Capitalism’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has come at the expense of the lives, health, and freedom of millions of poor and working people around the world. While corporations guzzle profits at every opportunity, governments have been ready to discipline workers to keep profits churning, and cooperation between capitalist states and the transnational capitalist class during COVID-19 has led to the erection of a global police state. What forms of resistance are taking shape around the globe to the emerging post-pandemic police state and a capitalist order dead set on destroying our shared planet and even human civilization as such? In the second installment of our two-part interview with Professor William Robinson, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez continues his discussion with Robinson about his latest trilogy of books on capitalism in the time of the pandemic.
William I. Robinson is Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Global Studies, and Latin American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Among his many books are Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity; Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism; The Global Police State; Global Civil War: Capitalism Post-Pandemic; and Can Global Capitalism Endure?
Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network Podcast. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us.
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Last month on The Real News Podcast, we published part one of my in-depth conversation with professor William Robinson, which was based on his recently published trilogy of books: The Global Police State; Global Civil War: Capitalism Post-Pandemic; and Can Global Capitalism Endure? In that conversation, professor Robinson and I spent a good deal of time discussing the structural crisis that was building within the circuitry of global capitalism before life as we knew it was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As I mentioned in the introduction to that podcast, the system shock of COVID-19 coupled with the development and expansion of new digital technologies and the acceleration of economic trends that had been stoking an ongoing crisis within the capitalist world system have all combined to set humanity on a path towards the erection of a global police state, even more violent dispossession and inequality, and frankly, an uncertain future for the survival of our species. And if you haven’t listened to that conversation yet, I would highly recommend that you do so before proceeding with today’s interview, which is going to figure as part two of our conversation.
So today I’m honored to be joined once again on The Real News Podcast by professor Robinson to carry on the conversation that we began last month, which again is really trying to condense an argument and analysis that manifests in three separate books that Bill has recently published. So we’re not going to be able to get to everything, and I would highly recommend that if you are titillated, fascinated, or just have a lot of thoughts milling around after listening to these two podcasts that you should go read Bill’s books. Let us know what you think and be part of the conversation, because there’s a lot of really important stuff here.
And as I said, we’re going to pick up where we left off from part one in today’s conversation, where we’re going to look more closely at COVID-19 and the ways that the transnational capitalist class and state governments responded to this worldwide crisis. And also how that response has, as I mentioned before, supercharged these already ongoing processes that are leading to the erection of a global police state and surveillance apparatus, the continued exploitation and dispossession of the global working class by an ever-shrinking, ever more powerful transnational capitalist class.
But we’re also going to talk about global resistance to this emergent world order; where around the world new forms of resistance are emerging, what creative forms are taking shape within those eruptions of resistance from the grassroots, and where this is all headed in a century that is already shaping up to be quite horrifying, with repeated capitalist crises, war, pandemics, and of course the ever present existential threat of climate catastrophe.
So with all that in mind, I wanted to, by way of leading us into part two of our conversation with professor Robinson, I want to read from a passage in part two of Bill’s trilogy of books. This is from Global Civil War: Capitalism Post-Pandemic, which was published by PM Press.
Here’s what Bill writes in a section entitled “The Pandemic and the Global Police State”: “Governments around the world centralized the response to the pandemic and many declared states of emergencies. In effect, imposing what some called medical martial law. Such centralized coordination may have been justified as necessary to confront the health crisis. But centralization of emergency powers in authoritarian capitalist states was used to deploy police and military forces to contain discontent, heighten surveillance, and impose repressive social control. That is, to push forward the global police state.
“By May 2020, at least 4 billion people were under government lockdowns, more than the number of people in the world who have access to Internet, broadband, social media, or indoor safe toilet sanitation. As the world emerged from the contagion, states used what has been referred to as biopolitical emergency to further normalize and institutionalize state surveillance and repressive control in a way reminiscent of the aftermath of the 2001 attacks. In the wake of those attacks, 140 countries passed draconian ‘anti-terrorist’ security legislation that often made legal the repression of social movements and political dissent. The laws remain in place long after the 2001 events.”
So to talk about all this and more, as I mentioned, I’m honored to be joined once again by professor William Robinson, who is a distinguished professor of sociology, global studies, and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Among his many books are Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity; Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism; and his most recent trilogy of books: The Global Police State, Global Civil War: Capitalism Post-Pandemic, and Can Global Capitalism Endure? Professor Robinson, thank you so much for joining us again on The Real News.
William Robinson: Thank you for having me on, Max. It’s a pleasure and it’s a privilege.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, man, I’ve been having so many thoughts running through my head since we recorded part one of this conversation. And so I’m really grateful to you for making time for us to carry on with part two, because I know, regardless of all the ground that we covered in part one, there’s still a lot to discuss here. And so I don’t want to beat around the bush anymore. I want to hop right into things, picking up from that passage that I just read, and have a start with COVID and capitalism and what these past two and a half years have meant in the context of the structural crisis that we discussed so thoroughly in part one of this conversation.
I propose that we start part two by taking stock of what actually happened when COVID hit, what the immediate social, political, and economic consequences were, and what forces guided the dominant responses of states and corporations, and how, as I mentioned before and as you mention in your books, how COVID supercharged the crises that we discussed in part one. Those are the crisis of capitalist over accumulation and the crisis embodied in the erection of a global police state.
William Robinson: Sure. And you used the right word. It’s supercharged, the crisis which was already underway. We were already in the midst of this crisis well before COVID. COVID didn’t cause it. It only made it much, much worse.
So before I jump into the details of COVID, let me just put in a larger perspective what I mean by this emerging post-pandemic capitalist paradigm. And wrapped around that, this new emerging paradigm, is the digital revolution. And as you already pointed out, COVID gave this turbocharged digital transformation. So now post-COVID, we are seeing a massive new round of restructuring and transformation of the whole global economy and society through the application of these digital technologies. We are seeing the rise of the global police state, but also, in the context of the pandemic, a new biopolitical regime in which these technologies are being applied in such a way that we see this fusion of when the blurring of the lines between physical, digital, and biological worlds. And of course, that takes place within the existing power relations of global capitalism.
