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PROFIT OR LIVES? CORONAVIRUS AND THE MINERVA VOTE

The lives of women and men on the planet in general, as well as of Brazilians in particular, go through extremely turbulent times. In this scenario, reflections become indispensable: what is this world we are living in? What is the origin of these crises and why are they escalating? What kind of barbarity is this in the health of the inhabitants of the planet? In addressing these questions, many analysts seek to refer (only) to a health crisis of such magnitude and scale not felt for many, many years. Other analysts argue that this is a long-lasting crisis of capitalism [1], which has been emerging since the crash of 2007-2008 and has continued to worsen until 2020, with clear signs of a recession, compounded by the crisis of the new coronavirus. It is through this second argument that in this text we will seek to understand the health crisis that we are experiencing in the totality of the capitalist crisis.

Pandemic diseases occur in a social, political and economic context, which is imbued with processes such as the mutation of viruses, their passage from one host to another and their impact on living organisms. In this sense, the nature of the Covid-19 pandemic cannot, therefore, be understood without considering capitalism in its current configuration. A pandemic on this scale scales up and superintensifies the various already existing problems of capitalism. In a more structural way, it exposes the contradiction: defend profits or save lives? The indications, until now, especially from the Bolsonaro government in Brazil, have been primarily to reinforce the first exit, led by those who dominate and command our dependent capitalism.

The British critical thinker Choonara [2] points out that biologist Robert Wallace, in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu (2016), emphasizes the role of agribusiness, on a large scale, acting in the creation and spread of new diseases. This is because monocultures of domestic animals, crowded in large numbers, mean high rates of transmission in environments of weakened immune responses. Wallace in a recent interview states that: “The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational companies. Anyone who wants to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous should investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production” [3].

In reality, what these authors are stating is that it is not only the industrial farms that generate new, increasingly virulent pathogens, but also the broader disruption of ecosystems and the expansion of commodity production caused by the logic of perverse contemporary capitalism in crisis in the search to face its declining profit rates.

Yet, as Roberts has already described in The Long Depression, at a time of the long depression of capitalism, recovering profit requires ultraliberal attitudes. It is in this scenario that we see the advance of conservative social forces (and many neo-fascists) in an attempt to reheat the accumulation and ‘liven up’ market projections. This effort to save capital today cannot occur without the very intensive exploitation of the environment, unbalancing it inexorably.

That’s why Wallace [3] insists on telling us that as new outbreaks emerge, governments and the media restrict themselves to acting and commenting as if they were a separate emergency, ruling out the structural causes that are leading several marginalized pathogens to become the newest global celebrity, one after the other, such as SARS, MERS, avian flu – H5N, H1N1, Zika, Ebola, and now Covid-19.

Agribusiness, through its ultra-neoliberal project, organizes itself around the efforts of companies based in the most advanced industrialized capitalist countries to plunder the land, overexploiting the work and resources of peripheral and dependent countries. As a result, many of these new pathogens previously controlled by long-evolving forest ecologies are being released, transformed and threaten the entire world.

Wallace is categorical in stating that:

“capital is leading the appropriation of land in the last primary forests and cropland by small farmers around the world. These investments drive deforestation and development that lead to disease. The functional diversity and complexity that these enormous tracts of land represent is being improved in such a way that previously boxed pathogens are spreading to local cattle and human communities” [3].

It is in this context of expropriation of the capital (agribusiness) to the lands in its valorization process that we should understand Covid-19. Thus, it is a matter of saying that it is in the movement of contemporary capital and its implications that our questions and the indignation of all must reside.

Thus, it is impossible not to think about the advance of agribusiness in Brazil, the almost religious defense of the stock market nucleus to the parliamentary “Bancada do Boi” (Cattle Bench). It is in this context that we must understand the offensive of these capitalists on the native peoples, the indigenous population of our country and the destruction of forest resources and ecological dynamics that find in the resistance of indigenous culture their only possibility of survival.

As we know, for 12 years we have been witnessing the capitalist economic crisis of long duration and depression. In these years, the capitalist economies have been combining low investment with reduced productivity growth, caused especially by the fall in the profit rate of productive sectors and a gigantic increase in financial speculation (fictitious capital), as a response to this situation. There is a decade after decade a decrease in the average annual growth rate of the global GDP, going from 2.58% in the years 2000 to 2.4% between 2011 and 2013 [5]. From this period to 2019 and 2020, OECD6 projection data indicate the continuity of the retraction in the main capitalist economies, increasing respectively to 2.3% and 2% in the United States, 0.6% and 0.4% in Germany, 1% and 0.6% in Japan and 1.2% and 1.0% in the United Kingdom. China also points to a fall in its GDP, to 6.2% and 5.7% in these years. Thus, the current crisis is of such magnitude that it has often not been presented as such by the ruling class.

