Photograph Source: Jonas Bengtsson – CC BY 2.0
Under capitalism, disease is an immensely profitable industry, and huge pharmaceutical corporations excel at extracting enormous amounts of wealth from our public health. Of course, big pharma would have us believe that without their investments in scientific research, millions of people would not benefit from the dizzying array of drugs they sell us, but the truth is far less savoury. This is because instead of reinvesting their huge profit margins in cutting-edge research, the powerful corporations that dominate the medical landscape prefer to let fledgling scientific enterprises take all the risks to push research agendas forward. Then, when a small company creates a new drug that corporate predators think they can sell — to at least the richest proportion of the global citizenry — corporations mobilise their immense financial resources to wrest control of any new patents from their rivals. It is this perpetual cannibalism of smaller businesses that guarantees maximum profits with minimum risks – a dark process which includes the consumption of other companies to ensure their drugs never see the light of day. This, more than anything else, demonstrates where the real priorities of corporations lie. What system other than capitalism would encourage the disembowelment of life-saving knowledge so that big pharma can gratify their macabre pursuit of profit?
Flowing from the relentless drive for super-profits, we can also understand the process by which big pharma makes decisions on the type of drugs they will prioritise for mass production. Medicines that can be sold to wealthy consumers in developed countries, are fast-tracked, while drugs and treatments that might benefit the poorest billions simply fall by the wayside. Human life is secondary to the pursuit of profits. This is why the chaos of the free market must be superseded by a more scientific system of planning – a socialist system, where drugs are produced to meet the needs of the mass of humanity. Pills for greed must be replaced by pills for need.
But, for the short-term at least, we remain lumbered with an inhumane big pharma juggernaut, that is both unable and unwilling to serve the needs of the many, and the rapid spread of COVID-19 is once again laying bare the corrupt and bankrupt nature of corporate powerbrokers. The difference between how ordinary people and big pharma react to this crisis are worlds apart. A new and deadly disease throws the masses together in a desperate effort to see off this harbinger of death, but rather than help, big corporations see the pandemic as just another opportunity to turn a buck. All those whose lives are presently threatened by coronavirus are simply viewed as a captive market for our globes marauding health profiteers. So where should we look to if we want to expose the mechanism by which such flagrant profiteering takes place?
US-based Gilead Sciences is a good as a place to start as any, a powerful member of the big pharma community closely associated with Donald Rumsfeld and the former Secretary of State George Shultz — a corporation that is most famous for its profiteering from Tamiflu and desire to undermine scientific efforts to submit their research on this antiviral treatment to democratic scrutiny. Historical examples of exploitation tend to repeat themselves when democracy fails to intervene and Gilead once again made international news last year for its “heartless and cruel price-gouging practices toward vulnerable groups” like those suffering with HIV. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing death and mayhem to the globe, Gilead have discovered that remdesivir, an antiviral drug they developed in the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak with “at least $79 million of US government funding,” could be used to alleviate the worst effects of COVID-19. Ready to seize another opportunity to line their pockets, Gilead quickly moved to prevent other companies from selling generic versions of “their” drug. Amusingly they had assumed that these actions would go unopposed… but how wrong they were. Mass opposition to this pandemic profiteering soon forced the corporation to rescind their plans, in the United States at least. However, as Médecins Sans Frontières correctly point out, the company “has yet to commit to not enforcing its patents globally.”
