Category Archives: Capitalism
Speaking to the crowd of Poor People’s Campaign demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court building 6-13-18, Reverend William Barber II, co-leader of the campaign, said, “I heard a friend of mine. He’s dead, but I heard him in a book. He was gay. He’s a powerful brother. And he said something like this in the 1930s, in the middle of traumatic times, that still has relevancy today to us:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every person is free.
The land that is mine—the poor man’s, the Indian’s, the Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Call me any ugly name you choose—
But the steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
That America will be!
It’s a good thing I listen to selected episodes of “Democracy Now” via podcast, or I would have missed last Wednesday’s incredibly moving story about the Poor People’s campaign, barely mentioned in the New York Times. I hope you’ll go to http://www.democracy now.org and listen too. The story of the arrests (for demonstrating in front of the Supreme Court, which had just upheld suppression of voter rights in Ohio), what participants had to say, and the songs they sang (“Everybody got a right to live”) had me on the verge of tears. Go to www.poorpeoplescampaign.org and volunteer to join the campaign and/or donate. I did both.
This campaign inspires me for two powerful reasons: its goals not only need to be realized, but when they are the promises of my era, the ’60s, will be fulfilled (this campaign is a continuation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign). Another key podcast, a speech by Black Panther founder and leader Bobby Seale broadcast on June 7th, is available on Alternative Radio (www.alternativeradio.org). Seale’s ideas are right in line with the Poor People’s Campaign. Power to the people!
Editors Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt introduce Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (2017) by saying that “the deep time of geology, climate, and natural science is collapsing into the historical time of human technology.” Our species, Anthropos, “has become an overwhelming force that can build and destroy, birth and kill all others on the planet.”
We can counter this process by noticing what Deborah Bird Rose, in Chapter 3, calls “shimmer,” however. Rose notes that what’s occurring in the extinction crisis is more dire than the numbers of extinct and threatened species indicate. Because everything is connected, “relationships also unravel, mutualities falter, and whole worlds of knowledge and practice diminish…Shimmer, the ancestral power of life, arises in relationship and encounter, so extinction cascades drag shimmer from the world. The loss is both devastating and barely comprehensible…
Shimmer is an Aboriginal aesthetic that calls us into multispecies worlds. I use the term ‘aesthetic’ in a nontechnical way to discuss things that appeal to the senses, things that evoke or capture feelings and responses. Flowering plants, for example, have lures that both entice one’s attention and offer rewards.
In his classic essay ‘From Dull to Brilliant,’ anthropologist Howard Morphy discusses art in the Arnhem Land region of North Australia. His focus is on the Yolngu term bir’yun, which translates as ‘brilliant’ or ‘shimmering.’ When a Yolngu painting has just its rough shape, the artists describe it as ‘dull.’ The crosshatching that comes next shifts the painting to ‘brilliant,’ and it’s the brilliance of the finely detailed work that captures the eye. Bir’yun is the shimmer, the brilliance, a kind of motion that brings you into the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world, the ephemeral dance of it all.
In contrast to Morphy, I didn’t work with people who were visual artists; I encountered people who focused on ritual performance, connecting bodies and earth through dance and song. In music, there are multiple temporal patterns, and through them one can also experience shimmer.” The seasons, from the dullness of the dry to the shimmering new growth of the wet, pulse this way, too. “Absence is potential rather than lack. This is where one grasps the awful disaster of extinction cascades: not only life and life’s shimmer, but many of its potentials are eroding…
The term bir’yun, which doesn’t distinguish between domains of nature and culture, is characteristic of a lively, pulsating world, not a mechanistic one – a world not composed of gears and cogs but of multifaceted, multispecies relations and pulses. To act as if the world beyond humans is composed of ‘things’ for human use is a catastrophic assault on the diversity, complexity, abundance, and beauty of life.”
In “Stopping Fascism,” his most recent podcast on “Alternative Radio,” writer and social critic Chris Hedges compares the declining Roman Empire with the US in 2017 – both “dominated by a bloated military and corrupt oligarchy.” He adds that just as getting rid of the vain and incompetent Emperor Commodus in 192 AD didn’t stop Rome’s decline, getting rid of Donald Trump won’t stop ours. “The choice is between inept fascists like Trump and competent fascists like Pence. Our republic and our democracy are dead,” as the result of a four-decade takeover by the conservative elite and the corporate state. Hedges goes on to describe what’s happening and detail the only way he sees to counter it.
