The “atrocities” of capitalism are not attributable to this or that form of administration of capitalist production relations, but to the relations themselves. The economic crisis, the ensuing attacks on wages and working conditions, the dismantling of welfare benefits, the ever-widening social divide, the permanent wars that imperialist powers fight for the time being by proxy, are not illegitimate children of an economic system that if properly administered would take other routes and make other choices. It is in the nature of capitalism to produce these heinous effects.“Learned Considerations” on the Future of Capitalism “after” the End of the Current Crisis, Fabio Damen
If the Brexit political pantomime is a symptom of a more serious economic malaise, i.e. British capitalism’s inability to offer anything but a worse future for its ‘citizens’, in the wider world the dire impact of capitalism’s economic ‘slowdown’ is pulling more and more people onto the streets.
2019 opened with President Macron in France having to back down and offer concessions to the year-long gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) cross-class movement whose demands had gone far beyond the cost of diesel and petrol. In Algeria the February announcement by the incapacitated Bouteflika that he intended to run for a fifth term as President brought out the pent up rage of the population. It was the final insult after years of mass unemployment(1), declining job prospects and massive corruption in a state whose oil and gas revenues have plunged alongside the decline in the global capitalist economy. 800,000 took to the streets and Bouteflika went but the system that backed him is still in control and the protests continue today. In Sudan a head-on political revolt to oust the military dictatorship developed out of protests sparked by a three-fold increase in the price of bread.(2)
By February wildcat strikes by tens of thousands of wage slaves working in the sweat shops along Mexico’s US border(3) induced the President, whose election promise had been to narrow the country’s wealth gap and improve the lives of its poorest citizens, to call in the army. Thus the year has continued. In October alone massive street protests, spanning multiple layers of the population have erupted or continued. From Ecuador to Egypt, Hong Kong to Haiti, Lebanon, Chile, Iraq and innumerable cities and countries throughout the world. Often, though not always, they have been sparked by one particular price hike which has proved to be the last straw for populations infuriated by the huge gap between the glossy lifestyle capitalism pretends is available to all and the harsh reality of increasing polarisation of wealth.
In Egypt, where demonstrations are outlawed by the draconian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, protests erupted in September after a disgruntled state building contractor posted details of the military’s graft and corruption online. So far more than 3,500 people have been arrested in Cairo, Alexandria and other towns in the Nile Delta since September. Meanwhile, the government’s own figures show that a third of all Egyptians are now living below the poverty line — a rise of more than 4 million people between 2015 and 2018.
In Iraq since September rolling anti-government protests have grown in several cities, including Nassiriya, Amara and Basra as well as Baghdad, invoking Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi to order curfews, internet shutdowns and generally deploy the “security forces”. The death toll, including victims of sniper fire, is now estimated in hundreds.
In mid-October, Lebanon — fourth on the global list of states with the highest number of billionaires per head of population but where public debt, at 150% of GDP, is one of the highest in the world — a mass protest sparked by the government’s announcement of a daily tax on WhatsApp messaging has morphed into daily demonstrations which cut across the usual religious and sectarian divisions. Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze combined in accusing political leaders of robbing the country and amassing fortunes at their expense. The government responded at lightning speed. No new taxes will be introduced, salaries of past and current ministers and MPs will be halved, waste and corruption will be contained. Promises, promises… At the time of writing the protests continue to block major roads between cities. In Beirut schools, banks and many businesses are closed. The protestors are still calling for the resignation of the coalition government headed by Saad al-Hariri, the billionaire Prime Minister. As for what they want to replace it, amidst the growing presence of the national flag in the demonstrations, some youngsters are calling for ‘revolution’.
But it’s not just in the Arab world that an angry populace is venting its pent-up rage against capitalism’s unfairness, corruption, and above all, diminishing prospects for the future. Just a week after Chile’s billionaire President, Sebastián Piñera, went on record as saying that although the country was leading the growth tables in Latin America “We need to make a great effort to include all Chileans”, the announcement of a 3% increase in Santiago’s metro fares triggered the biggest protests since the downfall of Pinochet in the 1980s. The protests escalated and began to include deliberate acts of destruction (such as setting fire to metro stations) which became the trigger for the same President to declare “war”, introduce a curfew and call in the army to combat what he called “a powerful and implacable enemy”. That implacable enemy is evidently the population as a whole, or at least anyone and everyone who protests against the government. Armoured tanks were deployed against the protestors who now included striking public sector workers, students and — at least for a day, until the Copper Workers’ Federation called it off — workers in the world’s biggest copper producing mines. By this point withdrawing the fare increase was irrelevant. At the last count at least 18 people have been killed and almost 6,500 “detained”.
