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Issue #1910      April 6, 2020


Speech by Tibor Zenker, Chairman of the Party of Labour of Austria (Partei der Arbeit Österreichs, PdA), at the meeting of the Central Committee, Vienna, 15th March 2020.

The Coronavirus epidemic or pandemic has far-reaching consequences for all of us. It will also be relevant to today’s meeting of the Central Committee – respectively it obviously already is. It seems probable that we will need to revise some of our further plans for the first half of 2020 and, more generally, to change some of the ways in which we work and some of our priorities, with serious consequences for some of the practical work and for our party and international relations.

I have taken the liberty of using the current events, measures, and their consequences as an opportunity to dedicate today’s substantive introduction to the CC meeting to the subject of disease and capitalist class society, in general and finally, of course, in concrete terms.

It is certainly not necessary to go back over current developments, courses, reactions, and forecasts, which are known anyway. Also, I am admittedly not a medical doctor and not a clairvoyant, which limits my remarks a little. We therefore want to start in a fundamental way.

Capitalist accumulation, as is well known, is based on the realisation of profit, by virtue of the private ownership of the means of production. To this end, the workers must create surplus value, based on unpaid labour, which is inherent in the production process and the product itself. Only human labour creates this surplus value. This is the core of how capitalism works: it needs human labour, exploited through wage labour. Capitalism needs people, capital needs human labour.

In this respect, capitalism initially has no real interest in sick people, and certainly not in epidemics. The working class must be able to work and remain able to work; it should work as intensively as possible, for as long as possible. Of course, this can only be done with a necessary minimum of health, both physical and mental; [an] exhausted labour force is less productive, sick people may not be productive at all.

Furthermore, capitalism needs the working class as a mass of consumers. The appropriated product needs to be sold in order to realise profit. Any lasting disruption of this circulation means a capitalist crisis, an economic crisis, which occurs regularly and lawfully anyway because workers are paid the lowest possible wages that are below the value of the products. However, exceptional disturbances, such as an epidemic of disease, aggravate the crisis of the capitalist circulation.

Both facts are correlated with another fact, that human labour force must always be restored, it needs to be reproduced. This implies first of all, quite simply, rest breaks, sleep and nutrition, but also, in a broader sense, shelter, household, bringing up children, education, leisure activities, and health care. Large parts of this reproduction cause costs. It is in the interest of the capital not to have to bear these costs: Wages should not exceed a minimum necessary for direct reproduction, state benefits, and facilities should not get out of hand, and a decisive part of the reproductive work should be unpaid work by the families of workers, not least women.

With these three points, it is already clear that the system is going round in circles, that there are obviously unsolvable contradictions: This system cannot work. This is a simple economic-social fact, which can be guessed with basic mathematical knowledge, even without having studied Karl Marx’s Das Kapital [en: Capital] thoroughly. And that is why capital, its political parties and associations, its governments, its “educational institutions,” and media spend so much time and energy to conceal and deny this fact. Capital cannot control the laws of its own “free market economy.”

Therefore, capital will always accept to a certain extent that people will get sick, which in its view means nothing other than that labour force will become devalued and unproductive, and consumers will drop out. With various measures – in the following without claiming to be exhaustive – attempts are made to at least counteract the negative consequences, but also to use them for one’s own purposes.

First, capital maintains a reserve army of labour, a basic stock of unemployed workers. This serves not only to depress wages and social benefits but also to compensate, if necessary, for the loss of manpower. If a worker drops out, there is always a replacement available and usually even at better conditions for the entrepreneur.

In addition, illness has been discovered as a profit opportunity. This applies in particular to the production of medicines, medical drugs, and medical equipment and to allegedly cost-intensive special treatments. In addition to the IT, automotive, oil/gas, and banking sectors, pharmaceutical companies are among the largest companies in the world. They do everything in their power to monopolise their patents, to prevent less expensive drugs (for example in the form of generics) from being available – not least in the less developed countries – in order to achieve maximum profits even from the treatment of patients, without regard for the needs of the people and the fate of entire countries.

Linked to this is the desire to thin out or completely ruin existing state health systems or even prevent them from being created in the first place. Public health care services are to be reduced and at the same time made more expensive for the people, through deductibles, cancellation of coverage and permits, necessary supplementary insurance, thinning out of infrastructure, site closures, savings in materials, deliberate staff shortages, subsidies for private institutions. This means a redistribution via the state budget as well as new profit opportunities, at the expense of the mass of patients from the working class. It is a subjection of the public health system to the rules of capitalist profiteering, mediated through arbitrary deficit or stability targets. Admittedly, in many countries of the world, a large number of people have no health insurance at all in the European sense – and also in Austria, by the way, there are more of them than one would generally assume.

More private, less state – that is, of course, to a certain extent a general motto of capital wherever costs are incurred that are not a necessary precondition for further, new profits. And this affects the care, nursing, and treatment of the chronically and long-term sick, of people with disabilities, of mental illnesses, of people who are unable to work [...] and, not least, of the elderly. The idea is to shift as much as possible into the private, unpaid sphere of relatives and families. There are ridiculous allowances and grants, which are at best charity. People have to pay for private care with their own money, from low wages, pensions or reserves. Inevitably, this often involves hiring lower-paid, precariously or even moonlighting foreign workers – these workers are then lacking in their home countries, but the enforced approach also undermines the education and provision of sufficient local staff and the creation of regular jobs.

