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Changing the world in Covid time

This first issue of the magazine Quistioni discusses politics at the time of the Coronavirus.

We believe that this epidemic has a periodic character, as an historical turn. There is a before and an after, and we therefore suggest considering 2020 as the year that represents a watershed between two eras.

Of course, any period is always debatable and elements of continuity overlap with those of rupture. Using the pandemic as a watershed in the history of modernity is therefore a political choice. A choice that we make and that we propose to make deliberately, lucidly.

We make this proposal because the coronavirus is not only a disaster in itself but, in the words of Walter Benjamin, a “fire alarm”. The coronavirus crisis has made it clear, on a global scale, that barbarism is inherent in capitalist social relations and in the relationship they have established between humanity and nature. What has emerged with the pandemic in this 2020 is the blatant falsification of all the grand narratives that have characterised the post-World War II era.

a. The grand narrative of neoliberal globalisation has been completely debunked. All the things that have been magnified in the last 30 years have not worked: from the free market to privatisation, freedom of enterprise and global production networks, they have served no purpose. On the other hand, all the aspects that have been criticised and attacked over the last few decades have created the only barrier against the epidemic: public health, public employees, public schools, community solidarity networks. The state and the free relations of solidarity have held up where the free market and competition have failed. Even on a global level, NATO friendly nations have stolen face masks from each other while the small and vilified Cuba has excelled in a great operation of internationalist solidarity.

b. Developmentalist progressivism has been debunked. It is in fact quite clear that the progressive destruction of the natural habitat is at the origin of Covid-19, as of other pandemics that have emerged in recent years (Avian flu, Ebola, etc.). This public enemy number one is therefore not an alien product but – like slower global warming – is the ripe fruit of human action. It is capitalist developmentism that has set the conditions for the existence of Covid, its deadly effectiveness and its pervasive speed. The idea that we can stay healthy while destroying the natural habitat has fully shown its fallacy. Not only the idea of development but that of progressivism is being put out of business by this pandemic.

c. The concept of humanism that was formed in the immediate post-war period as a reaction to the horror of Nazism and the holocaust has been buried. The idea of the intangibility of human life, in its physical and relational dimensions, was radically challenged. In various countries medical protocols were produced which, selecting patients, gave different indications according to life expectancy and the possibility of overcoming the crisis. It will be said that the scarcity of resources meant that nothing else could be done. But the scarcity of resources was a deliberate choice made over decades of systematic destruction of public health. In official speeches, the only limit to the fight for life is the development of scientific knowledge and technology. Here, on the contrary, we see how concrete policies have decided to increase the risks of death in exchange for the creation of private profits. The category of “banality of evil” proposed by Hannah Arendt comes to mind.

The crisis of the western grand narrative

The great narrative of the capitalist West of recent decades is therefore incapable of providing an answer to the future of humanity: the Coronavirus has highlighted the regressive nature of today’s capitalism.

In response to these failures, there have been important reactions both from civil society and from the political and trade union left. From the platform “protect our future” launched by the European Left to the action of the trade union movement against redundancies, from the strong push in every country for the strengthening of public health to the “No profit on pandemic” campaign on vaccines as a common good. 

However, these reactions have not turned into an alternative proposal, a real and viable “another world is possible”. This absence of alternatives also has a retroactive effect on the perception of reality, and this is why the failure of liberalism and real capitalism, which we have witnessed live, has not become an acquisition in mass common sense. It did not immediately become “true” for billions of people. The crisis has opened some glimpses of reflection and action, but in itself the crisis not only does not solve the problem, it does not necessarily help to focus it correctly. Just think of the nationalist, negationist and racist interpretations of the coronavirus…

Vaccine research itself highlights the crossroads facing humanity. On the one hand there is public research and an emerging open community of scientists committed to discovering the vaccine as humanity’s common good. On the other, the race between the large multinational drug companies, which have patented the vaccine and are now blackmailing states by selling vaccines to the highest bidder. This alternative, which is both moral and political, underlines the centrality of the relationship between scientific research and power, which ranges from seed banks to genetic engineering, all the way to the issue of the patentability of life. Research as a common good, its “decommoditification”, or, on the contrary, its real subsumption by capital, is a decisive point in the current political confrontation.

Incidentally, the “No profit on pandemic” campaign on vaccines is also important for this. This campaign, which is officially promoted under EU rules, will force the European Commission to submit a proposal to the European Parliament and the European Council to radically change the rules on the application of patents on medicines in the EU. One million signatures must be collected across Europe in order to achieve this result, as stipulated in the Ice (European Citizens’ Initiative) regulation. On the website: you can sign and get all the explanations about the campaign. The European Left has joined the campaign and we are therefore committed to collecting signatures in every country by November of this year. 

Acting on the political space opened up by the crisis

The Coronavirus has thus highlighted a failure and opened a breach that allows us to raise the issue of the alternative. In order to be effective, this cannot be a repetition of what we said yesterday, but must take into account the novelty and the dramatic nature of reality.

