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Corporate forces are prioritising the shoring up of capitalism – even as workers perish from Covid-19

The drive to preserve a failing economy that works for the few rather than to transform it radically for the many exists on an international level, writes KEVIN OVENDEN

PERHAPS you read this on hold in a queue behind scores of thousands trying to access universal credit.

Maybe you are discovering that the fiendish complexity of the government’s scheme to subsidise your pay during this crisis belies the glitzy headlines — especially if you are self-employed.

Or maybe you work in construction, forced by your employer to go in this week to build luxury flats at grave risk to your health, your workmates’ and your family’s, and against the advice of your union.

Whatever the case, ordinary people in Britain are running up against the reality that even as popular pressure and solidarity — made visible with the national applause for NHS and care workers on Thursday — forces the government to act, the Tories do so while trying to prioritise the profit-making machine of capitalism.

The absurd contradictions that that leads to are illustrated by police stopping a worker at a checkpoint in Plymouth and sending him home because his work is non-essential. 

There is no police action against the bosses forcing people in or against government departments leaving millions of workers feeling they have no choice.

What is happening to working people in Britain is taking place to one degree or another in countries across the globe. 

The same chaos arising from putting capitalist interests first is frustrating international co-operation and is deepening national antagonisms.

It is most grotesque in the US. It now has the largest number of declared coronavirus infections in the world and a horrifically rising fatality rate, above all in New York City. 

Donald Trump wants to abandon the limited shutdowns some US states have adopted. Deploying an argument first trailed in that amoral organ of Republican billionaires, the Wall Street Journal, he is explicit in putting “the economy” above public health.

A Texas state official this week said that patriotic older Americans should be happy to die if it meant preserving “the economy for their grandchildren.” 

It is not only the ghouls of the US right. In “social democratic” Sweden, industrialists have the upper hand in a ferocious argument over whether to shut down non-essential production or carry on regardless, relying on the crank, eugenicist theories that Boris Johnson’s government has been forced to abandon in Britain, at least publicly.

The drive to preserve a failing economy that works for the few rather than to transform it radically for the many exists on an international level, imposing itself in each country and strengthening the domination of the stronger over the weaker. This is the imperial order.

So the US uses the crisis to withdraw aid from Houthi-held areas of war-torn Yemen, where 80 per cent of people are already weakened by lack of food and diseases such as cholera. 

It declares the president of Venezuela a “narco-terrorist,” maintains the blockade on Cuba and tightens the sanctions on Iran that were already killing people. 

It insists on calling the infection the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus, plunging US-China relations to their most dangerous for 40 years.

Human-rights organisation B’Tselem reports that Israeli authorities have confiscated tents and medical equipment bound for the occupied Palestinian territories, locked in as well as locked down.

It matters not that this will mean, even on the most selfish of calculations, that the virus will spread wildly and thus have more opportunity to mutate. That will undermine the effectiveness of any vaccine eventually developed. And then new strains will reflux from the global South back into the capitalist metropolises: London, New York City, Seattle, Madrid, Milan, Barcelona, Tel Aviv…

Nor is Europe immune from the madness of these power plays. They are reproduced within the European Union, shown most chillingly in its response to what is little short of the Calvary the people of Italy are enduring.

The Italian death toll is over 8,000. Health systems in the north are overwhelmed. Doctors face the nightmarish dilemma of choosing which patient is treated and which not — a decision that will scar any moral being for a lifetime. 

Nearly 4,000 health workers have been infected. Dozens have died.

The epicentre began in the industrialised regions. Corporate Italy demanded to carry on as normal. Enterprises forced their workers in despite rising health fears. Only last weekend did the “lockdown” announced by the centre-left government of Giuseppe Conte go beyond keeping Italians at home during their leisure time and extend into the sphere of work. 

It has taken extensive strike action by Italian workers to begin to enforce that. As with the British, US and other governments, Italy initially spurned the mass testing, tracing and quarantining that the World Health Organisation says is critical and that has worked in east Asia.

It was taking place weeks ago in Lombardy but was called off — in part through lack of kit.

An appeal for medical resources to Italy from other European states and institutions came up against a brick wall. Instead we have seen a descent into bitter inter-state clashes. 

