Capitalism – the current social system based on private property, wage labour and production for profit – is at a turning point. Day by day it becomes clearer that the existing relations of production have become fetters preventing humanity from addressing the urgent problems facing the whole planet. Unable to resolve its own contradictions, capitalism is instead hurtling us towards barbarism.
From its very beginning, capitalism has been at the mercy of cyclical fluctuations: boom and bust. As capital accumulated throughout the nineteenth century, it required bigger and bigger crises to restore profitability. We now find ourselves in the throes of capitalism’s third structural crisis of accumulation which began in the 1970s.1 Since then we have also experienced a number of periodic crises: the debt crisis of the 1980s, the dot-com bubble at the turn of the millennium, the 2007/8 financial crash and now, the 2020 stock market crash. In each case, the ruling class has resorted to attacks on the living and working conditions of our class as the unavoidable solution. So this time, as trillions of dollars are pumped into the markets to keep them plodding along in zombie mode, the disorganised closures of workplaces and mass lay-offs were entirely predictable while decades of cuts mean the NHS is massively under-staffed and on the edge of collapse without the most basic equipment and facilities.
Capitalism's relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of wider social and environmental costs allowed the worldwide development of the means of production but this has taken an enormous toll on the environment. The industrial and agricultural revolutions have set the foundations for the modern world and, in theory, given us the ability to provide food and shelter for everyone. But this has not happened. Emissions of greenhouse gases, deforestation, land degradation, intensive animal agriculture, and pollution continue to cause unprecedented damage not only on wildlife but also on human life.2 Currently 30 million people are on the brink of, or already experiencing, famine in countries such as Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. Even capitalist institutions are now projecting that, by 2050, 143 million people will find themselves to be climate refugees. Each year dirty air is killing millions prematurely. As do high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity – all exacerbated by lifestyles promoted by corporations trying to turn in a profit, whatever the cost for those at the bottom of the social ladder. And these are just a few of the consequences stemming from humanity’s warped relationship to nature under capitalism.
In the past, plague and pestilence have intensified contradictions within modes of production (e.g. the Black Death contributing to the decline of feudalism; the Spanish Flu, exacerbated by the First World War, adding fuel to the fire of the revolutionary wave of 1917-21). We see the same happen now. The way that a given system deals (or doesn’t) with the consequences of such outbreaks tells us a lot. Currently the coronavirus pandemic is being blamed for being a cause rather than a symptom of the crisis.3 But should we be surprised that a society which continually undermines the environment, promotes selfish individualism over collective responsibility, reduces masses of global workers to paupers, and cuts down healthcare, is a prime breeding ground for a situation like this?
Twice already capitalism has found a solution to its structural crises of accumulation in world war, which devalued capital on a massive scale and restored profitability. Although the coronavirus has overshadowed the events from earlier this year, like the US-Iran rivalry4 , and the ongoing war in Syria (which has now lasted over 9 years and claimed the lives of some half a million), the drive to war doesn't stop. On the political front, US and China blame each for the coronavirus outbreak, on the economic front, Saudi Arabia and Russia wage an oil price war, on the military front, Turkey and Russia have a brief pause in their conflict in Syria. Meanwhile, the pandemic has become an opportunity for the militarisation of borders and of daily life, feeding xenophobia and restructuring economies towards war-like measures.
It's Not Over Yet
Things are only going to get worse. Even if states manage to deal with the current market crash and the pandemic – without resorting to generalised imperialist conflict – what kind of world will emerge at the other end? There are a few options. On one hand, there are the reformers who want to save capitalism – towards this they propose a variety of remedies such as Universal Basic Income, the Green New Deal, or People’s Quantitative Easing. On the other hand, there are the reactionaries who want to hold on to things as they are at all cost – and towards that they are ready to utilise Malthusian solutions of population control and divide and rule. Whether one or the other comes out on top, or a mixture of both, for as long as capitalism carries on we can expect more and bigger crises to come.
There is only one social force capable of steering humanity out of this mess and building a new society, where production is according to need and where we can address the urgent problems facing the whole planet in a collective way. The working class, the exploited class is the source of all value for the capitalist monster, without which this system cannot reproduce. It is thus uniquely placed to be its gravedigger. Gradually, after years lying dormant, class consciousness is awakening – workers across the world have taken to strike action, often unofficial, as they protest against being treated like disposable fodder for the production of profit under the pandemic.5 As it stands, many of us will continue to labour in dangerous conditions, or lose our jobs and our livelihoods, drown in debt, spend weeks in self-isolation, while those who are most vulnerable are expected to lose their lives. For what? Only to come back to work in a year’s time and do the same menial tasks for the same low wages as before? As the ruling class scrambles for another short-term solution, workers have to find our own answer to the ills of this profit-driven system.6
20 March 2020
- 1The Tendency for the Rate of Profit to Fall, the Crisis and its ‘Detractors’
- 2Destroying Our Planet... Sustainably
- 3Initial Thoughts on Coronavirus and its Fallout
- 4US/Iran Rivalry: What No War But the Class War Really Means
- 5Italy: "We're not Lambs to the Slaughter!" Class Struggle in the Time of Coronavirus
For other strikes see, labornotes.org, enoughisenough14.org, republicain-lorrain.fr, twitter.com, cnbc.com, yeryuzupostasi.org, facebook.com and many more in France, Spain, Brazil, Turkey, Italy and beyond.
- 6For our answer, see the pamphlet For Communism