Covid-19 and the Opportunity to Build a New Common Sense: A Critical Reading from Argentina

Pablo Slavin

Summary: This essay analyses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Argentina and elsewhere in terms of the challenges posed to the radical left to build a counter-hegemonic project against neoliberalism and capitalism — Editors

A pandemic, COVID-19, has exposed the spatial injustice and the denial of the right to the city that we live under the capitalist mode of production, injustice and denial exacerbated by the neoconservative policies implemented in the last fifty years.

The collapse of health services in the so called First World Countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and Belgium, has already caused thousands of deaths and millions of infections. This state of affairs was seen by many with surprise. How could it be that the richest countries did not have the capacity to provide adequate care to those who contracted the disease? How could they not anticipate the occurrence of a pandemic?

On the contrary, for those of us who have been denouncing the application of predatory policies that destroy habitat and habitation, and have made the city an environment for private business and accumulation through dispossession, the current global health crisis (as well as the crisis in areas such as education, culture, housing, environment) was something predictable, and sooner rather than later it would happen and would have a very high cost.

Therefore, it is easy to imagine the situation in many countries of our region, Latin America, in which the application of neoconservative policies as well as being victims of unequal capitalist development have put them in very unfavorable economic and social conditions, with more limited response capability. Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, are among the first in number of infections and deaths that now had risen to thousands.

Millions of human beings in Latin America are living in conditions of exclusion, without water to wash themselves, without electricity, gas, sewers, and crowded in precarious and unhealthy houses. They are the “villas miserias,” favelas and shantytowns that the United Nations calls “slums.” In Argentina, the most urbanized country in the region and where more than 92% of the population lives in cities, the pandemic shows the world that Buenos Aires—the richest and most powerful district in the country—has thousands of people crowded into slums, with all the epidemiological risks that this situation brings about.

The financial crisis of 2008, with millions of people who lost their homes and jobs, with the increase in poverty and exclusion that it generated in almost the entire planet, was not enough to achieve a serious reform of the social economic system, not even of the financial one.

The foretold change did not occur, and the neoliberal model continued to impose its order and dominate as the pensée unique. After the crisis, the majority of the most affected countries went into debt to save large companies and banks. Too big to fail! This was the guiding principle to which most of them adhered to, with the unconditional support of the main international credit organizations.

Today it is very difficult to talk seriously about the “end of ideologies,” when the crack at the local, regional and global level is so evident; when the positions are more radicalized than ever, and the terms “left” and “right” are again part of the popular vocabulary. Even Professor Francis Fukuyama, who made the expression famous back in 1992, now confesses that “Marx was right” and recognizes the need for some form of socialism.

We can observe how rightist groups have undergone a modernization process that enabled them to learn how to take over the educational system, culture and the media; they have become the new “power bloc” that dictates the rules of global political and economic power. Being a staunch defender of the most concentrated capital sectors, in the current situation rightist groups appear everywhere demanding that production not be interrupted. It is evident that the only thing that really worries them is not stopping accumulation. Labor power, for them, is a disposable commodity. For this reason, when there are no vaccines or medical therapies to treat cases and/or curb the spread of COVID-19, and the only measure that is showing results in the face of the pandemic is to stay at home and quarantine, these sectors use the media—which they control in an oligopolistic way—to convince the rest of society that their particular interests coincide with the interests of all, that they must return to work, otherwise the system will collapse.

Thus, the New Right is taking over common sense; it convinces us that “without production there is no health,” that it is necessary to leave our homes and resume production. This false dichotomy, which presents the only option of starvation due to the temporary closure of the economy or the risk of suffering from the disease, is accompanied by a whole other battery of slogans, such as “quarantine violates our individual rights,” “the pandemic does not exist,” “more people die from the common flu,” “living is always a risk,” or that all state intervention is a “dictatorship.” Right-wing leaders of the major world powers, such as Trump (U.S.), Bolsonaro (Brazil), and Boris Johnson (United Kingdom) are spokespersons for this. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones. In Spain and Mexico, representatives of a discredited social democracy have adopted policies in the same direction.

