This virus can be a catalyst to change, if we organize like our life depends on it

By Ron Hayduk and Anthony Pahnke

Ron Hayduk and Anthony Pahnke are Professors at San Francisco State University.  Ron can be reached at rhayduk@sfsu.edu, and Anthony, at anthonypahnke@sfsu.edu

Sounds odd, right?  How could the coronavirus, which has killed thousands around the world and thrown the global political and economic system into crisis, be considered an ally?  Instead, shouldn’t it be seen first and foremost as the common enemy that we all face and that needs to be defeated?

Of course, the virus needs to be controlled and we need to inoculate ourselves from it.  Those objectives, we do not question. 

Yet, the virus can also help bring about significant change with the right kind of push from grassroots movements. That is, if we recognize the nature of the political opening that the virus has provided.

First, think about the standard organizing strategy, popularized by struggles such as the civil rights movement. The goal, as MLK wrote about in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail, was to create tensions, and in the process, force elites to negotiate. 

How?  By filling the jails.  This way, public services would be paralyzed and elites would have to sit down and discuss the issues that movements sought to address.  Or workers strike, stopping the gears of production, and thereby, leverage their power to bring the bosses to the table to negotiate.

Compare this idea — disruption — with what we are facing now: experts fear that hospitals will be overrun in just a matter of weeks; the crashing economic system has thrown millions into unemployment, placed businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, and made financial markets seize.

Just look around, the pandemic has done the work of thousands of committed activists in causing disruption and bringing elites to the table to discuss wide-sweeping policy changes.

Such openings are reflected in the debates and controversies surrounding the stimulus legislation, the largest aid package in U.S. history, as well as in discussions of additional relief measures that will soon follow.

But, isn’t the stimulus essentially a corporate bailout, which actually may total more than $5 trillion, if you count the underwriting of banks and large enterprises?  Isn’t it an outrageous betrayal to working and middle-class taxpayers akin to the 2008 stimulus scam? 

Yes.  But to denounce it merely as such may suit people with the privilege to “shelter-in-place” and work from home, but for many working people with real needs, there are lots in the legislation of value. For instance, there’s immediate relief for workers and families, provisions for non-profit organizations and the unemployed, student debt relief, and funds for Native Americans. It also provides critical funds to state and local governments who are also racing to meet mounting need, as well as funds to conduct this year’s elections safely.  To be sure, none of this is nearly enough.  And the slush fund to corporations is scandalous and shameful.

Still, why not think of these relief measures as a downpayment on what is really needed, as a foot in the door to leverage future action?

Yes, the bailout package contains billions dedicated to the airlines and other corporate behemoths, and too many workers—particularly the undocumented—are left out.  And healthcare workers, state and local governments, elections officials, and many others need much more support fast.  

Yet, the legislation prohibits stock buybacks for one year, as well as sharp limits to CEO pay for entities that receive the funds.  More importantly, the legislation opens the door for government to have a stake in some of the world’s largest companies and industries.

This point is huge, so don’t scoff at it. We can hear the naysayers now – isn’t this an opportunity for Steve Mnuchin and the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to sit around awash in hundred dollar bills, setting them on fire to light their cigars as they laugh at the rest us who wait desperately for those $1,200 checks to arrive?  

Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be that way – these provisions allow the government to make essential changes in businesses that accept its assistance. And because so many businesses need relief, this provision could help achieve a huge leftwing goal – massive restructuring of private enterprise.

In effect, the virus has created this opening for us to transform the economy.  The question is – who will get into it and what will they do? 

Think about the 2007/2008 Great Recession and the restructuring of General Motors.  It wasn’t in Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act but came about later as part of a joint plan between the government and the automobile manufacturer that had filed for bankruptcy. Under their agreement, the Obama administration replaced executives, passed new industrial standards, and influenced production decisions.

But neoliberal errors were made – the government failed to assure effective safety measures in vehicles and workforce downsizing continued. Similarly, in 2008, the housing and financial sectors were ripe for massive reorganization but in 2009 Obama and company essentially gave them a passOccupy Wall Street came to life in its aftermath, largely because the promise of “hope and change” delivered neither.  Worse still, the fallout of the Great Recession essentially led to an even more unequal recovery.

