Many unfortunate and too-often disregarded tensions have come to the fore in the event of the COVID-19 outbreak. (We’re gna use use the technical term because it has radically less baggage than “Coronavirus” does by this point.) Many less fortunate workers’ livelihoods are already being threatened in lesser and greater ways, given the already economically fraught situation in my own Seattle there will no doubt be whole new waves of evictions. The class division is stark–corporate campuses are populated by service staff who cannot work from home and cannot afford to pass up income, and these janitors, laborers, logistics technicians, chefs, and security officers are tending to empty campuses where the vast majority of the (non-contingent) employees are able to isolate themselves, take steps to avoid transmission, contagion, practice social distancing (an exciting new buzzword) and so forth.
If only there was a way to get everyone out of the public workspace. If we really want to take this idea of ‘social distancing’ as primary means of containment seriously, then, well, we need to look to the extremely obvious socioeconomic flaws in that whole concept.
There is of course a way to get everyone out of the workplace–a general strike.
But already this idea runs into a glaring problem: the workers responsible for the bulk of a given technology company’s day-to-day’s activities can simply do their work remotely. They can stay home, quarantine themselves from the plague-carrying masses, stock up on supplies with those fat checkbooks, and nervously check in on their stock portfolios. What do they have to gain by simply refusing to work? How would any organized general strike (already a pipe dream, perhaps, but stay with me) genuinely accomplish the near-total cessation of labor? This is what would be necessary to prevent the whole undertaking from resulting in not only in failure but the further economic disintegration of the lives of any participants involved in the action who do not have a safety net. Business must halt, then not only will we have achieved an ideal quarantine situation (and without the application of state military intervention) but we will have produced an ideal situation for demanding vast reform of a system that is not only despicable in-and-of-itself, but also has shown that it is woefully ill-equipped to deal with immunological threats (in spite of having access to some of the most state of the art medical infrastructure in the world–because it’s not that simple).
How do we encourage the middle class to involve themselves in radical political action? How do we construct a movement with the capacity to sweep people up, even those whose lives are perfectly comfortable, who perhaps have more to lose than to gain in the event of economic uncertainty, strain, and (crucially) reform? Don’t so many of these people voice, if not their disgust, at least their distaste for the present socioeconomic environment? This is not just an opportunity, it is a necessary response to the threat of pandemic.
The event of an escalating COVID-19 crisis has the capacity (and has already begun) to bring these tensions into clear view more than ever, to throw them into sharp relief and legitimate an uncompromising call for the sweeping structural reform that would be necessary to take us off the catastrophic trajectory we have found ourselves on, with regard not only to epidemic, but to ecological collapse, to the damaged and alienated human social sphere, to human dignity and freedom.
A quite valid rebuttal to this suggestion is that striking movements have typically involved mass physical organization which absolutely cannot be an objective in this situation. However I think that is a close-minded argument against organizing mass action–we live in the digital age. We have already established as a society that self-imposed quarantine at the largest possible scale is the best short term response to the threat of pandemic. One obvious strategy would be to organize a mass public commitment to unconditionally calling in “sick” to work, or otherwise a simple refusal to risk further transmission of the virus, across all sectors and industries, such that both the private sector and the state are forced to attend directly to the human crisis at hand. As has always been the case in these kinds of political actions–it is the responsibility of the revolutionary body to protect and provide for those who do not have a safety net and cannot afford to simply cast off what meager economic security they do have. That is where we all step in, in solidarity, to support everyone involved in the struggle. From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.