We live in a very interesting world, and in interesting times.

Capitalism Kills (Love) by the artist Claire Fontaine

Capitalism Kills (Love) by the artist Claire Fontaine

Things have become particularly interesting over the past few years because of two events:

1. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the subsequent War on Terror

2. The ongoing financial crisis that started in 2008

We’ll return to this later, but the consequence is that we find ourselves in the midst of a global class war that is growing more and more acute. The battles that are being fought today will determine the future we live in.

Unless you particularly look for it, you might not know about all of this. There isn’t a lot of analysis in the mainstream media, and when protest happens it is presented as a localised issue, rather than as part of a global trend towards resistance and an articulation of the need for alternatives.

But in our work we see the daily power struggles around the world, and see how they fit into a bigger political and economic picture.

Let’s go back a bit. How did we get into this mess?

It’s a long and complicated story, with its roots way back in the birth of class society. A handy place to start to understand the current crisis is the early 1970s, though. The long post-war boom – the so-called “Golden Age” of capitalism – was coming to an end, with falling rates of profit exacerbated by the energy crisis.

The ruling class needed to re-engineer society and end the social contract that saw workers’ wages rising with productivity gains.

The economic system that currently dominates the world is sometimes called neoliberalism. It was developed at the University of Chicago, so it is also called Chicago School economics. It is essentially market fundamentalism: it believes that the free market should control every aspect of society.

It was first implemented – tested in the real world – in Chile in 1973, after the CIA-supported coup against the elected government of Salvador Allende. Under the dictator Pinochet, Chile saw for the first time a lot of the things that we have become accustomed too since then: the shrinking of the state, privatisation and so on.

So the link between this economic model and violence is not new; it was born in blood.

Since then, it has sought to remove all obstacles to market dominance. In the West in the 1980s, organised working class power – in the form of trade unions – was severely curtailed when Thatcher defeated the miners and Reagan defeated the air traffic controllers’ union. In the UK, the shift from a manufacturing economy to one based on financial speculation was achieved by privatisation and Thatchers’ deregulation of the financial markets with the “Big Bang” in 1986.

The fall of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s and the end of the cold war lead to a neoliberal triumphalism, economic convergence around the world and an increase in globalisation. This was aided by the invention of the internet. The final obstacle to full spectrum dominance was removed.

In South Africa, racial apartheid was defeated – and the country was initiated into global apartheid.

The combination of parliamentary democracy and neoliberal capitalism seemed to have won; it was the End of History.

However, the final victory of neoliberal capitalism wasn’t accepted by everyone. It has been contested, and there has been a progressive response as well as a reactionary one.

On the progressive side there was a struggle over who globalisation would benefit: people or corporations. It didn’t take long before people raised objections to this new order: in January 1994, the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Mexico, rose up to declare their autonomy from this world.

This lead to a growing movement of people – the altermondialistes – around the world getting together to assert that Another World is Possible. This movement probably reached it’s peak in the Battle of Seattle in 1999 – the mass protest against corporate take over at a WTO minsterial conference.

Police teargassing protesters during the Battle of Seattle

Police teargassing protesters during the Battle of Seattle

But then, in 2001, we had the reactionary response to the this new world order – the 9/11 attack on the twin towers and the subsequent War on Terror.

I think it is correct to read the rise as Islamic fundamentalism as a form of resistance to neoliberal capitalism, globalisation and Western imperialism – but it is a reactionary one.

The consequence of this has been the slow death of political freedom in the West, and a delinking of capitalism from democracy. We have seen an increase in repression and the policing of protest. We live in a society where contesting power on the streets is no longer considered legitimate, and protest is only allowed to happen within tightly controlled kettles.

The altermondialisme of the Seattle generation was beaten back and controlled.

Even more disturbing is the mass surveillance unearthed by Edward Snowden. Forget the Stasi in East Germany – we are now the most monitored society on Earth. We are monitored by the state, which seeks to control us, and by corporations which want to sell us things. And an uncomfortable nexus of the two.

The second major event that creates the present is the financial crisis of 2008. The consequence of this has been a final assault on social democracy and an attempt to shift the burden of the crisis away from the financiers and speculators who created it, and onto ordinary people and society. Suddenly, we are told social democracy is no longer affordable – because “all the money has been spent”. And yet failed banks are paying massive bonuses, and companies are making massive profit.

