We are living through a period of severe generalised crisis of capitalism. In the words of Joseph Stiglitz, the Noble Laurette and Keynesian economist, “the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed humanity toward the worst global recession in modern times”. But his perspective is only partially true. You might push a car with bad batteries to start, but its movement derives from how the car’s engine works.
The bosses locally and globally were thrown into a state of shock by the pandemic, which arose from profit motivated practices. It was clear for years that an outbreak of this magnitude was looming. Yet, there was unforgiveable lack of crisis preparedness. Personal protective equipment as well as medical devices and supplies were not stocked because these were not immediately profitable.
This reveals the irrationality of capitalism as a system which puts profit maximization and the interests of a few rich people over the health and very lives of working-class people, and the planet.
They continue to wage class war against us!
While the rich 1% and the governments which represent them keep saying that we are all in the same boat, some of the policies that governments and their multilateral economic organisations have already started taking show that they want us to return back to the “normal” of hard lives for the poor while the rich continue to roll in big money, after the crisis. And they intend to do so with a vengeance, if we allow them to get away with rubbing salt on our wounds.
For example, loans being sought already by Nigeria and almost ninety other developing countries from the international financial institutions still come with conditionalities. And in advanced capitalist countries that have granted tax reliefs, the rich have benefited much more immensely than the poor.
A clear example is the United States. While millions of working-class people in the country have received $1,200 as relief, the richest taxpayers have each received a whopping $1.7m as their own relief (with some getting even more)! Not surprisingly in such a situation, 82% of the United States “palliatives” go to just 43,000 super-rich people. A similar situation holds true in Britain where the super-rich stand to benefit much more from the bailouts than poor working-class people.
Generally, billionaires are becoming richer in this period while poverty stares billions of people in the face. Between March and April alone, they raked in $308bn extra! Those sectors benefitting most of course are those whose overworked and underpaid workers are providing services that have become “essential” for surviving Covid-19 for many people. These include the likes of Jeff Bezos’ Amazon and Eric Yuan’s Zoom.
Thus, our struggle must go beyond resistance. What is at stake goes beyond winning some crumbs of palliatives, even though these could help. While the global outbreak has definitely had severe impact on the world economy, it was actually more of a trigger than the cause of a looming recession. The crisis as we earlier said is the capitalist system itself, and how it works – heads the bosses win, and tails we lose.
The long depression was never over
Since the Global Recession of 2007-2009, the world economy has largely stagnated, despite slight signs of recovery. Rates of profit for big business has been low and thus the capitalists have been shy about investing. They have rather focussed on absolute exploitation of labour as much as they can.
That is why precarious work has fast become the norm. They even present the illusion of exploited working-class people being self-employed contractors in what is often described as the “gig economy”. We have thus seen the rise of uberization as “self-employment”.
As some of the Nigerian ideologists of capitalism noted: “before the pandemic, the Nigerian government had been grappling with weak recovery from the 2014 oil price shock, with GDP growth tapering around 2.3 percent in 2019.” And according to the IMF, “even before the COVID-19 outbreak”, Nigeria’s economy was in troubled waters and it is now faced with “a historic decline in growth and large financing needs”.
Globally, as the Marxist economist, Michael Roberts pointed out, economic recovery after the recession a dozen years back has been the weakest ever in the history of capitalism and the longest after any recession, in the past 100 years. And by the end of last year, before the pandemic, it was already clear that world economy was headed for a deep recession this year. Indeed, by October 2019 Forbes magazine identified countries already on the brink of recession, which included: Britain, China, Germany and Italy, while Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Mexico and Turkey were already in distress. So, the pandemic is more like thunder “helping” an already ticking bomb’s explosion.
