Peter Mertens: This Pandemic Shows How Elites Have Forgotten Us

Peter Mertens

With 18,000 dead out of a population smaller than Ohio's, Belgium has suffered the world's worst rate of coronavirus deaths. Belgian Workers' Party leader Peter Mertens told Jacobin how the population has been abandoned by the country's elites — and why things didn't have to be this way.

A medic pushes a cart at the entrance to the intensive care unit at the University Hospital of Charleroi on November 5, 2020 in Charleroi, Belgium. (Jean-Christophe Guillaume / Getty Images)

Interview by
Mario Cuenda García
Tommaso Segantini

After years of patient organizing, the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) has in recent times become a force to be reckoned with in national politics. Long building up its support in working-class communities, it made significant gains in the 2019 federal elections, at which it elected twelve of 150 MPs.

Belgium is not as uniformly wealthy as is often imagined — and it is also the country with the world’s worst COVID-19 death rate, with over eighteen thousand victims out of a population of just eleven million. The scale of this crisis shines through in the title of PTB president Peter Mertens’s recent book, Ils Nous Ont Oubliés (“They’ve Forgotten Us”).

Following its launch, Mertens spoke to Mario Cuenda Garcia and Tommaso Segantini about the PTB’s prospects. They discussed the Belgian and European responses to COVID-19, the dangers of the nationalist right, and the meaning of the PTB’s proposals for a “Red-Green Deal”

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Belgium has been one of the European countries hardest hit by COVID-19. How has its government managed the crisis, on both the health and socioeconomic fronts? What would the PTB have done differently?

Peter Mertens

Belgium is a small, densely populated country; by its nature, people move a lot in and out, which is a vector for the transmission of the virus. However, there are other important reasons for the crisis in Belgium; one of the most important is its institutional design and the resultant bureaucratic and political hurdles. There are nine ministers responsible for health care, in a country of only eleven million inhabitants.

At the height of the pandemic, politicians and the media often used military metaphors, repeating “we are at war with the virus.” But in a war, there is a single command, whereas during this “war” against COVID-19, there was complete chaos. Nationalist and linguistic divides made it much more difficult to manage the crisis at the federal level. Trust in the government was dramatically missing.

There was also a near-religious feeling that the market would solve everything, but this has not proven to be the case. Back in March, we proposed a bill to compel certain textile factories to produce masks in order to deal with the shortage in hospitals and nursing homes. There was a general, frontal opposition to our proposal. This sort of “market fundamentalism” really has delayed a more effective response.

Together with trade unions, the PTB pressed the government to shut down nonessential industries. Thanks to a lot of pressure, the government also paid 70 percent of furloughed workers’ wages during the pandemic. Here, we limited working people’s exposure to the virus and mitigated the worst aspects of the crisis.

Still, many workers today are worried about losing their income if they cannot go to work because they have symptoms. The PTB demands that people in isolation because of COVID-19 receive 100 percent of their salary. People shouldn’t be worried about their income if they are sick and cannot go to work.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

In your book, you write that the EU’s response to the crisis, notably the €750 billion recovery plan, would have been “unthinkable” a few years ago. You are, however, also critical of the European recovery package. How do you see the EU’s response to the crisis? Are we witnessing a real change of direction in EU economic policy and a break from the dogma of budgetary discipline?

Peter Mertens

I think there was a de facto break from the moment the EU temporarily suspended the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). During this crisis, it became clear that the SGP’s premises were not true and that it’s essential that we make both huge public investments and financial transfers between countries.

Does this mean a real break with the neoliberal economic policies of the last twenty years? I don’t think so. These measures were only taken to avoid the EU’s collapse. If measures to support ordinary people hadn’t been taken, that would have been the end of the EU, rolling out the red carpet for nationalist parties and movements. We should also consider that Italy is Europe’s third-largest economy and a net supplier to Brussels. The German economy cannot function without Italy, as we have seen with production chains of metallurgical products: as soon as production stopped in Northern Italy, it stopped in Germany, too. So, Germany took the necessary steps to save the EU out of necessity and self-interest.

But I don’t think the EU has suddenly become Keynesian: the idea behind the recovery plan is still to save major European corporations. Hence, Germany paid large aid packages to BMW, even though the company has a mountain of cash, and continues to pay dividends to shareholders. If we inject billions of euros into the economy, we have to know where the money is going, under what conditions it is being used, and why we cannot have social and environmental guarantees.

The situation is not so different from the 2008 crisis: then, banks were being bailed out; now, it’s large companies. In the end, it’s always the workers who have to pay the bill.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

You write that “it is in times of crisis that things change.” In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explains how crises can also be exploited by elites to solidify their position of power and privilege through regressive policies. Could the COVID-19 crisis become an opportunity for the PTB and social movements to make advances in Belgium? And how do you avoid the crisis being exploited by those who want to preserve the status quo?

Peter Mertens

I don’t know whether, in a crisis of this magnitude, it’s possible to maintain the status quo. I think that we are heading either toward a progressive break or a reactionary backlash. It’s not only a health crisis; it’s also an economic crisis.

