The COVID-19 pandemic, the current economic crisis, and how governments, corporations, and people fighting for social justice respond to them are going to have lasting and far-reaching consequences for everyone – from changes to borders to policing to public services. To prepare for the months ahead, Briarpatch hosted a webinar to help people who support radical social change understand the forces that are trying to shape responses to the crisis. This is a transcript of the conversation.
[SAIMA DESAI] Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m so excited to be introducing some of the folks that we have sharing with us today. As you can see we have three folks who are sharing their video and then there are two folks who have called in via their phones – John Clarke and Isaac Murdoch are both here via phone, so you won’t be able to see their video, but you will be able to hear them speaking.
I’ll start off by introducing myself. My name is Saima, I’m the editor of Briarpatch Magazine. And for folks who don’t know, Briarpatch is a national magazine that was started in 1971 in Saskatoon as an anti-poverty publication. Since then, it’s grown into a national magazine that does grassroots political reporting and social movement reporting. And so we’ve convened folks today, some of whom have written for Briarpatch before or contributed work to Briarpatch, and some of whom have not, but all of whom are people who I think have some really interesting things to say about the state of the left right now, and what we need to do going forward.
So a little about the idea behind this webinar, and then I’ll introduce each of our speakers, and I’ll let you know about the structure of the webinar as well.
The idea of this webinar came from David Camfield who called me up and said that a lot of people on the left right now are trying to address this question of “How do leftists respond to the current moment, to the coronavirus pandemic, and also the economic crisis that we’re facing now?”
And I think a lot of people who are responding to it are responding to it in a very immediate way. They’re responding in the way of trying to figure out what our on-the-ground demands are right now around rent, around sick leave, around pay and around public health. But what Briarpatch’s forte as a magazine is, is trying to predict where our social movements and where our politics or economics will be a few months down the line. So we saw a bit of a gap there – that there were not enough people trying to help folks on the left figure out what the world would look like in a number of months or even in a few years; and that's what this webinar is aiming to do. It’s aiming to get people together, people who will have insight on the long-term changes that will be wrought by the pandemic and the economic crisis right now, and how our social movements can navigate those challenges in the coming months and years.
In terms of the structure of the webinar, we're going to have each presenter – we have five presenters – each of them is going to talk for about 10 minutes each. All have expertise on different areas, be that borders and migration, Indigenous social movements, anti-poverty. anti-capitalism. etc. And they're going to be talking a bit about what they think the long-term changes will be from the current crisis and then after those speeches which will take about an hour, we’ll have about a half an hour remaining for questions.
I'm going to introduce the presenters now. So first we have David McNally. David teaches history at the University of Houston and he is an editor of Spectre, a new journal of Marxism and politics. He specializes in the history and political economy of capitalism, is the writer of six books and over 60 scholarly articles, and he taught political economy at York University in Toronto before joining the department of history at the University of Houston. He's currently completing a book entitled Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance and Empire.
Our next presenter is Nandita Sharma who is a professor of racism, migration, and trans-nationalism in the department of sociology at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Her research interests address themes of human migration, migrant labour, nation state power, racism and nationalism, and processes of identification and self-understanding. Nandita is an activist scholar whose research is shaped by the social movements she's active in, including no-borders movements and those struggling for the commons. She received her PhD in sociology at the University of Toronto.
Next we have John Clarke, who first became involved in anti-poverty struggles in 1983 when he helped form the Union of Unemployed Workers in London, Ontario. John got his start in grassroots politics in the U.K. in the early 1970s – initially as a student and then as a worker and trade unionist. He was an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) from its founding in 1990 until his retirement in 2019. A core part of OCAP’s work is direct action case work, which is an approach that has won many victories over the years for people facing injustice from the welfare system, from landlords, from the immigration system and more.
Isaac Murdoch, our next panelist, is from the Fish Clan and is from Serpent River First Nation. He grew up in the traditional setting of hunting, fishing, and trapping. Many of these years were spent learning from elders in northern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. He is well respected as a storyteller and traditional knowledge holder. For many years he has led various workshops and cultural camps that focus on the transfer of knowledge to youth. He's a cofounder of the Nimkii Aazhibikong Ojibway Language and Culture Camp and the Onaman Artist Collective.
And last but not least, the person without whom this webinar would absolutely not be possible, David Camfield, who teaches labour studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba and has been involved in social justice efforts since high school. He is the author of the books Canadian Labour In Crisis: Reinventing The Workers Movement, and We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society, and he is a supporter of socialism from below.
We have this amazing lineup of speakers and without too much more preamble from me – because I'm sure folks are keen to get started – I'm going to invite David McNally to start us off with about 10 minutes of your thoughts on the current crisis and what you see coming down the line.
[DAVID MCNALLY] Great, thank you Saima, and many thanks to Briarpatch for hosting. I think this is a terrific event and I hope it's just the first of many. I really wanna try to touch quickly on four points that I hope will be helpful for orienting the discussion.
The first is to underline that what we're experiencing right now is a catastrophic failure of the capitalist market system. That's a multidimensional failure, but in the first instance it is a crisis of the economy brought on by the massive bailouts of global banks that took place in 2008 and 2009. The nature of those bailouts was to produce a huge financial bubble once again in stock markets and other global financial markets, and that economic crisis to which I referred actually started in the fall of last year. We saw it beginning in September and October and it was intensifying before the global pandemic hit. So it's important to understand that one of the levels involved is a classic downturn in global capitalist markets. Then the pandemic hit officially in January in Wuhan, China, and of course that then turns into a global public health crisis. And it does so not only because of the nature of the virus but also because of what neoliberal capitalism has done to healthcare systems.
I mean just to give you one example: there are 48 countries in the world that are spending more right now on international debt payments then they are on their healthcare system. In other words they are literally sacrificing the money that could save lives to pay off global banks, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and so on.
And then of course underlying that all is the way in which the flu pandemic itself is related to large scale agribusiness, deforestation and so on, which I can't really do any justice to, but some wonderful authors have written about that, and I would include Rob Wallace's book Big Farms Make Big Flu as a really important resource there.
So the convergence of these two – an economic downturn and a global pandemic – is what is making this situation so catastrophic.
The second point I'd like to underline is that the crisis demonstrates that there is such a thing as society. Now that may sound trivial, but one of the great prophets of neoliberalism Margaret Thatcher proclaimed in 1987 “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals". And of course this situation where the continuation of individual life depends on what we are doing in households, in neighbourhoods, in communities and so on, demonstrates that in fact capitalism has always depended upon people reproducing themselves, the next generations and so on, particularly through gendered labour that is happening overwhelmingly in households and communities. This social reproductive activity is at the foundation of all of society, and we need to understand of course the ways in which both in the home and in the workforce – as nurses, as healthcare workers, as people who are providing groceries and food, and so on – once again there's a hugely gendered nature to all of this.
As a result, thirdly, this crisis underlines the way in which we are dealing with a fundamental contradiction between capitalism and life. Essentially life-sustaining activities are in conflict with a system designed for the accumulation of capital through profit. And it's illustrated right now with the manic push to "get everybody back to work" to save the economy, to rescue the economy. And that's coming not only from Donald Trump, it's coming from the Wall Street Journal, it's coming from major bankers and so on. So that we had for instance the former CEO of Wells Fargo Bank in the U.S. come out and say two days ago, “We will gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick. Some may even die. I don't know. "
And so we encounter here this contradiction between saving something called the economy and saving what we call human life. And ironically, the president of Argentina put it very very clearly in a statement earlier this week, where he said “The choice is to take care of the economy or take care of lives." And that seems to be one of the most powerful illustrations of how capitalism works, that it is at the expense of human life, and also of course one of its greatest condemnations.
The final point that I want to make is that we've had the saying ever since the global justice movement of the early 2000’s that “another world is possible,” and in all kinds of ways that's precisely what this crisis demonstrates. All kinds of things which were "impossible" two months ago have become possible. Spain and Ireland have taken over private hospitals for public health care; we have free transit in a whole number of cities including Houston, Texas, where I live right now; General Motors has been re-purposed to produce not automobiles but ventilators; we have rent and debt freezes in a whole variety of jurisdictions; we have cities and counties across the U.S. which have opened the jails and the prisons; we have enormous pressure growing, including here in Texas, to move all detainees out of ICE facilities, ICE detention centers, and some have already been ordered out by the courts; we have states guaranteeing people’s wages when they're laid off; we have mothers in Los Angeles seizing housing that is unoccupied and saying “This is an anti-pandemic measure, we are simply taking this housing”; we have workers who are striking for life, striking for masks, striking for hazard pay, and so on; there is a national strike at Instacart coming on Monday here in the United States for example, of low-wage grocery store workers.
