World Perspectives: A Turbulent Period in History
CWI International Executive Committee
This statement was agreed on December 5, 2014, by a meeting of the International Executive Committee (IEC) of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). This meeting was attended by members from 35 countries, from all continents. This document does not cover developments in South America, which were covered in a separate document.
Signs of revival of class struggle signposts the future
Eleven years ago, George Bush and the neocons who sustained his presidency saw their military ‘triumphs’ in Afghanistan and Iraq as laying the basis for establishing US imperialism as a ‘new Rome’. They calculated that this would allow them to impose a new phase of the ‘New World Order’ that started after the collapse of Stalinism through military might. We answered this in the analysis, resolutions and publications of the CWI. We also stressed that only an independent mass movement, led by the working class, was capable of having a lasting effect. Through the mobilisation of the poor masses, it was possible to create a mass movement to overthrow Saddam and the social system – landlordism and capitalism – upon which his regime rested. By the time of the last IEC, events in the Middle East and elsewhere had left the doctrines of the neocons in ruins and punctured the puffed-up arrogance of US imperialism. Now the situation appears even worse given the nightmare of spreading civil wars and especially the advance of Isis in Syria and Iraq.
Moreover, in the first stages of the Middle East and North African revolution – Egypt and Tunisia – the US giant was paralysed. Previously, the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan were justified by imperialist propagandists and their local stooges on the grounds that the masses were incapable of overthrowing the regimes by their own efforts. The Kurdish petty-bourgeois parties also echoed this theme; the Iraqi masses were demoralised, too weak to rouse themselves from previous defeats – the smashing of the 1991 Shia uprising – to perform this task. Additionally, they were hopelessly divided, owing allegiance to rival parties, etc. Moreover, the majority Shia and the minority Sunni in Iraq were set at each other’s throats and therefore incapable of carrying through a successful uprising to a conclusion.
We strenuously argued against this and were vindicated later through mass movements, which actually overthrew the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia and the Mubarak regime in Egypt without any help from outside. US imperialism was left frustrated, completely incapable of intervening in the first period. However, it was provided with the opportunity to gain a foothold for the counter-revolution, through the intervention in Libya – supported by some alleged Marxists – and later in Syria, Bahrain, etc. The revolutionary élan and determination of the masses of North Africa and the Middle East, shown in the revolution, found a big echo throughout the region and in the US and the advanced industrial countries.
Bourgeois ideologists consistently attempt to demean such revolutionary events, to wipe out the memory of the masses and their capacity to undertake successful revolutionary struggles by their own independent actions. The consciousness of such events – even though they have taken place only recently – can only be cemented by a mass revolutionary party with a farsighted leadership. If there is no such party, the consciousness of the masses can be dulled and thrown back. Today, the picture that the bourgeois, their parties and media paint of the process of the revolution is that it was never a revolution and the situation facing the masses today is bleak, and not just in the neo-colonial world. The unspeakable horrors – unparalleled suffering, poverty and mass unemployment, found in many advanced industrial countries – are the accepted ‘norm’ and will get worse through the enduring economic crisis. And this is before taking into account the continuing worsening of the environmental calamities which threaten large parts of the planet.
All the more reason why in periods like we have recently passed through– in Europe, at least, one of mild reaction and in the Middle East in the main of outright reaction – any current analysis must continue to emphasise the fighting potential of the working class. This is despite the fact that perhaps we underestimated the extent to which former leading layers of the working class had been hit by the impact of Stalinism’s collapse and the subsequent wave of capitalist triumphalism. This had an effect on the protests and mass movements that initially developed after 2008. Sometimes it meant that partial movements or individuals could assume a temporary importance that, although not having a lasting character, would have a lasting effect. It is clear that the 2011-12 Occupy movement helped open the way for the 15Now movement in the US.
But this does not mean that there were no struggles or revolutions of a more traditional character like the magnificent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 or the popular struggles seen in Turkey and Brazil. More recently, there have been the mass strikes on pay in Britain prior to next year’s general election, the partial general strikes in Italy, the movement leading up to the 15 December general strike in Belgium and the mass rebellions on the national question in Scotland and in Catalonia.
In Ireland, the mass campaign against water charges has mobilised a hundred thousand-strong national demonstration and other protests across the country. We are playing a key role in this as well, and at the same time created a minor earthquake in the recent by-elections for the Dáil (for a detailed report and analysis, see: ‘Stunning Dublin by-election victory, huge water protests…new chapter for working class resistance’, 4 November 2014, www.socialistworld.net). The great victories of Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murphy, achieved against the odds, were triumphs for the Irish comrades and the CWI. In Paul’s case, our Irish section succeeded in defeating Sinn Féin, who could be the leading force in the next Irish government following the general election expected in 2016. The Labour Party was also wounded, possibly fatally, and the sectarians, led by the SWP, marginalised. Their sectarian intervention in this year’s European election was decisive in then defeating Paul and temporarily removing a spokesperson and champion not just of the CWI but of the international workers’ movement.
The Dublin by-elections once more underline the political tenacity of the CWI, like Antaeus in Greek mythology: when cast to the ground, we just regain greater and greater strength. This flows from the clear perspectives of the CWI, based as it is on the granite-like confidence in the willingness of the working class to struggle even where this appears at first to be difficult, to gain victories. Seattle, in this respect, was a milestone, indicating the possibilities of significant victories for a small organisation which can then lead to a revival of the workers’ movement. Ireland is another staging post in this process, which will be repeated in other countries and on other continents.
Not the least has been the tumultuous events in Hong Kong, which are an overture to the coming revolution in China. However, the Middle East conflict shows the other side. Like ink spreading on blotting paper, nationalist and sectarian clashes have spread remorselessly throughout the region. The Middle East and North Africa is not the only region affected. In fact, we now have an unprecedented world geopolitical crisis. This is the bourgeois view of the world situation: “There is hardly a shortage of geopolitical risk these days. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) has seized big swaths of territory. An undeclared war has broken out between Russia and Ukraine. There has been armed conflict between Israel and Hamas. Libya is in chaos. Uncertainty hangs over nuclear negotiations with Iran. Yet the sum of these risks is trumped by the old-fashioned forces of supply and demand. While there may be a surplus of geopolitical risk in the world, there is an even greater surplus of oil.” [Financial Times, 18 October 2014]
This year’s murderous one-sided war between Israel and the Palestinians with the mountains of dead and mutilated, including children, as well as the desperate homeless, has added to the legacy of hatred and bitterness, the consequences of which are not yet clear. We have witnessed the ongoing murderous Syrian conflict, with countless victims, and now the virtual disintegration of Iraq, which the Economist sees along with Syria as ‘disappearing’, cancelling out the Sykes-Picot line drawn arbitrarily almost a century ago by British and French imperialism. How many times did the CWI warn that the result of the Iraq war and the overthrow of Saddam would only lead to a number of ‘Saddams’, as the country fractures into ethnic and religious zones?
Then on top of this, there are the qualitative worsening prospects for the economic situation in virtually all spheres of the world economy. Uncertainty deepens with each passing day and month, as capitalist economic institutions and their spokespersons announce ‘disappointing’ figures for growth. The eurozone, the world’s second-biggest economic area, is in retreat from even its recent feeble recovery. Germany, its economic powerhouse is currently stagnating and repeatedly comes close to outright recession. Its continued dependence on exports means that German capitalism is vulnerable to sudden shocks. Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy, “may also be on the edge of a downturn”, the Economist speculates. Added to this is the dramatic 20% plunge in the oil price, which is a key economic indicator and in the present situation also affects geopolitical developments.
The rapid development of oil from the ‘shale revolution’, in the US in particular, has increased US output by 80% since 2008, an additional 4 million barrels of oil annually, which is one of the factors driving down the world price of oil. This has given the US, near ‘energy independence’, particularly from its former reliance on the Middle East, led by Saudi Arabia, and parts of Africa. This has been a key factor in the limited US economic recovery, generating an estimated extra two million jobs. The current plight of the unemployed in the US would be a lot worse but for this key economic factor. The rapidity with which this situation has developed is indicated by the fact that in 2012 the OPEC oil price stood at more than $110, and it is estimated that if it fell to $80 for a year, US motorists would have an extra $160 billion in their pockets, which the Financial Times said “is equivalent to a sizeable tax cut” without having to clear Congress!
On the other hand, Japan is entirely dependent on foreign oil and China imports 60% of its needs and could see gains from lower fuel prices. However other countries have been affected adversely; 40% of Russia’s state budget income is oil revenue. Lower oil prices complicate the country’s economic difficulties, already affected by the sanctions that have been imposed following developments in the Ukraine. Saudi Arabia could also be severely affected over time, which in turn could trigger political upheavals in the ‘kingdom’, with the Shias, the poorest and most discriminated against, coming out onto the streets in a movement similar to those seen in the region recently. In 2011, Saudi Arabia was compelled to unleash a $160 billion spending plan as unrest flooded onto the streets during the ‘Arab Spring’ throughout the region, including violent protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. The Saudi regime has accumulated massive reserves estimated at $747 billion, more than three years of spending. But if oil stays at $80 a barrel for a year this will considerably eat into these. For Nigeria, which depends on oil and natural gas exports for around 80% of revenues, the falling oil price is a disaster. Its foreign reserves are even smaller now than they were at the time of the 2008 oil price crash ($37.8bn compared with $53bn) and the government has now started to warn of “tougher times ahead”. Other oil producers, including in Latin America, could also be seriously affected.
Of course, it is the overall economic prospects of world capitalism that are mainly responsible for the drop in the price of oil and the extremely gloomy prognostications of the capitalist institutions which flow from this. The IMF has cut its estimate of global growth this year from 3.4% to a little over 3%, yet as recently as April it was expecting a 3.6% increase. A similar downgrade exists for the ‘emerging markets’. Brazil and Russia remain ‘in a torpor’ with the only supposed bright spot being India, which nevertheless has slashed growth-rate expectations! These and other countries have to adapt to the end of the ‘commodities boom’ which temporarily boosted their economies, which according to Luis Costa, a Citigroup strategist, means that “the commodities cycle is over”. Moreover, this development has had a structural effect on the economies in the neo-colonial world; past, favourable conditions for commodity producers are unlikely to return quickly. China, a huge commodity market, is now calculated to have overtaken the US in the past few months as the largest economy in the world, but it too is slowing down.
This led the IMF’s chief, Christine Lagarde, to warn of a “new mediocre era of low growth for a long time.” This completely confirms the past and current economic analysis of the CWI, that capitalism displayed ‘depressionary tendencies’ even before 2008 and now, in some regions at least, is experiencing an outright ‘depression’. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times writes that the best capitalism can hope for is what he calls a “managed depression”. Larry Summers, former US Treasury Secretary, has recalled the phrase “secular stagnation”, first used in the 1930s.
The scaled-down expectations of the capitalists are reflected by the fact that only Britain and the US in the advanced capitalist world can be pointed to as ‘models’ to be followed: “The US and the UK in particular are leaving the crisis behind and achieving decent growth”! In crude figures this may appear to be the case but the reality is that this is at the expense of the working class, with its share of national income falling severely. Workers are experiencing a ‘joyless boom’. Wages have consistently lagged behind the rise in the cost of living with British workers losing at least 10% of the real value of their wages in the last 10 years. The gap between rich and poor has grown massively, with poverty now at a level not seen in Britain since the Victorian age of the 19th century. Moreover, the jobs which have been created are very low paid, many part-time, ‘Mickey Mouse’, ‘self-employed’ jobs, many of which soon fold because of the lack of a market. Average wages are completely insufficient to maintain living standards, let alone improve them. This has fuelled our campaign in Britain for a minimum wage increase to £10 an hour, which has received great support from workers and youth, and the backing of the Trade Union Congress. The great success of our comrades in the US with the ‘15 Now’ campaign – which has been taken up by workers throughout the US – has undoubtedly had a big effect on workers everywhere, and particularly in Britain.
As far as the US is concerned, the official figures do not reflect the real situation, with deteriorating living conditions for huge swathes of the US population. Moreover, the number working in the US has not returned to the level of the pre-recession period before 2008. Many workers have just dropped out of the labour force. Despite this, the September job review showed that “private payrolls have grown by 10 million over the last four and a half years, the longest uninterrupted streak in history”. Yet Obama is not reaping the political benefits from this. Just 39% of voters approve of his handling of the economy, according to YouGov opinion pollsters, and 56% disapprove. According to the Economist, voters astonishingly now trust Republicans more than Obama and the Democrats to manage the economy! This is despite the fact that Obama stepped in to save the banks and industries like the auto makers, but it hasn’t fundamentally helped working-class people at all. One worker reckoned that he makes 20% less than he did in 2007: “I’m slowly but surely going broke, though I’m working like a madman.”
Inequality began to widen more than two decades ago in the US. However, general growth and an ability to borrow helped to cover this up for considerable sections of the population. During Ronald Reagan’s first six years in office, GDP grew by 22% while median income grew 6%. During Clinton’s first six years GDP grew 24%, median income 11%. Growth began to slow from 2000, undermining both the mean and median figures. In George Bush’s first six years GDP rose by 16%, but median incomes fell by 2%. Under Obama, it has been even worse: GDP is up 8% percent, and median income is down 4%, according to the Census Bureau.