The positive aspect is that at 8 PM each evening, the heroes of the crisis have been applauded in our country. I write in my book that you only see the stars when it’s dark — and in this crisis, it got dark very quickly. It was clear who kept things afloat: it was not rich CEOs, or political elites, but the poorly paid and neglected essential workers who continued to work and saved us from this mess. For the first time in their lives, the value of their work was acknowledged.

One in five essential workers in Belgium is of immigrant origin, which shows the great diversity of its working class. During the crisis, there has been a high degree of class consciousness and solidarity: it is important to highlight this, to prevent the heroes of the crisis from being forgotten once the crisis is over.

This pandemic affects the working class a lot more than other parts of the population, like all other pandemics in the past. The so-called Spanish flu was also a pandemic with a strong class dimension, because popular neighborhoods and the working class were much more exposed to the risk of getting sick.

Solidarity and class consciousness are the only viable responses to what I call “Bannonist” currents which sow division between the heroes of the crisis. These currents, which yell slogans like “Our people first” during a pandemic which, by nature, knows no borders, are strengthening all over Europe. So, the struggle will be hard, but there are some elements that give us hope.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Since our last interview in 2017, the PTB has increased its presence in the Federal Parliament, going from two to twelve deputies out of 150. What’s your assessment of these gains, and what’s your vision of parliamentary work as a left-wing party?

Peter Mertens

We’ve made progress across Belgium, and we are happy with that. From the start, we knew that it was going to be much more difficult to make a breakthrough in the [Flemish-speaking] north. We had to adapt our strategy and approach to different political, cultural, and linguistic contexts.

We call our approach to work in the parliament “street-council-street.” We have twelve MPs in the Federal Parliament and almost forty parliamentarians including our representatives in the regional parliaments. We think our parliamentarians must serve as megaphones to amplify and strengthen social struggles and the social and democratic aspirations in society. For us, this is very important. Our principle is that as representatives, we should give a voice to ordinary people, instead of shutting them out of parliament and political debates. We start in the street, we listen to the people, and we then translate this work into speeches and legislative proposals in parliament.

We don’t want to be identified with traditional politicians and the ruling class. There is a loathing of politics in Belgium and lots of people who feel neglected and unrepresented, who are angry with mainstream politics. There has been an important debate within the PTB on whether an antiestablishment dimension has its place in a Marxist party. For us, the answer is yes; so, we have this antiestablishment element, essential for staying connected with people and their everyday concerns and grievances. Also, according to the rules of the party, our MPs must take ordinary salaries and give the rest to the party, to avoid becoming part of the same elite we criticize which earns €6,000–10,000 per month.

Our approach also allows us to be present on the ground, in popular neighborhoods, in factories, on social media, to support the workers. The establishment and the media call us populists — but we’re proud to be in touch with ordinary people.

We know that the Right has understood very well that large parts of the population are fed up with politics and that they are organizing and getting stronger.  We believe you have to be “populist” to be able to counter the lies and influence of the Bannonists. We need to confront the far right, build class consciousness, and redirect popular anger and frustration toward those at the top instead of those at the bottom.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

After more than a year of interparty negotiations, a new coalition government formed in October. How do you see its political orientation? Will the presence of the social-democratic parties and the Greens represent a change from previous governments?

Peter Mertens

There is one real difference compared to the last government: the current government is committed to preserving the country’s territorial and political integrity, which is important after ten years of gains by far-right separatists in the north. The PTB don’t believe in splitting up Belgium, an idea based on far-right conceptions of identity.

On economic policy, there is no real difference. The new government will apply the same neoliberal policies: there is no real difference in the fight against poverty, in not taxing the rich, or imposing serious taxation of capital. The government is not committed to decreasing working hours. Not much will change in terms of civil and political rights, our immigration policies and the way refugees are treated, or addressing racism in the police. This means that we will have to pressure the government from below, from the opposition, to obtain results.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

The PTB remains in opposition, along with two far-right parties (the NVA and the VB) at the opposite end of the political spectrum. At the same time, there are some parties in the government with which the PTB could have some affinities. What will the PTB’s strategy be from the opposition?

Peter Mertens

We will support the government when it does good and useful things, but critically. As I said, we support its commitment to maintain the country’s unity and its pledges to be a “green” government. We support this environmental ambition — but we will have to see if their actions live up to their promises and if their “green” policy is socially just.

If they want to privatize public services like the railways or impose a carbon tax, we will be radically opposed. Let’s not forget that the gilets jaunes movement in France began because of an unjust carbon tax, which had the result of putting a large part of the population in opposition to necessary environmental measures.

We know that our work in the opposition will be difficult. Today, there are three blocs: the coalition of centrist parties, who all got together to form the current government despite losing the last elections; a xenophobic, nationalist, separatist bloc, made of the NVA and the Vlaams Belang; and the third bloc, us, the left opposition, with the support of several trade unions and social movements.

The government pretends there are only two blocs: the moderate, reasonable parties in government as against the populists and extremists in opposition. We reject this false dichotomy.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Some PTB proposals, such as the coronavirus tax (a wealth tax of 5 percent on fortunes over €3 million), are very popular. The PTB’s rise shows a certain yearning for change, but it will remain in the opposition for the next three or four years. Do you think the PTB can develop part of its agenda from the opposition? For example, do you see the possibility of ad hoc agreements with the government on some issues?