Still, the example of General Motors shows that government takeovers can take place in our current time.  It also shows that we cannot rest assured that the government will do the right thing for working people when the opportunity presents itself—we need to take action strategically to take power, or at the very least, to affect its exercise in decisive ways, shaping its direction more effectively.

This is why in addition to relentlessly demanding transparency and pressuring political elites to provide oversight, we need to push for the breakup of large firms into smaller ones with new leaders, or nationalization of sectors. Movement members and leaders should have a stake in making such decisions, as many argue.

We need deeper changes to the political economy, that hue to values of transformative solidarity, with new arrangements and institutions.  Such changes occurred during the Great Depression, albeit short of a fuller transformation advocated by the millions of poor and working people, socialists, and communists of the time, or along radical lines many seek today. 

In the 1930s, a host of massive and unprecedented New Deal spending programs aimed at reviving the economy and providing relief to the most vulnerable were created, largely propelled by the unemployed and striking workers. From the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), to the Federal Housing Act (FHA) and Social Security Act, to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) — the federal government enacted a host of new programs to meet a myriad of needs in remarkable and far-reaching ways that has had lasting impacts.  

The USDA, for instance, created what were known as the Greenbelt communities.  These settlements were experiments in collective living, where unemployed people were selected to live and work together. The housing and economic arrangements were set up as cooperatives. 

The Greenbelt communities, for the most part, have been swallowed up into other growing metropolises.  Yet, social security remains an integral part of our lives, as do the various programs that were part of the AAA – including food assistance and agricultural subsidies—and housing programs such as the FDIC.

So, what’s the strategy now?

First, popular movements – including revived unions, as well as immigrant rights groups, racial justice organizations, a resurgent women’s movement, and a radicalized environmental movement – need to recognize how the virus has essentially cracked the state and economy open, providing resources and access in ways that were unthinkable just a few months ago. Today, Instacart workers—the largely immigrant food delivery workers ineligible for relief funds—are planning a strike, as are Amazon workers, and adjunct lecturers — the super-exploited proletariat of higher education– plan sick-outs

Bernie Sanders’ campaign was fed by these movements, and in turn, has fed these movements.  The energy and infrastructure created by Sander’s campaign could still serve as a vehicle to help organize for political and policy changes. He’s not giving up and neither should we.

If popular movements and progressives recognize this opening and take concrete strategic actions to organize in ways to shape the next relief package(s), then we can use this historical moment to make more profound, structural changes, including new institutions, new policies, in short, a new economy.  Call it a “Better Deal” or the “Real Deal.”

Naomi Klein is partially right to elevate Milton Friedman’s idea – that during a crisis, the direction of response and change depends on the ideas laying around.  But, in crafting responses and making change during such times, the task is not merely to raise awareness about issues; its about power.

People already know that inequality exists, healthcare is inadequate, the rent is too damn high, and climate change is a real, big problem. And even if they don’t, or don’t care, or deny that such issues are in fact social problems, fast-changing facts on the ground can snap them into awareness.  Nearly everyone has been directly or indirectly affected by this crisis — or will be soon — in profound ways. The burning question is can we act collectively and decisively to win the world we want and need?

MLK had to rely on a coalition of students, religious people, and poor and working people to put pressure on elites. In our current situation, the virus has been a catalyst, bringing elites to the table.  It has created a crisis on a scale that screams for massive and multiple remedies.

This gargantuan crisis is not going away anytime soon. Already, it has led to surprising and rapid gains that organizers have long sought.  Walmart, Uber, and others quickly enacted sick leave policy; healthcare insurers are covering patients; the state of California has blocked landlords from evicting tenants thrown out of work. Who would have thought Trump and the GOP would send unemployed people $1,200 checks?

There’s no better time than now for movements to demand resources, as well as power. This means organizing like our lives depend on it, to restructure our economy, create new institutions, and gain power over private enterprise.  Imagine a version of the Meidner Plan down the road?

The moment is filled with peril and possibility; it’s up to us to seize it.

Ron Hayduk

Author: Ron Hayduk

Ron Hayduk is a professor at San Francisco State University.

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