Few people will mourn the passing of 2020 – a dark year for millions who lost their jobs as huge numbers of businesses closed due to lockdowns or struggled on furlough schemes paying well below normal wages. All this came on top of the actual death toll (1.8 million worldwide) and prolonged “long COVID” illnesses, especially amongst the elderly, those living in poor and overcrowded conditions and those in the Global South with poor or scarcely-existent health systems.
The pandemic, and the lockdowns that followed it, led to a huge surge in unemployment and, combined with the early signs of another major recession, caused great suffering worldwide. In the USA, still the world’s dominant economy, 20 million were jobless by the summer and the figure has only halved by the year’s end.
The winter spike predicted by epidemiologists has materialised, and continues to worsen, though the development of several vaccines within ten months is a triumph for scientists, contradicting the anti-vaxxers, the pedlars of bizarre conspiracy theories and reactionary demagogues like Trump and Bolsonaro.
If scientists and medical workers were freed from the reactionary shackles of commercial and state rivalry, business secrecy and security, and were able to cooperate on a global scale; if all their facilities were socialised, many long existing endemic diseases could be conquered and future pandemics prevented or controlled.
However, the pandemic is far from over and the appearance of significant new variants should remind us that the efficacy of vaccines could be undermined by a random mutation. It is likely that the effects of the virus will persist for a substantial part of 2021 and even then, economic and social life will be far from the world we knew before the advent of the novel coronavirus at the turn of 2020.
Certainly, the experience could have been much worse had not the doctors, health workers and research scientists worldwide worked heroically, building on previous research in several countries to develop vaccines. Yet many of these scientists and health workers had long warned not only of the dangers of a SARS-type pandemic but also of the effects of destructive cuts in state funding and the need to relax state and big pharma “business secrecy”. The lasting lesson of 2020, “no one is safe until all are safe” underlines the need for a world health system to overcome the cruel inequalities between the “advanced”, that is, imperialist, countries and the “developing”, that is, semi-colonial, countries.
The year also saw a major turn – in words at least – from political leaders when it came to addressing that other great crisis, the looming climate catastrophe. In part, this is a tribute to the impact of the youth driven climate emergency movements, but it was also a response to the growing number of disasters, even in imperialist countries. The year started with Australia experiencing a “black summer”, its worst-ever bushfire season. Hurricanes and tropical storms caused major floods in Texas and Louisiana. The autumn saw wildfires burning over one million acres in California alone. As a result, even conservative bourgeois politicians talked of “green new deals” and “green industrial revolutions”. But, as the saying goes, “beware Greeks bearing gifts”; they are likely only a Trojan Horse for profit-seeking.
The change of the US president from a climate change denier to one who has adopted some of the rhetoric of the Green New Deal from Sanders and AOC does not guarantee that decisive action will accompany the return of the US to the Paris Agreement. It could, and should, encourage mass direct action to force the Administration and the Congress to cut emissions. From coast to coast, flood and fire are now a real and persistent danger in the minds of millions of Americans and this can change consciousness even in the thickest heads.
The immediate impact of the coronavirus would have been worse had not the spectre of the collapse of health systems forced governments into lockdowns and opening the floodgates of state spending to save companies and jobs. However, it would be foolish to imagine that these “wartime” measures, which capitalism resorts to in extremis, will become a permanent feature of the “build back better” world that some politicians are promising. Although apparently limitless state borrowing in the imperialist heartlands benefitted from historically low interest rates, there can be no guarantee these can be maintained, and the resulting government debts are historically unprecedented in peacetime. Moreover, even before COVID, companies big and small had, it seems, “maxed out on their credit cards” and Marxist economist Michael Roberts is predicting a major corporate debt crisis within the next two years.
What is certain is that, when state subsidies end, probably within the first six months of the year, the long term impact of the pandemic will begin to become clear. While there may be a recovery period fuelled by pent up demand and spending in those sectors which did benefit from the pandemic, this is unlikely to be lengthy and will be overshadowed by the scale of bankruptcies and closures, especially in the retail and service sectors.
The consequences of the huge reductions in production and trade right around the globe are sure to weaken the very foundations of even large scale monopoly capital affecting whole industries such as steel, automobiles, aerospace, aviation or fossil fuels. The consequences of any collapses in such industries would not only be a wave of mass redundancies but long term, structural unemployment.
