At what cost to humanity?
Capitalism’s ‘terminal crisis’ cannot be resolved positively without a powerful left, says Rex Dunn
Today we find ourselves in a conjuncture which is unique in human history. This is a reflection of capitalism in terminal crisis, thanks to its internal contradictions, which are unresolvable. In addition, this has led to an existential crisis for humanity itself: ie, the real possibility of an ecological catastrophe.
Meanwhile, bourgeois democracy is becoming more authoritarian. Not only is it dependent on the decisions of a managerial bureaucracy - the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund, etc, which direct the political elites at the national level, such as the Federal Reserve bank, the Congressional lobby industry and the politicians themselves. But now these institutions are being challenged by the US president and his cabinet, as the virtually unaccountable executive of the world’s hegemon. Trump and his team are beginning to act in their own interests - even when they contradict those of America’s traditional allies.
The world is becoming more unstable, and there is rising inequality everywhere - especially in Africa, parts of the Middle East and Asia. This is being exacerbated by wars and ecological devastation. The burning of fossil fuels shows no sign of slowing down - alongside new green energy, we have the development of the fracking industry, especially in the United States, which today is self-sufficient in fossil fuels. Add to this the destruction of the rainforests, desertification, acidification of the oceans (three fifths of the earth’s surface); loss of habitats and the possibility of another mass extinction, including many species upon which civilisation depends.
This does not mean that all life is about to become extinct. Rather, as Marx pointed out a long time ago, the “productive forces [have received] under the system of private property a one-sided development only, [but] for the majority they become destructive forces”.1 In geological terms, we have entered the ‘capitalocene’ epoch, which within a short time is moving towards ‘capitalist ecocide’. We are already living in a world where there is a scarcity of natural resources, upon which the many depend for their very existence. Alongside this we see an abundance of technology, which is controlled by the few, as a means to enrich themselves further.
Yet the consciousness of the masses is at an all-time low. Instead of developing what Marx called “the consciousness of the need for a fundamental revolution”, we have the rise of rightwing populism. In the United States, this led to Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. He won by repeating the mantra, ‘Make America great again’ (and continues to do so). He uses crude sensationalism, such as this, as a means to stir up old-style national chauvinism in a new form: nostalgia for ‘the way we were’!
He is supported in this by millions of self-employed people, blue-collar workers, women as well as men, even a few black voters - despite the fact that he is a racist and a misogynistic bully; not just a demagogue, but a megalomaniac as well. The most powerful man in the world also conducts the affairs of state via Twitter (no-one would have believed this before Trump came along!). So far, his only major achievement has been a massive tax cut for the rich, whilst ordering an equivalent increase in America’s defence budget. Therefore the US debt, which already amounts to trillions of dollars, will jump even higher. (Yet, given its huge surplus, China acts as creditor to the US; even though the latter is gearing up for a possible war against its rival; otherwise the dollar, upon which world trade depends, might collapse!) Meanwhile the masses continue to swallow the hype that Trump has created millions of new jobs. But many of these are in the self-employed sector (which will go bust, come the next downturn). The rest are low-paid jobs based on zero-hour contracts.
Trump’s core support also includes millions of evangelical Christians. They believe that the president is an instrument of god’s will, who will bring about Armageddon in the ‘Holy Land’, as a precursor to Christ’s ‘second coming’, followed by the ‘rapture’. His vice-president is an evangelical Christian; so is his secretary of state. It is hard to believe that such an insane ideology is being used to drive American foreign policy.
On the other hand, it dovetails neatly with the hegemon’s geopolitical interests. Recently Trump gave Zionist Israel - a colonialist settler state and outrider for American imperialism in the Middle East - the green light to complete the dispossession of the Palestinian people (Trump has already flagged this up as the “deal of the century”). At the same time, he is stirring up a possible war with Iran, wherein Israel will play a proxy role.2 After all, the US has to demonstrate its hegemonic status to the world. It is a demonstration of ‘who’s boss’, especially to China. It also acts as a riposte to the latter’s development of a new high-tech system to boost internet technology; not forgetting its new trade policy: ie, Beijing’s ‘belt and road initiative’). But the bottom line is the fact that the US economy is still driven by military Keynesianism (which it prefers to any Keynesian Green New Deal!).
This has been the default position of the US, ever since Dwight D Eisenhower embraced the military-industrial complex during the cold war, so the Democrats are unlikely to buck the trend. Therefore, despite the breakdown of neoliberal economics - in short, austerity on the one hand, and rising inequality on the other - Trump was able to win the support of the so-called ‘left behinds’, because their living standards have fallen in real terms. His core support is holding up well and, come the next presidential election in 2020, there is every possibility he will make inroads into the Democrat’s core base as well. Apart from ‘Make America great again’, he has also been able to tap into a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment (which is worldwide), whether it is a question of political refugees or ‘economic migrants’.
Thus rightwing populism is poised to become mainstream. If that happens, neoliberalism - and the Democrats - will be fatally destabilised; even though Trump has appropriated the basic elements of their economic agenda. On the other hand, he is implacably opposed to neoliberalism’s social agenda: identity politics. Therefore bipartisan politics itself is under threat.
