China is discovering that under capitalism, what goes up must come down. The impending collapse of property developer Evergrande, as it struggles with more than $300bn debts, is reminiscent of the subprime mortgage crisis. The Chinese government is facing the same dilemmas as the US over a decade ago, as it stares into the abyss of capitalist crisis.
What is Evergrande?
The past decade of economic growth in China has been fuelled to a large extent by a housing construction boom. Property now makes up around 30% of GDP. For years, property developers, of which Evergrande is only the largest, borrowed unsustainable amounts of money in order to build housing. It was even borrowing from its own employees to keep building.
Another property developer, Fujian Fusheng, deployed a so-called “3691” model: start building new developments in only three months, start selling the properties in only six months (while still being built), finish construction within nine months, and return the money with interest in a year. This breakneck pace was dictated by the feverish nature of the property bubble and the large amounts of debt it had to take on in order to compete. Unsurprisingly, Fujian Fusheng has gone into default.
The entire industry was borrowing huge sums on the assumption that house prices would keep on going up. Goldman Sachs says the industry’s total debt is now $2.8trn, or 18% of China’s GDP. But if anything should burst that bubble and property prices stagnated or fell, it was clear the debt load of property developers would sink them.
That is exactly what has happened to Evergrande. It is one of the biggest property developers internationally, and has total liabilities amounting to around three percent of total Chinese GDP.
Its collapse therefore threatens the world’s second biggest economy as a whole, and by extension the world economy.
Why is it collapsing? Seeing the unsustainability of this never ending debt carousel the Chinese government has placed restrictions on the amounts that companies can borrow relative to their size in an attempt to prevent a bigger collapse further down the line. However this appears to have provoked a ‘hard landing’ that may be spinning out of control already.
Closely related companies are folding. Fantasia Holdings, a smaller property developer, has just defaulted on its debt. Modern Land this week asked for a three-month extension on repayments on a $250m bond. Sinic and the above-mentioned Fujian Fusheng have also defaulted.
Home sales by value fell 17% in September, and by 19.7% in August. In some cases properties are being flogged off by developers desperate for cash with 30% discounts.
Since property makes up a massive 30 percent of China’s GDP and has been the main driver of China’s growth – which in turn has been the main driver of world growth – prices falling fast is a huge problem. Evergrande is not only a property company – it has a car business and many other investments. Other Chinese companies will have big investments in Evergrande. Its crisis will directly lead to crisis in other sectors.
But why has a property bubble been the main driver of the economy? Why has China seemingly repeated the behaviour in America that led to the subprime mortgage crisis?
In 2008 China actually went into recession, briefly. Millions of workers were laid off. But then in a matter of weeks the economy was growing again, thanks to the fiscal stimulus, which was so big (around $586bn) it is widely recognised to have pulled not only China out of recession, but also the world economy out of an outright depression. But because China was by then a capitalist economy, this stimulus was delivered by means of an explosion of debt, instead of a plan of production.
If in 2008 China’s private companies were holding back investment and laying off workers, there was a good reason for it, which is that there was a limit to the amount of cars, clothes and phones that the world market could absorb during the financial crisis. This problem did not go away because the central government was lending lots of money. The “limited demand” of the crisis ridden global market remained.
Therefore if the state in its desperation drowned these companies in cheap credit, they would not use it to build bigger factories making more products they could not sell, but would spend it speculatively.
All kinds of companies, including ostensibly state owned ones, started lending the excess capital out, speculating with it, rather than investing in production. State owned steel companies created financial arms, shadow banks that would lend to property developers. These finance arms became more profitable than their core business.
As Marx explained, credit allows capital to expand beyond its natural limits, and to temporarily overcome its crisis – but at the cost of an even greater crisis when those debts have to be repaid.
As more debt is issued, it becomes less effective. It now takes around $4 of debt to produce an extra dollar of growth in the Chinese economy, whereas before the stimulus it took around $1.40. This is because the extra debt is largely taken on to pay off existing, unsustainable debts, instead of to spend on creating new productive capacity.
In other words, there is an avalanche of bad debt just waiting to be defaulted on. Before 2008, total Chinese debt was around 160% of GDP. By 2016, it was up to 260%.
The Chinese government funded the stimulus through debt because, in a market economy, there is no other way to stimulate growth. They could not launch a plan of production because the levers of the economy are in private hands, and are motivated by profit making and not social need.
Bursting the bubble
The fact that Evergrande could not survive without taking on more and more debt shows that it was fundamentally unsound.
In this respect, Evergrande is like a microcosm of the latent crisis of Chinese capitalism, which has only been able to keep growing by borrowing more and more money. Of the country’s fifteen biggest property developers, only one was in full compliance with the government’s new ‘Three Red Lines’ – the rules that make excessive borrowing harder. The problem is general and deep.
The government has introduced these measures in order to burst the credit bubble before it gets too big. The trouble is, the bubble may already be too big, and bursting it is not something the government can keep control of.
There is no evidence of a plan to bail out Evergrande. It is unclear if it can be rescued. To do so would create what they call ‘moral hazard’ – runaway debt would get even more out of control, because companies would be incentivised to take on debt to grow more quickly, as everyone would know the government would bail them out in the end too.
To bail Evergrande out is also phenomenally complex. Evergrande alone has 1.6m unfinished homes – if you add other developers in trouble, the figure is even higher. How will these homes, which have already been bought off-plan, be finished? As The Economist explains, “If the projects are to be kept running, local governments will probably need to take over their operation, requiring complex negotiations in hundreds of cities. Whether all this can be pulled off is far from clear.” (23.10.21)
Furthermore, rescuing a company that has been highlighted as an example of the greedy excesses of China’s billionaires would seriously undermine Xi’s attempt to portray himself as cutting the rich down to size and putting a stop to irresponsible economic behaviour.
If the state tried to resolve the crisis by making it easier once again to borrow more and more money, flooding the market with cheap money from the central banks, it would simply be restarting the cycle that has led to the crisis today. Just like the EU during the Eurozone crisis, China would be ‘kicking the can down the road’ and solving nothing. What has Europe’s experience led to? Countries like Greece are as indebted as ever, so the next financial crisis will no doubt see a resurgence of all the same problems, such as the danger of the EU breaking up. And the fictitious capital that has been pumped into the economy by central banks in the West has not only merely put the day of reckoning off (and made it even worse when it comes), but it has also created a stagnant economy typified by ‘zombie firms’ – companies that should go bust but are kept afloat by taking on more and more government backed debt. That is China’s future if they go down this path.
On the other hand, to not rescue Evergrande and allow them to default will crash the property market, leading to a Chinese financial crisis and then a full blown recession. This in turn will push many other countries into recession.
What the Evergrande crisis reveals is the limits of the capitalist system. China is reaching the end of the road for its capitalist boom, which could only be maintained with a big bubble based on fictitious capital.
Some of the leftwing supporters of the regime claim that the Chinese regime is only following a decades-long plan to use capitalism to lay the economic basis for socialism. If that was correct and the regime was genuinely communist, surely they would see this crisis as the culmination of that plan. In such a case, this crisis would be a perfect opportunity for Xi, who has more power than ever and has cultivated a left-wing image, to nationalise Evergrande and many others, beginning the transition to a planned economy. But of course this is not going to happen.
In fact, we can see the opposite shift in another recent crisis. In parts of China there have been blackouts as a result of big coal price rises. Because the government has placed caps on the amount consumers can be charged for energy, it became unprofitable for many energy producers to produce and sell energy with coal so expensive. So they simply switched their generators off, which caused sudden blackouts for millions of ordinary Chinese people. Is the government responding to these profiteering companies by nationalising them? The very opposite – they are looking into removing the energy price caps so that producers can keep on generating and selling energy at a profit even when coal prices go through the roof (The Economist, 23.10.21). It is working class Chinese people who will pay the price to maintain these profits.
Chinese crisis = world crisis
In 2007, the US subprime mortgage crisis sent the world economy into a deep crisis. Ironically, this crisis was prevented from turning into a depression by the Chinese starting their own property bubble, which is now leading to a crisis similar to the subprime mortgage one. The mountain of credit pumped into the Chinese economy in the wake of the 2008 crisis created Chinese demand for raw materials and capital goods, which boosted a lot of economies, such as Germany and Australia.
A crisis in China today, a highly likely scenario, could affect the world economy in a similar way as the 2008 crisis, which started in the west. Such a crisis however, would be compounded by the unsoundness of the rest of the world economy, which has never really recovered from the financial crisis of 2008-9, and by the devastating effects of the covid pandemic. Furthermore, it would differ from the last crisis, in that there will not be another country like China to absorb the crisis internationally.
China’s corporate debt is a huge 31% of global corporate debt. China’s corporate debt to GDP ratio is amongst the world’s highest. So a credit crunch in China will have the scale to rock world markets and spread throughout the economy.
Indeed, there is already a ‘cash crunch’ for some indebted Chinese companies outside the property sector, who in these uncertain times are finding they cannot borrow the money they badly need to tide them over. Evergrande itself owes billions to offshore bondholders, who will be the first to suffer from the default.
Some say the crisis in China will not seriously affect the world economy as a whole, thanks to the ‘decoupling’ that has recently taken place. Whilst the rise in protectionism is a very real phenomenon (and not a healthy one for capitalism), the emerging trade war between China and the US and the EU is nowhere near strong enough to have ‘decoupled’ the Chinese economy from that of the west. The size and centrality of the Chinese economy is far too great to allow such a separation to take place, let alone overnight.
Whilst European and American businesses will reduce investment into China due to the rise in protectionism and the fear that their investments may not be safe under Xi’s regime, this will only go so far. Earlier this summer, it was reported in an annual survey by the European Chamber of Commerce that European businesses were actually increasing investment in China and moving supply chains there due to its quick recovery from the pandemic. Nearly 60% of European companies planned to expand their China operations in 2021, up from 51% last year. The most common reason given was the higher profit margins in China.
Recent events, not the least of which is Evergrande’s likely default, probably mean these increased investments will not take place. But the fact that only a few months ago most European businesses were planning to increase investment into China shows there is a limit to ‘decoupling’ in the imperialist stage of capitalism.
This is proven by the fact that China’s share of global trade is 13.6% – the biggest share of any country. It represented 28 per cent of all global growth between 2013 and 2018 — twice that of the US. There can be no doubt that the long delayed crisis of Chinese capitalism will push the world economy into crisis.
Decades of capitalist boom have utterly transformed Chinese society. Extreme inequality is its defining feature and it dogs every thought of the regime. In January, Xi Jinping declared that “we cannot allow the gap between the rich and the poor to continue growing… We cannot permit the wealth gap to become an unbridgeable gulf.”
It is comments like these that have given Xi his reputation for being a ‘neo Maoist’ who has a plan to abolish capitalism. But as this comment reveals, he is not opposed to the inequalities of capitalism, only its ‘excesses’ which are so extreme as to threaten capitalism’s viability.
China’s inequality has grown so rapidly, that it has gone from being one of the most equal countries in the world, to one of the most unequal now, with a Gini Coefficient (a measure of economic inequality) slightly higher than the USA and Britain. China’s big cities are some of the most unaffordable places in the world.
Class consciousness is accelerated not so much by the existence of inequality itself, but by the rapid rise in inequality. It is for this reason that class anger is so high in China – there is a burning sense that the extreme wealth of the elite is unnatural and unjust, is against the communist values of the country and has been gotten by means of blatant corruption.
There is also profound alienation amongst China’s youth. They feel like they are running on a treadmill, unable to make any progress, and yet the booming capitalist economy has created huge pressure to succeed. This ‘treadmill’ effect is linked to the housing bubble – the economic growth that has kept people in work has also pushed up housing costs to levels completely unaffordable to the young.
Many young people see the growth of the Chinese economy not as a great patriotic success, but as someone else’s success – the corrupt rich. They are class conscious but the regime does not allow for expressions of this, although occasionally it finds a brief outlet.
The regime’s awareness of this discontent is the reason for Xi’s turn to ‘the left’. He is trying to maneuver in advance of an outbreak of protests and strikes, to pre-emptively establish himself as ‘on the people’s side against the rich’. For instance, the regime has just urged Evergrande’s owner to pay off some of the company’s debt with his own fortune.
