‘The ruling elites have boycotted humanity’

The following is a transcript of an interview with Vijay Prashad for Covid-19 Chronicles broadcast on April 6, 2020.

Frank Barat (FB): People are talking about ‘before’ and ‘after’ coronavirus. But many are saying they can’t wait to go back to ‘normal’. But in a recent newsletter of the Tricontinental Institute, you say: ‘We won’t go back to normal, because normal was the problem’. Can you tell us what you meant?

Vijay Prashad (VP): The pandemic is an occasion to think about how society is structured. The pandemic is not the problem. Of course it is going to kill people (it has killed friends of mine). I recognize that it is a very cruel virus. But the pandemic has also, in a sense, showed the weakness of the system.

If you take a wooden ship into the ocean, and if the wooden ship is made of timber that is rotten, the ship will sink immediately. Now, if you have a ship that has good timber, it could also sink—the ocean is a very powerful thing. In the same way, this virus is very powerful. But we have come to this virus on a ship of rotten timber. This is really the question we have to ask ourselves—not about the virus itself. Eventually, the virus will kill a large number of people, a vaccine will be found, and eventually we may get past the virus. But will we get past the problems that the virus has identified? That’s where human beings must look.

What were some of those problems? It is impossible not to look at that phrase, ‘flatten the curve’. What does it mean? At one level, it is common sense—you don’t want everybody to get sick at the same time. So let’s stagger the sickness, because we don’t want to overrun hospitals. I recognize that it is not possible to build any social order where there is a hospital bed and ventilator for everybody in the planet—i.e. 7 billion intensive care beds. But between an intensive care bed and a ventilator for everybody, and the situation where we barely have enough beds for people getting sick and almost no ventilators—the gap between that is also a statement about the rotten social order and, actually, the lack of a civilisation. The very fact that we need to ‘flatten the curve’ urgently, so that we don’t have to make rationing choices about who gets to live and who gets to die, shows the system was not prepared.

When you say let’s make healthcare about profit, then every bed in a hospital is effectively like real estate. You cannot allow a bed to be empty. A landlord doesn’t want any apartment to be empty. They want apartments to be at 100 per cent occupancy. Hotels want every room occupied. An empty room means that you’re not making money off the asset. If you treat hospital beds like an asset you need to monetize, then you don’t want to have too many beds; you want to have leaner hospitals. You don’t want to have too many nurses; you want to have few nurses. You want to cut the fat so that your profit is increased. If this is your attitude to healthcare, when the tsunami comes, of Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2, you have none of what we call ‘surge capacity’. You have no way to expand the accordion, and let new beds open up. It becomes a crisis immediately.

A crisis emerging towards the end of the pandemic is understandable. But how come it is a crisis on the third day? In New York City, it was a crisis on the third day. You don’t have enough intensive care units; you don’t have ventilators; you don’t have masks; you don’t have protective equipment. This is a scandal. It is not a scandal about SARS-CoV-2. This is a scandal about our civilization.

It’s not just healthcare, it’s education too. You’ve got an education system where you’re cutting and cutting and cutting, and you have teachers barely able to breathe when they teach. Then you have pressure from the far right introducing nonsensical, irrational thinking, so rumours fly about.

The purpose of the human struggle is to bring reason into the world. Reason doesn’t just exist there. I don’t believe that here’s reason, now let’s immunize people with reason. We struggle to make reason manifest in the world. But this civilization of austerity on healthcare, austerity on education and austerity on everything has made reason in the world impossible. It has brutalized people. This was long before the pandemic. The pandemic has shown how broken the society is. The pandemic itself has not broken society.

FB: When you tell politicians that they need to invest more in health, their response would be: ‘Yeah, if I invest more in health, I need to take the budget out of education and then the teachers would be unhappy. And if I invest more in education, then I have to take the budget out of this, and then …’ So where would you find the money to invest in health, education, etc.?

VP: We at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research looked at the available numbers—of money in tax havens, just as an example. There are a hundred ways in which you can raise the money, but let’s just take this as a good starting point. When you add up the available information on tax savings, whether it’s in the Caribbean or in tax havens in the jurisdictions of countries, you get this number: 32 trillion dollars. This sum is worth more than the total known amount of gold in the world. The reason you can’t get to that money is: 1) It is in tax havens; 2) No country has capital controls that are effective enough. We’re just allowing the rich to send their money out of the jurisdiction of taxation.

