The global crisis, the working class and the left

18 July 2020

L5I International Executive Committee

Reposted from

During the first half of 2020, all countries experienced a massive shrinkage of GDP and industrial production. The IMF estimates that global GDP will decline by 4.9 percent in the course of the year – the US economy by around 8 percent, the EU’s by 10.2 percent on average. Chinese growth is estimated at 1.0 percent for 2020 – and all of this is based on the rather questionable assumption that there will not be a second wave of the corona-pandemic.

In this situation, the governments and central banks of the rich, imperialist countries are trying to prevent the worst with billions of dollars, Euros or Yuan, to stimulate their economies – in other words to protect large scale industries, trade and finance capital from breakdown. Obviously, they also use some smaller parts of these packages to cushion the effects on sections of the middle classes, of the petit bourgeoisie.

But they are not going to protect the incomes and lives of the mass of working class, not to speak of its most oppressed sections like the people of colour in the US or migrant workers in Europe. More than 40 million unemployed in the US make clear what we are facing. In Britain, the Office of National Statistics reported on 15 May that unemployment benefit claims have increased to 2.1 million, the highest level since 1996. As of June 14, approximately 9.1 million workers were not working but on the government’s job retention scheme (furlough).

Cuts in wages and increased exploitation will be the norm for those who are still in work. Dramatic cuts in wages, benefits, and social services will be the future for the unemployed and those in precarious work. For the capitalists, protection of the people, securing income and health, is not the priority. Quite the opposite, the Black community in the US has to pay the highest death toll of the corona virus. The bourgeoisie is pressing to reopen the economy for their profit making at almost any cost.

At the end of April, the International Labour Organisation warned that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, nearly half of the global workforce, were in immediate danger of seeing their livelihoods destroyed. “The first month of the crisis is estimated to have resulted in a drop of 60 per cent in the income of informal workers globally. This translates into a drop of 81 per cent in Africa and the Americas, 21.6 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, and 70 per cent in Europe and Central Asia.”

Of course, this does not mean that there are no measures at all to soften the burden of the crisis and the pandemic for the working class. Many imperialist countries have introduced short time working or furloughs for 2020 at 60 to 80 percent of the previous wage; likewise, a number have introduced forms of state planning in the health sector to prevent the worst.

Such measures, however, should not be confused with a turn towards re-distribution of wealth, rather they should be understood as part of a policy to defend the longer term general interest of capital. This is because the normal circuit of capital has been interrupted, and is likely to be interrupted again, so allowing the “free” running of market forces would make matters worse. In this situation, the state has to intervene, but it is clear this will only be temporary.

We can already observe key elements of how the working class will be made to pay the cost, even in the imperialist heartlands; calls for cutting workplace regulations; closures of whole sites; threats of mass redundancies; reduction of spending on public services and culture, … and, eventually, new waves of privatisation. But it is also clear that the crisis will massively sharpen not only the contradictions between the large capitalists in the imperialist world and their states, but also the struggle for the re-division of the world.

Nonetheless, it is abundantly clear that the pandemic and the economic crisis will hit the semi-colonial countries even harder than the imperialist heartlands.

Firstly, their health systems have been run down by neo-liberalism, austerity and imperialist plunder even more than in the capitalist centres. In most of these countries, there is hardly any health system for the poor, the working class, the peasantry or even large sectors of the petit-bourgeoisie.

Secondly, the working class is faced with a different system of exploitation. Most wage labourers are forced into a contract system, into insecure, precarious work, often without any health and social security insurance. This means that millions and millions face poverty, hunger, starvation, or are forced to continue working in hazardous health conditions.

Thirdly, the land question (and by implication also the environmental question) will take on an even more acute form. The extreme unevenness of capitalist development will make the situation very explosive in a number of the most advanced semi-colonies with large working classes and, at the same time, huge rural populations and agrarian sectors that are themselves full of inner contradictions. Even in China, this extreme form of uneven and combined development can take an explosive and destabilising form, if it continues for a protracted period of time.

As in every such crisis, the most oppressed layers and sections of the working class and the peasantry are hit hardest and that means migrants, the racially and nationally oppressed, the youth, the elderly and working class and peasant women. During the pandemic, we have seen a massive increase in the double burden facing women as wage labourers, often in socially extremely important professions like the health sector, and of domestic work, which has increased because of the closure of schools. We have also witnessed a dramatic increase in domestic violence against women and children in the family or “partnership”.

