Capitalism, Crises and Human Life

Picture: citymetric.com

The COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest crisis that has had a major impact on human life. Two other crises are also upon us: the crisis of growing inequality and the environmental crisis. The former places a stress on the fabric of societies and the latter threatens all life on earth. In this paper we trace the roots of all three crises in the structural features of capitalism. In the first section, the relationships between the state, the market and communities are examined in light of the current pandemic. In the second section, we analyse the phenomenon of growing economic inequalities and the inequality of power inherent in the capital labour relation. In the third section, the environmental crisis is traced to the tendencies located in the structure of the capitalist economy. Here we explore the peculiar relationship that capitalism has created between humans and commodities on the one hand and humans and nature on the other.     

State, Market and the People

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on human life. In the capitalist world, the widespread suffering following the outbreak has cast aside the veil of ideology that the market system delivers the ‘maximum good of the maximum number’. What has been revealed is the structure of a mode of production that, left unchecked by democratic government, caters to the needs of the few at the expense of the many. While there are enough high-tech nuclear weapons in the advanced capitalist countries to destroy life, there is a shortage of simple masks, gowns and ventilators to preserve life. In the US during the lockdown, while the rich ensconced in their mansions had enough to enjoy gourmet meals served by liveried waiters, the poor had to stand in long queues for state handouts of food in little brown bags.

 Never before was the inability of the market to deliver public welfare so stark. Never before was the flaw so apparent in the view that the government has only a minimal role as facilitator to the free functioning of markets. The ideological belief that less government is good government led to under-funding of public health infrastructure. In Spain and Italy, for example, hospitals were so overloaded with patients struck by the disease that many had to lie in crowded corridors awaiting treatment. Distraught doctors desperately short of equipment, had to decide which patients to let die and which to try saving.

In the face of the mysterious virus and the lockdown, there was fear and social isolation. At the same time, ordinary people across the world came forward with acts of heroic compassion to affirm their humanity and sense of community. Doctors, nurses and health workers with inadequate personal protective equipment, fought to save the lives of patients, even as hundreds of their colleagues died of the infection. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters volunteered to buy groceries for old people confined to their homes in England or provide rations to the unemployed in Pakistan. Others mobilised charity for those in need in country after country. In India as well as in Pakistan, a wide range of NGOs, charities and other civil society organisations came into action to provide relief to those pushed into hunger by the lockdown. 

 A 99 year old war veteran in England, barely able to walk, undertook to collect a thousand pounds as a donation for the National Health Service by walking a hundred laps of his garden. There was a flood of donations from the UK and 52 other countries and he ended up collecting 37 million dollars. He had touched a nerve with his courage and compassion that brought people together into a community that cared.  

From the terrible experience of the pandemic, three lessons that strike at the foundations of contemporary economic wisdom can be drawn:

First, the market mechanism, contrary to neo-classical theory, currently the dominant paradigm in economics, does not necessarily deliver efficient outcomes in terms of the public good. Worse, in a situation of the unequal distribution of income, it allocates national resources for the production of a basket of goods that may deny an unacceptably large proportion of citizens the minimum goods and services necessary for their health and a dignified life. 

The reason for this misallocation of national resources in terms of the criterion of public welfare, is that need is expressed in the production system as demand only when it is backed by purchasing power. The underprivileged do not have the purchasing power to register an adequate vote for their needs. The lesson therefore is that the market mechanism can no more be used as an exclusive framework of resource allocation for the production of goods and services for society. 

The market is essentially an impersonal coordinating mechanism.[1] It does not work very well (by the criterion of public welfare) as a framework of resource allocation for the production of goods and services in a situation of unequal distribution of income. Left to itself, the market system over time tends to accentuate inequality (see the next section). Thus, the pursuit of public welfare requires that other coordinating mechanisms should also be used, such as the government, local community organisations and civil society.[2] 

Second, the idea derived from mainstream economics that the government has only a marginal role to play in free market-based economies has proven to be invalid. Democratic governments are supposed to aim for the welfare of society as a whole. Yet governments until now have stood by as the market system failed to cater to even the survival needs of many citizens, let alone advance the welfare of all. The pandemic has made people aware that the government, not the market, must take the lead in pursuing the aim of public welfare. The economy must work for all citizens, not just the elite. 

The third lesson of the pandemic is recognition of a fundamental flaw in the assumption of neo-classical economics– that society is atomised and consists of isolated individuals who, without regard to others, pursue their individual material interests. The expression of social responsibility in myriad acts of quiet heroism has demonstrated the simple fact that humans have an essential relatedness with each other. The ‘rationality’ of the individual, as neo-classical theory presupposes, is not just that the individual finds satisfaction exclusively in personal acquisition. Beyond pure selfishness, there are inter-personal considerations, whereby individuals get fulfilment in caring for others and sometimes sacrificing for the community.[3] The collective battle against the pandemic has shown, as so many times before in human history, the importance of society working together to overcome adversity. Therefore, the community and not just the atomised individual, must become a category of analysis in the study of the economy. The community should also become an important consideration in the formulation of economic policy. 

Economic orthodoxy holds that even though in this case the market has failed, such market failures are unusual events and the market system itself normally delivers not only welfare but continuous improvement in the lives of people. This, they argue, has been achieved over the last three hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, through the mostly continuous process of market-based economic growth and the technological change underlying it. In the ensuing analysis we will question this view by examining some of the structural features of capitalism to show how it has systematically generated two phenomena that are inimical to the wellbeing of many and indeed all life: First, the growing inequalities in income and wealth, whereby the elites live in fabulous luxury amidst the misery of millions. Second, the environmental crisis that is undermining life support systems and hence threatening life on planet earth.

Roots of Inequality

During the second half of the twentieth century, it was believed by economics orthodoxy, as indeed by most governments in the capitalist world, that initial inequalities will in time be reduced by market forces as the process of economic growth proceeds. This view was based on the work of Nobel Laureate, Simon Kuznets, who marshalled evidence from a number of countries to argue that inequality would first increase, then as economic growth proceeds, inequality will decline through the market mechanism.[4] Kuznets’ bell-shaped curve showing the relationship between growth and inequality, had a major influence on the design of growth strategies in many underdeveloped countries, especially in Pakistan. Here, it was thought that the size of the cake should first be increased before worrying about inequality. During the decade of the 1960s, the policy makers in Pakistan went a step further and actually initiated policies for a further increase in inequality as a means of maximizing economic growth. This was called the doctrine of ‘Functional Inequality’, whereby, on the assumption that only the rich save and invest, policies were undertaken to make the rich richer, so that high rates of investment, and thereby high rates of economic growth, could be achieved.[5]

Recently, in a seminal study, Thomas Piketty, showed on the basis of data from a large number of countries over a 150-year period that inequality within the market-based system, far from declining over time, has actually increased.[6]Piketty thus put the Kuznets theory to rest, calling it a ‘fairy story’. 