But we need to understand that the state-driven measures are still being done in desperation by authoritarian capitalist states, that they are doing whatever they deem necessary to preserve the system that elevates profit over life, and we're going to need sustained mass social organizing and social resistance and social transformation if these short-term interim measures like taking over private hospitals, making transit free, and so on, are to be sustained and sustainable. In other words, the crisis, it seems to me, puts on the agenda for all of us what it would mean to decommodify human life, what it would mean to decommodify human life so that housing and food and recreation and healthcare and so on were not market commodities, but human goods and human rights. And we need to think of those not just in national but in global terms.
And so it's a moment of crisis and catastrophe on one hand, but it's also one in which it seems to me that we can begin to project anti-capitalist ideas, not as if they were far-fetched even as they would have appeared two or three months ago to millions of people, but in fact as very concrete, reasonable propositions in a moment of global crisis and pandemic.
So let me stop there.
[DESAI] Thank you so much David. I'm going to invite Nandita to speak next.
[NANDITA SHARMA] Thank you to David for that. That was really great as usual, you always have such a clear analysis and then give us the optimism to continue to struggle. And thank you Saima and David Camfield for organizing this. I'm really glad to be part of it.
So what I want to talk about is migration and borders, but what I want to start with is recognizing that the current organization of our world – whether we're talking economically, politically or socially – is not fit to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, nor is it able to address our otherwise everyday needs.
We live in a world where the dominant structures, laws, as well as our subjectivities are based on exclusion. We live in a world of private property rights, which essentially grant property holders the right to exclude anyone they wish to from enjoyment of their legally recognized title. We live in a world of national governments, each with their own version of citizenship rights, built of course on the sovereign right to exclude anyone constituted as a migrant. We live in a world of a ramping up of nationalism and racism, where we give ourselves the right to exclude anyone we deem to be outside of our community, outside of our nation, outside of our race.
Each of these exclusionary structures and modes of subjectivity are of course historically and intimately connected to one another, and together they've created the deep divisions and separations that we see being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
If we fail to address these exclusions at each of these levels, economic, political and social, and if we fail to call forward a world for all of us, this pandemic and the future ones which will surely follow, will come back to bite those of us who have insisted on living in a world of such deep, deep inequalities and disparities.
We live in a world where for example, the lowest 10 per cent at the socio-economic scale in the United States – and if you are living in that bottom 10 per cent, your life is shit, it is hard, you don't have health care, you don't have access to nutritious food, adequate housing, etc. The lowest 10 per cent in the United States are better off than two-thirds of the world’s population. That's the world we live in, and if we don't address global inequalities, we are surely condemned to repeat this pandemic for the foreseeable future if we survive.
And I think that the left needs to learn this lesson – that a global pandemic needs global solidarity – as much as anyone else. I think we're living in a time where the left is the least internationalist (for lack of a better term) than perhaps at any other time in our history. Indeed a certain part of the left has wholeheartedly embraced calls for national sovereignty as a strategy out of the historical and horrible mess that we are in. We on the left have failed as much as anyone else to recognize that yes, while there is such a thing as a society, that society is global.
So I think that at this time, this COVID-19 pandemic is going to exacerbate the shift towards authoritarian governments and fascism. We are going to see higher unemployment rates around the world, we are going to see higher death rates around the world from a disease that people feel they have no control over because their governments have not provided them the mechanisms to get control over this pandemic; and we are in a very dangerous situation heading straight towards fascism.
So I'm going to just spend the rest of my time focussed on the exclusions of national sovereignty, citizenship, and racism, that always inform people’s ideas of who to help at the time of this pandemic, and who we should look to for help at this time.
So the prevailing view of how COVID-19 spread is through human mobility, right? “Rich people flying around,” as someone recently wrote on my Facebook post. If only people stopped moving around, we are told, we could halt its spread and return to life as normal. Now of course we know that national governments have opportunistically used COVID-19 to further fortify their borders as well as of course transfer wealth to capitalists as we just saw in the United State’s two-trillion-dollar legislation.
So governments around the world for the most part have failed to adequately prepare by providing mass testing, stockpiling or producing much-needed medical supplies; national governments have used their failures, used migration and the shutting down of borders to deflect this inaction and portray the problem as one that is caused by those who are foreign to the nation and need to be kept out of the state’s territory.
So of course there’s a long, long relationship between the emergence of pandemics and racism and nationalism. Jewish people have historically been blamed and persecuted throughout the various European plagues; the myth of the “yellow peril” was used in the 19th and 20th centuries to violently target anyone deemed Asian; and we see that same “yellow peril” rhetoric and racist action arise again. And we’ve failed to learn that this scapegoating of those who we define as foreign bodies did nothing to stem these diseases, did nothing to stem these past plagues and pandemics. But instead, in our failure to learn this lesson, we once again called on. . . you know, national governments have used the COVID-19 pandemic to shut down borders, but so have many nationalists inside nation-states who have called upon their governments to shut those borders down.
So the COVID-19 pandemic has fused perfectly with the Trump administration's broader agenda on the border. Since he took up the presidency, Trump has engaged in an all-out assault on asylum that has already restricted the ability of many immigrants to qualify for refuge. He's already turned over 60,000 people to wait in squalor in Mexico, where they’re forced to live in dangerous open air encampments and shelters, the perfect environment for this COVID-19 pandemic to wreak utter devastation. Now using COVID-19 as an excuse, the Trump regime made its most overt move yet to absolutely eliminate the right to seek asylum in the United States. So starting last week, last Saturday, March 21, officials claim that because of COVID-19 they will return or repatriate asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. And just yesterday it was announced that the Trump administration would automatically return anyone showing up at its borders to their state of nationality, to precisely the state that they're fleeing, which is of course in direct contravention to any conventions on asylum.
Now of course in Canada, the Trudeau government has also ramped up its anti-asylum policies by saying that they will turn back any asylum seeker who is not entering at an official port of entry, right? Which is again in contravention of conventions on refugees.
So in this unprecedented move, I think what we need to pay attention to is that governments have always thought that if they ramp up their border controls that they will somehow magically seal off national territories to the lives of those who they have deemed are unworthy to live in them, specifically migrants. But border controls don't actually work, right? You cannot actually keep people out, and I would argue as many migrant scholars have argued as well, that border controls are not designed to keep people out.
So the virus will spread within the United States and Canada, and it will spread around the world no matter what governments do about their border controls. What those border controls will do at this time of pandemic as they have done in the past is to make sure that those people who are in nation-states but denied the rights and entitlements associated with citizenship will be made subject to the absolute worst conditions possible. And in the time of pandemic it will mean that they will be the most susceptible to pandemics, and as we know, if we learn anything from this COVID-19 pandemic, it is that we are all connected, right? If we allow someone to have COVID-19 circulating in their bodies, it will circulate in the entire social body. And that is something that nationalists are still unable to grasp.
So let me just think about another aspect of a nationalist response to COVID-19 that is the most problematic. And one of the things that I've seen a lot on social media lately is this idea that we should just shut off international travel, right? If we shut off international travel we will shut down and contain COVID-19. And what's really interesting is when we analyze the kind of nationalism embedded in our response to that. Because of course the key political right that citizens have that migrants do not have is the right to enter this nation-state in which you hold citizenship, right? Nation-states of which you are a national cannot legally deny you rights to enter. So an interesting thing is even though all the focus is on migrants spreading COVID-19 and therefore we need to shut down the borders to them, what we actually see now is that it is our “fellow nationals” that are spreading COVID-19.
So for instance here in Hawai’i last week there were a little over 4,000 people who flew into Hawai’i last Tuesday. The vast majority of them are U.S. citizens with Hawai’i residency, right? So in our imagination it is “Oh my god, we have to shut off the United States or Hawai’i to migrants, to tourists, etc.”; but actually who is circulating right now is our citizens. And nation-states are not legally able to shut down the movement of citizens; they can certainly quarantine them, which I think they ought to, but they're not in a position to shut that down. And most of us are not saying you know, “Don't let Auntie back into Honolulu.” right? We're saying don't let that stranger, that foreigner, that person who doesn't belong in Hawaii, don't let them back in, even though it's much more likely that Auntie is going to give us COVID-19, right? As we found out from the studies in China, this stay-at-home order may be the deadliest order we have, because in China what we discovered is that the clearest line of transmission was from one family member to another, right? So again the feminist insight that the home is not necessarily the most safe space is once again showing itself to be true.
