Here we publish the text of a document on World Perspectives discussed, amended and approved by ISA’s International Committee during a meeting from 23–26 February 2021
Almost four months have passed since the document ‘Opportunities and Dangers in the “Age of Disorder”’ was first drafted. In this fast-paced period of changes, this is a very long time. As a result, a series of crucial developments have arisen that this document does not cover. However, we believe that the main trends identified in it have been, in general, confirmed and strengthened.
As the document pointed out, “massive polarization will continue and with it the further weakening of bourgeois institutions”. The year 2021 had hardly begun when people the world over watched in bewilderment as thousands of Trump and far-right supporters stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC — the climax of Trump’s demagogic, months-long campaign about the “stolen election” narrative. These events profaned a sacrosanct institution of US capitalism, which the dominant sections of the US ruling class who had put up with Trump for four years, could not stomach due to its de-stabilising effects. The Capitol siege led to a certain shoring up of the State over far-right extremism to regain control over developments, and triggered Trump’ second impeachment trial in the Senate.
While sharpening the internal conflicts within the Republican Party, these events have also shown the relative resilience of Trump’s core voting base, which many Republican lawmakers are not keen to alienate. In that sense, neither the decaying of US bourgeois democracy, nor the danger of a more assertive right-wing populist and far-right movements growing in its midst — both of which the January 6th events graphically illustrated — will be fundamentally reversed by Biden’s arrival in the White House.
Undoubtedly, the new Biden administration intends to “draw a line in the sand” with Trump’s last four years in office, by projecting a new image of change. On the domestic front especially, the depth of the economic and health crisis Biden inherited compels him to do more than just repaint the façade. The new $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which includes helicopter money, public healthcare investment and aid to local governments, confirms a shift in the economic policies of the US ruling class away from the neo-liberal playbook. On top of this the Biden administration is also discussing spending $2 trillion on infrastructure and job creation and payments of $300 per month per child to combat child poverty which stands at 21%. The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report ranked the US 13th in infrastructure quality. Biden warned that China will “eat our lunch” if America doesn’t “step up” its infrastructure spending in his comments to senators after his first phone call with Xi Jinping: “They’re investing billions of dollars dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation, the environment and a whole range of other things. We just have to step up”.
These measures can and most certainly will provide some breathing space to the new Biden administration, but will not address the underlying, structural contradictions at the heart of the crisis. They do, however, indicate that the massive stimulus and increased state interventions seen all through last year have taken a dynamic of their own, and will not be quickly or easily wrapped up — although the durability and affordability of these measures, carried out on an international scale, will vary greatly from one country to another. In general though, the dominant wings of the bourgeoisie understand that the ravages of last year’s global depression means that important parts of the economy are still on life-support, and that pulling the plug now would risk killing the patient, beyond heightening already high levels of political and social instability. We therefore would agree with the Wall Street Journal when it recently commented: “The aftermath of the Covid crisis could see much more government intervention.”
Considering that the world economy recorded last year the biggest and widest slump in its history, affecting 93% of countries, it is likely that many countries will experience some form of economic recovery in 2021. But this clearly will not mean a return to previous levels of output or stable growth, and several factors could provoke a new global downturn or more localized recessionary relapses, under the weight of new Covid surges and lockdowns — as seems increasingly probable in the eurozone — or triggered by a new financial crisis — the threat of which, as our document already explained, has not disappeared. The scenarios for the global economy will in no small measure be affected by the level of effectiveness of the Covid vaccination on a world scale.
The initial rebound of optimism among the bourgeois in this matter last autumn has since made way for a more sober outlook, as the complications, contradictions and chaos of the vaccine rollouts have dramatically come to the fore. The anarchy of the market, the widening gulf between the poorer and the richer countries, the profit-making motive of pharmaceutical companies, the competing prestige and interests of national ruling classes, all stand in the way of a swift, global and effective response. According to the WHO, by February 10, about 130 countries — home to some 2.5 billion people — were yet to administer a single dose of vaccine. But even in the EU countries, just 4% of the population has so far received at least one dose. A calculation from Bloomberg shows that at the current pace of vaccination, it would take the world seven years to reach herd immunity.
This slowness and the lack of capacity for vaccine production and distribution afforded to many countries in the neo-colonial world provides more space for the spread of new, potentially more harmful and vaccine-resistant variants of the disease. This can still jeopardize efforts already undertaken even in the most advanced countries and could contribute, ironically, to a deepening of geo-political fragmentation and de-globalizing trends.
The chaos and inefficiency which characterises the global vaccine rollout is of great political importance. As was the case in the first wave with the shortages of PPE, ventilators, tests etc, capitalism’s vaccination crisis shines a spotlight on the fetters which capitalism imposes on production and distribution of the most necessary goods. Of particular significance is the phenomenon of “vaccine nationalism” which has already led to heated clashes between the UK and EU which threatened to dynamite the Brexit deal only days after its conclusion. The rush by national ruling classes to vaccinate “their own” first, motivated by a desperation to reopen the profit machine and get ahead of rivals economically, is one of the greatest threats to the fight against Covid, which requires a programme of international suppression and vaccination.
Even if the Covid-19 pandemic were to be brought under control, this pandemic has been in any case a reality check on the scale and ever-accelerating effects of the ongoing environmental catastrophe generated by the capitalist mode of production. Environmental researcher John Vidal, who has spoken to scientific and medical experts from around the world, recently warned that based on the continuing destruction of animals’ natural habitat, the worst is yet to come in matters of viral threats, urging to prepare for a pandemic worse than Covid “on the scale of the Black Death”, that could “ravage the globe within weeks”. The very fact that such scenarios are plausibly discussed within the scientific community gives an insight into the levels of barbarism that the perpetuation of this system has in store.
US-China conflict bound to accelerate
Biden has pitched his foreign policy as a radical departure from that of Donald Trump. As we already pointed out in the document, early signs indicate that a frostier relationship with the Saudi regime is on the cards, and that he will have to “do something” about his campaign pledges to end the war in Yemen — a war that Obama’s administration was instrumental in enacting. The conditions for a revival of the Iranian nuclear deal, however, is proving to be a political minefield, and Iranian President Rouhani -who has been demanding sanctions relief before going back to the negotiating table — ends his term this summer.
Recent weeks have also put to bed the illusions that a Democratic administration would announce a qualitative reset in US-China relations. “President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his confirmation hearing. Although it will not adopt a one-speed, straight road policy, the great inter-imperialist confrontation is here to stay and likely to widen. Biden has promised “extreme competition” with China amid increasing saber-rattling in the South China Sea, and a heightening stand-off on new technology engulfing many other countries in its track.
Recently, several trade deals have been signed, but their details still need to be negotiated — as is the case with the EU-China deal, signed in 2020 but which will not be finalized before 2022, if ever, and which still requires ratification by the European Parliament. Moreover, these trade deals cannot hide the context of the increasingly polarizing Cold War in which they are taking place. This is illustrated by the dispute between Australia and China, brought to new heights almost straight after the RECP deal in the Asia-Pacific was signed. Meanwhile, the “human rights” narrative of Biden’s diplomacy will look shallow as his administration seeks to strengthen alliances with regional Chinese rivals, at the top of which stands the regime of Narendra Modi in India — whose increasingly anti-democratic character is indicated, among other things, by its violent attempts to clamp down on supporters of the heroic, months-long and widely popular farmers’ revolt shaking his rule.
In need of projecting strength on both the domestic and foreign fronts, the Chinese regime has intensified its crackdown in Hong Kong. In January, the CCP carried out the largest purge of opposition figures since it imposed the national security law on the city, and workers’ unions have been brought under heel. ISA, as we commented in the document, needs to give democratic demands “a critical and renewed emphasis in this period”. This point found a new and burning expression with the military coup in Myanmar on February 1. But so has the other side of the proposition: the fact that the capitalist classes’ turn to more authoritarian forms of rule “will not happen without serious fightbacks”. The generals have “set off a new revolutionary dynamic at a time of intense social and economic upheaval”, as an article in the Financial Times aptly described it, with hundreds of thousands of youth and workers taking to the streets for days on end to resist the coup in a campaign of mass civil disobedience. Of utmost importance is the fact that the working class has started to rise as an independent force in a growing wave of strike actions involving doctors, teachers, railway workers, civil servants, air traffic controllers, bank workers, copper miners…Significantly, some police officers have been affected by this growing movement, openly displaying their solidarity with the masses on the streets. In Haiti, thousands of people have been marching through the streets in early February chanting “Down with dictatorship!” as deeply corrupt President Jovenel Moïse is clinging on to power, ruling by decree for over a year, and recently used an alleged coup plot as cover to crackdown on the opposition and consolidate his despotic rule.
Undoubtedly, the working class and the youth have stepped up the pace of struggle the world over, with new revolts making the headlines on a near-daily basis. Significantly, the recent World Economic Forum report identified “youth disillusionment” as one of the major global risk factors for 2021. The weeks-long protest movement which has shaken Tunisia since mid-January, the recent student protests that have erupted across Greece and Turkey, the widespread wave of protests triggered by the arrest of Alexei Nalavny in Russia, all have seen the youth battling in the forefront, displaying extremely low levels of patience with authoritarianism, corruption and poverty. But the last months have confirmed the equally firm radicalization affecting sections of the organized working class itself, often spearheaded by health and education workers — from Britain to Chicago, from the Basque country to Bolivia.
Of course, the substantial forces mobilised in many countries by far-right linked Covid sceptics show the danger of reactionary forces also developing a capacity to mobilise. However, the social basis of these protests is more dominated by middle class and petty-bourgeoisie elements than the working class, which is also expressed in their programme: For “liberty” against the state and the right to keep their businesses open, against vaccinations and multinational pharma industry and sceptical towards science, feeding into reactionary conspiracy theories and sometimes open antisemitism. The right wing, which often leads these protests, cannot be fought by morally exposing that they are right wingers and by defending government measures, but by combining the mobilisation against the right with criticism against capitalist covid policies from a socialist perspective. This being said, some of the layers involved in these protests reflect a very confused anti-system sentiment and could potentially be won over by the workers’ movement putting a stronger imprint on events.
Political instability and conflict amongst the ruling classes are also deepening across the board. In mid-January, Europe saw three national governments brought down in one single week in the Netherlands, Estonia and Italy, as the ruling classes find it difficult to navigate the rapids of this unprecedented crisis. The growing discrediting of establishment politicians, coalitions and parties will offer new openings for forces that pose as anti-establishment and anti-system. This can be the case on the right, as shown by recent presidential elections in Portugal that saw the far-right party Chega making important gains against the background of a collapse for the left vote, in particular for the Left Bloc (BE), who acted as a life buoy for the PS government and its disastrous handling of the pandemic. But this can also be the case on the left, as shown by the first round of elections in Ecuador on February 7, where the masses inflicted a crushing defeat on the outgoing right wing administration. Andrés Arauz, an associate of former reformist President, Correa, won the most votes and the candidate of the indigenous Pachakuti party, Yaku Perez, saw an unexpected surge in support and narrowly missed out on a place in the second round (amid allegations of voter fraud against him). These results are a political continuation and expression of the mass uprising of October 2019.
In Catalonia, after more than 3 years of impasse, regional elections saw intensified polarisation, with the Vox party entering the Catalan Parliament for the first time but also the left-wing CUP increasing its share of the vote by 50% compared to the last elections in 2017. Importantly, pro-independence parties gain their biggest majority yet; this, together with a likely landslide victory for the SNP in Scotland’s May elections, underline the points made in the text regarding the national question and its endurance as a key factor in the coming crisis.
As the year 2020 came to an end with a historic victory for the abortion rights movement in Argentina, the Polish government enforced one month later the Consitutional Court decision banning abortion in that country, despite the huge movement of resistance that had shaken the ruling elite last autumn. All these developments bring out what our document had underlined: the fact that across the world, the succession of progressive and reactionary developments, of pushes from the reaction and upheavals from below, has been tremendously sharpened and accelerated by the Covid crisis — provoking sharp shifts in mass consciousness, and presenting our revolutionary international with both new sets of dangers and widening opportunities to build our forces.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world forever, throwing capitalism into a whirlwind of crisis of unprecedented proportions, with dramatic consequences on all aspects of life and engulfing all parts of the planet. It has significantly aggravated the worldwide strategic conflict between the two biggest imperialist powers, the US and China, which further blocks efforts to find a “global” response.
While the fundamental causes of this crisis lie in the contradictions of the capitalist economy, Covid-19 is not an anomaly nor a “grain of sand in the capitalist machine”; it is a by-product of such contradictions — in particular, of the environmental destruction the system has created. In and of itself, the very existence of this virus in the human population is an indictment of the current mode of production, an advance warning that capitalism is pushing the eco-system completely off balance and generating biological and environmental dangers on an escalating scale, threatening massive species loss and the existence of human civilization.
The virus has been far more than a simple catalyst to the current economic depression. The resulting effects of the pandemic are not a “one-way street”, but a dialectical interaction in which cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause, the pandemic intensifying the force of the crisis of the system that has given rise to it in the first place.
COVID has been an accelerator, as it pressure cooked all the pre-existing conditions. It triggered and intensified the looming recession. It has further increased inequalities of income, gender and race. The frayed neoliberal ideology and is now in tatters. The limits of the nation state have been sharply highlighted due to vaccine nationalism. It has also heightened the growing awareness that all humanity shares one planet and a common future and boosted support for the ideas of planning and cooperation. From an economic standpoint, this pandemic has completely torn to pieces the idea of capitalism as a “self-regulating” system. The “invisible hand of the market” has totally lost control of the forces it has unleashed — and has been forced to make way for the “guiding hand of the state” in a desperate attempt to regain a semblance of control over the situation. But since the private ownership of the means of production, the maximization of profit and the competition between nation-states remain the foundation stones of world capitalism, this is doomed to fail, and will ultimately only make matters worse. The Chinese state’s disastrous initial mismanagement of the outbreak also underlines the limits of state capitalist “solutions”.
The world has entered a qualitatively new phase of all-round instability, re-shaping world and class relations, accelerating all pre-existing contradictions while giving rise to new ones. Despite the inevitability of temporary phases of stabilization in this or that country or region, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary convulsions, important features of the previous decade, will be amplified considerably.
This crisis is creating monumental calamities for the masses and paving the way for even bigger calamities in the future. But it is also paving the way for huge changes in the consciousness of tens of millions of workers and young people the world over, and for volcanic political and social upheavals on all continents. Questions previously posed by an advanced minority, will increasingly become burning questions posed by a large mass of people. Already, the crisis has shaken many established beliefs, jettisoned the ideological corpus of neoliberalism, and provoked debate on how human society is organized on a scale not witnessed for several decades.
The objective conditions facing humankind today are crying out for democratic planning and international socialism like never before. However, as Lenin pointed out, there will be no final crisis of capitalism — unless it is given a death blow by the working class, it will continue to make billions of people suffer, further decimate the environment, and cause new wars.
Capitalism has lasted far longer than the great Marxist leaders of the 19th and early 20th centuries imagined. It has shown great flexibility, but also brutal repression and duplicity. But its longevity has piled up enormous contradictions, also greater than the leaders of the past could have imagined. Now these contradictions interact and collide, piling on multiple crises and disasters for capitalism, and if not resolved, for humanity.
It is hard to see any period of stability ahead. However, capitalism will not go away, rather it will grasp at many ways to escape these chains. The ruling class will thrash around with wild zigzags, contradictory policies, rummaging in the past for solutions and embracing new ideas. It may well try reforms, spending large amounts of state money, brutal austerity, reaction and more.
