“Even capitalist institutions concede that “conventional capitalism is dying” in favour of “some version of communism”. The indignation, anger and despair of the masses shall and must pose a formidable challenge to the social structures as we know them.”
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. The proverb (by Anatole France) presents the dichotomy inherent in the seemingly equal state action such as the lockdown. It is but one example of how social institutions fail those at the margins. In a country that boasts of being the second largest democracy of the world, a world leader, it took just one lockdown and less than a month to expose the shallow foundations and deep fault lines of the system. While climate change and global economic crisis were to unveil the rotten structures sooner or later, the pandemic has not just accelerated the process, but also magnified its horrors for the world to see. These changes are not mere bumps in the system but in the very nature of this system that is blinded by corporate-centric policies and measures. They are features of capitalism as such. This outbreak tells us how state is capable of trampling over the masses of this country and getting away with it by finding a scapegoat from within the society to blame. Tablighi Jamaat can be mentioned here as the most suitable example here.
The Lockdown and The Masses
Someone has aptly referred to the lockdowns in Britain as a “tale of two lockdowns.” Never letting a good crisis go to waste, the corporates harped at an opportunity to make the best out of people’s misery. The rest, like the ‘responsible tax-paying citizens’ that they are, began panic buying, further reducing access to essentials. The preparations by the rest of the country were very different- within hours of the lockdown, panic struck migrant labourers took to the roads, in an attempt to reach their hometowns and villages in the hope of survival only to be met with chemical sprays and humiliation. Misery and indignation seem to be reserved for these, approximately 460 million, people of this country. The news of Ranveer Singh of Morena, Madhya Pradesh who collapsed due to a heart attack after he made a last cry for help to his wife, made the rounds on social media. Soon after the deaths of migrant labourers became the norm and were pushed under the carpet to make way for the more sensational communal news programs. Left with no means to survive, the workers were compelled to undertake the perilous journey back home. Some of them were brutally thrashed by the police while some met their nemesis under the highway vehicles. The message is clear- however harmless they may be, if hunger doesn’t kill them, they are bound to die out of police violence, state apathy and indignation. In what is being termed as the biggest exodus since partition, at least 35 migrant workers have been engulfed by poverty and state indifference.
Alarmingly, the actual potential carriers of the virus escape untouched in their “lockdown getaways”. A senior IPS official attempted to send scam accused Kapil Wadhwan, Dheeraj Wadhwan and 21 others to a hill station despite the lockdown. Similarly a private jet full of “super-rich holiday makers” tried to get to their Cannes villa in a bid to escape the lockdown in London. The rich are as unsparing in their depravity as they are powerful. All this while the police brutality against “suspected” migrants is taking lives, who are being turned away from state borders, and being lynched for asking for a test perhaps in a parallel universe. The masses are bound to be brutalized – as suspects, as potential carriers even if they ask for a test, or in the name of enforcing a lockdown while a small minority can get away on a holiday in their private jets.
The WHO director-general stated that the lockdowns brought “unintended consequences for the poorest and the most vulnerable.” Such statements undermine the class difference inherent in authoritarian measures such as the unplanned lockdown, which are meant to serve the interests of a handful at the cost of very lives of the poor who are overlooked by the policy makers. The working class – who are ordinarily made to work in despicable situations and who are now left on the highways without any succor – are natural and intended sufferers of the crisis created by the elite. Forget wages and social security, the biggest of concerns for the working class remain basic survival and not dying of police brutality or starvation.
What Lies Ahead Of This Crisis?
