The lessons of the Italian coronavirus crisis for the workers of the world

The coronavirus crisis in Italy has brought out the real nature of the capitalist system that is now evident to millions of working people. Profit is being placed before lives, but the working class is reacting with militant strike action. What lessons can be drawn from this experience for the workers of other countries? Fred Weston explains.

The world has entered a crisis of global proportions, both in terms of the risk to people’s health and in terms of the economic collapse, which is dramatically changing the way people live.

According to one forecast, the United States could see a 30 percent fall in GDP in the second quarter of this year, with unemployment as high as 30 percent, something that would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago. In China, estimates are that the economy in the first quarter contracted by 40 percent compared to the previous quarter, the biggest fall for 50 years.

The whole world is now in recession, with calculations that global GDP fell by 0.8 percent in the first quarter. That may not sound like much, but if we consider that any growth below 2 percent on a global scale is considered a recession then it puts it into the correct perspective.

Anyone who has read the history books, or is old enough to have lived through it, will be aware of the colossal class struggle that was unleashed in the 1970s. The year 1974 was the turning point in economic terms, when there was a sharp fall in global GDP growth that year from around 6 percent the previous year to less than 1 percent. The present falls in GDP across the globe will therefore have a similar effect, in terms of the class struggle, but on a much larger scale.

Rapid acceleration of events

Events are moving very fast. This is truly the epoch of “sharp turns and sudden changes, sharp changes and sudden turns”. We must move rapidly with the changes that are taking place. We must break with routine if we are to understand what is unfolding around us, and then act accordingly.

A virus of the kind that has broken out was inevitably going to impact on the economy, but the depth and rapidity of the present crisis is also a reflection of the immense contradictions that had piled up within the system. So fragile had the whole structure become that even the slightest tremor could bring it falling down.

In the previous period, the capitalist class had managed to keep their system going by using methods that fly against all the laws of the market economy, pumping huge sums into the economy over a period of decades, in the form of widespread credit, far beyond what they would have done in the past.

Coronavirus Tories Image Socialist AppealAll countries saw the capitalists and their politicians playing down the seriousness of the virus / Image: Socialist Appeal

The serious bourgeois commentators had warned against the consequences of such policies. But the question has to be asked as to why they were ignored. The reason is not to be found solely in the field of economics. There is a political factor involved here.

In spite of the bourgeois’ own propaganda, which some of them may even have believed, the working class had not disappeared. In fact, the opposite was the case. The working class has never been so strong as it is today in numerical terms. The world workforce is around 2.5 billion strong, with the metalworkers alone being around 400 million. And the bourgeois are very aware of the fact that such a huge force cannot be held back by repression alone.

Anything that risks angering these hundreds of millions could unleash a wave of revolutionary upheaval never before seen in history. As Marx explained, capitalism creates its own gravediggers.

In the previous period, the working class seemed to be in the background, not in the front seat. Until a few years ago, there seemed to be little happening on the industrial front. That had already started to change in the more recent period, in one country after another.

Now that process has been accelerated and it is moving to a much higher level. The working class is beginning to appear as the real force it has always been, but few were aware of the fact. This is a factor that is making things very clear to many people and it is speeding up the process of radicalisation that was already underway. In Italy, we have the clearest expression of this, where we have gone from a period of very low level of strike activity to one of widespread strikes.

The present crisis is bringing out the real class nature of society. All countries, as they were affected by the outbreak of the coronavirus, saw the capitalists and their politicians playing down the seriousness of the virus. Trump is the prime example, in the early stages trying to claim it was a hoax, and now saying America will be back to work in two weeks. Boris Johnson behaved in a similar manner; Bolsonaro in Brazil followed suit, and so on.

Realising what the spread of the virus could mean for the economy, which for them means their profits, the capitalists pushed for production in all sectors, regardless of whether it was essential or not, to continue.

Working class begins to move

This kind of behaviour by the bosses is what has provoked a wave of strikes, beginning first in Italy where the pandemic hit hard, in anticipation of what was to happen elsewhere. In Italy, it became abundantly clear to the workers that different weights and different measures were being implemented, depending on whether you were a worker or not.

Livestream Italy mainThe strikes in Italy started as spontaenous initiatives from below / Image: SCR

On 4 March a decree was passed introducing the lockdown, with schools and universities closing, and other measures taken to isolate people. The message to people everywhere was: stay at home. But there was one big exception: the workers! This meant that millions of people were still travelling and mixing together in close proximity on public transport and in the workplaces. There you could work shoulder to shoulder with your colleagues, without gloves or masks or any other of the necessary protective measures.