Another corporate giant with similar ambitions to swell their bank accounts from this pandemic is the US-based diagnostic test maker Cepheid — a company which has “just received US FDA Emergency Use Authorization for a rapid COVID-19 test (Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV-2) that delivers results in just 45 minutes, using existing testing machines that have been routinely used for tuberculosis (TB), HIV and other diseases.” Aghast at such profiteering Médecins Sans Frontières state:
“Cepheid just announced they will charge US$19.80 per test in developing countries, including the world’s poorest countries where people live on less than two dollars per day. MSF and others’ research on Cepheid’s TB test (which uses a similar test cartridge for TB for which the corporation charges $10 in developing countries), shows that the cost of goods, including manufacturing, overhead, and other expenses, for each cartridge is as low as $3, and therefore each test could be sold at a profit for $5.” (“MSF calls for no patents or profiteering on COVID-19 drugs and vaccines,” March 27)
Here Cepheid provides a perfect example of how smaller and successful pharmaceutical companies get gobbled-up by big pharma. This is because at the time of Cepheid’s 2016 acquisition by Danaher, it was just one in the latest of 400 odd companies that its new parent had purchased since 1984. (That said not all mergers of this hue involve small companies and last year Danaher acquired General Electric Biopharma for $21 billion.)
Quite rightly Médecins Sans Frontières maintains a critical eye on other more systemic forms of pharmaceutical exploitation which, as they explain, create corporate barriers which “stop people living with TB from getting the lifesaving medicines they need.” This is a critical issue because approximately 1.5 million people die every year from TB, a disease that, if there was the political will, could have easily been eradicated. The tragic scale of this needless suffering also vastly increases the number of vulnerable people who will die from COVID-19.
In an important article titled “5 barriers from Big Pharma preventing people getting lifesaving TB drugs” (March 23), Médecins Sans Frontières provide their readers with a forensic examination of the devious way in which big pharma corporation Johnson and Johnson (J&J) engages in such murderous practices. J&J produce the TB drug bedaquiline and then multiply the cost of making it by “eight times” or more when selling it to markets in poorer developing nations, states Médecins Sans Frontières. The profits from this despicable behaviour going directly to the corporation even though it is “estimated that taxpayers put three to five times the amount of funding into the development of bedaquiline as J&J.” Ever prescient of the fact that such price-gouging makes their corporation look greedy (which they are), the corporation pumps out a great deal of nice-sounding propaganda to advertise to the world that they donate some bedaquiline to the needy. Thus, despite the fact that 130,000 people in India require treatment with their drug they have only donated 20,000 treatment courses to the country – a drop in the ocean considering the corporation’s rampant profiteering.
Making matters worse, Johnson and Johnson are currently in the process of “trying to wring out yet more profits by blocking more affordable versions of bedaquiline in India for an additional four years.” And contrary to all their nice sounding words about helping the poor, the corporation, having found their own personal golden goose for TB profiteering, have along with other pharmaceutical corporations “shut down their R&D units for new antibiotics that could potentially cure the disease”.
When human life is treated with so little respect, it should come as no surprise that the board rooms of Johnson and Johnson, like many big pharma corporations, tend to overlap with those military profiteers. Thus, just taking the example of J&J, four current board members include the CEO of Lockheed Martin, the chairman of Rolls-Royce, a board member of Boeing, and a board member of Honeywell.
Not one to look a pandemic in the eye and not see a profit, Johnson and Johnson have now teamed up with the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to collaborate on a potential vaccine for coronavirus. J&J note on their web site, they are “closely monitoring the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation” and have “robust business continuity plans in place across our global supply chain network to prepare for unforeseen events and to meet the needs of the patients, customers and consumers who depend on our products.” (April 2) These business plans — to rake in profits from their consumers — are of course being funded by a $0.5 billion investment from the America tax-payer, an act of corporate welfare which led to a 3.8% rise in the value of J&J’s shares.
Rethinking Philanthropy: Gates vs Trump
Most people are of course already aware that corporate profiteering is a big problem, but in the context of never-ending global healthcare crises, the philanthropy of the billionaire-class is often held up by the corporate media as the solution to the deep inequities caused by our capitalist system. Indeed many of the global health initiatives pioneered by the philanthropies of the super-rich, like that of the Gates Foundation, dominate the international news as so many “good news” stories. So, it more than a little ironic that one of the main benefits of philanthropic foundations, to the super-rich that is, is that they provide a perfect way for billionaires to avoid paying tax!
