Analysing the World Capitalist Crisis
Updated: Jan 15
10 September 2020
Marxists answer the question ‘what is to be done?’ by starting with the global situation. Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse, in close communication with William I Robinson, have been developing a new understanding of the world capitalist crisis. Phil, speaking alongside Susan Pashkoff, will introduce these ideas at the first session of the A*CR weekend school on 12/13 September. This article provides some background.
Mutiny and Socialist Resistance, together with other comrades, have come together to build towards the formation of Anti*Capitalist Resistance (A*CR). Mutiny and SR have, over the last six months, noted a growing convergence in our analysis, particularly of the capitalist economic crisis, the virus, the climate emergency, Brexit, and the growth of fascism and the extreme right – a process Mutiny comrades have referred to as ‘creeping fascism’. Since we started the AC*R discussions, those processes have only intensified. This is not just the worst crisis for international capitalism in history, but we are now seeing a collapse of human civilisation unparalleled since the Middle Ages.
In thinking through tasks for the Left in Britain, we have to take into account the defeat of Corbynism, but also the major reserves of radicalism and rebellion, not only in the labour movement, but also in mass protest movements like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter.
We cannot address everything in the opening session. Here we want to lay out some elements of our analysis, and make some comments on the implications for the Left.
Susan Pashkoff will deal with the economic crisis and its implications for the working class and the oppressed in Britain, with particular reference to Brexit and the unfolding social crisis. Phil’s perspective will be more global.
Trotsky said that ‘the situation in each country is a unique crystallisation of the elements of the world process’. In the epoch of capitalist globalisation and Covid-19 this observation is truer than ever.
The ecological crisis
We should start with the most fundamental issue facing humanity, the environmental crisis. In the last two weeks it has been confirmed that the Greenland ice-sheet meltdown has reached the point of no return, which, coupled with what is happening in the rest of the Arctic and with the collapsing ice-sheets in Antarctica, will cause a major rise in sea-levels and the inundation of hundreds of coastal cities worldwide.
It is no longer a matter of preventing climate change – it is upon us – but of halting it, mitigating its effects, and dealing with its consequences, especially for the world’s poorest. The fight to de-carbonise the world economy immediately confronts the power of capital, as fully a third of the value of world stock markets is directly linked to companies reliant on fossil-fuel extraction, processing, and sales.
Then there is the disease. The failures that allowed the virus to emerge and spread rapidly go back decades. They range from the failure to build effective public-health systems (not profitable) to the felling of forests to create featureless farming monocultures (highly profitable) which destroy the natural barriers to infection from forest-based animal pathogens. Humanity’s susceptibility to pandemics is directly linked to the environmental crisis.
The economic crisis has not been caused by the pandemic, though it will make the impact much worse. It is a continuation of the crisis of over-accumulation which found spectacular expression in the banking crisis of 2008. Since then, ‘quantitative easing’ – the pouring of vast sums of newly-created public money into private banks – has simply refuelled the casino economy, reignited the speculative frenzy, and created a fresh mountain of debt that will eventually implode.
The British government and others have responded to the pandemic by shovelling huge amounts of additional money into the furlough scheme and other projects with the aim of ameliorating the effects on companies and stemming the rise in unemployment. But this is unlikely to go on for long. As Susan will explain, in the very near future the Tories are likely to turn towards massive austerity at the very same time as unemployment goes through the roof. Mass destitution, on a scale not seen since the 1930s, will be the likely outcome. Other leading capitalist powers will face a similar crisis. Major social disorder will surely follow the sharp increase in unemployment and homelessness as hundreds of thousands face destitution.
Is it an accident that countries like the US, Brazil, and Britain have the highest rates of Covid-19 infection? Probably not. Extreme neoliberal governments were the most reluctant to lockdown in the face of the rise of the pandemic in the spring. They have been among the worst in failing to create adequate track-and-trace systems. In moving to remove lockdown restrictions, the British and American governments have prioritised business over health.
A second wave is probably underway already, just at the time when schools, universities, and many companies are preparing a return of students and workers. Socialists should not demand mass lockdown everywhere forever, which is clearly impossible, but strict social distancing, mask wearing, and above all massive levels of testing and tracing are essential.