The other irony of a nationalist response to COVID-19, I think the best example of it is what is happening in Germany right now. So in Saxony, which is the heartland of the fascist movement in Germany, the heartland of the nationalist party the Alternative For Germany, which is a fascist party, Saxony is now advertising for migrant doctors to come and help them tackle an unexpected rise in COVID-19. So it seems that the self interest even of fascists sometimes outweighs their hatred for migrants when they themselves decide that they need them.
So again this COVID-19 pandemic is showing the kind of fault lines in our analysis of who we think is dangerous and who we need when we decide we need them; and at any time we can decide we don't need them, we can just push them out and blame them for all our problems.
So I guess I will end by saying that this pandemic is – to mirror something that David also mentioned – that global capitalist markets and virulent diseases are intimately connected. As are nation states and virulent diseases.
I would love to have us all read James Scott's latest book Against The Grain, in which he shows that some of the very first viral pandemics that affected human society – mumps, measles, for example – were caused by human beings being forced to live in concentrated habitats governed by states, where they were forced to rely on an ever-smaller part of nature to survive, namely the agricultural production of grains, right? So it's not a coincidence that the original definition of “parasite” was “those who live beside the grain.” Those who live in state societies in which people are forced to produce wealth for the ruling classes.
So I think to end, in looking forward to the future, as the webinar promised, I think that whether or not our political demands and indeed our political horizons can surpass the structures that have been organized by capital and by nation states and by nationalisms and racisms, whether or not we can surpass those will determine whether we live in a world of intensifying fascisms, or whether we realize that promise that David McNally spoke about, whether we realize that promise of living in a world that's built for all of us. And I think that in order to do that, the first step has to be a realignment of who we think we are, what society we think we live in, what is the scope of that society, what is the scale of that society, who is in that society with us. Until we can recognize that we are all in it together on this planet, I think that we are going to see greater and greater and more virulent, more frequent catastrophes like the one we're currently in. So I'll end it there, thank you.
[DESAI] Thanks so much Nandita, that was really helpful as well. I'm going to next invite John Clarke to speak. John should be calling in by phone, so he doesn't have his video enabled, but he should be able to speak now.
[JOHN CLARKE] OK, so thank you very much. I should first of all say that I'm actually home self-isolating with what may well be the coronavirus, but I'm unable to get tested even in this relatively privileged part of the world. I don't qualify for a test, so I'm struggling a little bit with a bit of a cough and I'm a little groggy as well, so if I reflect that you'll have to forgive me. I'll do my best.
So I think it's entirely true that what we are facing is a multi-pronged crisis of capitalism that is of absolutely enormous proportions, and that I suspect we can only underestimate in terms of its potential and in terms of how it's going to play out. That over the last few weeks things have changed dramatically and on a scale that is quite incredible as far as I'm concerned.
Capitalism is unable to move us forward if it can't actually rationally use the technological and productive powers that it has in a way that is sustainable and in keeping with the needs of human beings. That has been demonstrated with a clarity that I don't think I ever expected to see. If we use the term “late capitalism,” I had no idea that late capitalism would be this ugly, but it's absolutely an incredible situation. And everything seems to have been brought together and focussed by this life-changing pandemic that is now playing out across the world.
I've spent many years of my life involved in a kind of a trench warfare against the austerity agenda of neoliberalism, mobilizing people on a relatively small scale to try to challenge the war on the poor component of that, and I certainly didn't think that I would see things change so incredibly and so profoundly.
Before this crisis came to a head as it has, it's not as if we were living through a period that was humdrum and not marked by some incredible changes. After 2009 the period of very limited, lacklustre recovery that took place in the economy produced an incredible mood of anger that culminated in, last year, a global uprising against neoliberalism.
[DESAI] I’m sorry John, I'm just gonna jump in quickly to say that there are some folks in the chat who are saying that they can't hear you very well. Would you be able to maybe hold the phone closer to your mouth or speak a little bit louder?
[CLARKE] This is about as close as I can get it without stifling myself. I hope people can hear me clearly.
But OK, so in any event, now we have this incredible situation, and David made the point that we do have capitalist states taking measures that they had never anticipated, that Margaret Thatcher, mercifully for her, didn't live to see her theory of there being no such thing as society be so roundly disproved.
Just this last week the very right-wing Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, made this incredible statement in which he told renters that if you have to make a choice between paying the rent and paying your groceries we understand if you have to buy your groceries. And I think every portrait of every premiere in Ontario history fell off the wall when he said that.
But having said that, I don't think that this ushers in a period in which the capitalist state is going to become more benign. On the contrary, right now even in the face of this crisis, it is actions that are being taken by workers and working-class communities that are pushing back and forcing them to go further with regards to meeting people's needs than they’d considered. You have a massive wave of spontaneous strikes in Italy, forcing wages to be kept up; you have tenants refusing to pay rent; you have prisoners rising up in prisons; you have refugee populations excluded who are fighting back.
And this period, I think, is one in which we have to challenge the notion that the solution they're going to propose is this incredible bailout for the rich. We have to challenge that at every point. We have to demand that the Richard Bransons not get their airlines bailed out, but the people’s basic needs be met. We have to challenge the abandonment that is continuing in the city of Toronto, the abandonment of homeless people that's going on in the face of the crisis is life-threatening and absolutely appalling.
I think we have to resist with all our might and main any effort to take us in the direction of herd immunity and a back-to-work movement that would put human life at risk on an incredible scale. And I think that we also have to prepare for the fact that in the teeth of an incredible economic crisis that's going to follow this pandemic, there's going to be a bill that's going to be due for getting through this period, and they're going to do everything they can to impose it on working-class populations. But I think the capacity to mobilize in that situation is going to be incredibly promising.
I saw today in the Guardian a very timid and worried piece talking about how much anger there is in Britain over the fact that Prince Charles is able to get testing, where National Health Service workers can't get it. And that points, I think, in the direction of an anger that is going to be there in the aftermath of this crisis. People are going to ask ‘Why did we go into this with the healthcare system so fundamentally degraded even in rich countries? Why is it that there was a free ride for the rich and the needs of people were not met? Why was it the people who were abandoned?” If we could say that this crisis has a climate and an economy and a public health aspect to it, I think there's a fourth element that's clearly emerging, and that is a crisis of legitimacy for the capitalist system itself.
And I believe we're in a situation now where that crisis has become so profound that radical, socially transformative and revolutionary solutions are what are pointed to. And this is a period in which I think anti-capitalist ideas can enter the political mainstream in a way that we've never seen before. But what that's going to require is a kind of a solidarity for survival that has to be built, and it has to be global in nature, absolutely it does; it has to challenge the right, it has to challenge racism, and it has to be based on fighting demands and bold plans for action.
In OCAP in our relatively minor struggles over the years, we've taken up the slogan of "Fight To Win," and I think on a scale and with an intensity I never imagined possible that idea can now be put into effect. We have to look for ways to build mass movements, and those mass movements have to be infused with ideas that are radically transformative and profoundly anti-capitalist. And I think the opportunities and the basis for doing that is emerging, and I think we are entering a period that is going to be one that none of us have ever seen and none of us ever imagined.
[DESAI] Thanks so much John, that was really helpful as well. OK so the next person that is going to speak will be Isaac Murdoch. So take it away Isaac.
[ISAAC MURDOCH] Hello everybody. I just want to thank the previous speakers. Just amazing. I want to thank Briarpatch for of course hosting this, but I also want to thank all of our frontline workers that are out there dealing with patients and putting their lives on the line to make sure that people have good health. And so I just wanna give a shout out to them.
[Speaks Ojibwe] My name is Isaac. I'm from Serpent River First Nation, and thank you for inviting me to be a part of this call.
You know, years and years ago, our elders always talked about this time, they always said that one day the two-legged are going to try to destroy the earth. And we have to prepare for that moment that they're going to destroy the forest, they're going to destroy the waters and the animals. They always said that. And they always said we have to prepare for when that time comes. And that right now as Anishinaabeg people, and as human beings, we have to go back to the way of the earth.