So we can say that the digital revolution, again, turbocharged by COVID, we can point out a few things here that COVID, again through digitalization, has opened up enormous new possibilities for transnational capital to accumulate, to make profits for the transnational corporation to intensify its grip on power and on the global economy and society.
But secondly, as you’ve already pointed out, the digital revolution underway, and again, turbocharged and really comes into force through COVID and post-COVID is incredibly new enhanced abilities for social control and for disciplining the global working and popular classes all around the world, controlled by capital states and by capital itself.
The third thing which we’re going to see accelerated now, again, through the changes involved in the COVID pandemic through the accelerated application of these digital technologies is [coughs] – And excuse me, I’m just getting over this flu – Has resulted in an acceleration of what was already unprecedented global inequalities, including a dramatic expansion of what I call surplus humanity, those that are locked out and have no place in the capitalist global economy. But also an accelerated precarization of those of us who do have fundamental transformation of work itself, and part of this story is increased… We’ve never seen such levels of social disintegration and breakdown and really the collapse of the political authority around the world.
And then finally, and I know we’re going to get into this, this is a big portion of today’s part two of the interview, is the mass of humanity is not taking this lying down whatsoever. On the contrary, we want to always remember that the ruling groups are reactive to mobilization and protest and resistance from below. So there is a global revolt underway. I know we’ll be going into a lot of detail later on in the interview. And this global revolt has deepened in the wake of the pandemic.
The pandemic pushed people off the streets momentarily when everyone had to go into lockdown. But on the contrary, it’s exploded once again as we speak. So really, Global Civil War, the title of that second book in the trilogy, is a metaphor for this global revolt, for these battles underway now. And I might have even titled it Global Class War because that’s really what it is. So that’s an overview.
Let’s go in if it’s okay with you. Let me jump into talking about the pandemic here and say again that pandemic turbocharged this restructuring that had already been underway. But specifically, the pandemic itself, COVID itself, and how the capital states and the transnational capital class responded to it and controlled the response to it. How it opens up vast, almost unfathomable opportunities for windfall, profit-making, but especially big pharma, the medical-industrial complex, big tech which has wedded with big pharma and the medical-industrial complex, and finance, transnational finance.
I just want to give one example of that. Pfizer here. Pfizer had reported $32 billion in revenue prior to COVID. The first year of COVID, the rollout of the vaccines, it now reported $81 billion. $81 billion, so nearly tripled. Now to put that into perspective, in the United States, the entire budget for education, we’re talking about federal, state, local educational budget is $124 billion. So just Pfizer made in profits two-thirds of the entire educational spending in the United States. Here, the pandemic served as a dry run for how digitalization is allowing the dominant groups to step up its restructuring of time and space to exercise ever greater control over the global working classes. So that’s an overview of what’s happened here.
Now, I want to say something here about COVID itself and how it’s related to global capitalism, to global police states, and to global civil war, because the origins of COVID remain in dispute. And very recently, Jeffrey Sachs, who chairs The Lancet, and The Lancet is one of the most prestigious medical journalists in the world. He is chair of The Lancet‘s COVID-19 Commission. And he and many, many others, but he’s a powerful voice, has come out and pointed out that the evidence shows us it’s very likely that this COVID came out of a lab, whether in Wuhan or elsewhere. So its origins remain in dispute, but it displays what’s called gain of function properties, meaning that a natural pathogen was manipulated and transformed in a laboratory.
So you might say, why would they do that? Well, here is the thing. This has been going on for the last 20 years. It’s not new, it’s not controversial. It’s 2019. Before COVID-19 ever existed, we all knew the gain of function research, and it was done all over the world. And it was done for two specific reasons.
One reason is because the global pharmaceutical corporations and the whole cluster of capital wrapped around it want to create and expand global vaccine markets. So you take a pathogen in nature, you’re worried that it might be released to human beings, so you want to take it into the laboratory, enhance it, study it, enhance it, and then make a vaccine in the laboratory. So then if it hits human beings, you got the vaccine ready and you’re going to make billions of dollars in profits. That’s not controversial. That’s documented. That’s going on. That’s not a conspiracy. We all know that’s been going on for approximately 20 years.
The other thing is, and this was from Jeffrey Sachs, he said, we don’t know, and we actually don’t know. But that it could have been a biological warfare that accidentally leaked. We want to remember that the Pentagon runs bio warfare laboratories in 25 countries around the world and so do many other countries. So we have hundreds of bio warfare laboratories around the world. But we don’t need to go there. Let’s assume that it was not warfare.
The thing is that this type of a pathogen and once it’s released, whether it came out of a wet market or whether it did come out of a lab, and again, that’s what the evidence is pointing to, it then opens up this possibility for two things: enormous windfall profit-making once it starts infecting people. And secondly, enormous new possibilities for social control and repression for beefing up the global police state.
I want to pause here for a minute, Max, and say a couple of things. The first is we want to remember that nothing takes place in society which is not shaped and driven by the particular nature of that society. If we’re living in a futile society, the futile relations, social relations, and relationships which actually molds everything that happens.
We’re living in global capitalism. There’s nothing outside of global capitalism now. That means that medicine is not neutral. Medicine under capitalism is for profit. I ask my students in my classes, why do people build houses? And of course, they respond, and it’s logical. They say, to house people, to provide shelter. But under capitalism, houses are not built to shelter people. They’re built to make profit. If in the process of making profit they do shelter people, that’s a secondary consequence. So it’s the same thing with medicine. Capitalist medicine is driven by one thing: making profit, maximizing profit. We need to be clear on that.
And later in the interview, I want to refer to a very dramatic passage that I have in Global Civil War where Goldman Sachs is investing in this – I have a quote later – Goldman Sachs is investing in this wonderful new drug which will literally cure hepatitis C, literally cure it, not the symptoms, but eradicate it forever. And it’s invented, it’s introduced to the market, and suddenly you have no more new patients because everyone’s being cured with this single shot. And so Goldman Sachs says, this is not a viable business model. We’re not going to continue with this vaccine because we need to have new patients for new revenue streams.
So I’ll get to that quote. I’ll read it out loud. You’ll hear it from the horse’s mouth later. But the point is that anything and everything with COVID was going to be a response from the capitalist state and from the transnational capitalist class for windfall profit-making. And anything that stood in the way of profit-making would be suppressed whether it’s labeled misinformation, whether it’s just simply censored off YouTube. If it didn’t have anything to do with the plan for profit-making, it’s just removed from the picture by the powers that be.
