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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 21, New Delhi, May 9, 2020

Remembering Marx under the condition of lockdown: Going beyond the “Corona” Paradigm

Saturday 9 May 2020

by Maya John

On the occasion of the birth anniversary of Karl Marx, the greatest intellectual of the millennium, it is best to steer clear of hero-worshipping. Instead, let us commemorate Marx’s ideas by re-enacting his way of knowing things. Much can be drawn from his writings wherein we can see Marx reinvigorating the revolutionary agenda at a time of deep despair and defeat. Reflecting and writing after the failed revolutions of 1848, Marx provided an introspective critique of unfolding conditions in his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Closely examining the events of the successful coup and assumption of dictatorial powers by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in republican France in 1851, Marx was the only contemporaneous political thinker to liken the ascendancy of Louis-Bonaparte to that of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, who seized power in revolutionary France through the coup of 18 Brumaire (7 November 1799).

Marx saw these developments as an affirmation of the fact that “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The political weight of a statement like this, and in fact, of the entire essay, lies in its critical engagement with the limitations that prevent situations of revolutionary crisis to go beyond the fetters of the past. In no uncertain terms, Marx postulated that for a new revolutionary beginning to succeed, the dead weight of the past and pre-given ideological coordinates must be given up altogether. To quote Marx: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living….In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue” (emphasis added).

In the current crisis of lockdown in India, the shortcomings of existing ‘Left’ parties and groups to respond to the deepening challenges, point precisely to Marx’s insights that the concepts, ideas, and ways of doing things of the past weigh down heavily on the efforts to know and build anew. The ‘Left’ remains frustratingly shackled to the ideological coordinates of the dominant views of the ruling classes whom it seeks to confront. At present, ‘Left’ leaders tend to reproduce assessments of real or manufactured crises using the hegemonic lens of the dominant classes. Our ways of knowing and understanding things are consequently curtailed by the dominant ideology. In today’s context, apart from failing to understand many other things, the existing ‘Left’ has been unable to adequately expose the politics surrounding epidemics.

Ours is a population that is falling prey to the sinister synergy between declared and undeclared epidemics and the vulnerabilities fostered by the overall functioning of our socio-economic system. Unfortunately, rather than organically originating from this sinister synergy, the prominent critiques of the ‘Left’ have so far been restricted to the paradigm set by the perception of the crisis as envisaged by the elites. Helmed in by the dominant classes’ perceptions of ‘crisis’ the response of the ‘Left’ embodies an awkward double-bind. On one hand, it recognizes the problems with harsh measures like lockdown, but on the other, there has been a tacit acceptance of the “corona” paranoia or the supposed threat posed by an exotic new disease. I shall resist the temptation of repeating what I have argued elsewhere about the Left’s ecological critiques and critiques of mismanagement of the pandemic. Here it would suffice to say that the critique of the ‘Left’, emphasizing mismanagement, high-handedness and unpreparedness, lies anchored well within the overall paradigm that Covid-19 in itself is a phenomenal crisis. With the underlying acceptance by the ‘Left’ forces of the paranoia of the elites about Covid-19, the ‘Left’ have proved ineffectual against the efforts of the Right-wing to exonerate itself of the accusations of high-handedness in tackling the Covid-19 situation. Working within the same paradigm of the perceived threats of Covid-19, it is easy for the Right-wing to argue that some inconvenience is justified in ‘unprecedented’ circumstances like these, that 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!

Questioning what and how we know about diseases has therefore become imperative. Overlooking how class, region and other social dynamics influence ‘scientific’ research on disease, the existing ‘Left’ has failed to expose the ways in which mainstream epidemiology continues to remain indifferent to several persistent and silent epidemics plaguing the working masses. In fact, there is an uncritical acceptance of ‘information’ disseminated by the disease monitoring system sponsored by governmental and global health agencies. Conversely, the adverse medical conditions prevalent among the labouring poor and poorer regions continue to be left unidentified by the lax disease surveillance/monitoring. Thus, whilst some diseases, like Covid-19, gain singular prominence by being declared epidemics/pandemics by the scientific community, scores of infectious diseases and illnesses affecting largely the poor are brushed aside as ‘ordinary’. Undeniably, “a disease must win politically to win scientifically.” (Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies).

Indeed, the fallout of the biases of mainstream epidemiology and virology has meant that the specific cause (aetiology) behind numerous diseases and ailments fail to be identified and differentiated. In other words, the variations in sub-groups, strains, etc. in the pathogens are not captured by existing classificatory schemes. Many ailments are then simply clubbed together under catch-all-categories like ‘Respiratory Tract Infection’, ‘Urinary Tract Infection’, ‘Fever of Unknown Origin’, etc. These disease are often more contagious and fatal than those which gain prominence. However, given the incomplete diagnosis, it is at most symptomatic treatment which is made available to the common masses; leading to persistent spread of the disease and continuous heavy loss of life.

