In December 2019, doctors in Wuhan (China) began to see patients with a kind of viral pneumonia. By the end of the month, an investigation began and China’s health authorities sent out a public warning and notified the World Health Organisation (WHO). The Chinese authorities isolated a new type of coronavirus on January 7, and then on January 12 they shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus for use in developing diagnostic kits. The government, the Communist Party, and the Chinese public began a major effort to contain its spread. This mysterious pathogen was a form of coronavirus, which received the official name of SARS-CoV-2; unlike other respiratory viruses, this one is able to live both in the nose and throat – from where it is highly contagious – and in the lungs – where it is deadly for its host, and for whom it often does not present symptoms immediately. It has spread rapidly around the world, striking almost every country, causing lockdowns and quarantines, and therefore having an immense – and continued – impact on social and economic life. Even as the virus seems to have been contained in many parts of the world, the return of this strain and of the other thousands of strains of the coronavirus should be anticipated. This global pandemic, like the outbreak of cholera in 1832 and the flu in 1918, will return in cycles.
Country after country has gone into various forms and lengths of lockdowns as the virus has infected more and more people and killed thousands. As a result of the quarantines and isolation orders, economic activity has shuddered to a near halt. The International Labour Organisation released a report which suggested that 25 million jobs will be lost due to the CoronaShock, and that workers will lose about $3.4 trillion in income by the end of the year. It could get worse, as businesses and corporations are taking advantage of CoronaShock to restructure their operations to become more ‘efficient’ with less employees. A consequence of long-term unemployment and underemployment, as well as of uncertainty in the oil market, is that the global growth rate will likely splutter down to around 1%, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggests; even this is predicated upon Chinese growth which – though dented – is expected to increase as the SARS-CoV-2 seems to have been managed within the country’s borders. Stock markets from Hang Seng to Wall Street saw significant losses, their already inflated value collapsing.
Vast amounts of emergency funding were brought together by governments and by international bodies. Money was accumulated by the United Nation’s Central Emergency Response Fund ($15 million), the World Bank ($12 billion), and the International Monetary Fund ($1 trillion), and central banks opened new facilities to lend money to financial institutions and to companies. The United States Congress passed a bill for an astronomical $2.2 trillion in emergency funds, vast amounts of it to bolster corporations. It became very clear that the problem was not illiquidity in financial markets, which was one of the causes of the 2008-09 financial crisis, but a concatenation of events: the lack of certainty about the coronavirus, the rapid decline in oil prices, and the long-term problems of unemployment and underemployment. The money raised is supposed to deal with the CoronaShock, but how it will be spent is precisely the issue at hand. There is a habit in a capitalist society to throw money at banks and at large corporations. Experience shows us, however, that these entities seldom use this money to meet key goals of our predicament: to provide relief for the general public – including the provision of income and jobs – and to provide a long-term solution to social inequality. That is why Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and the International Assembly of the Peoples has produced a document, whose 16-points we reproduce in part 2 of this dossier, that responds to the CoronaShock from the standpoint of the world’s people.
CoronaShock: The Virus and the World will come in three parts. Part 1 is on the structural features that resulted in our present crisis. Part 2 is on the 16-point programme from the International Assembly of the Peoples and Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. One of the points in the programme is for a Universal Basic Income. This is a complex idea that requires discussion. In Part 3 of our dossier, we provide a brief introduction to the idea of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) and offer some critiques of the concept and some ways to sharpen the way we think about it.
The global pandemic shows us the clear destructive tendencies of capitalism in its neoliberal phase. This conjuncture, with the slowdown of economic activity and the turbulence in the stock markets, has turned neoliberal capitalist leaders and multilateral institutions into Keynesians – be they Angela Merkel (Germany) and Emmanuel Macron (France) or the World Bank and the IMF. Each of them opened windows at their central banks and in their finance ministries to pour money into the private sector (and to expand state programmes). On the other hand, it has made radical right-wing leaders – such as Donald Trump (USA), Narendra Modi (India), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), and Viktor Orbán (Hungary) – tighten their grip on their already obscene programmes, including xenophobia. For them, it has been far easier to blame China for the virus than to take responsibility for their own failures to tackle the pandemic, even after they received ample warning. These leaders of the North Atlantic states and the institutions they control created the conditions for this crisis, which has led to an unsustainable social situation for the people of the world – particularly in the Global South. They treated the crisis as though it had emerged merely from a confluence of circumstances that could be entirely explained by the pandemic; headlines announced that the ‘crisis is provoked by the coronavirus’. This virus – like other such viruses – raises the fundamental question of human encroachment into forests and the balance between human civilisation (agriculture and cities) and the wilds. As Miguel Tinker Salas and Víctor Silverman write in La Jornada, the virus is the product of nature, while the crisis is the product of neoliberalism.
