Agony of COVID-19 and the Lockdown – Who is Afraid of ‘Class’? Maya John

Guest post by MAYA JOHN

This essay is the second part of a two-part series on Society in the Time of Covid 19. The first part appeared in Kafila on 5 April and can be read here.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas…Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845)

The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out differently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variated than anyone could have expected. – V.I. Lenin, Letters on Tactics (1918)

रहिमन विपदा हू भली, जो थोरे दिन होय हित अनहित या जगत में, जान परत सब कोय

Crisis of a few days is better/ For it reveals who is friend and who is foe. – Khanzada Mirza Khan Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana, ‘Rahim’      (1556 – 1627)

Looking at what transpires each day of this epidemic coupled with lock-down, people appear to be plucked out of heterogeneous circumstances and placed in the homogenous time of “Corona”, putting all things in abeyance. The battered housewife whose alcoholic husband grows restless with every day; mourning relatives who’ve lost a loved one and struggle to make it to the last rites; the live-in ‘maids’ whose workday begins at the crack of dawn; the municipal worker who continues to de-clog our sewer lines to prevent the chance of reverse flow in our commodes; the young, newly-wed construction worker who’s anxious about his wife in the village; the tired nurse who fears she’s contracted the wretched infection; among many other circumstances of life are part of this moment, the epidemic-cum-lock-down. The coupling of epidemic and lock-down has created confusion for some people in terms of which of the two is deadlier. For many this is an unprecedented, exceptional time. But for others this moment is not new but rather a repetition of the similar course of life, with the addition of just another fear. Many are puzzled by how, among all the life-threatening contagious diseases and illnesses in circulation, “Corona” gained prominence.

This “Corona” moment is similar to a situation of a movie-hall where for a transient period of time people together watch the same movie; albeit from differently priced rows. Indian movies generally last longer than their Hollywood counterparts; with their share of songs and love angle, even if the genre is horror. The same movie can elicit different reactions and emotions from the audience. Some might laugh while others cry. Some may cringe while others burst into giggles. Some might enjoy a moment in a perverse manner which in others evokes disgust. When the movie ends, they all disperse, carrying different impacts back with them.

We have been often confronted with images and accounts of migrant workers and the poor during this epidemic-cum-lock-down period. In many ways, these life stories have busted the myth of society, humanity and nation. There are those who have been moved to empathy by the reports of such life circumstances. There are others who are repulsed that migrants refuse to follow orders and stay put.

Varied responses aside, the twin phenomenon of “Corona” and lock-down must have changed our world in ways that we are willing, and maybe even failing to recognize. Bewildering as the moment may seem, there is the quest for concrete interpretation of what has changed and how much. Mainstream epidemiologists, statisticians, mathematical model-builders, philosophers, media personalities, politicians and commoners are all interpreting the phenomenon in their own ways. From the end of world to divine reprimand; from “Corona Jihad” to the need to fall in line – all kinds of ideas are in circulation, perhaps even more than the virus itself.

Disease and Ecology: Class-ambiguous Ecocentrism

Observing the unfolding moment, there are those who emphasize that although Covid-19 and its economic repercussions shall unfortunately take many lives there is a flip side to the epidemic and resulting lock-downs. In various corners of the world there are views which are drawing attention to the supposed fact that as a consequence of this unprecedented moment, nature is ‘healing’ itself. Almost as if reveling at the symptoms of the problematic moment, we have celebratory exaltations of peaceful, empty roads; fresh air; clear skies allowing visibility of snow-capped Himalayan peaks; dolphins and swans “returning” to tranquil waterways in Italy; etc. In the mode of ‘we’ve been saying this all along’, variants of ecological critiques of modern society appear to be taking the center-stage. Let us take a detour to understand these ecological critiques and their programmatic consequences for the masses.

It is a fact that the evolution of human life cannot be separated from its larger material environment which comprises of both the organic and inorganic world. As lucidly expressed by Arthur Tansley, a foremost ecologist and socialist who was the first to coin the term ecosystem:

the whole system (in the sense of physics), including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment of the biome–the habitat factors in the widest sense…when we are trying to think fundamentally we cannot separate them [organisms] from their special environment, with which they form one physical system.[1]

This in effect means that there has been a co-evolution of human life and other components of nature, including numerous micro-organisms. Such co-evolution has accompanied the dialectical process by which humans as a powerful biotic factor have triggered disruptions in pre-existing ecosystems whilst creating, in turn,new ecosystems. As humans adapted, evolved and thereby contributed to ecological changes, a parallel adaptation and evolution unfolded in their material environment. A dynamic equilibrium in natural systems was consequently achieved in the process.The inter-connectedness of the transformations has been such that it is often difficult to pinpoint which of the adaptations (those of humans or those of nature) necessarily came first. It is within this context that the relationship of humans to various micro-organisms, including pathogens, requires anchoring.

The proximity of human relations to the world of micro-organisms is an essential fact that has been corroborated by the detailed study of the human microbiome in recent times.[2] Microbial ecologists have emphasized that humans are not biological ‘individuals’, and are instead collective organisms comprising of the human person and his/her entire microbiome.[3] The same is argued for other complex species. According to such studies, the human body itself houses communities of micro-organisms that consist of eukaryotes, archaea, bacteria and viruses. In a 200-pound adult about one to three percent body mass (2 to 6 pounds) constitutes of these micro-organisms, particularly bacteria.[4] Now many of these may not be in a pathogenic relationship with their (human) host. In fact, they produce some vitamins that the human body does not have the genes to make, they break down food to extract nutrients which humans need to survive, and they even help the human immune system to combat certain disease-causing microbes. What is important to draw from the embedded proximity of such microorganisms to human life is the truth about the interweaving/interpenetration of multiple kinds of beings and their gradual co-adaptation to changing conditions.In a similar vein, with respect to disease-causing microbes or pathogens, natural evolution can be seen as: “[T]he world’s definitive game of cat and mouse. Viruses evolve, the host adapts, proteins change, viruses evade them. It never ends.”[5]In this way, infectious diseases and their outbreak appear as an intrinsic part of the development of human civilization rather than a peculiarity of recent centuries. According to some scholars, a growth of diseases and illnesses in human society has been closely linked to the transitions in subsistence patterns from hunting-gathering to domestication of animals and agriculture.[6]In particular, it was with the dense herding of domesticated animals and clearing of forests by early farming societies that a much wider range of pathogens came in contact with the human host and some viruses made their first zoonotic transmission.

While earlier human societies cannot be divested of their share of infectious diseases that were brought on by co-evolving pathogens,[7]the recurrent outbreaks of such diseases and climate change is a manifestation of aggravated ecological destruction by the capitalist mode of production. In fact, critics of capitalism have highlighted the unsustainability and aggrandizing form by which nature is exploited by capitalism. The work of Marx and Engels has laid out this argument in no uncertain terms.

