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Five crises of capitalism

The challenges facing the left today


Over the weekend of November 6 & 7, 2021, the Tempest Collective convened its first convention. Numerous documents were circulated in the months leading up to the convention, and brief introductory talks were given by various comrades to “kick-off” discussions. The following is a lightly edited version of a 15-minute talk by Ashley Smith on International Perspectives.

We have entered an epoch of crises. These crises are rooted in capitalism and will shape the ideological, economic, and social dynamics globally. They have undermined the legitimacy of establishment parties, set off a wave of struggles throughout the world demanding systemic change, and caused deep political polarization, opening opportunities for a new far-right and a new Left. Socialists must understand the nature of this epoch if we want to play a role in the recomposition of the revolutionary Left, the cohering of a new militant minority, the rebuilding of our organizational infrastructure of dissent and resistance, and the construction of new socialist parties.

The Long Depression

There are several interacting crises in this new epoch. The Bible had only four horsemen of the apocalypse—Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. Today, we have five. The first is the global economic crisis. The Great Recession of 2008 ended the long neoliberal boom, which began in the early 1980s, triggering what David McNally calls a “global slump” and Michael Roberts calls a “long depression.”

This economic conjuncture is characterized by a cycle of sharp recessions and weak recoveries. It is rooted in the decline in profitability throughout global capitalism. The world economy is clogged up with over-accumulated capital that cannot find outlets for profitable investment.

In place of such investment, capital engages in stock buybacks, speculative investment, and mergers and acquisitions. On top of that, an estimated 20 percent of US companies are so-called zombies, so unprofitable and uncompetitive that they must take out loans just to pay interest on their debt.

The ruling class’s attempts to restore profitability through neoliberal austerity for workers, and stimulus and cheap money for corporations, after the Great Recession have failed to overcome the long depression. The neoliberal regime of accumulation of privatization, deregulation, cuts in welfare, wages, and benefits, and globalization is no longer working.

These measures at best restored sluggish growth over the last decade, only to see the world economy begin to slip into recession before the pandemic sent it into the deepest crisis in modern history. While massive stimulus packages have dragged much of the advanced capitalist world out of this recession, they have only managed to produce a weak recovery with stagflationary characteristics not seen since the 1970s.

In fact, state intervention into the economy has deepened class and social inequality throughout the world. Today, the richest 1 percent of the world has twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people. In the United States, the three richest people have wealth equal to the bottom 160 million people. Conditions that are bad for all workers are even worse for people of color, migrants, women, and other oppressed groups.

President Joe Biden’s milk-toast Keynesian infrastructure bills will do very little to ameliorate these inequalities and will certainly not trigger a robust new expansion. The long depression shows no sign of ending.

Imperial Crisis and Rivalry

This depression has set off a crisis in the imperialist order, the second great crisis we confront. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States superintended a unipolar world as the sole super-power. It hoped to incorporate all the world’s states into its neoliberal regime of free trade globalization.

Three developments brought an end to that order—U.S. defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan; the long depression; and the rise of new centers of capital accumulation, most importantly China. As a result of these, the United States has suffered relative imperial decline.

1919 poster, “Death of Imperialism”. Image by Dmitry Moor.

Of course, Washington remains the world’s hegemon, but it now faces a great power rival in China, another one in Russia, and a host of regional powers, all of which are increasingly assertive of their own interests. We have thus entered a new asymmetric multipolar world order.

In this new and unstable situation, conflicts are growing between states, compromising attempts at coordinating global policy over anything from climate change to the pandemic. These conflicts, especially between the United States and China, will be at the center of global and national politics.

Climate Catastrophe

The third great crisis of our epoch is climate change. As we all know, it is rooted in capitalism’s competitive drive for profit and growth, regardless of their social and environmental impact.

All the world’s states’ commitment to ensuring capital’s rule and expansion guarantees that they will do little to stop global heating. And the conflicts between the great powers, especially the United States and China, will block any meaningful international agreements and especially their implementation. So, at best we will get slick publicity stunts like COP(out)26, which merely end with pledges to limit greenhouse gases by such and such date in the distant future. Of course, these are quickly violated in both policy and practice.

As Greta Thunberg declared at a mass rally against the polluters’ summit in Glasgow, “This COP26 is so far just like the previous COPs—and that has led us nowhere. Inside COP, there are just politicians and people in power pretending to take our future seriously. Change is not going to come from inside there, that is not leadership. This is leadership, this is what leadership looks like.”

Poster from “Friday’s for Future” march in Milan, Italy, October 2021. Photo by Mænsard Vokser.

While the leaders of these states, largely responsible for the crisis, engaged in what Thunberg rightly called “blah, blah, blah,” the climate catastrophes multiply with increasing severity—killer storms, melting polar caps, risings seas, desertification of whole sections of countries, and the decimation of agricultural systems. These will disrupt societies, especially those in the Global South, which are the biggest victims of climate change while being the least responsible for causing it.

Mass Migration and the Border Regimes

Climate change will intensify the fourth great crisis of our epoch—migration.  Right now, there are more than 281 million migrants who have left their home countries, the highest number in world history. This migration is caused by the multiplying problems people face—unemployment triggered by the long depression, war caused by inter-state conflict and rivalries, repression by authoritarian regimes, scapegoating of racially oppressed groups, and climate catastrophe, to name a few.

