Reflections on a necessary alternative world

Marco Bersani 13/04/2020
Exit from a model that does not guarantee any protection

This dramatic health and social emergency is offering us a new awareness that a model based exclusively on market thinking and the priority of profits does not guarantee any protection.
The privatization of health systems, the draconian cuts on the altar of budgetary constraints and the mercantilization of scientific research have turned a serious health problem into a dramatic emergency situation, which has disrupted all people’s lives and their social relationships, rendering precariousness with a generalized existential dimension.
If the economic-financial crisis of 2007-2008 had brought the end of the fairy tale that the market would always produce so much wealth that it would guarantee “trickle-down” well-being for all, with the COVID-19 epidemic, the “sovereignist” illusion that the existing well-being could be kept as the prerogative of certain social groups and/or certain economically advanced territories lies shattered as well.
The systemic crisis—an economic, ecological, social and health crisis—of the capitalist model has rendered obvious its inability to guarantee protection. The conflict has literally become one between the stock exchange and human life. Choosing the latter must mean starting a generalized struggle for the exit from capitalism.
Pandemic vs. ecology
We are not in the presence of an event that is exogenous to the economic-social model. The current COVID-19 pandemic is not something external or of unknown origin. Our growing vulnerability to viruses has its deepest cause in the increasingly rapid destruction of natural ecosystems. The spread of deforestation, the drastic decrease in biodiversity, chemical agriculture, intensive livestock farming, industrialization, urbanization and pollution have led to a sudden change in the habitats of many animal and plant species, subverting ecosystems that have been established for centuries, altering their functioning and allowing greater connectivity between species.
From this point of view, the current epidemic is a part of the more general climate crisis, which, in the presence of the health emergency, everyone seems to have forgotten about or decided to put off.
The urgency of a change of course from the capitalist model, in itself indifferent to “what, how and why” is produced, is taking on an even more crucial significance.
A great deal of economic resources will be needed to overcome the current pandemic and the very deep economic crisis that will follow. From the outset, it must be demanded that these be exclusively directed towards building another model, one that is socially and ecologically oriented.
Social reproduction vs. economic production
In the current health emergency, the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist model is highlighted: the conflict between economic production and social reproduction. The exclusive importance given to the former and the consequent devaluation of the latter become manifest in the measures that were taken by governments to deal with the epidemic: protecting production and avoiding economic collapse was their first priority, with the result of transforming a serious health problem into a mass tragedy, particularly in the most industrialized territories of our country.
The workers’ strikes, self-organized by the workers themselves, have been strikes for life (social reproduction) against profits (economic production). The pandemic demonstrates that no economic production is possible without guaranteeing social reproduction, as feminist thought has always been trying to remind us. And if social reproduction means caring for oneself, for others and for the environment, it is precisely around these central issues that the whole economic-social model must be rethought, building a society of care in contrast to the economy of exploitation and profit.
Reappropriating social wealth
The pandemic has exposed the trap artificially constructed around the issue of public debt, used as blackmail in order to deregulate social and labor rights and put common goods and public services on the market.
The same people who were apostles of the primacy of budgetary constraints are saying today that we can spend and we must spend, that we must do so immediately and without limits, thereby demonstrating how public debt has been exploited for political purposes until now.
If the protection of people means overcoming the Stability Pact, the fiscal compact, the parameters imposed by Maastricht and everything that came afterwards, it means that these constraints are not only unnecessary, but are the main cause—thanks to the drastic cuts in public health spending—of the transformation of a serious health problem into a mass tragedy.
The time has come to reappropriate the social wealth expropriated by the unconditional freedom of capital movements, the financialization of the economy and society, the privatization of banking and financial systems, the usury of interest on debt.
It is necessary to claim control of capital movements, to establish the public nature of the European Central Bank and its role as unlimited guarantor of the public debt of the states, and to socialize the banking system, starting with the Deposits and Loans Fund (Cassa Depositi e Prestiti).
We must prevent today’s freedom on spending levels from becoming the chains of an even more stringent austerity tomorrow, and finally put finance in the service of society and not vice versa.
Take common goods and public services off the market
No protection is possible if the fundamental rights to life and to quality of life are not guaranteed. Recognizing common goods—natural, social, emergent and for civic use—as foundational elements for territorial cohesion and for an ecologically- and socially-oriented society means setting, for all political and economic choices, the objective of achieving a balanced social, ecological and gender budget. The protection of common goods, and the public services that guarantee their access and usability, requires their immediate removal from the market, their decentralized, community-based and participatory management, as well as their adequate funding, in no case amenable to shortchanging compromise.
A way out of precariousness and an income for all
From within this health and social emergency, we have experienced what precariousness means in an existential sense: our certainties, our daily rituals, our relational universes have been turned upside down, and we have had to take note of the intrinsic fragility of human and social life. But many women and men have had to reckon in even more concrete and dramatic ways with what it means not to have an income because one’s work has always been precarious and without security. Or with what it means to be unable, despite having an income, to assert one’s rights—to life and health—by refusing the blackmail of working in conditions that are in blatant violation of safety norms.
All this makes it clear that we cannot seriously look forward to a common future without choices that would immediately begin the task of overcoming every kind of precariousness.
The wealth being produced on the planet is more than enough to guarantee a dignified existence for all its inhabitants, while the ecological and climate crisis is, for the first time, a crisis caused by overproduction and not by scarcity. Both these elements call for a rethinking of the very meaning of work, and push us towards embarking immediately on the path towards an unconditional basic income, to be guaranteed to absolutely everyone.
Taking back the commons
The COVID-19 epidemic forces us to call into question the paradigm of the search for senseless growth, based entirely on the speed of flows of goods, people and capital and the consequent hyperconnection of financial, productive and social systems. These are exactly the channels that have allowed the COVID-19 virus to spread the contagion across the planet at speeds never seen before, travelling in the bodies of managers, CEOs, hyper-specialized technicians, as well as transport and logistics workers and tourists.
Rethinking the organization of society means relocating productive activities starting from local communities, which will have to be the core of a new, transformative, ecologically- and socially-oriented economy.
It is a question of “taking back the commons” as a fertile and vital space, and as a terrain for social re-appropriation, based exclusively on the pursuit of the general interest, immediately taking away from the private sector and privatizing ideology all the sectors involving the production of primary goods and services for the needs of the population, material and digital infrastructure and research in all its forms.
But this is also a question of overcoming the managerial and bureaucratic “public” sphere, in order to build the “commons” as a potential space for self-government for territorial, solidarity-focused and federated communities.
In this sense, “taking back the commons” should also be interpreted with the concrete meaning of re-appropriating the institutions of grassroots democracy, drained by decades of austerity policies aimed at forcing them to put on the market their public heritage, the local public services and the territory, i.e. the collective goods that allow a sum of individuals to define themselves as a community.
Making democracy a reality
The issue of democracy is more central than ever. Everything outlined above can only be implemented in a context of real democracy, understood as the conscious participation of as many people as possible in the decisions that concern us all.
This context is all the more necessary at this time, both because we must collectively force a radical change of direction on the economic, financial and political powers that have so far made decisions without even considering any form of popular participation, other than the formal exercise of delegation in periodic elections; and because individual and social freedoms, shrunk during times of pandemic by extraordinary necessity, risk being made debatable even as we return to normal life.
Given the sheer number and profound nature of the transformations needed so we can truly say “Never again,” it is perhaps the time to start a broad and “constituent” path of discussion at the grassroots level, aimed at a definitive escape from neoliberal policies and the capitalist model.