The declaration of the state of emergency is unprecedented in Spain, except in the brief period of the air traffic controllers’ strike 10 years ago. It is true that this declaration currently has overwhelming support among the population. This is understandable. The seriousness of the situation and the uncertainty that accompanies it makes people trust "authority" as the only reliable source of protection available, at least as long as that trust lasts. So what is the position of Marxists on this?
Only the working class can wage an effective struggle against the pandemic
We are in favour of the introduction of robust measures and an iron social discipline to make the fight against the spread of the pandemic effective. That being said, the effectiveness of this and other measures must be evaluated according to which interests and social classes it serves.
For these measures to be viable, they must be accompanied by various conditions, the main one being that everything must be under the control of the working class. Throughout history, the state apparatus and the Spanish ruling class have shown countless times their contempt for the fate and living conditions of working families, and also their ineptitude and incompetence to confront great social calamities and problems.
Only the working class at the head of society can fight an effective battle against the pandemic, as it is in fact being demonstrated in hospitals, in the distribution of commodities, in the production of basic goods, in cleaning tasks, etc.
The working class is the only class capable of waging this struggle, freeing it from the multitude of capitalist private interests that we see hinder it. Currently, the population is not sufficiently tested for the virus and there is not enough healthcare personnel or equipment. All these things cost money, and the Spanish state tells us it has many debts to pay, like the public debt generated by the capitalist crisis of 2008-2009, when the banks and capitalists were bailed out. Furthermore, governments do not want to raise taxes on the wealthy. What do they care about public health? To them, it does not matter. They can afford private healthcare, which takes great care of them. Most workers continue to work in non-essential services, and are therefore exposed to the spread of the virus, because employers want to continue producing and selling to become even richer. Even in essential services (food, agriculture, transport, health, energy, telecommunications, etc.), employees are forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions, without social distancing and without sufficient protective material. This also affects workers in nursing homes and other care workers, cleaners, etc. And, as if that were not enough, instead of joining forces and sharing research, each laboratory and pharmaceutical company (which are private) are looking for a vaccine on their own to have the patent and make a killing off the back of this pandemic. This is shameful, and demonstrates how rotten the capitalist system is.
The limitations, difficulties and gross negligence of the authorities, business interests and the healthcare system are in stark contrast with the effort, selfless dedication, strenuous sacrifice and self-organisation of healthcare workers and thousands of ordinary people who feel compelled to "do something", trying to fill in the gaps left by the system.
Initiatives are springing up in many factories to produce everything that is lacking in our hospitals with the boldness and creativity of those who create wealth with their own hands and brains. In many factories, now paralysed or semi-paralysed, workers and engineers are using their productive labour to try to supply products that are lacking in hospitals and that are costing thousands of new infections and deaths every day: gowns, masks, disinfectant, etc. The staff of Hospital Clínic, SEAT and Leitat in Barcelona, have developed a clinically approved respirator using a windshield motor and 3D printers, with which they can immediately produce up to 300 units a day! And that is while the authorities bitterly complain about how they need a thousand to attend to all emergencies throughout Spain! What the capitalist system cannot achieve is solved in a matter of days by engineers and workers.
In many hospitals, the residents of the area take on the responsibility of bringing food and water to doctors and nurses, abandoned to their fate by the health authorities. Lots of initiatives of all kinds have arisen to care for isolated elderly and disabled people, to produce and bring them food, to transport the sick, to organise evening social activities in buildings. Even in many towns, it is the municipalities that organise control patrols in the streets and at the entrances of the towns to ensure that the quarantine is respected and that no one leaves or enters without a justifiable reason. And all this, without the need for police, military or senior officials to direct or coordinate anything.
The working class can do anything. If the workers were given full power to adapt production for social purposes, without private property or profit, the world would be transformed in a very short time.
To effectively combat the epidemic and other social problems, it is necessary to nationalise and centralise the commanding heights of the economy, to establish a production plan that meets social needs, starting with the most basic ones. This would imply the immediate closure of all non-essential companies in order to stop the spread of the epidemic among workers and their families, full safety measures in all essential companies, and emergency committees elected among the workers of each company with full powers to apply these provisions. This would be coupled with the organisation of neighbourhood committees that would have the responsibility of establishing collective discipline in neighbourhoods and towns in order to guarantee safeguarding and general health. They would also organise community shopping for the provision of elderly people who live alone and disabled people. The kitchens and services of the closed bars and restaurants should be put to use for this.
