Making sense of the year that was: 2020 when Capitalism and governments failed

All that Governments seem to do is to tax people and protect the share market and corporations. Accountability of Capital and Governments need to be fixed

Representative Image (Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in a meeting with leading industrialists)
Representative Image (Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in a meeting with leading industrialists)

Tabish Khair

No year begins on 1st January.

S ome people will argue that 2020 began that day in 2019 when the first ‘new’ coronavirus jumped species and infected a human being in China. Some might argue that it also began that day, a bit later, when both China and WHO issued a pandemic alert, but most countries ignored it for almost three months.

Some, with longer memories, might even argue that 2020 began in the late 1980s when money, as capital, became as invisible as a microbe and was able to cross borders more easily than a virus. There are other prospective starting points too. What is undeniable is that 2020 did not start on 1st January 2020. And hence, 2020 will not end on 31st December either.

Let us mention just one of the things that will not end on 31st December 2020: the pandemic. Writing this in mid-December, the new coronavirus has been recorded as infecting 75 million people and killing 1.7 million globally. This is a conservative estimate. The pandemic will continue into 2021, and probably into 2022, despite the availability of vaccines.

But what will continue even beyond 2022 are the social, environmental, technological, educational, political and economic conditions that make such pandemics possible. These are interlinked. Let us look at some – only some – aspects.

I do not want to upset those of you who do not like leftist criticism of the Capitalist global order. So, I quote a central institution of Capitalism, the World Bank. According to the World Bank, extreme poverty has risen by 150 million in 2020. Ah, the Coronavirus effect, you say. Yes. And no. Because extreme poverty, which had been gradually falling until 2017, has been rising from 2018. And relative poverty has been rising for much longer.

Poverty is a relative matter. You are always poorer than someone else. Hence, in a world where the top five percent are getting richer every day and the middle class is getting comparatively poorer every day, one can argue that poverty has risen more than what World Bank indicators can show. This social indicator is tied to so many others, such as war, immigration, disease and hunger. For instance, the World Food Program says that seven million people died of hunger in 2020. The number of people suffering from hunger has been rising in recent years too.

Social and environmental factors overlap for the simple reason that human beings are part of an ecosystem. Scholars today talk of the Anthropocene. They argue that we have entered the first ‘geological age’ in which the world is being decisively altered by the impact of human beings. If intelligent life survives this age, its impact will be discovered in the layers of the earth, mostly as nuclear waste, plastic and fossils of certain kinds.

Since 1990, we have reduced the forest cover of the earth by eighty million hectares. We kill off around 140,000 species every year, and 30 percent of all species living today will be extinct by 2050. The reduction of biodiversity is a primary factor in the spread of diseases. It also reduces our options of finding cures.

Pandemics are just the tip of this iceberg, as virologists have been warning for at least two decades. As living space shrinks for other organisms, microbes and viruses come into contact with us and each other in traumatic settings, leading to new transfers and permutations.

Right now, we are blaming viruses and microbes, but of course both have lived on earth for millions of years before we evolved. Even today, microbes and viruses inhabiting the earth weigh more than all multi-cellular organisms, including plants. Even the human body, which contains 30 trillion human cells, also contains almost 40 trillion microbial cells. Many of them are useful. Only a handful are harmful. We cannot, like some cowboys in a Western, shoot our way out of our environment. We have to learn to co-exist.

One of the lessons we could have learned from 2020 is that technology, on its own, means nothing. Technology is finally just one expression of the capacity of the human mind to think systematically, rigorously and democratically: We often call this science.

Yes, science is democratic in the sense that it depends on mutually and regularly verifiable arguments, not on sacred books, gods, saints, miracles or revelations. But technology on its own is just a tool. It is a knife: you can use it for many purposes, including that of murdering someone else. It is always your choice. Unfortunately, we are often prevented from exercising this choice by those who want to make money from technology – at the cost of human beings and the environment. For this end, education is reduced to a technique, instead of a way to think.

One of the most disturbing things I read in 2020, a year of vast disturbances and tragedies, was a posting on Twitter, shared by at least one person with a ‘Dr’ prefacing his name. This is what it said: “The vaccines are only 90 per cent effective. Why should I take them? Right now, only two percent people are dying of the virus, but after the vaccine 10 percent will die!”

I was shocked that supposedly educated people could fail to think to such an extent. Because if the vaccine is only 90 percent effective, it means that 90 percent of the people who get it will become immune to the virus. The other 10 percent will stay vulnerable. But only two percent out of that lot would die – as is the case now – if all of them get infected. Moreover, if a large percentage of the population – just 75 percent, let alone 90 percent – become immune, then the virus will die out, as it would not be able to circulate freely.

And this would automatically protect the 10 percent that cannot develop immunity. It is not rocket science. We have known this for decades, because almost no vaccine is 100 percent effective. What is shocking is that educated people cannot figure this out. No wonder quack remedies have made this pandemic even worse!

Quack remedies have also made money. And money is at the core of all these interlinked problems. Especially after what happened to money as capital in the 1980s, when gold standards were abandoned and capital was rendered free to rampage around the world as sheer numbers. Digitalization added to this, despite its other benefits. Share markets boomed and fell and boomed and fell and boomed again. Speculation swept the globe.

By the year 2002, hedging operations and speculation were 28 times greater than production and international trading. The ratio has been growing since then. This is a totally new phenomenon in Capitalism: some people are making lots of money without having to produce or trade. No wonder governments are more worried about the share market than vulnerable citizens – workers, traders, producers – dying of COVID 19.

Nation states can no longer control the capital out there. They have to keep pleasing their billionaires who, whether it is USA, India or China, work with global billionaires and corporations. In times of crises, such as 2008 or 2020, governments have to pump money into such corporations. They can get this money only by taxing and surveilling their own citizens, and cutting down on public welfare. Distractions like xenophobia and nationalism help them do so. I am not even running down Capitalism: I am highlighting a gross distortion of what we used to call Capitalism. Let me put this in other terms.

Think of a government that does nothing to protect its people from floods and famines. Not only does it refuse to dam rivers, regulate water flow, provide reservoirs etc. in order to prevent floods and droughts, it also refuses to rescue or rehabilitate people who are devastated by such calamities. All it does is tax people when they use water or sell crops, and employ the funds to buffer the shares of corporations: so that when a corporation needs it, public money is offered to it as a soft loan. Would you say such a government is doing its job?

Well, that is exactly what has been happening almost all over the world since the 1990s. That is why some people may say that 2020, during which many governments passed the onus of fighting the virus on to their citizens and concentrated their public funds on saving corporations, started sometime in the late 1980s. So, where do we go from here? The answers are clear: we need to call our politicians to account, so that they can call the corporations to account.

But this cannot be done just nationally anymore. Free-floating capital will short-circuit any solely national effort. This requires an international movement, which has to be rooted in national demands for transparent and accountable governance.

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