Marx and Engels imbibed the dialectical materialist approach in their assessment of the relationship between humans and nature. This is reflected in Marx’s own critical engagement with Bruno Bauer in The German Ideology wherein Marx argued against Bauer’s reference to “the antitheses in nature and history as though they were two separate things”. For Marx, “the celebrated ‘unity of man with nature’…has always existed in industry…and so has the ‘struggle’ of man with nature.”[8]

In his other writings, Karl Marx elucidated the destructive nature of mechanized capitalist agriculture in no uncertain terms. Marx spoke of an irreparable rift that capitalism came to create in the metabolic interaction between human beings and the earth like never before. He thus identified that modern industrial society, based on the growth of large-scale capitalist manufacturing, mechanized agriculture and long distance trade,greatly intensified and extended the metabolic rift. By extension, Marx argued that a socialist and communist society was the answer to existing conditions which necessitated a rational regulation of the metabolic relation between human beings and nature.[9]

There is much that has been built on the insights of Marx and Engels’ work. The crucial aspect that informs the Marx-inspired ecological critique of capitalism is the anarchy of capitalist production. The competitive actions of individual capitalists, profit-mongering, and imperialist expansion, among other features of capitalism, have been identified as the trigger for wasteful and unsustainable use of the earth’s resources.

In the more recent neoliberal context, it is the widening chains of agro-business, dense and expanding urbanization, as well as globalized trade and travel that have been in the centre of critiques of capitalism.The predominant thrust of these ecological critiques of capitalism is that modern industrial production and the appended long global supply and demand chains for raw materials and commodities have been rapidly consuming the last vestiges of the forest cover. The man-made ecosystems of monocultural farming, horticulture and livestock production have precipitated deforestation to the extent that capitalism has now pushed beyond the fringes of the hinterlands and is knocking at the door of tropical forests.With this encroachment, it is argued that the more diverse and exotic zoonotic pathogens have crept into the food chain.Resulting outbreaks of infectious diseases have in fact increased in momentum and scale, given the global webs of travel and trade.[10]

The recurrent epidemics of newer strains of viruses and other pathogens, as well as their propensity to quickly spillover to urban zones have been perceived in dominant ecological critiques as a universal, existential threat to humankind. As viral diseases plough through human populations across various pockets of the world, it has been relatively easy to project a class-neutral impact/threat of pathogens, and in the process, to press forth particularist (upper class) solutions to ecological degradation as universal solutions. Typically, the current conjuncture of climate change and periodic epidemics has elicited demands for the overhauling of the consumption patterns of ‘industrial society’ – the logic being that less consumption, or consumption driven by need not greed, is the sustainable way forward. What is important to note in these popular ecological critiques is the elusive terminology, such as ‘industrial society’. Such terminology downplays, if not evades, the realities of class divisions and differential class interests that are the essence of the modern capitalist industrial order, and have given ecological degradation a particular form and content in capitalism, i.e. one which is distinct from the degradation in earlier modes of production.

The Western Left has been a forerunner in the propagation of class-ambiguous/class-eliding ecological critiques of capitalist production, and as solutions can be seen supporting models of downsizing, i.e. localized and regional production, as well as the cutting back on fossil fuel energy extraction. From criticism of big dams, fossil fuel, large manufacturing plants, big farms and monoculture, to,the propagation of‘back to earth’, go green, go organic campaigns, vegan diets, etc.,we have seen variants of so-called eco-socialism combining forces with varied eco-centric/ecology movements that claim to go beyond the politics of class struggle in the pursuit of common ‘human goals’. These ecological critiques often project the ‘rights of nature’ in abstraction, and actually come close to existing forms of eco-spiritualism and neo-paganism that see all things as manifestations of the divine. In line with this logic, diseases like those recently stemming from zoonotic transmission have been perceived as divine reprimand. Noticeably, the Right-wing has been quick to espouse a similar discourse in the wake of epidemics and natural disasters.[11]

It is true that zoonotic diseases have spread on a much larger scale and much more rapidly in the modern economy. However, there is a marked downplaying of the longer history of zoonotic transmission of diseases to humankind. As a consequence, it is easy for ecological critiques to repeatedly emphasize the attack of exotic pathogens in recent times,[12] and slip into a bourgeois-idealist, anti-consumerism. Resorting to ecological romanticism in forms such as ‘back to the earth’, ‘replugging into a planetary metabolism’, and ‘reconnecting our ecologies and economies’, mainstream ecological critiques have thus awkwardly pitched nature against the industry of human society, and divested current mass production systems of any value for social reproduction of human society. Again, in line with ecological romanticism, we have those who criticize, for example, the methods of slaughtering of industrial livestock. While they do not necessarily call for a change in meat-eating dietary practices, such romantics harp on the need for humane [sic!] treatment of animals; and by extension of this argument, press for natural selection (on-site reproduction) in industrial livestock. One wonders if those who propose such solutions are adequately familiar with the basics of evolutionary biology and veterinary science.[13]

Such approaches conveniently override what Marx aptly identified as the relationship of “unity of man with nature” as well as the “struggle of man with nature”. While protection of nature and the environment is important, it cannot be envisaged in ways that compromise the consumption needs of the masses.   .

To proceed, class-eliding ecological critiques draw on a problematic notion of equivalence, which is focused on highlighting common human goals of a general, class neutral kind. An equivalence is projected not just in terms of the impact of ecological degradation (i.e. the ‘no one is spared’ argument), but correspondingly, such equivalence is also presumed in the share of responsibility towards seeing through sustainable human life. In a nutshell, ‘eco-socialism’has been uncritically supportive of claims like ‘we all are affected, and so we all should consume less in order to survive’.

The projected cure of cutting back on consumption and therefore large-scale production in the general interest of humankind is deeply erroneous when we factor in the prevailing skewed division of resources among higher-consumption social groups, and the working class. Indeed, the dominant discourse on the cure to problems emerging from ecological degradation is devoid of any merit precisely due to its evasion of the class contradictions that stem from the differential experiences, needs and aspirations of the working class vis-à-vis those of the upper classes. Class-eliding or class-ambiguous ecological critiques are essentially counter-productive as they fail to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate interests, and between under-consumption and overconsumption. In their quest to dislodge ‘anthropocentrism’, which they allege undermines the necessity for ecological protection, such critiques fail to critically engage with the differential impact of ecological degradation on different classes and different regions, whereas it is precisely the addressing of human inequality along the class/region axes that should be the precondition for ecological protection. Considering the fact that the ecosystem is the foundation as well as the support system of human life, it is for the fulfillment of the legitimate needs and aspirations of the exploited and oppressed sections of humanity that the economy must be planned in a way that it is both sustainable and ecologically sensitive.

Well fed, stocked up, with access to property, and harboring the class power to mobilize superior/privileged access to a large number of commodities at any given moment of time, the upper classes stand in marked contrast to the working class and other marginalized sections of society, whose material life is shaped by the unequal access to resources; low wages; poor living standards, including under-consumption and malnutrition; etc. Differentially placed, most of the labouring masses and people of poorer regions cannot afford the luxuries of abstract environmentalism the way the wealthier sections in the advanced regions of the world can.

