“We Didn’t Bleed Him Enough”: When Normal is the Problem

Illustration by Labani Jangi.

Bloodletting was a common medical treatment for nearly 3,000 years.

It developed around an idea, originating with Hippocrates and later wildly popular in Europe of the Middle Ages: that an imbalance of the four humours of the body – blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile – caused illness. Around 500 years after Hippocrates, Galen declared blood to be the most important humour. These and other ideas driven by surgical experimentation and, often, superstition, led to bleeding the body, ridding it of bad blood, if you like, to save the patient.

Leeches were used for bloodletting, including the medicinal leech Hirudo medicinalis. We will never know how many people lost their lives across 3,000 years to this treatment, how many humans turned corpses, bled to death by the medico-ideological delusions of their doctors. We do know that King Charles II of England had some 24 ounces of blood taken from him before he died. George Washington’s three doctors drained him of copious amounts of blood (on his own request) to cure him of a throat infection – he died soon after.

Covid-19 has given us a brilliant, thorough autopsy of neoliberalism, indeed of capitalism itself. The corpse is on the table, in glaring light, every vein, artery, organ and bone staring us in the face. You can see all the leeches – privatisation, corporate globalism, extreme concentration of wealth, levels of inequality unseen in living memory. The bloodletting approach to social and economic ills that has seen societies drain working people of the basics of decent and dignified human existence.

The 3,000-year-old medical practice reached its peak in Europe in the 19th century. Its discrediting came only with the late 19th and 20th centuries – but the doctrine and practice are still dominant in the disciplines of economics, philosophy, business and society.

Some of the most powerful social and economic doctors around the corpse before us, analyse it much the way doctors in say, medieval Europe, did. As the late Alexander Cockburn, founder editor of CounterPunch, once said, when the Middle Ages medicos lost their patient, they probably shook their heads sadly and said: “We didn’t bleed him enough.” Precisely as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have whined for decades that the horrific damage of their shock and awe treatment, of sometimes near-genocidal structural adjustment – was not because their ‘reforms’ went too far, but because their reforms, alas, did not go far enough, indeed were not allowed to, by the rowdy and great unwashed.

Inequality, the ideologically insane argued, was not such a dreadful thing. It promoted competitiveness and individual initiative. And we needed more of those.

Inequality is now central to any debate we have on the future of humanity. The rulers know this.

For over 20 years now, they’ve been savaging the suggestion that inequality has anything to do with humanity’s problems. Early this millennium, the Brookings Institute warned against this debilitating discussion on inequality. Less than 90 days before Covid-19 swept the world, The Economist magazine, neoliberalism’s Oracle of Delphi, read the chicken entrails before it and ran a bitter cover story: “Inequality Illusions: Why wealth and income gaps are not what they appear.”

Could turn out the most famous last words since Tarzan’s – “who greased the grapevine?”

It then goes on to blast the numbers relating to income and wealth, attempts to discredit the sources of those numbers; says these ridiculous beliefs persist “even in the world of polarisation, fake news and social media.”

Covid-19 has given us an authentic autopsy, debunking the witch doctors of neoliberalism – yet their thinking dominates, the corporate media, who are busy finding ways not to link the destruction of the past three months in any way to capitalism.

How ready we are to discuss pandemics and the possible end of humanity. How reluctant we are to discuss the end of neoliberalism and capitalism.

The search is on for: how quickly can we overcome the problem and “return to normal.” But the problem was not about returning to normal.

The ‘normal’ was the problem. (The cagier of the ruling elites have been bandying about the phrase ‘the new normal’).

The pre-Covid normal – in January 2020, we learned from OXFAM that the 22 richest men in the world had more wealth than all the women in Africa.

That the world’s 2,153 billionaires held more wealth than 60 per cent of the planet’s population.

The new normal: American billionaires, the Institute of Policy Studies, Washington D.C., tells us, added more wealth in just three weeks of the pandemic – $ 282 billion – than the total wealth they held in 1990 ($240 billion).

A normal where billions lived in hunger in a world bursting with food. In India, as of July 22, we had over 91 million metric tons of foodgrain ‘surplus’ or buffer stocks lying with the government – and the highest numbers of the world’s hungry. The new normal? The government distributes very little of that grain free, but sanctions the conversion of huge stocks of rice into ethanol – to make hand sanitiser.