Now Piñera is backtracking to try to run ahead of the movement. He has offered a reform package to include higher wages, pensions and social security payments, as well as subsidies on energy and medicine whilst apologising for his “lack of vision” in tackling pent-up frustration. But Chile is a relatively thriving economy (albeit slowing down like everywhere else). With a debt to GDP ratio of only 25% the consensus of economists is that Piñera could afford to spend more than around 0.4% of GDP to avoid a sell-off in the markets if continued ‘public unrest’ (especially strikes in copper mines) undermined investor confidence. Even a former governor of Chile’s central bank, José de Gregorio, argues “We are living through a social earthquake so it should be treated as such. Reconstruction, bringing back confidence and harmony — that’s costly… We cannot wait for growth — this country needs redistribution…”(4)
He estimates the situation requires spending around 1% of Chile’s $300bn GDP! This indeed would be cheap at the price: if it gave the Chilean ruling class space to manoeuvre a more convincing political set-up and put a dampener on popular demands for a bigger share of the cake.
By contrast, the protests which erupted in Ecuador were triggered by a more ‘traditional’ cause. In order to comply with the terms of a loan agreed with the IMF, President Lenín Moreno (who was elected in 2017 assuring the population that “the revolution continues”) suddenly announced the scrapping of fuel subsidies (Decree 883) that had been in place for 40 years. Lorry and taxi drivers blocked highways on October 3rd, and were joined by indigenous groups, students and other opponents of the government, including supporters of the previous leftist President, Correa. After 11 days Moreno announced he was withdrawing the decree. At least 7 people had been killed and thousands injured and/or arrested in the capital, Quito, where the government had brought in the military and declared a state of emergency. The President has hailed the decision as “a solution for peace and for the country”. However, the country’s economic outlook can only have worsened since international bondholders have dumped Ecuador debt.
Meanwhile in Haiti — a contender for being the world’s poorest country, where 80% of the population live on less than $2 a day and more than half on less than $2.40 per month; where little has been done by the ‘authorities’ to provide even makeshift housing since the devastating earthquake of 2010 — intermittent protests, against food and water shortages, price rises, roadblocks, looting and general expressions of despair are part of the social fabric. Since September, almost daily protests have more or less shut down the capital, Port au Prince, and the demand for an end to corruption and the resignation of the government of President Jovenel Moïse is being raised.
In Hong Kong, the months’ long protest movement that has mobilised over one quarter of the population was triggered by a government bill that would make a mockery of the “one country, two systems” agreement by allowing extradition of Hong Kong citizens for trial on mainland China. The puppet government of Carrie Lamb has been forced to withdraw the bill but the protests continue, having morphed into a demand for universal suffrage and “democracy”. Above all, the Hong Kong protests have caught the attention of the world by the ingenious strategies of the young organisers, said to be based on Bruce Lee’s kung-fu strategy: “be formless, shapeless, like water”.
How to make sense of these mushrooming mass protests-cum-rebellions which have no clear class character, owe their lightening speed of organisation largely to the rallying capacity of social media, which have few distinct or established leaders and whose often contradictory demands are constantly changing and are now emulating each other?
Some(5) are welcoming these predominantly spontaneous, socially-diverse movements as the start of a global revolution of the oppressed and downtrodden against capitalist elites and the overall injustices of capitalism, if not ‘hierarchy’ in general. In a world where the 26 richest people now own as much as the poorest 50% [Oxfam report 2019], it’s easy to focus on getting rid of established ‘elites’ in the hope of creating a more just world.
For sure capitalism, the system controlled by a class of owners who live off the profits derived from the work of others, is the root cause of the constantly growing immiseration and decline in ‘life chances’ for more and more of the world’s population. But capitalism is not a form of government. It is a mode of production where the people who work to produce the material necessities (and luxuries) of life are obliged to do so because they need a wage in order to live. Yet wage workers have no control over what is produced because the means to produce are the property of the capitalist class. Moreover, the value of workers’ wages is nowhere near the overall value of the products they produce and which the capitalist firms sell on the market. This is the precise meaning of ‘exploitation’ as well as the material basis of capitalists’ profit. Inequality and social injustice stem from this fact. Who gets what from the cornucopia of goods that wage workers all over the world produce, boils down to how much money you have. This is the material reality most of the world’s population are born into and where they have to find the means to live their lives.
