Pandemic capitalism and resistance

February 4, 2021
A protester confronts police at a Black Lives Matter protest in the United States. Photo: Derek Simeone CC by 2.0

Last year began with huge climate action rallies around Australia in response to the Black Summer bushfires — a climate-change-fuelled catastrophe that made international headlines.

However, by March, Australians, along with the rest of the world, were facing a new global threat — also connected to the climate crisis, agribusiness and habitat loss — COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing global inequality, and exposed the results of four decades of neoliberalism, including the privatisation of healthcare, and the undermining of the welfare state in the advanced capitalist countries.

The pandemic death toll is still rising, countries have experienced second and third waves of infection, as governments sacrifice lives to reopen their economies. The media reports on health systems overwhelmed in Italy, Britain and the United States, but less about the crisis in the Global South, where people are literally dying in the streets, and where health systems are collapsing under the weight of the pandemic.

Disaster capitalism

Thirteen years after the release of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, we are witnessing “pandemic disaster capitalism”, where governments on behalf of the ruling class are unleashing attacks on people and the environment under the cover of COVID-19.

There has been no debt relief for the Global South during the pandemic. Meanwhile, corporations have profiteered on the back of public bailouts, the exploitation of natural resources has accelerated and workers, farmers and indigenous communities are under attack. Authoritarian responses to a health crisis have become the norm in so many countries. Meanwhile, the vulnerable have been left to fend for themselves, even in the richest countries.

Working people and the vulnerable will be made to foot the bill for the COVID-19 recovery for decades to come.

In the search for a COVID-19 vaccine, Big Pharma is in the driver’s seat. The People’s Vaccine Alliance reports that 53% of all the most promising vaccines so far have been bought up by rich nations representing just 14% of the world’s population. Canada has bought up enough vaccine to inoculate each Canadian five times.

All of Moderna’s doses and 96% of Pfizer’s have been bought up by rich countries, while low to middle income countries have to rely on their quota in the WHO’s inadequate COVAX scheme.

Meanwhile, Cuba (which has low transmission) now has two vaccines in clinical trials (which attack the parts of the virus that allow it to attach to cells), but is up against the ongoing US economic blockade.

Capitalism’s rapacious destruction of our biosphere means COVID-19 will not be the last global pandemic we experience. Humanity’s ability to deal with (or prevent) future pandemics and begin to heal the damage to our biosphere and climate depends on uniting the power of people against corporate rule. We have to fight for an ecosocialist future, where people’s lives and the repair of our planet are at the centre.

Climate emergency

Climate is still the issue and five years on from the Paris Accord there are only seven years remaining of the global carbon budget to avoid 1.5°C warming. Imperialist capitalism in its decline is threatening the very existence of humanity.

In December, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for all nations to declare a “state of climate emergency”. He also said, which was not widely reported, that the Paris commitments were not sufficient to limit warming to 1.5°C and even these inadequate commitments are not being met. “Today we are 1.2°C hotter than before the Industrial Revolution. If we don’t change course, we may be headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3°C this century.”

The current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and Long-Term Strategies (LTS) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions lock in a median warming of 2.7°C by 2100, according to Climate Action Tracker (Dec 2020), based on the NDCs and LTSs already submitted.

In Europe, the target of net zero emissions by 2050 being popularised by governments of the richest nations is tantamount to surrender.

While the new Joe Biden government in the US has brought the country back into the Paris framework, nothing short of radical cuts to GHG emissions (to beyond zero), carbon dioxide drawdown, changes to land use, and a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy sources will be enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. And more and more people are becoming convinced that it is unlikely to be achieved within a “business-as-usual” market-driven, capitalist economic system. The question is, what will it take to generalise that awareness and unleash the class power necessary to force a change?

Calls are growing around the world for Green New Deals (GND). In late August, the South African Climate Justice Charter was adopted by a coalition of groups.

We need to fight for GNDs that point beyond capitalist market-based solutions and for a climate justice movement that is anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and anti-racist — addressing the plight of displaced persons and climate refugees.

A call for action has been issued by the COP26 Coalition in Glasgow, to coincide with the COP to be held there in November 2021. The Global Ecosocialist Network, to which Socialist Alliance is affiliated, is seeking to popularise a call for a global climate strike, involving not only students, but workers and beyond.

Economic shocks

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived amidst a global economic backdrop of stagnating trade and the lowest rate of economic growth since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Escalating trade tensions, the sharp slowdown in China and climate change were all cited as economic risk factors by the OECD in its November 2019 World Economic Outlook.

Three months later, when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the world was plunged into deep recession and stock markets fell sharply. Due to the impacts of COVID-19 world gross domestic product (GDP) growth plunged to -4.2% in 2020 (-11% in Britain). China was the only country in the OECD to record positive GDP growth in 2020 (at 1.8%).

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted production, supply chains, trade in services, foreign investment flows, and has impacted on commodity prices, including oil and gas. Millions of people have been thrown into economic insecurity and unemployment levels have skyrocketed.

The World Bank’s revised October estimate was that COVID-19 would push an additional 88–115 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 (that is, those living on less than A$2 a day).

The capitalist economic crisis is escalating rivalries between major economic powers and trading blocs, and increasing the threat of war. Under then-US president Donald Trump, this reached new heights.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership and his anti-China rhetoric was calculated to serve his populist anti-globalisation domestic political messaging. This intersected with attempts by the US, Australia and Britain (representing the “old” imperialist powers) to contain China’s growing economic influence.

Looking behind the rhetoric, however, the US continues to count China top of the list of its 3 biggest trading partners (importing nearly four times in value from China as it exports to it), along with Mexico and Canada. In the 10 years since 1999, China went from Britain’s 15th largest sources of imports to its 4th.