“Idiots, seeing in such decay the chance for personal advancement and/or profit, take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor and falsely project economic growth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil, and the air, slash jobs, and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrowing of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. And idiot professors, experts, and specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttress the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore, and fantasy.
There’s a familiar checklist for extinction, and we’re ticking off every item on it. The idiots know only one word: ‘more.’ They’re unencumbered by common sense. They hoard wealth and resources until workers can’t make a living and the infrastructure collapses. They live in privileged compounds where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. They see the state as a projection of their own vanity. The Roman, Mayan, French, Hapsburg, Ottoman, Romanoff, Wilhelmine, Pahlavi, and Soviet dynasties crumbled because the whims and obsessions of ruling idiots were law.
Trump is the face of our collective idiocy. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality, a sputtering, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This face in the past was hidden, at least to most white Americans, but with the destruction of democratic institutions and the disempowerment of the citizen, the oligarchs and the kleptocrats have become brazen. They no longer need to pretend. They steal and lie openly. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignore the looming catastrophe caused by global warming, and cannibalizing the nation. Forget the paralysis in Congress and the inanity of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president. The crisis we face isn’t embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. It’s a four-decade-long slow-motion corporate coup d’état that’s left corporations and the war machine omnipotent, turned our electoral system into legalized bribery, and elevated public figures who master the arts of entertainment and artifice. Trump is the symptom; he is not the disease.
Our descent into despotism began with the pardoning of Richard Nixon, all of whose impeachable crimes are now legal, and the extrajudicial assault, including targeted assassinations and imprisonment, carried out on dissidents and radicals, especially black radicals. This assault, done in the name of law and order, put the organs of internal security, from the FBI to Homeland Security, beyond the reach of the law. It began with the creation of corporate- funded foundations and organizations that took control of the press, the courts, the universities, scientific research, and the two major political parties. It began with empowering militarized police to kill unarmed citizens and the spread of a horrendous system of mass incarceration and the death penalty. It began with the stripping away of our most basic constitutional rights: privacy, due process, habeas corpus, fair elections, and dissent. It began when big money was employed by political operatives such as Roger Stone, a close adviser to Trump, who spread malicious gossip and false narratives, eagerly amplified by a media devoted to profits and ratings rather than truth, until political debate became burlesque.
The ruling elites, terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s, built counter-institutions to delegitimize and marginalize critics of corporate capitalism and imperialism. They bought the allegiances of the two main political parties, and imposed obedience to the neoliberal ideology within academia and the press. This campaign, laid out by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memorandum titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was the blueprint for the creeping coup d’état that 45 years later is complete.
Our failure to defend the rights of those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted, and now we’re paying for our complacency, trapped like rats in a cage. A con artist may be turning the electric shocks on and off, but the problem is the corporate state. Until we dismantle that, we’re doomed.
Racist, violent, and despotic forces have always been part of the American landscape. They have often been tolerated and empowered by the state to persecute poor people of color and dissidents. These forces are denied absolute power as long as a majority of citizens have a say in their own governance. But once citizens are locked out of government and denied a voice, power shifts into the hands of the enemies of the open society. When democratic institutions cease to function, when the consent of the governed becomes a joke, despots fill the political void. They give vent to popular anger and frustration while arming the state to do to the majority what it has long done to the minority.
This tale is as old as civilization. It was played out in ancient Greece and Rome, the Soviet Union, fascist Germany, fascist Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. Once a tiny cabal seizes power – monarchist, Communist, fascist, or corporate – it creates a Mafia economy and a Mafia state.
