The capitalist pandemic and socialist solutions

Speech by Sonny Melencio, Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), Philippines, at PLM Webinar presentation, May 16, 2020

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from AngMasa Para Sa Sosyalismo — My main idea for this presentation actually comes from a reading of an article written by Simon Hannah, titled “Coronavirus has given us two visions of the future” published in Mutiny, an online paper of a group of socialists in the UK. Mutiny is a fine online paper, just Google it.

These are the points I would like to present in this Webinar:

1.  One, that capitalism is the main problem that causes unrelenting crises and pandemics in our society today. Through its aspiration for mega-profits and capital accumulation, through its plunder and greed, capitalism is bound to destroy us and the very planet that we live in – if we do not act to change the direction of society globally. I think this is very clear to everyone.

2. Two, that there are two alternative scenarios brought out by the coronavirus crisis:

— The pandemic has demonstrated a dystopian future emerging before our eyes, a society where people lead dehumanized, fearful lives. In this scenario, we have authoritarian leaders and extreme right-wing groups, and even ordinary people, supporting authoritarian measures out of fear for the pandemic. They are defending hamlet-type lockdowns, calling for sweeping police powers, and army deployment to contain people. The ruling elite or the ruling faction, like the Duterte faction in the Philippines, wants to totally bypass parliamentary scrutiny to consolidate power in their hands. There is a creeping fascist movement globally fed by the horrors of the coronavirus crisis.

— But out of this pandemic, we also see outpourings of solidarity among the people, of developing community self-organization, of mobilization of civil society groups and concerned individuals to help the vulnerable and support the needs of the poor sections of society.

3. In the coronavirus crisis, even capitalism is forced to adjust. We see a reorientation of capitalist economics with capitalist states, adopting measures that veer away from being only concerned with profits and accumulation of capital towards providing the basic needs of the people during the pandemic. There is in fact, enough wealth and resources to provide for the sick and vulnerable, while making sure the rest of the population survive. These wealth, money and resources should be redistributed, and should not be for the taking of those who own and possess them, but should be used to provide for the needs of all.

— The idea of SAP (social amelioration fund) is closer to this – the idea that everyone has the right to receive amelioration fund without selling their labor power, but because they need to survive and sustain themselves as people. The idea of moratorium on rent and mortgages is along this line.

— Other countries have gone further by renationalizing trains and airlines, so they can operate not for profits but to serve the need of the people, deliver food and transport people to their destination.

— There is in fact an exposure of the neoliberal type of capitalism which has destroyed the very public services that we now desperately need to fight the coronavirus. The demand is for more public hospitals, public transport, and the likes.

— Even the measures of directly paying people, such as the measly P8,000 SAP in the Philippines or the $1,200 stimulus check in the US, give us a brief glimpse of what Universal Basic Income could provide. The amounts are small (ridiculously small in the Philippines) but they bolster the arguments for a UBI. Giving people money to live on ameliorates hunger and poverty and stimulate the local economy.

4. The pandemic has also shown us the crucial importance of production for consumption of people’s needs. In a lockdown, we distinguish which types of production are necessary, and which are unnecessary, like the production of guns and weapons, the military industry, and the production of luxuries for the rich. If the production for consumption is not mediated by the capitalist market, there is no exchange value to speak of. The product becomes of direct use-value for society, a hallmark of a socialist system. In the production of means of production under Department 1 of capitalism, the highlight becomes the production for basic means of consumption, and production for health and medical necessities, like building more hospitals, producing more ventilators and PPEs (personal protective equipment).

— The production of goods for consumption also involves the media. Its importance is highlighted during lockdown as it ensures that everyone has access to information and digital communication and media. The closure of ABS-CBN represents a rift between the old oligarchs and the Duterte’s faction and cronies among the ruling class. What we are trying to save in our call for its reopening are the employment of the workers in the industry. But we also have to instill the idea that the working class can run the stations by themselves and operate it to provide for their needs, in the process implementing an equalization of salary among workers and getting rid of highly unequal salary among workers and talents. This is the proper non-capitalist direction of our media.

5. Most of the measures mentioned before are not socialist and they are coming from capitalist governments that have become desperate to provide measures that can alleviate the sufferings of the working class rather than face a revolutionary challenge to their rule. The state is forced to do this. In time of genuine crisis, be it a war or pandemic, the state is forced to step in, to provide, to organize, and to lead to represent the collective endeavor of the national community. These measures to say the least are opening up an important debate in society, on whether the role of the state is to intervene on behalf of the people or to remain an adjunct of the capitalists and the elite in society.

6. But in fact we do not see the entire state shifting its role from oppressor of the masses to providing for the needs of the masses. The national state as in the case of the Philippines uses repression against the people in the fight against the pandemic. Its legislative and judicial machinery merely institutionalize the measures of oppression. Its police and army are in the forefront of suppression and control against the people.

