A disaster is stalking the planet. It consumes all and threatens all. It is the epochal clash of “society” – in reality capitalism – against the forces of nature. The world capitalist class may seem all powerful, but in the face of the forces of nature it is a Lilliputian facing a giant, a tiny boat at sea in a storm of epic proportions. If this clash is allowed to play out to the fullest, the forces of nature must inevitably sink the capitalist boat…. and carry all its passengers down to a watery grave with it.
Like King Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold, capitalism turns everything it touches into capital, into a source of profits. That and that alone. Every worker in their saner moments knows that that is all he or she is, a walking, talking little piece of labor power, there to be exploited and cast aside when all the potential profits are wrung out of her or him. It is the same with the wealth of nature from the earliest days of capitalism. Over 150 years ago, Karl Marx commented on the destruction of the environment by capitalist agriculture. He wrote that capitalist agriculture “prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man [and women] in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural conditions for the lasting fertility of the soil.”
Soil and natural wealth
Along with the Sun, air and water, the soil is one of the bases of all life on the planet. Standing outside the Earth, the Sun is impervious to the predations of capitalism. Not so with air, water and soil.
Since its inception capitalist development has proceeded by leaps and bounds. As with the exploitation of human labor power, capitalism has developed ever new means of exploiting the soil’s wealth, except with this key difference: Human labor power exists in the form of human beings. These can reproduce themselves so that, soldier-like, when one generation returns to the soil another stands ready to take its place. Not so with the soil, however, for this is the only planet we have. As a result, capitalism must continually improvise and improve on its means of exploiting the soil, of draining the soil of its natural wealth.
Capitalism a system of crises
Capitalism is a system of revolutions, wars and economic crises. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx explained that the measures the capitalist class takes to end the economic crises are “paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises (in the future)… by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.” The same is true for the present crisis of capitalism vs. the forces of nature. Every step that the capitalist class has taken to lessen this conflict has simply paved the way for an even more intense future crisis. The present Covid 19 pandemic is just one more warning of what is to come should capitalism proceed unchecked.
In a previous era, capitalism drove human beings together into giant urban centers, where they were packed together without the most basic sanitary conditions. This urbanization of humans was the basis of the spread of one disease after another, one epidemic after another.
Now, we have the urbanization of farmed animals, especially of pigs and fowl. Like capitalism in the era of Marx, the urbanization of farm animals – factory farming – has “nestled everywhere, settled everywhere” around the planet. Factory farming marches forth hand-in-hand with the globalization of capital, which truly knows no borders. The North American Free Trade Act (Nafta) is an example. Nafta did not create this invasion of US capital into Mexico; that was happening already and would have continued anyway. What it did was enshrine it into law and, by so doing, it furthered it along. Nafta has come to symbolize the entire process. The fact that Trump essentially rebranded Nafta as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) changes nothing significant.
“Swine Flu” and factory farming
In the 1990s, the H1N1 virus jumped the species barrier and caused a new flu in North America known at the time as “swine flu” because the virus originated in pigs. Rather than change the practices that enabled this new zoonotic disease (one which has jumped the species barrier), the hog industry simply sought to change the name of the disease. Profits, after all, matter. Evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, also used a different name for that disease. He called it “Nafta flu”. Wallace explained what had happened: With Nafta, the huge hog factory farms moved into Mexico to take advantage of cheap land and cheap labor. Their efficiencies of scale plus economic support from the US government enabled them to drive the small pig farmers out of business. In order to best exploit those efficiencies of scale, they created monoculture pigs – animals that are essentially the same genetically.
Viruses are clever little things. They are constantly mutating and evolving. It may be that 999 out of every 1000 mutations are not conducive to the spread of a virus throughout the host population. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that one out of 1000 is, especially under conditions where all the other potential hosts – the pigs in this case – are genetically almost identical and are living packed cheek by jowl. That one genetic mutation will leap from pig to pig like a fire racing through a dried out forest which has no fire breaks.
Other zoonotic diseases
In the early giant urban centers, shit ran down the streets like water down a river bed in a flash flood. That was a basic condition for the epidemics of that era. Now, shit spreads out in the urbanized pig pens in a similar fashion. Add to this the fact that human beings – workers – have to come into contact with the pigs and clean up after them. The result is that that one genetic variation out of 1000 – or out of 10,000 or 1,000,000 – that is capable of spreading among the original host animal and of leaping the species barrier ultimately will. The fact that the factory farmed animals are slaughtered at an ever younger age means that the viruses must evolve to spread even faster, before their host is slaughtered. The evidence is that that is what happened with H1N1, AKA Swine Flu, AKA Nafta Flu… but what really should be known as Global Capitalist Flu.
