It is time for the Asian working class to rethink development and begin to pursue the opposite – de-growth.
It starts from the “frontiers of outbreak zones” where deforestation and destruction of the ecosystem enable animal pathogens to jump on human hosts. It is an animal-to-human infection.
At least 60 percent of new human pathogens "emerge by spilling over from wild animals to local human communities" (Wallace et al. 2020). Some try to blame local communities, bat-eaters or logging workers in these frontiers of the outbreak for the disease.
Donald Trump, the president of the United States, remarked that the coronavirus is the ‘Chinese Virus’ - just one exemplary attempt to blame pandemics on those places where they emerge. Of course, this is like blaming tobacco rather than tobacco companies for lung cancer.
We know the deforestation and destruction of the ecosystem are done by agri-business and development projects which are financed by global capital.
Logging workers, bush-meat traders and local communities relying on wild animals for their protein consumption are just by-products of such businesses (Davis 2012).
Global capital does not only allow animal pathogens to jump on human hosts.
Thanks to the globalising circuit of capital, once an animal pathogen rides on humans or animals they consume, it moves within a matter of days and hours from the frontiers to the hubs of capital circulation such as New York, London, Singapore, Hong Kong and other megacities from which the capital invested in those businesses originates.
And on the way, it lands in regional hubs too. This time it was Wuhan, where many believe the pandemic started through animal-to-human infection.
This is the supply-side story of the outbreak. Indeed, this is common as long as capital feeds development, and development in turn feeds the destruction of the environment, whose complex ecosystems would prevent animal to human infections (Wallace 2020).
This supply side is indeed an original threat to humans and needs to be dealt with by more fundamental reconsideration of our development model.
Let us get back to this issue later. But for now, let us say that this supply-side problem does not always cause a pandemic. It needs a recipient side of the story as well.
A pandemic requires these megacities to lack proper public health and sanitation systems when the virus lands in them after a few days of global travel.
A subtle problem caused by economic development then becomes an acute crisis of pandemic and subsequent economic meltdown. And this is what is happening now.
Both the supply and recipient sides of the story require an understanding of how global capitalism has operated in the last decade.
The crisis of neo-liberal capitalism and the outbreak
In a nutshell, the novel coronavirus crisis needs to be seen in the continuum of the unresolved crisis of global capitalism that began in 2007-8.
The 2008 global crisis was dealt with basically by the state injecting tax money into the financial sector. This may have stopped the sudden and catastrophic liquidation of capital across the world but it created a more subtle and long-term crisis.
Once bailed out, capital continued to expand. Expansive accumulation and stimulus projects, such as China’s “Go West” policy, sacrificed nature to an even greater extent than before, despite the so-called ‘global’ effort to curb global warming.
This further destroyed the natural habitat of other species on earth, either directly through mega building projects or indirectly through accelerated climate change.
Meanwhile, many nation-states, now suffering a fiscal crisis, were busy paying back the money that they owed from their efforts to save financial and manufacturing capital.
One of the most profoundly affected parts of our society was the healthcare sector. As McNally pointed out: "There are 48 countries in the world that are spending more right now on international debt payments than they are on their healthcare system". (Birrell 2020).
The US knew it was coming. The 2017 pandemic simulation in the US warned that the country was not prepared for a pandemic (Wallace et al. 2020).
Economic advisors to the Whitehouse warned the government of the possibly deadly impact of a pandemic on the US economy. But the US government did not prepare for it as the economy has to go on as usual - profit before life.
Consequently, it was considered okay to have a bare minimum number of beds and ventilators, etc. for the sake of the economy. As Judith Butler puts it (2020): “The nation is not its people, but only its markets.”
The authoritarian state in the making of the crisis
While capital created problems and states acted as saviours for them, democracies were being eroded everywhere.
After 2008, authoritarian governments took over democratic governments and existing authoritarian governments were becoming more oppressive in many places in Asia, including Thailand, South Korea, Cambodia, India, and China.
By the mid-2010s, most Asian countries were under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian governments. The outcry of people in Cambodia in 2014, Korea in 2016 and HK in 2019-2020 reveals this trend.
Indeed, authoritarianisation was not limited to the global south. The crisis in rich countries clearly shows that democracies in these countries regressed to the extent that ‘national wealth’ no longer matters for the people.
Instead, where the nation spends its money matters more. The destruction of democracies in developing countries is simply called authoritarianisation or dictatorship - and yet in developed countries it is called, more elegantly, “post-democracy”. Both are the same authoritarianisation.
It is no surprise that these increasingly authoritarian states are keener on killing the human hosts than the virus during this outbreak.
The nightmare example of this is the Filipino state, while what the Chinese state did to Wuhan is also, to a certain extent, within this category. A western version of it was the so-called herd immunity strategy that Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, and his government once pursued.
Neo-developmentalism as a capitalist remedy in the upcoming crisis
'Business as usual' is no longer feasible anywhere on earth. The current crisis has showed that the free market ideology is nonsense.
We saw the market could not stand on its own feet without state-support during. So the trend will be towards the ‘big state’ for national recovery. Will this be a good thing for the global working class? It’s unlikely.
It is likely that “neo-developmentalist” and interventionist states of western and eastern styles will be the response to the crisis from the ruling elites.
Western-style neo-developmentalism is basically wishing for a post-world war capitalist recovery without having to spend money on building a welfare state.