In the last global recession, the response to the crisis was marked by a rise of revolutions, as in the Arab Spring, and of the working class and left, most notably in Greece. This time it is very different. Recent years have seen a rise of the right in different forms; authoritarian, right wing or bonapartist regimes and mass reactionary movements of right wing populism, racism, even (semi)fascism. Whilst in the period after 2007/2008 the international bourgeoisie feared that the (far) left would benefit from the crisis politically, we are now living in a situation where right wing, anti-democratic forces can take advantage of the crisis.

Clearly, we are faced with a situation in which the entire post 1980s phase of globalisation has entered into a historic crisis for the bourgeoisie globally. There is no agreed or unified strategic answer either in its international institutions, the UN, IMF, WTO, World Bank, even the WHO, or within the different states. Indeed, the crisis has highlighted inner divisions in many places (US, Brazil, most European countries …) and those divisions are likely to continue over the next period.

In most countries, the established leaderships of the workers’ movement (social-democrats, Labour, many “Communist Parties”, left reformist parties, trade union leaders and left-populists) have generally been searching for an alliance with the “reasonable” part of the ruling class, looking for (informal) coalitions under the banner of national unity and social partnership. In countries like Germany, this continues to take a governmental form, in others, like the US, it means that trade union leaders or left-populists like Sanders try to bind the working class to supposedly more progressive wings of the bourgeoisie, in this case, Biden, giving him electoral support against the threat of Trump.

This is generally the policy of the official leaderships of the labour movement. The rise of the right, itself a result of past concessions and rightward moves by the unions and social democracy, tragically feeds into the policy of “national unity”, that is, pacts with the “anti-populist”, “democratic” sections of the bourgeoisie.

This explains why the leaders of the labour movement (including most of the left reformists) and their control of the unions have proven to be a barrier to working class action. Where it has occurred, for example, in Italy in order to demand workplace safety, it was often initiated by rank and file, oppositionist or local sectors, which did not receive support from their national leaderships, even when they engaged in important strike actions. This also shows that it will need heavy pressure and blows either from the enemy or from the left and mass movements to force the reformist or bureaucratised labour movements to act.

However, the sharp contradictions and blows of the class struggle, will lead to resistance, fight-backs and spontaneous eruptions of class struggle.

The rebellion in the US and the global spread of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrate this. They show the potential inherent in the current global situation. The spread of this mass movement of the oppressed with millions on the streets and millions of working class people and youth in particular being mobilised in solidarity across the world, can be a real game changer in this situation.

In the US, it opened a pre-revolutionary situation combining the world’s worst outbreak of the pandemic, the worst response to it from a government with a grotesquely unequal healthcare system, mass unemployment and, with the police killing of George Floyd, the re-opening of the historic racist contradiction at the roots of US capitalism.

This is not only about the numbers of police killings, which have increased remorselessly over the last decade. Both Obama and Clinton enraged a large minority of white middle class people and backward workers whose jobs and wages had indeed suffered during the globalisation period. This left them vulnerable to the “great displacement” conspiracy theory with its targeting of immigrants. For this stratum, too, there is a profound feeling of loss of racial privilege (far more symbolic than real) over the 13 percent of the population who are black and an identification with the police force/police unions that are resisting “deracialisation” and loss of automatic impunity.
All this will find a focus in the November presidential election, which is likely to be the most bitterly fought in living memory.

Trump and his ‘movement’ focused a white supremacist reaction to Obama because he was black. Trump’s espousal of the “birther’ movement was an early rallying point and his obsessive reversals of the so-called Obama Legacy represent a refusal by the racists to accept the legitimacy of his presidency. It is highly unlikely that Trump would accept the legitimacy of defeat and, thus, there is a real possibility his ‘movement’ will mutate into a fully-fledged, mass fascist movement.

The social tensions of the Trump presidency have also led to a leftward move of important sections of the US-left as reflected in statements from the Democratic Socialists of America, DSA, Jacobin and others, as well as in real steps towards uniting the anti-racist mass rebellion with rank and file or base units of the trade union movement. In addition, the debate around the question of “defunding” and abolition of the police, even if it takes a reformist or utopian form, reflects the fact that the nature of the US-state and its democracy have become real issues for millions, for a whole movement, not “just” small groups.