The old normal, back when we had nearly 50 million tons of ‘surplus’ grain lying in the godowns, was neatly summed up by Prof. Jean Dreze in 2001: if all our foodgrain sacks “were lined up in a row, they would stretch for a million kilometres – more than twice the distance from the earth to the moon.” The new normal – that figure reached 104 million tons in early June. Two roads to the moon? One a superhighway for the super-rich, another a dirt track service lane for the migrants who will trudge there to serve them.

The ‘normal’ was an India where full-time farmers fell out of that status at the rate of 2,000 every 24 hours, for 20 years between 1991 and 2011. In other words, the population of full-time farmers in the country fell by 15 million in that period.

Also: 315,000 farmers took their own lives between 1995 and 2018, as the numbers (huge underestimates) of the National Crime Records Bureau show . Millions either became agricultural labourers or migrated out of their villages – since many allied occupations had also died – in search of jobs.

Illustration by Labani Jangi.

The new normal: tens of millions of migrants returning to their villages from the cities and towns following a prime minister giving a nation of 1.3 billion just four hours’ notice to total lockdown. Some have walked over a thousand kilometres, to reach their villages where they had correctly calculated their best chances of survival lay. They have trudged in temperatures in May of 43-47 degrees Celsius.

The new normal is the many millions marching back in search of those livelihoods that we destroyed these past three decades.

Close to 10 million went by trains in the month of May alone – trains organised with the greatest governmental reluctance and only well after a month into the lockdown. The returning migrants, already destitute and starving, were made to pay full fare to the government-owned railways.

Normal was an overwhelmingly private healthcare sector, so expensive that for years, the largest number of individual bankruptcies in the United States came from health expenditure. In India, 55 million human beings fell below the poverty line due to health spending in a single year in this decade.

The new normal: Even greater corporate control over healthcare. And profiteering by private hospitals in countries like India. That includes, among many things, making money off Covid tests. That drive towards greater private control – even as a few capitalist nations like Spain and Ireland nationalised all private health facilities. Like Sweden nationalised banks in the early ’90s, only to nurse and nourish them back to health with public resources and return them to private ownership. Spain and Ireland will most likely do the same with the health sector.

Normal was that indebtedness, of individuals and nations, grew and grew. Guess what the new normal will be?

In many ways, the new normal in India is rather like the old normal. In daily practice, we continue to function as if it is the poor who are the source and the carriers of the virus, not the flying classes who pioneered the globalisation of communicable disease two decades ago.

Domestic violence was always ‘normal’ in tens of millions of Indian households.

The new normal? Even male police chiefs in some states are expressing fears of such violence has risen but is being even more severely under-reported than before, because the ‘perpetrator is now [more] at home’ due to the lockdown.

The normal for New Delhi was that it long ago beat Beijing in the race to be the most polluted capital city in the world. The one pleasant fallout of our present crisis is that the skies over Delhi are cleaner than they have been in decades, with the most dirty and hazardous industrial activity coming to a halt.

The new normal: cut the clean air cacophony. One of the most major moves of our government in the midst of the pandemic was to auction and privatise coal blocks in the country to push for a massive rise in production.

It was always normal that the words climate change were largely absent in public, or political, discourse. Though human agency-led climate change has long devastated Indian agriculture.

The new normal is too often the old normal on steroids.

In state after Indian state, labour laws have been suspended or simply violated. The gold standard of labour law – the 8-hour day – has been scrapped in states that have made it a 12-hour day. In some states, that additional four hours come without payment of overtime. The state of Uttar Pradesh also suspended 38 existing labour laws to strangle any possibility of either organised or individual protest.

Henry Ford was one of the earliest capitalists to adopt the 8-hour day in 1914. The Ford Motor Co. saw profits almost double in the next two years. The smart set had figured out that beyond those eight hours, productivity drops off sharply. The new normal: Indian capitalists who essentially seek what amounts to a proclamation of Bonded Labour by Ordinance. Cheered on by calls from prominent media editors urging us never to “waste a good crisis.” After all, we’ve got those scumbag workers on their knees, they reason. Let loose the leeches. It’s madness to lose this opportunity to ram through ‘labour reforms.’

