Ecuador: A victory against mining, and a dispute around meaningful policies of the left

by Miriam Lang

On Sunday 7 February 2021, not only presidential elections took place in Ecuador. Cuenca, the third-largest city in the South American country, voted against a series of mega-mining projects in the headwaters of five rivers that supply the urban area with water. In the area, which is directly adjacent to a national park that has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, there are over 4,000 large and small bodies of water in the sensitive Páramo ecosystem, which acts as a reservoir in the Andes. Nevertheless, corporations from Canada, Australia, Peru, Chile, etc. had already been granted a total of 43 concessions for the mining of various metals. Fourteen grassroots organizations had launched the referendum, approved by the Constitutional Court in September 2020, via the Cuenca City Council. On Sunday, over 80% of the electorate voted in favor of a ban for industrial mining in this part of the Andean highlands. A clear democratic mandate in line with the 2008 constitution, which stipulates the rights of nature.

Since the result of the referendum is legally binding under the constitution, the next president will have to implement it. Many of the 16 presidential candidates had clearly opted for an expansion of mining in the election campaign in order to lead the country out of the economic crisis. Only one of them has spoken out clearly against mining and an expansion of the oil frontier in the Amazon region: Yaku Perez Guartambel, the candidate of the indigenous movement and its political organization Pachakutik.
The presidential election will not be finally decided until a final ballot on April 11th. The political heir to ex-president Rafael Correa, Andrés Arauz, who received 32.2% of the votes in the first round, will certainly take part in April. But who will be his opponent is still fought over: after 99,31 % of the votes had been counted, Perez Guartambel (20,10%) was just ahead of the neoliberal banker Guillermo Lasso (19,50%) with 0,6 % of the votes – a tight scenario which still can bring surprises.

Yaku Perez Guartambel. Source: Wikipedia

For the first time in the country’s history, an indigenous candidate who comes from grassroots organizations has a chance of winning the election. This is already an enormous symbolic success for the indigenous movement of Ecuador, which last made headlines in October 2019 with an uprising against the liberalization of gasoline and diesel prices and the current Moreno government’s neoliberal policies. If Perez actually makes it to the final ballot, the election campaign will confront two different interpretations of what is defined as left in Latin America: one, a populist and authoritarian left in the wake of Rafael Correa who was in power from 2007 to 2017 and relied on an expansion of extractivism to finance infrastructure modernization and social programs. These programs promised more equality, but at the price of the destruction of nature and a de facto restriction of democratic rights. And two, an intercultural, plural, and ecological left that primarily appeals to the younger generations, puts issues such as climate change and the preservation of the rainforests at the forefront and refers to the great indigenous movement of the 90s and their communitarian form of politics. In this sense, the surge of Perez, ex-prefect of Cuenca, brings a breath of fresh air into the stale polarization between the old progressive left (represented by Arauz) and the most reactionary right (represented by Lasso) in a region in much need of political innovation.

But a broad international defamation campaign against Yaku Perez has started right away on election night, using media and international structures installed in previous years around the vision of a ‘socialism of the 21st century’. Especially Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador hat officially proclaimed to engage in a renewed socialist path during progressive governments in the first one and a half decades of the 21st century. This new variant of socialism, unfortunately, showed to have inherited some of the less desirable features of the 20th-century socialism, like a top-down and a rather authoritarian approach to transformation with a central role for the governing party, a centralization of state power overriding necessary checks and balances, and intolerance toward dissent which was often criminalized and judicially persecuted. This led to a climate of polarization which suffocated all the transformative energy which had grown in organized society during the plural anti-neoliberal struggles of the 90s and early 2000s and allowed for a silent return to free trade agreements and elite-friendly economic politics. Especially the expansion of extractivist and mega-project oriented modernization politics met increasing resistance from indigenous and peasant organizations, as well as affected communities. But also students, workers, and feminist organizations opposed them for manifold reasons. As some Ecuadorian organizations of this other, plural left express it in a recent open letter:

“The left is not a subject, a party, a movement, a government; It is a permanent human mobilization that reinvents and transforms society in search of the defense of life, affirming and expanding human dignity, justice and freedom without attacking other species and damaging the planet. (…) Ecuadorian progressivism was left when back in 2006, it expressed a social mobilization that sought to build a destiny different from that marked by the patriarchal and colonial capitalism prevailing in Ecuador and Latin America. However, at the moment that, contrary to expressing this social mobilization, it sabotaged it, suffocated it, persecuted it, silenced it, it ceased to be left. When the left is conservative, it ceases to be mobilization and social desire and becomes a party (Alianza País) with an ideological letterhead (Citizen Revolution) and a caudillo (Rafael Correa) that contains and destroys resistance and social mobilization, and stops history in its reinvention of more pleasant human worlds.”

