The following is the outline of a presentation for a CWO local education "virtual" meeting on Marxist theory of economic crisis for members and sympathisers. For obvious reasons the discussion centred round the current economic situation in which, as the meeting concluded, "The class nature of the alternatives are becoming clearer – all shades of government are embracing ‘leftism’, creating all the debt they need as they try to stabilise the system. For communists, there is still the need to intervene where we can, to spread our analyses, and to work towards building the future party."
A Communist Response to the Current Global Crisis
As Internationalist Communists we need to develop and spread a clear analysis of the underlying nature of the intertwined economic crisis and pandemic. During the presentation we will need to address the context of the current situation and look at the possible future developments.
Earlier today, mention was made of Rosa Luxemburg. The Marxist understanding of the current issues is lucidly described in a pamphlet written by Luxemburg in 1915 and published in 1916. (marxists.org).
The quotation will be as written but leaving out the exact references to the First World War.
"What does “regression into barbarism” mean .... A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means .... The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically .... but then .... it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as previous generations of revolutionaries [Friedrich Engels in the original which may not have been accurate - KT] foresaw it ....:; either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism .... This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales .... The only compensation for all the misery and all the shame would be if we learn ....how the proletariat can seize mastery of its own destiny and escape the role of the lackey to the ruling classes."
That quote brilliantly gives us the essential background - the stark alternatives that are possible.
With the invitation we included a reading list. At this point I would also recommend at least two of the more recent posts on our site - The Four Horsemen of Capitalist Decay and Capitalism Grappling with Coronavirus.
The Imperialist Epoch and Decadence
As if we weren't already aware the features of the current situation highlight the existence of a World Economy - a global market, global supply chains, global crashes and global crises - global communism is made possible and is the only and necessary alternative. It is that analysis that Luxemburg, Lenin, Bukharin and others understood and explained more than 100 years ago.
Marxists understand this period as what Lenin described as Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism or the period of Decadence.
After dynamically expanding across the entire planet, capitalism has grown from competing local capitals to gigantic Multi National Corporations. Everywhere the state and capital have become intertwined and dependent on each other. This is absolutely clear in times of crisis - issues that we will return to later.
50 Years of Unresolved Profitability Crisis
The present situation is only understandable as being the current phase in an unresolved structural crisis of capitalism that has now extended for about half a century. This came after the end of a long expansion as capitalism thrived again after the Second World War. By the start of the1970s that expansion petered out as the innermost law within capitalism, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, reasserted itself. The first sign was the devaluation of the US dollar, and the end of the financial arrangements that had been central to the "post-war boom".
During this fifty years of prolonged crisis there have been slumps and crashes in every decade but these have not involved anything like the mass destruction of capital necessary for capitalism to kick start into another "boom".
'Muddling Through' at the Expense of the Working Class
There is not enough time this afternoon to explore all the devices that capitalism has used to keep itself afloat during the last half century. But it's still worth mentioning a few of the features that are part of the backdrop to the present situation.
The technology involved in the productive process changed significantly with the developments in computer technology and the arrival of the micro-processor. These developments massively boosted automation and more recently robotics. The linked advances in communications technology facilitated the development of "Just in Time" supply chains - the fragility of which are becoming very apparent.
In UK and other metropolitan countries traditional heavy industries (coal/steel/shipbuilding etc.) have disappeared, destroying the vital working class communities that were clustered around them. There has been similar devastation affecting successive waves of manufacturing with remaining employment shifting to the service sector.
Since the 2008 recession there has been a large scale replacement of investment in production with capital preferring to move to speculation in the absence of adequate profit in "the real economy". This wave of speculation has led to a giant bubble in speculative capital - an enormous amount of credit/debt. By the middle of 2019 this bubble amounted to 250 trillion (250 followed by twelve 0's) US Dollars (cnbc.com).
Given the further expansion since then and the trillions which have been added by state spending in recent weeks it is safe to assume that the figure is now well above that figure of 250 trillion... or a quarter of a quadrillion for those who like their maths!
