Philippines: For socialist solutions to the capitalist crises

By Reihana Mohideen

April 7, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Angmasa — We can’t go back to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem —  this graffiti, scrawled on a wall in Hongkong, has become a universal slogan capturing the essence of the crisis we face, now being revealed to millions more people, under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has illuminated many normally invisible social and economic relationships of capitalist society and has exposed much of its exploitative and irrational nature. The neoliberal capitalist state is unable to deal with crises even when it would benefit capitalist society to do so. The corona crisis has highlighted the fact that continuing on the capitalist path, including some reformed social democratic version of it, is no longer an option. It’s suicidal.

Multiple and intersecting crises

Today we face multiple, intersecting, crises – a public health and economic crisis, triggered by the biological disaster, and the overarching climate crisis.

  • A public health crisis, due to health systems being routinely dismantled under decades of neoliberal cutbacks and privatization. The public health and social crises in the Global South has been exacerbated by imperialism, with the imposition of decades of structural adjustment and debt that have left the countries of the Global South without the health and social welfare infrastructure needed for normal times, let alone during a lethal pandemic.
  • An economic crisis, with many leading financial institutions expecting this to be the worst recession in living memory, with the near simultaneous shutdown of manufacturing, transport, and service sectors across the US, Europe, and China – an event without historical precedent since the Second World War. The economic crisis will have a devastating impact on small business, large sections of which are being wiped out. Workers and the poor will have their already precarious economic lifelines decimated resulting in a massive increase in extreme forms of poverty.
  • The climate crisis: The coronavirus crisis needs to be considered as part of the environmental crisis created by capitalism that is threatening humanity with extinction. Scientists for some time have been warning of increasing frequency and severity of epidemics caused by novel pathogens, with recent pandemics including SARS, MERS and Swine Flu providing warning. Climate change itself increases the spread of pandemics. Moreover, the causes of pandemics such as Covid-19 include many factors fueling climate change as well, reflecting the more general breakdown in the world’s ecosystems, and their ability to sustain life, as a result of the capitalist mode of production. Factors include industrialised agriculture, wilderness and ecosystem destruction, concentration and movement of people, and pollution. Unless the global environmental crisis is addressed, there will be an in increase in the frequency and severity of novel pandemics, as well as the re-emergence of old diseases around the world, such as malaria, with experts pointing to the likelihood of multiple pandemics, breaking simultaneously, in intensified biological disasters. In this regard pandemics are no different to the typhoons, fires, droughts, etc, whose increased frequency and severity is associated with the looming Anthropocene apocalypse. These are all products of rift in the metabolism of humans and earth under capitalism, as explained by Marx in his theory of the metabolic rift. These intersecting crises signal a major socio-economic collapse of the capitalist system. The response of sections of the capitalist class is already evident – pushing further towards authoritarianism and even dictatorship.

Rising authoritarianism could shape politics for decades to come

We are now witnessing the trend in the rise of authoritarianism being intensified as capitalist governments of all stripes (far-right to your run-of-the-mill ‘liberal democrats’) seize the opportunity to use health and other measures to serve their political interest and to protect the existing order against the people’s resistance.

In Hungary, the prime minister can now rule by decree. In Britain, ministers have what a critic called “eye-watering” power — called Henry VIII powers, after the notorious 16th-century monarch — to detain people and close borders. Some of the provisions will give the government unchecked control to border agents and the police, which could lead to indefinite detention and reinforce “hostile environment” policies against immigrants. Israel’s prime minister has shut down courts and begun a surveillance of citizens.  In the United States, the Justice Department asked Congress for sweeping new powers, including a plan to eliminate legal protections for asylum seekers and detain people indefinitely without trial. Chile has sent the military to public squares once occupied by protesters. Bolivia has postponed elections. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand has assumed the authority to impose curfews and censor the news media. Journalists there have been sued and intimidated for criticizing the government’s response to the outbreak. The Philippine Congress passed legislation that gave President Rodrigo Duterte limitless emergency powers tantamount to dictatorship.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights Fionnuala Ni Aolain “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic.” As the new laws broaden state surveillance, allow governments to detain people indefinitely and infringe on freedoms of assembly and expression, they could also shape civic life, politics and economies for decades to come.

Framing a socialist alternative, linked to immediate struggles

In order to resist and struggle for our immediate demands – mass testing, economic relief and sufficient food for all, protective equipment for frontliners —  we need to be able to use our traditional forms of struggle – mass mobilizations, both decentralised and centralized, based on mass campaigns to raise awareness, strike action, etc. – adapted to these different times. We need to be able to take back, safely, the public spaces that are now being denied to us. Draconian law enforcement cannot be allowed to cover for the failure of the state and neoliberal capitalism to make a public health response possible. Duterte’s martial law measures only further compromise the physical distancing and other measures need for public health. This is also why the spontaneous actions of the Sitio San Roque residents in Edsa was so important.

