A General Strike Could Have Stopped the Pandemic

Full translation of a piece I wrote for Local Call

As February ended and March began, various Leftists on Twitter began to call for a general strike – not only to take advantage of capitalism’s moment of weakness, but also to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus and protect public health. But like all Leftist calls to rebellion on social media, these circulated briefly in the Left echo chamber and died out — just as in one developed country after another, governments began to place restrictions in their overlate efforts to get the pandemic under control.

Quickly, economies were shut down after all, not through a general strike by the workers but on order from above. Yet this only happened after the virus had spread far and wide in the population, and according to recent estimates, it will now take many months to shut this Pandora’s box.

Those far-fetched calls for a general strike from the turn of the month suddenly seem like a missed opportunity: if such a strike had somehow been implemented in the first days of March, the situation would be much better. Business-as-usual has spread the public’s invisible enemy in all directions, and now economies are being shut down only once it has become impossible to ignore the threat.

Rebelling all the way into martial law

Throughout all this time, the common attitude — at least in the countries I follow closely (Germany, Israel, and the US) — is focused on asking “what are we still allowed to do despite the pandemic”. This is the opposite approach to that which stood behind the calls for a general strike: “what can we do to stop the pandemic.” The former attitude leads to a lost battle for our liberties.

Paradoxically, to protect personal liberty – and specifically the freedom of movement in a time of pandemic and lockdowns – the public should think not of the rules and restrictions placed upon it, but on the limitations it could voluntarily take upon itself. If in early March masses of workers had shut down the economy and implemented strict social distancing, there might not have been a need for increasingly strict lockdown regimes.

However, the economic shutdown and imposed lockdowns are only the beginning. This struggle will continue for quite a while. The goal of economic shutdowns and restrictions on movement is to stop the spread of the virus, so that those who are already sick can be taken care of, those who might spread it further be isolated, and ultimately some degree of normal social life be restored.

The efficacy of these moves depends not only on the stringency of the rules, but also on the public’s behavior. Insofar as people continue to spread the virus despite restrictions, authorities will be forced to make the restrictions stricter and enforce them more harshly. Martial law is right around the corner in many jurisdictions.

But insofar as the public’s movement winds down more quickly and the virus’s spread is slowed or stopped, the day in which freedom of movement is restored will come closer. In Shanghai people have already started going out to clubs – a particularly problematic infection hotspot – albeit subject to invasive surveillance and pending a temperature check at the door.

However, if the public continues to grapple only with how we can still keep going out and seeing people – which I admit I was doing right up until a few days ago – the authorities will have no choice but to continue tightening the restrictions and ramping up enforcement.

How did we get here?

One might ask how we got into this mess. The past decade hasn’t prepared us well for the present predicament. Mass media and the political establishment were in a nonstop 24/7 cycle of fabricated panics and hypes, vying for our attention, whether for the sake of ratings and ad money, economic power writ large, or political control itself.

As a result, many of us have a natural, healthy response of skepticism towards anything coming from establishment media and government officials, fertile grounds for charlatans pushing baseless claims against certain vaccines — or even the outlandish conspiracy theory that the Earth actually is flat.

At the same time, as the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic began to appear, establishment fixtures in media, high finance, and government, were all fixated on the need to continue with business-as-usual, perhaps believing that no disease could stand up to wealth and power – and throughout February spread calming and misleading messages around the world, saying this pandemic was “just another flu virus” (as though another virus of a sort which kills many thousands every years were no cause for concern), a misinformation effort some continue with now still.

At any rate, it would appear that the first priority for most voices heard in public discourse was not concern for public health, but maintaining profits and the legendary infinite growth which a capitalist economy requires.

Decision-makers too, of course, were not quick enough to take the steps necessary to enable people to stay at home, as public health experts had been recommending for weeks. In Israel, authorities continue to escalate restrictions and promise the food supply will not be interrupted – but fail to provide an alternative income for the many workers for whom the restrictions have meant a partial or total loss of livelihood, nor to halt the collection of rents, mortgages, utility bills, or taxes.

In another time and place, workers’ organizations, neighborhood organizations, and revolutionary political organizations could have shut down the economy on their own initiative, while providing for the strikers throughout – as they did in great strikes throughout the 20th century. But without such infrastructure “from below” nor state-organized economic relief “from above”, many of us have little real choice but to continue chasing an income rather than staying at home – effectively forcing us to continue to allow the virus to spread, promising us a very long period of restricted movement and increasing repression for their enforcement.

