Faced with the crisis in Greece and the imminent cuts in Britain, Neil Faukner arues for mass struggle from below to place control over the planet and its resources in the hands of ordinary working people.
The world faces what may be the biggest crisis in human history. Unchecked global warming heralds catastrophic climate change. Financial meltdown has tipped us into economic slump. An increasingly militarised world threatens more and bigger wars.
The gap between rich and poor, both within and between nations, has become a chasm. Democracy has been hollowed out into identikit mainstream politics.
An eruption of the irrational - from climate-change denial to the racial mysticism of fascists - threatens science, reason, and serious attempts to understand the world and devise solutions to its problems.
One reaction is a sense of hopelessness. The problems are so many and so huge, what can ordinary people do? The world’s leading politicians seem powerless to resist the economic and political forces unleashed by ‘globalisation’.
How can any of us defy the logic of global finance and the competitive market?
A second reaction sometimes follows: a withdrawal into denial and passivity. Perhaps fears about climate change are overblown. Perhaps the scientific evidence is unreliable. In any case, what can one person do, even a whole nation of people, when the Chinese economy is set to double in size in a decade?
This article is a polemic against denial and passivity. It is an assertion of the basic truths of history: that it is made by human beings; that they make it in the circumstances imposed upon them; but that they have choices and that it is these choices which determine the future.
Climate change, economic slump, and imperialist war are not ‘natural disasters’. They are not inevitable. They are the products of human decision and action. Alternative decisions and actions could produce different outcomes
When the US stock market crashed in 1929, no-one predicted the length and severity of the Great Depression. But with one in three unemployed, Hitler came to power in Germany four years later. The crisis eventually produced the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Bomb. By 1945, 60 million people were dead, and hundreds of millions of lives had been torn apart.
But at many points in the long chain of events from Wall Street Crash to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, history might have taken a different course. Had, for example, the German Communist Party united with the German Social Democratic Party in building a mass anti-fascist movement, the Nazis could have been stopped.
Many people - notably the Russian revolutionary exile Leon Trotsky (1) - argued for this. Just such united working-class action defeated French fascists in 1934 and British fascists in 1936. There was nothing inevitable about Hitler’s coming to power in 1933. The lesson of history is that what we do matters.
The crisis today is different. Climate change is a new problem. Unemployment is not as high as in the 1930s (yet). The ‘war on terror’ has not embroiled the great powers in open conflict (so far). But the argument here is that the crisis of the early 21st century is deep-rooted, multi-faceted, and filled with lethal potential for humanity. We need to stare this reality in the face and build a global anti-capitalist movement capable of turning history in a different direction.
Anti-capitalist campaigner Naomi Klein speaks of ‘disaster capitalism’ (2). Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istv√°n M√©sz√°ros talks starkly of ‘the forces which are now pushing humankind toward the abyss of self-destruction’ (3). American Marxist academic John Bellamy Foster explains it thus:
Today’s threefold crisis of capitalism - viewed in terms of economy, ecology and empire - is potentially the worst in history, not excluding the 1930s and ’40s. The current economic downturn already compares in many ways with the Great Depression, and the bottom has not yet been reached.
The ecological catastrophe is the most serious that humanity has experienced, threatening the mass extinction of species and human civilization. The struggle over empire, with US hegemony waning but far from gone at present, points to the danger of more frequent and larger wars (4).
We are dealing with a ‘systemic’ crisis - a crisis of the global capitalist system. Climate change, economic slump, imperialist war, growing inequality, the hollowing out of democracy, and the ‘eruption of the irrational’ can appear to be distinct problems, each amenable (or not) to specific solutions. This, in effect, is the assumption underlying every single-issue campaign. But the assumption is false.
Each dimension of the crisis has its own logic, dynamic, and trajectory. Each has the potential to produce sudden explosions, but some have longer fuses and are less volatile than others. What binds them together in a complex web of supercharged interconnections is that each is rooted in a global system of capital accumulation. Each crisis occurs within a single world system run by the rich, powered by profit, and involving competition between giant corporations and rival nation-states.
But because it is a system in which the needs of the many and the well-being of the planet are sacrificed to the greed of the few, it contains within itself an historical alternative to catastrophe and barbarism. It conjures its own antithesis in mass protest.
As I write, two responses to the crisis - and two possible futures - are colliding on the streets of Greece. The Greek state, backed by the political and business elite of Europe, is committed to a frontal attack on the jobs, wages, pensions, and public services of Greek workers - the price to be paid for an EU and IMF bailout of the country’s bankrupt capitalist economy.
But the austerity programme has been met by a wave of strikes and militant mass protests. Workers occupied the Akropolis in Athens on 4 May and draped a giant banner from its ancient walls that read ‘Peoples of Europe, rise up’ (5).
Meantime, in the British general election, the three mainstream parties promise the same here: cuts for workers on a scale not seen since the 1930s - in order to pay the bankers’ debts.
But every demonstration proclaims that another world is possible. Every strike contains an embryo of workers’ power. Every protest casts a shadow over the lords of capital: the shadow of an alternative future.
To give that shadow substance, many different struggles must swell and merge into a global movement for anti-capitalist revolution. Either that, or we let the system burn the planet, impoverish humanity, and unleash new wars. The choice is stark: either a modern form of barbarism - or mass struggle from below to place control over the planet and its resources in the hands of ordinary working people.
The stakes could not be higher. This paper offers an analysis of the compound crisis of contemporary capitalism, and argues the necessity for anti-capitalist revolution as the only rational and humane solution to the world’s problems in the early 21st century.
Earth: carbon pollution, corporate power, and climate catastrophe
The cost now descending on the world if it doesn’t radically change course is a regression of civilization and life itself beyond comprehension: an economy and ecology of destruction that will finally reach its limits (6).
Thus, in John Bellamy Foster’s view, it is impossible to exaggerate the seriousness of climate change. It threatens the existence of industrial civilisation itself. It is set to kill many multiples of the 60 million lost in the Second World War, humanity’s greatest disaster so far.
In the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution took off and we began burning coal, oil, and gas in serious quantities, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 ppm (parts per million) to 387 ppm. The Earth has experienced this degree of change at various points in the last 2.5 million years during the transition from cold to warm periods - but it used to take thousands of years, the rate of increase now is accelerating sharply, and on current trends we will soon pass beyond anything within human experience.
In 1958, the carbon dioxide concentration had reached only 316 ppm from its 280 ppm starting-point. It is only in the last half century that it has climbed to 387 ppm (7). Because of this build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the sun’s heat has been trapped and the Earth has begun to warm up.