The current ‘impressive decline’ in US unemployment partly came about because many people just gave up looking for work, and so are not counted as unemployed. The gap between income and expenditure was also covered before the recession partly by borrowing on the basis of rising house prices. Following the collapse of the housing bubble, household income began to drop. So, as we have pointed out many times, any growth up to the 2008 crash was mostly debt-fuelled.
The same goes for any growth that has taken place in the six years since the crash of 2008. The total burden of world debt – private and public – has risen from 160% of national income in 2001 to almost 215% in 2013. In other words, contrary to widely held beliefs, the world has not begun to de-leverage and the global debt to GDP ratio is still growing, breaking new heights. One of the authors of the annual Geneva Report commissioned by the International Centre for Monetary and Banking Studies, Luigi Buttiglione the head of global strategy at hedge fund Brevan Howard, said: “Over my career I have seen many so-called miracle economies – Italy in the 1960s, Japan, the Asian tigers, Ireland, Spain and now perhaps China – and they all ended after a build-up of debt.” In an upswing, carefully controlled credit can lubricate the system, leading to a spiral of growth. But the massive borrowing, which took place during the upswing in the US and worldwide, continued during the crisis because of the fear of complete economic collapse and what this would mean for the political consciousness of the working class and their growing opposition to the system. The injection of credit has been astronomical. The US Federal Reserve bought $4.5 trillion of assets, the Bank of England, £375 billion so far and the Japan Central Bank will have bought over $1.5 trillion of assets by April 2015.
It was the overall ‘lack of confidence’ that led to the meltdown in stocks and shares in October 2014, which developed at considerable speed as well as spreading to most parts of the world. There were many underlying factors which sparked it off, some of which we have mentioned above. But perhaps the main one was the promised withdrawal by the US Federal Reserve of the quantitative easing programme that cost over $3,600 billion. That was the main factor in leading to a stampede out of stocks and shares, which in turn has now raised starkly the possibility of a repeat of 2008, only worse. Like drug addicts, the capitalist world has got used to massive injections of liquidity. The economic theorists of the system are not sure what effect quantitative easing has! The former US Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, in answer to whether QE was working, joked: “The problem with QE is it works in practice but it doesn’t work in theory”! In reality, this monetary measure has only worked partially in theory but hardly in practice. However, the mere threat to partially phase this out – with no real alternative other than the continuation of failed austerity programmes – resulted in panic stations.
The choice for capitalism seems to be reduced to either further debt-fuelled growth, including the perpetuation of low interest rates, with the danger of inflation further down the road or the maintenance of savage austerity. Capitalist strategists display hardly any economic optimism, let alone solutions for the wider issues, like the environmental crisis, facing humanity. Some capitalist economists have concluded that the massive growth of inequality that we have seen in the last 15 years ‘beyond a certain point’ is bad for the system. The huge growth in the share going to CEOs of companies and the relentless pushing down of wages seriously repress ‘demand’.
So serious is the situation that the Bundesbank has suggested that German trade unions should fight for wage increases, which they would support! However, this policy is not intended to apply to the rest of Europe, which must be kept on ‘rations’. Even rotten German social democracy, in coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats, has ruled out any significant shift in economic policy, particularly throughout the rest of Europe.
But another section of the capitalists is now afraid that they will be trapped in a Bermuda Triangle of endless austerity. This threatens to provoke a new crisis and a revolt of the working class. There are no easy options on the table. However, the maintenance of high global debts, despite the efforts of different governments to reduce them, is provoking a new combination of spiralling debts and low growth that could trigger another financial crisis. In consequence, the bourgeoisie swings from optimism to deep pessimism. Since 2007, the ratio of total debt, excluding the financial sector, has jumped in China to 261% of GDP. Martin Wolf states: “One can debate whether this level is sustainable. One cannot debate whether such a rapid rate of rise is sustainable; it cannot possibly be so. The rise in debt has to halt with possibly significantly more adverse effects on China’s rate of growth than today’s consensus expects.”
The present situation indicates a frozen system symbolised by a ‘paradox of thrift’, mentioned by Keynes, with corporate ‘savings’ dramatically rising throughout the world, partly because bosses feel a greater need to protect themselves against the free market turmoil. There is also little opportunity for capitalist productive investment, which results in massive corporate cash hoards amounting to 44% of GDP in Japan, 34% of GDP in South Korea and similar piles in other parts of East Asia. The same inexorable pattern of rising cash hoards while wages stagnate or fall is evident elsewhere. So dangerous is the current situation that we are informed that the British and US central banks have conducted financial tests – ‘war games’ – about how they would handle another Lehman Brothers-style banking crisis! This reinforces the idea that further events along the lines of 2008 and worse are being seriously considered by the financial institutions with the aim of trying to put in place preventative measures to stop them happening, or if they cannot, what rescue measures the financial institutions of capitalism need to take. It seems that Japan and the euro area are most at risk but the whole of world capitalism threatens to be dragged down.
In addition, the parasitism of ‘modern’ capitalism is revealed by the process of company ‘buybacks’ of their own shares, which even the financial press has denounced as “corporate cocaine” and continues to increase. Record profits have been accumulated on a massive scale and buybacks have increased partly because currently there is no profitable outlet, but also because it piles up the wealth of the capitalists, particularly of the CEOs, which adds to eye-watering inequality as well as boosting share prices. This in turn leads to a drop in investment, which signifies a lack of confidence of the capitalists in their own system. While the heads of companies grow fat, workers living standards fall. In Britain, if the national minimum wage had kept pace with the salaries of the top 100 company heads since 1999, it would now be almost £19 instead of the measly £6.50 an hour! This led the Guardian (London) to ask the question: “For some reason broadcasters rarely ask CEOs about the gulf between their pay and that of the poorest staff in their organisations.” This is linked to the “pervasive belief, held by 76% of Americans, a record high, that their children will not have a better life than they have had, and the view of 60% that America is in a state of decline.… The widespread discontent is evident amongst just about every segment of the population.” [Right-wing economist Irwin Stelzer of the US Hudson Institute, the Sunday Times (London)]
Stanley Fischer, the vice-chairman of the US Federal Reserve, warned in August about a “permanent down shift in the potential of powerhouses such as the US, Europe and China”. This is one more indication that the economic soothsayers of capitalism are beginning to catch up with the analysis that we have made since the beginning of the 2008 crisis. He goes on to state that “the falling rate of productivity and labour force participation in the US, among other factors may have scared the country’s ability to generate economic growth”. Such openly pessimistic conclusions for the future of US capitalism – and by implication world capitalism – have become more and more common as the working class as well as big sections of the middle-class are beginning to draw their own conclusions: “They lay bare a crisis of faith in the global elite.” [New York Times] This organ of US capitalism concludes : “There has been an implicit agreement in modern democracies: It is fine for the wealthy and powerful to enjoy private jets and outlandishly expensive homes so long as the mass of people also see steadily rising standards of living. Only the first part of that bargain has been met, and voters are expressing their frustration in ways that vary depending on the country but that have in common a sense that the established order isn’t serving them.”
This has big political implications, both for the mood and consciousness of the US and world working classes, for the present as well as the future. It is not ‘fine’ for the rich to pile up wealth, even during ‘boom times’. The big anti-capitalist demonstrations around the turn of the century began in Seattle in 1999 before the shine had fully come off capitalism. But it is true that the great mass of the population can often ‘tolerate’ a situation, so long as the system is ‘delivering’ the basics for the majority. That is clearly not happening now. Hence the 2013 victory of Kshama in Seattle, which heralds similar political upheavals throughout the US.
Bernie Sanders, the US Senator for Vermont, has been under intense pressure from the growing left to repeat the success of Kshama in Seattle and take the decision to stand as an independent socialist candidate in the 2016 presidential election. But all the recent signs point to him running in the Democratic primaries. However, similar campaigns are being waged in a number of cities and states for radicals to stand on left platforms. The mid-term elections showed the continuing potential with Socialist Alternative’s Jess Spears winning over 8,500 votes, 17.6%, standing for the Washington State legislature. While in New York State, where Howie Hawkins, a socialist standing as the Green party candidate, won over 173,600 votes, 4.9%, nearly triple the 60,000 he won in 2010. Similar developments are taking place elsewhere but it is not yet clear whether the campaign will succeed in persuading sufficient numbers to stand and thereby offer the US masses a real alternative nationally and locally. However, one thing is clear: the ground has already been prepared for the creation of a sizeable left radical or socialist alternative in the next period. This would probably take the form of an alliance in the first instance, leading later to the beginning of a mass party. Such a development, given the position of the US internationally, would have huge significance and stimulate a similar process in countries which also do not yet have a mass workers’ party.
Moreover, as the world’s policeman, US capitalism tends to build into its foundations all the explosive factors of world capitalism. At this conjuncture, a number of factors are combining to create a ‘perfect storm’ for US imperialism. Events in the Middle East, with the rise of Isis, have compelled Obama, who was elected on the pledge to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, to do a somersault. He is the fourth president – Bush senior and junior, Clinton and now Obama – who have been compelled to preside over a Middle Eastern military intervention, although restricted at this stage to a bombing campaign.
This meshes with the underlying economic crisis, and a growing social crisis, particularly as it affects people of colour. Obama is the president who has expelled from the US more immigrants than all previous presidents put together! Then came the explosive events in Ferguson with the callous murder of Michael Brown by a heavily militarised police force. A similar murder took place in October, which reignited incendiary events in the town. The CWI supporters in the US intervened very successfully, including African-American and other members of Socialist Alternative. Moreover, this is just one field in which the discontent of people of colour is manifested. They expected big changes and invested great hopes in the first black president to be elected in the US. Yet African-Americans have fallen further behind economically more than in any other presidency since the Great Depression. One black American pastor asked in 2013: “Why are we so loyal to a president who is not loyal to us?” The median non-white family in the US today has a net worth of just $18,100 – almost a fifth lower than it was when Obama took office. White median wealth, on the other hand, has risen by 1% to $142,000. In 2009, white households were seven times richer than their black counterparts; that is now eightfold. In other words, in relative and absolute terms, blacks are doing worse under Obama. Of course, there are many poor white families too.
Yet the paradox is that in the mid-term elections, those sections of the black population who voted supported Obama. Of course, this is a manifestation of ‘lesser evilism’, a conscious understanding on the part of the black population, and of people of colour in general, that Obama is a disappointment, but Republican victories, and possibly a Republican president in 2016, will be much worse. This is not a permanent state of mind. This section of the population, which is amongst the poorest in the US, will rally to a new mass party, just as fervently if not more so than other layers of the population. A test of a revolutionary organisation is whether it can find a road to the most oppressed, downtrodden layers of the population. In the US, Socialist Alternative has already rallied to its banner a significant section of blacks, Hispanics and other people of colour who can play a decisive role in the development of a committed, revolutionary organisation.
Obama’s position is precarious as he is now in danger of becoming a lame-duck president in his last two years in office. In the mid-term election campaign, Democrats treated him as a lucrative fundraiser rather than a vote winner. Obama was kept away from crucial contests as increasing numbers saw him as being firmly in the pockets of big business while pretending that he really stands for the ‘people’. But the sweeping Republican mid-term gains did not reflect a turn to the right; rather a huge drop in turnout, down to 36.3% of those eligible to vote, which was the lowest in a mid-term election since 1942, in the middle of the Second World War.
Our US comrades pointed out that before the election, “one poll showed 70% supporting the idea of throwing out all incumbents”. In the vote itself, the Republican gains stand “in sharp contrast to the shift to the left in U.S. society”, as in these elections “ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage passed in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, the latter two reliably Republican states. In San Francisco, voters passed a referendum for a $15 minimum wage by an overwhelming 77% margin. In Oregon, Alaska and Washington DC, voters approved measures to legalize possession of marijuana. Two of the three anti-abortion measures proposed at the state level failed. So voters in many cases supported positions rejected by the right wing while not voting for Democrats.” This means that the potential for struggle has not been reduced by these elections; in fact the likelihood has increased as working people and youth respond to Republican attacks and see that change depends on what they themselves do.
One of the multiple features of the current US situation is the fact that Congress is held in contempt by the US people, less popular, according to polls, than head lice and cockroaches! It is a dysfunctional system, completely out of touch with the popular mood, dominated by big business corporate finance, with its rotten lobbying system, and incapable of reflecting the yearning for a change. This is the reason why Congress is deadlocked and this is unlikely to be fundamentally different now after the mid-term elections.
