Gramsci’s morbid symptoms reassert themselves in the age of coronavirus, writes Shashikant Tripathi
The much cherished ideological and political belief after 1980s can be summarised by Margaret Thatcher’s argument- ‘there is no such thing as a society’. In theory, this dictum culminated in Neoliberalism: the basic premise that there should be no state intervention in economy. The role of the state and the government is only to facilitate and inculcate “strong individual private property rights, the rule of law, and the institutions of freely functioning markets and free trade.” At the centre of theory, policy and governance was now the ‘individual’.
From Adam Smith to Milton Friedman and John Locke to John Rawls, private property and individualism were the key theoretical premise for their approach to liberty, equality and freedom. Before 1970s, the state was custodian of liberty and welfare of the individuals. To some extent, state made efforts to improve the life of its citizens through the promise of education, health and social security. But when neoliberalism increasingly became the official ideology of a state, it was supposed to withdraw from economic action. The apologists of neoliberalism asserted that state intervention would lead to market failure and hence, the government’s job should only be to maintain law and order.
Market solution was to be the panacea for every problem facing the society. Neoliberalism was to save the world from Environmental crisis and climate change which can be resolved if there are strong private property regulations in place. For example, the “tragedy of commons” could have been avoided had there been rules for its private use. Carbon trading was one such idea produced by market economy to ‘solve’ the problem of carbon emission.
Despite all the claims made by neoliberals, inequality, poverty, ecological and health crisis are the main concerns of the society even today. Most of it is a byproduct of cut throat competition, uncontrolled anthropocene activities and the animal spirit of capitalism. Quoting John Bellamy foster, “the neoliberal drive to absolute capitalism is accelerating the world toward exterminism or destructionism on a planetary scale.”
Covid-19 unintentionally attacks the very premise and idea of neoliberal principles. Take an example of the pharmaceutical sector. As per the law, medicine and vaccines are subjects of the market because competition and patents will promote innovation. As a result of this, the price of medicines and vaccines has been steadily rising. The MNCs have monopoly on essential medicines and their profitability are quite high. For this reason, private companies are not willing to loose their hand in pharmaceutical industry. Joel Lexchin (2018) in his astonishing study (Health Care Under the Knife) exposed the fraudulent practices of pharmaceuticals companies. He wrote: “The myth is that its profits come from producing and selling the many therapeutic advances that industry research has generated, but the reality is far different. In the first place, after tax deductions only about 1.3 percent of the money that the industry spends actually goes into basic research, the type of research that leads to new medications.
Second, most of the new medicines that come from the pharmaceutical corporations offer little to nothing in the way of new therapeutic options. For the decade 2005 to 2014, among 1,032 new drugs and new uses for old drugs introduced into the French market, for example, only sixty-six offered a significant advantage whereas more than half were rated as “nothing new,” and 177 were judged “unacceptable” because they “came with serious safety issues and no benefits.” Aforementioned excerpt is just an example of how MNCs function and are an evidence that neoliberalism is concerned not about the people but only profits.
The general expenditure on health is minimal, because of fiscal austerity. Covid-19 has unveiled the moribund health system in every country, even the developed ones in the west. The shortage of masks, sanitisers, ventilators, and PPE kits are the nadir of neoliberal state. All essential products related to health are occupied by multinational corporations and the states do not want to nationalise the health services as nationalising healthcare has a direct implication on profits for these pharmaceutical companies. Spain and Ireland, as an exception, have nationalised all the private hospitals due to the crisis posed by the pandemic. Even in the absence of a mass movement for universal health care, mostly everyone- even apologists of neoliberalism- agrees that state should intervene in the economy and in health services, at least in the time of a pandemic.
All sections of society, rich or poor, are prone to the coronavirus. No matter who you are and what your purchasing power capacity is, there is a threat of the contagion. Individuality, which has been pressed for the last three decade has no space in the fight with this pandemic. Only individual caution and effort, without cooperation by the rest to follow basic hygiene and social distancing norms cannot prevent anyone from this threat. Covid 19 is a reminder to neoliberals that there IS a society.
Interestingly, Boris Jonson stressed in his tweet that “there is such a thing as society.” Although it does not mean that Jonson has repudiated Thatcher’s political ideology, it does mean that the paradigm is in crisis. For now, there is no vaccine for Covid-19 and the apologists of neoliberalism can claim that as soon as the vaccine is available, the situation will be normal. But this argument is untenable, because we are all bound by the global supply chains and a major concern of a possible unequal access to the vaccine.
This is the right time to ask questions on very idea of present politico-economic system. The promises and glorious picture of neoliberalism has been discredited and it has failed to save the society from poverty, inequality, ecological crisis and the recent pandemic. Ideological hegemony of Neoliberalism is in crisis. Profit driven pharmaceuticals companies and neoliberals are not going to solve the economic and heath crisis. There is an urgent need to look beyond neoliberalism and to redefine global cooperation to tackle the pandemic and its consequences- otherwise, as Gramsci said,“the old is dying and the new cannot be born.’’
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