From beginning to end, 2021 was a year of perfect storm for world capitalism. This rotten and decadent system has rarely, if ever before, faced such deep simultaneous crises on so many fronts. It has never been more over-ripe for replacement, and the 2020s are only getting started
Danny Byrne, ISA International Executive
(This article was firstly published on 23 December, and last edited on 26 December 2021)
From beginning to end, 2021 was a year of perfect storm for world capitalism. This rotten and decadent system has rarely, if ever before, faced such deep simultaneous crises on so many fronts. It has never been more over-ripe for replacement, and the 2020s are only getting started.
Starting, and ending with a bang
The year opened amid chaos at the United States capitol, as armed rioters attempted to act on 6 January in support of Trump’s half baked coup attempt. At the very same time, the impoverished rural masses of India were maintaining a movement of mass organized resistance against the brutal antisocial policies of the Modi regime, a struggle which ended in victory only weeks ago.
A new wave of lockdowns was spreading through Europe as the disastrous “3rd wave” of Covid-19 reached new heights as the “Alpha” variant began to emanate from the UK. And from Latin America, then emerging as the epicentre of the pandemic’s death and destruction, news reverberated around the world of the historic victory won by a years-long mass movement to win abortion rights in Argentina.
All that, and quite a lot more, within 2021’s opening week! And it was the same themes of deep social, economic and political crisis on the one hand, and mass movements of workers and the oppressed gaining strength on the other, which were to dominate the year.
Take a look around the world as 2021 draws to a close. Justified panic over the new Omicron variant is spreading, and new lockdowns are already being announced, despite widespread vaccination in the world’s richest countries. Pessimism abounds among economists, with optimistic growth previsions cooling rapidly, and the Chinese financial sector teetering on the brink with the partial default of Evergrande threatening contagion.
And the global working class is still fighting back, making its voice heard in country after country. Recent examples include the impressive metal workers’ strike in the Spanish state and a partial general strike in Italy on 8 December.
In between, the year was a whirlwind of rapid twists and turns.
And to all this must be added capitalism’s unfolding climate catastrophe, which has never been as consistent and present a feature in world politics as this year. Extreme weather events caused by climate change are now part of the lives, thoughts and plans of ordinary people in every part of the planet. And the COP26 summit exposed and deepened the realisation among millions that the system cannot provide a solution.
After 2020, 2021 has given us a further taste of what the character of the coming world historical epoch will be. None of the crises which have dominated the year will find any lasting resolution, not least in 2022. Last year, borrowing a phrase coined by Deutschebank, ISA used the term “age of disorder” to attempt to characterise the nature of this new period. It is one in which the manifold crises of capitalism, driving a deepening process of social and political polarisation, will increasingly pose the need for system change in the minds of millions around the world, with many searching for revolutionary ideas.
Covid’s deadliest year
By June, Covid-19 had already killed more people in 2021 than during the whole of 2020. This is despite the existence of several effective Covid vaccines since the beginning of the year. What more damning a statistic could there be for the criminals running the world’s governments?
As we have explained extensively, from the outset of the pandemic, it has been the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist system that stood in the way of an effective national and global pandemic response. At the pandemic’s outset, as governments allowed the virus to become embedded in populations due to criminal cover-ups and inaction for fear of disrupting the profit machine, it was the contradiction between the private ownership of the means of production and the needs of society which was key. While public sector resources financed research for vaccines, production and distribution was left in the hands of multinationals who made super-profits.
Let us remember that in many countries, including Italy and the Spanish state, it often took organized working class action to unilaterally shut down production and the economy to protect lives, which forced the hand of bosses and governments. And this was not only the case for the pandemic’s first wave. In January 2021, an almighty showdown between the UK government and the teachers’ unions — driven by rank and file activists taking workplace action — forced school closures during the peak of the 3rd wave.
Vaccine nationalism and new variants
However, in 2021, it was the capitalist system’s other fundamental contradiction which assumed even greater prominence in its mismanagement of the pandemic: the contradiction between an increasingly global economy and capitalism’s inherent national antagonisms. This contradiction was summed up in what was surely one of the key phrases of the year: vaccine nationalism.
