Pick of the Quarter

Issue: 169

International Socialism has, over recent issues, argued that the world is in a grip of a “triple crisis”—expressed through the pandemic, economic disorder and ecological destruction. Across the Atlantic, John Bellamy Foster, the editor of the United States-based Monthly Review, has presented a similar position. In a piece entitled “The Renewal of the Socialist Ideal” (https://monthlyreview.org/2020/09/01/the-renewal-of-the-socialist-ideal), published in the September issue, he argues: “Catastrophe capitalism…is manifested today in the convergence of (1) the planetary ecological crisis, (2) the global epidemiological crisis, and (3) the unending world economic crisis.”

Foster charts deepening class polarisation and the re-emergence of the idea of socialism in the US, but notes that the socialism on offer is often of a social democratic variety, which is tested harshly in this context of crisis. Alongside this left revival comes broader mass struggle, focused outside the electoral terrain, which can lay the basis for a revival of the “communist” ideal (in the sense advocated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). Some of Foster’s strategic conclusions—for instance, the scope for left-nationalist projects in countries such as Cuba or Venezuela under former president Hugo Chávez to challenge capitalism—are certainly arguable, but the article represents an interesting intervention in discussions about the strategy of the left today.

Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea, issue 28 of Irish Marxist Review contains an excellent piece entitled “The (Ongoing) Crisis of Global Capitalism” by Brian O’Boyle (www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/383). This analyses both the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the economy and the longer term problems faced by the capitalist system. One of the themes of O’Boyle’s analysis, and that of many authors in this journal, is that capitalism is in the grip of an extended crisis of profitability. The Review of Radical Political Economics has just published the online version of an article on this theme by Adalmir Antonio Marquetti, Catari Vilela Chaves, Leonardo Costa Ribeiro and Eduardo da Motta e Albuquerque. The authors consider the rate of profit in the US and China, using the Orbis database of information on private sector companies for 2007-14. Their research shows that the US rate of profit was low but fairly stable throughout this period, other than a brief V-shaped drop in 2008, whereas the Chinese rate of profit was higher, but declined fairly sharply from 2010 to 2014.

They also look at the rate of profit within particular sectors of these economies. This helps to open up new ways to think about the flow of capital through the world economy, and the complex shifts in profitability in particular countries and sectors that might result from the combination of crises and competition. For instance, they show how the dispersion of profit rates grew during the 2008-9 crisis, as some firms went under and others used the failure of their rivals to grasp new opportunities.

Finally, political scientist Jon Wittrock has written a provocative essay for Rethinking Marxism, entitled “All That Is Holy: The Role of Religion in Postcapitalist Communities” (www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08935696.2020.1809836). Although his argument is solidly based in Marxism, he also utilises the notion of “family resemblance” developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great philosopher of language. Wittgenstein argued against the common idea that concepts connect distinct things through identifying some essential characteristic that they all share. Instead, he claimed, concepts express a set of overlapping similarities between these things. Wittrock argues that religion is best understood as such a collection of overlapping ideas and practices, rather than any sort of unitary phenomenon.

Of course, the concept of religion does encompass institutionalised forms of ritual that are bound up with the functioning of capitalist states and the propagation of ruling-class ideology. Nevertheless, it can also include “practices of asceticism and meditation, ecstatic drumming and dancing, and phenomenological explorations of overwhelming states of consciousness” that are divorced from such institutional forms. Wittrock speculates, against the traditional Marxist view, that this means some aspects of religion could survive the overthrow of capitalism—and might even be renewed and transformed by their implantation in new forms of communal life.