ON THE BRINK
World Perspectives 2018
In the age of globalisation more than ever, national horizons have been superseded by world perspectives. News is relayed instantaneously in real time via television news channels, the internet and mobile phone technology. Trading in shares, stocks, currencies and futures is conducted internationally in milliseconds. Capitalism is striving to transcend the barriers of the nation state through trade agreements like the EU, NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, etc.
It is now a decade since the economic catastrophe of 2008. Still today there is only sluggish growth. Despite quantitative easing amounting to $3.7 trillion in the USA and the equivalent of $640 billion in Britain, there is still a lack of productive investment, due to the fall in the rate of profit. Instead, a huge ballast of loose cash is sloshing around, salted away in land, property, art works and an orgy of predatory asset-stripping. The accumulated shortfall in the rise of world output, set against projections from the preceding growth rate, has been calculated at 8.4% – equivalent to the disappearance of the entire German economy.
Once a new recession comes, with interest rates already at little more than zero there are few options left to prop up the economy.
That is why the capitalists are bracing themselves for unpredictable political consequences. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence notes “shocks like the Arab spring, the global financial crisis, and the global rise of populist anti-establishment politics” and predicts “deep shifts in the political landscape that portend a dark and difficult near future.”
In the period up to 30 years ago, many observers thought that there was a “race between the social revolution in the West and the political revolution in the East”. There was a deepening dual crisis of capitalism and of Stalinism. Since then, two almighty cataclysms have shaken the planet: first, in 1989-91, the collapse of Stalinism, and then in 2008 the capitalist crisis, which has plunged the world into turmoil ever since.
That these events unfolded as they did is no accident. But just imagine if the order had been reversed! Is it conceivable that the uprisings in the East could possibly have led to a restoration of capitalism, in the context of a world economic crisis? And conversely, might workers’ uprisings for socialist democracy in the East not have fanned the fading embers of socialist traditions in the West?
Clear perspectives are crucial in mapping out a strategy, in this case anticipating the paroxysms of crisis that were about to bring to an end four decades of relative stability. And yet, as Lenin liked to quote from Goethe, “theory is grey but the tree of life is green“. It failed to warn and prepare us for crucial surprises and detours that posed unexpected new questions.
Today in most countries we are witnessing a sharp political polarisation: an eclipse of the postwar liberal settlement in developed countries; a hollowing out of the “centre” and the decline of traditional parties throughout Europe and beyond. There is no traditional party inherited from the preceding postwar liberal era, left or right, which is not today in crisis or terminal decline. The age of the liberal consensus has gone. Right-wing demagogues, populist and openly racist parties are gaining ground fast, while traditional or established workers’ parties like the French Socialist Party, PSOE and PASOK have been bypassed and outflanked. Hardly fragments survive today of the Italian Communist Party, which used to be the biggest in Europe outside the Stalinist bloc, with millions of supporters.
Other signs of this process of polarisation are the mortal challenges to the dying establishments of both Republican and Democrat parties in the USA by Trump and Sanders respectively; the eclipse of the alternative traditional bourgeois parties in France by le Pen and Macron; the loss of its majority by the CDU in Germany; separatist surges in Scotland, Catalonia and Italy; the rise of racist parties in the Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Sweden and Greece, and of regimes peddling covertly coded anti-Semitism throughout central Europe; the collapse of left governments throughout Latin America; the rise of butchers like Modi in India, Dutarte in the Philippines, and the authoritarian Erdogan regime in Turkey… every one of them still nominally democratic parliamentary regimes.
Britain is only superficially an apparent exception, due to its peculiar electoral system. After an initial shrinkage of both traditional parties and the rise of eccentric alternatives (briefly the LibDems, SNP, UKIP, the Greens), what looks superficially like a dramatic reversion to the main parties has actually disguised a similar polarisation, in that the Tory Party has been in effect taken over by UKIP, while the Labour Party is becoming transformed by the influx of hundreds of thousands of previously alienated new or returning members who have now joined or rejoined it, staking out the ground for an impending split by the discredited remnants of the Blairite “centre”. There’s also of course in Britain a highly virulent British version of separatism: Brexit.
