COVID-19 mask requirements meet capitalism's demands for profit. (cc) Roman K. (https://flic.kr/p/2ja7egX)

COVID-19: Who Will We Blame for the Next Wave?

As the summer ends, who will we blame for the next COVID-19 wave in Massachusetts? E. Reed argues we should direct our anger at power and profit, not individuals.

The party boat was the last straw.

In July, my partner and I were sitting out on the cool grass of Pickering’s Wharf in Salem, watching the water over a nighttime picnic. It was a nice break from being constantly reminded of COVID.

Through the summer breeze, we caught a distant melody. Looking out, we saw a ship, a couple lines of string lights running from its midships to stern and framing its dark silhouette. It chugged across Salem harbor.

What was it? “Must be a day sailor, coming home from a day out on the water,” I suggested to her, half to comfort myself. But we decided to walk down to the dock, just to see. As the boat came in, horror set in. We saw 100 people partying, maskless, crammed on a two-deck boat, as a live band greased the steady flow of alcohol. This, apparently, was “phase three.”

Massachusetts is not Texas or Florida right now. We are not seeing thousands of new infections a day. But that could easily change. After all, we have roughly the same 7-day case average as late March, just before the April “surge.” And over the past month, cases have again creeped up.

It’s easy to blame the individuals going out and partying. I myself have felt frustrated at longtime friends who have spent time together without masks or, ridiculously enough, have even flown out of state on vacation. But in spite of our worry and rage, if Massachusetts cases resurge in the coming weeks, we should lay the bodies at the steps of bigger forces.

Authors like Jason Pramas in Dig Boston argue we have to “have conversations” with people about masking up. But this line of thinking fits a little too nicely with capital’s own concerted efforts. They are trying to shift responsibility for this pandemic from state and corporate decisions onto individuals. So long as we accept the dominant framework of “personal choice,” we will continue to let the powerful off the hook.

Profit and Conspiracism

Two main forces will drive a potential COVID-19 resurgence. One, employers and their political lackeys are pushing (and workers ourselves feel economic pressure) to get us back to work generating profit. Two, conspiracism and right-wing populism have grown like a cancer among a frenzied middle class. This reality, not abstract morality, shapes how individuals consume information and make choices.

Capitalism, COVID and “Choice”

From the moment Governor Charlie Baker’s administration drafted their plans to end the state’s coronavirus quarantine, they openly weighed “the public health risk and the economic benefit of reopening each of the closed sectors of our economy.” As capital in general has done, the state has put public health and profit on equal footing. And just as they have solved countless similar conflicts between human beings and business in the past, they are bludgeoning people’s heads with personal responsibility.

Nothing highlights this better than the education industry. At the same time colleges like Boston University are threatening individual students with suspensions for partying, they are pushing these same students back to dorms. Even as they blame individuals for risking campus health, administrators dismiss faculty and staff protests over being forced back to physical workplaces. The capitalist university needs students’ housing fees and staff’s labor, even as these profits threaten our cities with new outbreaks.

Likewise, K-12 administrators in Boston Public Schools are planning a staggered reopening based on false choice. Education will start fully remote and allow more and more parents to opt their children into hybrid learning over the next few months. But teachers will not have that option. Both remote and hybrid teachers will be forced to be “present in their individual school buildings for professional learning immediately preceding the first day of school.”

In other communities where students are starting remote, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education wants teachers to teach from their classrooms, risk of infection be damned, so administrators can better surveil and monitor “the level and amount of instruction students receive each day.”

With all this reopening comes a marketing push dressed up by public health salespeople. Even though a single meeting of 200 Biogen employees in Boston was ultimately responsible for 20,000 infections, the Center for Disease Control argues tens of thousands of schools should reopen. In the face of 56 million U.S. public school students returning to class, they suggest promoting hand-washing and mask-wearing to avoid another outbreak. News stories quote PhDs like Gwen Murphy as they shift the question of school reopenings to the “underlying medical conditions” and “individual situation for each child, each household.”

The private market competition at the heart of capitalism imposes itself as the country’s not-so-public health policy. Where we should be planning a societal-wide response, we get served individual choice.

The Pyramids of Collar and Color

Even talking about “choice” for working-class parents slurs over a simple truth: when you need to go to work, you can’t have the kids at home. Teachers fulfill a particular function in society. They care for and train the next generation of workers while the parents of those children go and create profit for their bosses. It’s what Marxists call social reproduction, and one form of production can’t be remote while the other is not.

While capital is trying to get everyone back onto job sites, white-collar office workers can often work remotely. Blue-collar workers, on the other hand, rarely have that option. They are deemed “essential” — told to either show up and risk their lives, or look for another job.

The color of your collar is often tied up with the color of your skin. In the racial pyramid of class in America, workers of color are more likely to scrape by in “frontline occupations” where the pay is often lower and there are no remote work options. Many Black workers and immigrants have been deliberately kept off COVID-relief rolls. 

Whether by working in factories, cleaning bathrooms, or riding or driving public buses, these blue-collar, frontline workers are catching COVID and returning home. For example, over 160 MBTA workers have caught COVID-19 so far. Such workers have little “choice” but to show up at work and send their kids to school. Neither they nor their kids’ teachers want to join the millions of now-unemployed.

