In Light of the Global Pandemic, Focus Attention on the Needs of the People

The evisceration of public institutions has left society vulnerable.

Why was it that countries with more robust states and with a tradition of public action have been able to more effectively curtail the virus?

From: Tricontinental Institute, May 5, 2020. ╱ About the author
Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research is an international, movement-driven institution focused on stimulating intellectual debate that serves people’s aspirations, directed by Indian historian and journalist Vijay Prashad.
Editor’s note: The text below is part 2 & 3 of a longer dossier from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Researchan international, movement-driven institution focused on stimulating intellectual debate that serves people’s aspirations. Part 1 was published by SE before.

Those with power in the system are the first to design mechanisms to protect themselves during a crisis. Whenever there is a financial crisis, for instance, the actual cause of the meltdown is not addressed; what is hastily put on the table is an enormous financial bailout for those who provoked the crisis in the first place. As the global pandemic has unfolded, governments have once more set aside great sums of money for the interests of capital to protect themselves, as central banks – following the lead of the US Federal Reserve – cut interest rates to deliver liquidity to the stock markets so that the wealthy can ensure the health of their investments, rather than ensuring the health of the people. Resources of the public, which in this period are rarely turned over for the public good, are rapidly made available to save the private sector.

States with a socialist orientation (from national governments as in China to state governments as in Kerala) have mobilised whatever resources they have available – regardless of economic losses – to contain the pandemic. The WHO called China’s efforts ‘perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history’. Meanwhile, the bourgeois order has utterly failed to use their considerable resources and has failed to prepare a rational plan for these resources; the death rates from Italy to the United States of America have been catastrophic, a political crime against humanity.

Over the course of the past thirty years since the fall of the USSR and the weakened condition of the global left, forces of the left have been placed on the back foot. Governments eager to please the interests of the billionaire class have cut taxes and enforced austerity, privatised precious public assets, and deregulated industry and commerce. In the name of efficiency, the bourgeois state has intensified the class struggle, attacking labour unions and left organisations, attempting to fragment the reservoirs of the left. The growth of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), often backed by the foundations of the plutocracy, undermined the political left as it turned the attention of people away from the totality of their problems to single-issue campaigns; someone was interested in water delivery, someone else in education, but no entity was drawing the people into a frontal assault on the system as a whole – namely against capitalism.

A consequence of the weakening of the left in a period of full-front class struggle and the development of a media onslaught that sold commodities as dreams is that the left has been forced to engage considerable energy on short-term struggles. Relief against the regime of austerity came alongside building struggles against the increased brutality of capitalist production processes and state violence. Without the left forces playing a role alongside popular sentiment against the cuts and the violence, the brutalisation of the labour process, and the impoverishment of the workers, the impact of neoliberalism and globalisation on the dispossessed and working class would have been far worse. A weakened left, driven by reality to focus on the short-term, has nonetheless produced many programmes for a socialistic approach towards several crises; these programmes have important elements that require study. Where the left has been in government, it has experimented with new approaches to the endemic crisis of capitalism and has sought to mobilise its resources for the social good and to develop public action to transform society and to advance the class struggle.

As the global pandemic escalated beyond China’s borders, it became clear that the societies that had undermined their public institutions would suffer immeasurably from the virus. The Chinese government has used its considerable resources to test its population, to establish who the infected patients had contacted, to treat and monitor patients, to tend to the needs of the shut-down cities, and to ensure that society did not suffer unnecessarily from disruptions. From the United States to India to Brazil, however, the evisceration of public institutions – particularly public health institutions – has left society vulnerable. The privatisation of medical colleges has led graduates to the higher paying end of medicine as a way to pay off their debts, while the privatisation of hospitals has driven cuts to the surplus or surge capacity; in these hospitals, every bed and machine is treated as real estate from which to maximise rent collection. Just-in-time medicine for private gain became the formula.

THE EAST IS RED. Shanghai, China | Tings Chak / Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research | On 4 April at 10am, China held three minutes of silence to commemorate those who fought and died in the international battle against COVID-19 – it was the Qingming, the festival for ancestors. The country stopped and the sounds of sirens, car and ship horns, and the belltower playing ‘The East is Red’ filled the air.