But for every attack on the rich, there is an accompanying assurance that this will not go too far. For instance “On September 6th Liu He, a deputy prime minister, tried to reassure private businesspeople, saying their endeavours were critical to the country’s economy.” (Economist 2.10.21)
Capitalism was introduced to China precisely in order to preserve the power and privileges of the state bureaucracy. They did not necessarily intend to end up with full fledged capitalism, but nor did they intend on fighting for socialism. They saw capitalist investment, the profit motive, and access to advanced technology, as a means to enhance their wealth and power.
They thought they could manage this process. In a sense they have, because it has made the Chinese state very powerful.
But this seemingly all powerful regime is realising that the contradictions of capitalism are more powerful still. By conjuring capitalism into being, the regime is like the “sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”, as Marx described in the Communist Manifesto.
The CCP is obsessed with stability. Over the past ten years, they have witnessed increasing instability in countries of the west caused by the crisis of capitalism, and they have taken note. In 2015, de Tocquville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution became required reading for high ranking party members.
Last year, Xi specifically cited Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century to warn that the party must curb inequality in order to maintain stability.
Seeing the destabilising impact the 2008 economic crisis had on the West, the Chinese state bureaucracy is trying to stay ahead of the curb and ‘act responsibly’ in order to secure the stability of their system. But if you accept capitalism, you have to accept the laws of capitalism. Like all capitalist regimes, it can only maintain stability by means that increase contradictions in the long run – by issuing debt. In other words, by creating more instability in the future.
They are walking a tightrope and cannot maintain balance forever. The crisis of capitalism is catching up with China. This crisis will transform it and the world. For the past 30 years, world capitalism has been kept in business by the entry of China into the market. That is used up now. The future for China will not be like the past. The crisis in the Chinese economy is another sign we are entering an era of unprecedented turbulence and class struggle.
Ever since their election victory almost two years ago, Boris Johnson and the Tories have tried to convince voters that ‘austerity is over’. And many commentators, including some on the left, have bought into this idea.
This document was approved by delegates at the 2021 World Congress of the International Marxist Tendency (full report here). It provides our general analysis of the main processes taking place in world politics, at a time marked by unprecedented crisis and turmoil. With dynamite in the foundations of the world economy and the COVID-19 pandemic still casting a shadow over the global situation, all roads lead to intensified class struggle.
“Taken all in all, the crisis has been burrowing away like the good old mole it is.”
Marx to Engels, 22 February 1858
The nature of perspectives
The present document, which should be read in conjunction with the one we produced in September 2020, will be somewhat different to world perspectives documents that we have issued in the past.
In previous periods, when events were moving at a more leisurely pace, it was possible to deal, at least in outline, with many different countries. Now, however, the pace of events has accelerated to the point where in order to deal with everything, one would need a whole book. The purpose of perspectives is not to produce a catalogue of revolutionary events, but to uncover the fundamental underlying processes.
As Hegel explained in the Introduction to the Philosophy of History: “It is in fact, the wish for rational insight, not the ambition to amass a mere heap of acquisitions, that should be presupposed in every case as possessing the mind of the learner in the study of science.”
We are dealing here with general processes, and can only look at a few countries which serve to illustrate most clearly those processes at this stage. Other countries will, of course, be dealt with in separate articles.
The year 2021 commenced with dramatic events. The crisis of world capitalism is making waves that are spreading from one country and continent to another. On all sides, there is the same picture of chaos, economic dislocation and class polarisation.
The new year barely began before a far-right mob stormed the US Capitol Building in Washington at the urging of former US president, Donald Trump – giving the centre of Western imperialism the appearance of a failed state.
These events, coupled with the vastly larger Black Lives Matter protests last summer, show how deep the polarisation of US society has become.
In addition to this, big protests in India, Colombia, Chile, Belarus and Russia demonstrated the same process: the masses’ resentment is growing, and the ruling class is failing to govern in the old ways.
A global crisis like no other
These world perspectives are unlike any other we have dealt with in the past. They are enormously complicated by the pandemic that is hanging like a black cloud over the entire world, subjecting millions to misery, suffering and death.
The pandemic still rages out of control. At the moment of writing, there have been more than 100 million cases worldwide, and almost three million deaths. These figures are unprecedented outside a world war. And they continue to rise inexorably.
This terrible scourge has had a devastating effect in poor countries around the world and has also seriously affected some of the richest countries.
In the USA there are 30 million cases, and the number of deaths has gone over the half a million mark. And Britain has among the highest number of deaths per head of the population: over 4 million cases, and well over 100,000 deaths.
The present crisis is therefore not like an ordinary economic crisis. This is literally a life-and-death situation for millions of people. Many of these deaths could have been avoided with proper measures early on.
Capitalism cannot solve the problem
Capitalism cannot solve the problem: it is itself the problem.
This pandemic serves to expose the intolerable divisions between rich and poor. It has revealed the deep fault lines that divide society. The line between those who are condemned to get sick and die, and those who are not.
It has laid bare the wastefulness of capitalism, its chaos and inefficiency, and is preparing class struggle in every country in the world.
Bourgeois politicians like to use military analogies to describe the present situation. They say we are at war with an invisible enemy, this terrible virus. They conclude that all classes and parties must unite behind the existing government. But a yawning gulf separates words from deeds.
The case for a planned economy and international planning is unanswerable. The crisis is worldwide. The virus does not respect frontiers or border controls. The situation demands an international response, the pooling of all scientific knowledge and the mobilisation of all the resources of the planet to coordinate a genuine global plan of action.
Instead, we have the unedifying spectacle of the row between Britain and the EU over scarce vaccines, while some of the poorest countries are virtually denied access to any vaccines at all.
But why is there a scarcity of vaccines? The problems of vaccine production – to cite just one example – are a reflection of the contradiction between the urgent needs of society and the mechanisms of the market economy.
If we were really at war with the virus, governments would mobilise all their resources on this one task. From a purely rational point of view, the best policy would be to ramp up vaccine production as fast as possible.
Capacity needs to be expanded, which can only be done by setting up new factories. But the big private vaccine manufacturers have no interest in expanding production massively because they would be financially worse off if they did.
If they ramped up production capacity so that the whole world was supplied within six months, the newly built facilities would stand empty immediately afterwards. Profits would then be much lower compared with current scenarios, where existing plants produce at capacity for years to come.
Yet another obstacle to mass production of the vaccine is the refusal of Big Pharma to relinquish intellectual property rights over “their own” vaccines (in most cases developed with massive amounts of state funding) so that other companies would be able to produce them cheaply.
Pharmaceutical companies are making tens of billions in profits, but problems with both production and supply mean shortages everywhere. In the meantime, millions of lives are at risk.
Workers’ lives at risk
In their haste to get production (and therefore profits) moving again, politicians and capitalists resort to cutting corners. Workers are sent back to crowded workplaces without adequate protection. This is equivalent to passing a death sentence on many of these workers and their families.
All the hopes of the bourgeois politicians were based on the new vaccines. But the rollout of vaccines has been bungled, and the failure to control the spread of the virus – which increases the risk of new vaccine-resistant strains developing – has serious implications, not just for human lives and health, but also for the economy.
The present economic crisis is the most severe in 300 years, according to the Bank of England. In 2020, the equivalent of 255 million jobs were lost worldwide, four times more than in 2009.
The so-called emerging economies are being dragged down with the rest. India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey are all in crisis. South Korea’s economy shrank last year for the first time in 22 years. That was despite state subsidies worth about $283 billion. In South Africa, unemployment reached 32.5 percent and GDP contracted by 7.2 percent in 2020. This is a greater contraction than in 1931 during the Great Depression, and this in spite of spending the equivalent of 10 percent of GDP in a fiscal stimulus package.
The crisis is plunging millions of people ever deeper into poverty. In January 2021, the World Bank estimated that 90 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty. The Economist of 26 September 2020 wrote: “The United Nations is even gloomier. It defines people as poor if they do not have access to things like clean water, electricity, sufficient food and schools for their children.
“Working with researchers from Oxford University, it reckons the pandemic could cast 490 million in 70 countries into poverty, reversing almost a decade of gains.”
The United Nations’ World Food Programme put it in these terms: “Across 79 countries with WFP operational presence and where data are available, up to 270 million people are estimated to be acutely food insecure or at high risk in 2021, an unprecedented 82 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.”
This alone gives one an idea of the global scale of the crisis.
In addition to the effects of the pandemic, the global ecological crisis will likely aggravate this situation, fuelling poverty and food insecurity. Capitalist exploitation of the environment threatens to put key ecological systems on the edge of collapse. We have seen an increase in conflicts over scarce water resources and environmental destruction that will inevitably lead to social instability and massive climate migration.
The general instability around the world is organically linked to growing poverty. It is both cause and effect. It is the most fundamental underlying cause of many of the wars and civil wars taking place. Ethiopia is just one example of this.
Ethiopia was presented as a model. In the period of 2004 to 2014 its economy was growing by 11 percent a year, and it was seen as a country to invest in. Now it has been thrown into turmoil with the outbreak of fighting in Tigray province, where 3 million people are in need of emergency food relief.
This is not an isolated case. The list of countries affected by wars in the past period is very long, and the catalogue of human suffering appalling:
Afghanistan: two million deaths; Yemen: 100,000 deaths; the Mexican drug wars have led to over 250,000 killed; the war against the Kurds in Turkey, 45,000 deaths; Somalia, 500,000 deaths; Iraq, at least one million deaths; South Sudan around 400,000 deaths.
In Syria, the United Nations estimated the number of deaths at 400,000, but this seems too low. The real figure may never be known but is sure to be 600,000 at least. In the terrible civil wars in the Congo, probably over four million people perished. But there again, nobody knows the real figure. More recently we had the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
And so the list goes on and on. Such things are no longer considered suitable for the front pages of newspapers. But they express very clearly what Lenin once said: Capitalism is horror without end. The continued existence of capitalism threatens to create the conditions of barbarism in one country after another.
A crisis of the regime
From a Marxist point of view, the study of economics is not an abstract academic question. It has a profound effect on the development of consciousness of all classes.
Everywhere we look now there is a crisis, not just an economic crisis, but a crisis of the regime. There are clear indications that the crisis is so severe, so deep, that the ruling class is losing control of the traditional instruments they used in the past for running society.
As a result, the ruling class finds itself increasingly unable to control events. That is particularly clear in the case of the USA. But it also applies to many other countries. It is sufficient to mention the names of Trump, Boris Johnson and Bolsonaro to underline the point.
The USA now occupies a central place in world perspectives. For a very long time, revolution in the richest and most powerful nation on earth seemed to be a very distant prospect. But the USA was hit very hard by the world economic crisis and now everything has been turned upside down.
68 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, and as always it is the poorest and most vulnerable, especially the people of colour, who suffer most. The scourge of unemployment falls most heavily on the shoulders of the youth. A quarter of under-25s have been thrown out of work. Their future has suddenly been taken away. The American dream has become the American nightmare.
This dramatic change has forced many people, old and young, to reconsider views that they previously considered sacrosanct and question the very nature of the society in which they live. The rapid rise of Bernie Sanders at one end of the political spectrum and Donald Trump at the other set the red light flashing for the ruling class. This kind of thing was not supposed to happen!
Alarmed at the danger posed by this situation, the ruling class was compelled to take emergency measures. Let us remind ourselves that, according to the official dogma of bourgeois economists, the state was not supposed to play any part in economic life.
But faced with looming disaster, the ruling class was forced to throw all the accepted economic theories into the dustbin. The same state which, according to free-market theory, should play little or no role in economic life, has now become the only thing propping up the capitalist system.
In all countries, starting with the USA, the so-called free market economy is really on a life support system, like a coronavirus patient. Most of the money handed out by the state went straight into the pockets of the rich. But the ruling class feared the political consequences of yet another corporate bailout. They therefore gave grants to every resident and massively boosted unemployment benefits. This cushioned the impact of the crisis on the poorest layers. At some point, these supports will be cut back or withdrawn altogether.
We have the paradox of the most terrible poverty in the richest country in the world existing side by side with the most obscene wealth and luxury. By October 2020, more than one in five American households did not reliably have enough money for food. Food banks are proliferating.
Inequality and polarisation
Levels of inequality have broken all records. The gulf between rich and poor has become transformed into an unbridgeable abyss. In 2020 the wealth of the world’s billionaires grew by $3 .9 trillion. The Nasdaq 100 index is 40 percent higher than before the pandemic. Listed global equities, as of February 2021 had risen in value by $24 trillion since March of 2020.
