When confinement is a starvation sentence

24 March, 2020

Living the confinement in Barracas, Buenos Aires.

Argentina, Morocco, South Africa, India, Brazil, Russia… decreed different forms of confinement. However, the material significance of confinement for the workers in these countries is even more destructive than in Europe and attacks the most vulnerable segments of the working class to a greater extent. For this reason, the slogans of struggle must be adjusted and pushed forward even further in order to defend the same objectives as in Spain, Italy or France. It could not be otherwise. The struggle against coronavirus cannot be separated from the struggle against governments and bourgeoisies that make saving lives contingent on saving investments.

Semi-colonial countries and workers’ situation

Amount of “informal workers” in relation to the degree of capitalization of national economies

The term “exporting” or “emerging” countries is a propagandistic euphemism for what are actually semi-colonial countries. Unlike the territories under colonial rule in the 19th century, the national bourgeoisies sooner or later held a state of their own there, and the world wars gave them the illusion of an accelerated accumulation of national capital around the export sector.

These are national capitals in need of markets and applications of capital in which to invest what they have accumulated, as much or even more than the rest of national capitals, that is, no less imperialist than any other. But their way of expressing these needs and coping with them is particular. In semi-colonial countries, the growth of national capital as a whole is conditioned by international prices and the volume of global demand for a few products, usually in the primary sector.

First problem: the primary sector is the one that holds the lowest limit to the incorporation of new capital both from internal sources and from the world capital market, so, given its importance, it “pulls” wages down, limiting domestic demand and the capitalization of industry.

Second problem: Only those few primary products and the basic transformation industries linked to them are competitive in the world market. The state, through export taxes, redistributes profits to maintain an internally-oriented industrial sector by targeting the local or, at best, regional market and to maintain precarious public services. The artificiality and lack of scale of industry, a fact wielded by nationalism to cleanse the bourgeoisie’s own guilt of “imperialism”, cannot hide the fact that the tendency towards the formation of monopolies and the consolidation of the national bourgeoisie in and around the state is strongest the weaker national capital is. That is why it is in these countries -from Chile to Cuba- that state capitalism shows its clearest contours.

Informality and GDP per capita, another way to measure the relationship between maximal precariousness and capital concentration.

What does this mean for the workers? Lower capitalization means that capital gains come out of higher exploitation in absolute terms: lower wages, higher levels of poverty. And also, much greater “informality”, that is, precariousness of labor power: workers who have to seek work daily and must accept the salary they receive that day. Unemployed and “informal” workers form a gigantic “reserve army” that stabilizes the prices of the labor force downwards. A mass of workers who, under the conditions of the decadence of capitalism, have proliferated beyond being a mere “reserve” in these countries and have even become the majority of the workers.

Confinement and the workers in semi-colonial countries

Popular canteen in Buenos Aires

In India, ultra-precarious labor occupies about 90% of the country’s labor power and accounts for about half of its GDP. Workers do not have any regular income expectations and only very limited access to health care. Confinement means for them weeks without pay, shelter and food… as for most workers in Manila or in South Africa. Even in Brazil , 32% of the favela population currently does not have enough to eat.

In Argentina, if we add the 35% of ultra-precarious workers and the 10% of unemployed without coverage, we have that 45% of the workers are in this ultra-precarious situation. The government has granted two 10,000 peso vouchers. In a country where the basic food basket is not much cheaper than in inland Spain, we are talking about only one payment in April of less than 150 euros… and limited to families who do not receive any pension. And even add to that the closure of the schools. In countries like Uruguay, Brazil or Argentina, schools are the guarantors of basic food for children. A burden that now falls on the already saturated soup kitchens.

If we add it all up, the real alternative is not much better than in Morocco: mass precariousness makes it a choice between going hungry and risking one’s own life.

Police in the streets of Buenos Aires during confinement.

That is why in the whole spectrum of semi-colonial countries confinement has been accompanied by a turn towards militarism: police patrolling the neighborhoods so that no one roams the streets, traffic controls, tanks in the streets… preventive repression in the face of the fear of hunger-induced riots. In some neighborhoods, such as Rio de Janeiro, where the mafias and the “comandos” dispute with the state over control and exploitation of the population, organized lumpen rule the neighborhoods by decreeing their own curfew.

What is to be done?

Worker suburb in Cordoba, Argentina.

All these countries, like those in the core countries, are forcing factories and offices to remain in operation despite the obvious public health risk. But at the same time they are decreeing confinement for millions of working families in the “informal economy,” condemning them to hunger and tightening repression to enforce it.

It is not a question of whether or not there should be confinement. This is about imposing even tighter confinement to prevent the spread of the epidemic, shutting down non-essential production, but at the same time ensuring that production serves basic human needs. Food, water, energy, supplies and medicines must reach everyone and in sufficient quantity during the confinement. “Vouchers” that cannot be used to feed a family are not enough. And it is certainly not acceptable to militarize the neighborhoods.

Today, it is clear that only the workers are fighting for effective quarantine and that only they can organize it. In the workplaces, in distributing products according to need, and in organizing the neighborhoods.


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