“Today’s Working-Class Heroes Should Be at the Heart of Tomorrow’s Society”

Marc Botenga

European leaders won’t consider debt cancellation or abandon the dogma of neoliberal austerity. Coronavirus shows that well-funded public services are essential for our survival — austerity is a matter of life and death. We need an alternative.

Two students wear face masks while they pass the Euro sculpture on bicycles in the finance district on March 19, 2020 in Frankfurt, Germany. Thomas Lohnes / Getty

Interview by
David Broder

After the 2008 crisis, governments were keen to insist that “we’re all in this together,” as the shockwaves of the financial collapse spread throughout the economy. Yet as it turned out, the measures taken in response proved to have a clear class logic. While states acted rapidly in order to prop up the banking sector, the resulting mountain of public debt was then used as a pretext for harsh austerity measures and neoliberal reforms of the labor market.

Today, faced with the coronavirus, we are seeing the damaging effects of that response. Even in countries with free public health care, the cuts of the last decade have left bed numbers and staffing levels much depleted. And as the European institutions discuss their response to today’s mounting economic crisis, there is again talk of “conditionalities” on states receiving help — meaning that today’s loans may translate to further austerity in the years to come.

Marc Botenga is a Member of the European Parliament for the Belgian Workers’ Party (PTB). Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to Botenga about the weakness of European solidarity, the opportunities the crisis offers in terms of reordering our economies, and the fight to make sure that any future vaccine is a free and public good.

David Broder

On Thursday, April 23, the European Council discussed measures to help economies through the crisis, but again, the result was a fudge. There was an agreement in principle to find half a trillion euros’ funding, but still a dispute over whether this will take the form of loans, grants, or debt pooling. What do you think this tells us about the different priorities governing Europe’s response?

Marc Botenga

The first thing worth noting is that whatever’s going on there has become unintelligible for anyone who isn’t an expert in European politics. A few weeks ago, the European Council met but then passed the decision over to the Eurogroup; the Eurogroup passed it back to the Council; now the Council wants another discussion at the Eurogroup — and has also mandated the Commission, which is already working on this in parallel. It’s all very nontransparent.

Second, unlike in the United States, we don’t even know yet how much money will be raised and how. The EU is clearly not designed for this kind of situation — rather, it’s been built as an area for competition among people, countries, and regions. Structural mechanisms for solidarity — for transfers — within the EU are close to nonexistent.

But no Union can exist with one currency, one market — to a large extent, a single economic governance — and without solidarity transfers. Germany couldn’t exist without transfers within its federal model, and even these arguably aren’t enough. The EU refuses to have any at all. This makes no sense, because — and here I’m entering into their logic — in a market, there are winners and losers. It’s not just a North-South debate: if you look at countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, they’re losing millions of people, with 15, 25 percent of their population departing.

That means a market logic depopulating whole regions of the EU. This market cannot sustain itself in a normal way, so either you have more authoritarianism and tell some regions that they’ll be destroyed — Romanian nurses forced to move to Italy, Croatian workers to Germany — or you need a fundamentally different mechanism based on solidarity. But that would mean breaking from all the current existing Treaty provisions, which prioritize the free market.

The EU has been built for unfettered competition, but they know — Angela Merkel knows, and there’s an interesting debate in the German Social Democrats now, too — that there needs to be some form of solidarity, because for them, the worst thing would be to lose the common market. They don’t want solidarity mechanisms, for they are among the winners, but if they lose the whole project altogether, that cost is even higher.

David Broder

One way we see the European authorities fueling popular distrust is their tendency to recycle the same personnel, with veterans of the 2008 crisis again today at the forefront. Some such figures have shown a remarkable lack of even rhetorical empathy toward the hardest hit — most famously, Christine Lagarde’s comments that the European Central Bank isn’t there to save Italy. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has since apologized for Europe’s initial response. From your position as a member of the European Parliament, have you got any sense that popular feeling is being heard within the European institutions?

Marc Botenga

You mention Lagarde, but we could point to other European institutions washing their hands of any responsibility by saying, well, health is a competence of national governments. Which is true — to an extent. But the bottom line that people remember is the European Commission being there every step of the way in imposing austerity, saying you should cut spending, wages, pensions, whereas once there’s a need for European solidarity, they are nowhere to be found. For us, it’s a good moment to unmask this kind of integration process.

