March 23, 2020

The Left Must Be Prepared to Fight Back

by Jen Roesch

I believe that there is an ideological war going on right now and that the left needs to be prepared to do battle. In the very first days of this crisis, we saw moratoriums on evictions, expedited unemployment benefits, CA housing the homeless in hotels and prisoners being released in OH. All of these measures showed that the market, profits and our repressive apparatus are not untouchable. This crisis has opened up questions of profit vs human need in fundamental ways.

But now that many of us are all in isolation and the economic consequences are being felt - with unemployment predicted to reach 30% - there is an ideological backlash underway. Trump has said that the price may not be worth it. But he is not the only one. Increasingly, the mainstream media outlets are questioning the measures taken, arguing for more "surgical" approaches, saying that the economy cannot withstand this. This has been combined with confusing information on what it will take to fight the pandemic, if what we are doing will "work" and how long it will continue. And we cannot fool ourselves that these appeals will not resonate with people who are suffering and economically terrified right now. This is why a left-wing alternative, with a strong and unified message, is so crucial right now. We need to press it on all fronts. Here are my thoughts on what I think that needs to include:

1) The "economy" and fighting the pandemic are only counterposed if we accept the maintenance of profits, individual wealth and privatized production as inevitable. We have the resources right now to continue to feed and shelter people and meet their basic necessities. This could be met through a "shelter-in wage" for the duration of the crisis while freezing rent, mortgage and all debt payments so that wages are solely devoted to necessities. All healthcare for the duration of the crisis should be underwritten by the government. Meanwhile, manufacturing and distribution firms should be directed by the government to shift all resources to essentials and to ramping up our medical capacity: protective equipment, hospital beds, testing capacity, ventilators and housing for the mildly ill. Those who are deemed essential should be given hazard pay, enhanced safety protections and enhanced labor rights & regulations to protect themselves. Ultimately, this is an argument for a sharp curtailing of the powers of the banks and private industry and at least partial nationalization of sectors of the economy. It is the only way to meet the scale of the need. But this can be communicated through concrete demands that can make sense to millions of people in a moment like this.

2) The idea that the pandemic can be addressed "surgically" through measures targeted at "vulnerable" populations is a fantasy. It is out of touch with the reality of working class life. The elderly (which in the context of pandemic really only means over 60) is not a rich, isolated subgroup of the population. They are raising grandchildren after children have died (remember we have a middle-aged death crisis in this country); well over 10 million senior citizens are still working, many at exhausting, low wage jobs at a places like Wal-Mart; millions of senior citizens live in poverty, including 17% of Latinos and 19% of African-Americans; and massive numbers of the elderly live in multi-generational households where they are cared for by their working children. There is no way to quarantine this population separately; they are embedded in the fabric of our social and economic lives. Beyond the elderly, this disease also targets a wide range of vulnerabilities - with obesity, existing respiratory illness, high blood pressure and diabetes topping the list. It is a minority of American households that do not have a member with one of these underlying conditions. We haven't yet seen what this virus does to a population as generally unhealthy as ours.

3) Our response to this crisis has been characterized by half measures taken too late, then second guessed and then driven by the immediate crises presented by our lack of preparation. This has led to situations where we are told it is "too late" for testing to matter or where healthcare workers are told to ration protective equipment because we will run out. Too frequently, the administrators and politicians have responded by changing the public health message to match the shortages and deficiencies. This is very dangerous precedent from a public health perspective. Instead, we urgently need to get ahead of this. This requires a non-partisan federal commission of the most knowledgable experts to learn from the international experience and coordinate a federal response. This should include the power to make binding recommendations for production needs.