And they always talked about the laws of the earth. They always talked about these secret laws that live in our forests and waters. You know for my people, the animals were always our government, because they held the original instructions on how to live here on earth. And so, they were always our leaders, and they always reminded us of these natural laws, these great laws that exist here on the land. And the old people said all of the laws fall under that, that man-made law is not real. That's what they always said.
They always said [speaks Ojibwe] they used to say that all the time, that the two-legged are not going to honour [speaks Ojibwe] treaties, the agreements that we have with the land, and that our people have lost their way.
And now, I think about these things. They always said if they bother the forests, if they change things, sickness will come. If they don't treat the animals right, sickness is going to come. That's what they always said, if they don't treat the water right, sickness will come. And it has, many times. And in my tribe we have suffered this so many times. And so our Elders keep reminding us that these things are going to come back because of the way that the two-legged are acting.
And they were always serious about it, so they would say [speaks Ojibwe]. They’d say that the animals and the fish, everything is being destroyed. [Speaks Ojibwe]. They say we have to go back to the natural laws of this land, that's how we're going to survive. And the thing is that's very hard to do in today's world, you know?
The old people would say [speaks Ojibwe], they’d say our old people are reminding us that we have to do everything to survive because of what's happening to the land, what's happening to the animals. And so we know that the sickness comes from there, but the real sickness is the two-legged and their quest to destroy the earth. And they always said, my boy, we are in a sacred story right now, a story that will be told thousands of years from now. This is a very sacred time that we are in, when the two-legged try to destroy everything. And they did say you're in this story, we are in this story. And that the story needs people to go back to the original instructions on how to live here on this earth, and that it's very sacred, what's happening is very sacred. And I always believed that, I always thought about that.
You know when I think about our lands, our waters, our animals, and our people, we are all mixed in this together. When diversity is changed, you know, on the lands, sickness will come from it. When we don't treat our animals right, sickness will come from it. Even when we don't treat our own selves right, sickness will come from it. And we know that.
And so when I think about the future, I always think about how can we go back to that natural law that governs everything? And that as human beings we are only a part of that. And so, how do we get back to that? You know, years ago, when I was just a child, they took me away from my parents, I was only five years old, because they didn't allow the Indians to live with their parents. We weren't allowed to because they thought that if we live with our parents, we’d still have an Indian mind. We all got apprehended by Indian agents. They wanted us off the land so that a free-for-all in resource extraction could take place, and that we’d never go back to the land again. That's what the Indian Act did to our people.
But our people are strong, and we know that the highest form of education that there is is the one that can provide a sustainable economy on the land, and leaving it the same way for the next generation. That takes a very high discipline of education, that requires star knowledge, that requires knowledge deep within the earth, that requires a knowledge of the plants, of the animals.
And so I think that moving forward, many people are going to start wanting to go back, they're going to want to be more organic in their choices in how they survive and live, because the formula right now has completely failed everything on the planet, and as a result we are suffering a massive world-wide ecological collapse. And many, many sicknesses will come from it. This is only the beginning of something that's to come if we don't smarten up. If we don't straighten out how we think and what we believe, then there's a very good chance there will be very few humans left.
You know, the old people always told us, they always say there's something called [speaks Ojibwe]. They’d say that's a story about the future, and they’d say that if we continue this way, you know, the thunderbirds will come down and they will cleanse the earth, and of course, everything will start brand new again. And they always prepared us for that. They always said don't wait, don't be fooled by what they're doing, don't join them. Go back to your own laws, go back to your own stories, your own teachings, and that's how you're going to survive.
So here we are in 2020, and we have COVID-19 rapidly covering the earth. It's a blanket of sickness that was caused by the two-legged and how they're treating everything. And so they always said that, you know, generosity, caring for each other, not being greedy, giving back, making sure that animals are taken care of right, making sure that we're not bothering the forests, if we do that, everything will turn around again. That's the medicine they say that we need to find. We have to respect this creation that we've been given, this great gift called [speaks Ojibwe] the land.
And I think about our people, what are we going to do? What are we going to eat? Because everything is falling apart. And you know what? I want everything to fall apart, I want things to fall apart so that we can build something beautiful, so that we can build something that's amazing for the next generation, something that's going to be safe and secure so that our children can live and thrive. This current system is not working, this current system only brings death. This blanket of sickness will wrap around everybody if we continue this.
The old people always said be careful, they always said watch where you walk, they always said there's a great power underneath the ground. They’d say a long time ago they knew this map of the underworld, they say there’s great beings that live under there, they'd say [speaks Ojibwe] there is a tunnel underneath the ground there, and that tunnel went to [speaks Ojibwe] and then that tunnel traveled to [speaks Ojibwe], and then it went to [speaks Ojibwe] and this tunnel kept travelling to [speaks Ojibwe] all across the lands. And that this power underneath the ground, these beings lived there. And they told me when I was a child, they said you know people want to dig that power up for themselves, they're gonna want to have that power for themselves, and if they dig that power up they'll destroy everything. That's why during the treaties we always said “never dig deeper than the depth of a plough,” we can't bother within the ground, it can destroy everything, it can cause great sickness.
And we see that today, the old people were right, they had a high education because they studied that land. In our language, we call school [speaks Ojibwe] we call it, which means “learning from the land.” That's our word for school. And so our education system, what we're teaching our kids has to change. If we raise them the same way that we've been educated, then we're going to have the same result. We have to start educating our young people about the true laws that are here.
You know, during the treaty, that's what we talked about, that's what my people talked about. 90 per cent of my people died from the plague from different plagues. We suffered hard from the sicknesses, and there's many stories of how we were able to survive just barely. And they always attached every one of those sicknesses to what was happening to the earth, what was happening to the animals. And so, in my mind, if we want to help each other, then we have to start thinking about food security in a good way, home security.
You know a long time ago everybody helped each other, they worked with each other. Maybe people didn't have lots, but they just had enough and they were rich because of it. Today, everybody has everything, that's part of the problem, everybody wants to have everything, and nobody's giving back to the earth, nobody's getting back to the very thing that provides life for everything, and so they say [speaks Ojibwe] our offerings are important, we have to get back to the land.
You know, I think about this sickness that's traveling, it has its own spirit, it has its own power behind it. These things are not going to stop coming until we change, until we figure out who we are as human beings here on this earth. My grandparents lived in this life without a garbage can, and when we all look back at our own histories, all of our grandparents lived like that. We all had that education and that higher knowledge to live here without a garbage can, because we were educated with the laws of the land. And I think that's what we need to bring back.
You know, the government, they hold my people hostage in the programs and services economy. They've completely erased any sort of sustainable land-based economies because they don't want us to be free, they don't want us to have our own governments, so we're in like concentration camps on our reserves. But our people are breaking free, and we're going back to the land, we're going back to those laws, and those animals are becoming our government again. And it feels good because it's hope. And I encourage everybody to be in solidarity with everyone in trying to make a better future that's good for the land, the water, the animals. Respect will save us. Respect is the one that's going to help us through all of this, and by not being so greedy and stingy. And that's what I just wanted to say. [Speaks Ojibwe]. Thank you.
[DESAI] Thank you so much, Isaac. That really helps me think through some of the work that I've been doing in the last couple months. I've been doing Wet’suwet’en solidarity work, as I'm sure many of us have, and it's felt pretty difficult that the wind has been taken out of our sails. So that insight about why it is people agreed to share land no deeper than the depth of a plough, and insight from Indigenous peoples who were able to survive the sicknesses that were brought by colonizers, was really helpful for me in thinking about how we're all going to get through this, and what's going to be on the other end.
Okay, so last but not least, I'm going to ask David Camfield to weigh in. So David, whenever you’re ready, take it away.
[DAVID CAMFIELD] Thanks to everybody who has already spoken. I want to focus what I'm going to say on the role of the state, because we are seeing that states around the world are really increasing and expanding their activity in response to the situation. We are seeing the border controls and the policies that Nandita referred to, we're seeing public health orders of different kinds, we are seeing new forms of income support within the Canadian state. You know, there's a Canadian Emergency Response Benefit that's been created, the CERB. We are seeing in some countries new regulations in the job market, not so much in Canada, but for example in Italy layoffs have been banned for 90 days. We see, as has been mentioned, fare-free transit in some places. We see the selective overriding of union rights for certain groups of workers, for example healthcare workers in a number of Canadian jurisdictions.