The average chief executive of an S&P 500 company earns 357 times as much as the average non-supervisory worker. The ratio was around 20 in the mid-1960s. It was still 28 at the end of Ronald Reagan’s term in 1989.
To quote just one example, Jeff Bezos now makes more money per second than the typical US worker makes in a week. This takes America back to the times of the capitalist robber barons that Theodore Roosevelt denounced before the First World War.
And this has an effect. All the demagogy about the ‘national interest’, that ‘we must unite to fight the virus’, ‘we are all in the same boat’, stands exposed as the vilest hypocrisy.
The masses are prepared to make sacrifices under certain circumstances. In times of war, people are prepared to unite to fight a common enemy, that is true. They are prepared, at least temporarily, to accept lower living standards and also, to some extent, restrictions on democratic rights.
But the gulf separating the haves from the have-nots is deepening the social and political polarisation and creating an explosive mood in society. It undermines all the efforts to create a sensation of national unity and solidarity, which is the main line of defence for the ruling class.
Federal Reserve statistics show that the richest tenth in the US had a net worth of $80.7 trillion at the end of 2020. That means 375 percent of GDP and far above historical levels.
A five percent tax on that would yield $4 trillion, or one fifth of GDP. It would pay for all the costs of the pandemic. But the rich robber barons have no intention of sharing their plunder. Most of them (including Donald J Trump) show a marked disinclination to paying any tax at all, let alone five percent.
The only solution would be the expropriation of the bankers and capitalists. This idea will inevitably gain more and more support, sweeping away the remaining prejudices against socialism and communism, even among those layers of workers who have been bamboozled by the demagogy of Trump.
This is already causing concern among the serious strategists of capital. Mary Callaghan Erdoes, head of assets and wealth management for JP Morgan, drew the inevitable conclusion: “You’re going to get a very high risk of extremism coming out of this. We have to find some way to adapt, otherwise we’re in a very dangerous situation.”
The assault on the Capitol
The attack on the Capitol on 6 January was a graphic indication that what the USA now faces is not a crisis of government, but a crisis of the regime itself.
These events were neither a coup nor an insurrection, but they glaringly exposed the raw anger that exists in the depths of society and also the emergence of deep rifts in the state. At bottom, what they indicate is that the polarisation in society has reached a critical point. The institutions of bourgeois democracy are being tested to destruction.
There is a burning hatred of the rich and powerful, the bankers, Wall Street and the Washington establishment in general (“the swamp”). This hatred was skilfully channelled by the right-wing demagogue, Donald Trump.
Of course, Trump himself is only the most cunning and voracious alligator in the swamp. He is merely pursuing his own interests. But in doing so, he seriously damaged the interests of the ruling class as a whole. He has played with fire and conjured up forces that neither he, nor anyone else, can control.
By word and deed, Trump was destroying the legitimacy of bourgeois institutions and creating huge instability. That is why the ruling class and its political representatives everywhere are horrified by his conduct.
The Democrats tried to impeach Trump, accusing him of organising an insurrection. But they predictably failed to get the Senate to convict him, which would have barred him from standing for public office in future.
Most Republican senators would have been very glad to do this. They hate and fear this political upstart. And they knew very well who was behind the events of 6 January. The Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell delivered a damning verdict on the ex-President, after voting to acquit him.
In reality, he and the other Republican senators were terrified of the reaction of Trump’s angry followers if they took that fateful step. They decided that discretion is the better part of valour and, holding their noses, voted not guilty.
But if this was an attempted insurrection it was a very poor one. Rather than an insurrection, it resembled a large-scale riot. The mob of angry Trump supporters burst into the Capitol with the obvious connivance of at least some of the guards. But, having easily gained possession of the Holy of Holies of US bourgeois democracy, they had not the faintest idea of what to do with it.
The disorganized and leaderless mob milled around aimlessly, trashing anything they took a dislike to and shouting bloodthirsty threats against Democrat Nancy Pelosi, Republican vice-President Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, who they accused of betraying Trump. Meanwhile, the insurrectionaries’ Commander-in-Chief had conveniently disappeared.
If history repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce, this was a farce of the purest water. In the end, nobody was hanged or sent to the guillotine. Tired out by so much shouting, the “insurrectionists” went home quietly or retired to the nearest bar to get drunk and boast of their courageous exploits, leaving behind nothing more threatening than a pile of rubbish and a few bruised egos.
Nevertheless, from the point of view of the ruling class, it set a dangerous precedent for the future. Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, had this to say: “We’re on the brink of a terrible civil war. The US is at a tipping point in which it could go from manageable internal tension to revolution.” The storming of the Capitol was a serious warning to the ruling class. And this will undoubtedly have consequences. Despite a barrage of media hostility, 45 percent of registered Republicans thought that it was justified.
But this has to be compared with the far more significant fact that 54 percent of all Americans thought that the burning down of the Minneapolis police precinct was justified. And 10 percent of the whole population took part in the Black Lives Matter protests – 20,000 times more than those who stormed the Capitol. All this shows the rapid growth of social and political polarisation in the United States.
The spontaneous uprisings that swept the USA from coast to coast following the murder of George Floyd, and the unparalleled events that preceded and followed the presidential elections marked a turning point in the entire situation.
Changes in consciousness
The stupid liberals and reformists naturally understand nothing of what is happening. They only see the surface of events, without understanding the deeper currents that are flowing strongly beneath the surface and impelling the waves.
They constantly shout about fascism, by which they mean anything they dislike or fear. About the real nature of fascism, they know absolutely nothing. That goes without saying. But by constantly harping on the “danger to democracy” (by which they mean formal bourgeois democracy) they sow confusion and prepare the ground for class collaboration under the flag of “the lesser evil”. Their support for Joe Biden in the USA is a very clear example of this.
What we have to take account of is that Trump’s base has a very heterogeneous and contradictory character. It contains a bourgeois wing, headed by Trump himself, and a large number of reactionary petty bourgeois, religious fanatics and openly fascist elements.
But we must remember that Trump received 74 million votes in the last election and many of these were working-class people who previously voted for Obama but are disillusioned with the Democrats. When they are interviewed, they say: “Washington doesn’t care about us! We’re the forgotten people!”
There are violent swings to the left and also to the right. Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and because of the complete bankruptcy of the reformists, including the left reformists, this mood of anger and frustration has been capitalised upon by right-wing demagogues, so-called populists. In the USA we have the phenomenon of Trumpism. in Brazil we saw the rise of Bolsonaro.
But the appeal of right-wing demagogues soon evaporates when it comes into contact with the realities of government, as the case of Bolsonaro amply demonstrates. It is true that Trump maintained the support of millions, but he nevertheless has been removed.
It was interesting to note that around the date of the assault on the Capitol, Missouri senator Josh Hawley said: “Republicans in Washington are going to have a very hard time processing this… But the future is clear: we must be a working-class party, not a Wall Street party.” (The Guardian)
Lenin said that history knows all kinds of peculiar transformations. Marxists must be capable of distinguishing what is progressive from what is reactionary. We must understand that with all these events, in embryo, we have the outline of revolutionary developments in the USA in the future.
Of course, this reactionary Republican senator has no intention of organising a genuine working-class party in the USA and such a party will not emerge from a right-wing split from the Republicans. But the convulsions in the old two-party system are undoubtedly the harbinger of something entirely new: the emergence of a third party that will challenge both Republicans and Democrats.
Such a party will at first have an extremely confused and heterogeneous character. But the anti-capitalist element must sooner or later predominate. That is where the real threat to the system lies. When the masses begin to intervene directly in politics, when they decide that the time is come to take their destiny into their own hands, that itself is a symptom of impending revolutionary developments.
The serious strategists of Capital understand the dangerous implications in the present turbulence far more than the impressionistic and panicky petty bourgeois. On 30 December 2020, the Financial Times published a very interesting article, signed by the editorial board.
It painted a very different picture of the process, and where it would go, and the conclusions it drew from all this were very alarming from a bourgeois point of view:
“Groups left behind by economic change are increasingly concluding that those in charge do not care about their predicament – or worse, have rigged the economy for their own benefit against those on the margins.
“Slowly but surely, that is putting capitalism and democracy in tension with one another. Since the global financial crisis, this sense of betrayal has fuelled a political backlash against globalisation and the institutions of liberal democracy.
“Right-wing populism may thrive on this backlash while leaving capitalist markets in place.
“But as it cannot deliver on its promises to the economically frustrated, it is just a matter of time before the pitchforks come out for capitalism itself, and for the wealth of those who benefit from it.” [Our emphasis]
This article shows a perfect understanding of the dynamics of the class struggle. Even the language is significant. Armed with pitchforks suggests an analogy with the French Revolution, or the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where the peasants seized London.
The authors of these lines understand perfectly well that a surge in the direction of so-called right-wing populism can be just the first stage before a revolutionary explosion. Violent swings of public opinion to the right can very easily be the preparation of even more violent swings to the left by the discontented masses who are seeking a way out of the crisis.
This is a highly perceptive prediction of how events will develop in the coming period. And not only in the USA. This tremendous volatility can be observed in many countries, if not in every country. Beneath the surface, a mood of anger, bitterness and resentment against the established order is developing.
Collapse of the Centre
The institutions of bourgeois democracy are based on the assumption that the gulf between rich and poor could be disguised and contained within manageable limits. But that is no longer the case.
The continued growth of class inequality has created a level of social polarisation not seen for decades. It is testing the traditional mechanisms of bourgeois democracy to their very limits, and beyond those limits.
The antagonism between rich and poor is growing more intense every day. It provides an irresistible impetus to the centrifugal forces that are driving the classes apart. That is precisely the reason for the collapse of the so-called Centre.
This is causing growing alarm in the ruling class, which feels power slipping out of its hands. Establishment parties everywhere are identified by the masses with austerity and attacks on living standards.
There is an angry mood in society. This mood expresses itself in the collapse of confidence in the official institutions, the parties, the governments, the political leaders, bankers, rich people, the police, the judiciary, existing laws, tradition, the religion and morality of the existing system. People no longer believe what they are told by the newspapers and the TV. They compare the huge difference between what is said and what happens, and they realise we are being told a pack of lies.
This was not always the case. In the past, most people did not pay much attention to politics. That goes for workers also. Conversations in the workplaces were usually about football, movies, television programmes. Politics were rarely mentioned, except maybe at election time.
Now, all that has changed. The masses are beginning to take an interest in politics, because they are beginning to realise this directly affects their lives, and the lives of their families. This in and of itself is an expression of a move in the direction of revolution.
In the past, if people bothered to vote in elections at all, they would usually vote for the same party that their parents and grandparents had voted for. Now, however, elections have become extremely unpredictable. The mood of the electorate is angry, mistrustful and volatile, swinging violently from the left to the right, and from right to left.
The perspectives for the Biden administration
The strategists of capital recognise the colossal dangers in this polarization and are striving desperately to rebuild the “Centre”. But objectively there is no real basis for this. In the person of Joe Biden, they are leaning on a broken reed.
Wall Street now places its hopes on the Biden administration and his vaccination campaign. But Biden now presides over a deep economic and political crisis in a divided and declining nation.
He is being pushed by the establishment to increase state intervention in the economy, and he has lost no time in unveiling his plans for a $1.9tn stimulus package for the US economy. If we add the $900 billion package previously agreed by Congress and the $3 trillion in relief passed at the start of the pandemic, this all adds up to a mountain of debt. The ruling class is desperately trying to restore political stability.
Harvard University Professor Kenneth Rogoff put it this way: “I’m very sympathetic to what Biden’s doing… Yes, there is some risk we have economic instability down the road, but we have political instability now.” All this is preparing a huge crisis down the line.
Meanwhile millions of disgruntled citizens do not even believe that Biden won the election. Whatever he does will be wrong for them. On the other hand, the exaggerated hopes of his many supporters will evaporate like a drop of water on a hot stove, once the initial sense of relief at the departure of Trump has dissipated. And although he will inevitably enjoy a honeymoon for a time, massive disillusionment will follow, preparing the way for new upheavals, turbulence and instability.
Latin America is one of the regions in the world hardest hit by COVID-19, from a public health point of view but also from the point of view of the economic crisis.
The region’s GDP fell by about 7.7 percent in 2020, the deepest collapse in 120 years. This came on the heels of a decade of stagnation, with 0.3 percent annual average growth in 2014-2019. The region is not expected to recover its pre-crisis GDP until 2024. Extreme poverty levels have gone back to what they were in 1990.