4) Our social institutions and collective sense of social connection have been eroded by decades of neoliberalism. People's tendency to look out for themselves is often a "rational" response to a situation in which no one guarantees your safety, collective power has declined and you have only yourself to rely on. We urgently need to rebuild a sense of social responsibility to one another - our literal lives depend on us taking actions that are difficult but necessary to protect the whole. As much as we might like, we cannot do this through moralism and exhortations. But we also cannot simply abandon the idea that we are responsible to one another. We do have agency. So we need to rebuild a social fabric from the ground up by looking out for one another, sharing information, providing resources and support. At the same time, we need to articulate demands that make people see themselves as part of a broader collective. And perhaps most difficult, we have to rebuild some sense of collective power. Examples like the Amazon workers in NYC who fought going to work, or the threatened sickout of teachers, or nurses organizing for protective equipment - we need to amplify and expand these. I saw Starbucks workers arguing that they should be considered non-essential - how do we support this? The more we can score some wins, the more we can build that collective fabric. But this will be hard and not always win. Part of our ideological battle is winning the argument for solidarity.

We need to be clear that arguments for "getting people back to work quickly" or "not letting the economy fail" are really arguments for letting millions of people die. We also need to be clear that there is no "going back" to the way things were. The question before us is whether our society is rebuilt on our terms or theirs. It is both an opportunity and a danger that we haven't seen in decades.

March 12, 2020

Now is the Time for Solidarity: DSA National Statement on COVID-2019

From the 2008 global financial collapse to the natural disasters caused by climate change that rocked Northern California, New Orleans, New York, and Puerto Rico, capitalism is causing devastating human crises. During each of these crises, it has been poor, working-class, and already marginalized people who have suffered the most — while banks, energy companies, and the real estate industry have been bailed out. 

Now with the COVID-19 outbreak and a looming economic recession, it is hospital workers, poor and unhoused people, the elderly, incarcerated people, the immunocompromised, immigrants, and other marginalized groups who will likely bear the most impact. Millions of people have inadequate health insurance or none at all, millions are living paycheck to paycheck, and millions more are not given paid time off from work. That means that workers and poor people will be vulnerable to illness while being unable to afford treatment or even testing, endangering whole communities. Many who miss work because of the outbreak will lose pay, lose their health insurance, be unable to pay utility bills, or face eviction.

All of this is worsened by the fact that our government has been slashing budgets for services such as SNAP (food stamps) while handing bailouts to oil and natural gas companies. It is clear our irrational and expensive privatized healthcare system, organized not to protect human health but to extract profit, is unable to handle a crisis such as a sudden global pandemic.
Meanwhile, Trump and the Republicans are exploiting the crisis to blame scapegoats: immigrants, Chinese people, and the European Union are demonized, encouraging racism and xenophobia. Further, Trump’s stimulus plan will decimate Social Security if passed, one of our last truly universal social programs and a line of defense for seniors who are some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

As socialists, we reject austerity, privatization, racism, and xenophobia. Instead, we — the Democratic Socialists of America — stand with the working class, poor, and marginalized of our society and demand a working-class solution to this crisis.

A pandemic like COVID-19 confirms the truth in the radical labor movement slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” We need to rapidly reorient our society away from the principles of individualism and private profit and toward the principles of justice and solidarity.

We support the measures proposed in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, including federal funding for free coronavirus testing for all and paid emergency leave.

However, Congress must go further.

First, Congress must pass Bernie Sanders’s proposed Medicare for All legislation. Without providing comprehensive healthcare, free at the point of use, to all US residents, we cannot mitigate this crisis or its vastly disproportionate impacts on poor and working-class people. It is unacceptable that almost a hundred million people in the US are uninsured or underinsured during a massive public health crisis, while health insurance CEOs take home annual salaries in the tens of millions of dollars.

Second, Congress must pass an emergency moratorium on evictions and on utility shut-offs until the crisis abates. If workers are unable to work because of quarantines, they should not be punished for being unable to pay their rent and utility bills. Ultimately goods like housing, water, electricity, internet, and more should be provided as social rights to everyone, not hoarded for the profit of a few billionaires.