And then we see many different forms of economic management. We've seen what the [United] States has been doing with interest rates, billions of dollars being injected in the form of loans to firms. Again in the Canadian context, we're seeing credit to firms; we are seeing the provisions for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Commission to buy up mortgages in the form of mortgage-backed securities for lenders, this way of trying to put forward liquidity into financial institutions; we are seeing small business wage subsidies; and so on. And in some cases, and this was already mentioned earlier as well, we are seeing the state actually take control of private firms. In Britain the British government has taken control of the privatized passenger rail system; in Italy the government is planning to re-nationalize Al Italia, the major airline; and as was mentioned, in Spain and Ireland the state has requisitioned or taken control over private hospitals and medical suppliers.
So why are states doing this? I think we should be clear that the motivation is not to protect human life as an end in itself. It's not because the people running the state anywhere are concerned about human well-being. The problem for them is this: a severe outbreak, a really severe outbreak with no effort to flatten the curve for COVID-19, would have meant – and in some countries will mean – many, many sick people who are otherwise economically active, and then many deaths of older people, and that includes older ruling-class people who are not immune. You know, this was an option that was being actively considered by a whole number of governments – this was leaked in the Times of London – that the British government was looking at different options, and one of them was just to let the pandemic rip. But this would be very disruptive and very destabilizing, hard to manage and damaging to the legitimacy of the status quo in the eyes of many people. And so the letting-it-rip option has been rejected certainly by the Canadian government and the governments of most advanced capitalist countries.
So why are they acting in the ways that they are? Well they're trying to minimize the damage to the legitimacy of the status quo and to minimize the de-stabilization. And so that's why they're providing assistance to working-class people who are losing their incomes in huge numbers, so that people can continue to buy food and pay rent and mortgages and so on. That's one reason they're acting.
Another thing they're trying to do is reduce the medium-term disruption of the economy by the pandemic, to try to make the recession triggered by the pandemic less severe. So David [McNally] has touched on this, but we have to remember that every state is ultimately dependent on how capital does in the territory that it governs. You know, what level of investment, what level of profits there are going to be regardless of what party is in office. So those are their goals in terms of why they are doing what they're doing right now.
Looking forward, I think we can be pretty clear that state activity is going to further increase. Why is that? Well, I'm just going to quote from the British writer Richard Seymour who put it very well, pointing out that the sweep of we are witnessing is more like the shock therapy that happened in the former USSR after the end of Stalinism, rather than the beginning of the Great Depression or World War, and to quote Richard: "There is just no way to get ahead of this, the speed of which is unprecedented. That's why it's almost inevitable that the latest government measures, whatever they are, will be enormous, unprecedented, earth shattering, and just not enough." The states will continue to try to act on the crisis, but both the pandemic and the economic crisis is moving faster than they can keep up with.
In terms of the pandemic, I think the more that firms are unable to produce and distribute the critical supplies that are needed and maintain the priority services that are required, it's more likely that states will start to step in to coordinate or to directly deliver or produce goods and services. And so there's a trend, I don't want to exaggerate it, but I think there is a trend towards the state bureaucratically directing or planning certain parts of production, not relying on markets, in a kind of war economy fashion connected to the pandemic. We'll see where that goes.
Secondly, the worse the economic crisis, the more the state is going to be drawn in to prevent that crisis from worsening, and to keep large firms from folding we can look back to the experience a decade ago with the bailouts of banks and large firms.
And the other point is that the more wage earners are unemployed or unpaid, the more pressure there is going to be on states for income support, to provide income support to people.
So I think we have to be cautious about predictions, but I think we are on a pretty safe ground to predict these things. So what do we make of this, then? Many people from different political backgrounds think that this kind of increased state activity is more or less socialism, or moving in a socialist direction. For example, there was an article in the New York Times which said “everyone's a socialist in a pandemic,” referring to corporations making certain improvements for their workers, and the talk in the U.S. of the state giving money to hospitals to support people who don't have health insurance.
But then we have to talk a little bit about how people understand socialism. There have been many things that have been positive about the Bernie Sanders campaign in the U.S., but the kind of left social democratic politics of that campaign have some weaknesses, and one of those weaknesses is the way that Sanders has talked about socialism, for example saying that “Trump wants socialism for corporations and the rich,” and that “the corporate world loves socialism when it's for them.” Again, the idea being that somehow socialism is just more state activity. And the publication Jacobin ran a headline recently talking about “Socialism for corporations, brutal capitalism for everyone else.” And just yesterday Canadian Dimension had a Facebook image which talked about how governments around the world are flattening the COVID-19 curve with policies approaching socialism. David Harvey the Marxist geographer talked about how the only policies that will work both economically and politically are far more socialistic than anything Bernie Sanders might propose.
But contrary to that really influential and common understanding, there's nothing socialist whatsoever about what states are doing or might do in response to the crisis. The policies that we’re looking at are policies that stabilize the capitalist social order and [allow it] to keep going, even if modifications need to be made to it. So there's nothing socialist about these measures. That doesn't mean that it doesn't matter what the state does, because it matters a lot what kinds of policies are implemented. And there are many important fights to be waged about what the state should do.
In the Canadian context, just for example, how long is the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit going to be available for? How many months? Who's going to be eligible for it? Those kinds of questions. Who’s going to pay for it? These are struggles that are difficult to wage right now of course because of social distancing, but we're going to have to find ways to fight them in the months ahead.
What states are doing and will continue to do is going to mean major changes from the pattern that we've seen for the last four decades in capitalism in its neoliberal form. And people are going to be understanding, as the old song said, it ain't necessarily so. The status quo is not inevitable. It's going to be changed in many ways before their eyes, and that's a big blow against the neoliberal ideology which said that the role of the state was simply to dismantle barriers to corporate profit; and it shows that the state can do things differently, particularly around income support, and that is probably going to raise expectations in spite of the intentions of governments.
So there was an article in Teen Vogue, yet another good Teen Vogue article, recently which said "our cheapskate government can provide for more in social programs that it has, we could afford life-changing comprehensive legislation like the Green New Deal and Medicare for all." I think that's just an example of how expectations may be raised for some people by what they're seeing. And that's obviously not what governments intend. Now, the fact that expectations are going up doesn't give us the power to win, that's a separate question; but expectations may well be going up. And we can work with that. But even in the best case, what states are doing is not in any way anti-capitalist or socialist, even if the state actually takes control of some private firms because of the crises, that's not a socialist measure. We should know in Canada that Crown corporations are not the seeds of socialism.
The economist Costos Lapavitsas made a very important point that we should bear in mind, and that's that it's possible that a larger role for the state through this crisis is going to lead to a more authoritarian form of controlled capitalism, and that means that socialists need to assess carefully and critically the actions that states are taking. So that's exactly the approach we should be taking, and not treating these state actions as steps to in some way socialist measures.
But just to end, I think there are certainly developments that have positive potential from a socialist perspective – not things that the capitalist state does though – rather mutual aid, do it yourself actions by workers to close workplaces or get personal protective equipment, measures to get people the supplies that they need in the face of the pandemic, and all the different forms of solidarity that will emerge in the face of the pandemic, the crisis in the future of austerity. That’s where we should be looking for socialist inspiration.
[DESAI] Thank you so much, David. Yeah, that was one of the main ideas that we saw was not really being put forward right now: challenging the idea that any state activity is necessarily socialistic. So I'm very grateful to you, David, for providing those insights. So, what I'm going to do right now is I'm going to start asking a few questions. We have maybe about 20 minutes or so for presenters to be able to answer some questions from the audience.
So the first question is from Jade, and I think it's directed towards Isaac. “What are the protocols for recovering knowledge from the land that's been lost as a result of colonization?”
[MURDOCH] Hi, thanks for the question. I think that a lot of times when we're trying to relearn something or rekindle knowledge, we go to our Elders, we go to the old people that of course understand those laws. So you can speak to Elders because they're going to know, and you know we always give the Elders a gift when we go see them. And so that's one way to rekindle this knowledge is to speak to old people because they have so much memory about the land and about the diversity that's out there, and that's really critical, retaining the diversity. And so that would be my advice is to go seek out elders and old people who can help you with that. Thanks for the question.