We find many in the Western Left now arguing for local and regional production of commodities, and for the transition from fossil fuels to energy technologies based on a mix of wind, solar, hydro and geothermal renewable energy. What is ignored is the unevenness of the existing economy, and therefore, the fact that many locales/regions fail to produce a host of commodities that are now necessities for local communities.In the context of uneven development of the world economy and unequal resource endowment, the call for localism shall undermine the needs of the local populations, and lock them to the locale against their aspiration for consumption parity – a process that will overall reinforce regional disparity.In this way, can we really turn the clock back without triggering devastating effects on those most vulnerably placed in the long global supply and demand chains? Likewise, the question still arises whether it is the use of fossil fuel energy itself that is the problem or its privatized production and distribution within the capitalist system that demands addressal.

There is tendency in the Western Left to divest the capitalist world of its global inter-linkages of value creation, which represents a dangerous but intensifying dislocation from material realities of contemporary times. Situated in the advanced (imperialist) ‘Global North’with its marked industrial concentration and higher than average profits and wages, it has been relatively easy for the Western Left to build-on concepts and strategies that evade two concrete realities. One is the global value creation chain and international division of labour that positions sections of the work force of the Global North at a superior material advantage over large sections of the working class in the ‘Global South’. Second is the labour market segmentation and pockets of over-exploitation within the Global North itself.

The limited foothold of the Western Left within the exploited workforce (largely migrant, of oppressed races, oppressed nationalities, etc.) that is concentrated in the lower rungs of the labour market of the Global North, has bred the tendency to dismiss the concreteness of the working class position altogether. Detaching the ontology of labour from the circuit of capital’s self-valorization and its actualization in circulation, many Left intellectuals like Antonio Negri have been ascribing a working-class interest and a working-class subjectivity to a new class composition.[14]In the Negrian framework of capitalism’s development there emerge, (i) Mass workers: all employees working for different capitalists spread over different junctures in the supply chain; and (ii) the Collective worker: anyone on whom work is being imposed, and basically, anyone who helps reproduce labour power, (whether within or outside the circuit of capital accumulation and the labour process, such as women of a household performing domestic labour, peasants, self-employed professionals/the petty-bourgeoisie, etc.). In this vein, we now see the predominance of Negrian like attempts to establish “immaterial labour” (his term—which itself is divided in contradicting class positions of petty bourgeois and worker) as the pivotal force in contemporary times.[15]These efforts are symptomatic of the trend wherein a significant component of industrial production of advanced western countries has relocated to poorer countries; propelling many Left intellectuals to sidestep the ‘inexistent’ labour and speak more of the abstract ‘multitudes’.[16] The ‘multitude’, ‘immaterial labour’, etc. are all based on the delinking of work from the (social) labour theory of value; thus allowing for wide definition of the working-class position as anyone who works, i.e. from high-ranking professionals of corporate firms to a sanitation worker deputed to a public toilet.

In real terms, concepts like immaterial labour which blur the distinctiveness of the working class position, as well as the notions of equivalence and of ‘general interest’,override the realities of contradictory class positions, hierarchical class relations, imperialism, international division of labour, and the corresponding under-consumption and overexploitation of vast populations of humankind within the capitalist world order. In turn, a politics that is driven by such notions is a class-eliding one that disarticulates the interests of the working-class in the unfolding resistance to capitalism. It is indeed an irony that differential experiences of antagonistic classes, i.e. the upper classes and the working class, are so easily clubbed while evoking strategies to fight the capitalist onslaught on nature.

We emphasize this point particularly in the light of noted intellectuals of the Western Left who have recently been slipping in and out of class eliding claims and solutions with respect to the unfolding Covid-19 scenario. Notwithstanding ideological differences within the Western Left, the lack of sensitivity towards the category of class has become hegemonic.[17] Speaking of the current pandemic, celebrated Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has argued for a new selfless social that has emerged with tremendous potential to “unite people – to maintain a corporeal distance is to show respect to others since I also may be a virus bearer.” Steering clear of the question of contradictions in the experiences of different classes of people during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the varying impact that authoritarian state measures have had on these different classes, Žižek proposes that “The struggle against coronavirus can only be fought together with the struggle against ideological mystifications, plus as part of a general ecological struggle. So it is not enough to put together some kind of global healthcare for humans, nature should be included into it…”[18]

In the same vein, bypassing the need to assess in concrete class terms the unfolding economic impact of the pandemic coupled with lock-down,the recent editorial of the month of the noted Left-wing journal, Monthly Review,opted to focus on an ecocentric critique based on the detailing of linkages between the growing threat of exotic viruses and anthropocentric capitalist industrialization of contemporaneous times.[19]While one does recognize the valuable contributions of these critics in retrieving the Marxist canon on the materialist conceptualization of human–nature relationship, and the ecological crisis nurtured by capitalism,[20] nevertheless, in midst of the ongoing social crisis for the working class and other marginalized sections of society, the programmatic assertion of the primacy of ecological over the class critique of current scenario is alarming.[21] Detaching themselves from the turmoil that the labouring masses across the world find themselves in, these radical scholars appear to have slipped into accepting bourgeois realism that is based on projecting ecological crisis as the primary threat to civilization and not capitalism per se. Abdicating their immediate responsibility, their calm detached reflections obfuscating the brewing class conflict have conveniently positioned the ecological critique first. It is expected that an editorial released before its scheduled date of publication in response to the “present emergency” would carry programmatic reflections on the immediate social chaos. Instead, we are greeted by the familiar ‘we are at the end of the world’ kind of critique that leaves unaddressed the struggles of the labouring poor against heightened capitalist oppression brought on by the current conjuncture. What is also left unaddressed is the selective importance given to the apocalyptic Covid-19 whilst numerous undeclared silent epidemics are taking lives of large numbers of labouring poor across the world.

The said editorial is compiled by a team of four area specialists, who are simply more interested in referring back to their own disciplinary expertise than addressing the current crisis of pandemic-cum-lockdown. This reminds us of a story. Once four doctors from a distance were watching a man dragging his foot, and seeing him they began discussing their diagnosis. The first doctor argued that the man was possibly a polio patient. The second claimed the possibility of arthritis. The third projected a bone fracture, while the fourth rubbished their claims and opined that it must be a sprained ankle. As the man drew near them, he innocently inquired for a cobbler who could mend his torn sandal strap!

While the radicals associated with the prestigious aforementioned Left journal have chosen to structure their intervention around insights from area-specialists (epidemiologists, ecologists and geographers), we continue to be confronted by the need for a wider class critique – one that is propelled by the numerous accounts of varied class experiences and class conflicts playing themselves out in this conjuncture.A differential impact is expected, considering how austerity measures in many western countries have left the most vulnerable sections to fend for themselves. Public housing projects in Chicago, Baltimore and South Bronx, for instance, have reported alarming conditions of water supply shortage during the epidemic – a bitter irony, considering the vigilante hand-washing demanded by the Covid-19 epidemic. We also have reports that 70 percent of Covid-19 related deaths in cities like Chicago are of African-Americans;[22] indicating a marked disproportion in terms of the sections of society which are bearing the brunt of the disease.

