The post-pandemic global society

Clara Figueiredo, untitled, essay Films Overdue Analog photography, digitized, Florianópolis, 2017
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By NOAM CHOMSKY*

Chomsky's participation in the 2021 World Social Forum in an activity organized by the Carta Maior portal and Forum 21

The last time I attended World Social Forum (WSF) meetings in Brazil was 20 years ago – wonderful days of exuberance, vitality, anticipation, enthusiastic interaction of participants stretching from Via Campesina to urban centres, united in the belief that one better world is possible and committed to creating it. They firmly rejected Margaret Thatcher's famous maxim: "Theres no alternatives” [There is no alternative]. There is no alternative to the neoliberal regime that she and Ronald Reagan were trying to impose on the world. The WSF slogan was the opposite: there is an alternative and we are going to create it.

This is not exactly the mood today.

The excitement at the WSF was not misplaced. Brazil was on the cusp of entering its “golden decade,” a phrase used by the World Bank in its retrospective assessment of the Lula years, reviewing the government’s many domestic achievements as Brazil also became perhaps the world’s most respected country and a voice eloquent for the Global South under the leadership of President Lula and his Chancellor Celso Amorim.

Again, that's not exactly the mood today.

The Lula government's accommodation to the demands of international private capital, whatever one may think about it, was not enough to appease those whom Adam Smith called “the lords of humanity”. The reaction came soon, not only in Brazil.

There is no need to review events since then or to address how Brazil is viewed now. This is perhaps symbolized by Venezuela's help in providing oxygen to alleviate the catastrophe in Manaus - now spreading elsewhere in a country famous for its high level of research and achievement in the health sciences and a stellar record of vaccination efficiency, prior to the current assault on society.

To add a personal comparison, my wife Valeria and I, living in Arizona, have the unusual privilege of having obtained high quality masks, thanks to the generosity of a Taiwanese friend. Meanwhile, Arizona just won the world championship for per capita Covid infections.

Arizona is slightly ahead in the competition to be the worst in the world. As I write, the main headline of the New York Times says: "New pandemic situation: hospitals are running out of vaccines", referring to the whole country.

The story goes on to report that “US health officials are frustrated that available doses go unused while the virus kills thousands of people every day. Thousands of scheduled vaccinations have been canceled and local officials are often not sure what supplies they will have on hand.” The local press adds that the hospitals have no more beds and that people are dying in the corridors. The picture is the same anywhere in the richest country in the world, with incomparable advantages.
On the same front page of the NYT, alongside the account of the US catastrophe, is a story titled “One Year After Lockdown: This Is Wuhan Today.” It portrays people reveling in "a post-pandemic world, where the relief of maskless faces, lighthearted encounters and daily travel hides emotional turmoil."

The number of daily deaths from Covid 19 in the US is about three to four times greater than the death toll in China during the entire year of the pandemic, in per capita equivalent, the correct measure.

We cannot be too shallow in drawing lessons from what happened around the world in this terrible year, but it would be unwise to ignore history. It is instructive all over the world. My home state of Pennsylvania has nearly the same population as Cuba and 100 times the number of Covid deaths: 20.000 compared to 200. Covid deaths in the city of São Paulo have a similar rate as Pennsylvania compared to Cuba (100 times bigger).

It is common to attribute China's success, in contrast to the US catastrophe, to China's tight authoritarian control over the population. The conclusion is not convincing. Taiwan is as free and democratic as the US. Its population of 24 million has recorded seven deaths. Furthermore, Western observers in China report that popular acceptance of the very strict procedures that virtually eliminated the disease appears to have been largely voluntary and supportive.

An attempted worldwide review seems to indicate that the main factors in taming the catastrophe have been an effective government acting for the welfare of its people, combined with a general collectivist mentality and spirit of cooperation: we are all in this together, to the common good.

It's useful to take a closer look at the worst performers. I'll leave Brazil aside – a case too depressing to discuss. Most instructive are the United States and its closest British ally, both of which have terrible records, highlighted by their unusual privilege and economic development. They are also unusual in another respect. They are home to the neoliberal programs that swept the world over the last 40 years, led by Reagan and Thatcher, and then by their successors. These doctrines contributed mightily to creating and intensifying the Covid crisis. The rich and powerful beneficiaries of neoliberal programs are now working hard to ensure they shape post-pandemic society. Doctrines and their consequences must be closely examined. I will have to limit myself to just a few comments here.

