Capitalism’s System Error as “Disaster” and Opportunity for Labor Struggles
As a scientist and activist you’ve been dealing with workers’ struggles for about 15 years. Your work seems to be taking a dramatic turn in the current pandemic, with a seemingly unprecedented mobilization, as evidenced by your recent participation in an online conference with 170 trade unionists from all over the world. What was the subject of the conference? What concerns did the trade unionists raise?
The online conference was organized by the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), a global network of trade unionists for climate justice and sustainable transformation. The network is now being used for global exchange on the situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Trade unionists from many countries participated: there were reports from the U.S., South Korea, the Philippines, India, Australia (and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region), and South Africa. There were talks about workers’ struggles and attacks on workers’ rights and their health and safety. They all emphasized that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the many deaths, is by no means a “natural” consequence of the pandemic, but the consequence of decades of cutbacks and neoliberal policies that have privatized public health care systems and services and made them worse, abolished workers’ rights, and made employment precarious.
Dramatic accounts were delivered from, for example, the president of the New York City Nurses’ Association, who reported on the collapse of the health care system, and from India, where hundreds of millions of people have no means to survive long isolation. I participated as an interested party, not as a trade unionist (although I have been unionized since my master’s degree). I am a scientist and activist. In this situation, I can offer my knowledge and contacts from 15 years of global involvement with factory occupations for takeover under workers’ control.
Are there common concerns across borders – for example in the face of the current rise of authoritarianism worldwide?
Yes. Despite all the dramatic reports, everyone stressed the opportunities to use the current situation to strengthen international solidarity and wage battles for radical change. There is a clear awareness that nothing will ever be the same again. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic is merely a trigger and an amplifier for the obvious crisis. The impact is immense. The Global North has never raised so much government funding to support the economy, and I dare to predict that once those resources are used up, there will be still more mass layoffs and countless company closures. The US has turned out to be a failed state, not only in terms of its health care system. In the first four weeks since March 18th, 22 million people have lost their jobs – meaning that many have lost their health insurance. The dead and the unemployed are predominantly black and Latinxs – in NYC, 72% of the dead are black and Latinxs. And this is happening in one of the richest countries in the world.
What consequences are emerging for joint, transnationally networked action?
In the US and many other countries there will be spontaneous labor struggles and strikes. The response of capital to the pandemic – and to the ‘human uncertainty factor’ – is accelerated automation. The relationship between labor and capital is in a process of complete change and this will have far-reaching consequences. Including for capitalism and its ability to survive. Surplus value can only be created from living labor. Nothing will be the same as before. There are two possible developments. On the one hand, the absolutely authoritarian and ultimately militarily violent assertion of capital interests; on the other, strong structural changes, the emergence of new political and economic systems. It is probable that both will happen. The struggles now and in the coming years are about which direction to take. Workers play a fundamental role here. A little more than half a year ago, a major study was published which, after examining more than 150 years of social struggles worldwide, concluded that the participation of workers in social struggles is crucial for democratization. I don’t find that particularly surprising.
But there are many who have lost sight of this in recent decades. It will not be easy. The crisis and the attack are hitting trade unions and movements in a difficult phase. Although there have been massive mobilizations in the last ten years, it has not been possible to develop a generally convincing alternative with great appeal. The left – in the broadest sense, i.e.; including all movements and organizations that advocate overcoming inequality and exploitation and a sustainable perspective for the future – is in a process of reorganizing and reframing itself.
Turning workers and citizens into patients and thus depriving them of political participation – that is a central feature of the current quarantine policy. What kind of influence does this policy have in Latin America?
We have to be careful about general statements like that. The spread, the countermeasures and the general situation differ greatly in diffrent countries. The dictatorship in Bolivia is using the pandemic to consolidate its position; the military and police repression against members of the former ruling party of Evo Morales, the MAS, and against leftist movements has increased strongly; Bolivians from abroad are being prevented by force from entering, and the presidential elections have been postponed. The regime in Chile is also using the pandemic to quell the uprising that has been going on for months; they have postponed their constitutional referendum.
In El Salvador, the recently elected right-wing Nayib Bukele ordered a complete curfew – before there was even one known COVID-19 case – and in collusion with the criminal gangs of the maras imposed a kind of military law. The right-wing government of Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, which a few months ago was forced to retract various neo-liberal measures as a result of a popular uprising that paralyzed the country, has also imposed a curfew throughout the country, including in regions that have hardly been affected by the pandemic – but which were leading the protests. In Colombia, there has been a frightening increase in paramilitary killings of activists and ex-guerrillas.