Andean Highlands around Cuenca. Source: Wikipedia

Lately, former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, correista presidential candidate Andres Arauz and former Bolivian vice-president Alvaro García Linera played a role in the creation of a Progressive International, a plural global coordination space thriving toward systemic transformation, which unfortunately has taken sides in the ongoing harsh dispute about the definition of what is left in Latin America. Now, adding a new chapter to this same dispute on all sort of platforms, a wide range of arguments is deployed against Yaku Perez describing him as a coup-supporting, CIA-backed, imperialistic, oligarchic, and right-wing ecofascist or, alternatively, a greenwasher, if they do not dive into plainly racist arguments to delegitimize him. The campaign clearly triggers all the classical topoi which had helped the traditional left to construct a black and white, simplistic worldview during the Cold War. This strategy of aggressive polarization not only makes it impossible to engage seriously with Perez’s proposals for a future government, leaving Arauz with the monopoly of being “the leftist candidate” for the second electoral round by all means. It also avoids any critical engagement with or learning from the failure of progressive politics during its hegemony in recent Latin American history. But most importantly, it distracts from the really important themes that are at stake today, regarding new political strategies to face a multidimensional crisis (which includes political representation and liberal electoral democracy). It curtails any impulse to collectively co-create new societies in an open political space that allows trial and error and plural deliberation. The sterile you-are-either-with-me-or-against-me rhetoric closes the political space of creativity and spreads fear instead. It totally avoids engaging in a profound discussion about what meaningful leftist politics means today. The future we need will not be built on one candidate, anyway, regardless of his or her political orientation, but in a fertile interaction between strong social organizations and governments who learn to listen to their bases. In this sense, the open letter from Ecuador states:

The vote for Yaku Perez and the result of the Cuenca referendum shows that a significant share of Ecuadorian society shares these concerns. A new politics of the left both in Ecuador and Latin America must reconnect with the social effervescence of the 90s and early 2000s. It cannot be based on a triumphalist return of Socialism of the 21st Century but must acknowledge and learn from what has gone wrong during these years – a necessary auto-critical discussion that could also inspire many other transformative processes in the world. It must refocus on the rights of nature, which the policies of this ‘conservative progressive’ left have undermined when they were in government. Ecuador is one of the countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world. In times of massive species extinction, an economic policy course that relies on more mining and oil production could have incalculable consequences far beyond the small country. The pandemic has led to an expansion and acceleration of nature-destroying activities in a legal gray area throughout Latin America, as environmental controls have been largely suspended. At the same time, Covid-19 has made it very clear that the advance of capitalist overexploitation into fragile ecosystems harbors great dangers for humanity. In Cuenca, an entire urban population, and not just a rural community directly affected, has spoken out against mining. This popular decision paves the way to finally discuss the urgently needed fundamental change in economic policy, which puts life-sustaining aspects such as food sovereignty and clean water above the imperatives of the world market.

Miriam Lang is a Professor of Environmental and Sustainability Studies at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, Quito

Enfrentando las deudas eternas desde el Sur

por Alberto Acosta , Esperanza Martinez , Miriam Lang

La historia de la Modernidad tiene dos caras: por un lado, es una historia de revoluciones y luchas por los derechos. Pero, por orto lado, a la vez está plagada de violencias, de injusticias y de abusos. Muchos de los filósofos políticos ilustrados e incluso héroes de la Independencia eran esclavistas en su época. Las declaraciones de derechos -en linea liberal de derechos- excluían a mujeres y hombres no-blancos, pueblos indígenas y pueblos afros La misma noción de la Europa conquistadora potenció la masacre, el saqueo y la explotación de trabajo gratuito. En tanto que se fue expandiendo la voracidad por acumular valores abstractos, se fueron marginando otros horizontes civilizatorios en las comunidades humanas y también las relaciones de armonía con la Madre Tierra. Las Diversas relaciones de dominación subyugaron a las mujeres, a la Naturaleza, a los pueblos en cuyos territorios habían “recursos” acumulables.