Meanwhile bourgeois - as well as Marxist economists - predict there will be another financial crash in the next period, which will be worse than 2008. Yet the managerial bureaucracy is reluctant to abandon neoliberal economics in favour of a neo-Keynesian Green New Deal (GND), even though this would provide new technologies to create new jobs, as well as tackle the climate crisis. Instead, aided and abetted by Trump, neoliberalism continues to destroy people’s lives by means of the ‘free market’, globalisation, outsourcing of investments, low wages, welfare cuts and permanent austerity.
Rather than face up to the challenge, the Democratic Party pinned its hopes on the Mueller enquiry into Trump’s alleged misconduct. But, when this came up with nothing, the leadership appeared to be nonplussed. This is because the Democrats are tied to corporate America: most likely they will choose Jo Biden to challenge Trump in a year’s time. But like Hillary Clinton before him, Biden’s first priority is to prop up finance capital, along with the super rich (or ‘the 1%’). Therefore the Democrats have nothing to offer the working class, other than a vague promise to raise the minimum wage and defend Medicare (but don’t hold your breath). On the other hand, if the Democrats are to have any chance of winning in 2020, they would have to opt for a Green New Deal alternative. But, unlike Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s, they are incapable of doing that. If they do lose, it will be because they are unable to offer a real alternative to the American working class. It is a case of paralysis versus regression, which is indicative of the decline of capitalism itself.
Under these circumstances, as long as nature is ruled by “some blind power” - ie, the market - the world is becoming increasingly irrational. Otherwise how do we explain the Trump phenomenon? As one critic said, if we were living in a sane world, then Trump would lose by a landslide - even if he was running against a potted plant!
On the other hand, whilst it does have a sane agenda (such as a commitment to a GND), the tiny American left is unable to break out of its isolation. It has nothing to offer the working class either, because it is tied to the apron strings of the Democratic Party, despite the fact that the latter remains wedded to neoliberalism. That is why traditional ideologies, such as sexism, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and nationalism, continue to grow.
But now, thanks to neoliberalism and its social agenda, these reactionary ideas find expression in a new ideological form: identitarian politics, which focuses on group identity, rather than class issues. Hence we have fragmentation and social disintegration. Paradoxically, whilst alienation has been compartmentalised in this way, it is still able to spread itself across the political spectrum: from left liberalism to the fascist right; from bourgeois feminism (the ‘me too’ movement and LGBT+, wherein gays and the supporters of gender ideology are fighting each other), to white supremacy (angry white men, who want to save the ‘white race’ from the Muslim invasion); along with its mirror opposite, Islamist jihadists (save Islam from the Crusader Christians). Hence we are seeing an increase in terrorist outrages carried out by the far right: white supremacists, on the one side, and Islamist extremists, on the other, in a deadly tit-for-tat struggle. The Christchurch massacre and the bombings in Sri Lanka are just the latest examples.
Automation and artificial intelligence will continue to be used to create unnecessary wants or for destructive ends - eg, driverless cars, surveillance capitalism and war - not to shorten the hours of work. Therefore, given the absence of a real alternative, the direction of movement for the mass of humanity is further to the right.
But what about the Extinction Rebellion against the threat of an ecological catastrophe? At last we have a climate change movement which cannot be ignored. But it had to be kick-started by schoolchildren, who feel betrayed by their parents’ generation. At least they are aware that there is ‘no planet B’! But this movement - like the Occupy movement before it - is likely to fade away, unless the working class decides to support it. But the latter is fragmented by identitarian politics.
Apart from another financial crash, political economists are also predicting that the trade war between Trump and China will deepen, because China is fighting back. A combination of Trump’s tax cuts and tariffs (which is already raising prices) could trigger a new slump. If that happens, another dose of austerity will not be sufficient - there will have to be a shift towards a more authoritarian form of ‘democracy’. In the United States things are already deeply corrupted by the corporate lobby. Perhaps the next step will be a one-party state to match that of China? Trump has already tweeted that he is entitled to an extra two years in office, because the Mueller enquiry hampered his promise to ‘make America great again’.
Come the 2020 election, all he has to do is win control of both houses of Congress. He already has control of the Supreme Court. Cue a Trump dynasty and an elected dictatorship. But the problem for ‘Trumpism’ is the ‘free market’ model itself, which is beginning to falter. Therefore a move towards something like China’s top-down state-regulated model of ‘future capitalism’ is possible (if not probable).
Trump is not just one of the most maverick presidents in the history of the United States. We could be witnessing the start of capitalism’s necessary transition to a new form - but without the consciousness of a need to renew the social revolution. The foundations for this have already been laid: There is already a tendency to impose a scarcity of resources on the many, in order to ensure that there will be an abundance of riches for the few. But, in order to be completely successful, this will require a policy of exterminism for anyone who is surplus to requirements. (In this regard, the war in the Yemen, which is backed by Trump, offers a template for the future.)
Thus the chances of achieving socialism are becoming even more remote. Yet this is a necessary precondition for “the true realm of freedom”, which, according to Marx, is the “final form” or condition towards which man, as a ‘species being’, is supposed to be developing.
Capitalism is coming to an end. But how will it end? What will be the cost to humanity and the rest of the planet?
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, p87.↩
As I was writing this, an American fleet was heading towards Iranian waters. At the same time, Trump has pledged to cut Iran’s vital oil exports to “zero”, in an attempt to bring the regime to its knees. This is an unalloyed provocation, wherein any response by Iran - eg, its announcement that it would start enriching uranium again - could be seen as a pretext for an attack on the country, initially by Israel. If that happens, we could see the outbreak of a new and much more dangerous war in the Middle East.↩