Capitalism as we know it is ripe for tectonic change

With the lifting of lockdowns, the crowds and chaos are back. Trains from Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh to industrial towns and subways are overflowing. Migrant workers wanting to return to work are frustrated by long waiting lists for train tickets.

Where can these workers be considered migrants – in the slums and chawls of metropolises, or in the villages and towns they call “home”? The covid-19 pandemic not only shattered their dreams and exposed them to the harsh reality of the system, but also buried the concept of ‘gram swaraj’.

Ideas of reducing economic inequalities and creating parity have also proved to be hollow. This is really important in a country where 63 families have more assets than its annual budget, and where the total wealth of just nine people is equal to that of half the country’s population.

Just a few months ago, our politicians assured the country that these migrant workers did not need to return from their villages and that their livelihoods would be taken care of in the villages themselves. The central and state governments have provided free rations and a certain amount of money to around 800 million people, but people need regular work and food. Crowded trains and the queues of thousands of people anxious to return to the cities show how these promises have failed.

Will their problems end just by getting back to work? Not at all. The pandemic has emptied the pockets of a large number of people. The markets have opened up, but the pace of business is slow. Production in factories has been disrupted. It is natural to have an impact on employment and the payment of wages. There are forecasts that the economy will pick up, but it will take at least three years for the pre-covid situation to return – and everyone knows those days weren’t great either.

The economy has been deteriorating for several quarters. Few jobs were created and demand did not pick up as expected. Some fear a long recession. The condition of Indian women has deteriorated. According to an Oxfam study, the amount the CEO of a giant company earns in 10 minutes is equal to the annual income of a woman working from home.

If these numbers are worrying, there is more. The World Bank said last week that inequalities will widen due to covid-19 and that an estimated 125 million new people have fallen below the poverty line. This number is for those who live for less than $ 1.9 daily. In India, those who spend more than ₹32 per day are not counted as people living below the poverty line. In the United States, those who spend less than $ 14 a day are considered poor. According to a study by Azim Premji University, 230 million Indians have fallen into poverty due to covid-19. Nor does it appear that this havoc puts an end to this exercise.

Since 1990, India has lifted an estimated 300 million people out of poverty – the pandemic has ruined this glorious work. No one knows for sure how long it will take to overcome this scourge. The main reason is that so far there has been only one way to stop this contagion: vaccination, and it won’t even reach 80% of the Indian population until December, at least.

It is clear that countries like China and the United States will recover soon, but dozens of vulnerable countries in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe will have to struggle much longer.

These times force us to pause and think because all of our economic theories have turned out to be in vain. Over the past hundred years, we have experienced two global pandemics, witnessing the fall of the monarchy, the rise of democracy and the debates between capitalism and socialism. Once a stronghold of communism, Moscow is now home to seven of the world’s 100 richest super-rich.

What has the system of capitalism, for which ballads were sung for after the collapse of the Soviet Union, brought us over the past three decades? We know the answer now.

The pandemic has revealed the emptiness of slogans such as global village, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, and left and right ideologies. The post-pandemic world will have to change the way things are done. This had happened after every pandemic and the Great War. The First World War paved the way for the departure of monarchies. World War II started the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s paved the way for the collapse of the communist system.

Is the coronavirus pandemic preparing the ground to change the current face of capitalism?

Shashi Shekhar is Editor-in-Chief, Hindustan. The opinions expressed are personal.

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