So there is that money. Then there is the money spent in arms dealing—trillions of dollars spent buying and selling weapons. How many weapons do you really require? There is enormous amount of money, a casino, in the stock markets around the world. Banks are just sitting on cash. After 2008, the Federal Reserve of the United States essentially opened the floodgates of liquidity, bringing down interest rates. Banks just took the cash and sat on it. They didn’t have any productive investment. But nobody is going to tax the banks. They move money from one jurisdiction to the next, whether it’s invoicing in a clever way, mispricing, or a whole bunch of little tricks. It’s a kind of alchemy. The money disappears. The government has given free money, which is taken and vanished. And now you tell me ‘where’s the tax money coming from to robustly fund education and health?’ If a politician says that to me I would honestly like to slap them. It’s disingenuous. They know exactly what they’ve done. They have allowed the ruling elites to go on a 40–50 year tax strike.

The ruling elites have been on strike. They have been undertaking a kind of class struggle from above. By withdrawing their money from the social system essentially, they have boycotted humanity. Then they turn around and they donate money. I don’t want philanthropy. I would like taxation. If somebody gives money to hospitals, you’re meant to pray to them, you have to name the hospital after them. Philanthropy is not democratic; it is monarchical. Taxation is democratic.

There are sufficient productive resources in the world. The problem is that the social structure we have has allowed these resources to be hidden away and not used democratically. That’s really the point.

FB: With the capitalist system in place, there will never be the political will to change things. After every crisis, people know that there’s something very wrong in society and the way it’s run. But they don’t know how to fix it, and then forget and go back to the normal cycle. It looks like it’s going to be down to us again—the people—to change things after Covid-19. How could we at least start to change things?

VP: It’s not the same question anymore, in a way. I feel that Covid-19 has intensified the battle of ideas. It’s commonplace now for people to say that healthcare systems need to be improved. I don’t think there’ll be a debate.

I understand that in Spain they momentarily ‘nationalized’ their healthcare system, and in France too they’ve done certain things. People joke, they say, ‘In a time of crisis, socialism; in the time of non-crisis, rapacious capitalism’. That’s a joke. It’s not funny, because, it is not socialism in a time of crisis. What it is is that in a time of crisis you have the people pay the biggest cost. And when it is not a time of crisis you allow the ruling elites to enjoy the fruits of it. It’s not socialism. It is that the bill for the crisis is delivered to the homes of ordinary people. This I think is being understood right now.

In other words, I feel that Covid-19 has accelerated the battle of ideas. We need to be much more aggressive about saying this truth. There’s no need to varnish this truth; it should be raw. The truth is that you have created a social system inadequate to deal with this, and now you’re making the ordinary people pick up the bill, and the children of ordinary people pick up the bill. Meanwhile, you have money in the tax havens, and you want to ensure that it maintains at least most of its value. If the stocks collapse, you say let’s infuse billions of dollars immediately. This is a criminal response. We need to intensify the battle of ideas. That is an intellectual argument. But beneath that, political movements have to be developed and supported, and they have to also mature into society.

I have thought for a long period that the Left should not feel that it is the Left. The Left must feel that it is the only authentic way to go forward in society. In other words, I feel that the neoliberals, the whole bourgeois order, have basically said there is no future—all you will get is a permanent present. ‘What we have today, friends, this is what it’s going to be forever. You’re having a hard time paying your bills? Your children will have a hard time paying the bills? And their children? Maybe one or two will be able to take an elevator to the top floor. (They are especially talented; they are spotted by somebody; they can sing, they go on some stupid television show; they make a lot of money.) But the bulk of you—the life of struggle you have led, your children will lead.’ This is what the bourgeois order is saying.

The Left has to take a much more aggressive position—not only fighting the bourgeois order. But we need to be out there saying, ‘We don’t accept this idea, that the future is cancelled. That there will be no future, only the endless present. No, we believe in a future.’