A central thrust of neoliberalism is to dismantle civil society and diminish government concern for the welfare of the general public. As Thatcher proclaimed, "there is no such thing as society", only individuals facing the forces of the Holy Market alone, and if they don't survive the ravages, too bad. To quote one of the famous pronouncements of the president of Brazil: “so what?”

To be precise, under neoliberal doctrine, only a few are thrown onto the market to somehow survive. Others have a right to be pampered by the state – that is, by its hapless citizens. We must never forget Balzac's saying, drawn from traditional popular wisdom, that "laws are cobwebs through which the big flies pass and the small ones are caught". Neoliberal programs were carefully crafted to ensure these principles prevailed, with massive subsidies and bailouts for the big flies. We have witnessed this over and over again since the early days of the neoliberal onslaught.

Thatcher's thoughts were not original. Unintentionally, she was paraphrasing Karl Marx. He condemned Europe's autocratic rulers for trying to turn society into "a sack of potatoes", isolated, atomized individuals, fighting alone, without civil society, without popular defense organizations against concentrated power.

Reagan and Thatcher followed the script carefully. His first acts were to destroy unions, in Reagan's case, even bringing in permanent replacement workers, a practice soon adopted by private companies. The hammer blows against the organization of work continued under his successors. Recent studies by prominent economists, such as Lawrence Summers recently, attribute the spectacular inequality created during the neoliberal years mainly to the destruction of trade unions, depriving workers of any means of self-defence against the incessant class struggle.

The doctrines of the 40-year assault on society go back to the origins of neoliberalism in interwar Vienna. The movement's revered founding father, Ludwig von Mises, could barely contain his elation when the proto-fascist government violently crushed Austria's vibrant labor movement and effusively praised Mussolini's fascism for having “saved European civilization. The merit which fascism has earned for itself will live on forever in history,” Mises wrote in his classic book “Liberalism,” years after the Blackshirts violently drove unions and independent thought into their proper places.

The leading lights of neoliberalism were even more enthusiastic about Pinochet's murderous dictatorship. For reasons of principle. Severe measures must be taken to safeguard a “sound economy”, ensuring that there are no popular restrictions on the freedom of the very rich and the corporate sector to expand their wealth and power.

The ideal is the economy of “privatizing everything”, to quote the current Minister of the Economy of Brazil, much praised by international finance that wants to take resources from Brazil, from its people, under the neoliberal banner.

These are considerations to keep in mind when thinking about a post-pandemic world. They reveal that there is no conflict between the appeal to freedom, of a certain kind, and the harsh measures of repression and control. Furthermore, as I mentioned, there are powerful forces hard at work right now to ensure that the post-pandemic world will retain the main weapons of class struggle embedded in neoliberal doctrine. All the more reason to examine the basic principles and their consequences.

The essential ideas are captured in Reagan's inaugural address: "Government is the problem, not the solution." This does not mean that national-level decisions disappear. Instead, they are transferred into the hands of the “lords of humanity”, the large mega-corporations and financial institutions that exploded in scale during the neoliberal years. His responsibility had been explained by the responsible economists, mainly Milton Friedman. The only responsibility of companies is to enrich themselves.

It is not difficult to foresee the consequences of handing over decision-making to tyrannical institutions whose only aim is to get rich. Some are revealed in a recent study by the Rand Corporation, a quasi-governmental institution. She estimates that the transfer of wealth from the bottom 90% of the population to the very rich – particularly the top 1% – was $47 trillion. Not little, but a very serious underestimation. It does not take into account Reagan's openness to financial manipulations previously prohibited by law, such as tax havens, which add another tens of trillions of dollars to mass theft from workers and the middle class.

The results are before our eyes, wherever the sledgehammer has hit. In the United States, real wages for male workers declined during the 40-year onslaught, along with benefits and, at the very least, limited security. Political democracy, always deeply flawed, has further diminished as it is increasingly subordinated to private wealth and corporate power. The most sophisticated recent studies show that 90% of the population is literally not represented; their own representatives are listening to other voices, those of their next campaign funders. Meanwhile, their cabinet staffs are overloaded with swarms of lobbyists practically writing laws.

Without needing to go any further, one can come to understand some of the roots of anger, resentment, contempt for institutions that have spread over much of the world, easily captured by demagogues who can pretend to defend the dispossessed masses while stabbing them in the back, shifting the blame. for its uneasiness toward vulnerable targets: people of color, immigrants, the yellow peril, whatever poisons run just beneath the surface of social life.

