The Class Politics of Pandemic Relief

Luke Pretz

December 22, 2020

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican, bump elbows in Washington, March 12, 2020. (Susan Walsh / AP)

If there was ever policy debate in the 2020 United States presidential election it was about the response to the Covid-19 crisis. The difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden seemed stark. On one side was Trump, fully committed to the lie that the US was “rounding the corner” and the pandemic would soon be resolved without further restrictions. On the other side was Biden fully committed to “listening to scientists” without any clear indication of what that meant practically. There was one clear point of agreement between the two: opposition to the one policy shown to be highly effective, another lockdown.

Biden and Trump’s opposition to another round of lockdowns stands in stark contrast to just months ago when politicians were celebrated because they pushed for lockdowns. The strict social distancing measures were framed as “a little suffering now to avoid even more suffering later on.” As the pandemic, restrictions, and lack of financial aid dragged on, Trump’s claim that the “cure cannot be worse than the disease,” rang increasingly true to many. As a result, politicians on both sides of the aisle quickly began to hedge on their earlier support for lockdown measures.

Why is it that a few months later there is a bipartisan consensus in opposition to another round of lockdowns when we know that it would drastically slow the transmission and death rates?

The problem with lockdowns

In capitalist society a working class person’s survival is contingent on their access to a wage directly through paid work or indirectly through the wage of a parent, spouse, child, or other workers. Social welfare programs in the US that supplement low wages or replace lost wages, which are funded by taxes on workers’ wages, have been ground down by bipartisan neoliberal policy. So, when the lockdowns are in place workers must make a choice: forego wages and risk eviction, loss of health care, and going hungry or put themselves and those around them at risk of contracting the virus.

The pandemic and lockdowns have been especially devastating to women. The early pandemic job losses were skewed towards women who are often employed in service industry fields requiring them to be on the jobsite. As the pandemic wore on, the unwaged work of reproducing the working class itself expanded as schools closed, emotional stress boiled over, and family members became sick. The expanded workload in the house has compelled massive amounts of women to leave the waged workforce to work full time in the home.

The loss of wages does not have to be an issue. In the United States there is enough wealth to ensure that all people have food, shelter, water, health care, and all of the other things individuals and families need to live comfortably while observing strict social distancing measures. The federal government could provide an income that is sufficient to cover needs and then some, pay for rent and utilities, and make sure necessary healthcare was provided. In making sure that everyone was able to thrive during a lockdown without worrying about the loss of a paycheck, the primary reason for not observing lockdown measures would be eliminated. Additionally, the psychological toll of the pandemic would be greatly reduced by removing one of the main stressors in working people’s lives.

The capitalist class faces a serious economic problem when lockdowns are put into place. The imposition of a lockdown would be a work stoppage for all but the most essential businesses and those whose staff can work from home. This is a problem for capitalists because such a work stoppage would shut down much of the production of value that fuels the capitalist economy. It would also drastically slow the circulation and realization of the value of the goods and services produced, because most stores and restaurants would be closed and without workers being paid not much could be bought. As a result of the sudden disappearance of profits throughout the whole economy, we would be staring down a crisis much like we were in March and April when many states issued the first round of lockdowns.

It’s clear that the government faces a serious choice between the wellbeing of the working class or the wellbeing of the capitalist class. The lives of countless working class people could have been saved if a paid lockdown was implemented early on. With the issue of losing a wage removed the reasons for going out during the pandemic are largely eliminated. However, in implementing a successful lockdown the state would be cutting capitalists off from the one thing that they need to reproduce capitalism, the working class itself.

The attempt to overcome the contradiction

In the face of the sudden drop off in the economy, the US Government attempted to resolve the contradiction between human life and the loss of a wage that comes with protecting it. The Federal Reserve intervened, loaning out $1.5 Trillion to preserve liquidity and ensure that financial markets continued to run smoothly. Congress passed the CARES Act which sent out stimulus checks that were at least $1,200 if you made less than $75,000, lengthened and increased the payout of unemployment benefits, created the Paycheck Protection Program that made $669 billion in forgivable loans to large and small businesses

As the pandemic dragged on over the months Democrats proposed the HEROES Act. The bill would have sent out another stimulus check, extended unemployment benefits, expanded access to SNAP benefits, and covered COBRA premium costs for those who lost their jobs. There were also provisions that would have expanded funding for utility bill aid, job training programs, and additional financial support for small businesses. The HEROES Act ultimately failed to pass due to a Republican majority in the Senate fully committed to Trump’s Covid denial gambit and a Democratic Party unwilling to make expanded aid a central campaign issue.