Again, I tend to go into a lot of detail, but I think it’s important detail. Let me point out something here also. That the ruling groups, the powers that be, the leading capitalist states and the corporations, et cetera, had already been expecting a pandemic, and they were ready to jump on a pandemic to heighten profit-making and to heighten social control. And all of this is public. Everything I’m saying was public before 2020.
So many of the listeners will know that they had been rehearsing these so-called scenarios. That’s what they called them. And I want to point out two in particular. In 2011 was the first of these scenarios… 2010. And it was called Lockstep Scenario. And it brought together all the big pharma corporations including Pfizer, of course, and including all of those that are involved in developing drugs for COVID. It brought together the leading capital states especially the United States and several other governments, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation.
Now, this is not conspiracy theory, because all of this was public. This was 2010 and it wasn’t hidden. And they issued a report afterwards, a public report which anyone can get now. And it said there would be a coronavirus pandemic. Now, I’m not saying they deliberately created a pandemic; don’t get me wrong. What I’m saying is they were anticipating a pandemic, and they were going to already pre-design how the powers that be would respond to it. That’s the point.
So here’s a quote directly from it. “China’s government was…” This is the scenario and what they envisioned. “China’s government was not the only one that took extreme measures to protect its citizens from risk and exposure. During the pandemic, national leaders around the world flexed their authority and imposed airtight rules and restrictions from the mandatory wearing of face masks to body temperature checks at the entries to communal spaces like train stations and supermarkets. Even after the pandemic faded, this more authoritarian control and oversight of citizens and their activities stuck and even intensified in order to protect themselves from the spread of increasingly global problems from pandemics to transnational terrorism, to environmental crises and rising poverty. Leaders around the world took a firmer grip on power.
So then fast forward to September and October of 2019, this is right before the outbreak of COVID. And this is another scenario planning by the same powers that be. And this one was called the Global Pandemic Exercise. Again, this is three months before we know all about COVID and it hits. It involved the same global pharmaceutical corporations, the same states, including within the States not just the FDA and the CDC but also the CIA and the Pentagon, and it involved pharma executives, World Health Organization, the foundations, et cetera. And it’s called the Global Pandemic Exercise.
And here, they’re laying out exactly how they want all of this cluster of power meeting, how they’re going to respond to a pandemic which they say isn’t [inaudible]. And here’s the quote, “Governments, international organizations, and businesses should plan for how essential corporate capabilities will be utilized during a large-scale pandemic. Governments should partner with private media corporations to develop the ability to flood the media with fast, accurate, and consistent information. Trusted, influential private sector.” Here, they’re saying the corporations will take the lead, not public health institutions, not doctors.
“Private sector employers should create capacity to readily and reliably augment public messaging, manage rumors and misinformation, and amplify credible information to support emergency public communications. Media companies should commit to ensuring that authoritative measures are prioritized and that false messages are suppressed, including through the use of technology.” So the bottom line here, to conclude, to summarize, and again, then we can break it all down, is that the global health emergency facilitated a massive transfer of wealth from the rich, from the transnational capitalist class, and heightens their power that allowed these ruling groups to then impose a state of exception to enhance surveillance and control through the global police state, to accelerate the restructuring of global capitalism through this new wave of digital technology.
And I know I said I was going to stop there and I am going to, except that I want to… I forgot there’s this piece of data that I got. This was after the books were published. But just getting ready for today’s interview I came across it. And it is that, as I mentioned previously, the global medical-industrial complex and finance, the big finance that finances it and the biotech corporations, et cetera, et cetera, they’ve always been looking to create permanent global vaccines markets and to expand those markets.
So the global vaccine market was worth $40 billion prior to COVID. It’s now worth well over $100 billion. And none other than The Economist has already said, “We’ve now moved to a situation that before COVID, we had intermittent vaccine markets,” meaning that occasionally you’d get to make a lot of money by administering vaccines in a health emergency. But now we have the possibility of permanent global vaccine markets.
So we want to keep our eyes on capital and the capitalist system and how it’s handled right from the start and right up until we speak everything around COVID and moving forward. And hopefully, we’ll get later into the interview too, the response on the left, which I think leaves much to be desired because we have allowed censorship to be normalized across the board in the name of suppressing misinformation.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, before we get to the response and the different forms of resistance to what you’re describing, I just wanted to hover on that point because… There are so many weird social corollaries to this that are also factoring in and shaping the terrain upon which resistance can be mounted in this country and beyond. I’ll explain what I mean.
I forget at what point in the pandemic it finally hit me and I finally accepted this. But I was like, man, I feel like all of my life as a millennial in the United States especially, it’s like this country can only marshal meaningful responses to major crises by declaring war on them. But the thing is we keep losing all those wars. We declared war on drugs, and what happened? We immiserated entire generations of poor people, predominantly Black and Brown people, and drugs still persist, so we lost that war.
War on poverty. We barely even tried on that one, but poverty still persists, so we lost that one. The war on terror. That was a carefully crafted, opaque war that was never really meant to have an endpoint. And so there hasn’t been one. So there’s been no victory on that.
I think it was Trump who was like, we’re going to declare war on COVID. At some point in the pandemic, I was like, okay, so clearly we lost, and we just gave up. But to your point, I started to think, I was like, well, who’s the we in that sentence? Who lost and who won? Because in a way, if I’m assuming that the end goal of this war against COVID was to eradicate it, to inoculate as many people as we possibly could around the world, to collaborate globally like perhaps in eras past, in the 20th century. Was that the goal? If so, we failed. Or if the goal was to “make COVID endemic”, keep it persistent, keep the profit machine for the pharmaceutical company churning to harness the situation to expand surveillance powers and social control, if that was the goal, then the “we” won.
And so the reason I bring that up is because I think about and see in the work that I do, talking to working people around the country and beyond, is I see how that manifests, how people try to make sense of what is happening to them and what they’re watching.