This was already producing social and political turbulence before the pandemic began. In Latin America, the uprisings in 2019 (Ecuador, Chile), which were part of a worldwide trend (Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, …), were temporarily cut across by the onset of the pandemic that swept the continent with devastating consequences.
Brazil has had one of the highest death tolls in the world and Peru was also hard hit. In Ecuador coffins were piling up in front of the overcrowded morgues and bodies were left unattended in the streets in some places.
However, in the second half of 2020, we saw a return to mass insurrectionary movements. In September 2020 there was an explosion of outrage in Colombia against a police murder, which saw the burning down of 40 police stations. In Perú the movement of the masses brought down two governments. And the protests in Guatemala led to the parliament building being set on fire. This has continued into 2021, and with important political consequences. In Colombia the movement re-emerged with a powerful National Strike movement that has reduced the social base of support for the Duque government to a minimum. In Peru, we had the unexpected election of the teacher-trade unionist Pedro Castillo in the presidential elections. Similarly, in Chile we had the electoral defeat of the right and the rise of candidates linked to the 2019 uprising, as well as the CP and the Broad Front, in the elections for the constituent assembly, mayors and regional governors.
In Brazil, where the Lefts and sectarians made a great noise about the alleged victory of “fascism”, Bolsonaro’s support is collapsing. The slogan originally launched by our Brazilian comrades “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro out!), which was rejected as utopian by the Lefts, has now achieved general acceptance.
So weak is the “strong man” Bolsonaro that he has been unable even to launch his own party. Although he has been desperately trying to do so, he has so far failed miserably even to get sufficient signatures to register.
The problem is not the strength of Bolsonaro but the weakness of the Left. The PT, which once enjoyed the overwhelming support of the workers, has lost massively in recent elections. Here too, it is a question, not of objective difficulties, but of the weakness of the subjective factor.
The revolutionary and insurrectionary events that have taken place in different Latin American countries and the coming to power of “progressive” leaders with the support of workers and peasants (AMLO in Mexico, Arce in Bolivia, Castillo in Peru, etc.) serve as a refutation of all those (including sectarians) which argued there was a “conservative wave” in Latin America. Capitalism here is much weaker than in the developed capitalist countries, the effects of the pandemic have been devastating in health and economic terms, and the masses are gaining muscle in the impressive struggles we have seen recently. For all these reasons, Latin America is very likely to be one of the scenes of the forthcoming revolutionary events.
Cuba, meanwhile, is faced with a major economic crisis, unleashed by the pandemic and compounded by Trump’s sanctions and economic measures, none of which have been reversed by Biden. The island’s economy slumped by 11 percent in 2020.
This has pushed the leadership to implement a series of capitalist market measures, which had been discussed for 10 years but never fully implemented, including currency unification, market relations amongst state sector companies, closing down state sector companies that are not “profitable”, lifting of subsidies on the price of basic food staples, etc.
These measures are already having an impact in further increasing inequality and have generated discontent. It is a turning point in the process towards capitalist restoration.
These economic factors are the objective basis for the protests of July 11. These were the largest protests in Cuba since the 1994 “maleconazo”, and they came at a time of deep economic crisis and with a government that does not have the same authority as Fidel Castro had back then.
The movement had a genuine component of a protest against scarcity and hardship that working class people are suffering. There was, however, another component which responded to a constant campaign of propaganda on social media and provocations in the streets by openly counter-revolutionary elements which had been going on for months.
The protesters, which numbered about 2,000 in Havana, were composed of different layers: poor people from working class areas badly affected by the economic crisis and the measures taken by the bureaucracy; lumpen and criminal elements; petty bourgeois pro-capitalist elements that have flourished in the last 10 years of market reforms; artists, intellectuals and youth concerned about censorship and democratic rights in abstract.
It must be clearly explained that the protests took place under the slogans “Homeland and Life” (“Patria y vida”), “Down with the dictatorship” and “Down with Communism”, clearly of a counter-revolutionary character. The problems and hardships are real and genuine; there are confused elements participating; but in the midst of all the confusion, it is the counter-revolutionary elements who dominate these protests. These are organised, motivated and have clear objectives. It is therefore necessary to oppose them and to defend the revolution. If those who promote these protests, together with their mentors in Washington, were to achieve their goal – the overthrow of the government – this would inevitably accelerate the process of capitalist restoration and take Cuba back to its former status as a de facto colony of US imperialism. The economic and health problems suffered by the Cuban working class would not be solved, but on the contrary, would be aggravated. One only has to look at Bolsonaro’s Brazil or neighbouring Haiti to convince oneself of this. The defeat of the Cuban revolution would have a negative impact on the consciousness of workers across the continent and around the world.
In the struggle that is opening up, the International Marxist Tendency stands unconditionally for the defence of the Cuban revolution. The first point we have to make is that we are totally opposed to the blockade by US imperialism and we campaign against it. However, our unconditional defence of the revolution does not mean that we are uncritical. We must explain clearly that the methods of the bureaucracy are to a large extent responsible for creating the current situation. Bureaucratic planning leads to mismanagement, inefficiency, waste and indolence. Bureaucratic imposition and arbitrariness leads to alienation of the youth. Pro-capitalist measures lead to social differentiation and poverty.
Widespread questioning of the leadership has emerged amongst many workers and youth who consider themselves revolutionaries. We must explain that the only effective way to defend the revolution is by putting the working class in charge. Our model should be the workers’ democracy of the Paris Commune and Lenin’s State and Revolution. We stand for the broadest and freest political discussion among revolutionaries. The state media should be open to all shades of revolutionary opinion. In all workplaces the workers themselves should have full powers to re-organise production in order to make it more efficient. Furthermore, the privileges of the bureaucracy (special shops, preferential access to basic products) must be abolished. All state officials should be elected and recallable at any time.
The fate of the Cuban revolution will ultimately be decided in the sphere of the international class struggle. Cuban revolutionaries should adopt a socialist revolutionary internationalist position, as opposed to one based on geopolitics and diplomacy. We stand for workers’ democracy and international socialism.
Real GDP fell 7 percent across EU member states in 2020. This was the biggest decline in Europe since World War Two. Official figures show that 13.2 million are unemployed, but discounting furlough schemes, the true unemployment figure is closer to 12.6 percent (about 20 million). An additional 30 million are missing from the official figures, described as ‘hidden unemployment’.
The EU commission bungled the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, resulting in big shortages across Europe. Denmark initially only got 40,000, when it was expecting 300,000. The Netherlands initially received none.
The failure of the vaccine programme follows on from the disaster of last year’s PPE shortage crisis. When Italy was facing the worst of its crisis, European solidarity was entirely forgotten. It was every man for himself. The vaccine programme was an attempt to re-establish the solidarity inside the European Union, but it failed.
To make matters still worse, the escalation of restrictive measures (lockdowns, etc.) to tackle the coronavirus pandemic by 21 Eurozone nations significantly slowed economic activity, so that the bloc faced a double-dip recession.
Whereas last spring, when the pandemic first struck, the eurozone economy experienced a sudden, deep shock, the new surge in infections is dragging on for longer, causing a slower but even more debilitating decline in economic activity.
Travel, retail, hospitality, business confidence and consumer spending have all been hit in the first weeks of 2021. This threatens to produce a delayed wave of bankruptcies, unless the governments and central banks continue to support measures to prop up the economy.
As a result, economists anticipate that an estimated contraction of output in the eurozone of between 1.8 percent and 2.3 percent in the final three months of 2020 would be followed by another fall in the first quarter of 2021 in many of the bloc’s major economies, including Germany and Italy. That could leave the eurozone in its second recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth, in less than two years.
Following Brexit and Trump, who never bothered to disguise his contempt for all things European, the European bourgeoisie feels it can no longer rely on traditional allies. Emmanuel Macron’s foolish attempt to ingratiate himself with Trump was a spectacular failure.
Trump made it very clear that he saw Europe as a main enemy, whereas Russia was only a “competitor.” He followed up his words with actions. His protectionist policies were directed as much against Europe as China. And he maintained this belligerent attitude right to the dying days of his administration. On New Year’s Eve, the US announced a new hike in EU tariffs on plane parts and wines from France and Germany.
Biden is looking to renew ties with Europe. He has recommitted the US to multilateralism, including rejoining the WHO and the Paris climate agreement. He has also backed a new Director General for the WTO. The attitude on the Iranian nuclear deal has also changed. All these are welcome steps for the Europeans, desperate for a change of direction from the White House. Trump labels this new strategy “America Last”.
Yet, there are conflicts between the two sides that are much more difficult to resolve. The Europeans are not convinced about the US strategy on China. They are also keen to take advantage of the US trade war with China for their own purposes. The new Investment Treaty struck between China and the EU in the last weeks of Trump’s presidency was widely seen as an affront to Joe Biden, which the new president was forced to swallow.
There are more long-running disputes to resolve: the Airbus-Boeing state aid dispute has been smoldering for decades with no resolution in sight. The Nord Stream 2 Pipeline is also causing a major rift between the US and Germany, with the US insisting the pipeline will strengthen Russia’s influence in Europe. The new-found affection between Biden and the Europeans will be tested in the coming months as both blocs attempt to revive their exports in the post-pandemic crisis.
Germany has been Europe’s anchor, an island of stability in often stormy waters. Angela Merkel was seen as a safe pair of hands at the helm of Europe’s most important country. But with the pandemic came new problems.
Europe was already experiencing growing tensions between member states after the 2008 crisis. Brexit was a turning point in this dynamic, as was the pandemic crisis and the nationalism which prevailed in dealing with the health crisis. The deep global crisis will exert enormous pressure in this direction: the EU must compete with the other imperialist blocs while at the same time the different nations that make up the EU will compete with each other to export their own crises.
The German capitalists have recognised that they had to change their methods in order to try to halt the increasing centrifugal tendencies in the EU. This trend was further strengthened when the pandemic hit. Last autumn, Germany was compelled to underwrite a €750bn loan for the European Recovery fund in order to hold together the EU. This substantial package will provide temporary relief to the EU, but it is only a one-time subsidy. Calls to go further in this direction have been firmly blocked by Germany. In the end none of the problems have been resolved.
Merkel has had to extend Germany’s lockdown. Her coalition is fighting over slow vaccination rates and inadequate supplies. The national mood has shifted from self-congratulatory to glum. The Financial Times commented that “the political landscape ahead of September’s election looks more fragmented and volatile.”
In France, the Macron government is now totally discredited, with a rate of 60 percent disapproval: some of the worst since the protests of the gilets jaunes. The official unemployment rate is 9 percent, but in reality, it is far higher.
The ‘National grand debate’ did nothing to restore public support for the government, nor did the sacking of the prime minister, Edouard Phillipe. And Macron’s repeated attempts to act the part of a “great statesman” on the international plane evokes nothing but sarcastic laughter at all levels.
Not long ago, Britain was probably the most stable country in Europe. Now it has become probably the most unstable.
The present crisis has cruelly exposed the weakness of British capitalism. The UK economy fell by 9.9 percent in 2020, twice as much as Germany and three times as much as the United States. Now, faced with the effects of the pandemic and the calamity of Brexit, a further recession is inevitable.
Brexit was an act of sheer madness on the part of the Conservative Party, which has now escaped the control of the ruling class. The government is controlled by a circus clown, who in turn is controlled by demented reactionary chauvinists.
Despite winning a decisive victory in the election of December 2019, the Tory party has been increasingly discredited, particularly by its mishandling of the pandemic with more deaths than any other country in Europe. The number of deaths (clearly understated in the official figures) is among the highest of any country proportionate to the size of the population. Yet the Tories have continually resisted taking the necessary measures until it was forced on them by the gravity of the situation.
These people are not interested in the lives and health of the population. Nor do they care about the lamentable state of the National Health Service (NHS), which they have brought about with decades of cuts. They are only motivated by one thing: profits.
The Tories wish to keep production going at all costs. That is why they were determined to re-open schools. That led in the first days of January to a mass protest and a 400,000 strong online meeting of teachers. Their threat of strike action forced the government to close the schools.
Yet despite the unpopularity of the government, the Labour Party and the right-wing leadership is still lagging behind the Tories. There is no real opposition from Labour.
The resignation of Corbyn and McDonnell following Labour’s defeat in December 2019 was a serious blow to the left and a gift to the right wing. The left had every opportunity to transform the Labour Party. They had the total backing of the rank and file. This would have meant carrying out a thorough purge of the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the bureaucracy. But they backed away from this and refused to support the slogan of deselection of MPs that the Marxists and others advocated and which had widespread support in the rank and file.