Dual Crisis stems from Operation of Decadent Capitalism
We have already seen that global imperialism is in an unresolved 50 year crisis of profitabilty. That period has been punctuated with recurrent sharp collapses. Not untypically, the present one had as its first signal a stock market crash, which then translates into economic downturn. The commentators knew it was going to happen sooner or later and the starting gun was fired when the oil price crashed following the falling out between the Saudis and Russia. That spark, of course, reflected the growing instability and rivalries in the imperialist relationships between the various nation states.
The appearance of the pandemic makes this phase of crisis particularly severe and its specifics unpredictable.
The pandemic is a separate crisis starting from a different faultline in decadent capitalism. Production for profit not need has produced a perfect storm - lack of attention to healthy food production, skewed priorities in allocation of resources in pharmaceutical R&D, assaults on accessible health provision in the metropoles and appallingly low provision in the periphery, ecologically destructive and irrational supply chains.
But these two crises have become symbiotic - the pandemic has caused additional large scale disruptions in the economy, in turn deepening and extending the economic crash. There is now masses of fixed capital standing idle and it seems very possible that a portion will never be recommissioned. I.e. a degree of devaluation will occur.
That, alongside the intensifying imperialist rivalries is the backdrop to the Trumpian ideologues intent on restarting production as early as possible - the death of elders, for them, is a price worth paying. As an aside, there’s also recognition that the application of human labour power is the source of profit. Mothballed plants do not yield a “red cent” for either individual capitalists or the national capital.
We should have no doubts about how severe the bourgeoisie expect the economic collapse to be. Weeks ago they were forecasting collapse far worse than 2008. Now, their assessment makes it clear that they are anticipating something far more like the Great Depression of the 1930s that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash. For example:
"Why the Global Recession Could Last a Long Time
Fears are growing that the worldwide economic downturn could be especially deep and lengthy, with recovery limited by continued anxiety." (New York Times. Thursday, 2nd April)
Weeks ago, and even before the start of the stock market crash the ruling class were open in saying that the collapse would be far worse than 2008-9.
These warnings, echoed by bodies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have become increasingly dire:
"Forget 'recession': this is a depression
Unemployment in Britain and the US could surpass the levels reached during the 1930s Great Depression within months as the coronavirus crisis crushes the global economy, a former Bank of England official has warned. In a stark forecast as job losses mount around the world, David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the US and a member of the Bank’s interest rate-setting monetary policy committee during the 2008 financial crisis, said unemployment was rising at the fastest rate in living memory. The economist said UK unemployment could rapidly rise to more than 6 million people, around 21% of the entire workforce, based on analysis of US job market figures that suggest unemployment across the Atlantic could reach 52.8 million, around 32% of the workforce. “There has never been such a concentrated business collapse. The government has tried to respond but it has no idea of the scale of the problem it is going to have to deal with. We make some back-of-the-envelope calculations and they are scary,” he said." (Guardian, Friday, 3rd April)
The Ruling Class's Response
For the bosses the response is, as always, to maintain the system and to ensure that the working class, the vast majority, are to be persuaded to remain a class of subservient wage slaves during and after each economic, health or ecological disaster.
For the bosses "all pulling together" means workers bearing the cost of the twin calamity. Mass lay-offs, wage reductions, shortages, state repression and death are the price that the working class are asked to pay to keep the bosses' system in place.
I am going to give a handful of examples but certainly comrades will be able to find many more.
Ecuadorean authorities say they have managed to collect bodies of people from homes where they had been left for days, an issue which has caused outrage in the country and shock around the region. They say 150 bodies were recovered in the port city of Guayaquil. In fact, shortly before our session started I came across further reports about the situation in Guayacil, Ecuador's biggest city, which talked about bodies lying in the street.
Elsewhere, the refugee camps resulting from decadent imperialism's "wars without end" and ecological destruction increasingly resemble "hell on earth" with people crammed together with poor sanitation, health care and nutrition. Those conditions contribute to a the chances of devastation. Already Covid-19 has reached camps in Greece while its arrival is expected to be devastating in the camps in and around Northern Syria.
There are also localised instances of the drift towards barbarism expressing itself around the pandemic. In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, 5 soldiers have been arrested, charged with rape of women during the Covid-19 lockdown in one of the shanty towns. If 5 have been charged, we can only fear that that is the "tip of the iceberg".