The Tories have awarded Covid-related contracts to private companies with no relevant experience – often companies run by friends of Johnson, Cummings, and Gove – instead of directing resources at local councils and the NHS. The result of this crony capitalism has been lack of PPE, lack of testing centres, lack of effective tracing. Without co-ordinated public action to manage the crisis – instead of private profiteering – the virus will become endemic.
We also need sustained financial support for workers unable to return to work or laid off. That has to go hand-in-hand with continued massive support for the NHS, which is facing catastrophe and near meltdown this winter.
The virus has highlighted the scale of mass poverty, insecurity, and inequality just about everywhere, but especially in the advanced capitalist countries. The virus has had its most destructive effects in poor Black urban communities in the US and among BAME communities in Britain. Massively elevated rates of transmission in north-west England towns like Oldham, Blackburn, and the Manchester district of Salford follow the pattern of poverty and bad housing. These are often Asian-community areas – and not only are they hardest hit by the pandemic, but they are also targeted by the nationalism and racism of the far right.
The global police state
Ever since the 2008 crisis we have seen a world-wide polarisation of politics. As usual in times of capitalist crisis, this polarisation is to both left and right. After the banking crisis the world was swept with protest movements and militant resistance to austerity, which included repeated general strikes in Greece, the Indignados movement in Spain, the Occupy! movement in the US and elsewhere, the more recent gilets jaunes movement in France, and (indirectly) the Arab Spring.
The response to these movements by the capitalist class globally has been brutal and sustained. On the one hand there has been a turn to state repression on a higher level than existed before, on the other a huge ideological offensive against the Left and popular movements, which finds concrete political expression in the growth of fascism and hard-right governments, notably in Britain, the United States, and Hungary. Racism and xenophobia are particularly evident in the anti-migrant frenzy, and the harsh crackdown on so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants. Self-evidently, the Left has to do whatever it can to defend immigrants and resist the racist surge.
The plight of hundreds of thousands of so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants, and the bolstering of police, military, and paramilitary repression, have to be seen in the light of two factors identified by the US Marxist theorist William I Robinson – ‘surplus humanity’ and ‘accumulation by militarisation’.
Millions of people worldwide have become part of the ‘precariat’, forced in the advanced countries into unstable and poorly paid labour, and in the Global South into great pools of surplus labour able to be included or excluded according to the needs of capital.
The illegal status of much of this surplus labour, with its elaborate system of ruthless border guards, barbed-wire fences, detention centres, and deportation flights is a form of labour discipline, aimed to regulating the flow of cheap labour from the Global South, as well as intimidating and policing the ‘illegal’ workers already in the country concerned – forcing them into casual, low-paid, non-union work.
Of course, some sections of ‘surplus humanity’ are surplus to requirements at all times. These can be left to starve, to die of disease, to face the blockades and bombs of a hostile world – like the people of Syria, Yemen, and Gaza.
State repression has not gone unchallenged – as we have seen with the extraordinary Black Lives Matter rebellion in the United States. BLM strikes at core aspects of the hegemony of the American bourgeoisie – at the racism that divides the working class, and at the massive panoply of state repression directed at the marginal and the rebellious, the police departments, the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), border guards, the gigantic prison system, and the intelligence and surveillance agencies.
Accumulation by militarisation goes beyond these apparatuses, however. Military, police, surveillance, and the prison system are enormously profitable businesses. The buildings, equipment, weapons, and computerised systems necessitated by this system represent huge markets for capital. Military companies are closely integrated with hi-tech companies, and indeed are among their main customers. These systems are increasingly integrated internationally, into an interlocking ‘Global Police State’ (to use William I Robinson’s term). This of course is metaphor: it does not imply a single world dictatorship.
Racism: disaster capitalism’s ideological glue
Anti-migrant racism and xenophobia is the lifeblood of new fascist and hard-right governments and movements. As Enzo Traverso points out in his New Faces of Fascism, movements which today play an analogous role to that of 1920s and 1930s fascist parties look very different. Key to the present situation is the ability of far-right tendencies to get into government and use the state as a platform for promoting racism, mobilising reactionary forces, and implementing a wide-ranging attack on democracy.
In Britain, racist and xenophobic mobilisation revolves around plans for a ‘hard Brexit’, which has always been the aim of the Tory Right, and around the renewed frenzy over the alleged ‘tide’ of ‘illegal’ immigrants coming across the Channel in small boats. The connection between anti-immigrant racism and ‘take back control’ hard Brexit has never been clearer.