The case of Argentina is very particular. After decades of successive military coups, which ended in 1983 with the fall of a genocidal dictatorship that left 30,000 disappeared and forcibly introduced the neoliberal model in the country, Argentina followed a path similar to that of the region: indebtedness, privatizations, deindustrialization, increased unemployment, poverty and exclusion. During the 1990s Argentina was presented internationally as an example to follow, and the Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz mockingly called her “the IMF’s best student.” As expected, the experience ended in social chaos, and in December 2001, people took to the streets shouting “everyone go” (of the political class). For the first time, a government had to resign due to popular demand and not due to a civic-military coup.

Argentina lived, between 2003 and 2015, with neo-Keynesian policies that allowed it to recover a path of capitalist development, restructure and significantly reduce its debt, historical growth in GDP, improvement in all quality of life indices, and significant progress in human rights.

However, that was not enough for a middle class that “bought the speech from the right.” Thus, at the end of 2015, Macri, an entrepreneur friend of President Trump, who applied liberal orthodoxy again, came to power. In the last four years, Argentina reached historical records of external indebtedness, accompanied by capital flight. To this, the government added an almost monopolistic handling of the media, the persecution and stigmatization of opponents, and harassment of the judiciary. The rift in society deepened. After its defeat in the elections at the end of 2019, Argentina is again in a virtual default of its economy, with an external debt impossible to face, and almost two years in a row of recession. Poverty already exceeds 2001 levels, and much of industry is destroyed.

And just as it happens today in Brazil with the defenders of President Bolsonaro, who deny the pandemic and invade hospital centers to check if there are COVID-19 patients, in Argentina, the hegemonic media are calling for marches “in defense of freedom of movement.” They accuse the government of being “communist” for establishing sanitary measures of social isolation. Opposition sectors, which present themselves as a group of “300 intellectuals, scientists, academics, journalists and personalities,” signed a document a few weeks ago claiming that the country was under an “infectadura,[1] establishing a reckless parallel between the current democratic government with the worst authoritarian governments of the past. Democracy is at risk as it has never been since 1983. They compare the quarantine measures adopted in some deprived neighborhoods with the Warsaw ghetto, and the actions of the state (which ordered quarantine measures praised worldwide, we well as economic aid to workers, the unemployed and companies) with the disastrous doctrine of national security used by the civic, business and military process that devastated Argentina between 1976 and 1983. Fortunately, there was a prompt reaction, and in less than 48 hours more than 18,000 intellectuals, academics and personalities signed a document repudiating these claims and pointing out the importance of the presence of a social state.

But what is really under discussion? The Right, as always happens, is buttoned up in defense of its corporate interests. The pandemic shows that it does not distinguish between social classes when it comes to spreading the disease. Nevertheless, the possibilities of coping with it are very different for those who live in a spacious house with comforts, than for people who are crowded in precarious houses without access to electricity, gas or garbage services, and even, as happened in some popular neighborhoods of the City of Buenos Aires, without even safe water to wash themselves.

It is evident that without a state that assumes the role of protecting the weakest sectors, social survival, even more in situations like the current one, is almost impossible.

At the same time, while countries are trying to regain their economies and millions are already unemployed worldwide, the recent murder by police of Black citizen George Floyd in Minneapolis has unleashed chaos in the main cities of the United States, with several dead and wounded, looting of businesses, fires and destruction. Massive marches were held in more than 140 cities across the country, many of which ended violently by being subjected to police repression. The displays of solidarity quickly spread throughout the rest of the world, and demonstrations were organized in cities such as London, Manchester, Berlin, Buenos Aires, among others, calling for an end to racial violence.

However, we must bear in mind that popular uprisings and demonstrations have been multiplying in recent years, from France to Chile, and from Hong Kong to Puerto Rico and Bolivia. Moreover, in all cases there is a common denominator: the exhaustion of society in the face of the devastating effects of the neoliberal capitalist model.

