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COVID-19: Public’s Life And Labour Are Not For Sale

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Prime Minister Imran Khan has been quite worried about the plight of the working people through the lockdown. He has finally delivered on his angst and has decided to almost remove the lockdown. That the lockdown goes against every bit of scientific wisdom and that of the World Health Organization is besides the point. It is also besides the point that Mr Asad Umar’s equation of average road accidents with the exponential trajectory of a pandemic were disingenuous at best. No one likes a lockdown, but then one always thought of it as a least worse option of all the options that were there.

There are many dysfunctionalities in Pakistan not to least of which is the neoliberal development model that the state has followed for the past many decades. This pandemic and the vulnerability of our populace to it is in no small part an outcome of those long term policies. My friends ascribe my lament on the structural conditions of the economy and the fear of the resurrection of those structural conditions post lockdown, to my sanctimonious academic arrogance, lack of faith in our leadership and even elitism. I despair.

But then like any red blooded academic I escape to my books and readings, and run into, who—David Harvey. Harvey, is a premier academic geographer whose scholarship has influenced generations—mine included. He reminded me of this exiled German philosopher who speaking of the market system and its middle class bourgeoise sensibility said, that it:

“has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’… . It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single unconscionable freedom — Free Trade … . The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers…”

The above quote reminded me of the time when I was doing field research in Balochistan. Our men and women enumerators typically interviewed the men and women of the same household. One of the most perplexing things for us was that while 90% of the men reported their primary occupation as agriculture, only less than 20% of the women reported the same, even though they were from the same household. We wondered about the state of communications between the men and women of households in Balochistan, but then a colleague clarified the mystery. In rural Balochistan a mark of a gentleman is to be a landowning agriculturist. That is how they represented themselves to the world, even if it is a very small part of their income. Their income might be derived from other activities, from employment to business, but they were not going to ever admit to not being agriculturists in front of strangers. The women having no such ego issues, reported the truth, while the men postured, to save face.

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The point is that working people everywhere derive their self worth from many sources. In our haste to ‘develop’ and ‘modernize,’ the Pakistani state has systematically undermined the rural subsistence economy. It has deliberately and aggressively shattered traditional networks of social support and replaced them with the monetized market economy, with all of its environmental and social depredations—not to mention precarity for working people. Today, mass production mass consumption societies are the ideals for the Pakistani state. Look at any images peddled by the state and you find that rural is equated with backwardness, and urban with modern development. So now Pakistan’s federal government, almost in a cloned reaction to the Covid-19 induced semi-lockdown, is eager to dispense with it. Not that they liked it to begin with, but then their hand was forced by you know who.

It appears that a matter of public health has now been reduced to a question of political posturing. All of my PTI friends, following their leader, do not like the lockdown and throw around terms like smart lockdown etc. As if there is such a thing as a dumb lockdown. The parallels between other populist leaders, e.g., Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro and Pakistan’s prime minister are almost eerie. Which is why I also called it a cloned reaction above. These parallels are not coincidental. They are because of foundational commonalities in world views and systemic assumptions that have spawned the global right wing populist movements. The foundational assumptions represent the most advanced stage of capitalism. Human bodies, stripped of their emotions, intrinsic value and worth are factors of production. They must engage in productive labour to live and to sustain the capitalist economy. The rhetoric is about jobs and livelihoods, but as a moment of reflection would instantly reveal, it is about production and generation of surplus value for those who actually own the means of production and the economy—the uber oligarchs.

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Not more than a 150 years ago, the notion of an economy growing into perpetuity would have sounded absurd to most people. Today, an economy not growing, is deemed abnormal. Economic growth is equated with jobs, lives and livelihoods, never mind that the fruits of that growth overwhelmingly accumulate to a very small minority of capitalists. It really is a war between a value system that Marx referred to in the above quote, and a different value system that considers human life as intrinsically valuable. One value system deems survival, a reward for one’s labour. The opposing value system treats life and its sustenance as a fundamental social right, and a claim upon society. One value system undermines the social systems through which that claim to life can be enforced, and replaces it with the simple logic of a monetized market. The opposing value system holds the economy subservient to the sanctity of life and social responsibility to sustain it.

Through this pandemic, we must be mindful that human life is not just about labour, but also about sociability, creativity, happiness, and the sheer joy of existence. The vulnerability of the working people is not separate from the capitalist political economy that we have cultivated over the past 70 years. We can change course and work towards a political economy which is more humane. A starting point would be to prioritise human life and its protection over capitalists’ profits. Don’t insult human ingenuity by insisting that selling labour to the capitalist is the only way for life to thrive—it is not.

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Naya Daur