COVID-19: events reveal that we are in the antechamber of socialism

The extraordinary measures put in place for more than a week now by the provincial governments and the federal government of Canada to combat the COVID-19 pandemic are indicative of the high level of development of the productive forces in the country and show how archaic the capitalist organization of society has become. In fact, if the bourgeoisie manages, in such a rapid manner, to achieve the far-reaching changes that we are currently witnessing (reorganization of national industrial production, reorganization of the health network, closure of schools and daycare centres, closure of shopping centres, restaurant dining rooms, bars, cinemas and many other gathering places, etc.), it is because the socialization of production and economic concentration are very advanced in Canada. Also, the speed at which measures dictated by public health have been applied by the population (limiting gatherings, confinement, etc.) is a testament to the ease with which centralized directives, under economic conditions such as ours, can be implemented when they are accepted by the popular masses.

In fact, the present situation reveals, even more clearly than usual, that with a level of economic concentration as high as in Canada, and with the considerable amount of knowledge, techniques and means that necessarily accompany such a level of concentration, it would be relatively easy to solve all the problems of society (poverty, unemployment, economic crises, corruption, waste, disease, lack of services, shortages, etc.) and to meet all the needs of the people by implementing centralized planning and mobilizing the popular masses. In fact, if this does not happen, it is only because the process that would have to be set in motion in order to achieve it – the abolition of bourgeois private property and the complete collectivization of the means of production – would go against the interests and will of the capitalist class currently at the top of society. Indeed, despite the inefficiency and disorder generated by the private ownership of the means of production (inefficiency that is now coming to light when the bourgeois state must dictate to the capitalists how to behave), the bourgeoisie has an interest in maintaining the capitalist organization of society because it allows it to accumulate immeasurable wealth. To realize the full potential already contained in today’s society and to satisfy the needs of the masses, it will therefore be necessary to openly confront the capitalist class, to overthrow and subdue it by force. In other words, the proletariat will have to make revolution and seize political power.

If the bourgeois states are now agreeing to implement such draconian measures and to restrict the economic freedom of private enterprises as they are doing, it is not because the bourgeoisie suddenly cares about the well-being and life of the proletarians that it permanently exploits them. In fact, apart from the fact that the pandemic worries it because it is itself susceptible to being affected by the disease (viruses do not differentiate between proletarians and bourgeois), the bourgeoisie simply judged that the consequences of laissez-faire, which could lead to a real health disaster in the heart of the imperialist countries, would be more damaging than the consequences of a robust intervention. Indeed, epidemiologists assessed that COVID-19 had the potential to rapidly reach large sections of the population of the affected countries and cause a massive hecatomb if “containment” measures were not put in place. For example, according to a projection released by Imperial College London, the number of deaths caused by the epidemic, if no action was taken, would be 510,000 in Britain and 2.2 million in the United States. And that’s not to mention the economic damage that would be caused in such scenarios. It is not surprising, therefore, that the bourgeoisie reacted with such vigour and agreed to break its own rules for a certain period of time.

Economic Concentration in Capitalist Countries Prepares the Advent of Socialism

One of the most important characteristics of advanced capitalist countries such as Canada is the high level of socialization of the productive forces within them. Whereas at the time of the emergence of capitalism, the economy was still characterized by dispersion and free competition among isolated firms, today it is the large monopolies and capitalist entities that dominate economic life. These large entities concentrate an incredible quantity of means of production and gather masses of workers and labourers, thus making possible the application of much more advanced techniques than before in the production process and thus making it possible to achieve very high productivity. Whereas in the early stages of the development of capitalism, free competition and fragmentation reigned in the social process of production, the emergence of monopolies and the concentration of the economy now tend to limit competition in certain aspects (while exacerbating it in general) and make possible a certain form of economic “planning”. The socialization of production makes it possible to collect and centralize an immense amount of data on social life and to develop a scientific knowledge of society. They make it possible to draw up precise national accounts, to make an inventory of all the means of production and all the goods produced on the territory, to take a census of the entire population, of all the workers and professionals, etc., and to make it possible to make a certain form of economic “planning”. Also, the development and centralization of the means of communication facilitate extremely rapid transmission of information, which enables the central authorities to readjust their planning to the reality on the ground and to inform the entire population of their decisions in real time. The development of capitalism has thus brought us to the gates of the integral socialization of production. Everything is in place to implement a complete rational planning of the economy. In countries where monopoly capitalism reigns, the bourgeois states must already implement some form of comprehensive economic “planning”. However, since private ownership of the means of production still exists, this “planning” is only partial and does not eliminate the chaos inherent in the capitalist mode of production. Above all, it is carried out not in the interest of the majority, but in the interest of the minority of capitalists who own monopolies and big business. Only when the proletariat has conquered political power will it be able to implement comprehensive economic planning, socialist planning that meets the needs of the popular masses and the workers.