Corporations are legally empowered to exploit and loot, and it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or Exxon Mobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries are legally empowered to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Banks are legally empowered to burden people with student loans that can’t be forgiven by declaring bankruptcy. The animal agriculture industry is legally empowered in many states to charge those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms, where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter, with a criminal offense. Corporations are legally empowered to carry out tax boycotts. Free-trade deals legally empower global corporations to destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water, and food and usurious creditors and lenders have been gutted. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as the right to petition the government and a form of free speech. The press, owned by corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold off to corporations that hike rates and deny services. The educational system is being privatized and turned into a species of rote vocational training. Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment, masked by falsified statistics, have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, food shortages, and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed citizens. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million people, few of whom ever got a trial. And a million prisoners now work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves paid pennies on the dollar without any rights or protection.
The amendments to the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads, ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts, and financial, judicial, and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded, and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks. The executive branch of government is empowered to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize US citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists in a process called extraordinary rendition. Those seized can be denied due process and habeas corpus and held indefinitely in military facilities. Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs, and associations are now criminalized. The state can detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last. The outward forms of democratic participation – voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight, and legislation – are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere, at any time, who can’t protect themselves from corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen is one of master and slave, and the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.
The coup destroyed the two-party system, labor unions, education, the judiciary, the press, academia, consumer and environmental protection, our industrial base, communities and cities, and the lives of tens of millions of Americans no longer able to find work that provides a living wage, cursed to live in chronic poverty or locked in cages. Perhaps even more ominously, this coup destroyed the credibility of liberal democracy itself. Self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama mouthed the words of liberal democratic values while making war on these values in the service of corporate power, thus rendering these values meaningless.
The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to adopt a new ideology, telling undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was discredited as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites, opening the door to an authoritarian populism begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith, and the return of a mythical past. It turns out, 45 years later, that those who truly hate us for our freedoms are not the array of dehumanized enemies cooked up by the war machine: the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, even the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or ISIS. They are the financiers, bankers, politicians, public intellectuals and pundits, lawyers, journalists, and business people cultivated in the elite universities and business schools who sold us the utopian dream of neoliberalism.
We are entering the twilight phase of capitalism. Capitalists, unable to generate profits by expanding markets, have, as Karl Marx predicted, begun to cannibalize the state like ravenous parasites. Wealth is no longer created by producing or manufacturing, but by manipulating the prices of stocks and commodities and imposing a crippling debt peonage on the public. This casino capitalism is designed to prey on the desperate young men and women burdened by student loans, underpaid workers burdened by credit-card debt and mortgages, and towns and cities forced to borrow to maintain municipal services.
This seminal moment in human history marks the end of a long, tragic tale of plunder and murder by the white race. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting, and polluting the earth in the name of civilization and human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone or anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources, and believed their orgy of blood and gold would never end. Even now, as we stand on the cusp of extinction, we lack the ability to free ourselves from this myth of human progress. The taxes of corporations and the rich are cut, and public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry.
The merging of the self with a capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self- reflection, and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character, but by the material standards set by capitalism: wealth, brands, status, and career advancement. We’ve been molded into a compliant and repressed collective, a conformity characteristic of totalitarian states. And when magical thinking doesn’t work, we’re told and often accept that we are the problem. We must have more faith, we must try harder.
What does resistance look like now? It won’t come by investing hope in the Democratic Party, which didn’t lose the election because of Comey or the Russians, but because it betrayed working men and women on behalf of corporate power and used its machinery to deny the one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who could have defeated Trump, from getting the nomination. Resistance will entail a personal commitment to refuse to cooperate in large and small ways with the machinery of corporate power.
In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races, and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead, some are forgotten, most are unknown. These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits: a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence, and a deep empathy that was extended to people different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent, and to this day I set my life by the standards they set.
You have heard of some, such as Václav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met during the Velvet Revolution in Prague in 1989. Others no less great you may not know, such as the Jesuit priest, Ignacio Ellacuría, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those ordinary people – although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, ‘No people are ordinary’ – who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity who were being persecuted and hunted. To some of these ordinary people I owe my life.
To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It’s defying injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency, and at times your life. It’s being a lifelong heretic, accepting that the dominant culture and perhaps, and maybe even especially, the liberal elites will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at the New York Times in 2003, after denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I’d known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby.