What first took place around PPE, testing and ventilators — ferocious no-holds-barred brawling between national governments for supplies — was turbo-charged when it came to vaccines. Already in January, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, declared that the world was “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” because of the unequal international distribution of covid-19 vaccines. “Ultimately,” he warned, “these actions will only prolong the pandemic, the restrictions needed to contain it, and human and economic suffering.” (Economist, January 28 2021).
Twelve months later, still only 7% of the population of the world’s poorest countries have received a dose of a Covid vaccine. Meanwhile in Western countries following vaccination programmes which covered big (though varying) majorities of adult populations earlier in the year, children are being vaccinated while tens of millions queue up for 3rd doses.
While workers and young people in richer countries clearly want and need vaccines, it is the ruling elite which has driven the process of vaccine hoarding, with governments insisting on maintaining criminal patents on vaccine technology which prevent production of vaccines being massively stepped up to provide for all.
The term “new variant” has become etched into the minds of the masses during 2021. It was the “Alpha” variant (previously known as the “Kent” or “UK” variant) which first popularised the term, as a new strain of Covid, vastly more transmissible than the originally dominant strain, drove a terrifying new wave of the pandemic in early 2021. “Beta” (or “South African”) and “Gamma” (“Brazilian”) followed, only for all to be outdone by “Delta” later in the year. Now, the world is trembling at the onset of Omicron, of which little is currently known, though we do know it is vastly more transmissible even than Delta.
With the exception of the Alpha variant which emerged in Britain, all the others have one thing in common: they emerged from countries where Covid was “let rip” while vaccines were plentiful, but being hoarded by imperialist governments.
If Omicron is as bad as it looks (which events in Denmark, the UK and US would suggest is the case), then any measures taken by governments to further control the spread, will not only be botched by capitalism’s contradictions, but will also meet with a more and more resistant and divided population.
While the majority of workers have always understood the need to put public health first, the dangerous growth of Covid scepticism and anti-vaccine feeling, fuelled by alienation and distrust in the establishment, has added a sinister new string to the bow of the populist and far right globally, which poses a significant threat to working people and our movements going into the 2020s.
Whatever the course of the pandemic in 2022, the experience of the pandemic has exposed to millions how the ruling capitalist class is incapable of solving global crises. Marxists point to the role of the global working class, a truly international social force with no interest in national antagonism, and whose economic interests do not clash in any way with the need to protect public health and wellbeing, as the key to resolving the world’s crises.
Building up the organization and combativity of the working class, and arming its movements with a socialist political programme to take power out of the hands of the capitalist crooks, is a key strategic task facing socialists in 2022 and beyond. The experience of 2021 has demonstrated that this will only be successful if combined with energetic work to strengthen and extend the reach of a revolutionary socialist organisation.
World economy — from optimism to pessimism
2021 was an emotional roller coaster for bourgeois economists. In March, they were tripping over themselves to announce more and more optimistic growth scenarios for the world economy, amid a dynamic “bounce back” from lockdowns and record recessions in 2020. This impressive growth was driven by pent up demand following a year of depressed spending, and by the historic levels of state stimulus still being injected into the economy, especially in richer countries. Indeed, a single stimulus bill passed by the Biden administration in March added a full 1% to global GDP growth forecasts!
This was an expression of the generally very different way in which capitalist governments addressed the global recession accompanying Covid compared to how it dealt with the 2008–9 Great Recession. In response to the freefall in economic activity of 2020, the neoliberal playbook was largely thrown out the window, as the capitalist state stepped in to prop up the economy to varying degrees, depending on the fiscal strength of countries throughout the world.
This turn away from neoliberalism, and new cocktail of economic policies with greater emphasis on state intervention and a tendency towards deglobalisation, was extremely important and indeed provoked clarifying and at some points, controversial, discussion and debate among Marxists themselves.
However, while wielding the power of state treasuries was an effective tool to mitigate against the worst effects of the crisis in the short term, ISA pointed out this new global policy cocktail was far from laying the basis for a new period of growth and stability.
