During the early days of the coronavirus lockdowns, in some quarters there was a certain degree of optimism around. Although things were really bad for millions of people, the claim was that the Covid-19 crisis would shine light on societal and economic systems all across the world, exposing some of the deep-rooted flaws of capitalism. There was a belief that we could start building a fairer and more sustainable economy with the state playing a leading role to serve the public interest over the long term.
It was a view based on misplaced optimism. Does anyone really believe that the ruling Conservative administration in the UK genuinely cares about the well-being of ordinary people or has any kind of commitment to publicly funded institutions? The Conservative Party has devastated millions of lives courtesy of an ideologically driven austerity agenda for over a decade. In the guise of neoliberalism, it has for decades been waging war on ordinary people, workers, unions and the public sector on behalf of global capital.
We now witness a post-Brexit trade deal being negotiated behind closed doors that could see a lowering of food and environment standards, despite the Conservative government pledge that it would not compromise on UK standards in these areas. The government now proposes that chlorine-washed chicken, beef treated with growth hormones, pork from animals injected with ractopamine and many other toxic foods produced in the US will be allowed into the UK. All for the bottom line of US agribusiness corporations.
Things in the US hardly merit hope for positive change either. The Federal Reserve estimates over 47 million will lose their jobs in the US, taking unemployment to almost a third of the labour force. Meanwhile, the $2 trillion-plus coronavirus relief package gives bailouts to a number of key industries and major companies. Most of the companies in line to get taxpayer money did not prepare for a downturn. For example, the airline industry collectively spent more than $45 billion on stock buybacks over the past eight years. The ‘relief package’ amounts to a bailout of private capital and the endorsement of self-enriching practices.
World Bank Group President David Malpass recently stated that poorer countries will be ‘helped’ to get back on their feet after the various lockdowns. This ‘help’ will be on condition that neoliberal reforms and the undermining of public services are implemented and become further embedded. Ranil Salgado, mission chief for India at the IMF, says that when the economic shock passes, it’s important that India returns to its path of undertaking long-term reforms.
In the face of economic crisis and stagnation at home, this would seem like an ideal opportunity for Western capital to further open up and loot economies abroad. On 20 April, the Wall Street Journal ran the headline ‘IMF, World Bank Face Deluge of Aid Requests From Developing World’. Scores of countries are asking for bailouts and loans from financial institutions with $1.2 trillion to lend. It’s a recipe for global conglomerates to hollow out the remnants of nation state sovereignty.
What we could see is a debt crisis that could prove so devastating to economies that bailout packages from global financial institutions might saddle supine nation states with debts that prove almost impossible to pay back. Dollar denominated loans will help support the hegemony of the US currency, which has been looking increasingly fragile in recent years. At the same time, with mass unemployment and workers’ pay decimated, ordinary people in both rich and poor countries will have finally reached the finishing line in the race towards the bottom.
As the lockdown played out in India, we saw stories of fractured supply chains and of farmers who could not sell their produce. In rural areas, millions of migrant workers returned to the countryside. Rural affairs commentator P Sainath paints a dreary picture of the impacts of India’s lockdown. He discusses the desperate plight of migrant workers, a shortage of cash to buy food and a potential shortage of food as farmers are unable to complete their harvests.
Dr. Sundararaman, a former executive director of the National Health Systems Resources Centre, said there is a desperate need to identify and act on the reverse migrations problem and the loss of livelihoods. He added, failing that, deaths from diseases that have long tormented mostly poor Indians could outstrip those brought about by the coronavirus itself.
But no doubt cash-rich Western capital which will gain from the trillions being pumped into the system will see many strategic opportunities to benefit. It has been pushing via the World Bank to bring Indian agriculture under corporate control for a long time. We could see the forcing of GMO food crops into the country, the further displacement of peasant farmers, corporate consolidation and commercialisation based on industrial-scale monocrop farms incorporated into global supply chains dominated by transnational agribusiness and retail giants.
It would be an acceleration of existing processes which have already led to what Sainath describes as a crisis of civilisation proportions. He notes that millions of rural livelihoods have been snuffed out over a period of many years, sparking an agrarian crisis. As a result of lockdown, tens of millions went back to their villages but there is no work there because rural livelihoods have been extinguished – the reason for urban migration in the first place.
If lockdown has shown anything, it is that many of those who sought better lives in the cities have failed to establish a firm foothold. They are employed in the worst jobs on minimal wages and the fragility of their position is demonstrated by the reverse migrations we have witnessed.
Like the UK, India is also involved in trade talks with the US. If this deal goes through and India capitulates to US demands, it could devastate the dairy, poultry, soybean, maize and other sectors and severely deepen the crisis in the countryside. India could also see GMO food flooding the country and the further corporate consolidation of the seed sector. The article ‘Perils of the US-India free trade agreement for Indian farmers’ published on the grain.org website highlights what could be in store.
In the wake of India deciding to not participate in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the article concludes:
“It would be inconsistent, and a slap in the face, to now start US-India trade talks that will pose much bigger challenges for India’s rural communities and agriculture sector. Such a deal would greatly compromise India’s huge diversity of local seeds and plants which are conserved and reused by millions of Indian farmers year after year. It will also destroy India’s hope for food sovereignty. It is time that Indian farmers rise again and resist any possibility of formalising the US-India trade deal, today or in future.”
Any such trade deal will be for the benefit of powerful agricultural giants and will reinforce the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a small number of corporations. It would also send millions more to the cities in search of jobs that are just not there. This will be the result of the ‘reforms’ demanded by the World Bank and IMF.
So, is there any hope? If anything, the various lockdowns around the globe have exposed the fragility of long-line global food chains dominated by these corporate giants – chains which effectively suck wealth from the Global South to the richer nations.
This underscores the need for a radical transformation of the prevailing globalised food regime based on a system of agroecology which reduces dependency on external inputs, distant commodity markets and patented technologies. It would help to re-localise production and consumption and boost local economies.
This is precisely what is argued by Prof Michel Pimbert and Colin Anderson of Coventry University in the UK. Unlike corporate-driven trade deals and corporate, centrally controlled hi-tech innovations (people-free farming. drones replacing bees, synthetic lab-based food, etc), they argue:
“Agroecological innovations… are being driven largely from the bottom up by civil society, social movements and allied researchers. In this context, priorities for innovations are ones that increase citizen control for food sovereignty and decentralise power.”
Instead of trade deals hammered out behind closed doors above the heads of ordinary people, the authors state that deliberative, inclusive processes like citizens’ juries, peoples’ assemblies and community-led participatory actions are urgently needed.
And it is these types of processes that should guide all economic sectors, not just agriculture. Processes underpinned by a vision for a better, more just world that can only be delivered by challenging and replacing capitalism, its hegemonic and dispossessive strategies and its international relations of production and consumption, which, by their very nature, fuel the types of human degradation, debt, dependency, displacement and economic plunder we see all around us.