In the wake of the pandemic, ruling-class philanthropy, not their oppression of workers, is making the news in a big way. For instance, the world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos, has announced he is giving 0.1% of his $125 billion fortune to a charity feeding America’s poor. His $100 million donation going to group (Feeding America) whose board room is dominated by the leading representatives of the corporate food giants that helped create the social and economic conditions that allowed COVID-19 to arise and take so many lives. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, however, has gone one step further and done something that most other philanthropists dare not do, he will be giving $1 billion to coronavirus related charities – a sizable sum of money which represents a sizable 28% of his personal savings. But this funding is not as good as it sounds and the first charity to receive funds from Dorsey is distributing most the millions it raises to the same elite food project that is being backed by Bezos. And finally, now in just one more of a long line of ostensibly generous healthcare handouts, the Gates Foundation has stumped up $20 million to launch a COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator Fund.
Gates’ COVID-19 Fund is now in the process of helping coordinate a variety of essential research to test potential medicines and vaccines for the pandemic. Scientific undertakings, which, if we lived in a sane world would already be financed in a systemic and organised way by taxing big business. Why after all should the safety of life on our planet ever have to rely upon receiving piddling hand-outs from serial tax avoiders? Nevertheless, not all the Therapeutics Accelerator research is that useful, and we are meant to be thankful that some of the money from ‘Gates’ COVID-19 Fund is being used to investigate the usefulness of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. These drugs are both generic antimalarials, which controversially “have been hailed by US president Donald Trump [since late January] as potential game-changers” in the battle against the pandemic. It is also not insignificant that immediately after Trump’s backing of these non-proven ‘cures’, the major US-based pharma company producing these drugs, Rising Pharmaceuticals, decided to double the price of chloroquine. Again, history appears to be repeating itself, as in December last year Rising was forced to admit to price-fixing and as ‘punishment’ had to pay $3m in fines and restitution. So, when questioned about their latest pandemic profiteering by the Financial Times, Rising executives were forced to backtrack and explain that the price rise was “coincidental”; and apparently shamed by their humiliating expose immediately Rising bosses moved to reduce its price.
In many ways Trump’s insane advocacy efforts on behalf of unproven drugs are a mirror image to Bill Gates’ relentless promotion of elite philanthropy as a panacea to the eternal wrecking ball of capitalism. Fake news seems to reign supreme, whether it be coming from Trump or Gates. The New York Times (April 6) — which itself is perhaps the number one booster for Gates’ brand of fake news – prefers to focus their ire upon Trump, writing: “Day after day, the salesman turned president has encouraged coronavirus patients to try hydroxychloroquine with all of the enthusiasm of a real estate developer.” The Times article then goes on to observe that if hydroxychloroquine becomes an accepted treatment, then even Trump himself will stand to profit because he has “a small personal financial interest in Sanofi, the French drugmaker that makes Plaquenil, the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine.” But let’s not forget that Trump is not the only profiteer in this vile game, and the Gates Foundation likewise maintains financial investments in Sanofi, but his foundation goes further still and disperses philanthropic grants to company too!
Blatant personal profiteering – whether large or small — however is not the worst aspect of capitalisms varying reactions to this pandemic. And another disastrous but entirely foreseen consequence of Trump’s talk about the “strong” healing potential of anti-malarial drugs is that those who can afford to buy them have literally been “vacuuming up supplies” which has led to global shortages and sent the prices of the drug “skyrocketing” out of the reach of many who need them. To make matters worse, at the same time Trump has been busily lobbying the Indian government – a country where malarial drugs are a matter of life and death to millions of people — to promise India will be prioritising America for future deliveries of chloroquine, Trump’s so-called miracle drug.
War and Healthcare
Here, once again, the role of military profiteering can help us understand the special relationship that has developed in recent years between Trump and India’s far-right Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Hence Trump’s latest request for stocks of India’s anti-malarial drugs will be considered more seriously as a result of Modi’s latest (February 25) $3 billion purchase of military hardware which included six Boeing-built Apache helicopters. On the evolution of these important warmongering ties, the New York Times has provided some context, explaining in an article published in late November how:
“The Trump administration’s efforts to woo India are in many ways a continuation of a foreign policy pursued by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama aspired to move closer to India strategically, and succeeded measurably in areas like arms sales.