The working class and youth will largely look to international and co-operative solutions, and increasingly socialism, to end the prison of endless instability and suffering. We face times of lull and even despair but more so titanic movements and explosions. The last twenty years are a dress rehearsal, as the working class leaves the collapse of Stalinism in the rear-view mirror, for what lies ahead. The stark truth of the 21st century is that capitalism must be removed to free humanity from a grim future, and instead enter a world of security, well-being and ecological harmony.
The conscious intervention of Marxists in this threatening and explosive period and the building of powerful revolutionary parties and an International to assist the working class in overthrowing capitalism and building socialism, remain ultimately the sole vaccine against this sick system.
Metabolic rift with nature becoming an abyss
In the shadow of the health and economic crises, the climate crisis continues to deepen. As things stand, Arctic sea ice has decreased by 44 percent since 1979, the seas have risen by 25 centimeters since 1880, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 6 percent in the last ten years (to 413 PPM), and average temperature is up 1,2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times. By January 2021, the world has less than seven years to end fossil emissions for a chance to contain global warming within the 1,5 degrees target set in the Paris Accord. Still, 87 percent of the world’s energy production is fossil based.
In 2020, carbon emissions fell by about 7 percent as a result of lockdowns and economic slowdown. Initial illusions of ”nature healing” have however been put to shame — the year 2020 has set several ominous records. The 29 tropical storms formed so far on the Atlantic Ocean this year make up the highest number since records begin in 1851. 82 percent of the world’s seas experienced at least one marine heat wave this year. As of early December, 2020 looks set to be the second hottest year ever recorded, narrowly behind 2016, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) which also notes that the decade 2011–2020 will be the warmest ever recorded, with 2015–2020 the six hottest years.
The new research field of “extreme weather attribution” can now show a clear connection between extreme weather events and climate change — eg the unprecedented 2020 Siberian heat wave, seeing amongst other effects the catastrophic oil leakage in Norilsk caused by permafrost melting, was made at least 600 times more likely by climate change.
Some tipping points may have already been passed: studies this year have shown that the melting of the ice caps of both Greenland and Antarctica will proceed even if the Paris targets were to be achieved. Last year’s extensive forest fires and their contribution to the 2,6 percent increase in carbon emissions, in contrast to the annual average of 1,4 percent since 2010, is a warning of feedback loops set in motion. According to the WMO, the average temperature increase might surpass 1,5 degrees already by 2024.
The climate crisis is closely related with other ticking ecological bombs, such as the ongoing mass extinction (68 percent of vertebrate animals have disappeared since 1970 according to the WWF, and 24 percent of insects may have disappeared in the last 30 years). The encroachment of agriculture and industry on nature, so critical for the creation of the Covid-19 pandemic, has reached extreme levels — few and diminishing areas not “strongly impacted by human activity” remain on land and sea. Nine out of ten people now live in areas severely affected by air pollution, which is estimated to cause the death of seven million people every year.
This underlines the deep class divide behind the turning of what Marx described as a metabolic rift between humans and our environment into a yawning abyss. The poorest half of the world’s population stands for less than half of the carbon emissions of the richest 1 percent. That it is capitalism as a system that must be done away with for a chance to halt and adapt to climate change and environmental degradation is an insight that will force itself onto the minds of wide layers of youth, working class communities and workers in the years ahead.
New lockdowns — a sledgehammer blow to the world economy
According to the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook (Oct 14) the coronavirus crisis will inflict lasting damage on living standards across the world. The IMF expects the global economy to contract by -4,4%, less than the -5,2% estimated in June. This is still by far the worst since the Great Depression of the early ‘30s. These figures might well prove overoptimistic. The IMF report was published just before the resurgence of the pandemic went into full swing. Since then partial lockdowns and restrictions intensified as, six months into the pandemic, governments are still incapable of guaranteeing safe working and living conditions.
In many countries curfews have been put in place. Pubs and restaurants are closed. Up to a third of them will never re-open. Travel bans are reintroduced with travel agencies going bust. The number of people one can meet is restricted as well as free movement. Countries are struggling to save their health systems from collapse. This is especially the case in the Czech Republic and other Central and Eastern European countries which were relatively spared by the first surge of the virus but are now in the eye of the storm. For years health workers from the region emigrated in large numbers, mainly to Western Europe, attracted by better wages and living conditions. Doctors in Hungary are paid 3€ an hour and unimpressed by the promised 120% wage increase linked to them being deployable anywhere in the country.
But even in richer countries the health system is under threat. Keeping it afloat is one priority, as well as avoiding the closure of schools and workplaces, because “the economy can’t afford another full lockdown”, to quote the new Belgian prime minister. In France 25% of infection clusters have originated in workplaces, schools being the second main source of infections. The ruling classes are prepared to sacrifice our lives for their profits, but in many countries this approach is becoming untenable and ending up in new lockdowns, even if somewhat less draconian than the measures put in place during the first wave. This is like an sledgehammer blow to the economic growth prognoses of the bourgeois, with wide repercussions on all aspects of life.
The scramble for a vaccine
On the other hand, at the time of writing, there seemed to be increasingly good prospects for the successful development of a first generation of Covid vaccines during Winter 2020/21. While this could offer some respite to the world economy, and potentially be seen by the bourgeoisie as a path out of intermittent lockdowns in the short to medium term, we must underline that a Covid vaccine will neither vaccinate the world economy against the threat of the developing new Great Depression, nor banish the pandemic in the foreseeable future. In addition, the crisis of legitimacy of the political establishment has increased the tendency towards ‘vaccine skepticism’ with polls in several countries from the Americas to Europe indicating roughly half of those countries’ populations would not take the first round of a vaccine. However this will not likely affect the overall approach of the bourgeois, whose immediate priority is to mitigate the death toll in order to fully reopen their economies.
Even in Western countries, the mass production and distribution of vaccines will be a prolonged process and be beset by problems and contradictions. Again there is a very pronounced Cold War dimension, reminiscent of the space race between the US and USSR, in the competing “vaccine diplomacy” of Chinese, Russian, and Western capitalism towards their own populations and those in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The incompetence and chaos which characterised the scramble for PPE, tests, and ventilators — arising from the capitalist fetters of private property and the nation state — earlier this year, have and will resurface in the quest for an effective global vaccination programme.
The question of vaccination will also shine a spotlight on the rapidly escalating inequality, between classes, nations and regions of the world, which is a major characteristic of the world situation. Production, storage, logistical and refrigeration factors are already being cited as obstacles to the provision and distribution of the first generation of Covid vaccines in the neocolonial world. The extreme limitations of capitalist “planning” will be in the spotlight over the coming months as competing national and corporate interests interfere with any swift and efficient distribution of existing vaccines. ISA must develop propaganda and a transitional programme which centres on the need for a mass, universal and free global programme of safe Covid vaccination, with the interests of frontline workers and the vulnerable around the world put first.
Gulf between Wall Street and Main Street widens
The IMF admits close to 90 million people will fall into extreme deprivation by the end of 2020, while the World Bank estimates the number at 150 million. That would increase the part of the world population living on less than $1,90 a day from 8.4 to 9.1%. All the alleged gains made in the reduction of poverty over the past two decades, mainly concentrated in China, will be erased. According to Oxfam an extra half a billion people could be pushed into poverty before the pandemic is over. More people could die from hunger than from the disease itself. This could lead to bread revolts as we’ve seen many times in history.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) says the equivalent of over half a billion full time jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2020. This devastation is concentrated among the most vulnerable, low-wage workers, migrant workers and informal workers. Women account for 54% of job losses while representing 39% of the global workforce. Official unemployment statistics underestimate the real scope of the disaster. Across the OECD and emerging economies some 30 million discouraged workers are not appearing in the official statistics. In China most unemployed workers are internal migrants also absent from official statistics, with credible independent reports saying 50 million of these migrant workers are still jobless despite the so-called economic rebound.
A significant part of job losses is concentrated in small businesses. The ILO estimates approximately 436 million small businesses globally are under threat. One of the effects of the crisis has been a gigantic leap of capital concentration. It is estimated that the worlds’ top-20 percent ‘industry leader’ companies gained $335 billion in market valuation, while the bottom 20 percent ‘low performers’ lost $303 billion in market valuation. Simultaneously, according to UBS, the world’s billionaires saw their wealth increase by 27,5% since January, reaching a staggering $10,2 trillion.
Overwhelmingly, it is lower income workers, many of them young people, women and racialized groups, who have suffered the sharpest drop in income in 2020. Those at the top of the income range have even seen an increase in income, able to work from home safely and comfortably, so saving on commuter travel, etc. The well-off have amassed savings from spending put on hold during COVID. The increased inequality of COVID will continue into any recovery. There is increasing talk about a K-shaped recovery, benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor, within countries as well as between richer and poorer countries. Even the IMF recommends more progressive tax systems. The OECD drafted a ‘blueprint’ for a ‘revolution’ in corporate tax aiming for $100 billion, which would increase corporate tax collections by 4%– ‘if agreed’. Gita Gopinath, the IMF chief economist, warns that the period of recovery following the crisis will be ‘long, uneven and uncertain’. The advanced economies are expected to be 4.7% smaller by the end of 2021 than estimated at the beginning of 2020. Emerging economies could be 8.1% smaller. That is if the pandemic is brought under control in 2021. The IMF adds that ‘these uneven recoveries worsen the prospect for global convergence in income levels’.
All this is despite monetary injections to the extent of $8.7 trillion, which made Central Bank balance-sheets grow by 10% of GDP. Historically central banks were created due to fear of uncontrollable inflation precisely to counter excessive liquidity. From WWII until 2008 the Fed’s balance varied between 4% and 6% of GDP, but in response to the Great Recession (08–09) it ballooned to 22% of GDP. This did not lead to a growth of inflation because, as we pointed out previously, the vast sums of money pumped into the financial sector through Quantitative Easing went overwhelmingly into speculation, translating into asset — rather than price-inflation. Another factor in play is the underlying deflationary dynamic in the world economy brought on by overproduction and overcapacity.
Because of the hollowness of the post-Great Recession the Fed failed to reduce its balance. In January 2020 it was still $4.2 trillion, 19% of US GDP, but by June it reached $7.2 trillion, 33%. This was necessary to stop a looming financial collapse. It explains why stock markets, after record falls in late February and March, bounced back to reach new record levels. It further widened the gulf between Wall Street and Main Street.
The flood of public money during COVID has further boosted asset bubbles. The stock market has detached itself from economic reality. Housing prices are soaring. Bitcoin, gold and other assets are frothy. These bubbles can, and probably will, burst with impacts on the real economy of “Main Street”.
The uneven distribution of the increased money supply balances inflation in some areas with deflation in others. While workers suffered layoffs and income loss, billionaires in the US gained $1 trillion during the pandemic. For the lack of profitable investments in production, not only monetary injections but also a big chunk of the fiscal stimulus measures went to speculation, further blowing up fictitious capital. This adds to the current stock market rally, with indices climbing to new historic heights, in the middle of a global crisis. While millions cannot pay their rent, home prices are rising (US: 13% in December year-on-year) as property speculators compete with those seizing the opportunity of very low interest rates to buy a (second) home. Prices for semiconductors, copper (+25%) and other commodities are increasing.
This balance could tip though, when lockdowns end and the economy starts to recover. While not an immediate threat, the coming years might see the return of the spectre of inflation. In fact, a limited, controlled inflation would be welcomed by bourgeois economists, as mountains of debt would devalue. Central banks in the US and in Britain (the ECB will probably follow) are adjusting their inflation targets to be more flexible, going for higher rates than the 2% that are considered ‘healthy’ because this corresponds to expected growth potential. However, high inflation carries the danger of triggering social explosions, as workers wages don’t keep up with the rising prices and the value of savings is eroded. Inflation is also difficult to control, and should it go up over the desired levels, interest rates would have to be increased which would jeopardize the refinancing of the private and public debt mountains possibly provoking a rent snowball effect.
Post War Keynesianism ended up in stagflation, when massive state spending led to rising prices but failed to boost the glutted economy. The Keynesian illusion that excluded inflation without full employment proved incorrect as did the classic concept that unemployment and inflation can never rise simultaneously. The powers that lead to the “end of Post War Keynesianism”, mainly the buildup of excess capacity, over-accumulation leading to a lack of profitability and as a consequence a turn away from productive investments as well as the piling up of debts have not been overcome by neoliberalism either. While Keynesian measures can bid for time, they do not offer solutions to the fundamental underlying contradictions embedded in the capitalist mode of production.
The threat of financial collapse has not at all disappeared. Economists have been warning about unsustainable debt in many countries for years. Before the pandemic almost 20 percent of US corporations had become zombie companies, kept alive by loans they are unable to service. If they collapsed this could provoke an unstoppable chain reaction. But interest rates are already historically low and, as shown above, central banks are running out of monetary ammunition. The Institute of Finance says that the global debt to GDP ratio jumped by 10% in the first quarter of 2020, the largest quarterly surge on record, to 331%. Public debt as well as household and corporate debt are surging at incredible speed.
The growth of public debt has also provoked debates over the debt threshold, meaning the point at which a country’s capacity for debt repayment is overtaken by the amount of interest to be paid, creating what is called a debt snowball. It is estimated to be a 130% debt to GDP ratio on average, however it is very dependent on the real interest rate and growth figures. Japan’s public debt has been over 200% for years without becoming unsustainable, while Greece has been condemned to primary budget surpluses for decades.
Hence the appearance of illusions such as the idea that economies can grow out of debt without ever needing to run a budget surplus ‘as long as’ interest rates remain lower than nominal economic growth. It is simply inconceivable that all major economies would simultaneously resist over a longer period the temptation to increase the level of interest rates over the level of nominal economic growth either to attract extra inflow of capital or — though that’s not the immediate threat — to combat inflation. If one major economy would do so, others would follow suit.
Some argue for variations of Modern Monetary Theory, basically governments creating unlimited money out of nothing, backstopped by central banks inflating their balance sheets at zero percent interest rates either for an indefinite or a very long period (100 years). It’s a modern turbo-charged version of ‘printing money’. In capitalist economies. based on private property and exchange of labor value on an international scale, this is a dangerous utopia. It would require an exponential growth rate of goods and services production for this inflow and multiplication of money not to unleash high inflation rates. Currencies not sufficiently reflecting real value would become blacklisted in international trade and exchange, forcing those countries to exclusively rely on their foreign exchange reserves.
From fiscal orthodoxy to fiscal activism
The Great Depression of the 1930s illustrated that the policy of ‘laissez faire’ didn’t work. Adam Smith’s idea that general interest is best served when each one pursues his own interest, hit a brick wall. Basically Keynes favored a counter-cyclical approach: governments should spend their way out of recessions and pull back when recovery sets in. Roosevelt applied it aiming to save capitalism. It failed, not because he didn’t do enough, but because none of the underlying causes of the Great Depression had been addressed. It was the midwife of revolution, war, its destruction, its outcome and the relation of forces resulting from it, that pushed the process far beyond what Keynes ever envisioned. The dominant position of US-imperialism after WWII imposing GATT and the US$ as the international exchange currency combined with the existence of an alternative system — in the form of the stalinist caricature of socialism — as well as the class struggle, led to the welfare states — in the advanced capitalist countries and some parts of the neocolonial world —, again to avoid revolution. The end of the postwar upswing (‘73-’75) with stagflation and dwindling profit rates, did to post-war Keynesianism what the 30s Great Depression had done to ‘laissez faire’.