The fact that large sections and prominent figures in the US-bourgeoisie are trying to make concessions to the BLM movement demonstrates both the danger of yet another integration of its upper strata and the pressure from below that the movement has built up. It has forced the ruling class onto the defensive for the time being. Moreover, the fact that US-imperialism, the heart of the beast, could be shaken, has inspired millions around the globe. It has demonstrated the potential for a common, internationalist struggle against the crisis, against the threats posed by the pandemic and against racism, nationalism and repression by the right and the state.

Of course, we must not be blind to the limitations of the BLM movement, its bourgeois, petit bourgeois or reformist leaderships and ideologies. Nor should we expect that the mass movement against racism and police repression will continuously rise and develop. Rather, it will go through phases and reach its own limitations. Whether it can link up with the working class movement, and this means of course challenging and overcoming the barrier of chauvinism within the working class itself, will depend not only on struggle and conscious intervention by revolutionaries, but also on the international development of the struggles against the crisis. Finally, we must be aware, that the next period may also lead to the rise of other mass movements spontaneously.

In this situation even small fighting propaganda groups need to find ways to intervene in such movements or working class struggles where they erupt. This means that we need to provide strategic, programmatic answers for the movements; we need to present and argue for the united fronts, demands and forms of organisation necessary to unite the movements and struggles of the oppressed with the working class; this clearly includes an open and sharp criticism of the leaders of the labour movement, as well as the misleaders of the oppressed.

The key to this will be the call, and arguments, for forms of struggle that can bring in the mass of workers, youth, oppressed. We also need to address the issue of how to make sure that the linking of the workers’ movement and the oppressed takes place on a basis that empowers the racially, nationally and sexually oppressed of this world, that is, the majority of our class.

Whilst, in the current situation, movements may arise spontaneously and in sectors where reformist or bureaucratic control is weaker, there is no way round the fact that those movements need to be linked up and integrated into the workers’ movement and the struggle to build new working class parties and leaderships.

Addressing the crisis of leadership will be key and this needs to be taken up within the movement, aiming to rally the most dedicated and politically advanced fighters. This will require the flexible application of tactics such as entrism; regroupment/revolutionary unity, the workers’ party tactic and a strong emphasis on struggles against an economic crisis, through a programme of transitional demands, as well as on the links between capitalist exploitation and social oppression, including a critique of false ideologies and misleadership.

The months ahead will be marked by the following features:

– Shaking of the US imperialist power and an overt political crisis, a pre-revolutionary situation, in the heart of the beast. The US will be key to the global situation. The BLM movement and the rebellion will not only be central to the political development of the US working class and the left, but also a global point of reference.

– Deepening of the global economic crisis and further spreading of the pandemic, to the semi-colonial world in particular. This will make countries like Brazil or India, key arenas of the global struggle.

– Continuous internal divisions within the bourgeoisies of most imperialist powers; not only the US-election, but also the crisis in the EU will be key arenas of this, even though countries like Germany may be relatively stable compared to most on the globe in the short term.

– Maintenance of the strategy of class collaboration, national unity and pacts with different wings of the bourgeoisie by the right wing and “centre” leaders of the labour movement. Even the left parties and left populists are essentially advocating the same strategy although with a more left wing coloration, such as demands for “real” transformative politics, for a “real” Green and Social New Deal.

– At the same time, we will also see sections of left-reformism and the more radical petit-bourgeoisie, for example, the left wings of feminism or the BLM movement, and of centrism, moving to the left under the influence, pressure and genuine inspiration of the mass rebellion and similar movements. The importance of this is not only that the groups who move left may break with their past and be won to revolutionary politics and programme, but that they are also the ideological expression of a move to the left of much broader layers, of whole wings or currents within mass movements.

– This means that our sections and our propaganda need to address these layers in a way that encourages their leftward move. This does not mean hiding or downplaying our criticism or making any theoretical or programmatic concessions, but it does mean that we present out criticism in an encouraging, engaging and “pedagogic” way. At the same time, we need to be very sharp on rightward moving or passive currents and on the class-collaborationist leaders of the mass organisations, while explaining the need to raise demands on these leaders, too.

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