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Michael Nassen Smith on global solidarity in the pandemic


Calls for solidarity and support are omnipresent in the current political climate, dominated by the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Practiced solidarity usually takes place in everyday life, in one’s neighbourhood or within a national framework. Global solidarity, on the other hand, hardly comes to the fore, and voices from the Global South rarely make their way to Europe—despite the global nature of the challenge coronavirus poses.

Responses to the pandemic thus far have been mixed, with some states responding more effectively and more solidary than others. Yet beyond lip-service, few political actors have done anything to foster a global response to the crisis. Increasingly, the danger is becoming apparent that the crisis will in fact strengthen autocrats and nation-states, while discrediting international frameworks and solidarity as approaches to solving global social problems. Andreas Bohne from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung spoke with South African political economist Michael Nassen Smith about global solidarity as a response to the COVID-19 threat.

Michael Nassen Smith is a South African political economist and doctoral candidate at York University in Toronto, Canada. He worked for many years as vice-director of the Institute for African Alternatives,  has written for numerous publications including the Mail and Guardian, and is editor of the book Confronting Inequality: The South African Crisis (Jacana, 2019).

AB: The corona crisis is ultimately of a global nature. Nevertheless, the measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 take place mainly within the framework of the nation-state. How do you assess this?

MS: The corona crisis is revealing the true extent and depth of our global interconnectedness in vivid terms. Nevertheless, the initial response to the crisis will have to emanate through national policy frameworks of nation-states. But this is no ordinary event: the conditions under which the crisis has been exacerbated are global in nature, and thus so are the solutions. The capacity and nature of each national response is predicated on global economic and political realities.

In many articles covering the crisis, whether in Europe or Africa, “solidarity” plays a major role. But what role does global solidarity actually play?

When we speak of solidarity, we need to be clear about what this actually entails, lest we lose ourselves in an empty moralism. For example, when big business comes together to devise solutions to the crisis—as recently occurred with US President Trump at the White House—this represents a form of solidarity, albeit for the rich and powerful. What is urgently required now is a people’s solidarity.

There is also the kind of solidarity needed to sustain communities at this point in time, like caring for frail or older family member and neighbours or volunteering to participate in the mammoth public health efforts to fight the pandemic. We need to sew this communal ethic we see on a micro level into the very fabric of global governance institutions.

But how could that happen given such unequal economic potential between countries? Even if the political will is there, are there limits to state implementation?

A successful fight against this crisis could demonstrate what a people’s solidarity can achieve; that it is indeed possible to collectively determine our own fate, to stand side-by-side with one another in the face of dire social challenges. The real task of the Left is to inject a sense of confidence in the idea that a future society can be governed in this way.

That brings me to the question of politics. We must communicate to the public that the COVID-19 crisis has been exacerbated by neoliberal economic governance and the inequities it generates. The crisis has exposed what underfunding and austerity have done to countries across the globe. The class, racial, and gender divisions and inequities that define the global system will now be brought into sharp relief.

We shouldn’t be surprised that a pandemic like this has returned, considering what occurred with SARS only a decade ago. Why weren’t labs put to work to find vaccines and solutions? Why are hospitals not equipped and ready to treat the public? Of course, things are not the same everywhere. Germany, for example—South Korea and China are others—possesses a health infrastructure that can handle the crisis far better due to timely state intervention and a better state of preparedness. Poorer countries in the Global South are being hardest hit and are likely to spiral in the upcoming weeks. 

The crisis before us reveals a stark market failure, rooted in the privatization of healthcare and the neglect of public infrastructure—turning a service fundamental to meeting human rights to a source of profit. In that sense, global solidarity must translate into a movement to challenge neoliberal global capitalism.

This cannot be achieved should the trend toward isolation and narrow nationalism continue. The Left has always been about international solidarity, although in recent years there has been some equivocation on the issue. The idea of the Left, of socialism, is incoherent without an internationalist perspective. We need this perspective now more than ever.