“According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, exports of American weapons to India from 2013 to 2017 increased 557 percent over the previous five-year period. American arms sales to India currently stand around $18 billion, and could climb after the approval of a deal on Wednesday to allow India to buy $1 billion worth of naval guns and ammunition.” (“U.S.-India defense Ties grow closer as shared concerns in Asia loom,” New York Times, November 20, 2019)
Like in the United States itself, the Indian government’s decision to waste money on war at the expense of public healthcare is just one of the vile legacies of capitalism. India currently spends a colossal $67 billion a year on their military (2.4% of their total GDP) which is just a tad short of the $100 billion a year (3.7% of GDP) they spend on public healthcare. The irony here is that while the United States is the biggest military spender in the world (by a huge amount), they actually spend more than five times the amount on public health provision than the $649 billion (3.2% GDP) they spend on their military. Although most of this annual $3.5 trillion (17.1% of GDP) healthcare spend goes straight into private healthcare providers and does little to benefit the tens of millions of Americans who continue to suffer without any form of health insurance.
So, in India, even without the huge amount of money being spent on their military budget, it is clear that their largely privatised healthcare system is not in a position to cope with the growing pandemic. The depth of these problems is truly shocking as India presently has one of the lowest numbers of Intensive Care Units (ICU) per capita in the entire world with just 2.3 ICU beds per 100,000 of its population. This is very bad, because we already know that Italy’s health care system quickly became overwhelmed when the pandemic struck and Italy had 12.5 ICU beds per 100,000 of its population. Furthermore, after decades of neglect of basic health services, ventilators are a rare commodity too, with the most optimistic estimates suggesting that India might be able to utilize up to 57,000 ventilators – which is only if every ICU bed in the country is able to access a ventilator. (This however is extraordinarily unlikely as other sources suggest that India only has access to 20,000 ventilators.) Contrast these numbers to Britain which has just over 8,175 ventilators, which is already considered far too few, with government plans (admittedly very uncertain ones) to increase capacity to 30,000 ventilators. If India were to have access to an equivalent number, on a per capita basis, they would have 580,000 ventilators not the 20,000 they have at present!
The latest data available from the World Health Organization similarly foreground the dark existential threat facing the Indian working-poor in relation to their countries lack of preparedness to face the pandemic. For instance, 2.7 million Indians suffer from TB, and another 10 million have Malaria. While in a country where economic inequality runs rampant, access to food is a major health issue, with research demonstrating that malnutrition is “the predominant risk factor for death in children younger than 5 years of age in every state of India”. The contrast between the super-rich minority and ultra-poor super majority in India also shows up in ways that have become normalised under capitalism. Thus “India’s burden of disease is dominated by 2 apparently divergent clusters of disease—on the one hand, cardiovascular conditions that are classically associated with overnutrition and affluence; and on the other, diarrheal disease and lower respiratory tract infections that are classically associated with undernutrition and poverty.” Collectively these poor health indicators, combined with the lack of ICU beds and ventilators, mean that millions of Indians are at risk of dying from the coronavirus pandemic.
Will Philanthropy ‘Help’ Us?
So, considering the dire future facing India and the rest of the world, is philanthropy going to step in to save us from this pandemic? This, of course, is not the type of question that most ordinary people will be asking themselves, especially those in India and America who know from past experiences that elite philanthropy, especially that flowing from Bill Gate’s purse, is often accompanied by more problems than it cures. That said, this is a question that many well-meaning people will be pondering over in the coming weeks, if only because of the relentless propaganda being pumped out by the ruling-class. As a curative to such intellectually debilitating nonsense, one of the most insightful critics of Bill Gates’ global health interventions is Professor Linsey McGoey, author of the 2015 book No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy.