Many of the demands that the movement has raised in the past, such as public services and ownership versus privatization, almost seem like common sense right now. The question of political power is more important than ever, especially if the ‘Oust Duterte’ sentiment gathers strength. The challenge still remains of how to present a practical, transitional socialist program, that can mobilise the working class and our allies towards this end.

Our resistance, of course, must be linked to providing a socialist alternative. The core of our socialist vision must be based on solidarity, which is a necessity for surviving catastrophe. In capitalist society, however, solidarity is a challenge to the existing order.

Internationally, socialist Cuba’s response to the coronavirus pandemic sets a stellar example. The main threat of the Cuban revolution to the US was always the example that it set, healthcare being a case in point. The Cuban revolution prioritised healthcare to such an extent that the US elite cannot hide from its own population the fact that Cubans have significantly better healthcare than working class Americans. Moreover, Cuba has pioneered “medical solidarity” with more doctors and health workers serving poor communities throughout the world than the World Health Organisation. Cuba reflect the merits of socialism, both in terms of rational organisation of society (and use of infrastructure and resources) and in terms of social cohesion and today especially to millions of new forces, its spirit of practical international solidarity or internationalism. In Cuba today, Che’s vision of a socialist human being comes alive; “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. … We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity is transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force. … internationalism is a duty, but it is also a revolutionary necessity. This is the way we educate our people. … The road is long and, in part, unknown. … We will make the human being of the 21stcentury — we, ourselves. We will forge ourselves in daily action, creating a new man and woman with a new technology.” (Che Guevara. Socialism and Man in in Cuba. 1965)

Karl Marx, argued in his vision of an alternative society that what we aim for in the ultimate is a society where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Communist Manifesto). This society will be the antithesis of capitalism or other exploitative system where the development of individual is at the expense of others, or is based in the exploitation and oppression of others. Such a society, according to Marx, is the society of “associated producers”, “a society of free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”. Marx indicated that thissocial product “is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools and health services, etc.” and it’s “just” distribution will be “determined by communal needs and purposes”. However, the social relations of “just” distribution will be driven by the social relations in production, in this instance the “communal character of production [which] would make the product into a communal, general product from the outset.” (Grundrisse)

In the current context we can understand this as social property, social production, and satisfaction of social needs. Social property, because it is the only way to ensure that our communal productivity is directed to the free development of all rather than the private goals of capitalists or state bureaucrats; social production, because it builds new relations of cooperation and solidarity among producers and allows them to develop their capacities; and production for social needs, because instead of interacting as separate and indifferent individuals, we function as members of a community.

Such a society is also the solution to the climate crisis, to solving the ‘metabolic rift’ in capitalist society which is based on “not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil…. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” (Marx, Capital, Volume 1)

I would further argue that there is a notion of solidarity – social solidarity – that underlies all this. This solidarity is necessarily determined by class – which is also gendered, ethnicised and racialised. Only working people, those whose main power lies in their ability to labor, and increasingly in these times of catastrophe and crises, those whose labor is socially useful, such as our frontline health workers, can be the basis of such a solidarity. Social solidarity is also class solidarity, exercised on behalf of all the toiling masses in society.

In putting forward this socialist vision, we must also draw on our own historical experiences and roots, such as ‘bayanihan’, the communitarian spirit that fueled people’s relationship during the communal period. Under the capitalist system, bayanihan was replaced by labour 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 privatising what has remained of public properties and services for the common good of the community. Today we can also promote the original spirit of bayanihan, and integrate it to our description of socialism. This also provides a popular discourse and projection of socialism in the country.  

A precondition to achieving this is the control and transformation of the state. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argued that, “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy” and that workers would then use their “political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie.” The twentieth century demonstrated, however, that political supremacy of the working class is not achieved simply by winning elections or even seizing the state. The battle also involves the creation of institutions that provide the space where the working masses can develop their capacities through their protagonism — through their practical activity and struggles.

There will be sporadic and spontaneous combustions, as people protest and resist in their struggle to survive, as what has happened before. This is inevitable. The next steps and tasks are framed by posing the following questions. Who will lead the rising opposition against Duterte (or any other capitalist government, for that matter)? Is the political opposition with their electoral forces ready for it? Is the organized left, with their mass organizations, positioned and willing to lead? Are there still military ‘rebels’ around? The various groups might as well merge with the rising opposition against Duterte, if they are not placed to lead it. Now is the time to be tested. 

Reihana Mohideen is International Head of Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM)