By Prakash Kona
The socialism I am talking about is not that of opportunistic politicians and ideologues with a one-track mind but the socialism of Patrice Lumumba, Ernesto Cardenal, Germaine Greer and Noam Chomsky. The pursuit of truth and the politics of moderation with the goal of a non-violent society—that is the socialism I fully endorse.
People must have an emotional sense of belonging which gives them a reason to care for life and a spiritual understanding of the ultimate meaning of existence which helps them come to terms with illness and dying. For both of them to happen, they need to have a life of dignity which comes from being equal members of a social group. If socialism has been mocked as fantasy since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it is time we realized that without a collective vision cutting across national and regional barriers we don’t stand a chance in confronting the evil intentions of ignorant men who think they own the world and can do what they believe to be right with impunity.
The ones who are telling us that we shouldn’t be politicizing the pandemic are mostly journalists, technocrats and politicians caught up with power who have politicized the world to an extent where we have no real space to think of moral questions any longer. This dubious credit of politicizing everything in sight also goes to so-called intellectuals especially the ones in the comfort zones of universities who enjoy talking more than doing anything to change the world. In sidelining moral questions they have led the world into a situation where most people have no clue what to do any longer.
As we can see it is governments everywhere and organizations concerned with global health such as the W.H.O. with their abysmal preparedness for a calamity of this magnitude that are directly responsible for the current crisis, and must therefore be held accountable in finding a solution that responds to mass demands. To serve the interests of power, people everywhere have been divided along ethnic, race, caste, community, gender, class and language lines. Yet, ironically, if there is one thing that the virus couldn’t care less for, it is these artificial divisions made by identity politics of the worst kind imaginable. The virus strikes at the heart of these divisions while gently reminding people that its priorities are altogether different.
The bottom line is that a divided people cannot fight a virus or even come close to understanding it. That might be true of any disease and the countless deaths that happened in the 19th and 20th centuries at the height of colonialism are proof of that. Identitarians, which I use in a loose sense to indicate identity-based movements and politics, both among the Left and the Right, have shamelessly utilized the fruits of technology to promote their private harem-agendas making it impossible for people to unite across differences.
The current crisis with covid-19 is an historic opportunity for leaderless masses to rise and make demands for a better society. In the Thootikudi protests of 2018 in Tamil Nadu, India, against the Sterlite Copper Factory owned by the powerful mining company Vedanta Limited (Vedanta is one of the schools of Hindu philosophy; just to note the combination of religion and corporate interests), there were no politicians, left- or right- intellectuals, actors or self-appointed spokespersons to initiate the struggle against the company. It was the masses, who figured out that the factory was polluting the environment causing respiratory and other illnesses, that came together to defy the police and break the law. Thirteen protestors were killed but they succeeded in getting the plant shut down.
This, this is what a real protest made by honest, committed people is capable of doing. Where the masses unite, not for hogging the limelight or identity politics as advocated by self-interested bourgeois intellectuals and politicians who represent corporate interests, they can defy the law and order machinery and achieve their goals. I would rather trust leaderless masses who know what they want than those guided from above, which usually end up becoming lynch mobs, without a sense of purpose or direction.
This is a time for leaderless masses to rise globally against governments and the corporate sector and make the following demands: i) Freedom from exploitation at the workplace which means they cannot be hired and fired just like that and their working hours are flexible enough to give them time to spend with their families and friends ii) Access to healthy food that’ll build their immunity against disease iii) Healthcare which means they have access to doctors who don’t think that they are gods but actually listen to what the patients have to say iv) Housing and the most important of all human dignity which means that the one who sweeps the street and collects the garbage gets a chance to explore new opportunities for personal growth and not be condemned to doing the same thing forever.
The coronavirus pandemic is the right time to fight for a just society. There is no reason on earth why the masses anywhere should believe in their governments or the arrogant and self-serving medical professionals who for decades only spoke the language of money and exploited the helplessness and trust of patients. We need to find a cure for the virus but we also need to find a cure for human-made inequality. Behind any disease there is inevitably the role of a human agent. From the systematic destruction of the environment to the spread of fast-food culture and abusive lifestyles that have no respect for the body and treat the body as if it were a bone in the mouth of a street dog, normal human bodies incapacitated by addictions, overmedication and anti-depressants, everything has generously contributed to the lack of preparedness of communities in simply being able to come together to resist the virus outbreak.