At the same time, there is growing anger at the vast gulf between rich and poor, which has resulted in even Alan Greenspan – former head of the Federal Reserve and fervent apostle of the great advantages of US capitalism – declaring that although he has been a lifelong libertarian Republican, “inequality is the most dangerous trend afflicting America”. The US population, in a number of polls, displays greater opposition to inequality, and growing hatred of the rich than elsewhere. The 1% – or more accurately the 0.001% – is seen to engage in tax evasion and fraud on a massive scale. But despite this tax dodging, the tax returns themselves reflect the growing pay inequality. In Britain, employment has risen by 1.3 million in the past five years, but the number of taxpayers has fallen by 2.2 million. More than 40% of American households pay no income tax. In contrast, the highest-paid 1% earners in Britain contribute 28% of all income tax, while in America it is 46%. In 1979, those shares were 11% and 18% respectively. Corporation tax shows the same concentration. In Britain, just 830 firms pay almost half of all corporation tax. Five American industries account for 81% of the country’s corporate tax revenue but just a third of its companies. This has a bearing on state revenue because the rich and smaller percentage of the population tends to avoid paying tax, which in turn is linked to growing state deficits and further austerity, which bears down on the poor because they ultimately pay the price of the rich’s evasion.
At the same time the US, with the weakening of its power, is no longer able to impose its economic agenda on the world. The World Trade Organisation is presently blocked by a group of countries, including Cuba and Venezuela, on agriculture and a number of other issues. It has spent almost two decades without concluding an agreement and is now described to be in an existential crisis. Similarly, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks appear deadlocked. The TTIP talks have provoked big opposition in some countries to what is rightly seen as an attempt both to consolidate power in the hands of the imperialist powers and to intimidate any national government that dares to challenge the big powers or multinationals. TTIP certainly needs to be opposed by the workers’ movement, but it also needs to be understood that such legal restraints can be overcome by mass movements taking decisive action; the passing of TTIP will not mean it becomes impossible to take action against capitalism.
More fundamentally, the long-term health of the system is increasingly called into question by the growth of technology. We have explored this issue a number of times, most recently in the November 2014’sSocialism Today. In some industries, the introduction of automation will be a “jobs killer”. Robert Gordon, the US economist, estimates that 47% of US jobs are threatened from this quarter. Some, including the Economist magazine, overestimate the ability of capitalism to find new markets, and moreover have a utopian perspective of how this issue can be harnessed to the benefit of all within the framework of capitalism. Yet even the ‘sober’ Economist warned about the future of capitalism, becoming “wealth without workers, workers without wealth”. It emphasises that: “wealth creation in the digital era, has so far generated little employment. Entrepreneurs can turn their ideas into firms with huge valuations and hardly any staff… a maker of virtual-reality headsets with 75 employees, was bought by Facebook earlier this year for $2 billion. With fewer than 50,000 workers each, the giants of the modern tech economy such as Google and Facebook are a small fraction of the size of the 20th century’s industrial behemoths.”
This also widens the gulf of inequality between nations: “In 1820 the world’s richest country—Britain—was about five times richer than the average poor nation. Now America is about 25 times wealthier than the average poor country. The Gini coefficient for between-country inequality stood at only 16 in 1820 (i.e., very low). It soared to 55 in 1950, and has been stable since. The driving force of inequality since 1820, in other words, has been industrialisation in the West.” These astonishing facts and figures alone are sufficient for us to conclude that an unprecedented era of conflict – an intensification of the class struggle – is beckoning, both within nations and on a world scale. The US will be an epicentre of the struggle and the convulsions there will therefore be greater, with colossal ramifications for the class struggle and therefore for opportunities for the growth of powerful socialist parties.
Economically Europe remains mired in depression, which threatens to worsen in the next period. We have characterised the political situation throughout the continent as one of ‘mild reaction’. However, this is beginning to change, as indicated at the beginning of this document, with the big movements in Scotland, Ireland and a big collision industrially in Belgium (where the end of 2014 saw a mass workers’ demonstration, three regional and one national general strikes), strikes and protests in Italy and elsewhere. But similar explosions are possible anywhere, given the underlying tense social and political situation.
This was shown by the violent clashes in Italy at the meeting of the European Central Bank, convened in Naples, one of the poorest areas of Italy, which is experiencing its third recession since 2008. Unemployment in the eurozone stands at 11.5% with an estimated 18.3 million of those looking for work in the euro area still without it. Italy saw unemployment amongst young people rising to a fresh high of 44.2% of those aged between 15 and 24. There is undoubtedly an explosive mood in Italy – as in southern Europe generally – which can spill over into big movements on the streets.
The most important new development is the appearance of a sudden worsening of the economic position of Germany, because it is still the powerhouse of Europe and therefore has a continental effect. But its economy is becoming unstable. Industrial production fell 3.1% in August and 0.3% in September. Overall, Germany’s economy dropped by 0.1% in the second quarter and then grew by 0.1% in the third. However, a drop into recession is possible. In the teeth of the world recession, Germany was able to sustain its position at the expense of the rest of Europe. With barely contained glee, the Financial Times states that Germany’s “growth model has helped to drain demand from the rest of the eurozone, unnecessarily denied German workers and households a higher standard of living and left it vulnerable to external shocks.” By this they meant that it was too reliant on exports, which are now severely affected by the world recession. Exports dropped by 5.8% in August, but grew in September. It also growls that German capitalism received a competitive edge because of the “holding down of wages… [which] have fallen since 2000, suppressing consumption growth. It is particularly unhelpful, as other eurozone countries struggle to rebalance their economies, for German companies to snap up any export demand on offer.” Additionally, German investment has fallen five percentage points as a share of GDP since 2000 and labour productivity per hour has grown less than 1% a year since 2005. German capitalism’s rivals are seizing on this opportunity to pile on the pressure – demanding that they carry through deregulation, in the same manner that they have demanded this of others: “their own glass house could also do with some structural adjustment”. [Financial Times]
As the prospects for Europe emerging out of recession dim, the market stagnates and may even decline. So too with the euro itself, which has fallen to a two-year low. Consequently, capitalist-imperialist antagonisms within Europe have intensified, as they have on a world scale between the different power blocs. This manifests itself in the growing antagonism between those like France, Spain, Italy, etc. – who wish for a loosening of the euro’s monetary constraints – and German capitalism and the core countries around it. The calculation is that if the budgetary constraints were loosened to more than 3% of GDP this would generate ‘demand’ and, together with other measures such as a continuation of a form of quantitative easing, would show a way out, at least temporarily. The European financial authorities calculate that this would have a chance of avoiding the dreaded deflation if the ECB stepped in to purchase private sector assets on a sufficient scale – involving expenditure up to €1 trillion, including Greek and Cypriot ‘junk bonds’. Yet all the ingredients still remain for the collapse of the euro, despite reassurances that, unlike in 2012, the ‘danger’ has passed.
It hasn’t! Colossal pressures are building up on national governments, particularly through permanent levels of high unemployment, as it acts on the youth, while the IMF has said that there is a good chance of a sudden collapse of the euro. As the problems pile up, investors and capital are beginning to flee Europe, with the continent’s weaknesses beginning to act as a drag on the world economy which could last for years. Deutsche Bank now argues that the world is burdened by a ‘euroglut’. It points out that at the beginning of this century, the recycling of China’s surplus into US Treasuries resulted in the conundrum of exceptionally low US bond yields: “We expect Europe’s huge excess savings, combined with aggressive European Central Bank easing, to lead some of the largest capital outflows in the history of financial markets.”
On a European level the problems are intractable under the present financial settlement and are accumulating. Such are the disparities now between ‘Northern’ Europe and the South, it will become increasingly difficult for the governments of the latter to maintain the euro, which is a pernicious form of internal devaluation. It is likely that some kind of break will be initiated by Southern Europe, but it cannot be excluded that Germany or some other North European country, or even Italy or France will take the initiative to break from the euro, which will be followed by others
What is true on a continental level is doubly so in relation to individual countries that make up the EU. It is only possible here to give a thumbnail sketch of the main economic and political features in some of these.
In France, the government has already announced that the budget deficit will be at least 4.4%, well in excess of the 3% limit. Public expenditure amounts to 55% of GDP. This is just one reflection of the past gains of the French workers, many of which they still retain. Up to now, different governments, both of the ‘left’ and right, have nibbled at these but have not taken the axe to them, as France’s erstwhile allies have done. The present right-wing Prime Minister, Valls, who comes from the extreme right of the Socialist Party, has been compelled to assure the working class that the 35-hour week remains ‘sacrosanct’. It is highly unlikely that his assurances will be kept. If the government remains intransigent, it will face a media firestorm, with threats from big business to relocate outside the country, as have already been made. The only way this pressure could be defeated would be by a workers’ government which would appeal to the working class, carry out a radical programme and prevent capital fleeing the country, through state control of all incomings and outgoings, which is only possible through the nationalisation of the banks in the finance sector.
The ECB and the European Commission may still act carefully in regard to France and ‘kick the can further down the road’. However, this cannot continue indefinitely – this road is finite. If it goes on too long the ‘rules’ will become meaningless and the whole ‘project’ will collapse. The presidency of Hollande is in deep trouble, ground as he is between the millstones of the pressure of the working class and that exerted by the capitalists with their panoply of power. His poll ratings are at unprecedentedly low levels. He came to power pledged to take some measures against austerity but instead folded at the first hurdle and capitulated to the market and ECB demands for ‘more austerity’. This in turn provoked big strikes in the autumn of 2013, which led to the bourgeois press speculating early in 2014 about “the end not just of Hollande, but of the Fifth Republic”. But this year, the big union federations have only mobilised half-heartedly.
According to the polls, in a new presidential election, Marine Le Pen would defeat Hollande. And it is not entirely ruled out, such is the deep crisis besetting France, that Hollande or his successor may be forced into an early presidential election, against the background of a new round of mass strikes and growing opposition from the right. The far right could win such an election. However, if Le Pen wins the presidency, this will act as a thunderclap to awaken the French and European working class as happened in 2002, which can lead to mass movements on the streets and factories, possibly reminiscent of an element of the days of 1934 when workers and youth came out to show that they would not allow a French Hitler to come to power.
Presently there is no visible mass point of reference for the working class on the political plane after Mélenchon threw in the towel and abandoned the leadership of the Left Front. But opportunities will be presented, which we must participate in, to develop a viable working-class based antifascist movement in all countries in Europe where the far right and neo-fascist forces have a substantial presence. The Greek comrades have initiated a very effective committee along these lines, which can find a wider echo in the next period. In Austria, the continued strength of the far-right Freedom party, which currently has about the same figure in the opinion polls as the two traditional parties, is a serious complicating factor. However, its position is not completely dominant; in the polls it gets under 30% and there is continual opposition to its racist demagogy while workers’ willingness to use every possibility offered by the trade unions to show resistance illustrates again and again the potential power of the workers’ movement.
Italy is not far behind France in the scale of the effects of the crisis in Europe. In the past, the country was known for its high-performing small and medium-sized businesses, particularly in manufacturing. Last year, an eye-watering 372,000 businesses, many of them family firms, closed wreaking havoc in what was once a stable and traditional section of Italian industry. This is just one measure of how the economic crisis – long kept in the background by the press and the capitalist media – has driven a stake into the heart of Italy.
This comes at a time of weakening of the Italian working-class organisations, one of the giants in the past of the European labour movement. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a Tony Blair-like ‘superstar’ who has received the endorsement of Blair himself, seeks to complete the process of effectively dismantling the power of the labour movement during his period in office. He openly confessed that his task was to “finish off communism”, by which he did not just mean Stalinism but the idea of struggle solidarity and militancy, the hallmarks of the Italian labour movement in the past. However, the recent electoral successes of the Democratic Party (Pd) belie the huge loss of membership resulting from its electoral ‘consensus’ approach – down nearly four-fifths over the last two years.
He bribed the electorate in the European elections with an £80 payment to low-income families, which will run for at least a year. This was enough for him to score a victory but, according to authoritative consumer bodies, his ‘gift’ will have “almost invisible” effects because consumption in June rose just 0.1% compared with a year earlier. If anything, the economy is destined to get worse in the next few months. ‘Reform’ of the Senate was seen as the first vital step in ensuring the passage of more ‘reforms’. This has opened speculation about tensions in the government. Unemployment is a particularly sensitive issue as hordes of unemployed Italian youths scour Europe in search of even low-paid jobs. The few jobs available in the South are scooped up by the Mafia, which still exercises iron control over the distribution of jobs, while “up to 70% of shops pay protection money”.
The Renzi government has also stoked up resentment as he shoves the unions out of the way while he tries to bulldoze through his neoliberal measures. He ‘gave’ union leaders 60 minutes each, in an ‘audience’ starting at 8am, to discuss a revamped Employment Bill, crucial to his government’s “credibility as a liberalising administration”. One union leader commented: “Only once before has such an absence of social dialogue been seen in Europe… with Thatcher.” The reason for the brevity of his discussions with the union leaders was because he wanted ‘inconvenient’ workers’ representatives out of the way in time for him to host a one-day, European Union jobs summit, a gathering to discuss how to cheapen the wages of Italian and European workers. In order to get the acceptance of the bill from the union leaders, alongside support from the ex-Communist Party elements still in the Democratic Party (Pd), he turned it into a vote of confidence for the government. Turmoil followed with 26 Pd senators objecting to the documents, which were vague and lacked detail. The Five-Star Movement (M5S) objected to the government granting itself wide powers to frame enabling legislation. Some of their leaders were expelled from the Chamber amidst uproar. Other violent scenes ensued. But the proposals were accepted with 165 in favour and 111 against.