And I think that one of the really sinister effects of everything that you just described is that people who may still have a shred of lingering faith in our government, in the pharmaceutical industry, in the global ruling class to try to protect its citizens from something like COVID-19. When the system starts acting in this capitalist fashion, when it’s making clear whose priorities are being prioritized over others, that’s when you start getting this explosion of conspiracy theories, because people are trying to make sense of what they’re watching.
And so I think that you get, say, the response to any lockdown measure. You get the reaction to any mask mandate, vaccine mandates. I don’t want us to get bogged down in those debates. The point being is that those debates and those schisms, social schisms that we’ve seen the past two and a half years were almost inevitable when you have this capitalist class guiding the entire response and it’s unclear to people on the ground what the fuck is actually going on here.
So you end up shredding more and more people’s faith in public health institutions, in government institutions, in even each other. And we just get, I don’t know, more and more of that “polarization” and reactionary politics and so on and so forth. This has had really tremendous social and political consequences on top of everything that you were just saying about how it’s also supercharged the stranglehold that the pharmaceutical company has in its profit-maximizing scheme. It has supercharged the erection of surveillance technologies, so on and so forth.
I wanted to toss it back to you before we talk about those varied forms of resistance and ask if we could say a bit more about why it was a foregone conclusion that the collaborative international response that people kept hoping for, why didn’t we do with COVID what we did with polio or something like that?
William Robinson: Sure. A lot to discuss here. So let me start by saying, when we speak about “we”, let’s refer to the global working and popular classes and those of us who support and participate in their struggles. And otherwise, I will refer to it as capital, the capitalist state, the transnational capitalist class, the powers that be because the capitalist system and all of their agents didn’t lose the war on drugs as you stated at the beginning. They won the war on drugs because the war on drugs was not about eliminating people that died from overdose or not about eliminating cartels or anything like that. The war on drugs was about… And let’s take this back historically a bit. Let’s not forget the war against Vietnam, the US aggression against Vietnam, it ends in 1973. Then ’75 and ’76, there’s liberation in Vietnam and it’s Nixon. Of course, this accelerates in the 21st century incredibly starting with Clinton and into the 21st century in the United States, the war on drugs. It also starts massively in Latin America and around the world.
And the whole point of originally Nixon launching this so-called war on drugs, and that it came out later, it came out later publicly, was Vietnam’s over. You need a new war. You need a new war to continue to justify repression and enhance control. You need a new war to whip up fear and patriotism and channel it in a different direction and to maintain social control. And then of course, it’s intensified. And we know that the war on drugs has been won by the ruling groups because it allowed surplus labor at a time when globalization is throwing off especially racially oppressed groups in the United States. It’s throwing them from employed to structurally unemployed. And so this is surplus labor that’s then locked up through mass incarceration. How do you legitimate that by your war on drugs? You make drugs radically criminalized and then you lock them all up.
And then that’s also very profitable, by the way, and that’s the global police state. But so the war on drugs has been won in the United States by having mass incarceration and mass policing and mass social control that goes on today. The war on drugs has been won in Latin America because it’s not about eradicating coca production or anything like that. It was about having a legitimate smokescreen for the US and the local ruling classes to massively intervene to suppress popular mobilization and revolts, whether they were armed struggles or non-armed struggles. So we have to be clear the war on drugs…
And the same thing with the war on terrorism. The war on terrorism was never about terrorism. The US state, the Israeli state. They are major purveyors or the biggest purveyors around the world of terrorism but also dictatorships like Egypt, a terrorist state. So it was not about eradicating terrorism. It was about expanding military budgets and military intervention around the world and social control, whipping up fear so that people would accept what should be totally legitimate of what’s calling out on society in the name of fighting terrorism, in the name of our own safety. So none of these wars were lost for the ruling groups. They were lost for the mass of working and the popular classes around the world.
Now, that same thing goes for this war on COVID. We’re losing the war on COVID. We have an endemic disease which still takes a lot of people’s lives and will continue to do so moving forward. We already know that. And again, this is not even controversial anymore. We’ve been told by conspiracy theorists. Now, even the CDC has admitted it. The vaccines, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t get vaccinated, don’t misunderstand me. Well, we know the vaccines don’t prevent transmission and they don’t prevent reinfection.
But the thing is that the powers that be have not lost the war on COVID even though it’s now endemic moving forward. They won it for reasons which we’ve already analyzed: permanent profit-making moving forward and permanent social control. This is why I want to get back to the left in the name of supposedly suppressing misinformation and conspiracy theories. And now we know with all of the data that’s still coming in, a lot of that is not conspiracy theories. It’s not misinformation. It’s not.
My colleagues at the university here when they say, well, look. We shouldn’t have a mandate. Anyone that wants to get vaccinated, anyone in the vulnerable demographics, please go get vaccinated. But we should not have mandatory vaccination because we know there’s health implications for young people, especially young males which has now been scientifically demonstrated. And we know that vaccines don’t prevent transmission, and they don’t prevent reinfection. So we know all of that. But my colleagues then, and they considered themselves liberals, many considered themselves leftists saying, why are you doing conspiracy theories of the far right? You’re a far right nutcase, and we thought you were on the left, William.
But what I’m getting to here is that even the left has gone on with a new regime of censorship where anyone that questions an official narrative… And let’s be clear about something here. When we know that transnational agri-business has long since captured the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture. We know that Monsanto and Cargill and ADM and the giant global conglomerates that control the whole global food system control the USDA. We know that. That’s not controversial. That’s not conspiratorial. We know that the military-industrial complex controls the Pentagon. The Pentagon serves the military-industrial complex. That’s not controversial.
We knew before COVID that big pharma, the big medical-industrial complex has agency captured, has bought and controls the FDA, the CDC, et cetera. We knew that before COVID-19, and saying that before COVID-19 wasn’t considered controversial. We know all of that. But now, significant portions of the population and even the so-called left simply forgets that left critical analysis and has simply defended almost as gospel an official narrative handed down by the capitalist state behind which is big pharma, big tech, and big finance.
Now, I’m saying all of this because, again, just to repeat, the powers that be have not lost the war on COVID. We’ve lost the war. We now have this endemic situation which will still kill a lot of people. And yet we’ve embraced censorship. And that censorship and that social control will be used for us in our other struggles.