In pushing forward their Brexit agenda, the Johnson government has shown its willingness to reimpose a hard border with the Irish Republic, something likely to reignite the national question and put the peace process in danger. ‘Take back control’ is likely to come increasingly into conflict with the Scottish government and lead to repeated clashes over sovereignty, impelling a new surge of support for independence.
In the United States, examples of the attack on democratic freedoms range from voter repression, the assault on abortion rights, and the de facto criminalisation of demonstrations in many cities. In Britain, it ranges from the attempt to criminalise Extinction Rebellion to the wide-ranging attempts to shut down all centres of opposition to the executive (through assaults on the Supreme Court, the Civil Service, the BBC, and local government).
In Spain, we have seen severe restriction on the right to organise and demonstrate, as well as brutal repression of the democratic rights of the Catalan people. And in many countries around the world, the assault on democracy has been much worse – for example, under Duterte’s fascistic regime in the Philippines, in the closing down of democratic rights in Hong Kong, in the attempted cultural genocide against the Uighur people in China, and with the new nationality law in India and the building of vast detention centres for ‘illegals’, designed to whip up anti-Muslim hatred.
Now there are mass movements that have obvious affinities with classical fascism, even if the hard right in power does not directly depend on them. The multiplication of militia groups in the United States and their regular display (and use) of lethal weaponry on the streets has obvious parallels with fascist groups in the 1930s, even if their flag of choice is the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, not the Swastika of the Nazis – though oftentimes it is both.
Reflecting the overweening power of the armed state apparatuses, the fascist militias are not for the moment centralised and nationally organised. But they are on the streets more and more, whenever BLM mobilises. They are auxiliary forces to those of a regime determined to close down democracy.
In India, the RSS, a real armed mass movement, has all the attributes needed to classify it as fascist in the classical sense. In Italy, Salvini’s movement collaborates directly with Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, the linear descendant of the fascist MSI, which in turn had its roots in interwar fascism.
The British Left
The British Left faces a difficult situation of a never-ending pandemic, growing economic distress, a health emergency, and a government likely to impose brutal austerity, open the NHS to plunder by US health conglomerates, whip up anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism, and clamp down on democratic rights and liberal protocols.
There are powerful forces of radicalism and resistance in Britain. The dramatic mobilisation over Black Lives Matter showed that there is a huge well of anti-racism among the youth, black and white. The repeated demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion also demonstrate the tenacity and mass base of climate-change activism.
In the last few weeks, 23,000 people have joined Unison – in a period of danger and uncertainty people turn to their unions for defence. Renewed austerity, mass unemployment, and mass evictions are going to generate a wave of struggle, the exact contours of which cannot be predicted in advance.
But the sombre backdrop for the Left is the defeat and dispersal of Corbynism. The extent and speed of its breakdown have revealed its essential brittleness – its lack of firm rooting in mass organisation and struggle. This, of course, reflects 40 years of decline in union power and social-democratic allegiance.
No-one can claim to have a detailed road-map showing the way forward for the Left. What we can say is that the existing fragmentation and sectarianism of the Left is both utterly debilitating and grossly irresponsible in the face of the massive crisis for humanity and the planet that we face.
The urgent immediate task is to pull together the revolutionaries around both theoretical discussion and practical activity. We need to regroup the Left on the basis of internationalism, democracy, feminism, struggle from below, and solidarity with the oppressed. We need to organise ourselves to fight corporate power, climate catastrophe, and creeping fascism. We hope that Anti*Capitalist Resistance can be a central part of that process, uniting activists from a range of different political backgrounds, rooted in many different unions, campaigns, and localities, into a network that begins to fight together.
William I Robinson, with whom Mutiny has been collaborating, ventured out of quarantine when the BLM movement developed and went with his family on the first big demo in Los Angeles. His conclusion was that it was very big, very young, very angry – but at a very low political level. The Left was virtually nowhere to be seen, and the politics of the youth lacked clarity, cohesion, and direction.
That is the gap that must be filled – the revolutionaries must regroup and chart a route from street radicalism to anti-capitalist revolution and socialist transformation.
Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse are co-authors of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.