The COVID-19 pandemic has left the entire working class living with a new level of uncertainty. There have now been cases reported on every continent after researchers and military personnel on Antarctica recently reported their first cases. As of 29 December 2020, there have been over 81.2 million COVID-19 cases and 1.77 million deaths. The virus has had the greatest first-hand impact on the disabled, older generations, and racial/ethnic minorities – killing them at a disproportionate rate. However, many survivors of all ages and races/ethnicities have been left with chronic illnesses – having been completely healthy prior to being infected – or the worsening of pre-existing conditions. So far the richest country in the world, the United States, has been hit the hardest, with over 19.3 million of their nearly 330 million population having caught the virus and 335 thousand of those people having died. Following behind them in the top 10 is India, Brazil, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Germany.(1)
The virus has posed not only a significant risk to the health of workers around the world, but it has also helped further increase already high rates of exploitation, homelessness and housing unaffordability, unemployment, mental health issues, domestic violence, food insecurity, and personal debt. The pandemic has also deepened the humanitarian crises that are present around the world. The largest of which is currently taking place in Yemen. The past 6 years of ‘civil’ war have destroyed infrastructure, sanitation systems, medical centers, and food distribution capabilities, on top of killing roughly 250,000 people. The shortage of resources, rise in food prices/decline in currency value, starvation and the spread of cholera, diphtheria and dengue fever have had health and medical workers deem COVID-19, and the 2,000 cases they have had, as being far from their most pressing concern.(2)
The environmental crisis also continued to wreak havoc around the globe. Around 100 companies remain responsible for over 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The ongoing plunder and destruction of the natural environment forcing small animals into cities and the existence of factory farming are both major players in the spread of disease – while also causing significant amounts of pollution to the air and water. Over the past year and a half we have seen some of the worst wildfires on record in California and Siberia. There have been horrific floods in China, not seen on such a level in over 20 years, and devastating flooding and landslides in Brazil. In the Pacific Islands, the tropical cyclones Harold and Yasa have torn through and left thousands of people homeless. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season saw the highest number of storms on record by reaching 30 in total, with hurricanes such as Eta, Iota, Laura, and Delta killing hundreds and otherwise devastating parts of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Alabama, and Southwest Louisiana. During the 2019-2020 summer in Australia (also known as ‘Black Summer’) the country experienced the worst bushfire season on record. Now as 2020 turns into 2021, over the past several months, there has been some of the most destructive and largest amounts of summer rain, flooding and beach erosion that New South Wales and Queensland have experienced in decades; it took over 8 weeks to contain the fires that, similar to last year’s fires on Kangaroo Island (Karta pintingga), have torn through and burned down around half of Fraser Island (K’gari), the world’s largest sand island, and significant consequences for its unique ecosystem are anticipated.
There are sources such as the Payday Report that claim over 1,100 wildcat strikes have taken place across the United States since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.(3) However, it only takes a quick glance at this interactive map to see that a large amount of these so-called ‘strikes’ were actually bosses closing the workplace for one reason or another (many in support of BLM protests, which were mislabelled as a ‘general strike’ in Seattle), while others were peaceful workplace protests and vigils during break time.(4) Even so, there have been genuine workplace struggles both inside the unions and outside of them. The pandemic has simply brought about new health and safety concerns that add to pre-existing issues such as wage stagnation and decline, poor working conditions, and automation that workers across various industries have been expressing increasing dissatisfaction with over the past few years. After decades of class retreat, it was estimated by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics that the number of workers involved in major work stoppages (strikes of more than 1,000 workers) skyrocketed from 25,000 in 2017 to nearly 500,000 in 2018. This was the largest number of people who have walked off the job since the mid 1980s. In 2019, the surge in strike activity continued and over 420 thousand workers were involved in major work stoppages.(5) This rise in activity and demand for safer conditions and higher pay is not something that has been restricted to the United States, it has been present on some level throughout the world.
It is now the season where many people are setting goals (resolutions) to mark the change of year. The aim may be to quit smoking or drinking, to eat healthier and get fitter, to save money, or to spend more time with family and friends – because “new year, new me” – but the sad reality is that most will have abandoned these goals by the end of January and even fewer will end up accomplishing them. This is not because people do not care about their loved ones, their health, or saving for something big or important to them. It is because no real change comes with this annual change of date and the same daily stresses, alienated wage-labour and lack of time and finances due to capitalism will persist – and this time around we have a global pandemic in the mix.
The ‘Holiday Season’
In capitalist society, human needs are not decided on before commodities are made and profits are the driving force behind production. Instead, needs are manufactured by what has already been produced then being shoved down our throats through advertisements on everything from billboards, catalogues in the mail and TV commercials to product placement, social media, and on almost every corner of the internet. We have all seen some form of advertising for some rubbish product that, deep down, we know we do not need (or soon figure this out to be the case) but end up wasting our money on anyway.