Ruling institutions – the state, the press, the church, the courts, and academia – mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, which provide them with money, status, and authority. Individuals who defy these institutions, as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are purged and turned into pariahs. All institutions, including the church, as Paul Tillich wrote, are inherently demonic. A life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience won’t allow you to make. Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression ‘a sublime madness in the soul,’ and wrote that ‘nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places.’ This ‘sublime madness’ is the essential quality for a life of resistance. As Daniel Berrigan said, ‘We are called to do the good, insofar as we can determine it, and then let it go.’ As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘The only morally reliable people are not those who say “This is wrong” or “This should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.”’ They know that, as Immanuel Kant wrote, ‘If justice perishes, human life has lost its meaning.’ This means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act. And given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason but by faith.
I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith that lies outside of any religious or philosophical creed – what Havel called ‘living in the truth,’ exposing the corruption, lies, and deceit of the state. It’s a refusal to be part of the charade. And it has a cost. ‘You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,’ Havel wrote. ‘You’re thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You’re cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.’
The dissident doesn’t operate in the realm of power. He or she has no desire for office and doesn’t try to charm the public. His or her actions simply articulate their dignity as a citizen regardless of the cost.
The long, long road of sacrifice and defiance that led to the collapse of the Communist regime stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They didn’t try to reform the Communist Party or work within the system; they didn’t even know what, if anything, their tiny protests, ignored by the state-controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives, because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue, and they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these rebels – the poets, playwrights, actors, singers, and writers – ultimately triumphed over state and military power, because, however cowed and broken the people around them appeared, their message did not go unheard or unseen.
We may feel powerless, but we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements to follow. It passes on another narrative. And it will, as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes, but if we persist, we keep this possibility alive.
Dr. Rieux, in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, isn’t driven by ideology, but by empathy – the duty to minister to the suffering of others no matter the cost. Empathy for human beings locked in cages, for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities, for Muslims demonized and banned from our shores as they try to flee the wars and terror we created, for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets, for girls and women trafficked into prostitution, and for the earth, which gives us life and which is being destroyed, is viewed as seditious by despots.
Accept sorrow, for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful at the state of our nation and world? But know that in resistance there is a balm that leads to wisdom, and if not joy, a strange transcendent happiness. Because as long as we resist, we keep hope alive.
The days ahead will be dark and frightening, but we must fight for the sacred, we must fight for life, we must fight the forces of death. We fight not only for ourselves, but for those who will come after us – our children. We must not be complicit. We must live in truth. The moment we defy power in any form, we are victorious – when we stand with the oppressed and accept being treated like the oppressed, when we hold up a flickering light in the darkness for others to see, when we thwart the building of a pipeline or a fracking site, when we keep a mother faced with deportation with her children, and when we mass in the streets to defy police violence. We must turn the tide of fear. We must, by taking the streets, make the ruling elites frightened of us.
To sit idle, to refuse to defy these forces, to be complicit will atrophy and wither our souls. This is not only a fight for life – it’s a fight that gives life. It’s the supreme expression of faith: the belief that no matter how great the power of evil, the power of love is greater. I do not, in the end, fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. Thank you.”
I highly recommend that you subscribe to the Alternative Radio podcast and look back in your feed so that you can listen to this incredibly eloquent speech. You can also get a CD, an MP3, or a transcript on www.alternativeradio.org.
The global economy is unsustainable in the long run, both because of the inherent contradictions within capitalism and the finite nature of the world’s resources. It almost went down during the 2008 economic crisis, and the American and other bailouts were just temporary fixes. Additional austerity measures have been politically resisted by the left in Greece, Spain, and other European countries, and reacted to by right-wing parties targeting immigrants. In “World economy: the return of crisis” (International Socialist Review, Fall 2016), Joel Geier and Less Sustar say, that in the United States, “the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus program focused on propping up the financial system while cash-strapped state and local governments slashed spending. The Federal Reserve drastically lowered its main interest rate and bought up the banks’ holdings of US treasury bonds. When that wasn’t enough to spur the banks into lending, it went on to buy enormous amounts of the banks’ dodgy mortgage-backed securities.