Authoritarianism is considered a typical feature of a crisis. But though any specific crisis is only aware of the present as its time horizon, the current forms of authoritarianism have been clearly evident for several years. You have dealt with the case of Venezuela in films and publications, including the documentary “5 Factories – Worker Control in Venezuela” (2006), which was filmed together with Oliver Ressler, and the book “Participation, Worker Control and the Commune. Movements and Social Transformation in Venezuela” (2010). Even before the Corona crisis, Venezuela was considered a “crisis state” and an “experimental laboratory of authoritarianism” in mainstream reporting. How do you assess this classification of Venezuela since Hugo Chávez died?
A lot has changed for Venezuela since 2013. Most of the center-left governments center-left governments in Latin America were voted out of office, or removed by coup, or turned into the opposite, as in the case of Ecuador. This was all done with the active support of the U.S. and the EU. Starting in 2016, oil prices have collapsed completely, and international support for the extreme right-wing opposition has been boosted. Venezuela was subjected to blockades; the most important sources of income, eight refineries and a huge network of petrol stations, were confiscated by the US government and handed over to the opposition; tens of billions of Venezuelan dollars were frozen in banks in the U.S. and the EU; the country was subjected to economic and financial blockades; and a self-proclaimed “president” was recognized as the only legitimate president by the U.S., EU countries, and the radical right-wing governments in Latin America.
There has never been such an action against a country before. In Venezuela itself, this has led to a very difficult economic situation; the political impact was negative. The left has been pushed out of the government for the most part, decisions have been strongly centralized, there is distrust of critical opinions, the beginnings of workers’ control in state-owned enterprises have disappeared. There’s not much of socialism left. The high inflation and poor supply situation lead to massive speculation, and to a parallel economy where almost everything is charged at the dollar exchange rate. The only people who can live well are those who obtain foreign currency from relatives abroad. Those who have enough money can still buy everything. The government is trying to maintain a minimum level of supply by a tremendous distribution of subsidized food. The situation has been very difficult for a good five to six years now. The Maduro government is not very popular. However, it is also nonsense to claim that it only keeps itself in power through repression.
Most Venezuelans consider all other options much worse. A left-wing alternative is developing only from below, from the structures of territorial self-government, the Consejos Comunales (municipal councils), of which there are about 47,000 in the whole country, and the higher level of the Comunas, of which there are about 1,700. Where they function well, they have proven to be the best structures to counteract the effects of the crisis. Whereas under Chávez they were still central to the targeted transformation to socialism, today they have been strongly pushed out of the government discourse. They have always stood in a relationship of conflict and cooperation with the government. At the same time, however, they see the only possibility of continuing their work as under the current government.
Has the quarantine policy promoted a new kind of ‘corona authoritarianism’ in Venezuela?
Venezuela was the first country to comply with all WHO guidelines, namely to cease all work that was considered “not system-relevant,” to close the borders, and for the most part to stop international air traffic. Precisely because its health care system was severely weakened by the crisis and blockade, Venezuela had little choice but to focus as much as possible on prevention. In fact, Venezuela has the lowest infection rate of all Latin America and also the fewest fatalities. On April 15 there were 204 cases, 111 of which had recovered, and nine deaths. Apart from a few isolated opposition voices, the population also does not perceive the measures as authoritarian. Quite the contrary.
My acquaintances tell me about how even die-hard opposition members, when they are standing in line to buy groceries, on the one hand complain about the government, but then are quite happy about how the government is dealing with the situation, and that they are in Venezuela and not somewhere else. Venezuela has done the most tests per capita in Latin America and still has more test equipment for laboratories than, e.g., Colombia. That’s why they have offered to donate two test machines to Colombia. Colombia has only one lab test machine in the whole country! In addition, Venezuelan aeroplanes are flying Cuban doctors around the Caribbean, and Venezuela has donated and flown thousands of test kits to various Caribbean countries.
This does nothing to change change the precarious situation in which the Venezuelan health care system finds itself. But you cannot assess the entire crisis on that alone. Perhaps the situation can be compared with Greece. It is well-known that Greece – thanks to the austerity imposed by the troika – has a completely dilapidated health care system, but far fewer people are infected and have died than almost any other European country. In Venezuela, the latter is due not only to the security measures taken, but also to the population’s organization and to people’s awareness. A Venezuelan friend who’s a musician and radical left-wing hip hop and reggae culture activist wrote to me a few days ago: “We have been living in a state of emergency for six years. In that time, we have learned to cope better with such a situation.”
