Is There No Alternative?


  • May 22, 2020
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The slogan “there is no alternative” or TINA, is not a development of the COVID-19 virus. The slogan has been invoked by the ruling classes during this crisis to forefront their interests as the only alternative available to the world at large. And this is not the first time that it has been pressed into service of the ruling classes, writes Ujwal Punyark.

 

 

“Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers.”

– Friedrich Engels[1]

 

Introduction

 

It has now been more than a month and a half since India was locked down. Across the country, restrictions on mobility and suspension of work to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus has distressed countless people. Today, most families live on strained means, goods and services are in short supply, unemployment is rampant and industries lie in ruin. People bear these restrictions and deprivations in the hope that the lockdown will soon be lifted and they can return to work. But for 12.2 crore people[2], largely wage labourers alongside small traders and owners of small businesses, most of whom have lost jobs, savings and their enterprises, there is no such hope left[3].

 

While the country’s entire population has been indiscriminately locked down, all by no means are in the same boat. The big bourgeoisie[4], landlords, the upper sections of the petit bourgeoisie and the rich peasantry, in essence the bulk of the affluent classes, bolstered by their substantial wealth and savings have ensconced themselves in their spacious homes, stocked with food and other supplies and only suffering a few minor deprivations. In fact, consumption patterns show a steady shift from purchase of staples to packaged goods[5]. This section of society, a small fraction of the population, are handling the lockdown with relative ease. Some among them, particularly those employed in the IT and technology industry, work from home and continue to earn an income. For these privileged few, the lockdown restrictions have in fact curbed consumption on luxury goods and are likely to result in further savings. But for the vast majority of the people, workers and peasants, the lockdown has been disastrous to the extent that the threat of starvation supersedes that of infection. Lack of government relief and inadequacy of private relief coupled with a loss of income has pushed countless people into abject poverty. Nonetheless, the popular opinion deems the lockdown as absolutely necessary to curbing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, that “there is no alternative”.

 

Was there no alternative to a lockdown?

 

Could the spread of the COVID-19 virus be contained without resorting to the world’s largest and most severe lockdown?[6] A glance at the measures taken by countries across the world points to the affirmative. Opting for rigorous testing, contact tracing and isolating infected persons to curb the spread of COVID-19, South Korea has tackled the pandemic with minimal impact on the vast majority of its people[7]. Despite being one of the worst affected countries during the initial stages of the outbreak, these measures have proven to be remarkably successful. Sweden has avoided draconian restrictions and urged social distancing while strengthening their health care system, albeit with less success. Even among the countries that chose to lockdown, gradations emerge with many imposing location-specific or activity-specific partial lockdowns. China, considered the ground zero of the epidemic, locked down only some parts of the country, notably those most affected. This allowed for rapid mobilisation of resources from unaffected to affected areas which successfully stemmed the COVID tide allowing for China to restart its economy before most others and even lift the lockdown in Wuhan. While Italy, France, Spain and UK among other European countries have imposed complete lockdowns, imperialist countries have comparatively robust social security, public health care systems and relatively affluent populations even among the working class. For India, the sudden announcement of lockdown, the lack of preparedness and practically non-existent social security has left the most vulnerable people in the lurch. Without income or aid, migrant workers living in towns and cities have been forced to trudge back home to the countryside on foot, over railway tracks and along highways. Besides the horrors of travelling distances over a thousand kilometers without food, water or shelter often with families including children in tow, the reverse migration due to inadequate measures in cities have aided in spreading the COVID-19 virus to the largely unaffected countryside[8]. Furthermore, during the lockdown the state administration has been ill-prepared, indifferent to the suffering of the vast majority of people and unable to meet demands for contact tracing, quarantine facilities, rigorous and wide testing and medical and personal protective equipment. If this is the Indian reality, it is imperative for us to ask why the lockdown method was deployed despite its blatant unsuitability. While parroting the alarm of imperialist countries and centralising control under the Disaster Management Act of 2005, a one-size-fits-all model has been imposed.

 

Why does COVID-19 demand such drastic measures?

 

Communicable diseases ravaging the population are not new to India. Of the one crore people affected by tuberculosis (TB) globally, India accounted for the largest share at 27% in 2018[9]. Of these 27 lakh people, over 7 lakh were not diagnosed. India also accounts for the largest share of drug resistant variants of TB affecting 1.3 lakh people. Compared to 2017, the number of TB cases in India had marginally reduced by 50,000 while the death toll increased by 30,000 to stand at 4.4 lakh people in 2018.

