up and running, GE also needs to keep workers safe on the job.’”
These demonstrations are notable in that the workers were actually challenging their capitalist bosses over the actual production process. They were calling for GE to shift production from the highly profitable aircraft parts, including military aircraft, to their medical equipment subsidiary to increase production of much needed ventilators.
Ventilators are items of distribution and consumption. Consciously or not, these workers displayed something that the capitalist class always tries to conceal; that in a time of crisis, in order to protect their share of commodities necessary for their survival, our class must seize control of the means of production. Their mad quest for profits makes the capitalist class unable to manage production to serve the needs of the workers and oppressed.
At this point, with the collapse of the Bernie Sanders electoral campaign and with the deepening crisis unfolding before our eyes that no one can predict how far it may go, it is critical for revolutionaries to understand our goals, so as to lead our class in the struggles ahead.
Critique of the Gotha Program
In 1875, just four years after the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels were asked to comment on a reformist agenda proposed for the newly formed United Workers’ Party of Germany. That agenda, called the Gotha Program, called for a more “democratic” capitalist government and “fair wages”, among other reforms for the working class.
Marx’s revolutionary response to his activist contacts became known as the “Critique of the Gotha Program.” Much of this short document is worthy of study by progressives and organizers today. Marx makes clear that however worthy are the demands by our class that we deserve increases in our living standard, that whoever controls means of production controls the distribution and consumption of all necessary commodities:
Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers [capitalists and landowners – cf] in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one.
As far as the reformist call for “fair wages, Marx counters:
Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is “fair”? And is it not, in fact, the only “fair” distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions, or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise out of economic ones?
Of course, it is worthwhile to struggle for every economic and democratic gain for the workers and oppressed. Certainly, the young activists, not put off at all by the “socialist” label, have been galvanized by the Sanders program of Medicare for All, college loan forgiveness, free education, and so on. Their enthusiasm for these demands seems undiminished by Sander’s electoral defeat. And all the demands made by our class to alleviate the suffering created by this terrible disease are more than justified.
Our task as revolutionaries is to explain to the activists and workers in this time of crisis which the capitalist class is unable to contain, that the true definition of socialism as an improved stage of society came from Karl Marx almost 150 years ago:
Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.