More generally, there is a widespread acceptance that the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa is massively underequipped to respond to the pandemic. The effects will be exacerbated by the lack of clean water and sanitation. The fatality rate is also likely to be higher due to widespread poor nutrition. There is certainly a strong likelihood that many deaths will result from gastro-intestinal infections as well as through the respiratory route. The possibility of Covid-19 itself mutating to become transmittable in that way is commented on by the leftist writer, Mike Davis (mronline.org).
We also need to comment on the response of the ruling class and its state in UK.
There is plenty of evidence, apparently now not being disputed, that their response was guided by the idea of "herd immunity". In other words, at a critical stage their policy was to allow a "controlled" spread of the disease whereby elderly, those with underlying health or people with poor nutrition (predominantly working class people) would die as an acceptable price to pay to allow profitable business to continue.
That ideological approach underlay the early decisions not to move towards the mass testing that would have helped slow the virus's spread.
As is quite obvious, Covid-19 has arrived at a point where the National Health Service (NHS) was creaking at the seams. I noticed a recent tweet quoting a figure of over a trillion pound for the amount it has been underfunded. But that raises a much more basic question. What would be "adequate funding"? How could it be decided? In reality, it brings to the fore the need to end a society where decisions are based on the law of value - the essence of capitalism where resource allocation is based on questions about money, wage labour and exploitation; ultimately about profit.
It is also clear that the current situation will further aggravate the problem of not being able to buy enough to eat already suffered by many working class families. The existing widespread use of food banks shows this very clearly. Just to confirm the size of the problem, we can look at House of Commons Briefing Paper dated 30th January (commonslibrary.parliament.uk). The paper includes three horribly clear points.
Firstly (in the Summary), figures from the Trussell Trust, one of the main food bank organisations, show food parcel distribution rising by 19% from April 2018 to March 2019 and then by 23% during the six months from April to September 2019. Elsewhere (Section 3.1), the document states that "the Trussell Tust estimates that up to 2% [over half a million] of all UK households used a food bank in 2018/19". The report qualifies those figures by stating ".... reliance on Trussell Trust figures significantly under estimates food bank usage in the UK" (Section 2).
With Foodbanks becoming inaccessible, their supplies drying up and many more families in need it is not surprising that soup kitchens have expanded, available to some as a last resort (for example, see foodforalluk.com).
As an immediate result of the lay-offs and closures many working class people will also have to experience the challenges and humiliation involved in claiming state benefits such as Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or Universal Credit (UC).
State Capitalism isn't Socialism - Their Solution not Ours
Earlier this afternoon we have already referred to a very relevant quote from Friedrich Engels:
"But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies this is obvious. And the modern state, again, is only the organisation that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the general external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution." (marxists.org)
As already stated, during the imperialist epoch the sate and monopoly capitalism have become intertwined and mutually dependent. It is crucial to understand that the relationship exists irrespective of the degree of state ownership.
For communist revolutionaries, state ownership is not socialism. Neither is bailing out of capitalist concerns by the state, nor are agreements or "national pacts" between the state and capital, nor are tripartite arrangements involving the government, capitalist concerns and Trade Unions.
Working Class support response being recuperated into 'National Salvation'ism
Unlike the bourgeoisie whose capitalist system has competition at its very centre, the working class is both by necessity and instinct collective and mutually supportive. That instinct is always present and unsurprisingly becomes more obvious in times of hardship. In the current crisis many working class people have taken part in voluntary activities and participated in initiatives broadly under the umbrella of "mutual aid". Sadly, all such efforts run the risk of being co-opted by the establishment and becoming part of the "we're all in it together" national effort.
Our generosity and commitment of effort, unlike the bosses, is not about maintaining their filthy profit system but there are constant efforts by them to snuff out sparks of class-conscious self-organisation in favour of a supposed national unity of interest and purpose.
What could be more nauseating than seeing the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer standing in Downing Street ritually applauding NHS workers, who work in a collapsing service and whose living standards have been driven down for decades. An internet search linking NHS workers and food banks immediately exposes the gross hypocrisy.
The bosses have been quick to whip up "the wartime spirit". In response, we need to resurrect the wartime spirit of proletarian self-organisation such as the mass rent strikes in the First World War or the seizure of the London Underground stations for safety from bombing during the Second World War.