Neo-liberalism didn’t jump ready-made onto the scene. While the Chilean masses are now ditching Pinochet’s constitution, his ’73 coup created the balance of forces required to first test the disastrous concepts of the monetarist Chicago school in real life. Elsewhere it took major class battles over a period of 5–10 years, before the ruling class gained the confidence and strength to impose it as the dominant policy ending in strategic defeats for the working class in key countries, mainly the US and Britain, soon strengthened by the possibilities offered by new IT and communications technologies which the doors for a more pronounced development of the “City” and expanding delocalisation. The result of those class battles was far from guaranteed upfront, but it was clear that post-war Keynesianism had reached its limits and offered no way out, neither for the ruling classes, nor for the working class.
Monetarism was an important policy kickstarting what would later become known as neoliberalism. In essence it considers money supply, not fiscal policy, the main tool of economic regulation, guaranteed by central banks independent from elected governments. It sees political intervention in the economy as subject to pressure in favor of income and wealth equality at the expense of economic efficiency. The control of the money supply, the essential element of monetarism was aimed at stabilizing currency value and preventing the devaluation of monetary capital. It also entailed less investment by the state and reduction of corporate taxes. In an attempt to overcome the problem of over-accumulation of capital, the capitalist class sought further profitable investment possibilities and ways to increase their profit rates. This meant attacks on wages and working conditions as well as opening foreign markets in order to export surplus capital and goods, and the free movement of capital, especially financial capital. As deregulation, financialization, liberalization and privatization headed forward, neoliberalism took shape. It was further strengthened by the expanding process of accelerated globalization after the collapse of Stalinism. While it is possible to single out some characteristic features, neoliberalism should not be understood as a fixed set of rules, but as the policies as they evolved in a historical era.
In the 2007–2009 crisis, many of the ideas of monetarism and neoliberalism proved inadequate to prevent a collapse of the economy. Instead of staying out of the economy, the state intervened massively. Instead of limiting the growth of the money supply in line with the expected growth of the economy within a narrow corridor, money supply exploded through the lowering of central bank interest rates and government bond-buying programs. Instead of reducing public debt, it was driven to new record levels. These measures, which contradict central ideas of neoliberalism, have been applied again in the course of the current crisis, this time on a qualitatively larger scale.
Today, despite the existential crisis of neoliberalism, austerity, increased flexibility, aspects of liberalization and privatization are far from wiped off the table. Neither were attacks on the working class absent during the Keynesianism of the 30s, when class struggle threatened the interests and power of the ruling class. Roosevelt combined increased social spending, infrastructure works and job creation to save the system. But none of these temporary measures solved the underlying problems of the economy and they were combined with brutal repression of workers’ struggles and further concentration of capital, this time by “picking winners” as opposed to the ‘natural’ concentration taking place under laissez faire policies. The shift in policy away from neoliberalism doesn’t mean there will be no attempts to shift the burden to workers, but it will rather be national austerity instead of an international regime.
India for example, while launching its own $20 billion fiscal stimulus, has started to push through a privatization agenda in the midst of the pandemic. A further increase of the retirement age is being proposed. But the experience since the Great Recession demonstrated that monetary policy does not have the ammunition to counter a depression as deep as today. Carmen Reinhart, chief economist at the World Bank, who was a leading advocate of austerity and fiscal orthodoxy about a decade ago, now recommends countries to borrow heavily: “First you worry about fighting the war, then you figure out how to pay for it.”
The IMF estimates that countries increased spending and cut taxes by a staggering $11,7trn, 12% of global GDP in 2020! Way more than the stimulus worth 2% of global GDP finally agreed by the G20 after the Great Recession. It makes Chris Gilles, economic editor of the Financial Times conclude that fiscal orthodoxy has been replaced by fiscal activism. An important exception compared to the previous crisis is China, which “saved global capitalism” with its monster stimulus package in 2009, but is far behind the other major economies this time around. This is mainly because of the debt mountain, which is a legacy of that intervention and now reduces the Chinese regime’s policy options.
Tectonic shift in economic policy
We believe this is part of a tectonic shift in the economic policies of the capitalists. Of course, in many respects, the situation we’re confronted with is unique. In a healthy democratic organization that will raise questions for clarification, doubts and discussion, as happened when other major unique events took place. A cornerstone of the Marxist method is to inquire about the laws of development at work in human history in order to better understand the processes as they develop.
The closest parallel to the actual situation we’re living through is the period encompassing the 30s Great Depression. The policy change being applied is not the statist command capitalism of the Nazis nor the bureaucratically planned economy of Stalinism. Nor is it the ‘welfare state’ measures after the second World War. These were based on reconstruction after World War II, the renewal of infrastructure and production capacity shifting towards generalised mass production, the peculiar dominance of US imperialism with the outcome of the war putting it in a position to be able to impose the GATT, the US$ as international exchange currency and to launch the Marshall Plan. They were also based on the existence of an alternative system in the USSR-led bloc and the radicalisation of workers as a result of the war which was partially expressed in the organised workers’ movement. It shows similarities to the Keynesian-like methods & state intervention as applied in the 30ies. Of course all comparisons are flawed and a closer focus will reveal many differences.
Will this policy be short-lived? Will neoliberalism soon resume after a brief interruption as it did in the aftermath of the Great Recession? Of course an economic clampdown cannot be excluded. But that is not at this stage mainstream thinking in ruling circles. Will this policy be applied in a straight line? No, we will see twists and turns, see it implemented in different ways in different countries and regions of the world. But given all these differences, the dominant trend in the world economy will be towards intensed state intervention — politically and financially — with less weight given to the classical “neoliberal” dogma of cutting deficits.
Capitalism is in a state of multimorbidity, a condition where several diseases affect a body at the same time. The crisis-prone nature of the capitalist economy is the root cause of ever-increasing crises of political legitimacy and stability, ecology, and health, resulting in one of the deepest global crises in the history of capitalism. Bourgeois economists and politicians are in disarray in their desperate search for a way out.
The US federal deficit hit $3.13 trillion this year, 15.2% of GDP, more than triple what it was in 2019 and the highest since just after World War II. Public debt overtakes the size of the economy, the highest level since 1946. Nevertheless Fed Chairman Jerome Powell says “this is not the time to give priority to those concerns”. He considers “the risk of overdoing smaller than not doing enough”. Newsweek asked 12 economic experts about their advice to the next US president. The word heard repeatedly was “spend” or as one economist put it “Money and lots of it.” The tool kit of the bourgeoisie proved inadequate to solve the crisis in 2007–2009 — the current policies of massive borrowing and the creation of money will create further problems in the future.
The Eurozone 19-countries bloc is heading for combined budget deficits of €1trn, 8.9% of the bloc’s GDP, ten times higher than in 2019. But Christine Lagarde, president of the ECB, says “It is clear that both fiscal support and monetary policy support have to remain in place for as long as necessary and ‘cliff effects’ must be avoided.” Marco Valli from UniCredit says “keep spending all that’s needed to support the economies and reduce … long term damages.” Because of the inbuilt construction errors in the EU, itself a consequence of the incapacity of capitalism to overcome the limitations of the nation states, these messages tend to fall on deaf ears. The historical ‘recovery and resilience package’ worth € 750bln, partly mutualizing the recovery effort, is still ‘under discussion’ as is the EU budget. Germany already announced plans to reduce its budget deficit in 2021 by 4.25% of GDP with France also planning to reduce its deficit. there are discussions within the German government on how to circumvent or even do away with the German constitutional debt brake, it still casts a shadow over the EU. This could be triggered by the Eurozone’s public debt surging by 15% to reach a projected 100% of combined GDP by the end of 2020.
The ECB’s September forecast of a 3% recovery for the fourth quarter immediately intensified the debate over whether to wind up the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program. That program actually circumvents the rules forbidding it to directly finance governments. The ECB even bought Greek government bonds. However since the resurgence of the virus a double-dip recession is more likely (growth for the fourth quarter is since revised to -2,3%). As a result it is expected the ECB will kick the can further down the road and increase its emergency bond-buying program in December by €500bn. That will not mean the overcoming of the continent’s long standing national contradictions.
The depression fuels centrifugal tendencies — within existing countries, but even more so within the EU as a whole, which could enter new crises similar to the ones we saw in the 2010s. The trade deal agreed between the UK and EU, which signified the completion of Brexit, does not fundamentally resolve any of the key issues that held up negotiations for 4.5 years. Regular diplomatic and economic clashes are likely. While the UK came out worse, the EU has undoubtedly been weakened — and will be concerned about a resurgence of anti-EU sentiment in other member states (where this had partially receded) particularly because of the poor performance of the EU on vaccine distribution, including in comparison to Britain.
The row over the export of the AstraZeneca vaccine shows how paper thin the agreement was — with both sides ready to throw out elements of it when it suits them. Within five weeks of the deal being signed, the EU ignorantly threatened to trigger Article 16, so-called safeguards which can lead to the overriding of the Northern Ireland protocol and raise again the prospect of a border between the North and South of Ireland. This has added to sectarian tension in the context in which the protocol is seen by a large section of the protestant population as being a significant step towards an ‘economic United Ireland.’ We have already seen threats against port staff and a campaign by Unionism for the British government to trigger Article 16. Alongside broader processes, this raises a question mark over whether the Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ can continue in its current form. For example the protocol must anyway be voted on in the Northern Ireland assembly every four years, which will keep the issue alive and fought over. Similar collisions can take place at any time over trade, state aid and fishing.
A period of transition to an ‘age of disorder’
Neither the IMF or any other major international institution, nor the main opinion makers at this stage argue for abandoning fiscal support quickly. It’s not realistic nor desired. Just like the Great Depression of the 30s or the 73–75 ‘oil-crisis’, this depression illustrates that the dominant policy of the past decades has reached its limits. Its continuation will only lead to greater disaster. As usual, the state is called to rescue the system, then to save it by reform, or in the IMF’s language ‘to assist adjustments’. But these will be immense. The pandemic and the depression it triggered will leave economies less globalized, more digitized and less equal. Office workers will continue to work at least partially from home. Many working in sectors likely to shrink will end up permanently unemployed. Such periods of transition are inherently unstable with elements of the past coexisting besides new ones. For Marxists, the key is to see how processes evolve and what’s the direction.
Before a fundamentally new period can take shape, it requires trial and error, the testing out of relations of forces, war or proxy-war and ultimately class war, the outcome of which is not predetermined. That’s reflected in a report published by Deutsche Bank in September announcing the end of four decades of globalization and the opening of a new “Age of disorder.” There is a section below in this resolution specifically on imperialist tensions covering this new but different “cold war”, de-globalization, the crumbling of international institutions, trade wars and economic protectionism. Suffice here to say that all of this has been enormously propelled by the pandemic and the economic depression.
China has come out of lockdowns and relaunched the economy while its main competitors are still ravaged by the pandemic. This led to panic in the US ruling class, fearing for its global market share. At the same time, given the fierce economic and geopolitical rivalry with the West, the Chinese regime is undoubtedly resorting to ‘creative accounting’ and massaging its economic data to an even greater extent than previously. There are strong grounds to question the reliability of China’s quarterly GDP figures for example for the first quarter (-6.8% is probably a significant understatement) and third quarter (+4.9% is probably an exaggeration). The position of Xi Jinping, pressed to a greater extent than previously by a resurgence of the internal regime power struggle, also reinforces the temptation to manipulate the economic data.
China’s still limited recovery was stoked by state-backed infrastructure spending and strong export demand for PPE and work-from-home gear. Property investment grew by 5,6%. One key missing element in the recovery is consumer demand. According to China’s statistics agency, per capita consumer spending dropped 6.6 per cent in the first nine months of 2020. While this has partially recovered since September this is mainly based on wealthy Chinese spending on luxury goods and holidays while poorer people still suffer from jobs and income losses due to the pandemic. One estimate shows that the poorest 60 percent of households lost an estimated $200 billion in income in the first half of the year. Crucially, fixed asset investment was officially a meagre 0.8%over the first nine months of the year, a figure that was almost certainly falsified and was in reality negative. With both consumption and investment in reality on minus during the third quarter, “GDP change would be close to a fall of 5 percent, not growing 5 percent,” according to Derek Scissors, chief economist of New York-based China Beige Book. This is of major importance for China as the economy has been struggling for some years with the so-called ‘middle-income trap’, referring to countries which have experienced rapid growth, but then fail to catch up with the higher income economies and hence get trapped.
While the Chinese economy may avoid the huge falls in GDP predicted for most older capitalist countries, it still faces unprecedented pressures and the weakest GDP performance since the final year of Mao Zedong’s rule. The renewed fierce competition for global markets and sources of growth will further inflame US-China tensions. Significantly, for the first time ever, the regime’s new ‘Five Year Plan’ (2021–25) does not even stipulate an annual GDP growth target. This shows a heightened level of uncertainty and caution in ruling circles. Possibly, a GDP target will be inserted by the time the plan gets rubber-stamped at the National People’s Congress in March, but this is not at all certain. In other respects the new plan is notable as a thinly disguised blueprint for a ‘Cold War economy’, to resist US imperialism’s economic pressure by focusing on building up domestic consumption and speeding up the creation of a stronger technological base (the key features of Xi Jinping’s “dual circulation” strategy). The content of this plan is “30 percent due to US factors”, commented one Chinese official involved in its preparation. It includes a section on the modernization of China’s armed forces for the first time.
Change in policy will not resolve underlying causes
Changes in policies will not resolve the numerous underlying weaknesses and contradictions of capitalism. Productive forces have long outgrown the capitalist mode of production and property relations, which have gone from being a relative brake on development to becoming an absolute fetter. Productive development long ago reached a stage requiring democratic planning, international cooperation and exchange and public control and ownership over resources, but that comes up against the system’s thirst for profit. While public investment in infrastructure and research as proposed by the IMF and many economists will be welcomed by the working class, it will not be sufficient to cushion the collapse. Neither will it address the crisis of profitability related to over-accumulation nor will it lead to a boom of private investment.
Decoupling and de-globalization will further accelerate. UNCTAD’s World Investment Report of January 2021 says global foreign direct investment (FDI) collapsed in 2020, falling 42% from $1.5 trillion in 2019 to an estimated $859 billion. This brings FDI to a level last seen in the 1990s. The collapse is much bigger in the developed countries than in the developing ones. It is more than 30% below that seen in the 2008/9 Great Recession. Although it must be said that the extreme scale of the decline is due to the pandemic, UNCTAD expects Global FDI flows to remain weak throughout 2021 with recovery beginning only in 2022.
Between 2002–2011, world trade, with an average 5.7% annual growth, was a net contributor to world output, which grew by 4.1% on average. Since then, world trade has become a burden on world output. In October 2020, the IMF expected world trade for the whole year to contract by 10.4%, and the World Bank in January 2021 estimated a contraction of 9.5%. Depending on the pandemic, most forecasters estimate a 5 to 8% pickup in global trade for 2021 when economies start opening up, but there are many downward risks and growth will not make up for the losses suffered.
As long as capitalism exists, whatever policy is applied will always benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. As one of our Nigerian comrades pointed out recently, when crude oil prices go up, it translates in an increase of fuel and electricity prices. But when the price of crude oil goes down — — given that Nigerian refineries stopped functioning over a decade ago and the country imports refined oil — — less income from selling crude oil also translates in increased prices for fuel and electricity. Simultaneously Seplat Petroleum, Nigeria’s largest oil company paid out 132% of its profits to shareholders in the first half of 2020.
On a global scale the extent to which companies distribute earnings to shareholders through dividends and buybacks is unprecedented. Between 2010 and 2019 companies listed in the S&P 500 index on average paid out 90% of their profits to shareholders. Oxfam found that the 25 most profitable global corporations in the S&P Global 1oo index are planning to pay 124% of their net profits to shareholders in 2020 as opposed to 103% in the year before the pandemic.