Third, instead of bailing out oil and natural gas companies during this crisis as Trump has suggested, Congress should take advantage of low oil prices to begin to phase out domestic oil production while introducing aggressive Green New Deal legislation that mandates carbon neutrality by 2030 while creating millions of good, green jobs. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change — which will make natural disasters like hurricanes and global pandemics like coronavirus much more frequent and much more intense — we need to transition our economy off of fossil fuels starting immediately. With a looming economic crash that could put millions out of work, low interest rates and a oil price crash make this the perfect time for the Federal Government to begin this transformation.

In the face of a pandemic, we recognize we are only as safe as the people most impacted by our current systems. As a fourth demand, we call for a nationwide end to cash bail and a moratorium on deportations. The US is home to the largest detention system in the world. Given the torturous conditions, overcrowding, and unaccountable nature of our current carceral system, we call for individuals in prisons, jails, detention centers, and camps to be let go and that facilities are properly staffed with medical teams to ensure the well-being of those who cannot be temporarily released. We demand a moratorium on deportations to ensure that immigrant communities are kept safe and are not discouraged from seeking treatment.

We echo the demands laid out by Bernie Sanders earlier today, as he calls for state and national hotlines for residents to use for resources, information, and updates. We agree that this level of transparency must be relayed by scientists and health experts and not politicians. A vaccine, when developed, must be free, and that any medicine developed to help with the crisis must be sold at cost. The ICU and ventilator shortage must be addressed, and medical residents, retired medical staff, and other medical personnel should be mobilized, staffed with proper instruction and personal protective equipment, to ensure adequate staffing. We also agree with his call for emergency unemployment assistance at 100% of a worker’s income for ALL people, including those who work off tips, gig workers, domestic workers, and independent contractors. There must be emergency shelters erected, complete with healthcare and food, for the unhoused, domestic violence survivors, and college students.

Finally, all of this social spending should be paid for by taxing the rich. The American working class has repeatedly bailed out the same massive corporations and billionaires that cause and exacerbate crises. The Trump administration’s proposed solution, a payroll tax cut, would not provide any relief for the working class and, in fact, would exacerbate the issue by providing an incentive to continue working, even if sick, particularly for those without remote work settings or paid sick leave. The proposal would also endanger some of our most vulnerable populations by gutting funding to Social Security and Medicare. Time and again, the ruling class uses crisis to pit us against each other. This time, the rich — whose wealth is produced by workers — should foot the bill.

As a practical measure and show of solidarity for all working class people, especially the elderly, unhoused, chronically ill, and immunosuppressed who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, we recommend that all chapters immediately begin implementing social distancing measures, including:
  • Cancel, postpone, or move online any meetings scheduled for more than a small group of people;
  • Practice the CDC’s recommended preventative actions as precautionary measures, especially maintaining a distance of 6 feet or more from others;
  • Establish a chapter-wide COVID-19 policy describing symptoms members should watch for and to encourage members who are sick to stay home or attend meetings through phone or video conferencing software like Zoom;
  • Setup infrastructure for members to text-bank and phone-bank from home instead of canvassing whenever possible;
  • Create a plan to check-in on local membership and make sure everyone has the resources needed to navigate this crisis, especially elderly members and members who are immunocompromised;
  • Develop scenario plans to adapt meetings and actions based on the rate of infection in your area, see this template for sample scenarios and alternatives to traditional mass mobilizations;
  • Perform routine cleaning of surfaces such as, tables, electronics, door handles, etc. before and after all in person meetings using products such as sanitizing wipes or antibacterial spray;
  • Supply hand sanitizer at all meetings and encourage its use (see the CDC’s guide for producing hand sanitizer);
  • Place posters that encourage good coughing and sneezing etiquette and hand washing in meeting areas.
Our current system is unequal, unjust, and careening towards disaster. It is as clear now as ever that our society faces a choice: we will have socialism, or we will have barbarism. We call on chapters to use the aforementioned recommendations to practice solidarity with your local membership and keep each other safe. We also implore chapters to review this COVID-19 Resources Guide for Organizers to form demands and identify resources that can inform our organizing in this crucial moment.