In one of her latest articles, McGoey highlights how the Gates Foundation has “aggressively pursued vaccination campaigns at the expense of initiatives championed by health experts in poor nations, who often call for universal healthcare strengthening, rather than what’s called ‘vertical’ disease targeting (campaigns focused on eradicating single diseases).” Although she acknowledges that not everything his foundation does is bad, and that Gates and other elites have stepped in improve diagnostic testing for coronavirus, McGoey correctly concludes that “billionaires won’t save us”. This is because billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates are the very same people who created and profited from the problems that led us to the current impasse, where global health systems are in crisis, and where 26 billionaires’ control as much as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population. As McGoey writes:
“During the unfolding coronavirus crisis, Gates is not simply ‘stepping in’ to help with government failure; he is also doing a little bit (and compared to his overall fortune, it is only a little bit) to offset his own business failures: the failure to treat his workforce as they deserve to be treated. He’s placing a plaster on the gaping chasm of healthcare support and sick-pay protections for America’s poorest citizens that his own corporate policies played a fundamental role in creating. Sure, it’s good to applaud home-test kits. But today, the US and other wealthy nations are suffering from problems of wide-scale labour precarity fuelled by anti-worker attitudes at places like Microsoft over the 1980s and 1990s.” (“Bezos, billionaires and the problem with big philanthropy,” Institute of Art and Ideas, March 16, 2020)
Despite these stark contradictions, the Gates Foundation has still been highly influential in directing the priorities of health bodies like the World Health Organization and the United Nations. That being said we should remember that the foundation’s total annual giving towards health is dwarfed by both the American and Indian governments, which respectively distribute $3.5 trillion and $67 billion a year to their own populations alone, with the Gates Foundation only giving a touch over $1.3 billion a year towards international health projects. Nevertheless, the influence of Bill Gates philanthropy is still important in setting health agendas, whether that be in the United States or further afield.
So, the heavy involvement of Bill Gates and his personal philanthropy in Indian politics is something worth dwelling on, especially considering the looming threat that coronavirus poses to a country which is home to over 1.3 billion people. India representing the one country in which the Gates Foundation has focused the majority of their international health interventions, with the foundation focusing most of their efforts in recent years on ‘aiding’ the state of Bihar — a state which has one of the lowest numbers of government hospital beds in the whole of India (just 11 beds available per 100,000 population).
The Gates Foundations work in Bihar was formally launched ten years ago when, as the foundation put it, they “formed a partnership with the state government called Ananya (Hindi for “unique”) to work with the private sector and community organizations on several health-related issues.” Rather than focusing assistance on supporting the development of a tax-payer funded public healthcare system, it turns out that the foundations emphasis is on involving “business in addressing poverty and inequality,” which, as a recent report produced by one critical non-profit put it, “is far from a neutral charitable strategy but instead an ideological commitment to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation.”
While Gates’ dedication to Bihar is related to the state’s extreme poverty, one health expert who has interviewed numerous members of the foundation in India pointed out that the philanthropic organization made the decision “in part because they were impressed by the leadership of the then chief minister Nitish Kumar and his focus on poverty alleviation.” In the world of global politics, billionaires like Bill Gates most assuredly prefer to work with leaders who they are sure they can get along with on a political level. And so, it should come as no surprise that “political opportunist” is a more accurate characterisation of Nitish’s leadership. Nitish’s opportunism is astounding on many levels, as despite being ostensibly on the left side of the political spectrum, he had come to state power (in 2005) as a direct result of a longstanding electoral coalition he had maintained with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He subsequently broke off his alliance with his far-right friends in 2013, apparently because he was opposed Modi’s leadership of the BJP. But with free-market capitalism not the needs of the working-class to the forefront of his mind, in 2017 Nitish chose to re-establish his toxic alliance with Modi and the far-right BJP. This disgusting level of political opportunism represented a fundamental betrayal of the ordinary people who elected him, but does echo the political whims of his philanthropic benefactor. I say this because just two years earlier (in 2015) Bill Gates had received India’s second highest civilian honour (the Padma Bhushan) from the BJP national government. A reward that Gates reciprocated last year when his foundation bestowed a humanitarian award upon Modi during a meeting of the UN General Assembly.
