Many of us are intensely feeling vulnerable to the current situation and uncertain about the future. Yet even prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic, this sense of vulnerability and uncertainty has been felt by people in many places worldwide. Wars that target populations have been shocking and revolting us for many years. Currently, war’s language and its whole arsenal are being deployed to manage the pandemic. But popular COVID 19 war vocabulary has its own set of covert war words akin to the methods of low intensity conflict. How interesting that a four-syllable word is now a buzzword.
“Vulnerable” is one of the most highly used words in this COVID-19 season. In mainstream-speak, it seems to function as a replacement for the words “oppressed” and “exploited.” This is less a matter of style than an adherence to the power of neoliberalism.
While the global economy collapses and authoritarianism is on the rise, state bureaucrats and technocrats can only roll out two modes of responses to the crisis: repression for the working poor people and bailouts for the rich. Since the beginning of Duterte’s draconian lockdown on the second week of March, what we have witnessed is the unfolding of a fascist fantasy, the main objective of which is to create a widespread condition of political isolation for a complete takeover.
Military checkpoints, police roundups, imprisonment of civilian relief volunteers,maiming of poor people, assasination of activists all point to the intensification of human rights violations at a time when people are demanding health solutions to the pandemic. Worldwide, public health has been imperiled by a string of politicians ruling on behalf of big business. Four decades of neoliberalism have convinced many people that we can only rely on ourselves for health care, housing, and other basic rights. Now being convinced anew that it is none other than our lack of discipline in observing social distancing and personal hygiene that will likely imperil our lives. In other words, we are vulnerable and we only have ourselves to blame for this situation.
We are also reading headlines about a select group of people, from famous stars to bar topnotchers vowing to help “the vulnerable.” Political statements by progressive organizations and individuals—rightly critical of this violent and criminally neglectful government—demand that “the vulnerable” be prioritized and protected.
What does this popular usage amplify in Corona time?
It seems that “vulnerable” is the new “precarious” but without the former necessarily eclipsing the latter in terms of mainstream gravitas. The popular use of the adjective “precarious” is of recent vintage. It is a rebranding of labor under an imperialist system without bringing up the I-word or the controversial “ism” at any point in one’s exposition. To brand labor as precarious is to participate in this practice of so-called deliberative democracy where labor is at stake under global capitalism. The liberal gesture amounts to at least two things: an acknowledgement that something is amiss and one’s sincere expression of condolences. Neoliberal orthodoxy compels its believers to strike a balance between funding/mileage/impact factor and truth; and to equivocate, feign stupidity and mystify the foundations of precarity in order to “nait it” and “make it.”
In the not so distant past, common usage of vulnerable as an adejctive refers to interiority, or the inner life of a person who is susceptible to harm or attack. In the context of the global pandemic, vulnerable is widely used as a noun that displaces words like oppressed and exploited. The point is to equivocate on if not erase the class dimension of the crisis. Words indicating interiority or personal circumstances replace those that would inevitably refer to massive structures like the architecture of semi-colonies under imperialism. The usage indicates that “the vulnerable” occupies a liminal position in society: They are vulnerable to oppression and exploitation, and thus, are not yet actually oppressed and exploited.
But the truth is not that complicated. No person who is vulnerable to oppression and exploitation actually escapes from the violence of it all. Did they want to “save” us from this reality? Not at all. It is the usual neoliberal propaganda about individualized suffering. We are supposed to approach and understand suffering through mass media’s obscene lenses: The demand is to recognize the “humanity”of people who suffer as if there is humanity in suffering. Accompanied by high traction text and visuals, mass media quantitatively and qualitatively account for the ways in which “the vulnerable” suffers. No different from the CIA’s demand for “thick description” from its agents, and for which acclaimed Anthropologist Clifford Geertz was recently exposed. We are not supposed to know that suffering is systematically inflicted upon the working poor by the state, which is an entity that survives through its own perpetuation of a political and economic program that adheres to imperialism.
So while Trump and Duterte do everything in their power to make things worse on a daily basis, we are, for our part, called upon to feed and defend the vulnerable. There is nothing absolutely wrong about the latter though. But who are these people we are calling vulnerable anyway? In the Phlippines, the most organized and politicized of them are also targets of state-sponsored black propaganda.
A few days ago, former Chief Justice Carpio garnered praise for opining that Duterte’s threat to declare Martial Law beause of NPA abuses is an overkill. Almost all major dailes took it up. In most articles, the reader is swayed to believe that the NPA did hijack relief goods just because Dueterte said so.The NPA already denied this. Prime time TV news even featured civilians from the area denying the incident. But that is a point to be suppressed in liberal democratic discourse. If the reference to the NPA hijacking is the one in Eastern Visayas (EV), for the sake of balance and information, which liberals are emphatic about (so look eslsewhere for analysis) then it bears repeating, the guerrilla group firmly denies it.
What actually takes place in EV is something out of the mainstream radar. The military personnel deployed in the region are furious about the food production program undertaken by communist organs of political power. Immediately after WHO’s announcement of a global pandemic and the U.S.-Duterte regime’s draconian lockdown,the CPP-NPA enjoined red guerrillas and partisans to prioritize and efficiently execute a program for food production in all regions where the revolutionary group has secured territories.
The program features an initial harvesting, and the subsequent storing and planting of food like rice, kamote, kangkong, pako, okra, pechay and fruits like banana and tomatoes. The systematic and organized process of harvest, distribution and (re)planting is a commendable disaster response that can only happen within the context of a people — severely oppressed by imperialist plunder, state repression and government corruption—building and wielding social and political power, which no amount of NGO “empowerment,” foreign aid and UN resolutions have managed to accomplish.
This is why it is important to equate “poor” with “vulnerable.” Why, the most oppressed and exploited are also the most organized and politicized. More than ever, it is crucial for the ruling elite and their imperialist masters to deny that landless peasants, wage workers, informal workers and the unemployed wield the power of conceptual thought within the context of a protracted people’s war for national liberation and socialism. For those who pay attention, it is not difficult to understand that new modes of labor are invented for the revolutionary war faster than they can be repressed or hijacked by capitalist accumulation.
This revolutionary edge is precisely the reason why we are called upon to accept the foundation of Duterte’s tyranny—a reinforcement of the status quo by repressing its real and material opponent, the CPP-NPA. The alleged NPA hijack of relief goods is interesting. As fake news, it is not entirely made up. The reference to a red guerilla hijack of relief goods is a distortion of what is actually happening on the ground: a communist “hijack”of social and political power through food production amidst an unprecedented health and food crises resulting from criminal state neglect and state repression.
Government, corporate media and experts do not want us to know about poor people’s fight for labor. They do not want us to know that revolutionary labor produces and reproduces poor people’s means of sustenance and survivance as they cherish and paticipate in the class war. #RedLaborDay2020
Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Diliman Center for International Studies. She is engaged in activist work in BAYAN (The New Patriotic Alliance), the International League of Peoples’ Struggles, and Chair of the Philippines-Bolivarian Venezuela Friendship Association. She is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal for Labor and Society (LANDS) and Interface: Journal of/and for Social Movements.