Let me conclude with an example of what’s going on in China. In China, which has this extreme COVID regime, we don’t need to debate whether it’s good or bad. That’s not the point. This COVID machine means that in your cell phone in China, you are forced to download these apps. And the apps show your temperature. If your temperature goes up, your apps show if you have or might have COVID or did have COVID. And so you’re forced to have it. And then if you go into a store, for instance, to buy some food. As you go in, your phone will beep, and you will not be allowed to go into the store. Now, you might say that’s good because it’s preventing someone with COVID from transmitting it. We now know that’s not the case.
But here’s the point. All of these reports have popped up in China about when people are protesting, for instance, low wages. And there’s this big scandal in China right now, all of this is public, that the private developers have taken all of these down payments to build houses for people. And because of the crisis in China, they’re not able to build these houses. So there’s a movement against these big private developers to get their housing deposits back because the houses aren’t being built. And so what local powers that be have done is now taken those protestors, and they’ve been able to control their phones. So those protestors cannot go into a store to buy groceries. So here, you see how around the whole COVID issue, it’s an intensification of these mechanisms of social control that, tragically, a good portion of the left has actually embraced.
So let me conclude with… I wanted to read this. I said I would read it previously, that we have to remember that any time we talk and we’re talking about COVID we’re talking about a health emergency, and it is a legitimate health emergency. Millions of people have died. And we know that some demographic groups are in grave danger, older people, into the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. You are very vulnerable. You better get the vaccine that has all of these dangerous side effects, especially for young people. But the benefits outweigh the risks if you’re in the vulnerable demographic. The other vulnerable demographic, if you have comorbidities. But again, the point here is that anything that happens in medicine within the capital system is driven by profit.
So I wanted to go back to that Goldman’s report here. The company is Gilead Sciences. And Gilead Sciences has also been involved with developing COVID drugs, particularly remdesivir. And Gilead Science’s biggest investor is Goldman Sachs, this global financial conglomerate. And so Gilead Sciences came out with this cure in 2015 for hepatitis C. One injection, one single injection, you’re 100% cured, and you cannot transmit it to anybody else.
So Gilead Sciences had windfall profits when it first came out. And then their profits peaked at $12.5 billion in 2015, and then it starts to fall. Why? Because anyone that had hepatitis C doesn’t need any follow-up treatment; they’re cured. And no one else is getting sick with hepatitis C because it’s transmissible. And once you get the vaccine, you can’t transmit it to someone else.
So Goldman Sachs releases this report saying, this is not a good business model. And I’m going to quote from the report itself. “Is curing patients a sustainable business model? The potential to deliver one-shot cures is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically engineered cell therapy, and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenues versus chronic therapies. While the proposition offers tremendous value for patients and for society, it represents a challenge for genomic medical developers looking for sustained cash flows. Gilead Sciences is a case in point where the success of its hepatitis C franchise has gradually exhausted the available pool of treatable patients.
“In the case of infectious diseases such as hepatitis C, curing existing patients also decreases the number of carriers able to transmit the virus to new patients, thus the incident pool also declines. When an incident pool remains stable, that is in cancer, for instance, the potential for a cure poses less risk to the sustainability of a franchise, of a cash flow.”
So here from the horse’s mouth, a global financial conglomerate is saying, we do not want cheap, available, curative results because we are here for sustained cash flows, sustained profit-making, and so we want chronic illness which we endlessly treat the symptoms of only. So that’s the context in which we need to be thinking about the medical response from above, from the capital state, and from the pharma corporations to COVID.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, that makes me angry. I’m just like –
William Robinson: Me too.
Maximillian Alvarez: I’m sitting here trying to contain my rage, not doing a great job of it. And that just makes me think like… Because I know that there are going to be people listening to this who probably have a lot of thoughts about the discussion that we’re having. And yeah, I imagine that we could have a whole other hour about those questions, specifically regarding COVID responses and what the best and most principled left approach to this is. And I think that, as the quote that you just read shows, I think where I am at this point, because there’s so much that I’m just like… When people try to get me engaged in debates on this, I’m like, man, what’s the point? We lost. It’s here. The fucking capitalists won, why do you want me to debate the benefit of a mask mandate or a vaccine mandate or whatever, what I think is moot at this point.
I think that going to the quote that you just read, it’s like how do you maintain a coherent, principled political stance when the entire chessboard is controlled by your enemies? It feels like every step is a trap because we’re trying to find good guys amongst the cadre of evil villains. I think a lot of people are genuinely doing their best to try to proceed with a path that helps the most people or protects the most people or protects the most vulnerable people doing the best that they can. But really, it feels like you’re fucked one way or the other.
That’s not to say that everything is hopeless, but like the example that I always think of… As you know, again, I talk to a lot of workers who are across the political spectrum. A lot of people had a lot of thoughts last year when the Supreme Court struck down OSHA’s, the Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration’s authority to implement vaccine mandates or testing requirements for those who were unvaccinated every week for large employers. I think this was for employers with over 100 employees. The Supreme Court struck that down. And so it became immediately a culture war victory. It was like this is a victory against mask mandates. It’s a victory for workers and freedom and so on and so forth.
But if you read what the Supreme Court wrote in that ruling, I was like, man, this just seems like a victory for the bosses. Because what they essentially said and the reason that it was not about like, oh, this mandate is unconstitutional. No. What they said was OSHA, the organization that is meant to protect and implement protections for workers in the workplace, does not have the authority to do this. And thus, it’s really dismantling its administrative powers, and it did so by saying that, well, COVID is everywhere. It’s not just in the workplace. So employers don’t have any special duty to protect their workers by implementing these vaccine mandates or by testing unvaccinated workers every week.
Now, think about that in the context of climate change. If climate change is happening everywhere, farm workers in California don’t have any special protections that employers need to provide, they’re fucked. And so while we’re all over here talking about whether or not this is a victory for individual workers and freedom, again, the chessboard is being rigged to the point that working people in general are losing power. They are losing protections by the state responses and capitalist responses to this pandemic.