Even here in Brazil, this deceleration of the economy has been shown in a striking manner, with 6 years of stagnation, two years of negative GDP, 2014 (0.5%), 2015 (-3.5%) and 2016 (-3.3%), followed by the disappointing results of 2017 (1.3%), 2018 (1.3%), 2019 (1.1%) [7]. The capitalist economic crisis has a violent impact on the Brazilian economy, revealing: a social crisis with a high unemployment rate of 12.2% in 2019, that is, 1 in every 4 workers is unemployed; a derisory public spending, imprisoned by the EC-95 that freezes the budget since 2017; a vertiginous growth of 9.5% of the public debt in 2019, corresponding to 56% of the GDP, having made a payment with interest and charges of this debt of R$ 478.0 billion, that is, almost 4 times more than the amount committed for public actions and services in health (R$ 122.3 billion) [7.8.9]. In this way, the current crisis is very serious and puts our economy adrift, without a responsible power of command to conduct it. The counter-reforms of the Bolsonaro government have only aggravated it and made it look like a crisis caused by the coronavirus. In reality, we could say that this virus exposes even more the raw face of contemporary capitalism.

Everything indicates that a new recession is occurring in the world and in Brazil. To have an idea, the U.S. Federal Reserve, to contain this situation has been reducing interest rates to almost zero this year, and no such measure has been adopted since the 2008-9 crisis. At the same time, this country has been expanding its bond purchases and offering new financial mechanisms to provide dollars to other central banks. The abundant provision of dollars to “lubricate” the global financial system reflects fears of the kind of liquidity crisis that has developed since 2007. Thus, it is believed that all of this indicates that it could be a crisis on at least a scale comparable to the major recession of 2008-9.

However, while Covid-19 may trigger an unthinkable global slowdown, it is definitely not the crucial cause, as the Bolsonaro government, the hegemonic media and analysts linked to the economic mainstream have argued. It is important to say that the world system was already extremely ‘sick’ before the arrival of Covid-19. The roots of this, as already mentioned, are in a long period of depression, since the crash of 2007/2008, caused mainly by lower profitability of productive sectors and an acceleration of fictitious capital. The profit rate in the United States, in the corporate sector of industrial and financial companies, fell to less than 7% in the years following 2007/2008 [10]. In Brazil, this behavior is also perceptible, with its profit rate in the production sector declining, between 2003-2014, from 28% to 23% [11].

Choonara [2], also informs us, in this context of the rise of the current crisis, that in the third quarter of 2019 the global debt reached a very high level of 322% of world GDP, about US$ 253 trillion. In other words, we may have reached the limits of the period of stagnant growth that emerged after 2008-9.

In turn, with the coronavirus, Roberts [4] calls attention to the fact that the picture of the current crisis may get worse. This is because the blockages (social isolation, or also called lockdown), in many economies are expected to provide a gigantic drop in production, investment, employment and income in most. According to this author, based on OECD data, the impact of closing businesses for a few months may result in decreases of 15% or more in the level of production in advanced capitalist economies and in the economies of dependent capitalist countries like ours. Roberts is categorical in reporting this data, stating that for each month of closing, there will be a loss of 2 percentage points in annual GDP growth. Thus, in this pandemic, if the main economies are closed for two months or more, global GDP is likely to contract in 2020 more than in the great recession of 2007-2008, which fell by about 3.5% in the period between the months of 2008 and the first half of 2009.

However, with the hope that the blockades will be short-lived, the world’s dominant class, and Brazil’s in particular, has been prioritizing saving whom? Well, they save profit and not lives. Based on measures that protect capitalist companies and banks, besides intensifying the exploitation of the working class (especially women, black and poor who find themselves in jobs with lower income), we are seeing in Brazil a greater number of relevant measures for proposals to expand credit lines with subsidies for loans to companies in amounts considered. In turn, the working class, which should have stopped in this period in order to have its life preserved, has seen its help moving in the opposite direction, that is, intensifying its exploitation and complexing the oppressions on female, black and peripheral work. Provisional Measure No. 936 of April 1, 2020 is an example of this. This measure creates the Emergency Program for the Maintenance of Employment and Income by proportionally reducing the working day and, consequently, wages, temporarily suspending the employment contract, among other harmful measures.

In the case of health, after 2 months of pandemic, the government measures, in terms of providing financial resources to face the coronavirus were very small. Until the beginning of April of that year, only two measures were taken: 1) an internal reallocation of the MS budget of around R$ 5.0 billion, 96% of which resulted from the withdrawal of resources from the ‘subfunctions’ ‘Basic Care’ (once again offensive to basic care) and ‘Hospital and Outpatient Care’, allocated for other health needs to the previous period of the coronavirus; 2) the establishment of Provisional Measure 940 of April 2, in which R$ 9.4 billion was added to the MS budget, which corresponds to 7.5% of the total allocated to this Ministry in 2020 [12]. It is known that this last amount is totally insufficient to ensure the war against Covid-19.