In the former colonial world, too, those previously unassailable dynastic parties of the post-colonial era which had previously basked in the glory of the liberation struggle for independence and democratic rights – parties like Congress in India, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe and increasingly the ANC in South Africa – are now paying a heavy price for decades of corruption and moral decay.
Why are the old loyalties loosening? Because the social bases of both the ruling capitalist parties and the traditional workers’ parties are also crumbling. The rise of supra-national giant monopolies has left the old national conservative parties stranded and dependent upon an abandoned and disgruntled traditional electoral base, while the discredited former leaders of established workers’ parties, that due to their legacy of real historic past reforms had won the loyalty of previous generations, no longer have any promises to offer.
Marxists used to insist quite rightly on the “iron law” that workers would always and inevitably return to their traditional organisations. That was a necessary and healthy corrective to the frivolous sectarianism of the ultra-left fringe elements. And yet even in those days, as with all iron laws there were exceptions. For instance, they had always had difficulty explaining the emergence of PASOK in Greece – a new party arising seemingly from nowhere. Forty years later, that too collapsed, to be replaced out of the blue by SYRIZA.
What is the explanation? Does it invalidate the fundamental laws of proletarian solidarity and cohesion? No, it reflected the special physiognomy of the Greek working class, 80% of whom are either unemployed, self-employed, or scattered in small workshops.
But so too has the industrial base of the working class now been eroded throughout most of the old “industrial” countries, where there has been a “Greekification” of the proletariat, bringing a new element of volatility. In Britain, the old concentrated industrial communities have been largely liquidated in the new age of deindustrialisation, the gig economy and zero-hour contracts.
Many left activists have been thrown into confusion, sectarianism and opportunism, ending up on the wrong side of events: celebrating the wave of xenophobia represented by the Brexit referendum and finding themselves at a complete loss how to react to the Corbyn surge and the influx of hundreds of thousands into the Labour Party. Rather than the euphoric line from Wordsworth quoted by one of their former leading members – “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven“, a more appropriate description was offered by Yeats: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…” This was the preamble to his horrifying vision of the “rough beast” of fascism “slouching” with “a pitiless gaze” through the desert waste. The decisive conflict is yet to come.
THROUGH WHAT PERIOD ARE WE PASSING?
For all their limitations, we always tend to look for parallels and historical templates. The depth of today’s crisis brings to mind irresistibly the 1930s: sudden shocks, mass poverty, abortive workers’ strikes and protests, the melting of old political allegiances, splits and spurts of new parties and sudden realignments in the workers’ movement, the shocking reappearance of old spectres of long-buried reactionary nationalist dreams, a resurgence of fascist movements…
In case this sounds unduly fatalistic, let’s not forget that there is also another side of the picture: huge and in some cases unprecedented manifestations of workers’ resistance. In country after country governments have been overthrown by mass uprisings. November 2014 saw the first ever general strike which transcended national barriers, throughout southern Europe. In 2017 alone about 200 million workers in India participated in the biggest general strike in world history! Also last year, 35 million workers in Brazil staged the biggest general strike in Latin America in living memory… And in April 2018 there was a general strike in South Africa. And that’s before we come to the massive strike wave in China (see below).
It is only in retrospect that historical epochs can be neatly classified. The First World War ended in revolutions throughout Europe, retying the knot with the pre-war years of radicalisation. Armies mutinied, monarchies were toppled, and in Russia and even beyond, Soviets took power. And yet in August 1917 it was only by the will of the Bolsheviks that a terrible defeat was avoided at the hands of General Kornilov. Fascism would have acquired a Russian rather than an Italian name. Conversely, the 1930s witnessed crushing defeats throughout Europe… and yet the workers of Barcelona came within an inch of power.