 

Why then, doesn’t TB, often termed as India’s silent epidemic[10] which killed over 1.6 times more people in India in 2018 than the COVID-19 virus has killed across the globe till today, warrant the same hue and cry? Unlike the COVID-19 virus, the cure and treatment for TB is even known. The deafening silence on TB is attributable to a single factor: the class character of the infected. The average TB patient is poor, malnourished and often residing in polluted and congested spaces. In India, the incidence of self-reported TB cases increases 5.5 times between the highest and lowest wealth quintiles[11], while globally, 95% of TB cases are from low and middle-income countries[12]. The strong links between poverty and TB has led researchers to state that programmes combating poverty would be just as effective in treating TB as medicines and vaccines. In India, widespread poverty is accentuated by unaffordability of treatment, a consequence of an increasingly privatised health care system. Furthermore, private care leads to improper treatment with studies estimating only 35% of privately treated TB cases being properly handled. This deadly mix of poverty and privatisation makes India the TB hotspot of the world. When generically classified diseases — the generic classification itself being a form of aetiological class discrimination[13] like diarrheal infections[14] and lower respiratory infections[15] are brought into the mix, alongside non-communicable ones like Ischemic Heart Disease[16], Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease[17] and Intracerebral Hemorrhage[18], which killed over 11,000 people daily in 2017, the COVID-19 death toll pales in comparison and forces us to question the gravity of response[19]. In fact, studies have emerged stating that the overwhelming focus on COVID-19 is expected to increase deaths caused by HIV, malaria and TB in low and middle-income countries[20].

 

Unlike the above-mentioned ailments, the spread of COVID-19 is socio-economically non-discriminatory and capable of affecting the rich and the poor. In fact, the virus was brought to the Indian shores by persons returning from Europe and the Far-East, neither being regions of off-shore migration for the Indian working masses. The vector, at least from the Indian perspective, comes from among the affluent and globally mobile who also constituted the largest section of the infected during the initial stages of the pandemic. The class nature of the infected has shaped the response in India. Internationally, too, this reasoning bears out as besides China, it is imperialist countries, notably the European countries that are bearing the brunt of the spread of COVID-19. In these countries too, the upper echelons of society brought the virus to their shore, constituted the largest section of the infected at the initial stages and determined the response to COVID-19. It is, therefore, the very real and imminent threat faced by the imperialist countries and the elite of various countries that have shaped the international and India’s response to the COVID-19 virus.

 

How did the Lockdown come about?

 

The response of the Indian State to the pandemic has been a disastrous mix of initial under-reaction compensated by dramatic over-reaction. In late January 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern as cases were reported in countries neighbouring China. This prompted no reaction from the Indian State. Even as the virus commenced its westward march with cases emerging in Europe and the US, the Indian State remained nonchalant. Alongside jingoistic celebrations arranged for the visit of the United States President Trump in February, the Indian State was occupied with crackdowns on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR). In the days that followed, besides some half-hearted attempts to screen at international airports and self-quarantine — measures whose laxity, ease of circumvention and blatant violation saw wide coverage in the press — little was done to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic on 11 March 2020, the Indian State remained notably unfazed with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare declaring just two days later that the country was not in the midst of a national health emergency[21]. Despite these assurances, urban affluent sections began to exhibit concern, rapidly purchasing masks and hand sanitizers. Private social distancing measures and work from home orders were also sporadically introduced among the professional elite.

 

The Kanika Kapoor incident marked the turning point. A singer with familial ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Kanika Kapoor skirted airport scrutiny with ease on 9 March 2020 on her return from London and proceeded to attend and host numerous social gatherings which were graced by important and vocal sections of the ruling elite including high functionaries of state, members of the BJP, heads of various business houses and members of the film fraternity[22]. When she was hospitalised on 19 March 2020 with symptoms of a COVID-19 infection, the real and imminent threat at long last dawned on the Indian State[23]. On the very same day, the Prime Minister announced a one-day Janata Curfew to be observed on 22 March, which was then extended to the lockdown that is currently underway.

 

Who does the Lockdown serve?