Returning to the current episode, the actions taken by the provincial governments and the federal government reveal, more clearly than usual, the ease with which centralized planning would be possible in a country like Canada. It was, for example, the possibility of gathering information on the stocks of goods available in the territory and on production capacity in the food sector that enabled the Quebec bourgeois state to affirm that there would be no food shortage in the province as a result of COVID-19. Similarly, it is because it has accurate data on the movement of goods across the country that the federal government was able to assess the impact of the closure of the Canada-U.S. border and ensure that supply chains (including food, fuel and medicine) between Canada and the United States are maintained.

More interestingly, the federal government recently announced the “Canadian Industry Engagement Plan” to address COVID-19. This is a plan to increase the production and supply of medical equipment in Canada (masks, gloves, artificial respirators, disinfectant, etc.) by increasing the production capacity of existing plants that already manufacture them, converting the production lines of some plants that manufacture something else, and even building new production units. The State will subsidize the purchases that companies will have to make in order to make the necessary changes to their means of production. For example, the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association has offered to produce medical equipment rather than car parts. Among others, Canadian manufacturers Martinrea and Magna International have announced their willingness to convert their production lines to make artificial respirators. As well, Montreal-based Medicom, one of the world’s leading manufacturers and distributors of surgical masks, has been targeted by the government to secure the country’s supply. The company has six plants around the world, but none in Canada at this time. In the short term, it will increase its deliveries of masks and, in the medium term, it will build a new plant on Canadian soil. According to the company, the new plant should be operational in four or five months, maybe even less. Toronto-based Thornhill Medical, which produces artificial respirators and portable intensive care units, has also been targeted by the government and will increase its production capacity. Also, a textile company has announced that it will be able to convert its production to make disposable latex gloves. Finally, in the wake of the federal government’s announcement, the Government of Quebec said that it has begun discussions with companies to ask them to manufacture masks and respirators in the province. The “Canadian Industrial Mobilization Plan” eloquently reveals that the high degree of development and concentration of productive forces in the country makes it possible to quickly reorganize production to meet specific needs, needs that are known thanks to this same concentration of productive forces. We can see, therefore, that it would be possible to satisfy all kinds of needs in society in no time at all with genuine centralized planning. In fact, it is only because economic decisions are made according to the capitalists’ profits that this does not happen.

In order to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the bourgeoisie is currently taking advantage of the existence of a highly socialized health network. At the heart of this network are large hospital centres grouped within large administrative entities (for example, the CISSS/CIUSSS in Quebec). These hospital centres bring together thousands of employees and concentrate an impressive quantity of resources and work instruments. The concentration of resources and the centralized organization of the network make it possible, among other things, to make an inventory of all the medical equipment available on the territory (swabs to detect COVID-19, masks, disposable gowns, nitrile gloves, intensive care and hospitalization beds, ventilators, artificial respirators, etc.), to rationally distribute this equipment among the various hospital centres, to anticipate the network’s needs and to plan the allocation of care. In Quebec, for example, the government has stated that it could free up 6,000 hospital beds, out of the 18,000 available in the province, to make them available for patients suffering from COVID-19. The authorities also announced that they were preparing to add 3,000 additional beds, including by requisitioning private hotels or opening modular premises. The centralization of the health network also allows the authorities to know in real time the number of people who have been tested, the number of people confirmed to be infected and the exact number of patients hospitalized. This allows them to have a good idea of the progression of the disease and to adjust their planning accordingly.