In Europe, the transfer of bank and private sector debt to public debt increased it to such a level that some states, like Greece and Portugal, were unable to borrow more money by selling new government bonds. To limit borrowing, those governments introduced austerity measures, or were forced to do so by the ‘troika’ of the EU, the IMF, and the European Central Bank (ECB). (In the pre-eurozone era, those countries would have had the option of devaluing their currencies to try to export their way out of the slump by making their products cheaper on the world market. Members of the 19-country eurozone have no such option – they’re locked into whatever policy that the German-dominated ECB permits.) The aim was to ‘restore confidence’ and ensure that European banks got their money back no matter what the social cost. This was the context for the ‘Leave’ campaign for Brexit, an alliance of the anti-immigrant right with British capitalists convinced that a future outside the crisis-bound EU was a better prospect. In the US, the economy and rising inequality fueled both the rise of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign and Bernie Sanders’s unexpected success in reintroducing socialism into mainstream US political discussion for the first time in decades.
Eight years of easy money have created enormous amounts of what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’: speculation and the valuation of real and paper assets at higher levels without a corresponding growth of underlying productive capital. It had been hoped that easy money policies would inflate assets sufficiently so that wealthy people would make larger investments. This was then supposed to trickle down to workers and the middle class by creating jobs and generating consumer demand. Instead, there were mammoth asset bubbles throughout the world in stocks, bonds and housing. The $2.4 trillion parked offshore by US corporations to avoid taxes highlighted this reluctance to make investments.
When the crisis of 2007-09 began, Chinese banks didn’t feel the same financial shock as their Western and Japanese counterparts, because they had more than $2 trillion in foreign reserves, enabling the Chinese leadership to provide both credit and stimulus. In fact, it was the Chinese government’s $590 billion stimulus program in 2009 – proportionately much bigger than that of the United States – that did the most to blunt the world crisis. Prices of commodities and energy soared, giving a big lift to emerging markets and boosting the economies of commodity-producing countries like Russia, India, China, and South Africa,” known collectively as the BRICs [Brazil-Russia-India-China]. On the other hand, “China has $16 trillion in corporate debt, 160% of GDP – twice the ratio in the United States, a growing risk for the world system.
A worldwide crash in commodity prices began in 2013 and stabilized only in mid-2016 as the Chinese stimulus worked its way through the world system. Oil dropped 75% between 2014 and early 2016 from $120 to $30 per barrel before it recovered, and the pattern was similar for copper, aluminum, and other raw materials, an indicator of the slowing demand for industrial production on a world scale. Commodity producers’ high profits turned to catastrophic losses almost overnight. The world’s leading oil exporters also found themselves in a devastating price war, as Saudi Arabia ramped up production to maintain market share at the expense of OPEC members like Venezuela and Nigeria and the oil and gas boom in the United States. With the plunge in commodity prices has come a sharp slowdown in world trade, which has never fully recovered from the Great Recession.
The US economy, despite steady job growth, has struggled to attain a 2% rate of growth since the end of the Great Recession, compared to 3.5% annual growth in the period since the World War II. Investment remained low by historical standards. The Wall Street Journal noted: ‘Companies appear reluctant to step up spending on the basic building blocks of the economy, such as machines, computers and new buildings.’ Low investment begat miniscule gains in productivity, the foundation of profitability.
The latest stimulus spending in China may keep the global economy from a further slowdown, but only at the cost of adding to growing debts, worsening overcapacity, and tensions over trade, thus preparing the way for a potentially worse crisis. Low interest rates have also constrained bank profits, particularly in Europe. If the banks are having difficulty in a zero-interest world, other financial institutions are staggering towards crisis. The business model for pension funds and insurance companies requires them to generate income of 7–8% per year, so continued low interest rates threaten their solvency in coming years. To try and eke out larger reserves, many pension funds and insurance companies have been compelled to take on more risk, such as collateralized mortgage obligations and bonds from emerging market economies, countries that now in crisis as the result of the crash in commodities prices.
It’s highly probable that the economic slowdown in emerging markets will trigger a financial crisis. The only question is when this will occur and how severe it will be. It’s impossible to predict, as the unregulated shadow banking system – the non-bank financial institutions that played a central role in the crash of 2008 – is now bigger than ever.
