“What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation?...Firstly, when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes’, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth.” (Lenin, Collapse of the Second International, 1915)
The coronavirus crisis has caught the British ruling class badly off guard. As is usually the case when the ruling class suffers a serious split, they are torn between maintaining the profits of the capitalists on the one hand, and maintaining political domination over the working class on the other.
One section wants to keep the economy going as normally as possible; the other, to maintain the illusion of national unity by saving lives. The longer the virus rages, the more open and serious this split will become.
Profits vs lives
Initially, the Tories wanted to delay or hold off on calling a lockdown. Like the capitalist gamblers they represent, they hoped to wing it; to ‘take the virus on the chin’ with minimal changes to economic activity.
The establishment’s thinking was clear: that British capitalism could scrape by without the virus ever quite overwhelming society. And that by avoiding the lockdown, British capitalism could come out the other side with fewer bankruptcies and less government debt than the likes of France, Germany and Italy. In short, the Tories were gambling with the lives of millions - including, it now turns out, that of the PM himself.
The rapid spread of the disease quickly put paid to that strategy. The sheer scale of predicted deaths - and the subsequent PR disaster - was just too much for even the most cold-hearted Tories to swallow. Thus, for the time being, the split seemed to be resolved on the side of those favouring a shutdown.
At the same time, some researchers have concluded that the harder the lockdown now, the better the economic performance once it ends. This is simply because without a lockdown, too many workers will die and the capitalists will struggle to ramp up production - and their exploitation - after the pandemic.
Thus, the ruling class has weighed up workers' lives in terms of profit, and found that for this reason alone it pays to save lives.
Similarly, Rishi Sunak’s fiscal measures to pay 80% of the wages of furloughed workers are not evidence of the mythical ‘compassionate conservatism’. The real aim of this measure is to make it easier for these companies to quickly return to production and the making of profits once the virus is vanquished.
System in the spotlight
But this split within the ruling class has only been resolved temporarily. And there are signs it is already breaking down. The longer the pandemic continues - and some form of lockdown remains in place - the sharper it will get.
Donald Trump eloquently summarised the thoughts of the capitalist class when he stated that: “The cure cannot be worse than the disease.”
With each passing day, the economic news gets more severe. The capitalists are staring into the abyss of a new depression, or something even worse. New bankruptcies are being announced daily.
The bosses are not concerned with the health and wellbeing of society, but only with their profits - and by extension the system that makes these possible. The lockdown has very quickly made the realisation of their profits almost impossible. And it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the viability of the entire capitalist system is under question.
Luke Johnson, chair of Risk Capital Partners says in the Sunday Times that, “the shutdown is helping to erode the work ethic of a generation”. By this he means that workers’ might begin to get ideas above their station; might question the capitalist system of wage-slavery and start demanding better conditions.
The Financial Times quotes a couple of ‘senior Tory MPs’ who are already getting anxious to see profitable activity recommence,
“‘My post bag is full of angry businesses: they’re worried about getting the support, worried about how long it will last and, most of all, worried how it will be withdrawn.’
“Another MP said that small businesses in their constituency were fearful about surviving. ‘Businesses are scared. By the summer, Rishi is going to be propping up most of the economy. That’s not sustainable and it will have to end at some point. Then what?’” (Financial Times, 5 April 2020)
You can bet that these businesses are filling Rishi Sunak’s post bag several times over. For them, the cure only causes a disease far worse than the coronavirus could ever be - not only falling profits, but waves of bankruptcies.
No wonder then that ‘Treasury officials’ have told the Mail on Sunday that, “It is fair to say we need to be considering all ways of protecting lives and wellbeing, not just the loss of life from the virus, but the wider implications of a major downturn as well.”
As a result, the source claimed, the Chancellor had made “robust representations” to Tory health secretary Matt Hancock, arguing for a “clear path out of the lockdown” to prevent economic devastation.
In a rational, planned economy - that is, in socialism - not only would the virus’ spread be mitigated by far greater spending on healthcare, but a temporary shutdown of non-essential activity would be like pressing pause on a video. No long-term damage would be done.
But thanks to the blind anarchy of capitalism, the economy is sure to be devastated whatever the government does. With each passing week of the lockdown, the howls of desperation from capitalists will grow louder and louder.
In this unprecedented situation, the government will feel increasingly unsure of itself and what to do. They are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. Capitalism is rudderless and its leaders do not know what to do.
But the present confusion is as nothing compared with the situation that is to come, when waves of bankruptcies crash through the economy and the disease is still spreading. The present divisions in the Tories’ ranks are only the outlines of a much more serious and open split, as different sections of the ruling class grapple with the biggest crisis in capitalism’s history.
As Lenin explained, such open splits are one of the most important conditions for a revolutionary situation, for they reveal the chaos of capitalism, the weakness of its leaders, and provide “a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth”. And there will be no shortage of discontent and indignation in the period ahead.