Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.
Walter Benjamin, 1940, Notes for “On the Concept of History”.1
The words of the German Marxist Walter Benjamin, written in 1940 between his disillusionment with Stalinism and his suicide in an attempt to escape the clutches of the Nazi regime, always struck me as too bleak to inform the strategies of the revolutionary left. Yet eight decades later there is a sense, for a significant minority of humanity, that capitalism is lurching towards a precipice—and dragging us with it.
Fortunately, this sentiment can give rise not just to despair but also to rebellion. The clearest sign of this is the response to the police lynching of George Floyd, a black American killed in Minneapolis on 25 May, his neck crushed beneath an officer’s knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Protests exploded in over 806 towns and cities in the United States, in spite of a global pandemic that militated against mass congregation. The scale of this resurgent Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is reflected in an arrest figure of over 10,000 in the ten days following the killing.2 The movement extends beyond those directly experiencing racism. Preliminary data from three US protests found just over half of those attending were white. Although support is concentrated among minority populations, 60 percent of white Americans support the movement.3 It is a movement, too, that has achieved successes—notably with its demands to prosecute the police officers involved in the killing and to “defund” police departments. Despite this call for defunding being reinterpreted by more moderate political figures as a demand for police reform or cuts to police budgets, among protesters the sentiment lies closer to the longstanding demand of the US radical left to abolish the police and the prison system.4
Why has the George Floyd killing triggered such anger—not simply in the US but on a global scale, with protests in over 67 countries? Although this death was particularly horrifying—and captured on camera—there were over 1,000 deaths at the hands of the US police last year, and black people are three times more likely to die than white people. In part, the revolt reflects the fear and loathing inspired by Donald Trump, against whom an estimated 27 million people in the US, 8 percent of the population, have protested since 2017.5 Moreover, Trump is consciously ratcheting up racial tensions. Faced with a tanking economy and the grisly consequences of his mishandling of Covid-19, he is returning to his 2016 playbook ahead of this autumn’s presidential election—rallying supporters through appeals to racism and nationalism. There is no other explanation for his scheduling of a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth (19 June), a date celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the US. Tulsa was the site of an infamous 1921 massacre of black people when a deputised white mob, using aeroplanes and machine guns, killed over 300 and burned thousands more out of their homes.6 In the event, the rally was delayed until 20 June, when attendees could listen to Trump decry “left-wing radicals” and the “Chinese virus”, which he dubbed “Kung flu”, and claim that he had ordered officials to slow Covid-19 testing to reduce reported cases.7
However, the scale, militancy and global scope of the struggle reflects not simply revulsion at Trump and the accumulation of anger over police racism, but also a more general sense of crisis eroding the stability of capitalism. What we are witnessing is a “triple crisis” for the system, the contours of which are likely to shape anti-systemic movements in the period ahead.
Crisis 1: pandemic
The first dimension of that crisis is Covid-19. As I wrote in the previous issue of International Socialism, “a pandemic on this scale intensifies the pre-existing fault lines of capitalism”.8 Key among those fault lines are the intermeshed categories of race and class. After age and health, race and class are the key determinants of who lives and who dies in the pandemic. The class character is clear from analysis by the British Office for National Statistics (ONS), showing that, of those in the poorest two-thirds of the workforce, over three-quarters are in occupations deemed to have high or medium exposure to the coronavirus. For the richest fifth of the workforce, this falls to less than half.9
The racial dimension is also becoming clear. As Gary Younge writes: “In the slogan ‘I can’t breathe’—among George Floyd’s last words as the police officer knelt on his neck—there is the connective tissue between the most brazen forms of state violence and the more banal tribulations of the ailing pandemic patient”.10 US data suggests that, adjusting for age, black people are 3.6 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people; Hispanic/Latinx people, 2.5 times as likely.11
Similarly, an ONS study notes that in England and Wales, again adjusting for age, black people are four times more likely than white to die of Covid-19; those of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin, roughly 3.5 times more likely. Once these figures are further adjusted for “region, rural and urban classification, area deprivation, household composition, socio-economic position, highest qualification held, household tenure, and health or disability”, the differences are sharply reduced. However, both black people and those of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin are still almost twice as likely to die.12 A larger study conducted on behalf of NHS England produced similar results.13 In other words, a major reason minority groups have suffered more is their propensity to be pushed into deprivation, overcrowded housing, densely populated areas and front-line jobs, and to have suffered prior ill health. While this is also true of many white workers, it is disproportionately the case for those from non-white backgrounds.
