COVID-19: The dual function of the health emergency and the measures put in place

In the context of the pandemic, the state of health emergency and the state measures put in place have a dual function in bourgeois society. They constitute both a corpus of genuine public health measures and a corpus of preventive repressive measures. The capitalist state, draped in its virtue, thus prepares itself to face possible popular uprisings. The aim is to maintain bourgeois civil society and the conditions necessary for the reproduction and circulation of social capital.

We need to apprehend the phenomenon without oversimplifying it. Normal people endorse the general spirit of the measures: to denounce them en bloc would be tantamount to rejecting those that are necessary and justified, and would unnecessarily alienate the population. That said, the analysis of the dual function of the health emergency will become more meaningful as the centre of gravity of public health measures changes over time: the secondary role they play today will be their primary role tomorrow. The general development of the situation will produce this shift. The proletariat will move from a state of astonishment at the actions of the government to a state of anger at bourgeois power. It must be admitted that workers are already increasingly outraged by the arbitrary and unjust nature of certain measures, and this will only get worse in the coming months.

Debates within the bourgeoisie

Recent government decisions are shaping the world as it has become since the beginning of the crisis: they have a real weight in society. The new executive and legislative measures are the subject of much debate. Within the ruling classes, the pandemic is provoking a broad and complex movement of analysis and theoretical appropriation of events. This is leading many professionals and experts of all kinds to debate about the spread of the coronavirus and how to stop it. Some focus on the “management of society in times of crisis” and the “preservation of the economy”. National states, international organizations, research centres, scientists from various disciplines and capitalist think tanks are heard to offer their analyses and discuss, among other things, mathematical modelling and the consequences of the health crisis on the vitality of the national economy.

In the wake of the unified movement of March 2020, all the actors in power are taking the measure of the health profitability of their decisions and are trying to minimize the economic impact by being stingier than last month. We want value for money, so much so that, for example, the OECD has set up a tool to monitor different national measures in real time. This means that each state monitors what is happening in its counterparts, so as not to overdo it. Moreover, there are many statistical and graphical tools for this purpose. In this context, the links between biology, virology, epidemiology and the social sciences are fundamental, as are the links between historical materialism and statistics, mathematical modelling and the forecasting of social events.

Bourgeois analysts also address completely superfluous issues such as the opposition between liberal democracy and “non-democracy”. Proponents of these futile debates seek to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the Chinese-Russian “political model” in dealing with the pandemic. The relentlessness of some “international relations research agencies” on this issue speaks volumes about the ongoing struggle between the imperialist powers. The recent work of the think tank “Political Capital” is a good example of this: they maintain that by repatriating all the powers, the President of Hungary has openly passed “to dictatorship”. Political Capital aims to study Russian propaganda and Russia’s violent influence in the region of Austria, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, a subject dear to U.S. imperialism. However, the current crisis is causing a worldwide reorganization of political power and forms of government in the superstructure of bourgeois society. Hungary is no exception, but neither is the United States or Canada! All over the world, similar measures have been taken. The balance sheets of the crisis we are going through should therefore be based not so much on national peculiarities as on the objective limits of the society in which we live. Unfortunately, many “specialists” think about problems outside of society.

Numerous measures to be mapped and analysed

The capitalist management of the current pandemic leads us to ask ourselves how socialist management of such a health crisis would be superior. Criticism of capitalist management must get to the root of the problem and grasp the essence of bourgeois public health in order to one day allow us to go beyond the level of organization allowed by capitalism, a society developing on private interest, profit and competition.

However, in order to criticize the measures we are witnessing, revolutionaries must know them, must master the debates on the spread of the virus, must understand the data compiled, and they must put this material back into the reality of bourgeois society and capitalism. It is therefore necessary, at the very least, to lend oneself to the exercise of cataloguing measures. The spectrum is wide, ranging from economic measures to social restrictions such as curfews, patrols, deployment of the army, telephone surveillance, prohibition of assembly, suspension of parliamentary work, strengthening of the national executive, fines, prison sentences, confinement, quarantine, restriction of movement between regions, etc. Let us examine, in a non-exhaustive manner, what was decreed in Canada and Quebec from February 28 (the first case recorded in the province) to April 5:

The suspension of access to visitors to the National Assembly (March 12); the adjournment of parliamentary proceedings until April 21 (March 17); the ban on gatherings of 250 people or more (March 12); the recommendation of a 14-day quarantine for travellers arriving from abroad (March 11); the declaration of a state of public health emergency by order in council (March 13); the closure of schools and daycare centres (March 13); the closure of public places in Montreal – libraries, arenas, sports centres, museums (March 13); the prohibition of visits to long-term care facilities (March 14); the recommendation that people aged 70 and over be confined to their homes (March 14); the introduction of free daycare services for health care workers (March 14); the closure throughout Quebec of entertainment and recreation venues — cinemas, theatres, gymnasiums and half of restaurant dining rooms (March 15); the closure of Canadian borders to all but Canadian citizens (March 16); the convergence of all foreign flights to Quebec at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport (March 16); the implementation of Quebec’s Temporary Worker Assistance Program (TWAP) of $573 per week for quarantined workers (March 19); the extension of the deadline for filing 2019 income tax returns to June 1 (March 19); and the allocation of $2.5 billion by Quebec City to businesses that lack cash flow (March 19); 5 million from the City of Montreal to come to the rescue of SMEs (March 19); the launch of the SQ’s special prevention operation (March 19); the adoption of the Canadian Industry Mobilization Plan to fight COVID-19 (March 20); the ban on all indoor and outdoor gatherings (March 21); the closure of restaurants, shopping malls, hair and beauty salons (March 22); a three-week pause in non-essential commercial activity (March 23); the announcement that AMD will produce 30 to 50 million masks annually in July to supply Canada (March 27); the declaration of a state of emergency in Montreal (March 27); the installation of roadblocks to restrict access to eight regions of Quebec (March 28); the government’s order for 300 million Bauer masks (March 29); the installation of roadblocks to restrict access to four new regions of Quebec (April 1); the right granted by the DPCP to the SQ and the SPVM to issue tickets on the spot for failure to comply with the distancing orders, tickets ranging from $1,000 to $6,000 (April 3); the extension of the economic break until May 4 (April 5); the launch of Le Panier Bleu (April 5); the launch of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) of $2,000 per month for 4 months for the period from March 15 to October 3, 2020 (April 6).

Lists like this one can be made for all regions of the world. But everywhere, there are essentially five categories of measures:

The reorganization of political power and the superstructure in general;

The physical supervision of the population contributing to the emergence of new social norms;

The use of fines and judicial penalties;

The adoption of economic measures to finance the production and circulation of capital;

Concrete reorganization of part of production and economic activity through “planning”, national inventory, relocation of resources and identification of essential needs.

The first three categories of measures are of particular interest to us in our analysis of the dual function of the state of health emergency. As for the last two, let us recall that our journal has already dealt with them, at least partially, in the articles COVID-19: Events that reveal us that we are in the antechamber of socialism, and COVID-19: Workers do not have to pay for the measures of the bourgeoisie. In categories 4 and 5, we find in particular the measures put in place to deal with problems of liquidity, corporate indebtedness, etc. To make a long story short, the bourgeois state does not use these measures to look after the welfare of workers, but rather to release enough liquidity so that capital can circulate and the economy can be rescued. Moreover, money for “individuals” is only part of this. The lion’s share goes to businesses.

When prevention rhymes with repression

The measures adopted must preserve everything necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of capitalist society. For example, the reorganization of political power and the superstructure rid bourgeois democracy of the usual superfluous and refocus power in the hands of the executive. The current decisions of the executive have the force of law (for example, decrees) and are more efficient than usual. On the other hand, in some cases the centralization of power in the hands of the executive is not complete. For example, in Canada, a very small number of elected officials have been retained in the House of Commons while the Senate has been dropped. This reorganization of political power is in keeping with the historical trends of the last century: it is exactly the form that countries have adopted in times of war or heightened social strife. This gives us a glimpse of the power of the modern state when it frees itself from its usual straitjacket.

But for the most part, the dual function of the state of health emergency stems from measures related to the physical supervision of the population. These measures seek to curb the spread of COVID-19, but over time they will also serve to contain the spontaneous revolt of the popular masses. These measures include containment, quarantine, a ban on gatherings, surveillance and patrols, restrictions on movement between regions, but also general calls by the state and Public Health such as hand washing, disinfection of surfaces, a two-metre distance between people, etc.