Another crisis-inducing factor is the rivalry of the imperialist powers; the USA, China, the European Union, which is undermining the multilateral institutions inherited from the post-Second World War decades and the globalisation period (the IMF, WTO, etc). Even if Biden rescinds Trump’s more destructive proposals, and restores the rhetoric of cooperation, the rivalry will continue and indeed intensify. This has already opened up the weaknesses and destructive contradictions within the imperialist blocks and challenged the ambitions of the next rank of regional powers: India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Iran. These states, too, will inevitably suffer from the fracturing of the world markets and credit systems. Their frustrations, like those of the imperialist powers, will drive them to economic and military conflicts.
The European Union, even before Brexit, was undergoing a deepening crisis and its main powers, France and Germany, will have severe problems disciplining countries like Poland and Hungary. The EU’s southern members, Greece, Italy and Spain, will have severe difficulties within the centralising union envisaged by Macron and, perhaps more cautiously, by Merkel’s successor.
Of course, a historic destruction of such capital could also allow a surge in investment in the new technologies: Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Robotic Process Automation, biosciences, etc. Indeed, these technologies and sciences could lay the basis for a society which massively reduces the long hours of backbreaking labour and abolishes enforced idleness and poverty. But such a new industrial revolution – with a major environmental element – lies on the other side of a major economic, social and political crisis period.
If capital continues to rule, the forces of destruction – impoverishment, war, pandemics, climate catastrophes – will combine to pose the spectre of a historic regression – a dystopia not a utopia. Everything therefore rests on whether the working class, now larger than ever on a world scale, can take control of the economy, of the whole of society and organise it internationally for an optimal future for all of humanity. And that is a question of politics and political leadership.
Trends in World Politics
The extraordinary levels of state expenditure, particularly in imperialist countries trying to deal with the effects of the pandemic, are themselves reasons why we should expect a serious political dimension to the crisis in the coming year.
Sooner rather than later, especially if the trade unions and reformist and left populist parties remain passive and trusting in governments and employers, there is going to be a serious attempt to claw back that state expenditure. Together with the threat of mass unemployment, we can expect this to generate a rise in class struggle that will pose fundamental questions over the leadership of such resistance. What will be needed will be the organisation of united fronts that can take on governments, both “democratic” and dictatorial. In the fight to build them, the left is going to be confronted by a serious political crisis.
Nevertheless, the capitalist system, both in sickness and in health, generates resistance to the manifest exploitation and inequality built into its very foundations. Capitalism’s integrally linked process of impoverishment of the many and enrichment of the few has carried on apace during the pandemic. By November, 8 million Americans had fallen into poverty, according to the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. Meanwhile, the combined wealth of America’s 651 billionaires jumped by more than $1 trillion, reaching $4 trillion in early December, according to Americans for Tax Fairness.
Although much of the increased state expenditure went to propping up failing capital, its sheer scale, plus the recognition forced on governments of “essential jobs” and “vital services” – nearly all poorly paid after decades of cuts – has created strong grounds for demands for wage and salary increases, for major investment in health and education and for taxes and expropriation of big capital.
In the year ahead, however, the more that vaccines slow down the pandemic, the more likely we are to hear demands to cut public spending and reduce the debt, setting the scene for a return of the austerity narrative. We will need to resist this and will need parties and trade unions willing and able to do this.
With “strongmen” like Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdogan, Modi Putin and Xi in power there has been plenty to fight back against in 2020. The continued existence of these plebiscitary bonapartist or outright dictatorial regimes should remind us that right-wing populism is far from vanquished, despite Trump’s defeat.
For most of the year, these leaders have engaged in brutal repression against their citizens. In China, Xi has combined continued cultural genocide against the Uighurs with “legal” crushing of the Hong Kong democracy protesters. Narendra Modi’s BJP government has continued his military repression in Kashmir since the 2019 removal of its autonomy. Turkey’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has continued attacks on opposition parties and critical journalists as well as fomenting a war by Azerbaijan against the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh.
Then there was El Sisi in Egypt and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, fuelling the civil war in Yemen and Netanyahu continuing the settlement drive in the West Bank and the bombing of Gaza. The final stages of Assad’s bloody counterrevolution in Syria and the reactionary jihadist movements in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan all added to the gloomy picture. Across the former French colonies in the Sahel, jihadist rebels severely tested armed forces in various states, presidents trying to extend their rule provoked major street movements, while in the states of the Horn of Africa peace initiatives are failing, and this is adding to mass flight of refugees from war zones.