Deudas diversas comenzaron a forjarse a lo largo del tiempo. Deudas que, de una u otra manera, reflejan estas estructuras de dominación. Las desigualdades e inequidades se plasmaron de formas múltiples. Todo ese entramado de poder desembocó en la apropiación y subordinación de trabajadores y trabajadoras, de campesinos y campesinas, en la separación entre trabajo considerado “productivo” y otro considerado “reproductivo”, normalmente no remunerado. Así se establecieron violentamente esferas de lo femenino y lo masculino, y una separación entre sociedades humanas y la Naturaleza en la que éstas están insertas. La idea de “raza” sirvió para justificar “científicamente” la explotación diferenciada al trabajo de personas negras, indígenas o de color, expandiendo así el poder imperial por el mundo y estableciendo formas de control de los cuerpos y subjetividades diferentes para cada grupo y género humano.

Hubo épocas en las cuales las mujeres, los indígenas y los negros no tenían alma… al menos para el discurso del poder. Desde entonces hasta hoy, patriarcado, clasismo y racismo han sido de las más arraigadas y eficaces formas de dominación social, material, psicológica y por cierto política. Y con esas formas de dominación se consolidó la expropiación de tierras y el saqueo de la Naturaleza, a costa del exterminio de millares de pueblos, con sus conocimientos, lenguas, culturas. La apropiación de trabajo esclavo, forzado, además del despojo de materiales que nutrieron la industrialización de las potencias coloniales, devino en una gran deuda histórica de los países centrales del sistema mundo capitalista con estas periferias desangradas; para mencionar un ejemplo, se estima que Gran Bretaña habría obtenido unos 36 millones de millones de libras esterlinas en todo el período colonial. Ese saqueo dio vida al capitalismo que, desde entonces, se sostiene con la explotación laboral, con la precarización del trabajo, con la invisibilización del trabajo del cuidado y sostenimiento de la vida, con la ocupación y destrucción de los bienes comunes, y con el desprecio de todo aquello que no pueda volverse mercancía.

En la actualidad, como resultado de tanta explotación y violencia, el planeta está en crisis, con desastres vinculados a un colapso climático cuyo origen no es natural. Lo que configura otra deuda eterna. No se trata de una simple deuda climática. La deuda ecológica encuentra sus orígenes en la expoliación colonial –la extracción de recursos minerales, las plantaciones o la tala masiva de los bosques naturales, por ejemplo–, se manifiesta tanto en el “intercambio ecológicamente desigual”, es decir los siglos de transferencia de bienes naturales del Sur al Norte global para alimentar los procesos industriales con “materia prima”, como en el “aprovechamiento gratuito del espacio ambiental” de los países empobrecidos por efecto del estilo de vida depredador de los países industrializados. Con el tiempo, las industrias más contaminantes, los monocultivos más invasivos y la basura tóxica se han trasladado a los países periféricos y dependientes. A lo anterior cabe añadir la biopiratería, impulsada por transnacionales que patentan en sus países de origen múltiples plantas y conocimientos indígenas: ya no solo se saquean metales preciosos, se saquea hasta el alma de los pueblos expresada en su conocimiento ancestral. En esta línea de reflexión también caben los daños provocados a la Naturaleza y a las comunidades sobre todo campesinas, con las semillas genéticamente modificadas, para citar un caso. Por eso bien podemos afirmar que no solo hay un intercambio comercial y financieramente desigual, como plantean las teorías de la dependencia, sino que también existe un intercambio ecológicamente desequilibrado y desequilibrador (incluso en términos de los flujos de materiales que transitan de unas partes del planeta a otras).

En suma, hay una deuda ecológica de la Humanidad al conjunto planeta, pero hay que destacar que son las élites los mayores causantes de esos destrozos. Como referencia cabe notar que solo el 10% más rico de la Humanidad causa la mitad de las emisiones de CO2 que están a raíz del calentamiento global; mientras que la mitad de los habitantes del planeta -los pobres- son responsables de un 10% de dicha emisiones.