A vision of the future, now actively pursued by the dominant sectors, is the perpetuation of this monstrosity, in even harsher ways: more intense surveillance, control, atomization and precariousness for the great mass of the population.

Another view is the one being promoted by the World Social Forum. A vision of a world in which people take control of their own destiny in autonomous communities and workplaces, breaking free from overlords, domination and repressive institutions. A world that holds high the long-suppressed classic liberal ideal that we must replace social shackles with social bonds. A world that embodies a culture of solidarity and mutual aid, of direct participation in all spheres by informed and engaged citizens dedicated to the common good.

This vision is not utopian. It can be done. Furthermore, it has to be accomplished somehow if the human experiment is to survive. It is no secret that we are living through a remarkable moment in human history, a confluence of extremely serious crises. Unless the challenges are met, and soon, it will be a waste of time to contemplate the contours of a post-pandemic society, because there will be no society at all. This is no exaggeration.

The least severe crisis of all is the one that, understandably, is now attracting attention and concern: the pandemic. Sooner or later, the pandemic will be contained, at terrible and unnecessary cost, as we can see in societies, rich and poor, that have managed to deal with it effectively. But the pandemic will be overcome and, if history is any guide, it will soon be forgotten.

Think of the so-called Spanish flu a century ago. The death toll was colossal. It is estimated at around 50 million people. Considering population size, that would be the equivalent of 300 million people today. An unimaginable disaster – which, however, was soon forgotten. I was born a few years after the crisis subsided. I never heard of her when I was a kid. I learned about it from history books.

If we relive that experience, we will be in serious trouble. Other coronavirus epidemics are likely to occur and could be more severe than this one, due to habitat destruction and global warming. Besides, so far we've been lucky. Recent coronavirus epidemics have been highly contagious and not very lethal, like the current one, or highly lethal but not very contagious, like Ebola. We may not be that lucky next time. These cunning creatures have a lot of tricks up their sleeves.

In recent years, scientists have clearly told us what to do. It wasn't done. The huge, super-rich pharmaceutical institutions weren't interested, thanks to capitalist logic. It is not profitable to prepare for a disaster that will occur a few years from now. The United States government and some others have wonderful laboratories that actually provide many of the basic discoveries for drugs and vaccines that are marketed for profit in our economic system of public subsidy and private profit. But they have been neutralized by the destructive neoliberal variant of capitalism: the government must stay out of private business affairs – except, of course, when they can benefit from taxpayer largess. The disaster was then compounded by the incompetence and, in some cases, malevolence of the leadership.

We are hearing the same pleas from scientists today, the same warnings and advice about what must be done to avert disaster. Mere knowledge is not enough. It needs to be put to use.

The ongoing pandemic and those to come constitute one of the current crises. A far more serious crisis is global warming. The urgency of the developing crisis was underscored once again a few weeks ago when the World Meteorological Organization published its annual State of the Global Environment Report. The Report warns that on our current course, we may soon reach irreversible tipping points. Soon we will be able to achieve what they call “Hothouse Earth” (Greenhouse Earth), stabilizing at 4-5º Celsius above pre-industrial levels, well beyond the level recognized as cataclysmic. The study concludes that it is “more urgent than ever to proceed with mitigation … The only solution is to get rid of fossil fuels in energy production, industry and transport”. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) sets the date for achieving this result very soon, in the middle of the century.
As with the pandemic, we know how to achieve this goal. There are workable means that have been described in great detail and are in part being implemented, but only in part. These efforts must be quickly accelerated, and soon, or the game is over. Respected scientists tell us in no uncertain terms that we must “panic now”. They are not exaggerating.

Another crisis of comparable scale is the growing threat of nuclear weapons, which receives very little attention outside specialist circles, where the crisis is recognized as extremely serious. Here, the solution is obvious: rid the Earth of these monstrosities. Important steps have been taken. Last Friday, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into force, backed by 122 nations – though, sadly, none of the nuclear powers. That has to change. Even short of that, there are very significant actions that can be implemented, but which there is not time to discuss here.

All these crises are international. They know no borders. They must be confronted with international solidarity. In that case, Margaret Thatcher's words are right. There is no alternative.

*Noam Chomsky is a senior professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA. Author, among other books, of Requiem for the American Dream (Bertrand Brazil).

Translation: Cesar Locatelli.

Originally published on Portal Major Card.

 

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