Climate change is not science fiction. It is not something that might happen in the future. It has already started. Average global temperature has risen by 0.8 ∞C since 1880, but most of that increase - 0.6 ∞C - has happened in the last 30 years (8). Average sea-levels have risen by 22 cm over the last 150 years, but the current rate of increase is 2 cm per decade (9). The 12 warmest years on record in the last 150 years have all occurred in the last 13 years (10).
Minimum summer extents of Arctic sea-ice have now shrunk to the smallest areas ever recorded, around 6 million square km compared with 9 million in the 1960s. Siberian permafrost has started to melt, leaking methane gas, 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere (11). Parts of the Amazon rainforest are turning to savannah. Coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific are wilting (12).
Floods temporarily covered 65% of Bangladesh in 1998, destroying villages, farms, and infrastructure. Half the island of Bhola, home to 1.6 million people, had been permanently washed away by 2004. It is estimated that 150,000 people a year are now dying from the effects of global warming as diseases spread faster at higher temperatures (13).
A new mass extinction has begun. Three known species are becoming extinct every hour. A third of all vertebrates have become extinct in the last 35 years - an extinction rate 10,000 times faster than any observed in the fossil record (14).
The rains keep failing in semi-arid East Africa, causing recurring droughts in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. In the Darfur famine of 1984-5, about 100,000 people died. Sometimes, the result is war. Herders and farmers have now been fighting each other for 40 years, on and off, over access to grazing in Darfur (15).
This is only the beginning. These things are happening with just 387 ppm of atmospheric carbon and 0.8 ∞C of global warming. Most scientists agree that a level of 400-50 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere would result in a 2 ∞C average rise in global temperature and the likelihood of abrupt climate change. The complexity of the global system, its multiple variables and feedback mechanisms, means that there are many tipping-points when the climate can change suddenly and irreversibly.
The East African droughts illustrate this. Because the Atlantic used to be warmer than the Indian Ocean, wet warm air was pulled from west to east across the African continent. But climate change has warmed the Indian Ocean, levelling the temperature difference, so the winds and rains are now erratic (16). A tipping-point has been reached and passed. The scorching of East Africa has begun. Water wars are now being fought.
But many, much more deadly tipping-points could soon be reached. Some scientists think that, on current trends, global temperatures could rise over the present century by two, three, four, even five or six times the suggested 2 ∞C target (17). Even the target level would probably result in massive change, with hundreds of millions affected by displacement, thirst, hunger, and disease.
If abrupt change was triggered, billions could be affected. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun to melt. It contains enough water to raise global sea-levels by 3 metres - enough, that is, to inundate parts of London, Mumbai, New York, and Tokyo (18). Research on past de-glaciations implies that ice-sheets can suddenly go into reverse and disintegrate as rising and warming seas undercut them (19).
A clear and present danger is that sooner or later we pass the mother of all tipping-points. We still live in the Ice Age which began 2.5 million years ago. Our present is technically an ‘interglacial’ between two glaciations. But the complex metabolism regulating the Ice Age progression from cold to warm to cold periods is now imperilled. As leading London University palaeoclimatologist Mark Maslin puts it: ‘Humanity’s greatest scientific experiment - what happens if you put lots of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere of a planet with lots of ice-sheets - is under way’ (20).
Many of the world’s rulers understand the dangers. They say they are committed to co-ordinated global action to reduce carbon emissions and halt climate change. Yet the UN-sponsored climate talks in Copenhagen ended with an ‘Accord’ described by one leading British environmentalist - a moderate not a radical - as ‘this piece of shit’ (21).
Just five countries agreed the last-minute ‘Accord’ orchestrated by US President Barack Obama: the US, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. These five represent just under half the world’s population and just under half its carbon emissions. The US, China, and India are the three biggest coal-producers in the world. South Africa is fifth. Brazil has major oil reserves and is destroying the Amazon rainforest (22). Because of this, the leaders of these countries agreed to do precisely nothing about climate change.
The previous Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1997 and in force from 2005, contained a commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5.2% by 2012. It bore no relation to the scale of the problem, which requires cuts of 80-90% by 2030 (23). But at least there were some targets.
The Copenhagen Accord went backwards. There were no longer agreed targets. Each country was now to set its own targets. The only commitment was to tell the UN its decision by 31 January 2010.
Copenhagen was a clear-cut victory for corporate power. The ‘carbon corporations’ - coal, oil, and gas producers, power companies, car manufacturers, airlines - are free to burn the planet in the interests of profit. Droughts and floods will devastate the Global South. Millions will die. Eventually, if the corporations are not stopped, billions of lives will be wrecked by unchecked global warming.
This is what the politicians and their media echo-chambers really represent: the carbon corporations. Six of the top ten corporations in the world are oil companies. Three more are car manufacturers. The top two corporations in Germany and Japan are car manufacturers. The top four in Russia are oil and gas producers. India’s top five are all oil companies (24).
The 80-90% carbon cuts necessary to save the planet imply head-on confrontation with corporate capital. We need trillions of pounds of investment in carbon capture and storage, renewable energy, public transport, energy-efficient homes, and building insulation. We need massive cuts in fossil-fuel consumption, road transport, and air travel. We need heavy taxes on the rich and the corporations to support the victims of climate change in the impoverished Global South.
It was corporate interests that neutered Kyoto. What made Copenhagen even worse was the financial crash. Capitalist corporations are driven by competition and profit. Economic crisis intensifies competition and squeezes profits. There is less slack, less give-and-take, less space for concession and compromise. So capital hardened its face at Copenhagen against the poor and the planet.
To that economic crisis - which threatens hundreds of millions with impoverishment - we now turn.
Economy: from bubble to black hole
‘I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.’ That is how a leading architect of ‘neoliberal’ capitalism - Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the US central bank - described the onset of global economic disaster (25).
Perhaps the most explosive of Greenspan’s contributions to the biggest financial bubble ever seen was to destroy the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, by which banks were prevented from speculating with their customers’ savings (26). Newsnight economist Paul Mason puts the consequences of this and the whole ‘bonfire of regulations’ more strongly than Greenspan: it resulted in ‘the greatest man-made economic catastrophe in human history’ (27).
In September 2007, the so-called ‘credit crunch’ turned critical when the British building society Northern Rock went bust. Exactly a year later, the global financial system imploded in the biggest crash since 1929 with the failure of giant US investment bank Lehman Brothers. On 18 September, fearing a chain reaction of bank failures, Ben Bernanke, successor to Greenspan at the Federal Reserve, and Henry Paulson, US finance minister, announced that ‘We are headed for the worst financial crisis in the nation’s history. We’re talking about a matter of days’ (28).
To prevent this, world rulers ripped up the free-market textbooks and carried out a series of monster nationalisations and bailouts. Almost immediately, a global total $1.9 trillion of state funding was injected into the banks, two-thirds in direct spending, one-third in the form of guarantees (29). Since then, trillions more have been handed over.
The pumping of unprecedented amounts of state capital into private banks stabilised the global financial system. It covered immediate losses, and, more importantly, restored ‘confidence’ by demonstrating to finance-capitalists that the state would not allow major banks to fail. Profits were still private, they were reassured, but losses were public. Bad debt became a safe bet.
But this has not solved the crisis; it has merely reconfigured it. The crash, unprecedented in scale, has shattered the confidence of both capitalists and consumers, pitching the world economy into slump. At 6.2% from peak to trough, the British contraction in output is the biggest since the war. The official US jobless rate stands at 10% and would be much higher if everyone who wanted a full-time job was counted (30). Global trade, dropping 12%, has suffered its sharpest fall since the Great Depression (31).
Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott predicts ‘the austerity decade’ for Britain:
"… the next decade will be marked by higher taxes and restraint on public spending. Consumer demand and government investment will grow far more slowly than in the boom years. Eventually, resources will be diverted into investment and exports. But this is a sick economy, and it will take a long, long time "(32).
The real economy is overshadowed by the debt mountain. The banks are estimated to have lost $3.4 trillion in the crash (33). But they are probably carrying trillions more in bad debt. And they need to restore their ‘assets-to-equity’ ratios to sensible levels. This concerns the relationship between financial assets held by a bank compared with the value of its loans. The estimated cost of getting this back to pre-bubble levels in Europe and the US is $1.7 trillion (34).
So banks have three reasons not to lend. They are continuing to write down debt. They are recapitalising their balance-sheets. And, with the economy in crisis, they fear they may lose their money if they loan it. Consequently, the state funds shovelled into the banks have simply disappeared into a black hole.
Nor have the debts covered by the state gone away. Bank debt has been converted into government debt. The risk of bank collapse has been transformed into the possibility of state bankruptcy.
Greece, with debts equal to 115% of annual GDP and a 13.6% annual budget deficit, is the present epicentre of the financial fever. But it is contagious. The state debts of other PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) look ominous, and investors are starting to panic. Greek debt has turned ‘toxic’, and European states and banks holding it face massive losses. Propping up Greece will drain more European capital into a black hole (35).
The global financial crisis does not take the form of a clear plunge over the cliff into the abyss. It is a downward series of smashes from one rocky ledge to another. First, the run on Northern Rock and the credit crunch. Then, the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the bank crash. Now, we have the third phase, as Greek state debt goes toxic and the contagion spreads the EU.
That is why politicians are planning massive tax increases and spending cuts. In effect, the state will become the transmission belt by which the working class pays for bank bailouts and bonuses. But this policy is highly contradictory even in capitalist terms. The effect will be to cut demand, deflate the economy, and deepen the slump.
This has caused a deep split among mainstream economists. Leading academic David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, put it thus:
Lesson one in a deep recession is you don’t cut public spending until you are into the boom phase. Keynes taught us that. The consequences of cutting too soon is to drive the economy into a depression. That means rapidly rising unemployment, social disorder, rising poverty, falling living standards, and even soup kitchens (36).
In relation to Greece, The Guardian’s Larry Elliott makes the point that EU and IMF imposed cuts will deflate the Greek economy and tip it into a depression:
"... the slump will deepen. Greece, without the benefit of stronger growth, will be unable to meet its ambitious targets for reducing the deficit, which in turn will lead to demands for even deeper budgetary cuts, which will weaken demand still further. That is not a recovery plan. It is an economic death spiral" (37).
The problem for the capitalist class is that the ‘Keynesian’ strategy advocated by Blanchflower, Elliott, and other top economists is itself highly hazardous. State debt is a commodity that must be sold on the financial markets like any other. If record government deficits are ratcheted up further to fund public works, the risk of default rises, loans become more expensive, and, at some point, ‘confidence’ will evaporate and state debt become unsaleable. State bankruptcy would then herald the very same economic meltdown and social revolt that Blanchflower predicts in the event of deflation. Greece is at present the clearest embodiment of this dilemma.
The neoliberal political and business elite is therefore trapped by the contradictions of the Great Crash of 2008. The only way out would be rapid growth and rising prices. This would shrink the relative size of debt and create resources for paying it off. But this option appears to be shut off for two reasons. The first we have already considered: the drag on the system from the huge backwash of bad debt. The second is more serious and permanent: the engine of growth itself has blown up - and no-one has come up with a replacement. To understand this, we need to backtrack.
The permanent debt economy
The crisis - credit crunch, crash, and slump - has its roots in the 1970s. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain and President Ronald Reagan in the US responded to a problem of low profits and sluggish growth by launching a frontal assault on unions, wages, and the welfare state. The aim was to redistribute wealth from labour to capital. Higher profit, argued Thatcher and Reagan, would encourage ‘enterprise’, investment, and growth.
But this policy was double-edged. Capitalists want low wages in their own firms, but high wages elsewhere so that workers can buy the goods and services they produce. The ‘neoliberal’ economy of 1979-2007 faced the intrinsic danger of being derailed by growing income inequality and inadequate demand.
The problem was solved by ‘financialisation’ - a vast growth in artificial demand sustained by unprecedented levels of borrowing. Market deregulation, low interest rates (‘cheap money’), financial ‘innovation’, and rising household debt eventually created the biggest bubble in the history of the system.
The economy kept growing because people were spending money that did not exist. Loans were secured against assets that were rising in value only because of the availability of loans: a classic, self-feeding, speculative frenzy. Workers in many parts of the developed world became heavily indebted because of stagnant incomes, easy credit, and rising house prices. And workers buying on tick then became the basis of a vast inverted pyramid of financial ‘derivatives’, unsecured debts, and inflated asset values (38).
Average US household debt more than doubled between the late 1970s and 2006. Total debt grew from about 1.5 times US national output in the early 1980s to nearly 3.5 in 2007. The financial sector’s share of US profits increased from about 15% in the early 1950s to almost 50% in 2001 (39).
The panic started in the ‘subprime’ mortgage market in the US - that is, in the sector where home loans had been made to people who could not afford to repay. Subprime loans had been repackaged with better-quality loans, and these ‘financial derivatives’ had then been sold on.
A slowdown in consumer demand and an easing of house prices suddenly made subprime loans look like bad debts. The subprime panic quickly turned into a contagion sweeping across global financial markets on fears about the degree to which the banking system as a whole was infected by ‘toxic’ debt (40).
The global financial system was exposed as a vast edifice of speculation, inflated values, and paper assets. Thus, as governments bailed out the banks, these fresh injections of finance simply vanished: the bubble had turned into a black hole (41).