Peter Mertens

I want to be clear: we will not be this government’s ally. The PTB is in the opposition to the current government and will act accordingly.

But I believe that with sufficient bargaining power, we could realize some points of our agenda from the opposition. In November 2019, we initiated a campaign to push for the strengthening of public hospitals and the health care sector. We managed to get parliament to approve €400 million of public funding for public hospitals. Back then, everyone called our campaign “populist,” but three months later there was a global pandemic, and everyone could see who was right. This result owed to the struggle of nurses and health workers, along with our “street-council-street” approach.

Five years ago, we achieved the VAT rate reduction on electricity. This year, the new government pledged to increase the minimum pension to €1,500, something for which we had campaigned — successfully now — for years.

The point is that it’s not only through parliamentary opposition that we can push forward our demands. You don’t have to be in parliament for that; it does help, but the key is to be in the streets, create petitions, campaign, talk with people, organize. You cannot change things from parliament if you have no bargaining power and class unity in the street.

We have to put left-wing themes on the agenda, otherwise topics like identity and migration will dominate public discourse, which is what the Right wants.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Let’s talk about the environment. In the United States, congresspeople like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) are pushing for a Green New Deal (GND). The EU talks about a “New Green Deal.” The PTB proposes a “Red-Green Deal” in Belgium. Can you explain what this is and how it could be implemented?

Peter Mertens

There’s a growing consensus that we need a plan to tackle both the economic and the ecological crises — and also that the market will not solve these problems. Institutions and states must intervene massively — now, even neoliberals say it! So, the debate is no longer if states have to intervene, but where and how public investment for the ecological transition should be spent.

In the “capitalist” version of the GND, the state continues to be at the service of capital: when crisis hits, the state acts as a lender of last resort to bail out the capitalists. This mechanism must be questioned. The state should take the lead in certain sectors of the economy and create public monopolies. This could be done, for example, in public transport, green investments, affordable public housing, research and innovation, the digital revolution, and health care. This is the main difference in our “Red-Green Deal.”

Already today, there are strategic poles of production in essential sectors, but they’re private. Take Airbus, where many different European countries work together. We could create similar poles, but in the public sphere, to strengthen essential sectors like energy.

Our proposal is similar to what [Bernie] Sanders and AOC propose. It’s a Keynesian approach in the interest of the people. It can be achieved even within a capitalist framework, but would still require that we overrule the limits of the supposedly self-regulating market and that we break free of neoliberal economic tenets.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Belgium is politically fractured: in the north (Flanders) there are strong right-wing and far-right presences, whereas in the south (Wallonia) progressive parties have the majority. In the 2019 elections, the PTB obtained 13.8 percent in Wallonia, 12.6 percent in Brussels, and 5.63 percent in Flanders, and was the only party to elect representatives across this divide. How can the PTB maintain a federal-level strategy despite such an important divide?

Peter Mertens

Indeed, the divide is increasing, and there are, really, only two alternatives: either we bow to the separatists that want to split the country, or we recentralize certain competences, like in health care or environmental protection. Polls show that most Belgians support this. I think that as a country, we will have to make a decision sooner than later, as the current situation is unsustainable.

To give a concrete example: today, there are four ministers responsible for environmental matters. However, all of Belgium’s rivers run into all three regions — so if a river is polluted, we need to organize an interministerial meeting between four ministers. This makes no sense.

We also believe that Europe needs a broader perspective, and we need to cooperate and act at a higher level to face climate change, to be prepared for future pandemics, etc. We cannot solve it alone at the level of Flanders or Belgium.

When it comes to issues of social justice and inequality, cultural differences don’t matter much, compared to class disparities. The social demands and expectations of the population are the same, north and south. What people in Charleroi and Liège expect in terms of pensions is the same as in Antwerp, Hasselt, or Brussels. They are asking for decent pensions, more leisure time, a good and accessible health care system. To achieve this, the PTB and trade unions remain committed to offering the same policies to all workers in the whole country.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Lastly, what do you think about the result of the US elections — and, more generally, which international political events give you hope for the future and which ones worry you?

Peter Mertens

Donald Trump amplified Bannonist, racist, and nationalist rhetoric. It is therefore good news that he lost the megaphone of the presidency. We are happy that social and left-wing movements contributed to his defeat: it was also thanks to grassroots organizing, which was much more important than in the past, that Trump lost. That said, we have no illusions about a Joe Biden presidency. He’s not a socialist, and he’s part of the US political establishment. We will continue to support US social movements and the “Squad” in Congress.

Negatively, Bannonism and right-wing nationalist currents are still alive and well, worldwide. On the positive side: during the pandemic, thanks to social media and growing global interconnectedness, the same demands, debates, and key issues have arisen around the world. Train drivers in India asked for masks and the same thing happened in Peru and in Belgium. This was quite unique and, in some way, represented a renaissance of class consciousness on a global level — the awareness that many issues transcend borders, and this is good news. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done, so we remain both optimistic and cautious.