It should be no surprise, then, that there are “staggering” infection disparities or that more diverse, more working-class places like Lynn, Brockton, and Lawrence are infection hotspots. 81 percent of Lawrence is Latinx/Hispanic, versus 12.3 percent of Massachusetts as a whole. Meanwhile, Lawrence has double the rate of the state’s COVID infections and Latinx/Hispanic people make up 20.1 percent of all Massachusetts COVID-19 cases. Median income in Lynn is some $24,000 less than in Massachusetts as a whole, and its rate of infection is more than four times that of the state’s. These communities are more likely to house the very same frontline workers stuck without options, so the virus finds fertile ground to spread.

A Frenzied Middle Class

The powerful and their demands for profit are driving us back to work, whether we like it or not. But at least capital accepts that COVID is real and masks work, right? The far right, from Donald Trump down to the Blue Lives Matter comment-warrior in your hometown Facebook group, does not.

From the first reopening protests back in April, right-wing populism has organized a COVID denialism nearly as virulent as the virus itself. Its origin goes deeper than just this pandemic, or even Trump’s election. The middle class — small business owners, certain professionals, and others — are in crisis and have been sent into a frenzy.

For decades, the wealthy and their two parties waged a one-sided class war, neoliberalism, that smashed unions, drove down wages, and scapegoated immigrants and Black people. This neoliberal order framed itself around a “deserving” mostly white citizenship anchored by small businesspeople and an “undeserving” multiracial urban working class. As the super-rich smashed and grabbed more and more wealth, those deemed “deserving” ate that divide-and-conquer narrative up.

Polarization and Vacuums

But ever since the 2008 crash, that neoliberal order has been collapsing. America’s position on the world stage has been declining. As middle- and working-class people’s prospects have evaporated and trust in this neoliberal order has eroded, the political center has given way to deeper and deeper polarization.

Though this polarization has driven a growth of the socialist left, the destruction of working-class institutions and the remnants’ attachment to the Democratic Party has meant these views have not reached nearly enough of a mass audience.

A gulf exists between the collapse of the old capitalist narrative and the birth pangs of a mass working-class alternative. Into this vacuum flows the muck of conspiracism, misinformation, and Trump-worship, attracting not only the middle class itself but atomized workers too. These, in turn, can influence and confuse wider layers of people who might not be right-wing at all — the larger, apolitical mass just trying to survive and thrive.

These dynamics explain why, just after Massachusetts’ surge, the boyfriend of a nurse told me he “doesn’t know what to believe. All this information about COVID is so confusing.” I heard him out as I asked him to step back several feet.

A Working-Class Alternative

COVID denialism, like the present growth of fascism and right-wing politics more generally, is deeply rooted in crisis-ridden American capitalism. It emerges thanks to the subjective weakness of working-class politics and the most established of its forces’ unending hosannas to the capitalist Democratic Party. Having revolutionaries join in the chorus and help elect more Democrats will not defeat either far-right denialism or capital’s back-to-work movement. Only by building up our class’s independent power can we ensure we stay safe from another COVID wave. Thankfully on that front, our fellow workers have already shown they can offer an alternative.

In spite of the twin pressures mentioned above and our relative disorganization, our class still has strong instincts to stop the virus. In a June poll, most Massachusetts residents didn’t think schools could reopen safely (though 10 percent were undecided). In July, some 63 percent of people polled nationally said controlling the virus should come ahead of restarting the economy. And one July poll shows that 76 percent of parents of color prefer to delay school reopenings to protect worker and student health.

Not only are we thinking individually; we’re thinking and moving more as a class. 7,500 members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association passed a resolution in July stating “we will refuse to return to unsafe school buildings.” While the union leadership made sure to clarify this was not strike talk (which is illegal in liberal Massachusetts), locals and rank-and-file activists have been staging protests against reopenings.

Importantly, in spite of the Andover school committee’s decision for a hybrid school year, teachers voted to ignore the decision, rally outside their buildings and teach remotely. “Members have decided they will not risk the health and safety of students, staff, or the community by walking into buildings that for decades have been underfunded, understaffed, and poorly maintained,” union president Matthew Bach told CBS Boston. More teachers should organize their co-workers and take actions like this, whether their union heads stand for 100-percent remote learning or not.

Where they’re not taking action already, teachers are angry. As one Boston Teachers’ Union (BTU) member commented on a BTU Facebook post:

“I’ve said it a bunch of times and I’ll say it again. If they are going to force us to go in I am all for a strike. We have done work to rule too many times and been shit on too many times. I’m not going to put myself in a bad situation that could possibly end with infecting my toddlers or injuring myself.”

In the words of another: “We are the only people standing between a potentially very bad decision and our children. Do we just go along like sheep so we can keep our jobs? Or do we fight back?”

We can fight back. 17,000 carpenters and painters shut down job sites across Massachusetts earlier this year to protect themselves against COVID. Workers have organized over 900 wildcat strikes and protests nationwide since March. Already, Chicago and New York City teachers have threatened strikes against in-person teaching. Chicago teachers won in less than 12 hours of their threat, while New York’s union bureaucracy is backing down and compromising the fight. Lastly, whether consciously as workers or not, working-class people have also marched in the largest protest movement in U.S. history, for Black lives.

The problem, then, is not our class’s capacity or willingness to take action. Our problem is we’re not yet united, coordinated, or clear enough on our line of march. Yes we need more strikes and struggles. But we must develop deeper and wider networks of revolutionary working-class socialists to oppose both the “experts” and the denialists. By organizing ourselves into a deliberate social and political force, we can confront power and keep all of us safe.