Renzi has also lined up with France in its opposition to the EU rules: “I prefer France with a 4.4% budget deficit to Marine Le Pen as president next time.” Italy’s deficit will certainly overshoot the 3% limit by a considerable amount. Renzi also declared recently: “I prefer arrogance to a lack of ambition.” He then went on to state: “My ambition – for Italy – is not to do better than Greece, but to do better than Germany”. In the process, he is approaching a head-on collision with the Italian working class, which is already moving from below as the strikes and demonstrations in Genoa last year, October’s mass protest in Rome and the recent call for a general strike action from the Cgil indicate. On the surface, Italy does not appear to be gripped by the laws of revolt but the masses are mulling over events and, like many other countries in Europe, will move into action in the near future, presenting us with big opportunities to intervene and grow.
In Spain, the ‘regime of 1978’, as it is known on the left, resulting from the ‘transition’ to democracy, is in decomposition. This is against the backdrop of the continuing economic crisis, with debt set to top 100% of GDP for the first time in decades, and €100 million per day going on interest rates alone! Spanish capitalism faces deep crises on every front, as evidenced by the collapse of the two-party system, the territorial crisis relating to Catalonia, the panicked abdication of the king and the explosive rise of Podemos.
The national question is part of the bedrock of Spanish capitalism, which continues to show itself incapable of resolving it. The banning of the Catalan government’s proposed referendum on independence by the Constitutional Tribunal, at the behest of the Rajoy government, brutally exposed the anti-democratic nature of the regime. We support the right to self-determination, but for Spanish capitalism the independence of Catalonia, whose economy represents 20% of Spanish GDP, would be a disaster.
The acceptance of the ban on the referendum, and organization of an alternative informal consultation organized by volunteers (which was also challenged legally by Rajoy) by the Catalan government of the right-wing CiU party also exposed its bankruptcy and that of the Catalan business class which has betrayed the struggle for self-determination time and time again. However, the mass participation (about 30%) in the alternative consultation, which of course saw a big majority voting for independence, shows that repression and wavering will not make the issue go away.
The working class and its organisations must put itself at the head of the movement for national rights and self-determination in Catalonia, based on a united movement with its class brothers and sisters throughout the Spanish state and internationally, under the banner of a struggle for emancipation for all and a free and voluntary socialist confederation of workers’ republics throughout the peninsula and beyond.
The spectacular rise of Podemos, which only 9 months after its birth heads the polls, shows the political volatility which exists, in the context of the crisis of Spain’s tried and tested two-party system. It also shows – in the debacle of the United Left (IU), which had been growing until Podemos’ emergence – the potential disaster which a turn to the right and coalitionist policies can spell for left formations. Initially, the capitalists will rally around the PP and PSOE in order to resist Podemos’ rise and the instability and change it represents, as shown by the increasing clamour for a ‘grand coalition’ following the next general elections. However, such a development could set in motion a new phase of decline for these two parties, especially the ex-social democratic PSOE which risks a PASOK-style annihilation.
In this context, capitalism will also attempt to ‘domesticate’ Podemos, as the possibility of a Podemos-led government becomes more viable. The shift towards a more moderate position in the speeches and interviews of Podemos’ main leaders, especially Pablo Iglesias in recent months, partially reflects this, with the party’s programme on the debt, ending austerity, etc., moving to the right as it approaches the possibility of power, in a similar way to Syriza in Greece. Despite rhetoric about ‘horizontal structures’, etc. Podemos is currently organised along very top-down lines, which has provoked some discontent.
CWI comrades have a key role to play in engaging with the rank-and-file activists of supporters of both Podemos and the IU, arguing for a united front from below based on the active mobilisation of the working class, and revolutionary socialist policies. Though in great danger, the IU as a force is not yet dead by any means, and could still play a decisive role in events, if its growing critical sectors – in which we play a role – manage to win the leadership and redirect its course.
The movement in Portugal is also passing through a certain lull, with no serious national mobilisation since the June 2013 general strike, which nearly brought down the right-wing coalition government. The failure of the leadership of the mass left parties, the Communist Party and Left Bloc, to form a united front on the basis of a struggle for power, has allowed for both the emergence of right-wing populist forces, and for a certain (temporary) revival of the moribund PS, under new leadership. The growing CWI organisation will redouble its efforts in the next period, and fight to play a catalyst role in the struggle for unity based on a revolutionary programme, forty years after the April revolution.
Despite herculean resistance by the Greek working class to Troika-imposed austerity measures since 2010, including over 30 general strikes, savage cuts were successfully carried out by successive Greek governments. These defeats for the working class are primarily the responsibility of the union leaders, who through limited 24-hour strikes refused to decisively step up militant action to defeat austerity, and allowed militant strikes that faced state repression to be isolated and defeated. The setbacks are also due to the leaderships of the main left parties, SYRIZA and the KKE (communist party), which failed to offer concrete proposals about how to advance the struggle, a united front and a fighting socialist alternative.
This resulted in a period of relatively low levels of strikes and social struggles and even demoralisation amongst wide layers of workers and youth. Many workers and their families have been preoccupied with the struggle to survive. According to official statistics, 6.3 million Greeks are either on or below the poverty line, which is just over €400 per month.
However struggles have never come to a complete standstill. In early November, students occupied nearly six hundred high schools throughout Greece in protest against new examinations, as well as over acute education underfunding and teaching staff shortages. And nineteen mayors and the prefect of the Attica region have refused to apply the law and sack thousands more local council and public-sector workers.
To the extent that this resistance continues, it will be an echo of the struggles of local councils in Britain in the 1980s against Thatcher’s government, which only Liverpool Council, with its Militant leadership, heroically carried through to the end. The CWI in Greece puts forward the call for the mayors, along with left and militant forces of all councils, to create a national cross-council co-ordinating body, to embolden local authority workers and communities to fight-back on the immediate issues and to bring down the New Democrats/PASOK government.
Government propaganda about the economy supposedly finally turning around and workers’ growing expectations of the coming to power of a SYRIZA-led government of the left, perhaps as early as next year, can encourage more struggles. It is clear that some of the most determined struggles of the previous period still hold out on the basis of the prospect of SYRIZA coming to power and amending the law in their favour. Such are the occupied ERT, the occupied VIOME, the sacked Ministry of Finance cleaners, the sacked university administrative workers and others.
The working masses and poor will turn towards the election of SYRIZA as a means of ridding themselves of pro-memoranda policies. Despite the rightward movement of Tsipras and the SYRIZA leadership – now calling for ‘quantitative easing’, for ‘negotiations’ with the Troika over the debt, etc. – an electoral victory for SYRIZA will be met with large expectations from workers and youth. But it will also be accompanied by ferocious attempts by the bosses of Greece and Europe to pressurise and blackmail a SYRIZA government into taming the movements that will develop.
Under immense pressure from the masses, a SYRIZA-led government can be compelled to move to the Left and into serious collisions with big capital, which could even end up in Greece’s departure from the euro-zone and EU. But if a Tsipras-led government capitulates to the demands of capitalism and fails to alleviate the burdens facing Greek workers, it can lead to widespread disappointment and demoralisation amongst sections of workers and youth. In these conditions, space can open up for the further growth of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, despite the previous crackdown against it by the state. The tactical tasks facingXekinima, the CWI in Greece, are by necessity quite complex but we are well positioned to take advantage of the new stormy events opening up. The excellent anti-fascist campaign we helped initiate plays an important role in the resistance to Golden Dawn and reaction. The ‘Initiative 1,000’, in which we play a pivotal role, provides us with a higher profile and greater influence than currently possible under our own banner. With the Greek left often fractured and sectarian, the ‘Initiative 1,000’ has proven to be a correct tactic to pursue, has put an imprint on the developments within the left, has the potential to develop and can play a role in assembling greater forces of the left. The perspective for ‘Initiative 1000’ is still not settled, as the movement is in a lull, and sectarianism within the left strong.
Xekinima’s flexible, principled approach to SYRIZA, which earlier this year helped see the election of two comrades to Volos council and other impressive votes for comrades standing, must be continued in the convulsive period opening up in Greece. Presenting a developed programme for a SYRIZA-led Left government – a socialist alternative to the economic and political impasse of Greek capitalism and misery of the masses under the profit system –marks us out from all other trends on the Left and will attract many excellent fighters to the organisation.
The speed of recent developments in Belgium is an important indicator of how quickly a situation can change and class struggles begin. The coming to power, 120 days after last May’s general elections, of the first explicitly right wing government in Belgium since the late 1980s transformed the situation. Since the beginning of the crisis in 2007, the Belgian bourgeoisie has been divided. Its traditional wing, used to compromise with the union leaders, enjoying tax rebates and high productivity levels in exchange for relatively respectable wages and relying on the traditional parties. Against this is a layer of small bosses, ambitious local managers and subcontractors of multinational firms, who envy the traditional bourgeoisie, and are in favour of more aggressive austerity. Politically they rely on the NVA neo-liberal Flemish nationalists. The dispute between the two trends, one in favour of an open confrontation with the workers’ movement, the other more cautious because of its historical experiences, is a key part of the political crises ravaging the country since 2007. The NVA’s election victory in May made it possible to form a right-wing coalition with the Christian Democrats and Liberals that could test out how far it can go while, if that fails, retaining the possibility of going back to the ‘classical’ coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals and social democrats without having to call new elections.
From the start it was clear this right wing government aimed to catch up with austerity in the neighbouring countries. In order to do that, it wants to finish what the right-wing governments in the 1980s failed to do: fundamentally change the relation of forces between labour and capital. Believing its own propaganda that the workers’ movement as such doesn’t exist anymore and that the unions are relics of the past, they launched a frontal attack on issues including the sliding scale of wages and increasing the retirement age, while also questioning the unions’ right to pay out unemployment money. This provoked a huge wave of anger amongst trade unionists. The calls of all three trade union centres for protests and strikes have got a huge response. There is certainly an element of the social democracy giving the green light to the ABVV/FGTB socialist trade union to go for action, as especially the Walloon and Brussels Socialist Party want to show that a federal government without them just doesn’t work. There is also an element of the union bosses considering this as an attack against their own position and as such more easily inclined to call for action. However, it is necessary to warn that, given their policies, it is clear that somewhere down the road the social democrat leaders will pull back from struggle and that this will be followed by the trade union leadership.
Even before the government was actually formed the union leaders organized a mass meeting on 23 September. LSP/PSL launched the anti-government slogan ‘No Thatcher in Belgium’. Then the unions launched an impressive action plan nearly identical to the one the LSP/PSL proposed in September including a national demo, workplace assemblies and three regional strikes, culminating in a national 24-hour general strike on 15 December. The 6 November protest was the biggest union demo since May 1986 with at least 120,000, possibly 150,000 present, and the LSP/PSL’s call ‘Strike to make the government and all austerity collapse’ was well received. The regional strikes were also massive with the complete closure of all three ports and a strike movement as strong in the Flemish area as in the Walloon area and Brussels.
By its very nature it is extremely difficult for this particular government to make any serious concessions and, although a rotten deal is never completely excluded, it is likely the union leaders will continue the movement into 2015. The government is already shaken; some bosses have started to come out in favour of negotiations. The LSP/PSL is proposing a second action plan to mobilise support, including from workers in smaller workplaces, for renewed protests and a 48-hour general strike possibly becoming an indefinite strike if that is the mood amongst the striking workers. The main weakness of the unions’ action plan is the lack of an alternative; many of the union leaders want a return to the former traditional coalition involving the social democrats. This may come about, but this experience would then pose more sharply the question being discussed already of a workers’ political alternative. The LSP/PSL is promoting the appeal of the socialist trade union in Charleroi-Hainaut for all forces to the left of social democracy and the Greens to join forces in a broad left party of struggle.
Sweden is one of the OECD countries where the gulf between the classes has widened most. There has been a rapid dismantling of the welfare state built up over decades, with Sweden now held up as a model of neo-liberalism. The election in September showed a political fragmentation and a sharp rise for the far right.
In spite of the desire to get rid of the Moderate Party-led government, whose four parties all lost votes, the vote for the Social Democrats, at 31%, was lower than when their government was defeated in 2006. The far-right Sweden Democrats picked up a layer of those opposed to the cuts and privatisations of the last government, as well as support for their racist anti-immigrant policies. They more than doubled their vote from the last general election and have become the third largest party with 48 MPs. They are in a position to bring down the government by voting with the right wing alliance led by the Moderates against the coming budget. Nevertheless, their leader took a leave of absence after the election, saying he was ‘burned out’ after dealing with the hatred expressed by ‘extremists’ organising against his party!
The Social Democrats, with the Green Party as coalition allies, are trying to base themselves on a consensus for continued cuts. The leaders of the bosses’ association and the LO (trade union federation) have started talks that might end up in a social contract. The Left Party, with just over 5% support, is not joining the central government but, like the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, will support cuts budgets nationally and locally, in exchange for some concessions.
The new party known as the Feminist Initiative got a lower percentage vote than they did in the European elections and missed the 4% threshold for getting seats in parliament; but it was elected onto 13 of the 21 councils it stood for. This formation, getting considerable publicity for a left programme, undoubtedly received some votes from workers and youth who will not tolerate the steady erosion of their living standards. Amongst young voters, the Feminist Initiative and the Left Party won considerably more votes than the Sweden Democrats.