The state will support dying individual capitals in the US and Europe while continuing to minimise its welfare functions: it is likely to be a welfare state for capital.
Indeed, it is not new. We began to witness “interventionist” states of this kind in the aftermath of 2007-2008 crisis.
Those states will increasingly juxtapose their national development and interest to others in rhetoric and assist the expansion of capital at the expense of local and international labour in reality.
Despite the hard-learned lessons of the corona crisis, public spending by such states is likely to prioritise the rich.
In the East, it will be about conjuring up the dead authoritarian developmentalism of the past for the sake of national recovery.
Regarding what this eastern developmentalism will look like, we have the excellent example of South Korea’s conservative governments between the 2008 crisis and 2017.
Contrary to popular expectations that the re-emergence of authoritarian developmentalism would bring economic development, it did not return Korea to its mythical glory days. Instead, it brought back the authoritarianism of the past.
The Korean experience demonstrates the danger of conjuring up the spirits of the old developmental state without ensuring democratic institutions and participation.
Fortunately, street protests by ordinary Koreans shortened the life expectancy of the neo-developmental state and brought down the government of president Park Geun-hye in 2017.
The working class movement ahead
Then what should the Asian working class movement do in this context of re-emerging authoritarian developmentalism?
The urgent task of the Asian workers’ movement during the current crisis is to defend the public healthcare system, healthcare workers and workers in other essential public services.
They are symbolic of the condition of the global working class at the moment, sustaining the world with the limited resources given to them. Demands for the right to PPE, proper time for rest, and decent wages need to be supported by the Asian workers’ movement.
The movement also needs to make noise about the welfare of the marginalised segment of the working class first.
The coronavirus outbreak showed that the marginalised section of the working class - the caretakers, platform workers, domestic workers, migrant workers, rescue workers, cleaners, and refuse collectors - the people who sustain our livelihoods when a large part of the national economy is paralysed by social distancing measures.
The workers’ movement needs to reach out toward this section of the working class that has been often neglected by its organisations. Only then will our attempt to place a moratorium on the dismissal of workers in major industries gain the public support.
Then we need to prepare for the future. Preparing for the future presupposes a serious reflection on where the working class and its movement has been in the making of this crisis.
To be honest, the working class has been a long-time collaborator in destroying nature.
It happens when we accept wages as the only way of making a living. If our jobs can survive at the expense of the environment, more jobs mean more destruction. Higher wages mean more expansion of the circuit of capital that brought us the virus in the first place.
It is time for the Asian working class to rethink development and begin to pursue the opposite – de-growth.
De-growth means, in fact, human development. It is about multi-faceted development of humans, instead of the growth of the material things that humans have.
De-growth is different from minus growth which means wasting much resources to sustain business as usual while most of the population are falling into poverty.
De-growth is our intentional attempt to escape from an economy where things are produced for the sake of production that bears profits at the expense of human needs and lives.
In a nutshell, the workers’ movement has to say that we are not going back to normal because normal was the problem (Pantuliano 2020).
If unions have a plan to widen the social economy that does not rely on the market and profit-making, this is the time for them to engage with their members about it seriously.
Discussion about universal basic income (UBI) is also critical. People can’t work but need to survive, and therefore the global debate about basic income will have some momentum.
However, UBI is unlikely to be successful without making the state tax the rich more. A slogan like “basic income for all” does not mean anything without the slogan “more tax for the rich”.
To do this, of course, we need more power to mobilise, much more than the power that once gave collective bargaining power to a tiny segment of the global working class during the post-war boom period.
Last but not least: the Asian workers’ movement needs to take on building international solidarity as an urgent task.
Capital and the state will try to overcome the crisis by invoking racist attacks on migrants or killing working people in heated competition between western neo-developmentalism and eastern neo-developmentalism.
So far, the Asian working class movement has not been a forerunner in taking anti-racist action. Fighting racism has to be at the centre of the Asian workers’ movement before it is too late.
The peace movement has also been rare among working class movements in Asia. But it will have to be at the centre of our movement in the next couple of decades unless Asia wants to be the Europe and the US of the 21st Century.
Dae-oup Chang is the author of Capitalist Development in Korea : Labour, Capital and the Myth of the Developmental State.
Street protests by ordinary Koreans shortened the life expectancy of the neo-developmental state and brought down the government of president Park Geun-hye in 2017
Birrell, S. 2020. “It’s a crisis of legitimacy for the capitalist system itself.” https://briarpatchmagazine.com/…/its-a-crisis-of-legitimacy…
Butler, J. 2020. “Capitalism Has Its Limits.” https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4603-capitalism-has-its-limits
Davis, M. 2012. The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. New Press: New York.
Davis, M. 2020. “In a Plague Year.” https://jacobinmag.com/…/mike-davis-coronavirus-outbreak-ca…
Pantuliano, S. 2020. “Covid-19: ‘We won’t get back to normal because normal was the problem’” https://www.odi.org/…/16815-covid-19-we-won-t-get-back-norm…
Wallace 2020. “Notes on a novel coronavirus.” https://mronline.org/2020/01/29/notes-on-a-novel-coronavirus/
Wallace, R., A. Liebman, L. F. Chaves, and R. Wallace 2020. “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital.” https://monthlyreview.org/…/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capit…/