17th October 2020
Chaotic, uncoordinated, directionless – all terms which have at various times been used to describe the Tory government’s handling of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Ostensibly it is hard to deny such accusations, given the debacle which emerges following each set of policy announcements in relation to dealing with the crisis. Johnson’s government may well be inept but it is not entirely without purpose. The guiding principles of the handling of the pandemic to date have been to protect private wealth over public health and this continues to be the case.
How can this be, when the strategy of the government appears to threaten the livelihoods of many small businesses and entrepreneurs, previously just making enough to get by but now in danger of going under, as the furlough scheme ends and the government support on offer is barely enough to cover the bills, never mind pay the wages of staff?
In reality, not only is the government not in control of the virus, it is not in control of the basic laws of capitalism. One basic tendency of capital is that towards monopoly, the swallowing up of smaller competition by bigger providers, thus creating ever larger conglomerates which dominate particular fields of industry, retail or communications.
Dealing with competition by takeover has long been a key feature of capitalism and is no different in the modern world of digital and virtual technologies. Facebook dealt with the threat from WhatsApp and Instagram by buying them up for example.
The demise of the high street shop may not be on quite such a scale but the opportunity is there for the bigger retailers to step into the void left by independent retailers, no longer able to make their way. This may take the form of more ‘local’ Tesco or Sainsbury’s outlets, or a high street Starbucks, but nonetheless increases the reach of the corporate pyramids.
Capitalism also functions according to basic laws governing the supply and demand of labour. In times of crisis, when jobs are going and labour is being shed, pay becomes a buyers market. In spite of minimum wage legislation and working time rights, employers have managed to get round much of this by the simple trick of not being employers. Nowadays many companies will contract ‘self employed’ individuals, paid on piece rates to deliver goods or produce product.
Apart from driving down the hourly rate of pay such an approach divests employers of the responsibility for national insurance or pension payments. In the short term this may sustain profits but crises of job insecurity, a low skills low wage economy and a future pensions crisis are undoubtedly in store.
Large sections of the population effectively living hand to mouth, in areas of work where it is difficult to co-operate or unionise, will continue to increase as the pandemic progresses. This reserve army of labour, either unemployed or in unstable employment, will continue to be a resource for the suppression of wage rates and will continue to be a threat to those in low paid work, in danger of falling into the twilight world of semi-employment.
In any crisis there are also winners. There are no signs of Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook or Netflix going under. Nor are there any signs of any of the major profiteers from the pandemic coming under pressure to pay their share of taxes, to support those suffering at the sharp end. It is not in their interest to offer, nor in the interests of the Tories to ask.
The day to day practicalities of what it means to be in Tier 2 and what cannot be done in Tier 3 are in danger of consuming many, as the pandemic moves into the winter flu season and the trajectory of infections increase. To a certain extent that is inevitable as people attempt to make sense of a system almost designed to obfuscate and confuse.
However, many are also increasingly seeing that, beyond the present crisis there are questions to be answered about how society is organised and managed; how the means of production are distributed and controlled; why over 40,000 have died in the world’s fifth richest economy while the death toll in China, with a billion strong population, has not yet hit five figures; how a struggling developing economy like Cuba is re-opening its doors for tourism.
Different politics, a different view of the world, means different priorities. When the profits of the international corporations are not your number one concern it is possible to do things differently and genuinely do things in the interests of people, not private profit.