 

In towns and cities, workers, whether they are migrant or permanent residents, live in cramped, congested and unventilated dwellings which often lack sanitation facilities or running water. This negates any possibility of social distancing or preventive measures like regular hand washing. Confinement in such dwellings for long durations are bound to have disastrous physical and mental health implications. Predominantly residing in rented accommodations, workers and their families are at the mercy of the landlords who threaten eviction when they are unable to pay rent. Besides these aspects, low wages coupled with the privatisation of the most basic amenities and services renders workers unlikely to possess sufficient savings to withstand weeks or months, often even days without paid work. The paucity of their funds is exacerbated by the meagerness of relief measures undertaken by the State and non-governmental organisations. Bureaucratic bumbling like linking relief with the possession of identity documents like ration cards has only intensified difficulties in accessing the near-negligible relief. Consequently, the working masses in the towns and cities, malnourished and trapped in unhygienic and unhealthy dwellings, have been rendered only more susceptible to diseases and less likely to survive the onset of an infection, COVID-19 or otherwise. Additionally, the lockdown exposes them to dire levels of starvation and general deprivation. Over and above all this, they also face regular hostility from the police who have been given unchecked powers to harass, humiliate and assault anyone on the streets, even those procuring essential provisions. Meanwhile, there are reports of BJP members using the lockdown to loot workers by overcharging for bus and train tickets coupled with news of anyone questioning their authority being brutally beaten[24]. Putting all these factors together, it would not be a stretch to deem the lockdown as not only unsuitable to the working masses but also particularly dangerous for them, from a material perspective as well as in terms of health.

 

The working masses in the countryside have fared marginally better during the lockdown. Nonetheless, they too are beset by lack of income, food and other supplies. This is compounded by the fact that government orders in various states have prohibited the collection of the food grains left over after harvest ostensibly to ensure all produced food grain reaches the market. This not only deprives the countryside’s working masses a valuable source of nutrition but also restricts a time-honoured means by which the peasantry, especially the landless, have attempted to assert their autonomy from landlords and moneylenders. While social-distancing norms are in place in towns and cities, caste-based discrimination has found a fillip in the countryside with the rural gentry demanding forced labour for harvesting the rabi crops. Usurious control over the peasantry has increased as evidenced by reports of moneylenders mortgaging ration cards against money for travel, medicines and other expenses during the lockdown[25]. Surveys estimate that large swathes of countryside are facing acute shortages of food, with near 70% of surveyed household reducing food items in meals and 50% reducing the number of meals per day[26]. Worst off are the landless and members of marginalised castes and communities as evidenced by news reports of Dalit children forced to eat frogs[27] and grass[28] to survive, the Dalit peasantry is also facing brutal assaults at the hands of upper caste landlords for refusing to work during the lockdown[29]. One of the biggest concerns is the breakdown in health services in countryside[30]. This has reduced vital immunisations for children, curtailed access to treatments for infectious and non-communicable diseases, restricted medical interventions performed on pregnant women and caused a decline in laboratory investigations among other issues. Such developments are likely to have a long term impact on the population on the whole, effects of which are likely to unravel in the years to come. Without money, mobility and medical care, small, marginal and landless peasants will find themselves pushed further into feudal networks of dependency built by landlords and moneylenders.  Nonetheless, for working masses in towns and cities, the countryside with its pre-capitalist relations, kinship networks and “bhai-chara” still represent a measure of salvation apparent from the countless reports of migrant workers braving all odds to undertake torturous and heart wrenching journeys homeward.

 

As Krithika Srinivasan, a lecturer of Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh wrote,

 

“a ‘non-discriminatory’ virus is very quickly evolving into a disease of the poor because of the response of lockdown and social distancing. Lockdown flattens the curve, but in the process skews the curve in terms of who is affected…… So, when the lockdown is finally lifted, COVID-19 will become firmly established as a disease of the poor, like so many other infectious diseases already are. This is how a pathogen becomes political. This is how health inequalities are created.”[31]

 

And so, there is more than meets the eye when we hear the slogan “there is no alternative”. It is clear that alternatives are lacking only for the ruling classes.

 

Ideology of “there is no alternative”

 

The slogan “there is no alternative” or TINA, is not a development of the COVID-19 virus. The slogan has been invoked by the ruling classes during this crisis to forefront their interests as the only alternative available to the world at large. And this is not the first time that it has been pressed into service of the ruling classes.