Politicians talk about ‘recovery’ and a return to ‘growth’. They imply that the crisis is a temporary upset and that ‘normality’ will soon be restored - perhaps next year, maybe the year after, certainly within a few years.
But capitalism has never been ‘normal’, and its irrationality has become progressively more pronounced since the mid 19th century. Not for 140 years has the idealised model of numerous medium-sized firms competing in relatively free markets matched the reality of capitalist economies. Instead, the system has advanced through a succession of stages marked by the rising domination of a smaller number of giant global corporations (42).
Competition, as Karl Marx explained, leads to both ‘concentration of capital’ - a growth in the average size of productive units - and ‘centralisation of capital - a growth in the average size of corporations. In Britain, for example, the top 100 companies produced 16% of total output in 1910, but 50% by 1970 (43).
This development of ‘monopoly-capitalism’ had two important corollaries. The big corporations became increasingly dependent on a) the banks as a source of loan capital for large-scale investments (‘finance capitalism’), and b) the state as a major customer, especially for infrastructure projects and armaments (‘state capitalism’).
In the 40 years before the First World War, for example, bank loans and state contracts turned the Krupp complex of steelworks and arms factories at Essen in Germany into the biggest industrial enterprise in Europe, its workforce rising from 16,000 to 70,000 (44). The ‘military-industrial complex’ identified by US President Eisenhower in 1961 has, in fact, been a feature of advanced capitalist economies for over a century (45).
But stagnation was inherent in this growth of monopoly-capitalism. Three factors have rendered the system increasingly sclerotic:
1. A long-term tendency for the rate of profit to fall
It is labour-power that creates ‘value’. Mines, factories, and offices, drills, lathes, and computers, in and of themselves, create nothing. Only with the application of fresh labour-power can they be set in motion. Only thus can new wealth and profit be created. More advanced machinery (‘constant capital’) can raise the productivity of labour (‘variable capital’). But it can never, in and of itself, create value.
A long-term tendency for the rate of profit to fall follows from this ‘labour theory of value’. If - as tends to happen with the development of capitalism - the proportion of new investment spent on machinery as opposed to labour increases, profits will be squeezed. At least they will be unless one or several of what Marx called ‘countervailing factors’ are operative (46).
Profit-rate comparisons are difficult, but the evidence is compelling for long-term decline. Profit rates in key developed economies appear to have roughly halved between the 1960s and 1990s (47). Since profit is the motor of the system, falling profits can be expected to induce under-investment, over-production, and sluggish, erratic, crisis-prone growth. More than that: they can be expected to generate increasingly pathological ‘solutions’ as the system ages. These ‘solutions’ - variants of Marx’s ‘countervailing factors’ - become dominant features of the system.
2. A long-term tendency for the mass of surplus to rise
Because, under monopoly-capitalism, a handful of corporations control most industries, it becomes possible for them to protect profits by fixing prices, restricting competition to cost-cutting and the sales effort. Prices are no longer determined by the market but by monopoly power. Inflation thereby becomes embedded in the system. The effective elimination of market-induced price fluctuations enables big corporations to accumulate a rising mass of surplus (48).
These two tendencies - of the rate of profit to fall and of the surplus to rise - may appear to counteract one another. They are, in fact, sometimes counterposed as alternative theories of crisis (49). They are better understood as contradictory aspects of a single reality.
The tendency of the rate of profit to fall is inherent in the process of capital accumulation at all stages of its development. It is also inseparable from the ‘countervailing factors’ by which it is offset, since without the operation of such factors the system would have ground to a halt long ago (50).
The tendency of the surplus to rise, on the other hand, is a ‘countervailing factor’ peculiar to monopoly-capitalism, one by which big corporations are able to protect profits through market domination. The complex and contradictory interaction between the two tendencies is part of what makes each phase of late capitalist development a unique conjuncture.
Monopoly capital may use its market power to protect profits. But it may then find itself holding a mass of surplus for which sufficiently profitable investment outlets cannot be found. Two factors give rise to this contradiction. One is the long-term tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The other is the flip-side of the monopoly-capitalist coin: corporate ‘super-profits’ lead to working-class ‘under-consumption’.
3. The shoring up of ailing giants
Crisis can act as a purgative for the system. If enough firms fail, the survivors can buy up cheap assets, move into new markets, and push up prices and profits. The stagnation effects of factors (1) and (2) above can thereby be offset.
But an economy dominated by a small number of giant firms risks going into freefall. This is what happened in the Great Depression: state intervention was too little, too late, and the result was that world trade collapsed, the economy entered a deflationary ‘liquidity trap’, and the slump continued until war-production reflated the economy from 1939 onwards (51).
So governments intervene to prop up big firms on the ‘too-big-to-fail’ principle. Bernanke and Paulson flirted with a neoliberal ‘hands-off’ approach in relation to Lehman Brothers - until its collapse threatened to bring the whole global financial system down. The bank bailouts that followed cost an estimated 12.7% of US GDP (52).
Then it was the turn of US car giants General Motors and Chrysler. Their bailouts have contributed to massive overcapacity in the global car industry, which, on one estimate, produced 86 million vehicles in 2009, but sold only 55 million (53).
Stagnation is therefore the norm. The ageing system is afflicted by a compound of low profits, excess capacity, and under-consumption. That is why financial speculation swelled into a gigantic bubble. The pathology of a ‘permanent debt economy’ was the reality behind the glossy neoliberal fa√ßade.
The problem, then, is not simply the crash itself. It is that the very motor of the neoliberal boom - ‘financialisation’: debt and speculation - has blown up.
Bankers refuse to lend because their banks are bust and they do not think borrowers can repay. Industrialists are not investing because markets and profits have collapsed. Consumers spend little because they are deeply in debt and fear for their jobs. Governments plan to cut and deflate lest they bankrupt the state.
We therefore face a decade or more of stagnation-slump punctuated by financial crashes.
When the system booms, there is something for everyone. When it dives, the competition gets dirty. It is every state and corporation for itself. Each state, acting on behalf of the blocs of capital most deeply embedded in its own national economy, attempts to offload the costs of the crisis onto its neighbours.
Despite pious proclamations to the contrary, ‘protectionism’ is rampant. Measures vary. They include import tariffs, export subsidies, exchange-rate manipulation, and crude injunctions to buy home products. The US, France, Germany, Britain, Canada, China, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, and Italy have all, for example, provided direct or indirect support to their car industries since the present crisis began (54).
One consequence of intensified competition is that the planet is left to burn. Another is that the guns come out.
The Great Depression produced the Second World War. How great is the danger of world war today?
