This article was originally published by our co-thinkers in the Committee for a Worker’s International (CWI).
By Tony Saunois
As the year 2020 comes to a close the turmoil and convulsions that have shaken global capitalism continue. The year has been a turning point in history, affecting every aspect of society. Commentators and historians will henceforth reference what was ‘pre-COVID’ and what was ‘post-COVID’. An explosive and uncertain situation is now opening up internationally. The COVID 19 pandemic, which has brought untold misery and suffering to millions around the world, has exposed the dystopian nature of capitalism in the 2020s. The pandemic acted as the great accelerator of all of the economic, political and social trends that were present prior to the appearance of the disease.
Faced with the prospect of an implosion of the world economies as the pandemic struck, the capitalist classes intervened to prop up their system and avoid a total collapse. In March, with the blink of an eye, the ruling classes abandoned their previously accepted orthodoxy of the neo-liberal, free market, non-state interventionist policies and introduced massive stimulus packages in all of the major capitalist economies. As a result, global debt has hit a record US$277 trillion. In the developed markets, overall debt has jumped to 432% of GDP in the third quarter and is likely to have risen further. The explosion of debt has not been only due to the COVID pandemic. The underlying crisis of capitalism resulted in total world debt rising by over US$52 trillion since 2016.
Yet despite the massive stimulus packages that have been introduced, capitalism has merely managed to place props under its edifice to avoid a total economic collapse. Whilst a shallow ephemeral recovery is probable, at some stage, it will follow the worst economic recession since the 1930s, devastating the lives of millions.
Recession and depression are hitting most countries, with a tsunami of unemployment crashing down on the shores of country after country. The prospect of staggering from one crisis to the next, interspersed with short shallow, weak economic upturns, is a likely perspective in the 2020s. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, a nightmare of horror without end exist. In India, in 2019, 100,000 poor farmers committed suicide because of the desperate economic situation which exists. 2020 is likely to see even worse tragedies. Poverty and deprivation, on a scale not experienced for generations, is also ripping through the industrialised capitalist countries. Up to 50 million US citizens are experiencing difficulties obtaining enough food. Up to 30 million people face the prospect of being evicted from their homes. In countries like Britain, destitution and hunger are now blighting the lives of millions. The dramatic news report from Burnley in the north of England, showing priests breaking down in tears as they distributed food to the hungry, shockingly revealed the trauma felt by millions as this crisis of global capitalism bites deeper and deeper.
Super rich gain and rest suffer
Yet as millions suffer the consequences of the pandemic and economic crisis, the super-rich oligarchs of modern capitalism have amassed ever greater fortunes, particularly those in the highly profitable tech sector. The worlds’ richest oligarch, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, now has a staggering net worth of US$186 billion. He coins in an estimated US$149,353 every single minute! His global empire, which has bigger assets than many nation-states, epitomizes 21st-century capitalism. Like a giant octopus, Amazon’s tentacles are wrapped around the planet, invading most aspects of life, based largely on slave labour conditions for its work force. Bezos is not alone. The worlds’ second richest oligarch, Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, has seen his wealth mushroom by US$100 billion in 2020 to US$128 billion. Between March and September, this year, the wealth of 643 billionaires in the US increased by a staggering US$845 billion. Over the same period in the US, the hourly pay of the bottom 80% of the workforce fell by 4%. Even before the pandemic hit, in 2017 the eight richest people in the world had the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity. The grotesque accumulation of wealth that has taken place during the pandemic has been mirrored by more than 150 million people being driven into extreme poverty during the crisis. The rage felt by millions about this unprecedented inequality in the history of capitalism will be a crucial factor in shaping the explosive events that will take place in 2021.
The pandemic of poverty and inequality exist side by side with developments in science and technique which illustrate the enormous potential that exists for humankind in the twenty-first century. The apparent development of a vaccine against COVID, within one year, illustrates the potential for scientific advances. Other possible leaps in science, such as tests for very early diagnosis of cancer and other deceases or the prospect of advances of quantum computers, have the potential to transform society. However, capitalism is unable to apply them or the productive forces in a way that will benefit the mass of humankind. Capitalism is now in a dead-end and is the major obstacle for the further development of humanity.