The failure of the austerity health care system is now clearly visible. So too is the utter failure to establish institutions to take care of the vulnerable in times of an emergency, and the universal failure to nurture a culture of public action that would propel worker organisations and social groups to help sustain communities in the midst of the crisis. This failure of the state and of society in countries that have watched neoliberalism and austerity cannibalise public resources could not be justified by the wrath of the virus itself; why was it that countries with more robust states and with a tradition of public action have been able to more effectively curtail the virus?
Why was it that countries with more robust states and with a tradition of public action have been able to more effectively curtail the virus?
One of the key achievements of the very rich has been to delegitimise the idea of state institutions. In the West, the typical attitude has been to attack the government as an enemy of progress; to shrink government institutions – except the military – has been the goal. Any country with a robust government and state structure has been characterised as ‘authoritarian’. But this crisis has shaken that view. Countries with intact state institutions that have been able to handle the pandemic – such as China – cannot be easily dismissed as authoritarian; a general understanding has come that these governments and their state institutions are instead efficient. It is impossible to make the case any longer that this sclerotic and hollowed-out bourgeois state form is more efficient than a system of state institutions that are made efficient by the process of trial and error.

Quien sostiene la vida | Those who sustain life. | Madrid, Spain | Henar Diez Villahoz | The stock exchange is empty, the stock market has plummeted. Solidarity networks are being organized in neighborhoods as well as a call to defend public health, which has been collapsed by budget cuts. At the forefront of this struggle are precarised workers, who continue to go to work in sectors such as distribution, food provision, and cleaning in order to sustain life.
What we have learned not only from China, but also from Cuba, Venezuela, and the Indian state of Kerala, is that if a society is organised by people’s organisations (trade unions, women’s organisations, student unions, youth organisations, cooperatives), then they have the capacity for public action. An organised society is one that builds the ability of people to learn how to act collectively in normal times – even more so in a crisis. The socialist project is only partly developed through the institutions of the state; the other part – the most vital part – is for society to be organised and energised and to be prepared for the everyday and extraordinary work of social construction.

As the global pandemic grew in scope, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and the International Peoples’ Assembly (IPA), a platform of over two hundred organisations from almost a hundred countries, opened a discussion on the crisis and on the most dire and immediate needs for the global working class. The document that we produced includes a sixteen-point programme based on the experience of struggle and governance that has emerged from these movements, unions, and political parties. More than a debate about each separate policy and point, the programme initiates a debate about the very nature of how to understand the state and its institutions.

  1. Immediate suspension of all work, except essential medical and logistical personnel and those required to produce and distribute food and necessities, without any loss of wages. The state must assume the cost of the wages for the period of the quarantine.
  2. Health, food supply, and public safety must be maintained in an organised manner. Emergency grain stocks must be immediately released for distribution amongst the poor.
  3. Schools must all be suspended.
  4. Immediate socialization of hospitals and medical centres so that they do not worry about the profit motive as the crisis unfolds. These medical centres must be under the control of the government’s health campaign.
  5. Immediate nationalization of pharmaceutical companies, and immediate international cooperation amongst them to find a vaccine and easier testing devices. Abolishment of intellectual property in the medical field.
  6. Immediate testing of all people. Immediate mobilization of tests and support for medical personnel who are at the frontlines of this pandemic.
  7. Immediate speed-up of production for materials necessary to deal with the crisis (testing kits, masks, respirators).
  8. Immediate closure of global financial markets.
  9. Immediate gathering of the finances to prevent the bankruptcy of governments.
  10. Immediate cancellation of all non-corporate debt.
  11. Immediate end to all rent and mortgage payments, as well as an end to evictions; this includes the immediate provision of adequate housing as a basic human right. Decent housing must be a right for all citizens guaranteed by the state.
  12. Immediate absorption of all utility payments by the state – water, electricity, and internet provided as part of a human right; where these utilities are not universally accessible, we call for them to be provided with immediate effect.
  13. Immediate end to the unilateral, criminal sanctions regimes and economic blockades that impact countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela and prevent them from importing necessary medical supplies.
  14. Urgent support for the peasantry to increase the production of healthy food and supply it to the government for direct distribution.
  15. Suspend the dollar as an international currency and request that the United Nations urgently call a new international conference to propose a common international currency.
  16. Ensure a universal minimum income in every country. This makes it possible to guarantee support from the state for millions of families who are out of work, working in extremely precarious conditions or self-employed. The current capitalist system excludes millions of people from formal jobs. The State should provide employment and a dignified life for the population. The cost of the Universal Basic Income can be covered by defence budgets, in particular the expense of arms and ammunition.

These sixteen points are a charter for discussion and debate to begin to focus attention towards struggles and policies for a post-capitalist future.