In the last analysis, the Lefts are afraid of carrying the struggle to its ultimate consequence, which would mean a complete break with the right wing. But the right wing shows no such kindness towards the Left. Encouraged by their weakness, they have carried out a purge of the Left – including the suspension of Corbyn himself. This weakness is not only a moral question. It is a political question. It is an organic characteristic of left reformism.
Big business is now calling the shots in Labour. Keir Starmer speaks not like the leader of the opposition, but like a servile member of Johnson’s cabinet. He waits for Johnson to act before saying “me too”.
But now the right wing has gone too far. By its actions, the right wing are pushing the lefts to come out fighting. The stage is set for a battle in the Labour Party.
Whatever happens, the Marxist tendency can make gains and many new doors will be opened for us. The art of politics is to seize every opportunity that arises.
Italy remains the weakest link in the chain of European capitalism. Its chronic weakness has been laid bare by the present crisis. Unable to compete with more powerful economies like Germany, it is falling further and further behind, and sinking ever deeper into debt.
Its banking system is constantly hovering on the edge of a collapse that could drag down the rest of Europe. The EU is obliged to prop it up for that very reason, but it does so cursing under its breath.
The German bankers, in particular, have become increasingly impatient and up until recently were demanding the adoption of serious measures to cut government spending and attack living standards. That is to say, they were pushing Italy towards the abyss. Their tune has somewhat changed since the pandemic has forced all of them to turn to the state for help. Once the pandemic is over, they will return to austerity with a vengeance.
In order to navigate through the present crisis, the Italian ruling class requires a strong government. But no strong government is possible in Italy. The political regime is rotten to the core. Lack of confidence in the politicians is expressed by a permanent crisis of government. One unstable coalition follows another, while at bottom, nothing changes. The masses are desperate and their search for a way out is expressed by violent swings to the right and left.
The crisis has been enormously exacerbated by the pandemic, which hit Italy sooner and harder than anywhere else. At the time of writing, the number of deaths from COVID-19 is getting close to the 100,000 mark.
The ruling class was hoping to maintain the Centre-Left coalition as long as possible to prevent a social explosion. But that became unfeasible, as one by one, the political options were being exhausted. Feeling the fire under its backside, Renzi’s party, Italia Viva pulled its three ministers out of Conte’s coalition over COVID-19 pandemic failures, leading to the collapse of the government and opening the door to the formation of the Draghi government.
The President of the Republic stepped in, and rather than call early elections, he invited Draghi, the ex-governor of the European Central Bank, to form a government. Here we have yet another example of a “technocrat” being imposed on the country as prime minister, elected by no one.
The bankruptcy of the “Centre-Left” provided an opportunity for far-right formations like the Brothers of Italy party. They have stayed out of the coalition that is backing Draghi, firstly because they are not needed, and secondly because they are hoping to make gains on the right at the expense of the Lega, which is now in the government.
Sooner or later, however, the parliamentary games will be replaced by an open battle between the classes. No stability is possible on the basis of the present system. In Italy, there is no mass workers’ party. But the mood of the masses grows ever angrier and impatient by the day. The militant actions of the workers in the first month of the pandemic was a warning of what is to come.
The repeated failures of governments are inevitably leading to an explosion of the class struggle. Ultimately, matters will not be solved in parliament and the day is fast approaching when the centre of gravity will pass from a discredited parliament to the factories and the streets.
The same turbulence and volatility can be seen everywhere. In Russia, the return and arrest of Alexei Navalny was the signal for a wave of protests all over the country. There were demonstrations of 40,000 people in Moscow, 10,000 in Petersburg and thousands more in 110 other cities, including Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.
These protests were not yet on the same massive scale that we saw in Belarus earlier, when millions took to the streets to overthrow Lukashenko. But these were big demonstrations in a Russian context. They were very heterogeneous in composition, with many middle-class people, intellectuals, liberals – but also a growing number of workers, especially young workers.
The police reacted with repression. Street fighting occurred in many cities. People broke through barricades, with about 40 officers sustaining injuries. Several thousand people were detained.
What did this represent? The protests were in part a reflection of indignation at the arrest of Navalny. But the question of Navalny is only one element in this situation, and not necessarily the most important one.
Alexei Navalny is portrayed in western media as a heroic defender of democracy. In reality, he is an ambitious opportunist with a dubious political past. In retrospect, he will be seen as an accidental figure.
But accidental figures also play a role in history at certain moments. Just as in chemistry, a catalyst is needed to bring about a particular reaction, so in the revolutionary process, a point of reference is required to act as a detonator to ignite the accumulated discontent of the masses. The precise nature of this catalyst is irrelevant. In this case, it was the arrest of Navalny. But it could have been any number of factors.
Falling living standards
The main thing is not the accident through which necessity expresses itself but the necessity itself. The real cause of this upheaval was the accumulated anger of the population at falling living standards, economic crisis and the abuses of a corrupt and repressive regime.
Everything indicates that Putin’s support is falling. At one point the polls regularly gave him above 70 percent support. At the time of the annexation of Crimea, this rose to over 80 percent. But now it hovers around 63 percent, and at its lowest point it was only just above 50 percent. These figures must have caused serious alarm in the Kremlin.
In the past Putin could boast of some success in the economic field, but not anymore. Between 2013 and 2018, before the pandemic, the annual economic growth was 0.7 percent, that is, it was basically stagnant. At the end of 2020, there was negative growth of about 5 percent. Unemployment is growing fast and many families are losing their homes.
For a time, notably following the annexation of Crimea, which has a majority of Russians, Putin played the nationalist card. That boosted his popularity, but the heady fumes of chauvinism have now been largely dissipated and Putin’s stock of credibility was seriously damaged by his pension reform.
There is growing indignation at the monstrous corruption and luxurious lifestyle of the ruling elite. Two days after his arrest, Navalny put out a video, seen by millions, exposing the personal corruption of Putin, showing a large palace he has erected on the Black Sea. All this is building up an explosive mood.
The base of the regime’s support is narrowing all the time. Outside the Kremlin clique of oligarchs who are notoriously corrupt, it mainly consists of state officials whose jobs and careers depend on the boss, a large number of cronies who depend on state contracts and business links with the Kremlin and others who have prospered under its favours.
Last but not least, he rests on the security apparatus and the army. The Putin regime is a bourgeois Bonapartist regime. In the last analysis, Bonapartism is rule by the sword. Putin is the “strong man” who stands at the apex of the state and balances between the classes, presenting himself as the embodiment of the Russian nation.
But this strong man has feet of clay. As he exhausts his mass base of support, he is increasingly reduced to maintaining himself through a mixture of swindling, shameless vote-rigging and naked repression.
Talleyrand is said to have once remarked to Napoleon that one can do many things with bayonets, but you cannot sit on them. Putin would do well to ponder on that sage advice. The arrest, imprisonment and poisoning of political opponents are not a sign of strength but of fear and weakness.
Moreover, terror is a weapon that can be used effectively for a time, but is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, people begin to lose their fear. That is the most dangerous moment for an authoritarian regime. The recent demonstrations are proof that this process has already begun.
In reality, the only thing that is maintaining the regime is the temporary inertia of the masses. It is impossible to say with certainty how long the present unstable equilibrium can last. For the present, massive repression has succeeded in putting the brakes on the protests. But none of the underlying problems have been solved.
The recent protests alarmed the regime, which is combining repression with concessions. They have announced a plan to help the poorest families. This may buy them some time. But the relatively low price of oil will continue to damage the Russian economy and the sanctions imposed by America will remain, and even be tightened.
The “Communist” Party
In Russia the role of the subjective factor is glaringly obvious. If the CPRF were a genuine Communist Party, it would now be preparing for power. But the Zyuganov clique has no interest in taking power. They have a very comfortable arrangement with Putin, who guarantees them their privileges on the condition that they do nothing to disturb his hold on power.
The attitude of the CPRF leaders has created a growing unease in the ranks of the party. There have been several local and regional revolts, which have been put down with purges and expulsions. Entire regional organisations have been destroyed in this way. Zyuganov fears the possibility of a rise in radical opposition sentiment within the party. And such an increase in opposition and the growth of the crisis in the Communist Party opens up the possibility of strengthening a genuine Marxist influence among rank-and-file communists.
The present uneasy truce may last for several months or even several years. But the delay will only mean that the contradictions will continue to grow, preparing the way for a far greater explosion in the future. The most decisive element in this equation is the Russian working class, which has yet to say the last word.
It is impossible to predict the precise timescale of events. Russia is not yet in a pre-revolutionary situation, but events are moving very fast. We must follow events in that country.
In India we have what amounts to an insurrectionary movement of the farmers, who staged a tractor march to disrupt the Republic Day Parade in Delhi on 26 January, where Modi was celebrating with a big military parade.
These events have to be placed in the context of the global crisis of capitalism. In the cut-throat competition of the agricultural sector, the big food multinational corporations are trying to push down the prices small and medium farmers receive for their products at the point of production.
The marketisation of Indian agriculture is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for years, as we saw under the previous Manmohan Singh government. Finance capital has entered Indian agriculture on a grand scale, forcing farmers to rely more and more on loans, to an intolerable degree, in order to buy essential agricultural resources, whose costs have been skyrocketing.
As soon as the new laws were introduced, the prices being paid to farmers were slashed by up to 50 percent, while retail food prices increased. It is this unbearable situation that has led to the huge movement of the Indian farmers. Their demand is that the new laws be repealed. But none of their demands have been met, and none of these questions have been resolved in the talks.
What started back in August 2020 as small-scale protests in the Punjab, when Modi’s Farm Bills were made public, escalated into a much bigger movement, spreading to other states. In September 2020 farmers’ unions across India called for a Bharat Bandh (a nation-wide shutdown). The movement continued to escalate, as never-ending talks with the government were giving no tangible results. Five million took part in protests across 20,000 locations in December 2020.
An important turning point in this movement came with the dramatic events on 26 January, when hundreds of thousands of farmers marched in Delhi to protest for their demands. The farmers forced their way from the outskirts of the city into the city’s historic Red Fort. These poor people showed tremendous courage, fighting heavily armed police, being attacked with whips, and kicked and beaten to the ground.
Despite heavy police repression, farmers stormed the Red Fort, occupying the ramparts. It took the police a lot of effort to drive them out. One protester died, and more than 300 police officers were injured. This only served to enrage the farmers even more, and pulled more into the movement from other states in solidarity.
The scale of this struggle also reflects ferment in the whole of society, where even what were considered relatively conservative layers in rural areas are moving into action and becoming radicalised under the impact of the economic crisis.
It was not so long ago, when Modi first won the elections, that the tired lefts and ex-lefts were lamenting the rise of “fascism” in India. Our tendency, however, understood that Modi in office would prepare the conditions for a backlash of immense proportions. Our perspectives have been confirmed by events on a grand scale. Far from fascism, what we have is class polarisation and intense class struggle.
Role of the Stalinists
Modi has clearly been shaken by the farmers’ uprising, which gave some idea of the pent-up fury of the masses. But the weakness of the movement in India is to be found in the leadership of the trade unions, who have failed to provide a serious response from the powerful Indian working class in support of the farmers.
All this comes after years in which we have seen massive mobilisations of the Indian proletariat, with several huge 24-hour general strikes, involving up to 200 million workers – the biggest general strikes in the history of the international working class.
In September 2016, between 150 and 180 million public sector workers went on a 24-hour general strike. In 2019 around 220 million workers participated in a general strike, and again in January 2020, 250 million workers took part in a 24-hour general strike.
These facts demonstrate the colossal revolutionary potential of the Indian proletariat. The workers are prepared to fight. However the Stalinists’ policy was not to mobilise the masses for a decisive showdown with the Modi regime, but only to lean on the mass movement to get concessions and reach deals with Modi.
In practice, they used the tactic of one-day general strikes to allow the workers to blow off steam, while diverting the mass movement into harmless channels. That was the same tactic the trade union leaders used in Greece, calling a series of one-day general strikes. This is a trick to wear out the workers, turning the general strike into a meaningless gesture, creating the illusion of decisive action, while undermining such action in practice.
The slogan of the general strike
In India, objectively speaking, all the conditions exist for an all-out general strike. The Communist parties and trade union leaders could have played an important role in this, but they are dragging their feet. They could have brought down the Modi government, and put an end to his reactionary policies. Instead, they make token statements, but issue no call for serious action.
