As we enter a new year, it is evident that on many fronts the situation facing the human race is dire. Of course there are commentators who insist the opposite (we’ll refer to them again later). But most people know the trendlines are bad. All you had to do was go outside in many cities in the northern US states last June and try to breathe air that had turned orange and hazy because of wildfires in Canada. Or read the horrific daily reports from the Middle East over the past three and a half months. The question is why all this is happening and what can be done to change the path we’re on.
Crisis on Steroids
First we need to describe the scale, and direction, of the crises facing us.
Encompassing the whole situation are the rapidly escalating consequences of climate change and environmental degradation. It’s not just that last year was the hottest globally since detailed records began and that this year will probably be hotter. We also see the rapid loss of key rainforests, the growth of desertification, depletion of mountain glaciers and underground aquifers – both crucial sources of fresh water – loss of species and habitat, as well as dangerous tipping points ahead.
Another key feature of the world we live in is the sharpening struggle for global domination between the two most powerful imperialist powers, namely the United States and China. This struggle has many dimensions, including economic and diplomatic, but it is increasingly a military competition. In the course of the past few years, the US and China have consolidated blocs around themselves and numerous regional conflicts are becoming subsumed into this wider power struggle. The war in Ukraine which began with Russia’s brutal invasion in early 2022 has turned into horrific trench warfare where Western powers back the Ukrainian side while China aids Russia. The interests of the Ukrainian people are completely secondary.
The horrific terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7 has provided the justification for the biggest act of state terrorism in the 21st century, the all-out assault by Israeli forces on the people of Gaza. Now that conflict is starting to tip over into a regional war, with the US backing its long-term ally, Israel, against Iran and its proxies, who in turn are effectively backed by Russia and China.
It is repeatedly said, and it is true, that neither China nor the US, nor Iran, want a regional conflict, and yet it has effectively begun. Events in the Middle East demonstrate that the pace of events is even taking the leaders of the imperialist powers by surprise. Eight days before the Hamas attack on October 7, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the Middle East was “quieter” than it had been in two decades!
The New Cold War is leading to growing militarism, restrictions on democratic rights, wars and the threat of a further and potentially far more devastating war in the Western Pacific. A year ago, the UN reported that the number of violent conflicts internationally was at the highest level since World War II. And that was before war began in Gaza and started to spread in the Middle East. In 2022 it is estimated that there was $2.2 trillion in military spending globally, a record level, and 3.7% higher than the previous year. Of course, the US leads the way with a staggering $877 billion; China is second with $292 billion. This is an incredible squandering of resources that could be spent on education, healthcare, or the transition from fossil fuels to a sustainable economy.
The capitalist commentators, seeking to put the best possible spin on things, point out that projections of a sharp global economic downturn did not materialize in 2023, that the US economy is doing better than expected and so forth. But this is at best superficial.
A new World Bank report states that the five year period 2020-2024 will have the lowest pace of global growth since the early 1990s. An important factor in this global slowdown is the severe economic crisis in China which then impacts many countries in Asia and beyond for whom China is their main trading partner. For the poorest nations, the thrall of debt is becoming worse. The World Bank itself points out that, “For the poorest countries, debt has become a nearly paralysing burden.”
Some bourgeois commentators still claim that despite all the obvious problems, things are getting better. At the start of the year Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece in the New York Times making this case by pointing out that global child mortality as well as “extreme poverty” have reached record lows. Indeed, certain international programs have had a dramatic effect in reducing or eliminating endemic diseases which then reduces mortality, showing what a global planned economy could do. But a closer look at the data on extreme poverty (defined as an income of less than $2.15 per day at 2017 prices) shows that the decline has basically stalled in the poorest countries, especially in Africa whose population is projected to be one fourth of the global total by 2050.
From climate, to imperialist competition, to economic friction – all of these major factors exist not just in tandem but as forces that reinforce each other and create unpredictable, and sometimes catastrophic, outcomes. In turn this is impacting mass consciousness and laying the ground for major political shifts.
The case for ending capitalism and beginning the socialist transformation of society couldn’t be clearer. The scale of the problems we face and their urgency begs for a rational and democratic planned use of resources for human needs. The working class under capitalism has created productive forces on a completely unprecedented scale which lays the basis for ending all of these crises, but they can’t be properly deployed because of subordination of the economy to profit.
In the last five years, especially in 2019, we have seen a wave of massive social struggles across the world from Hong Kong and Myanmar in Asia; to Iran in the Middle East; to Chile and Colombia in Latin America. In the US we had the George Floyd Uprising in 2020; in France in early 2023, a massive wave of strikes to defend French workers’ hardwon pension gains threatened to become a full scale confrontation with the ruling class. We have seen huge feminist struggles and an unprecedented level of involvement by young women in social struggle generally. Young people have also displayed a tremendous level of internationalism in these struggles, a desire to overcome all traditional divisions.
Nevertheless, the enormous willingness to struggle and sacrifice for revolutionary change is not in itself enough to ensure victory. Specifically, mass movements need clearly articulated bold demands, democratic structures, and an authoritative leadership. These have been sorely lacking in almost all cases. These weaknesses are inherited from the massive defeats suffered by the working class in the neoliberal era, leading to a loss of traditions and the spread of “horizontalist” ideas that explicitly oppose structures and leadership. They will be overcome as new layers enter the struggle and draw lessons from these complex experiences.
