By Sean Orr – April 28, 2020
Chicago, IL – These are hard days for people the world over. The COVID-19 virus has forced billions of people to stay at home, bringing the global economy to a near standstill. At the moment of writing, nearly 3 million people have been confirmed to have COVID-19 across the world, and over 200,000 people have died.
It is in a crisis like this that society is tested, that the strength of human organization must prove itself. And if there is one thing that every American can see, it is that our society has failed this test. “American exceptionalism” means that our economy and our way of life is superior, that it can withstand any test and overcome any obstacle. This is reflected in our history books, in the worldview of our political leaders and in the mindset of our ruling class. You can even see it in our culture – the only ‘plausible’ storylines that post-apocalyptic movies seem to be able to lean on are either an alien invasion, a nuclear holocaust or complete environmental collapse. We are mighty, so only something utterly beyond human capabilities can bring us down. In fact, all it took to make the United States crumble was a new strain of a common virus.
Uncontrolled capital does not build stability, it does not build community, it does not build society. In fact, everywhere it goes it shatters community. Solidarity, the most human of acts, is incompatible with capitalism, and in a country like ours, where capital rules without a single check, human beings are left atomized and defenseless. And in a society where capital rules, human life is as expendable as any natural resource.
Every person in this country saw this as the crisis began. As people lay dying in hospital beds across the country, our elected government gave trillions of dollars to the gamblers on Wall Street without batting an eye, trillions that could have built hospitals and kept us going but instead disappeared forever into bank accounts and bad bets. As countless millions of workers lost their jobs and small businesses closed their doors forever, Democrats and Republicans debated whether the one-time check to make sure people survived should be $250 or $1200, if it should be taxed or not, if it should be means-tested or not. Human beings do not deserve anything but survival, after all, and that of course must come with some kind of guarantees and restrictions. We do not need to ask what restrictions were put on the trillions of dollars given to monopolies like Boeing; there were none. Capital must thrive, while human beings, some at least, can survive. This is unacceptable.
Venezuela reminds us why we organize
Working people have never been able to rely on anything other than their own organization, the formations and institutions that we build through our solidarity and our desire, our right, to thrive and live a dignified life. Without organization, we are defenseless victims of the anti-democratic, anti-human desires of capitalist profit. With organization, we can transform the world.
In Venezuela, capitalism finds itself frustrated and on the defensive. In this Caribbean nation, there is a movement of millions of ordinary people, the Bolivarian movement, extraordinarily well-organized and well-armed with the knowledge of 20 years of struggle. The strength of their organization has ended illiteracy, raised living standards and created new forms of production, like worker-run industries and communes. It has also stopped coup d’états, foiled acts of sabotage and withstood the horrendous blockade of the U.S. government, commanded by capital, to starve the Venezuelan people into submission.
Now, facing down a global pandemic, another attack on human flourishing, the Bolivarian movement responds again with organization and determination. After the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the country the elected government of Nicolás Maduro, itself an extension of the people’s movement, ordered all people not working in an essential service to stay at home. Not a single business was allowed to fire anyone, and the government has guaranteed everyone’s weekly earnings until the crisis is over.
Meanwhile in Venezuela, organizations that already existed among the people to meet their needs and wage their war against capitalism have simply extended their efforts to respond to this crisis. Grassroots committees known as the CLAP have delivered food for free to families in need for years; now their work is expanded so that more people stay at home. Tens of thousands of Venezuelan and Cuban doctors have served the nation’s people for years in free community clinics, forming bonds of friendship and solidarity with people while improving their lives and treating their illnesses. Now these doctors are going door-to-door in their communities, distributing face masks, educating people about the virus and testing people for symptoms.
Even amid this crisis, the Bolivarian movement and its exceptional levels of organization is taking on capital, an enemy with which they have been in permanent struggle for over 20 years. Private companies, like the mega-monopoly Polar Foods, are doing what they have done for years in Venezuela – engaging in rampant price speculation, trying to squeeze some profit out of people’s desperation. Anyone who has seen N95 masks for $10 apiece at their local gas station has experienced this reflex of capitalism, a reflex that ignores suffering and solidarity and seeks only to accumulate profit.
In the United States, we can only look on; in Venezuela, workers can, and are, fighting back.
At the Portuguesa Oilseed Consortium (Coposa), a large privately-owned company that produces cooking oils, workers – through their own organization, the Productive Worker Council (CPT) – occupied the production facilities in an effort to stop the company’s price speculation. The Maduro government stepped in to support the workers, and now the workers and the government are saying that the occupation will continue for at least 180 days to ensure the people’s needs for cooking oil supersede the desire for profit from the owner. At the same time, Maduro announced that price controls – once-relaxed as a concession to capital during the economic war – will return for 27 essential goods for the duration of this crisis.
To ensure that the price controls are obeyed, Maduro called on the working class – through their trade unions, worker councils and supportive government agencies – to supervise the sales and distributions of goods at three major food producers, including Polar Foods. Any business owner caught engaging in price speculation will be punished to the extent of the law. Lorenzo Mendoza, the owner of Polar, complained to the press that “there is no reason or justification for this arbitrary measure.” Diosdado Cabello, the vice president of the governing United Socialist Party, had this to say to Mendoza and his class compatriots: “Don’t come crying to us. I warn you that this people knows what has to be done.”
We do not have to live like this
It has been a month and a half since Venezuela, a nation of 30 million people, had its first confirmed COVID-19 case. To date, they have had 325 confirmed cases and ten deaths. The United States, to date, has over 987,000 cases and over 55,000 deaths.
In Venezuela, not a single worker has lost their job. In the United States, over 26 million workers have filed for unemployment in five weeks, the fastest rate in history (a rate that would be even faster if millions more who have tried to apply actually got through).
In Venezuela food is provided, free of charge, to anyone who needs it. In the United States, billionaires like Bezos are making untold profits by forcing desperate people into low-wage, part-time gig jobs with minimal protections to deliver groceries to anyone that can pay for it.
In Venezuela, the people’s organizations from their clinics to their communal councils have mapped out their entire communities. They know who is sick, who still needs face masks, who has health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus, and who still needs to be contacted. In the United States, we don’t even know how many people are sick. There has not been a single attempt by our government to trace the spread of the virus, to contact people on a door-by-door basis, or to ensure that everyone has face masks. We are left defenseless, rudderless and confused.
We do not have to suffer like this. We cannot continue to suffer like this. Through our organization, through our solidarity and our love for humanity, we can not only overcome this virus – we can change the world. It is not impossible, and it is not something that is consigned to happen in the future. It can happen now, because it is happening now, in places like Venezuela and Cuba and Vietnam, where human life matters more than capitalist profit, and where the people’s organization will always defeat the maneuvers of the rich.
A new world can come out of this crisis – will we commit ourselves to it?