However, since the 1970s (and most intensely since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991), the neoliberal globalisation project has shown increasingly striking levels of dehumanisation – including cuts in public institutions and austerity towards social policies. This dehumanisation convulsed in a cycle of crises, often motivated by the turbulence of precarious work, the unsustainable credit given to people with suppressed incomes in order to manufacture demand, and the further shift of capital from industry to finance. The crises that emerged did not come from an upsurge of popular struggles that challenged capitalism; they came, instead, from the dehumanised logic of capital in its neoliberal phase. Crises were resolved through remedies that were often worse than the disease.
The emergence of the novel coronavirus and the crisis that it has caused reveal the decay of capitalist civilisation. Perhaps the world will not be the same after the pandemic has been controlled. The eroded neoliberal state can either be supplanted by a state structure that favours the neo-fascist project, or by one that builds public institutions and public action that put the needs of the people over profit. This is a formidable choice. There is anxiety in sections of the neoliberal bloc that whatever policies of a social nature are put in place on an emergency basis during the CoronaShock might become hard to undo; it will take more than inertia to ensure that any gains made in this period remain in place when the immediate crisis is over.
The crisis engendered by the global pandemic far exceeds the issue of health. Beyond the chaos and uncertainty of the present, the question is posed about whether a new social model and political order are possible in the near future. In a discussion between the philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Byung-Chul Han, they posed an idea of the future: will what emerges resemble some kind of ‘re-founded communism’, or will it develop into a kind of police state propped up by big data?
There is no a priori answer to these questions. The current crisis is part of a series of accumulated trends that have accelerated over the previous decades and that have exploded as a result of the global pandemic. Four structural characteristics of the crisis need to be elaborated: deepened financialization, the decline of US hegemony, the displacement of labour by technology and increases in productivity, and the crisis of the neoliberal state.
What was presented as a way out of the 2008 credit crisis was not a true exit. The bailout policy for investment banks and large non-financial companies adopted by the countries of the Eurozone, as well as by the United States and the United Kingdom, generated a process of global hyper-liquidity (that is, an over-abundance of dollars). Whenever capital faces weak profitability, it always prefers speculative fictitious activity – rushing, for instance, to the stock markets; in the current period, the quantitative extent of the financial sector relative to the real economy is stunning, and this is what makes it unique.
There are at several elements that are key to the process of financialization. The process refers to the ballooning of the financial sector that has been taking place since the 1980s, with larger volumes of surplus value created by the productive sector being absorbed into the financial firms. Immense debt of various kinds is accumulated by households – notably working-class households – to finance everyday life; this debt is packaged into securities and bounces around in the giant casino of the financial world. What we observe is a qualitative shift in economic activity, so that new crises develop out of the instability of finance in the realm of circulation alongside the old crises of profitability from activities of production.
This great abundance of money did not trigger a global process of productive investments. On the contrary, most of the world’s money once more ended up adding to sovereign debt and financial assets (including through re-energized stock buys), causing the process of financialization to accelerate. New asset bubbles were inflated through such instruments as government bonds, and finance flew to capitalise companies in the new technology sectors.
Technology firms have begun to dominate the stock markets, and they have absorbed a considerable part of the world’s liquidity; this absorption was generally characterised by the centralisation of capital, especially in US firms (Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Facebook were the firms that had the highest valuations). These US technology firms have been fundamentally challenged by the growth of Chinese technology firms – such as Huawei. Huawei’s advances in such areas as 5G threaten the US firms’ domination over intellectual property rights claims, which give them the advantage of monopoly rent over these property rights. The trade war prosecuted by the United States against China can be understood directly by the threat that Chinese technology firms pose to powerful US technology firms.
Both the Global North and the Global South have experienced a rise of financialization. While finance in the North channelled capital into new hyper-profitable sectors (such as platform capitalism and technology), in the South finance took on the dynamic of indebtedness, followed by capital flight. In 2015, the US Federal Reserve adopted the policy of strengthening the US dollar by increasing the federal funds rate (the overnight rate that depository institutions charge each other for loans), which drew in money from the rest of the world to bolster the US economy. As a result of such policies, the United States recovered its leading role as the destination of capital after more than a decade of the ‘emerging markets’ drawing in global capital. In 2018, the three countries with the highest net capital inflow were the United States ($258 billion), China ($203 billion), and Germany ($105 billion). The United States attracted a large part of the world’s liquidity, largely due to the US Federal Reserve policy of higher interest rates; this drew capital from the Global South to the Global North.
