Recently someone commented, “The bare supermarket shelves we’ve seen recently show that capitalism isn’t really equipped to deal with pandemics. How would socialists go about doing things differently?” We answer below.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that workers in supermarkets and supply chains are absolutely essential. They keep everyone fed and let us access essential goods.
But it’s capitalist bosses rather than workers who make the decisions about how everything runs. It’s clear, from the current shortages and price-gouging, that the bosses just aren’t capable of guaranteeing the things we need.
Capitalists manage things only to maximise profits. This leads to endless problems. Food is often adulterated – there have been scandals from horse meat passed off as beef to honey being bulked up with cheap syrups. This sort of food fraud is estimated to be a $40 billion USD a year industry.
Capitalist control pushes down our wages as well. Last year, Woolworths admitted to stealing $300 million in wages from supermarket workers over ten years. At the other end of the supply chain, farm workers are exposed to poor wages, unsafe working conditions and sexual abuse. These people are the real essential workers in the Coronavirus outbreak.
Supermarkets and suppliers have developed sophisticated ways of distributing food and goods. Demands for various goods are estimated in advance. Supply chains stock supermarkets on a daily basis. But it’s workers who, in practise, run all of this, and it’s these people who are best placed to make the decisions.
Capitalist owners are not necessary to keep us stocked and supplied. There is no reason that workers cannot run these systems without them. If workers ran the system based on catering for people’s needs, rather than profits, we would be seeing a very different response to the shortages caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
In many supermarkets, things like toilet paper, hand sanitiser, and even some food is in short supply. Signs such as “Only one item can be purchased from the ‘essential items’ shelves” are common. These rationing policies are haphazard, and decided by the bosses. Ordinary people know that these sorts of rules often don’t make sense.
For example, people like disability and aged care workers often have to do large grocery runs for those under their care. If workers democratically controlled things, rationing could be managed in a way that took account of different people’s needs and circumstances.
But an entirely different set up would mean that we wouldn’t need to ration at all. Under capitalism, there is no real overall plan to distribute goods or to ensure there’s enough. It’s all left up to individual capitalists who compete with each other. To make matters worse, stores manipulate the supply and price-gouge customers to make even more profit.
We need a system where ordinary people oversee the supply and distribution of goods. Supermarkets and their supply chains need to be taken into public hands, and placed under the democratic control of workers and consumers.
Instead of price-gouging, prices could be set that reflect the true costs of production. Without profit, we could also eliminate the underpayment and exploitation of essential workers. By having democratic control over the supply and distribution of goods we could ensure that enough goods were always available, at affordable prices.
The current crisis lays bare the limits of capitalism. Capitalists claim that the free market guarantees efficient distribution of goods and resources, but it’s obvious that this isn’t true. Even in the best of times, capitalism gives us poor working conditions and adulterated products to jack up their profits.
The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates more than ever how crucial it is that we fight for the democratic control of society by ordinary working-class people. This is how socialists would go about doing things differently.
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