In his transitional program Trotsky pointed out that “the “New Deal” was only possible in a country where the bourgeoisie succeeded in accumulating incalculable wealth. In many poorer countries nothing of the kind can be implemented to any thorough-going extent. This is notwithstanding, in some of them, more limited twists to the neo-liberal cookbook especially where the bourgeoisie feel or fear the pressure of mass movements. For example, Modi’s new stimulus package in October aimed at stimulating consumer demand and extra public spending on infrastructure projects, while the Brazilian government’s monthly emergency aid package has handed out cash payments to 67 million poor people since April. This is an important factor behind the recent boost of Bolsonaro’s popularity during the second half of 2020 despite his disastrous management of the pandemic. Currently his popularity has fallen again because of the combination of the worsening health crisis and the ending of emergency aid payments. The government is under pressure to find a way to maintain some emergency aid to the poorest despite the effects on public spending and the constitutional restrictions imposed on public spending in the past decade.
According to the IMF about half of low income economies are in danger of debt default. Most of them are in a much worse shape than before the 08–09 Great Recession. Much of their debt is denominated in US dollars whose value increases as a safe haven, further increasing the burden of repayment. A debt moratorium was approved by the G20 that expires at the end of the year. IMF and World Bank leaders are making eloquent speeches and providing emergency financing to 80 countries, but these are linked to austerity, “harder, faster and wider” as the European network on debt and development (eurodad) describes it. In 59 of those countries, austerity over the next three years as prescribed by the IMF will be 4.8 times the amount spent to Covid-19 packages in 2020. Indirect taxes which impact harder on the poor are set to raise in at least 40 of those countries. Slashing public services accounts for three quarters of the total threatened cuts. Nevertheless by 2023, 56 of these countries would still end up with higher debt levels.
While we see elements of protectionism in most advanced capitalist countries we will see more pressure to further open up neo-colonial countries to imperialism with increased exploitation and destruction of the ecosystem as well as producing more refugees. As China became a major lender, debt restructuring talks get mixed with inter-imperialist competition, becoming even more complicated as was illustrated in the case of Zambia. Only cancellation of the debts could avoid yet another lost decade in these countries. The political effects of this nightmare without end for the masses poses, in the current period of revolt on all continents, struggles of an even greater scale and the rise of left-nationalist, populist, ‘anti-neoliberal’ and left-populist political forces and figures notwithstanding the dangers of reaction in different forms such as military coups, right wing populism and religious and ethnic clashes.
The U.S./China conflict
The US/China conflict between rising Chinese imperialism and the declining U.S. imperialist hegemon is not just the result of episodic developments like the rise of Donald Trump and will continue for the foreseeable future.
But the Trump years were certainly a turning point. Deepening tensions are reflected in inflamed rhetoric. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks about the U.S. defending itself from the “tyranny” of the Chinese Communist Party. He further declared in July that, “If we don’t act now, ultimately the [CCP] will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order that our free societies have worked so hard to achieve…The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it. We must not return to it.” U.S. rhetoric is matched by that coming from “Wolf Warrior” Chinese diplomats. Recently Xi Jinping used the 70thanniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War to whip up anti-U.S. nationalism: “The Chinese people have a deep understanding that in responding to invaders one must speak to them in language they understand.”
Meanwhile everyone is talking about the New Cold War. It‘s important to state that the cause of the New Cold war is completely different to the cause of the Cold War that existed before the collapse of Stalinism. Then it was the leading capitalist countries fighting together against a non-capitalist system. The New Cold War reflects a wider shift in the U.S. ruling class. Significantly, the Democrats did not oppose the Trump administration’s broad policy.
This is now a full spectrum conflict, exacerbated by the global pandemic and the onset of global economic depression. The trade war is important but at this point not the key issue. The increased costs and risks of doing business in China as well as pressure from the Trump regime is leading to an acceleration of the “decoupling” of the U.S. and Chinese economies. This is a process which in reality began 12–15 years ago, with manufacturers beginning to leave China for other Southeast Asian countries due to rising production costs. Given the complexity of the economic interrelationship between the two countries a more full decoupling will take many years but this is the trend of developments.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that over the past two years about 40% of U.S. companies have moved manufacturing facilities out of China or are considering doing so. The Chamber of Commerce also reports that only 28% of their member companies will increase investments in China this year, down from 81% in 2016.
It’s not just the U.S., however, but other allies like Japan and Taiwan which are urging their corporations to repatriate from China. Japan has paid 87 companies to shift production (Washington Post, July 21).
Increasingly major U.S. corporations are being forced into line behind the broader interests of U.S. imperialism: to quote Ben Simpfendorfer, chief executive of Silk Road Associates, “If you supply Google or Facebook you need to show that it’s not a China product.” In addition, a raft of new financial regulations are appearing as Western governments move to block Chinese investments, corporate takeovers and prevent pension funds and other financial institutions investing in Chinese stocks. By the end of 2021, over 200 Chinese companies listed on Wall Street will be required to comply with US accounting rules, which could trigger a wave of Chinese de-listings. This incipient “financial war” is the main driving force behind the Chinese regime’s efforts to establish a digital currency as a means to circumvent the dollar-based global payment system, which affords the US a unique position of power.
Another important feature of the conflict between the two powers is the struggle for dominance in 5G technology which has centered on Huawei. It is very striking how, despite the ham-fisted approach of the Trump administration, they have succeeded in getting Britain to kick out Huawei as well as Australia and India. France has also imposed restrictions which amount to virtual bans. More recently, Sweden has joined the now fairly long list of European countries banning or severely restricting Huawei. Germany, however, with very close ties to China, seems to be bucking this trend for now. The blacklisting of Huawei marks “a lethal blow to China’s most important technology company” according to Eurasia Group, and the single biggest setback suffered by the Chinese regime in the course of the current conflict. While a Biden administration may review some aspects of the Huawei ban it is very unlikely that the policy will be reversed due to its strategic nature, with advanced technologies becoming the key battleground between the imperialist powers.
This alignment with the U.S. position, was not, however, primarily due to Trump’s pressure or persuasion but reflects that other key powers are, for their own reasons, concluding that the further rise of China represents a threat to their interests as well. They have watched the spreading of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its military buildup and its relentless diplomatic pressure with increasing wariness. The Chinese, while also needing to export their surplus industrial capacity, are clearly using the BRI to develop a bloc of countries which are dependent/aligned with them in this global conflict for hegemony.
China, the U.S. and other powers are competing to develop and protect new technology. This competition is not just in 5G but also in semiconductors, AI, “big data” and quantum computing and other areas. This means increasing state intervention. We can see this playing out in the race to develop vaccines for Covid 19 with the U.S., China and Russia all blatantly using their pharmaceutical sectors to promote national interests. One obscure way this conflict has developed is in an intensifying struggle over official global technical standards. This could lead in some cases to parallel technologies which literally do not interface. These conflicting technologies and their attendant production processes would then operate only within certain zones of the global economy.
All of this points to the partial breakdown of an integrated global supply chain and a tendency for it to be replaced by expanded regional supply chains, the biggest in East Asia, another in North America and the third centered on Germany and Eastern Europe. The chairman of Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn, Young Liu, recently declared, “the past model where [manufacturing] is concentrated in a few countries like a world factory will no longer exist…What we think is more likely in the future are regional production networks.”
There are features of this process in the creation of 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), launched in November after eight years of talks, within which China is the driving force. The creation of RCEP as “the world’s biggest trade deal” in geographic terms, is undoubtedly a diplomatic win for the Chinese regime against the background of the U.S. trade war and China’s increasing political isolation during the current crisis. But in economic terms RCEP is rather “shallow” and “limited”, according to economic commentators. It is a far less advanced trade bloc than the EU or USMCA (formerly NAFTA), because that was the most that could be achieved in the prevailing conditions. India, Asia’s third biggest economy, pulled out of the RCEP process in 2019. RCEP’s launch may prompt the U.S. under Biden to make a renewed push for membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (formerly known as TPP), which Trump withdrew from in 2017, and which is a much deeper capitalist economic bloc designed specifically to exclude China.
The regionalisation of the world economy on the current basis has the logic of attempting to increase the level of exploitation within those regional blocs, as the capitalists attempt to compensate for the impact of the fracturing of the world economy. This means attempts to increase the exploitation of smaller powers by larger powers and of the working class generally, as we see for example in the North-South divisions within the EU and the austerity assault in all European countries over the last 10 years, most sharply in the Mediterranean countries. This however has political limits, both in terms of clashes between the capitalists themselves and the resistance of the working class. We have seen this in the EU between the German and allied governments against not only Greece but the Italian, French and British governments, and the movements of the working class perhaps most notably in France during and after the Gilet Jaunes movement.
We see this also in the strains within Nafta (now USMCA) between the US and Mexico, the election of AMLO to Mexican president and the struggles this has unleashed including in the maquiladoras factories for higher wages, the prevalence of maquiladoras factories being a direct consequence of the intensified exploitation which Nafta was designed to deliver. What is true of the EU and Nafta will be just as true, perhaps more true, of the RCEP. It is easy to see how the clashes between the governments and capitalist classes of the region can develop, and also how struggle in key RCEP countries such as Indonesia could place political limits on how far the RCEP agreement can actually be implemented.
This represents a serious shift from the model of neoliberal globalization which was based on the free flow of capital, trade and labor. It is important to stress again that we are not saying that globalization will be completely reversed. The tendency towards the development of the global economy has been a feature of capitalism since its beginnings with the emergence of trading empires. But it has not been a constant process, always moving forward. Globalization reached a very high level by the end of the nineteenth century which was followed by a long period of effective deglobalization after World War I culminating in the very high level of protectionism in the 1930s.
Protectionism and the breakdown of a “global order” reached its peak in the 1930s. This reassertion of the nation state reflected the terminal decay of the capitalist system in the interwar period which was temporarily reversed after World War II due to a series of exceptional factors. Since 2008, capitalism has again entered a phase of advanced crisis. The deglobalization process will almost certainly not go as far this time as in the 1930s but it is already on course to radically reshape world relations.
The U.S. and China, from being the main drivers of globalization, are now the key drivers of deglobalization. This is reflected in the growth of protectionism, increasing state intervention into the economy and the trend to break up the integrated global supply chains.
World capitalism is caught in a contradiction. Capitalist production and trade is organised on a world scale, but politically the system is trapped within the borders of the nation state. In the last decades, this contradiction could be partially overcome because of general growth in the world markets for goods, services, capital (not least financial assets). Globalization went further and further because the capitalist class in practically every country benefited from it. Now the situation develops in a different direction: the world cake is no longer growing but shrinking. Securing profits is increasingly only possible at the expense of others.
There is the necessity to profitably utilise an ever-growing mass of capital, and this requires investing the capital and selling products abroad. Capitalism can not straightforwardly turn the clock back four or five decades, when world trade and especially the export of capital was still low compared to today.
Therefore there will be new trade deals, the formation of new blocks, more exchange on a bi-lateral, multilateral and regional level and, at the same time, a trend towards de-coupling and de-globalization on a world level.
Growing military tensions
The military dimension of the U.S./China conflict has also sharpened with both the South and East China Seas and Taiwan as key flashpoints. The South China Sea contains large fisheries as well as oil and gas reserves but the bigger issue is that this is a strategic chokepoint. Who controls the South China Sea controls the Western Pacific and China is aggressively challenging U.S. military domination in this region.
China has sought to create facts on the ground along the “nine dash line” that it claims defines its territorial waters, by building military infrastructure on various small atolls. The Chinese have also built the biggest navy in the world but the country is still militarily far weaker overall than the U.S.
The Chinese theory seems to be that the U.S. has to cover a far larger terrain whereas they can concentrate their forces in the Western Pacific. While China has had some success in developing its presence in the South China Sea, it has come at the cost of increasingly antagonizing other countries in the region which claim sections of the same waters and pushing these countries closer to the U.S. The Philippines, for example, after moving closer to China under President Rodrigo Duterte and threatening to cancel a series of military agreements with the US has now reversed its position and allowed the Americans to return.
The other flashpoint is Taiwan which the CCP and Chinese nationalism will never accept as an “independent” state being co opted into a Western or “anti-China” bloc. The U.S. is now more aggressively pushing its relationship with Taiwan with the highest level official visit in decades earlier this year. There was even speculation that Trump might have been planning a visit before he got Covid. The Chinese airforce has adopted an increasingly aggressive posture with regular incursions by its fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace.
Either the South China Sea or Taiwan could see the cold war turn “hot” as has already happened on the Indian/Chinese border in the Himalayas. As we have repeatedly stressed, the likelihood of full-scale war between the U.S. and China or China and India for that matter is very low because of their nuclear arsenals but even a “small” war would be very dangerous and have enormous implications. It could also provoke a massive anti-war movement internationally.
Conflict exacerbates contradictions
China has suffered some reverses, for example on 5G, and is more isolated than it was a year ago on the global stage. The prestige of the CCP regime was significantly damaged by its criminal failure to contain the coronavirus outbreak at the start and its subsequent coverup. But after a brutal lockdown, China did largely succeed in containing the virus, making for a dramatic contrast with the “Advanced Capitalist Countries” in Europe and the U.S. The Chinese economy is the only major global economy that may eke out positive, although weak, growth this year and the regime is now aggressively using “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia and other parts of the neocolonial world.
Our material has made the point that while the conflict between rising Chinese imperialism and declining U.S. imperialism is inevitable it also tends to weaken both powers. Aspects of the conflict are driven by the desire to deflect from internal problems as Trump did with constant references to the “China virus.” The Chinese regime’s rhetoric is also aimed at distracting the population and blaming outbreaks of social protest, including workers’ struggles, on “foreign forces”. But in both cases whipping up nationalism can create a dangerous pressure to go further in provocations.
The CCP dictatorship deeply fears protests and revolutionary processes and there are sharp divisions within the CCP leadership about how to proceed from here with a wing opposing Xi seeking to de-escalate the conflict with the U.S. The increasingly brutal nature of the dictatorship (in Hong Kong, towards national minorities in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia) as well as the conflict with the U.S. are both a source and a result of Han-supremacist nationalism.
In the U.S. there has been massive political polarization, a certain resurgence of the labor movement and a huge wave of protest against structural racism. Trump uses nationalism to mobilize his base but this could become even more pronounced in the years ahead as the internal social and economic crisis worsens in the U.S. and the ruling class seeks to cut across social struggle. In China, while these processes are much less visible due to the unprecedented totalitarian controls in place, a huge radicalisation of especially young people is taking place. One expression of this is the big growth in support for ‘Maoism’, but with crucial differences compared to the past. Many of China’s young Maoists (a generic term in China) are radically different from the Maoist ‘norm’ in other countries in that they give no support to the Chinese dictatorship and Chinese capitalism.
Other inter-imperialist tensions
A growing feature of world relations is sharpening inter-imperialist conflict both between major imperialist powers and regional imperialist powers. The US China conflict is only the main example. In a number of cases these conflicts are waged through proxy forces.
In the Eastern Mediterranean a long running dispute has taken a new heated direction. The navies of Greece and Turkey, both members of NATO, faced off in August over rights to natural gas exploration. Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France support Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, who have tried to prevent Turkey gaining access to the reserves. While this did not lead to a shooting conflict the issues are in no way resolved.
In October, armed conflict did break out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, with Armenia suffering significant losses. The Azeris were backed by Turkey and Israel while Russia has military bases in Armenia. While hard figures are hard to come by, over a thousand have died in the biggest clash between the two countries since the war between them following the break-up of the former Soviet Union. A ceasefire has now been brokered by Russia with Russian “peacekeeping” troops brought in to police the new line of control.