This cosying up to India’s far-right leader led one high-profile Gates Foundation employee to tender his resignation in dismay. The individual in question, who had previously coordinated Microsoft’s propaganda machine across India (in his role as their Lead for Corporate & Citizenship Public Relations), then published a horrified opinion piece in the New York Times. He explained that the foundation “has completely disregarded how [Modi’s] politics have filled the lives of marginalized communities in India and the territories it controls with fear and insecurity, let alone that he has transformed India into a majoritarian, Hindu nationalist state.” In this powerful, albeit naïve statement, he concluded:
“The celebration of Mr. Modi by an organization that stands for the betterment of the most vulnerable simply cannot be justified. If major, powerful nonprofit organizations endorse such polarizing politicians, then who speaks for the vulnerable and the neglected?
“The Gates Foundation has crossed the wide gulf between working with a regime and endorsing it. That is not the pragmatic agnosticism of an organization working with the government of the day, but a choice of siding with power. I will choose to walk a different path.” (“Why I resigned from the Gates Foundation,” New York Times, September 26, 2019)
Siding with power has never been a genuine or sustainable option for the global working class either, and our class now needs to collectively choose to walk a different path than the capitalist one we have been railroaded onto for years. The farcical efforts by capitalist philanthropists like Gates to put a human face on the global violence inflicted upon our lives by capitalism will no longer gain traction, even in the sense of narrow propaganda victories. A looming global recession has been brewing for years, and the coronavirus pandemic has merely brought the day of reckoning forward and the capitalists know it all too well… and they are panicking. As the Financial Times (April 8) stated, some of the more far-sighted corporate CEOs are now even taking voluntary pay cuts in “advance of the pitchforks”.
Pay cuts or not, this is just window-dressing. We know that nearly every capitalist state across the world made no meaningful preparations to deal with the predictable threat posed by the outbreak of a global pandemic. In fact, the opposite is true, with governments actively pursuing policies of austerity which demonised the poor, making the working class pay the price with their lives for the profit-driven ambitions of economic elites. These elites likewise acted to further exacerbate health inequalities between themselves and the rest of us by a relentless process of privatisation of public services consigning the vast majority of the worlds human population to suffer without functioning health care systems.
The Future Beyond COVID-19
Even in the world’s richest countries, COVID-19 is having devastating effects, but for “many Asian nations, however, the pandemic will be an even more appalling disaster, made worse by the dire state of healthcare and infrastructure.”
“Across India, homeless shelters are struggling with a surge in demand as massive numbers of people have their livelihoods devastated. According to the ILO, over 80% of India’s non-agricultural workers are in informal work, while rural labourers face losses over disruption to supply chains. Informal workers make up 77.6% of Pakistan’s workforce, while the percentage in Nepal is even higher, at 90.7%
“This crisis will also bring the issue of migrant workers’ oppression under capitalism to the fore. The lockdown in India has also meant that massive numbers of migrant workers have lost their jobs and their homes, causing a mass exodus as they try to return home. In the words of one 28-year-old migrant worker: ‘We will die of walking and starving before getting killed by corona.’” (“Covid-19 in Asia: the disaster still to come,” Socialist Alternative, March 30, 2020)
We know that people with hypertension and diabetes are more prone to experience severe COVID-19 and die from it. In India hypertension afflicts about 400 million people, and one in ten adults is diabetic, likewise “high rates of tuberculosis, pneumonia, smoking and poor air quality won’t help when it comes to a respiratory disease.” But Modi’s government has done absolutely nothing to assuage the fears of hundreds of millions of Indians. After imposing a three-week nationwide curfew commencing on March 25, it was not until the following day that the government announced a $22.6 billion economic stimulus plan “to provide direct cash transfers and food handouts to India’s poor.” This was no way near enough money, and by March 29, critics were publicly highlighting the woeful inadequacy of such plans. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 – said that without more aid “the demand crisis will snowball into an economic avalanche, and people will have no choice but to defy orders”.
