COVID-19 crisis: We must not let state and local governments off the hook

Washington state capitol.


Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.

The current response of the cities and states to the corona crisis is not surprising. They are taking small initiatives to ameliorate the effects of the crisis to ward off unrest. None of them cost much and will likely have little effect though they are better than nothing. They are also preparing for or implementing cuts in non-COVID-related social programs.

The responses of the mayors and governors are rational within the logic of the system. The hiring freezes, cutbacks, and potential layoffs will result in more unemployment and suffering. These austerity measures will likely hurt workers and the poor more than the small positive measures they are taking now.

Some, including many liberals, will support local and state responses as the best we can expect. They will aim their fire at the federal government for not supporting the cities and states. This will echo the Blue/Red divide. They feel that if only Trump and the Senate did their jobs, the states and cities would have enough resources to deal with the crisis. This is shown by opinion poll after opinion poll. Governors and mayors are given high marks for handling the crisis, certainly compared to Trump.

Obviously, we should denounce the Republicans and Trump’s cruel and incompetent managing of COVID-19. The federal government has the most resources to deal with this crisis. It could cut the military, tax the rich, and tap into the surpluses the capitalists have accumulated from exploiting the majority over centuries. The U.S. economy could be organized to meet the basic needs of everyone even during the economic and social disruption. This, however, would require a massive attack on the interests of the capitalists. Neither party at the federal level will undertake the campaign needed against its backers and controllers.

However, this does not mean that we should let local and state governments off the hook. These governments are also beholden to the interests of the rich. They are run by the same parties that run the federal government. Most large cities are run by the Democratic Party. At the local and state level, governments can tax the rich and provide for the poor, even with fewer resources than the federal government has. They can resist the urge to impose austerity.

We should not accept their partial measures and budget balancing as the best that is possible—even if it is the best we can expect for now under the domination of capitalist rationality.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is an excellent example of this issue.

Cuomo screen shot
N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo.

He has become the darling of liberals and in fact most people who oppose Trump. In the comparison with Trump, he comes off well. This is easy. He is relatively competent and less obviously narcissistic. Yet, he is using the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse for cutting health care and education in New York. He is saying that without federal aid, he will have no choice.

Yet Cuomo has for years resisted taxing the rich and has imposed austerity. Left liberals from New York have hated Cuomo for his conservative Democratic politics. However, in the face of the crisis, many have given him a pass in part because he has been confronting Trump to a degree.

Cuomo is only the most obvious example. His approach to the crisis is replicated across the country by local and state officials, many of whom carried out austerity even before the pandemic. We should not let opposition to Republican cruelty, stupidity, and incompetence become an excuse for accepting Democratic neoliberalism, austerity, and profit obsession. When workers organize against state and local layoffs, when people fight against budget cuts at the local and state level, we should strongly support them and accept no politician’s excuses.

There is another reason to ramp up our opposition to the policies of state and local governments: It is the level of struggle that determines our success in winning reforms. Pressure is often more immediately effective at the local level. If we give the cities and states a pass, we lower the level of struggle. If we want cities and states to move at all toward taxing the rich to provide for the poor, we have to demand that. In the 1930s, socialists and communists targeted all levels of government. They demanded relief and jobs from the federal, state, and local governments.

We need to follow that example and target politicians at all levels, including the state and local.

The good news is that people are already doing this. In Seattle, socialist city council member Kshama Sawant is leading a campaign to Tax Amazon. It would tax the largest 2% of Seattle businesses 1.3% of their total payroll. It would provide $200 million in immediate relief to the 100,000 poorest households in Seattle. It would also provide $300 million per year to produce union-built, green, and affordable housing. It is strongly opposed by Jenny Durkan, the Democratic mayor of Seattle, and many of the Democratic members of the city council. See:

It was New York City teachers in the Movement of Rank and File Educators that forced the city to close the schools to stop the spread of the virus by organizing a sickout. Campaigns at the local and state level for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures have been successful across the U.S. Unfortunately, these are not yet full waivers of rent and mortgage payments.

Connecticut Workers’ Crisis Response has put a whole series of demands on local and state governments for paid leave, economic support, and safety measures. See:

Activists are demanding closure of immigrant detention centers and letting prisoners out to stop the spread of the virus. These have been partially successful. Governor Inslee of Washington State has released hundreds of inmates. But this has not solved prison crowding. Activists are demanding more. Led by La Resistencia, a campaign to close the Northwest Detention Center has resulted in the decline in census of immigrants in the Tacoma, Wash., facility. See:

These and many other efforts are the wave of the future. Those who want changes at the local and state level cannot rely on officials. We need to form coalitions around specific demands, including all the groups affected by the crisis. To sharpen our efforts, we need to break from the parties of capital, the Republicans and Democrats, and form a labor party committed to the needs of ordinary people and run by working people.

Those who have accepted the role of managing the capitalist system and its governments are responsible for its failures. As agents of the economic system, they carry out its mandates whether they wish to or not. Therefore, it is fair to call them to account. To let local and state officials off the hook is to accept the limits of the system.

We only expand what is possible under this sick system by pushing those limits as far as we can. We can only finally win the society that we deserve by overthrowing the profit-oriented economic system. On our road to that goal, we need to challenge capitalism and its agents to the maximum degree we can.





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