Brought by the rich, the disease is now borne by the poor – a fact concealed behind collective pronouns (‘we’, ‘us’, etc.) of mainstream ecological critiques that seamlessly posit equal susceptibility and vulnerability to disease. What is downplayed is the fact that the novel Coronavirus shall plough through those social classes whose majority are already burdened by health complications brought on by their poverty. One eventuality of the pandemic is dying with rather than of Covid-19, i.e. the condition of comorbidity. The other is of course the neglect of other pressing diseases, which points to the situation where many poor people, if not succumbing to Covid-19, are dying due to the rising fatality rates of other diseases.

This apart, presumptions about the equal susceptibility and vulnerability to Covid-19 are deeply misplaced, given that the velocity of human transactions is not the same everywhere. Accordingly, in some places people shall succumb not to “Corona” but the far-reaching economic impact of lock-downs. It goes without saying that many of these places are also medical deserts, in that their populations are devoid of adequate health care facilities.Villages in the interiors areexamples that come to mind. As economic lock-downs play themselves out, large numbers of the poor shall either succumb to starvation, or further sink into a state of malnutrition and compromised immunity. The resulting growth of diseases in them shall require extension of health care facilities, which of course is missing. A situation like this shall merely translate into higher death tolls across diseases.

Taking this point further,let us turn to the contradictory class experiences that have emerged during the lock-down in India.

Class and its Discontent: Decoupling the Pandemic–Lock-down

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a televised address to the country at 8:00 p.m. on 24 March 2020 announced the imposition of a complete 21-days lock-down starting from 12 a.m. on 25 March; giving people barely four hours to prepare themselves for the same. In the earlier article of this series, I have indicated how sinister the decision of a lock-down was, given the laxity of the Indian authorities in quarantining globe-trotting elites with whom the novel Coronavirus entered the country. We are in the midst of a lock-down which as of now is going to run into 40 days. As history would have it, the term quarantine can be traced back to a practice which began in 14th century port cities like Venice, whereby ships (and therefore travellers and cargo) from plague-infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing.Quarantine was derived from the Italian words quarantagiorni, meaning 40 days. While in earlier times the quarantine enforced the 40-days strictures on movement and social interaction on the travellers themselves, in modern times it is nothing but ironic that countries like ours have enforced the same not on carriers of the disease but on their entire populations!

Moving forward from this point, it is important for us to trace the distressing situation that has emerged from 25 March onwards. Prior to the Prime Minister’s 24 March address, the periodic references to and implementation of curfew in certain cities as a precautionary measure, encouraged some sections of migrant workers to start leaving the big cities so as to return their native villages. Many of these workers were en-route to their villages when the lock-down came into force in the early hours of the morning of 25 March. They were stranded as rail and bus transport came to a standstill. A much larger proportion of migrant workers across the country responded to the lock-down call by trying to rush to their villages in the intervening period from 25 March to 30 March.The mass exodus was natural, considering that the lock-down had overnight translated into no work, and therefore,mass unemployment for the vast majority of the labouring poor. At such a conjuncture of insecurity and growing skepticism about the ambiguity surrounding the duration of the lock-down, many workers thought it better to return to their families in the village. Again when the lock-down was further extended by Prime Minister Modi on 14 April there was panic and many workers stranded in cities, gathered in many places to demand transportation to their native villages.

In a context of scarcity and fear of an alien urban virus, the relative security of their life back in native villages appeared more feasible and desirable in contrast to the growing hostility of the city – as embodied in the overnight unemployment, dismissive employers, rent-seeking landlords, corrupt ration shops, authoritarian police, etc.However, with no transport arrangements being made by state authorities, desperate migrant workers, and in fact, entire working-class migrant families soon began walking miles to reach their villages or to get to places from where they hoped to find some means to get home.

Barely a day or two into the lock-down and scores of migrant workers were queuing up at the inter-state borders. In the process, lakhs of workers were exposed to unhygienic conditions, hunger and fatigue in the desperate bid to get home. Unimaginable numbers of migrant poor were either crowded into buses that were intermittently offered by some State Roadways, or,they were herded into congested, unclean shelters by local authorities who sought to prevent their movement. Many migrant workers were thereby exposed to infections, if not Covid-19!Some workers perished in road accidents. Many were seen weeping as they laid their hands on free food. With every passing day, the lock-down in no uncertain terms has robbed the labouring poor of their dignity. This is a point most eloquently voiced by workers who expressed much anguish at the fact that for the first time they were compelled to claim free food due to no work.[23]

In response to the continuous bid of workers to get home, on 29 March the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India, directed complete sealing of inter-state borders. This had a domino effect on numerous State governments. The Government of Haryana, for example, issued orders for converting indoor stadium into jails so as to confine migrant workers who had spilled onto the roads. Police atrocities on stranded workers also escalated, especially after the MHA hauled up top police officials in the Delhi Police and Haryana Police. At the same time, top-level bureaucrats were suspended for failing to prevent the gathering of workers. Similar incidents of high-handedness and mismanagement kept surfacing, such as the sprinkling of chemical ‘disinfectant’ on workers who had trekked and managed to reach Bareilly, as well as the stampede-like conditions at bus depots like AnandVihar in Delhi.

The experiences of the country’s working class have contrasted drastically with those of the elite upper classes. Hungry and desperate working-class families stand juxtaposed to the country’s elites; a majority of whom have been hoarding and enthusiastically buying into the populist campaigns of the government propagating social distancing and the necessity of the lock-down.While the upper classes have been busy adjusting to the ‘work from home’ environment, this luxury has evaded the working class as the same lock-down has literally meant no work for them. Ironically, upper class elites have been complaining of restlessness on being cooped up within their homes, and consequently, expressing the desire to step out of their living spaces. In marked contrast, the labouring poor are struggling to get to their homes in the village, if not struggling with homelessness. A couched potato, Netflix or Youtube-watching upper class youth; clocked-in Zoom meetings; personal culinary experiments being excitedly shared as Whatsapp statuses; circulation of fun videos on ‘ten different ways to make Maggi’; and the occasional murmurings about the ‘plight’ of not having a domestic ‘help’ are just some of the typical scenarios emerging from upper class households.[24]

In contrast to these experiences and ‘woes’ of the upper classes, the overwhelming plight of migrant workers stands apart. In the same vein, measures of social distancing have proved meaningless day in and day out, especially considering the material realities of the vast majority of poor who reside in small one-room tenements in crowded slums. In a context where sleeping, eating and cooking areas cannot be segregated in an 8 x 8 ft. room, which is the usual size of a working-class family’s living space, it is nothing but a cruel joke to expect them to practice social distancing!Likewise, against the backdrop of the everyday water crisis in slum clusters, vigilante hand-washing that is being prescribed to ward of the infection is pointless. Do we really expect the poor to indulge in sanitary practices like hand-washing when they are compelled to crowd water tankers at odd hours of the day and night, and jostle with each other for a miserly amount of water?! There are of course erstwhile working-class families that have recently made the transition into the lower-middling strata of society. However, it is important to recognize that many such households within the middling strata are just one disease away from impoverishment that can push them back into the precarity of the working-class position. With limited savings and investments, one bout of expensive health care treatment and resulting loss of income/slump can take the wind out of many such households.