There has been speculation about the residual “ethnic penalty” in terms of Covid-19 deaths, and some have suggested that there might be a genetic predisposition at work. This cannot be ruled out—some diseases do disproportionately affect particular groups. However, before turning to such explanations, there are other factors not fully captured by existing studies. These include a more fine-grained consideration of the jobs that minorities are pushed towards. The authors of the ONS study themselves note that disproportionately high numbers of people of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin work as drivers and in transportation.14 Similarly, a US author points out that black people, who make up about 13 percent of the US population, “represent 30 percent of bus drivers, nearly 20 percent of all food service workers, janitors, cashiers and stockers”.15 We can also add less tangible factors such as the stress induced by racial oppression, which is known to affect the functioning of the immune system.16
Crisis 2: slump
The pandemic crisis is now fused with a second: the economic slump discussed by Michael Roberts in this issue of International Socialism. The Bank of England has predicted that Britain will experienced its sharpest contraction since 1706—ultimately a meaningless comparison given that 300 years ago Britain was a largely agrarian country and the slump that year reflected poor harvests and the impact of the War of the Spanish Succession.17 Until now, the immediate problems of the pandemic and the ameliorative impact of the government’s furlough scheme have meant that discussion of the crisis has been more muted than during the milder contraction of 2008-9, but it is now coming into focus. Indeed, as the furlough scheme is withdrawn, a survey suggests that a fifth of employers plan to sack workers.18 In the US, as in some European countries and across much of the Global South, labour markets have been less insulated from the impact of the shutdowns. US unemployment rose to 14.7 percent in April, figures last seen in the wake of the Great Depression.
The shutting down of swathes of production, combined with collapsing demand, triggered the contraction, but, for all its novelty, this crisis is inscribed in a longer history of the relative stagnation of capitalism.19 Its roots lie in a long decline in profitability in the post-war decades, which bottomed out during the crises of the 1970s and early 1980s. The attempt to squeeze labour harder with the subsequent turn to neoliberal policies was accompanied by a rapid expansion of finance. In its heartlands, capitalism became ever more dependent on credit for continued growth. Each time the system faltered, crises were met by financialised bailouts. In 2001, the response to the recession triggered by the collapse of the dot-com bubble and the 9/11 attacks was for the US Federal Reserve to slash interest rates, fuelling a new bubble in housing that helped precipitate the 2008-9 crisis. That crisis was in turn met with low or negative interest rates, quantitative easing and a series of bailouts engineered by the major capitalist powers. By now, China was among that category, and it produced one of the biggest stimulus packages while also allowing credit to expand.
Such action by state-central bank complexes has left the system increasingly fragile. A huge overgrowth of debt now exists across much of the Global South, reducing the room for manoeuvre even of economies as big as China, while in countries such as the US and Britain there are large numbers of zombie firms, surviving simply through servicing their debt and now facing failure. Moreover, states find themselves in a world of historically low interest rates and with colossal central bank balance sheets. What more ammunition do they have to meet the crisis? The result has been direct intervention in the economy by states, which have offered corporate handouts and loan guarantees, as well as new or renewed programmes of quantitative easing. Given the context, it is unlikely that the methods being used will produce a sufficiently powerful recovery to overcome all the damage done by the crisis. To the extent that they do work, they are likely to produce further fragility and credit-dependence, leading to renewed crises down the line.
The scale of state intervention poses two further long-term issues. The first issue is the question of who pays for the largesse of the state. In the wake of the 2008-9 crisis, as states intervened in the economy, there were plenty of people heralding a break with neoliberalism, and perhaps even a return to Keynesianism, but the reality was prolonged, savage austerity. This time, commentators such as James Meadway argue that the instinct of British prime minister Boris Johnson is to increase spending in order to avoid stifling any recovery and retain voters in former Labour heartlands won to the Conservative Party in the 2019 general election. Treasury officials also now accept there will be permanently higher debt-to-GDP ratios.20 Yet it may not be so simple for governments to avoid the pressure to cut spending. A Treasury assessment leaked to the Daily Telegraph indicates that the options for chancellor Rishi Sunak include increasing income tax, attacking state pensions, welfare cuts and a new series of public sector pay freezes.21 Serious restructuring of some sectors, such as universities, can be added to the list. These attacks are particularly likely if the recovery fails to rebound in the manner suggested by the Treasury’s more optimistic scenarios, leading to longer-term structural deficits.