Many NGOs in the North are calling for debt relief for the countries of the Global South, for increased funding for global health care and the fight against tuberculosis and other diseases. Is this enough? What are the Global South’s demands?

Debt relief is a good start. In 2019, before COVID-19 hit, half of the world’s lowest-income countries faced substantial debt problems. But this needs to be complemented by other actions. I think we must be clear on this point: the combined economic and health impacts of COVID-19 threaten to completely overwhelm countries in the Global South. Commodity prices have plummeted, exporters of manufactured goods have seen markets in the US, China, and Europe effectively shut down, and dollar-denominated debt has skyrocketed. The Financial Times reported that global investors have dumped tens of billions of dollars’ worth of emerging market assets since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Millions in the Global South derive their livelihoods from the informal sector. These economic activities fall outside of official statistics, even while making up a substantial portion of economic life. India and Morocco have pledged support for this sector, but it remains to be seen how other states will respond.

The crisis will be different depending on where one finds oneself—it is imperative to point out that the “Global South” is made up of a diverse range of countries, with significant variance in terms of economic and state capacity and, indeed, politics and class divides. Brazil is not South Africa, let alone Malawi. Solidarity, therefore, should be based on a real assessment of specific conditions and not on an abstract view of the world’s “poorer” nations and regions.

In South Africa, where I am from, close to 80 percent of the population faced imminent risk of falling below the poverty line before the outbreak. A significant portion of the country’s population suffers from HIV and tuberculosis. Meanwhile, it has a critically under-capacitated public health sector and already strained fiscal resources, along with a collapsing currency. The future is frightening to contemplate.

Even in the face of such apparent need, the reality of international geo- and class politics still bites. Iran and Venezuela are victims of harsh US sanctions that make the crisis nearly impossible to manage. The IMF, moreover, recently refused to provide financial assistance to Venezuela.

As of last week, South Africa’s credit rating was downgraded to junk status by Moody’s, citing the country’s low long-term growth forecast and lack of fiscal prudence. Ireland, led by a conservative government, nationalized its healthcare system for the duration of the crisis. The US passed a 2 trillion-dollar bailout. But ratings agencies are concerned with long-term fiscal sustainability in South Africa, a country where extreme poverty and unemployment reign.

Treasury and conservative policy hawks will use this as a time to embark on “structural reforms”—gutting public and social service spending. All this in a context in which fiscal, monetary, and industrial stimulus presents the only means by which to escape the current crisis. The lunacy of neoliberal economic governance should now be clear even to the most conservatively trained eye.  

These choices are not easy, and I’m not saying that there aren’t constraints. As of Sunday, it has been reported that South Africa will consider going to the IMF for emergency funding. For some, this presents the only hope to attain the liquidity necessary to ride out the current crisis and service the country’s growing debt burden, particularly if the government institutes capital controls. That said, whatever short-term actions are necessary to get through the crisis, we cannot go back to the normal state of affairs.

Northern NGOs and progressives need to engage carefully with the needs of countries in the Global South. Direct contact and collaboration with activist groups will help clarify short- and medium-term priorities. We should be concrete and very practical about things here. Cuban doctors and nurses are being sent abroad to fight the COVID outbreak. Wealthy countries should follow this example in terms of both manpower and technology. Progressive forces in these countries can push for this within their own borders.

A key issue is the problem of access to ventilators. It has been reported that Africa, the world’s poorest continent, is currently on the bottom of the list when it comes to the distribution of this life-saving technology. That cannot be. We also hear that countries are threatening to ban the export of ventilators, fearing production shortages—an illustration of narrow nationalism taking hold. Progressives in these countries must help ensure that such isolationism does not consolidate.

We need planned, need-driven production and international distribution. In several countries, including those run by conservative governments like Germany and the US, the idea of need-driven production has taken hold. The task of the Left is obviously to support this and give it an international dimension. But it should also ask: why not always?

Comparisons are difficult, but many measures taken by governments around the world are characterized by authoritarian measures that the Left usually opposes: tracking mobile data, restrictions on movement or even curfews, border closures, bans on public gatherings, etc. Some Leftists agree, arguing with necessity. How do you view this trend? Will global authoritarianism emerge stronger from the crisis, in part because the Left is unsure how to act?