Inequality in the world capitalist economy today has reached a point where the very social fabric and integrity of states could be threatened. According to one estimate, one percent of the world’s population has as much wealth as the rest of the 99 percent put together.[7] While a small global elite lives in fabulous luxury, 821.6 million in the world are hungry (1 in 9 people), and 2 billion people are food insecure.[8]  At the same time, 198.4 million children suffer from malnutrition (stunting and wasting). Capitalism, after three centuries of economic growth, has created a situation where, while the rich live in unprecedented affluence, millions suffer from hunger.    

It can be argued that the tendency of growing inequality that Piketty has observed empirically is rooted in the very structure of the capitalist economy. The fundamental design feature of this structure is the unequal production relationship between the capitalist and the labourer. Bereft of the means of production, the labourer, to survive, has to sell his labour power as a commodity to the capitalist who owns the means of production. Now the unique use value of labour power as a commodity is that it can produce more value than its own. So as the capitalist buys labour power at its market price (the wage), he appropriates the difference between the value of the commodity labour power and the value it produces, that is, surplus value.[9]        

 The existence of surplus value is based on the fact that the labourer does not have the power to negotiate his wage to a point where it would equal the value he produces. The magnitude of the surplus value depends on how much greater the power of the capitalist is relative to the labourer. Over time, the capitalist is able to increase the rate of surplus value by increasing labour productivity through investment in new, more efficient machines that embody new technology. Thus, the capital-labour relationship is essentially a relationship of unequal power.

It can be argued that the increasing share of the return on capital in national income is based on this continued inequality of power in the capital-labour relation. The process of technological change that unfolds within this relationship enhances the power of capital relative to labour, unless labour wields a countervailing power through worker organisations. 

Thus, the growing income inequality apparent in Piketty’s empirical work is in reality located in inequality in the structure of the profit-driven economic growth process. This structural inequality in turn manifests the underlying dialectic of power between capital and labour. This is a dialectic that defines the period of history called capitalism.

Capitalism, the Environment and the Threat to All Life

It is now well established by scientists that in the period since the Industrial Revolution there has been a rapid degradation of the physical environment. There has been pollution of both the surface and groundwater hydrologic systems due to the deposition of industrial waste; increasing infertility of soils due to over use in agriculture production and associated loss of humus in the topsoil. The application of toxic chemical pesticides accentuates soil infertility; and finally, air pollution in urban centres poses a threat to human health. These forms of environmental degradation in themselves have major adverse effects on human life. But what is a matter of the greatest concern to the world community in this context, is the climate crisis, induced by global warming. This has been caused by greenhouse gas emissions of historically unprecedented magnitude.

The landmark Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, led by Mrs. Brundtland in 1986[10], first showed that the physical environment was being damaged due to its unsustainable use by human societies. Later in 2007, the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change published its Fourth Assessment Report, presenting irrefutable evidence to establish two propositions: 

First, global warming has indeed occurred, as “The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least 800,000 years…”[11]  Second, this climatic change was not part of some natural cycle, but was the direct result of human intervention into the physical environment by the levels and forms of production, consumption and waste disposal.

The IPCC Report predicted that global warming would increase the intensity and frequency of extreme climatic events, including more frequent and more devastating floods, droughts and hurricanes. At the same time, mass migrations following climate-related loss of livelihoods, water scarcity and food shortages could result in great human misery and major social disruptions. The changed vectors of diseases following shifts in temperature zones were also predicted to cause significant damage to human health.   

Despite a number of international agreements such as in the Kyoto and Copenhagen climate summits, no serious action was taken to implement commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This was largely due to the concern that creating disincentives to the use of fossil fuel-based technologies may reduce investment and thereby economic growth. Furthermore, the shift to green technologies would involve writing off the investments made in the existing machine stock.[12] Even where the green technology was cheaper than the fossil fuel-based technology the cost of shifting in some cases still make it economically infeasible, allowing greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise rapidly. 

As global warming accelerated, a major summit was held in Paris in December 2015. At this summit, leading scientists stressed to the assembled world leaders that if present trends in emissions remained unchecked, the average global temperatures could increase beyond 2 degrees centigrade by the end of the century. If this happens there could be a catastrophic destabilisation of the life support system of the planet threatening all life on earth. These grim prospects brought a sense of urgency and the leaders resolved to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such that the average global temperature increase by the end of this century would be kept below 1.5 degrees centigrade. 

To achieve the goal of keeping below this ceiling of temperature increase by the end of this century and avoid a climate catastrophe, it was calculated as necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, and this became one of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals (SDGs). What has actually happened since then? If the zero-emission goal by 2050 is to be achieved, there would have to be an average annual reduction of carbon emissions by 3 percent. In actual fact emissions have been steadily rising by 5.3 percent. 

Clearly, the world has moved in the opposite direction to what is required to save life on earth. The question is why? China as well as a number of social democratic countries in Europe have taken significant steps to shift to green technologies, though, even in their case meeting the UN SDGs zero-emission by 2050 target, remains uncertain. The gap between targets and performance so far is much greater in the case of most capitalist countries. In the case of the current US leadership, they are in denial of the fact of global warming and have actually revoked the US commitments made at the 2015 Paris summit.

 It can be argued that such is the desire for more commodities and such is the power of big Capital that any public policy that would threaten the growth of profits and consumption faces strong political constraints. The tendency for a continuous increase in production and consumption we will argue is located in the structure of the capitalist mode of production and the psyche it has fashioned in the process of its expansion.

There are three tendencies that are rooted in the structure of the Capitalist System:

First, the individual firm is placed in a competitive environment, where the imperative of survival is to continuously reinvest a large part of its net profit for expansion of output and further profit. 

Second, in the process of reinvestment, the firm introduces technological change embodied in new machines, with a view to increase labour productivity and thereby the rate of surplus value. This further accelerates the process of growth of output and profits.

The third structural feature is that, as the volume and range of goods expands, a sales effort has to be undertaken to ensure that the goods produced are actually sold. The design of the advertisement sends a subliminal message that influences the psyche of individuals to create a desire for the commodity.[13] At the aggregate level this has created a consumerist culture. Thus, as Marx presciently observed, “The Capitalist system not only produces goods that satisfy needs, but also the needs these goods satisfy.”

Over two centuries of this systematic sales effort, a cultural and individual psyche has been fashioned, whereby the individual is driven by the insatiable desire to buy more and more. A new relationship peculiar to the historical epoch of capitalism has been created between the individual and commodities. Qualities of power, attractiveness, sexuality that are organic to human beings are transposed into commodities. They are then represented not so much in terms of their functional attributes, but are re-presented as embodiments of qualities we originally experienced as our own. A luxury car is not simply a vehicle that takes one from A to B, but is the embodiment of sexual attractiveness, success and status. Thus, in buying commodities the individual essentially is attempting to re-possess himself. These three tendencies underlie the continuous increase in the volume and range of products in capitalist society.