The other, related, cause of the epidemics of zoonotic diseases is habitat disruption and destruction. This brings humans and domesticated animals – including factory farmed animals – into ever closer contact with wild animals, to whom they may pass on their viruses, and from there to humans.
Since the time of Nafta Flu, there has been one epidemic of one zoonotic disease after another – Aviary Flu, Ebola, you name it. Some of the viruses that leaped the species barrier have been especially virulent (fatal). Those include the Ebola and Nipah Viruses (the second of which, according to the UN’s World Health Organization has a 40-75% mortality rate). Neither Ebola nor Nipah virus, however, is all that easily transmissible. Ebola is transmitted from human to human through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, especially blood and feces. In the case of Nipah, the majority of transmissions were from animals to humans rather than human to human. In the case of Covid-19, the mortality rate is fairly low, but it is extremely easily transmitted. This fact is what causes the high number of deaths.
Most evidence points to the huge wet market in Wuhan as the location where the Covid-19 virus leaped the species barrier. (Note: This was written in 2020. Since that time new evidence has appeared. It now seems that the virus may have originated in the wild along the border between China and Myanmar, which is a center for trade in wild animals.) In other words, the conditions for the production of meat were reproduced in the conditions for its distribution.
Working class under capitalism
Just as capitalism has been degrading the natural world, so it has been degrading the conditions of life for the working class, including the US working class. Largely cut off from nature, often consumed with the daily struggle for survival, the US working class has been to an extent unaware of the importance of the growing threat of the destruction of the natural world. It is difficult, after all, for those 78% of Americans who are living paycheck-to-paycheck to really focus on the environmental issues.
Another deadly disease
But we must admit to another deadly disease that has spread throughout the US working class. Just as zoonotic diseases are those that jump the species barrier from other animal species to human beings, this other disease has jumped the class barrier from the capitalist class to the working class. It is a disease of the mind, a disease in consciousness. And just as the zoonotic diseases often jump from a wild animal to a tamed, or domesticated animal to humans, this disease jumped from the capitalist class and their propagandists to the domesticated or tamed union leadership to the rest of the working class.
This disease of the mind is the disastrous concept that the interests of the employers and those of the workers are one and the same and, anyway, there is nothing that workers can do to oppose the employers, AKA the capitalist class. As Andreas Cluver, Secretary-Treasurer of the Alameda County Building Trades Council put it “Yes, we are slaves in the capitalist economy to the financiers. They create the jobs.” He didn’t mean that the slaves should revolt. On the contrary, he meant that we should accept – embrace, even – our enslaved condition. It is this cowardly acceptance of that wage slavery that has led the leader of the Ironworkers union in Seattle to side with one of the world’s richest men (and one of the most voracious), Jeff Bezos, against the poorest and most downtrodden in that city – the homeless. It is the same acceptance that led the leadership of one local of the UFCW to name a corporate CEO as “union person of the year” and Bob King, former president of the UAW, to declare that “The 21st century UAW embraces as our own the success of our employers”.
“The (wage) slave is dependent on and has a common interest with the slave owner. And anyway, if you don’t like it, there is nothing you can do about it. So, shut up, go to work, and don’t think about your conditions, never mind the disastrous train wreck that awaits you further down the track.” That is the message of both the capitalists and their tamed union leaders.
Nor does this disease exist without symptoms, without immediate and very real practical consequences. In industry after industry, work place after work place, the union leadership (where there is a union) is missing in action. Workers almost never see “their” representatives on the job site. And when they do show up, that union rep often actually sides with management! A grocery worker, for example, explained to this writer how when she had a conflict with her manager, that manager called the union rep who showed up, spent a half hour talking with the manager, and then told the worker that the manager was right. And in contract after contract, the union leadership tries to settle for what will have minimal negative impact on the employer’s profits, meaning minimal wage raises, if there are any raises at all. (A few recent contracts in low wage sectors such as hotels and retail had somewhat decent raises. That was because in the then-low unemployment climate the employers had to increase pay in order to attract new workers.)