Aid and stimulus talks since the election of Joe Biden to the presidency have revealed the basic priorities for both parties: the smooth functioning of capitalism. Both parties came to an agreement on a stimulus package with a much smaller $600 stimulus check, extended but reduced and not retroactive unemployment benefits, and a continuation of the business loans program. The payments to workers are hardly enough to cover rent, utilities, and food costs. Despite the cuts to programs that directly support workers, Democratic Party leaders are boosters of the legislation.

From Washington’s perspective, it is time to go back to work if you have not already.

The problem with the intervention

The legislation, passed and/or proposed, was unable to create the conditions for working class people to participate in an effective lockdown without the threat of starvation or eviction.

One of the major issues with the way that aid was structured was that it relied on unemployment benefits. The use of unemployment benefits to deliver aid creates a situation that requires workers to continue working until their workplace shuts down, someone they live with catches Covid, or they themselves catch Covid. In addition to creating circumstances that encourage workers to continue working through the pandemic, an approach that uses unemployment benefits leaves out some of the most vulnerable members of our society, such as undocumented workers and those working in the informal economy.

In addition to the issues with the use of unemployment benefits as the primary way of delivering financial aid, the CARES and HEROES Acts were both one shot bills. The one time stimulus payments were far from enough to replace the wages of a worker and their families who wanted to lockdown before they were fired or caught the disease. Even if a worker qualified for unemployment benefits those were time limited. The federal bonus would only payout for 13 weeks, the program ends on December 31, 2020. The length of time a worker was eligible for standard unemployment benefits ranges from 26 to 12 weeks, depending on what state they live in. So, if you ended up on unemployment in April by the end of September your benefits were up.

In effect the bill bound working class people more tightly to their participation in wage labor. For many it was almost certain that they were ultimately going to lose their jobs if the pandemic continued on. If their workplace did not close down or drastically cut staffing they would get the aid once they caught the disease.

Why we cannot get the legislation we need

The passage of the CARES Act was a work of needle threading in that it had to protect the interests of the capitalist class while preserving the veneer of serving working people. This is not only because elected officials are backed by corporate donors but also because the capitalist state is the ultimate guarantor of private property and funded through taxes on wages and profits. That means the state’s intervention has to guarantee, to the greatest extent possible, that the labor force is at work. The state also has to guarantee, to the greatest extent possible, that there would not be a debt crisis brought about by a wave of business bankruptcies and that there would be places for workers to return to after the pandemic was resolved.

While the state is bound to the capitalist class it is also subject to pressures from the working class. Letting it ride and continuing without aid to working class people was possible and this is what happened in the 2008 financial crisis. However, the heading off of open class struggle is something desirable for capital in the medium and long term and the political fortunes of politicians in the short run. In the days leading up to the passage of the CARES Act the possibility of such a struggle was evident as the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and the murder of black people at the hands of the police in general escalated rapidly.

Beyond the economic calculus of ensuring that the production and circulation of capital continues uninterrupted, a paid lockdown poses a serious political threat to capital. A paid lockdown, that is a work stoppage where all were provided a living wage thus removing the need to work, is especially dangerous for capital. It would reveal the absurdity of wage-labor, the degree to which we over-work, and would demonstrate the practicality of simply providing for people’s needs.

If a paid lockdown were put into place the horizon of possible solutions would be opened up in the popular imagination. If we could do that in a time of crisis why not under better, normal, circumstances? Such a situation could create serious opportunities for the popularization of socialist solutions and open up new terrain for class struggle that challenges the capitalist wage relation.

It seems clear that, as socialists, the only position to take is that both capitalist parties are complicit and there is no use in separating out blame. We should be demanding and arguing for paid lockdown and guaranteed healthcare and all of the other policies like mask mandates that would slow the spread. Not just because it is maybe the only humane way to stop the spread while we wait for a vaccine to become widely available, but also because it points towards a socialist future.

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