The threat of recession will mean more attacks on the working class and the further demonisation of socialist ideas, argues Lindsey German
The outbreak of trade wars between the US and China have rocked the financial markets and sent political commentators round the G7 summit into a spin. It’s not surprising - the orthodoxy for decades now has been that this can’t happen and that tariffs between trading countries were simply impossible in the neoliberal era. The free market mantra is that trade cannot be subject to any barriers and that the market decides everything. Anything else conjures up the spectre of controls on capital, state intervention and the dreaded prospect of some sort of socialism.
Even Donald Trump’s huge admirer, Boris Johnson, put up a lame objection to his tariffs, saying that Britain had always benefited from free trade for 200 years. Trump’s riposte was that it might have done 200 years but not for the past 3 years. In other words, free trade is good when it's working for you, but bad when your competitors take the initiative.
That’s why free trade abroad has long been the doctrine of rising powers who want to break into new territories and markets, as the British did overwhelmingly in the 19th century, while protectionism is the doctrine of declining powers who need to guard their erstwhile advantage against interlopers. Hence Trump’s policies.
The US faces China as its major competitor industrially, financially and militarily. China is both the manufacturer of many American goods, and the lender to the US to enable it to buy those goods. The giant of the developing world has been able to transplant much of US manufacturing industry, producing goods more cheaply and productively, and is rivalling the US in its search for raw materials and markets around the world (one of the reasons for the bizarre offer by Trump to buy Greenland from Denmark was fear of Chinese competition for raw materials).
The tariffs imposed by Trump on China - and those imposed in retaliation by China - are open manifestations of this competition and an attempt to prevent free trade. Trump wants some of the companies investing in China to ‘come back’ to the US and he wants Chinese goods to become more expensive in the US - and elsewhere. This threatens the whole edifice of neoliberalism which maintains itself precisely on the basis that no one country or set of countries tried to do anything different from the agreed norms in order to gain a trading or financial advantage.
When the US and Chinese giants start to impose restrictions on one another the system is in very dangerous territory indeed. Hence the palpable fear at the G7 summit in Biarritz from the other world leaders. Trump’s actions have also precipitated major divisions within the US ruling class, summed up by the insults thrown by Trump at the head of the US Federal Reserve. There is already much concern about how much of the world’s goods are traded in dollars with many looking to an alternative currency.
Behind all this lies the prospect of world economic slowdown and the growing threat of recession - already considered likely in Germany and the UK - and coming closer in the US. It’s worth reflecting how long things have been going wrong. The banking crisis in 2008 led to widespread help from governments’ central banks – effectively nationalisation of banking debts.
Since then, the banks and others in the financial services sector have carried on in their bad old ways at the expense of the rest of us. The squeeze on everything from wages to public services to pensions has led to a shift in the balance of wealth away from working people and towards the corporations and those who own and control them. Every attempt to rebalance this is met with vicious resistance by the rich and powerful.
We see this in the continued attacks on working conditions, the savage treatment of those on benefits and the repression of those who fight back - witness Macron’s lockdown of Biarritz in the holiday season to protect the G7. We also see it in the class hatred of those such as Bernie Sanders in the US or Jeremy Corbyn here in Britain who challenge the priorities of neoliberal capital.
Far from these levels of inequality leading to a rethinking of ideas at the top of society, the default position is that there is no alternative to the misery facing working people, just as there is no alternative to the rich continuing to get richer on our backs.
The fact that Sanders and Corbyn are identified with socialism (even Marxism!), and with fighting back against the system, makes them a threat to the ruling class, even if their policies fall short of full transformation of capitalist society. The appeal of such ideas is likely to grow given the looming economic storms and the further misery they will cause. Which is why so much time is spent by the representatives of capital in trashing these ideas, and why they constantly try to deflect anger against the system through fostering divisions within the working class.
The last person to do this lost his head
Boris Johnson has apparently said that ‘politicians don’t get to choose which public votes they respect’. If only. And if only politicians kept to the promises they made during election campaigns. Johnson himself has pledged the infamous £350 million for the NHS. He also said he would lie down on the runway at Heathrow before voting for its expansion - and then chose a trip to Kabul to avoid having to vote against it.
He has now topped it all by seeking legal advice on whether he can prorogue Parliament from early September to after Brexit happens on October 31st. The reason for this is simple - Johnson has a majority of only one even with the dreaded DUP on board and he wants to avoid all democratic scrutiny and accountability for two months. Elected by a tiny handful of unrepresentative Tories, he started as he means to go on. No challenges to his autocratic rule, but dressed up as delivering a democratic vote. No one should be fooled by Johnson.
But he must rejoice in the Remain opposition in Parliament especially the appalling Jo Swinson, who repeatedly demands of Jeremy Corbyn that he should allow a Tory to head up a national unity government. So Leave or Remain, you get the Tories. Swinson should be told to take a hike and the minority parties should get behind Corbyn. But she and her new Blairite MP Chuka Umunna will do anything to stop him.
The antics in Parliament shows how important the movement in the streets is - especially the protest at the Tories’ Manchester conference on 29th September.
And Johnson should remember that the last person to prorogue Parliament precipitated a civil war and lost his head.
When the earth shakes it’s time to stop digging
There have been three earthquakes near Blackpool in the last week. There is one reason for this - the area is the site of a major fracking operation for shale gas by the private company Cuadrilla at its site on the Preston New Road in Lancashire. For years now, environmentalists, local residents and scientists have been warning of the danger of fracking and have demanded that it be stopped. Cuadrilla’s response has been to say it has the effect of a toddler playing on the floor or someone dropping a load of heavy shopping. Yet neither of these normal human activities are caused by the hydraulic fracturing of the earth with all the dangerous consequences that implies.
Frack Free Lancashire and other campaigners are understandably furious and want the temporary pause on fracking to be made permanent. I spoke at their two year anniversary rally outside the PNR site earlier this month. They are a determined and principled group of people who want to save their local environment and resent the role of government and big business in insisting on continuing with the damaging work.
Hopefully they will win the campaign. With the Amazon burning, the glaciers melting and governments carrying on as though nothing is happening, there is an urgent need for change.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Tories: the Covid mask slips – weekly briefing
- The trouble with terrorism – weekly briefing
- No Platform: Free speech for all?
- Now it’s neither heat nor eat – weekly briefing
- Sexual violence, economic violence: why women still need our rights – weekly briefing
- Discontents for all seasons – weekly briefing
- The Pandora’s Box of 9/11 – weekly briefing