While the wealth of billionaires has increased this year, for the working class this has meant unemployment, cuts to pay and furloughs, increased exploitation, and a decline in working conditions. In the instance of Jeff Bezos, founder and 11 percent stockholder of Amazon and the richest person in the world, his fortune has grown from $113 billion USD at the start of the year to $185.2 billion USD at the end of it. This is due to the fact that hundreds of millions of people have been trapped at home throughout the year and have turned to Amazon for food and entertainment. This has not only weighed heavily on Amazon workers themselves but also on postal workers who have commonly been working 12 to 14 hour days in poor understaffed conditions and have now also seen a 40 percent increase in packages compared to this time last year, after what has already been an extremely busy 9 months for them.(6) The wealth of Elon Musk, CEO and 20 percent stockholder of Tesla, increased six-fold from $25 billion USD in March to $153 billion USD in December – going from 35th on the Billionaires list to knocking Bill Gates out of the number 2 spot.(7) This came as a result of Tesla shares rising almost sevenfold since March due to investors putting their money on the company playing a major part in paving the way to capitals’ idea of a cleaner electric future.
Meanwhile, Amazon workers coordinated strikes, work stoppages and protests internationally for the retail ‘holiday’ of Black Friday in Bangladesh, India, Australia, Germany, Poland, Spain, France, the U.K, and the U.S. just to name a few, in their continued fight for higher pay and an improvement to their deplorable conditions.(8) Unfortunately, these actions seem to have remained confined to the influence of a coalition known as Make Amazon Pay, which is composed of international union federations and nonprofit liberal organisations such as Greenpeace, with 400 politicians from over 34 countries expressing their solidarity. Tesla Factory workers in Fremont, California have now been working 6-day 60-hour weeks since August. The COVID-19 skeptic Musk has of course shown no consideration for the health and safety of workers, he questioned the lethality of the virus after health authorities ordered the closure of the Fremont factory in March and then reopened the doors in May. But outside of a few small protests, there has not been any clear pushback against these conditions.(9)
The ‘holiday season’ is the most wasteful time of year and it is said that the United Kingdom, United States and Australia all produce up to 50 percent more waste than usual.(10) By the end of January, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of Christmas trees, plastic packaging, plastic cups and straws, wrapping paper, decorations, and food end up in landfill each year. Due to alienated social norms, we tend to believe that it is rude not to buy people a gift, to ask what others may want, or to express anything besides appreciation for what others were conned into buying for us. It is estimated that in 2018, $400 million was spent on 10 million unwanted Christmas gifts in Australia – many of which ended up in landfill.(11) Although we support minimising how much waste we produce and reusing what we can, individualist actions will never be able to put an end to the waste that is produced by capital and it has been proven that a lot of ‘recycling’ ends up at the dump anyway.(12)
While all this waste is being produced, there are others who are going hungry all around the world and half of all children who die before the age of five do so because of malnutrition.(13) Prior to the pandemic, 2 billion people lacked adequate access to safe and nutritious food. The problem has now only worsened. In the United States, surveys have shown that in November less than half of all households with children felt confident about having the food needed over the following month, 5.6 million households had struggled to put enough food on the table over the past week and hunger rates are three times higher than in 2019. Overall, food insecurity has at least doubled since last year due to pay cuts and rising unemployment rates.(14) The situation is no better in the United Kingdom, where tens of thousands have been turning to food banks for the first time ever.(15) In Australia, those who were already food insecure prior to the pandemic are now going hungry even more frequently. The number of people seeking food relief at least once a week from charities has more than doubled over the past year.(16) Over two million people receiving Centrelink payments are set to have their incomes cut by $100 a fortnight on New Year’s Day, this follows a $300 pay cut in September, and another $150 to come in March, from this we can only expect these numbers to continue rising.