While it’s true that after the Second World War capitalist growth transformed people’s lives throughout the globe, it’s also true that world capitalism has for decades been battling the consequences of that growth: the return of economic crisis due to its inbuilt tendency for the rate of profit to fall. For the capitalists this means ever fewer “investment opportunities” and their increasing propensity to engage in financial speculation, even as manufacturers everywhere strive to increase their profit margins by reducing wages, speedups, etc., and every state in the ‘developed’ world engages in cutting welfare benefits. In 2008, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, capitalism experienced its biggest ever financial crash, the consequences of which became truly global. World economic growth rates plummeted from 7% to around 1.6% and an estimated 64 million people were plunged into poverty almost overnight.(6) It is no coincidence that the “Arab Spring”, initially sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, followed in the wake of the financial crash. Yet those who sing the praises of spontaneous, ‘formless’, leaderless uprisings would do well to consider the success or otherwise of such protests.
Today world economic growth is nowhere back to its pre-crash level. In fact, given that the mountain of debt created by the major central banks to bail out the global financial system is around three times the size of world GDP, it is dubious whether the world economy is growing at all. Some economic pundits are describing this as “synchronised stagnation” and the current protest movements confirm the fears of those who, like the Financial Times, want a more “responsible capitalism” and are fearful of the consequences of continued financial speculation and polarisation of wealth at the expense of industrial investment. But this is the latest phase of a crisis that has gone through stages, by no means limited to manufacturing and production and which has undermined the world imperialist order that was established at Bretton Woods to guarantee the USA’s position as the world’s strongest economic power. The truth is that capitalism now spells disaster and declining life opportunities at every level.
The current protests are a symptom of the malaise. In and of themselves they cannot come up with a solution. For a start, the very quality that initially poses a threat to the existing political set-up: their diverse social and class interests ensure that eventually the movement will crack, leaving the working class and the dispossessed feeling betrayed whilst the downwardly mobile professional classes and petty bourgeois end up as supporters of the new ruling elite. An even worse and real possibility is that the whole movement descends into nationalism and any working class element becomes subsumed to local capitalist interests, in which case the potential for international working class solidarity and the possibility of extending the international revolutionary political organisation is undermined. (The protests in Lebanon, Iraq, and Ecuador for example, are replete with national flag waving.)
But if a new world cannot come about simply through demonstrations, civil disobedience or other actions to pressurise the representatives of the capitalist class to act against their own interests, it is our task — i.e. those of us who are already politically organised internationally — to find a means of intervening in the social ferment to put forward an internationalist, class perspective. This, without any illusions about being able to change the direction of current protests, but with the perspective of having an organised presence in the wider struggles yet to come. This is not a pious hope. In Chile there were some attempts to set up local committees to coordinate the struggle in working class districts whilst in Iran last year Haft Tapeh workers were calling for the re-establishment of workers’ councils.(7) These are “straws in the wind” as to what a real class movement capable of overthrowing capitalism could look like. It is only by acting within this kind of revolt that the Internationalist Revolutionary Party of the future will be formed on the basis of the only viable anti-capitalist programme: the programme of international communism, which is itself distilled from the lessons of workers’ struggle everywhere, and throughout history.
27 October 2019
(1) About 60 per cent of the (Middle East’s) population is aged under 30. The IMF estimates that 27m youths will enter the labour market over the next five years. Meanwhile, the region’s average economic growth since 2009 has been one-third slower than the previous eight years. Per capita incomes have been “near stagnant” and youth unemployment has “worsened significantly”, the IMF says.
(4) Benedict Mander, “Chile’s reform pledge to quell protests questioned by economists”, Financial Times 24.10.19. The metro price rises were the last straw for Chilean workers who still live in a system dominated by neo-liberalist deregulation, despite the fact that for large periods since the end of the Pinoochet era, the social democratic alliance of the Concertación has been in power. Like social democrats everywhere they have long since abandoned any pretence of defending the working class.
(6) Robert Zoellick on the World Bank, Financial Times 6.2.19.
(7) See Workers’ Strikes in Iran: This Time it is Different and previous articles on our site.Wednesday, October 30, 2019