Even at this preliminary stage, in Britain we are witnessing paradoxical swings and lurches to left and right: since the crash in Britain, student demos, a wave of youth riots, an unpredicted Tory victory, the shock of the Brexit referendum, the completely unforeseen Corbyn surge, the sudden calling of a new election and the unexpected loss of the Tory majority…
.All we can say with certainty is that a new era has started. After decades of relative stagnation, history is catching up with a vengeance. Marx once quoted Hamlet: “well burrowed, old mole“, likening revolution to the mole which burrows deep for decades before unexpectedly poking its nose through and breaking the surface of the earth. Processes develop over decades before erupting in sudden crisis. What are the underlying historic tensions that have now blasted to the surface? (pictureFrom Control of Field Rodents in California (1949). via Wikimedia Commons)
There is no longer a neat tripartite division of the world into a stable equilibrium of separate mutually balanced sectors: advanced capitalism, Stalinism and the Third World. We are all finding ourselves sucked ever more rapidly into a common vortex of crisis and horror.
Albeit in a hideously distorted form, the Stalinist states in their day had demonstrated the potential for a society freed from the dictates of the market and private profit. The downfall of the USSR and its satellites, for all their decay, monstrous corruption and stagnation, still dealt a blow to the morale of the labour movement; while the removal of an alternative power bloc to imperialism, which had previously allowed them a certain scope to play off rival power blocs, meant a material and political defeat for resistance movements in the colonial world. All that is left is the wreckage of the Soviet legacy.
Other factors too have weakened proletarian cohesion in the old metropolitan countries. Above all, Europe and the USA represent a dying power, increasingly peripheral to future historical progress. The new technology created the conditions for an era of globalisation in which the old industrial proletariat was decimated. This led to an erosion of the gains of the postwar era: deep cuts in wages and in welfare (the “social wage”).
In Britain and many traditional industrial countries of the so-called “gig economy”, the old concentrated proletarian communities have become largely replaced by a “precariat”, living from hand to mouth in self-employment or casual temporary employment on zero-hours contracts. Trade union cohesion has been severely weakened and the instinctive socialist consciousness that had taken root in the labour movement is almost extinguished. Faith in a mission to assume power and reorganise production comes easier to car workers and miners than to parcel couriers and fast food workers. The working class has become dislocated and its combativity accordingly weakened. And yet even in these conditions a new generation is learning to organise. Office cleaners and MacDonalds workers have staged exemplary and often successful strikes. And while the trade unions survive today mostly within a rapidly shrinking public sector, this still vital sector mobilises to resist intolerable austerity cuts. Their traditions of struggle have reached layers of the population which had formerly classed themselves as “professionals” considering themselves above such practices. In Britain, the most militant strikes in recent times have been those of school teachers, hospital doctors, and university lecturers.
In the USA, one third of industrial jobs have been lost since 2001. In Britain, the number of manufacturing jobs has fallen below 3 million for the first time since 1841. For every one worker in the west, there are now five based in China, Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. It is this above all which explains the diminished consciousness of workers in the West; but overall it is an overwhelmingly positive factor. There are 100 million industrial workers in China – more than double the number in all the G7 countries put together – and 3 billion wage workers worldwide. The working class is now a majority of the population worldwide, and it has extended its reach to every continent. Women now constitute a majority of this class and are at the forefront of struggle, both as militant workers and, in their role as traditional custodians of the family, leading the resistance to cuts both in wages and in welfare
THE DECLINE OF AMERICA
The “American century” is drawing to a close. Despite the premature jubilation of 1991, when their ideologues were crowing triumphantly about “the end of history”, we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of the postwar ascendancy of US capitalism, its unremitting relative decline.
Following the end of the 25-year postwar upswing in 1974, the boom was maintained by a combination of military investment and the rise of new technology, together with an orgy of privatisation, followed by the dot.com bubble, and then an era of increasingly complex speculative gambling. This culminated in the crash of 2008 and the subsequent long recession.