All the states of the world have reacted to this crisis by building enormous border regimes. As Harsha Walia lays out in her book Border and Rule, these regimes serve two functions. One, to regulate and partially block migration. And, two, to criminalize those that evade the border regime as cheap, often racialized, labor.

Even as these migrants have become central, and indeed “essential,” especially to the advanced capitalist economies, ruling classes and establishment parties have used them as scapegoats to deflect blame from their system on its victims. But these migrants, just as they have in the past, will play a pivotal role in rebuilding the class and social struggle, especially in the United States.

Global Capitalism, an Epoch of Pandemics

The final crisis is of course the pandemic. COVID is not an accidental crisis triggered by nature outside of capitalism but is entirely the result of the system’s global encroachment on previously isolated ecosystems.

That has enabled viruses to jump from animals, especially bats, into human beings—what epidemiologists call “zoonotic spillover.” And rather than spreading slowly, as they might have in older forms of capitalism and previous modes of production, epidemics now hitch a ride on the planes, trains, trucks, and ships of the world’s just-in-time global supply chains to rapidly infect the globe’s population.

Thus, global capitalism is an epoch of pandemics. For at least a couple of decades, writers such as Mike Davis and Rob Wallace, as well as mainstream epidemiologists, have warned us about this imminent danger. It was prefigured with Avian Flu, Ebola, MERS, SARS, and others. COVID is thus likely to be the first of many more pandemics to come.

Rather than organizing a coordinated response to this health emergency, the imperialist states and their corporations have systematically impeded one, putting profits and the growth of their national economy first, workers’ lives second, and the people of the Global South last.

On that whole section of the world, they have imposed pandemic apartheid—hoarding vaccines, refusing to share the technology so that states could inoculate their own populations, and thereby leaving most of the world completely unprotected against COVID. Capitalism is literally a threat to our global health and human life itself.

Historic Wave of Struggle

The hope amid this epoch of horror and crisis is the massive waves of struggle we have witnessed since the 2008 recession. We all know its signal events from the Arab Spring to Occupy, Black Lives Matter, strikes in Europe, climate strikes, women’s strikes, the Latin American Spring, revolts throughout Asia, and Sudan today.

At the same time, we have seen the growth of both right-wing parties, some of which have been elected to or seized state power, and reactionary mass protests like those in Charlottesville, VA, and in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. The new book World Protest: A of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century summarizes this epoch of struggle:

There are times in history when large numbers of people protest about the way things are, demanding change. It happened in 1830–1848, in 1917–1924, in the 1960s, and it is happening again today…. During the period 2006–2020, the world has experienced some of the largest protests in its history…. The overwhelming majority of the large protests relate to progressive issues/demands, such as: more and better jobs, wages, and pensions; investments in health, education, and public services; protection of farmers; action on climate change; racial justice; women and civil rights; against austerity cuts, corruption, and inequality. However, a number of protests are led by radical right groups such as: QAnon protests in 2020 in the United States and globally; opposition to Muslims, migrants, and refugees in Germany; demonstrators in France protesting same-sex marriage in 2012; and the large protests against President Dilma Rousseff, Lula, and the Workers Party in Brazil in 2013 and 2015.

The revolts on our side face serious challenges, well documented in the new book Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age. Neoliberalism has restructured the global and national economies and disrupted our class and social organizations.

Social democratic parties for the most part have adapted to or even adopted neoliberalism. The revolutionary Left has gone into crisis. But these new waves of struggle offer the hope to rebuild class and social organization, the Left, and new parties.

Extreme Political Polarization

There is no guarantee that these revolts will flow to the Left. They can just as easily flow to the right. Both can take advantage of the establishment parties’ crisis of legitimacy amid the failure of their neoliberal project.

We are thus witnessing massive political polarization throughout the world. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and many others are signs that a section of the establishment can galvanize the petit bourgeoisie and sections of working classes around a program of sado-populism, whipping up racism and targeting oppressed groups, especially migrants. These regimes can become incubators of new fascist movements and organizations throughout the world. The far-right is a clear and present danger today.

At the same time, the crises, struggle, and polarization open a new space for the Left. That can be filled by left reformism, as we see with the Pink Tide in Latin America. But such projects will run into the brick walls of containment within the capitalist state, the pressures of global capitalism, and counter-revolution from their domestic ruling classes, as well as regional and imperialist powers.

The challenge for the small revolutionary Left in the United States—and globally—is to rebuild itself through the struggles and all the ideological, strategic, and tactical debates they will produce. Our task is straightforward but enormously difficult: establish a revolutionary pole in the radicalization; help build struggles from below; play a role in cohering a new militant minority; reconstruct our infrastructures of resistance; build broader left formations; and cohere revolutionary organization.

We need a new Left fit to help lead the revolts amidst this epoch of crisis to win reform on the road to socialist revolution.

Featured Image Credit: Image from quote inspector. Image modified by Tempest.

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Ashley Smith View All

Ashley Smith is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.

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