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No, We Don’t Want a “War Economy” to Deal With the Pandemic

Many pundits have likened the massive government interventions in response to COVID-19 to states' resource mobilization during the World Wars. But this “war socialism” has never been the same thing as serving human need — and today it’s being used as a means of propping up private capital.

Workers distribute food bank donations at the Barclays Center on May 15, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

By some accounts, Western leaders have beaten the Left at its own game. A Conservative British prime minister has come around to enacting half of Labour’s demonized 2019 manifesto. Trump is intervening directly in the production decisions of large US corporations. And the center-right government of the largest German state is providing free food and drink for staff in all hospitals, care homes, and similar institutions.

Once again, establishment media have reason to proclaim that “we are all socialists now,” as Newsweek magazine did after Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package passed Congress at the height of the financial crisis in early 2009. A few months before that famous Newsweek cover, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez had already mocked “comrade Bush” for being “to the left of me now” after announcing plans to invest heavily in large US banks in an attempt to stabilize them.

Then, as now, the intention behind throwing neoliberal dogma overboard is clear: capitalism has to be saved, by any means necessary. “To avert socialism, we must briefly become socialists,” a senior editor of conservative British newspaper The Times asserted in late March. But what kind of socialism is used to save capitalism from itself — and what does its “co-optation” mean for us?

“War Socialism” and Its Discontents

For some — from the editors of the Financial Times to Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez — this is a “war economy.” And this historical reference is an apt one. When they focused national resources on waging World War I, major European governments took control of key industrial plants, the labor market, food prices, and even rents — steps that stood in stark contrast to their previous laissez-faire attitude toward the decisions of private capitalists.

Even at the time, some left-wing observers regarded these instances of state planning and redistribution as heralding the imminent progress toward full socialism. Writing in 1915, the earliest proponent of this theory of “war socialism,” the Social-Democrat Paul Lensch emphasized the egalitarian core of the German state’s effort to provide food security to the whole population. It turned out, however, that what looked like the seeds of a postcapitalist transformation did not by itself produce a successful revolution in Western Europe.

The term “war socialism” soon came to be used interchangeably with the concept of an economy that seeks to safeguard military supplies and the power of the political elite while also minimizing worker unrest. Yet this is but a caricature of “socialism” — for it serves the interest of eventually restoring capitalism’s normal functioning. British prime ministers Lloyd George and Churchill, and US presidents Wilson and Roosevelt, were temporarily inspired by something resembling the popular image of socialism as public ownership, self-sufficiency, and collective responsibility.

Despite the overall aim of preserving the status quo, these makeshift socialist programs did carry some risks for the anticipated return to capitalist normality. Roosevelt’s promise of economic democracy let the genie of egalitarianism “out of the bottle to win the war, and it would be difficult to put back in,” as historian Quinn Slobodian has noted. When war-related industries were ramped down and some price controls lifted in 1945, millions of striking workers in the United States demanded a greater share of the country’s wealth.

In Europe, postwar governments were inspired by the successes of wartime state planning and nationalization in their attempts to rebuild all manner of infrastructure and social services. But with the strike wave receding and key trade union tactics outlawed in the United States — and orthodox economic planning largely treated as the end point of socioeconomic transformation in Europe — the existential threat to the post-1945 reboot of capitalism evaporated.

The Limited Socialist Imagination of the Right

There are two important lessons we can draw from today’s war socialism. First, as much as the Left has succeeded in changing the discourse on austerity, deprivation, and the welfare state in the UK, the United States, and many other parts of the world, we should be careful not to celebrate the introduction of seemingly “socialist” policies now. As in the past, these measures are being introduced with the specific purpose of maintaining, rather than overcoming, the inequalities of the status quo.

Lacking adequate policies of his own, Boris Johnson in the UK has appropriated parts of Jeremy Corbyn’s radical platform — most obviously by subsidizing the wages of those at risk of losing their jobs and by renationalizing the railways. Something similar is happening in the United States, with the Trump administration planning to pay for the COVID-19 treatment of the uninsured and considering public ownership of large US tech firms. But Merkel, Macron, Johnson, and Trump are all pursuing the same goals as other war socialists have before them: to mobilize the population for the all-encompassing task of weathering the emergency and the inevitable economic shock that is to come, and to guarantee a postcrisis return to ordinary capitalist exploitation.

Just as in previous iterations, today’s “war socialism” feeds on caricatural versions of what socialism might look like — and fails to come anywhere near them. One such caricature appears in the memes shared by Andrew Yang’s fan base: when the sun sets in Yangland, robots will do all the work for us and every adult will get $1,000 per month to spend on whatever she desires. And indeed, in the time of COVID-19 the old idea of a universal basic income (UBI) is gaining considerable traction. The center-left Spanish government is moving fast to implement existing plans for something close to a basic income, and many US citizens and green card holders have received a onetime payment of $1,200 that has been compared to Yang’s proposals.