Crises: this is not more of the same
We must however not see the explosion this time as merely another episode in a benign series. Despite all efforts at denial by capitalist thinkers and policymakers since the end of World War II, it has time and again been confirmed as a fact that capitalism is marked by cycles of booms and busts. During booms, profits are high, and capitalists invest in new technology to further raise productivity. Workers win some concessions, employment and wages tend to rise. But this same logic leads to bust. When this happens, the bosses slam the brakes on investment and do their utmost to make workers bear the cost of recovery. Wages are cut and unemployment skyrockets.
Every cycle of boom and bust has its own peculiarities as capitalist development has evolved. What has distinguished these economic cycles in the 21st century is that the busts have become more catastrophic and recovery towards new booms much more sluggish. This reflects the total rottenness of the capitalist system and outright impossibility of social and economic progress without throwing it into the dustbin of history.
There are those who rather think the crisis presents an opportunity “to do capitalism differently”. They might even be well intentioned nice people who look back with nostalgia to the “thirty glorious years” of capitalism after World War II. This was not just a period of relative prosperity. It was also when the welfare state was built in Europe and developmental states arose in Asia.
The state provided education and quality public healthcare for people in the more economically developed countries. The British National Health Service (NHS) is an emblematic institution from that era. Towards the end of this period, African countries won their flag independence and state intervention was also used to improve living standards in the 1960s/70s.
But there are a few important points that those who look at that wrinkle in capitalism’s historical time fail to grasp, or shy away from seeing.
Keynesian reformism is illusionary
First, the popular reforms of that forever gone era were not given out of the benevolence of the bosses. It was out of fear, naked fear of the spectre of revolution. Socialist ideas were very influential in the working-class, with a lot of rank and file workers looking up to the Soviet Union for whatever it was worth. In Britain for example, the Communist Party had almost 60,000 members! Large numbers of workers and youths were not simply anti-capitalist, they were unapologetically revolutionary socialist.
The period had also been heralded by mass anti-systemic movements such as the hunger marches in Britain and mass sit-ins with workers occupying factories in the United States of North America. Workers were not simply demanding crumbs or loaves of bread. They were unashamedly fighting to take over the fucking bakery! It was in this context in 1943, that a senior Tory said in parliament that “if you don’t give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution”.
The reformist parties that rode on the crest of this revolutionary movement to establish the “class compromise” of a welfarist order were thus at best “reluctant revolutionaries”. But today’s social democracy lacks even the modicum of what it takes to push forward such radical programmes. They are bond heart and soul with conservatives in a blood oath on the altar of Mammon. They are in essence, nothing but social-liberals; social democrats in name, neoliberals in practice. They represent reformism without progressive reforms.
As could be expected, some sections of the propertied classes have been calling for action to be taken along the lines of what was before neoliberalism. Regulation of the financial sector, some level of job security to address the generalisation of precarious work, debt relief for underdeveloped countries, increased role of the public sector once again, and so on and so forth, are some of the policy proposals being presented as new Keynesian solutions.
But where and when such reformist steps are taken by capitalist state, they are at best emergency stopgaps to save the situation. They have even gone further in this direction, under the hail of the Covid-19 emergency. Private hospitals have been requisitioned, effectively taken over by public authorities in some countries. Local factories have equally been so taken over and converted for manufacture based on needs (i.e. for personal protective equipment, medical devices and supplies) as against profit.
As soon as the rich and their corporations have legitimatised themselves with such seemingly pro-people policies and actions, they revert as fully and unabashedly as possible to the for-profit driven nature inscribed into the DNA of capitalism.
The secret of their wealth lies in our poverty
Second, there are of course conjunctural elements, which, along with the far-reaching demands of the working-class contributed to the emergence of a welfarist post-war order. Over 70 million people were killed in the war and infrastructure was in a state of ruins in Europe, providing avenue for investment, starting with the Marshall Plan.
But there is a more structural dimension to the terminal problem of capitalism. On one hand, the system cannot exist without revolutionizing production. The level of human productivity today, if it were meant to engender the full development of humankind in harmonious relations with nature, is enough for all of us to have what we need, and work for just a few hours a day. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes who was by no way a revolutionary predicted that by the time of the generation of what could have been his grandchildren, people would need not work for more than 15 hours a week.