In the words of British railworkers leader Mick Lynch, we now also see that “the working class is back” in a whole series of countries, with huge strike waves, spurred particularly by inflation which has eroded living standards. Britain and France stand out in Western Europe for the scale of workers’ action. A general strike took place in Greece in September; transport workers took action in Italy in December; and there is an ongoing series of strikes against a right wing government in Finland. German train drivers have also taken action.
More workers went on strike in the US than any year since 1986, resuming the wave of class struggle begun by teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma in 2018. The outcome of the strike by auto workers at the Big Three stands out as a major victory. There are similar developments in Canada and Quebec, as well as a general strike in Argentina on January 24, against the newly elected reactionary government of Javier Milei.
But in many of the very same countries, including Germany and France, the far right continues to make gains in the polls. In the US, Trump is dominating the start of the Republican primaries with a very real chance to be reelected. We have seen the electoral victory of outright reactionaries and far right elements like Milei and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands though they also lost in Poland.
The only explanation for this is the massive weakness of left parties and figures. In Greece in 2015, the leader of the left party SYRIZA, Alexis Tsipras, capitulated despite mass backing during the fight to end the savage austerity being imposed on the country by the EU and IMF bloodsuckers acting at the behest of the banks. Jeremy Corbyn, the radical leader of the British Labour Party, failed to follow through and win the war against the vicious neoliberal wing of the party. And tragically Bernie Sanders capitulated to the leadership of the Democratic Party in 2020. This failure of left social democrats who won huge support from workers and young people with calls for change but who refuse to break with capitalism has also been seen in Latin America, for example in Chile. It is this failure, combined with the lack of a strong alternative from the revolutionary left, that opens the door further to the far right.
Where We Are in History
All the key problems that have been described here cannot be properly understood outside the context of the crisis of neoliberal globalization and the beginning of the new era of global disorder.
The capitalist system has distinct phases in its history which have specific characteristics, including the degree of integration of the world economy, the degree of state intervention, the ideological presentation of the ruling class and, most importantly, the nature of class relations. Under neoliberal globalization, beginning in the 1980s, there was free market fundamentalism, vicious attacks on the working class and its historic gains and free trade deals to increase the global mobility of capital. The Great Recession of 2007-9, showed that neoliberal globalization had entered into a deep crisis. The final straw was the mass upheavals of 2019 followed by the pandemic.
In the new era we’ve entered, the key features are a partial reversal of globalization, growing protectionism, growing state intervention in the economy, inter-imperialist conflict and ramped up militarism and nationalism. The claims of neoliberal apologists of a world economy that would lift all boats based on endless expansion of trade have been shattered. The idea of greater mobility and opportunity for people has been replaced by austerity, decimated social services, harder borders around the wealthy countries, and vicious anti-migrant policies.
The “unipolar world” dominated by US imperialism has now ended, replaced by a struggle for domination between the US and China which neither side can walk away from. In many ways the world we live in can be compared to the period before World War I when British imperialism which dominated the world in the 19th century was increasingly challenged by Germany.
But referring to World War I also points to a huge difference in the world today compared to most of the 20th century. In 1917, in the middle of the massive bloodletting fought to see which imperialist power would rule the world, the Russian working class, led by the Bolshevik Party, took power and opened the door to the beginning of the transition to socialism on a world scale. Stalinism’s rise to power in the 1920s represented a huge setback to those aspirations but the Soviet Union was still a post-capitalist society. The spread of Stalinist states, while in all cases dominated by a stifling bureaucracy, still represented an objective challenge to capitalism up until their collapse beginning in the late 80s.
The original Cold War, unlike today, was therefore a competition between two different social systems. The collapse of Stalinism, in reality a social counterrevolution, turbocharged neoliberal globalization but all the ruling class promised at the moment of its triumph over “communism” is now turning to dust. The only way out of this nightmare is to return to the road of the Russian revolution, to fighting for democratic workers governments everywhere, as a step towards a global planned economy.
What Will It Take to Change Direction?
It is at the present moment very hard to see the way forward. That is why it is important to study the long history of capitalism. This allows us to see that the current situation will inevitably change and open new opportunities to build mass movements and, within them, a revolutionary force. The right and far right could yet inflict even bigger blows on working people and the oppressed. But they will also overreach and provoke massive resistance. An example of this came in Israel in 2023 when Netenyahu’s far right government sought to remove checks and balances in the political system so that it could push through a profoundly reactionary agenda. This provoked massive, ongoing resistance that even raised speculation of a possible civil war in Israeli society.
It is vitally necessary to continue the process of restoring the fighting capacity of the working class. This means organizing the unorganized and replacing moribund union leaderships with those committed to waging the class struggle. It means taking new initiatives towards working class political independence, forming new parties, fighting to reclaim others. Many will question if this is possible given the long list of failures and betrayals by many, if not all, “new left” parties. But a new generation will learn these lessons and will create organizations more suited to the harsh political climate of the new era of disorder, with a clearer and stronger program.
As socialists, we see it as our task internationally to help in the rebuilding of labor’s economic and political strength. But it is also vital that those who see the necessity of fundamental, revolutionary change organize themselves. Millions of people across the world see the need to end capitalism and that this cannot be done in a piecemeal, gradualist manner. Far fewer have decided to dedicate themselves to building a revolutionary organization that can intervene in struggle.
The task of organized revolutionaries today, including in Socialist Alternative, is to gather the initial forces around an internationalist perspective and a clear program; to demonstrate in practice the superiority of their ideas while also learning from the masses and being prepared to constantly update those ideas; and to be prepared to work with other forces in a principled way. Perhaps most importantly it must act as the “memory of the class,” using the lessons of the past to show the potential and dangers ahead.