Editorial Note: Democratic Socialists Face the COVID Crisis

The pandemic has turned everyone’s lives upside down. Over the last nine months, few people in the world have had their lives untouched by the emergence of COVID-19. At the time of this writing, at least 27 million people have been infected with the virus, and nearly one million have died. Workers around the world have lost jobs and income, and disruption to food production chains threatens hundreds of millions of people with famine. The twenty-first century has moved from one crisis the next – from the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq, to the Great Recession and the rise of reactionary nationalism, to the increasing toll of climate change on human society and the natural world. But the COVID-19 crisis is like nothing any of us have seen in our lifetimes.

The pandemic has put stress on an already-fragile global capitalist system, and exposed the social and political rot that is eating away at countries like the United States from the inside out. Here in the U.S., the Trump administration has utterly failed to exercise the bare minimum of responsibility in the face of crisis, and has refused to take action commensurate to the scale of the disaster. As we approach November’s election, the president is relentlessly playing the “law and order” card against Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and “Democrat cities” to distract attention from the death and disorder he has allowed to unfold on his watch. Desperate to stay in office, Trump is stoking conflict and legitimizing political violence to motivate his base and intimidate dissenters. A victory for Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden currently appears to be the most likely outcome, but a Trump win through the Electoral College or manipulation of a messy election result cannot be discounted. In any case, it seems likely that the outcome of the election will not be known for some time after voting closes on the night of November 3rd. 2020 is poised to pass by as turbulently as it arrived.

Even if Trump is defeated in November, this will do little on its own to address the unprecedented set of problems we face. The concatenation of public health, economic, political, environmental, and social crises we face cannot be dealt with in the absence of fundamental changes in the ways we live, work, produce, and relate to the natural world. We simply cannot afford a “return to normalcy” – the normal state of capitalist affairs is precisely what brought us to this point in the first place.

We lead the issue off with two articles that take a broad survey of the crisis and offer some potential counter-measures. Doug Henwood argues that the “crisis hit a system that had been structurally weakened because of systemic rot—the erosion of state capacity, declining health among a lot of the population, increasing financial fragility, inequality, precarity, and the rest.” He proposes a wide ranging program of income supports, eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, massive infrastructure investment, nationalizing banks, and the euthanization of socially and ecologically destructive industries. Richard Lachmann analyzes the ways in which elite actors shaped the main recovery bill, the CARES Act, to meet their interests at the expense of the common or public good. He also offers some broad principles to guide the development of a coherent and compelling socialist solution to the overlapping sets of crises we face.

In his contribution to the issue, John Reimann takes stock of the ways in which capitalist development continuously clashes with the natural world – a destructive encounter that is putting both human civilization and the planet at risk of collapse. As he makes clear, the vast disruptions caused by wild habitat loss and factory farming will only result in ever-more deadly pandemics in the future unless they’re reversed. Above all, a radical transformation in our global system of food production is needed to stave off ecological collapse and feed the world’s billions.

It’s not a coincidence that the COVID crisis has been most destructive in those countries with the most rotten and unresponsive political systems. In that sense, the pandemic is a crisis of the body politic as much as it is a public health crisis. In an extensive interview, the Chilean-American scholar Camila Vergara sets out her conception of “systemic corruption” in representative governments around the world and proposes the establishment of new organs of popular power. Jim Madison looks at the ways the U.S. constitutional system has exacerbated the crisis by insulating elites from popular accountability and control. In many ways, the crisis has vindicated Machiavelli’s dictum that “the few always act in favor of the few,” even in the midst of a global pandemic.

We close the issue out with a group of articles that address various dimensions of practical organizing in the face of crisis. Doug Garrison looks back at another crisis – the Great Depression of the 1930s – and the wave of mass strikes that swept the country in 1934 for lessons for those looking to organize workers in the midst of today’s crisis. Morgan Fecto draws on her own experience as a member of a worker co-op to assess the potential contributions co-ops can make to building a new economy out of the ashes of the old. In his contribution, Aaron Miner makes the case for “libertarian municipalism” as a strategy for building the way to a new and more sustainable social order. And Daniel Parker looks to the long tradition of mutual aid organizing in the U.S. as a means of building power while resolving pressing social needs.

This issue of Socialist Forum is dedicated to understanding the crisis we face and offering some proposals for a new departure. The contributors to this issue address various dimensions of the crisis – economic, political, ecological, etc. – and what DSA members and our allies might do to confront it. This is certainly not our last word on the pandemic and its ramifications, which we will all be grappling with for years. Nor do these contributions exhaust the full range of views that DSA members have on the current situation. We encourage readers to use these articles as a starting point for collective political discussions in their chapters, and to submit a response to any of the contributions collected here to: socialistforum[at]dsausa.org.