Working Class Resistance
In workplaces and prisons, we have seen examples of resistance to that agenda. Those examples are precious inspirations for the whole of our class. Our response to this dire crisis is not to accept the corporate solutions proposed by the government and capital with the compliance of the Trades Unions.
There is already a lengthy list that comrades might be aware of or which you can easily find over the Internet (leftcom.org).
There are numerous examples from the USA which is currently [Saturday, April 4th] rivalling Italy and Spain as the epicentre of the pandemic.
There are already large scale rent strikes such as those reported in the Washington Post (washingtonpost.com). As an aside, that article comments on the possibility of (in their words) "a housing crisis that would rival the collapse that nearly brought down the economy a decade ago".
We also saw disputes arising after the sacking of a worker at the Amazon depot on Staten Island New York for protesting about unsafe working conditions. Elsewhere, workers employed by General Electric protested demanding that production be converted from jet engines to medical ventilators.
In neighbouring Mexico, workers in the public health sector blocked roads in protest against the lack of protective equipment. Health workers in many other countries have also protested on the same issue. Doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe recently struck about that issue.
In Britain the lack of safe working practices has provoked action by Royal Mail workers and by workers in the ASOS depot in Yorkshire.
Revolutionary Reconstitution of Society only Alternative to Deepening Dystopia
Earlier we spoke about Socialism or Barbarism being the only alternatives. The slide towards Barbarism seems to be accelerating and we need to finally return to the question.
Again, I would particularly recommend the article on our site entitled The Four Horsemen Capitalist Decay which provides a concise overview of the abyss which the continuation of capitalism drags humanity towards.
If you wish, it's not necessary just to take our word on the matter. Since 1947 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have been maintaining a notional "Doomsday Clock", marking their view of how close humanity was being to the possible end of civilisation. At the start of 2020 the minute hand moved closer to midnight than ever before. In fact it moved so close (100 seconds before midnight) that the space is now measured in seconds rather than minutes.
They cite "Worsening Nuclear Threat, Lack of Climate Action" and the rise of "Cyber-Enabled Disinformation Campaigns". While the third might be a bit vague and worthy of unpacking (which state has not sponsored lies about Covid-19?) the general picture is clear.
Ironically, the Press Release was issued on 23rd January. That was the day that the originating epicentre, Wuhan, was placed under quarantine and 10 days after covid-19 was known to have spread beyond China.
Strengthen the Proletarian Response
Hopefully, revolutionaries in and around internationalist communist organisations and the various nuclei understand the roots and depth of the current many dimensional crisis.
For the CWO and our comrades in the ICT, as always having clarity of vision amongst ourselves and our periphery serves no purpose unless we implement that in the spirit of "communist interventionism".
Our duties as communists has at least three main aspects, all of which are interlinked (intervene, spread our analysis and continue our commitment to building towards the future revolutionary party).
For all of those tasks we appeal to everyone in this meeting to work with us in these unique circumstances.
Intervening in struggles means using whatever tools we can. We need to look out for instances of class resistance wherever we can, offering support and our willingness to spread the news and encourage struggles to generalise beyond geographical or sectoral divisions.
We have kept up a steady stream of posts on our website and I believe that our followings on Facebook and Twitter continues to grow. We call on comrades to like and share wherever possible and to register and enter into dialogue on the web site. If you are having problems registering please drop an Email to uk[at]leftcom[dot]org.
Lastly, and I'll end on this point to open up the discussion, the ICT believes that working towards toward the future revolutionary party is a vital duty, right here, right now. For those relatively new to us, that marks us out from the other groups who also claim the label "Left Communist". The various Bordigist ICP's all claim to already be the party but with an added element of Bordiga's metaphysical confusion between party and class. On the other hand, the ICC (the other significant Left Communist organisation active in UK) have now reduced their self importance having clarified that rather than being a fraction of a non-defined entity they now restrict themselves to what they call "fraction-like work".
So, in practice, we'd particularly like to appeal to our existing and newer contacts to engage and discuss with us and help us to strengthen the Internationalist Communist presence where it really matters, in the world-wide working class.
Thank you comrades.