Certainly, the rhetoric has changed to an extent, for instance, when they suspended the [budget-limiting] Stability and Growth Pact — or rather, invoked its exception clause. This is not, however, a matter of empathy. It’s a realization, at the highest levels of the establishment, that the long-mounting economic crisis finally triggered by coronavirus urgently demands that something be done. There’s not empathy, but rather an awareness of the anger toward the EU.

This is also why Von der Leyen apologized — it’s not like she suddenly saw the light. The Italian intelligence services warned of the risk of a popular uprising in the South of the country because of the poverty, and it’s perfectly understandable that people are angry. They feel that the EU hasn’t been there for them.

Rhetoric is not policy, however. Remember the 2008 crisis, when French president Nicolas Sarkozy solemnly promised that capitalism as we knew it was over? This time, Emmanuel Macron gave a strong speech saying some things can’t be left to the market, but now he’s coming back with private-public partnerships as the “solution” for health care in France. Apparently, even removing public health care from the market remains too much to ask for them.

It’s said that in a crisis, everyone becomes a socialist — in the sense that the state steps in through nationalizations and massive state aid. But these measures aren’t about saving working people. The ECB’s Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme was checked by a Dutch website, and they saw that a lot of those billions go direct to Shell or to LVMH, a French luxury multinational owned by Bernard Arnault, the world’s third richest man. They get cheaper loans from the ECB than Spain or Italy could get on the financial markets.

Even coronabonds, joint European debt instruments — vaunted these days by some governments as the best possible sign of European solidarity — don’t necessarily help working people. If the debt raised through coronabonds is paid for by workers of whatever country, while the money raised ends up helping out big multinational corporations, even this sign of “European solidarity” will be little more than a transfer from workers to shareholders. Will workers see anything of the aid packages from the Italian government, or will it go to propping up shareholders and private profits?

All these measures have a class nature. We shouldn’t be unaware of this. We need to ask: Where will the money go? We need a public-investment plan focused on public health and the social and climate emergency, not rescue and recovery proposals designed to reinforce large multinational corporations.

David Broder

As you say, many defenders of the European Commission argue that health care is the responsibility of member states — which is true. But even during the last crisis, we saw that European bailouts and loan extensions often had conditionalities that related to health care — for instance, the ECB chiefs’ letter to Rome in 2011 stipulated “liberalization” of public services as a condition for its support for Italy on bond markets. Do you see ways in which the current crisis is being used to push the logic of privatization, even as health systems are under such evident strain?

Marc Botenga

It’s true — after the 2008 crisis, all the Troika interventions, for Greece as for other countries, involved destroying public health care and public services in general, to one degree or another. Outside these moments of fiscal distress, a country is theoretically free to organize its health system as it wants. In times of “normal” austerity — a continuous regime within the EU — you could say, I want to raise more money through taxation to fund health care, or cut pensions in order to pay for health care . . . that is, in theory, you can choose which limb you want to get rid of.

In practice, European market and competition rules continuously push for the liberalization of health services. The existing rules are based on neoliberal dogmas of austerity in health and care, on the one hand, and liberalization and privatization, on the other. The European Union actively promotes both, with the complicity of national states. Today, we see the consequences in hospitals and nursing homes.

In 2014, the European Commission wanted to launch a European Health Market — thankfully, this has not gone through, as there’s a lot of resistance to that. Is there, today, an agenda to use this crisis to go further in that direction? Certainly, the rules are in place — including the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact, despite it currently being suspended. As someone put it, those rules have been “frozen.” But if you wanted to get rid of austerity, you would bury it in the garden, not put it in the freezer. You put something in the freezer because you want to consume it later.

The Stability and Growth Pact will come back, and some commissioners, like Didier Reynders, have alluded to that already, as did former Belgian prime minister Elio di Rupo. They say “efforts are needed” from everybody — that is, for them, working people will eventually have to pay for this crisis. And there’s no miracles: if you don’t put money into public services, and if you don’t make sure the richest companies and individuals contribute, then you will “have to” cut back those services once again.