This time of year exacerbates the loneliness that many of us feel on a frequent basis. This is especially the case for those who have lost loved ones, need to work, do not have the money or documentation to travel, or have been separated from others by the state. In Australia, most prisons forbid visitors on Christmas Day and imprisoned workers are lucky if they get to make a ten-minute phone call. This feels like an additional punishment to both themselves and anyone they have on the outside, and it makes the reality of their situation hit much harder than it usually does. The circumstances are much the same for workers around the world who have been thrown into immigration camps, cages, or hotels turned prisons, and who have no idea when they will see their loved ones again. This year, the presence of strict border closures, lockdowns and self-isolation have kept even more people apart. In the instance of many health and medical workers, spending this time of year away from their families is a mere continuation of their year-long isolation measures outside of work to try and limit the spread of COVID-19 – with some hiring hotel rooms or sleeping in their cars or camper vans and others whose families have been living elsewhere instead.(17)
The combination of isolation and their overall working conditions – issues such as inadequate staffing, low wages, lack of PPE, constant death everyday rather than treating people and sending most of them home, physical assaults and verbal assaults (which are often racist and/or sexist in nature), etc. – have pushed many paramedics, hospital, aged care, personal support, and home care workers around the world to breaking point. They have not only been infected and dying from the virus at a higher rate, but these circumstances have also increased the instances of suicide, post-traumatic stress, and the number of health and medical workers who have quit or intend to do so in the next year. On top of still having to deal with increasing virus cases, it is at this time of year that hospitals find themselves slammed due to a significant increase in presentations to the emergency room for cardiac issues, mental distress and self-harm, traumatic injuries, road accidents, drug overdoses and alcohol related illnesses and injuries.(18)
An increase in depression, anxiety, video calling (constant exposure to our own image) and the need to ration food in some instances and stress eating in others has caused body image and eating disorder cases to skyrocket (this is something that also happens every year over the summer), they have more than doubled among children and hotlines have reported that calls and web chats from people of all ages have increased by between 50 to 300 percent.(19) The waiting lists for treating these disorders are often long and the prevalence of these issues has been one of the major players in the worsening of mental health, as well as eating disorders typically increasing the risks associated with being infected with COVID-19. The mixture of financial stress, heat and excessive alcohol consumption not only leads to an increase of hospitalisation, but are all also factors in the spike in domestic, family, and random acts of, violence at this time of year – which have also significantly increased throughout the pandemic. It is said that these rates double around Christmas and multiply by 9 around New Year’s Day.(20)
Since the early 1970s we have been struggling through capitalism’s third global crisis of accumulation since the onset of the imperialist epoch of its development. Throughout the 19th century, such crises occurred approximately every 10 years. But the more capital accumulated the more the period between crises increased and the extent of the crisis needed to restore profitability grew even larger. By the turn of the 20th century the mass of accumulated capital had reached a point where strictly economic crises had ceased to be sufficient to restore profit rates. Devaluation of constant capital now had to take place on something as devastating as generalised war.(21) While there has been no generalised war since that of the Second World War, it is wishful thinking to believe it will never happen again.(22) Since 1945 there has been a series of regional imperialist proxy wars that have continuously been waged in a fight for the control of raw materials and key areas of the world. Although some of these wars have, and continue to, cause enormous destruction and suffering, they have not produced a general devaluation of capital. As a result, capital continues to resort to direct attacks on the working class and further proxy wars to disadvantage the competition. All these factors, along with the increasing prevalence of trade wars and imperialist manoeuvres, show us that the threat of a third world war is forever on the horizon.
The accumulation of capital has always been accompanied by periodic crises that are intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production. The root cause is to be found in the inescapable tendency of the rate of profit on industrial/manufacturing capital investment to fall.(23) When this rate of profit is insufficient capitalism turns increasingly to financial speculation. Today we are still dominated by the elements that led to the 2007 financial crisis. It was the bursting of the speculative bubble that created this crisis for the main American credit institutions, it then came to engulf global financial markets. Its origins though were not in the financial sphere but in the real economy. Although there may at times be productivity increases, upswings and downswings, the profitability of investments in the United States, and all the most advanced capitalist sectors, has been declining for decades.(24)
Capitalism is not a form of government, but a mode of production based on the exploitation of the working many by the capitalist few. It will not simply collapse or peacefully transform into communism. The property-owning classes have never given up their property without a bitter fight. No significant change can take place without the working class consciously overthrowing the present state of things, through its own organisations, and starting to build a new society. The alternative is a continuation of war, plunder and destruction, the end result being our extinction under capitalist barbarism.(25)
We cannot say for sure what holidays or traditions will, or will not, exist in a post-capitalist society nor what they will look like if they do. But we do know that the world we aim to create will not rely on so-called special occasions for people to be able to relax and spend time with those they love and care about. The existence of oppressive religious and cultural norms will have ceased. There will be no commodities, no environmentally destructive waste, and no money or unwanted presents to buy. There will be no wars, prisons or borders to keep people apart. In a world where production is based on human and environmental needs, rather than on profit, we will be able to better handle any outbreaks of disease and the impact of unavoidable natural disasters.
Over the 2020-2021 summer/winter, we extend our solidarity to all other workers around the world and urge for them to take any measures that they can to keep themselves and others safe. We encourage regifting and handing on any unwanted presents and leftover food to those who are on the streets or are otherwise struggling to make ends meet – rather than throwing things out. All of the food that you will not eat before it expires? Someone else will. The dressing gown and slippers (some of the most disposed of presents) you don’t want? They could help keep another person warm at night. We also encourage checking in on friends, family, and co-workers, both now and whenever possible throughout the following year. Many of us are suffering financially, mentally, and medically on a level we never have before, and this weight is even heavier when we try to carry it alone. It is through building ties with other workers and recognising that the real ‘all in this together’ is our common, but varied, struggle that we can not only help better combat any daily feelings of alienation, helplessness, and loneliness, but can also work towards the revolutionary overthrow of the present state of things.
We look forward to hearing from all like-minded internationalists reading this who wish to get involved with our activity in the new year.
Internationalist Communists Oceania
31 December 2020
(1) COVID-19 Map
(4) Many Seattle Restaurants Will Close for the BLM General Strike https://www.thestranger.com/things-to-do/2020/06/09/43878321/many-seattle-restaurants-will-close-on-friday-for-the-black-lives-matter-general-strike
(11) Christmas Waste 2018
(12) Plastic recycling
(16) Food Insecurity Australia 2020