Another symptom of this disease is the extreme difficulty in organizing a union. An obvious example was the failure of the UAW to convince a majority of workers at the Nissan GM plant to vote in favor of unionization. How could they do that when they were committed to helping Nissan keep its wages low? How counter the capitalist propaganda when they campaigned on the slogan “pro Nissan, pro union”?
In unionized workplace after unionized workplace, the union is absent. It is so absent that here in the SF Bay Area (and possibly elsewhere), many union members cannot even recall the very name of their own union. One young carpenter, when asked, said that he thought he did know what the AFL-CIO stood for, however. “Isn’t that the name of a new football league?” he asked. As to organizing to change the union, that seems such a monumental task that the overwhelming majority of union members haven’t even been willing to consider it. Instead, “keep your head down, try to keep your home or pay the rent, and hope that something will change for the better” has been the watchword.
Covid-19 and unions
The Covid-19 crisis is changing all of that. The threat of bringing this potentially fatal virus home to your family is too real. The fact that the employers are clearly looking to keep the money machine’s wheels turning, with as little interruption as possible is too clear. Shut it down? Only if unavoidable. Enact the necessary safety measures and provide all the necessary personal protection equipment? Only the bare necessities, if that. In construction, workers are still packed into the construction elevators like so many sardines in the can. In the grocery stores, the workers often must bring in their own gloves and masks and even the simple erection of plastic screens to protect the checkers from the customers was only done weeks after the crisis became apparent.
The result has been an absolute ferment on the jobs. A grocery worker, for example, wrote the following: “ I think the continuous Russian Roulette game my wife, myself and our fellow workers in the grocery store we work at is starting to take a toll. When ever going into work both my wife and I get a tightness in our chest from anxiety. Will today be that day when the hammer falls and we get sick? We work in a petri dish with hundreds of people entering our store every day. The company is taking some minor precautions but in reality are doing no extra cleaning like they should be. Other than hand sanitizer they are providing no safety gear for workers. They have installed the plexiglass in the check stand for checkers but for us night crews stocking the shelves, nothing. The only protective gear we have is the homemade mask and vinyl gloves provided by close friends and community. Many of our co-workers are not practicing social distancing. We come in every night to gutted shelves and huge loads. Our work load has tripled. With all this all night long thoughts rage through my head, if something were to happen to my wife how would I cope? If we both get sick and end up in the hospital who will care for our dogs? Thought after thought keeps banging around in my head! Once we get home it’s a mad rush to strip our clothes off, get in the shower! Once that’s done we start sanitizing door knobs, lite switch, shoes. counters etc. No rest or unwinding til all this is done. It’s fucking crazy! On top of all that our hands are breaking out red and inflamed from the hand sanitizer and wearing the vinyl gloves with rubber gloves on top of that. I don’t know how the health care workers deal with wearing all the protective gear for 12 to 16 shifts! Sorry for the whining but the constant anxiety is starting to take a toll. Thanks for listening.”
Millions of other workers are going through the same inner turmoil. It has led workers in Amazon and at McDonalds to walk off the job
The political stalemate is crumbling before our eyes. What will be the result? What are the possible demands that a new workers movement can mobilize around and how can it organize? With only one or two exceptions, the union leadership confines itself to appealing to the employers and/or the capitalist Democratic politicians for relief. Organizing the workers to take matters into their own hands is never considered. After a second union member at JBS meatpacking plant in Colorado died of Covid-19, Kim Cordova, president of the UFCW local which “represents” the workers there, took action: She sent a letter to the millionaire governor of the state – Jarid Polis – asking him to shut down the plant. Heaven forbid the union would actually organize the members to act!
Organize on the job
It is because of this sort of failure that workers are going to have to act on their own. In order to do so, the most thinking and courageous workers in any work place will have to meet on the job (keeping safe distance) in order to organize. They will have to call work-place wide emergency meetings to organize a discussion on whether their work is essential and, if the workers vote that it isn’t, walk off and shut it down. If they believe that it is, then the workers themselves will have to decide what health and safety conditions they require to continue working and a worker health and safety committee will be necessary to enforce those conditions. In addition, those who continue working should insist on time-and-a-half hazard pay, a 24 hour work week at 40 hours pay, and no mandatory overtime. If that means the employer has to hire more workers, there certainly are plenty of workers out there needing work at this time!