[SHARMA] Can I just add something to that? I think, yes, that's absolutely essential, we need to learn from people who have a lived experience of not living and relying on the capitalist market for everything, who have experience of not relying on the capitalist market for food, for shelter, for medicine. And one thing that I really noticed for example living in Vancouver where I grew up and living in Hawai’i now, is that "immigrant communities" also have a lot to teach us about that, right? When you kind of drive around Honolulu, you'll see that the gardens and people’s little plots that are growing food and not just grass or inedible products are largely immigrant communities, right? Like, they are the ones you're growing a lot of the greens they are less dependent on the capitalist market for the food, and I think that that's a great source and lesson and I think if we encapsulate that as how do we stop our reliance on the capitalist market that took our ability to get food for ourselves, shelter, medicine, food, and put it into the market, how do we get that back?
[DESAI] Thanks Nandita. Is there anyone else who wants to try and chime in on that question?
OK, so the next question is from Josh. It’s a question about the mounting bill that will be hard for people to pay. And so with regard to those mounting debts, what do the presenters have to say about modern monetary theory as a means to help pay for [those debts]. It's a conversation happening more in the U.S. than in Canada – why is that?
I'm definitely not an expert on modern monetary theory, but just a little background for folks, I believe that the idea behind modern monetary theory is basically that governments can actually create as much money as they want, and so proponents of modern monetary theory are folks who are basically in favour of very low taxation and then a lot of spending by governments. But anyone feel free to correct me if that's wrong. Do any of the presenters want to weigh in on that?
[McNALLY] Well perhaps I'll offer a few thoughts on it, because it's true as Josh says that it's a big discussion in the United States, and it is for reasons that I think will be very obvious in a moment. Because as you say Saima, the basis of the theory is the government can create as much money as they want, so why should we worry about the costs of anything? And when you look at the scale of the bailouts of the banks and corporate sector in the United States, they are massive. Just in the so-called $2 trillion bailout package that came through the U.S. Congress this week, there is in fact a formula for $4.5 trillion dollars to go into the financial system and into corporate bailouts, and that's on top of a couple of trillion that they had already pumped into the system. So we're talking about a massive scale of intervention.
The problem with modern monetary theory is that it doesn't understand that in a capitalist society all wealth comes from human labor. It imagines that central banks can just infinitely conjure up money without there being any costs attached to it. Now, there is a degree of truth to that for the most powerful state in the world whose money is the engine of global finance, the United States. But if modern monetary theory was true, then why did Greece ever have a debt crisis in 2010 and 2011 and 2012? Well the answer is because the money that they raised, that they produce in this way, comes from selling government bonds. Government bonds ultimately require that governments pay the interest and eventually pay back the borrower. And so the reality is that most governments in the world, if they just started generating money to pay for everything without going to the tax system, would quickly find that they can't sell their bonds in global markets. That their debt, in other words, that they try to sell, their government bonds, is worthless, just like Greece discovered in 2011 and 2012.
So the United States can do a certain amount of it, although they better be careful because the dollar just headed for its biggest drops in decades last week because of what the central bank in the United States is doing. The reality is that this could be done, that is to say we could have Medicare for all, we could have a Green New Deal, and so on. But it's not by printing money, it's, by actually taking resources that have accumulated in the hands of corporations, banks, and the 1 per cent and using that wealth for social purposes. It's about a massive redistribution of wealth and power. Central banks on their own can't do it. It's going to take a struggle over the very reasons we produce wealth in our society and distribute it, and whether it's for human need or for profit.
[DESAI] Does anyone else want to weigh in on that question? No? OK. We have a question from Jaggi for Nandita. “Please elaborate more on why shutting down borders is not rooted in public health and science in the context of this pandemic?”
[SHARMA] Great question thank you, Jaggi. I think that perhaps public health officials are the least likely to have their imaginations captured by nationalism, right? They're looking at what do we do to actually end a global pandemic. So all the public health experts are saying that shutting down international flights, shutting down asylum seekers, shutting down international migration, is not the way to do it. That actually what I said earlier in the sense that border controls don't work, people get in, and the point of border controls is to make sure that when they get in they are incredibly vulnerable and subordinated. Public health officials understand that at a global scale, that there is no ‘outside’ to a global pandemic, that all of us are in it, and if there's any one of us that is not screened, that does not have access to healthcare, does not have access to the medicines that we need, the hospital beds that we need, the respirators that we are going to need much more of, then all of us are in trouble.
The idea that any of us are going to be able to quarantine or socially distance or isolate ourselves – which I think is very telling, the language of this pandemic asking us to isolate, distance ourselves from each other – is what public health officials are saying is going to be the problem when we talk about it in terms of solidarity. What we need is to make sure that every single person on this planet is screened, that every single person on this planet has healthcare and nutritious food and access to hospital beds; and if we don't do that, this is not going to go away.
So I think that borders are just one part of that. Borders always teach us that we live in a world that's much bigger than the nation-state. That's why migration scholars tend to have that kind of analysis, and I think that public health officials also have that analysis that we need to go global.
[DESAI] There's a related question I also wanted to throw to Nandita but also to any of our presenters who want to answer it. So Wardie writes “One of my biggest concerns is how low- and middle-income countries are going to manage this. They're even less prepared to deal with a crisis. How do we build solidarity across borders in the short term?”
[SHARMA] I'm happy to let others in on this. I'm sure all of you have something important to say about it.
[McNALLY] Well, I'll just volunteer quickly that solidarity is going to begin urgently around some of the key questions that thankfully the left does have some practice of working around. And I'm speaking in particular about building the movement against sanctions against Iran, for instance. The fact that the sanctions block medical supplies and equipment from coming into Iran in the midst of the pandemic is truly criminal. And then of course we've got the incredible public health and humanitarian crisis starting already to unfold in Gaza. You know, you're talking about a population where 70 per cent are displaced peoples, and so we have some of the infrastructures on the left already available for our solidarity work with Palestine against sanctions on Iran and so on.
But most importantly, we have to globalize the call for a debt jubilee. It's great to focus on rents and student debts at home and all of that, of course; but I mentioned earlier there are 48 countries in the world that are spending more on their international debts than they are on their healthcare systems. So when we are calling for debt relief, we have to globalize that demand. All of the IMF debts canceled, all of the World Bank debts canceled, every bank in the United States that’s receiving bailout money – and by the way that's each and every major bank – all of their international sovereign debts canceled, and so on. And so the debt jubilee demand really needs to be worked into this. And then of course there are going to be explosions of social struggle that we need to find ways of building grassroots solidarity with through social movements, through trade unions, and so on.
[SHARMA] I would just add to that that yes, absolutely, there's much we can do, and I see that Cynthia Wright has chimed in and also talked about the blockade on Cuba that the Trump administration has reignited. But I think we also need more than simply calling on nation-states to respond to this. We actually do need to figure out a left global response and what that looks like. And while we're very good at calling for the future world that we want, how do we work within this existing world to call for that? And I think that at the very least what we're seeing around the world right now is almost nothing to address what Wardie has asked, you know, what low- and middle-income countries are going to do to manage this.
The most that the G-20 has called for recently is to have more money funnelled into the [World Health Organization], right? So that's one thing, and that's fine, but we actually need a global pool of resources, of respirators, of medicine, of food stocks, and we need that to actually be shipped around the world. And if we fail to do that, we are truly isolating ourselves in our nation-states, and only caring about those who have access to those things within any given nation state.
We have to address this crisis because, when we look at past pandemics – COVID-19 has been compared to the 1918-1919 flu, the influenza pandemic that occurred. The greatest deaths that occurred in 1918 and 1919 were in British India, right? It wasn't in the United States, it wasn't in the U.K., it wasn't in Canada, which are the countries we always hear about how terrible they were affected by the pandemic, which of course they were; but the greatest hit of that pandemic took place in colonized India because they had been stripped of their ability to grow their own food, because food was put into the market in terms of cash crops, and the British requisitioned those crops. They were malnourished, they were denied nutritious foods so they had no natural immunity to the flu influenza that the people with better nutrition had. They didn't have access to hospital beds like other people in the world had. And that is exactly the situation that is taking place today, right? In the so-called poor world, that is where the pandemic is going to hit the hardest, and we need to respond immediately to that.