En la actualidad, de lo que se trata es de recuperar las posibilidades de que la especie humana se mantenga en el planeta, ya no como una plaga o una pandemia, sino como parte de las relaciones de armonía y cuidado de la casa común y de todas las formas de vida que aquí nos acompañan. Eso implica proteger selvas, territorios, mares, pero además transformar nuestros modos de vida, nuestras relaciones y nuestras formas de producción y consumo.

Para mantener el modelo dominante, se desarrolló un sistema económico sostenido en la expansión del capital financiero, que no solo se difundió con el comercio, sino con inversiones y créditos. Bajo el mandato de buscar el “desarrollo”, en el mundo se expandió un modo de vida, con sus formas de producción y de consumo, que apunta a sostener a cualquier costo las ruedas de acumulación del capital. Un modo de vida irrepetible a escala planetaria, ya que solo se puede sostener para una minoría destruyendo los hábitats y modos de vida otros en los sures del planeta. Pese a ello, cada vez más, se quiere fortalecer la vorágine consumista empujándonos masivamente hacia crecientes endeudamientos tanto individuales como a nivel de gobiernos que generan dependencia, destruyen la autonomía personal y las soberanías, destrozan los lazos comunitarios y de convivencia humana y con el resto de formas de vida; las élites que construyen fortunas vertiginosas en base a este sistema quieren que les sigamos suministrando recursos naturales, sin importar la destrucción que provocan los extractivismos; quieren que seamos mercado para sus productos, sin permitir que encontremos nuestras propias formas de organización productiva.

Esas mismas élites hasta quieren que recibamos sus inversiones, sus créditos e incluso su “ayuda al desarrollo” para que sigamos condenados a suministrarles Naturaleza, trabajo e incluso capitales. Así quieren mantener su bienestar a costa de nuestras miserias. Y todo esto teniendo como potente palanca de dominación la entrega de financiamiento vía inversiones extranjeras y vía endeudamiento financiero; en total fluyen como inversiones, créditos y “ayuda al desarrollo” cerca de 2 millones de millones de dólares al año del Norte Global al Sur Global, pero regresan al norte en forma de diversas transferencias vinculadas a los flujos mencionados o por fuga de capital o evasión tributaria por unos 5 millones de millones (trillions en inglés).

De lo anterior se desprende que la deuda externa -financiera- es parte de la dominación económica y política de nuestras repúblicas. Una y otra vez la subordinación se consolida en el marco de la estructura internacional de control imperial, ahora con el FMI y el Banco Mundial, apuntalada con los mal llamados tratados de libre comercio (nunca libres ni solo comerciales). Este sistema consolida permanentemente nuestra posición como países suministradores de materias primas baratas y de mano de obra de bajo costo y hasta desechable. Y en el marco de estas relaciones económicas, como parte de un sistema de explotación comercial y financiero desequilibrado y desequilibrador, se perpetúan las dominaciones. Por ejemplo, para atender los compromisos impuestos por estas deudas financieras, se amplían y profundizan los extractivismos minero, petrolero, agroindustrial o pesquero, ahondando aún más la deuda ecológica de la que nuestros países son los acreedores; en forma paralela, para conseguir mejorar los niveles de competitividad, como reza el mensaje dominante, se flexibilizan más y más las relaciones laborales, precarizando sobre todo el trabajo femenino y agudizando la crisis de cuidados, lo que directa o indirectamente termina por ahondar tanto la deuda patriarcal así como otras deudas históricas. Y para pagar estas deudas financieras se sacrifican inversiones sociales vitales, configurándose así otra deuda eterna, la deuda social, reflejada en la pobreza y en las desigualdades.

Es preciso, entonces, impug­nar la deuda externa, la financiera, para establecer la justicia como referente básico, desde la doctrina de las deudas odiosas, usurarias y corruptas. Se requieren acciones para declarar injusta, ilegítima e impagable a la deuda existente, frenando simultáneamente los nuevos créditos que se están negociando para aumentar las inversiones en minería, petróleo, energía, agroindustria e incluso para activar modelos de privatización que cumplen con los condicionamientos y ajustes requeridos por la banca y los organismos internacionales. Tras todos estos procesos la corrupción manda. Por eso urge desmontar las tramas de corrupción inherentes a estas deudas. El coronavirus puso en la agenda internacional la urgencia de suspender los pagos de la deuda externa de los países del Sur, para atender la crisis sanitaria y alimentaria. Es decir, la deuda no se paga para poder salvar más vidas. Pero eso no es suficiente.