It is easy to see how fragile this entire system is, even though the situation in Austria is still better than, for example, in Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe, the USA or certainly in the less and least developed countries – and it is no coincidence that Cuba is a counter-example. It is a fact that the Austrian health care system is structurally not prepared [for] an epidemic like the current one. The capacities are not sufficient. It has become apparent that there are not enough hospital beds, not enough medical staff, not enough materials and equipment, not enough financial resources – as it is generally, but now even more so. The existing staff is overburdened and foreign personnel can no longer enter. These problems are systematic ones; they were consciously accepted in the past and therefore cannot be solved in the short term.

The current measures taken by the Austrian government with regard to the Corona epidemic are an expression of this fact. Fully aware that the hospitals and not least the intensive care units will be overstretched and overburdened, sick people – almost ninety per cent – will be accommodated at home. Only in the case of a severe course of the disease – this usually affects so-called “risk groups” – hospital beds will be available. People will be left alone, and their fellow residents who have been quarantined as a precautionary measure will even be exposed to infection. This means that acute care (which is actually based on self-healing) is once again “privatised,” transferred to the patient’s own four walls at the expense of reproductive work of relatives (and possibly friends) and selective support provided by NGOs. Of course, this is also passed off as a containment measure, but in reality, serious containment has long since failed: in fact, all that is being attempted is to slow down the increase in the number of ill people relatively and to postpone the peak that lies ahead.

The presented rules of conduct, appeals, commandments, and prohibitions, are mainly directed at the personal sphere of the people – they may change their social behaviour, indirect interpersonal, family and social interaction. The helplessness of the government is expressed in all clarity: it intervenes in people’s leisure time, in the reproductive phases of the labour force, first on a small scale, then also in the area of education and training. This initially affects small self-employed people and single-person enterprises, bogus self-employed people, freelancers: they lose their revenues, as cultural workers, as sports coaches, as course instructors, as ticket rippers, as cloakroom attendants, as small innkeepers. They are followed by teachers and child caregivers, but indirectly also by all working parents. Home-office-work is only possible for a few. Capitalism can cope with all this for some time, but the breakthrough of the crisis is only postponed.

Our economy is based on social production, to a high degree. This area is only tentatively targeted by government measures, because the production of surplus value and the corporate profits should not be put at risk, as far as possible. However, it is a fact that large groups of people come together to work. In the conurbations, they also travel to and from work together by public transport. Thus, restrictions on reproduction and services, the closure of theatres, cinemas, restaurants and bars, ski resorts, and schools may be one thing – as well as tourism, which is particularly important in Austria – but ultimately it will be about something else. [It will be] about the factories (in the broadest sense), which despite all deindustrialisation form the backbone of the capitalist economy, about large-scale industry and trade (e.g. supermarket chains), as well as about mass transport, where many people work and [...] interact. The government should be well aware of this, as several billion Euro are being prepared and provided in compensation for companies and more are being demanded. The workers, on the other hand, should and must get by with less. But even this and the effects of the cuts in reproduction will sooner or later reach the capitalist circulation anyway: every worker is also a consumer. It is not easy to say how to deal with this, but one thing is evident: no matter how we estimate so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in concrete terms, it is obvious that in the PRC successful ways have been found to deal with the crisis to some extent. The “Western” governments and media regard this fact only with moralistic arrogance, defamation, and imperialist racism. In any case, our short-time working models will not be sufficient – that is for sure.

However, we do not want to be – now [or in the immediate future] – a doctor at the sick bedside of capitalism.

Capital wants to save its profits without regard to the losses of the working class. The bourgeoisie can also deal more easily with the Corona crisis in the personal sphere. [As] workers should continue to work at assembly lines, production chains and cash desks, the rich seclude themselves into their isolated living quarters, their urban villas, country houses and penthouses. The working class is exposed to the ruined health system; the rich afford private doctors and facilities, expensive medicines, equipment, and special treatment. It is not a sudden “two-tier medicine,” which the reformist parties sometimes regretfully thematise and which they intend to prevent with this or that parliamentary decision, but it is, after all, an entire class society in which we are supposed to live and possibly to die. Illness is always a class issue under capitalism. It must therefore also be considered from the class point of view.

The Austrian Party of Labour has already outlined in its recent statement of the Central Committee measures in favour of working people, which would be urgent and necessary in view of the Corona epidemic – I do not need to repeat them among the participants of this meeting. The Austrian government and the EU will not implement these measures because, despite all the hypocritical assertions, they are not working for the people, but for capital. Priority is always given to the accumulation of capital, under all conditions, not to the life of the working class. Capitalism will not create a health system that meets the needs of the people because it cannot and does not want to.

The current crisis will have to be overcome under the present conditions – this will require sacrifice and suffering. As far as possible, we, the Party of Labour, and our members want to help to ensure that both are kept to a minimum: With prudence, calm, attention, solidarity, support and assistance, while respecting appropriate behaviour and action. We will have to adapt our internal, public and international activities; we will have to rethink our event activities and our public appearances, to say the least; we will have to shift some of our priorities. I also assume that for the time being there will be no more Central Committee meetings in the conventional form. We are already using in parts electronic video and audio linkages during today’s meeting, and the next Central Committee meeting will probably be entirely video-conferenced. All this is part of our responsibility towards our fellow human beings, which we have to take seriously. There can be no doubt about that.

But one thing is also clear: We will not under any circumstances be forced to make any kind of “Burgfrieden,” of political truce with the government and capital because they are essentially responsible for the extent of the situation. No one can expect us to suspend class struggle, because the ruling class continues it unwaveringly, even in situations of crisis, towards the working class and even towards the sick. We will continue to raise this issue. Our task, after all, is to fight for a world in which the needs of the people are met, not those of capital; in which, accordingly, the human being is at the centre, not profiteering; in which the health of all people and the best possible treatment of the sick is indeed the highest priority; in which life and death are no longer class issues. This world will be socialism.

Next article – THIS WEEK …

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