The deepening power of finance over society and the economy has led to three outcomes: the political dependence of economically indebted Southern countries, the stagnation of the productive sectors of the economy in the Global North, and the chronic instability of the world system, which puts the interest of capital before the needs of people. The appearance of the coronavirus has accelerated this process. China has become central to global manufacturing; the halt of production in China, and the fall of its industrial production by 15% (as compared to performance in the previous year), make it hard to understand how liquidity to the big banks in Global North is expected to revive not only the global supply chain, but also aggregate global demand.
Giovanni Arrighi, in Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (2007), considers the increased and accelerated financialization process to be an indicator of the crisis of US hegemony. The United States has driven a hybrid war against several non-aligned states (Iran and Venezuela) in order to gain dominance over China in Eurasia, and it has used its financial power for this process, as well as to re-establish its position of eminence over its allies. But this drive marks the weakness of the unilateralism of Washington.
The health and humanitarian crisis aggravated by this global pandemic has strengthened the role of China, in particular, as a state capable of controlling the virus within its borders, and then of using its expertise and resources to help people suffering beyond its borders. On the other hand, Trump’s callous attitude towards even his own people – putting ‘care’ for the economy ahead of the humanitarian disaster – made the decline of US leadership evident as the US failed to lead any kind of response – even through the typically pliant G20. Whatever the lack of clarity about what will come in the future – whether we have entered an Asian Century or a bipolar era or a multipolar period – it is clear that that Western liberal civilisation has not even been capable of responding to the needs of the people in its own part of the world.
The concentration of capital in the technology sector should not go unnoticed. It raises at least two important debates: first, that it generates a speculative asset bubble focused on high-tech companies, and second, that it both expands the influence of global capitalism throughout the world and allows for the control of data that is in turn used to manage people. The exponential growth of ‘platform capitalism’ – or economic activity that is rooted in Internet-based platforms – and of the collection and analysis of big data produces new logics of consumerism; this is a key part of what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This platform capitalism shapes and channels consumer needs, produces new forms of subjectivity, and even intervenes in creating political identities. The overall creation of individualisation through the atomisation of social activity creates new ways of being in the world.
The global pandemic, and the lockdown that it has occasioned in large parts of the world, have been propitious for the development of platform capitalism. Remote work using the Internet provides a way to continue working during the quarantine. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Zoom have made it possible to work from home, and they have suggested that this is beneficial for the world’s workers. For example, they suggest that we are able to use our time more freely, and that we are – through flexible contracts – able to change jobs with greater frequency. Of course, the idea of life-long employment for workers under capitalism is now anachronistic, and flexible work has become the paradigm of this period of neoliberalism. Among jobs that are possible to carry out remotely, this model also ignores the increased burden of uncompensated labour – such as caring for children who are out of school due to the crisis and caring for family members who are at increasing risk of falling ill, all while working remotely. Furthermore, the central role played by platform capitalism in the midst of this lockdown period advances the agenda of neoliberalism – notably the segmentation of the work force and the fragmentation of workers – further subordinating the workforce to the unfettered interests of capital.
The neoliberal state system has shown that it is incapable of solving the problems that its model creates. In 2008, for instance, the neoliberal state system, led by the United States, hastened to pump enormous amounts of capital into the financial system, and into particular large corporations (such as General Motors). This intervention was known as ‘financial Keynesianism’, or state intervention to sustain the architecture designed by financial firms to promote and benefit the neoliberal project. The underlying issues – namely the lack of income for billions of people who live on expensive and unsustainable credit – were not addressed.
In many countries, discredited neoliberal and ‘third way’ (or centrist) politicians gave way to projects of the far right and neo-fascists. Álvaro García Linera, the former Vice President of Bolivia, calls this the stage of capitalism zombie neoliberalism – a neoliberal project that favours hatred and resentment. In the context of this zombie neoliberalism, the bourgeois state enters into crisis, since it cannot acknowledge – let alone address – the democratic demands of the people; a ‘state of exception’ prevails, with neo-fascist authoritarianism eclipsing the already frazzled liberal democratic institutions. Political theorist William Davies uses the term punitive neoliberalism to describe a neoliberalism that responds to the crisis by deepening its policies of austerity and fiscal rigour and imposing greater indebtedness, especially in the Global South. In Davies’ words, this leads to ‘a melancholic condition in which governments and societies unleash hatred and violence upon members of their own populations’.
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 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?
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.
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.
These sixteen points are a charter for discussion and debate to begin to focus attention towards struggles and policies for a post-capitalist future.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.