Rebellion Against Coronavirus Lockdown

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Above photo: Protesters carry rifles near the steps of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, on Wednesday. Photo: AP.

Far-Right Shock Troops do Capital’s Bidding.

The nation (and world)-wide lockdown in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic has paralyzed much of the capitalist economy and therefore nearly ground to a halt the process of capital accumulation (profit making).  That this economic paralysis throws tens of millions of workers into crises of survival is entirely incidental to the concern of the transnational capitalist class (TCC) to immediately resume profit-making, as capital cannot remain idle without ceasing to be capital.  This drive to reignite accumulation lies behind the far-right public demonstrations demanding an end to the lockdown, in a way similar to how the most reactionary sectors of capital funded and promoted the Tea Party following the 2008 financial collapse, which in turn mobilized behind Trumpism.

While the protests appear as spontaneous they have in fact been organized by conservative organizations, among them the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which brings together corporate CEOs and right-wing legislators around the United States.  President Trump himself has fired up the protesters through a series of tweets exhorting his supporters to “liberate” their states from the lockdown, including one, “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment.  It is under siege!,” that appeared as an ominous call to arms.  In Michigan, armed Trump supporters blocked traffic and prevented first responders from getting to work.  Days earlier, Trump claimed he had “total” power – the textbook definition of totalitarianism – to lift the lockdown.

Despite its populist rhetoric, Trumpism has served well the interests of the TCC, pursuing a program of neo-liberalism on steroids, including regressive tax reform, widespread deregulation and privatization, expanded subsidies to capital, union busting, and cuts to social spending.  Trump, himself a member of the TCC, picked up where the Tea Party left off following the 2008 financial collapse, forging a social base among those previously privileged and largely white sectors of the working class who have in recent years experienced sharp socioeconomic destabilization and downward mobility in the face of capitalist globalization.  Like the Tea Party before him, Trump has been able to channel the heightened social anxiety among these sectors away from a radical critique of global capitalism and into a racist and jingoist mobilization against scapegoats such as immigrants that has led them to become the shock troops, in true fascist fashion, for the far-right capitalist agenda.

As the crisis of global capitalism has intensified since 2008 there has been a rapid political polarization worldwide between an insurgent left and insurgent far-right and neofascist forces that have gained support in many countries around the world.  Both forces appeal to the same social base of those millions who have been devastated by neo-liberal austerity, impoverishment, precarious employment, and relegation to the ranks of surplus labor.  The level of global social polarization and inequality now experienced is unprecedented.  The richest one percent of humanity controls more than half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent had to make do with just 4.5 percent.  As popular discontent has spread, far-right and neo-fascist mobilization play a critical role in the effort by dominant groups to channel this content away from a critique of global capitalism and towards support for the TCC agenda dressed in populist rhetoric.

It is in this context, that conservative groups in the United States are struggling to organize a far-right response to the health emergency and the economic crisis, involving a heavy dose of political and ideological subterfuge and also a renewed mobilization of its shock troops to demand that the lockdown be lifted.  Mass mobilization from below could well demand that the state provide large-scale relief to millions of workers and poor families rather than for an immediate reopening of the economy.  But such a social welfare agenda in the face of the crisis is precisely what the TCC and its political agents seek to avoid through the reactionary rebellion now being stoked by Trump and the far-right.

Irrespective of political differences among its ranks, the TCC has endeavored to shift the burden of the crisis and the sacrifice that the pandemic imposes on to the working and popular classes.  For this purpose, it has been able to count on capitalist state power.  Governments around the world have turned to massive new bailouts of capital with only very modest relief, if at all, for the working classes.  The U.S. government injected an initial $1.5 trillion into Wall Street banks with the White House promising that its response to the pandemic is “centered fully on unleashing the power of the private sector,” meaning that capitalist profit would come first and would shape the response to the emergency.  It then passed a $2 trillion stimulus package, the single biggest component of which was a giveaway to corporations.  In Europe, the EU member governments approved similar stimulus packages, as did most governments around the world, involving the same combination of fiscal stimulus, corporate bailout, and modest public relief.

In all, the U.S. and European governments promised private corporations at least $8 trillion in loans and subsidies, roughly equivalent to all their profits over the past two years, in what The Economist called “the biggest business bailout in history.” This is class warfare from above.  As these trillions of dollars accumulate at the very top, the crisis triggered by the pandemic will leave in its wake more inequality, more political tension, more militarism, and more authoritarianism.  The International Labor Organization cautioned that several hundred million people could lose their jobs.  The World Food Program warned that at least 30 million people could die of starvation as food supply systems break down.  Half a billion people or more stand to be pushed into poverty.

Even if deficit spending and Keynesian stimulus remain in place for the duration of a depression, the experience of 2008 showed that governments recovered the costs of bailouts by deepening social austerity even as banks and corporations used bailout money to buy back stock and engage in new rounds of predatory activities.  The TCC strategy seems to be a repetition of 2008, now on a much grander scale, aimed at injecting massive amounts of money into the private banking system.  The banks in turn have no obligation to use this money to invest in the real economy or for any social good.  In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse the banks simply converted the billions it received in bailouts into “hot money” that they used to speculate in the global financial casino and to snatch up assets and resources around the world.

If far right and neo-fascist forces are mobilizing so too are popular sectors and working classes.  Short of overthrowing the system, the only way out of the crisis of global capitalism will be a reversal of escalating inequalities through a redistribution of wealth and power downward.  The fight for that redistribution has already begun in the midst of the pandemic.  In the United States as elsewhere, workers undertook a wave of strikes and protests as the virus spread to demand their safety, while tenants called for rent strikes, immigrant justice activists surround detention centers and demanded the release of prisoners, auto workers went out on wildcat strikes to force factories to shut down, homeless people took over homes, health care workers on the front lines demanded the supplies they needed to do their jobs and stay safe.  Calls for a general strike on May first are growing.

The ruling groups cannot but be frightened by the rumbling from below.  The crisis has the potential to awake millions from political apathy.  Capitalist states will extend the global police state to contain mass discontent from below in the face of the breakdown of capitalist hegemony.  Yet the neoliberal project is exhausted and cannot be restabilized.  The world will be remade, for better or worse.  We have entered into a period of mounting chaos in the world capitalist system.  Short of revolution, we must struggle now to prevent our rulers from turning the crisis into an opportunity for them to resuscitate and deepen the moribund neoliberal order once the pandemic dust settles.

Our struggle must be to push for something along the lines of a global Green New Deal as an interim program alongside an accumulation of forces for more radical system change.  Left and progressive forces must position themselves now to beat back the far-right and its neo-fascist impulse.  Storm clouds are gathering, battle lines are being drawn, upheavals are on the way.  At stake is the battle for the post-pandemic world.

William I. Robinson is Professor of Sociology, University of California at Santa Barbara. His latest book is Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism (Haymarket 2018)