Empire: from ‘war on terror’ to world war?
We will strongly resist aggression from other great powers … We are attentive to the possible renewal of old patterns of great power competition. Several potential great powers are now in the midst of internal transition - most importantly, Russia, India, and China.’
The spirit of the quotation might be found in a document of 1914, the 1930s, or the 1960s. But it comes from the US Government’s National Security Strategy (NSS) dated September 2002. ‘It is time,’ the NSS proclaims, ‘to reaffirm the essential role of American military strength. We must build and maintain our defences beyond challenge.’
Rival powers, ‘rogue states’, and ‘terrorists’ may have to be taken out in pre-emptive strikes. The US military must ‘assure our allies, dissuade future military competition, deter threats against US interests, and decisively defeat any adversary if deterrence fails’ (55).
War and threats of war are intrinsic to monopoly-capitalism. In the middle of the 19th century, European standing armies were small, and wars between major powers rare, short, and relatively cheap in blood and treasure. Global corporations, militarised states, and imperialist wars are complementary features of a single system that has been evolving since the 1870s.
Three developmental characteristics have imbued the system with increasingly violent potential:
1. The fusion of nation-states and giant corporations
Rival states traditionally fought limited wars for territory, resources, and power; commercial interests were subordinate. Under monopoly-capitalism, however, the nation-state has been harnessed to capital’s global competitive drive for resources, markets, and profits. Rival states now fight all-out wars on behalf of the corporations.
2. The intensification of competition
The concentration and centralisation of capital means a world of finite resources increasingly dominated by smaller numbers of giant firms with global reach. The tension between national-capitalist blocs - and the risk of armed clashes - therefore tends to rise over time.
3. The growth of the means of destruction
Capitalism makes possible modern industrialised ‘total wars’ of materiel and attrition. As it develops, the system’s productive capacity rises, and therefore its potential output of armaments.
Monopoly-capitalism therefore finds its violent alter ego in modern industrialised warfare. National-capitalist blocs, supported by mass-production industries, are able to engage in protracted wars of carnage and attrition.
The First World War lasted four years and killed 20 million people. The Second World War last six years and killed 60 million. The difference was that global industrial capacity was greater in 1939 than in 1914.
Killing-power has increased further since then. The tonnage of munitions expended in war by the US per man-year of combat rose from one ton in the Second World War, to eight tons in the Korean War (early 1950s), to 26 tons in the Vietnam War during 1966-71 (56). The US dropped more munitions on Iraq during its six-week aerial bombing campaign in early 1991 than were dropped on Germany during the whole of the Second World War (57).
A world war today would probably be the most cataclysmic event in human history. A nuclear missile exchange between major powers could kill tens of millions, even hundreds of millions, in a matter of days.
According to Gabriel Kolko, world-renowned expert on modern war, we have reached ‘a point in human development when the nature and quantity of weaponry makes war so dangerous and destructive that surviving another century without terrible nuclear or chemical-biological catastrophes remains the single greatest challenge confronting people everywhere’ (58).
The principal threat to global peace today is the United States. This is because the US is in decline economically, yet remains dominant militarily.
The US economy grew more than 15% per year during the Second World War. By 1945, it accounted for more than 50% of total world output. This share has declined since, to about 32% in 1980, and around 22% today (59).
On the other hand, US arms spending has remained relatively high throughout the post-1945 period. Over the last 20 years, it has accounted for around a third of the global total. In 1999, US arms spending was 3 times that of China, 8 times that of Russia, 40 times that of Iran, and more than 200 times that of Iraq (60).
It is this contradictory couplet - relative economic decline and absolute military superiority - that explains the belligerence of the US in the world today (61). Military power is being projected to compensate for declining economic clout. Control over oil and fear of China are the two dominant strategic preoccupations.
‘Oil,’ as leading anti-war campaigner John Rees puts it, ‘is food, light, heat, and transport. No other single commodity can make the same claim. It really doesn’t get much more important than this’ (62).
But the oil is running out. Systematic lying by states and corporations makes accuracy impossible, but there is little doubt that we are close to ‘peak oil’ - the point at which depletion of the world’s reserves causes global output to begin to decline (63).
This must be set against fast-rising demand. China’s average growth rate for the period 1978 to 2008 was about 8% per year. Its economic output has increased nine-fold, and its share of world trade has risen from 1% to 6% (64).
China is exceptional, but many other countries are growing faster than the US. Brazil is the giant of Latin America - traditionally the US’s ‘backyard’. Its economy is now bigger than that of either India or Russia and is growing at over 4% per year (65).
In this context, control over oil is a matter of securing one’s own supplies and denying them to others. Post-1945 US economic growth has fast outstripped domestic oil production. In the 1950s, the US imported only 10% of its oil, but by the late 1980s this had risen to more than half (66). At the same time, the needs of most other industrial states for imported oil have also been rising.
This explains the strategic importance of the Middle East, which contains about 70% of known oil reserves. To ensure effective control of these reserves, consistent US policy has been to back pro-western clients, oppose nationalist regimes, and keep the Middle East divided.
That is why the US backed Iraq in opposition to Iran during the 1980-88 war, backed Kuwait against Iraq in the 1991 war, and then attacked and occupied Iraq in 2003. It is also the reason it is now threatening Iran. The significant statistics are these: Iraq has 12% of global oil reserves (ranking 2nd after Saudi-Arabia); Kuwait has 10% (ranking 4th); and Iran has 9% (ranking 5th) (67).
Afghanistan is also an energy war. With its Central Asian location, Afghanistan looks in three directions: towards Iran, with its Islamic-nationalist regime and 90 billion barrels of oil; towards Pakistan, with its vast impoverished Muslim population and nuclear arsenal; and towards the Caspian Basin, with up to 30 billion barrels of oil, 30% of the world’s gas reserves, and powerful Russian influence (68).
Afghanistan itself is one of the poorest countries on Earth. But it is a military platform from which power can be projected. So the US backed the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet invasion of 1979-89 (creating, in the process, Al-Qaeda), invaded itself to achieve ‘regime change’ in 2001, and is now pumping in more troops in an effort to contain the resulting insurgency (69).
The proclaimed purpose of US aggression is the elimination of ‘rogue states’ and ‘terrorists’. The principal victims - the ‘collateral damage’ - are civilian populations. Estimates of the numbers killed during the Iraq War start at 100,000 and rise to a million (70). One reputable estimate of the death-toll in Afghanistan is 20-30,000 (71). Millions of others have been maimed, bereaved, displaced, or plunged into poverty by unemployment and the collapse of basic services.
