Developing an Anarchist Response to the Covid Crisis

A common criticism levelled at the modern anarchist movement is its lack of relevance to the lives of the working class. As an anarchist this is a criticism I largely agree with. Although I believe that anarchism as a social theory and revolutionary strategy has much to offer our class, overall anarchist ideas have little presence amongst the majority of workers today. Many opponents of anarchism tend to write this off as a fundamental defect of anarchism, proof that anarchism is a petit-bourgeois ideology, and that throughout history the working class has inherently known to reject it.

This is of course nonsense. A brief glance at the history of the working class as a mass movement shows that anarchism has often been at the forefront and at times the largest of the revolutionary tendencies within it. While a brief glance at history can show us this, an equally brief glance at the working class today (in the Anglo-sphere at least) shows that yes we are irrelevant and largely ignored by the majority of our class outside of a few small demographics. Where anarchism is thought of, it is usually in the context of the ideology of “hippies, punks & terrorists”.

While there is a number of reasons behind the lack of anarchist relevance — chief amongst them the low ebb of struggle overall, the general sidelining of socialism in the labour movement, and the failure of anarchists to organise for extended periods of time — one of the largest is the fact that anarchists often fail to speak to major issues affecting the working class. While anarchists have always been capable of providing strong and diverse critique of current society, and putting forward our ideas of revolution and socialism, we rarely attempt to tackle issues that will speak to the daily conditions of the majority of people, or provide any answers (outside of the broadest strokes) to the questions of how we get from capitalism to libertarian socialism.

The chief example of this is the ongoing COVID crisis, and the effects this is continuing to have on the working class. While anarchists throughout the Anglo-sphere have done a remarkable effort in organising community mutual aid to support vulnerable people in their communities, there has generally been an avoidance to putting forward concrete proposals for how to navigate the crisis from an anarchist perspective (although not completely absent, as seen in MACG’s most recent edition of the Anvil). Meanwhile, much of the marxist socialist camp has focused on putting forward positions on how they believe the state should deal with the crisis (or how they would deal with it were they in power).

What has rarely been discussed is what proposals revolutionaries should be putting forward to the working class to fight for,rather than what should be done to the working class. Socialists demanding that the state “locks us down”, or conversely “opens us up”, or ignoring the question altogether, contributes little towards the growth of working class power and organisation and fundamentally fails to tackle the heart of the issue at play in the COVID crisis. The argument for socialists should not be between those that support stricter lockdowns and those that oppose them, but rather what we should encourage our class to fight for.

All socialists (but particularly anarchists) should understand that divesting greater power to the state rapidly devolves into the state using that power to ever more tightly hold the working class down, and further suppress radical organising. This is demonstrated by the state's preparedness to use covid sign-in data for surveillance purpose, the usage of lockdown laws to crack down on union actions, and the wave of oppression unleashed on lower socio-economic areas in lockdown such as Western Sydney. Yet it is easy to understand how when so many lives are at risk, revolutionaries can find themselves calling for the state to step in and take steps to protect people. Concurrently it is equally understandable to find the idea of the state growing more intrusive in daily life, or enforcing mandatory vaccines and covid passports abhorrent, particularly for those members of the working class — such as First Nations people, immigrants and many women — who know first hand how little the state cares for them, and how destructive its intrusion into their lives can be. This is why despite a large proportion of the anti-lockdown movement (particularly its leaders) coming from fascist and petit-bourgeois backgrounds, socialists should not fall into the trap of dismissing it as simply “rednecks, bogans and losers”.  However we should also reject the misleading narrative that it is an expression of pure working class consciousness. Rather we need to analyse the movement, and seek to understand the reason so many working class people are participating in it. While conspiracy theories certainly play a large part, so does the general anti-state sentiment of many people, and their desire for self-determination and autonomy.

So if anarchists oppose giving greater power to the state, while also maintaining an ethical commitment to the value of human life, what can we put forward as fighting demands to the working class? Below is a framework which may be useful when attempting to develop programmatic demands which anarchists can put forward to the movements we are a part of.

  1. do these proposals contribute to the further propagation of anarchist ideas throughout the working class;
  2. do these proposals speak to the needs of those affected;
  3. do these proposals contribute to the development of greater working class power and self management

Based off of this framework, a demand that could be put to the working class is for the formation of workplace health councils that encompass all workers in a single shop or workplace that are empowered to decide whether at any given time those workers are deemed to be 'essential' and therefore whether or not they should remain at work during lockdowns. Should they deem themselves not essential, and that they should therefore cease work, they should be guaranteed at least 75% of their wage until they deem it safe for them to return to work. Alternatively these councils could formulate plans for keeping work happening, in a manner safer for the workers — for example putting less workers on at any given time to enable greater social distancing (with the caveat that no workers should have their wage cut for any hours lost to increase safety). The same councils should also hold the decision-making power to determine whether vaccines should be considered mandatory in any given workplace. Many workers will no doubt agree that vaccines are necessary to safeguard the health of themselves and their communities — the important point is that the power to do so resides in the workers, rather than their employers.