Here we can also look at an argument in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. Klein tells us that every crisis is an opportunity for the dominant forces in society to push through their agenda.

Yet the opposite is also true — there’s never been more awareness of how wrong the current capitalist model really is. It’s the first time in decades that, at least rhetorically, right-wing politicians have had to admit something is wrong. We shouldn’t think that our rulers have suddenly all become Marxists. No, we need to make clear that we’re not here to undergo more pain. During the banking crisis, workers paid very, very dearly. For years, we were told overpaid CEOs and private investors created prosperity.

Today, everyone sees that nurses, garbage collectors, or cashiers in supermarkets are the real heroes that keep our country running. This time, it is up to the financial elites to pay. Rescue and recovery plans should serve the working class. The instruments exist. A pay raise for these working-class heroes on the one hand, and a European minimum effective corporate tax rate, a wealth tax on millionaires, and a financial transaction tax on the other hand, are all perfectly feasible. But all of this will depend on class struggle and our ability to mobilize.

David Broder

One of the striking things about the current EU response to the crisis is how small in scale it is. This despite the fact we’re talking about millions or tens of millions out of work, a hundred thousand dead in Europe alone, and some countries facing a 15 percent drop in GDP — a much bigger collapse than last time. But if some sort of economic restructuring is on the agenda, how exactly can we mobilize to put forward a different set of priorities?

Marc Botenga

I don’t think forms of mobilization will be fundamentally different from before coronavirus — of course, public demonstrations are more difficult, but there’s still plenty of means of pressure. In many factories, from Italy to Belgium, workers have found ways to shut down production, to demand adequate protection, and so on, and there’s been battles between unions and employers over the lockdown. These “classical” forms of struggle are there, but we also have a responsibility to put our ideas into the debate — and to be sufficiently ambitious in that.

There is a huge responsibility for us on the Left. Very often, we are faced with the cultural hegemony of ideas like “the market knows best” and “there is no alternative.” Today, in the face of colossal market failures, there is an openness to Marxist ideas, to collective solutions. The coronavirus brutally ripped off the mask of capitalism. This is a unique opportunity we mustn’t waste. We have to raise awareness, organize and struggle, and campaign on our themes.

This requires we be ambitious, not sinking too much among the technical details, as if what needed doing was to come up with the best scholarly paper. It’s not about that. Probably the best quote by Yanis Varoufakis is when he said that in the Eurogroup discussions in 2015 he “might as well have been singing the Swedish national anthem.” You can have the best argument, but without the right balance of forces, no one will listen.

We can develop mobilization around the class dimension of the coming measures. And we should be clear about what society we want and what should be produced in such a society. Today’s working-class heroes should be at the heart of tomorrow’s society. We need health care; we need local and public-sector production for essential sectors too important to be left to the market.

What makes a difference is how much democratic control you have over the economy. Can we make companies produce ventilators for hospitals, yes or no? The German government had to negotiate with German auto firms to see if they wanted to help — during a public health emergency! On the other side, at SEAT in Barcelona, workers took the initiative to say that they wanted to produce breathing apparatuses. Car and aeronautical firms in Belgium saw similar initiatives. In that, you can see the class contradiction — who wants to work for society, and who wants to continue working for private profit?

David Broder

In terms of asserting public control over business, in the European Parliament, you brought up the issue of licensing and patents for medicines and a potential vaccine. You mentioned the South African example of questioning private control over that intellectual property. Could you talk us through that case and the alternative it points to?

Marc Botenga

Any pandemic vaccine or treatment should be freely and widely available to all. That is one point. The other one is that pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to make a profit on these. The fact that we haven’t got a treatment yet is itself a market failure. Different researchers have said that after SARS 1 in 2003 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) of 2013, we were close to finding some sort of treatment, but the funding wasn’t there — because there was no profit to be made. There was no sense of urgency, and the pharmaceutical companies didn’t care enough about people’s lives in the Middle East. If we had such a treatment now, many of the two-hundred-some thousand deaths worldwide could have been avoided. So, should we leave medical research mainly in private hands, or do we need a more public research structure with a public core for pharmaceutical research?