[CLARKE] I'd like if I could, to emphasize that. I mean, as we see this coming down and developing, everyone talks very justifiably about flattening the curve and the risk of healthcare systems being overwhelmed. I just saw an article talking about how many intensive care unit beds they have in Malawi: it's a handful. There is no healthcare system that's going to be overwhelmed. It doesn't exist. And the impact is going to be absolutely horrendous in countries and in places where people are facing sanctions, and places like Gaza where they’re walled in. And so as we go into this and as we build movements that challenge the need for this to be infused with a sense of global solidarity – not just an abstract way but in a practical way with clear demands – is going to be an absolutely essential component of what we're going to build, because we're not gonna build anything effective and meaningful if we don't infuse it with that sentiment.
[MURDOCH] I totally agree. I think that right now, to equalize services around the world, we need to have a revolution. And I'm not talking about anarchy. What I'm talking about is a strategic plan of revolution, where grassroots people get together, they strategize, they organize, and they give ‘er. I think that the young people are really our only hope, and I think that the young energy, we have to bank on that, and we have to encourage our young people for positive change, for non-violent revolution. And we have to invest more effort into that because really I think they are the ones that are going to make the big shift.
And so I'm all for revolution. I think that if we want to make a big difference, like I think we all do, I think there needs to be a revolution. I think that the way the structure is set up it needs to come down, like we need another way. And revolution would help out a lot. And I think that a lot of our young people feel it, and I think we started seeing that before COVID-19 hit. I think that once this passes, I think we're headed for something pretty amazing. I think real change is coming, and I think that as leaders, as parents, we have to support our young people because they know what's right and know what feels right. And you know, politics and government are so complicated and there's so much behind-the-scenes garbage that goes on that young people are frustrated and they just want truth, they want change, and you know what? They're going to take it. And I think we need to support them. Thank you.
[DESAI] Our next question is from Sharmeen, who writes “This crisis seems a lot more overwhelming than in 2007 because self isolation brought more immediate impacts into communities. Can the presenters speak to how revolutionaries can bring forth analysis or build mass movements when we can't meet or organize like we’re used to?”
[SHARMA] Can I start with a really small thing? Oh sorry, David, you go please.
[CAMFIELD] I was just going to say briefly that in preparation for this webinar, Saima and I were talking about the possibility of another webinar which would focus more on organizing in the conditions the pandemic has put us in. And so hopefully Briarpatch will be able to do another one which will look at some of those kinds of questions, a different set of issues than what we were trying to get at today. And we’ll be able to try to learn from some of the initial experiences that people are having in trying to move from grappling with mutual aid to maybe putting forward some demands and trying to organize and doing more than just what people had to do recently, which is trying to get people to phone or email demands in to politicians and so on. But it's going to take a lot of creativity, and it's going to be obviously very difficult until the pandemic begins to abate. But again, once there are some experiences to generalize from, we can try to do another webinar.
[DESAI] I'm also seeing folks asking questions about specifically how do we start to transition and scale up the mutual aid networks that are being built right now, and keep those going in the months or years to come. So I would be interested in adding an appendage to this question about what it means to build mass movements at a time when a lot of people are focussed on mutual aid networks and building them and strengthening them.
[SHARMA] Can I jump in here? My partner recently was in front of our house, and one of our neighbours is a fishmonger and often when we walk past his house he's often cutting up big tuna into sashimi. So we talk to him a lot about fish, and one day we walked by and he had all these old styrofoam big fish containers that contained big tuna. He was about to throw them out, so my partner took them home and filled them up with wood chips from another neighbour who had wood chips in her yard from a tree that was chopped down, and created a free garden in front of our house planted with weeds which the capitalist market has no need for. And these are crops that are incredibly hardy but aren't very commodifiable because of how they don't last in the market. So she's created a little plot in front of our house that is showing people the weeds that are growing all around Honolulu, right? You can see them on every street corner, you can see them climbing up telephone poles, and they are thoroughly edible, they are incredibly nutritious, many of them are good medicinals, and they’re food, and they're outside of the capitalist market. And I think that the signage that she creates around these things is just as important as the actual thing, because people don't necessarily know what she's doing. So the signage is always an anti-capitalist message, it's always about how do we stop being reliant on the market for our food?
And I think those kinds of mutual aid projects are really really crucial at this time. And that's very small scale. We need to talk about scale and how to go global with that, but I know that these are the projects that people around the world are engaging in right now. How do I link them together, how do we prioritize them in our movements?
[McNALLY] And I would just add to those points from Nandita and David that we need to learn from the examples of the kind of resistance that people often organized under martial law, where they were legally prohibited from assembling in public spaces, and that sort of thing. And so they organized orchestrated pots and pans banging at given hours to disrupt. Or in an automobilized society, think about the fact that in 1945 striking workers in Windsor Ontario stopped strikebreakers being brought in to their plants by driving their cars to the plant. People are already starting to organize caravans of protest and that sort of thing using vehicles.
And we can’t ignore the ways in which modern digital media can be used. I mentioned the Instacart national strike that's coming on Monday in the U.S., and they have used a variety of media to be able to coordinate their efforts. And I can tell you that for a lot of years there's been an international network of Amazon workers who have been using digital means to organize, and there are some indications that we have not heard the last of them in this crisis. We may be hearing a lot from Amazon workers before this is out. So we've got to really learn from and study past examples but also the very creative, on the ground forms of activism that are emerging now. And finally of course there are all those ways people organizing rent strikes and the like right now too.
[DESAI] Something that one attendee, Jade, brought up in the chat is sort of an add-on question for Isaac. She writes, “Isaac I’m sure could speak about the Indian Act’s impact on gatherings and how Indigenous groups managed to organize resistance even while there's a ban on potlatches and a ban on ceremony.” Isaac, I was wondering if you could speak to that?
[ISAAC] Yeah for sure. So the Indian Act had legislation that was enforced by the RCMP to ban any ceremonial activities, any gatherings, any sort of legal action against Canada, in order to control their cultural fabric. As long as the people were proud and singing their songs and dancing and having attachment to their cultural spirituality to the land, they were a threat to resource extraction. And so of course they banned all of that. And our people were very resilient in making sure that those things survived underground. Even the language was banned. And so what they did was they started to organize at night. And they were going from house to house, lodge to lodge, organizing. They were tying different knots in their hair as a way to communicate with each other, they had different symbolism that they wore on their clothes, or colours represented certain things. And of course they were getting the messaging secretly because the Indian agents were all over the reserves making sure that there was no threat of an uprising.
And so of course our people really believed that when people are oppressed you have to fight back, you have to stand up, and you have to find ways to keep pushing forward even through the deep oppressions. A lot of people on the reserves had to have a pass to leave the reserves, they weren't even allowed to leave, and they were put on food rations by the Canadian government or the American governments. And so revolution and communication was all done underground.
And of course they really believed that every sort of movement requires a spirit, it requires the nurturing of that spirit to push things forward. So they were constantly having feasts in the middle of the night to feed the spirits that would help them. And you know of course things would travel from community to community and they were able to send messages from community to community, and that's how they were able to organize and push back. And of course they were finally able to win some of their freedoms back in the ‘50s.
Right now, in Canada there's over a hundred First Nation communities without clean drinking water. And the Indian act is still in place. And of course the government still economically holds First Nations people hostage through poverty politics. And so right now there's a lot of real revolution happening at kitchen tables all across native lands. And of course we’re seeing more and more uprisings. We've just seen the blockades where many of the First Nations people blocked the trains and highways and were very strict on trying to shut down the Canadian economy. And so right now revolution is happening like you wouldn't believe on the ground with native people.
We understand that this sickness is a cause and effect of capitalism and the fossil fuel industry and how it drives capitalism. And so right now the same things that were happening in my grandparents time and my parents time are happening right now. There's movement happening, and there's definitely going to be a reaction from First Nations people.
[DESAI] Thanks so much Isaac. OK, I'm going to take a couple more questions and aim to wrap up the webinar at 3 PM – well 3 PM in Regina, 5 PM in Toronto. So the next question we have is from Bezad who writes: “How might governments resist the progressive implications of their emergency policies once the pandemic begins to dissipate? Especially now that people have seen that expanded social and economic rights are possible.” And I would add to this, I am also curious about the ways in which governments will maintain some of the regressive policies that they have instituted. So for example the increased powers that are being given to police right now to card people or to use force to return people to their homes.