This highlights the urgent need to build up the forces of Marxism in India. But we have to keep a sense of proportion. Our organisation in India is still at an early stage. It would be a fatal mistake to have an exaggerated idea of what we can achieve.
Our task is not to lead the movement or win over the masses, but to work patiently to win over the best and most revolutionary elements, who are becoming impatient with the endless prevarications and vacillations of the leadership.
We must advance timely transitional slogans that correspond to the urgent needs of the situation and push the movement forward, while exposing the pusillanimous conduct of the leadership.
The farmers’ struggle has had an echo in the factories. Feeling the flames under their backsides, the trade union leaders began talking about a four-day general strike. We would support such a demand, but what is needed is not words but deeds!
We should say: very well, let us have a four-day strike, but less talk and more action! Name the day! Start a campaign in the factories. Call mass protest meetings, set up strike committees. Draw in the farmers, the women, the youths, the unemployed and all oppressed sections of society. And link up these rank-and-file organs of struggle on a citywide, regional and national level. In other words, organise soviets for the purpose of transferring power to the workers and farmers.
Once the masses of India are organised for the conquest of power, no force on earth could stop them. A four-day strike would soon be transformed into an all-out indefinite general strike. But that poses the question of power.
That is the perspective that we must patiently explain to the Indian workers and farmers. By such means, even though we are very small, our message will strike a chord with the most advanced workers and youth who are seeking the revolutionary road.
Our task is to win and train a sufficient number of revolutionary cadres that will enable us to intervene effectively in the dramatic events that will unfold in the coming period.
The military coup in Myanmar is a confirmation that we live in a period of “sharp turns and sudden changes”. The coup came as a surprise to many. The military had drawn up a constitution that gives them a guaranteed 25 percent of MPs and control over key ministries. It also inserted a clause that allows the military to step in during an “emergency”.
But where was the emergency here? The military invented one by falsely claiming widespread electoral fraud during the huge landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, in November 2020.
What is really behind the coup is the ongoing conflict over who should benefit from the programme of privatisation that started in 1988. The military officers have been busy ever since then enriching themselves by grabbing state owned property at knockdown prices. On the other hand, the imperialists, in particular, the United States, are pushing for Myanmar to open up its market to the multinational corporations.
The problem the imperialists face is that the dominant external power in Myanmar is China. The largest quota of Myanmar’s exports and imports is with China. Thus, we have here a struggle over spheres of influence, fundamentally between China and the United States, where Aung San Suu Kyi is the agent of the latter.
The military chiefs have been transforming themselves into capitalist oligarchs, and saw the massive landslide victory of the NLD as a potential threat to their interests. The military are hated by the masses, and the officer caste feared that with such huge support, the new incoming government could move to curb their power and privileges.
The military also feared the growing confidence of the masses after the elections. Used to governing the country by command in the past, they thought they could intervene and dictate which direction the country is to go. However, they did not take into account how strong the opposition is to military rule. The masses have not forgotten what it was like under military rule, and they see the military caste as corrupt and money-grabbing.
Here we have an example of what Marx referred to as the “whip of the counter-revolution”. The coup, rather than terrorising and paralysing the masses, has spurred them on. The perspective for Myanmar is therefore one of intensified class struggle, not paralysis and demoralisation.
Previously, China was a big part of the solution for world capitalism, now it is a big part of the problem.
China was the only major economic power to experience growth in 2020. The Chinese state intervened very decisively to counteract both the pandemic and the economic crisis. This was effective from a capitalist point of view, but it has come at a high cost. China’s debt levels have skyrocketed since 2008, rising by 30% during the pandemic and reaching 285% in 2020. The country has now overtaken many of the advanced capitalist countries in its level of debt.
The World Bank is forecasting a growth of 8% this year. Since spring last year, China has been outperforming the rest of the world. But this very success will be its undoing since its recovery is export-led. The authorities in Beijing have for some time been attempting to modify the structure of the Chinese economy from its heavy reliance on investment and exports to boosting internal demand. They have also attempted to develop industries in new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, 5G and solar power, which has a higher productivity of labour. They’re also attempting to develop alternative trade agreements to counter US attempts to isolate China.
None of these measures will resolve the developing contradictions in the Chinese economy. In fact, since the pandemic began, the economy has become even more dependent on exports. Furthermore, the debt is continuing to grow in an explosive fashion, the conflicts with neighbours and other imperial powers are intensifying, and the unevenness of the growth is continuing, with the coastal areas moving far ahead of the interior. All this will aggravate the already existing social contradictions.
It is no accident that, in its dying days, the Trump administration adopted a “scorched earth” approach to China, but under Biden, US policy towards China will not fundamentally change. Both Republicans and Democrats see China as the main threat to the USA on a world scale.
The conflict between the USA and China threatens to bring about an even more serious trade war. This is the greatest threat to world capitalism that exists, because it was the growth of world trade (so-called globalisation) that provided the necessary oxygen for capitalism in the last period.
This in turn will have an effect inside China. An economic crisis would constitute a serious threat to its social stability. There have already been factory closures and unemployment, which have been concealed, but they exist. Private companies shifted their problems onto their workers with sackings and attacks on wages. Wage payments are being delayed for months, building up colossal anger and resentment.
The ruling circles fear the possibility of social explosions as a result of the economic crisis and the growth of unemployment. That is the main reason why Xi Jinping was obliged to clamp down viciously on Hong Kong. This was not an expression of strength, but of fear and weakness. The Chinese ruling class was terrified that this kind of movement could spread to the mainland, and in the future it eventually will, as night follows day.
The regime has so far succeeded in keeping the lid on the seething discontent throughout China. But it can erupt at any time, and when that occurs it will not be possible to repress it as in Hong Kong. Even there, for a while the regime lost control of events. But faced with a hundred or a thousand Hong Kongs in mainland China, it would immediately find itself suspended in mid-air.
Great events are being prepared in China. And they will happen when nobody expects them, precisely because it is a totalitarian regime, where most of what is happening is hidden from view.
Changed balance of forces
What got the USA out of the Depression of the 1930s was not Roosevelt’s New Deal but the Second World War. But that avenue is now closed. The power of American imperialism has declined relative to other powers, and so has its ability to intervene militarily.
The need to conquer markets and sources of raw materials forces China to be more aggressive on the world market. It has been grabbing access to resources around the world. For example, it has taken control of a port and an airport in Sri Lanka; it has established a military base in Djibouti; building railways in Ethiopia; grabbing copper and cobalt in Congo; copper in Zambia; oil in Angola and so on. It also claims sovereignty over the South China Sea, which is the most important route for world trade.
This directly threatens the interests of US imperialism. All this inevitably means greater tension between China and the United States. In previous periods that would undoubtedly have led to war. But the balance of forces has now changed completely.
Trump was not able to get North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons. “Little Rocket Man” ran circles around him. So why does the USA not declare war on North Korea, which is after all a very small Asian country?
In the past the Americans waged a war in Korea that ended in a draw. But in Vietnam, after a tremendous drain of blood and gold, they were defeated for the first time. After that they suffered humiliation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Trump seemed to be preparing an air strike on Iran, but backed away at the last minute, fearing the consequences. All this serves to underline the fact that war is not an abstract question, but a very concrete one.
The USA was not able to defend Ukraine or Georgia against Russia, which has a very powerful army that demonstrated its effectiveness in Syria. The USA was compelled to retreat, leaving Russia and Iran as virtual masters of the country. The Americans sent a handful of troops to the Baltic states to “protect” them against Russia. But Putin has no intention of invading these small states and will lose no sleep over this.
The case with regards to China is clearer still. China today is no longer a poor, underdeveloped country as in the past. It is an economically developed state with a powerful army, it possesses nuclear weapons and sufficient intercontinental ballistic missiles to hit any US cities it chooses.
The fact that China recently put a satellite in orbit around the moon and sent a mission to Mars clearly made this point, which Washington has duly noted. There is therefore absolutely no question of war in the foreseeable future between the United States and China, or, for that matter, between the USA and Russia.
A general conflagration on the lines of 1914-18 or 1939-45 is ruled out because of the changed balance of forces. Under modern conditions, it would mean a nuclear war, which would be catastrophic for the entire world.
However, this does not mean that the next period will be one of peaceful tranquillity. Quite the contrary, in fact. There will be wars all the time – small but devastating local wars – in Africa and the Middle East in particular. The US imperialists, together with the other imperialist powers, have been involved in local wars backing proxy armies to wage war against their competitors, and this will also be the case with China in the future, but they are very averse to risking the lives of US soldiers in foreign wars to which US public opinion is now implacably opposed.
This situation can only change in the event of the victory of a Bonapartist military police regime in the USA. But that could only be achieved after a series of decisive defeats of the American working class, which is not at all our perspective. Long before that could arise, the working class will have many opportunities to take power. The constant bleating of the so-called lefts and the sects about the alleged fascism represented by Trump is mere childishness, to which we must pay absolutely no attention whatsoever.
At the present time, US imperialism uses its economic muscle to assert its global domination. The Trump administration repeatedly used the threat of economic sanctions to bully the rest of the world into slavishly following Washington’s policies in the field of foreign affairs. US imperialism has weaponised trade.
Having unilaterally broken the deal with Iran, which had been painfully put together by the previous US administration and its European allies, Trump tightened sanctions in order to throttle Iran’s economy, and then forced European companies and banks to follow, on pain of being excluded from US markets.
In the past, if the British imperialists had a problem with a semi-colonial country like Persia, they would send a gunboat. Nowadays, US imperialism sends a letter from the Board of Trade. In fact, the effects of the latter are far more devastating than a few shells launched from a battleship.
Clausewitz said that war is politics by other means. Nowadays we should add that trade is war by other means.
When the ruling class is faced with losing everything, it will resort to desperate measures to save the system. We see that right now. In their desperate search for solutions to the crisis, the bourgeois lurch like a drunken man from one lamppost to another.
They have rummaged about in the dustbin of history and fished out the old ideas of Keynesianism. The bourgeoisie has suddenly become drunk with its newly discovered illusions, which are merely old, discredited theories that they had previously contemptuously discarded.
Ted Grant used to describe Keynesianism as voodoo economics. That is a very fair description. The idea that the bourgeois can avoid crises or get out of them by injecting large sums of public money sounds attractive – especially to the left reformists, whom it absolves of the need of fighting to change society. But there is a slight problem.
The state is not a magical money tree. The idea that it can be a source of unlimited funds is complete nonsense. Yet this nonsense has been adopted by almost every government. It is really a policy born of desperation. And it has led to the piling up of astronomical debts that have no precedent except in time of war.
At the moment, governments everywhere are spending money like water. They talk about spending billions of dollars, pounds or euros as if they were spending small change on a box of matches.
As a result, there is a ticking time bomb of debt, which is built into the foundations of the economy. In the long term, the effects will be more devastating than any terrorist bomb. This is what Alan Greenspan once referred to as “the irrational exuberance of the market”.
A more accurate word would be “madness”. This madness must lead to a fall, which is euphemistically referred to as a “market correction”.
Role of the state in the economy
On 8 May 2020 the Financial Times published an Editorial Board statement in which we read the following:
“Short of a communist revolution, it is hard to imagine how governments could have intervened in private markets – for labour, for credit, for the exchange of goods and services – as quickly and deeply as in the past two months of lockdowns.
“Overnight, millions of private sector employees have been getting their pay cheques from public budgets and central banks have flooded financial markets with electronic money.”
But how can these statements be reconciled with the oft-repeated mantra that tells us that the state has no role whatsoever to play in a “free market economy?” To this question the Financial Times provides a most interesting answer:
(…) “But liberal democratic capitalism is not self-sufficient, and needs to be protected and maintained to be resilient.”
In other words, the “free market” is not free at all. Under present conditions it must lean on the state as a crutch. It can only exist thanks to massive and unprecedented handouts from the state. The IMF calculates the total amount of fiscal support worldwide at a staggering US$14tn. Global government debt has now reached 99 percent of GDP for the first time in history.
This is a confession of bankruptcy – in the most literal sense of the word. The central problem in this equation can be summed up with one word: debt. Total global debt (including government, households and corporations) at the end of 2020 reached 356 percent of GDP, up 35 percentage points from 2019, reaching a record $281 trillion. It is now even higher and rising. This is the greatest danger facing the capitalist system.