The CWI comrades have played a key role in the big anti-racist demonstrations in Sweden. Our comrades have been key to the campaigns against profit in education and social care. They also managed, through a vigorous campaign, to retain four out of five of its elected councillors – in Haninge and Lulea – and increase its vote in Gothenburg.
In Britain over the last period, the situation has been dominated on the one side by the independence referendum in Scotland and by the upcoming general election, due to be held six months following the IEC.
As we commented soon after the referendum, if ever the national question reflected ‘the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism’, it was revealed in this event. There was a class polarisation with the great majority of workers, particularly in the proletarian centres of Glasgow, Dundee and elsewhere solidly supporting a ‘Yes’ vote while, equally, the middle-class, following the scare campaign ‘Project Fear’ in the weeks before the referendum, turned out heavily to support ‘No’. The conclusion of the ‘establishment’, including initially the outgoing leader of the SNP Alex Salmond, was that the issue of Scottish independence was “over for a generation”. In fact, the ‘winners’ now appear to be the ‘losers’, while the ‘losers’ appear as the real ‘winners’.
The Tories are chronically split after the Scottish vote, particularly over a naked attempt to try to give themselves an effective majority in the Westminster parliament by excluding Scottish MPs from voting on many issues, but much more seriously so is Miliband’s Labour Party, which has haemorrhaged members and support heavily in Scotland. Its Scottish leader has resigned, condemning the national leadership of the Labour Party in her parting shot, accusing Miliband of treating the Scottish party as a “branch office” of an all-Britain outfit.
The bitter disappointment of those who voted ‘Yes’ – particularly the working class and the youth – did not result in the abandonment of politics, but exactly the opposite. In droves, they are looking for answers and have joined parties, including our party in Scotland, the Socialist Party Scotland. The SNP, which is reported to have doubled and tripled its membership, has been the first port of call but it will not be the last. In a rising wave, all boats rise. At the same time, this has produced some weird and wonderful phenomena, including breathtaking ‘changes of political outlook’. Taking the award for the biggest example of sheer hypocrisy must surely be the political trapeze artist Alan Woods and his organisation, the IMT.
In the referendum, the IMT came out firmly for a ‘No’ vote. After the referendum, when many young people refused to leave the political stage, Alan Woods was clearly worried that if they revealed their real position on the referendum, they would soon be discredited amongst this layer. So they performed a complete somersault, declaring that the Labour Party “has been largely discredited amongst wide layers” and now appear to be supporting an “independent Socialist Scotland”.
Remember that this is the tiny organisation which broke with Militant and the CWI over this very issue of setting up an independent organisation in Scotland in 1992! This was, in their words, “breaking a forty-year tradition of work within the Labour Party”. If they have now completely changed their position, why not come out and admit it, and draw all the lessons from this? After all, there is no principled difference between the Labour Party in Scotland and that in England and Wales.
The turmoil of the Scottish referendum indicated the real mood that exists just below the surface in Britain. The growing poverty, ‘worse than under Thatcher’, reflected in food banks, which now exist in ‘well-off’ areas as well as the poor ones, a permanent army of unemployed and the scapegoating vilification of those on benefits, means that there is furious class indignation, which could not find an outlet through normal ‘politics’. However, it was expressed in the referendum, particularly by the ‘Yes’ voters and activists who saw this as a means of striking a decisive blow against the Tories and capitalism. It is just one indication of what could happen in the charged atmosphere following the general election in May.
It is impossible to predict the outcome of the election. Opinion polls put the Tories and Labour neck and neck but this could change given the extremely volatile mood in Britain. The right-wing populist UKIP can pick up seats, as will the SNP who will eat into the Labour vote in Scotland. All parties are in favour of cuts, with Labour spokespersons promising that if they are elected, the promised attacks will “go on for years”. There has been some speculation in the press “that this is the election to lose” given the present situation, but particularly the economic conditions that will confront a new government. The best result, from our point of view, would be a Miliband government, which will seriously test in action right-wing Labour, discredit it in the eyes of workers and this time prepare a serious base for the emergence of a new mass working-class force leading to a new party.
There are very few illusions remaining in Miliband and his party. Even before the election, there is extreme scepticism and even hostility. Normally the trade union leaders in a pre-election period try to muzzle union opposition because they calculate, quite wrongly, that this would harm Labour’s electoral prospects. However, they were compelled by mass pressure to organise strikes and, in October, a national demonstration of 100,000 in favour of a pay rise for the scandalously underpaid British workers.
The trade union leadership provide just one reason for voting Labour: it provides the chance to end the ConDem era. The cowardly right-wing trade union leaders are incapable of marshalling any real arguments for supporting New Labour, other than they are different on some small issues of trade union rights. For instance, the malicious withdrawal of the right of trade unionists to represent their members during work time introduced by the present government could be overturned by a New Labour government. After all, this is a ‘reform’ which will cost the incoming government nothing, other than withdrawing a useful anti-union weapon from the employers’ hands.
This promises to be a vital period for our party in England and Wales. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) can come into its own in a serious way in the next period. A hundred candidates, at a cost of £50,000 just in election deposits, will stand in the general election and a target of a thousand in the local elections under the banner of TUSC. This will give an election broadcast which could help put TUSC on the political map.
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
“That spirit is gone, the dream of what was called the Arab spring smashed by more powerful forces of counter-revolution. Instead, today’s Arab world is decomposing as if by chemical reaction, a region overwhelmed by a collective mayhem in which the rot of decades of authoritarianism and bottled up sectarianism are taking over.” This is how one pessimistic observer summed up the results of the revolution – for that is what it was – that took place over three years ago in North Africa and the Arab world.
It is true that in this period we have witnessed the devastating war between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. Over 2,100 Palestinians were killed and 70 Israelis as well as the creation once more of an army of homeless without any of the contentious issues being resolved. Four states – Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen – are consumed by war, while another, Egypt, has an authoritarian regime ‘back in charge’. Also, there are no chemically pure, bourgeois-democratic regimes anywhere in the region. Tunisia, with a population of 10 million, seems so far to have avoided the sectarian blight and civil war affecting other countries. But even Tunisia has been affected by wider events in the region, indicated by the fact that the country has supplied the biggest number of foreign jihadists, an estimated 3,000 in total, that have left their own country to fight in Syria, Iraq, etc. Then there is Isis with its perspective of a return to the Middle Ages, the caliphate and the beheadings of hostages, which, like mediaeval armies, is calculated to instil terror, leading its opponents to flee without a real fight. This barbaric method is practised by the Saudi Arabian regime; it has beheaded 59 people so far this year! Moreover, Isis is just repeating the methods of imperialism; for instance, British capitalism used beheading in its war against the Malayan guerrillas in the post-war liberation struggle.
Marxists are imbued with optimism. But this does not conflict with a deadly realism about the situation facing the masses in this region. The situation does indeed appear bleak as the sectarian jihadists – primarily the Sunni variety in the form of the murderous Isis, but also the equally sectarian Shia militias – appear to be running riot and threatening the fate of millions. But we, above all, must stress that there was no inevitability in this situation nor is it as bad as some observers, mostly the passive variety, believe. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya opportunities existed to avoid the kind of sectarian impasse that now exists. We must remember that some alleged Marxists, like the AWL, supported imperialism’s bombing of Libya. They take full political responsibility for the present sectarian mayhem, the virtual breakup of the country and its rule by Islamic warlords.
Nor was the consciousness of the masses, or lack of it, mainly responsible for the deadlock and then the rolling back of the revolution. The absence of authoritative workers’ organisations and leadership with a history of struggle, and therefore of roots, meant that favourable opportunities were missed, particularly to build in the labour movement in Egypt into a significant political force, which could have a powerful effect on the development of events. We mentioned earlier in the introduction the coming together of the Iraqi Shias and the Sunni to express their common interests and solidarity. No less important was the huge participation in the Egyptian revolution of women and youth who instinctively came to the defence of minorities as an expression of the unifying process of revolution. Unfortunately, some of the left repeated the errors of previous revolutions in the neo-colonial world, of placing trust in temporary allies of the working class, the liberal capitalists, and other non-working-class forces.
The lack of genuine workers’ parties with roots in the working class and poor, along with a perspective for a socialist transformation of society, combined with the mistakes of the existing left gave the opportunity for a comeback of the security apparatus inherited from the previous Mubarak regime, which had really never gone away, to install, initially with popular support, the military-backed Sisi regime. The demise of the brief regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, due to its authoritarianism and intolerance, was welcomed by the majority of the population, mired as it was in ‘disorder’, chaos and economic collapse. The new government – just five months old at the time of writing – appears to hold out the chance of improvement for the masses. Events elsewhere in the Middle East have also helped to consolidate the regime. The US government has made token protests about the coup and ‘lack of democracy’ but Obama has been silent over the arrest, persecution and even torture of artists, trade unionists and other opponents of the regime.
Also, a combination of geopolitical developments in the region – particularly the emergence of Isis – has helped to strengthen the regime. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have poured in billions – an estimated $2 billion – which has helped to stabilise the economy. Also, the domestic capitalists have helped Sisi by financing the scheme to expand the Suez Canal to the tune of $8.5 billion. This has allowed Sisi to dream that he can become the new Nasser. But Nasser came to power during a world economic upswing and, by manoeuvring between the then Stalinist Soviet Union and US imperialism, was allowed to make significant concessions to the masses. He was particularly reliant on the former Soviet Union, with its vast resources. The regime cannot hope to draw on resources of that scale today. After an initial honeymoon period, a new upsurge will take place. All revolutions manifest at times an element of counterrevolution and there are even some phases, like the July days in the 1917 Russian revolution, when reaction appears to dominate and sometimes revolutionaries are forced to go underground. The strength of the counterrevolution is partly dependent on how deep-going and profound is the revolution in the first place and, crucially, how powerful is the revolutionary party and what roots it has been able to grow. The revolutions in the region were, in the main, without independent organisations of the working class and the poor masses or even the beginnings of a mass revolutionary party.
Once the illusions of the masses in the regime begin to be undermined, a new phase of the Egyptian revolution will unfold. The prospect of working-class resistance cannot be ruled out. It is vital that in this period, workers organisations are built and strengthened. Not least is the building and strengthening of the forces of the CWI – notably in Tunisia, Lebanon and our very courageous section in Israel-Palestine. This is in preparation for a period when the working class will once more move into action, strengthened through its experiences and ready to complete the work of the Egyptian revolution.
In Israel, particularly ominous for the ruling class has been a resurgence of protest by Palestinians within Israel itself – on Israel’s side of the ‘separation barrier’ with the occupied territories. It has taken the form of rioting and individual terror acts, especially occurring in East Jerusalem, but it has touched even Tel Aviv.
This wave of anger began before the July-August war on Gaza, following assassinations and mass arrests of Palestinians by the Israeli army across the West Bank, and the burning alive of a Palestinian in East Jerusalem by far-right Israelis. Then came the devastation in Gaza by the war, the post-war repression of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and provocative Israeli incursions into the holy Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount site.
Heavy-handed policing has been stepped up, including legislation to jail stone throwers for up to 20 years, but no amount of repression can hold off further escalation of this protest wave indefinitely.
The pre-war peace talks collapsed with no real concessions forthcoming from Israeli prime minister Netanyahu. On the contrary, during the nine months of the negotiations, over 13,000 new settlement housing units were announced and many more since. Also, the agreed release programme of some of the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails had ground to a halt. The summer’s rocket fire from Gaza, Fatah’s reconciliation deal with Hamas and the rise of Isis in the region are being used in the propaganda of Netanyahu’s government against any moves towards a Palestinian state. Pressure from the world powers as well as from inside Israel will recur for more talks, but the Israeli ruling class is riven with division on what to do. On the one hand, they want to stave off any prospect of a ‘one-state’ outcome with Palestinians having equal rights to Jews; on the other hand, they resist any steps towards allowing a Palestinian armed ‘enemy’ state on their doorstep.
Economy minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, has proposed annexation of the main settlement blocks and rejects the idea of a Palestinian state in the remainder of the territories.
In any case, the ongoing occupation is untenable indefinitely, and with living standards across the territories remaining dire – especially in Gaza – the ground for a new intifada is being laid, albeit with possibly a different character to the two previous uprisings.
With the Israeli government acutely divided – a coalition of five parties with different aims – a general election is increasingly being forecast for next year. In addition to their inability to solve the national conflict (unsolvable on a capitalist basis), Israel’s economy is stagnating, leading to demands by big business for more austerity attacks. However, almost immediately after the July-August war there were some renewed struggles within the Israeli working class, an indication of the combativity that exists, which has the potential to grow and spread under the impact of the attacks to come.