Notably states like Kerala, that have a past record of socialist organising amongst the working classes, so far appear to be responding to the pandemic in ways that prioritise the needs of the poor. Kerala can boast, as of March 26, of having “tested the highest number of samples for the coronavirus in India so far.” And compared to most of India, Kerala has a “relatively strong public health system” with twice the national average for number of hospital beds (which means it has ten more beds per 100,000 people than in Bihar). Indeed, in spite of all the setbacks faced by the Indian working class in recent years, most notably the reactionary rise to power of the BJP, earlier this year over 200 million workers took part in a one-day General Strike. This mass action concretely shows the potential for opposing Modi if there existed the type of socialist leaders within society who were consistent fighters for their class. This leadership however is lacking, being held back in part by Stalinist politicians, many of whom still dominate Kerala’s state apparatus. Illustrating such enormous shortcomings, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI(M) managed to secure 91 of the 140 Kerala assembly seats in 2016, but the unwillingness of such so-called Marxists to lead the type of social struggle that can upend capitalism, meant that in last year’s national elections Kerala only succeeded in electing one individual to the Indian Parliament. Independent Marxist commentator, Achin Vanaik (author of the 2017 book The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism) surmised the Stalinists shortcomings fairly bluntly in this way:
“Long reduced to primarily an electoral force with a diminishing cadre base that clings to old Stalinist verities when it does think about Marxism, their cadres with a few exceptions in a few places, have lost the capacity and interest in pursuing the politics of popular mobilization around genuine and justified grievances.” (“The Indian catastrophe,” Jacobin, May 30, 2019)
This is a tragedy for 1.3 billion Indians. But, this failure of political will on the part of so-called socialists is one that can be reversed. Now is the time to unite and fight back!
Similarly, in America Donald Trump may momentarily garner a certain level of public support in this moment of national crisis and collective mourning, but his grip on power will quickly unfurl as more and more people die, and as workers fight-back for their lives. The same is true across the world, and in India Modi’s authoritarian curfew instigated to enforce physical distancing has, as Arundhati Roy writes “resulted in the opposite — physical compression on an unthinkable scale.” This has created a desperate situation which has seen tens of millions of the urban poor “sealed into cramped quarters in slums and shanties.” But as Roy points out, like with the great influenza of 1918 which took the lives of tens of millions of people — the vast majority of whose deaths were counted amongst India’s impoverished working-class – pandemics have…
“…forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Around the time of the 1918 influenza, millions had been inspired to fight for another better world by the mass movement that had just seized power in Russia. And it was this hope for a socialist future amid so much social turmoil that explained why workers fought back all over the world, with one inspiring American example occurring in Seattle, a city which was brought to a standstill in 1919 by their historic General Strike.
Today Seattle is considered home to many of the world’s richest men, including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, but it is also one of the epicentres of global resistance to capitalism, as it is home to Socialist Alternative city councillor Kshama Sawant. She takes heart from the enraged resistance of ordinary workers to the pandemic profiteering of the billionaire-class, and having visited India to support their 2019 General Strike, Kshama intends to support those same types of mass action in the United States. “Workers are facing a double crisis, coronavirus and capitalism,” Kshama recently stated, and it is “very clear that billionaire wealth and profit is more important than the safety, health, and lives” of workers. And in response to Arundhati Roy’s call to action, Kshama posted:
“The operative word is “fight”. The #COVID19 pandemic is thoroughly exposing the logic of global capitalism, of the rich exploiting the working class and the poor even if it literally kills us. The pandemic is forcing billions to think about a different kind of society. But it will take an organized fightback. We need to start with getting organized for massive strike actions on May 1st. Strike actions with social distancing.”