Japan spent about $3 trillion to cushion the economic blow from COVID-19, adding to its public debt, which is already 2.5 times the size of its economy. The problem is particularly severe in China, where total debt has surpassed 280 percent of GDP, which puts China level with most advanced capitalist countries, and it is rising rapidly in all sectors of the economy.
This January, the World Bank sounded the alarm about a “fourth wave of debt”, which is particularly severe outside of the advanced capitalist countries. They are seriously worried about a financial crash with long-term consequences.
The bourgeois are acting like an irresponsible gambler who is spending vast quantities of money which he does not possess. They suffer from the same delusions and experience the same kind of delirious ecstasy of squandering huge amounts of money in the confident belief that their luck will never run out… until the fatal moment arrives – as it always does – when the debts have to be paid.
Sooner or later, these debts will catch up with them. But in the short term, they are quite happy to continue this madness, printing vast sums of money that have no real backing and swamping the economy with eye-watering amounts of fictitious capital.
This is not simply a ‘debt crisis’, however, as some of the liberals and reformists argue. The real problem is the crisis of capitalism – a crisis of overproduction, of which these enormous debts are a symptom. Large debts are not necessarily a problem, in-and-of themselves. If there were strong economic growth in the long-term, as in the post-war period, then such debts could be managed and gradually eliminated. But such a perspective is ruled out. The capitalist system is not in an era of economic upswing, but one of stagnation and decline. As a result, the burden of debt will become an ever-more enormous drag on the world economy. The only way of reducing this problem is either through austerity; inflation, which in turn will end in collapse and a new period of austerity; or else by a direct default. But any one of these variants would lead to greater instability and a sharpening of the class struggle.
Is a recovery possible?
Carried away with this euphoria, they even publish articles confidently predicting a rebound – not just a recovery but a massive upswing. In the columns of the bourgeois press one can read confident predictions of a recovery. Such predictions are heavy on optimism but woefully light on facts.
The present crisis differs from the crises of the past in several respects. In the first place, it is inseparably entangled with the coronavirus pandemic, and nobody can predict with any degree of certainty how long that will last.
For all these reasons, the economic predictions of the IMF and the World Bank cannot be regarded as anything more than mere guesswork.
But does this mean that a recovery is ruled out? No, it would be a mistake to draw such a conclusion. In fact, at a certain point, some sort of recovery is inevitable. The capitalist system has always moved in booms and slumps. The pandemic has distorted the economic cycle, but has not abolished it.
Lenin explained that the capitalist system can always get out of even the deepest crisis. It will continue to exist until it is overthrown by the working class. Sooner or later, it will find a way out of this crisis also. But to say that is to say at once too much and too little.
The question must be posed concretely, on the basis of what we already know. The precise nature of these booms and slumps can vary very considerably. And the question that must be asked is: what kind of recovery are we talking about?
Will it signify the beginning of a prolonged period of growth and prosperity? Or will it be merely a temporary interlude between one crisis and another? The most optimistic claims are based on the existence (at least in the most advanced capitalist economies) of “pent-up demand”.
During the pandemic, people were unable to spend much money on goods, restaurants, cafes and bars or foreign travel. The end of the pandemic – so the theory runs – can serve to release these unspent funds, promoting a sharp upwards movement in the economy and a recovery of confidence. This fact, together with further huge injections of public money, could lead to a rapid recovery.
Recovery and the class struggle
Let us admit, for a moment, that such a scenario cannot be ruled out a priori. What would the consequence be? From our point of view, such a development would not be at all negative. The pandemic and the consequent rise of unemployment, shocked the working class and led to a certain amount of paralysis.
It acted as a deterrent to strikes and other forms of mass action and allowed governments to introduce anti-democratic measures under the pretext of “fighting Covid-19”.
But even a slight economic recovery, with falls in unemployment, combined with the effect of an ending of the pandemic, would reactivate the economic struggle, as workers strive to win back everything they lost in the previous period.
Such a recovery, however, would be temporary and extremely unstable, because it would be built upon a very artificial and unsound basis. It would contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction. And the higher it climbs, the more severe the fall will be.
Moreover, it would also be an uneven recovery, with China most likely surging ahead at the expense of the USA and with Europe lagging behind. This would further exacerbate tensions between China and the USA and also between China and Europe, leading to a further intensification of the trade war, with a scramble to seize scarce markets, further undermining world trade and depressing economic life.
This is the greatest threat of all to world capitalism. Let us recall that the Great Depression was caused, not by the stock market crash of 1929, but by the protectionist policies that followed it.
The “Roaring Twenties”
When the economists predict a sharp upturn following the pandemic, they often draw a parallel with the “Roaring Twenties”. But this parallel is extremely shaky and the conclusions we can draw from it are hardly encouraging from the capitalist point of view.
It is true that there was a recovery after 1924 that had quite a feverish character, with massive speculation in the stock exchange producing huge amounts of fictitious capital. But we must not forget that it ended in the Crash of 1929.
It is entirely possible that we will experience a similar situation. With one important difference. The unprecedented amounts of fictitious capital now being produced are vastly greater than in the “Roaring Twenties” – in fact, greater than at any time in history in peacetime. The fall when it comes – as it must – will therefore be correspondingly greater.
The bourgeois have forgotten one little detail. Money must represent real values, otherwise it is just bits of paper – promissory notes of which the promise will never be kept. Traditionally, the backing for paper money was gold. Every nation had to keep a stock of gold in its vaults and, in theory, anyone could demand the value of banknotes in gold.
In practice, however, this was not possible. Over time, people learned to accept that a dollar, pound or euro was “as good as gold”. Of course, it could be something else. Before gold, it was silver. Before that, it could be almost anything. It could be production. But unless it is based on some kind of material value, it is just worthless bits of paper.
When the link with gold was broken by the abolition of the gold standard, governments and central bankers could issue as much paper money as they wished. But by pumping large amounts of what is really fictitious capital into the economy, the relation between the amount of money in circulation and the goods and services it can purchase becomes distorted. In the US economy, measured by M2, the money supply has increased by an astonishing $4 trillion in 2020. That is a one-year increase of 26 percent – the largest annual percentage increase since 1943. This must eventually be expressed in an explosion of inflation.
This fact is now being conveniently ignored by politicians, economists and central bankers. They point out that, so far, the fears of inflation have not materialised. That is quite true and it reflects a severe slump in demand – a symptom of the depth of the crisis. Not having an outlet in consumer prices, the inflationary pressure has inflated speculative bubbles in share prices, in cryptocurrencies, etc. But this situation cannot last. The initial euphoria of investors will then turn into its opposite.
In the period prior to the 2008 crisis, inflation was contained by other factors, including the growth of global trade, new technologies. and the search for low-cost labour in the so-called Third World. These elements, which have played a powerful role for almost 30 years, have to a large extent exhausted themselves in the more recent period. The growth of global trade has been declining considerably for several years and new technologies, which allowed for a significant reduction in production costs, have reached a point of saturation.
It is not a coincidence that all statistics on world trade seem to show a tendency towards insourcing, that is a return to production in the capitalist countries of origin. This tendency has affirmed itself spontaneously through the strategic choices of multinational corporations, but has also been objectively strengthened by the protectionist policies of Trump and other imperialist governments.
After the crisis in 2007, we saw a credit-based expansion within a regime of austerity, which had a very different character to that of today: in the past, money went into recapitalising banks, insurance companies and businesses that were on the brink of failure, or it went to the Stock Exchange or property speculation, but without widening the basis of mass consumption.
Today, the situation has changed: the combined effect of these new tendencies is a recipe for inflation, and poses a series of questions of extreme interest, which are also being discussed at the highest echelons of the ruling class. Most importantly, what will happen when central banks have to raise interest rates and stop buying junk bonds on the market to reign in rising inflation?
Paradoxically, inflation is a sort of capitalist “solution” to the debt crisis, insofar as a rise in inflation and prices would devalue debt. But it comes with enormous economical and social costs. And once it takes off, it becomes very difficult to get back under control. In the 1970s, Ted Grant explained that the bourgeoisie, alarmed by the rising inflation, were riding on the back of a tiger, and the problem was how to dismount without being eaten.
Today, such attempts to circumvent the most serious crisis of overproduction ever seen with what Marx called “the tricks of circulation” are a very dangerous game. Here, we have surpassed Keynes by far: Keynesianism calls for the State to take on debt by emitting bonds; what is being proposed today is qualitatively different, i.e., following the crazy suggestions of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and thus printing money in an unlimited way.
What represents a real qualitative shift in the capitalist system, is that a completely irrational theory like MMT finds itself in the privileged position of conditioning, if not determining, the economic choices of the world’s foremost imperialist power!
This question does not only concern the United States. This tendency is now global. Recently, the former vice-governor of the Bank of Japan (BoJ), Kikuo Iwata, claimed that Japan has to increase tax expenditure by increasing public sector debt, financed by the central bank. This proposal of “helicopter money” is identified as the solution to low growth and is based on the idea that demand should be stimulated simply by printing more money. These are exactly the claims of MMT, to which Draghi also gave credit in 2016, when he was President of the European Central Bank (ECB), although the EU’s internal contradictions don’t afford it the same manoeuvre margins as the US and Japan.
Although there is no way to know in advance precisely how the crisis will unfold, at a certain point, the strains brought about by the huge accumulated debts will cause a panic. Interest rates will have to rise sharply to combat inflation. Cheap credit, which has kept the system afloat until now, will dry up overnight. The banks will cease to lend to small and medium businesses, which will go bankrupt.
As in 1929, the economic realities will pour ice-cold water onto the “irrational exuberance” of the investors. As night follows day, there will be a panic in the stock exchanges of the world. Investors will sell their shares at a loss, creating a steep and unstoppable fall.
Already investors see the colossal debts that are being piled up in the USA, and are beginning to doubt that the dollar is really worth what they say it is worth. Later on, unless serious remedial action is taken, there will be a stampede to dump dollars, and a steep fall in the value of the dollar will have a domino effect on other currencies, with a resulting chaos in international money markets.
The capitalists will seek a safe refuge in gold, silver and platinum. This will be the prelude to a deep slump in the real economy, with a collapse of investment, a drying up of credit, and the resultant wave of bankruptcies, factory closures and unemployment.
Finally, the crisis will hit the banks themselves. The collapse of just one big bank can cause a general banking crisis. That is what occurred on May 11 1931, when the Austrian Creditanstalt bank announced that it had lost more than half of its capital, a criterion under Austrian law by which a bank was declared failed.
All this can happen again. The bourgeois economists try to soothe jittery nerves by repeating that this cannot happen because we have learned the lessons of history. But as Hegel pointed out: “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
The warning signs, however, are already flashing, and some of the more sober minded economists can see this. But despite all warnings, the bourgeois have no alternative but to follow the path they have already chosen.
Capitalism now displays all the symptoms of advanced senile decay. We can state with certainty that any recovery will not signify an improvement in the overall health of that system, but merely a cyclical upturn that prepares an even deeper crisis. And a depression even more severe than that of the 1930s is being prepared. This will be the inevitable result of the policies that are now being pursued. That is the real perspective, and the social and political consequences will be incalculable.
Social and political consequences
For Marxists, the study of economics only has importance insofar as it expresses itself in the consciousness of the masses. The scenario we have outlined has clear similarities with the 1930s, but there are also important differences.
At that time, the contradictions in society were resolved in a relatively short space of time, and could end only either in the victory of the proletarian revolution, or reaction in the form of fascism or Bonapartism. Today, such a rapid solution is ruled out by the changed balance of forces.
The working class today is much more numerous than in the 1930s. Its specific weight in society is far greater, while the social reserves of reaction (the peasantry and other small property owners etc.) have been sharply reduced.
The bourgeoisie finds itself faced with the most serious crisis in its history, but is unable to quickly move in the direction of reaction. On the other hand, the working class, despite its objective strength, is constantly held back by the leadership, which is even more degenerate now than what it was in the 1930s.
For all these reasons, the present crisis will be prolonged in time. It can last years, or even decades, with ups and downs, due to the absence of the subjective factor. However, this is only one side of the coin. The fact that it will be long and drawn out does not mean it will be any less turbulent. Quite the opposite: the perspective is one of sharp and sudden changes.
The development of consciousness in the working class cannot be mechanically reduced to the number of strikes and mass demonstrations. This is the false idea of the sectarians and ultra-lefts who base themselves entirely on mindless activism, and fail to see the deeper processes of radicalisation that are occurring quietly beneath the surface all the time. This is what Trotsky called the molecular process of socialist revolution.