Esta realidad acumulada por siglos de explotación es un telón de fondo de la historia y de la realidad presente de nuestras sociedades, plagadas por DEUDAS ETERNAS: financieras, ecológicas, históricas, patriarcales, sociales. Estableciendo las correspondientes interconexiones entre estas deudas eternas, junto con la deuda financiera deben procesarse la deuda ecológica e incluso la deuda colonial, donde los países empobrecidos son los acreedores. Es el momento de poner todas las deudas sobre la mesa y redefinir a partir de ahí nuestro entendimiento de lo justo, en lugar de contentarnos con alivios temporales de mero carácter financiero.

El PACTO ECOSOCIAL DEL SUR propone abordar estas DEUDAS ETERNAS en su interconexión, en todas las discusiones sobre las transiciones para salir de la crisis actual, de otra manera, las inequidades se mantendrán y los problemas se acumularán… No basta hablar de la transición y la sustentabilidad, si se seguirá dependiendo del petróleo, la mineria o del trabajo precarizado de los sures del mundo, sosteniendo el patriarcado y la colonialidad. Proponemos discutir estas deudas en agendas post-pandemia, con claros horizontes postcapitalistas y postantropocéntricos, desde esquemas sustentados en la reciprocidad, el don y el intercambio, rescatando lo comunitario de la vida humana y no humana. Como se dice con claridad en el RAP que sintetiza esta lucha, es hora de gritar: deudas eternas… ¡basta!

Introduction to the Democracy debate

Which democracy for systemic transformation, or how to cope democratically with a dying civilization?

A critical global dialogue on democracy

by Miriam Lang

We are currently experiencing the most serious crisis today’s dominant civilization has brought about. A civilization that is modern and colonial simultaneously, deeply marked by patriarchy, built on the invention of race, caste and a specific form of state, and capitalist class relations, as well as on the destruction of nature. COVID-19 has not only killed hundreds of thousands and brought a frenetic, it has halted the globalized capitalist economy in what economists call as the most severe recession since capitalism exists. If we want to go on living together on this planet, as human societies sharing one habitat with all other species, we simply cannot pursue the same path.

One of the biggest challenges the Corona-crisis highlights is around democracy. Democracy not understood as a set of institutions or procedures, but as the means we create for ourselves to make collective decisions about our lives and the lives of those generations who follow. The pandemic has boosted and legitimized top-down solutions, highlighting the role of national governments and international institutions as the World Health Organizations, but at the same time, it has shown the advantages that organized communities at the grassroots have if they practice self-rule (variously called autonomy, self-determination, etc.) and food/water/energy/health sovereignty.

Before the COVID-outbreak, the Global Working Group Beyond Development had already decided to dedicate a longer period of work and reflection on the topic of democracy. Or to the question of how, under the current conditions in different parts of the world, different dimensions of democracy could be deepened, in order to regain control over our own lives that seemed increasingly appropriated by the 1%. The coronavirus has added urgency to this collective challenge in a world ruled by 21st century capitalism. Thus, we invited thinkers and activists from around the world to contribute to a critical global dialogue around democracy. 

Here are some of the questions which motivated this initiative: Is democracy a stronghold of social struggles, or is it rather an institutional framework imposed by neo-colonial statism and capitalism? Why are fascism and different kinds of authoritarianism coming back through elections? How can the scandalous inequality that characterizes contemporary capitalism and severely limits democratic decision-making, be strongly dealt with? What do we understand by democracy and what not, in our respective contexts? How can we strengthen processes of collective self-determination, including different languages of dignity and self-rule (swaraj, buen vivir, ubuntu, etc) that exist in different cultural/socio-historical/civilizational contexts of the pluriverse, which might differ from the dominant language of liberal democracy?

To nourish our collective reflection, a theoretical contributions from Gustavo Esteva (Mexico) brings to the fore Ivan Illich’s intellectual heritage, while Soumitra Gosh (India) asks about the role of social movements in democratic radical transformation.

