“We either save avoidable lives & destroy society OR accept avoidable deaths & save society. The moral dilemma of our time,” tweeted Alexander Downer, blue blood and former foreign minister in the John Howard Coalition government.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison and others in his cabinet are not being as blunt, there is evidence that the capitalist class and its political lackeys are preparing Australia for a possible return to the callous “herd immunity” path previously championed by Britain’s Boris Johnson Tory government.
This is despite the warnings by medical experts, such as Professor Raina MacIntyre and Associate Professor David Heslop from the University of NSW among others, that the cost of allowing the virus to spread in the hope of reaching herd immunity before a vaccine is developed would come at a terrible cost in lives, and may not even work.
The fall in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past few days has been received by most people with cautious relief. The official advice of federal and state governments remains to maintain social distancing and to stay at home.
But the capitalist class is looking at things very differently. It is growing impatient for capitalist exploitation to return to “normal” and they are preparing us to accept the cost in lives.
The far-right Institute of Public Affairs caused a storm with its call to drop social distancing rules and get Australia back to work immediately. But now that call, slightly tempered, is getting more mainstream support.
John Kehoe, a senior writer at the Australian Financial Review (AFR) has urged Morrison to contemplate resurrecting the “red immunity” policy that Johnson was forced to abandon in the face of the imminent overwhelming of Britain’s health system. Having bought time with social distancing measures, he argues it may be time to give this another go in Australia.
In an April 10 article titled “Lives matter but at what cost?”, Kehoe argued it was legitimate to ask if policymakers should “prioritise people of all ages equally”.
“The coronavirus overwhelmingly kills older people. Is a person who has lived into their late 70s, 80s or 90s owed the same priority to preserve life as a person in their 20s or 30s who typically has more than 50 years still to live?”
Okay, let the significance of that sink in.
But it is not just a corporate hack in the AFR who wants us to contemplate human sacrifice “for the economy”. Leigh Sales from the ABC’s 7.30 tweeted on April 9:
“I notice on this platform there are people who think discussing economics is incompatible with discussing life/death, as in a human life shouldn’t have a dollar value. I’m sorry to tell you that that calculation is a fundamental part of many policies that govern our lives.”
Sacrifice for who?
As we watch this ugly demand slowly progress, we should remember that there is no such thing as sacrifice for “the economy”. What is being discussed is human sacrifice to capitalist exploitation and capitalist accumulation.
What “the economy” really means today is the presumed privilege of billionaire class to do whatever it takes to make itself even richer. This is what we are being prepared to sacrifice our lives for.
We could discuss how our society could best reorganise to better fight the pandemic and organise in a safe and rational way basic human needs. But that’s being slyly ruled out with calls to be “realistic”.
Any rational reorganisation of society can, at most, be partial and temporary, is the argument being shoved down our throats. Capitalist exploitation is assumed to be “normal”.
But, every day, capitalist governments around the world are being forced to push against the boundaries of this old “normal” simply to deal with the pandemic.
Just as many women who carried out what were considered “men’s jobs” in World War II refused to go back to being “normal” housewives after the war, so should we reject the calls to return to the old “normal” when the pandemic is finally brought under control.
At the other end of this pandemic — which is not going to be over for a long time — we will have seen just about everything neoliberal capitalists governments have told us was impossible proved to be otherwise.
The rational organisation of society is possible and necessary. We don’t need “the market” to tell us what to do. We can recognise the real “essential workers”, and they don’t include the likes of Gina Rinehart, Twiggy Forrest and Gerry Harvey.
Nationalism has traditionally been used to brainwash people into sacrificing their lives during wars. It was also used to justify getting women to enter factories when men were sent off to sacrifice their lives in the trenches and later to resume the role of good housewife. Now, it is being deployed by the capitalist class to get us to sacrifice “for the economy”.
Refuse to be brainwashed
But there have been times when the majority refused to be brainwashed into sacrificing their lives for the capitalist class.
One such moment is captured in the WWI anti-conscription poster published in the International Workers of the World (better known as the “Wobblies”) Australian newspaper Direct Action. It answered the capitalist government’s call for people to sacrifice their lives with this: “Capitalists, Landlords and Newspaper Proprietors, your Country needs you in the Trenches — Workers follow your Masters!”
Perhaps anticipating this rejoinder, the AFR’s Kehoe went so far as to offer his own father as part of the hard-nosed sacrifice he wants the PM to call for.
“My father is 68 and insists he’s had a good run,” Kehoe wrote, prompting a flurry of sarcastic Tweets the next day inquiring after the health of “that AFR journalist’s dad”.
If you are tempted to accept Kehoe’s rhetorical offering of his own father as a suggestion that the push to re-consider the “herd immunity” reflects a genuine desire of rich and poor alike to sacrifice lives for another gamble, think again.
It is true that COVID-19 does not discriminate: Boris Johnson is a prime example. But it is not true that the spread of the virus is non-discriminatory.
In the United States, people of colour are being disproportionately hit by COVID-19 and the most exploited sections of the working class face the greatest exposure because social distancing is harder in their workplaces and cramped living conditions.
If the Australian government decides to let COVID-19 spread for the sake of “the economy”, we can be sure that the most oppressed sectors will pay the heaviest price. First Nations communities are already bracing themselves.
As the world struggles through the pandemic, the conflicting interests of the billionaire class and the rest become clearer. At the same time, both sides of this class divide are taking steps to ensure their survival.
For most of us, the path is one of solidarity and social responsibility. But the super-rich have also had more time to appreciate the threats to their interests and they certainly have the means to try and offset it.
You can be sure the super-rich are better preparing their luxurious hideaways and safe zones, but they have one other major problem to solve.
According to Forbes magazine, the world’s billionaire class as a combined wealth of about US$8 trillion. But that wealth only means anything, and grows, if it gets hundreds of millions of people to work for them.
Capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons Karl Marx famously wrote. The stupendous wealth of the billionaire class is nothing but a big number if the rest of us are not compelled to sell them our labour.
This is why we are being told to contemplate sacrificing the lives of the old and vulnerable, and to get back to work.
[Peter Boyle is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]