All of these individual and collective prevention measures contribute to the emergence of new social norms and relations. Several of them really contribute to the fight against the spread of the coronavirus. However, they also contribute to the building of a “preventive security and law enforcement” framework to deal with possible riots and violent actions. Indeed, the possibility of a spontaneous and violent mass movement, albeit ephemeral and one-off, generated by the deterioration of people’s living conditions is very real. Consequently, the capitalist executive sees itself obliged to develop two-dimensional planning (public health and public “security”) in order to keep control over future events and to succeed in keeping bourgeois society in place. The bourgeois power is preparing itself to face this coming movement even if it is not certain that it will come into being and even if it cannot predict its strength and duration. A contingency plan is drawn up to consider all possible scenarios, a contingency plan is developed to consider all possible scenarios, from least to worst case. In a logical and organic way, the bourgeois state anticipates what is likely to happen when the health and economic situation deteriorates.

The ban on assembly already weighs heavily on trade union and political activities in general. Initially, this ban received favourable support from the masses, and rightly so. But already the invocation of this ban to prevent and repress spontaneous forms of mass revolt is emerging. This repressive use of the measure will increase. It will make it possible to crack down on popular circles and harshly repress proletarian manifestations of anger of all kinds. Moreover, the increased police presence and road checks already have a deterrent effect. The harsh penalties and heavy fines are being harshly criticized by the masses for their unfairness. In fact, these judicial methods have nothing to do with the effective prevention of contagion. Yet the government claims the opposite. Worse still, it encourages denunciation and stirs up hatred and fear towards the “recalcitrant”. It is already raining completely arbitrary police interventions; tomorrow it will be a deluge.

Maintaining bourgeois society is the glue that binds public health to public “security”. It also binds other decisions and the reorganization of the last few weeks. This maintenance is expressed as follows:

Preventing the national economy from being too strongly and durably destabilized by the epidemic;

Preserving the population and the infrastructure of bourgeois civil society;

To preserve the conditions necessary for the reproduction and circulation of all capital in society;

To guard against manifestations of violence and despair as well as the effect they might have on the general consciousness of the masses.

The possibility of a massive popular revolt will only increase as long as the crisis lasts. Governments therefore seek to avoid by all means that a possible revolt is the spark plug of a political crisis. The centre of gravity of a health emergency will therefore sooner or later shift from public health to law and order. The more the deconfinement progresses and the more the second wave of the epidemic is undeniable, the more protest will grow and the more repression will intensify. In reality, the bourgeoisie and its representatives are finding it increasingly difficult to fool the workers. Already, their crude and shameless lies about the stabilization of the crisis in health care institutions are fuelling the anger of workers in the health care system in Quebec and elsewhere.

The origin of the dual function: the maintenance of the established order and the preservation of society

As materialists, we must understand the origin of the dual function. It is not a conscious plan of struggle against the organized revolutionary proletariat; it is a contingency plan drawn up under the pressure of international competition. Plans such as the one we are currently witnessing arise in exceptional situations such as civil disasters, natural catastrophes, national power outages, “terrorist” attacks, wars, major sporting events, etc. They are part of the arsenal of political power in a modern capitalist state. This plan of the bourgeoisie is not consciously developed from a class struggle perspective as was the case in the past when the bourgeoisie faced political opponents (parties) capable of overthrowing it, when it faced a broad revolutionary movement, or even, in some cases, when it had to subdue an organized national liberation struggle. To this day, the general conditions of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat do not require the national executive to crush a revolutionary organization, but only to maintain “social peace” and capitalist civil society as it exists.

Nevertheless, the situation can change: the cumulative action of the exhausted and revolted essential workers, the unhired workers who have exhausted their emergency benefits, the pre-crisis unemployed, the pressure of the banks on borrowers and trade union activity can change the course of history. The situation may deteriorate to such an extent that hundreds of thousands or even millions of proletarians could be plunged into untenable living conditions. The more the situation evolves for the worse, the more the bourgeoisie and the proletariat will develop their class consciousness and the more there will be opportunities for revolutionaries to seize. This is why it is imperative to deploy in places where thousands of proletarians are organizing, such as the unions defending health workers. These bring together tens of thousands of women workers who are sadly discovering the contradictions that permeate the exploitative society and who are under the worst attacks of capitalism. Basically, the crisis of COVID-19 only reminds us of the immediate tasks that we need to focus on, which are to intervene actively in the spontaneous movement of popular resistance and to take root in the large concentrations of proletarians.