How will governments and capitalists respond to a new slump, since their traditional methods have failed? Whatever capital comes up with to restructure the system will be complicated by the rise of economic nationalism exemplified by Trump, Brexit, and Le Pen. In the 2008–09 crisis, the Group of 20 industrialized nations coordinated stimulus spending and bank bailouts, narrowly averting a 1930s-scale slump. Today, however, governments pressured by nationalists and burdened by huge debts may be unable or unwilling to cooperate on similar measures.
There have been three previous periods of protracted economic crises that were resolved by the restructuring of capitalism. The first was the crisis of the 1870s to the 1890s, which was overcome by the rise of monopoly corporations, finance capital, and imperialism, setting the stage for the World War I. The war failed to fully resolve inherent contradictions, either economically or politically, setting the stage for the Great Depression of the 1930s and a second inter-imperialist war. At the end of the World War II and the absolute destruction of capital in Europe and Japan, the United States emerged as the dominant power and used institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to lock in its hegemony. The third crisis, lasting from 1974 to 1982, was overcome by the neoliberal restructuring of industry, deregulation, and the collapse of Stalinism.”
A more recent International Socialist Review article on this subject, by Ashley Smith in the Summer 2017 issue, updates all this from the point of view of imperialism. Smith notes that Obama tried to counter the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan by conducting “a ‘pivot to Asia’ to contain China’s ongoing rise, bolster Washington’s political and military alliance with Japan and South Korea, and prevent their economic incorporation into China’s growing sphere of influence. The now dead Trans-Pacific Partnership was meant to ensure American economic hegemony in the region, which would then be backed up militarily with the deployment of 60% of the US Navy to the Asia Pacific region. Obama also began to push back against Russian opposition to the EU and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe – hence the standoff over Ukraine. Obama was unable to fully implement any of this, however, because US forces remained bogged down in the spiraling crisis in the Middle East. Retreating from the Bush administration’s policy of regime change, while continuing to support historic allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, he struck a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. This strategy was undermined by the Arab Spring, the regimes’ counterrevolutions, attempts by regional powers to manipulate the rebellion for their own ends, and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Russia, after having suffered a long-term decline of its power in the region, has also managed to reassert itself through its intervention in Syria in support of Assad’s counterrevolution.
While the United States continued to suffer relative political decline internationally, China and Russia became more assertive. Russia took Crimea, and China intensified its economic dealmaking throughout the world, increasing its foreign direct investment from a paltry $17.2 billion in 2005 to $187 billion in 2015. At the same time, it engaged in a massive buildup of its navy and air force (though its military is still dwarfed by the US) and constructed new military bases on various islands to control the shipping lanes, fisheries, and potential oil fields in the South China Sea.
Trump’s strategy to restore American dominance in the world is economic nationalism. He wants to combine neoliberalism at home with protectionism against foreign competition, a position that breaks with the American establishment’s grand strategy of superintending ‘free-trade’ globalization. He’s threatening to impose tariffs on American corporations that move their production to other countries, has nixed the TPP, and intends to do the same to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe. He promises to renegotiate NAFTA with Mexico and Canada to secure better terms, and, in response to Chinese and EU protectionism, he threatens to impose a border tax of 45% on Chinese and others countries’ exports to the United States, measures that could trigger a trade war.
Demagogic appeals to labor aside, Trump is doing none of this for the benefit of American workers. His program is intended to restore the competitive position of American capital, particularly manufacturing, against its rivals, especially in China and Germany. This economic nationalism is paired with a promise to rearm the American military, which he views as having been weakened by Obama. He wants a 9% increase in the military budget to build up the Navy and to modernize and expand the nuclear arsenal, even if that provokes other powers to do the same. Trump also plans to intensify what he sees as a civilizational war with Islam. This will likely involve ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran and widening the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Viewing China rather than Russia as the main threat to this country, he also intends to create a more transactional relationship with the Kremlin. Hoping that he can split Russia away from China and neutralize it as a lesser power, Trump then wants to confront China with tariffs and military challenges to its assertion of control of the South China Sea.