Responding to the wave of economic optimism spreading among economists in April, we wrote, “Is the likely rebound in the world economy the beginning of a more general upturn? Some in the bourgeois media have compared the situation to the aftermath of World War I and the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918–20 which was followed by the “roaring 20s” in the U.S. and Europe. Such expectations are misplaced.”
Fast forward several months, and the “optimists” are largely eating their words. The world economy enters 2022 stalked by numerous spectres which threaten new, potentially deep, crises. Not least of these is the continuation of the Covid pandemic itself!
Additionally, the threat to the global financial system presented by the crisis of the Chinese construction sector, threatens to awaken a monster of global financial crisis, a danger inherent in the situation in a world economy marked by ever greater corporate and public debt piles.
Inflation is also a major concern, and central banks around the world are going into 2022 under serious pressure to increase interest rates to dampen inflationary pressure, a move which in itself could trigger a new recession. The US Fed and Bank of England have already announced imminent rises.
The spectacle of a single stuck ship causing massive economic havoc, in the Suez canal blockage crisis in March, symbolised the fragility of supply chains. From oil and gas, to microchips and other commodities, supply chain chaos has also been a thread running through 2021, caused by geopolitical crises, bottlenecks in surging demand following lockdowns, the “labour shortage” and climate change events.
Meanwhile, behind the facade of record growth figures and booming profits, the growth in poverty and inequality has been even more record breaking. The recently-released “World Inequality Report” revealed that while 100 million people sank back into desperate poverty during the first year of the pandemic, the wealth of billionaires increased more than ever before.
New Cold War here to stay
2021 also saw US and Chinese imperialism doubling down on the New Cold War. Biden has continued full steam ahead with US imperialism’s agenda. December’s “Democracy Summit” aimed at solidifying and deepening the US Cold War sphere of influence is a case in point. As ISA has pointed out, countering the rise of Chinese imperialism is also a central part of Biden’s economic agenda, and an explicitly stated aim of his recent watered-down infrastructure stimulus bill.
Meanwhile, China has excelled at so-called “vaccine diplomacy”, using vaccine supplies as a tool to increase dependency upon it in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and even having some impact in Europe. Motivated by this great power rivalry, and simultaneously by the fear of the many threats to internal stability — not least working class struggle and revolution — the Xi regime has cranked up its reactionary, authoritarian policies. However, the brutal crackdown in Hong Kong, establishing mainland conditions of dictatorship, which has gathered pace throughout the year, the racist “war on terror” against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and its growing anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ+ offensive, among many other policies, are all ultimately indications of weakness, going into a year in which the economic storm clouds are gathering over the Chinese economy.
All eyes will be on Taiwan in 2022, which amid many other potential flashpoints, will gain increasing prominence, occupying a truly dangerous place as a geopolitical football in a deadly dog fight between two crisis-ridden imperialist powers.
For proof that Cold Wars can turn “hot” we need look no further than the Middle East where a bloody and one-sided war on Gaza by the Israeli armed forces led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people on both sides of the line, including 12 killed by rocket fire from Gaza. Ethiopia is still gripped by an ongoing and bloody civil war, which is also part and parcel of the New Cold War geopolitical struggle.
As well as these conflicts, all of which remain potentially catastrophic tinderboxes, there is an ongoing threat of war on Europe’s Eastern border, with military buildup and tensions between Russia and Ukraine which forms part of a wider rivalry between Russia and NATO, and the mounting US/Iran tensions. Numerous countries’ naval forces also faced off in the Eastern Mediterranean earlier this year, in an ongoing dispute over gas reserves.
Make no mistake: while the existence of massive nuclear arsenals remains a serious deterrent to “all out” wars between major powers, capitalism and imperialism are dragging the planet into an epoch of wars and bloodshed for imperialist gain. The global response to the war on Gaza in May shows the way forward — mass international resistance and solidarity against war, by workers and youth, not governments or the establishment’s “international community”.