At the same time, the supremacy of the dollar, which had enjoyed a booming recovery from the Vietnam war and the shocks of the 1970s, is now once again foundering. Due to the falling rate of profit, there is a massive surplus of capital, a huge ballast swilling around in search of a profitable niche. It found temporary expedients in grotesque arms expenditure; then in the dot.com bubble; in a wave of economically senseless privatisations stripping the state bare; then finally in a further descent into rampant gambling and speculation, ending in a gigantic crash, prompting a massive redistribution of wealth to the super-rich. Now outlets are becoming exhausted. This has always in the past heralded slumps and wars.
The decline of US imperialism has aggravated tensions and brought to imminent crisis long-running pressure points throughout the world from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula. The USA found itself standing by helplessly when Russia won the Georgian war, annexed the Crimean peninsula and took control of eastern Ukraine. Despite its expenditure of $1.6 trillion on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it ended up ceding effective control of Iraq to Iran, and a predominant influence in Afghanistan to the Taliban. Throughout the Middle East – a seething cauldron like the Balkans before the First World War – the USA has proved in effect impotent to impose its interests. That explains why, in sharp contrast to its interventions in Iraq and Libya, the USA is now meekly standing by and allowing Assad a free hand to destroy civilised life in Syria.
The ruling class is alarmed at the wayward and corrupt nature of the Trump regime, but its effete liberal remonstrations reflect their fear of the consequences of using their reserve powers to replace it.
The current administration in Washington, fronted by a cartoon buffoon, reflects in a concentrated form the nihilism and bankruptcy of capitalism. This regime is deranged, brutal and crude: more overtly aggressive, but also more attuned to the harsh realities of the new era than the old inbred hypocritical establishment, which itself surreptitiously carried out dirty wars and weekly drone strikes.
It has recklessly torn up the nuclear treaty with Iran, provocatively moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and blundered into the risk of direct confrontation on the Korean peninsula. The first shots have been fired in a potential trade war, as the US slaps punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, including from its “allies” in Canada and Europe, and seeks to suppress Chinese advanced manufacturing in robotics, aerospace, electric vehicles, artificial intelligence and biotech. It is preparing domestic repression by whipping up confrontations with minorities and wilfully inciting both terrorist atrocities at home and foreign wars, initially with Iran or North Korea, with the distant implied threat of war with China.
The most formidable advantage that the USA still retains is its overwhelming military superiority; and by the new regime’s calculations, it needs to be deployed soon. The USA and Russia remain rivals, but new and bigger fault lines have developed. US imperialism needs to clear away the debris of the old conflicts to prepare for those that lie ahead.
Looming ahead is the prospect of an inevitable future confrontation with China. Whenever one dominant empire is challenged by another, it means war. Ever since the collapse of Stalinism there have been wars after wars: in the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria… And while the USA still has such overwhelming military supremacy, isn’t it in its interests to engage sooner rather than later? And yet the spectre of Vietnam still haunts the ruling class, when the world’s strongest superpower found itself humbled and defeated by a country of ragged peasant guerrillas and helpless in the face of a mutinous army and mass anti-war protests at home.
The USA has manipulated popular outrage at the terror tactics of al-Qaida and later even more effectively the barbarous antics of ISIS to legitimise its attempts to wrest control of the Middle Eastern oilfields. Terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism have served as a useful diversion for capitalist politicians. For all the hysteria whipped up against it, Islamic terrorism represents little more than a symbolic gesture of impotent defiance against decades of imperialist plunder. The idea that it constitutes a mortal threat to “democracy” and “Western values” is an exaggerated xenophobic claim exploited by imperialist politicians. This phenomenon suits the ruling class perfectly, enabling it to rally support, promote racism and divert attention from the real cause of the crisis in society.