The underlying purpose of the violence is to secure US political and economic hegemony against emerging global rivals. China is a new capitalist superpower with global imperial reach. It is already consuming 7% of the world’s oil, 31% of its coal, 30% of its iron ore, 27% of its steel, and 25% of its aluminium.
Politics follow economics. The Chinese state oil company has recently struck a $70 billion deal to buy oil and gas from Iran. China and the US are becoming great-power rivals in the Middle East and elsewhere (72).
In the Caspian Basin, Russia is the main rival. Russia, with a vast territory rich in natural resources, massive energy reserves, and the second biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, remains a great power. If challenged, it can threaten.
‘It hasn’t been left unnoticed in Russia,’ declared the Russian Foreign Ministry in May 2000, ‘that certain outside interests are trying to weaken our position in the Caspian Basin. No-one should be perplexed that Russia is determined to resist the attempts to encroach on her interests’ (73). Central Asia, in other words, is Russia’s ‘backyard’.
Russia has therefore waged its own ‘war on terror’ in Chechnya. More recently, taking advantage of US ‘imperial overstretch’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has invaded Georgia to limit the spread of NATO. Russia may no longer be a global superpower, but it is a regional power perfectly capable of local military action to maintain a buffer zone of client states around its borders (74).
The US ‘war on terror’ is really a series of imperialist wars. Its aim is to protect the interests of the giant corporations that dominate the US economy. That means control over energy supplies, raw materials, production facilities, and mass markets.
These interests can be threatened by rival capitalist super-powers (like China), by regional powers (like Russia or Iran), or by mass movements and popular insurgencies (like Hamas or the Taliban). Military power is therefore projected across the world to make it safe for US power and profit.
An independent Iraqi government might have raised oil prices. Or it might have favoured China as a customer. The US invasion of Iraq prevented those things from happening. It secured direct control of Iraqi oil and demonstrated to other oil producers US willingness to use force if necessary.
The military crisis of imperial decline may be intensifying. Barack Obama has doubled the number of US troops in Afghanistan. British and US casualties are at record levels. The war has spread into neighbouring Pakistan, with artillery and air attacks on border villages and huge bomb explosions in major cities. Yemen, like Somalia, is collapsing into civil war. Iran is threatened with attack.
One result of unchecked climate change, as tens of millions are displaced and plunged into poverty, will be more ‘failed states’, civil wars, and terrorist enclaves. Another will be intensified competition between rival nation-states as they attempt to offload the costs of climate change on one another.
The slump will have similar consequences. As corporations compete for profits in a shrinking market, wars will become more likely. As US economic power wanes in a crisis-racked and increasingly competitive world, the temptation to use its overwhelming military power - before it is too late: before it is eroded by industrial and financial decline - will grow.
The rift between the US and China may evolve into the world’s deepest geopolitical fracture. China’s growth is powered by low-cost exports. In consequence, China held an estimated $2.3 trillion in foreign-currency reserves in early 2009. Of these, some $1.7 trillion was invested in dollar assets (75).
China’s ‘savings glut’ is therefore recycled to underwrite US debt and fund US imports of Chinese goods. This major imbalance in the world economy is highly destabilising. It was one factor in the financial crash of September 2008.
China is unwilling to address this problem. Increased domestic consumption would involve higher wages and therefore higher prices for Chinese goods. A revaluation of the yuan (the Chinese currency) would also mean higher prices. Either policy would risk choking off China’s export-led growth.
At the same time, Chinese capitalism is going global. In the space of a few weeks in early 2009, for example, the Chinese were negotiating deals to double a development fund in Venezuela to $12 billion, lend Ecuador at least $1 billion to build a hydroelectric plant, provide Argentina with access to more than $10 billion in Chinese currency, and lend Brazil’s national oil company $10 billion.
‘The deals,’ as the New York Times explained it, ‘largely focus on China’s locking in natural resources like oil for years to come’ (76).
The November 2008 report of the US National Intelligence Council made gloomy predictions about the growing threat to US global hegemony:
The international system … will be almost unrecognisable by 2025 owing to the rise of emerging powers, a globalising economy, an historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East, and the growing influence of non-state actors… Strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, investments, and technological innovation and acquisition, but we cannot rule out a 19th century-like scenario of arms races, territorial expansion, and military rivalries … the United States’ relative strength - even in the military realm - will decline and US leverage will become more constrained (77).
True to form, the response of the declining imperial hegemon has been mainly military. US missile defence has provoked much recent conflict with Russia. Now, as CND Chair Kate Hudson explains, it is being turned on China:
"For some years the US has been pursuing an Aegis sea-based interceptor missile system with Japan, Australia, and South Korea. This is now centre-stage following the completion - after weeks of protest by China - of a $6.5 billion weapons transfer to Taiwan, including 200 advanced Patriot anti-ballistic missiles. It is also providing Taiwan with eight frigates which can be equipped with the Aegis system to carry missile interceptors "(78).
Taiwan is a potential global flash-point. Traditionally part of China, it is claimed by the Chinese state. At the same time, the US is developing the island as a missile launch-site. ‘As China pushes further ahead economically,’ says Hudson, ‘the US is playing a dangerous game … promoting US nuclear primacy to prevent Chinese economic primacy.’
How likely is a new Pacific war, similar to that between the US and Japan in 1941-5? How likely is war between the great powers elsewhere? Just how threatening are the international tensions and the growing militarisation of relations between states?
We do not know. But the trends are clear. The world is becoming less safe. And if the three main dimensions of the global crisis - climate change, economic slump, and imperialist war - operate in different registers, each following its own logic, dynamic, and trajectory, each with its own chronology and narrative, it is equally the case that all three are entwined in complex, mutually reinforcing, and potentially highly dangerous ways.
To repeat, in the second decade of the 21st century, we face a compound crisis of the global capitalist system which may prove to be the most serious in history. Polluting, stagnant, militarised monopoly-capitalism offers the planet and its people a catastrophic and barbarous future.
What is to be done?
Exploitation, alienation, and protest
Global politics are shaped by what John Rees calls ‘the three titans of the modern world’:
There are three great powers in the modern world. The power of nation-states, of the international economy, and the power of working people on whom all states, armies, and corporations, ultimately, must depend. Many of the most important events in the modern world take place at the intersection where these three forces collide (79).
We have discussed two of these titans: the corporations and the nation-states. We turn now to the third: the international working class.
The working class is bigger today than ever before. When Marx, in the middle of the 19th century, first identified it as a revolutionary class that could transform the world, it comprised only a few millions. In Lenin’s time, in the early 20th century, the working class numbered tens of millions, but not yet hundreds of millions; the great majority of humanity were still peasants.