Such a set of demands would develop greater desire for worker self-management, while ensuring that community decisions regarding health and safety reside in the community itself, rather than in the state or the employing class. No doubt these proposals are not perfect, nor encompassing enough, but they are an example of the thinking that is needed within the movement and can hopefully be a starting point for further discussion. We need to be developing ideas and proposals which can be put forward and debated, and in that debate developed further. By putting forward a set of demands that places the self-management of the workers at the forefront, the socialist movement can also begin the necessary process of forcing a wedge in the anti-lockdown movement between its petit-bourgeois leaders (who despise any modicum of workers control), and working class participants seeking greater autonomy in their lives. 

Many radicals, alongside the union bureaucracies, would disparage the suggestions of putting forward such a set of demands, deeming them unrealistic. I would counter however that the role of radicals is not to keep their proposals in the parameters of what is deemed ‘realistic’, particularly when those parameters are set by capitalism and class collaborationists. In the words of Errico Malatesta “impossibility never stopped anything from happening”. Rather than restricting ourselves to what is deemed ‘realistic’, or squabbling over what actions we believe the state should take, it’s the role of revolutionaries to encourage the working class onwards to greater and greater demands, building their strength, and seizing greater territories of self-management. Rather than ‘what is realistic’ acting as a roadblock, the biggest difficulty that currently exists is the lack of  anarchist influence throughout the working class. But influence will never develop if we restrict ourselves to being a small target, never putting forward our ideas, and instead focusing on activism in sectors which we are more easily listened to in. While it’s true that the capitalist class and the state would be highly unlikely to accede to demands such as these, putting them forward does place socialism and self-management front and centre, and creates space for other smaller but still radical demands to be won, on the way to possible larger victories. Putting forward demands believed to be more moderate and ‘acceptable’ to capital has a long track record of failure (or resulting in pyrrhic victories), and does nothing but put the working class on the back foot with little room to move once they manage to force negotiations to occur.

To make it clear, this is not an argument against anarchists or the working class placing demands to the state, or organising for more moderate demands. Demands on the state should be made in a number of areas — such as a substantial increase to welfare, a guaranteed income for all those unable to work during the crisis, an amnesty on all evictions during the crisis ect. — but we also have to remember that one of the roles of anarchists is to attempt to show the working class the state's real role in class society: the suppression of the working class. This means the focus of anarchist proposals should incorporate the expansion of self-management, rather than state power. At the same time, we must understand that while the working class is not convinced of our ideas, we should continue to struggle alongside them for more moderate demands and improved conditions. The important point is that we continue to try and convince the workers that more is needed, and greater demands are possible.

At the same time we should not forget that class struggle exists throughout society and beyond the workplace. Therefore  anarchists should continue to fight and organise on all fronts, such as in the realm of welfare reform, housing, and in opposing the increasing attacks on First Nations people, women and the LGBTQI community. Much of the current weakness of the working class stems from its vulnerability in the face of evictions, or unemployed poverty, and the great divisions of sexism, racism, and colonialism that continue to oppress many of us, and make oppressors out of others, meaning that these issues are ignored at our own peril. Greater effort is needed in incorporating these struggles into the wider class struggle.

The COVID crisis, along with the increasingly dire climate crisis, has made clear the desperate need for social revolution, yet such a social revolution can only be built over a long period of time through the active participation of the majority of the working class. This means that anarchists and socialists need to begin formulating analyses and ways forward which tackle the issues most immediately facing the majority of people. Rather than expecting people to mobilise spontaneously for moral or ethical reasons, we should recognise the greatest mobilising factor is speaking directly to people's needs. This doesn’t mean we should pander to populism and throw away our revolutionary programmes, as some so-called socialists have done in adopting increasingly right-wing positions, nor should we restrict ourselves to centrist positions that may be seen as more palatable by non-radicals. Rather we should seek to put forward genuinely socialist proposals, which lay bare the contradictions of capitalism while providing the capacity of meeting the needs of the working class and building its strength for greater wins in the future.

The complexities of the COVID crisis should not be downplayed, nor the effects it continues to have on society. I don’t want to pretend that this somewhat simplistic article provides all the answers to the crisis, or a perfect roadmap for how anarchists can navigate it. The proposals provided are mostly intended to provide a starting point for ongoing discussion, and much is left out. This includes vital strategic questions posed by the crisis, such as how the working class can organise in strict lockdown. The extent that COVID has mostly demobilised a range of ongoing movements speaks directly to this. Hopefully it does provide something worthwhile to the ongoing discussions in our movement. 

Anarchists have always been good at critiquing our current society and providing the vision of what we want to build. Now our task, if we ever want to return to relevance, is to develop a method to get from here to there, and this means developing programmatic demands to put forward to the working class, connecting struggles across society together in a web of solidarity and winning ever greater capacity for self-management.

Anarchist Communists Meanjin organise on the occupied lands of the Jagera, Yugara, Yugarapul, and Turrbal Nations. We pay our respects to elders past and present. Sovereignty was never ceded.