So I hope that for folks listening, wherever you fall on the spectrum of responses to what Bill and I are talking about, I hope that what’s coming out is that, as Bill writes about in his books, there are very real pieces locking into place further advantaging the transnational capitalist class, further consolidating power in the hands of a few, further entrenching our social arrangement in a shape that is ultimately geared towards the maximization of profit for profit-seeking entities, not the public good, not public health, not happy lives lived, and a sustainable planet, yada, yada yada. That is really the headline here. That is the cumulative effect of what we’re talking about.
But as we have both already mentioned in this podcast, as Bill said beautifully, the global working class is not taking this lying down. And that’s where we wanted to end this two-part conversation is really talking about where this is headed, how people around the world are marshaling creative forms of resistance to this global police state, to this suicidal and sociocidal global capitalist regime that careening us towards planetary destruction, so on and so forth. And what it will take for these movements around the world to actually have a chance at dethroning the transnational capitalist class and finally decoupling humanity’s development from this suicidal capitalist system.
So Bill, I know we’ve been revving up for a podcast and a half to talking about that topic of global resistance. So I wanted us to spend the next 15 to 20 minutes really focusing on that and where you see these forms of resistance cropping up, what is, I guess, exciting you about it, and what the stakes, what’s going to need to happen for us to really take on the enormity of the evils that we have detailed over the past two hours’ worth of podcast conversation.
William Robinson: Well, thank you so much. We want to end with the global revolt underway with resistance because we wanted to remember I said this, I think, at the beginning of today’s part two, today’s interview, and I want to reiterate it, that we see the power of the ruling groups hovering over us, controlling us. And we forget that what they’re doing is an attempt for social control and for repression. They are responding to our struggles from below. So they are reactive. They have power. They have the weapons, et cetera, et cetera. They control the narrative. But they are responding desperately to how you control the rest of the mass, 6, 7 billion people on the planet who are the losers in the system.
So as segue into talking about this global revolt and our resistance and the challenges we face in pushing it forward, let me show how COVID is related to this resistance. And as you pointed out in your opening comments for today’s interview, governments centralized around the world the response to COVID. They declared what we can call a medical martial law, and they unleashed this wave of repression.
But the timing here was really critical because the global revolt has been underway. Well, take it back a little bit. We have capitalist globalization launched in the late 20th century. It momentarily reverses the correlation of social and class forces around the world in favor of the emerging transnational capitalist class. And we go on the defensive, I’m talking about the late 1970s to the turn of the century. And near the end of the 1990s, we gather our forces in the face of neoliberalism and capitalist globalization and we launch the global justice movement. That was the late 1990s into the early 21st century. But then the 2008 global financial collapse happens, and that vastly escalates the global revolt from below. Think back to Occupy Wall Street. Think back to the Arab Spring. All over the world, an incredible upsurge in 2008.
During the 2010s, that doesn’t let up whatsoever. And I’m going to get to some data in just a minute. And it reaches a peak from 2017 to 2019. I’ll come back to that in just a minute. Fall of 2019 was the climax, and for that time at least, of this global revolt going underway and building up steam since the turn of the century and escalating since 2008. So the pandemic was a blessing in disguise at least more momentarily for the ruling groups, because you declare a medical martial law, and you can suddenly squash all of this uprising.
So that’s why I think you mentioned this statistic coming out of my book at the beginning, that 158 governments declared martial law, or one or another form of emergency law, and imposed restrictions on demonstrations. No one could come out. No one could protest. And this massive wave of repression we see in the name of fighting COVID.
Just two or three examples. In Zimbabwe, anyone that published anything that the government declared was false information – Not just for COVID, anything the government declared false information was threatened with 20-year jail terms. In Bulgaria, authorities had a harsher lockdown for mining neighborhoods than others. So you see the existing levels of inequality and discrimination are intensified. In Turkey and Montenegro and Serbia, governments arrested and fined people charged with publishing information on the social media that “jeopardizes” public security. They didn’t even mention COVID.
Trump. There’s an example of Trump. Trump declared a defense… He evoked the Defense Production Act in the United States. That’s supposed to be in the event of a war such as a foreign invasion. The presidents tend to declare that emergency production activities to fight the war effort should take place. He didn’t use the Defense Production Act to increase medical equipment for COVID or anything like that. He used it to force immigrant workers, many undocumented, to go back to the meat-packing plants, which is an extremely unhygienic environment. He forced them to go back.
And at one plant in Tyson, the Tyson plant in Iowa, the managers, when they were forced to go back to work, the immigrant workers, started making bets and placed bets. They had a raffle going on how many workers would get sick and die. And many got sick and then six died.
In New York City, police deployed drones over Central Park in search of social distancing violators who would then be called out and fined. The Kenyan government unleashed this incredible wave of repression at a time when class struggle, nothing to do with the pandemic, was intensifying in Kenya. There are scenes, YouTube scenes, in Mombasa, that’s the big coastal port city, security forces told everyone, get home. Get inside. Stop protesting. And they released tear gas and started beating crowds of people even as they were trying to get into ferries and buses to go home.
In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte issued shoot-to-kill orders for anyone defying stay-at-home orders. You have these images and YouTubes in Lima, Peru, in Guatemala City and elsewhere that everyone was forced indoors, again, at a time when this was rising struggles against the mining industry in Peru, for instance. And then people could not leave, and they were literally starving to death. You have these scenes on YouTube, you can Google it, of families, impoverished, hungry coming out waving white flags saying, please don’t shoot us, so we can go out and look for food. So this is not a response to a medical emergency. This is a response to people protesting and how you intensify social control and use the medical emergency as a pretext. So that is the backdrop.
Now, let’s look at this global revolt underway because part of the global crisis – We discussed this in part one – Is a crisis of state legitimacy and capitalist hegemony, and that has the ruling groups freaking out.
So in the United States, there was a poll conducted, even in the midst of the pandemic, in which 60% of millennials in this poll in the United States have turned anti-capitalist. They said they prefer socialism over capitalism, 60% of every 10 young people. Now, that’s a crisis for the ruling groups. 57% of generation Z said, and here’s the quote of the question they were asked, “Do you support a complete change of our economic system away from capitalism?” 57% of generation Z, even younger people. So this is a crisis for the ruling groups.
Then there’s a worldwide poll taken. And the worldwide poll shows that 57% of people around the world say that capitalism is doing more harm than good. So this global revolt has been underway. Remember, the capitalist crises are times of intense social and class struggle. And global capitalism is in deep crisis. We covered the structural dimension in the previous part, part one of the interview.