Unite with the most oppressed
One thing this pandemic has driven home is that what affects one sector of the working class affects us all. Until now, some workers could hide from this fact and accept attacks on immigrants or people of color or other specially oppressed sectors of society. Not in this crisis! Just as with the political, economic and outright physical assaults, infections from this virus will spill over to all sectors of the working class. That is why any new workers movement must demand that all ICE detainees must be released immediately; that there be a mass release of those who are in prison for non-violent offenses; that hotel rooms immediately be provided for the homeless.
Nor can workers ignore what is happening outside the US borders. Internationalism is not simply a nice ideal, it is a very real necessity. Just as the low wages and destroyed environment outside the US affect workers at home, so the spread of this pandemic will ultimately come back to haunt us. From Gaza, where the racist State of Israel has created the world’s larges outdoor prison and is refusing to allow the necessary health measures to protect the Palestinians there, to Iran and Venezuela where US sanctions are exacerbating the health disaster, international solidarity is necessary.
To enforce these demands, the worker health and safety committees can meet online and, in fact, even in person in open-air locations where safe distancing can be practiced. A plan can be drawn up to shut down all production except for the hospitals and those facilities that are directly caring and providing for the ill and those who can’t care for themselves, like senior homes.
Right now, the Trump administration is talking about sending workers back to work before this crisis is resolved. That will only lead to a new wave of illness and death. Workers themselves will have to take action to prevent this.
This talk of the Trump administration is looking at November’s elections. While Trump himself may be too senile to be capable of conscious planning, others like his son and son-in-law are not. If their voter suppression in the State of Georgia to cheat their way to victory in the 2018 gubernatorial election didn’t show their hand, if their suppression of the youth vote in the Texas 2020 primary wasn’t enough, then their most recent maneuvers in the April primary vote in Wisconsin is another warning. There, the Republican-controlled legislature conspired with the Trump/Republican Supreme Court to suppress the vote by refusing to facilitate mail-in voting. By requiring in-person voting, this massively suppressed the vote in the urban centers like Milwaukee, where most black and working class voters are. This served not only as a warm-up for November; it also was aimed at getting a Republican elected to the state supreme court.
The Democrats have proven time and again that they will do nothing effective to stop this election fraud and voter suppression. The union leadership has proven time and again that it will follow the lead of the Democrats. It will be up to the working class, through organizing itself, to shut it down if that is necessary to protect workers democratic rights. If the first four years of Trump have been a disaster, they will be as nothing if he manages by hook or by crook to remain in office for another four.
Working class political party
In this way, the organizing for wages and working conditions on the job will have to turn to broader political organizing. All wings of the Democratic Party will continue to try to misdirect any steps workers take in the direction of independent action. So will the entire union bureaucracy. So, this self-organizing of workers will have to also lead to a campaign to reclaim and transform the unions into the independent, fighting organizations that so many before us have sacrificed so much to build in the first place. It will also have to lead to political independence for the US working class – for a fighting working class political party, one that can serve as a center for working class people to organize and to discuss their experiences.
Deal with the causes, not just the symptoms
Such a mass, working class party cannot stop there, however. It cannot succeed if it only deals with the symptoms. As we see, the basis of this health disaster is capitalist factory farming and habitat loss. In other words, it is capitalist food production and capitalist real estate development. There are alternatives based on what is called regenerative farming. This method of food production is based on harmonizing with the laws of nature rather than trying to overcome those laws. Among other things, it also leads to the soil massively recapturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There are powerful economic interests involved in capitalist agriculture, however. These include such companies as Cargill and Dow chemical. Regenerative farming will only become a way of life if these industries and agribusiness as a whole are expropriated and food production and all related industries are brought under the democratic planning of the working class itself. Along the way, though, some very real steps can be taken to bring the urban working class in closer touch with the rural workers and small farmers. This would include, for example, recruiting millions of young urban workers and students to work on farms in the summer. It would also include making direct links between US small farmers and workers and their counterparts around the world – from Haiti to China to Germany. For a more thorough explanation of this important issue see Global Warming, “Grass” farming and a Planned Economy.
“Try, solve this task!”
It means a workers government and a planned economy under the democratic control and management of the working class itself. Little did Leon Trotsky know how true it would be when he wrote these immortal words: “History says to the working class ‘You must know that unless you cast down the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class), you will perish beneath the ruins of the capitalist civilization. Try, solve this task!”
Considering the alternative what choice do we have but to start down this road?