Apathetic neoliberal state: Solidarity will strengthen workers
The ill-facet of neoliberalism manifests most starkly in the sector of health, education and food security. People with coronavirus symptoms have been denied treatment by hospitals. Worse, even staffers of the most profitable hospitals have been laid off on the pretext of COVID-19, just because their business has slowed down. The public health system is too weak to withstand the burden of the COVID pandemic
The term neoliberalism is popular among scholars.
Some extol it as the path to prosperity and freedom while others criticise it as wedging the gap between the rich and the poor. This work attempts to examine the impact of neoliberalism in Nepal in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the simplest sense, neoliberalism means a free market with least or no state intervention. A minority view in the 1950s, it has grown to be a dominant ideology among scholars, businessmen and policymakers across the globe. US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were ardent advocates of neoliberalism. It flourished with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and China’s market-oriented reforms in1990s.
Neoliberalism is an advocate of a self-regulating market. Lack of state intervention means that anyone can enter the market and rise to prosperity. Driven by globalisation, neoliberalism promotes FDI and free trade. The free movement of goods and services is expected to benefit both the rich and poor countries.
Transnational companies outsourcing products in the Third World countries, austerity measures adopted by governments and rising corporate power are some of the manifestations of neoliberalism. It shuns trade unions and encourages capital accumulation.
Neoliberalism is the offshoot of capitalism. IMF and the World Bank are its proponents.
With the end of the Rana regime in1951, the Nepali government established many public enterprises for economic development and import substitution, a popular trend among developing countries post World War II. Those public enterprises failed to earn a profit due to political interference, lack of technical know-how among staffers and poor management, leading to a huge budget deficit, which resulted in a foreign exchange crisis.
This led Nepal to seek credit from the IMF. Thus, Nepal started embracing a structural adjustment programme with support from the IMF and World Bank in 1986.
With the restoration of democracy in 1990, the government privatised many public enterprises.
The post-1990s witnessed robust growth in the sector of banking and financial sector, health, communications and education.
Ironically, SAP policies and programmes failed to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, which led to the Maoist insurgency.
Even as most of the public enterprises went extinct following their privatisation, the government took no initiative to set up new industries. Due to lack of job opportunities in the domestic market, the country’s youth have been flocking abroad for employment.
Over the years, the share of remittance to GDP has remained somewhere between 20 and almost 30 percent. However, the share of productive sectors to GDP, such as agriculture and industry, has been shrinking whereas there has been exponential growth in the service sector.
In fiscal year 2018, the share of the service sector to GDP stood at 57.6 percent.
In a neoliberal state, the so called ‘green revolution’ displaces indigenous mode of agriculture. Chemical fertilisers replace compost manure. Local seeds are displaced by genetically modified seeds. Farmers, once independent, fall under the mercy of the market.
Transnational companies often displace smallscale domestic industries.
Thus, neoliberalism widens the informal sector of the economy. The government is weak and corporate houses are powerful.
As against the principle of social contract of citizen-ship, the government is not accountable to its people. It serves the interest of corporate houses. The poor are left to fend for themselves.
A series of incidents since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in the country point to this sordid fact. The government has been mired in corruption scandals. The ill-facet of neoliberalism manifests most starkly in the sector of health, education and food security. People with coronavirus symptoms have been denied treatment by hospitals. Worse, even staffers of the most profitable hospitals have been laid off on the pretext of COVID, just because their business has slowed down. The public health system is too weak to withstand the burden of the COVID pandemic.
Meanwhile, thousands of children of poor citizens have been deprived of their right to education as they do not have access to digital mode of education.
Many daily wage workers have lost their jobs, forcing some to succumb to starvation.
But the government remains a mute spectator.
Neoliberalism is callous.
It knows no humanity except capital accumulation.
Companies adopt various strategies to discourage their staff from joining trade unions. Thus, when they are laid off or fired without notice or when their pay is slashed, the staffers are rendered helpless.
Many workers have been betrayed by their companies with the onset of the COVID pandemic in Nepal.
Networking is the only way to fight against the forces of neoliberalism.
This requires solidarity among the workers. They need to be affiliated to trade unions. Even informal workers can form their own organisations and can be affiliated with trade unions at the national level.
Trade unions have global networks like UNI Global Union. Only such organisations can fight against the mighty corporate houses or the government for their rights.
As for the rights of citizens, solidarity of civil society organisations can be a powerful tool in forcing the government or a private entity to act justifiably. We have cases of solidarity expressed for Dr Govinda KC by people from different walks of life. Such a movement needs to be sustained.
Civil society organisations can play a proactive role to force governments to be accountable and serve the people and not merely the interest of private companies.