Nevertheless, religious fundamentalism and communalism pose a crucial danger in that they split the working class and poison the minds of youth in revolt, from Hungary to India. In its most virulent guise, it constitutes a variant of fascism. Fascism always drapes itself in the costume of its national myths: Mussolini’s Fascists in Caesarism and the Roman Empire; Hitler’s Nazis in Aryan Nordic sagas; Franco’s clerical fascists in the Catholic Church and the Inquisition; the Indian Shiv Sena in Hindu epics, gods and princes; and the various Islamic fascist groups (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Jamaat-e-Islam) in seventh-century Mecca, Medina and the early caliphates. Successive British fascist groups have cloaked themselves in the paraphernalia of the British Empire, and their American counterparts in the folklore of the American revolution, the frontier pioneers, and the civil war Confederate states.
What all fascist groups have in common is their active mobilisation of militant supporters, their violent bigotry against vulnerable minorities, and their common prime target: the labour movement.
THE RISE OF CHINA
The USA now has a far more formidable enemy to contend with. The new US Defence Secretary has announced that “Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security.”
The Chinese GDP has grown by nearly 1200% in the last twenty years. It is now the largest trading nation in the world. In 12-15 years the Chinese economy overall will overtake that of the USA.
Chinese economic power is now asserting itself on the world stage. It is developing in eastern Asia – supplanting US influence in the Philippines, east and central Asia, with its ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative; and its influence is growing fast in Latin America and throughout Africa, constructing railways and ports and establishing a naval base in Djibouti.
The meteoric rise of China on the basis of a bureaucratically managed economy was made possible by a unique combination of factors: a revolution that had swept aside landlordism and released almost inexhaustible labour reserves; globalisation, which created the material basis to facilitate enormous industrial investment; and strictly administered state planning. The result is a society resembling a projection of Russia’s New Economic Policy on to a massively higher plane: “state capitalism” in its original sense. Ultimately the contradiction of Stalinist state control and a rapidly growing capitalist class must eventually be resolved one way or the other, and that can only mean by violent upheavals.
The meteoric growth of the Chinese proletariat and the consequent rise in labour combativity (a phenomenon hardly even noticed by most of the left groups) are the most positive factor in the world situation. China now has well over 100 million industrial workers – more than twice as many as in all the G7 countries put together. Hundreds of millions of former peasants are now urban workers. By 2020 the urban population will reach 60% of the population.
The current underground strike wave in China recalls the 1890s in Russia: a period of rapid industrialisation in which millions of young peasants were being uprooted overnight from remote and scattered farmlands handling the primitive wooden plough and transplanted overnight into high-tech modern factories operating state-of-the-art industrial technology, concentrated in vast numbers, learning industrial skills and flexing for the first time their collective strength, with corresponding effects on their consciousness and combativity. That economic boom in Russia ended in strikes, a general strike, full-scale insurrection, the birth of Soviets and the 1905 revolution, and paving the way to the revolution of 1917 – an event that transformed the international working class and ushered in an era of world revolution.
The impending entry of the Chinese working class as a political force could transform the face of the world labour movement. Just as it was the British trade unions which provided the foundation for the 1st International, the German labour movement the 2nd, and the Russian workers the 3rd, so today the Chinese are busily and silently creating the foundations for a new international.
In 2014-5 alone there were 4,000 public protests recorded in China, including nearly 1,000 strikes. In the six months September 2017 to February 2018 there were over 900 industrial disputes, in construction, mining, transport, manufacturing, services, education and retail, including sit-ins, workplace blockades and demonstrations, and the wave of unrest has continued without pause, reaching for the first time to national strikes of crane operators and van drivers in May 2018 .
According to Michael Schuman, writing in TIME magazine in 2013, “The rich-poor divide is perhaps most volatile in China“. In a Chinese opinion poll, 80% of respondents agreed that the “rich just get richer while the poor get poorer”. Factory workers in Shenzhen have been reported saying: “All the workers should be united…The way the rich get money is through exploiting the workers… Communism is what we are looking forward to.”