Unfortunately, and for many decades now, traditional leftwing parties have lost their way. What’s more, they no longer even have an attractive speech to offer. They do not have a structural vision, but remain in conjunctural analyses that prevent them from posing serious alternatives to the existing political model, let alone to capitalism. That is why the supposed solutions do not go beyond simple improvements in income distribution, which do not substantially change the situation of the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants.

Reality teaches us that all those socialist parties that, throughout the twentieth century, managed to reach the government in different countries, faced the sad option that Kautsky foretold in 1919, regarding the future of the Russian revolution:

“History does not repeat itself. A government that sets itself an end that cannot be achieved under the conditions in which it operates can fail in two ways. It ends up falling if it sticks to its program. It can be sustained if it modifies its program, and ends up abandoning it. The result is the same for one procedure or the other. Now, for the people, the situation varies greatly if they keep the power of the state in their hands or if they fall defeated defenseless in the hands of their enemies” (Kautsky, 1919, pág. 148).

The socialist parties, in order to win elections, gradually abandoned their principles, until they became one more bourgeois party, with its same defects, and ended up being simple administrators of a capitalist state that, as such, has a very clear and defined role: defend the interests of capital. Only in this way is it possible to understand why political parties that proclaim themselves socialist, have been able to apply severe adjustment measures that mainly affect the working people.

Much remains to be done on the road to rebuilding a left that can hold high the fight for the ultimate goal. On the occasion of the 2008 crisis, John Bellamy Foster stated,

“The real historical issue that this crisis poses to us is this: to what extent is the world population willing to limit itself to wait for the crisis to be resolved in capitalist terms, so that the entire irrational process of exploitation, bubble and bursting of the bubble and start again, get going again; and to what extent, on the contrary, is determined to say ‘enough!’ and to be actively involved in the process. What the existing powers fear the most is precisely that possible determination of those below to become politically involved. From their Olympic position at the top of the system, they know, perhaps better than anyone, that all the conditions are now in place for a possible rebirth of socialism on a global scale. As a force for progress, capitalism peaked, and its famous ‘creative destruction’ has already turned into such destructive creativity that it seriously endangers the world population and the planet itself. Because the truth is that for the world population and for the earth, taken together, there is no real alternative today than that offered by socialism” (Foster 2008).

The global crisis caused by the pandemic presents us with a real opportunity of a new start. There are historical moments in which the option that Rosa Luxemburg posed, between Socialism or Barbarism, returns to the forefront.

Marx and Engels explained that “no social formation disappears before all the productive forces have developed for which it has room.” At a certain stage of development, the productive forces collide with the existing relations of production, and then enter a stage of revolution that implies the passage to a new economic social structure. The development of the productive forces is what Marx and Engels referred to as the necessary objective conditions; without them, a revolution that attempts to pass to socialism would be doomed to fail. To this the subjective conditions must be added, that is, the degree of evolution in the class struggle, the maturation in the consciousness of the subordinate classes, which in the case of the socialist revolution represent the sectors of the proletariat, in the broad sense.

Marx’s realistic humanism is most of all expressed in his insistence that the new society is contained in the womb of the old one. For Marx, there was never a question of calling socialism or communism into being through the projection of a subjective wish. The new society will immanently emerge from the existing conditions prepared by capitalist production and reproduction and the social struggles against them. If those conditions and struggles are not present, he held, it would not emerge at all, regardless of how much such state of being may be desired by particular individuals. This is the reason that Marx devoted so much of his life to a detailed study and analyses of existing capitalist relations as well as revolutionary struggles and movements and why he spends so little time devising any kind of blueprint for the future.ro. (Hudis, 2013, pág. 211).

I agree with the clear explanation given by Peter Hudis in his work Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism. For the new society to emerge, it is required not only that the productive forces have reached their maximum development (objective conditions) but, at the same time, the presence of the class consciousness that is evidenced through social struggles (subjective conditions).