In Venezuela, measures to prevent and combat the pandemic are based on the broad self-organization of the population, with which the government is cooperating. This includes, for example, the local structures of self-government, the municipal councils (Consejos Comunales). They are informing the households (a book with reports from the population of Wuhan on how to deal with the quarantine and the virus was distributed to all 47,000 municipal councils), supporting those in need, and coordinating with the health care structures. The provision of basic food packages (CLAP) by local committees that already existed is also an important element of the crisis management.
According to media reports, many people from Venezuela are currently forced to leave the neighboring country of Colombia because they are being driven from their homes and shelters. They no longer have any money to pay their rent because their low-wage jobs have disappeared, along with the informal economic sector. Reportedly, all this is due to the “preventive isolation” decreed by Colombia’s President Ivan Duque.
Thousands are returning not only from Colombia, but there are also returnees from other Latin American countries, especially Ecuador, but also Chile. The Venezuelan government is supporting those who want to return with special flights. Venezuelans have even had themselves flown back from the U.S. by Venezuela with special flights because they feel safer there than in the U.S. (because of the U.S. blockade they often had to fly first to Mexico and from there to Venezuela).
Once the “system relevance” of basic supply and social reproduction work now openly comes to light, then the system error also becomes obvious: in many countries even before the ‘corona crisis’ this kind of labor was already underfinanced and structurally weak. In New York, for instance, health workers are fighting within and against the health care system in the ‘war against corona.’ Are such struggles also taking place in Latin America?
First of all I would like to warn against using terms such as “war against corona” and the like. This abets authoritarianism. A war is waged against an external enemy, it justifies a state of emergency, is based on the ‘friend or foe’ scheme, and encourages thinking in terms of false blocs. But the only “war” we are in here is a class war, and it is primarily fought from above.
In Venezuela, there are protests in various sectors which are usually not directed against the government in order to overthrow it, but demanding better working conditions, higher wages, etc. In my opinion, however, the most successful struggles have been linked for years to the Comunas: the organized population occupies abandoned and inefficient state farms and estates, and in some cases private ones, taking them over on their own under the collective management of the Comunas.
Comparable protests and fights are also taking place in many other countries of Latin America. In most Latin American countries, a significant part, sometimes the majority, of the working population is employed in the informal sector. For them, their immediate livelihood has been lost. They do not know whether they should be more afraid of dying of COVID-19 or of hunger. In Colombia there are street protests and looting in various regions. The demonstrations are often just small, but are supported by thousands of people banging on pots from their balconies and windows; starving people are also trying to stop trucks containing food and loot them.
The Cacerolazos are also present in Brazil and Chile. There are also demonstrations in Bolivia. The health sector and other “systemically relevant” jobs are under great pressure. Radical demands are springing up. They existed before as well. After the pandemic has abated, they will certainly express themselves in enormous waves of protest. Rebellions and protests, as well as a ‘return of the left,’ already had a significant impact on Latin America in the 12 months before COVID-19. But now everyone feels an enormous responsibility to maintain supply for the population. A direct relative of mine works 24-hour shifts in a hospital in Buenos Aires. And Argentina is still one of the countries that is managing the crisis better.
How do you assess the call to the workers to sacrifice themselves? Can workers in a ‘rich North American country’ such as the USA react differently than in a ‘poorer South American country,’ where the population is even more existentially dependent on the already precarious basic supply?
The U.S. is in many respects a ‘Third World country.’ A few years ago, even a UN special rapporteur stated this in a comprehensive report. Access to health care is worse than in many newly industrialized countries. Even before the pandemic, 30-40% of the US population had no health insurance. After 22 million people lost their jobs in four weeks, that proportion has once again risen massively. And even many people with health insurance cannot afford the high deductibles for treatments and medication. The U.S. also has the highest percentage of prisoners in the world. Almost two percent of the U.S. population is incarcerated. In prisons, the number of people infected with COVID-19 is alarmingly high and there is no adequate medical treatment. Public services are loss-making, many housing situations are hygienically unacceptable, and the number of homeless people is very high. At the same time, workers’ rights are worse than in all other 35 OECD countries, and even worse than in some countries of the Global South.