The class inequalities which exist on a global scale, and within nations, will be replicated with the distribution of the vaccine. Around 90% of the population of the worlds’ seventy poorest countries will not be able to get enough vaccine during 2021. At the same time, the rich countries have purchased enough coronavirus vaccines to inoculate their populations three times over during 2021. Even within the richer countries, a struggle is likely to break out over the allocation of the vaccines.
The political turmoil which rocked the world in 2020 has unfolded at break-neck speed. The polarization, with elements of civil war in the US, which developed during the US elections, is a reflection of the crisis gripping US imperialism in its period of historical decline. A clear majority of the ruling class concluded that they wanted to be rid of the erratic and increasingly despotic Trump. The class polarization in US society is now a gaping chasm crying out for the building of a mass party of the working class. The desperate situation which exists is reflected in the increase in the vote for Trump, despite the massive opposition which existed to him. While Biden succeeded in defeating Trump, the pro-capitalist corporate Democrats he represents will offer no solution to the crisis of US capitalism or end the misery facing millions of American workers. New struggles are certain to erupt in the US under a Biden presidency. The urgency for building a new party of the working class is likely to be posed even more sharply now in the US. Trumpism either with or without Trump remains a political force. A new workers’ party will be necessary to challenge it and offer an alternative.
The US, China and regional blocs and alliances
The decline of US imperialism and the rise of China have been one of the dominant features of 2020 reflected in the increased trade war. China, with its special form of state capitalism, has emerged from the crisis in a relatively more stable situation than its other capitalist rivals. However, China is also riddled with contradictions and problems. 2020 saw a significant turn by the Chinese regime with the adoption of the “dual circulation” policy, aimed at increasing China’s emphasis on its domestic market. Powerful social movements, including by the working class, the largest in the world, are certain to develop in the coming years. This together with the upheavals rocking the US will have a decisive effect on world events.
The 2020s are set to be marked by the ongoing clash between the US and China, between regional powers, and within emerging blocs. China is aiming to consolidate a bloc in Asia and the Pacific, although it will be extremely unstable. This is reflected in the signing of a trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECEP) involving 15 countries, including Japan and Australia, which account for 30% of the world’s population. The prospect of the emergence of other unstable blocs and alliances struggling for influence or spheres of influence is a likely consequence of the clash of interests between the capitalist powers and the process of de-globalisation which has been taking place in the world economy. The incorporation of Cuba into the EurAsia Economic Union dominated by Russia is a reflection of this. Tensions within these unstable blocs is a feature of the world situation that will develop further in the 2020s. This has been reflected in the EU. Apart from Brexit, it is significant that the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, in dealing with the expanding EU budget, posed the question of effectively splitting the EU into two and “recognize irreconcilable internal differences”.
The growing crisis has led to an intensification of de-globalisation, attempts at forming regional alliances, and growing clashes and conflicts in a series of areas. The brutal clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, resulting in vicious “ethnic cleansing”, reflect the horrific situation which is opening up with the continuation of capitalism. The war in Ethiopia and attacks on the Tigray area by government forces is having dramatic consequences throughout this region of Africa. The rise in national independence movements during the crisis of capitalism is a crucial question for socialists and the workers’ movement. Opposition to all national oppression and defence of national and ethnic rights is a central part of a struggle against capitalism. Yet, as the CWI has explained, and experience has shown, securing full democratic national rights and ending national and ethnic oppression is not possible under modern capitalism.