Initiative and reaction

I think it is worth examining the situation through the lens of initiative and reaction (a thought I owe to the brilliant Elise Hendrick). The more citizens take action on their own initiative against the spread of the virus, the less action by the state and by reactionaries will be required or even possible.

In Israel, where the state and reactionaries are more or less one and the same, we are already seeing how Netanyahu’s illegitimate interim government responds to the outbreak of the pandemic by unnecessarily intruding on citizens’ privacy and shutting down democratic process.

The past can no longer be changed. In theory, if workers had shut down the economy and stayed home at the beginning of the month, the outbreak would have been slowed and such measures would not now enjoy the legitimacy of necessary emergency means as they currently do.

But because this pandemic is far from over and the crisis is only at its start, citizens can still be organized to stop the virus on their own initiative – complementing governments’ clumsy efforts to inform the public by spreading information among friends and family, neighbors and colleagues, and even banding together (remotely) in an effort to construct an organizational basis from which to launch independent civilian action to stop the virus, rather than trying only to evade restrictions coming down from above.

As far as we know, without an unexpected breakthrough in treatment, economies will have to be shut down intermittently for about a year and a half before healthy people around the world can begin to be vaccinated en masse. This means, though it’s hard to fathom right now, that we are not at the start of a short and transient emergency, but of a long period in which we move back and forth between lockdowns and periods of free movement, going back into lockdown as new outbreaks emerge and must be contained.

This means that we can learn now from the way in which events unfolded at the start of the crisis, and try to act differently down the line. For example, workers can refuse to return to their workplaces without a guarantee of fully paid sick leave – an improvement in general working conditions which would also directly help prevent further outbreaks.

Workers must also organize and prepare to shut down their workplaces independently as soon as there is a risk of infection. If employers again try and delay shutdown as long as they can, even at the cost of spreading the virus – workers must see to the health of their families and communities first.

Similar modes of action can be prepared outside of the workplace as well – and they must, as workplaces shall be scarce in the wake of shutdowns and economic depression. Citizens must prepare to respond to outbreaks on the community, neighborhood, and city level. Communities should be prepared to take to the streets with protective gear and in small groups to inform neighbors of a new outbreak and tell people to go home and stay put even before orders come down from the authorities.

Wherever there is homelessness, citizens must organize to reclaim unused living space for those without a place to live. Residents in unsanitary slums can organize to refuse rent while taking over the maintenance of their homes directly – and neighbors must be ready to protect them from backlash whenever landlords and governments place the flow of rents above public health.

Many such things are already happening, and this period of forced reprieve from labor is an opportunity to organize more widely and prepare for the upcoming challenges foisted upon us by the pandemic.

The freedom to stay the f–k home

For many of us, instinct says not only to shirk the rules dictated from above, but simply to enjoy our freedoms as much as possible. But in light of how irresponsible behavior brings us now to the brink of extreme repression and curtailment of the same freedoms, we should take this opportunity also to think some more about how we understand our freedom, and how we use it.

On the face of it, it may seem that going out whenever we want, meeting whoever we like as much as we like, going to parties, and sitting at cafes, can only be an expression of our freedom – and that foregoing these pleasures can and must only be a relinquishment of our freedom. But actually, the choice not to do some thing we could do – the choice to refrain from doing a thing without actually being forced not to – is also an expression of freedom and choice. It may even be more free a choice than grappling with what we are allowed or forbidden from doing and the reactive attempt – the opposite of taking initiative – to get around restrictions or evade authorities.

Because the present situation is going to continue, at least intermittently, for many months to come, we had better not think of what is happening as a state of emergency and exception, but as the process laying the foundations for a new normality. The process of coming out of lockdown and isolation will be long and gradual. The norms being established in the coming year and a half will form the basis for the norms children born into the post-coronavirus era will grow up on.

The struggle over personal liberty and freedom of movement, over the balance of powers in society and in the whole world after the pandemic, is only at its start. The more citizens, workers, civil society, and political organizations manage to take the initiative, the better will we be able to shape the new era for the benefit of all. If we leave the initiative to the holders of capital and power – they will continue to shape our world for their narrow interests long after humanity comes out of lockdown.