There is a real threat of authoritarianism taking hold. In this moment similarities with the crisis of the late 1920s and 1930s are evident, as Noam Chomsky points out. There has already been open consideration—particularly in the US—of permitting the old and weak to die off during the crisis. This is Nazi-style eugenicist thinking.

This is why, for all the calls for social solidarity (urgent as they indeed are), we need to be clear about the political fissures that will characterize this moment. The US, India, Brazil, and others recently elected (or re-elected) right-wing populist regimes. If you combine the rise of the right, growing geopolitical tensions, the underlying threat of nuclear war, and the looming climate catastrophe, it is clear that we are approaching a human disaster.  

What should the Left do? Of course, a minimum programme of support for lockdowns and quarantine measures should be encouraged in the short-term. This will also involve some level of enforcement—we should not mistake a critique of authoritarianism with a critique of the type of social discipline needed to get us out of the crisis. The question is rather how those lockdowns are managed and what economic and social measures are adopted in concert. In this context, excesses like arbitrary police action should be identified and criticized.

Most importantly, democratic accountability and institutions need to be kept alive. State policy in this regard needs to be transparent and communicated to the public. Much of the abuse by police and army will be a consequence of ambiguous legislation. Progressive lawyers and legal activists should be put to work holding states accountable and demanding legislative clarity.

Media should remain free and form, along with local civic organizations, a kind of oversight mechanism. It is unfortunate that many of the abuses reported as a consequence of increased military and police action are in the Global South. Basic civic freedoms were actively suppressed by authoritarian governments in many countries even before the outbreak.

In countries where democracy is fragile, we need to find ways to support forces that struggle to advance democratic processes. For those of us from countries where some sense of democracy prevails, the Left’s task is to communicate that the public should not take their civil freedoms for granted. Democracy is a fragile animal. Not so long ago the world was enveloped by monarchy, fascism, and colonialism. Today, the Left’s message should be about deepening democracy and extending it into the economic realm. This message must not get lost during the COVID crisis, even while it is necessary for us to accept limitations on our movements and social interaction.   

At present, substantial financial resources are being made available to lessen the social and economic consequences of the crisis. Do you expect a relapse into national capitalism—a process of international “desolidarization”, so to speak? Or do you rather see the pendulum swinging in the direction of a global order based on solidarity?

This depends on what we do. People need to be shaken out of complacency and distraction. The global middle classes, including people from the Global South, will now turn to streaming, online shopping, and pass the time with whatever forms of entertainment are available. This is a response engendered by the system itself, a sigh of a people who have no sense of power or hope, and little faith in a vision for an alternative world.

But the mind-numbing solutions will not work for long as more and more people wake up to the gravity of the current situation. The threat of destitution is palpable even for those in the middle class—particularly in the Global South, where middle-class life is still largely precarious and debt-ridden. This is also increasingly the case in the Global North after years of austerity and neoliberal governance. Of course, for the vast majority of people in the Global South this is an urgent matter of life and death. Direct and urgent action is needed. Here, too, fear can give way to scapegoating, xenophobia, and racism. Before the outbreak, South Africa already struggled with xenophobic violence in poor and working-class communities. Ethnic and religious violence still plagues several countries.

Ultimately, without a vehicle to channel rising levels of anxiety, the latter can facilitate the “desolidarizarition” you speak of—even support for authoritarianism. Here, the Left needs to step in, provide hope and vision, and offer up concrete pathways to political action. Across the Global South the progressive community is rallying. It needs support from comrades in the Global North and across the world. Now is the time for coordination and resource sharing.

Internationalism has both moral and material grounds in the present conjuncture. Progressive movements in the North can help articulate the international dimensions of the current struggle, while also emphasizing that a struggle must be waged for a humane and democratic future. At the risk of sounding cliché, Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase, “socialism or barbarism”, has never resonated as clearly as it does today.