We also wanted to shed light on ongoing struggles in different parts of the world and ask about the role of different scales in systemic transformation. For instance, how can local struggles irradiate toward regional or national changes? What examples do we have for this? Neema Pathak Broome, Shrishtee Bajpai, Mukesh Shende and Mahesh Raut from India look into a fascinating case of scaling out transformation instead of “scaling it up”, as is so often proposed. Raphael Hoetmer from Peru explores the experience and impact of local consultations against mining that have proliferated in Latin America. Maxime Combes analyses the challenges of the Yellow Vests movement in France. These articles will be released progressively.

We have invited comments from other parts of the world to these contributions, which you will find in the sidebar on the right.

Our series includes short case studies, in text and video, which highlight concrete experiences of democratic transformation in different aspects or realms of life. For example, Ibrahima Thiam shows the resistance to a power plant in Senegal, Kitti Baracsi shares her insights about transforming European school education. Iokine Rodriguez and Mirna Inturias describe the kind of democracy practiced autonomous indigenous territories in Bolivia, and Arturo Guerrero Osorio shows how a reconstruction process after an earthquake in Mexico was transformed in a democratic manner. Beatriz Rodriguez-Labajos will finally analyse how artistic activities can power anti-mining struggles in different contexts.

We warmly invite you to read and share these pieces, which were produced to contribute to collective learning processes around systemic transformation.

Miriam Lang teaches at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Ecuador. She uses decolonial and feminist perspectives to study political ecology.

Democracy and transformation in the time of pandemic politics

by Mary Ann Manahan and Miriam Lang

As the world reels from historically unprecedented socio-economic and political impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19), many governments are rolling out emergency measures and guidelines for physical distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines, closing of borders, and restrictions of people’s movements in an effort to flatten the curve. Of great concern among social and labor movements, civil society, and people at large is how this global health emergency reshapes democratic institutions and democratization processes, for better or worse. This also affects the possibilities of social and systemic transformation. The current moment seems to contain very contradictory dynamics: Intense social protests that marked the second half of 2019 in many parts of the world have come to an abrupt halt and people are being stripped of their most common means of collective expression; at the same time, deep structural reforms toward more equality and, hopefully, a more reciprocal relation with nature are being put on the agenda by rather unlikely actors. The potential of territorial grassroots self-government is being deployed in places where public infrastructure fails to adequately respond to the multidimensional crisis COVID-19 has provoked.

New threats to democracy and civil rights

To collectively discuss the implications of the crisis on our daily and future lives as well as on the fate of the planet and humanity, the Global Working Group Beyond Development organized a virtual meeting. Invited activists and scholars tackled how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting democracy in different parts of the globe. Democracy here is taken as a contested and evolving praxis that spans public liberal institutions but also instituent power from below. It has local/communitarian/territorial dimensions; covers cultural, political, and economic spheres, and spans political units vis-à-vis ecological boundaries. The meeting gathered experiences and analyses from Latin America, Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe. Besides sharing our radical uncertainties, our discussion revolved around the question: how the ‘new normal’, a term which has been used multiple times to signify dramatic changes as normal fixtures of life (e.g. climate change) expose embedded structural inequalities and fissures within the dominant global capitalist model and cause devastating consequences, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable communities. But while impacts differ across countries, neighborhoods and communities along gender, ethnicity, class, race, place, geopolitics and intergenerational lines, we are witnessing common occurrences that connect us.

Many governments exploit the crisis to roll out measures to repress citizens and control public spaces, ramp up state propaganda, deploy security forces and expand digital surveillance through tracker apps and facial recognition technologies. The United Nations, for instance, has called out a dozen countries for a ‘toxic lockdown culture’ against the pandemic marked by heavy militarization and repressive measures such as arrests of 120,000 people and 26,800 people for violating curfew and stay-at-home guidelines in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, respectively. In several parts of the world like Chile, Colombia and Algeria, governments are using COVID-19 to curtail on-going social movements’ activities. Parliaments in countries like Tunisia grant their chief executives special emergency powers, which many fear result in de facto dictatorship. Countries already in turmoil such as Venezuela continue to see increased military control, resulting in stark polarization that makes it impossible for the government and opposition to work together to address the crisis. In India, the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been using the lockdown as an opportunity to further marginalize the Muslim minority and aggravate inter-religious animosity. New surveillance tools deployed by Norway, China and Israel, among others, monitor the population’s smartphones and use millions of face-recognizing cameras that not only check body temperature and medical conditions, but also track people’s movements and identify anyone they come into contact with. In some countries, constitutional rights are suspended, human rights are pitted against ‘public health’ and ‘national security’, and a culture of impunity is reinforced in the name of solving the pandemic.