Like always, a crisis like the present pandemic created by ceaseless capitalist greed strikes the severest blow to those lowest in the pecking order. It is in these times that the class differences are most pronounced. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis saw the billionaires evading the consequences with massive bailouts from the people’s money. The Bear Sterns rescue by the US Federal Reserve earned Hank Paulson (Secretary of the Treasury) the title of “Bailout king”. Numerous studies indicate how the working class succumbed to the pressures of the crisis- unemployment rates in the US alone rose from 5% in April 2008 to 10% in October 2009. While it took 18 months for the unemployment to double, it took 72 months to recover back to 5%. The labour force participation fell from 66.1% in May 2008 to 62.4% in September 2015. None of this stopped Donald Trump from riding on the backs of the working class to victory, unscathed. Financial crisis aside, poverty pushes the poorest and the marginalised in the frontlines in times of health crisis such as the present one. The “socially neutral” view of mortality during the Spanish Flu was shattered by subsequent studies indicating a clear causal relationship between poverty and mortality. While the world is different from a 100 years back, “development” for the elite has consistently eluded the masses- like in 1919, even today, a large chunk of our resources is spent on the defense expenditures. The advance in infrastructure- the plane, the trains, even the buses seem inaccessible to the poor, who are still left to tread vast distances on foot.
There is considerable uncertainty about the economic after-effects of the corona outbreak. However, as first reports of mass unemployment emerge, a fair idea can be had. US reported record spike in applications for unemployment claims. It is not the worst we have seen yet. The situation is likely to be compounded by mass-lay-offs in the coming days. Conditions in India have already begun to follow suit. Jayati Ghosh stated that the 45-year unemployment low would begin to look like good news. The International Labour Organisation has predicted loss of 6.7 per cent of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020 – equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. It also stated that about 80% of the global workforce is likely to be affected by full or partial closures of workplace, lack of social protection, severe economic and health challenges. Experts predict that growth indicators could end in the negative and the fiscal deficit could skyrocket. Similar sentiment has been echoed by the Reserve Bank of India, OECD. Top-most credit rating agencies predict a substantial fall in growth, compounded by a rise in the non-performing assets. Signs of a global recession are unmissable.
It is inevitable that the governments across the world will be called into question once the normalcy resumes. Grappling with the recession, financial and social difficulties, governments would desperately look for scapegoats in minorities, dissenter and other marginalised groups. It has already begun. It is always convenient to unleash a witch hunt against select groups by casting them as the “other”. In a fear-stricken world, it would be a whole lot easier to shun the outpour of questions. While there is no denying that the religious congregations could have better handled the situation, the issue of Tablighi Jamaat has now morphed into a convenient distraction from the real issues that haunt the present government. It serves two purposes. a) it diverts attention from the damning failures of the government’s efforts to contain the virus, and b) it gives license to the state to target similar gatherings, exploiting the fears that are firmly cemented by the media and fake news. State repression and police brutality have been normalised over a period of time. Even lynching of innocents has become the norm of the day. Lynching in the name of infection could conveniently replace or compound lynching in the name of religion. Migrant workers, those associated with the Tablighi Jamaat have already been targeted in Assam and Delhi.
Protest gatherings were not infrequently ransacked by right-wing. Amid the already shrinking public space for dissenters, fear mongering could unleash a state-sponsored witch-hunt against dissenters. We have seen a glimpse of the same already – while the country grapples with the crisis, the state is busy hounding those that it sees as troublemakers. Dr Ashish Mittal and Umar Khalid were taken in custody under the unrelated provisions of the Epidemic Disease Act. Dr Mittal’s wife’s clinic was singled out and raised in an attempt to harass her for her husband’s stand against the mining mafia in the state of UP. National Security Act and Sedition have been generously slapped against many. Abhilakh Singh, a trade unionist was arrested for criticising police atrocities and booked under sedition. Meeran Haidar, a JNU research scholar and RJD youth leader was booked under similar charges and hounded during a distribution drive. The list is endless. Arrests are going on even now. It is as if the governments were waiting for a distraction and pounced on one, notwithstanding the much more alarming health crisis. Such crack-down is not limited to India, and has assumed a much more pernicious character. Dissent and public gatherings could be victims, even after the pandemic subsides.
