Cost of living protest, London Cost of living protest, London. Photo: Alisdare Hickson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked below article

It’s clear that the several-sided conditions of crisis that we are living through will be the driving force for further waves of struggle, writes John Clarke

With the return of rates of inflation that we have not seen for decades, we have been told that the problem won’t last. The message in much of the media has been that economic disruption generated by the pandemic has created supply chain problems and a level of pent up demand that is producing temporary ‘supply shocks.’ However, it has become clear that the threat of new waves of Covid and the huge impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are producing an international situation that strongly suggest that such shocks are not really a fleeting development but, rather, a defining feature of these crisis-ridden times. The disruptive effects of the intensifying climate crisis, moreover, make this all the more certain.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has warned of the dire results flowing from the Ukrainian conflict, pointing out that ‘harsh impacts are already being felt beyond the conflict zone.’ In a situation where ‘commodity prices were rising steadily before the invasion,’ the resulting disruption is undermining the vital supply of Russian and Ukrainian cereals and vegetable oils, while it has also ‘interrupted fertilizer exports from Russia and Belarus, which together account for a major share of global production.’ This is all pushing the inflationary wave.

The Institute also points out ominously that ‘The Russian invasion of Ukraine comes on top of years of other crises that remain unresolved: The Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, biodiversity loss, and rising global hunger.’ IFPRI candidly acknowledges that ‘shocks and crises have become the new norm’ and stresses that ‘The concentration of production and trade in too few places, and by too few companies, is a real threat to global food security.’ This is a picture of an international system of producing and distributing basic necessities that has been organised so as to maximise profits but that is inordinately vulnerable to the disruptive impacts of capitalism’s interlocking crises.

The same destructive unfolding of global rivalry that underlies the invasion of Ukraine is putting a number of countries in an especially dreadful situation. Chief among these is Afghanistan, where US sanctions are compounding the problem horribly. The Biden administration has frozen billions of dollars in the country’s central bank assets and the impact of these punitive measures threatens to kill more people in Afghanistan than did 20 years of war. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) warns that the country faces a humanitarian crises of even larger proportions than Syria or Yemen.

Global resistance

The present situation provides lots of reasons to conclude that hopes for increased levels of social compromise following the pandemic were seriously misplaced. However, there are also powerful indications that a wave of global resistance is starting to take form. In Sri Lanka, 26 cabinet members resigned in the face of anti-government protests, fuelled in large measure by the cost of living crisis. Efforts to contain the upsurge by imposing curfew measures, were simply defied and swept aside by the mass of people who took to the streets.

Meanwhile, there has been a wave of social unrest in Peru and, once again, huge price increases for basic necessities have driven the movement. Farmers and truckers have blocked highways, protesters have burned toll booths and demonstrations have taken place all across the country. Efforts to contain the struggle with limited concessions have failed and the government has resorted to the imposition of a curfew.

A general strike has taken place in Greece that expresses a rising tide of militancy that has been taking form over the last year. Millions left their workplaces and demonstrations took place throughout the country raising the demand for ‘generalised wage rises across all sectors to address the cost of living crisis.’ The government’s hopes for ‘a ritualistic affair’ fell apart and a renewed sense of unity and combativity is apparent.

The inflationary crisis is starting to bring people out onto the streets in country after country, including the UK, with recent protests that were organised by the People’s Assembly giving expression to a seething mood of anger that the situation is generating. There are also strong indications that workers are looking for the means to fight back in the face of this crisis. The recent vital breakthrough in the struggle to unionise Amazon in the US expresses this mood very clearly. It has been brewing throughout the two years of hardship and uncertainty that were generated by the pandemic and the victory at Amazon is but one particularly important manifestation of this striving for the means to resist.

Though the sharp cost of living crisis is undoubtedly the key factor behind the present indications of an upsurge of resistance, the deep mood of discontent that is being expressed runs deeper than that. Already in 2016, the IMF was working on a preposterous kinder and gentler image in response to the wave of anger that had been generated by the very policies and practices it was associated with. In 2019, that sense of rage truly took hold and ‘From Hong Kong to the Middle East and North Africa to Europe and Latin America, the street was—often literally—on fire.’

Though the wave of struggle in 2019 was largely contained, the conditions that underlay it have only intensified. Even in the midst of the pandemic, there have been historic movements of social resistance, including the Black Lives Matter struggles that followed the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the successful mobilisation of the Indian farmers against Modi’s neoliberal attacks and the still unfolding protests in Sudan.

It’s clear that the several-sided conditions of crisis that we are living through will be the driving force for further waves of struggle and that another upsurge may well be taking shape at the present moment. Social explosions are inevitable and of great importance but the key question is to move beyond upsurges that can be contained through combinations of state repression and tactical concessions. Under the present conditions, what is urgently needed are more durable and dynamic organisational forms. Neither bureaucratic union structures nor short-term protest initiatives can meet that need.

In Sudan, the grassroots resistance committees have played a big role in shaping and sustaining the movement against the military and those it serves. Though there have been ebbs and flows, the tenacity of the resistance has been significantly shaped by this form of organisation. Assemblies and councils that can sustain struggles, continuing to organise during periods of downturn and offering direction when upsurges return, will be vital. They can become respected and influential forms of locally based participatory democracy. They can unite rank-and-file workers with communities under attack. They can be places of vital discussion and debate, where fighting demands, winning strategies and radical political perspectives can be forged.

The pandemic has ushered in a period of greatly intensified crisis. Along with the playing out of global rivalry in Ukraine, it has unleashed an explosion in the cost of living that is sending shock waves through societies across the planet and creating the basis for historic struggles. The question of how to give those struggles forms and directions that can’t be contained by those in power and that challenge the capitalist system itself, is an utterly vital one.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.