The most important of all is of course the unequal lives in the first worlds and third worlds, between the rich of the third world and the third world poor, between men and women (with poor women often having to bear the brunt of the violence that comes with inequality), with the simple fact that every major institution and organization has compromised in allowing the inequality to flourish without asking any serious questions.
The inequality must go and the time is now: Saint Augustine saw God in the eternal present and Walter Benjamin, “the sign of a messianic zero-hour [Stillstellung] of events, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past.” With a global lockdown of this kind meant to contain the virus it makes no sense for Israeli presence to continue in Palestinian Territories. Similarly it is time that the framers of the American Foreign Policy in the Third World realize that they cannot be putting embargoes on countries which are opposed to them: the American sanctions on Iran and Venezuela are unacceptable because they are inhuman and bring pain to common people. Most importantly, you cannot be making money by selling weapons to the governments in the third world who use them against their own people. As Martin Luther King says, “Economic exploitation, militarism and racism are inextricably linked.” It is time that they are delinked and things change; while the world discusses how the virus should be contained they should also discuss how inequality at all levels ought to be addressed.
What James Baldwin says of the US is true of nations where governments are fighting a civil war at home and are part of a global war as well. The suppression at home is an excuse for a war outside home; if Pakistan did not exist as an enemy India would have to invent it; the same goes for Pakistan as well, and is true of most other nations which invent an enemy to justify the violence at home. The state of Kashmir that has been on a perpetual lockdown for decades is the tragedy of a people who paid the price for the India-Pakistan rivalry with their bodies and their souls in untold human suffering more than any other people I am a witness to.
Oscar Wilde says in The Soul of Man Under Socialism: “For it is through joy that the Individualism of the future will develop itself.” What comes in the way of the individualism that brings joy is majoritarianism. Majoritarianism is not just where a numerically stronger group in a state oppresses its minorities using the government machinery. Majoritarianism happens at different levels: where one person is helpless against his or her neighbors, where one person is singled out because he or she does not subscribe to a popular argument, or for their lifestyle or for the way they are, that’s when majoritarianism appears in practice because its greatest enemy is the individual person who chooses to think and feel for him or herself. Whether as family or nation, neighborhood or a social group, majoritarianism has always been opposed to the growth of the person; we can see what organized religion is doing to people across the world by encouraging them to blindly submit to superstitions of the worst kind.
While denouncing organized religion as having everything except faith, Tolstoy observes, “Whatever answers faith gives, regardless of which faith, or to whom the answers are given, such answers always give an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death. This means that only in faith can we find the meaning and possibility of life.” Tolstoy puts faith before everything else; nobody can claim to practice a religion without trying to look for “the meaning and possibility of life.” In other words, for one to claim to be religious without faith is in fact not to believe in anything at all.
That’s what socialism ought to explore: answers that give infinite meaning to our finite existence. People should have faith in themselves to begin with. I am not irrationally opposed to doctors, scientists and medical experts in general. At the same time we’ve to overcome this subservience to science and technology which can be as dogmatic and orthodox as some of the religious systems. The right amount of doubt is necessary for any system of knowledge that claims to have solutions to problems. To that extent, a guarded approach to “experts” in any area of knowledge is not such a bad idea. Ultimately faith that gives a person both meaning and the possibility of life is essential in overcoming the crisis. Medical knowledge might claim to give an objective assessment that faith in oneself cannot. Such a supposition begs the question: why should someone believe in a knowledge that could not predict the arrival of the virus in the first place!
Therefore encouraging people to have the faith that will give them both meaning and the possibility of life is a good thing because it gives them courage and hope to deal with the crisis, which in my view is more important than even the vaccine. Socialism is the basis for such a boundless faith leading to the search for meaning and the possibilities of life because it gives the opportunity for people to be their own, true authentic selves. As Oscar Wilde puts it: “For what man has sought for is, indeed, neither pain nor pleasure, but simply Life. Man has sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly. When he can do so without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilised, more himself.”
*Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad. This article was published by Intrepid Report.