So now let’s go back to fall 2019 and remember what was happening there. We had a people’s spring, fall 2019. We had in Chile the estallido social, the social explosion. Several demonstrations brought more than a million people into the streets. It was sustained for months. In Columbia, the most repressed neofascist country in Latin America supported and propped up by the United States, you had three different general strikes. One of them lasted six months, in which millions and millions of people locked up the country. It’s those general strikes of mass revolt that have brought the electoral left to power in Chile. And in Columbia. And this is all in the fall of 2019, you had the uprising of Indigenous and also non-Indigenous in Ecuador that forced the government to backtrack on neoliberal measures.
You had the Sudan revolution which is ongoing but reaches this peak in 2019. 2019 in Nigeria, you had mass uprisings. In South Africa. In France, you had the yellow vest movement picking up steam. In the United States in the midst of the pandemic – This is in fall of 2019 – But just fast forward a few months, you had 25 to 30 million young people taking to the streets after George Floyd was murdered. These mass uprisings terrify the ruling groups.
And India, I want to point out India because in January 2019, January into February, you had a general strike involving 150 million people. That’s hard for us to wrap our minds around. Many countries in the world, most countries don’t even have 150 million people in their entire national population. Then if you thought that was something, fast forward to December 2020. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, another general strike of 250 million. The single two biggest labor mobilizations in the history of the world.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has what they call a global protest monitor. You can go online and see it. They monitor big, large-scale protests around the world. They reported that from 2018 to 2020, significant anti-government protests – What they mean by that is big national uprisings like the George Floyd one – Took place in 110 countries around the world, involving 230 major actions, and overthrowing 30 some-odd, I forgot the exact figure, I think 36 governments.
So all of these struggles around the world, they have a common denominator, which is this aggressive capitalist globalization and neoliberalism that has thrown the working masses around the world into crisis and are now trying to shift the crisis onto the backs of us who can take no more hardship and deprivation. And so you have this radicalization of the global working in popular classes.
Now of course I’ll come back to this in just a moment because you’re asking me to speak about the challenges that we face in this global uprising. But you also have as part of the backlash against capitalist globalization and neoliberalism and all the hardship it’s thrown on people, you have the neofascist projects, the far right projects, because the far right is attempting to mobilize the aggrieved populations, sections of it, through racism, through radical, extreme nationalism, et cetera.
What do we need to be thinking about in pushing this global revolt forward? So because The Global Police State, the first in the trilogy, is talking about this coming to being in this global police state. The second, Global Civil War, starts with this discussion on the pandemic. We’ve discussed that already, and digitalization. But then the big conclusion to the book is not global police state but our pushback, our global class and popular revolts.
And then the third book in the series, Can Global Capitalism Endure? looks at, well, a more deeper look at the crisis of global capitalism. But over the whole century that we’re in, how is this going to unfold?
So let me conclude with some of the challenges we face here with the global revolts. And the biggest one, many listeners and viewers will recognize this right away, is we have this evident and very upsetting disjuncture between this proliferation of mass movements and popular uprisings all around the world, every type of mass movement and social movement from environmental, if it’s students, to work, or to women’s movements. Look at Iran right now and the social explosions continue to any and every possible… The ecological movement is bursting out everywhere. But we have a very weak worldwide, in most cases, in most countries in the world, a very weak social, history-oriented left that could serve as a rudder to help steer these struggles into a larger, transformative, and emancipatory project. Because the left and political parties around the world are in crisis and have not exercised much influence over all of these mass rebellions.
So we have that disjuncture, and that’s a serious problem, in my view. Of course, we can debate. Some say we don’t need an organized left. We don’t need political organizations. But the thing is, you have all of these different individual struggles, they’re all crucial, but they need to be aggravated to a larger struggle around an emancipatory struggle to overthrow global capitalism. For that, you do need political organizations. You do need lefts for the left, the organized left.
Now, in the 20th century, we had a pathetic model where the left said to the social movements, you guys do your struggles, but we’re going to tell you how to do it. We’re going to have this vertical vanguard strategy. We’re going to take power and, from top down, transform things. So we don’t want that relationship between an organized left and social movements. Social movements need their complete autonomy to struggle. But we do need a left, and it’s not there, at least in many cases. It is in some cases in organized projects. So the left needs to renew itself, to renovate itself, a 21st century popular democratic socialism and how it relates to the mass explosions taking place everywhere.
So in the book, and we don’t need to get into this now, but in the book, first of all, I take my hat off, the unbelievable beautiful struggle of 25 to 30 million young people who took to the streets in the midst of pandemic and brutal police repression to protest the murder of George Floyd. But there was very little left presence, really no left presence. And so it ends up limiting itself to defund the police without attacking the capitalist state itself. And so as a result, portions of that were co-opted. So you have corporations taking the knee. Corporations saying, yeah, we want diversity, equity, inclusion. We have the US state saying, yeah, diversity, equity, and inclusion.
And so what’s been co-opted? Some of it, because there’s no radical critique that came out of that uprising against the capitalist state itself. And again, seeing that the police are just the frontline of the capitalist state. They are to defend private property against the mass of the propertyless.
So real quickly to summarize because you mentioned 20 minutes, I think I’m just about there. But there’s a few other quandaries for how we move forward with the global revolt, which I won’t go into detail in but just mention. A big second one here, and we’ve been talking about this for 20 some-odd minutes now, and it’s not the fault of the popular mass movements, is that capital has globalized. It’s a single integrated global capitalist system. The ruling class has globalized, the transnational capitalist class sees the whole world.
They don’t think in terms of individual nation states. Yet we are stuck in individual nation states with nation state struggles. So we’ve been talking for many years about the urgency of transnationalizing our struggle, and that goes beyond the old internationalism. Internationalism, that’s still good of course. We need a new transnationalism in which it’s not just supporting one another’s national struggles, but figuring out how we organize across borders, how we create common platforms of struggle across borders. We’ve seen some of that. We’ve seen that when the Amazon workers have had their actions, it’s involved Amazon workers coordinating in 20, 30 countries.
