I agree with John Smith, author of the award winning Imperialism in the twenty-first century, on many things. For instance that capitalism’s once progressive aspects – liberating humanity from feudalism/slavery and advancing labour productivity to the point where, for the first time since the neolithic age, it would be possible to end the tyranny of poverty – had by 1850 hit the tipping point all previous forms of class rule had sooner or later arrived at.
Feudalism and slavery outlived their usefulness but did not wither and die. They had to be done away with. Like guests who outstay their welcome they had to be evicted – a French Revolution here,1 an American Civil War there – to allow the productivity gains of capitalism. But this same capitalism is itself now the guest refusing to go. Its dysfunctional relations of production stand in the way of progress – worse, their logic poses mortal and planet-wide threats – yet its prime beneficiaries hang on for dear life. Why would they not when their control of the narrative, and of armed might should that prove insufficient, lets them do so?
We’ve both looked beyond surface forms, John more thoroughly than I, to see capital’s logic as intrinsically incompatible with the welfare of humanity (and other species arrogantly viewed as expendable). And we agree that one reason, perhaps the most important at that, so many in the West fail to see this truth is that we’ve been shielded from the full extent of its insanity by way of a social contract premised on super exploitation of a global south referred to, disingenuously or naively, as the ‘developing world’.
We disagree on one or two things, it’s true, but the differences are not of fundamental analysis. Rather, we differ in degree of optimism. John’s view of the possibility of revolutionary change is more sanguine than mine. I hope he’s right in that. In the meantime my greater pessimism, and more specific conclusions derived from it, puts us at odds over the Middle East in general, Syria and the Kurds in particular.
But when I recently posted, approvingly, a video of Yanis Varoufakis speaking on opportunities created by the covid-19 virus, he rightly rebuked me in an emailed response containing this:
… Varoufakis, who capitulated to the EU imperialists and sold Greek workers down the river, now calls for a ‘magic money tree’ social-democratic alternative to the EU’s ‘mistaken’ policies. He criticises the US Fed for not extending dollar swap lines2 to Europe, as they did after 2007 – in fact they have done this: https://www.economist.
com/finance-and-economics/ 2020/03/21/why-americas- financial-plumbing-has-seized- up. Amazingly, apart from a fleeting mention of China, he has nothing whatsoever to say about the nations and continents oppressed by US/EU imperialism and Europe’s responsibility to them in this pandemic (not to mention the impossibility of conquering CV19 in Europe while it rages in Africa, Asia and Latin America – even the above Economist article has some substantial reference to this.
While I’d be kinder on Varoufakis3 (and Corbyn, also assessed harshly in that email) than John is, I can’t fault his assessment. Corbyn and Varoufakis sought sincerely if quixotically to change for the better the lives of those who trusted them. Their failure is ultimately down to limitations of a reformist worldview doomed to fail because its assessment of capitalism is plain wrong.
(This by the way is an example of what I meant in a recent aside on “matters of fact erroneously held to be matters of opinion”.)
My reply to John contained these words:
Fair points all. I’m clutching at straws. I wouldn’t know where to begin building the mass movement of genuine, class based opposition to capitalism in its advanced imperialist phase.
Which sums up the predicament I’ve been in for a decade. I have no faith in either reformist or revolutionary roads to a socialism which must come if we are to avoid barbarism. But enough of my gloomy thoughts.4 Here’s John Smith in a must-read piece, Why coronavirus could spark a capitalist supernova. Posted on Open Democracy four days ago, and already translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish and Turkish, it begins:
Capitalism now faces the deepest crisis in its several centuries of existence. A global slump has begun that is already devastating the lives of hundreds of millions of working people on all continents. The consequences for workers and poor people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America will be even more extreme than for those living in Europe and North America, both with respect to lives lost to coronavirus and to the existential threats to the billions of people already living in extreme poverty. Capitalism, an economic system based on selfishness, greed and dog-eat-dog competition, will more clearly than ever reveal itself to be incompatible with civilisation.
Why is supernova – the explosion and death of a star – an apt metaphor for what could now be about to unfold? Why could the coronavirus, an organism 1000th the diameter of a human hair, be the catalyst for such a cataclysm? And what can workers, youth and the dispossessed of the world do to defend ourselves and to ‘bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old’, in the words of the US labour hymn, Solidarity Forever?
To find answers to these questions, we need to understand why the ‘global financial crisis’ that began in 2007 was much more than a financial crisis, and why the extreme measures taken by G7 governments and central banks to restore a modicum of stability – in particular the ‘zero interest rate policy’, described by a Goldman Sachs banker as “crack cocaine for the financial markets” – have created the conditions for today’s crisis …
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- The ripples of 1789-94 went far beyond France. Britain’s more peaceful transition to capitalism from feudalism is often attributed to a phlegmatic ‘Anglo-Saxon outlook’. I favour the less idealistic assessment of a ruling class, heeding the lessons across the Channel, minded to make limited concessions in such as the 1833 Reform Act.
- A definition, outlining of purpose and examples of swap lines are given here.
- Since the bargaining power of Syriza vis a vis the ECB stood in 2015 at zero, its sole alternative to ‘selling Greek workers down the river’ was to walk away. The problem with that being a fascist Golden Dawn waiting in the wings. Which is why, however correct our assessment in theory, we who sit on the sidelines do well to observe a modicum not just of caution but humility before rushing to judgment.
- My ‘gloomy thoughts’ on the prospect of avoiding barbarism stem from absence of a mass revolutionary party and a plethora of revolutionary sects in a non revolutionary age. I do leave room though for the possibility that things could change rapidly. Which is where Smith’s talk of supernova explosion (or as I say, implosion) comes in.