At first glance, these measures flatten vast wealth inequalities more effectively than the wage guarantees given by several Western and Southeast Asian states. However, the Spanish and US versions of a basic income also illustrate its limits. The monthly sums mooted in Spain seem too low to live on, and contrary to initial plans it appears as if only those below a certain income threshold will be eligible. In the United States, the main shortcoming of the onetime “stimulus check” is that it is not universal after all: millions of non-US citizens without certain visas as well as “dependents” such as college students will not receive the cash payment.

Another socialist cliché that currently seems to inspire governments battling the pandemic is the mobilization of a militant working class in the service of the common good. In the UK, hundreds of thousands responded within days to a government call for volunteers to help out in the (dramatically underfunded) British health and social care system. Smaller-scale efforts to recruit both trained and untrained volunteers have been made by the French, Italian, and German governments, among others.

And yet, since untrained volunteers are not being paid, those who are relatively privileged are much more likely to volunteer than those, often in marginalized social positions, who live from paycheck to paycheck and/or have caring responsibilities. Even volunteer nurses and doctors cannot be sure they will be adequately paid under these programs. What is more, anecdotal reports are piling up that suggest the UK’s volunteer program may largely be a PR stunt, perhaps even coupled with the intent to collect data. This remains to be seen, but self-organized mutual aid groups are certainly shouldering the lion’s share of providing such help for the sick and elderly in the UK — desperately trying to make up for gross governmental negligence.

For political and economic elites, this inability to realize even overly simplistic versions of socialism is a virtue. As in the post-1945 years, the genie will have to be shoved back into the bottle eventually. It would be far too dangerous to allow the presumed egalitarianism of a universal basic income, or the collective spirit of being engaged in large-scale community activism, to succeed. But where does that leave those of us who would like to see an emancipated society, and are willing to work toward it?

Getting on the Front Foot Again

The second vital lesson we can draw from historical periods of “war socialism” is that we must not be complacent about what they offer. Do we really know what a viable socialist (or communist, or emancipated) society might look like? Of course, established politicians and business leaders are profoundly disinterested in this question. But we must not follow their lead and assume that existing progressive visions are all there is. After all, existing visions are rooted in particular times and places. They don’t provide all the answers — and to some extent, they themselves had to be invented, created out of nothing, through political struggle.

How should the Left respond to the cash payments and volunteer programs currently implemented by centrist and right-wing governments? The question that underpins UBI proposals is how to provide everybody with the basic necessities of life (and more). But especially at a time when economic production, supply chains, and consumer markets are grinding to a halt, what good is free money if you can’t buy everything you need and want anyway?

There is no shortage of alternative ideas. The Left’s program for the coming months might contain the phased introduction of certain “universal basic services”: initially health care and staple foods (obviously), but also safe housing (which has been provided to a fraction of the homeless population e.g., in the UK and in the United States) and childcare (to avoid impossible trade-offs as parents start returning to work while schools and nurseries may still be closed). These services may be seen as the “foundational economy,” access to which should not be left to our income or consumption decisions. From the months of “dual power” preceding the 1917 October Revolution to the community care programs run by the Black Panthers, plenty of historical experience can help us further flesh out such an approach.

At the core of the mobilization of volunteers that has taken place across Europe lies the question of how to make social use of people’s free time, ideally by tapping into moments of widespread enthusiasm for a common cause. Again, there are plans for that. Post-Keynesians have long argued that the state should act as an employer of last resort, paying those who are out of employment but willing to work a sustainable wage to carry out socially necessary jobs. The idea of “rotational employment” — the “equal sharing of necessary time and of free time among all members of the population” — can be traced as far back as the Paris Commune. And for cultural theorist Fredric Jameson, collective action can only last if it can channel “the excitement of the conspiracy”: namely, the conspiracy of tirelessly building a new society.

We have to ask “what kind of employment” is being promoted, and ultimately “what is employment for?” as feminist legal scholar Donatella Alessandrini insists. And here is where radicalized versions of UBI and volunteer programs intersect: What is employment for, if not for delivering exactly those foundational goods and services to which all of us should have free access?

In short, a concrete second demand for a COVID-19-era left could be to enroll all of those who are currently on furlough, or losing their jobs, in a (centrally funded, but locally organized) community work program through which free access to health care, staple foods, safe housing, and childcare are implemented.

The collective spirit of fighting a pandemic might, eventually, tip over into the spirit of building a society beyond wage labor and beyond the commodification of everything. Building socialism involves figuring out what shape it might take in light of material conditions, and Western governments’ reactions to the pandemic form part of our particular conditions. But so, too, does our own attitude toward past visions of socialism — including its much-heralded “wartime” variant.