La Haine Interview with Sociologist James Petras
(Original available at the James Petras website: petras.lahaine.org - translation by Michael K. Smith)
María de los Angeles Balparda: We wanted to begin of course, with the situation in the United States.
Petras: Right now there is a move by the governors of individual states to open up, to re-start banned activities. More than half of the states are beginning to open shops, some restaurants, and other places; they believe they can no longer tolerate that unemployment has risen so much that it exceeds a quarter of the population.
So there’s a big fight here between those who want to stay closed and those who want to open the economy so people can work and go out. In New York, for example, they are opening the construction industry. They’re setting out safeguards, for example, maintaining social distance between workers, wearing masks and other things. So there’s an effort to re-start the economy but we don’t know the consequences; whether they’re going to be successful or spread more illness.
MAB: Donald Trump’s statements about how to kill the virus were scandalous, and what he said is still being talked about, as far as supposedly having to take or inject oneself with disinfectants.
Petras: Doctors in this country are condemning Trump, because not only are his recommendations ineffective, people can die by following them. It’s very irresponsible, it was very much condemned, but he still holds power and the Republicans have the hot potato in their hands. They support opening up but they don’t want to follow Trump with such toxic recommendations for the public.
MAB: What’s the state of the relationship between Trump and the press? He said that he wasn’t going to give more press conferences because the reporters distort what he says.
Petras: Yes, it’s clear that the press and the broadcast media are very hostile to Trump, from stories of the Russians meddling in the economy and now with the disinfectants. Everything Trump says is condemned by the media and that has had an effect on public opinion.
In the majority of cases the press is right in the criticisms and questions it directs at Trump. But Trump doesn’t want to give press conferences that end up as a forum for condemning his policies, his personality, etc.
MAB: From the point of view of the economy, how are people living without work?
Petras: The economy is going very badly, unemployment is rising, we have more than twenty six million unemployed, and the economy isn’t growing. The only thing we could say is recovering is the stock market. And I don’t know why it’s growing, but the banks are receiving large subsidies from the government, supposedly to stimulate the economy. So it appears that the policy towards the banks and the largest holders of capital have had a positive effect on the stock market.
But beyond that, right now the economy is worse than in the depression of 1930, the unemployment rate is enormous and the economic crisis is deepening. And right now we can’t see a way out.
For this reason they’re trying to open businesses and restart economic activities, because the people receiving subsidies, the unemployed, don’t have enough money to live on. There are many people who have lost their homes.
MAB: Another topic is what happened in Brazil with the resignation of (Justice) Minister Sergio Moro, an important figure there, which opened the door to another political and institutional crisis in Brazil.
Petras: Yes, Moro was a right-winger involved in the fall of Lula, he represents the right, but not the extreme, crazy right like Jair Bolsonaro. So within the right, this conflict has important consequences, because it’s going to reduce the support Bolsonaro has. Now they’ve lost the center - they never had the left - and they’ve lost the right. Even parts of the military are beginning to question Bolsonaro.
The fact that Moro had problems means that Bolsonaro doesn’t have allies in any position of influence, and that he’s trying to rescue his sons, who are implicated in fraud and other illegal activities; and he wants to continue in power with his sons, who seem to be among the most corrupt.
So we have to say that Bolsonaro is cornered and the government could change hands and expel him with an impeachment or in one way or another. At the moment it doesn’t look like it, but it’s headed in that direction and I think that before the year is out Bolsonaro could be out of the government.
MAB: Yes, he’s had a lot of conflict with ministers he removed from the government, but besides that, Brazil - along with Ecuador - is the country most affected by coronavirus in Latin America.
Petras: Yes, the number of cases is increasing, especially in the slums where there is such a concentration of people, and where there are few means of protecting oneself, people have to buy things every day, and the local warehouses don’t have any way to limit exposure. I think that in a short time Brazil is going to head the list of most infected countries. All over the country the situation is extremely grave, professors don’t dare to leave their houses in many places.
Brazil is heading towards the spreading and deepening of the illness, that’s another thing Bolsonaro doesn’t understand, he thinks it’s all made up. The daily deaths, those locked up, the sick, everything is increasing and there is no way out.
MAB: Mr. Petras, is there any other matter you’d like to mention?
Petras: There are several. First, the deaths from coronavirus in the United States have risen to more than 58,000, which equals the number killed in Vietnam, which was also 58,000, and more than a million infected. We have 1300 victims a day, that’s per day, and I think that the gravity of the situation and the deaths haven’t gone down, in spite of the fact that members of Congress and others are speaking of a leveling off. But that is fictitious right now. We’re also increasing sanitary services in New York and other places, but it’s not enough.
We could say that New Zealand has defeated the illness; they have no more than one or two infections per day, and they’re not of local origin. So apparently we have to learn lessons from countries that have been successful.
The capitalist countries don’t dare to open up a social agenda to solve the crisis or limit its effects. In Chile, there are more than a million unemployed or underemployed. In all of Latin America the situation is very grave. In Ecuador there are dead bodies in the streets of Guayaquil. So we could find ourselves with a great popular uprising on our hands in the short term, and I don’t know what form that might take, but between the deaths and the unemployed the situation is more and more grave.