Madres de la Plaza, el pueblo aún las abraza | Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the people still embrace you. | Buenos Aires, Argentina | Daniela Ruggeri / Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research | The Plaza de Mayo is empty on this 24 March, the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice. For the first time in the history of this march, we could not take to the streets in support of our comrades who were disappeared during the dictatorship that began in 1976. On social media and on our balconies, we hung white handkerchiefs for our Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

Universal Basic Income

Over the course of the past half century, it has become clear that the entire system of employment has broken down. In a modern capitalist society, some percentage of unemployment is seen as acceptable (it was even codified into theory as the ‘natural rate of unemployment’); the state provides various forms of social assistance to compensate for the lack of wages. Now, as a consequence of the globalisation of labour and the technology-induced increase in productivity, billions of workers are either unemployed, underemployed, or in situations of great precariousness (such as short-term contract workers and day labourers). There are at least 157 million migrant workers out of 258 million international migrants – according to the International Labour Organisation – who are often excluded from social security measures; their perilous state is rarely brought up for discussion. Social inequality has dramatically increased, and oceans of poverty lap at the doors of the majority of the world’s population.

A percentage of workers – the reserve army of labour – is unemployed even in the most buoyant phase of capitalism; but, increasingly, as capitalism faces a long-term crisis of profitability, the majority of workers experience extreme precariousness. Within the logic of capitalism, these workers are either being super-exploited, or they have become a surplus population. Their survival is at the level of desperation.

It is to tackle these problems of poverty and inequality within the social relations of capitalism that the idea of a ‘Universal Basic Income’ emerged. If capitalists will not use their financial resources to invest in jobs, then this surplus population will have to earn its living from elsewhere, such as from the state. This state-sponsored payment is known as Universal Basic Income (UBI). It is in the 16th point of the declaration above.

We should be clear about the limitations of the UBI. The UBI would free the enormous surplus population from unemployment and destitution, but it would not emancipate people from either the money form or from the power of the capitalist state. Cash disbursement means that cash would still be needed to buy essential goods and services, which could otherwise be provided on a need basis without the exchange of money (public education, as an example, or public food distribution systems). Part of the attraction of a UBI for the neoliberal bloc is that they would put cash in the hands of the surplus population, who would then be able to buy goods and services that they would otherwise not purchase. The social relations of capitalism are not threatened by the UBI, which is merely a social welfare scheme within the norms of the capitalist system. In the context of widespread hunger and desperation, such a scheme should not be scoffed at, even if it has immense limitations in scope and implementation.

Over the course of the past several decades, Marxist feminists have developed powerful theories of social reproduction – namely, the production and reproduction of labour power. Social reproduction, or the sector of care that renews human life, is an essential part of social – and economic – existence. Despite this, it is typically neglected in discussions on income support and wages.

Analyses of social reproduction seek to explain the linkages between capitalism’s circuits of accumulation and patriarchal frameworks for the renewal and reproduction of human labour power. Compensation for those who do the work of social reproduction – mainly women – is seldom available, unless the work is itself commodified (such as through maid services, food production, and delivery services). The reproduction of the working class is a vital condition for capitalist production, but the reproducers of the working class are themselves not compensated in a commodified (monetary) form. The debate about the UBI provoked a discussion about ‘wages for housework’ and about a UBI that would effectively substitute for wages. The argument for UBI or an equivalent form of compensation to cover the work of social reproduction, and to cover the livelihood of those who are disabled and unwell, is a strong and powerful one. However, as pointed out by Marxists such as Alexandra Kollontai and Angela Davis, compensation for care work will not by itself overcome the long history of disparagement of such work and the patriarchal ideology that upholds it; it will take a strong anti-patriarchal struggle to break the idea of the gendered division of labour.

The range of support for UBI is stunning, from socialists to the far right. Each has a different vision for it, and these differences are important to catalogue.

  1. Substitution versus supplement. The neoliberal wing (and the far right) would accept a UBI if it would substitute for all other social welfare programmes. They see the UBI as a substitute for the range of policies such as public health, public education, public transportation, and public food distribution. By giving cash rather than services, they would like to commodify these parts of social life, and then certainly privatise them. There is money to be made by selling goods and services to the surplus populations. This is also a mechanism to dismantle the social security net and privatise it. The socialist argument is that the UBI is not a substitute for these schemes, but a supplement to them. These social wages – such as public education and public food distribution – must be enhanced and properly managed, with the UBI as merely an addition to them for other uses, such as leisure.
  2. Means-testing versus universal disbursement. The neoliberal wing accepts UBI, but then undermines the spirit of the proposal. It makes the case that the UBI should not be universal; everyone, they say, should not be paid a basic income. Instead, there should be a means test to ensure that only the neediest get access to this payment. A means test defeats the entire purpose of a universal income, which attempts to promote social unity rather than once more fragment the population into the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’. Any means test defeats the purpose of the idea.