Authorities in the Czech Republic seized half a consignment of medical equipment from China bound for Italy. 

Italy in turn impounded ventilators heading to Greece. Germany did the same and banned all medical exports. Poland closed its airspace to Russian planes forcing them to route via the Black Sea to deliver to northern Italy.

None of that is the result of some spontaneous outbreak of the virus of national chauvinism spraying out from the mass of people in Europe. 

Blaming them is like attempts to scapegoat workers forced onto packed Tube trains in London at rush hour for the consequences of the contradictory stay-at-home plan.

People are rightly demanding action from their states. That is not on national grounds but because the state — everywhere a nation-state — is the only institution that can provide it. You may stay at home as an individual. Only the state can provide mass testing.

You don’t call the British or Greek fire brigade on nationalist grounds when there is a fire. You call the fire brigade — which is Greek if you happen to live in Greece.

It is not popular sentiment or state action per se that is bringing nationalist antagonism. 

It is that the states, like capitalist corporations, are in competition with one another and each is trying to preserve its position in the economic and great-power pecking order.

The EU, as a hierarchical collection of states and capitals, does not alter that. It exacerbates it.

In the name of neoliberal orthodoxy and paying off the debt from bailing out the banks in 2008, the European Commission and European Central Bank have imposed a decade of austerity. Any government that erred was punished.

On 63 occasions between 2011 and 2019 the commission demanded governments cut or privatise their health services.

Now the turn to massive state intervention and the partial suspension of the austerity straitjacket show how this was a political choice in favour of the billionaire class all along.

It is revealing that that came not only at the expense of all workers in Europe but also of the weaker states and national economies. The euro single currency has intensified that.

Italy’s economy is no bigger now than it was in 2007. It joined the euro in 1999 with the second-highest proportion of its economy devoted to manufacturing but has lost nearly a fifth of capacity.

An enormous exodus of young people is a big reason for Italy having such an aged population — now gravely at risk.

So today, credit-worthy Germany can suspend the rules on spending and borrow 10 per cent of the size of its economy (GDP) for a bailout – that is still aimed at German capital above workers. 

Italy, with debt of 135 per cent of GDP, cannot and is reduced to nugatory efforts.

Worse, Italian banks hold most of Italian debt. If the value of Italian debt collapses, so do the banks, and the Italian state will not be able to borrow to stop what economists call a “doom loop.”

Nor can Italy print money to do so, Doing that is in the hands of the ECB — the central bank for the euro.

This lies behind the deepening schism in Europe pitching Italy and eight other countries spearheaded by France against the northern European “surplus-producing” states led by Germany.

That second group is dogmatically resisting the issuing of “Eurobonds,” which would spread the debt burden across the eurozone. 

Instead it insists that bailouts are done similarly to 2008 via the ECB and a bailout facility that is able to “maintain control,” as the German finance minister puts it, and impose conditions. 

That is conditions such as the austerity memorandums imposed on Greece. And the ECB used its daily control over providing credit to crash the Greek banks when people voted No to austerity in a referendum in 2015.

The neoliberal Irish Premier Leo Varadkar has already warned his people that they will have to pay for the stimulus package in the future. The European institutions are there to ensure that they do. 

This is the vaunted European solidarity. No wonder leading pro-capitalist commentators are warning anew of the break-up of the eurozone and EU unless it abandons its financial architecture. But that is written into its DNA.

The disparities this time are not only the differential economic impacts of the last crisis. They are the appalling loss of life now in Italy and Spain (and to an extent France) compared with other EU states.

The political tensions are rising and explosive — with far-right formations such as Lega in Italy incapable of providing any social relief but waiting in the wings to exploit social catastrophe.

Against that we should counterpose a very different European and truly internationalist solidarity. 

One that extends from our locality across borders, from a construction site in Manchester to one in Milan — one that is prepared to rupture with the bosses’ priorities at all levels.  

In Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great Italian novel The Leopard, the character Tancredi warns the Italian aristocracy in the tumult of the country’s unification in the 19th century: “For things to stay the same, everything must change.”

Today’s European, British and global “nobility” want to change as little as possible. To put working people’s lives before profit, however, everything must change.

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