The state has precise knowledge of the number of workers and professionals in the health network, as well as the number of bourgeois specialists available in the territory. To deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and to make up for the shortfall in personnel, the Quebec government has launched an appeal to former workers and former health professionals, inviting them to return to service temporarily. Soon, some 10,000 people (mainly retired nurses or those who had left the health care system) volunteered. In a snap of the fingers, the bureaucratic and financial barriers usually in place were removed. Workers who want to be reintegrated into the network no longer need to pay for re-licensing and professional liability insurance coverage. In Ontario, after the government made a similar appeal, the College of Nurses expedited its membership reinstatement process to allow non-practising nurses to be re-registered. More than 3,000 nurses quickly came forward. Other reforms were fast-tracked to increase the fluidity and efficiency of the system. In Quebec, nurses can now sign work stoppages, a practice normally reserved for physicians. Also, a bill aimed at giving more power to specialized nurse practitioners and pharmacists was urgently adopted by the National Assembly.

The extremely rapid adoption of these measures gives a small glimpse of what would be possible if society was not run in the interests of capitalists. With such a degree of organization and with the extent of the means available, one may wonder why there are so many problems in the health network in normal times (overwork for nurses and orderlies, lack of resources and staff, overcrowding, etc.). The reason is simple: current planning is not based on the interests of workers. When society will be led by the proletariat, it will be possible not only to deal more easily with exceptional situations such as the one we are currently experiencing, but also to solve all the problems that, in today’s exploitative society, overwhelm health care workers and proletarians in need of care. It will be possible to greatly reduce the workload of nurses and orderlies by using the entire available work force, by distributing tasks rationally and by training more people to work in the network. Considering the immense productivity available to us nationally, it will be possible to greatly increase the network’s capacity by building new hospitals and producing more medical equipment. It will also be possible to put an end to private clinics and drastically reduce the salaries of doctors, specialists and senior staff in order to use the resources freed up to serve the people. All services and medicines will be free or highly accessible. And if we face new major epidemics, health care workers, unlike now, will have the best possible protections and will be compensated for their heroic efforts!

Social Norms and the Decline of the State

It is quite impressive to see how quickly large sectors of the Canadian population (not only among the bourgeoisie, but also among the proletariat) have implemented the directives issued by the government executive and public health, without the need for the authorities to resort to repression or the use of coercive measures. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of proletarians assimilated the instructions issued by the authorities (not to gather together, to stay at home as much as possible, to isolate themselves in case of infection with the virus or in case of return from a trip, to adopt new hygienic practices, etc.) and began to enforce them “spontaneously” around them. The reason why this happened is quite simple: people quickly felt that the health authorities’ instructions were sensible and that it was their duty to implement them so as not to contribute to the spread of the virus. Indeed, the central objective of these measures (to prevent the rapid spread of the disease) does not, in itself, run counter to the interests of the people, which is why they were implemented. What is more, we have witnessed the very rapid emergence of a new set of social norms, i.e. rules of conduct implicitly accepted by a very large section of the population and dictating social behaviour. People accepted that their individual freedoms were being curtailed because it was the collective well-being that justified it.

In a way, this phenomenon gives us a glimpse (partial and imperfect) of the way things were going to be done under socialism and communism. In order for society to function, not everyone can do what they want, despite what liberal and anarchist ideologues think. This is already true under capitalism and will be even more true under socialism. Indeed, in a society organized and directed according to the interests of the masses, it will be necessary, even more than at present, to align our individual actions with the needs of the collectivity. If the needs of all workers are to be met, it will be necessary to accept that society imposes major constraints on individuals. It will be necessary to recognize the positive character of norms and rules – as long as they truly serve the interest of the people and can be consciously and voluntarily applied by the proletarians. Of course, after the proletariat takes power, certain social norms peculiar to capitalist society will disappear and new proletarian and communist norms will gradually emerge. For example, working to serve the people and not for one’s own enrichment will be one of these new social norms. Participating in people’s assemblies and taking part in political and economic decisions will be another.