The crisis has also increased the precarity of migrants, peasants, urban poor, workers, and refugees. Millions of workers are estimated to have been affected as various countries enforced lockdowns, and some of the hardest hit are stranded migrants who are forced to walk hundreds of miles to their hometowns, many starved to death and got beaten along the way by police forces for alleged violations of the quarantines. Most laborers cannot switch to ‘work from home’, instead they rely on ‘no work, no pay’ regimes, and do not have social protection. The rural poor, too, are severely affected where governments have prioritized the survival of global value chains over local ones. Many countries have favored big food retailers while shutting down small peasant or neighborhood markets, generating further concentration in the food sector.  However, there are a few hopeful spots. Initial successes of South Korea’s and Taiwan’s responses to curtail the spread of the virus provide lessons and stress the centrality of universal healthcare,  public health emergency services, and improved working conditions and training of health workers. In Europe, Greece has kept death rates exceptionally low, partially owing to a working public healthcare system.

The return of the nation-state?

This pandemic appears to have brought back the nation-state and the importance of public institutions and services to the forefront. In former discussions, we already tried to tackle the ambiguous character of the state and its role in social transformation. Some of us are advancing that bottom-up democracy, and the building of confederationalist alliances between spaces of self-governance, might have the biggest democratic potential. This entails constructing new spaces of decision-making, which are not centered on the structure of the nation-state. At the same time, others insist that the struggle for democracy must also be fought within existing national and global structures, as urgent issues like the ecological crisis – or COVID-19 – need to be dealt with on these higher levels.

The importance of quality public infrastructure, free of profitability imperatives, has been brought to fore by huge disparities in the capacity of different public health systems to respond to the pandemic.  Global inequalities also seriously undermine the potential of nation-states to provide quality public health infrastructure. On average, a vaccine reaches the global South seven years later after reaching the global North. Low capacities of public health systems like that of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s result in hundreds of unattended deaths. Here, foreign debt burdens matter, as they minimize the fiscal space for governments to respond. Public calls for debt cancellation get louder like the recent call of peoples, organizations, movements and networks in North Africa and the Middle East for the cancellation of debts and free trade agreements.

The civilizational crises exacerbated by COVID-19 seems to have opened paths for other deep structural changes around the economy that involve important dimensions of democratization. Global trade unions call for the introduction of a universal basic income coupled with social policies to guarantee decent work conditions, quality labor employment, adequate and comprehensive social protection, and wealth redistribution, a stark difference with habitual trickle-down policies. Unlikely actors like the IMF have called governments to introduce a  progressive tax reforms to tackle inequality.  Even ideas of nationalizing certain strategic industries have been put into circulation. All this points to the nation-state recovering a more Keynesian role in regulation and redistribution, which had been demonized by neoliberal ideology.

The potential of the state for transformation, however, remains contested as other dynamics suggest opposing trends. With world leaders vocally fearing the inevitability of a global recession and financial markets crash, the state— ‘big government’— is now expected to roll out stimulus packages, pump huge sums of public monies to restart the economy, and rescue corporations deemed important and sectors at risk. In the US, COVID-19 is used to shore up and strengthen Capital through massive injection of money from the Federal Reserve Board. The ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’ as noted by Naomi Klein has led to the rise of the stock market by 12%, while almost 20% of the population has plunged into unemployment. Across the Atlantic, German trade unions, critical scientists, and social movements emphasize that the bailout of aviation, automotive, and other dirty industries should be linked to socio-ecological criteria, particularly the conversion of these industries as part of efforts to decarbonize society. Democratizing society-nature relations is one of the big challenges we face today, as both carbon emissions, and more generally pollution, are highly unequally distributed in the world. In many countries of the global South, the lockdown is used by national and transnational elites to further deepen extractivism. In Ecuador, for example, environmental regulations are weakened to attract new mining projects, and mining and oil companies are given tax breaks, while the burden of austerity remains on the people’s shoulders.