Under these conditions, the police and military presence on the streets “to maintain order” would be unnecessary. Neighbourhood brigades could take the responsibility of maintaining the quarantine in neighbourhoods and towns if they were allowed to do so.
All this can be organised with neighbourhood assemblies in each block of buildings, which could elect delegates and gather neighbourhood representatives per block, either in person or online, to start putting all this into action.
Participation from below is also essential to organising the production and supply of the healthcare system in this epidemic. It would be possible to know in less than 24 hours how much material and health personnel are available in each clinic and hospital, and how much more would be needed to deal with the pandemic. Thousands of unemployed or precariously hired nurses, along with clinically experienced volunteers, could join the staff, working in decent conditions and on decent wages.
A committee made up of representatives of the government, unions and shop steward’s committees of the most important factories in the sector could establish a complete census of companies able to produce all the necessary sanitary material and reconvert those that could be used for this purpose, requisitioning the necessary raw materials for production. Hundreds of thousands of workers, with the support of healthcare engineers and professionals, would enthusiastically plunge into this work, and it would be possible to start producing and pumping out the necessary sanitary material in a very short time, reaching full production. So far, we have seen that the problem is not how lethal the virus itself is, but the scandalous lack of means, personnel, and medical equipment with which our healthcare system faces the pandemic.
The resources to do all this are there, in the hands of big companies and banks. As the famous legislator of the Roman Republic, Cicero, stated: "The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” Private property and wealth of a handful of big businessmen and bankers must not hinder the application of the measures that are needed, because these justly represent the salvation of the people in this pandemic.
Regarding the so-called security forces, we do not reject the help that the thousands of members of the police, the civil guard and the army can provide in this situation in tasks of transferring people, disinfection, monitoring the population, as would also be the role of firefighters along with volunteers from neighbourhoods and towns. But they must do so under the leadership and subordination to the workers' organisations and to the workers' and neighbourhood committees of each area, and only if there are no overtly reactionary or repressive elements in their ranks. Freed from the hierarchical chain of command, they would have the right to choose their representatives and officers themselves in the work of coordination and distribution of tasks, and with an express prohibition on carrying weapons, which must remain at all times in the custody and control of the organisations and committees of workers and neighbourhoods. Like any worker or neighbour, they would also be subject to being relieved of their tasks or responsibilities if their conduct or performance in the assigned task turns out to be inadequate, abusive or goes against the decisions made by the democratic bodies.
It must be said that, in fact, the government could organise all this if it wanted to, and it would have the overwhelming support of the population. For example, we agree with those parts of the decree of the state of emergency that authorise the government to intervene in the market and expropriate all kinds of companies, industries and goods to help them successfully face the coronavirus pandemic.
Article 14 of the decree says:
“The Minister of Health may:
“a) Issue the necessary orders to guarantee the supply chain and the functioning of those production centres affected by the shortage of products necessary for the protection of public health.
“b) Intervene and temporarily occupy industries, factories, workshops, farms or premises of any nature, including privately owned clinics and hospitals, services and establishments, as well as the pharmaceutical industry.
“c) Carry out temporary expropriation of all kinds of goods and impose mandatory benefits for people in cases where it is necessary for the adequate protection of public health, in the context of this health crisis.”
The problem is that the government, a prisoner of capitalist interests, does not carry out the application of these points of the decree to their necessary and logical conclusion, out of fear of breaking with the powerful elements in society. And where it does, it does so very shyly.
Instead of approaching the fight against the pandemic with a socialist programme, the national and regional governments are wasting time and money trying to beg private businessmen and foreign companies to sell them what they have, at the price they want. Capitalist speculation is blocking the arrival of necessary medical supplies. We cannot allow this anymore. Meanwhile, hundreds of bureaucrats and officials are currently stumbling around their offices to try and "organise" all of this.
An emergency situation requires emergency measures. If the working class had effective power in the country, it would be able to comply with Article 14 of the decree to its ultimate conclusion: nationalising, that is to say making common property, of all the main levers of the economy that are currently in the hands of the big businessmen, bankers and landowners. We need these immense resources to deal with the current dire emergency that has millions locked up in their homes and tens of thousands sick. Putting together all the resources of the country, we could have thousands of beds, professionals and more equipment. And we would immediately expand them with new field hospitals across the country along with large-scale expropriation and transformation of large hotels, now empty, and without paying a penny for it.
The threat to our democratic rights
The state of emergency, under this bourgeois regime and with a government that does not want to break with the system, not only limits the potential to be effective in combating the epidemic, as we are seeing, but it also represents a serious threat to our democratic rights.