Under socialism, the political vanguard of the proletariat as well as the various executive bodies of the proletarian state will launch slogans to mobilize the masses to advance in the transformation of social relations and to continue the class struggle against the bourgeoisie. As we have seen recently, large fractions of the masses will assimilate these slogans and will voluntarily apply them since they will correspond to their class interests. It is by dragging the proletarians into action in this way that the political slogans of the vanguard will allow the positive transformation of society. In return, the masses will feed the central authorities and their political vanguard by expressing their needs and by denouncing the bourgeois cadres who have stopped defending proletarian interests. Far from being oppressive or authoritarian as the bourgeoisie wants us to believe, this permanent dialogue between the proletariat and its leadding center will allow the masses to act consciously to transform the world and to eradicate the bourgeoisie as an exploiting social class. Even more, it is the leadership exercised by the vanguard over the masses that will provoke the emergence of new communist norms. Gradually, these new social norms will take the place of coercive measures and economic constraint until they govern every aspect of social life. For example, people will no longer work because they need a salary and are afraid of running out of money, but rather because they see their work as a source of fulfilment and because they are aware of the need to work in order to make society work. By that time, money, social classes and the repressive apparatus known as the state will have disappeared and society will have reached the stage of communism.

Let us move towards the seizure of power and socialism!

The episode we are going through is undoubtedly a very special moment in the history of capitalism. For those aspiring to transform society, there are many lessons to be learned. In particular, recent events remind us of the power of the forms of economic organization that bourgeois society has developed, forms of organization whose potential is only partially exploited under the conditions of bourgeois private property. They remind us that integral planning of the economy is within reach and that only the struggle for power separates us from socialism. Also, this episode reminds us of the incredible ability of the masses to assimilate slogans and to implement them when they are rational. It demonstrates the positive force of social norms, which, when based on the collective interest and the welfare of the people, can make it possible for large sections of society (and possibly the whole society) to function “spontaneously” without the need for bureaucratic and repressive measures. For the majority of people, these social norms are far from oppressive. On the contrary, it is their existence and power that make it possible to envisage the withering away of the state once the social classes have disappeared after the period of socialist transition.

Finally, the current episode informs us about the power of the administrative apparatuses developed by the bourgeoisie and their ability to react quickly to exceptional situations. In the space of a few days, the bourgeois state has managed to carry out, albeit chaotically, a relatively extensive reorganization of social life, to make major rearrangements and to give directives that are followed by a large part of the population. That said, in the face of problems such as that posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the political institutions that the proletariat will put in place under socialism will make it possible to do much more and much better. Faced with a similar health challenge, proletarian power will react much differently than the way bourgeois power reacts now. Indeed, under socialism, decisions will be made primarily according to the well-being of the proletarians, and not to ensure the maintenance of capitalist exploitation. Since economic planning will be complete, and not only partial and limited as it is today, it will be possible to carry out a much more fluid reorganization of society. The negative economic repercussions of private ownership and capitalist anarchy will not occur. Above all, the measures that will be put in place (closures, cessation of certain activities, limitation of gatherings, etc.) will not affect workers in full force as is currently the case. For example, workers will not be plunged into uncertainty and their income will be 100% guaranteed. Those who have to perform essential tasks will be better protected. Also, the work to be done will be rationally distributed so that some workers do not find themselves unfairly overburdened and so that vulnerable people can remain safe. Essential goods (such as food) can be distributed free of charge and systematically to people in isolation by special brigades equipped to protect themselves from the virus. And so on and so forth!

Generally speaking, socialism will make it possible to satisfy all the needs of the people. In every sector, it will remove unnecessary obstacles to the improvement of the workers’ welfare and reorganize things to make their lives easier. It will make use of the resources already contained in bourgeois society and develop them further. It will enable the proletariat to take all the economic decisions necessary to improve its living conditions (freeing up such and such a service, setting the price of such and such a commodity, building new infrastructures, making optimal use of the available labour force, etc.). It will mobilize the masses permanently to solve all the problems in society!