In relation to the Cold War, ISA’s unique and principled position of holding no illusions in or support for any side in the new great-power rivalry and pointing to the thoroughly reactionary nature of both empires, is of fundamental importance to the labour movement worldwide. In this spirit, our crucial international campaign, Solidarity Against Repression in China and Hong Kong, will occupy an important place in our work in 2022, as it did in 2021.
Global revolt continues
The working class put its stamp on events in 2021 in many ways, most decisively in struggle on the streets and in workplaces. No continent was spared major class battles. As well as a broad geographical spread, the movements of 2021 reflected the breadth of the manifold crises of capitalism and the multitude of expressions of misery, exploitation and oppression which provoke resistance by working class people.
Powerful mass movements in India, Colombia, South Korea, and elsewhere were triggered by anti-working class economic counter-reforms, as governments in these countries made early attempts to offload the cost of yet another crisis onto the poorest sectors of the population. In Myanmar, Russia, Sudan, etc, it was a response on the streets and in workplaces to attacks on democratic rights by decrepit and parasitic ruling elites which opened the gates to significant episodes of mass struggle.
The pandemic of gender violence was again answered by mass struggle in 2021. In Britain, Israel/Palestine, Australia, Poland and many other countries, there were significant new waves of militant protests, which ISA’s strong socialist feminist campaigning profile allowed our sections to energetically turn towards. The word “femicide” has entered the vocabulary of large parts of the population, as the last year, amid lockdowns on top of the misery of the economic crisis, has left a chilling toll of murdered women, and trans people, who suffered the deadliest year on record.
In relation to reproductive rights, the last half of the year saw contradictory tales of victory and defeat across the southern US border, as the heroic Mexican feminist movement won the legalisation of abortion in Coahuila state in September, while the Texas legislature approved an historic attack on abortion rights. 2022 will see a potential turning point in the US as the Supreme Court looks likely to at least partially revoke Roe v Wade, which despite the woeful lack of leadership on offer from mainstream women’s organizations will trigger a far bigger wave of struggle than the Texas ban did this year.
Lessons of Myanmar and Colombia
These movements, and countless more, are full of lessons for 2022 and beyond. It is fair to say though, that in 2021 it was the examples of Myanmar, where a revolutionary movement ignited against a military coup in February, and Colombia, where a national strike in April opened the gates to a popular uprising that paralysed the country, which most stood out.
Both bore all the essential marks of the wave of global revolt which has swept the world since 2019: led by a radicalised younger generation. They were movements of a sustained nature — both lasting several months. Moreover, in the face of the most brutal, and bloody state repression, both these movements did not retreat, but fought back, escalating in response to the “whip of counter revolution”. They were also both movements that went from the defensive to the offensive, strengthening and emboldening their demands as the masses realised their strength in struggle.
What new lessons did they bring to the table? One common feature in both cases was the more prominent and leading role played, in the midst of broad popular rebellion, by the forces, methods and organizations of the working class. This is a factor of great relevance and importance to socialists, developing our perspectives for the class battles of the future.
In Myanmar, it was a young and inexperienced labour movement which dealt all the biggest blows to the country’s coup plotters. Without a nationally-coordinated and organized strategy, workers in sector after sector — in particular health, textiles and finance — downed tools against the coup, building a de facto general strike which hit the ruling class where it hurts, at one stage preventing the illegitimate coup regime from paying its employees.
In Colombia, the “paro” — strike/stoppage — was the movement’s central method of struggle. This was not always expressed in a real national strike, at times relying more on road blockades and other forms of mass struggle to bring about economic paralysis. While the movement’s official leadership — the CNP (Comité Nacional del Paro), led by the country’s trade union federations — floundered and repeatedly attempted to fold the movement into negotiations, the vanguard of working class youth, organized in the ‘primera linea’ (front line), kept the flame of mass struggle alive, arming themselves with makeshift shields against murderous police attacks.
Crisis of working class organization and leadership
However, we must look beyond our admiration for the heroism of these movements, and the inspiration which they rightly represent. The other common feature of both was that neither achieved decisive victories. Why not?