I consider that, on this second aspect, that of the class struggle, is where the 1% that holds power in capitalism today has done its job better than any other. They have managed to modify the beliefs of the majority of the population (through education and the monopoly of the media) by installing hegemonic thinking based on neoliberal ideology. This has led to the division of the working class, and the loss of its class consciousness and has even caused it to act against its own interests. How, in any other way, is it possible to explain the social protests that have taken place in my country, in the face of the increase of export taxes to large landowners or the government’s attempt to establish taxes on large fortunes, and which have been led by workers, peasants and sectors of the middle class? And similar events have happened throughout the planet.

This is why today, the committed sectors of the academy, social movements, civil society, progressive political parties and human rights organizations, must join forces and work together to build a new common sense that helps us finish with the neoliberal logic, and then, yes, transform the capitalist social relations of production.

Without a class-conscious, educated, critical-minded and self-thinking people actively participating in decision-making, any attempt at revolution or social change will, unfortunately, be the work of a group of ‘enlightened’, for better intentions that the latter have, and never a true socialist revolution.

The conclusion that we must draw from all this, as Michael Apple teaches, is: “To win in the State, you must win in civil society, and one of the things that the new right has been able to do is understand Gramsci better than some in the left have done. The right has understood well that part of the fight for hegemony consists of fighting for common sense. Thus, for example, the right has been much more intelligent in making democracy not a political concept, but an economic concept. Families choose private schools, and thus boys and girls become merchandise with which they seek profitability. Sons and daughters are the private property of families, and the State no longer cares about them. The world is a supermarket, and families see teachers as those who provide services to them. They assume that this mercantile conception is what the concept of democracy is reduced to. Democracy no longer implies political participation in public institutions, but is reduced to the possibilities of purchasing services” (Apple 1998).

Revolutionary critical pedagogy therefore occupies a privileged place in the fight for the right to the city. It is essential to recover education as a public good, and the role of the educator as a critical researcher and committed to social reality; that she has the capacity to mobilize the students, and may question herself about the problems that daily life raises. The basis of counter-hegemonic thinking is to encourage the posing of questions. Quite the opposite of what happens with the current educational model, which punishes those who question, those who ask, those who deviate from the laws of the market.

I am increasingly convinced that we are at a good time to start building the new right to the city that represents that socialist world we dream of; that this is not a fantasy, but an achievable utopia, a utopia for which we must fight. Well, as Henry Giroux rightly states:

“Moments of uncertainty can be of great anxiety, but also of great opportunities. Times to rethink the language of politics, of struggle, of solidarity. Power is not exclusively domination. It is also resistance. Young people have a lot of power. They can stop societies, they can block the streets, participate in direct actions, educate parents … They are a very powerful political force and what they have to do is recognize this power. They have to act, because a discourse of anxiety must give way to a discourse of criticism, and this, in turn, must give way to a discourse of possibilities. And a discourse of possibilities means that you can imagine a very different future from the present” (Giroux, “Defender que la educación tiene que ser neutral es decir que nadie debe rendir cuentas de ella”, 2019).

Apple, M. (diciembre de 1998). Michael Apple. El trasfondo ideológico de la educación. (Dialnet, Ed.) Cuadernos de Pedagogía(275), 36-44.

Foster, J. B. (28 de octubre de 2008). ¿Tocó techo el capitalismo? . Revista Monthly Review.

Giroux, H. (2 de julio de 2019). “Defender que la educación tiene que ser neutral es decir que nadie debe rendir cuentas de ella”. (J. Franca, Entrevistador)

Hudis, P. (2013). Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Chicago, Illinois,: Haymarket Books.

Kautsky, K. (1919). Terrorismo y Comunismo (1966 ed.) (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones Transición).

Marx, Karl (1859). Prólogo a la Contribución a la Crítica de la Economía Política (1955 ed.) (Moscú, URSS: Editorial Progreso).

[1] Play on words that alludes to a ‘dictatorship of infectious medical doctors.”

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