The erratic union of hubris and catastrophe that has categorised 21st century capitalism has given birth to an ever more unstable world.
Rare snapshots of war-torn Tigray and the all too familiar sight of a fiery underlit Ukrainian skyscape flash seamlessly on our smartphones alongside slick videos promising a new and imminent age of corporate space exploration and interplanetary colonisation. The world might well be doomed, influencers and social media sages concede, but rest assured as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have the skills and intellect to lead us all to the promise land.
Staggering concentrations of wealth and an ecologically unsustainable economic model provide the necessary lubrications for capitalist imagination. Just as the established fact of environmental catastrophe on our own planet becomes impossible to ignore, stargazing corporate saviours dream of beaming us to salvation in Telsa sponsored rocket ships or in a warp-speed delivered Amazon Prime shipping container. Why bother changing the world, they ask, when a new one is just about to lift off?
The unquenchable genius of Musk and Bezos notwithstanding, capitalism’s far-fetched escape plan is unlikely to materialise. Still, it is revealing in at least one respect: it is easier for billionaires to visualise life on another planet than it is for the capitalist class to comprehend the necessary redistribution of wealth required to repair the climatic conditions of our own. Like every ruling class that preceded them, contemporary elites will sooner look for spiritual salvation in the stars than they would in the material reality of their own bank accounts.
The poor and working classes of the world cannot afford such evasive thinking. As I write, much of the population of the wealthiest nation on the planet prepares to celebrate the new year under an unprecedented cold snap that has enveloped much of the north-east of America in a thick blanket of snow. Devastating as this is, it is small fry compared to the record shattering drought in the Horn of Africa that has forced 21 million people into food insecurity, which says nothing of the flash floods in Pakistan last summer that destroyed over a million homes.
The natural world is declining at an alarming rate. Indeed, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species—the most widely respected and reliable source of its kind—records the passing of 62 species into extinction in the past year alone. In truth, such a figure is likely to be a considerable underestimation: the Red List cautiously recording extinction only after a species has failed to appear sometimes for half a century or more. Regardless, no serious observer doubts that the sixth great extinction in our planets existence is gathering pace. Bezos and Musk best build their ark, and fast.
Ecological irregularity has been mirrored by a geopolitical instability that has thrown up some surprising results in the past year. If 2021 marked the flatlining of the much vaunted “project for a new American century”—beginning with the cataclysmic military adventures of the Bush administration and ending in a hastily organised retreat from Kabul under Biden—then 2022 witnessed its momentary resuscitation. Paradoxically perhaps, the source of Washington’s lifeline was Moscow’s ill-advised dash for Kiev and the disastrous war that followed. Putin’s Ukrainian gamble was partially calculated on the retreat of American power witnessed in its embarrassing exit from Afghanistan. A short, sharp military excursion could reverse NATO’s encroachment into the east, Putin proposed, thereafter installing a Moscow backed puppet to oversee a welcoming and grateful Ukrainian public.
Pride always precedes the fall, as the proverbs warned, and Putin’s dreams quickly turned into disaster: Russian armies were not met as liberators but as occupiers; NATO membership has now expanded, not reduced; the US has rapidly expanded its political and military clout across Eastern Europe unnerved by Putin’s aggression; Russia’s “sphere of influence” is rapidly receding to its own borders and a handful of marginalised nations. Indeed, US imperialism has undergone something of a makeover as a result—even as the people of Iraq and Afghanistan still struggle to recover from the devastating effects of American invasion and occupation—as a long list of celebrities, liberal do-gooders, and leftists who should know better than to exalt the progressive nature of NATO and the promise of a more proactive western interventionism. Strange times indeed.
Nevertheless, as any horror movie aficionado will tell you, the death of the monster is always preceded by its resurrection. Not all is bright under the star spangled banner, therefore, as the twin apprehensions of American power collude to provide a gloomy outlook for Washington: inflation and China. The former is tied to the latter in that it weakens the capacity of the US to compete with its growing rival. But the real cost of inflation has been to the US population itself, and to working class people of countless countries besides. The great financial crash of 2008 has not yet reached its conclusion.