While the Nagorno Karabakh issue is not new, it has become a proxy conflict between Turkey, which has the ambition of establishing itself as a regional imperialist power, and Russia. For both Turkey and Russia, internal economic problems and sharpening political tensions are a factor behind increased sabre rattling. The Erdogan regime’s foreign policy is partly based on balancing between different imperialist interests, especially those of the US and Russia. It has come into conflict not just with Greece, but has also clashed with Russia in Syria and Libya, and also increasingly with the EU, most especially with France which finds itself on the opposite side of the ongoing Libyan civil war.
One of Turkey’s sharpest rivalries is with the United Arab Emirates which has used its oil wealth to back the Egyptian Al-Sisi dictatorship against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Haftar forces in Lybia.
This is not to mention the ongoing war in Yemen, which partly reflects the wider conflict between Iran and a set of other countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel in the Middle East.This conflict is also sharp in Africa, particularly in Africa’s Horn, also involving both US imperialism and China. The war in Tigray, Ethiopia, between the national army and the TPLF forces, can further destabilize the region, causing famine and millions to flee. It is a devastating verdict to capitalist propaganda that Ethiopia because of its high economic growth was an example for other poor countries. This model was built on a dictatorship and imperialist exploitation, with no benefits for the masses.
Wider centrifugal tendencies — the national question
While the New Cold War is the main driving force undermining and dismantling global capitalism’s geopolitical equilibrium, broader centrifugal tendencies (towards fragmentation) are at play across the planet. This is expressed in the sharpening of the national question, another of capitalism’s intractable problems. The deep crisis of legitimacy which plagues all pillars of the existing bourgeois order goes as far as to threaten the territorial integrity of some of its oldest and most established nation states.
The Great Recession already saw the eruption of national questions which had been at least partially dormant during the preceding epoch, and a serious sharpening of pre-existing ones, with Scotland and Catalonia to the forefront. While in some cases, the intensity of these crises ebbed for a period, they remain ticking timebombs which have by no means been defused. The situation points towards new, potentially even more explosive convulsions in this field during the 2020s. The eruption of war in Nagorno-Karabach, the crisis, protests and clampdown by the CCP in Inner Mongolia,the Erdogan regime’s ramped-up crackdown on Turkey’s Kurds and its new military offensive against the PKK in South Kurdistan, the breaking down of a three decades-long ceasefire between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan state on the question of Western Sahara, all bear testimony to this.
In the Spanish state, the territorial model of “autonomous regions”, devised as part of Spanish capitalism’s botched “Transition” from Francoism is in existential crisis, and has been a constant factor throughout the pandemic. In Catalonia, where elements of a revolutionary situation existed in 2017 as millions defied brutal state repression to assert their right to self-determination, a full-blown constitutional crisis remains fully open three years later. Dozens of one-time ministers and movement leaders remain exiled or imprisoned for the “crime” of organizing a referendum.
The unfolding economic depression, which is due to hit the Spanish state harder than most in Europe, will not only lay the basis for new rounds of crisis and mass struggle in Catalonia, but also has the potential to open up new fronts of national crisis elsewhere on the peninsula. The Basque Country was at the epicentre of the first wave of the pandemic, and saw spontaneous strikes in the car industry forcing closures on unwilling bosses at Michelin, Seat and elsewhere. The last months have also seen strikes across the health and education sectors.
In Britain, recent months have seen Boris Johnson regularly referred to as “Prime Minister of England”, with more than a grain of truth. A cocktail of factors including the economic crisis, Covid and Brexit are accelerating tendencies towards the fragmentation of the “United Kingdom”. In Scotland, support for independence is consistently ahead in polls (by as much as 8%) with over 75% of young people in favour. In Northern Ireland, these factors, added to by demographic changes, including the pressure for a border poll on Irish unity and the danger of serious escalation of sectarianism, all combine to raise the question as to whether the fragile“peace process” will completely unravel, where the conflict of national aspirations becomes pronounced.
ISA’s proud tradition of Marxist analysis and intervention related to the national question — a flexible approach, resting on the principled pillars of struggle for the national rights of all under the leadership of the working class, while striving for the maximum workers’ unity and socialist internationalism — is a crucial asset going into this new period. Understanding the revolutionary potential inherent in struggles for democratic rights, as motors and catalysts of great class battles, is of central importance. Likewise is a principled, internationalist resistance against pressures exerted by bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalism.
On the other hand, unresolved national questions can also contribute to fuelling brutal conflicts as is currently the case in the Caucasus, parts of the Middle East and sub-saharan Africa. In a number of places, the dangers of “Balkanisation” and tendencies towards violent fracturing of countries can be seen, like in Yemen, Libya or more recently in Ethiopia. The deepening pressure of the economic crisis, meddling by foreign powers and the weakness or falling back of the workers’ movement are all factors that can exacerbate such conflicts and tendencies — to which socialists should counterpose a program that sensitively strives to forge class unity by fighting against all manifestations of national oppression and violence, and for unifying class demands.
Struggles & consciousness: the 2010s on steroids
2019, hailed by many news outlets as “the year of global protests”, was a high point in struggles globally. Whereas the pandemic initially cut across this trend, the explosion of the BLM uprising in mid-2020 marked its spectacular re-emergence, reinforced by the effects of the pandemic and of the new economic depression. The outburst of the masses in Belarus against Lukashenko’s regime, the unprecedented revolts of the youth in Thailand and Nigeria, the large summer strike wave in Iran, the revival of mass protests in Lebanon and Chile, the general strikes in South Africa and Indonesia, all have confirmed the generalised discontent and explosive potentialof this period as the revolutionary process develops.
A study by two Italian academics has recently noted that the pandemic and the impact of the crisis on social and economic relations are causing “a latent sentiment of public discontent such that the level of social conflict in the post-epidemic period might be expected to significantly increase”. An analysis by global risk firm Verisk Maplecroft similarly predicted that the economic shock of the pandemic coupled with existing grievances constituted a “perfect storm” that makes “widespread public uprisings inevitable”. These studies only confirm the ISA’s analysis of this new crisis as a magnifier of the class tensions that had already accumulated during the pre-Covid period, and as the incubator of even more explosive and rapid-paced social and political developments — as well as of sharp shifts in the mood of the masses in the months and years ahead.
Bourgeois analysts have pointed to how bread riots were one of the catalysts of the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010–2011 — a wise warning considering world food prices have been rising unabated for several consecutive months amid millions losing their livelihoods. It is difficult to exactly predetermine which factor or occasion will lead to explosions and when; but such is the degree of simmering mass anger and frustration across the globe that any apparently incidental issue, from a corruption scandal to an act of state brutality, can spark an eruption from below almost anywhere.
As Marx once explained though, people make their own history not under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances transmitted from the past. This includes the continuing absence on a world scale of mass left parties with credibility and roots among significant layers of the working class. The current acceleration of historical events remains, for now, combined with a rather pronounced “Achilles Heel” inherited from the previous historical era, in the form of the weakness of the subjective factor.
The key underlying trends are the unfolding of a profound crisis for capitalism and the emergence from below of working class opposition and movements. The opposition, organisation and consciousness, while developing, is much less than it potentially could be due to the absence of a strong subjective factor, which could act as a forum or “greenhouse’ for development. Consciousness is also developing, and sometimes such changes will be dramatic. However at the moment, in a general sense, the working class in most countries is still not yet a class for itself, not yet fully or consciously conducting the class struggle against the forms of exploitation and oppression of capitalism.
Very important struggles and events flowed from the Great Recession and the austere conditions imposed in many countries. These give a glimpse of what will happen in the future. However, while these moved things forward, in general they did not go far enough to result in qualitative breakthroughs in most countries in the sense of the working class organising its power or establishing and consolidating strong and developing mass left movements. The lack of a breakthrough of strong political movements held back the consciousness of certain layers — which translated into confusion even before the growth in some countries of conspiracy theories during the pandemic. At some point, events in society, particularly struggle, will flush general consciousness forward, but in some countries there can be a contradictory, polarised and complex situation within the working class, some moving forward while at the same time others can be affected by right populist ideas etc.
However, such is the inherent instability of the system, that conditions are in a constant state of change and it is very important that we don’t have a rigid or schematic view. On the surface it can sometimes seem as if society itself is log-jammed or the different forces cancel each other out. While contradictory elements are always present, in the past our comrades were more used to objective conditions with distinct phases that tended to be generally favourable, to be superseded by less favourable etc, and vice versa. Today we need to understand that positive and reactionary developments can take place at exactly the same time. We need to be politically strong, clear and disciplined enough, not to be disorientated by negatives, to deal with them but focus on seizing the opportunities that are posed. We also have to show that the whip of reaction has always been an important factor in propelling the consciousness of the best and most advanced layers forward, and we can make key gains among these vital elements over the months and years ahead.
The absence of a strong subjective factor is also one of the reasons why we have a perspective that there can be explosions from below. The absence of fighting trade unions and parties for the working class, can mean that the issues affecting people are not acted upon and can result in conditions getting worse. But just as a coil that is pushed back inevitably snaps and recoils explosively, so too can the anger of the exploited and oppressed. We need more discussion on what can be the nature of these explosions. In some instances we have seen explosions that set in train movements that tenaciously forge a way forward.
In others, explosions will not be signposted and can happen but then also can dissipate quickly. They can also contain exceptional potential and can result in qualitative changes in conditions and consciousness, including in establishing or laying the basis for the new political organisation for the working class. As well as preparing for what may happen in trade unions or with new left formations, we also need to look in a developed way at the potential for the movements on women’s oppression, gender, climate change, unorganised workers’ struggles, struggles in communities and of young people generally, in terms of impact they can have on the political organisation and understanding of the working class more generally.
However, the working class is also entering the 2020’s with the experience of a decade marked by the economic, political and social repercussions of what was then the greatest capitalist crisis in generations. This decade featured important episodes of mass resistance and even revolutionary upsurges, all of which have left a profound imprint on the consciousness of millions and have left capitalism -particularly its neo-liberal variant — along with its parties and institutions with a seriously diminished authority. The Global Peace Index 2020 has calculated that riots around the world increased by 282% in the last ten years and general strikes by 821%!
For the so-called “millennials”, and even more so for the “generation Z”, the “normal” state of capitalism is equated with permanent economic instability and environmental catastrophe. Many of the millennials entered the workforce during and after the last recession and are now being battered by another and even more brutal one. Even before the Covid meltdown, younger people -who have increasingly have no memory of the collapse of Stalinism had been rejecting capitalism in growing numbers and were more open to socialist ideas, although consciousness remains confused about what this exactly entails and about how the necessary socialist change can be achieved.
The discrediting of the capitalist system has been exacerbated by this year’s crisis. The ‘Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’ survey, conducted by research firm YouGov, found support for socialism among Gen Z (age 16 to 23) in the US surged from 40% last year to 49% this year. According to the same report, 60% of millennials (age 24 to 39) and 57% of Gen Z support a “complete change of our economic system away from capitalism”: these are increases of 8 and 14 percentage points, respectively, from just one year ago. The conditions newly unleashed by the pandemic provide for a process of political radicalization among the young generations the like of which we probably have not seen in decades — while provoking even in the older generations a growing awareness that something is fundamentally wrong with the way society is organized, and that developments are internationally connected. According to a poll from the research company EKOS, for example, 73% of Canadians across all age groups said they expect a “broad transformation of our society” when the Covid-19 crisis ends. The mood and consciousness of the youth, who have been a spur to many protest movements this year, should be seen as potentially a very important factor and can set the tone and give inspiration to other sections of the working class in terms of ideas, issues, demands and struggle which impact the processes within the broad working class.
If in its early phase, the current crisis seemed to have almost “suspended politics”, pushing mass struggles into the background, bringing out elements of fear, confusion and a certain “benefit of the doubt” attributed to national governments, this initial phase has not been long-lasting. The wildcat strikes by workers in a series of countries were an early sign of the unsustainability and hollowness of the “national unity” rhetoric.
Underneath the surface, the crisis has considerably spiced up the ingredients needed for the widespread anger to break out into open class conflicts and mass movements — with a generally higher consciousness than in the movements which have marked the previous decade. The other avenues of radicalisation and struggles which have characterised the pre-Covid years (gender and racial oppression, environmental destruction, etc) far from having disappeared, have been greatly accentuated — only adding up to this combustible mix.
Of course, it would be mistaken to assume this will follow a straight course or develop in a uniform manner in all layers in every part of the world. The steam of mass struggles is not boundless, periods of fatigue as well as setbacks and defeats are inevitable in the absence of parties, leaderships and programs capable to drive them forward.
The subjective factor is not in itself a prerequisite for mass movements and even revolutions to break out. Even without leadership, spontaneous struggles can grab temporary victories, or force the ruling class to make steps back and partial concessions — as we have seen on many occasions in recent months. But such spontaneity will eventually run into limits, and such concessions can be rolled back if these movements are not able to bring themselves to a higher and more organised level, including by embracing a program that goes beyond the logic of capitalism.
The fact that ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been tasked to lead a new cabinet despite his previous government having been overthrown by last year’s October uprising not only reflects the political impasse facing the country’s bourgeois elite, but also the movement’s shortcomings in not having been able to articulate and impose its own, class-based alternative. The outsized role played by “accidental figures” in some of the recent movements, such as the Imam Mahmoud Dicko in the mass protests in Mali, the exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in the protests in Belarus, or ex-prisoner Sadyr Japarov propelled into the presidency by the protests in Kyrgyzstan, speaks to the vacuum of political leadership in the working class in these countries.
Besides, virtually everywhere, the trade union leaderships have, to a greater or lesser extent, put the brakes on workers’ struggles, holding back the potential for a serious collective resistance against the new capitalist offensive on jobs, wages and conditions. This has not been able to prevent very important industrial struggles in some countries including the US, France and India. Nonetheless in these circumstances, brutal economic shocks down the road and the specter of mass unemployment can and will exercise at times a stunning effect on the dynamic of the class struggle. Mass economic distress without tangible collective response can lead to acts of desperation, individual terror, disorganized riots or bouts of communal, sectarian or tribal violence, more critically so in the neo-colonial world.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the global economic crisis have also hugely accelerated a downward trend in mental well-being worldwide, most especially among young people. The physical isolation, closure of schools, reduced access to health care, job losses, increased economic anxiety and the fear of climate disaster, have produced a particularly toxic combination. Over half (51%) of the 3,500 respondents surveyed across seven countries by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that the pandemic has impacted negatively on their mental health. Experts all warn that some of these effects will be long-lasting.
Another feature of the sickness of society is that in the US and parts of Canada, life expectancy, especially for men, has dropped. A key factor is the explosion of opioid deaths which killed more people in British Columbia than COVID in 2020 — 1,716 to 901. Governments continue to treat many mental health issues with the criminal system, so refuse clean safe supply of drugs and police constantly assault and murder people suffering ill health.
In Hong Kong, last year’s mass struggle has suffered a serious defeat, with fear and demoralization creeping in against the background of a tightening repression by the Chinese regime and its stooges. The breakout of military conflicts and increased nationalist tensions can also affect the mood of the masses and cut across the tidal waves of the class struggle. In the absence of a strong working class imprint in some of the movements, the “Cold War” dynamic at play on a world scale can generate illusions in one of the two imperialist blocs as a counterweight to what is perceived as the most immediate enemy — as reflected in some of the confusions surrounding the so-called Milk Tea Alliance, with activist youth in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand looking towards the “democratic” US against autocratic China and the Thai generals.
However, balanced Marxist perspectives are not a mere “zero sum game”; notwithstanding the various complications, we should identify what are the dominant features of the processes at play on a world scale. In a general sense, despite the contradictions mentioned and differences between different parts of the planet, there is no doubt that the pandemic and the new world crisis have contributed to drive class consciousness forward rather than the opposite. Although restarting from a lower point than last year, struggles have, in many cases, followed the same road.