I think it was 2019, the Uber drivers had a general strike, and it involved some 20 countries from Kenya, Nigeria, to the United States, to Germany, to Brazil. So we’ve seen that coming about, but we need to much more deepen the transnational perspective. And the problem is, if we’re locked into national states, we have a national consciousness. Even when it becomes class consciousness, it’s national class consciousness. And so we need transnational class consciousness, forms of organization, common platforms of struggle. So that’s the second challenge.
The third challenge, I know this is very… Can’t get into it now. It is going to be controversial, but the mainstream identity politics. When I say that, I am not referring to specific struggles like anti-racist struggles, struggles against women’s suppression, struggles for LGBTQ rights. Those are not what it means. Those struggles are central to everything we do. So that’s not what I mean by identity politics. I’m talking about a much more narrow thing that has been critiqued very widely, and I share that critique.
But one of the things you had in the George Floyd uprising, and not a critique, again, of the people that participated in it. You had 20 to 30 million in that uprising. But little do we know, if you didn’t see the data, during the first six months of the pandemic, we had a thousand strikes by workers, worker strikes. So you had all of these workers’ strikes, thousands in six months, and then you had the George Floyd uprising. They didn’t come together. The people that got co-opted in the George Floyd side of it into just diversity, equity, inclusion, and nothing else didn’t say in their leadership of those 25 to 30 million people, hey, this struggle is also that 1,000-worker strike struggle, and it didn’t come together. And part of that is a critique of identity politics. No time to go into there.
And then finally, the big, big, big, and all of these are related, these different quandaries, the big challenge we face is do not let the fascist right gain the upper hand and try to mobilize the massive displaced and disaffected discontented population.
And this is the biggest, gravest danger we face. I’ve argued always, we need a united front against fascism. So look what happened in Chile. Mildly left person, Boric, came to power. The reason he was elected is because of those mass social explosions that brought him into power. But he won with 51% of the vote. 49% of that vote went to an open Nazi. I forgot his name now, you might remember it. An open Nazi.
Biden won in the United States, but Trump got 75 million votes. Now, if we think this is also the critique of identity politics, if we think, oh, these are 75 million angry white people who are racists voted for Trump, we’re going to sink ourselves because that’s not true. Trump’s message, as fascist as it is and everything, his message reached people that are really suffering that are part of the working classes, including poor, displaced white people who are suffering. 100,000 of them die every year due to drug overdoses. There’s mass impoverishment, mass unemployment. 35% of the Latino population voted for Trump. So we need to wage this battle to get the would-be social base among the working classes themselves. The would-be social face for fascism to recruit them. We need to be recruiting them to beat back this threat of fascism. So I know I’ve laid out probably more questions than answers, of course, but this is our open-ended discussion on all of this.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell, yeah, man. No, again, I think that if anything, I hope that what we have achieved with these two in-depth conversations that it’s been a real pleasure to have with you is encouraging people to read your trilogy of books, think about the stakes of what we’re talking about here, and really take this as a renewed call for everyone on the left to get serious about taking up this charge of fusing our transnationalism, infusing our respective movements with that sense of transnationalism, building solidarity with our fellow working people beyond our own borders, beyond our own industries. There are so many ways that the ruling class… The greatest weapon, the ruling class has always had, and I say this all the time on my show on The Real News and so on and so forth, the greatest tool the capitalists have is divide and conquer. They always use it because it always fucking works.
And so to anyone listening, if you find yourself drawing conditional lines around who is and isn’t part of the working class, who are the real workers and who are not. If we’re trying to say, oh, the 48,000 University of California academic workers who are on strike right now, they’re not as important as the coal miners who have been on strike for two years. Stop that bullshit now. It is only going to empower the bosses. It does nothing for working people.
Bill and I can tell you, as historians who have had to study this shit for years, it never works out for us. So stop doing that. Stop scapegoating trans people, queer people, people of other races, religions, ethnicities, people who speak different languages than you, people outside of your own borders. That way lies continued immiseration, disorganization, and destruction. I just wanted to say by way of ending things on my side. First, I think your point is very well-taken about Chile because that was Jose Antonio Kast who got 49% of the vote just like Bolsonaro just got 49% of the vote. That reactionary shit is not going away. We need to be very, very clear about that.
But also, I want to leave people with a sense of the stakes here. And this is a line that Bill writes in the introduction to the third part of his trilogy. This is in the book, Can Global Capitalism Endure? and it’s been rattling in my brain ever since I read it. Bill writes very plainly, he says, “It is not clear how far into the future global capitalism can endure. A collapse of world civilization cannot be ruled out. To the contrary, the current course of events is leading to just that.”
That’s really what I want to impress upon people here. Going down the current path that Bill has laid out so thoroughly over the past two podcast interviews doesn’t just mean continued immiseration, exploitation, and imprisonment, and repression of the working class. If we keep going down this road, we are talking about the likely upending and potential ending of human civilization. In the background of all of this is climate catastrophe which is also caused by the same capitalist incentive structures that Bill has talked about. We are careening towards a suicidal end. And as the great Robin D. G. Kelley told me here on The Real News this time last year, that is why we have no choice but to fight. Those are really the stakes of what we’re talking about here.
And I hope that in these past two conversations that I’ve gotten to have with Bill, we have convinced you all of what it actually is that we’re up against, why it is so paramount for us to fight against it, but also how we can do that.
And I just can’t thank you enough, Bill, for giving us so much of your time and thoughtful commentary and answering all of my annoying questions. I really, really appreciate it. I hope folks go and read your books. And I just wanted to thank you again for joining us for these past two conversations on The Real News, man.
William Robinson: On the contrary, it’s such a privilege to be on The Real News Network. Thank you.
Maximillian Alvarez: Once again, that is William Robinson, distinguished professor of sociology, global studies, and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Among his many books are Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity; Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism; and his most recent trilogy of books, which we’ve been discussing at length over these past two podcasts: The Global Police State; Global Civil War: Capitalism Post-Pandemic; and Can Global Capitalism Endure? Go check them out, read them, let us know what you think. If you want us to have Bill back on, please let us know because God knows I love talking to him about this stuff even if we’re talking about very, very serious shit.
And to all of you listening, this is Maximillian Alvarez signing off for The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to The Real News.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for listening.