It sets a dangerous precedent to normalise a situation where we virtually have a police state, where even a private security guard may have more authority than a mayor or a delegate elected by popular vote, as is the case with the current state of emergency decree. It sets a very dangerous precedent if the patrolling of the streets by army units with police functions becomes a familiar sight, as in a dictatorship; if the arbitrary decision of any police officer or soldier can lead to abuse and the imposition of fines or imprisonment without any basis. Many reports and videos are circulating on social media where police and security guards are seen mistreating ordinary people, workers, children from immigrant families and housewives with unjustified arrests in many cases, to the point of resorting to the most vulgar insults and physical violence.
It is unjustifiable that in the face of a civil and health crisis such as this, with a leftist government, three of the five spokesmen who report daily on the situation are the country's top police and military chiefs, including the Chief of Defence Staff (JEMAD). Stony-faced, without any hint of empathy, like they’re trying to instill fear into the population. It is grotesque to listen to these people's militaristic language, talking about “the enemy”, saying "we are at war". They exaggerate their personal importance and the involvement of the police and military forces in the fight against the pandemic, with the moral satisfaction of feeling like they are the masters of the situation. They go so far as to relegate to a lower rung in the decision-making authority the ministers on duty who accompany them and the government officials who coordinate the main tasks of the healthcare emergency and transportation.
In line with the above, the servile attitude of the Defence Minister (Margarita Robles) and the Minister of the Interior (Grande-Marlaska) towards the armed wing of the state apparatus, with their exaggerated compliments during public appearances, is shocking.
It is no coincidence that the far-right Vox is applauding this set-up and the declaration of the state of emergency by the PSOE-UP government and that they are already in favour of indefinitely extending it.
What is the danger here? The danger is that, by bringing to the fore in an exaggerated and undeserved way the role of the police, the civil guard and the army in this crisis will tend to raise the moral authority of these forces in the eyes of the population, especially in the most backward and inert layers, who will say to themselves: "If the police and the army can 'save' the country in this crisis, why should they not do the same in future crises, whatever they may be, political or social?" This is all the more dangerous since the current Spanish state apparatus was inherited from the old Francoist state without being purged, and has remained a nest of anti-communist reactionaries. Furthermore, this cloying servility shown by the government, the media and "public opinion" only increases their sense of arrogance and "authority", their contempt for "politicians", their feeling of superiority towards the population, whom they consider as simple little soldiers they can rally.
In all this, there is another element that enters the equation. It is true that the militaristic exhibition on the streets and on TV has the purpose of disciplining society, provoking servile respect and fear towards the state apparatus; but it also seeks to be prepared for the possible general or occasional popular outbursts that this crisis could cause if it were to last too long. Whether this has the open support of the government, or is an imposition of the state apparatus on it, does not matter. In any case, it shows the impotence of any government elected by popular vote that accepts the status quo before the power of the ruling class and the state apparatus, in situations of acute social crisis.
This situation in which an unelected body of society (the police, the civil guard, the army) evades popular control, feels that it has arbitrary power over ordinary people, where each of its members considers that, with their individual voice they can impose their will on tens, hundreds, thousands or millions, asserting their monopoly on the use of weapons and the threat of repression: this paves the way for future coup attempts.
That is why, to the extent that the instruments to make this state of emergency effective are the repressive forces, and that it is done in the interest of safeguarding the current class regime in the midst of this health crisis, we cannot support it. In the same way that we do not support the restriction of democratic rights contained in this decree that implies the strengthening of the state apparatus (police, civil guard, army, judges, state administration) adding arbitrary repressive powers to the usual ones. We, as Marxists, as class-conscious proletarians, propose to the working class that it should only trust itself, its organisations, consciousness, discipline and maturity as a class.
Even within the state of emergency, we do not recognise limits to our democratic rights. We appeal to workers, within the possibilities offered by each company, neighbourhood and community, while safeguarding their health and safety, to organise assemblies, mobilise, go on strikes and take whatever initiative they see fit to assert their rights and defend their class interests in all aspects: health, hygiene, decent employment, decent wages, and above all to fight for a socialist society to free the whole of humanity from the nightmare of this rotten capitalist system.
For some years now, the old motto of the Argentinian "Peronist Workers' Resistance" against the dictatorships of the 1950s and 1960s has become fashionable among left-wing activists and revolutionaries in Spain: "Only the people save the people". We sympathise with this slogan, but we add the following nuance: that, within the people, only the working class at the head can effectively direct it towards true salvation.