Today, about 3 billion people belong to the working class - about half the world’s population. This figure - 3 billion - corresponds to the number who live in cities and also to the number who use mobile phones. Though these are not always the same people, a handy way of thinking about our third ‘titan’ is to reckon on some 3 billion people - to repeat: half the world - as being a) workers, b) urban, and c) networked (80).
All workers are, by definition, exploited. Marxists use the term ‘working class’ to define a social relationship - between capital and labour - and an economic process - the extraction of surplus-value. Capitalists will not employ workers unless they can make profit from their labour. Because of this, class is an inherently exploitative relationship, and work, in consequence, a thoroughly alienating experience.
Discontent is therefore normal. But levels of discontent vary, both from one workplace to another, and across the working class as a whole over time. There seems little doubt that levels of discontent have been ratcheted upwards during the neoliberal era (1979-2008).
Class inequality has grown massively, both within states and between them, over the last 30 years. In Britain, for example, in the decade from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, the salaries of top company bosses roughly doubled, while those of workers increased at only half this rate (81). The share of national income received by the poorest tenth of the population fell from 4.2% in 1979 to 2.7% in 2002 (82).
The statistics of rising inequality translate into poverty, stress, and bitterness, not just for the poor, but for workers generally. Even professional workers in their 30s earning £40,000 a year cannot afford to buy houses in London and the South-East. One month’s price increase can wipe out years of saving for a deposit. Only 13% of people renting privately do so through choice (83).
The economic ‘recovery’ of the last year or so has changed nothing. In Britain, national income grew by £27 billion between the middle of 2009 and early 2010. Of this, higher profits accounted for £24 billion of the rise, wages for just £2 billion (84). Little wonder that LVMH, the world’s biggest luxury-goods firm, can report a 13% jump in sales of champagne, designer handbags, diamond-set watches, and other elite commodities in the first quarter of 2010 (85).
The gap between rich and poor counties also yawns ever wider. A World Bank study showed that the wealth ratio between the richest and poorest country was nearly 8:1 in 1870, 38:1 in 1960, and 45:1 in 1990. The World Bank has also estimated that one-quarter of the world’s population is below the lower poverty line ($1 a day) and one-half below the upper poverty line ($2 a day). The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that the global total of undernourished people - 842 million - was rising in the late 1990s by 4.5 million a year (86).
As I write, the residents of Laogucheng in Beijing are battling police and private thugs to stop their ancient homes being demolished to make way for ‘redevelopment’ by profiteers. Fifty such neighbourhoods are targeted for destruction in Beijing this year alone.
Government revenues from selling off land to developers in China’s 70 biggest cities jumped 140% in 2009 to around 1 trillion yuan ($150 billion) in total value. The privatisation of land and homes has seen the price of a typical Beijing apartment reach 50 times average household annual income - a ratio six times higher than in New York’s Manhattan (87).
Why are the rich getting so much richer than everyone else? Market forces increase inequalities because they empower those who control capital. Collective action, on the other hand, advances the interests of labour. That is why our rulers hate the unions, redistributive taxes, and the welfare state.
The shift of power against the working majority has been evident in many aspects of life over the last 30 years. Working life involves longer hours, excessive workloads, and more bullying and stress. Fewer people enjoy job security, sickness benefits, and decent pensions.
Fear looms larger in working-class life. Fear of redundancy, dispossession, and poverty. Fear of the boss and the line-manager.
Beyond the workplace, there is the privatised anomie of consumerism, with its shopping malls, wall-to-wall advertising, and celebrity role-models, a world of empty forms where everything is a commodity and no-one has a soul.
Alongside the commercial glitz, on the other hand, there is public squalor. Over-priced and crowded trains. Dirty, run-down, under-staffed hospitals. Schools forever tapping parents for funds. Universities cutting lecturers and facilities as they cram in ever more students.
Attempts to obtain any kind of service - as opposed to buying a commodity - are blocked by a bureaucratic wall of answer-machines, form-filling, and junior staff.
Mainstream politics - where one might once have sought redress for social ills - is dominated by suited careerists with identikit ideas. On the one hand, they echo the market mantras of a commodified world, telling us there is no alternative to privatisation and profiteering. On the other, they peddle nasty little tabloid prejudices about poor people (‘scroungers’), refugees (‘bogus asylum-seekers’), and Muslims (‘terrorists’).
Parliamentary democracy has been hollowed out by neoliberalism. That is why Labour Party membership has halved in the last 30 years to well under 200,000 (88). It is also why barely one in three young people voted in the 2005 British General Election (89).
But exploitation and alienation can wear different faces. Demoralisation and despair is one, anger and resistance another. Herein lies the potential for radical change: in the bitterness induced by rising inequality, privatised greed, decaying public services, and a corrupt political system. The anger has produced both a general anti-capitalist mood and a militant anti-capitalist protest movement.
The general mood is reflected in hostility to the system and the political and business elite, notably, in Britain recently, in relation to bankers’ bonuses, MPs’ expenses, and the prospect of tax hikes and spending cuts to pay for bank bailouts.
The protest movement has, in the past decade, involved sometimes massive demonstrations against war, globalisation, and climate change. An important feature of the movement is its radicalism. From its inception on the 1999 Seattle demonstration, general anti-capitalist politics have been prevalent, if not dominant, among activists.
The potential for general mood and protest movement to swell and fuse is sometimes obvious - in the mass strikes and protests in Greece, for example, or in the giant ‘no’ vote in the Icelandic referendum. The job of anti-capitalist revolutionaries is to realise this potential, to work for unity and solidarity across the various struggles, campaigns, and protests, and to connect the radicalism and militancy of the movements with the immense collective power of the working class.
Here, in imagination, we can perhaps foreshadow a future anti-capitalist revolution.
Revolution in the 21st century
Revolutions tend to be sudden, highly infectious, and immensely powerful mechanisms of change.
The Great French Revolution of 1789 exploded when the people of Paris armed themselves, took to the streets, and prevented a royalist military coup. Thereafter, between 1789 and 1794, the masses intervened repeatedly in the political process to drive the revolution forwards against the resistance of half-hearted moderates, counter-revolutionaries, and foreign armies of invasion (90).
The revolutionary movement subsided after 1815, but then erupted again in 1848 with a wave of copycat insurrections in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Rome, and other European cities. Though the revolutionaries were defeated, the impetus they gave to reform was unstoppable. Europe’s rulers knew they had to manage change from above or risk further explosions from below. France became a republic, Italy was united for the first time, and Germany was forged into a modern nation-state (91).
In February 1917, the police dictatorship of the Russian Tsar was overthrown by working-class insurrection. In October 1917, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, the Russian working class seized power. The factories were run by workers’ councils, the land was given to the peasants, and Russia withdrew from the First World War. For a few brief years, until the revolution was destroyed by economic collapse, civil war, and foreign invasion, Russia was the most democratic country in the world (92).