In developing an answer, we can point towards the central strategic problem faced by the working class and our movements around the world: the enduring crisis of working class organization and leadership. The simple fact is that the central role occupied by the working class in the revolts in Colombia and Myanmar was not clearly reflected in a leadership which based itself on the power of the working class and had confidence in its ability to win its demands.
Instead, rather than fight for a pro-working class government to replace the coup plotters, the union leaders in Myanmar subordinated the workers’ organizations to the bourgeois liberal National League for Democracy, uncritically endorsing these deposed anti-working class politicians and their National Unity Government. In Colombia, the CNP leaders constantly attempted to channel the movement off the streets and into behind-closed-doors negotiations with the Duque government, eventually succeeding in demobilising the movement.
This crisis of leadership of the working class is the single biggest obstacle preventing the heroic working class struggles of our epoch from winning more decisive victories. This crisis can only be resolved by the building and strengthening of mass organizations of workers and youth, led not by has-been bureaucrats trained in failed methods of class collaboration, but by the young working class elements in the beating heart of mass movements, accountable democratically to the mass movement via mass democratic structures.
This means workers themselves creating rank and file networks, fighting to reestablish militant traditions and directly challenging the existing leadership’s control. It also means the building of new political parties, which can provide an independent political voice to working class interests in mass movements. The young working class fighters who carry through these tasks to victory will not simply fall from the sky, but must be consciously organized, educated and armed with the methods of Marxism.
In 2021 we have already seen important signs of developing turmoil within the labour movement in several countries. In the US, workers in the mighty Teamsters’ Union elected a Left leadership for the first time in nearly 25 years, and UAW members voted to implement direct elections to leading positions within the union. In Britain, 2021 saw historic victories in both of the two biggest unions — Unison and Unite — for the Left, in National Executive and General Secretary elections respectively.
As we enter 2022, rising class anger and a transformed view of the essential role of workers in society coming out of the pandemic, together with inflation, supply chain issues and an acute labour shortage in many sectors of the economy, point towards the potential for a year of major industrial strife and favourable conditions for major victories for our class. A new wave of workers’ struggle can serve to generate new forces within the movement to challenge entrenched union bureaucracies and fight for independent working class politics.
Political polarisation — Threat of far right
While 2021 began with Donald Trump’s humiliation as he failed to steal the US presidency, in some ways Trumpism seems to be on the march as the year draws to a close. November’s elections in the US saw the Trumpists gain important ground. Moreover, the Republican party, which has never been more under his control, is well positioned to regain control of the US Congress in the 2022 midterm elections as Biden’s Presidency sinks deeper into crisis and the Left Democrats’ “Squad” moves to the right, miserably failing to provide representation to working class people hungry for alternatives.
We also saw far right candidate, Jose Antonio Kast, standing on an ultra-reactionary anti-worker, authoritarian and misogynist platform, win a surprise victory in the first round of Chile’s Presidential elections. Thankfully, Kast lost in the second round as workers and youth mobilised, without any deep illusions, to vote for the soft Left Gabriel Boric in an historic victory which showed the enduring power of the 2019 rebellion in Chile. The far right also made a major breakthrough in Argentina’s elections, and in Europe we have seen the terrifying rise of extreme right phenomena around Zemmour in France and Vox in Spain.
Part of the same trend is the process of “Trumpification” of more established traditional right-wing parties, such as the Spanish Partido Popular and British Tories, who have undergone a serious turn to the right in recent years, embracing nationalist populism.
The rise, and consolidation of, these ugly political phenomena is a glimpse of the sharper and deeper political polarisation which will characterise the 2020s. The enduring crisis of working class leadership and organization outlined above gives rise to the temporary impression that these forces have the initiative in a whole number of important countries going into 2022. However, the real balance of class forces in society cannot be measured by as superficial a gauge as electoral arithmetic.
Although it must be recognised that many of these forces have deepened their social base in the last decade, a process which has been given further impetus by the storm of crises in the last two years, there is no country in which they command anything close to majority support, particularly among young and working class people.