We have also heard reports of how underprivileged women who are expecting are finding it difficult to reach hospitals and access nutritious food in the midst of the lock-down. It is said that anywhere between forty to fifty thousand women give birth in India every day. In a country that is already battling dangerous and unhealthy child-birth practices, one shudders to think of how the current lock-down has made it next to impossible for many expecting women to travel to hospitals, and more importantly, the medical neglect that poorer women are surely confronted with in public hospitals where OPD services have been disrupted in the midst of the Covid-19 scare. Other vulnerable sections of society that are deeply affected by the lock-down are semi-nomadic groups, as well as adivasi communities concentrated in the interiors of the country.If we factor in how local administrations are struggling to provide food to the urban population, as well as the skewed public distribution system, the precarity of adivasi communities are expected to rise with the lock-down severely disrupting the food supply to the interiors, and little help coming forth from the district level authorities.Semi-nomadic groups of the northern plains who tend to move into the hills or cooler areas on the onset of summer months, as well as camel and goat-herders of Kutch and Marwar region have similarly been stranded as their movement has been restricted. Many such nomads were already en-route to various destinations when the lock-down was enforced in the wee hours of 25 March. The complete lock-down has meant that many such semi-nomadic cattle herders are being robbed of their subsistence as the denial of access to grazing as well substitute fodder shall take a huge toll on their cattle.[25]

It is no better for those Dalit migrant labourers who managed to reach their villages in the intervening period of 25-30 March. In the context of deep caste divisions in the rural hinterland combining with the paranoia about a foreign, urban disease, Dalit migrants returning from the city and rejoining the ranks of the agrarian poor has triggered more intensive forms of upper-caste domination. It would not be wrong to argue that social distancing has increasingly become a convenient tool for proliferation of biased practices driven by the exclusionary presumptions of caste, and in some contexts, of eugenics.

Fortunately, the distress of working-class, particularly migrant labourers,has grabbed some attention of media houses at given points of time. As a result, the public domain has seen the steady flooding of images and videos of hungry, exhausted and anxious workers. This media coverage significantly shook middle-class conscience in the early days of the lock-down as many were confronted with images and incidents that they have rarely seen. At the same time, the poor condition of safety for healthcare workers,such as the lack of personal protection equipment, hand sanitizers, gloves, etc., as well as the lack of essential facilities in hospitals, began making headlines.In addition to the vocal critiques of activists, it was not long before the social media also began to see the trickling in of criticism by sections of the educated middle class whose conscience had been pricked. To take just one example, a sarcastic post was uploaded by a person on the popular online shopping portal, OLX, which read that the Sardar Patel statue was up for sale for 30,000 crore rupees!The post read: “Emergency! Selling Statue of Unity because of urgent money required for hospitals and healthcare equipment.”

Meanwhile, in the strategic attempt to counter the emerging discourse on the ill-preparedness of the lock-down and its disproportionate impact on the country’s labouring poor, the Indian right-wing successfully resorted to a virulent social media campaign that identified the problem, and basically, the spread of novel Coronavirus with Muslims. The Tablighi  Jamaat gathering in Delhi during the first two weeks of March became the right-wing’s target. Of course, similar large religious gatherings and congregations[26] in other parts of the country during the month of March were conveniently effaced as the right-wing successfully pursued their communalization of the issue.These included gatherings such as the mass procession by Shiv Sena workers within the Shirdi shrine just hours after the Maharashtra government ordered public spaces to remain closed, the Ram Navami event in Ayodhya that was attended on 25 March by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and the Sikh festival of HolaMohalla that was attended by the 70-year old foreign-returned preacher Baldev Singh who ignored advice to self-quarantine and later died of Covid-19. Needless to say, there are many more such troubling incidents.

A similar story of ill-preparedness and growing plight of the vast majority can be seen across the Asian, African and Latin American continents.In South Africa, a population of 59 million people with only a handful of Covid-19 cases which were concentrated to foreign travellers, the government of Cyril Ramaphosa implemented all at once measures that other countries had only gradually resorted to, such as closing schools, restricting domestic and international travel, etc. The country grapples with a 29.1 percent unemployment rate, entrenched poverty, and the lack of basic services including healthcare. Eighty-two percent of South Africans have no health insurance and rely on public clinics and hospitals. However, these facilities are overcrowded and understaffed, and incapable of managing existing communicable diseases like HIV and TB, let alone Covid-19. A large majority of South Africans live in slums where, again, the measures of social distancing are far from being realized.[27]In Bangladesh where the majority is informal workers, the recent lock-down has created extreme crisis of livelihood. Only fifteen percent of Bangladesh’s population earns more than 500 taka a day (450 INR / $5.90).[28]Apart from their daily expenses, Bangladeshi workers try desperately to save for medical emergencies and to send money to family members in the village. Most villagers are dependent on remittances from the cities or abroad. However, the global crisis in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, has led to the loss of work and therefore income.

Billions of labouring poor across the world, and particularly so in the undeveloped and developing countries, are undeniably paying a heavy price for a disease that spread due to negligent globe-trotting elites and lax governments. Furthermore, it is the most vulnerable segments of the working class (informal workers, workers of poorer countries, etc.) whose conditions have plummeted with the disruptions in the world economy. The disruptions have sent shockwaves down the global demand and supply chains. This is more so with steady arm-twisting by imperialist and racist governments of the West, who were the first to seal borders and continue to dictate the terms of the international trade in essential commodities.[29]

Immoral Economy: the Question of Entitlement

As some State governments began rolling out relief packages in the wake of the lock-down, the Central government also announced a 1.7 lakh crore relief package on 27-28 March. The relief package has proved highly inadequate, and represents nothing but a hoax since a sizeable component of the relief was the mere repackaging of schemes already announced as part of the Union Budget for the year. In real terms,inadequate new measures can be seen,and in this way, the relief package has simply failed to alleviate the difficult conditions and suffering emerging from the lock-down.

The increase in MNREGA wages that was announced as part of the relief package was a measure announced earlier prior to the lock-down. More importantly, the hike is by a paltry sum of INR 20. The announcement amounts to an insult, especially considering the fact that MNREGA-related work has come to a standstill with the lock-down and there is essentially no work at hand. The Central government has made allocations to the relief package from Building and Construction Workers Welfare Fund and the Mineral Fund, which are already existing funds. And so, with respect to construction and mine workers no new allocation of funds from the Consolidated Fund of India has been channelized to meet catastrophic overnight unemployment.Likewise the sum of INR 2000 that the relief package has promised all farmers is the first installment that is otherwise due to them under the PradhanMantriKisanYojana (PMKY), as announced just before the 2019 parliamentary elections. While much has been made of the Central government’s plan of transferring INR 500 for the month of April into the Jan Dhan accounts held by women, this paltry sum can hardly be expected to help needy households to tide over the lock-down when every other avenue of income has been taken away from them.Even the INR 1000 for aged widows and the disabled is far from adequate.