An important feature of the current period lies in the fact that the rhythm of conjunctural fluctuations, i.e. the succession of periods of rises and declines in the class struggle, of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary developments, has been immensely accelerated. So is the shifting of the geographical center of gravity of struggles, moving from one country to another and from one continent to another at an accelerated pace. The level of class inequalities and the instability of the capitalist system as a whole have been built up to such historically high degrees on a world scale that the task of the ruling classes in controlling the elementary movement of the masses is increasingly akin to a firefighter struggling to extinguish a multiplying number of fires.
Whereas in many of these movements, the understanding of the role of the working class in achieving effective change is still at a relatively low point, more distinctly working-class actions and methods have shaped some of them — attested by the return of the “mass strike” in countries like Indonesia, South Africa and Belarus. As even Teen Vogue magazine recently acknowledged, class consciousness is on a rising curve on all continents, and has been boosted by the pandemic and the effects of the lockdowns. While being aware of their inevitable ebbs and flows and of their current political limitations, we can confidently assert that mass revolts, revolutions and hardened conflicts between the classes, along with more serious leaps in the growth of support for socialist ideas and Marxist forces, will be one of the dominant features of the coming decade.
The process of mass struggles, their victories and their defeats, is also a cumulative experience, out of which lessons are grasped and conclusions drawn. The recent strike wave in Iran, for instance, saw a unique level of coordination between different industries, with workers across sectors downing tools simultaneously in solidarity with each other, including from 54 oil, gas and petrochemical facilities. This is clearly based on tactical lessons drawn from previous rounds of struggles against the regime. And what is true in a single country is also true, to an extent, internationally.
The effects of decades of globalization and the massive development of internet and social media communication have laid the material basis for the advent of a new, rudimentary form of internationalism, particularly amongst the younger generations. Although it has no organizational nor fully-fledged political complement at this stage, this instinctively internationalist outlook and propensity to look at struggles in other countries for inspiration and lessons, has been a defining trait of recent movements, which has facilitated their rapid spread. The fully universal character of the pandemic and of the economic crisis, more thoroughly global than the 2008 Great Recession, have reinforced the case that none of today’s problems can be addressed within a purely national framework. At a time when the ruling classes’ drums of nationalism are beating increasingly loud, the ideas of international cooperation and cross-border working class solidarity and struggle have already found and will continue to find an echo among growing layers of workers and young people — as graphically illustrated by the global climate strikes last year, and BLM and the global anti-racist movement this year. Initiatives by the ISA and its sections, based on this growing internationalist mood, as we have done in reaction to the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea or to the “normalization” agreement between Sudan and Israel, can act as a lightning rod for these layers.
The feeling that this system is broken and offers no future is probably on a historical high since the period immediately after the first world war; also mass struggles are increasing on a global scale with the explosive movements in 2019 and 2020. At the same time, the idea of how an alternative to the current system could look like and especially the question of how this could be achieved is still very unclear. Linked to that but also to the bourgeoisification of former working class parties and the role the trade unions played in the last decades, the preparedness to organize is still very low. Only through increased class struggle, victories for the working class and broader layers going through experiences can this obstacle be overcome.
Schools and hospitals: a social tinderbox
In the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the strategic importance of health and education workers in reproducing, training and physically maintaining the current and future workforce has been brought into extremely sharp relief.
In many advanced capitalist countries, due to de-industrialisation, hospitals are amongst the workplaces uniting the biggest workforces. As ISA identified at an earlier stage of the crisis, health care, social care and other care workers, having faced intensified risks in their jobs whilst benefiting from a unique degree of public sympathy, have had both their anger and confidence boosted, and have engaged in militant strike actions the world over — including, perhaps most strikingly, in a large number of African countries. The slogan seen during health workers’ demonstrations in France between the first and the second waves of Covid-19, “Finished with the applause, now make way for the mobilization”, captures a largely shared impatience for settling the scores with the capitalist politicians who have wreaked havoc in the sector. While this trend can be temporarily submerged by the workload pressure in the context of new viral waves, it can come back with renewed vigour once the pandemic subsides.
The pandemic came on top of a growing contradiction in the capitalist system in the current period: because of the way society developed, more and more people are depending on the health or social sector. Society is getting older, worsening working and living conditions have a negative impact on the physical and mental health of the working class and the youth, and poverty and homelessnes is rising. So the importance of the sector is growing constantly as well as its position in society. At the same time in a situation of economic crisis, the capitalists are eager to cut back on the historical achievements of the working class and also want to open the health and social sector up for private capital. All of this makes the health and social sector to a central battleground in today’s class struggle. Throughout the world we can see many of the most combative class struggles in this sector. The Corona crisis will only speed up this process. Therefore our international and all sections must develop a strategic orientation towards the workers in the health and social sector.
The pandemic has also thrust teachers and their unions to the forefront of the debate about how to safely reopen schools. School and university closures have affected over a billion students worldwide, becoming a central thorn in the side of the capitalist class because of the snowball effect these closures have had on the rest of the working class. At the same time, they have deeply affected working class families, detrimentally impacting on children’s development and increasing the burden within individual households, and exacerbating pressure especially on women’ shoulders. On the plus side, this situation has greatly reinforced teachers and education workers’ self-confidence, making this sector another likely battleground in the struggles to come, as we already saw in France with the teachers’ “sanitary strike” in November 2020.
In Britain, the biggest teachers’ union the NEU has seen a surge in membership of over 50,000 new members since the pandemic began — the highest level on record for many years. In the US, public support for trade unions was only at 48% in 2009 during the Great Recession, but is now 25 / 61 at 65% according to the latest Gallup poll from July-August 2020. If the situation facing the trade union movement varies greatly from one country to another, these figures do shine a light on the potential for trade unions to firm up their ranks in this convulsive period, if their leaderships are prepared to fight — or are pushed to do so. Under pressure from below, some trade unions will at times be pushed further in action than their leadership would want. However, the depth of the economic depression, the mass layoffs in many countries, and the heightened class polarization also mean that inertia, conciliations and betrayals (that are the by-products of a reformist approach of the trade unionsleaders) can also translate more quickly into serious drops of union memberships, and precipitate entire unions into crisis. This in turn can lead to splits or the creation of new, potentially more militant trade union formations. This makes the work of revolutionary socialists in helping build and lead a fighting trade union movement all the more critical in this juncture. But it will also require enormous flexibility for socialists, to not leave the traditional trade unions in the hands of the bureaucracy while being part of any significant breakthrough in the development of new union structures, and all the while, articulating concrete proposals for united working class action across unions.
Sectors that have been on the frontline of struggles over the last year are also heavily feminized. So are the sectors most affected by the economic crisis, like retail, hospitality and domestic work. Exemplified by the months-long struggle of the Debenham workers in Ireland, working class women have been propelled to the forefront of the worldwide resistance against the capitalist onslaught. Picking up a thread observed globally over recent years, women have also played a frontline role in this year’s mass movements, from Nigeria to Belarus. In Thailand, they have brought their own demands in the mass struggle of the youth, denouncing the gender pay gap, rape culture, restrictive abortion laws and the commodification of female bodies.
In the context of a crisis whereby women have faced renewed economic pressure, attacks on their reproductive rights and a dramatic rise in gender-based violence across the board, the potential for struggles over issues directly related to gender-based oppression remains high — as highlighted again by the protests which have swept across India after the brutal rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh; or in Turkey, where thousands of women have taken to the streets in several cities over the summer against femicides and domestic violence, the most significant demonstrations there since the start of the pandemic.
But it is undoubtedly in Poland that the potential for these issues to lead to major social upheavals has been the most vividly expressed. The head-on attack on abortion rights by the right-wing PiS government provoked — while beeing in a pandemic and lockdown situation — the largest demonstrations in the country since the 1980’s, with a markedly more determined, more widespread and more political mood of revolt than during the movement that took place four years ago. A sort of “incipient” general strike was present, which could have materialized into a proper one had the union leadership been up to the job. This sudden explosion took the government totally by surprise, shaking it to its very foundations and forcing it to a partial retreat.
The fact that a massive rollback of women’s rights is happening after years of historic women struggles internationally provides a clear-cut exposure of the failure of reformist ideas to achieve gender equality, and will drive more and more working class women to revolutionary conclusions.
Dramatic developments in the U.S.
This year began with a surging presidential campaign by Bernie Sanders whose program was further to the left than in 2016. Sanders’ campaign represented a serious threat to the neoliberal establishment of the Democratic Party who carried out a ferocious campaign to block him and hand the nomination to the very weak Joe Biden. Sanders capitulated in the face of this onslaught and left progressive workers and youth without effective leadership in a year of profound crisis. However the support for key elements of his program has not diminished.
This is important to bear in my mind when we consider what has happened since. Trump criminally mishandled the pandemic leading to the death of hundreds of thousands in the most powerful capitalist country on earth. There were catastrophic economic effects including long lines for food around the country. Approximately one in three families with children faced food insecurity over recent months. All of this revealed to the world the ugly reality of massive inequality and precarity and the disastrous state of public healthcare in the U.S.
The rebirth of the Black Lives Matter movement was directly affected by these conditions. It was a multiracial rebellion of youth, led by Black youth, against racism and an increasingly bleak future under capitalism. This was the biggest protest movement in U.S. history, which temporarily put the reactionaries on the back foot and had a significant positive effect on mass consciousness. However, it also lacked a clear leadership, program, democratic structure and strategy to win tangible gains. This made Sanders’ — who could have played an important role in this regard — capitulation even more criminal. The Democrats in the big cities were able to wear the movement down and to exploit the ultra-left mistakes of a section of the movement. This gave Trump an opening which he exploited.
Outcome of the presidential election
The defeat of Donald Trump was welcomed with relief by hundreds of millions around the world. It is objectively a significant setback for right populism and the far right internationally. Ordinary people overcame the massive attempt to scare them away from the polls, blatant voter suppression in many states, especially aimed at Black and Latino voters, and Trump’s relentless threats to steal the election. The ruling class also made it clear that they did not want bourgeois democracy to be further undermined and used the mass media to relentlessly defend the “integrity” of the election and the vote counting process.
However, the scale of the vote for Trump, in spite of his disastrous handling of the pandemic, does contain serious warnings for the workers movement if it fails to build a real left alternative to the Democrats in the next period.
As our U.S. section has explained in its material, Trump won the support of the vast majority who saw the economy as the key issue; he also won by one measure the support of 40% of union members across the U.S. While we strongly reject the analysis that reduces the outcome to “white racism” it is true that the populist right is consolidating a base within the white working class and middle class based in part on racism.
But at the same time, a slightly higher proportion of the white working class overall supported Biden compared to Clinton in 2016. This is an indication of what Sanders could have done if he had been the candidate rather than Biden who literally had nothing to say to any section of the working class and openly rejected a national health insurance system (Medicare-for-All) and the Green New Deal.
The outcome means that massive polarization will continue and with it the further weakening of bourgeois institutions. The establishment of the Republican Party which has been brought firmly under Trump’s control does not have a straightforward path to regain control in the short term. But there are deep contradictions in the Republican Party which could at some point in the next period lead to a split and the formation of a more clearly far right party. Trump is currently using the post election phase to consolidate his base further around the narrative that the election was stolen.
While this would be a dangerous development it could also act as the “whip of counterrevolution” for developments on the left. Divisions within the Democratic Party have been on full display with “moderates” attacking AOC and the left as the cause for their losses in Congressional races. At the same time, AOC and the “Squad” in the House of Representatives has been augmented and could hold the balance of power.
With millions, especially young people, radicalized by capitalism’s economic crisis, developing climate disaster and the struggle against racial and other forms of oppression, there has not been a bigger objective space for a left political alternative in the U.S. since at least the 1970s. The potential to rebuild a fighting labor movement was also clearly shown by the teachers revolt of 2018 and the subsequent strike wave.
The missing factor is leadership and the key figures on the left, like AOC, are still mired in the Democratic Party, reduced to complaining that they are not being taken seriously by the leadership. But they will come under massive pressure to take a stand against Biden in the next period as the crisis enters a new phase.
Perspectives for Biden administration domestically
Biden says he will “spend money” to address the crisis which can sound bold. But this is literally what the IMF and the Federal Reserve are urging the U.S. government to do. Of course spending money in an emergency is not the same as making commitments to longer term programs that would materially benefit working people. Such commitments are largely absent although he can reverse Trump’s executive orders undermining environmental regulation and restricting immigration which can extend his “honeymoon” period a bit. At the same time Democratic run local governments are preparing to implement massive cuts to social programs.
But the next two years will not be a repeat of 2008–10 when the labor movement and left refused to push back as Obama bailed out the banks while millions lost their homes. There were genuine illusions in Obama that do not exist with Biden and working people will strongly resist a repeat of what took place ten years ago. We can’t be definite about exactly when and how the conflict between sections of the working-class and youth and a Biden administration will develop but we can be absolutely certain that there will be many potential flashpoints including the threat of mass evictions, struggles against cuts at city and state level and threats to abortion rights from the rightwing Supreme Court. Trying to use the same neoliberal playbook as Obama did will have very different results this time.
However if the workers movement and the left fail to rise to the situation and provide a clear alternative, there will be a big opening for the far right to grow during the next few years. As we have said, Trumpism could be followed by an even more dangerous phenomenon.
Biden administration and foreign policy
The main question we need to address is to what degree the Biden administration will represent a “reset” in world relations. Biden will quickly take steps that will sharply distinguish the new administration, at least at the level of rhetoric, from Trump. He will reenter the Paris Climate Accord which the U.S. just officially left as well as the WHO. More broadly he will re-engage with global capitalist institutions that Trump abandoned and the U.S.’s traditional alliances such as NATO.
But the Paris accord is extremely limited and the U.S. reentering it will not in itself mean any serious change in the headlong rush to climate disaster. Likewise ending “American first” rhetoric and seeking to engage with the WTO can slow down the growth of protectionism. But it’s far from reversing the trend of recent years. Biden has promised to bring home jobs under the label of “Made in America”.
This is especially clear in the U.S./China conflict. Biden may seek, for example, to come to an agreement with China to roll back tariffs but the U.S. policy of “engagement” with China which began with Nixon’s visit in 1972 and led to China joining the WTO in 2000 is now definitely over. As we have stressed this is not just the result of Trump’s economic nationalist policy but reflects a wider shift in the U.S. ruling class. Even before Trump, Obama’s goal with the TPP trade alliance that Trump pulled out of, was to “encircle” China and contain its further development. We can expect Biden to stress “human rights” as part of U.S. imperialism’s containment campaign to a much greater degree than Trump. We should not expect any serious change in the conflict over technology or the general moves towards decoupling.
Biden and his team are definitely committed to trying to revive the Iran nuclear deal but in practice this will prove very difficult. Iran is indicating it will demand restitution for the sanctions regime under Trump which would probably be politically impossible for Biden to agree. Elections in Iran are also coming up next year which could potentially bring the presidency back to the hardline faction of the regime and add to the complications for a revival of the deal. There are indications that Biden will adopt a less friendly posture to the Saudi regime. The removal of Trump from the White House, whom Mohamed Bin Salman had used as a cover to engage in a massive drive to centralize power around himself, could reignite the inner feuds within the Saudi ruling elite. The relationship with Netanyahu will be frosty, as it is likely that Biden’s administration will attempt to appear less aggressively and provocatively biased in favour of the Israeli regime, and will re-open the lines of communication with the Palestinian leadership, which had broken down under Trump. However it doesn’t seem like the chimera of an imperialist-backed peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians will be a priority for Biden in any case.