 

Though historically attributed to Herbert Spencer, a leading ideologue of the racist theory of Social Darwinism[32], TINA was first popularised by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s and early 1980s[33]. As the Prime Minister of the Conservative Party led government in the UK, Margaret Thatcher employed TINA to advocate deregulation, privatisation, fiscal austerity (tax cuts, regressive modes of taxation and public expenditure cutbacks) and hardline monetarist policies[34]. Price hikes by Capital to offset the growing strength of workers and militant trade unions in the late 1960s[35], coupled with increases in commodity prices on account of the two oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 led to inflationary pressures and contributed to a crisis of profitability, notably in the UK and the US. While workers and trade unions were demonised and slandered as greedy, the underlying causes were the failure of Keynesianism to resolve the inherent contradictions of imperialism and monopoly capitalism. Despite objective conditions being favourable for revolutionary transformation, the decline in the strength of the revolutionary left and the social democratic stranglehold over the organised workers led to capital gaining the upper hand. Furthermore, the weakness of the subjective forces was exacerbated by Dengist revisionism in China, depriving proletarian forces of the support of a powerful socialist country and ally. Consequently, the crisis was used to undertake a massive reorganisation in favour of capital and restore profitability. As David Harvey rightly remarked,

 

“Crisis are essential to the reproduction of capitalism. It is in the course of crises that the instabilities of capitalism are confronted, reshaped and re-engineered to create a new version of what capitalism is about. Much gets torn down and laid waste to make way for the new”[36].

 

And so, the post-war social contract between Labour and Capital in imperialist countries was broken, trade unions were attacked and workers disciplined, Keynesian policies denounced, structural adjustments enacted in the semi and neo-colonies, restrictions on the mobility of capital lifted and the welfare state was smashed under the banner of Neoliberalism.

 

After nearly three decades of heightened exploitation and immiseration of the working class in the imperialist countries and intensified imperialist plunder of semi and neo colonial countries, facilitated by the increased penetration of finance capital, structural adjustments and the espousal of the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, a new variant of TINA emerged in the slogan “Too Big to Fail”. For this, the setting was the crowning crisis of neoliberalism in the 2008 financial crisis. Large sums of government money squeezed from the working masses over decades were funneled into big banks, private equity firms, insurance companies and other institutions of Finance Capital[37]. Though their speculative activities were directly responsible for the crisis, these institutions were bailed out based on the rationale that their collapse would doom capitalism and the capitalist world economy for whose functioning they were integral.  To recoup these funds, the working masses were made to pay through a series of austerity measures that cut social security and public amenities, goods and services to the bone while taxes on corporations and the rich were simultaneously reduced. The world has yet to recover from this catastrophe and the measures instituted in its wake[38] as evidenced in the consistent deceleration in global rates of growth of Gross Domestic Product[39], trade[40] and more importantly for Capital, in corporate profits[41]. This has only intensified capitalist exploitation of the working masses in imperialist countries and imperialist plunder of working masses in the semi and neo colonial countries through a redoubling of the very same measures implemented at the onset of neoliberalism in the 1980s. Unadmonished and consequently unrepentant, institutions of Finance Capital have continued their speculative activities leading to global debt levels surpassing that which prevailed before the 2008 financial crisis[42]. On the surface, the ruling classes continue to exclaim that “there is no alternative” to the old forms of rule. However, as warnings flash across the world prophesying a new crisis on the horizon, the ruling classes are subtly crafting a reorganisation replete with fascist tendencies evidenced in the emergence of Capital’s support to various reactionary governments in Brazil, India, Turkey and the US among other countries.

 

The lockdown in India, the ruling classes’ only alternative to fight COVID-19, has resulted in heightened immiseration of the working masses. Deprived of wages by employers and denied food and shelter by the State, workers trapped in towns and cities are attempting to return home. The crushing poverty of the countryside appears to at least offer a life with dignity, something the towns and cities refuse to accord to those that build and maintain them. Historically, the fallout of cyclical crises inherent to capitalism have always been borne by the exploited, marginalised and the oppressed. The crisis of COVID-19 is also following a similar pattern. In many ways, COVID-19 offers a unique opportunity for the ruling classes. By intensifying and drawing attention away from the economic crisis underway since the 2008 financial crisis, by disciplining the working masses across the world to a new and harsher reality, the massive reorganisation of capital necessary for the continuation of capitalism can be undertaken with less opposition and on terms more favourable to the ruling classes.

 

These aspects, the roots of the COVID-19 crisis and the reorganisation of capital will be explored in Part 2 of this essay. Alongside this, Part 2 will also explore the only alternative available to the working masses to improve their lot in the post COVID-19 world.

 

Footnote:

[1] Engels, Friedrich, The Housing Question, 1872.