The need of the hour is the release of at least a month’s minimum wages. However, it is highly unlikely that such relief will be implemented, given the pro-rich, pro-corporate bias of the state. Only recently the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman waived off corporate loans amounting to 7.78 lac crores. The Minister’s priorities were clear when she held consultations with the representatives of corporate houses but refrained from consulting trade union and workers prior to her announcement of the relief package. It is precisely the failure to the state’s failure to provide wage relief to working-class households during the lock-down that many have felt obliged to risk police harassment and their personal safety and show up for work. Hence, it is still not uncommon to find domestic workers, security guards, among other informal workers, reporting for work in some neighbourhoods.

Further, another limitation is the current distribution of rations under the public distribution system (PDS), which has been limited to only those with ration cards. This is again a problematic measure, considering many households do not have such cards, and that individual migrant labourers do not carry with them to the city the ration cards which they registered in their village. Moreover, the rations being provided do not contain many essential food items, which in the current lock-down are essential for the well-being of the general working masses.In times of such insecurity and loss of income, we need extensive plans for provision of nutritious cooked food and key dry rations, in order of priority, to the most vulnerable sections of the country’s population. Despite the overflowing warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and a projected bumper harvest of rabi crops (wheat, pulses, mustard, onions, etc.), the fact that such plans are missing is simply because feeding the working class and other marginalized sections is not the priority of the pro-rich Indian state.

Even if we take the conservative estimates of the Ministry of Labour about the total labour force in India, the limitations of the state’s relief measures shall be clearly evident. According to the conservative estimates of the Ministry, the country has a labour force comprising of 54 crore workers. Of this labour force, 40 crore workers have no safety or social security net. An estimated 10 crore of this unprotected segment of workers is inter-state migrant labour, which is the component of workers that have been trying to reach their villages post the announcement of lock-down. Similarly, 10 crore of the unprotected segment of workers is inter-district migrant labour. The current relief package has made little provisions for the most vulnerable sections of the aforementioned labour force. For instance, no wage and special ration schemes were announced for casual municipal and sanitation workers or domestic workers – all of whom comprise a significant component of migrant labour. This despite the fact that migrant workers do not have ration cards with them in the city of their employment. For the single-male migrant labourers stranded in the cities post the lock-down, the Central government’s pronouncement of INR 500 transfer to Jan Dhan accounts could hardly provide much comfort, given their wives/mothers, the beneficiaries of the said measure, are located back in the village. Petty vendors, hawkers, rag-pickers, etc. were also ceremoniously left out of the Central government’s relief package.

In concrete terms, the right to food and the right to dignity of labour do not inform the logic of the 1.7 lakh crore relief package. Even the appended announcements of the Central government regarding special allocation of funds towards health system preparedness package have rung hollow as frontline health care workers continue to grapple with shortage of personal protection equipment and other essentials.

The current conjuncture represents the steady erosion of a minimum entitlement that the country’s workers have gained access to in the process of the historical evolution of India’s working class. We have much to glean from Marx on this subject. In his exposition of labour power, Marx explained how a labourer, having no other commodity to sell, disposes “of his labour power as his own commodity”.[30] He went on to argue about the special nature of this commodity; namely, that it is the sole commodity whose price embodies a historical and moral element.[31] The argument hints at a breaking point at which the capitalist system stands to lose its grasp on labour. In this regard, the said historical and moral elements are what we can refer to as the sense of minimum entitlement to a particular level of wages, access to public goods, level of consumption, etc., that workers develop in their struggle against and negotiation with the capitalist system.

Relief or Food Riot? : Party as a Missing Link

In the background of the growing distress of labouring poor, we have overflowing FCI warehouses, stocked-up provision stores, fresh vegetables supply, etc. that go to show the expansiveness of capitalist commodity production. The goods are there to take, provided one has the money to buy them. For money, one must work. However, there is no work! And with no work or source of income, the country’s working class and other marginalized social groups have next to nothing in terms of purchasing power. As the lock-down extends to 3 May, the panic, distress and potential for confrontation over questions of food and shelter are bound to escalate.[32]This a possibility projected by policy experts, and the sporadic food riots that are breaking out are a clear indication of the same.

The ruling elites and top-level bureaucrats have not been oblivious to the fact that food riots and widespread social unrest are lurking around the corner. For instance, former chief statistician, Pronab  Sen, has claimed “If food is not available to migrant workers, food riots may be a real possibility.”[33]Indeed, distressed workers caught in the big metropolises with inadequate food and shelter,have begun throwing up sporadic protests in some urban areas. The possibility of more food riots and assaults on government officials looms large. This conjuncture is an important one. Heterogeneous labour – divided along the lines of differential rates of exploitation, social identities, etc. – is now placed in a homogenized temporality. This labour is throwing up temporally and spatially disjunct forms of resistance. However, in this very context of a similitude of discontent playing itself out in relatively the same unit of time, sectional interests have the propensity to be bridged by epochal events. There is undeniably a combustible situation at hand.

While numerous riots and other forms of resistance that unfold are important in their own right, the problem is that these acts of resistance remain largely disconnected, especially along spatial lines. The truth is that the class power of labour vis-à-vis the upper classes and the capitalist state has to unfold to the extent that labour’s public actions are co-extensive with the territorial range of the supreme political power (the state), which labour most needs to confront. Until this form of confrontation materializes, the actions of discontent labour will simply remain serialized, disjunct local conflicts.

For labour’s  class capacity to assert itself, it is mandatory that a programmatic expression of unity is actively inculcated through interlocking, mutually supporting and concerted practices. It is precisely here that the missing link of a revolutionary working-class party is most felt. After all, revolutions do not spring automatically from social crises; a revolutionary party as a catalyst which coordinates the politicizing/ revolutionizing of labour is the real game changer. Without such intervention, the independent actions of distressed workers have the propensity to be easily restrained by repression and easily coopted by timely damage-control measures of a vigilant state.

Currently, the working masses are restless; there is an institutional collapse of the many organs of the state (sans the oppressive ones), but the working class party is in a stupor. Generations of revolutionaries aspire for revolution, but sadly when the unprecedented crisis confronts them they find themselves utterly unprepared to meet the challenges. It is here that the relevance of Lenin’s exposition of a revolutionary situation is most keenly felt; more so as the working-class party is missing altogether from the unfolding scenario. According to Lenin, a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation. Although not all revolutionary situations lead to a revolution, it is imperative to identify the “symptoms”. The symptoms of the revolutionary situation include the following:

“(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to rule in the old way;

(2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual;

(3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.

Lenin’s above-mentioned exposition is a familiar one for Marxists. It is sadly misread and misquoted. Often, it is the first two components of his argument that have found their way into debates. Nevertheless, in Lenin’s own words: “The totality of all these objective changes is called a revolutionary situation.”[34] It is then important to identify that the present conjuncture, though far from a revolution, has nonetheless thrown up symptoms of the ruling elite’s loss of legitimacy and enhanced suffering of the oppressed classes. It has also thrown up evidence of growing mass activity by the oppressed working class.