The uneasy marriage of catastrophe and elite arrogance found its sporting expression in the 2022 World Cup: a competition that showcased the heights of physical artistry and reminded us just how low corporate depravity can get. Extraordinary feats of teamwork and footballing genius mixed awkwardly with brazen corruption by despots and politicians overly keen to jostle themselves into selfie distance with some of the world’s best footballers—a reminder, if one was needed, that eagles sometimes stoop to the level of a rat, but a rat will never soar to the heights of a misplaced Harry Kane penalty kick.
The World Cup provided much to marvel at—not least in a final game whose high dramatics appeared to obliterate a quarter of a century of tactical development—but we should not be lulled into the simplistic premise that spectacle can be separated from politics. True, we can admire the breathtaking beauty of the pyramids whilst recognising and mourning the slave labour used to erect them. No such equivocation is possible nor necessary in the modern world, however: neither the deft touch of Mbappé nor the game-altering mastery of Messi can compensate for the deaths of thousands of people in the construction of FIFA’s contemporary answer to the ancient Coliseum. A beautiful game, an outmoded system. Sin é.
The world’s working class were more than passive victims of history this past year. There have been mass protests in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, a stunning revival of radicalism led by women in Iran, and a less sustained though notable strike wave in Britain—home to arguably the world’s oldest and most ossified labour movement—where nurses, post workers and a raft of others have been taking strike action against employers and defying an embattled Tory government.
Late in the year came the protests in China, with the Chinese working class carelessly trodding on the dreams of a generation of fringe stalinoid tik-tokers convinced of the “communist” state’s egalitarian pretences. China had won many plaudits for its considerably lower death toll in the face of the Covid pandemic. And it should be acknowledged that there was a moment at the beginning of the pandemic when it was reasonable to propose that a globally coordinated effort could isolate and eliminate the virus as had been done in other outbreaks. The unplanned anarchic nature of capitalism and a retreat to a “vaccine nationalism” ensured that no such thing would materialise; but there could be no zero-Covid in one country either. In time, Beijing’s Covid policy had less to do with virus elimination and more to do with a wider pattern of social control by nervous elites in the CCP. In the end, it has had the opposite effect.
Fortunes for the international political left were more mixed in the past year. Outpolled by the far right in France, Italy and Germany; suffering under the odious leadership of Starmer in Britain; still recovering from the dramatic rise and fall of left reformism in Greece and Spain. The trend was partially bucked in Latin America where a string of leftist—or perhaps more accurately left-ish—leaders have been elected in the past year: Boric in Chile, Petro in Columbia, Lula in Brazil. We can take comfort in the electoral defeat of the right—above all the exile of Brazil’s Bolsonaro to the playground of dictators in Miami—even if a sober analysis of the “second pink tide” would have to concede that it lacks much of the radicalism of its namesake and predecessor, despite the ravings of fascist conspirators about an impending communist takeover of the region.
We might add to this partial list the surprising if welcome perseverance of a self-described socialist “squad” in the US Democratic party. There is much to be cheerful about in this development, even if AOC and crew have dampened this enthusiasm with their energetic appeals to expand NATO, further arm an already bloated Israeli war machine, and their disappointing decision to endorse Biden’s rotten betrayal of underpaid American rail workers. Building a principled left with mass appeal outside of the strictures of the US liberal establishment is not an uncomplicated matter—suffice to note the unconfirmed reports of an embalmed corpse in a Moscow mausoleum momentarily cocking its eye and whispering: “I told you so comrades.”
The dangerous delusions of late capitalism sharply bring into focus the burning need for a democratically planned economy—“social production controlled by social foresight” as Marx put it. The vision of the workers movement has always been grounded in this material reality, but it is no less imaginative than that of the self-declared geniuses of the capitalist class. In the words of James Connolly, socialism would offer humanity the opportunity to “control its own destiny, from the plough to the stars.” As we survey the outlook for 2023, who could deny that Connolly’s prognosis for the future has new and urgent meaning.