Biden’s victory is very welcome for the leaders of the main EU countries, although not by the governments in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and he will definitely adopt a more adversarial posture towards Russia. He is opposed to Brexit but recognizes that it’s basically a done deal.
Political polarization deepens
Relentless austerity, growing inequality and competition amongst the poor for social services already undermined social acceptance of neoliberalism are key features of the current crisis. Political representatives, left and right, institutions, all became seen by growing layers as part of the forces working in favor of a status quo favoring the elites. In addition, the standing of the main trade union leaderships has been diminished significantly in the last period, to differing degrees in different countries and within different countries. Wars claiming to make the world safer and expand “democracy” produced instead more insecurity, brutal dictatorships and terrorism on a scale not seen before. “Revelations” and rumors about the “deep state” and the influence by foreign powers’ secret services even further undermine the already weakened credibility of capitalist institutions..
Struggle over resources and wealth further increased tensions between trading blocs, countries and even regions within countries, fueling national questions and open cracks between local, regional and national authorities. Escalating environmental catastrophes push the sense of urgency to tackle climate change but also scare those dependent on polluting industries for a living. This melting pot of contradictions feeds deception, insecurity, distrust and anxiety, enormously compounded by the systemic failure to tackle the health crisis as well as the economic depression.
In October 2020, in an opinion poll in France 79% indicated that they would consider casting an anti-system vote. This is part of an international trend, reflected in social movements over the past year. Political parties or figures ready to audaciously tap this mood could make headway.
Unfortunately internationally no left figure or new left formation at this stage appears to be ready to face up to the challenge; instead they aim to be constructive and respectable. Left wing figures within the British Labour Party and the American Democratic Party reflected a growing leftward trend in society, but have to a more or less considerable degree capitulated to the establishment. In the case of “the Squad” in the U.S. they may be pushed to the left under pressure from their base at a later stage. In other instances, the main failure of the ‘new left’ has been to cohere an organised political force capable of consolidating electoral gains, engaging in struggle and enabling struggles to be reflected within their ranks, and beginning to build strong roots in the workplaces and working-class communities. In different ways, the limitations of Melenchon’s France Insoumise and AMLO’s political structure both reflect this halting half-way toward a new left party, by leaders who have taken a half-step in that direction.
Most of the trade union leaders also fear the consequences of what could be unleashed if they were to translate this massive anger and frustration into concrete demands and action. The trade union left at this stage is much weaker than it used to be decades ago and is only starting to rebuild in some countries, and is not in a position to overtake and bypass the bureaucratic apparatus in most cases.
Right wing populism and far right
This offers right wing populists and even the far right the opportunity to pose as the main, if not the only anti-system force. Even after four years of his presidency, with all his racist and misogynist insults, after mishandling the health crisis, Trump succeeded in still posing as “anti-establishment”, the defender of the white working class as well attracting an important layer of Latinos and even black people. Trump and the far right exploited the fear of deprivation, of being put out of work because of covid-19 lockdowns, to pose as the defenders of ‘liberty’. Mistrust of the establishment after years of disillusions, betrayals and outright lies is seized upon to feed conspiracy theories. A sentiment of patriotism to restore law and order is whipped up to protect ‘our way of life’ against the so-called anarchy promoted by ‘the left’, stoked up by the ‘trade union and Democrat Party mafia’ as well as ‘the deep state’ to plunge the US in decay.
Right wing populists and far right in Europe play similar tunes. Stoking up racism, promoting law and order as well as defending ‘our Christian values’ is now being supplemented by exploiting the fear of small business owners that will be forced to close, seizing on the frustration over anti-democratic measures being inflicted on ordinary people while big business keeps running and utilizing the anger and lack of trust in mainstream politicians, the press and bureaucratic institutions.
There are serious limits though, with elements of the far right stepping out of line and provoking a much more important counter-reaction. The Greek anti-fascist left pushed back Golden Dawn to the extent that the establishment felt compelled to drop them While this is an important victory, we cannot exclude neo-fascism to come back at a later stage under a new name. Small but growing neo-fascist combat groupings are useful tools for the far-right parties but their presence also leads to internal conflict and splits which can throw the far right temporary back electorally. Alliances between right wing conservatives and crypto fascists under the roof of right wing populism remain unstable. The growth and success of the German AfD is again and again crippled by the internal struggle between the two right wings. The radical anti-establishment group around the fascist Björn Höcke wants a closer connection to the movements from racist Pegida to Covid-denying Querdenken and has a nationalist-social programme, while the patriotic-conservative group around Jörg Meuthen wants to make the party ready for government participation under a protectionist and neoliberal programme. The national conservatives profit from the anti-establishment image the party has, and the crypto fascists need the national conservatives as a well behaved fig leaf. Both wings need each other to survive, but they can’t live with each other either. Their dispute could escalate at a later stage and lead to another split.
To popularize reactionary ideas while in opposition which are then taken over and adopted by more traditional parties is one thing, but to create a consistent government policy out of it would require such a thorough interference in economic decision-making that it would bring them straight into collision with the ruling classes whose interest they aim to serve. When ideological motives are put aside, careerism and greed take over, as illustrated so well by former Austrian vice-chancellor Strache. While there is no guarantee that right wing populists and the far right will automatically suffer electoral defeat by participating in government as long as the breeding ground on which they can build has not disappeared, it is nevertheless striking that both FPÖ in Austria and the Lega in Italy are down in the polls. Part of the Lega’s social base is now being captured by the even more far right Fratelli d’Italia.
The fundamental obstacle however, the one we must build upon, is the squeezing of their historical social base, the middle classes, in favor of a numerically expanding working class. The potential relation of forces between the classes, even where the working class is organizationally weak and politically confused, is the major obstacle to decisive right-wing populist and far right policies. Even where authoritarian right-wing populists do rely on a nascent domestic bourgeoisie, in most of Central and Eastern Europe, this nevertheless enormously limits their capacity to impose their policy.
This was demonstrated in the massive movement over the new abortion law in Poland. Kaczyński’s appeal to join the fascist militias to protect churches and the threat to prosecute the organizers with up to eight years imprisonment and to fine the participants, all were brushed aside by the massive flood of demonstrators, many of them working class women and men.
India’s strongman Modi, leading a Hindu chauvinist rightwing nationalist government was nevertheless confronted in January 2020 with a 250 mln strong general strike and, importantly, mass protests against his 2019 citizenship law. Other rightwing populist strongmen like Orban or Bolsonaro could face similar resistance. The defeat of Trump, be it after a record vote, will further add to their limitations.
It is understandable that some instinctively identify the likes of Trump, Modi or Lukashenko with fascism. Neo-stalinist, anarchist currents, establishment figures and trade union bureaucrats promote this false idea justifying cross-class unity against ‘the main enemy’, brushing aside the social questions which are at root of the broader appeal of right wing populists and the far right. The absence of a real left alternative or a fighting workers movement making a clear class appeal allows right populists to have a bigger appeal to sections of the working class on the basis that they are fighting “urban liberal elites” Unless challenged, the danger is that right populism can open the door to the far right and sink deeper roots both in the middle class and more alienated sections of the working class. But in most countries the real organized forces of the far right and certainly of fascism remain at this stage objectively very weak.
Real fascism is a mass movement with the aim to destroy any working-class organization and atomize them. It requires a decisive defeat of the working class. Although on some occasions, the ruling class will make use of fascistic or paramilitary groupings as an auxiliary force to bring terror and division among the working class and oppressed layers (as does the RSS in India for example), the danger of fascist forces capturing state power to crush the workers’ movement is not on the order of the day.
Beyond the objectively changed class balance of forces that make such an option more impractical, the ruling classes today do not feel the same need to go down that road in the way they did in the 1930’s in Germany, Italy and Spain, when they had a visceral and immediate fear of socialist revolution. Pointing that out means in no way an underestimation of the dangers. If the working class stays weakly organized and politically confused, major defeats cannot be excluded which might give way to more brutal repression and further, even more dangerous, growth of the far right. The key question is the resistance of the working class, its organizational strength, its program, strategy and tactics and the leadership forged out of its experiences.
New Left Formations
When we first raised the need for ‘new workers’ parties’ in the mid nineties, it was disputed on the left. Our analysis that the collapse of Stalinism made the “bourgeoisification” of the mass political organisations very likely was both sharp and confirmed by events. Our perspective and the basis for our programmatic call for new workers’ parties have also been confirmed in the sense that there were many attempts over the course of the following two decades to establish new entities to the left of social democracy, which in some countries quickly became important factors. In some countries this process was given a special impetus in the period following the Great Recession. However, it is also true that our expectation that new mass parties would be generally built was not realised.
Some of the formations established disappeared quickly, others were supplanted by new ones, some continue to exist and could still play an important role in the future. The most significant new party to develop prior to the Great Recession,the Italian Rifundazione Communista (founded in 1991), which had the active participation of tens of thousands of worker activists, was destroyed when it entered the second Prodi austerity government (2006–8). Reformism prioritises parliamentary arithmetic and manoeuvres over a belief in the power of the organization, mobilisation and struggle of the working class as the driving force for change. Unfortunately, the mistaken policy of “coalitionism” with pro-capitalist parties, in itself a clear expression of the bankrupt approach of modern day reformism went on to be repeated ad nauseum by the leaderships of many new formations in the period to follow, often with devastating consequences.
Following the collapse of the PRC, the effects of its betrayal and the demoralization it caused linger on until today. However, at the time globalization was in full swing and although there were the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements during that period, the global class struggle was on a different level than what it became in the aftermath of the great recession and in the run-up to the current crisis.
New left formations were formed in a period of permanent attacks against working and living conditions. In contrast to the former social democratic and communist parties who cemented a mass base and had an intimate connection with the working class over a long period of capitalist stability characterised by gains for the working class, especially in the West following World War II, the new left formations were immediately tested by the demands of the epoch of neoliberalism. Their existence was therefore, inherently more unstable. While gaining considerable electoral representation in a number of countries, they remained mainly “pressure parties” until the Great Recession of 2008–9, and the vicious attacks against workers that followed. Then, after an initial period of paralysis, some quickly became contenders for power.
In Greece the troika’s intervention provoked mass resistance and upheavals. No less than 40 general strikes were called between spring 2010, the beginning of the first memorandum and Syriza’s decisive election victory. The fact that Syriza was catapulted by the crisis and political vacuum into becoming the core of this new project, is a useful reminder of the need for flexibility in our perspectives for the emergence of new mass political forces of the left in the coming period.
Once in power, Tsipras underestimated the resistance he would face. Following the election, hundreds of millions of euros were flowing out of the country daily. The ECB froze liquidity to the banks and forced them to close down. Tsipras could either accept the terms of the Troika or go on the offensive: impose capital controls, refuse debt repayment, nationalize the banks, introduce a national ,currency, start major public works, nationalize the commanding heights of the economy, plan the economy, impose a state monopoly of foreign trade, workers control and management and appeal to workers elsewhere in Europe for support. Instead Tsipras called a referendum on July 5th 2015. A tremendous 61.5% majority rejected a new memorandum and gave him the mandate to go on the offensive and refuse to pay the debt, but a week later he capitulated. It led to gigantic demoralization, no important section of Syriza or the wider left was able to mobilise a mass working class response of the kind that would be necessary, and, it was on the contrary the rightwing ND which clawed back to power.
The Indignados movement (2011) in the Spanish State at its height involved over eight million mainly young working class and middle class people in demonstrations and occupations. The youth turned away from the official parties and the trade unions, including the CP-led Izquierda Unida which had seen significant growth in the polls and publicly supported the movement but was unable to adequately connect with it. Then a group of intellectuals, left and media figures around Pablo Iglesias launched Podemos in 2014. Its attacks on “La casta” of corrupt politicians and oligarchs, combined with a radical left reformist programme, tapped into the mood. In the parliamentary elections in 2015 it scored over 20%, taking five million votes from the Social Democracy.
During the following years, several general strikes and manifold waves o f struggles took place against privatizations, for women’s rights, over the environment and low pay and especially over the national question. These struggles were often characterised by workers and young people rebelling against the official leadership of the labour movement, and imposing a militant path of struggle from below. Instead of basing itself on this dynamic to launch a determined struggle for power, the Podemos leadership (now allied with the former Izquierda Unida) focused on institutional manoeuvres, diluting its political programme, and presenting itself as a party committed to “constitutional” capitalist stability.
Covid-19 changed the setting. After four elections in four years the PSOE-Unidos-Podemos ‘left’ government was formed. It faces enormous pressure from below to reverse the cuts imposed over the past years. In June it introduced what it wrongly calls a universal basic income, in reality public assistance to the poor similar to what exists in other European countries. It will nevertheless benefit 850,000 families at a cost of over €3 billion a year. Then strikes, demos and other actions over healthcare made the government concede a 151% increase in its 2021 health budget and promise a further 10% increase in what it calls social investment. It is not, as Iglesias boasts, ‘the start of a new epoch that leaves neoliberalism definitively behind and will restore labor and social rights and public services’. The health budget increase, for example, includes the purchase of vaccines. But after years of endless cuts it will be seen as a welcome indication of change and stimulate further demands from workers, including for nationalizations.
On the European economic scale, Spain 2020 weighs more than Greece 2010, its public debt to GDP is lower and its access to money markets is not a problem yet. But it also reflects the process set in motion by the pandemic and the depression, the turn away from neoliberalism, with room, at least for now, to spend one’s way out of depression, including in Europe. But the government’s policies also show its political limits. Only €2 billion of the required money is planned through a 2% tax increase on high earners (over €300.000), 3% on capital incomes, and a small reduction of tax exemptions for foreign dividends. The bulk will be paid for by a €27 billion “advance” from the EU recovery fund. With an economy expected to contract 11.2% in 2020 and a jobless rate of 16.3% in the 3rd quarter, the government will end up squeezed between workers’ demands to go much further and resistance from the establishment, assisted by the EU and the ECB who will use the grants from the EU recovery fund as a lever to shift the burden onto workers.
The Greek and Spanish examples both contain many lessons for today. On the positive side they illustrate how major events and important social movements, even after exhaustion or being driven off the streets, can transform small left formations or newly created ones in a matter of a few years into major instruments, provided they are able to articulate some of the main sentiments as Syriza did in Greece by calling for a government of the left or Podemos in Spain when it criticized ‘La Casta’. The betrayal of PRC in Italy and later of Syriza in Greece no doubt complicates future developments. But not all defeats are equal, neither do they occur in the same context or period.
The capitulation of Sanders, while being an important setback, in no way stopped BLM from developing, nor does it reduce the appeal for a new left party, which is set to grow after an initial period during Biden’s presidency. In periods of mass politicisation and crisis, the impact of defeats can also be different among different layers. Important layers can draw more advanced conclusions from the defeats and move closer to an understanding of the bankruptcy of reformism. In Britain, what seems to be the definitive defeat of Corbynism has seen a significant layer of new activists search for alternatives further to the left, including an important number who have approached our section, many of whom have joined.
The complications are many. What is clear though, is that the processes which led to social revolts from the latter part of 2019 are continuing after a brief interruption, even while the pandemic is still in full swing. Bolivia and Chile are just the main expressions of how those movements can also translate into overwhelming majority votes, whether in elections or referenda. It is important for the determination of any movement to sense that it represents the majority opinion. Such movements in Brazil or Argentina could transform PSOL and the FIT into major forces which would then stimulate the formation of similar forces all over Latin America. Even in Nigeria, following the youth revolt, or in South Africa, involving the youth and parts of the still gigantic workers’ movement, the question of new left formations could be posed in the near future. In South Africa though the existence of the EFF will be a supplementary complicating factor.