This is why we want to direct this magazine towards identifying the paths through which to build an alternative to liberalism and capitalism. An alternative to the present state of affairs as a necessary and desirable solution for the majority of men and women. This is a European magazine, but the research is worldwide, because such is the challenge: in globalised capitalism, the crisis of the coronavirus has placed all humanity in front of the same enemy. We want to start from this global challenge by indicating some initial research points.

1. In the anthropocene era, in which mankind is able to alter the course of nature, the issue of respect for nature takes on fundamental importance. The struggle to build a harmonious and non-destructive relationship between humanity and nature is therefore a decisive point in our political struggle. As Marx pointed out, the sources of wealth are labour and nature, both of which are exploited by capital and both of which must be liberated from the domination of profit. There is therefore no liberation of labour without respect for nature. Just as there is no liberation of productive labour without liberating reproductive labour and overcoming its sexist nature. Liberating productive work as well as reproductive work, reducing working hours for the same wage and thus redistributing productive work as well as reproductive work. Various sides of the same coin in which overcoming class divisions is linked to overcoming social roles and hierarchies defined on the basis of gender.

2. The Covid showed with all clarity the interdependence that binds all men and women, human frailty and the centrality of care, of reproduction. The opposite of what we are told with the exaltation of the animal spirits of capitalism, from unbridled competition to the idea that we can save ourselves. The theme of cooperation and care therefore takes on a very strong centrality, and social transformation today must be rethought around these concepts. This is not just a political argument, but a cultural and anthropological one, because the new humanity that cooperates internally and has a harmonious relationship with nature can only be formed by new women and new men.

3. Contrary to what we have been told for decades, there is no shortage of goods or money. On the contrary, we are in a crisis of overproduction and the central banks are flooding the markets with cheap money. It is therefore a question today of finding a way through which this immense quantity of money is not aimed at reproducing the mechanisms of capitalist accumulation but, on the contrary, is aimed at developing the public sphere, common goods, welfare and the reduction of working hours. The wealth exists and it is enormous, it is a question of opening a fundamental discussion on its use.

4. The current phase is characterised by a gigantic process of concentration of companies, of construction of world monopolies with enormous powers. This poses a problem relating to the model of development and democracy, which must be addressed by posing the problem of the socialisation of the means of production, public ownership and democratic, participatory control of major economic and social choices. It is necessary to build a public space that enhances the dimension of the state, self-management and community. The democratisation of society and production, the issue of the environmental and social reconversion of the economy brings up once again the relationship between state intervention and social self-management, and raises the issue of workers’ control, common goods, the relationship with the territory, and community growth.

5. Neoliberal globalisation has radically changed the framework within which class conflict had taken place in Europe after World War II. The relationship between conflict, negotiations and legislative changes has been challenged by the unwillingness of companies to really negotiate. The social balance of power was reversed in favour of the ruling classes. All too often the action of the Unions and the left have been restricted to a meritorious and sometimes heroic action of resistance: rarely have we identified new paths capable of building social hegemony. More generally, the historical forms of popular aggregation have disappeared without new ones being produced. It is a question of going further and investigating the new paths of aggregation, resistance and struggle in order to grasp the new forms of construction of antagonist subjectivity. In the awareness that each generation of workers expresses itself socially, culturally and politically in different forms from previous generations.

6. The crisis of democracy and the crisis of the forms of politics born after the Second World War is evident in many European countries. The institutions of representative democracy, emptied of power from above and therefore perceived as ineffective from below, are experiencing a structural crisis. In this area too, our action has been characterised by a meritorious defensive action, which is, however, insufficient to reverse the trend. The search for ways to broaden democracy and paths of political participation that allow for the expression of popular protagonism will therefore be a central point of the magazine’s research.

7. In the crisis of democracy and the social disintegration, produced by neoliberal policies, ideologies and political groups of the extreme right are growing in Europe. For the most part, these are not nostalgic phenomena but reactionary responses to a social and existential crisis that has no positive outcomes. We want to devote a great deal of attention to analysing and understanding these phenomena, to identifying the most effective ways of drying up the swamp in which the right is growing.

8. The Coronavirus affair gave a heavy boost to the crisis – already underway – of neoliberal globalisation. It is a structural element, which will indicate the next phase. It seems to us that far from representing a “return to the past”, a pure return to the Nation State, the trend that emerges is that of the strengthening of regional macro-areas. The US, China and Russia have been working in this direction for some time, and the new European governance is also moving in this direction. Understanding the characteristics of post-Covid-19 capitalism, analysing the new trends of European governance, is a decisive point to reopen the game of the alternative. We have understood some aspects of globalisation, but we have not been able to make a significant impact. Twenty years ago a great world movement was starting to take its first steps from Porto Alegre and for this reason it was attacked in Genoa in 2001 with a furious and uncivil repression. Today it is a question of grasping the novelties of this phase, in order to try to understand the changes in capitalism, to identify its contradictions and to think about the possible paths to the alternative. Even here, we will try to make our contribution to this as well, knowing that the political level of the struggles must always be measured against the level of capitalism... Because we want to overcome it.

Paolo Ferrero, director of Quistioni, is vice president of the European Left. He was national secretary of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, Italy, and Minister for Welfare in the second Prodi government.