The crisis involving Isis is at the heart of the wider conflict in the Middle East and is, in a sense, a continuation of the previous period of the Iraq war, its outcome and its consequences, both in the region and its wider geopolitical effect. Isis is a continuation of Al Qaeda, but is more effective in terms of money-raising, the establishment at least in outline of a ‘state’, more multifaceted and therefore a threat to all the regimes in the Middle East, as well as to the imperialist West through ‘blowback’ from this conflict. We should recall that we predicted this situation 13 years ago in our analysis of the rise of right-wing political Islam and the crazy perspective of a new caliphate, the sectarian philosophy of al-Qa’ida, etc. In broad outline we also anticipated the outcome of the Iraq war and its unintended consequences: the complete discrediting of the authors of that war, notably Bush and Blair. More recently, at last year’s IEC, we envisaged the Assad regime, although severely weakened and despite hundreds of thousands of victims and refugees, would not be overthrown quickly. This was because the opposition to Assad was largely sectarian in character, resting on the Sunni population, which allowed the Syrian regime to mobilise in opposition not just Shia but other minorities who correctly feared persecution if the opposition won.
But at the same time, we predicted that the conflict would continue, which in turn was likely to establish an arc of sectarianism from Pakistan through to the Middle East itself and with wide repercussions for Muslims everywhere, including in the most industrialised countries. The consequences of this would be a big increase in potential jihadists going from the advanced industrial countries to Syria, Iraq, etc. They could then come back – as fanatical jihadist suicide bombers – with the potential to cause great damage, not least on the unity of the working class. Britain now has, according to the government, more than a thousand citizens, and there are greater numbers as a proportion from other European countries, who have travelled to the region to be indoctrinated in the messianic, destructive ideas of Isis. Recently, Canada saw two attacks that both killed a soldier in the weeks after Canadian forces joined the anti-Isis bombing campaign, attacks which have been used to justify greater powers for its security services. Bombings on a big scale would have disastrous consequences in the ranks of the working class. Therefore, the situation of the masses, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world will be affected. The vital need for class unity is even more important now, particularly in view of the poisonous fumes of racial and ethnic hatred, which are spewed forth by the far right and its ‘respectable’ allies.
Isis has been built from some of the remnants of al-Qa’ida as well as sections of the Baathists, including top Iraqi army officers excluded from the Iraqi army by the US occupiers, and by the largely Shia-dominated government of the former prime minister Maliki. Other young people were attracted from abroad, from amongst those, many from a Muslim background, who feel increasingly excluded and discriminated against. In total, it was estimated earlier this year that about 15 to 20,000 foreign jihadists are in its ranks. But Isis is not universally popular. A well-known leader of al-Qa’ida and a disciple of bin Laden condemned the methods of this organisation “as a killing and destruction machine”. He described its fighters as “the dogs of hellfire”. Saudi Arabia, while some of its citizens and possibly the government also continue to finance Isis, recently described it officially as “infidels”.
However, Isis is different in a crucial respect to Al Qaeda. The latter was ‘asymmetrical’ in character – not territorially based – and more of a faceless ‘corporate franchise’. It also attacked the ‘far enemy’, the imperialist countries themselves. Isis is more territorially based, calls itself a state and is primarily concerned with fighting the ‘near enemy’ in the region. Moreover, after the capture of Mosul in June with its oil wells, it now has considerable financial clout. And, crucially, Isis has military hardware, acquired during its successful military incursion into Iraq, which has taken its forces to the outskirts of Baghdad. However, its attempt to work with the local leaders of tribes cannot continue indefinitely. The recent shooting of members of tribes in Anbar province indicate the tensions that will develop.
It is also clear that the Iraqi army, even the majority of soldiers who were Shias, were not prepared to die for the corrupt Maliki regime. Iraqis in general were completely alienated by the sectarian policies of this government. This has led to its replacement by another Shia, Haider al-Abadi: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” There is only a token Sunni presence in the government and, moreover, the Sunni population, particularly ex-army officers under Saddam, is unlikely this time to be attracted through another ‘awakening’ to join the Iraqi army in order to fight Isis, which is tantamount to fighting for the sectarian anti-Sunni regime. This means that the government will have to increasingly rely on the Shia militias, who are already accused of acting in the same manner as Isis, conducting sectarian massacres. Consequently, there is deadlock with Iraq increasingly divided along ethnic and religious lines, the outline of a future officially divided country, as we predicted. This is bound to have a knock-on effect on neighbouring states, including Jordan and Lebanon in particular, which are in danger of disintegration.
The Iranian regime has both been strengthened and weakened in the recent period. The failure of US imperialism’s strategy in Iraq led to a strengthening of Iran’s strategic position in the region. This was one of the reasons for the renewed efforts of the world’s main powers to reach an agreement with Tehran over its nuclear policy. However, despite both sides having a common interest in defeating Isis, it is not certain whether this will be achieved given the divisions within the Iranian regime and the Republican control of the US Congress. At the same time, the continuation of the west’s sanctions and now the sharp drop in the price of oil have exacted a high price on the Iranian economy and living standards. This meant that Iran’s economy contracted by 6.8% in the year to March 2013 and by a further 1.9% in the following year. Inflation, while officially lower, remains high in practice, while the shrinking economy means that unemployment remains high especially for the young. Despite the still repressive regime, the youthfulness of Iranian society – over 40% is under the age of 25 – and urbanisation, with around 70% living in cities, combined with the latent strength of its working class, mean that there is a tremendous revolutionary potential in the country. Although small in number, the recent increase in strikes is one sign of the larger struggles which are going to come, as is the nervousness and splits within the regime.
Turkey, another country in the region with a strong working class, has also been drawn into the eye of the storm. Obama is pressurising Turkey to attack Isis as it threatens to take the Syrian town of Kobani. The air war of the US will not defeat Isis and the poorly-armed Kurdish militias by themselves are also incapable of performing a job. Therefore, the US has called on Turkey, particularly as it has the third largest army in NATO, to attack Isis and allow the anti-Isis coalition to use its airfields for the bombing campaign. Erdoğan, the Turkish president, who in the past effectively supported Isis for his own regional imperialist reasons, is reluctant to do this unless the US gives an undertaking to overthrow Assad, something which the Americans are unable to do. At the time of writing, this has resulted in a stalemate. Under pressure, it is likely that Turkey will attack Isis but the effects of this cannot be known at present. Perhaps it is relevant to invoke a parallel with the medieval world – the continual fighting of the 30 Years’ War – when it comes to anticipating the future for this region on the basis of the continuation of capitalism. That started out as a struggle between religions – Catholics and Protestants – and then developed, as the Holy Roman Empire weakened, into a conflict for supremacy in Europe. It attracted mercenaries and inflicted terrible damage across the whole continent.
Obama has already sketched out the prospect of the conflict spreading over ‘years’. Moreover, this will not be confined to the Middle East but will also be felt in Africa – particularly through Boko Haram and in East Africa– and in Asia, as well as in the advanced industrial countries. The only way to prevent the horrors that loom is to create a unified powerful working class on the basis of a clear socialist programme.
RUSSIA AND UKRAINE.
We have carried extensive material, from the beginning, of the Russian/Ukraine conflict in publications of the CWI, including articles of a programmatic character, transitional demands on the national question, as well as perspectives for the war and the wider ramifications in terms of world relations, etc. Although this has generated some controversy within the CWI – largely over the question of Russia’s role – these have now largely been resolved.
We have steadfastly upheld the legitimate national aspirations of the peoples of Ukraine, Crimea etc. while supporting the fight against the far-right, openly fascist forces and warmongers whether in Ukraine, in the unrecognised republics or Russia by maintaining an independent class position, advocating class unity and giving critical support to genuine socialist forces even when they are weak.
It is vital to support genuine democratic national aspirations of the peoples of Ukraine and other nationalities of the region. For instance, in relation to Crimea, it was correct to support the right to self-determination. The CWI advocated the right of the people of Crimea to freely and without any hint of coercion to decide their future. A democratically convened constituent assembly, representing all sections of the working class, would ensure a referendum is overseen by elected committees of working people. Despite the undemocratic nature of the referendum held last May, the result appears to reflect the sentiments of a majority of the population to break away from the Ukraine and join Russia. At the same time, it is the bounden duty of Marxists, when giving critical support to any genuine independence movements, to also defend the democratic rights of all minorities; in the case of Crimea, the Tatars, Ukrainians and others. On the basis of capitalism, however, the working class of Crimea will not find a solution to their problems – already economic and social conditions have worsened under the rule of local capitalist forces and Putin’s regime – and minorities and opposition face discrimination and repression. The reactionary Putin regime, like its western imperialist counterparts, cynically exploits the national issue to further their interests and to divide the working class. The Putin regime, as we have explained, was able to cynically exploit the crisis which developed to strengthen its sphere of influence and allow it to temporarily strengthen Russia’s position domestically and in relation to Ukraine and the Western powers. Only a united movement of the working class, armed with a socialist programme, can offer a solution; a socialist Crimea, as well as a democratic socialist Ukraine and socialist Russia, as part of a socialist confederation of the region, organised on a voluntary, free and equal basis, would see an end to national oppression and all forms of discrimination.
Although neither Russia nor the Ukraine formally declared that they were at war, nevertheless after six months of fighting there were around 4,000 dead overall. The German government has estimated that between “500 and 3,000 Russians” have been killed in the war. Although officially at least, the conflict now appears frozen, fighting has continued throughout the East Ukraine; serious skirmishes continue leaving hundreds dead. The agreement on trade with the EU, signed at the same time as the ceasefire that ended the war, will not come fully into force at least until the end of 2015. In the meantime, Ukraine will be able to export food duty free while European goods will still be taxed on their entrance to Ukraine. The Economist declared: “This is precisely what Russia asked for before the start of the Ukrainian crisis, only to be told to keep out. Many Ukrainian watchers are warning that the association agreement could yet be further hollowed out.” European officials were reported to be in despair when news of the delay arrived from the three-way talks between Ukraine, Russia and European Union. One said: “It is Munich 1938”, a slight exaggeration!
The Ukraine alone cannot defeat Russia, with its weaker military forces. But there are also limits on Putin. Afghanistan shows that it is one thing for a military police-type operation to take place, especially to ‘defend our boys’ but it is another thing entirely to stage a full-scale military intervention and occupation of the ‘near abroad’. Sanctions, in addition to the collapse in oil price, devaluation of rouble and cost of integrating Crimea, have led to a drop in GDP growth to zero and a predicted recession in 2015, with the knock-on effect on the living standards of the average Russian, particularly if sanctions are continued and deepened. In the Ukraine itself there are fears that parts of the country, particularly in the east, could sink into a “‘Somalia scenario’, under which the Donbas becomes a swathe of ungoverned territory harbouring bandits who cross into the rest of Ukraine to raid, kidnap and steal.” [The Economist] This could be a repeat of the Moldova breakaway, Transdnistria – a kind of ‘cantonisation’ of part of the country controlled by private-sector security services.
This position is in marked contrast to the shameful pandering by some alleged “Trotskyist theoreticians” to nationalism on both sides. Particularly standing out was the position of the tiny International Marxist Tendency (IMT). They took a pro-Moscow position allegedly in the cause of fighting fascism. This is what their leader Alan Woods, once of the CWI, stated at a joint meeting in London with others, including the Communist Party of Britain: “It’s not my business to criticise the Russian oligarchy, but if it were, it wouldn’t be to criticise them for intervening too much, but for not intervening at all.” Incredibly, he also stated that “the national question is not an issue” in Ukraine and that “when you have US imperialism, NATO, Angela Merkel, the ConDem government and Ukrainian fascists on one side, I know which side I’m on.” The clear implication in this statement is that the workers’ movement – let us remind ourselves that this is coming from a ‘Marxist’ – should be on the side of Putin’s oligarchic regime and its intervention in the Ukraine.
Putin, to begin with, was massively popular in Russia itself – polling 90% approval ratings – for his stand on the Ukraine and Crimea. However, the cost of the war, together with the drop in the price of oil, means a drop in Russia’s income, which over time will act to undermine the regime. Even some pro-Putin oligarchs have warned that the country is balancing on the edge of recession. It is estimated that a $1 drop in the oil price per barrel leads to a loss of $2.3 billion in budget revenue. Because oil and gas make up around half of government income, the Kremlin’s ability to buy social and political stability is undermined. The many intersecting factors present in the region mean that the conflict in Ukraine could escalate into a more serious battle, or even at some stage into a wider war between Russia and the West – or between their proxies. Some capitalist commentators have even raised the possibility that a politically surrounded and besieged Russia may brandish its nuclear arsenal. Rhetoric and mutual insults reminiscent of the ‘Cold War’ have taken place between Obama and Putin. We need to state the obvious: this is not a clash between different social systems but a struggle between two imperialist powers involved in a battle for territory, prestige and influence.
This was indicated by Obama’s pointed and almost personal attack on Russia’s rule over Ukraine. Putin replied in an even more explicit manner invoking the Cold War, when he declared that the US had “declared itself the winner” of the Cold War and then, over two decades, sought to dominate the world through ‘unilateral diktat’. He pointed to US intervention in Kosova, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as well as its instigation of the ill-fated ‘colour’ revolutions. Putin, in effect, was warning the US and Western capitalism in general that if they continued to intervene in Russia’s ‘backyard’ – the near abroad: Eastern Europe and particularly the Baltic States – Russia would counter them. The Baltic States are a flashpoint with significant sections of the population, Russian speakers, who are discriminated against. If clashes developed here, Moscow would undoubtedly consider intervening. On the other hand, Putin is offering cooperation with the US against the threat of Isis and ‘global terror’. This indicates a new and disturbed period of world relations, which could, in some circumstances and in some regions, result in military clashes, if not between the main powers then their proxies.