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of us on the Left felt penalized. We felt that our utopia as it were had somehow been silenced. It was not possible for us to come out in public and say, ‘We are for Socialism’. Now much more than ever, we need to talk about the future. Not about what’s wrong with the present. The critique of the present isn’t just a critique of the present. The critique of the present is the journey into the future. A lot of us have become stuck in the trap of constantly critiquing neoliberalism. That is our responsibility. But the critique of the present must open the door to the future. Otherwise you will just not win society.

Society doesn’t want to come to a political tendency whose greatest achievement is to offer the best critique of the present. Society will come to you—you will hegemonize society—when you are able to offer an alternative, a future, not just this bloody endless present. The bourgeois order has actually collapsed; it’s finished. It has no answers to the future. That’s why I say, for them the future is cancelled. For us, the future is everything. Because we look at this and say, ‘Is this a joke?’ In India, 700 million people don’t know where the next meal is coming from. This is a joke of a civilization. The Indian government did a lockdown and didn’t care about migrant labour, and just said, ‘Go home, fellas’. People had to walk 1,100 kilometres home, with no food, no cash in their hands. It is a human rights violation. The bourgeois order is a human rights violation.

We are the future—that’s the attitude.

FB: We know how governments are going to use this crisis. Some who want to be optimistic are saying that governments won’t go back to how it was before. But I think they will go even harder at pushing our heads down. We’re already seeing it with Orban in Hungary, and Trump and Bolsonaro. After Covid-19 is going to be even harder for the bulk of the people than before Covid-19. So, as a movement, as people, how do you think we can best support the ones that will need it most in a couple of months?

VP: I’ll say two things to that. The first is of course that I think political movements across the world are quite seized of this problem. This is not a problem you and I have to solve. I think political movements and social movements understand this. They are capable of knowing this immediately and they will respond.

The second thing, a very practical thing, is that just when the lockdowns began in earnest around the world, Tricontinental Institute and the International Assembly of the Peoples joined together and produced a 16-point declaration. The International Assembly of the Peoples is a platform of about 200 political organizations spread out over a hundred countries—for instance big political organizations like the Nepal Communist Party (which is in power in Nepal), the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, and the Workers’ Party of Tunisia. You can see the declaration on our website. We’ve asked people to endorse it.

It’s not just a declaration in word. For example, the shack-dwellers’ movement in South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo, has created their own version of the set of demands, specific to the shack-dwellers’ movement. So we hope that we put together a vision—not just principles but an actual vision—which would then get deeper into people’s struggles.

What do we say in politics? There’s no point having a spear; you have to sharpen the spear. The sharpening happens in two directions. It happens in the experience of struggle and the reflection on struggle. That is to say, practice and theory. You have to have the experience of struggle, then you have to reflect on the struggle. You have to develop a new theory, then experience, test it, and then reflect. That is the reason why we produced this 16-point declaration.

On the one side it is for the battle of ideas. We want to go out there and say, there’s an alternative. We don’t want rents to be suspended, because suspension of rents or mortgages means you’ve got to pay for it after Covid-19 has ended. No, we want landlords to bear the cost of Covid-19. We want the State to bear the cost of Covid-19. We want them to put a wealth tax against the wealthy to fund it. These are practical suggestions. They come from principles, and they come from the experience of struggle.

So at this point, I don’t feel that we are disarmed. I feel that we live on a planet with a lot of political movements around the world. In France, there is a Left tendency that’s out there in electoral politics, and out there on the street. In Italy platforms were created (Power to the People). Let people be there struggling for an alternative future. I don’t look at this despondently.

This is merely another chapter in the hideousness of the human experience. But the hideousness of the human experience has another side: our capacity to struggle to be decent. Let’s not get bogged down in the hideousness. We have to dialectically remember, we have the capacity as sensitive people to struggle for something decent. That’s what we’ve got to live for. Don’t get bogged down in isolation. You have to live with social solidarity.

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See the full interview here:

Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, and Chief Editor, LeftWord Books.

Frank Barat is a human rights activist, author, journalist and producer. He was the coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine for 8 years and has edited books with Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé and Ken Loach. .

Interview transcribed and edited by Vinutha Mallya.