It is the structural imperatives of capital that have fashioned a culture where commodities have a psychic power over individuals. It is such a psyche and the associated political forces that constrain a shift to forms of social life where commodities would be considered ‘merely useful’, as Aristotle observed[14], or ‘mere dust’, as the Sufis suggest.[15] How distant has the world become from nurturing our sense of beauty, truth, and loving kindness towards all creatures as a measure of well-being.

Just as in the case of commodities, a new relationship has been established between humans and nature to suit the needs of capital accumulation. These relationships are divorced from the perennial intellectual tradition of both East and West. Under capitalism, nature has been seen in fragmented terms, as a set of natural resources to be exploited as inputs into the production of commodities. By contrast, in the perennial tradition, nature was seen as a sacred wholeness. It provided through the unity of the ecosystem the material conditions for sustaining our physical life. At the same time, through its harmony, the environment nurtures our sense of beauty and thereby evokes the transcendent.[16] Thus, nature enables humans to live in both the ephemeral and the eternal.   

Given the perception in this epoch of nature as a set of fragmented natural resources, it is not surprising that water systems have been polluted, soils rendered toxic, forests depleted and greenhouse gases built up to a point where global warming is occurring. Few were concerned with this spoliation of nature for three centuries of industrial growth. Even now, when the evidence has become clear that environmental degradation poses a threat to all life, very few countries have acted to meet the agreed goals of emission reduction.

Conclusions

In this paper we have analysed the structural basis of the three major crises confronting human society: the pandemic, the crisis of inequality and the environmental crisis. 

The current health crisis has been examined in terms of the contradictions of capitalism that this crisis has revealed. Three lessons can be drawn from this analysis. First, the market mechanism can no more be used as an exclusive framework of resource allocation for the production of goods. Second, contrary to the prescription of mainstream economics, the market mechanism on its own cannot deliver public welfare. The government has a key role to play in achieving this aim and hence setting the priorities of what is to be produced, how much and for whom. Third, contrary to the dominant economic theory, the functioning of society involves social relationships. Therefore, the community and not just the atomised individual should become a unit of analysis and an important consideration in the design of public policy.

The growing inequalities in capitalist society are traced to the capital-labour relation and the unequal power underlying this relation. The dynamics of the appropriation of surplus value, its continuous reinvestment and associated technological change in the process of capital accumulation, are manifested in growing inequality.

Finally, we have analysed the emergence of the environmental crisis and the failure so far to reduce carbon emissions in terms of the tendency for the continuous increase in the volume and range of commodities that is located in the structure of the capitalist mode of production. In the effort to sell products firms engage in systematic advertisement campaigns that in the aggregate have created a consumerist culture. A particular psyche has been fashioned through this process whereby the individual is driven by an insatiable desire to buy more and more. 

 Given the imperatives to expand production and the single-minded pursuit to increase consumption, nature is seen in fragmented terms as a set of natural resources to be exploited as inputs into the process of production and consumption. 

We conclude by suggesting that such is the power of capital and the consumers’ impulse for increased consumption that any constraint to the expansion of both would be resisted.[17] At the same time, the current struggle by human communities for environmental protection and providing succour to the hungry and the sick provide grounds for hope. The structural basis of each of the three crises faced by humankind suggests that there is a basic conflict of economic interest between the global power elite and the people.

A concomitant of this contradiction is the culture shaped by the imperatives of capital accumulation. This culture is characterised by the fetishism of commodities, the atomisation of society into individuals pitted against each other and the perception of nature as a set of natural of resources to be exploited for commodity production.

An essential feature of the political struggle to confront the interests of the elite with the interests of the people is to build a counter-culture to the culture of capitalism. Such a culture would engender a new relationship between humans, commodities and nature. A culture of relatedness with others within a human community; where commodities are seen as being merely useful and not the embodiment of power; and where nature is experienced as beauty within a sacred wholeness. Such a consciousness can become a material force in the struggle for human liberation to enhance life.

Akmal Hussain, Distinguished Professor, is a development economist and Founding Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Information Technology University, Lahore. akmal.hussain@itu.edu.pk


End Notes

[1] Robert Neild, “Economics in Disgrace: the Need for a Reformation”, Discussion Paper, 01-13, Graduate Institute of Development Studies, Lahore School of Economics, 2013.

[2] Ali Jan and Fahd Ali, “Beyond the Market: Polanyian Reflections on Economics in the Time of COVID-19”, (ITU Webinar Talk, May 9, 2020).

[3] Akmal Hussain, “Capitalism Consciousness and Development,” Economic Theory and Policy Amidst Global Discontent, eds. Ananya Ghosh Dastidar, Rajeev Malhotra and Vivek Suneja (Oxford: Routledge, 2018).

[4] Simon Kuznets, “Economic Growth and Income Inequality,” The American Economic Review, 45, no. 1 (1955): 1-28.

[5] Akmal Hussain, “Institutions, Economic Structure and Poverty in Pakistan”, South Asia Economic Journal, 5, no. 1, (January-June 2004). 

[6] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[7] Winnie Byanyima, “Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016”, Oxfam, January 19, 2015.  https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressreleases/richest1willownmoreallrest2016

[8] Food and Agriculture Organizaton, “World hunger is still not going down after three years and obesity is still growing.” United Nations, July 15, 2019. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1200484/icode/

[9] Karl Marx, Capital, Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Volume I, ed. Frederick Engels (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1954), 204-20.

[10] Gro Harlem Brundtland, “Our Common Future”, UN World Commission on Environment and Development, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[11] Climate Change, The Physical Science Basis, Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, 2007, 2

[12] For a detailed discussion of the economic constraints to green technology adoption, see: Akmal Hussain, “Capitalism, Consciousness and Development”, Chapter 3, pages 48-49, in Ananya Ghosh Dastidar et. al. (eds), Economic Theory and Public Policy Amidst Global Discontent, (Oxford: Routledge, 2018).

[13] Akmal Hussain, “Commodities and the Displacement of Desire”, Daily Times, November 28, 2002

[14] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).

[15] Shah Hussain, the 18th century Sufi Poet who said in one of his Kafis, “Lakh crore jinnaan de jurria, so bhi jhoori jhoori”, or “Even those who have accumulated large sums of money, that too is mere dust.” (Trans.), Kaafian Shah Hussain, Majlis Shah Hussain, Lahore, 1966.

[16] Akmal Hussain, The Eternal in the Ephemeral, (Lahore: Topical Printers, 2014). See particularly the seminal works on this subject: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature, (Chicago: Kazi Publications Inc., 2007) and Man and the Order of Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). 

[17] I am grateful to Dr. Zafar Shaheed as well as the editors for helpful comments that led me to elaborate this conclusion. However, any errors of omission or commission are the responsibility of the author alone.


The Roots of Pakistan’s Food Crisis

Picture: Flickr.com

By Hashim Bin Rashid and Mohsin Abdali

Millions of Pakistanis have been pushed into hunger with the COVID-19 lockdown. The first cases of COVID-19 began to be diagnosed in Pakistan in the midst of a two-year assault on the country’s economy by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose tenure had already been responsible for over a million jobs lost across the country[1], began to play the populist card: Pakistan’s poor cannot afford a lockdown.