If the intellectual property of a future treatment belongs to a private company, some states could pay and guarantee it to all for free . . . but then, while much of the research has been funded publicly and done cooperatively, the population would end up subsidizing the profits of Big Pharma through social security. So, private intellectual property places a huge cost on society.

I quoted the South African example because the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was and is recognized as one of Africa’s most effective social movements. HIV treatment was very expensive, indeed unaffordable for people and governments in poorer countries. But TAC used mass mobilization and community organizing to fight for human life — and to overcome the multinationals’ patents. It said, okay, you’ve got this intellectual property, we want to break it open so that other producers can make generic versions of it with the same effect. This makes the drug a lot cheaper, as more companies can produce it, but it also makes it more widely available. This was a breakthrough in the struggle against HIV in South Africa and beyond, giving millions of people access to treatment.

My point is, if, today, you want to talk about availability, this is what you need to be doing. Moreover, not any one company would actually be able to provide a treatment or vaccine worldwide right now. So you need to tackle Big Pharma’s intellectual property over treatments. If not, then not only will society have paid with many thousands of deaths for the failure to develop a treatment, but we will also pay with the unavailability of drugs and with the public payments that go to private shareholders and investors.

David Broder

Your party (Belgian Workers’ Party, PTB) places a great emphasis on being an active presence in communities, and one of its more interesting initiatives is Médecine pour le Peuple (Medicine for the People, MPLP). It has 250 staff providing free treatment, and it has distributed over sixty thousand masks. Can you tell us why the PTB launched this and why it needs to fill in for the lack of other such treatment?

Marc Botenga

I would say there are two dimensions to this. First, our party wants to be a party of concrete action, not a party of words. Hence, even in these special circumstances, our members mobilize, in factories for nonessential production to be suspended and protect workers’ health, or in popular neighborhoods to organize food distribution. The PTB in Brussels has asked for volunteers to help make masks. We had some people volunteer material, others to do the sewing, others to bike around and distribute them.

Médecine pour le Peuple is one aspect of this hands-on approach. It started in the 1970s to provide free primary health care, especially in working-class neighborhoods. At the time, this was revolutionary — people said it was crazy for doctors to provide that for free. But in the end, the idea that you shouldn’t have to pay every time you go to the doctor had wider success, and the Belgian government recognized MPLP. Other medical centers began to adopt this approach.

MPLP focuses first of all on primary health care, which gets just 5 percent of relevant funds in Belgium today. In a pandemic, it’s especially important to have this close connection to patients. Primary health care is the first line of defense, for instance in terms of contact tracing, and you have an essential bind of trust to do that.

Second, there’s the need for a global approach, including prevention, which is extremely complicated if people have to pay per treatment. One of the first things MPLP did was select three thousand patients on the basis of their medical files and call them. From the outset, they tried to get masks and distribute them to medical practices around the country; they also started doing tests in retirement homes.

And third, you need a connection between all health professionals. One of the problems is the fragmentation of social care, for instance in homes, they all too often don’t know who to turn to in case of problems. In public health care systems with a central structure, it’s clear who’s responsible for each part of the population. If you have a neighborhood primary care center where people from different disciplines work together, this facilitates mapping and coordination. Normally we speak of “canvassing” in terms of election campaigns. But it’s very similar. You need each neighborhood to be covered by a general medical practice and for it to be able to make referrals to hospitals.

MPLP is a party initiative, but you need this approach on a massive scale. All of this should be done by national, public health services. We’ve had hundreds of medical students from the universities say they want to help, with mobile testing or tracing. They can do that — they’re finishing their education, and it’s not like we’re asking them to do heart surgery. But the government had no structure through which to integrate them into community-level groups. You have seen that rather more in countries with public health systems and notably “developing countries” — they may have less money for their health systems, but they do have a more on-the-ground presence.

These are principles that go back as far as 1978 and the Alma-Ata conference of the WHO. At the time, these principles were quickly brushed aside by the neoliberal wave of the 1980s. But the coronavirus crisis now shows the complete bankruptcy of the US neoliberal model of health care, and past epidemics often changed the way we looked at health. Cholera brought public sewage; the first public health care systems came after the Spanish flu. If we use this crisis to show how essential public health care, prevention, and primary health care are, then we can start pushing back against the destruction of our health care systems.