However, ignoring persistent, more fatal and infectious diseases, the ‘Left’ merely replicates the paranoia of the elites about Covid-19, which has gained singular prominence. There is no talk of a comparative analysis of the fatality rates of diseases currently plaguing the Indian population. How do we explain this politico-ideological bankruptcy? It is nothing but the subsuming of the ‘Left’s’ autonomy of thought by the so-called expertise of the bourgeois system that has led to ‘Left’ echoing the same paranoia about Covid-19 as the elites. Such co-option has also facilitated the ‘Left’ to slide into the now hegemonic form of vertical health intervention, which is driven by global health agencies and pharmaceutical companies’ singular interest in the disease. Just like the elites, the ‘Left’ too is supporting the surgical mode of intervention on a singular disease; leaving unaddressed the collateral damage, i.e. the increasing fatality rates of numerous other debilitating diseases and illnesses prevalent within the population that only a horizontal health intervention or an expansive public health system can resolve. In the wake of the lockdown the state has closed down OPD services and pushed back scheduled surgeries in public hospitals, yet the ‘Left’ remains oblivious, to say the least. In this way, the ‘Left’ has failed to defend the working masses by not exposing the deadly ramifications of disrupted general healthcare facilities that public hospitals provide to the poor.

At the level of biology we are clearly fighting more than the real or perceived threat of the novel Coronavirus. There is an urgent need to recognize the issue of comorbidity, i.e. the combination of Covid-19 with a cocktail of contagious, communicable diseases or preexisting medical complications that plague the majority of Indian people. As many identified as well as unidentified diseases which are more contagious and fatal than Covid-19 continue to infect as well as kill lakhs of people across the country, clearly the singular prominence assigned to Covid-19 is jarring. It is not just the combination or comorbidity with Covid-19 that should draw our attention to the undeclared yet persistent silent epidemics of other diseases. All lethal diseases prevalent among the labouring poor deserve attention in their own right.

Such assertions do not amount to a shallow ‘what about-ism’ that seeks to draw attention away from a concrete crisis. Interventions pointing to the skewed relationship between social epistemology and epidemiology, and to the need to recognize undeclared silent epidemics of diseases other than Covid-19, are based firmly on the specificity of the crisis – its foundation. Thus, the emphasis on the dangerous ramifications of giving singular prominence to Covid-19 and the resulting lack of attention to other lethal, often more contagious identified and unidentified diseases plaguing the working masses. A critical engagement with the dominant paradigm on the disease is much needed, especially as lakhs of labouring poor lose their lives to other pervasive diseases and illnesses that stem not only from poverty, malnutrition, over-exploitative working conditions, but are also the fallout of the lack of scientific research on them. However, driven by the fear of diseases that affect them, the dominant classes have hijacked systems of disease monitoring, disease control, treatment and healthcare services, and we have done little to break with this hegemony of the elites. Expectedly, it has been easy for the ruling elites to keep overriding existing health concerns of the poor – best reflected in the imposition of the Covid-19 triggered lockdown on 24th March, World Tuberculosis (TB) Day. On 24th March, whilst Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on the threats of Covid-19, he of course made no reference to TB; a poor man’s disease that kills approximately 1400 people every day in India.

The ‘Left’s’ tacit acceptance of the ‘threat’ of “Corona” is built on the same blinkering out of the deteriorating health conditions of the vast majority of the working masses. Unable to change the dominant paradigm, there has been a visible sidestepping of the class-bias written into disease control mechanisms of lockdown, ‘physical social distancing’ and vigilante hand-washing. The living [sic] space for a vast majority of working masses comprises of small, 8x8 ft. one-room tenements in crowded slums, where sleeping, eating and cooking areas cannot be segregated. Many urban slum dwellers are in fact confined to a living space which is even less than the recommended space of 96 square ft. for a prisoner in jail. Moreover, slum dwellers are denied a regular supply of water and are often forced to crowd around designated spots of water supply, paving the way for rapid spread of contagion. Apart from some criticism of the inefficacy of ‘physical social distancing’ and vigilante hand-washing in slums, the existing ‘Left’ has proven incapable of launching a direct attack on the very logic of lockdown – a measure which has, in reality, locked-up scores of labouring poor within debilitating living conditions in urban slums. An entire country can be locked down due to a disease which is perceived as a threat by the elites, but no such lockdown can ever been envisaged in the case of ever circulating infectious diseases among the poor. When threatened by diseases circulating among the poor, it has been the usual practice to segregate the poor – a strategy typical to the colonial era. Of course, when the elites have been the carriers of contagion, no such segregation is enforced, which is evident in the way globe-trotting elites were allowed to bring Covid-19 into the country.

Why should we be party to a skewed paradigm that is based on separating out one disease from a cradle of diseases plaguing society? Based on the fears of the elites about a singular disease, such a paradigm simply ends up pushing the poor further into the clutches of diseases which have been burdening them way before “Corona” made its appearance. Clearly, reinforcing the dominant Covid-19 paradigm is proving to be a major ideological debacle of the ‘Left’. The emphasis on the laxity of disease surveillance and class-biases of prevailing disease control measures are now all the more crucial for the increased assertion of the differential class impact of the lockdown.

The incompetence of the existing ‘Left’ in the given extraordinary conditions necessitates a new prognosis of the Covid-19 paranoia and the delinking of our assessments of the situation from the dominant ideas perpetuated by bourgeois area specialists. We can no longer afford to be restrained by the half-truths and skewed social epistemology bred by the biased research of bourgeois scientific community. When we are most lost, it is imperative to “begin from the beginning” (Lenin). Only when the revolutionary forces detach themselves completely from the older forms of knowledge and ways of doing things, can new forms be created for newer content to become the guiding light of things to unfold. There is need for remembering the reflections of Marx on this day to reassert just how essential the autonomy of thought is for a new form of revolutionary politics to emerge. For Marx, knowing the world was never separable from its operative part, i.e. the need for changing it. Only in this manner can we pay a real tribute to the great Marx.

(Written on 5 May 2020, the birth anniversary of the great revolutionary thinker, Karl Marx)

Maya John 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[at]gmail.com

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