Obsolete Structures And A Silver Lining
Notwithstanding the uncertainty, the ordeals for the masses of this country and beyond, are not so much left to imagination. Social media is swamped by the spectacles of national highways and bus stations flooded by desperate migrant workers, of barricades welcoming them, of police brutality against those on the streets. Some claim that globalisation is bound to be rewired.
In the worst time, countries that claim to be world powers have stumbled and collapsed. The fig leaf of development is blown away by a microbe; it has also taken with itself the facade of benevolence of this regime i.e. capitalism on the whole. In the middle of the lockdown, Amazon has sought applications of about 1 Lakh new employees, notwithstanding the risk to their physical and mental health. The pandemic has exposed gaping holes in the very structure of the society we live in. Increased precarity of work, rise of gig economy and the steady fall in the bargaining power of the working classes. In the middle of the outbreak, countries such as China continued to run their factories at the cost of workers’ lives. US and UK continued to insist on the need to keep the ‘economy going’. Jair Bolsonaro shamelessly wanted to sacrifice a few lives in favour of the economy. This is in sharp contrast to the approach of much more far sighted countries such as Venezuela and Cuba- that contained the outbreak in their country, maintained food security and stability, and also sent help to the rest of the world.
We’ve seen this before. Despite considerable social and financial upheaval, the 2008 crisis failed to change much for the toiling masses. However, this time the scale and magnitude of the crisis is much bigger and could lead to a much more brazen show of capitalist exploitation once the health crisis subsides. During the bubonic plague, right after the deaths-phase subsided, the feudal elites tried reviving their privileges, and the “economic logic”. This aided the rise of capitalism and overthrow of feudalism. Some believe that the present crisis may culminate in a similar result for capitalism by the dejected working-class masses. The conclusion seems plausible considering the state brutality (in more than one way) against the masses either left on the streets or jailed in their jhuggis. Even capitalist institutions concede that “conventional capitalism is dying” in favour of “some version of communism”. British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matthew Hancock appealed everyone with manufacturing capacity to divert their energy to manufacturing the health equipment rather than defense equipment- as has been sought by socialists all along. Even Donald Trump has been forced to invoke the Defense Production Act to bring General Motors under state control to produce and supply ventilators. The irrelevance of free markets is a writing on the wall.
The outcry would go beyond the economic front. As those living in bastis and jhuggis huddled together in times of crisis, the hypocrisy of the middle class “family” was in full display. Social media was awash with videos of families abandoning those suspected to have caught the deadly virus. A family in Raipur abandoned a deaf-mute person at AIIMS Raipur suspecting him to be a corona patient. A couple abandoned their 2 young children at China airport as one of them caught fever and could not travel. Spain’s Defence Minister made a soul stirring revelation- soldiers doing the rounds of houses for disinfection etc. found a number of elderly people abandoned and dead in their beds. Incidents surfaced of people denying taking their old Covid suspects parents to the hospital and even performing last rites after death. The Indian government received a whopping 92000 distress SOS calls within 11 days of the lockdown- an indicator of evils harboured within the hollow walls of the middle-class homes as a “family”. Even the patriarchal and rotten institution of family based on property relations lies exposed.
The discontent against putrid capitalist response to the crisis and repression of the working class is skyrocketing. Disenchantment of the masses of people could soon turn into an absolute loss of faith in not just the government but in the larger system that is wired to treat them even as less than commodities and turn a blind eye to their miseries. People’s reactions could well mark the transformation from “one world and the next”. “Stay home stay safe” or “We are in this together” ring hollow for women struggling with domestic violence, for the old abandoned by their own, and the poor who are out on the roads left to die. These few months have blown away the grand illusion of prosperity and growth under capitalism, while pointing at the stark, oppressive reality of our society. The indignation, anger and despair of the masses shall and must pose a formidable challenge to the social structures as we know them.
Originally published in Scientific Socialism: PRC’s Theoretical & Political Weekly Commentary on Current Issues (Issue 1 / 15-21 April ’20)