THE ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE
The consequences of climate change and the depletion of natural resources constitute an existential threat to human society, which can only be resolved by socialist revolution. Within the last two decades, we have experienced the hottest fifteen years on record. Droughts and heatwaves now cause more deaths in Africa than malaria, yellow fever and typhoid. Capitalism now poses a looming threat of human annihilation.
Meanwhile, these environmental catastrophes have wreaked unprecedented turmoil: major wars for the control of diminishing oil reserves, local wars and civil wars, natural disasters, mass migration and a massive refugee crisis. The UNHCR reports that 65.3 million people have been forced from their homes, including nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively, 11 million, 14 million and more than 16 million refugees migrated abroad.
These factors have also tended to undermine the appeal of socialist ideas. As earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions and forest fires engulf the planet, the environmental threat has now become as urgent and imminent as the threat of nuclear annihilation. The old intrinsic faith in the boundless potential of technology has faded, replaced by the spectre of environmental devastation; the fear that the world is reaching the limits of its finite resources, that capitalism has despoiled the planet and civilisation is in peril. It is necessary to counter a fatalistic resignation to Armageddon. The rationality of socialism needs to be demonstrated all over again and the ideological case argued all over again. Only then can socialism once more become a living force – a “material force gripping the minds of the millions”.
The challenge of the age is to restore confidence in the ability of the working class to harness science, industry and technology to the task of saving humanity.
And yet science has now accumulated limitless potential to transform human existence: using 3D printing, robots, renewable energy sources, synthetic meat, electric cars, energy efficiency, new battery technology, etc., all these problems could be solved within a generation.
CHANGE IS COMING!
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has voiced the fears of his class:
“For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions.”
There is a restlessness in the air. It started at the turn of the millennium with the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg and Genoa, and gathered pace in 2003 when 30 million demonstrators marched in protest at the impending Iraq war. Then in quick succession came the Arab spring; the Occupy movement; the Greek uprising; the Spanish indignados; general strikes in India, Brazil, South Africa and throughout Europe; the Corbyn surge in Britain; in the USA, organised revolts among the black population, women and youth; the overnight rise of new parties, both right and left… After decades of setbacks, the first stirrings of a new awakening are beginning to shake the ground.
There is an abiding and growing aspiration towards a new society, especially among the youth. Despite the eclipse of the former industrial concentration in the Western countries and deepening cuts in workers’ living standards, nevertheless the working class has not suffered a definitive and crushing defeat in three quarters of a century. The general mood of discontent may be soft and disorganised, reflecting the deproletarianisation of Western society and the naivete and inexperience of youth, but there is a broader understanding throughout society than ever before of the brutal realities of capitalism.
At the same time, the new technology has made for an unprecedented awareness of events, instant mass communication and a spontaneity that make politics more volatile than ever before, with mass mobilisations appearing almost from nowhere. There is a new universal moral outrage at the grotesque polarisation of wealth and power.
In the USA there are innumerable signs that the ground is shaking in anticipation of a massive upheaval: Black Lives Matter, Me Too, the school students’ gun laws revolt, the Sanders phenomenon. In the 1960s the racism endemic in American society brought forth an aspiring revolutionary party (the Black Panthers), and the war in Vietnam was brought to an end by a huge anti-war movement, with thousands of youth burning their draft cards and a rash of army mutinies. These are memories which haunt the US establishment.
In his exploitation of the thirst among the youth for change, Sanders captured their imagination by toying with radical slogans, calling for a revolution against the rule of the billionaires. He had no intention of taking action to that end, but 13 million people voted for that programme. Last year in the USA, 54% of respondents voted yes to the idea of a “political revolution to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans”. That included 68% of Afro-Americans, 65% of Hispanics, and 68% of 18-29 year-olds.