There is something particularly odd about providing income support to all people. Why would income support be given to the very rich? There are several arguments for a universal outlay of either income or goods:

  1. To avoid the moral problem of having to decide who is the ‘deserving poor’ or the ‘needy’. This sets up divides in society and further stigmatises those who do receive targeted welfare payments.
  2. To avoid the massive implementation problems created by having this moral judgement rest on institutional systems that are not always able to make these decisions democratically and are not always able to be efficient in the transfer of these funds or these goods, depending on whether the ‘income’ comes in cash or in kind.
  3. Would a cash payment to the rich undermine the goals of redistribution of wealth? Not at all, because the rich would pay a wealth tax to finance such a scheme and their tax burden would far outstrip the income support that they would receive.

If the UBI scheme is truly universal, then it has the potential for being a valuable demand within the capitalist system.
If the UBI scheme is not a substitute for the social wage, but a supplement to it, and if the UBI scheme is truly universal, then it has the potential for being a valuable demand within the capitalist system to alleviate the suffering of many while continuing to work towards the abolishment of the capitalist system. If it is a substitute for the social wage and if it is targeted, then it is no longer a universal basic income, but a dangerous mechanism to commodify and privatise social benefits and to exacerbate divisions within the working class.

Evict (v.): To forcefully remove people from a property with the support of the law. | Johannesburg, South Africa | Kate Janse Van Rensburg / Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party | Despite a moratorium on evictions during South Africa’s Covid-19 national lockdown, the state continues to displace people, deploying private security, the military, and the police. Since the end of Apartheid in1994, the militarised state’s response to the people’s struggle for shelter has remained intact: apartheid continues.

One of the questions raised about the UBI is how states are expected to pay for it, and, based on that, what the actual income payment would be per working-age individual. The neoliberal solution is to shut down other social programmes, incorporate that money into one corpus, and then make cash payments from there; this is unacceptable from a socialist standpoint because it privatises social goods that should be treated as a universal human right. Instead, a socialist mechanism for payments would rely upon at least four different sources:

  1. A wealth tax.
  2. The enhancement of the tax jurisdiction and dismantling of tax havens and tax shelters.
  3. An increase in taxes on socially undesirable sectors (armaments, for example).
  4. An increase in profit taxes.

To ensure that the state will be able to collect this income, which would otherwise fly off to tax havens, it will need to initiate capital controls. A UBI scheme that is not implanted as part of a suite of measures to develop economic sovereignty would merely become unaffordable and therefore seen as a failure because it would either be inadequate (if unfunded) or too much of a burden on the existing budget (if there are no new taxes).

The CoronaShock has exacerbated the problems of unemployment, precariousness, and hunger. What was being considered as a solution to the recurring crisis of unemployment under capitalism – a UBI – has now become a measure for the emergency crisis occasioned by the COVID-19 disease. Once more, neoliberals and the far right are quite happy with a one-time cash payment to both mollify anger amongst the precariously employed and the unemployed and to provide money to stimulate demand for stalled businesses; there is little appetite for a genuine UBI scheme that would put a floor under the working class.

Certainly, there is grave danger in many parts of the world of the unemployment crisis imminently becoming a crisis of greater hunger and famine. Urgent relief measures are of the essence, including cash transfers and public food distribution; in a time of emergency, all measures must be utilised to prevent avoidable suffering.
Objects and labour | Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | Ezrena Marwan / Malaysia Design Archive | A scene of a private hospital in Klang Valley, Malaysia, at the heart of Covid-19 pandemic. As a preventive measure, Malaysia is under the Movement Control Order (MCO), which saw spaces shut down and emptied out, except for frontline workers: healthcare, janitorial, and food delivery workers – among others.

This was part 2 & 3 of a larger dossier from Tricontinental Institute. Part 1 was published by SE before.

Top image: Quien sostiene la vida | Those who sustain life. | Madrid, Spain | Henar Diez Villahoz | The stock exchange is empty, the stock market has plummeted. Solidarity networks are being organized in neighborhoods as well as a call to defend public health, which has been collapsed by budget cuts. At the forefront of this struggle are precarised workers, who continue to go to work in sectors such as distribution, food provision, and cleaning in order to sustain life.


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