We see some positive developments though in the efforts of the local units of governments, especially down to the barangays, who know their people and are right now in the forefront of providing for the needs of the community. 

7. We also have to acknowledge that the countries or states that are winning the fight in this pandemic consist of those which are socialist or oriented towards socialism, like Vietnam with zero death, Cuba, and the state of Kerala under communist rule in India. They are better situated because the system has invested much in social welfare, genuine universal health care, and community-level organized response, as compared to capitalist countries.

8. Socialism as we know means seizing the means of production from the hands of the capitalist few and handing it in to the productive forces of society (the producers themselves) to run for the benefit of all the people.

— And this is brought home during the coronavirus pandemic, where the front liners in production are not the capitalists, not the owners of the factories and hospitals and means of production, but the working people providing health care and bringing essential goods and services to the people.

9. In the Philippines, we call community solidarity as bayanihan, and this happens from time to time during worse calamities such as the Yolanda typhoon that devastated Leyte and Samar and killed tens of thousands of people in November 2013.

— The common image of Bayanihan are farmers assisting each other during the planting or harvesting of palay (rice), or in moving a nipa house of a community member. But bayanihan is broader than this.

— In the old times, bayanihan (or whatever term was used then) means the communitarian spirit that fueled people’s relationship during the communal period. It was the norm before the feudal days (when the people were grouped around families, clans and the feudal estate). Under Spanish colonial rule in the country, bayanihan was superseded by the polo system, which means compulsory labor (tax-in-kind) given to the Spanish crown and the friars.

— Under capitalism, bayanihan was replaced by labor that is paid for by money, by competition among the ranks of workers and community members, by individualism, by venerating capital and private property, and in the later period, by continuously privatizing what has remained of public properties and services for the common good of the community.

— In the PLM, we promote bayanihan socialism, i.e., the original spirit of bayanihan, and integrate it to our description of the new socialism of the new time. Bayanihan socialism can be ranked with “Bolivarian socialism” in Venezuela, the “communitarian socialism” in Bolivia, “buen vivir socialism” in Ecuador, and its likes. These are attempts to give local color to the socialist system based on the particular history and characteristics of the countries concerned.

— We all know that as soon as the calamity stabilizes, bayanihan is called off and we’re back to capitalist operations as usual. In this pandemic, the calamity stays on for months. Where bayanihan is extended, we can have a glimpse of a world built not on the priorities of profit and markets, but on the needs of people.

10. So how will the post-Covid-19 future look like? When this coronavirus subsides (hopefully in the coming months), there could be a lot of anger, especially if tens of thousands of people have died. The anger could turn into protests, into a condemnation of everything the ruling class and the oligarch stood for, of the system they propagate.

— Immediately after World War I, it took the Spanish Flu pandemic three years (from 1918 to 1920) to subside. The pandemic was like the coronavirus crisis today, or even worse, with people morbidly dying of unknown virus. It was almost global, affecting the US, UK, France, Spain and other countries in Africa and Asia (brought by soldiers sailing across the globe). It took them three years to develop what is now known as the H1N1 vaccine due to the lack of public health infrastructure and medical research and development centers that deal with diseases. To put it in perspective, the Spanish Flu claimed between 50 and 100 million lives; World War I killed about 18 million people; and World War II about 60 million. How’s the coronavirus pandemic today? It has infected more than 4 million people and claimed the lives of around 300,000 people. It goes without saying that the world is in a better position today to deal with the coronavirus crisis. It will subside.

 — And then again, during and after the Spanish Flu pandemic, mass strikes erupted in Britain and revolutions broke out in a number of countries.

11. But there will be a New Normal in the coming months as we continue to grapple with the effects of the coronavirus crisis. In this New Normal situation, we have to device new and pioneering forms of struggles because the nature of the crisis means that the Left cannot mobilize in its traditional ways because of lockdown and physical distancing. Some say it is time for new form of organizing. But when these constitute only Facebook chat groups, Twitter hastags, and online petition, they do not amount to much. We know that every decisive political question is decided by force, and the only way to do this to consolidate our ranks and mount crippling actions that mobilize millions of exploited and oppressed classes.

12. But surely, the class struggle is bound to escalate once the crisis subsides, and we’ll be back to the agenda of mass struggles, mass mobilization, insurrection and revolution. And in this situation, the youth has a big role to play. It is not only because the youth will inherit the earth, but because they have the number and the strength – and the health and stamina – to be in the forefront of the struggle to bring down capitalism and usher in a new system of socialism. This is not discounting the support of senior working class people like myself and those who survived the Marcos martial law generation.