CONCENTRATION OF WEALTH
In his great work Capital, Marx predicted: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”
It used to be said that Marx’s law of polarisation of wealth had been proved wrong. Today we see the grossest inequality in history. More than 3 billion people (half the world population) live on less than $2-50 a day, including 1.3 billion who live on less than half that. Meanwhile, in the last year 1,542 dollar billionaires increased their combined wealth to six trillion dollars – around one sixth of world GDP. By the calculations of Oxfam, while in 2016 half the world’s wealth was held by 62 individuals, by 2017 this number had shrunk to eight. Of all the new wealth created in 2017, 82% of it went to the 1%. By the calculation of the Guardian, by 2030 two-thirds of the world’s wealth will be concentrated in the hands of the 1%.
People can tolerate the most acute poverty, so long as they see some prospect of future relief, of a better life for their children and grandchildren. It is when they feel that their suffering and sacrifice is futile, when all hope is gone… that puts revolution on the agenda.
Most alarmed are the more far-sighted capitalists themselves. Christine Lagard of the IMF has expressed her concerns, and Joseph Stadler, UBS’ head of Global Ultra High Net Worth has commented: “This is something billionaires are concerned about… The question is to what extent is that sustainable and at what point will society intervene and strike back?”
One of these plutocrats, Nick Hanauer, has even published an open letter headed to “my fellow zillionaires”:
“Like you, I am one of those .01%ers, a proud and unapologetic capitalist… Like you, I have been rewarded obscenely for my success, with a life that the other 99.99 percent of Americans can’t even imagine… But let’s speak frankly to each other… What do I see in our future now? I see pitchforks. At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country—the 99.99 percent—is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast… Inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day… Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.”
A WORLD PARTY
The workers’ movement is on the cusp of change. Let’s remember: the proletariat is for the first time ever a majority of the world population. The USA and Europe are on the brink of explosions which will shake society to its foundations; and these will be only a prelude to the entry of the working class of Asia, Africa and Latin America on to the world stage. The centre of the world proletariat has shifted: for every worker in the old metropolitan countries, there are now five spread across the globe. China has twice as many industrial workers as all the G7 countries put together. While the socialist consciousness of the old proletariat has faded, that of the new proletariat has yet to flourish.
Workers everywhere are beginning to rise to their feet; but their struggles are diffuse and unco-ordinated. Now more than ever we need a single party of the working class. Civilised life and environmental survival depend upon it. Nationalism, racism, bigotry, fascism, fundamentalism and nihilistic terror stalk the world. Rosa Luxemburg’s aphorism “socialism or barbarism” is less than ever today a mere rhetorical flourish, but literally the nightmare choice posed before humanity.
By its very nature, the working class strains instinctively towards solidarity. The struggle to build an international workers’ party goes back almost to the beginnings of capitalism. It is the elementary task of socialists to stress the common interest of all working people, and to fight against demagogic attempts to divide the workers along the lines of craft, gender, nationalism, racism or chauvinism.
As with its precursors, the new International will be built on the basis of mass organisations, numbering in today’s conditions millions. It will not simply grow ready-made out of any single self-styled “vanguard” organization. The pretensions of any existing group that it and it alone is building the future mass workers’ international completely misses the mark and risks rendering it ineffectual. Even among experienced activists, there is a profound scepticism of any hint of these groups’ exclusivist messianic postures.
We should be especially wary of the word “vanguard”. Like all metaphors, it has its limitations. It is a delusion to imagine that the relationship between “leaders” and “led” flows only in one direction. It was the workers of Paris in the Commune of 1871 who taught Marx the necessity of smashing the bourgeois state rather than simply commandeering it; and it was the workers of St Petersburg in 1905 who in the course of their struggles spontaneously improvised their own organs of combat, Soviets, against the Bolsheviks’ initial distrust of what they perceived as a threat precisely to their own “leading role”. In times of turmoil and revolution, workers in action are capable of brilliant feats of improvisation. The role of a revolutionary in those days is to listen and learn; to grasp and assimilate and recycle the lessons.
