“Pure capitalism is basically selfish in nature and it leads to a particular attitude in the rich — that they deserve to be wealthy and the poor are poor because they are either lazy or stupid or both — or else because they are just an ‘inferior species’.”
A friend in Karachi describes the unease that fills shoppers at an affluent Karachi supermarket when they step out of the store laden with as much as they can buy amid the coronavirus lockdown. They are faced with the sight of desperate day labourers standing outside staring quietly as they load bags of food supplies into their cars. The labourers hold the tools of their trade — shovels and pickaxes — and to the affluent shoppers, these now appear to be dangerous weapons.
“They are starving,” says my friend, “their families don’t have food, they could be driven to despair and could easily attack shoppers to get food”.
The public response to the crisis has been impressive in Pakistan, but can such efforts provide the scale of relief that is needed in a country where, according to a 2016 national assessment, almost 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty? People have donated generously to schemes that deliver basic rations to those in need and many organisations and individuals have mobilised their time and resources to feed the hungry but reports seem to indicate that this is proving woefully inadequate. The livelihood of so many households has been affected that the knock-on effect is totally devastating. Apart from those dependent on a daily wage, those running small business initiatives or taking on work outsourced from running businesses now have no work, no money and no food.
And they are being told to stay in their homes and maintain social distancing in public places…
In such circumstances, riots are a very real possibility. Not just in Pakistan but in other countries as well, particularly those with great social and economic inequality. And interestingly, it is this fear of unrest that is now leading many people to the realisation that depriving people of basic rights is not just an issue for the poor and oppressed but rather it is something that, eventually, affects everybody — even the very rich and powerful. Pure capitalism is basically selfish in nature and it leads to a particular attitude in the rich — that they deserve to be wealthy and the poor are poor because they are either lazy or stupid or both — or else because they are just an ‘inferior species’.
“For years the world has been veering towards a nasty form of capitalism in which the erosion of workers’ rights and social welfare is seen as an ‘efficient’ way to manage the economy. But the only thing it did efficiently was enriching and protecting a small minority that lived in a fortress bulwarked by wealth and privilege.”
This basic lack of social empathy is rooted in the belief that wealth can buy you an island of privilege and anything outside the walls of this wealth is a) not your problem and b) does not affect you. Hence the attitude of the Pakistani glitterati, who spend millions on making their homes into palaces but then just tip their garbage onto the street corner instead of a bin; who spend thousands on fast food and designer outfits but are outraged when a staffer asks them for a salary of a few thousand rupees in advance. It is the same attitude that drives coalitions like the Conservative-LibDem one in the UK to close down public libraries or threaten the funding of the public service broadcaster. Instead of understanding that libraries and public service broadcasting can inform and educate, the attitude is that these are not essential as they have no tangible benefit i.e. profit. Public libraries, in particular, are essential to any civilised society as they provide access to learning, opportunity and advice and also provide resources like computers, printers and internet access.
In Pakistan, schools and colleges with adequate resources have switched to online learning but what about all of those students from poorer institutions? And what about students who are expected to follow online curriculums but may not have a wifi connection or a laptop? The same question is relevant in the UK even though efforts are being made to cater to students with these sorts of disadvantages, many may fall through the cracks. Just a few months ago when the Labour Party announced a policy of free wifi for all in their election manifesto, the idea was widely derided, scoffed at and dismissed as ‘unworkable’, but now Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that broadband access should be regarded as a basic right does not seem so ridiculous after all.
For years the world has been veering towards a nasty form of capitalism in which the erosion of workers’ rights and social welfare is seen as an ‘efficient’ way to manage the economy. But the only thing it did efficiently was enriching and protecting a small minority that lived in a fortress bulwarked by wealth and privilege. But now a virus has illustrated that we are all connected. Ensuring access to basic rights and a proper welfare structure provides for a less insecure society and ‘feel good’ philanthropy and private charity or a mai baap approach to individual staff is simply not enough.
Perhaps it’s time for all of us to embrace the idea of a socialist society, to recognise the importance of the dignity of labour and the protection of employee rights, to stop privatising and outsourcing and spending compulsively. It’s time for us to completely rethink the way we live.