Yet despite the pandemic, 2020 was also a year of important struggles by workers, youth and the racially oppressed around the entire world. In the USA, in May and June, we saw mobilisations in every major town and city right across the country against the racist cops who killed George Floyd, inspiring a worldwide day of demonstrations on June 6.
In Hong Kong, a million protested against the imposition of new security laws on the territory. There were million strong demonstrations in Santiago, Chile, triggered by a 30-peso bus ticket rise, which turned into a rebellion against 30 years of neoliberal governments and a constitution hardly changed since Pinochet.
The autumn saw hundreds of thousands marching every week in Belarus against Aleksander Lukashenko’s rigged election. 250 million Indian workers and farmers struck, marched and camped in the country’s capital against the authoritarian and neoliberal Modi government.
The women’s protests that rocked Poland in the autumn were provoked by proposals to tighten the country’s abortion laws, already the most restrictive in Europe. Hundreds of thousands came on to the streets in towns and cities across the country, forcing the government to back down at least temporarily.
The Free People student movement in Thailand was triggered by the military backed regime banning the main opposition party and saw several waves over the year, increasingly calling into question the role of the military and even of the king, who still exercises enormous powers.
In France, there have been violent protests against Macron’s repressive new security and anti-Muslim laws despite the lockdown. In Latin America, there is a continuing crisis and there have been mass protest movements even during the coronavirus crisis. These led, for example, to the calling of a Constituent Assembly in Chile, huge demonstrations in Peru, the return of the MAS to power in Bolivia and in Brazil local elections have seen a swing to the left.
Bolivia’s year of resistance to the illegitimate president and government installed by a coup in 2019 forced the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections, which the left-populist party MAS won with big majorities, although those who made the coup still dominate the army and the police,
All of these events show that resistance is still breaking through. There can be no doubt that when the worst dangers of the pandemic lift, it will be even more widespread. Nevertheless, as we can see from the many struggles this year, the social movements and democratic uprisings face harsh police repression plus the mobilisations of right wing populist movements including Trump’s encouragement of white supremacist supporters. Such movements could crystallise into outright fascist forces in the period ahead. In France, the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen could be the front-runner against Macron in 2022.
The failures of the new left movements of the last decade, from Syriza and Podemos to Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the UK Labour Party, all demonstrate that there is no peaceful parliamentary solution even to defeating neoliberal austerity. What we need are not electoralist parties with purely supportive social movements, but parties of class struggle, allied to militant movements of the oppressed and fighting trade unions. Parties, too, that have an unashamedly anticapitalist programme – a programme for a socialist revolution.
The most important of all the lessons of 2020, is that, just as the pandemic and the environmental crisis cannot be resolved on a national scale, so also the overthrow of capitalism and the building of socialism must be global. In an era of incredible increase of communications, today 4.66 billion people – over half the world’s population – have some sort of access to the Internet. When millions regularly use online communication and machine translation, the real obstacles to building an International lie in narrow national consciousness and lack of political will among the leaders of parties and unions. The working class between the 1860s and the 1930s built four successive Internationals, which left an imperishable programmatic legacy.
The League for the Fifth International and its sections in Austria, Brazil, Germany, Pakistan, Sweden, the United States of America and the United Kingdom, sees it as its duty to encourage internationalism in every workers’ movement and movement of the oppressed around the globe.
Since the waning of the movements against capitalist globalisation and imperialist war during the first years of the new millennium, when World and European social forums launched coordinated global actions, there has been a marked abatement of organised international gatherings. This retreat came just as the boom phase of globalisation came to a shuddering stop with the 2008 recession. Although this generated major social and political movements that influenced and inspired one another – the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movements, the anti-austerity battles in Greece, popular movements across Latin America, general strikes in India – there was no international forum where the lessons of initial success and ultimate failure could be learned.
While movements of resistance can and do arise spontaneously, leaderships and strategies for victory, that is, political programmes, do not. Therefore, it is to taking forward this task that all conscious revolutionaries around the world need to rededicate themselves in the year, and years, ahead.
Workers and oppressed people, unite in a new world party of socialist revolution – a Fifth International!