But on the other hand, with the motive force driving capitalism being the bosses’ competition for profit, wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands and consequently, poverty for an increasing number of people. Thus 26 billionaires own as much wealth as 50% of the global population i.e. 3.8bn people! And as finance capital dominates productive capital, mind-boggling amounts of money, which could be used to better the lot of billions of people are stashed away in tax havens, to the tune of $36tn! States and their governments defend these billionaires and their corporations which are richer than many a country. They are not going to simply become “reasonable” and serve us “decent capitalism” a la carte.
Only compelling circumstances i.e., the building of mass movements around the most radical of demands for systemic change from now, could make them even begin to consider neoliberalism lite as an option, in the wake of the pandemic. The winds of such sails cannot but be revolutionary, demanding much more than limited reforms.
The cancer of capital is at a terminal stage
Capitalism is now in a state of terminal decay. This is reflected in how devastating recessions have become and how recovery continually tends towards being more of a mirage. The system is driven by and pushes ceaseless growth, with the maximization of profit as its be-all and end-all.
The rich who pocket the wealth which our labour creates and own property that is used for production and distribution (factories, mines, large farms and plantations, transportation -road, rail, air, shipping – and outlets for services, including shopping malls, etc) are interested in making more and more profit at all costs. When they do not see prospects for profits, they avoid or cut down on investments.
There is no aspect of social life or existence on earth that is sacred to the for-profit motive. Healthcare, education, biodiversity, carbon emission etc have all been marketized in efforts to shore up profit rates. But this amounts to digging deeper into the hole that this same logic has thrown humankind and the earth into. As it sucks all the meat and blood of value it can find, it readily cracks the bones to suck the marrow.
Like a tumour which kills its host cell as well as brings an end to its own existence, this terminal decay’s icy fingers holds the whole planet in the vice grip of an existential crisis as the world inches towards 1.5°C warming with little but talk on the part of the bosses. We are thus now clearly at a stage where, if we don’t overthrow capitalism, it will bring us all down.
We have to make it fall
The bosses have a false sense of invincibility, even when they stand on the edge of a precipice. This giraffe with its head in the sand mentality of the bosses was demonstrated as they took off on their chartered or private jets to self-isolate in the perceived safety of their bunkers in faraway lands like New Zealand. That they have such apocalyptic safe havens, tells us what they think of the existential crises that face humankind i.e. “fuck off, even those can’t touch us!” You can see this as well in the dreams of the likes of Elon Musk to establish a colony of one million people (all billionaires and millionaires of course!) on Mars!
Economically, politically and morally, bankruptcy marks every single inch of the body of capitalism. The Covid-19 pandemic, like the climate and ecological crisis further highlight the fact that left to continue, the capitalist system will be the ruin of humankind and planet earth. The super-rich of course, believe their wealth would safeguard them from such “end of the world” catastrophe.
Thus, what is at stake goes far beyond merely surviving covid-19 and beyond. During World War I, the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that the two pathways before humankind were “socialism or barbarism”. More than ever before, the stark realities of these two options face us. The 1% will not abandon what they benefit so richly from, even if holding on to it puts us all in peril. They will rather go down with the titanic than surrender ship, with some of them believing they have lifeboats of some sort or the other.
So, despite the rottenness of capitalism, it will not in itself fall. It will somehow or the other reconstitute itself after every crisis and lurch on to the next one, worsening living on earth for billions of people, and the earth itself. Capitalism and its discontents have to be overthrown through revolutionary struggle of the working masses. And as Che Guevara rightly pointed out “the revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall”.
