Lessons from a lowly virus

Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Murals North Wall
Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Mural – North Wall. | Detroit Institute of Arts

By David Sole

Severe stress on an individual organism will often expose weaknesses in its physiology. But that same stress may often also bring out hidden strengths. What is true of the individual is also true of a social organism or society. The coronavirus, small as it may be, is teaching many lessons to the people of the United States.

Labor Creates All Wealth

Trade unionists for decades sung the labor movement anthem “Solidarity Forever” (by Ralph Chaplin, 1915). Most vocalists may not have gotten as far as verses 3 and 5, or paid much mind to the words if they did sing them. But the current pandemic, unprecedented in modern history, with the mass shutdowns and stay at home orders has given real meaning to the traditional song. It reads

“It is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities where they trade, dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid. Now we stand outcast and starving ‘midst the wonders we have made, But the union makes us strong.”

A bit later in the song,

“They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn, But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn. We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn, That the union makes us strong.”

This song summarizes the Labor Theory of Value, discovered by the bourgeois economist (when these were still honest investigators) David Ricardo and made famous by the great socialist thinker Karl Marx. One can see the panic among the corporate/banking elite and their paid politicians who, with the pandemic still in full swing, are stampeding workers back to unsafe jobs. Every worker can clearly see that it is our class that does the work, it is our class that makes profits for the “idle drones” (another term from Solidarity Forever) and it is our class that makes every wheel turn. The mass media, for a moment, is describing “essential workers” and “heroes” those very workers who previously got no attention and miserable wages and working conditions.

Bailouts for Whom?

The rapid onset of the pandemic and the shutdown of massive sections of the economy quickly caused a crisis for the two main classes in this capitalist society. Workers either lost their jobs or were laid off in the millions, losing their income. Most working class families have very little economic cushion to fall back upon in such a situation. The capitalist class – the so-called 1% (more properly 0.1% or 0.01% of the population) – found that they were no longer extracting “surplus value” (in Marxist terms) from the labor of their workers and faced catastrophic decline of their profits.

No wonder then that the United States Congress and Senate lost no time in fashioning legislation to “bailout” the nation. But there are two nations – the working class and the capitalist class. The bailout bill again exposed for whom the system is designed to benefit.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed in one week and signed by President Trump on March 27, 2020 provides $1,200 to each adult who paid taxes in the previous years. That one-time payment will go to approximately 138 million people for a total estimated at a total of $250 to $290 billion out of the total bill’s amount of $2.2 trillion. (Estimates are from Forbes Magazine/March 29 on line and TheBalance.com/April 29).

An additional $250 to $260 billion was directed to extended unemployment benefits as well as supplemental unemployment benefits paid by the various states.

Much more was allocated to small and large businesses. Small businesses, those with fewer than 500 workers, were to get $350 to $377 billion. However the mass media were full of the news that this fund was woefully mismanaged and many billions were improperly diverted to those ineligible to receive them. In fact a number of those companies exposed in the media have pledged to return the money to the Federal government.

Forbes reported that large corporations would be the beneficiary of $500 billion in loans, tax breaks and other incentives. The big business oriented magazine mentioned that passenger airlines alone would be given $50 billion while air cargo carriers got $8 billion more. TheBalance.com exposed that a big chunk of the pie, $17 billion, would go to “Boeing and other companies deemed crucial for national security.”

State and local governments were to receive $150 billion, a small fraction of their revenue losses.

To date this is the extent of the bailout. Although there is squabbling in Congress about whether to pass more relief funds, it does not appear that any agreement can be reached to help out the working class.

Bosses Say: Get ‘Em Back to Work!

The ink was barely dry on the CARES Act when organs of high finance, prominent politicians and corporate bosses began their campaign to drive the workers back to work. It doesn’t matter that even up to day, and well into the future, health experts predict that a new wave of pandemic could follow such reckless actions.

While most people have common sense and are not rushing to go into an unsafe or questionable situation health-wise, we are seeing draconian measures being used to force compliance. A number of state governments have announced that if workers refuse to return to their jobs they will be terminated and denied unemployment benefits.

On April 28 President Trump took the whip into his own hands. Using the Defense Production Act (granting wartime powers to a president) he decreed that meat packing plants were now under his order to get back to work.

In complete disregard of common sense as well as in violation of Alameda County, CA health department rules, billionaire Elon Musk announced he was reopening his Tesla Plant for production.

The whole world is getting a chance to see that the capitalist class produces no wealth. Their ownership of the means of production, along with their control of the heights of government, military and police, force others, the working class (sometimes referred to as “wage slaves”) to labor for the enrichment of these masters.

What Should Be Safeguarded?

The hundreds of millions of working class people in the United States are finding out the true nature of the capitalist system they live under. It is a system where the factories, offices, farms and other workplaces are owned and controlled by those who do no work. Our food, our housing, our access to clean water can be lost in a moment, not for anything that we have done as individuals, but because the system is geared to maximize profits above anything and everything. Our right to life itself, our healthcare, is for the most part in private hands also driven by the profit motive.

It is always true that peoples’ ideas lag behind their experiences. That’s because life generally drags on day by day and we develop habits of thinking. And habits are often hard to break. But facts are stubborn things, as President John Adams once said. And habits learned over a lifetime can be shattered in days or months when our world turns upside down. That’s when new ideas start to seem more rational and the old ideas don’t have the same hold over us.

Perhaps another few verses from Solidarity Forever might be worth considering:

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite

Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?

Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?

For the union makes us strong.


All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone

We have laid the wide foundations, built it skyward stone by stone

It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own

While the union makes us strong.


Revolution in Our Lifetime?

The working class will no doubt suffer much more from the plots and plans of the capitalist class. The bosses will take advantage, as they always do, of every crisis including this coronavirus pandemic, to enrich themselves at the expense of the workers and oppressed peoples. This will terrify some, shock others and enrage many. But it can and will inevitably bring out, at first, questions as to why this should be. These questions will develop into demands for a change. And these demands will transform into a struggle that can encompass the vast multinational working class in a remarkably short time.



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