[SHARMA] Well maybe I could just start by just saying that already within the way that governments are responding is the seed for the dissipation, right? Undocumented migrants are not eligible for any of the things that the Trump administration has passed, the trillions of dollars of spending not a single not a single penny will flow into the hands of undocumented migrants, of which there are you know at least 10 to 12 million of in the United States. So I think already the seeds are sown. And I think this is going back to an earlier point that David Camfield made that the national welfare state – of which these kinds of measures are an extension of – are meant to save capitalism. So already the seeds of the dissipation are in there, but I would add that the seeds of dissipation are in there because it is a national welfare state, right? These are national welfare state measures. These are not global measures. So again, that nationalism that is so embedded in terms of who has rights to access the measures the governments are passing, as well as the scope of it. You know, we actually need global income relief, we need global access to food, we need global access to medicine.
Isaac's point was taken very, very well that within any given nation state also puts the lie to nationalism, as does the historic experience of the welfare state. Not everyone had access to it within those who actually had formal citizenship to start with, right? And we can see that still to this day. So, I think already, I think David's point was really well taken, that the seeds are already sown to make this not revolutionary.
[CLARKE] Yeah, I think the truth is that the state now is in the downturn that comes, some of the direction that it's going in now is going to be used in very regressive ways around authoritarianism, various curtailments of workers rights have taken place, the whole sort of incredible extension of the notion of bailing out and subsidizing corporations and the wealthy, incredible increases and restrictions in terms of borders and such like. And so I think they are going to try and use those weapons in the period ahead, and it's going to be a very definite part of the struggle to challenge that, and at the same time preserve the gains and build upon the gains that have been made. If eviction's have been prevented and there's been any level of moratorium on rents and mortgages, those things are going to come due and they're going to try and play catch-up. And so, a whole series of ways to challenge the state in the period ahead is going to be a very central part of the fight.
[McNALLY] And just add one quick follow-up on what John said, the last round of bailouts in 2008 and 2009 were followed by strict austerity packages designed to essentially pay for bailing out the banks by way of cuts to healthcare and education and social services and so on. And that's the route they will try to go down once again. But at the same time – and this is another point that John touched on earlier – the sense of what is now possible but also what is necessary for human well-being has at least for the moment expanded in terms of what we ought to be able to expect by way of public resources and public provision. And I think that's going to give us an opening to try to mobilize against the austerity that will be coming once they feel they've ridden out this crisis.
[DESAI] OK, I'm going to ask one last question. So Taryn asks: “A lot of us are looking to Indigenous feminism and experiences of matriarchal societies for insights into what we can do to create new forms of collectivity, food sovereignty and resistance to capitalism. What are your thoughts about the importance of feminism at this time?”
[ISAAC] I mean, I can certainly speak about my grandmother. She was the matriarch of our family, and she had a lot of information on our family lines, on food sovereignty, on the trading networks that took place, with medicines and food. And that was a critical part of how we sustained ourselves, through our matriarchs. And it was very critical because they were the knowledge keepers of these things. They were the knowledge keepers of the seeds, they were the knowledge keepers of blood lines, of food, how to prepare the food. And so it was extremely critical that their knowledge was retained during the last plague. And so during the Spanish flu, the population in my tribe went from about 1400 to 63 people. And so, they did everything in their power to protect the knowledge keepers which were the matriarchs so that they would survive and be able to pass that knowledge onto the survivors.
And so this is a really important part of the conversation because we know that if our matriarchs had a larger role in how things worked, the world would be a better place. There's no question the male species has compromised everything on the planet. There's just not enough balance. And so many of the First Nations communities rely on matriarchal governments as a way to survive. It's actually quoted right into the natural laws. And so, we come from our mother, we’re born from our mother, and so we even call the land Mother Earth. So we know that we depend on our mothers for nourishment, for love, for everything, and so when we have our matriarchs respected and listen to and put into positions of authority, the world just becomes better, just because I think they're just better, come from better stock than the male gene. I don't want to beat up on men, but historically in my village as with many Indigenous people, matriarchal societies were the only way to survive on these lands. And hopefully that answers the question, thanks.
[DESAI] I’m interested in this question in part because something that we’ve been seeing in a lot of calls for a Green New Deal is for the increased valuation of care work, which is traditionally feminized work. Understanding that the work that is most important for us all to be healthy is the work of healthcare, of teaching children, of cooking food, things like that. And that’s also often low-carbon work. And so in some ways a lot of us are undertaking a lot more care work than we have before. A lot of us are doing childcare, are doing education in ways that we’re not used to. And I feel like it’s kind of a strange moment in flux for what the value of that work actually is.
And at the same time, whenever we start talking about the valuation of care work and feminized work, the women who first get paid for their work are white women. And so, as Nandita is talking about the hardships that are being imposed upon undocumented migrants – who are a lot of the workers that pick our food and do a lot of the care work that we depend upon – I’m curious about that facet of this question. Is this moment in time going to be changing the way that we understand and value and compensate feminized work and care work?
[SHARMA] Well nothing is showing that that’s what we’re going to do [chuckles]. Everything is showing that instead we’re just going to take advantage of it and exploit it to the max, right? As you said, undocumented workers in the United States and Canada and around the world do much of the work that has been deemed to be essential: food production, frontline healthcare work, delivery workers, supermarket workers. And no one is really addressing, no one is giving them N95 masks to wear so they don’t get COVID-19, no one is giving them tests, no one is going to provide them with income relief, right? So we’re not heading in that direction. And I think that unless we demand that care is something that is a responsibility and part of the work of every human being, and not just women and those who are subordinated in society, then we don’t have a feminist future. A feminist vision would make sure that it is not women who are relegated to care work. That it is the responsibility of every living being, and that we care for each other in that way.
And just to say that revolutionary feminism versus all the kind of essentialist or liberal feminisms would demand an end to the exploitation of our labour and the expropriation of the land and the world’s abundance that we need to not have to rely on markets for our goods.
[McNALLY] I would agree with that. And just a quick plug for people who are interested, the book Feminism For The 99%: A Manifesto by Tithi Bhattacharya, Cinzia Arruzza, and Nancy Fraser is now available for download as an E-book on the Verso Books website. And it picks up on many of the themes that Nandita was talking about in terms of the need for an anti-capitalist feminism.
[CAMFIELD] And I’ll just jump in to say two quick points. We need to be very conscious about the level of male violence that will be experienced in households where people are anxious, people are sick. And when the austerity starts biting, we need to be fighting to defend whatever existing services there are, and to try to expand those services for women and others who might be fleeing those violent situations.
And also, in terms of what’s being discussed, I know there are some initial discussions happening in the [United] States, and probably elsewhere, around so-called “people’s response” or “people’s recovery” programs and platforms. Those need to be clearly feminist. When the level of unemployment really bites, because obviously it’s going to be massive, but when the pandemic begins to diminish and people begin to look for jobs once they become more available, the question of childcare needs to come right to the fore again. Because clearly we need to be fighting for public, quality, affordable childcare that’s widely available. The job market is going to be quite a disaster at the end of the pandemic, and in order to try to reduce women’s marginalization in terms of searching for paid work, that’s an important demand to be taking up.
[DESAI] OK, well, if there is nothing else to add on that question, I’m going to wrap up this webinar. Firstly, thanks so much to all of our presenters. That was an extremely helpful conversation. For me, it clarified a lot of things, it gave me a lot more to think about. And judging from the quality of the questions and notes that we’ve been receiving during this webinar, I think that people really enjoyed it, and it sparked a lot of thoughts from our attendees as well.
Apart from that, keep an eye out, Briarpatch will be organizing that second webinar that’s more oriented towards on-the-ground social movements and how we can be organizing and mobilizing right now.
And so, make sure that you follow Briarpatch on Facebook and on Twitter. And you can always subscribe to the magazine at briarpatchmagazine.com. We’re not doing a ton of pandemic reporting, because frankly there is a glut of reporting happening right now on infection counts and day-to-day responses, and what Briarpatch is doing is talking about visioning and longer-term planning. But if you are interested in continuing to follow our writing and our analysis, then you should go to briarpatchmagazine.com.
Thank you so much for everyone’s participation, and thank you all for tuning in. And I hope everyone is taking care of each other and staying safe right now.
[Everyone offers thanks and well wishes]
Transcript by the Radical Access Mapping Project