Embers of the coming fire
Historically, social progress has been through leaps and bounds of social revolutions. These go beyond political revolutions i.e. power changing hands from one section of a ruling class to another. It entails fundamental changes in society’s economic structure, technology, philosophy and culture. This social transformative process, through which a new class emerges to become representative of society as a whole by moulding the world in its own image, is driven by “massquakes” – series of revolts and revolutions.
We are living through such a moment. The pandemic bust out as a new global cycle of revolt unfolded in 2019. This was the second cycle of worldwide revolts since the Great Recession. Like the first wave, the different moments of the movement included political revolutions (in Sudan and Algeria), strike waves and mass protests. While they was no central plank of cohesion – taking different forms and with different extents of pursuit of their programmatic demands -, working-class people and youths’ resistance to neoliberalism took on palpable flesh and blood in direct confrontation with the bosses and their states, on the streets and workplaces.
On the face of it, the pandemic (marked by what even IMF described as the “Great Lockdown” in its latest World Economic Outlook) disrupted the march of this renewed mass movement. As a number of revolutionaries including the Marxist historian Mike Davis pointed out, the streets have always and will always be a major theatre for the demonstration of the working masses power. But, while the rate of protests sharply declined during the lockdown there were still significant numbers of demonstrations and strikes by working-class people in all regions of the world.
In several countries including Hong Kong, Malawi, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Britain, health and sanitation workers embarked on strike in this period. In the industrial sectors, meatpackers turned down incentives of higher pay to down their tools in Mexico, dockworkers refused to work in Australia and in the United states shipyard, automobile and other workers have also gone on strike. Quite significantly General Electric went on strike to demand the conversion of jet engine factories to make ventilators to help the health sector. Workers in road transport, distribution and logistics workers, restaurants, retail etc have also walked off the job in several countries. In some instances, these have been wildcat strikes against the dictates of the trade union bureaucracy and elsewhere, as with communication workers in Britain, the bureaucracy has snuffed out democratically expressed positions of the rank and file for strike.
Students have not been left out. Chilean students went on “unprecedented online strikes for equality”, in solidarity with those in their ranks who do not have computers to join online classes. And University of Chicago students have refused to pay tuition fees until management cuts fees for the period of the pandemic.
There have been hundreds of radical protests in no less than two dozen countries spread across all regions of the world in this period. These were apart from the balcony applauses for health workers in many European cities and the indoor pots and pans protest by the #RevolutionNow movement in Nigeria.
In the United States alone, nurses organised over 200 protests. In South Africa there were protests because “some do not have enough to eat” as palliatives failed to go around. Similar protests took place in Nigeria over shitty “palliatives”. About two dozen coronavirus patients in an isolation centre also broke out to protest ill treatment and poor care by the government. Despite the massive repressive powers of the Chinese government dozens rose up around Wuhan demanding cuts in rents. There were protests against police brutality in Kenya and refugees protested in Rwanda against the inhumane conditions they were cramped in, while thousands of migrant workers took to the streets in India.
These are pointers to seething mass anger that will fuel the flames of revolutionary pressures in the coming period. There were also reactionary “reopen” protests against the lockdown, particularly in the USA. Posing as grassroots movement, these brought together ragtag foot soldiers of right-wing forces. In Michigan they entered the seat of government with arms. And in Brazil, the right-wing president Mr Bolsonaro joined a protest of some 600 people of his ilk, where he literally called for “military intervention” to maintain order in the pandemic.
We must not forget that along with the massquakes in the wake of the Great Depression, fascism likewise rose. Revolution and counter-revolution are like Siamese twins joined at the hip, one of which must vanquish the other. We are many and they are few. We have history on our side and a future to win. The coming weeks, months and years will be marked by great battles as the class war rages between the 1% and their right-wing minions on one hand and working-class people and radicalised youth on the other.
In conclusion: “No Going Back” – Onward Forward!