Increased repression- the limits of reaction
The ruling classes have used the COVID crisis as a cover to introduce more authoritarian methods. The CWI supports all steps to defend the health and protect all workers and the population as a whole. However, the capitalist governments have introduced repressive measures to attack workers’ rights and try and prevent protests and struggles taking place. According to a V-Dem Institute report, in 2020 92 countries in which 54% of the worlds’ population reside are now governed by “autocratic” or authoritarian forms of government. The struggle to defend or conquer democratic rights is now a crucial issue for the working class. The vicious repression carried through by the repressive regimes in India, Sri Lanka, Chile, and other countries, has been brutal. The massive protests against the undemocratic legislation being introduced by the Macron government in France have significantly succeeded in forcing the government to retreat.
2020 saw a growing threat in some countries of right-wing populist and even fascistic forces which pose a serious threat. Right-wing governments, such as Modi’s in India and Bolsonaro’s in Brazil, tried to use the pandemic as a cover to introduce even more brutal attacks on workers’ rights and undemocratic repressive measures. Just prior to the onset of the pandemic in November 2019, the right-wing carried through a coup against the Morales government in Bolivia and attempted to introduce a wave of repression and attacks on the rights of the working class and indigenous peoples.
However, as 2020 has drawn to a close, the limits of reaction have also been demonstrated in a series of crucial movements which are a harbinger to the stormy upheavals pending in 2021. Latin America is convulsed with mass movements and upheavals, especially against right-wing populist governments. Mass protests in Peru toppled three presidents in a week. Colombia has seen a general strike and miners’ strikes. Guatemala’s government was forced to withdraw its austerity package following mass protests and the storming of the Congress. Elections in Bolivia, following a massive general strike, have seen the MAS of Evo Morales swept back into power and a routing of the right-wing parties. Bolsonaro suffered a crushing defeat in Brazil’s recent local elections. Although the traditional “centre right” capitalist parties made a come-back, significantly the radical socialist party PSOL made crucial gains in the big urban areas. They came second, for the first time, in the largest state, Sao Paulo. The PT (‘Workers Party’) suffered losses at the hands of PSOL, opening a new chapter in the struggle of the working class to rebuild a socialist alternative to fight Bolsonaro’s regime.
Elections in Venezuela have also seen a defeat for the right and imperialism. These forces failed to remove Maduro’s regime despite the economic collapse, corruption and bureaucratic rule which characterises it. US imperialism is partly paying the price for the disaster of the Trump presidency. Trump’s backing for the right-wing opposition and threats of US intervention to oust Maduro provoked a big reaction amongst the masses and played an important role in allowing Maduro to cling to power. This is despite the fact that Maduro has also used repressive measures against workers who have fought against the government and against some on the left who challenged the governing party (PSUV) and its electoral front, Polo Patriotico.
The Pinera regime in Chile again faces renewed protests and the prospect of a new resurgence of mass struggle in 2021. The referendum to change the Pinochet-era constitution was a humiliation for the right when 80% voted for change. This referendum, despite the fraudulent alterations to the constitution currently being enacted, was a by-product of the revolutionary upheavals that rocked the country in 2019.
In India, even the vicious Hindu nationalist regime of Modi is now facing a backlash. The enormous December general strike, involving up to 250 million workers, was followed by the unprecedented protests of millions of poor farmers who face a desperate situation. They have the choice of fighting back or desperate poverty conditions. These mass movements open a new chapter in the struggle against the Modi regime.
The Erdogan regime in Turkey, despite using its increasing military interventions to expand its sphere of influence to try and whip up nationalism, is encountering resistance and opposition. The government was forced to retreat on attacks on redundancy payments following strikes and protests by workers, including a march by miners and metal workers on the capital, Ankara. These and other movements, such as a general strike in Indonesia towards the end of 2020, come on the heels of the mass social uprisings which have swept Nigeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Belarus, Thailand, and other countries. The Black Lives Matter movements in the US, Britain and in many other countries, were a part of these social revolts. Some of these movements, like the End SARS revolt in Nigeria, began as “non-political” but rapidly started to become politicised, particularly against corruption and the “old order”.
Revolution and counter-revolution – the need for a socialist alternative
There is a global struggle between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution unfolding. Capitalist society has entered an impasse and it is in a protracted death agony. The need for new mass workers’ parties with a socialist programme to break with this putrefying profit system is more urgent than ever. The multiple crises in the economy, socially, politically and concerning the environment, cannot be resolved within capitalism.