Corollaries of Trump’s ‘America First’ imperialism abroad are economic austerity and authoritarianism at home. Can his plans succeed? Almost all capital is overjoyed at his domestic neoliberalism, but sees his proposals of tariffs, renegotiation of NAFTA, and scrapping of the TPP and the TTIP as threats to their global production and investment strategies. The Democratic Party, rather than attacking Trump on his manifold reactionary policies, has portrayed him as Putin’s ‘Manchurian Candidate,’ insufficiently nationalistic, militaristic, and aggressive.
Even if Trump weathers resistance from above and below, his foreign policy could flounder on its own internal conflicts and inconsistencies. To take one example: his policy of collaboration with Russia in Syria could flounder on his simultaneous commitment to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran, since Iran is a Russian ally in the region.
The United States faces continued decline in the neoliberal world order, while China, even taking into account the many contradictions it faces, is benefiting from the current setup. That’s why, in an ironic twist of historic proportions, Chinese premier Xi Jing Ping defended the Washington Consensus in his country’s first address at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. He even went so far as to promise to come to the rescue of free-trade globalization if the Trump administration abandons it, declaring, ‘No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.’ At the same time, China is trying to push out multinationals that have used it as an export-processing platform and replace them with its own state-owned and private corporations, which, like Germany, will export its surplus manufactured goods to the rest of the world market. Determined to challenge American imperial rule of the Asian Pacific, China appealed to states in the Asia Pacific region to sign on to its alternative trade treaty, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) right after Trump nixed the TPP. Though its navy is far smaller than Washington’s, it’s also building up its regional naval power against Trump’s threats to block Chinese access to strategic islands in the South China Sea.
All of this was underway before Trump. That’s why Obama initiated the pivot to Asia, deployed the US Navy to the region, and imposed tariffs on Chinese steel and tires. He also complained about NATO countries and others freeloading on American military largesse and encouraged Japan’s rearmament and deployments of its forces abroad. He even began the move to on-shoring manufacturing based on a low-wage America with cheap energy and revitalized infrastructure. There are countervailing forces that mitigate the tendency toward military conflict between the US and China: the high degree of economic integration makes the ruling classes hesitant to risk war, and because all the major states are nuclear powers, each is reluctant to risk armed conflicts turning into mutual annihilation. In this context, the Marxist theory of imperialism, which begins with the inherent contradiction between market globalization and the division of the world into competing national states, is essential to understanding the world today.” Smith notes here that Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy positions were/are “pro-imperialist. The emerging new Left must engage in principled opposition to all imperialisms and stand in solidarity with national liberation struggles like that of the Palestinians and revolutionary struggles like that in Syria, regardless of which imperial camp such struggles are in opposition to. This approach will be essential in the coming period that promises to be characterized by explosive struggle from below and intensifying struggle for global supremacy between the United States and China, amid other interstate conflicts.
This approach will also be necessary for our domestic political struggles. The crises and conflicts in the system will drive increasing numbers of migrants and refugees to the United States and countries throughout the world. It will be essential for the left to stand up against Trump’s attempt to deflect blame for the system’s failure onto migrants, especially Muslims. Only by challenging such bigotry will we be able to unite workers both within and across borders in a common struggle for our collective liberation from a crisis-ridden and failing system.”
As Geier and Sustar wrote in their article, “the crisis in mainstream political parties amid the rise of Trump and the European far right on one side and the [Greek] Syriza, [Spanish] Podemos, and Sanders developments on the other is putting pressure on national ruling classes to find competent personnel who can develop a political program to manage the economic crisis, cope with intensifying class conflict, and navigate international rivalries and wars. To the extent that capital lets the far right off the leash to further scapegoat immigrants and minorities in order to drive a wedge into the working-class movement, we’ll be entering an extremely volatile period economically, politically, and ideologically.
At the same time, the crisis has opened a way for a renewal of the socialist left. A generation of young people that’s come of age amid recession, weak growth, and endless imperialist wars has become politically conscious and active. Already, millions of young people in the United States count themselves as socialists, however vaguely defined. However, the left isn’t as well organized or politically coherent as the right. The job of revolutionaries is to help overcome these weaknesses by clarifying the politics and organization the left needs to meet these challenges.”