The actual course of revolution is always more flexible, imaginative, and daring than can be predicted by any dry theory. The forms of struggle that have erupted largely outside the traditional organisations – in the occupy movement, the “Arab spring”, the Greek uprising, the South African strikes, the demonstrations of the Spanish “indignados”, etc. – confront socialists with new challenges. What is necessary today is to draw together the forces fighting capitalism the world over into a new broad anti-capitalist front; to build an international forum in which programmes, strategies and tactics can be thrashed out democratically.
A new international today will not conform at the outset to anyone’s pre-conceived prescriptions. Like the First International, which initially, as Engels put it, “could not set out from the principles laid down in the Communist Manifesto”, it will nevertheless “weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class“. It too will be a broad anti-capitalist forum in which rival schools of thought fight a battle of ideas in the search for a strategy for victory.
It took just seven years for the ideas of Marx and Engels to triumph over the quack panaceas of the political snake-oil salesmen and charlatans of their day. By the eve of May Day 1890, the day of the first worldwide general strike, Engels could proclaim: “Today’s spectacle will open the eyes of the capitalists and landlords of all countries to the fact that today the proletarians of all countries are united indeed. If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!”
The creation of a worldwide party of the working class is not at all an abstract or unreal idea. Every day, in every continent, we see new evidence that such a party is straining at every nerve to be born. Mass communications and the “information revolution” have made the present generation incomparably better informed than their grandparents. The world has drawn together and a new global consciousness has arisen. The size and reach and specific weight of the proletariat have grown everywhere.
Our role is not to preach. Yes, we are keen to place at the disposal of the new generation of fighters whatever theoretical lessons we think might be learned from history. And yet in recent years, from Athens to Cairo to Santiago to Seoul to South Africa, millions have been marching, mobilising, striking… and talking. For weeks on end, tens of thousands of people were crammed together in Tahrir Square in Cairo; all across Spain tens of thousands of students were packed together in the public squares in Madrid and the other cities; in Athens again, thousands of people occupied Syntagma Square and other squares throughout the country; there were similar occupations from Wisconsin to Hong Kong to Santiago. What a hothouse of political debate! We can be sure that the heated debates they have had will have at least as much to teach us as whatever abstract lessons we may have gleaned from our study of the textbooks. Our first duty is to listen, mingle, talk, interact, exchange ideas, learn from their experience and draw conclusions about the way forward.
Where are the forces for a new international today? In workplaces, on street corners and in shanty towns across the continents. Its first birth pangs are stirring in the debates raging in workplaces, shanty towns and occupied public spaces across the world. A new, stronger, more cohesive international class is being built, bestriding every continent, and rapidly learning afresh the strategy and tactics of class struggle.
When tens of millions protest – on the same issues, with the same slogans, often on the same day in internationally synchronised action – then the world party of the future is already beginning to materialise. When demonstrators travel across continents in their thousands to besiege the secret sessions of the oligarchs; when tens of millions worldwide take to the streets to protest at their war plans; when public squares are occupied from Wall Street to Puerta del Sol, from Tahrir to Syntagma; when workers stage cross-border general strikes and mass uprisings topple governments from Iceland to Armenia, then in all but formal structure, the international exists. It is high time to give it substance.
Above all, it is in the factories of China, and their nascent underground trade unions, that the future salvation of humankind is being forged right now. They will need common mobilisation with their fellow workers internationally, to create new bonds of solidarity stretching between assembly line workers in China, software engineers in India, service workers in Europe, financial workers in New York, miners, agricultural workers and radicalised youth in South Africa. Workers in the old industrial countries will have a crucial part to play. It will be the task of those who embody the old labour traditions in the West to promote class solidarity with the new proletariat and share with it a century of rich experience across a vast geographical and cultural chasm.