Nothing is discussed within the Bolsonario government about the revocation of the EC-95 which has frozen public spending since 2017. The loss of resources to SUS since 2018 has already reached the level of R$ 22.5 billion8. In this situation, we must honor the SUS workers who have done so much, including in this period of the coronavirus, with so few resources allocated to the health system and, even more, in decline, which proves the very high efficiency of the public health system that, with very little investment, is able to achieve high levels of benefit to the population. Some data that explain this picture cannot be erased from our memory: a) in 2019, the Social Security Budget was R$ 752.7 billion, if 30% was destined to health – as foreseen in the 1988 Constitution – considering federal government expenditures, it would correspond to R$ 225.8 billion, but the committed allocation was R$ 122.3 billion; b) the reduced effort of spending on “health actions and services” in proportion to the GDP, carried out by the Ministry of Health, has been maintained the same between 1995 and 2019, being 1.7%. When analyzing total SUS spending in 2019, we have 3.9% of GDP (Union – 1.7%, states – 1.0% and municipalities – 1.2%), while public spending on health in the average of European countries with universal systems corresponded to 8.0% [10].

The real neglect of the Bolsonaro government with public health, in times of coronavirus, is such that, parallel to the insufficient allocation of budgetary resources, in the middle of the social distancing, Decree 10,283 of March 20, 2020, the Agency for the Development of Primary Health Care (ADAPS), was enacted. Contrary to the idea of developing this level of attention for the best allocation to the health emergency, it seeks to ensure space for the expansion of capitalist businesses in the APS by contracting private providers, without functional stability, with precarious links, reinforcing the already historic measures of governments, also previous ones, to intensify the process of privatization of health. In addition, the government also released R$10 billion for Health Plans and Insurance companies, from a guarantee fund, linked to the National Supplementary Health Agency (ANS), composed of resources from the operators [13]. This measure did not affect the formulation and execution of responses from these companies articulated to the confrontation of Covid-19. Why not nationalize the ICU beds of private hospitals and health insurance plans to combat the epidemic as Spain did? No. The government’s response is to analyze the proportion of beds between countries and justify with this data that we must continue privatizing profits and socializing risks.

From all these measures, the concern of the Bolsonario government in the face of the crisis of the pandemic is evident: to prioritize profit and not lives. In reality, the measures are far from providing sufficient support for the millions of Brazilians who are in social isolation or have seen their companies fire them. Moreover, it is important to mention that none of these measures will prevent the fall of the economy that the pandemic will cause and, even more, they are insufficient to restore growth and employment in our dependent capitalism this year and next.

This picture seems to be the same in the capitalist economies of advanced countries. According to Roberts [4], there is every possibility that this pandemic fall will not facilitate a sufficient recovery to face the ongoing capitalist crisis, as more measures have been taken to try to save companies and banks. Strictly speaking, to face this capitalist crisis, added Roberts, it is not enough to limit ourselves to Keynes’ proposals that government spending should increase to compensate for the fall in private spending. Even though a recession may be “triggered” by a banking failure or “a collapse in business confidence,” these aspects are not the underlying cause of recurring crises in capitalism, especially this crisis that we have already referred to as the fall in the profit rate of productive sectors and the agigantamento of fictitious capital.

The teachings of the history of the Great Depression and the Second World War have shown that once capitalism is at the bottom of a long depression, there must be an intense destruction of capital. In other words, to destroy everything that the capitalism had accumulated in the previous decades, even before a new era of expansion could become possible. Therefore, there are no ‘public policies’ that can prevent this and preserve the capitalist sector. Roberts enlightens us when he says that if this does not happen this time – the massive destruction of capital -, the long depression that the world capitalist economy has suffered since the 2007/2008 recession may enter another decade and will be no different for Brazil.

From this perspective, in order to prioritize the discussion of human life, it becomes important to reflect on the totality of the root of the problems we are experiencing, and this forces us to the radical critique of contemporary capitalism. We should prioritize that the adjustment should be directed to the capital and that it should pay for the damage done by Covid-19 (your work!). As Wallace3 teaches us, agribusiness, as a mode of social reproduction, must end forever, even if only for public health reasons. The production of highly capitalized food depends on practices that put the whole of humanity at risk, in this case helping to trigger a new deadly pandemic. Furthermore, he adds, we should demand that food systems be socialised so as to prevent dangerous pathogens from emerging. In this way, it would also be important to demand the reintegration of food production into the needs of rural communities and the implementation of agroecological practices that protect the environment and farmers as they grow our food [3].

Thus, to achieve this transformation and also to get rid of this world of class division, racism, ethnocentrism, imperialist conflict and catastrophic climate change, it becomes fundamental to break with all the logic of capitalism.

This is a bet on the future. A vote of confidence of the working class in its destiny. In Greek mythology, Minerva’s vote is the one that decides a vote that would otherwise be tied. The term refers to the episode of Greek mythology in which the goddess Palas Athena (who corresponds to the Roman goddess Minerva – goddess of Wisdom) presides over the judgment of Orestes, a lowly mortal.

In the course of the ‘game of social forces’ of our conjuncture, we are still tied. It is time to foster in the left an anti-capitalist class consciousness. Only in this way will we seriously face this pandemic and prevent others from crossing our path in the very near future. The coronavirus is a warning and it is telling us that time is passing … and Minerva, in the end, is us.

 

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