Cheap food under attack

This was not the line that the government took when it enforced a deliberate contraction of the country’s economy immediately after taking power. Alongside bringing the real GDP down by 30 percent in a single year and handing over control of fiscal policies to the IMF’s man in Egypt, the PTI government began an assault on cheap food in the country.

Only months after taking power, in December 2018, the PTI government announced a plan to close 1,000 Utility Stores across the country.[2] In particular, it is the assault on Utility Stores that shows why the state is unable to step in to provide food to the most impoverished members of society amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. Created in the early 1970s, Utility Stores played a crucial role in maintaining cheap food supplies to the country’s growing population amidst mass rural displacement that came after the Green Revolution. Since the announcement of the closure of Utility Stores, its employees have remained locked in the battle for survival. While the Minister for Planning, Asad Umar, was announcing ways for the public to order online deliveries from Utility Stores, all Utility Stores across the country went on strike on April 24, despite the lockdown, to continue their struggle for unpaid wages and the future of cheap food for Pakistan’s poorest citizens.

In the next fiscal year the government allowed the consumer price of wheat to begin spiraling upwards,[3] culminating in the high wheat and sugar prices of January. Months of profiteering from essential commodities culminated in a surprisingly candid inquiry report by the Federal Investigation Agency, which held that key government officials were beneficiaries of the price manipulation. Amongst those named are Minister of Food Security, Khusro Bakhtiar, head of the PM’s Agricultural Emergency committee, Jehangir Tareen, and member of the ruling alliance, Moonis Elahi.[4] The named agro-industrial capitalists, who control agro-processing and storage to the detriment of wheat and sugarcane growers, were able to benefit by lobbying for a subsidy for sugar and wheat exports, while also benefiting from the resulting high domestic prices of processed sugar and wheat by creating an artificial shortage in these essential food items across the country. The report confirms that wheat prices spiked despite 21 million metric tonnes of wheat being present in storage.

Hunger and malnutrition before COVID-19

The PTI government’s dual attack on cheap food is the context in which the COVID-19 lockdown began. With the public distribution system under threat and prices of essential food items spiraling out of control, millions of unemployed workers have been left to fend for themselves. It is clear that the government’s policies were bent towards crippling the already tense balance in Pakistan’s food system.

The irony that PM Imran Khan chose to talk in his inaugural address about the malaise of malnutrition remains a serious contradiction to the government’s actual policies. Instead of targeting the structural causes of impoverishment and malnutrition, Khan announced a ‘domestic poultry’ plan. Somehow domestic poultry was supposed to step in while food prices increased by at least 20 percent in a single year.[5] The failed policy continued to deliberately misunderstand why millions continue to go hungry across the country.

The National Nutrition Survey conducted in 2018[6] shows that one in five Pakistanis faces severe hunger. The World Food Programme in 2017 estimated that 68 percent of families in Pakistan cannot afford a diet that is adequate from a nutritional point of view. This is in addition to the fact that one in five households in the country has experienced external shocks, such as floods, drought and displacement, which have severely affected their annual food intake.[7] Around two-thirds of households in the country suffer from malnutrition, with there being a sharp difference in child stunting in rural areas at around 43 percent compared to 34 percent in urban areas.

Why Pakistan’s food system does not work

Such remarkably dire numbers are not new to Pakistan. The egalitarian myth of ‘peasant agriculture’ ushered in by British colonial rule did not correspond to a rural countryside shaped by landlords, tenants, exploited small farmers and a large mass of agricultural labourers. Net increases in grain production in colonial agrarian settlements in the Indus and Peshawar valleys were offset by large landholdings, high agrarian taxes, a highly unequal rural society, and export-oriented agrarian markets. Food producers continued to go hungry amongst the lush green fields of colonial agrarian settlements.

These colonial agrarian settlements became the ground on which the national food system of Pakistan was built. The new state continued to follow the same model of agrarian expansion as new agrarian frontiers were opened up in Sindh, Balochistan and the Seraiki Wasaib in the 1960s. Many still continue to think of the development of ‘national agriculture’ in the 1950s and 60s along this model successful in solving the ongoing food shortages across the country. However, even the doubling of grain yields in the post-Green Revolution period did little for most of the country’s rural and (growing) urban, labouring poor.[8]

While small and large food producers remained reliant on agrarian markets for at least a century and a half, the post-Green Revolution period was marked by a remarkable increase in market dependency for a range of agrarian inputs, including seeds, fertilizers, machinery and pesticides. The Green Revolution set off a process of de-peasantisation through evictions and mechanisation, which led to the loss of land and base subsistence for millions across the country.[9] The result was the creation of a large surplus population, producing a crisis that was resolved through state-supported mass migration to the Gulf and incorporation, within growing urban populations, of the poor into menial jobs in Pakistan. Already food insecure populations were left even more food insecure.

COVID-19 hits the working class

The fact remains that Pakistan’s food system does not work and has only further deteriorated under the coronavirus crisis. The large surplus populations expelled from rural life found a semblance of refuge in informal sector employment. Even before the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, major textile factories began factory closures– a ripple effect of the collapse of the European market. Factories continue their practice of enforcing long-standing anti-union policies and employing labour without contracts, foreboding a wider sectoral collapse and mass unemployment. The closure of textile factories means the closure of all forms of processing, all the way down to power loom workers, cotton farmers and cotton pickers. With the cotton plantation starting in April, we should prepare for another crash in cotton cultivation as farmers expect low demand. This in turn will translate into a major decrease in on-farm labour hiring during the cotton harvest starting in the autumn.

The urban proletariat and agricultural workers are united in their deepening misery due to the collapse of the cotton-textile chain. The story is the same across all economic sectors. With many so-called formal workers being put out of work, it would not be outlandish to suggest that most of Pakistan’s 73.3 percent of the informal labour force has been left without a source of income. The situation in urban centres is desperate, and the sight of the urban working class on the streets has driven fear into the hearts of the well-to-do professional and elite classes.

Many remember the food riots of 2008 across Pakistan. The emergence of such a situation once again is not a remote possibility, with the food supply for the upper middle and elite classes in Pakistan remaining largely undisrupted while the urban poor are staring starvation in the face. Grocery stores that supply the middle and elite classes have continued to remain open, while informal food vendors on carts, which supply the urban poor, have been unable to operate freely across the country due to the mobility restrictions. Instances of food looting have also begun to rise[10] as the state continues to play virtually no role in alleviating the misery of those starving amidst the pandemic. While its security apparatus has enforced lockdowns by force[11], the Pakistani state is playing a limited role in food distribution to the most vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 hits the farmer

Agriculture has arguably been the worst hit sector in the economy, and remains the most crucial requirement for ensuring the population continues to be fed and that industries have labour to function. The agricultural sector is responsible for a significant portion of the income of over half of Pakistan’s population[12], a significant portion of industrial inputs and almost all of the country’s food supply.