Superficial empirics are only able to see the surface of events, but the real processes escape their attention entirely. Consequently, they are immediately thrown off-balance by temporary lulls in the class struggle. They become disheartened and pessimistic, and are taken completely off-guard when the movement suddenly bursts onto the surface.
The combination of the pandemic and mass unemployment have acted as a brake on the economic struggle. There has been a sharp decline in the number of strikes when conditions were unfavourable for mass demonstrations, although they sometimes occurred. But the absence of mass struggles does not signify in the slightest degree that the development of consciousness has been brought to a halt. Quite the contrary, in fact.
The depth of the crisis is transforming the psychology of millions of men and women. The youth, in particular, are wide open to revolutionary ideas. The crying contradictions in society, the frightful suffering of the masses – all these things are creating a colossal build-up of anger and bitterness, which is silently accumulating in the depth of society.
The working class was temporarily disoriented at the beginning of the pandemic, although in Italy there was an important strike wave in March and April 2020.
Using the excuse of the pandemic, the ruling class has been piling enormous pressure onto the workers for over a year. But this has created a mood of bitterness and resentment, which is laying the basis for an explosion of the class struggle.
With the decrease in cases of the virus, the conditions will be created for serious mobilizations of the working class on both economic and political issues.
We are no longer in 2008-2009, when the workers were taken by surprise by the crisis and by mostly unexpected restructuring, which contributed to temporarily paralyse the initiative of the labour movement.
Having recovered from the initial impact of the crisis, the workers are now recovering confidence and believe that struggle can win tangible results, leading to a greater willingness to mobilize for action.
This process will be strengthened by the reopening of the economy, as well as recent experiences during the pandemic, which laid bare the essential role of the working class in society, particularly in the sectors that never shut down (healthcare, transport, trade, industry) but were nevertheless subjected to intolerable pressure and a merciless increase in the pace of work.
The workers have paid an extremely high price in terms of deaths and sacrifice in the fight against Covid, and consequently today they are not only more aware of the role they occupy in society, but also they want this to be compensated by increasing their wages and improvements in their working conditions. This is a decisive factor in the development of class consciousness.
The trade union bureaucracies remain an obstacle, putting the brakes on the movement as much as they can. But they no longer possess the same authority that allowed them to control the workers as they did in the past. They rest on the strength of the bureaucratic apparatus and the bourgeois state, but that authority has never been so low as it is right now.
The bourgeoisie will try to use coercive and repressive measures to limit the class struggle, introducing new anti-strike laws and limitations of the right to demonstrate everywhere, but history teaches us that, once the masses begin to move, no laws will stop them. These methods can delay the process, but they will only make it even more explosive further down the line.
In the first instance, the workers’ mobilizations will have a predominantly economic character. But in the process they will become radicalized because of the depth of the crisis and the enormous frustrations that have accumulated over the years, eventually taking on a political character. A new “May ‘68”, or “hot autumn”, will be on the order of the day in one country after another.
In a context like this, far from holding the movement back, inflation will have the effect of stimulating it, as we have seen many times in history. The generalized pressure on wages for the vast majority of workers, combined with the scandalous transfer of wealth from wage labour to capital, means that the growth of inflation will push the workers to defend their purchasing power.
It is on this far more fertile ground that the ideas of the Marxists will flourish. The unions will enter into crisis and the old bankrupt leadership will be challenged. Of course, we must maintain a sense of proportion. We are not yet in a position to be able to challenge the reformists’ hegemony in the labour movement. But by skillfully applying the united front tactic, we can make progress in the unions. It is necessary to fight against opportunism but also against sectarian and anarcho-syndicalist deviations (like in the Italian Cobas trade union), which in this crisis have been exposed as bankrupt.
Sectarianism and adventurism play the most negative role in the trade unions, leading the vanguard of the class into a blind alley, separating them from the mass movement. By combining firmness on principles with flexible tactics, we can demonstrate the superiority of Marxism, gradually raise our profile and begin to emerge as a serious force within the labour movement.
The longer this goes on, the more violent and elemental will be the explosion when it finally comes. And come it will, as night follows day. As Marx wrote to Engels:
“Taken all in all, the crisis has been burrowing away like the good old mole it is.”
The trade unions
Trotsky once wrote that theory is the superiority of foresight over astonishment. The reformists and sectarians are always astonished when the workers begin to move after a period of apparent inertia.
At the beginning of 1968, the Mandelites and other sectarians had written off the French working class entirely. They said that the workers were bourgeoisified and Americanised. One of these gentlemen wrote that there was no possibility of a general strike in any European country at that time. A few weeks later, the French workers launched the greatest revolutionary general strike in history.
They were completely misled by the absence of big movements of the class in the preceding period. Today also, many of the activists in the trade union and labour movement have been disoriented by past events. They have lost confidence in the ability of the workers to struggle and have become pessimistic, sceptical and cynical. They themselves have become an obstacle, blocking the road to struggle. It would be fatal for us to be guided by their jaundiced and defeatist views.
As we have explained, even a relatively weak economic revival will be the signal for an explosion of the class struggle, which will shake the trade unions to their foundations. Already the reformist trade union leaders are completely out of their depth. They reflect the past, the days when they had an easy life and good relations with the bosses, who could grant concessions to the workers without eating into their profits.
Now things are very different. The bosses are attempting to place all the burden of the crisis onto the shoulders of the workers, who find themselves in an intolerable position, where even their lives and those of their families are put in danger.
The depth of the crisis rules out any kind of meaningful and long-lasting concessions. The workers will have to fight for every demand – not to gain new concessions but to preserve the gains made in the past.
But even where they succeed, their gains will be wiped out by inflation, which must re-emerge as a consequence of the vast amounts of fictitious capital that have been put in circulation. What the bosses give with the right hand, they will take back with the left.
This means that the unions will come under pressure from the workers who will demand action to defend their rights, working conditions and living standards. The union leaders will either bend to this pressure, or else will find themselves removed and replaced by others who are prepared to fight. The unions will be transformed in the course of struggle.
When blocked in the official unions and without the immediate perspective of change of leadership, in some conditions workers will also develop their own rank and file initiatives. The emergence of such rank-and-file organisations of workers in struggle, like the Mareas in Spain, Santé en Lutte, Collective of 1000 Bus drivers in Belgium and Collectives in Hospitals in France etc. is a result of accumulated anger of workers, the need for immediate collective action and the passivity of the official unions leaders.
Dialectics tells us things can change into their opposites, and we must be prepared for this. Even the most reactionary and apparently inert unions will be drawn into this struggle. This process has already begun in countries such as Britain. One by one, the old right-wing leaders are dying or retiring, or being replaced.
A new generation of younger class fighters is beginning to challenge the leadership. The stage is set for the transformation of the unions into organisations of struggle. And we Marxists must be at the front ranks of this struggle, upon which ultimately the success of the socialist revolution depends.
The task before us
The year 2021 will be like no other, the working class has entered a very harsh school, there will be many defeats and setbacks, but from that school the workers will draw the necessary lessons.
The accumulation of tension over many years can lead to sudden overnight changes, posing very serious questions before us. And we must be prepared! In the coming period, new layers will be drawn into the struggle. We saw that in France with the gilets jaunes. We now see it in India with the movement of the farmers. In the US, we saw the massive demonstrations after George Floyd’s murder, which included an estimated 26 million people in 2,000 cities and towns in all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, sending Trump scurrying into his bunker.
The main problem is one of leadership. The angry mood of the masses exists but finds no expression in the official organisations. The trade union leaders are trying to hold the movement back. But with or without them, the movement will somehow find a way of expressing itself.
The masses can only learn from one thing, that is experience. As Lenin used to say: “Life teaches.” The workers are learning from their experience of the crisis. But it is a slow and painful learning process. It takes time for the masses to draw the same conclusions that we drew, for theoretical reasons, years ago.
This learning process would be greatly expedited if there existed a mass revolutionary organisation with sufficient numbers present and with sufficient authority to be listened to by the workers. Such a party exists potentially in the ranks of the IMT. But at present it exists only as an embryo. And as old Hegel wrote: “When we wish to see an oak with its powerful trunk, its spreading branches, and its mass of foliage, we are not satisfied if instead we are shown an acorn.”
We have made great advances, and we expect to make many more. But we must honestly admit that at the present time we lack the necessary numbers. We lack the necessary roots in the working class and its organisations to make a substantial difference.
However, with correct ideas and timely slogans, we can reach the most advanced workers and youth, and through them we can later reach greater numbers. Here or there we can be in a position to lead particular struggles. But in general, we have to aim for small successes, since modest success and small victories will provide us with the stepping stones for greater successes in future.
Our International has shown tremendous resilience and audacity, facing up to the difficulties and discovering new methods of work. As a result, in the last 12 months, we have made tremendous progress, while other groups have experienced crises and splits, and are rapidly falling into a well-deserved oblivion.
We have far fewer competitors than in the past. The sects are falling to pieces and the Stalinists, who were a serious obstacle in the past, are a mere shadow of their former selves. They still cling to some positions in the unions that they inherited from the past. But they invariably act as a “left” cover for the right wing of the bureaucracy. They will be swept aside together with it as soon as the workers begin to move.
The main trend that will emerge in the next period are the left reformists, who have no clear political perspective. Many of them no longer stand even in words for the socialist transformation of society, and therefore constantly vacillate between the pressures of the bourgeois and the right reformists, and the pressure of the working-class rank-and-file. This is an international phenomenon.
But despite their lack of clear ideas (and partly because of it), they will inevitably come to the fore on the basis of mass radicalisation. Being politically unstable and lacking in any clear ideology, they will occasionally mouth very radical, even “revolutionary” slogans. But that will only be a question of words, and they can swing back to the right just as quickly as they swing to the left. We will give the Lefts critical support, backing them whenever they fight the right wing, but criticising any tendency to backsliding, concessions and capitulation.
One common feature of all our political rivals – including the Lefts – is their inability to win the youth. Our obvious success in winning the best of the youth fills the sceptics with rage and indignation. Above all it perplexes them. How can the IMT win so many young people in the present situation, when everything is so black and hopeless? They shake their heads in disbelief and carry on moaning about the sad state of the world.
As Lenin pointed out: he who has the youth has the future. The reason for our success is not hard to see. The youth are naturally revolutionary. They demand a serious struggle against capitalism and are impatient of timidity and theoretical confusion.
Our strength is based on two things: Marxist theory and a firm orientation to the youth. We have proved this in practice to be a winning combination. These successes provide confidence and optimism for the future. But we must at all times preserve a sense of proportion. We are as yet only in the beginning of the beginning.
Far greater challenges lie before us that will put us to the test. There is no room for complacency. If we ask ourselves whether we are ready to take advantage of the great opportunities that exist, what is the answer? If we are absolutely honest, we should answer in the negative. No, we are not ready – not yet, at least. But we must get ready, as soon as possible. And that in the final analysis means growth.
We must always start with quality, winning the ones and twos and educating and training cadres. But we must then transform quality into quantity: building a bigger and more effective organisation. In turn, quantity becomes quality. With a hundred cadres one can do things that are impossible for a dozen. And just think what we could do in Britain or Pakistan or Russia with a thousand cadres. It is a qualitative difference!
Cadre building must go hand in hand with growth. There is no contradiction. The organisation must develop as the situation changes. And it must change as the situation changes, becoming more professional, more disciplined, and more mature.
We have the correct ideas, methods and perspectives. However, we need far more than this. Our task is now to turn this into growth and to create a powerful revolutionary army of cadres, capable of leading workers in the struggle. We are already making impressive strides in this direction.
In the beginning, it seemed that the pandemic would create insurmountable difficulties for the Marxists. It has certainly shipwrecked all those pseudo-Marxist sects who based themselves on mindless activism. But the IMT has the wind in its sails, winning over 1,000 new members in the past year. And this is only the beginning.
Comrades of the international! We are in a race against the clock. Our task can be simply stated: it is to make conscious the unconscious (or semi-conscious) will of the working class to change society.
Great events are being prepared. In order to raise up to the immense tasks, we require an internal revolution, beginning with a revolution of our own mentality. We cannot think in the same way as in the past. All traces of the small circle mentality and routine must be rooted out. What is needed is a professional approach to party building. There is nothing more important in our lives. And if we continue to pursue the correct ideas, tactics and methods, we will certainly achieve it.
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