Spontaneous strikes erupted in factories such as the FIAT plant in Pomigliano, near Naples, on 9 March, and the Bonfiglioli factory in Bologna on 12th. These examples and others served to ignite a movement that spread from factory to factory, in the Veneto region, in Lombardy, to the dockworkers of Genoa and beyond. The workers were fighting for their own safety and that of their families. And yet we had cases, such as in Modena, where the police turned up at the picket lines, taking some of the trade union militants into custody, which further enraged workers.

Let us be clear here: this was not promoted by the top leaderships of the trade unions. They had in fact the opposite point of view and had been collaborating with the government and the bosses to keep the factories open.

However, so big was the movement from below that the trade union leaders, who in normal times would use their weight to hold the workers back, were suddenly forced to come out in support of the strikes, at least in words. They issued a statement on 12 March calling for the closure of the factories until March 22.

Under huge pressure from below, the government and the bosses were forced to meet the unions to discuss the way forward. The first meeting, however, produced an attempt to fudge the issue, with the government issuing a statement that production would continue but with the necessary protective equipment. This, in a moment when there aren’t enough masks for the healthcare workers, never mind the industrial workforce, was seen by the workers as a very sick joke indeed, and they were not prepared to accept it.

If close contact is a key factor in spreading the virus, it was abundantly clear to all workers that, by being forced to go to work, they were being put at risk. If one looks at two maps, one of the concentration of recorded cases of infection, and the other of the concentration of factories in the different parts of Italy, it becomes abundantly clear that there is a correlation between the two. Lombardy is the most industrialised region in Italy, and within the region Bergamo and Brescia we see one of the highest concentrations of factories. These are the two provinces that at present are living through a real nightmare scenario, with huge numbers dying. It is where people all around the world have seen the military trucks taking away the coffins as the local cemeteries can no longer cope. These scenes had a huge impact on the psychology of millions of people in Italy.

Italian government manoeuvres

Thus, the pressure from below continued to increase, and the Italian Prime Minister was forced to appear on TV on 21 March, announcing that non-essential production would cease. This was precisely the demand the workers had been posing up and down the country. Victory seemed to be in sight. But no, when the actual decree was published the next day, it proved to be very far from what had been promised verbally.

It was clear that the government had come under immense pressure from the bosses. The head of the Confindustria (the bosses’ association) let the cat out of the bag when he stated: if we close down production, we will lose billions and also the stock market will collapse. In these words, the capitalists were telling millions of working-class people that profit matters more than people’s lives.

Italian PM Image Flickr European ParliamentThe Conte government has flip-flopped on halting production under pressure from the bosses / Image: Flickr, European Parliament

This has now raised the conflict to a higher level. This week we have seen more strikes, with a general strike called in industry in the Lombardy region. It was not a general strike in the sense of an all-out strike of all sectors. The strike was called in the engineering industry, and in chemical and textile plants. From the reports in the workplaces the strike was a big success with something like a 90 percent participation rate. This indicates the real mood on the shopfloor.

Pressure had been building up for a national general strike, with Landini, general secretary of the biggest union confederation, the CGIL, threatening such action – at least in words – if the non-essential factories are not closed. The manoeuvres of the government and the blatant attempts of the capitalists to keep non-essential production going have been opening the eyes of millions of people as to the true nature of the system we live in.

No one can now ignore the Italian working class, or deny its very existence as used to be fashionable in middle-class, pseudo-intellectual circles. In the evening, the main news channels have to make reference to the “operai”: the industrial, blue-collar workers. And these workers have the enormous sympathy of the wider population. The same is true of the building industry.

There is another layer of the working class, which is paying an even bigger price: those deemed to be working in essential industries, such as food production or the pharmaceutical industry. And then there are the workers in the hospitals: the doctors, nurses, hospital cleaners, ambulance workers and so on. They are the workforce with the highest degree of contagion, and tragically with many dying in the process. So far, among the doctors there have been 41 deaths. There have been cases of suicide among nurses who could no longer tolerate the immense pressure they were under.