I won’t spend too long on the economics of the crash because it’s been covered in depth elsewhere, but it’s related to the fact that since the early 1970s, wages have stagnated while productivity has risen. We have more and more goods that need to be sold to keep the economy running, but wages haven’t risen to allow us to buy these things, so we’ve seen the rise of debt-based consumption. Debt is replacing rising wages.

If you’re a Marxist you’d see this as a crisis of overproduction, when market efficiency means we produce more than we can profitably sell. If you’re Keynesian, you’d say that the lack of a mechanism for recycling surplus capital is leading to inequality and starving growth.

Whatever your view, the crisis is with the system, which has used the creation of bubbles to stumble along, rather than resolving the fundamental issues. The housing bubble – now back with a vengeance – is the most recent example, but before that was the dotcom boom.

The crash happened because of a fault in the system. As Thomas Piketty demonstrates, capitalism creates inequality and crisis. The dream that is can lead to a better life for all is a lie.

But instead of addressing the systemic defects, around the world blame is being shifted: onto the public sector, onto the feckless unemployed, onto immigrants. This is austerity politics: we are told that health, education and pensions are no longer affordable, that the unemployed are scroungers. We look for scapegoats, and it is often immigrants, people of colour, the disabled.

The economic crisis is also making the environmental crisis worse:  we can’t afford “green crap” any more, and so we are seeing a new wave of assaults on the Earth: fracking, goldmining in the ancient forest of Skouries in Greece, tar sands, oil pipelines and more.

The failure of politics

Neoliberal dominance has extended into the political sphere: almost all mainstream parties in the world are corporate-friendly. The “Parliamentary Road to Socialism” has failed: the former social democratic parties of the Socialist International – Labour in the UK, the ANC in South Africa, the SPD in Germany and so on – have given up on redistributing wealth, and are content to tinker with the edges of the system.

The “really existing socialism” of the Soviet bloc was exposed as tyranny.

Where does that leave us?

This has lead to an ideological collapse – people no longer believe in ideas, or trust politicians. We see the rise of fascism in Greece, France and Eastern Europe, and of right wing populism in the UK in the form of UKIP, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the EFF in South Africa.

We are reduced to subjective relatively and post-modern cultural activism. We are atomised, individualised. We have lost our collective identity and our collective power. Health care is unaffordable, education is unaffordable, pensions are unaffordable. Everything is privatised and individualised. It is up to each of us to invest wisely from a very young age: to take out debt to study in a field that will hopefully provide a good return through high wages, to choose the appropriate pension scheme and health insurance. If you fail, it is your fault.

Yet most people will fail, because of what has happened to the world of work. Flexibility, precarity, zero hours contracts, unpaid internships: this is becoming the new norm. We are in a new era of competition and a global race to the bottom in wages, terms and conditions and safety.

Bangladesh won the race to the bottom and this produced the Rana Plaza disaster.

Where is this all going?

The future that is being present to us is authoritarian capitalism. “Capitalism with Asian values”, as Žižek calls it, referring to the Chinese model of capitalism without the element of democracy and in the context of state repression.

We have seen citizens movements around the world, such as the Indignados and Occupy. These social movements have arisen out of this crisis and have thrown out all the certainties of the past, and attempted to start again. This populist uprising has occurred across the world, and taken different forms, depending on the political environment and the existing structures

However, they have sometimes suffered from a shallow political analysis, and a lack of an understanding of how power functions.The tyranny of structurelessness in some cases allowed them to be hijacked, or overthrown. For instance, the Maidan uprising in Ukraine was heavily infiltrated by fascists, and the deep state in Egypt was able to capture the revolution there.

These movement have also been brutally suppressed: just yesterday, an Occupy Wall Street protester was found guilty of assaulting a police officer, after being attacked and beaten by police at a demonstration. She faces seven years in prison. UK police killed Ian Tomlinson, and are looking at buying more and more paramilitary equipment, such as water cannon, to control protesters.

So how do we assert ourselves politically in this brave new world? People are fighting back and resisting this dystopian vision, and articulating the desire for a future with justice, equality and dignity.

The success of these struggles will determine the future, and the world our children inherit. It is vitally important for us all to play an active part in the defeat of corporate dominance,


Coming soon: How do we get out of this mess?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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