Moreover, in a world of closely integrated financial systems, the bond markets through which states borrow can impose pressure on governments to compete with one another to control debt levels and hence reduce borrowing costs. Something like this happened during the Eurozone debt crisis a decade ago, and there are echoes of that in recent reports from the European Central Bank (ECB). In May, the ECB warned that the “increase in public debt levels could…trigger a reassessment of sovereign risk by market participants and reignite pressures on more vulnerable sovereigns.” It went on to claim that public finances were already on an “unsustainable path” and that this would worsen in the event of a protracted downturn.22 Similarly, in the US, if growth rates drop significantly below interest rates, or if the government responds to low interest rates by increasing spending and cutting taxes, a debt crisis could emerge with little warning.23
These economic pressures lead to a second issue: the prospects for the “Great Reopening” underway. Britain’s eventual implementation of a lockdown in March 2020 was greeted with enormous relief. An April poll found that Britain, along with Canada, had the highest level of support (70 percent) for the idea that businesses should remain shut if the virus was not contained.24 Johnson’s subsequent efforts to reopen the economy, restoring the flow of profits to capital, have seen his net approval rating plummet—from +29 percent in late March to -5 percent in late June.25 Emblematic of the ineptitude and arrogance of the Johnson administration was the discovery that his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings—whose technocratic babble dressed as anti-elitist iconoclasm now passes for statecraft—was revealed to have breached the lockdown by driving from London to Durham in the north east of England.26 Despite a clamour of criticism, including condemnation from over a dozen bishops and calls for his removal by 45 Conservative MPs, Johnson stuck by Cummings. This says more about Johnson’s vacuity than Cummings’s genius. Cummings was chief architect of the strategy to bind together arch-Thatcherite Brexiteers, the core of Johnson’s cabinet, with pro-Brexit former Labour voters who typically favour greater state welfare and public spending. Whether this strategy can survive the Great Reopening and the tribulations of what remains a messy Brexit negotiation remains to be seen.
Globally, reopening is the order of the day. It could not be otherwise in a capitalist world in which the competitive pressure of respective capitalist states on one another enforces the logic of profit-making. The consequence of this process in many countries will likely be a second wave of deaths. A letter published in the British Medical Journal argues that “a second wave is a real risk” in Britain.27 Countries praised for their attempts to control Covid-19 such as Germany, China and South Korea are grappling with new outbreaks. In much of the US, where the fight against Covid-19 seems to have been surrendered at a federal level, there is not so much a second wave as a continuation of the first, with cases beginning to plateaux in some areas even as they accelerate in others such as California, Texas, Arizona, Florida and Georgia.
In much of the Global South, where states are not able to sustain huge deficits and there is a mass of informal labour with little or no job security, the Great Reopening will impose a far higher price in terms of human suffering. This is particularly true in countries such as Brazil and India that are reopening even as infections rise exponentially.
Crisis 3: ecological crisis
The first two elements of the crisis are embedded in a third: the ecological destruction wrought by capitalism. In the previous issue of this journal, I followed authors such as Rob Wallace and Mike Davis in arguing that zoonotic transfer of viruses, such as coronaviruses, Ebola and influenza, from animals to humans is made far more likely by the incursions of capital into wilderness ecosystems. These incursions both drive animal species from old habitats into new ones and commodify wildlife through largescale agribusiness and rural enterprises—processes that can lead to the development of new viral strains and their passage into human populations.28 Since I wrote, Thais Borges and Sue Branford have traced the emergence of diseases in the wake of deforestation in Brazil, and another academic study has provided evidence that the degradation of wildlife habitats, along with hunting and trade, has increased “opportunities for animal-human interactions and facilitated zoonotic disease transmission”.29
This is just one facet of a broader ecological crisis, a consequence of what John Bellamy Foster calls the “metabolic rift” between complex ecological systems and a similarly complex productive system subordinated to a capitalist logic.30 Although it now seems such a long time ago, in 2019 we were celebrating mass walkouts by school students inspired by Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion movement that occupied parts of London. The salience of these issues has not receded. It is worth recalling that 2020 began with major bushfires in Australia and the Brazilian rainforest ablaze, and with flooding in Indonesia that displaced 60,000 people. More recently weather patterns linked to climate change have driven swarms of locusts through East Africa, Asia and the Middle East, devastating food supplies and adding to the sense of apocalyptic doom.