In recent years, however, there has been a sharp increase in trade union organization and industrial action. Even now there are numerous industrial disputes in the USA. Workers in various industrial enterprises have advocated for and gone on strike to convert their production to medical devices. There have been protests and work stoppages at Amazon and other mail order companies. Nurses in the U.S. are comparatively well unionized and also quite left-wing. The call for more financial resources, general health insurance for all, more staff, better working conditions, and expansion of health care are already commonplace there. In the wake of the pandemic, more and more voices are being raised calling for the socialization of health care under the control of the working people.
There are still certainly major battles to be fought. The same applies to US Postal Services (USPS), because the government has already announced that it will not bail out USPS. In the past years, teachers in many US states have also led significant labor struggles. Their working conditions and pay are atrocious. Many teachers can only finance their lives by having another part-time job. Shortly before the pandemic, I ordered a car from a transport service; the driver was a primary school teacher who also drove her private car several hours a day to make a living.
In such a crisis, what can workers’ struggles look like that are not denounced as ‘selfish’ and are supported by larger parts of the population?
Basically, it is about developing labor struggles that resist capitalist ‘business as usual,’ ensuring the protection of working people – who are also part of the population and have families and friends – in this way also improving the supply to and safety of the whole population, particularly those most affected by the pandemic and its consequences. The possibilities are many and varied. In the U.S., workers and trade unions in automobile and aircraft manufacturing have called for a switch to producing medical equipment; in France, the employees of a McDonald’s branch decided to occupy it and distribute food to the needy for free. During the rampant pandemic, the main concern is to guarantee the workers’ safety and health and thus also to render a service to the entire population.
It is a difficult situation. The challenge can be summarized like this: “How can I best serve those who need it, not my boss or my company?” For the time after, as this crisis clearly shows, the central question will be “capitalism or life?” It should be clear to everyone that this question constantly arises under capitalism. But we usually just don’t perceive it with such clarity and force. This can be clearly seen with climate change: we’re dealing with it like a lobster in a pot that is gradually reaching a boil; we know that for our mobile phones, petrol and cheap bananas, people in the Global South are dying, and yet it remains far away; the class differences in life expectancy are known, and so on.
You are a founding member and editor of the Internet archive workerscontrol.net, founded in 2011, which collects scientific and journalistic texts on the topics of collective self-administration and workers’ self-administration. How could the observations of current developments be placed in the larger picture of this discourse?
Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo, it is said in the movements in Venezuela. This is difficult to translate, because “pueblo” is not “the people,” but rather it has a clear class dimension, roughly meaning “only those from below save those from below.” The question of collective democratic control and self-management of the means of production (including services) is more topical than ever. Only the control of production by workers and the organized population will be able to guarantee an economy that serves society, rather than a society that serves the economy. It is about the discontinuation of the artificial separation between politics, economy and social affairs. This is not only the emancipation of humanity, but also its survival. The demands for direct control of the means of production by the workers are now coming back to the fore. I hope and expect that these struggles will increase. This goes much further than the mere ‘nationalization’ that is sometimes talked about now. In the past, the state has not proven to be a reliable representative of the interests of the majority of the population. This is about socialization.
I doubt that the health care systems worldwide would be in their current state of weakness if it had been the workers and the population who had made the decisions. I doubt that most of the workers at Rheinmetall are longing to produce weapons for wars, and I bet they would quickly discover many other needs in cooperation with organized populations. A transformation of production, a transfer of bankrupt companies to workers, and the introduction of democratic decision-making structures of workers and affected people in services of all kinds will not be introduced by governments. The workers at the RiMaflow factory in Milan, which has been occupied for many years, put it this way: “We have discussed how to improve the situation for the benefit of the working population and have come to the conclusion that the situation is not going to change: If we want the factories to be handed over to us, then we must occupy as many factories as possible. You can be sure the state will then want to come and regulate this with laws.”
About SILENT WORKS
The SILENT WORKS project is dedicated to excavating forms of labor that are buried under present regimes of AI-driven capitalism. Find all details and up-to-date information on the SILENT WORKS project here: https://silentworks.info
About Dario Azzellini
Dario Azzellini is a political scientist, sociologist, and documentary film director. His strong publication record reflects his specialization in international labor studies and global social change with a special focus on Europe and Latin America. He has done extensive research and has published in the fields of critical labor studies, politics of resistance, Latin American Studies, and war sociology. In critical labor studies, his research has focused on workers’ self-organization and collective responses to precarious work conditions and workplace closure. Out of his engagement in international debates on the commons, Dario Azzellini developed the concept of “Labour as a Commons” (Critical Sociology 2016). See more at www.azzellini.net
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