Pakistan has already been in the midst of an agrarian crisis for over a decade, with the previous two governments declaring an ‘Agricultural Emergency’ in the country. Agriculture has suffered amidst a longstanding ecological crisis that goes at least as far back as the colonial agrarian settlement process. This is a crisis that has only intensified. More crucial has been the disruption of whatever limited forms of subsistence crop production existed over the last century and a half. The situation has become even more acute in the last two decades as the prices of agricultural inputs have continued to rise far beyond meagre increases in the price of crops.

This dire situation is the context in which Pakistan’s agricultural producers entered the COVID-19 lockdown. The complete shutdown of agricultural trading markets, especially those that purchase outputs from farmers, has led to significant losses for farmers. With the movement of goods suspended, crops ready for harvest, including grain, have been left to rot in the fields.[13] Not only does this translate into immediate losses for farmers, but it means that Pakistan’s traditional bumper wheat stock is no longer likely to be available. Instead, once the lockdown-enforced shortages are over, the country will have to prepare for at least another year of shortages in essential grains. More expensive-to-produce vegetables have been left to perish in the fields, which, beyond the losses to farmers, have also led to a major reduction in the diversity of food available to rural and urban populations.[14]

While the shortfall in supply of food to major markets could have been expected to increase the price of essential food items, the situation has been found to be the inverse. The collapse in demand through joblessness and the closure of all kinds of food sellers has brought the price of many food items to rock bottom. Even pre-coronavirus, small farmers across Pakistan received lower prices due to their limited ability to transport their produce from farm to market. In lockdown conditions, the entire network of agricultural trade found itself in limbo.[15] For the food traders continuing to operate, this has opened a space for further exploiting small farmers by paying them far below the price the food items will be sold for in the market. Reports continue to emerge of multinational companies buying milk from farmers at one-third of the normal purchase price, while continuing to supply milk to urban centres at the same rates as before.

Amongst food producers at risk of collapse is commercial poultry, which relies on the unsustainable mass production of chickens for the market. With spiking coronavirus cases and deaths amongst meatpackers globally, the unsafe working conditions of butchers and meatpackers is evident. Beyond unsafe working conditions, workers along these supply chains are suffering due to the crisis. In Pakistan, the lockdown brought the price of chicken in the market down from over Rs250 per kg to Rs90 per kg, while demand has continued to shrink. Reports indicate that hatcheries let chicks die and destroyed eggs with poultry farms unwilling to take in new supplies.[16] Industrial meat production continues to be particularly vulnerable to pandemics; millions of birds had to be culled in 2007 due to the spread of bird flu.[17] While industrial meat farming in Pakistan continues to suffer from the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it also remains acutely vulnerable to new pandemics.

The forced return home of millions of unemployed workers has created surplus labour in the countryside for the first time in decades. Farmers who often complain of labour shortages during harvest seasons face a unique season where labour is available, but agricultural markets are more difficult to access.[18] They have no incentive to harvest their crops with food demand collapsing. One could take the romantic view that this mass return of urban labour signifies that the so-called ‘moral economy’ of the village is the last refuge of the poor, where there will somehow be subsistence in the villages for the returning landless population. But the reality is that surplus labour in villages is unlikely to be fed if food crops are not harvested and commercial crops are not sold. While there is a theoretical possibility of some form of solidarity economy emerging, as has been seen with reports of small-scale revival of barter practices in parts of India, there are significant barriers to such practices emerging in a context where agricultural inputs and labour are increasingly monetised out of necessity. The reality is that most rural households, including small and middle peasants, are net buyers of food. This means that while cultivators have access to some non-marketised food, a range of factors such as the choice of crops, size of landholdings, amount of debt incurred, and household livestock are critical in shaping the ability of particular farmers to withstand the crisis.

A permanent ecological pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the ecological ‘pandemic’ that has been brewing in Pakistan’s agriculture since the mid-20th century. Pakistan’s agricultural system is not just vulnerable due to high market dependency; it has been suffering due to the growing ecological crisis in the mode of agrarian production in the country. There is little doubt that this has to do with the agro-industrial mode of agrarian production that has depleted soil and water tables across the country, reduced biodiversity, promoted monocultures, and spreads poison in the form of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers across the rural landscape. The Green Revolution fundamentally altered the relationship of farmers and peasants to land and livestock, where the logic of productivity supersedes the logic of sustainability. Major crops, such as cotton, continue to suffer bouts of disease and pest infestations, which have become increasingly intense since the move to BT cotton.[19]

The ecological threat to agriculture has become more severe due to external changes, such as changing weather patterns and global locust swarms. Unseasonal rains continue to severely damage wheat harvest season after season. Once again, the standing wheat crop is set to be damaged by severe off-season rains. This is to say nothing of the cycles of floods and droughts that continue to impact large parts of the country every year. The major locust attacks sweeping from southern Punjab to Sindh last year have returned once again[20] and will continue to return as decades of pesticide use destroyed entire populations of insect-eating birds and animals. Natural resistance to pests has broken down, while chemical pesticides remain limited in their ability to counter new pest and disease infestations.

A food system on the brink of collapse

The return of surplus populations to rural Pakistan is only adding more mouths to feed in a food system that has not worked for food producers, let alone the rest of the country’s population. The situation is reminiscent of Amartya Sen’s work confirming that major famines occurred in times of bulk production due to market failures. The World Food Programme recently issued apocalyptic warnings of a famine of ‘biblical proportions’. The prospects for economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 situation are already bleak in a global sense. In this context, Pakistan’s truncated economy faces particularly significant challenges following two years of the PTI-IMF austerity governance in the country.

Austerity-led economic compression will combine with the expected post-pandemic compression to create mass joblessness. The ability of major export-dependent industrial sectors to recover depends on quick demand recovery in Europe, which is unlikely to be the case as jobs shrink and wages are compressed globally once the COVID-19 lockdowns come to a close. The inability of industries to recover would have a severe impact on agriculture, where both the textile and leather sectors are crucial spaces for agrarian producers to sell their products. Moreover, there is a serious question over whether workers, even those on highly exploitative informal contracts, will be able to get back to work if industries and businesses do not reopen.

This, combined with the short-term and long-term losses suffered by both small peasant and larger capitalist producers, is already eroding whatever resilience access to cultivable land provides them. Market dependence is a poisoned chalice for small farmers in the best of times. The COVID-19 lockdowns mean crop surpluses are either stuck in the fields or being sold at severely truncated prices. The percentage of the wheat crop that ends up being harvested in Pakistan will provide us clues regarding whether the World Food Programme’s apocalyptic predictions of famine will come true. It is clear, however, that the risks are severe in a food system that has produced hunger and malnutrition across the rural-urban spectrum even when it was supposed to be working.

Is there a path out of this?