At the same time, the working-class is not just sitting back and passively observing these events. The original movement in the Ukraine, the Maidan, had big elements of a social character. There are incipient workers’ movements opposing reaction on both sides in the Ukraine and elsewhere.
The Croatian president recently commented on the “widespread distrust of capitalism in Croatian society… One Croatian government after another had failed to carry out the economic reforms [read pro-capitalist measures] required to attract foreign investment… Whenever someone appears as an important investor there is a reaction in society that he is ‘coming to make a profit here, and we can’t allow that’.” This shows that in Central and Eastern Europe (and it also applies to the former Soviet Union) there remain embers of the consciousness that accompanied the planned economies, which previously dominated these societies. Croatia has a crippled economy with a recession “threatening to extend” into a seventh year. This applies not just to Croatia but to most of the area. There have been a number of social movements in the Balkans, like in Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier this year, that have explicitly rejected the ethnic divisions and an explicit recognition of class. These are the harbingers of big struggles that the masses in these countries throughout the region will engage in as they rediscover their fighting, revolutionary and socialist traditions.
Hong Kong and China
The explosive events in Hong Kong, which the CWI, particularly our Chinese and Hong Kong comrades have been flagging up for a long time, have received world attention. These important events are undoubtedly an anticipation of what can happen in China itself in the future, although maybe with different features. Our website has given excellent, detailed coverage of the unfolding protests at each stage. Our comrades – the only viable Trotskyist force in the region – while supporting the mass expression of demands for democracy, have explained that the struggle in Hong Kong is organically linked to the overthrow of the Chinese dictatorial government on the mainland.
Past movements failed, ran into the ground, because the leadership refused to broaden the movement in this way; they were afraid of the reaction from Beijing. Our comrades stressed that the regime in China “can be fought in Hong Kong, but it can only be defeated in China”. Moreover, even limited capitalist democracy itself, particularly in the neo colonial world, is a tender plant, which can be removed as quickly as it has previously grown, particularly in periods of high social tension, as exists now in Hong Kong. It is fuelled not just by democratic demands but also by the rise in the cost of living, high rents, the growth of inequality, etc. Alongside London, it now has one of the highest costs of living in the world. This accounts for the anger and the tenacity of the students and their supporters with daily demonstrations and an escalation of the struggle for a month.
The territory’s chief executive, CY Leung, is hated as a stooge of Beijing: “He doesn’t fight for us,” said one protester… “In a political sense, he’s ruling Hong Kong for the Chinese government. Practically, he is running it for the tycoons. We are twentysomethings; we have jobs; it is time to leave our family homes. But we will never buy a flat. Never.” In real terms, “young people’s salaries have fallen by 10 to 15% since 2000,” points out Michael De Golyer of the Hong Kong Transition Project. Meanwhile, property prices have soared to around 14 times the annual incomes.
An influx from the mainland has also increased the competition for professional jobs, housing and seats on public transport. Therefore the struggle for democratic rights in Hong Kong is interlaced with social demands in both Hong Kong and mainland China. The spark that could light the fire of revolution can come from Hong Kong but it cannot be excluded that the China masses will be the first to take action. Undoubtedly, the past, particularly the bloody repression shown in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, lies heavily on the consciousness of the masses of Hong Kong, as well as mainland China.
But the last few months in Hong Kong have shown that the new generation has awoken to political life and begun to shed some of the fear of the Beijing regime. Equally, the youth in China – despite the heavy censorship and policing of the Internet – will be made aware of the events, will ponder these and over time draw the necessary conclusions. It is no accident that the students were in the vanguard of the Hong Kong movement because there is a long Chinese tradition of them providing the initial impetus for mass movements.
Of course, we had the crushing of the students in Tiananmen Square by the Stalinist regime in 1989. The Economist, as if doing Beijing’s job for it, warned the students and others of the brutal character of Beijing, writing: “Of the 10 bloodiest conflicts in world history, two were world wars. Five of the other eight took place or originated in China.” However, force alone cannot stop the march of history. Stalinist repression succeeded temporarily in defeating the students of 1989 but the Chinese students 70 years before on 4 May 1919 organised the movement against the injustices of the Versailles Treaty, which in turn led to the formation of the Chinese Communist Party – with 11 people at the outset – that led to the Chinese revolution itself! Little wonder that the Financial Times during the current movement wrote: “Hong Kong will never be the same again.”
As to the prospects for China itself, the short-term developments in the economy we touched on earlier. The world recession has had a significant effect on China as with the rest of the world. Following 2008, the Beijing regime managed to maintain a quite startling rate of growth in the economy; not on the previous scale, but one of the largest, if not the largest growth rate in the world. It has led the pack and, economically, pulled other countries along with its demand for their resources. Now, the downturn has had big consequences, with the resource-rich countries like Australia and Brazil facing a contraction as China slows.
By any standards, China has risen remarkably over a significant historical era. It was the world’s largest economy in 1820, with an estimated 33% of global GDP, but over the course of more than a century the economy shrank to around 5% of world. Bourgeois economists insist that China’s rapid economic growth began with Deng Xiaoping’s ‘market reforms’ in 1979, because they wish to obscure the huge gains in terms of industrialisation and social development (literacy, education, healthcare) that took place after the 1949 revolution. Despite the incubus of bureaucratic top-down control, which the CWI has analysed elsewhere, on the basis of a planned economy China’s GDP increased 200 per cent measured in purchasing power parities during the Mao era (1950-76), while per capita income rose by 80 percent. Without this industrial revolution the subsequent rapid GDP under increasingly pro-capitalist regimes would have been impossible.
Recent reports indicate that China has now become the largest economy in the world, although some authoritative institutions still say that it will arrive at this point probably by 2017, but most likely in the 2020s. From 1979 to 2012, the annual GDP of China, as is well known, averaged nearly 10%, which enabled China to double the size of its economy in real terms every eight years. At the present rate, it is estimated China’s share of world GDP will increase by 5% per decade. At a roughly equivalent stage as China today, in the first half of the 20th century, the US averaged 2.5% growth. At the height of its power, British capitalism in the 19th century increased by 2% per annum. However, China’s per capita income will not reach the West’s soon. Using purchasing power parity, China’s GDP per capita was roughly $9,500 dollars, just 18.9% of the US level and it is expected that it will only grow to 32.8% of the US level by 2030. This is due to many factors we are not able to go into here.
Moreover, China faces a big demographic problem with its population already beginning to age and the pensions pick up will rise as we go further into the century. The growth of its huge labour force, the powerhouse of China’s rapid economic growth, has reached a turning point. From 1991 to 2010, China’s working-age population grew by 30 to 40 percent, but this slowed to 0.2 percent in 2011-14 and is set to decline from 2015 onwards. This compelled the third plenum of the ‘Communist’ Party to make changes to the 35-year-old ‘one child’ policy for China. The plenum’s limited reform has met with an even more limited response, with only 700,000 out of more than 11 million eligible couples applying to have a second child. The high cost of raising children in China’s cities, with skyrocketing school fees in particular, is the main reason for this. US commentators point out that China has a large population but not enough food, water and energy to support it. They pose the question “Will China grow old before it grows rich? The answer is almost certainly yes, if rich is defined by the West.”
Growth gradually slows down under the best scenario the capitalist analysts offer. But something worse could happen if the economy goes into complete meltdown on the basis of China’s evolution from a form of state capitalism to an increasingly ‘normal’ neoliberal model. The Chinese ‘Communist’ Party’s third plenum in November 2013 called for a more ‘decisive’ market role, while stressing the continuing importance of the ‘public sector’. However, we have heard this song before; plans were formulated for large-scale privatisation only for the regime to draw back because of the fear of mass unemployment and the social consequences of this. Many of the so-called princelings are deeply enmeshed in lavish corruption with state banks and state-owned enterprises. However, it is clear that the direction of travel is towards further and further privatisations with all the consequences that flow from this.
The Chinese president Xi Jinping came to office with the aim of centralising power more and more into his hands and those of the narrow group around him, as well as seeking to curb the bureaucracy and its looting through massive corruption of state assets. There is already massive discontent, with a Pew opinion survey reporting 50% of Chinese respondents said corrupt officials were a big problem. This was up from 2008, when 39% held this opinion.
The perspective that the growth of the Chinese middle-class will somehow prevent revolutionary upheavals is quite false. China is starting from a low economic base in terms of per capita incomes. Quite apart from the upheavals that will be expected amongst the working class, wide swathes of the population, counted as middle class but with quite low incomes, can form the basis of what used to be called the revolution of ‘rising expectations’. There is already resentment in China because Obama stated “that it would be impossible for the world if China and India had the lifestyle of the United States”. We made the same point, but with different conclusions, in ‘Marxism in Today’s World’, when we quoted a Chinese environmentalist who said that it would take the resources of four worlds for China to have the same living standards as the US. However, we went on to say that does not mean that China will be eternally condemned to very low living standards. On the basis of a world socialist confederation, the average living standards could be that of America and even higher, through a democratic, environmentally-friendly, world plan of production.
In the short-term, China could be heading for a serious crisis. It already has a massive debt to GDP ratio problem which has risen from 48% in 2008 to 261% today. We must be ready for convulsions in China, which by definition will be a world event.
India’s growth rate has halved to 5%. The victory of Narendra Modi, head of the right wing Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, in the general election this year was widely seen as a defeat for the left. But this victory is grossly exaggerated; he only managed to win 31% of the popular vote in the limited first-past-the-post electoral system despite the millions of dollars spent on propaganda and hand-outs. But the BJP is trying to exploit this victory to strengthen itself nationally not just on the basis of extreme Hindu nationalism. Rather, it is seeking to use the models of Ghandi and Nehru.
Modi’s victory does not represent a decisive victory for reaction nor does it leave the working class passive. In fact there have been a number of small strikes taking place and there is the possibility of nationwide action taking place by the end of this year or early next year. There is nevertheless also the possibility of the national question coming to the fore in a number of states and armed clashes cannot be ruled out.
However enormous corruption scandals and the implementation of neo-liberal policies together have wreaked havoc on the Congress Party. Continued alliances with capitalist parties and their anti-working class policies have also further weakened the ‘Communist’ parties in India. This opens an opportunity for our small voice to find an echo among the mass of the workers, peasants and poor with a call for a new mass workers party with our overall program. In a country where the vast majority are still landless and poor peasants, there will be mass resistance to the continuation of pro-capitalist policies. The demise of ‘Communist’ parties in the cities allows for the possibility of the growth of movements such as that of the Naxalbari in the countryside.
The masses in Pakistan are faced with a horrific situation. On the one side they confront daily misery economically and socially. Rising price inflation, especially of basic materials and poverty blight the lives of millions; 60% of the population subsist below the poverty line. The growing religious sentiment and ‘Talibanisation’ of the country together with a lack of a powerful socialist alternative has left the working class and masses with a sense of powerlessness at this stage.
Significant investment in infrastructure – especially in transport and other areas – in Lahore and Islamabad and a certain limited growth allowed the PML(N)-led government of Nawaz Sharif to enjoy a certain period of ’wait and see’, or give the government a chance. However, this is not lasting long. The government’s decision to proceed with further massive privatisations and the overall economic situation will, at a certain stage, result in protests and opposition developing. The failure to deal with massive corruption will aid this process.
The government has also been in a certain struggle with the military. However, despite being perceived as pushing the military back it is incapable of seriously challenging it.
There has been growing religious influence in the country and, as we have commented previously, ‘Talibanisation’. The increased sectarian and religious attacks have, coupled with the role of the trade union leadership, reinforced a mood amongst the masses that nothing can be done. At a certain stage this is certain to change. However, it has been an extremely difficult task to struggle to maintain a revolutionary socialist organisation struggling against such obstacles.
The growth of Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), at the last election reflected a large movement of significant upper-petty bourgeois layers of youth in the urban areas. This was an extremely contradictory phenomenon, however; amongst a significant layer of these youth it reflected a demand for ‘change’, ‘an end to corruption’ and radical change.
Khan however disappointed sections of this layer and was unable to mobilise it on a sustained basis during his recent protests, which has left his party isolated. Only featuring the question of electoral fraud and not taking up the issues which confronted the masses, the movement did not develop and declined. This development was however significant and was an indication of future developments amongst the working class and poor. It illustrated a crack opening amongst the upper-middle class towards the ruling elite. It opens the possibility that a small section of these layers could be radicalised and won ideologically to socialism.