What explains this unpreparedness and serious lack of initiative within the Left? The key explanation for the missing link of a revolutionary working-class party lies in the very nature of existing organizational practices; namely, the heavy concentration of trade union activities on purely economistic lines among those components of the working class which are positioned in the higher segments of the value creation chain.[35] Lakhs of migrant workersare concentrated in the lower rungs of the value creation chain where they remain overexploited. It is here that trade union density is the lowest. Fleetingly organized, their public actions and growing plight, even inunprecedented conjunctures such as these, consequently fail to have a signalling effect.

There is clearly a dearth of concerted practices that are capable of advancing the capacity of the working class to resist and advance its position in relation to the upper classes. Sporadic press releases being issued can hardly be counted as a capacity building strategy! As the Yechuris, Rajas and Bhattacharyas of the Indian Left relinquish the battlefield, their cadre has been left to take an initiative in ways that it deems fit. In almost all cases this has meant coordinating donations and other forms of charity. Those who claim to recognize the class divisions in society surely cannot be oblivious to the fact that junking the basic strategy of workers’ self-organization, organized collective action and mutual aid in favor of charity is exactly the form of intervention that circumvents the contradiction of class interests between the upper classes, who paternalistically dole out donations, and the labouring masses that are provided piecemeal relief with upper class money.[36]Mutual aid in contrast is a classical working-class activity wherein a part of the working class extends its solidarity to other parts in a horizontal mode unlike the vertical form of charity work. Such charity does not make workers realize their entitlement in the economy but reproduces them as docile recipients. Many forms of relief work reinforce the class hegemony of the rich, and they are absolved of critiquing the system.Correspondingly, the class hatred against the expropriation of the labour and other resources of society by the upper classes is neutralized by reinforcing the class-neutral belief that there exist good and bad people in all the classes.

While ruling elites appeal for national unity, many would assume that the crisis is a temporary and unprecedented situation, which requires only a little inconvenience and suffering. As the masses are forced to sacrifice more and more, the apparent docility transforms into rage. For the most exploited, many of the hardships of the lock-down period may not appear out of the ordinary, but for an average worker these are not familiar everyday circumstances. Is it the threat of virus, and the widespread police repression in the name of preventing the spread of infection, that is holding them back? The most affected section of the working class like migrant workers are already showing their discontent. However, who will give this discontent an all-India political form?Until the revolutionary working-class party gives form to the disparate localized discontent that has its origins rooted in the translocal (capitalist) structures, we shall continue to see the Right-wing set the agenda for the ‘national-popular’ aspirations of the masses.

In their tussle with the Right-wing, middle-class Left-liberals have been awkwardly restricted to abstract constitutional morality and have anchored themselves in an endless rebuttal of how minorities are portrayed in a particular light. The turf of politics of Left-liberals is to a large extent laid by the Right-wing forces, and so most of the time their politics is about reacting/responding to the Right-wing. Revolutionary Left politics would refuse to slide into a pseudo-secular engagement with the Right-wing narrative and instead continue to push into the forefront the rich/poor divide – an axis of politics which has greater potential to galvanize people who have otherwise become the social base of Right-wing politics.

It is a fact that Right-wing forces have been successfully displacing the class issues and class conflicts by replacing them with religious and narrow nationalistic concerns. We have Donald Trump who has taken to blaming the Chinese for the novel Coronavirus, and is pressing forward with the imperialist ‘Americans-come-first’ politics, as captured in his negotiations for exclusive rights to a Coronavirus vaccine developed by a German pharmaceutical company. Closer to home, the Indian Right-wing has launched a virulent campaign blaming Muslims for the outbreak of Covid-19 in the country. Using this communal angle, the Right-wing dispensation has been exonerating itself of accusations of high-handedness in managing the Covid-19 situation. It is easy for them to argue that some inconvenience is justified in ‘unprecedented’ circumstances like these; the situation could have been worse; and they have averted the worst from unfolding.It is really possible that even in the worst case scenario they will come out claiming that they have been victorious and have ‘saved’ the country! An ironic tale comes to mind. A man was blowing a trumpet loudly. The whole village gathered around him and asked what the matter was. The man stopped and replied  that the village was being invaded by wolves, and to drive them away he was blowing the trumpet. When asked by a person that he had not seen any wolves, the man kept blowing his trumpet, stopped for a moment, and retorted, “Can’t you see my success?”

While there is a widespread simmering of discontent, why aren’t the class issues combating and displacing the divisive imperialist, nationalist, racist and communal elements? Indeed, where is the ideological and programmatic struggle on class lines? In a situation that clearly calls for renewal of the Left, it would be apt to evoke Hegel, who argued that introspection is supposed to paint the ‘grey in grey’ and indicate that “one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering”.[37] As we reflect on past and present struggles of the working-class movement and the organizational capacity of the Left, let us resolve to renew efforts that shall herald a new dawn, which will not embody repetition of old redundant practices, but the struggles which propel revolutionary situations into actual revolutions.

————————-

[1] A.G. Tansley (1935), “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” as quoted in Bellamy Foster (2002), “Marx’s ecology in historical perspective,” International Socialism Journal, Vol. 96 (winter), http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj96/foster.htm#9.

[2] Human microbiome refers to collective genomes (genetic material) of microorganisms living on and within us.

[3] Michael Friedman (2018), “Metabolic Rift and the Human Microbiome,” Monthly Review, 1 July,

[4]National Institute of Health Human Microbiome Project, https://www.hmpdacc.org/overview/.

[5] As explained by the distinguished molecular biologist Harmit Malik, quoted by Pervez Hoodbhoy, The Wire, 11 April 2020, https://science.thewire.in/the-sciences/novel-coronavirus-vaccines-drugs-evolution-charles-darwin/

[6]Nathan D. Wolfe et al (2007), “Origins of major human infectious diseases,” Nature, Vol. 447, pp. 279–283, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05775. Also see J.M. Pearce-Duvet (2006), “The origin of human pathogens: evaluating the role of agriculture and domestic animals in the evolution of human disease,” Biological Review of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, Vol. 81 no.3 (August), pp. 369-82. For a longer history of diseases and epidemics, see J.N. Hays (2005), Epidemics and Pandemics: Their Impacts on Human History, Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.

[7] For a very interesting elaboration, see James C. Scott (2017), “Chapters 1 and 3”, Against the Grain: A Deep History of Early States, Yale University Press [reprint].

[8] K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5 [1975], New York: International Publishers, pp. 39-41.

[9] For the ecological reflections in Marx’s later mature writings, see K Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 [1976], New York: International Publishers, pp. 636-639; K Marx, Capital, Vol. 3 [1981], New York, pp. 948-950, 959.