The new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal signed in November between China, 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members as well as Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea is the world’s largest free trade agreement, covering one-third of the world’s GDP and one-third of the world’s population.

Notably, the RCEP has relaxed intellectual property rules and no investor-state dispute settlement provision (widely criticised in the Trans Pacific Partnership). However, in general, capitalist free trade deals favour the larger economies and will do little to address people’s needs, protect the environment, workers rights and alleviate poverty.

Under Trump, US imperialism continued its bloody path: In the Middle East (threatening Iran, its ongoing support for Israel’s war on Palestine, its support for the six-year-long war on Yemen and its abandonment of the Kurds, opening the way to Turkey’s full scale invasion of northern Syria); in Latin America (backing coups and attempted coups in Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela and its close ties to Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government in Brazil, escalating the economic blockades against Cuba and Venezuela; in Asia (threatening North Korea); and in Africa (its recognition of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and operations involving US commandos in Niger, Somalia, Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Tunisia under the pretext of rooting out Islamic extremism). The US also maintains a military presence in 53 of the 54 countries in Africa through its US Africa Command.

Polarisation and resistance

Trump’s presidency has been a dominant factor in shaping recent world politics, with its America First, racial capitalism and white supremacist ideology. As the events in Washington on January 6 (and prior) illustrate, Trump and his cabal intend to continue to build a movement, for a potential tilt at the presidency in four years time.

The insurrection inside the US Capitol was incited by Trump, clearly aided by sections of the Washington police and given moral support by Republican Party figures inside Congress.

Now that Biden is in office, what can we expect from this administration? Will the US continue with its extradition request for Julian Assange? What about Biden’s attitude to the Kurds? We know that US domestic and foreign policy will still be dictated by the same class interests. The rest will be up to how much pressure can be exerted from the grassroots. The “Bernie Sanders effect” and the Black Lives Matter movement continue, but can this resistance be broadened out, mobilised and united as a powerful class force?

In late 2019, in the shadow of Brexit, the British Labour Party failed to electorally defeat Boris Johnson’s conservatives (the Tories even made gains in Labour heartlands). The white-anting by Labour’s establishment, which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership culminated in his suspension last year on trumped-up charges of anti-Semitism, following a witch hunt that swept up other left figures and is still continuing against socialists in the party.

Corbyn and key Labour figure John McDonnell are still articulating a “stay and fight” position, so there are no immediate prospects for a split in Labour. The Brexit deal is now in place, and COVID-19 is raging across Britain and overwhelming its weakened National Health Service.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the rise of authoritarian regimes as a brutal expression of neoliberalism’s death throws.

But we have also seen rebellions break out in Nigeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Bolivia, Indonesia, Thailand and West Papua in the past couple of years — sparked by the impacts of decades-long International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs, and against military rule.

These revolts have, in many cases, broadened out into general movements against neoliberalism, and have even toppled regimes. But there has also been serious repression (in Iraq, Pakistan, Chile and elsewhere) and even violent counter-revolution, such as in Bolivia. Seizing political power still remains the central challenge to enable qualitative advances.

We have also been inspired by the ongoing resistance in Rojava to the invasion by the Turkish state, assisted by Islamic fundamentalist militia. Also inspiring is their determination to continue to build a revolutionary ecological, feminist, pluralist and democratic alternative for the past eight and a half years.

Asia-Pacific region

The Thai pro-democracy struggle continues, with bold action by a new youth movement supported by the people .

The courageous Hong Kong protests against Beijing’s authoritarianism continue, but could still be crushed

A new government has been elected in Bougainville and there are now prospects for independence, for greater sovereignty over Bougainville’s resources and for demanding reparations for the damage caused by mining company Rio Tinto and others.

The 2019 uprising in West Papua has elevated the struggle for self-determination to a new level within and outside Indonesia. In response, there have been escalating military incursions and killings of civilians by Indonesian security forces. There are differences within the West Papuan resistance forces, but also calls for unity from within the movement to maximise the push for a referendum and against the extension of Special Autonomy by Jakarta.

In Indonesia, students are coming to the forefront of struggle again, alongside sections of the trade union movement. They held mass protests in 2020 against the government’s new labour laws.

In India, the inspiring farmers’ sit-in protests are continuing against Narendra Modi’s deregulation and privatisation of the agricultural sector and to protect the minimum support price for grains.

 In November, India experienced the largest general strike in history — 250 million people, led by farmers, workers and students, which drew huge support from within India and internationally. There have now been eight rounds of talks with the government, but the farmers remain strong. A further mass mobilisation was held on January 26. Could this struggle be a decisive flash point against the Modi government?

Australia continues to play the role of US deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific. It is also intent on protecting Australian capitalist interests in the region and countering China’s influence. It does this through a strategy combining paternalism dressed up as regional “friendship”, but also resorting to military and security intervention at times (such as sending Australian Federal Police to the Solomon Islands, its military involvement in Bougainville, and training of Indonesian soldiers and death squads).

Australia also participates in the “Five Eyes” intelligence agreement with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand and upholds the Australia-US military alliance.

To be a socialist is to be an internationalist. Firstly, because for the working class, there are no borders — “Workers of the world unite!” is not just an empty slogan. Secondly, solidarity means providing practical and political support to struggles elsewhere and drawing inspiration from them. Thirdly, internationalism extends to forging strong links with a range of migrant and refugee communities, and defending the rights of refugees and migrant workers.

[This article is based on a talk to the Socialist Alliance 2021 national conference. Susan Price is a member of the Socialist Alliance National Executive.]

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