In agriculture, there’s a scary situation developing. Remember that millions of small and marginal farmers across the Third World shifted to cash crops over the past 3-4 decades, coaxed, coerced, goaded into doing so by typical Bank-Fund formulations: cash crops are exported, are paid for in hard currency – dollars come into your country and liberate you from poverty.

We know how well that went. Small cash crop farmers, especially those in cotton – are the largest single group among farmers’ suicides. A most highly indebted group, too.

Now it gets worse. Much of what we call the rabi crop – harvested normally around March-April – is either lying unsold or, if perishable, has died in the fields due to the lockdown. Millions of quintals of cash crops, including hundreds of thousands of quintals of cotton, sugarcane, and other crops have piled up to the roofs of farmer homes (in cotton at least).

The old normal: deadly fluctuations in prices crippled small cash crop farmers in India and across the Third World. New normal: Who will buy their crops of the ongoing season when those are harvested months from now?

In the words of UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres, “We face the deepest global recession since World War II, and the broadest collapse in incomes since 1870.” The worldwide crash in income and consumption does not exempt India and will very likely devastate cash crop farmers here. Last year, our greatest export market for cotton was – China. Today, relations with China are at their worst in decades and both countries are in trouble. Who will buy the gigantic amounts of cotton, sugarcane, vanilla and other cash crops piling up across many countries including India? At what prices?

And with all that land committed to cash crop, and with raging unemployment – what happens if you run short of food? Guterres warns: “…we could see famines of historic proportions.”

There’s another thing that Guterres said of Covid-19: “It is exposing fallacies and falsehoods everywhere: The lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all; the fiction that unpaid care work is not work.”

Normal: Indian elites can’t stop bragging about their prowess on the internet, our ascendancy as a software superpower, their foresight and brilliance in creating the world’s second super Silicon Valley in Bengaluru, Karnataka. (And besides, it was anyway Indians powering all progress in Silicon Valley I). This narcissism has been the normal about 30 years.

Step outside Bengaluru into rural Karnataka and see the realities recorded by the National Sample Survey: Just 2 per cent of households in rural Karnataka had computers in 2018. (In the much-derided state of Uttar Pradesh, that figure was 4 per cent). A mere 8.3 per cent of rural Karnataka households had any internet facility. And rural Karanataka is home to 37.4 million human beings, or 61 per cent of the state’s population. Bengaluru, Silicon Valley 2, accounts for about 14 per cent.

The new normal is that corporations pushing for ‘online education’ stand to make billions. They already were in the big bucks – but now will double their value very easily. The gigantic exclusion of the marginalised enforced by society, caste, class, gender, and region is now legitimised by the pandemic (can’t stop the kids learning, right?). Stop anywhere in the Indian countryside, including the richest state of Maharashtra, and see how many children own smartphones on which they can download their pdf ‘lessons’. How many actually have access to the net – and if they do, when did they last use it?

Also consider: how many girls are dropping out of school because their bankrupted, newly unemployed parents are unable to pay their fees? It was the old normal, too, to pull girls out of school during a financial crunch, a process now severely accelerated under the lockdown.

The pre-pandemic normal was an India run by an alliance of socio-religious fundamentalists and economic market fundamentalists, happily married partners cohabiting a bed called the corporate media. Many leaders were ideologically comfortable in both camps.

The normal was a Rs. 2 trillion media (and entertainment) industry that for decades didn’t give a damn for the migrants whose movements they were mesmerised and mystified by after March 25. No ‘national’ newspaper or channel had a full-time labour correspondent, nor a full-time farming correspondent (as against the laughably termed ‘agriculture correspondent’, whose job is to cover the agriculture ministry and, increasingly, agri-business). The beats – full time – did not exist. In other words, 75 per cent of the population did not make news.

For weeks after March 25, anchors and editors who wouldn’t know a migrant if he or she kicked them in the teeth, held forth knowledgably on the subject. A few ruefully conceded that we in the media needed to try and tell their stories better. At precisely the same time, corporate owners laid off over 1,000 journalists and media workers – extinguishing any chance of covering the migrants at all with any depth and consistency. Many of these layoffs were planned for long before the pandemic and the worst offenders are amongst the most profitable media companies anywhere – with have huge cash reserves.