However, the lack of a mass alternative, together with the absence or weakness of the idea of a socialist alternative to capitalism in the political consciousness of the broad masses, means that the crisis and struggle between revolution and counter-revolution is more protracted and complicated than is objectively necessary. The mass uprisings that have taken place against the existing regimes have lacked a clear alternative and organisation through which the struggle could be taken to a successful conclusion. Consequently, the existing regimes have either remained in power or a cosmetic change has taken place in government which has allowed the capitalist system to continue.
These obstacles have been compounded by the failure of the left leaders of parties like PODEMOS in Spain, the Left Bloc in Portugal, France Insoumise in France and Die Linke in Germany, to fight for an independent socialist programme for the working class. Unfortunately, much of the left, like the Corbynistas in the British Labour Party, sought to make peace with the right-wing and pro-capitalist forces. They are currently paying the price for this mistaken policy, as the right that is in the ascendancy in the Labour Party are in the process of driving out what remains of the left. The right is prepared to go to the end to prevent any challenge to their programme and ideas. This demands a determined combative leadership from the left. Unfortunately, this has been lacking. The failure of Bernie Sanders in the US to break from the Democrats was another lost opportunity to take the steps necessary to build a new mass workers’ party. Despite the relief felt by millions at the defeat of Trump, the pro-corporate Democrats, like Biden, offer no future for the US working class.
The leadership of large or influential communist parties in countries like India, Chile or Portugal, have failed to organise an effective struggle of the masses or a bold socialist alternative. In India, the failure of the leadership to offer a serious combative challenge, as well as suffering electoral defeats, has left them exposed and can lead to a deep crisis in their parties. This can also develop in other countries.
The building of new mass parties of the working class and revolutionary Marxist parties together with the crucial task of fighting to transform the trade unions into combative fighting organisations are decisive challenges facing the working class and socialists. The depth of the crisis makes these objectives even more urgent.
The unprecedented global crisis confronting capitalism in 2020 is not going to be overcome in 2021. The consequences of it are going to have an even bigger impact on the lives of millions on the planet in 2021 and onwards. The horrors of war and poverty are set to intensify in 2021. So will the social and political convulsions. Capitalism has entered an unprecedented new era of crisis. Within it, there are many uncertainties – politically, socially, economically and in geopolitical relations. Yet the multiple crises of global capitalism in the 21st century require a global solution. The need for a decisive break with capitalism, with the objective of establishing a democratic socialist plan of the economy, internationally, is what this era demands.
The CWI analysed the crisis in 2020 as it has unfolded and explained the likely trends and features for the coming months and years. However, as Marx stated, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world the point is to change it”. The analysis of the CWI has gone side by side with active intervention in the day to struggles of the working class. In London, members of the Socialist Party spearheaded the struggle for the introduction of safety measures to protect bus drivers from COVID and for health workers and other workers in the front-line. In Ireland, the numerous strikes which have taken place in 2020 have seen CWI members actively intervening and support the workers involved. The protests and mass movements that have taken place in Nigeria, India, Chile, South Africa and elsewhere, have seen combative participation by members and supporters of the CWI, which has won support for both concrete proposals for action and for socialist demands. In the US, CWI supporters energetically fought for socialist policies and supported the presidential election campaign of Howie Hawkins. In Germany and France, CWI members have been active participants in protests and struggles of workers and against the far right.
2021 will bring new opportunities. Important layers of more militant workers and youth will seek out an alternative and struggle to find a path to break free from the existing capitalist system. The CWI will have the task in 2021 of providing an in-depth analysis of events and to intervene in and initiate struggles, fighting for socialist ideas and organisation. These are indispensable weapons that are needed to assist workers and young people to draw the necessary conclusions of how to end the world of putrefying capitalism and to replace it with a world socialist alternative, which is the only future in which humanity can truly develop.