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The metalworker thinking method: understanding today’s big picture

The exponential transmission of this coronavirus from its original starting point means that right now governments are imposing fascist style intrusions on democratic liberties to assemble and, our instincts to socialise.

The physical isolation and handwashing mean that “we, the people” are required to break the links in the multi hydra-like chains of transmission that covid19 is passing along. When “we, the people” break the links the pandemic will subside.

The science of this makes sense. But, the consequence is that we consent to police state restrictions that we would normally struggle against, including within and across our workplaces.

So, in conditionally consenting, why should we consent to not looking at the problem in a different way, both personally and together, in solidarity?

The fundamental questions are these. Is there another science that can take us back to the very first link that connected a hitherto wild and hidden virus to humanity, and became a destructive pandemic? What forces created that first link? If we want to be scientific, would it not make sense to work out what that force was, is, and might be? And and then either remove it or bring it under control?

Some epidemiologists who think critically about the sociopolitical interactions with virus spreading have some answers to that. Should we track them down and study what they are saying? Might that be better than our nervous consent to the defeat of our democratic liberties and rights?

Or should we trust governments, like Morrison’s, or Albanese’s, to align with the powerful corporations to work it all out for us?

The ‘metalworker method’ of analysis helps us to see the logic of these questions and also to answer them.

The metalworker method

Decades ago, I spent several years working in a metal factory and, after that decades organising and running education programmes for metalworker unionists. Very quickly I learned to respect and admire the minds and skills of the fitters, boilies, sheeties and sparkies who install, maintain and repair machines so that second class machinists and process workers like me could keep working. (Especially those who worked out that it was handy to listen to us “unskilled” workers when we tried to explain what had happened in a machine breakdown.)

These workers are still spread all over Australian mining, including oil and gas, manufacturing, electricity and water supply, transport, hospitals and telecommunications. Not as many are members of their unions as there used to be. A good number are fly-in fly-out workers (FIFO). They are a multi-cultural mob, and to be truthful not all of the Anglo Australians like that.

Every day they repair, maintain and install machines; work that pumps water, picks fruit, processes milk, butchers meat, makes steel, creates hospital beds, and transports everything to the point of sale.

The machines break down

The skilled metal worker sets to work. They focus on not just what is before their eyes, and in their ears, and wafting through their nostrils, but also what caused the problem. Sometimes it takes hours, even more, to work that out. They work their way through every step they know and add new ones if and when necessary. Sometimes, as often as not, it’s quite straight forward and doesn’t take long at all.

From there, broadly speaking, one of two things happen.

The skilled metalworker has all of the tools and the spare parts to fix the thing in the normal time required for the problem. They might have a team helping them. The team talks (sometimes argues) through the process, the tools and past experience, as well as, when necessary, “What’s in the fucking manual”.

There is another possibility. The worker or team do not have the necessary tools and equipment, or a manual (in the right language), or the spare parts or all of the above.

The pressure is on – from executive management and the owner – to improvise, to find a short term fix, to get the machine working. They do that.

But they do it swearing at the lunacy of a fix that does not deal with the cause of the problem. Not the look of the problem, rather, the deeper underlying cause, that their method has discovered. The compromise fix is not what they want, despite their pride in putting something together against the odds. And proud they should be.

The consequences of the superficial method

The skilled metalworkers’ preferred problem solving approach must dominate working class thinking about the pandemic and, also, climate change.

The racist approach blames Chinese cultural practices. And, on the surface of things there appear to be real problems in Chinese wet markets. But, what created those problems? How deeply embedded in Chinese culture are they?

The superficial approach demands personal responsibility like intensified hand washing and physical distancing. We act on it voluntarily for social solidarity or, as we see now, because of undemocratic laws imposed by neoliberal and laborist governments.

As we comply, political leaders say, “Thank you! Thank you!”, mustering all of the sincerity they can in their ad man voices.

And we feel warm and fuzzy, almost seduced into not thinking about better alternatives, nor the consequences. “Wage theft is no longer a business model, its dead now because the bosses and us are all in this together”? Morrison and his government have been assaulting democratic liberties in various ways for some time, but this time they will not let the new restrictions continue after the pandemic is defeated?

The critical questions for our action now and in the future

The critical questions are actually quite simple, using the metalworkers quest for the original cause.

How did the virus jump into humans in the Wunan markets? Bats, it seems almost certain.

Well, how long have the bats carried the virus? Millennia? That doesn’t explain how the virus has not appeared before to wreak its havoc on humanity.

Recently? Well that means we must ask how the bats have recently become a carrier into city precincts.

What species have the bats been interacting with that have been carrying the virus, harmlessly, for decades and longer?

And, what is it that has brought on an interaction between bats and the rarely seen and poorly understood “wild” species?

At this point we are much closer to the root cause, the first link, the origin of the immediate problem.

Is there a manual to help us get there and how helpful is it?

The short answer is, yes, there is a manual and it is very helpful, although not absolutely.

Epidemiology has a manual. The manual includes acquired and recorded knowledge that goes with the viruses of previous generations. The late 20th and early 21st century “exotic” viruses that wreaked havoc on impoverished humanity in specific countries and regions are at the forefront of latest editions. The WHO makes sure it is translated and shared. Epidemiologists and medical researchers update it regularly.

But, perhaps arguably, the epidemiology manual suffers from the relative absence of what humans do that brings a virus, previously shielded from humanity, into interaction with it?

Is there a manual to cover that side of the story?

Yes there is. That manual describes the actual human activity and its dynamic forces that brings an exotic and destructive virus through its ecological “shield” to forge the first link in the transmission chain.

Therefore what would be pretty handy is finding and learning from that manual, keeping in mind that it would be a rare government or ruling class that is going to help us do that.

We find the epidemiologists who know what’s in that other manual and paying attention to them.

We find thinkers and activists who dig into the detail of changes in food production and water supply especially, and what drives those changes.

Of course, in impoverished nations, rather than in the metropolitan ones that gain from their oppression, we can find rich knowledge, gathered from previous experience, to deal with “low cost” human centred solutions.

Breaking the first link not the trillionth: where it takes us

We must, together, find the educating and organising power that translates the synergy of the epidemiology and critical economic and political analysis into plain language so that it belongs to a rising mass of the people.

We act not just on the appearance of things because that can be dangerous. We dig deep, and deeper again when it is necessary, to find and act on the cause of the problem. In doing so we will find the answers that feed humanity equally and rescues nature from its destruction.

We can, if necessary, “rescue nature” not from itself but from a very specific human action against it. Thus, we rescue humanity from the next virus not yet unleashed, and the one after that. And we create momentum for a twenty first century healthy metabolism between nature and humans.

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