The workers in the Italian national health system are being forced to work in atrocious conditions. They are paying an enormous price for all the cuts carried out in healthcare in the previous period. Ambulances can take up to eight hours or more to respond to a call. When a patient does get taken to hospital there is often a long wait before an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) becomes available. Many patients are literally left to die, as the doctors have to prioritise those patients they think would benefit the most from intensive care.

More ICUs would mean fewer deaths, more ambulances would mean fewer deaths. More stringent safety measures, and more efficient and more plentiful protective equipment would mean fewer deaths.

The healthcare workers are demanding all the necessary protective equipment, which is presently very far from being sufficient to protect them. Again, this layer had enormous sympathy across the whole of society, and their plight is contributing to the growing anger of the working class as a whole.

It has become abundantly clear that the healthcare system has been systematically starved of funding and that this is a key element in the high mortality rate.The present nightmare scenario means that in the future the battle to defend and improve the public healthcare services will become a key one, and the capitalists, who have only one aim in mind, which is to profit from healthcare, will find it very difficult to argue for the further privatisation of the national health service.

International repercussions

As the virus has spread to more and more countries, we have seen a similar reaction by workers. First, we saw this in Spain, the second-worst-affected country in Europe after Italy. On 16 March we saw strikes in factories for Michelin, Mercedes Benz, Iveco, Airbus, Continental tyres, and many more. We saw similar developments in Canada, with a strike at FIAT-Chrysler over coronavirus concerns, and also in the United States and France, with similar scenarios emerging in one country after another as the virus spread.

We are seeing the beginnings of a similar process in Britain. The government is doing a replay of what we saw in Italy, always taking measures long after it had become abundantly clear that they were necessary. Shops, restaurants, bars, etc., have been ordered to close. However, the government has stated clearly that manufacturing and construction are to continue. Thus, while building company executives are working from the relative safety of their homes, their workers are being asked to risk their lives on the altar of profit. We will see strike action in Britain also.

We will see this repeated in country after country, as workers take lessons from the experience of workers of other countries. What we are witnessing is a process of class struggle developing on a global scale. The struggle in all countries over which workplaces are to remain open and in what conditions is a class struggle, and an international one at that. In the next period, this is going to intensify and spread. In all countries, we will see manoeuvres by the bosses and governments and a militant response from the workers.

The battle to close the factories

The workers of Italy want the non-essential factories to be closed. This idea has been spreading to other countries also. If the bosses resist, they will provoke even greater anger on the part of the workers. There is a very important new element in the situation: workers are de facto imposing themselves on how the factories are to be run, something no capitalist is prepared to tolerate.

Faced, therefore, with the possibility of a widespread radicalisation of the working class, the ruling class may have to back off and concede to the demands of the workers, at least partially. In Italy we are seeing this now, as some companies have closed, while others seek all kinds of excuses to stay open.

The trade union leaders have also been playing a very precarious balancing act, on the one hand trying to limit the scope of the rising working-class militancy, while at the same time going through the motions of giving expression to the workers’ demands.

Italy general strike Image CGILThe workers of Italy want the non-essential factories to be closed. This idea has been spreading to other countries also. If the bosses resist, they will provoke even greater anger on the part of the workers / Image: CGIL

Now, after meeting with the Minister of the Economy, the leader of the CGIL, Landini, after having temporarily swung towards a more militant stance, has now signed a rotten deal. The Conte government had initially deemed 94 types of work as essential. These have been reduced, but still a large number of non-essential production is to be allowed to continue. It is estimated that 6-7 million workers are still going out to work. Strikes have been organised in the retail trade sector, with demands such as the closure of stores on Sundays, but it is clear now that the trade union leaders have no intention of calling a nationwide general strike.

By signing this deal, the trade union leaders aim to demobilise the working class. By not guaranteeing official trade union cover, it places workers in a difficult and precarious situation. Thus, once again we see how the labour movement leaders, just as the class begins to move onto the offensive, use all their authority to defuse the situation.

This is serving to expose the lack of genuine fighting spirit of the trade union leaders. Further down the road, this will lead to conflicts inside the trade unions as the ranks seek to replace the inadequate leadership.

We have seen many times in history that, when the ruling class is threatened at this level, it is prepared to make compromises in order to buy time. The intelligent bourgeois realise that in moments like this, radicalisation can go so far that the workers can begin to challenge the legitimacy of the system itself and begin to seek other ways of running society. To cut across this, also with the aid of the trade union leaders, they have accepted that some industries will have to close, but far from what the workers were initially demanding.