[2] https://www.thehindu.com/data/data-over-12-crore-indians-lost-their-jobs-during-the-coronavirus-lockdown-in-april/article31520715.ece?homepage=true

[3] CMIE estimates monthly unemployment data for April at 23.52% https://www.thehindu.com/business/indias-unemployment-rate-rises-to-2711-amid-covid-19-crisis-cmie/article31511006.ece

[4] Ghosh, Suniti Kumar, The Indian Big Bourgeoisie: Its Genesis, Growth, and Character, Radical Impressions, Kolkata, 1985.

[5] https://indianexpress.com/article/india/lockdown-trend-buying-staple-food-to-ready-to-cook-6403868/

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/world/asia/india-coronavirus-lockdown.html

[7] https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-the-countries-that-have-not-imposed-lockdown-and-why-6389003/

[8] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nashik/spurt-in-covid-19-cases-in-rural-areas-sparks-concern/articleshow/75682878.cms

[9] https://thewire.in/health/india-tb-cases-drop

[10] https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/tuberculosis-indias-silent-epidemic/

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3501509/

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/mar/24/eradicating-poverty-dramatically-reduce-tb-cases-study-finds

[13] https://kafila.online/2020/04/05/knowability-and-unknowabiility-of-covid-19-is-there-class-in-the-coronavirus-panic-maya-john/

[14] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/diarrhoeal-disease

[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4876567/

[16] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2803292/

[17] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6409249/

[18] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5307940/

[19] https://www.livemint.com/news/india/how-covid-19-compares-against-other-killer-diseases-in-india-11588675423214.html

[20] https://www.imperial.ac.uk/mrc-global-infectious-disease-analysis/covid-19/report-19-hiv-tb-malaria/

[21] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/coronavirus-outbreak-union-health-ministry-press-conference-in-new-delhi/article31061163.ece

[22] https://www.theweek.in/news/entertainment/2020/03/29/kanika-kapoor-tests-positive-for-coronavirus-for-fourth-time.html

[23] https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/kanika-kapoor-coronavirus-diagnosis-sends-ripples-across-parliament-rashtrapati-bhavan-uttar-pradesh-cabinet/cid/1756325?ref=india-related-story-4

[24] https://boltahindustan.in/trending-stories/bjp-leader-brutally-assaulted-a-migrant-laborer-in-gujrat/

[25] https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/apr/09/bengal-village-starves-as-ration-cards-mortgaged-with-money-lenders-2127946.html?fbclid=IwAR0Pbbg14VCAvcfH28uvMAZxH4Jf2YwNRG2ROXXLCFCfStqoDCxSiJma33o

[26] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/nearly-half-of-rural-households-eating-fewer-items-less-number-of-times-to-overcome-covid-crisis-survey/articleshow/75703178.cms

[27] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/patna/bihar-lockdown-kids-eat-frog-jehanabad-dm-orders-probe/articleshow/75246689.cms

[28] https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/india/lockdown-impact-in-modi-constituency-dalit-kids-forced-to-eat-grass-reporter-faces-dms-wrath

[29] https://www.thestatesman.com/india/dalits-assaulted-bihar-refusing-harvest-standing-crops-due-lockdown-1502874530.html

[30] https://www.livemint.com/news/india/how-covid-19-response-disrupted-health-services-in-rural-india-11587713155817.html

[31] https://www.thehindu.com/society/lockdown-protects-the-well-off-but-what-about-those-who-face-hunger-homelessness-or-poor-health/article31373630.ece

[32] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/herbert-spencer-survival-of-the-fittest-180974756/

[33] Berlinski, Claire, There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, New York: Basic Books, 2008.

[34] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-22079683

[35] Glyn, Andrew and Bob Sutcliffe, British Capitalism, Workers and the Profit Squeeze, Penguin, 1972.

[36] https://roarmag.org/essays/david-harvey-seventeen-contradictions-excerpt/

[37] https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikecollins/2015/07/14/the-big-bank-bailout/#1f0a9b3a2d83

[38] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160118102649.htm

[39] https://blogs.imf.org/2019/10/15/the-world-economy-synchronized-slowdown-precarious-outlook/

[40] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/business/wto-cuts-global-trade-growth-forecasts-to-1-2-for-2019/articleshow/71393276.cms

[41] https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2019/08/19/recessions-monetary-easing-and-fiscal-stimulus/

[42] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/12/global-debt-up-50-percent-since-the-financial-crisis-sp-says.html

 

The author is a student of law in Delhi University and an activist.

 

[Disclaimer : The views and opinions expressed in this article are author’s own.]

 

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