Can the enormous gulf between the maturity of the objective conditions, the will to fight with determination for radical change, the internationalist outlook on the one hand and the lack of organization and leadership on the other only lead to defeats and inevitable backlash from reaction? Or will the movement, because of its potential strength, come in waves, sometimes on the offensive, then pushed back again, and instead learn from its defeats while forging the organizational instruments and a leadership more in line with the challenges, in the course of action? There is no a priori answer to those questions.
Although the series of intractable crises facing world capitalism will tend to push a growing layer, especially among young people, towards the basic understanding that a break with the system is necessary, many workers and youth will still need to practically test out the limits of reformism before they will adopt a revolutionary outlook. This does not mean a slow process. In fact, such changes often happen quickly and dramatically. We cannot have a rigid view of how exactly that experience will be lived, including that it must in all cases take place via new mass parties. Neither should we have a view that unless such new mass parties get established soon, an insurmountable barrier exists to the development of the consciousness of the working class and young people.
One of the main tasks of revolutionary parties is to generalize and integrate the lessons of the past into its program and intervention. While important elements ofthe CWI’s analysis and perspective for new left formations was borne out by events,that important aspects of our perspective did not develop as we anticipated means acritical review is also necessary. To a certain extent, there was a tendency to expect that new formations would resemble the “mass workers’ parties” of the past to a greater degree than was the case. We must bear in mind the fact that, just as parties of the past were based on unique historical circumstances, what happens in the present and future will be affected by the circumstances that have developed since. Before judging future political perspectives, many newer factors need to be considered including the independent movements of the working class, incorporating the women’s and gender movements, environmental struggles and in particular the radicalisation of young people. Radicalised young people can be an important element in the perspectives for new parties. So new parties which develop and grow in the 2020s will bear the hallmarks of our epoch.
We have described the weak working-class roots of the new left formations, often dominated by petty-bourgeois layers especially in the leadership. Their ‘reinvention of democracy’ often covers up for the absence of real democratic structures and a top down approach. We know they are mainly focused on elections and coalitions with little record of mobilizations, thus squandering crucial potential. We have seen the limits of their reformist program, their lack of preparation and determination which at key moments leads to capitulation.
We have to apply those lessons though in the situation as it prevails. Today, forced by the circumstances, the ruling classes concede more room of maneuver, at least for now, to a varying degree dependent on the wealth present in a country and the relation of forces between the classes. No doubt politicians of all sorts, including the likes of Iglesias will seize on that. Many will consider it a welcome relief, a real change and will aim for more. To deny the changed circumstances would simply leave us unprepared and cut us off from important layers. On the contrary, we should share the enthusiasm to struggle for more, but not the illusions and warn about the limits of the reformist approach and of what is possible within the framework of capitalism.
The perspective and call for the formation of new, broad workers’ parties or even broad left parties without a clear class character remains of crucial importance as instruments for common experience in action. Our experience to date shows that the need or basis for such parties can be posed objectively — as has been the case in the US, for example — for sometimes long periods, but can take time and major events if they are to emerge, in the absence of a combative leadership of the working class with the confidence to take the initiative. On the other hand, experience also points towards the fact that vacuums have a tendency to be filled, in sometimes complex and unforeseen ways.
It will require ferocious battles of the working class to get new mass parties off the ground. If established, it will demand yet another battle to guarantee a healthy social composition, democratic structures and an orientation towards concrete action and movements. And then again there will be an ongoing struggle over the program against opportunism as well as ultra-leftism. Unless there is a battle, with significant sections of such parties moving in a socialist, revolutionary and Marxist direction, there is no guarantee that they will avoid the fate of those which have come before. However, for many workers’ and youth new parties and formations will be the opening up of a new political life, which might blind them to crucial shortcomings.
We can also expect that a comparably smaller but nevertheless much bigger layer than in the past decades, will skip the stage of illusions in mass reformist parties and immediately reach out for a revolutionary party. We have to win and integrate them, train them in our principled but transitional method to become part of the backbone of our interventions in movements, in broader parties, when facing repression and partial defeats and help us build the core of a future revolutionary mass workers’ international.
In the past we often talked about the ‘dual tasks” of helping to rebuild a fighting workers movement while also building revolutionary forces. This remains a key concept, though perhaps we should reformulate the concept, as in the past it led to some confusion. It does not mean an equally balanced equation between building the broad workers movement and building the revolutionary party. While building the workers movement and new formations/parties can gain or lose relative urgency depending on the concrete challenges, our primary, strategic task remains the building of a revolutionary core. This was confirmed throughout our experiences over the past thirty years with new left formations. However to reach the bulk of the masses will continue to require a skillful and the educational application of the tactics of the united front.
We will of course be part of any decisive move towards working class political independence while always fighting for a clear revolutionary program. But there is no tactical approach which can be worked out beforehand which will apply in all circumstances.
State repression, and the struggle for democratic rights
Although this new period will be marked by more explosive class struggles, socialists also need to be prepared for more aggressive forms of state reaction.
The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a global wave of attacks on democratic rights — the “national security law” in Hong Kong being the most thoroughgoing piece of repressive legislation imposed so far since the start of this new crisis. A study by the NGO Freedom House has identified 80 countries where “democracy has suffered a blow during the pandemic”. The ruling classes have taken advantage of the virus to step up state repression and justify draconian legislation that would have been far less easy to implement in “ordinary” times.
Once the pandemic subsides, they will undoubtedly try to hold onto these new restrictions on democratic rights as much as possible — even though in a number of places, outbreaks of struggle have “unlocked” the situation and forced the ruling class to curtail its ambitions. In October, the Thai Prime Minister, for instance, was forced to lift a state of emergency imposed a week earlier because it was de facto “cancelled” by the escalation of protests in the streets.
Governments in the imperialist West have been quick to point a finger at “authoritarian regimes” exploiting the crisis to step up repression. By this, of course, they only mean those that are not in line with their geo-political interests. In fact the “liberal democracies” in the advanced capitalist world have been themselves the scene of a creeping form of authoritarianism and transgression of the traditional norms of bourgeois democratic rule. This is not a new trend, but it has been reinforced by the pandemic and the mass economic downturn.
The crisis of capitalism is undermining and angering the middle classes, and creating widespread ferment among the working class; traditional bourgeois parties have been sripped of significant portions of their support base after many years of neoliberal onslaught. Capitalism is hence increasingly dragging its state machinery onto the frontline to contain the mounting level of social contradictions it has generated. As Trotsky once explained, under the violent pressure of class and international antagonisms, the switches of democracy fuse or burst.
In France, Macron plans to push through an “anti-separatism” bill that will be the opening to a battery of iron-fisted measures targeting most particularly the Muslim community but also, as stated by the Interior Minister, “parts of the ultra-left”. The Israeli regime, often praising itself as the “only democracy in the Middle East”, has been implementing some of the most extreme anti-democratic measures in the context of the pandemic, including giving unlimited powers of surveillance to the secret police.
Harsher racist policy and practice by the state is part of the political nationalism interplaying with nationalism on the economic field. A particular edge of sharpened state repression is directed at refugees. The European Union in September launched a proposed new “migration pact” which in Orwellian newspeak talks of “solidarity” — the solidarity of member states assisting each other with forced deportations and a sped-up process of assessing (read: denying) asylum applications. The replacement of the burnt-down Moria camp on Lesvos with an even more prison like camp is telling, as are the revelations of the EU practice of “push-backs” on the Mediterranean (forcing refugee boats onto international waters where there is no legal obligation to rescue them).
While the EU has in these ways brutally framed the “2015 refugee crisis” in the past tense, the actual refugee crisis has only grown. According to the UN, at least 79,5 million people refugees by the end of 2019 — the highest number since World War 2 — numbers that are set to increase as political and ecological instabilities escalate. The new civil war in Ethiopia could force as many as 200 000 civilians to flee. According to the Institute for Ecology and Peace (IEP) about 24 million people have been displaced by ecological disasters annually in recent years. The IEP estimates that as many as 1,2 billion could be “climate refugees” by 2050.
The question of refugees is in other words set to become a lot more pressing. With most refugees displaced within their own hard-pressed countries and regions, attempts will be made by ruling elites to whip up xenophobic sentiments and violence (as seen for example in South Africa in October) to divert blame for their own failures. While governments, the populist — and far right try to shut out, criminalise, blame and punish the victims, and in these efforts make use of and fuel racist and reactionary views, the issue also contains explosive potential for working class solidarity and protest.
The initial response across Europe in 2015 was one of mass solidarity. Now, the role that migrant workers have played in holding up health — and elderly care services in the rich countries has been registered among their co-workers and more broadly. The protests provoked by the French mass eviction of refugees in Paris and against the new “security law” indicate this.
In the neo-colonial world, the situation is even more acute. The crisis has brought the Indian state’s naked brutality, along with its casteist and communalist traits, sharply to the foreground. In October, Sri Lanka’s Parliament approved a constitutional amendment that provides for a sweeping expansion of the powers of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, giving him unfettered control over key institutions and eliminating parliamentary checks — a move that sanctifies the country’s slide towards a full-blown Bonapartist dictatorship. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which has monitored shifts in protest patterns around the globe through the COVID-19 Disorder Tracker (CDT), state repression has increased by 30% in Africa, with close to 1,800 incidents where state forces targeted civilians. The recent military coup in Mali is in that sense indicative of a broader trend on the continent, with the army or sections of it called on to play a more prominent role.
This is not only motivated by the ruling classes sharpening their blades in preparation for more serious social explosions. Scenarios of economic collapse can also increase the disgruntlement in the lower and middle ranks of the state apparatus. When the cake to be looted is shrinking, infighting between various wings of the local ruling elites and at the top of the state can also intensify. The mass discontent in society can then become a lever to grab power for themselves, removing unpopular leaders and presenting such military takeovers as in accord with the will of the streets.
Such coups can be met with a certain support in their early stages. Like in Sudan last year, the coup d’etat in Mali was initially greeted by sections of the population, as it removed President Keita against whom the masses had protested for months before. But the very fact that the coup plotters were forced to portray their move as a continuation of the mass struggle implies that the balance of forces has not decisively shifted in favour of the counter-revolutionary junta, and that the movement is likely to re-emerge in a backlash against the military newcomers as they fail to put an end to the jihadist insurgency, the extensive corruption in the state and the widespread poverty and social problems.
In Bolivia, less than one year after the right-wing coup against Evo Morales, the masses made a spectacular comeback, through two weeks of mass mobilisations in August followed by the resounding electoral victory of the MAS in the October elections. There again, the coup did not succeed in imposing a long-lasting blow to the movement of the working class, indigeneous people and poor peasants.
This of course does not mean that such crushing blows cannot or will not happen in the future. Yet generally, movements in this period will tend to recover more quickly from defeats than was the case in the past. The greater social weight of the working class in comparison to previous historical periods and the corresponding depletion and proletarianisation of the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie — the traditional social base of the reaction — means the bourgeoisie does not have the same reservoir to tap into in order to consolidate outright military dictatorships, let alone fascist regimes.
The trajectory of Sisi’s rule in Egypt illustrates the point that sustaining overt dictatorial regimes for a lengthy period of time is being made more challenging for the ruling classes. Sisi’s military a latcoup in 2013 opened the door to a ferocious counter-revolution, physically purging the “vanguard” of the 2011 revolution via mass killings and imprisonement, torture and forced exiles. But six years later, “Egypt is now back to square one, in a situation broadly similar to that before the 2011 revolution: stable on the surface, but with deep structural problems and simmering social grievances, and buffers available to mitigate them depleting” — as an article from the Arab Research Initiative recently commented. The same article went on to warn that a social explosion was made likely down the line “by the absence of any shock absorbers.”
The ISA needs to give democratic aspirations and demands a critical and renewed emphasis in this period, as the erosion of these rights is becoming a focal point of anger, especially among the youth, fueling radicalisation against the system and triggering mass outbursts. Protests against police brutality have been a defining and international feature of the struggles in 2020 including in the US, Colombia, Tunisia, Nigeria, and a number of other places — showing that the capitalist classes’ turn to increased state violence and more authoritarian forms of rule will not happen without serious fightbacks.
Most especially in countries with dictatorships, semi-dictatorships, remnants of previous dictatorships, foreign rule or incomplete forms of bourgeois democratic rule, democratic demands contain high revolutionary potential, and will be a crucial part of an offensive program of mobilisation against the system. This has again been highlighted by the experience of the vote on the Constituent Assembly in Chile. This came as the direct outcome of the revolt by workers and youth in 2019, which went further in scale and intensity than many of the movements which exploded in 2019. The result of the vote in the October plebiscite itself was a slap in the face for Piñera and the establishment, and a boost of confidence to the Chilean masses. The “constituent process” which will follow represents a tactical attempt by the ruling class to derail the struggle’s revolutionary potential and search for a superficial “reset” which leaves the fundamentals of the system intact. On the other hand, it will also provoke a broad debate in society over the need for structural changes, which Marxists must intervene in, explaining the limitations of a mere “political revolution” which tweaks the system’s superstructure and the need for a social revolution to build a fundamentally different socialist society.
In general, Marxists cannot afford to leave these questions in the hands of “liberal” wings of the ruling class; they should fight instead as the most consistent “democrats”, while connecting democratic demands to the need for a revolutionary struggle for socialist change.
While a widespread mood for defending democratic rights exists, it is also combined with a deepening crisis of legitimacy of the official institutions of bourgeois democracy, seen as corrupt and biased in favour of the rich and powerful. Research at the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge university shows a rise in global dissatisfaction with “democracy”, a sentiment which has sharply shot up after the 2008 Great Recession. The obvious incapability of the ruling classes to handle the pandemic has increased this mistrust further. Various populist and far right forces are feeding on this, trying to delegitimize central institutions of bourgeois democracy, typified by Trump’s campaign baselessly alleging election fraud in the US presidential elections. While opposing any attack on democratic rights, socialists should always make clear that we do not fight to preserve the decaying institutions of capitalist democracy but argue for a program of real democracy that includes democratic rights in the workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and the whole society — stressing the central and active role working class and young people need to play in fighting for and achieving genuine change.
It is worth remembering that the suppression of democratic expression in China played a central role in the morphing of the Covid-19 into a global pandemic. Likewise, the absence of democratic workers’ control and checks in all aspects of life under capitalism will augment the questioning of the system by growing layers of workers and youth, and should be boldly taken up in the program of all our sections.
The pandemic and economic crisis are features of a deeper impasse facing capitalism: its inability to further develop the productive forces or the world economy on a harmonious basis. And while attention has been focused on these twin crises, the looming climate catastrophe represents an even more fundamental threat to our future unless we put an end to this increasingly parasitic system.
The ruling class has been forced to depart from the neoliberal playbook to prevent an even deeper economic slump. Nor is it able to use the same ideological justifications for its rule as it did during the neoliberal era. Increasingly it will turn to nationalism and racism to keep working people divided. But the whip of counterrevolution which we see in country after country will also drive the working class and the oppressed to organize themselves economically and politically.
Mass movements have demonstrated their ability to push the ruling class back and the reverses and defeats that we have seen in some cases have not been decisive. We are still in an upswing of mass struggle. Of course, if the subjective weaknesses and disorganization of the workers movement are not overcome in the next period we could face the prospect of more serious defeats.
Our tasks as a revolutionary organization are more urgent than ever. The most favorable aspect of the current situation for us is the radicalization of young people, especially young women, and the instinctive internationalism we have seen in the upheavals of 2019 and 2020. We firmly believe that there will be significant opportunities to build our forces in the months and years ahead.