The Bolshevik Revolution sparked a chain reaction of revolutions from Germany to China. The revolutions in Germany and Austria-Hungary ended the First World War. The revolutionary movement as a whole, between 1917 and 1923, came close to bringing down the entire world capitalist system (93).
World capitalism has remained pregnant with revolution ever since. In 1936, revolution in Spain blocked a fascist-backed military coup. In 1956, revolution in Hungary greeted a Soviet invasion. In 1968, ten million workers joined a general strike in France, hundreds of thousands occupied their factories, and students and young workers fought pitched battles with riot police in central Paris (94).
In 1979, revolution brought down a vicious, heavily-armed, US-backed dictatorship in Iran. In 1989, a wave of revolutions across Eastern Europe brought down a succession of Stalinist dictators, despite their networks of informers, secret police, and political prisons (95).
Revolution is history’s mechanism for effecting change against entrenched and unpopular elites.
Britain is no exception. It was the English Revolution of 1640-9 that broke the power of the monarchy and established parliamentary government (96). It was mass movements like the Chartists and the Suffragettes that won the vote for ordinary people (97). It was working-class revolt that brought down the Tory government of Edward Heath in 1973-4 and that of Margaret Thatcher in 1989-90 (98).
In 1924, the Hungarian Marxist theoretician Georg Luk√°cs, reflecting on the great epoch of war and revolution that had just passed, wrote of ‘the actuality of the revolution’. He regarded the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin as the supreme exponent of this principle. It is worth recalling, in the context of our own age of crisis, what Luk√°cs had in mind.
"Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution… The stature of a proletarian thinker, of a representative of historical materialism, can therefore be measured by the depth and breadth of his grasp of this and the problems arising from it; by the extent to which he is able accurately to detect beneath the appearances of bourgeois society those tendencies towards proletarian revolution which work themselves in and through it to their effective being and distinct consciousness…
The genius … for whom the true essence, the living, active main trends of an age are clear, sees them at work behind every event of his time … Lenin always saw the problems of the age as a whole: the onset of the last phase of capitalism and the possibilities of turning the now inevitable final struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat in favour of the proletariat - of human salvation… The actuality of the revolution: this is the core of Lenin’s thought …
The theory of historical materialism … presupposes the universal actuality of the proletarian revolution. In this sense, as both the objective basis of the whole epoch and the key to understanding of it, the proletarian revolution constitutes the living core of Marxism… The actuality of the revolution provides the key-note of a whole epoch… The actuality of the revolution therefore implies the study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historic whole, as moments in the liberation of the proletariat…" (99)
For Luk√°cs, international working-class revolution was a vital necessity and an ever-present possibility against which all political action should be judged. The eventual defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 does not alter the essential validity of that insight. On the contrary, it confirms it, for the result was the barbarism of Stalin and Hitler.
An ancient Biblical myth sees the end of the world heralded by the appearance of four horsemen - the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, representing Conquest, Slaughter, Famine, and Death.
The prospect before humanity today can seem truly apocalyptic. Late monopoly-capitalism has developed the productive forces of the global economy to an unprecedented degree. But these forces are not subject to democratic control and rational planning; they are propelled by the economic and military imperatives of competitive capital accumulation. In consequence, despite their potential to emancipate the whole of humanity from material need, they now threaten the opposite: the survival of industrial civilisation itself.
The ignorance, cupidity, and irresponsibility of our rulers in the face of this crisis are rooted in the irrationality of the system. Climate catastrophe, economic slump, and imperialist war have their roots in the madness of the market: the blind economic and military competition which propels the nation-states and mega-corporations of monopoly-capitalism.
This madness produced the First World War, the Second World War, and the horrors of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s extermination-camps. The history of the last century argues unequivocally that the system is deeply pathological, irrational, and destructive.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the compound crisis of contemporary capitalism again threatens the lives of hundreds of millions and the well-being of billions of the world’s people. It is perhaps the most serious crisis in human history.
Another ancient Biblical myth was sometimes counterposed to that of the Four Horseman. In this version of the Apocalypse, the culmination was a popular Jubilee. Tax-collectors and landlords would be swept away. Slaves and serfs would be set free. The land would be restored to the people who worked it. A new Golden Age of freedom and plenty would begin.
To turn Apocalypse into Jubilee in the early 21st century, four things are required:
1. We have to understand the necessity for total system change. Only by linking different campaigns, protests, and struggles together in a general assault on the system that is at the root of humanity’s problems can we hope to solve them.
2. We have to understand the centrality of the working class to any serious strategy for system change. Only by mobilising the majority of ordinary working people can we find the power to confront and defeat corporate capital and the nation-states.
3. We have to connect the anti-capitalist protests of the activist minority with the general anti-capitalist mood of the discontented majority, so that fresh, larger, more powerful forces are drawn into protests, strikes, and demonstrations.
4. We have to foster this rising anti-capitalist movement until it swells into a new world-revolutionary wave comparable with, and greater than, those of 1789, 1848, 1917, 1968, and 1989.
Another world has become an absolute historical necessity. Another world is possible. The revolution is, in this sense, an ‘actuality’.
But it is not a certainty. It has to be fought for. Its achievement depends on what all of us do. And the historical stakes have never been higher.
Thanks are due to Ady Cousins, Chris Nineham, John Rees, and Alex Snowdon for help given or comments made during the drafting of this paper.
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37. The Guardian, 5/5/2010.
38. Bellamy Foster and Magdoff 2009, 27-88.
39. Harman 2008, 22.
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41. Mason 2009, 114.
42. Mason 2009, 58-9.
43. Harman 1984, 33.
44. Hobsbawm 1994, 308.
46. Harman 1984, 16-49.
47. Harman 2007, 148-50; Callinicos 2010, 50-6.
48. Baran and Sweezy 1968, 62-86; Bellamy Foster and Magdoff 2009, 63-76.
49. e.g. Harman 1984, 148-54.
50. Rees 2009.
51. Harman 1984, 56-74.
52. Callinicos 2010, 88.
53. Callinicos 2010, 92.
54. Callinicos 2010, 101.
55. Rees 2006, 30-4.
56. Kolko 1994, 426.
57. Rees 2006, 16.
58. Kolko 1994, 4.
59. Rees 2006, 40-4; Harman 2009, 170, 332-3; Callinicos 2010, 111.
60. Rees 2006, 13-5.
61. Rees 2006, 13.
62. Rees 2006, 68.
63. Rees 2006, 69-72; Bellamy Foster 2009c, 92-9.
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Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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