We are in uncharted waters of an unfolding revolutionary epoch. There are no maps for the future. But we have the compass of history and theory. Actually, the alternatives are not barbarism or socialism. We are already enmeshed in capitalism’s barbarism, donned in the garb of neoliberalism. The choices are a terminal cataclysm and socialist revolution.
Now more than ever, the working-class movement must be bold and unwavering in its demands. The capitalists have been forced to take some steps against the logic of capitalism, as perverted versions of “invading socialism”. These include public authorities taking over for-profit businesses such as private hospitals, and factories which have been converted to manufacturing based on workers’ needs and not profit. In several countries, governments have paid or ensured that workers are paid whilst not at work and provided “palliatives”.
Even these minimal steps were not taken by the Nigerian capitalists. What went as palliatives, and to a handful within the population, was a joke. The lockdown has been lifted in the middle of a spike in Covid-19 cases simply because the government fears an explosion of mass anger. With two thirds of the workforce in the informal economy staying back home, without tangible economic relief was akin to dying from hunger.
As the lockdown is lifted, tens of thousands of workers have been told they will not be paid any wage for the duration of the lockdown or have been outrightly sacked. Indeed, according to the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) “83 percent of businesses in Nigeria are planning to cut down salaries, downsize workforce or implement a combination of both measures.”
The trade unions have to be firm in resisting this. No worker must lose pay or her/his job due to the pandemic. The companies have been making billions of naira in profits over several years. And the $30bn wealth of the five richest billionaires in the country alone is enough to wipe out poverty in the country. So, the bosses must not be allowed to make us bear the burden of their system’s crisis, they must pay.
The unions must not take a defensive position. On the contrary the must lead an all-out fight to ensure that the new national minimum wage and consequential wages review are paid with immediate effect. We must also insist that social protection measures be put in place. The working masses must have access to free and qualitative public healthcare. The trade unions have to support the radical students’ movement in its demand for reduction of tuition fees, so that children from working-class backgrounds can continue their education.
It is also clear by now that the government intends to hike fuel pump prices and electricity tariffs as well as the value added tax immediately after the crisis is over. This much assurance has been made to the IMF as conditionalities for the $3.4bn. We must not wait till when the government intends to implement these anti-poor policies. Mass mobilisation must start now, demanding progressive taxation, including a wealth tax. The rich must be made to bear the cost and not us. To stop the bosses in their tracks, trade unions, radical parties and movements must take a stance of revolution NOW.
In countries where governments had to take radical public health economic and social protection measures to stem the tide of contagion, they will also try to roll these back and make working-class people bear the burden of the crisis, once the public health emergency is over. The working masses must resist attempts by the capitalists to roll back the concessions they have ceded – and fight to take things further. We must fight to reorganise social and economic life based on working-class people’s ownership and democratic management. The irrational growth for profit which defines capitalism must be decisively brought to an end, to address the climate and ecological crises
Obnoxious public debts must be cancelled. Official and business secrets done away with. Quality health, education and housing must be made available to all as public services. Workers councils must run these and the world of work as a whole.
The revolution must defend itself as the bosses will not sit down idle and watch their wealth and power taken away to build a better world. We have also seen de-classe lumpen youths launch series of robbery attacks against the poor, whilst the police looked the other way. At our workplaces and in our communities, workers and youth self-defence militias must be established. Vigilante groups formed in different neighbourhoods have to be politically consolidated. The arguments of activists must help put the systemic connections between the rising spates of armed robberies and the pen robberies of the capitalists in perspective to workers in their communities and workplaces.
We have seen how rapid changes have been made in a few months by the capitalists. All that is solid is melting into air. Years are compressed into weeks and clarity of our end goal must be upheld at each turn of this fast-moving moment in history. That end goal is our emancipation of ourselves, as working-class people fight to win a better world – with ceaseless struggle and unwavering solidarity. Another world is possible, we can bring this to birth on the ashes of the degenerate capitalist system. To win this world, workers and youths of all lands must unite and fight!
by Baba AYE