Even in countries with relative successful responses, like Taiwan or South Korea, public discourse takes a ‘technocratic and/or scientific’ approach— ‘let us leave the decision making to the experts, the medical community, and scientists because they know what’s best’. This presents dangers— political leaders can conveniently hide discriminatory, unethical, and unsound policy decisions behind the science and technical evidence. Such approach also undermines a democratization of knowledge beyond western/scientific knowledge. Equally disconcerting is the lack of mechanisms for greater transparency and participation to facilitate public scrutiny, avoid blind spots, and recognize the limits of evidence-based policy. In a crisis or under a state of emergency, it is much harder to deliberate about our common future, gather a critical mass of public opinion or make protest count especially under physical distancing measures.

Transformative action at different scales

While some political actors, especially from the global North, push for a Global Green New Deal, the coronavirus has also forced a relocalization.  This opens paths for a different understanding of the economy, one that puts the reproduction of day-to-day life, instead of capital accumulation, at the center. Strategic and systemic transformative processes and people’s solidarity initiatives for genuine democracy, people’s sovereignty over their material conditions, collective self-determination, and self-rule (swaraj in Sanskrit) are proceeding amid the direst conditions. In many places of the Andes, for example, communities democratically exercise self-governance quarantining themselves collectively and strengthening bonds of reciprocity, as a prevention strategy beyond individualization and confinement to the household. They enforce prevention measures by applying community justice. Black-led cooperative movements in the US such as Cooperation Jackson that have created their own means of production – as described in the upcoming Global Working Group’s book “Cities of Dignity”- have been better prepared to cope with the lack of protective personal equipment (PPE) by providing mutual aid for production of 3D printed PPE masks for the community.

Food sovereignty has also become a crucial issue for many rural and semi-urban communities. Revival of local food systems and open localization to strive for local self-reliance are being practiced by many communities. Indigenous peoples in the upland town of Sadanga, Philippines rely on built-in and indigenous social structures, values, and practice of taking care of neighbors and kin in distress (kailyan) during crisis, where richer community members are socially and culturally expected to provide support and share their wealth to needy relatives. In India, thousands of Dalit women farmers, extremely marginalized by the caste-patriarchal system, have organized themselves to realize food sovereignty and community health by employing organic farming methods, saving traditional seeds, local knowledge and solidarity. They have also donated their seeds for COVID-19 relief. Local solidarity initiatives in the face of hunger due to the forced discontinuation of informal economic activities have proliferated throughout the world, increasing people’s relations and rootedness in their neighborhoods and villages.

Global solidarity is also being redefined by new North-South relations based on decolonized perspectives and mutual trust with various social movement-led solidarity fundraising and relief operations. Multiple advocacy initiatives call for public accountability, feminist degrowth to democratize the caring economy and all dimensions of life, and the revitalization of income guarantees, equivalent to minimum wage for all workers, to name a few. At the heart of these demands is the articulation of progressive alternatives that seek to end inequality, ecological devastation, exploitation, and conflicts produced by global capitalism, patriarchy, and statism.

As the crisis continues to unfold, if we collectively fail to make the right choices now or to push for them to be realized, the immediate and long-term consequences could be devastating. Will we succumb to a future which historian Yuval Noah Harari predicts as between totalitarian surveillance or citizen empowerment, or nationalist isolation or global solidarity? Or do we heed the counsel of Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy and use the pandemic as a gateway to a better, new world, one that breaks from the past and embraces a world in harmony with nature’s generative power and free from all forms of domination? 

This civilizational crisis challenges us to rethink our economy which ultimately will shape new societal institutions in a way that allows us to live together with all other species on this planet. As African sociologist Alpha Amadou Bano Barry points out about Africa, “to be radical is to grasp things at the root, but the root, for humankind, is humankind itself […] (we) must take advantage of this pandemic to simply recover all sovereignty, which begins with thinking about ourselves and (our) own development.”

Our collective and on-going debates point to the necessity of forging a post-pandemic future marked by new pathways and social relationships built on compassion, equity, justice, and radical democracy.

Mary Ann Manahan is a feminist activist researcher from the Philippines who works with social movements to demand equity, social and environmental justice and redistributive reforms.

Miriam Lang teaches at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Ecuador. She uses decolonial and feminist perspectives to study political ecology.