Sri Lanka has been able to maintain a growth rate of more than 7% in 2013 and 2014, mainly due to large investments by China and India in infrastructure projects. Despite this, the working masses have yet to see any gains or ‘post-war dividends’, after the civil war was brutally concluded in 2009. Instead, they have seen a further undermining of democratic rights and a further growth of the Rakapaksas’ militaristic and dynastic grip on the state. This strategically important island has seen a massive Chinese investment of over $3.5 billion has strengthened the Rakapaksa family’s grip on the economy and all state affairs. Alongside this, over 100 Indian companies operate in Sri Lanka. The new Modi government gave a clear signal that it will not surrender its interests easily and will continue to turn a blind eye to the dictatorial regime. On the other hand, key western countries that export to Sri Lanka are lagging behind India and China. They have initiated a US-led war crimes probe against the current regime, facing opposition from China and Russia. During a visit by President Xi Jinping of China in September this year, he announced that China “resolutely opposes any move by any country to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs under any excuse”. A further crisis in the world economy, a slowing down of the Chinese economy and a slowing down of foreign investment in Sri Lanka could still have a severe impact. There are huge strains such as the enormous military budget of £2 billion – 12% of the government’s total spending this year.
In addition, the current dictatorial regime is increasingly unpopular. This was shown in the recent provincial elections in the south where the ruling party suffered a significant reduction in votes, even in those places considered to be strong-holds and where there has been major Chinese investment such as Hambantota – the president’s constituency. While the ruling regime is using Sinhala nationalist forces to polarise society to keep itself in power, the major bourgeois opposition party – the UNP – is searching for an alternative ‘Sinhala nationalist’ candidate to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in the coming presidential election. Although Mahinda is expected to win the election, it will not be an easy path to the presidential palace as he has lost the support of the minority Tamils, Muslims, students and a significant section of the poor population in the south as well as a section of the urban working class. In fear of losing votes in the election, which in itself would be seen as a set-back, the president unveiled some concessions in the latest budget, including a small pay rise.
However, there is no mass organised opposition of the workers, peasants and poor that can articulate the mounting opposition. Building such a force is a key task of the United Socialist Party, despite the enormous difficulties that are posed. Unlike the JVP, which combined extreme Sinhala chauvinism with flying the red flag and socialist phraseology, the USP has stood against the counter-revolutionary stream, maintaining the socialist programme against all sorts of difficulties. The USP’s proud history as an uncompromising fighter for the working class and standing up for the rights of all minorities, including the right of self-determination for the Tamils, has placed us in pole position among the left in terms of clarity, far-sighted perspectives, etc. We must use this enormous political capital to invest in building a strong socialist force amongst youth as well as workers.
Malaysia’s economy is closely tied to that of China and stands to be affected by the slowdown in its growth. The Barisan Nasional, (BN) government led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has been in power for the 56 years since Malaysia won independence. But last year it got its worst ever election results in spite of playing the Malay communal card. The powerful ‘Bersih’ anti-corruption movement provided the background to this and wanted to continue mass protests after the election.
The opposition coalition of Pakatan Rakyat (PR), however, with Anwar Ibrahim as its main leader, stymied the movement when it protested against electoral fraud, for fear of it going further. His unwillingness to take the movement forward on social and political issues was noted by tens of thousands of youth, students and activists who took part in Bersih. But they saw no alternative force proposing a strategy for struggling against the system and for socialist policies.
While the ruling government brutally supressed the movement in the streets, it resorted to granting some reforms in favour of certain sections of the population, despite the slowing down of the economy. Their continued fear of the strengthening of the opposition was shown by the renewed attempt to get Anwar Ibrahim convicted and imprisoned on spurious charges of sexual misconduct.
The CWI in Malaysia participated in the Bersih protests, arguing that the movement should not restrict itself to making allegations of electoral fraud but should make demands on the minimum wage, better conditions and link these to the demand for fundamental change to the capitalist system. Unfortunately, the PSM and others who call themselves socialist play along with the mainly right-wing and even communal leaders of Bersih as well as the limited opposition programme of the PR.
The May general election saw the African National Congress (ANC) returned to power as expected. But despite a 62% vote share, their real support amongst the voting age population was just 35%, their 11.4 million votes dwarfed by the 14.3 million who did not vote. Only 36% of the ANC’s vote came from the ‘metros’ – the big cities and industrial areas. The ANC is fast becoming a rural party as significant sections of the working class and middle class break from them. The ANC’s poor election result has accelerated their internal crisis and there is open speculation on whether Zuma will see out his term as president. The scandal caused by the lavish state-financed ‘security upgrades’ to Zuma’s personal residence at Nkandla – including a swimming pool, amphitheatre and cattle kraal – is a running sore turning into an open wound. Many other scandals plague Zuma and the ANC, and their authority is diminished. The ANC-run Gauteng Provincial Government is holding public hearings on the hugely unpopular motorway e-tolls to try and distance themselves from the national government.
However, the most significant aspect of the 2014 elections was the emergence to the left of the ANC of the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) from the disbanded ANC Youth League. They won over one million votes, translating into 25 MPs, on a programme of partial nationalisation and radical land redistribution, and have caused major disruption to the cosy etiquette that existed amongst the bourgeois parties represented in parliament. However, cracks are already appearing within the EFF’s ranks over the lack of democracy and the exclusion and purging of those critical of the leadership. This process is still in its infancy but we are well placed to engage those genuine forces attracted to the EFF who are becoming disillusioned as the result of our fraternal but principled engagement with them over the past eighteen months. Despite this, the EFF has almost certainly not reached its apogee and will likely exceed its 2014 electoral performance in the 2016 local elections.
In December 2013, the metalworkers’ union NUMSA, the biggest union in Africa, took the decision not to campaign for the ANC in the 2014 elections, citing the Marikana massacre as central to their decision. Unfortunately, NUMSA abstained from taking a position in the elections. Nevertheless, expectations are high amongst NUMSA members and the working class more widely that NUMSA’s break from the ANC will lead to the emergence of a workers’ party even as sections of the leadership put forward a more conditional position that this is just a ‘possibility’. The mood amongst ordinary workers, shown most recently in bitter strikes, is further confirmation of the enormous appetite for a working-class political alternative. NUMSA is building on the foundations laid down by our own section in popularising that idea in the course of the 2012 mineworker strikes and the subsequent launch of the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP). NUMSA has announced that their March 2015 Central Executive Committee will discuss the matter further. Flowing from NUMSA’s decision, the break-up of the 2.2 million ANC-aligned Cosatu trade union federation played out in slow motion throughout the course of 2014, finally culminating in the expulsion of NUMSA in early November. In response to the expulsion, a further seven of Cosatu’s 19 affiliates have suspended themselves from participation in leadership structures in solidarity, with NUMSA, indicating they will fight the expulsion. NUMSA’s big steps towards the emergence of a new federation and a mass workers party, as we anticipated at last year’s IEC, have been taken as a result of NUMSA’s break with the ANC.
WASP received 8,331 votes (0.05%) in the general election finishing 21st out of 29 parties, as well as receiving 4,159 votes in the three simultaneous provincial ballots in which we stood. The result was disappointing and WASP expected to do better. The rapid rise of the EFF and the confusion caused by the NUMSA leadership not taking a position in the election squeezed WASP’s potential vote. Even so, important gains were made in the course of the campaign, including winning Moses Mayekiso, the founding general secretary of NUMSA and a highly respected workers’ leader of the liberation struggle, to stand as WASP’s presidential candidate. WASP is acting as an important left-pole amongst the forces being drawn around NUMSA, not least of all the NUMSA members and shop stewards themselves, intervening on all the key debates and arguing for the creation of a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme.
Nigeria’s economy has been widely reported in the capitalist media as an indication of capitalism’s ability to develop Africa. Officially, Nigeria is now the biggest economy in Africa with more dollar billionaires than any other country. As with other African countries, however, this is based overwhelmingly on the sale of raw materials – in Nigeria’s case, oil and natural gas plus feeding and housing its rapidly-growing population. The fall in the oil price is revealing the very narrow base of Nigerian economic growth. Nigerian manufacturing industry – far from developing – is a shrinking section of the economy. Only 3% of GDP growth came from manufacturing in 2007, compared with 10% in 1983.
The rapidly growing economic crisis will sharpen both sides of developments in Nigeria. Since the trade union leaders betrayed the 2012 general strike – the most powerful in Nigerian history – the level of class struggle has been low, although important action has taken place particularly in the higher education sector. There has also been action by teachers to demand basic hygiene measures to prevent the spread of Ebola. The new attacks on the living standards of the working class that will inevitably come, particularly after the general election in February, will lead to a new upturn in class struggle, despite the best efforts of the union leaders to hold it back.
This will also again the pose the question of a political voice for the working class. Our section in Nigeria – DSM – has a long proud history of fighting for the establishment of a genuine mass party of the working class and poor. The objective need for such a party is overwhelming. Cynicism towards all the major capitalist parties is deeply engrained in society. It is a major achievement that DSM was able to initiate a campaign that successfully met the onerous and undemocratic criteria to register Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN). That the registration was refused is an indication that at least a section of the capitalist class recognises and fears SPN’s potential. DSM has now launched a campaign to demand the registration of SPN, alongside SPN taking the battle to the courts.
The 2012 general strike gave a glimpse of the unifying power of the working class. No terrorist attacks took place in the week it was ongoing, and it was common – including in the North East where Boko Haram is based – for Christian strikers to surround Muslim strikers to protect them while they prayed and vice-versa. However, the economic crisis also has the potential to deepen the religious and national fault-lines in Nigeria.
Boko Haram is currently holding an area in the North East with a population of about 10 million. The extreme poverty in this mainly rural region of the country – where three quarters of the population live below the poverty line– creates conditions where desperate youth can turn to the ideas of Boko Haram, especially given the lack of an alternative and the vicious brutality they face from Nigerian state forces. At the same time, some elements of the northern elite are not unhappy to see the current Southern president undermined by the military success of Boko Haram. Another factor in Boko Haram’s victories is the demoralisation in the Nigerian army. Scores of soldiers have been sentenced to death for ‘mutiny’ and ‘treason’ as a result of their unwillingness to fight ill-equipped against a relatively well-armed force (much of its arms taken from the Nigerian military).
The Nigerian elite sees the conflict with Boko Haram as being a problem confined to the North East of the country. While this is accurate at this stage, economic crisis can also lead to an increase in national and ethnic tensions between different sections of the elite, as they fight over who gets the biggest chunk of a shrinking pie. After sixteen years of democracy, albeit of an extremely truncated and corrupt character, the capitalist class would not easily return to military rule, not least because of their fear of the terrible consequences of a new civil war. However, such is the unstable character of Nigerian capitalism, this cannot be ruled out at a certain stage; possibly with a democratic ‘covering’.
Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013, reported the World Meteorological Organisation. Its 2014 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin stated that “between 1990 and 2013 there was a 34% increase in ‘radiative forcing’ – the warming effect on our climate”. The message is “unequivocal”, warned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment in 2014. Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are now higher than they have been for nearly a million years, the burning of fossil fuels is the main reason, and “without strong action, temperatures are very likely to exceed the 2⁰C target that governments have committed to. This will result in serious consequences including sea level rises, heatwaves, loss of snow and ice cover, disruptions to agriculture and food production, and greater extremes of drought and rainfall.”
There has certainly continued to be a high incidence of ‘extreme weather’ episodes globally, including droughts in large areas of the US, floods in Kashmir and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. As well as the direct suffering from them, they impact on food prices, worsening global poverty. Yet, as the World Economic Forum reported, “Progress in green investment continues to be outpaced by investment in fossil fuel intensive, inefficient infrastructure.” (2013 Green Investment Report). Anger surfaced at the 400,000-strong New York climate change demonstration in September and in other protests globally. As well as concern over climate change, many other issues have been the subject of protests, including nuclear power and fracking.
At the New York UN summit, capitalist politicians promised more targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions and more renewable energy production. More pledges have been made since then by the EU, US and China. But these cannot be enforced, as with previous ones, and will be vigorously opposed by sections of big business – as Republicans in the US Congress are already showing. The November 2015 Paris conference – the next international climate change gathering – will subsequently, if not during the summit itself, again prove capitalism’s inability to solve the extremely serious environmental problems that exist.
Commenting on the New York summit, Scott Barrett, of the Columbia University Earth Institute, said: “They keep coming up with ideas like pledges which imply that you can, by some kind of central planning, ordain a collective outcome and the world doesn’t work that way.” [CBC news, 24 September, 2014]. Socialist Alternative members, including Kshama Sawant, were part of the New York protest, explaining why the capitalist world certainly doesn’t “work that way” and that only a socialist transformation can achieve the “central planning” and “collective outcome” that is a prerequisite of starting to take the necessary action.
The Tasks Ahead
We are in one of the most turbulent periods of world history. Hardly anywhere is there any stability. The past year has seen both the positive and deeply negative. The mass movement in Brazil, the swing to the left in the US, the struggle for democratic rights in Hong Kong, the early signs of a revival in the class struggle in other countries are important signposts for the future. But, at the same time, the expanding sectarian and ethnic wars in the Middle East and Africa are warnings of the horrors that can develop if the working class is unable to show a way out of this crisis. Our role in helping to rebuilding and politically rearm the workers’ movement is a key part of the work to forge a force that transform the world. The upheavals which will shake important countries will also give us the opportunity to make important breakthroughs and build substantial forces and influence. Our recent victories in Ireland and the USA have begun to demonstrate what will be possible in the next period in some countries.