The normal by any other name stinks just the same.

Now one man runs the country on a sporadic TV reality show. Every other channel in existence runs this syndicated self-adulation mostly at prime-time. Cabinet, government, Parliament, the courts, legislative assemblies, opposition parties, count for nothing. Our tech wizard status has not enabled us to hold a single day of a single session of Parliament. No. No virtual, online, televised Parliament – nearly 140days into the lockdown. Other nations without an iota of our fabled tech brain-power, have done so, effortlessly.

It may be that in some European countries, governments are trying to revive elements of a welfare state hesitantly or partially that they spent four decades dismantling. In India, it’s the medieval bloodletting approach of our market medicos that prevails. The leeches are out on a loot and grab sortie. They haven’t bled the poor enough. Parasitic worms must do what they evolved to.

What do progressive movements do? They have never accepted the old normal. But they do have something to go back to that’s older – the struggles for justice, equality, and the right to lives of dignity while preserving the planet.

‘Inclusive development,’ is a dead leech you don’t want to revive. The framework is justice, the goal is ending inequality. The process – a variety of routes, some already there, some unexplored, some abandoned – is what we will all agonise over.

Movements of farmers and farm labourers, for instance, are headed for serious trouble if they do not factor in the problems of climate change (which have already devastated agriculture in India); if they do not locate themselves in, and link their battles to, an agroecological approach. Labour movements need to not just fight for a bigger slice of the cake, but pursuer an older abnormal quest, for ownership of the bakery.

Some goals are clear: cancellation of Third World debt, for instance. In India, for ending the indebtedness of our own Fourth World.

Dismantle corporate monopolies. Start by evicting them entirely from Health, Food and Agriculture, and Education.

Movements to force states to a radical redistribution of resources; taxing wealth, even if only of the top 1 per cent, for starters. Taxing multinational corporations that get away with paying almost no taxes. Also by restoring and improving taxation systems that so many countries have steadily dismantled for decades now.

Only mass movements can compel countries to build nationwide universal systems in health and education. We need peoples’ movements around Health Justice, Food Justice, and more – some inspiring ones already exist, but are marginalised in corporate media coverage.

We also need, here and worldwide, to focus on those rights in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that corporate media have simply expunged from public discourse. Articles 23-28, which include ‘the right to form and join trade unions’, the right to work and equal pay for equal work, remuneration that ensures an existence worthy of human dignity, health – and a lot more.

In our country, we need to propagate the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Indian Constitution and make some of those – Right to Work, Right to Education, to Food, and more – justiciable and enforceable. Those are the soul of a Constitution that came out of India’s freedom struggle. More than one ruling of the Supreme Court these past 30-40 years has held that the directive principles are as important as the fundamental rights.

People are more likely to rally around their Constitution and its freedom struggle legacy than around individual manifestos.

For the past 30 years, every Indian government has violated those principles and rights every single day – with the imposition of the Market and the erasure of the Moral. The entire path of ‘development’ was based on exclusions: of people, their involvement, participation, and control.

You cannot fight the present pandemic – let alone those to come – without people’s participation. Kerala’s success in combating the coronavirus is based precisely on the involvement of its people in local committees, in building networks of kitchens supplying many with cheap food; contact tracing, isolating and control – these worked better in that state because of popular participation. There are huge lessons there that go beyond facing up to the perils of this pandemic.

At the heart of any progressive movement is the belief in justice and equality. In the Indian Constitution – ‘Justice, social, economic and political…’ to which, in our times, we must add gender justice as well, and climate justice. The Constitution recognised who the driving force for that justice and equality would be. Not markets, not corporations, but ‘We the People’.

But at the heart of all progressive movements is also an overarching belief in the world not as a finished product but a work in progress – with many setbacks and huge unfinished agendas.

As the legendary freedom fighter Captain Bhau – who turned 97 this June – once told me. “We fought for Independence and Freedom. We achieved Independence.”

As we approach the 73rd anniversary of that Independence, it’s worth fighting for that unfinished agenda of freedom.

Illustrator Labani Jangi, originally from a small town of West Bengal’s Nadia district, is working towards a PhD degree on Bengali labour migration at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. She is a self-taught painter and loves to travel.

This article first appeared in Frontline magazine.

P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org