There are two tendencies of how to emerge out of this situation. Mainstream solutions propose more of the same failed approach. Such measures continue to suggest the intensification of processes that are increasing the vulnerability of food producers. Proposals include increasing market integration for farmers, promoting building of cold storage and promoting the growing of more commercial crops to serve the global agro-industrial agenda.[21] Such solutions continue to replicate the hubris by the private sector, World Trade Organisation and a motley crew of so-called ‘free trade’ supporting countries of the global North that benefit from the dumping of grains and surplus milk in the global South and importing cheap food from the South.[22]

These ideas are out of place in a time when many countries around the world are looking to ‘re-nationalise’ their food systems. It is clear that when Europe closed borders to all during the COVID-19 lockdown, it continued to protect its agriculture through the import of Eastern European agricultural labour. It is clear that the COVID-19 lockdown has exposed the disastrous state of neoliberal agro-industrial food systems. This is a food system that not only fails to protect the social, economic, and political rights of those involved in agriculture, it has failed to fulfill its core task: providing food to the world’s population.

The collapse of the globalised food system in the face of COVID-19 has forced a return of ‘food nationalism’.[23] There are important lessons to be drawn from the last era of food nationalism that came out of the anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and ‘60s. The key question now, as was the key question then, is whose voices will shape the future of our food systems? In the 1960s, the heyday of peasant movements across the formerly colonised world, agronomists from the anti-communist North won the debate through the mechanisms of World Bank loans and the programmes designed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Newly independent countries that had been looted by their colonisers were too reliant on external loans and external expertise to be able to chart a path that could break the chains of the neo-colonial networks of global trade. Green Revolutions were implemented, which for a time seemed to reward farmers with more produce and states, struggling to produce enough food for their own populations, with food surpluses. This short-term boom was swiftly followed by the collapse of the international price of primary agricultural commodities, which was and remains controlled in the global North. Food nationalism was dead, as trade deficits were filled with international debts and forced liberalisation of economies of the global South via the IMF in the 1990s.

COVID-19’s impact on food systems has raised serious questions about ‘food nationalism,’ in particular the ability of the state to deliver the end of hunger. As noted, the current crisis has been made more severe by the Pakistani government’s own assault on cheap food. Moreover, the disruptions in food supplies moving from farm-to-market and market-to-consumer have occurred within the national economic borders. Pakistan’s national food systems continue to suffer from the assault of austerity and profiteering. While the failure of the state to provide food to all within its borders is not always bound to repeat itself, it is clear that the current state formation as well as the national food system are unable to feed the most vulnerable populations in the country. Moreover, the market dependence of farmers and peasants has meant that crops are being wasted, rather than distributed among the mass surplus labour populations that have returned to the villages. While there might still be some food that reaches these workers, unemployed urban workers have been forced to rely on charity and begging to make ends meet.

The mass return to the rural areas raises serious questions about the binary relationship between urban and rural space that has traditionally underpinned how we think about food systems. The working class has long oscillated between these two spaces in order to secure the means of its reproduction. Any path forward must be oriented toward securing a path for the reproduction of workers in both urban and rural spaces. While urban habitations might not be able to become self-sustaining in food supply, urban planners would do well to incorporate provisions for urban farms within working class settlements. The rural world needs to be transformed on the basis of two principles: land redistribution and localisation. One cannot operate without the other if we are to build a food system that can feed our population – especially in times of crisis.

Those charting a path to eliminate hunger today face two choices: to follow the failed policies of the ‘globalisation of food’ lobby or to heed the voice of the global ‘food sovereignty’ movement anchored in the peasant movements of our age. La Via Campesina South Asia, which brings together over twenty major peasant movements in the region, is one of the voices on the ground that has offered detailed proposals on how to mitigate the immediate impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and principles to transform our food system to protect peasants and workers beyond the current crisis.[24] 

It is clear that the path to agrarian reform must be charted on a new basis, with some principles from the peasant movements that were prematurely abandoned in the 1970s, and some from the peasant movements of our age. We must revive the slogan of ‘Land to the People’ in a time in which hundreds of millions of workers have returned to their villages to stare mass hunger in the face due to the absence of land ownership. It is also time to build a new peasant-worker solidarity, based on the recognition of the shared relationship between land, labour and food that the lockdown has reminded us is the beating heart of our food system. We must look to the principles of peasant agroecology[25] for a new ecological principle to organise agrarian production that can avoid ecological catastrophe in our agricultural systems. Finally, solidarity must replace profit as the principle that organises our food systems and our economy if we are to avoid mass hunger.

Hashim Bin Rashid is writing a doctorate on peasant movements in Punjab at SOAS, London. He works with the Pakistan Kissan Rabta Committee.

Mohsin Abdali is doing MPhil research in Agricultural Studies at Punjab University, Lahore. He is a founding member of Progressive Students Collective, Student Herald and Agrarians Collective. 


End Notes

[1] Siddique, S., 2019. Contrary to slogans of job creation, unemployment on the rise in Pakistan. The Express Tribune, [online] Available at: <https://tribune.com.pk/story/2088407/2-contrary-slogan-job-creation-unemployment-rise-pakistan/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

The PTI government’s unemployment figures have been challenged by industry experts and independent economists.

[2] Bhutta, Z., 2018. As losses mount, ministry suggests shutting 1,000 utility stores. The Express Tribune, [online] Available at: <https://tribune.com.pk/story/1677671/2-losses-mount-ministry-suggests-shutting-1000-utility-stores/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[3] Hassan, M., 2019. Regulatory lacunas let the wheat price test new highs in Punjab. The News, [online] Available at: <https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/487864-regulatory-lacunas-let-the-wheat-price-test-new-highs-in-punjab&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[4] Raza, S., 2020. Sugar crisis probe report leaves ruling alliance red-faced. Dawn, [online] Available at: <https://www.dawn.com/news/1546520/sugar-crisis-probe-report-leaves-ruling-alliance-red-faced&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[5] Saeedi, T., 2020. Inflation jumps to near 8 years high of 12.67pc on food cost. The News, [online] Available at: <https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/578633-inflation-jumps-to-near-8-years-high-of-12-67pc-on-food-cost&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[6] UNICEF, 2019. National Nutrition Survey Report 2019. [online] Available at: <https://www.unicef.org/pakistan/media/1951/file/Final%20Key%20Findings%20Report%202019.pdf&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[7] Fill the Nutrient Gap, Pakistan: WFP. Summary Report, 2017 [online] Available at: <https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000040001/download/&gt;

[8] Niazi, Tarique, 2004. “Rural poverty and the green revolution: the lessons from Pakistan.” Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 31, no. 2: 242-260.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pakistan Observer, 2020. Truck carrying food looted in Hyderabad. [online] Available at: <https://pakobserver.net/truck-carrying-food-looted-in-hyderabad/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[11] Baloch, S., 2020. Pakistan doctors beaten by police as they despair of ‘untreatable’ pandemic. The Guardian, [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/09/pakistan-doctors-beaten-police-despair-untreatable-pandemic&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[12] World Bank, 2020. Employment in agriculture (% of total employment) (modeled ILO estimate) – Pakistan. [online] Available at <https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS?locations=PK&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020]

[13] Latif, A. and Niazi, S., 2020. COVID-19 lockdown sparks harvest crises in Pakistan, India. Asia-Pacific, [online] Available at: <https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/covid-19-lockdown-sparks-harvest-crises-in-pakistan-india/1799536&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[14] While hunger is the more immediate and serious concern, there is also an ongoing nutritional crisis which is likely to further manifest due to the lack of diverse food choices in the COVID-19 months.