A new global disorder
This triple crisis is further fragmenting the global political system. The emergence of Trump was already both a symptom and accelerator of the decline of US hegemony, but now any pretence of providing global leadership is dissipating. This was exemplified by Trump’s announcement in May that the US would withdraw from the World Health Organisation. The decline of US hegemony has further unfettered inter-imperialist tensions. The most obvious sign of this is the continued souring of US-Chinese relations, but there have also been deadly, if as yet small-scale, clashes between India and China on their border in the western Himalayas. Then there is the growing conflict over trade between the US and the European Union, and the EU’s own internal divisions in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. As Wolfgang Münchau argues:
The US does not want the rest of the world to tax the monopoly profits of its tech companies. The Germans want to press ahead with a sordid gas pipeline deal with Russia. The EU protects its car industry from foreign competition, but hyperventilates when Donald Trump threatens the same for European car imports. These are some of the main signs of a fast approaching transatlantic trade conflict.31
In other words, along with the deepening of the structural antagonism between capital and labour, accompanied by racism and other forms of oppression that sustain capitalism, we are also seeing an intensification of the horizontal conflict between capitals and between states. The latter, for all the tensions with sections of big business provoked by the Trump administration or Brexit, remain capitalist states, locked into a co-dependent relationship with capital, and seeking, in the final analysis, to create the most favourable conditions for profit-making and accumulation in competition with their rivals.32 In this context, a politics that adapts itself to what is tolerable to the capitalist system or capitalist states will sell short the struggles that have emerged.
Indeed, the higher the movement rises, the more diminished the representatives of the mainstream left appear. Here in Britain, Sir Keir Starmer, the successor to Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, was asked to comment on the glorious moment when a crowd of BLM protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in the harbour. Starmer opined that they were “completely wrong”.33 Presumably he would like the now dredged-up statue re-erected while a committee politely discusses its fate.
Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. The first phase of the Johnson government’s attempt to reopen the economy was an effort to force pupils back into primary schools so their parents could return to work. The National Education Union imposed a series of safety conditions under which they were prepared to readmit pupils, holding a 20,000-strong online organising meeting for its members. Resistance from teachers and parents made the school reopening programme a humiliating failure for Johnson; by 18 June, just 12.2 percent of students were in attendance.34 Yet Starmer set himself against this movement. One of his first interventions after winning the Labour leadership was to demand that the government prioritise school reopening.35 Then, in late June, he sacked his shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, probably the most left-wing member of his front bench. The pretext was she had shared an interview with the actor Maxine Peake on social media. In the interview Peake suggested the technique of kneeling of necks, used to kill George Floyd, had been taught to US police during their training with the Israeli secret services. The detail of Peake’s claim may be wrong, although it is absolutely true that US police train with Israeli security forces, as Amnesty International have pointed out. But the idea that such a claim is an “antisemitic conspiracy theory” is to endorse the idea that any but the mildest criticism of Israel constitutes antisemitism. This is, of course, a key tactic used to discredit Corbyn and the wider left, and to undermine solidarity with Palestine.36 Starmer’s attacks on the left are no accident; through such methods he is seeking to establish his reliability as a future manager of British capitalism.
In the US, Bernie Sanders, who had been the left’s candidate in the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidential election, has rejected calls for defunding of police departments. He also endorsed the Democratic establishment’s victorious candidate for the nomination, Joe Biden, whose take on BLM was to tell a meeting in Delaware that the police should be trained to shoot people in the legs rather than the heart.37 In another cringe-worthy intervention, he told black voters that if they vote Trump, “you ain’t black”.38 In the Spanish state, the radical left-wing formation Unidas Podemos is governing in coalition with the social-democratic Socialist Party (PSOE). Podemos’s response to the crisis has been to shift towards what party leader Pablo Iglesias calls “a broad social consensus” around a national “reconstruction plan” to end the lockdown. It has also distanced itself from longstanding demands for a break with the 1978 Spanish constitution, which protected those who prospered under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco during the transition to democracy.39
Of course, millions of people will continue to look to the likes of Starmer, Biden and Iglesias. Many will vote for them, even as they participate in movements whose aspirations extend beyond what these politicians can offer. However, the existence of a political current within these movements that is committed to the overthrow of capitalism is more urgent than ever. That is why it is depressing to hear David Harvey, for many years a great populariser of Karl Marx’s Capital, argue:
The kind of fantasy you might have had…that we can destroy this capitalist system…that is an impossibility right now. We have to keep the circulation of capital in motion… Capital is too big to fail. It is too dominant and too necessary to us…we cannot allow it to fail. We have to spend some time propping it up and trying to reorganise it and maybe shift it around very slowly.40
Harvey’s point seems to be that capitalism is too intertwined with people’s livelihoods to risk challenging it. There is, it is true, little likelihood of capitalism being overthrown in the immediate future.41 Nonetheless, the basic anti-capitalist argument remains valid: the production and consumption of goods and services necessary for humanity can in principle—with, obviously, lots of complications, and only in the wake of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state—be detached from the logic of capital. As Alex Callinicos writes in a pithy response to Harvey: “David is confusing the circulation of capital with the material flows of use-values that it facilitates—an elementary mistake for someone with such a profound knowledge of Marx’s Capital to make”.42
Contrary to what Harvey implies, the politics of revolutionary socialism does not undermine movements of resistance or lead them towards some empty utopian desert. At a time when BLM has shown that pandemic conditions have not destroyed the possibility of the kind of powerful anti-systemic revolts that characterised 2019, this politics offers those movements the hope that they might ultimately break the destructive logic of capital and spare humanity the deepening catastrophe that it faces.43
Joseph Choonara is the editor of International Socialism. He is the author of A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (Bookmarks, 2017) and Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (2nd edition: Bookmarks, 2017).
