IN the almost 140-year history of the iconic occasion known as International Workers Day, the exploitative logics of contemporary capitalism have never been laid as bare as they are today. The ILO reports that 1.6 billion people are in danger of losing their livelihoods due to the global economic shutdown triggered by Covid-19.
In the 30 years since the Cold War ended, capital has strengthened its grip on virtually all societies, with states largely at its beck and call. While many movements have resisted its onslaught, the dire situation facing most of the world’s working masses which has unfolded with the spread of the novel coronavirus owes itself precisely to the absence of a mainstream political alternative to capitalism.
Let there be no mistake that it is the madness of man-made systems of rule which leave so many people — along with ecosystems that sustain even basic subsistence — at the whims of profiteers. We have the technology to feed, clothe, house and guarantee peaceful, nutritious and educated futures for all the world’s people. But still we don’t, because, simply, it is profitable for powerful interests to direct resources elsewhere, least of all those who control the levers of state power.
Two examples merit repeating: personal protection equipment for doctors, nurses and other ‘essential’ workers; and food for the billions facing hunger and starvation. The systemic logic of capitalism prevents PPEs from being made and distributed efficiently while multinational agribusiness and fast food chains would rather destroy available stocks than give them away.
People have a choice to make about their politics this May Day.
As Marx famously noted, the point is not simply to interpret the world, but to change it. This is why we must generate meaningful lessons from what we are seeing around the world today to build the possibility of systemic change in favour of the world’s toiling majority.
First, the existing labour movement doesn’t cut it: in Pakistan, less than three per cent of workers are formally unionised. Formal sector labour still offers the best hope of organised resistance when, for instance, state enterprises are sold off to the highest bidder with no regard for wider collective needs, but ‘pocket unionism’ is the rule rather than the exception. Simply, the left will remain politically impotent unless it unites a broader swathe of working people.
It is insufficient to only lobby the state to address egregious abuse in sectors such as agriculture, domestic service, and industries employing child labour, or call for the extension of social security and other benefits to the so-called informal sector more generally. Rich and powerful lobbies are much stronger, and states have done little to enhance administrative capacity to serve politically weak working classes.
The real imperative is generating a bigger, more effective political coalition on the left. This takes me to the second point. Our idea of work must change. For instance, ‘care’ work performed predominantly by women inside the home — tending to children, household chores and more — now must be centred in our definition of working class, and be a major strategic plank of political organising.
Politics is essential not only in the formal ‘productive’ economic realm but also in and around ‘reproduction’. Thus to speak of the toiling classes in all their manifestation is also to speak of Nature, and the imperative of conserving land, water, forest, mountains, etc to secure future generations. Relatedly, the current conjuncture confirms the need to prioritise struggles around ‘essential’ work taking place in the health, education, housing and similar realms of life.
The digital public that has come to light under lockdowns globally has shown us gut-wrenching images of working people fighting for rations and cash transfers, and reminded us of the tribulations of patriarchal violence behind closed doors. This is a fleeting window to conceive a collective imaginary of humanity beyond the daily helter-skelter of limitless (mis)information. At the same time, the digital divide remains stark, and the pandemic is showing this up more than ever, particularly where it provides a fillip to the elitist, sexist and racist politics of dominant ruling coalitions and their support bases.
Young, connected and conscious people have a choice to make about their politics this May Day. Contemporary capitalism is increasingly destructive, inegalitarian and violent. Those who want a just and equal world based on care, cooperation and, ultimately, peace for all, must stand with all working people, whatever their shape and form. It is as possible today, as it was in the past, to build a politics that acknowledges difference, even as it redresses privilege. Many still on the fence need to heed the slogan raised by Chicago’s workers in 1883 whose spilt blood made the red flag of the labour movement and international left: Working People of the World Unite!
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2020