That explains the situation we now have in Italy, and we will see very quickly elsewhere, where there are constant manoeuvres taking place on the part of the government and the bosses, also involving the trade union tops, with promises made one day and then broken the next.

In all this, they are playing with fire, and may be forced to back off. There is an added factor that helps to convince some of the capitalists to close large swathes of production: demand is collapsing everywhere. So, why produce goods that you cannot sell anyway?

Then another element enters the equation: what to do with the surplus labour? Many workers have already lost their jobs, but again, a massive surge in unemployment, on a similar scale to what we saw in the 1930s, would be a huge factor in radicalising the working class further. It would be a clear indication that this system has failed them.

That explains why social buffers are being introduced, such as temporary lay off pay and more accessible benefits. The ruling class is equipping itself with the means to weather the storm. The problem is that debt is already at astronomic levels. Therefore, the benefits they are granting now will be paid by the workers at a later stage. Thus, the measures they may take today to alleviate the class pressure that has built will only serve to further intensify the class struggle once the coronavirus crisis has receded.

The immediate concern of the working class is to create the safest environment for themselves and their families. Not all the bosses have been prepared to close, and ongoing struggles will continue. Therefore, there will be conflicts about how the safety measures should be implemented in those workplaces deemed essential and struggles to close those that try to stay open, despite being deemed non-essential.

The deal the trade union leaders have signed up to leaves unclear what is essential and what is not. It also leaves loopholes that the factory owners can use. For example, in Bologna alone 2,000 companies have applied for exemption from closure. In La Spezia in the Liguria region, two major arms factories, the leonardo and the MBDA, have been exempted by the local Prefect from closure, despite the demands of the trade unions that they should be closed.

The justification given by the Prefect is that all the non-essential workers have been sent to work from home, and adequate measures have been taken for the remaining workforce. But the two plants also have a number of factories that are supplying parts, and in these factories the situation is even worse. This has provoked the anger of the workers, who are preparing an eight-hour strike, backed by the unions.

It is clear that what is considered “essential” for the factory owners is not viewed from the point of view of the safety of the workers, but from the point of view of their profits. Industries such as aerospace, armaments, hotels, etc., are included in the list of “essential”, for example.

By continuing to apply these criteria, it is clear that they are completely ignoring the experience of Bergamo, which was not declared a Red Zone in the early stages of the virus outbreak, precisely because of the high concentration of factories in that province.

Thus, the conditions exist for an ongoing dispute at different levels between the workers and the bosses over what is considered “essential”, which workplaces should remain open and which should not. The trade union leaders are clearly working to break up the workers’ front and demobilise.

This is also a warning to workers in other countries: be prepared for all kinds of manoeuvres, not only on the part of the bosses, but also of the government, and most importantly of your own trade union leaders. This raises the question of building structures which allow the rank and file to elect delegates who should be part of the negotiation process, who can report back to the workers who would have the last word in ratifying and deals reached on this question.

The problem of problems is leadership. Without a fighting trade union leadership, and without channels through which the mass of workers can express themselves, the present mood of militancy could be weakened and fragmented, with some workers being sent home and others having to work.

Once this stage is closed, the next period will be one where the workers sit out the pandemic, awaiting its end in the safety of their homes: those that have won the right to do so, that is.

Consciousness leaping forward

However, that would not be the end of the process, but just one phase in a deep and ongoing process of awakened consciousness and radicalisation. People are learning very fast. Apart from the nature of the system, millions of workers are beginning to get a feel of their own strength.

One of the major factors in holding together capitalist society is the lack of awareness on the part of the working class of its own strength. A situation that forces workers to come together as a class and use the potential power they have, and to get results from the use of that power, has a dramatic effect on ordinary workers’ thinking. When workers realise how united, coordinated action can get results, the appetite comes with the eating and they realise they can achieve far more. That further underlines the treacherous role of the trade union leaders, who do everything they can to stop the workers from having such experience of class struggle.

CGIL Image CgilThe ruling class fears the mood that is beginning to stir / Image: CGIL

Nonetheless, although the present crisis is forcing people to stay within the four walls of their homes, a widespread process of radicalisation is taking place. And once the pandemic is over, the world will be a very different place to what it was just a few weeks ago. The working class will enter the new period in a very different mood. It will be far more conscious of the real nature of the system, but also of its own power and strength.