1 Benjamin, 2006, p402. Thanks to Talat Ahmed, Anne Alexander, Richard Donnelly and Peter Dwyer for comments on an earlier draft of this article.
2 Snow, 2020.
3 Harmon and Tavernise, 2020; Parker, Horowitz and Anderson, 2020. This partially explains a rush by some corporations to endorse BLM, including Nike, which produced a slick anti-racist video. Remarkable that a firm that subcontracts its production to cheap non-white labour in the Global South would commend a movement contesting the structures of racism and imperialism!
4 Grant, 2020.
5 Harmon and Tavernise, 2020.
6 See Brophy, 2002.
7 Even here, Trump was humiliated. Teenage K-pop fans and TikTok users mopped up rally tickets, never intending to attend. The stadium was half empty. For a transcript of the speech, see https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/donald-trump-tulsa-oklahoma-rally-speech-transcript
8 Choonara, 2020a, p3.
9 ONS, 2020a.
10 Younge, 2020.
11 Ford, Reber and Reeves, 2020. Latinx is a gender non-specific term used instead of “Latino” or “Latina”.
12 ONS, 2020b.
13 See Wise, 2020.
14 ONS, 2020c; Wise, 2020. The ONS study also used old socio-demographic data from the 2011 national census.
15 Ray, 2020.
16 Brody and others, 2014.
17 Giles, 2020.
18 Strauss, 2020.
19 Choonara, 2018.
20 Meadway, 2020.
21 Rayner and Mikhailova, 2020.
22 Arnold, 2020.
23 Davies, 2020.
27 Adebowale and others, 2020.
28 Choonara, 2020a, pp10-18.
29 Borges and Branford, 2020; Johnson and others, 2020.
30 For more on Foster’s work, see Martin Empson’s review in this issue.
31 Münchau, 2020.
32 The identification of states as an integral part of the capitalist system is why I question Michael Roberts’s argument in his otherwise excellent article that state planning offers a route out of the current crisis. As Donny Gluckstein argues in his article in this issue, at the outer limit, if states organise the economy on a national basis in competition with other states, the result will be a system of “state capitalisms”, not socialism.
33 Chappell, 2020.
35 Stewart, 2020.
36 See Ferguson, 2019, for a superb rebuttal of the weaponisation of antisemitism.
37 Jacobs, 2020.
38 Sky News, 2020.
39 Díaz, 2020.
40 Recording available from http://traffic.libsyn.com/anticapitalistchronicles/ACC.December.2019.p1.mp3
41 The relative weakness of the revolutionary left, the continued low level of class confrontation in the workplace in many countries and the emergence of phenomena such as BLM in the context of the triple crisis that I have described are important issues that International Socialism will continue to explore in future articles.
42 Facebook post, 23 June 2020. There is a logic linking Harvey’s conception of capitalism and his political conclusions. For some time, he has shifted away from seeing capitalism as a system in which production has any primacy over circulation, towards conceiving it as a complex ecosystem—an “assemblage”, to use the post-structuralist jargon. This diminishes any special role for the working class concentrated at the point of production, making it hard to see any point at which a break with this increasingly complex system could occur. For more on Harvey’s conception of capitalism, see Callinicos and Choonara, 2016.
43 On the 2019 wave of uprisings, see Choonara, 2020b.