[15] Actioncontrelafaim.org, 2020. COVID-19 could cause the collapse of Pakistan’s food system. [online] Available at: <https://www.actioncontrelafaim.org/en/headline/covid-19-could-cause-the-collapse-of-pakistans-food-system/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[16] Pakistan Today, 2020. Poultry farmers seek govt’s help amid COVID-19 crisis. [online] Available at: <https://profit.pakistantoday.com.pk/2020/04/27/poultry-farmers-seek-govts-help-amid-covid-19-crisis-2/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[17] The New Humanitarian, 2007. Government plays down bird flu risk. [online] Available at: <http://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/report/70051/pakistan-government-plays-down-bird-flu-risk&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020]

[18] Latif, A. and Niazi, S., 2020. COVID-19 lockdown sparks harvest crises in Pakistan, India. Asia-Pacific, [online] Available at: <https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/covid-19-lockdown-sparks-harvest-crises-in-pakistan-india/1799536&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[19] BT cotton is a genetically modified form of cotton, which is supposed to be resistant to bollworms.

[20] Zayauddin, M., 2020. Is Covid-19 overshadowing locust threat to food security?. Dawn, [online] Available at: <https://www.dawn.com/news/1550582/is-covid-19-overshadowing-locust-threat-to-food-security&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[21] Jamal, S., 2020. How will COVID-19 affect Pakistan farmers, food system?. Gulf News, [online] Available at: <https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/pakistan/how-will-covid-19-affect-pakistan-farmers-food-system-1.71196910&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[22] In a meeting of the Committee on World Food Security on the Voluntary Guidelines on Food System and Nutrition on April 15, 2020.

[23] Ashraf, M., 2020. Pakistan’s exports in the post-Covid global marketplace. The Express Tribune, [online] Available at: <https://tribune.com.pk/story/2211764/6-pakistans-exports-post-covid-global-marketplace/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[24] See  La Via Campesina South Asia, 2020. COVID 19: Urgent support needed for rural poor, migrants, and urban workers says La Via Campesina South Asia. [online] Availabe at: <https://southasiaviacampesina.org/2020/04/05/covid-19-urgent-support-needed-for-rural-poor-migrants-and-urban-workers-says-la-via-campesina-south-asia/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[25] Nyéléni, M. 2017. Declaration Of The International Forum For Agroecology. Foodsovereignty.org. [online] Availabe at: <https://www.foodsovereignty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Download-declaration-Agroecology-Nyeleni-2015.pdf&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[25] Nyéléni, M. 2017. Declaration Of The International Forum For Agroecology. Foodsovereignty.org. [online] Availabe at: <https://www.foodsovereignty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Download-declaration-Agroecology-Nyeleni-2015.pdf&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

A Left Strategy Against Coronavirus in Pakistan

Dr Ammar Ali Jan and Zahid Ali

Concentration of crisis

We are passing through one of the gravest crises faced by humanity to which no one can afford to be indifferent and neutral. It is clear that the crisis is exacerbated due to the priorities of our ruling elites, who relentlessly pursue fantasies of regional domination rather than the welfare of the public. We have tanks, missiles, even a nuclear arsenal, but do not have enough beds, ventilators and medicine for our patients.

The state is in crisis, due to an accumulation of structural weaknesses and lack of political will. There is confusion and disarray in nearly every sector of social life, as the patriarch guardian of our civilization, the state, has revealed itself to be incompetent and cruel in the most pressing of times. Our society, for all intents and purposes, is passing through a stateless existence in the midst of an emergency. The essential work being carried out by health-workers is despite the presence of the state, not due to it.

Many are suggesting that we should come together in this moment of crisis and forget our political differences. However, a problem transforms into a crisis precisely due to the lack of preparedness, inadequacy of resources and infrastructural apartheid that are political choices made by our ruling elites over the years. This crisis reflects the utter bankruptcy of their policies as they put the very survival of the human race in question.

Budget for the fiscal year 2019-20

Moreover, the most important decisions of our lives are made precisely in moments of crisis. Yet, these decisions are completely overtaken by governments in the pockets of vulture capitalists, military hawks, and unaccountable technocrats. Rulers insist that ordinary people should avoid politics during a crisis. Yet, if key decisions pertaining to our future are taken during these emergencies, it is essential for us to think about the crisis politically, rather than surrendering our right to political engagement.

The coronavirus is not a politically neutral issue. As one of the gravest threats to modern civilization, it has emerged as the most concentrated expression of the social, economic and political contradictions that shape our global order. We cannot treat it as an aberration in the generally smooth functioning of the system. More health crises are looming, while a climate catastrophe threatens the very fabric of our existence. There is no point of return from these crises.

A new world has to be built on a set of shared values and practices distinct from those of the present. This is why populist demands such as Basic Income and free utilities are essential but inadequate, as the system is not geared towards fulfilling them. Therefore, the Left should not only bombard the system with rational demands deemed impossible by the system, we must also construct a long-term strategy to reorient theory and practice. The existing political institutions of the Left (and the Right) are inadequate to meet the challenges of our time. We must develop a new language and a practice of socialism if we are not to be overwhelmed by the persistent immediacy of the multiple crises we face.

Coronavirus is the Representation of the Crisis

A doctor of the Red Cross China said “we have to stop the time; we have to stop all economic activity”. There is something ironic, yet true about this statement. Unconsciously the doctor is acknowledging that we have to stop the flow of the capitalist mode of time, which only functions when there is unbridled accumulation of capital, circulation of commodities and ruthless mechanical exploitation of workers. In other words, if we want to stop further spread of COVID19, we have to completely halt the circulation of commodities and immobilize the production process. Very simply, a house of cards has fallen. An entire world of illusions, self-deceptions, and sophistries has died. We’ve come to the end of a very long string. The crisis due to the unbridled circulation of commodities was already there. COVID 19 just exposed the charade that is the market economy.  

Dr Usama Riaz: The front line medic from Gilgit-Baltistan who passed away on 22nd March after contracting corona virus in the line of duty

First, we should be very clear that what we are looking at is not a “recession”. It is not a “financial crisis”. This coronavirus pandemic is a profound dislocation of the essential components of economic and social life itself. If it is not addressed in such terms – if, instead, like the Imran Khan government, we try and treat this as something that can be managed in a normal setting and expect that the hot weather will kill the virus – we will find ourselves facing hundreds of thousands of deaths, as the government’s own modelling shows. To avoid this dire outcome, normal economic and social life must change fundamentally. What was normal economic and social life in Pakistan before this?