These are very worrying developments for the capitalist class. They are aware of what the situation will be once the pandemic is over. They will have many companies that have gone under, with a large number of unemployed who will have become accustomed to a state that steps in to provide relief. The public debt will have ballooned to unprecedented proportions, something that they will have to tackle immediately. The only answer the ruling class will have then is to push for far more draconian austerity measures than those we saw in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

The powers that be are conscious of this process. They are viewing with great alarm the rising class struggle and the awareness that comes with it. This also explains the erratic behaviour of all governments, who flip-flop from one position to another, from one day to the next, as they come under opposite class pressures. This is exposing them in the eyes of the masses: a very dangerous development from the point of view of the capitalist class and the institutions of the bourgeois state.

In this sense, it is like a war situation. In times of war, consciousness can move very quickly from the early stages, when a spirit of national unity is imposed on society from above, to one of open revolution. What is remarkable about the present situation, however, is how quickly the class differentiation has emerged.

Everywhere, attempts are being made to foment a spirit of national unity. In Italy, the Italian flag and the national anthem are being used to whip up this mood. What this represents is an attempt to play down the class antagonisms, precisely when they are at their acutest form.

In such a situation, the reformists within the labour movement assume their classical role of mediating between the classes. In Britain we have the leaders of the Labour Party and trade unions talking about “we are all in this together” and so on. There is speculation in Britain, for example, that Boris Johnson, in spite of his 80-seat majority, may have to turn to the Labour Party to survive.

There is an air of “national Governments” everywhere. In Italy, the government has met the opposition leaders and there is talk of a “technical committee” to coordinate with the opposition.

Bosses preparing for the future

Another feature of the new situation is the growing presence of the police and the army on the streets. For now, people will be supportive of their presence, feeling that they are helping in this critical situation. Military medical staff and their experience in setting up field hospitals in war situations are being used. Military transport is being used to move supplies – and tragically also coffins. All this is presenting an image of the army as being on the side of the people. Military top brass are paraded on TV as if they were an important part in the battle against the coronavirus.

At the same time, we have the growing use of tracking people’s movements via mobile networks. We even have the justification of using drones to track movements. Again, given the emergency situation, many people will see this as justified.

confindustria logo image ArcheologoThe bosses are preparing for the next period / Image: Archeologo

We have to understand, however, that this is also part of a policy to get people accustomed to seeing armed soldiers and military vehicles on the streets, and used to the idea of widespread surveillance.

The ruling class is fully conscious of the revolutionary potential that exists within the situation and knows that mass movements are being prepared once people will be able to return to the streets in large numbers. Therefore, they need to prepare all the tools at their disposal to meet the new situation that is being prepared. In the future, they will want to curb the most militant workers and youth, the natural leaders that will emerge in the workplaces and colleges.

The widespread radicalisation is due to the fact that it is becoming abundantly clear that the “market” does not work in these conditions. There are many articles, even by reactionary bourgeois commentators about how “we are all socialists now”, which is an admission to the fact that measures involving direct state intervention in the economy are necessary. In all countries, for fear of a social backlash, the state is intervening with huge monetary resources to offer benefits to help people get through this crisis, but also lots of funding to companies to stop them from going under. This is not how the market is supposed to work.

People will remember all this, and once the crisis is over, they will be asking why we can’t keep these measures in place. A new wave of class struggle will thus unfold.

Seeking revolution

Within this process, among the most advanced and most conscious layers of both the youth and the workers, a revolutionary consciousness is emerging. This means a much wider layer of the population is open to revolutionary ideas, and the only really consistent revolutionary ideas are to be found in Marxism. People want to understand why all this is happening and what can be done about. In such conditions, revolutionary ideas can reach a much wider layer.

We have examples in our day-to-day work where initiatives taken by small groups of comrades suddenly get a much wider hearing than we had been accustomed to. This will continue to be the case and will continue to grow. The small forces of genuine Marxism are already growing and we are reaching wider layers. This means we can accelerate the process of the building of the Marxist Tendency inside the labour movement and among the youth in all countries.

We need to understand that ideas that in the previous period could only reach a very small layer, and were considered “extreme”, can now reach a wider layer, as the “extreme” conditions render them far more relevant. The leap in consciousness that has taken place opens a completely new situation and the Marxists should multiply their efforts to build a force within the working class and youth that can lead society out of the historical crisis it now faces.

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