[10] Robert G. Wallace et al (2015), “The Dawn of Structural One Health: A New Science Tracking Disease Emergence Along Circuits of Capital,” Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 129, pp. 68–77

[11] In the backdrop of the casteist and patriarchal thrust of the Indian Right-wing, we find proliferation of the following discourse: Covid-19 is a punishment for erring from the path of ‘tradition’; pray to mother goddess for deliverance; and last but not the least, gaumutra(cow urine), an ancient remedy shall also cure “Corona”. For an assessment of how uncritical ecological critiques are reinforcing Right-wing ideological entrapment of the masses, see Meera Nanda (2004), “Eco-Spirituality, Neo-Paganism and the Hindu Right”, Women & Environment International Magazine, Vol. 64/65 (Fall/Winter)

[12]The issue to contend with is not the question of exotic viruses that are supposedly seamlessly spreading with expanding capitalist agriculture and industrialization, but the question of their combination with undifferentiated and unidentified diseases which are already plaguing the labouring poor. For an elaboration of this point, see Part I of this series: “Knowability and Unknowability of Covid-19: Is there ‘Class’ in the Coronavirus Panic?”, https://kafila.online/2020/04/05/knowability-and-unknowabiility-of-covid-19-is-there-class-in-the-coronavirus-panic-maya-john/#more-40188.

[13] Charles Darwin explained the details of both artificial and natural selection in ways that have made it evident that the very act of domestication of animals is one of artificial selection, albeit within the overall framework within which natural selection continues to assert itself. See Charles Darwin (1869), On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (5th ed.), London: John Murray. Specially see, p. 122 and Chapter-1. For an uncritical and gross misuse of the concept of natural selection, see Robert Wallace et al (2020), “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” Monthly Review, 1 April, https://monthlyreview.org/2020/04/01/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capital/#.

[14] M. Hardt and A. Negri (1994), Labor of Dionysus A Critique of the State-Form, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[15] Immaterial labour is an Italian Autonomist framework to describe how value is produced from affective and cognitive activities, which, in various ways, are commodified in capitalist economies. As a form of labour, it is associated with production of nonmaterial good such as a cultural product, communication, information, or knowledge.

[16] Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (2009), Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, London: Penguin Books.

[17] For a longer history of Western Marxism, see Perry Anderson (1976), Considerations on Western Marxism, London: NLB.  Anderson argues that post the defeat of the German revolution, most of the intellectuals within the tradition of ‘Western Marxism’ detached themselves from active involvement in class struggle. Their preoccupation with philosophy, and indeed, with idealist philosophy divorced from practice in a way that earlier revolutionaries would have detested.

[18]Slavoj Žižek (2020), “Op-ed: Biggest Threat Covid-19 Epidemic Poses is not our Regression to Survivalist Violence, but Barabarism with Human Face”, 19 March, https://www.rt.com/op-ed/483528-coronavirus-world-capitalism-barbarism/. Emphasis added.

[19] Robert Wallace et al (2020), https://monthlyreview.org/2020/04/01/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capital/#.

[20] For a foundational text which led to the development of this line of arguments that brought to the forefront Marx and Engels’ engagement with ecological issues, see Bellamy Foster (2000), Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, New York: Monthly Review Press.

[21] Such arguments are also being reproduced among individuals who have been associated with the radical Left tradition in India.

[22] See https://khn.org/morning-breakout/a-disproportionate-number-of-african-americans-are-dying-but-the-u-s-has-been-silent-on-race-data/.

[23] See interview of Ramchandra Raidas, a rickshaw-puller, Media Vigil.

[24] This is not to undermine certain variations in the experiences along gender lines. In most upper class homes, wherever domestic workers have been unable to make it to work, women of such households are attending to the bulk of housework, child rearing and looking after the sick and elderly. Reports of growing domestic violence on women as well as online stalking in this period are also worth noting. Nonetheless, experiences of domestic violence are a phenomenon visible in working-class homes as well. Moreover, burdened by strained gender relations within the home, working-class women in the context of the prevailing lock-down are more precariously placed than upper class women, given their ensuing battle with fast depleting resources and growing insecurity of subsistence. There can be no equivalence of experiences, given their varying class positions.

[25] See Ashwini Kabir (2020), “कोरोना से भी ज्यादा बड़ी महामारी की दस्तक, घुमंतू जनजाति मुश्किल में,” MediaVigil,     3April, http://www.mediavigil.com/society/corona-lockdown-have-great-impact-on-nomadic-tribes-and-environment/

[26] Gatherings and congregations of many different religious communities have been identified as facilitating super-spreaders, i.e. contagious persons, to easily spread infectious, communicable diseases. The Kumbhmela, south Indian temple festivals, the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, etc. have been known to create considerable public health concern, especially regarding transmission of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. See S. David and N. Roy (2016), “Public Health Perspectives from the Biggest Human Mass Gathering on Earth: KumbhMela, India,” International Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 47, pp. 42-45. Also see V. Meena (1976), Temples of South India, Kanyakumari: HariKumari Arts; P.A. Koul et al (2018), “Respiratory Viruses in Returning Hajj & Umrah Pilgrims with Acute Respiratory Illness Kashmir, North India in 2014-2015,” Indian Journal of Medical Research, Vol. 148, pp. 329-33; and World Health Organization (2008), Communicable Disease Alert and Response for Mass Gatherings. Key Considerations, Geneva: WHO.

[27] Victorian Schneider (2020), “Tension, fear as South Africa steps up coronavirus fight,” 18 March, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/tension-fear-south-africa-steps-coronavirus-fight-200318043032147.html

[28]AsifSaleh (2020), “In Bangladesh, COVID-19 threatens to cause a humanitarian crisis,” World Economic Forum, 6 April, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/in-bangladesh-covid-19-could-cause-a-humanitarian-crisis/.

[29] In the wake of the pandemic, there are many news reports of the US arm-twisting other countries in the bid to redirect essential medical supplies, etc. to itself. See for instance https://www.bbc.com/news/world-52161995.

[30] Marx K., Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I [1961], Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, p.169.

[31] Marx K. (1884), Wage, Labour and Capital, Peking, Foreign Language Press [1978], p. 45.

[32] It is another issue that we may not immediately learn of the rioting, given the gagging of the media as well as the tendency of state authorities to conceal such realities.

[33] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/if-food-is-not-available-to-migrant-workers-food-riot-may-be-a-real-possibility-pronab-sen/articleshow/74861493.cms.

[34] V.I.Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International,” Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 21, Moscow: Progress Publishers [1974], Moscow, Volume 21, p. 205.

[35] For a recent discussion on revolutionary subjectivity and the Party, see Maya John (2018), “Labour Theory of Value and Identities: Towards a Theory of Segmentation and Revolutionary Subjectivity,” Social Scientist, Vol. 46, No. 9-10, September-October.

[36] For a classical statement of the issue, see V.I. Lenin, “Bourgeois Philanthropist and Revolutionary Social Democracy,” Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 21 [1974], Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp. 192-93.

[37] G.W.F. Hegel, “Preface,” Philosophy of Right, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/pr/preface.htm#xxx.

The author teaches in University of Delhi, and is an activist with a union of domestic workers called Gharelu Kamgar Union (GKU). She can be contacted on maya.john85@gmail.com

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