For the middle and elite classes, it was a normal life where they have very well defined routines and the resources to live happily in this country. But for the working classes life prior to the emergence of COVID 19 was already a nightmare. Formal workers were agitating for minimum wage, social security and proper safety at workplaces, while the informal and contractual workers were fighting on a day to day basis, knowing that at any time their factory, workshop or educational institution could fire them without notice or warning. So when we say that to avoid COVID 19, we have to fundamentally change normal social and economic life. What we are saying is that we have to change the ruthless way of life of the capitalist economy in which workers are disposable beings. If the capitalists in cahoots with the Pakistani State still think that they can just close down factories, businesses and other production processes without caring for the lives of working poor of this country then there will be two fundamental implications.    

The first implication of this refusal of care would be on the public health task of demobilizing much of the economy, through social isolation and self-distancing. Until the virus has peaked and the immediate crisis has passed, it will become near impossible to place society, in effect, in something like a state of hibernation for the necessary time period to slow the spread of the virus. If workers do not get proper health facilities, food cards and basic income they will not be able to stay in homes. They will try to come out to find work opportunities, which will further prolong the pandemic. In a way this pandemic is proving that the only way quarantined life for an unforeseeable future in Pakistan or anywhere else would work, if the working poor have all the resources required to stay home in self-isolation. Because, as we know, securing a public health goal requires getting money into people’s hands so that they can socially distance and self-isolate with security, and without the need to work unnecessarily.

For an economy with large numbers of insecure, uninsured, temporary, daily wagers and part-time workers to receive health care alongside universal basic payments, we need radical redistribution of wealth. In this whole COVID19 crisis, workers and working class families are already becoming the biggest losers. Clothing brands like Limelight, Generations and Outfitters are closing their factories without giving workers their salaries or even paid leave, with many being laid off entirely.

This is just the start of a long unknown crisis. It is of fundamental importance that besides asking for basic income, we form self-help, community committees, because in the coming days things will be much more difficult. 

The second implication of the State’s refusal and incapacity to help workers follows that if the State fails to provide workers with mandatory paid leave, food cards and complete health facilities, then in the coming months, despite curfews, lockdowns and quarantine, workers will be on the streets agitating and demanding for the mere basic necessities that one needs to continue bare life– food, shelter, income and health facilities. If other factories, businesses and workplaces follow the example set by Limelight and Generations, soon workers of Pakistan will be left asking the fundamental, existential question, “What is our place in this newly quarantined reality?”

We must keep in mind that coronavirus is a concentration of multiple crises that include broken health-care and education systems, absence of minimum wages and social security, continuous dehumanization of workers and an overdeveloped rentier state. The working poor of this country were already challenging the immediate structures of oppression in the form of workers strikes, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, women, students and peasants marching for their rights. The current crisis due to limitations on the circulation of capital will propel workers to go beyond the mere negation of the immediate structures of oppression to pose the fundamental question, “What kind of human relations exist under a neoliberal capitalist society?” This second negation (negation of the negation) of the whole capitalist economy has revolutionary implications.   

Good Governance or Dual Power?

Many commentators view the crisis as simply a case of neglect and bad governance. There is no doubt that the incompetence of the current regime has only amplified the threat due to its indecision. Yet, in the previous section, we explained how the crisis is not simply one of specific policies, but the general orientation of our state and political economy. More importantly, there is no normal that we can return to, considering that the state will only accelerate exploitation of workers to pay for the crisis.

Therefore, in the absence of a viable governance model, we must begin imagining alternative forms of being and belonging that do not correspond to the logic of capital accumulation and the state. This requires working both with the government (it would be foolish to completely dismiss the government during this crisis) but also seek new spaces of solidarity beyond the state. This requires building networks of care in the areas abandoned by the state, particularly working class neighborhoods.

What could such solidarity look like? It requires building functional self-help and volunteer teams in spaces where the state is absent to spread awareness, provide food and shelter to the most vulnerable, raise voice for those wronged by employers, and coordinate between health workers and the community.

The aim of such activity cannot simply be charity-derived out of feelings of pity for the poor. We must think of these practices politically, as we endeavor to build a world beyond the limits imposed by capitalism.  We should aim to build an entire network of people and organizations that derive their strength from serving the communities they live in and building feelings of trust and solidarity within these communities.

With the weakening of the state apparatuses, we are in a situation where we will either witness perpetual social decay contained by further militarization of society, or we can return to the concept of dual power, a strategy geared towards building autonomous working class power beyond institutional representation. For example, we know once the crisis is over, the ruling classes will force the public to pay for the crisis with unemployment, underemployment, debt and price hikes. The only defense the public will have in such a situation will be their ability to self-organize and resist, using networks of mutual aid to prolong their struggle.

Dual power is part of a strategy of rupture that transforms existing social relations and gears production and distribution towards meeting human needs. This means building networks where the creative potential of the working classes can be established, and a new will can both be formulated and imposed by working class actors within their communities. Such alternative forms of worker committees are necessary to impose limits on capital accumulation, particularly once people return to the work.  

Organs of popular decision-making are all the more necessary, as politics at the top will remain frozen among intra-elite actors. This is because one cannot imagine elections or any mass mobilizations in the coming months (other than riots). In the absence of high-politics, we must develop alternative visions and practices for a future society. If we think with big ideas but act specifically and locally, we can begin developing a nucleus for alternative forms of power, existing outside and independently of institutional frameworks.

It is certain that people will rise against the unbearable conditions being imposed on them. Worker committees can become the central force that both provides aid in these difficult times, and prepare to lead the masses for a decisive fight with the system. If there ever was a time to develop a practice of socialism, embodied by the most robust elements of the working classes, it is now.

“All Power to the People”

For the Left in Pakistan, now is the time for bold ideas because the normal mode of politics that entails making demands on the state alone will not work. We all know that greed of the ruling elite, multiple IMF loans and subsequent privatization of essential sectors of the economy, and an over-developed state, do not have the capacity to handle this crisis. And that they don’t really care about the workers. The mobilization must start now, right in the middle of this crisis. It is our responsibility to stand with workers who know that the state and factory owners will abandon them. The formation of worker, community and self-help committees must start now—we are already very late in catching up with this crisis. On the one hand we need mass awareness through our committees about the precautions one should take to avoid further spread of COVID19, and on the other we need political mass education about worker control of the production process, community control of food and resource distribution, and people’s control of health and medical facilities.

The message from the scientists and the medical professionals is very clear. As the Chinese doctor said, “We have to stop the time”. This means an almost complete shutdown of the production process and hence the circulation of commodities. This is a leap in the ongoing crisis of capital worldwide. This means that in the absence of production and circulation of capital, the underdeveloped states of the global South like Pakistan, are on the verge of a breakdown. 

The slogan “All power to the people” cannot be more urgent than it is today. With courage, clarity and commitment, let’s dive into this pandemic and organize for alternative power. We must train each other as medical workers, provide solidarity to the workers and neighborhoods in small numbers, elect local representatives to inventory food and other basic supplies, run mass people’s clinics, and devise systems for worker and community controlled provision of essential necessities. In this moment we have nothing to lose but the chains of the past.

We have a new world to win!