A fighting workers’ movement and Left could cut across the forward march of the far right. However this can only be achieved if a bold independent stance, offering a real radical socialist alternative, is taken. The road of capitulation to the traditional capitalist political establishment as the “mainstream” opposition to far right populism, as seen in the capitulation of Sanders in the US and the PSOL majority leadership in Brazil to the Democrat and PT establishments respectively, will only cede further ground to Trumpism and Bolsonaro-ism.
We need revolutionary socialism, not reformism
Just as was the case following the wave of class struggle that shook Europe following the 2008 crisis, the coming class battles internationally, which will include revolutionary movements, will redraw the political map in the 2020s.
Already in 2021, we saw the emergence of important new political phenomena which gave some expression to the struggles of working class people. In Peru, little-known teacher trade unionist Pedro Castillo defied all odds to win Presidential elections in June, following a mass protest movement which defeated an institutional coup in the country in November 2020.
Latin America is a tinderbox for social explosions next year, and will see important elections take place, not least in Colombia and Brazil, where opinion polls in both countries point towards potential defeats for the reactionary right wing via wins for the leftist Gustavo Petro in Colombia, and former President Lula da Silva in Brazil. The latter revealed his pro capitalist colours while in power at the turn of the century.
The period of acute crisis into which any new Left governments will be born will quickly put them to the test. If they do not possess a revolutionary perspective of mass struggle to resist capitalism and imperialism, and implement real change by challenging the power of the ruling class, only crisis awaits. Already, Pedro Castillo has shown signs of repeating the failed strategy of class collaboration and reformism which led Left governments in the last decade, including Lula’s, to ruin. He responded to pressure from the capitalists to remove Left wingers from his cabinet and drop key campaign pledges. Still, the right wing have only stepped up their efforts to sabotage and remove him. Only a few months into his presidency, he has had to face down an impeachment attempt in congress, winning by only two votes!
ISA supports all political movements and formations which assist in furthering the struggles of the working class for its demands, and will fight hard to defeat the reactionary right wing in any election. However, we must also tell the truth: that to really win victories for the majority in this age of capitalist crisis, a reformist perspective is insufficient. Implementing policies to redistribute wealth, fund necessary public services and works, create millions of jobs in Green New Deals, etc, will require bold action to seize the wealth and means of production from the 1% and put democratic public ownership at the heart of the economy.
What does an alternative strategy look like? A noteworthy example of revolutionary leadership can be found in Seattle, where Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative have just beaten the billionaires in their own backyard for the fourth time. This is particularly significant as it goes “against the grain” of the recent November electoral cycle where progressive Democratic candidates, largely on a rightward trajectory, lost several big races.
The history of Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative’s role in Seattle in the last eight years is an example of the difference genuine socialist leadership makes. Imagine if these methods and politics had an expression in the national leadership of the labour movement in the US, or any country!
2021 a whirlwind for ISA
This tremendous victory in Seattle was part of a whirlwind year for ISA. Weeks beforehand, hundreds of our members from 16 countries flooded Glasgow, Scotland, attracting widespread media attention by building an impressive and dynamic international socialist bloc on the mass protests against the criminal inaction of the COP26 climate summit.
Our members and national sections have been in and out of lockdown, and passed through testing times, but always remained alert and active, seeking to seize opportunities to build the forces of socialism, quantitatively and qualitatively. On two occasions, in January and July, we brought more than 1,000 of our members together in successful and inspiring Virtual Marxist Universities.
We have been at the forefront of countless struggles, movements and campaigns. Our whole international organization acted as one, in the mass movements against the war on Gaza in May, standing in solidarity and support of our courageous comrades in Israel/Palestine.
It would be impossible to list all the work, achievements, and sacrifices made by ISA members, and countless other working class fighters around the world in 2021. We can be sure that these often invisible efforts will have contributed to improving the preparation of our movement for the challenges of 2022.
internationalsocialist.net wishes all our readers and supporters a Happy New Year and all the best for 2022. Consider the following as your new years’ resolution: join a vibrant, growing revolutionary socialist international movement — join ISA. And if you’re already a member, redouble your efforts to the cause of international socialism.