People across the political spectrum share one thing: they sense that we are living at a critical moment in the history of capitalism. Where the last decade of the twentieth century brought a near-universal and smug celebration of capitalism’s success, the second decade of the twenty-first century and beyond finds uncertainty, doubts, and fears in every conversation about global capitalism.
As recently as 1999, capitalism’s managers – look-alike, sound-alike politicians, media puppets, and swaggering corporate managers – enjoyed the confidence of all but obstinate skeptics and those many living on the margins.
True, the so-called “anti-globalization movement” gained traction at the end of the twentieth century, but as a scattered, unfocussed movement against capital’s excesses and not its mechanism.
Today, everything has changed. Confidence in capitalism and its institutions is at a low never seen in most our lifetimes. While I plead guilty as much as any Marxist in finding a “crisis” at every juncture, one can construct a plausible argument for locating profound contradictions in every bourgeois institution – the economy, the political system, ideology, and culture.
Few would argue that the global capitalist economy is healthy. Instead, leaders and thinkers of every stripe are occupied with offering road maps for delivery from the four years of intractable chaos. Little progress has been made.
The four years of economic turmoil has taken its toll on political legitimacy. The US political system and its two-party manifestation have likely never known such deep and popular disapproval. Alternative movements of left and right have boiled over to express this frustration.
The Obama administration, after three years, appears stuck in a historic rut slightly more activist than the Hoover administration in 1932, but far from the audacity and experimentation of the Roosevelt administration of 1933.
Looking back, it is easy to see the political revival of the right in 2010 as the obstacle and subsequent log jam to progress, but that abuses history. Armed with a Congressional majority, the Democrats could have moved decisively in 2008, but not with the cabal of neo-liberal advisors chosen by Obama to craft policy. One can better see the rise of the right as a measure of the disappointment with the Administration’s inadequate management of the economy.
In Europe, elected governments have ceded authority to technocrats approved by international financial interests. Frustration with social democratic impotence has lead to a series of “protest” victories by conservatives.
In the near future, there is a real chance that Germany will achieve, by peaceful means, the dominance of Europe that it sought in World War II.
Ideologically, most of the world’s leaders remain caught in the web of neo-liberalism – the worship of markets, balanced budgets, government restraint, and the sanctity of capital. Despite much sensationalist commentary early in the economic crisis about the death of neo-liberalism or the passing of the Thatcher-Reagan moment, political leaders, most economists, and too many labor leaders have failed to escape neo-liberal thinking.
Fundamentalist market dogma, enforced by an extortionate financial complex, breeds the crisis-deepening austerity favored by leaders in the US and Europe. And there is no escape in sight.
Culture, dominated by monopoly capital entertainment behemoths, has sunk to new levels of vulgarity and triviality. At the same time, it counts as the distraction that holds together the fragile politico-economic system. The coarseness of “reality” television, the violence and moral depravity of cinema, banal, soulless corporate-crafted music, and the faux-loyalties of spectator team sports pass as entertainment. Equally distracting is the ubiquitous cult of the celebrity.
The once-promising diversity of the internet is, thanks to commercial penetration, transforming into a medium of personal, individualistic self-indulgence.
The same monopolies that own the entertainment industry own the news media and employ the mass opinion makers. The result is timid, conformist coverage, slanted to respect officialdom and the corporate paymasters. Likewise, what passes for analysis is a useless brew of shallowness and deference to the rich and powerful.
Entering the New Year, dangers abound. Italy alone must refinance nearly a third of its national debt in 2012-2013—591.9 billion euros. Spain must refinance nearly half and Greece nearly two-thirds. None can sustain refinancing at current yields asked by financial markets without harsh, dramatic counter-cuts in spending. And these cuts necessarily will shrink economic growth, resulting in even greater debt as a percentage of GDP. Growth rates are already shrinking in the European Union: On December 16, Ireland announced a 1.9% drop in GDP for the 3rd quarter, well below expectations. Overall EU growth has slipped to .8% in the 3rd quarter from 3.1% in the 1st quarter. The politics of austerity will only exacerbate this trend in 2012.
In the US, the Federal Reserve reports that households’ net worth fell by $2.4 trillion from the second to third quarter of 2011. For the year, growth in personal disposable income has been flat or trending downward, while the personal savings rate has dropped dramatically and consumer credit debt is again on the upswing— mimicking the pre-crisis trend. Debt-driven consumer spending fuels what little economic growth is shown by the anemic US economy. These same consumers must contend with escalating food prices: year-over-year increases in food costs hit 4.6% in November.
September and October factory orders dropped and the index of service sector activity declined in November.
Unemployment remains dangerously and intransigently high despite minor adjustments in the official rate that reflect, at best, deep structural changes in the employment and compensation options available to those without work or underemployed. Even the Wall Street gasbags who fill the airwaves with Pollyanna optimism know that US standards of living have taken a radical and gloomy turn for the worse.
The electoral landscape in the US shows little to celebrate. While many on the left are again raising fears of a Republican Party in ascendancy, the truth is that the Republicans are engaged in an intense, bitter, and bloody struggle between the corporate wing and the no-nothing fanatics who occupy the Party’s extreme right. With Obama-mania now reduced to a tepid enthusiasm for blocking the crazies, corporate Republicans sense a real opportunity to win executive power as many of their European counterparts have in recent months. At the same time, they recognize that voters overwhelmingly reject the ranting of the extreme right Neanderthals. So far, corporate Republicans have used their financial resources and media control to turn back the tea-party pretenders: Palin, Bachman, Cain, Perry, and now Gingrich. Clearly, they want Mitt Romney, a man who can talk the tea-party talk, but walk the pro-corporate walk.
And just as clearly, the Democratic Party has its counterpart to Romney. Obama can skillfully rouse the liberal base by scoring the rich, the powerful, and the privileged while delivering for the corporations. The words are there, but where is peace, health care, EFCA, strengthened Social Security and Medicare, enlightened foreign policy, tax fairness, a robust social safety net, Constitutional guarantees and other “liberal” goals promised four years ago?
Obama and Romney are the designated hitters for the ruling class. Where do working people find their political voice in this charade?
Once again, the New Year promises intense struggles against imperialism, against exploitation, and for social justice and sovereignty. But again, the focus of these struggles will likely remain on the periphery of the most advanced capitalist countries where workers and the poor are more organizationally and ideologically advanced and fervent in their commitment. Despite healthy developments like the Occupy movement and only-too-rare labor militancy, North America seems destined to confine the fight to the corrupted field of electoral politics, especially in the US, where the Presidential election will soon overshadow all other action and siphon off oppositional energies.
The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East were unexpected and important developments in 2011. They brought masses into the streets and shook ruling elites throughout the region. Yet observers overestimated their political impact and potential and underestimated the ability of imperialism to exploit these events for its own interests. The billions committed at the G-20 summit, the rapid response of the “soft” imperialist Western NGO’s, and the violent intervention of NATO quickly re-directed or superseded many of these movements with regime changes beneficial to the NATO allies, an attempt to create a reprise of the infamous “color revolutions.”
Libya was the clearest example of this, with Syria now fixed in imperialism’s sights. Egypt, another target of imperialist intervention, continues to resist the “helpful” hand of the US State Department and many US-funded NGO’s that hope to shape the political landscape in a way friendly to US interests.
The same kind of struggle is emerging in Russia after the strong showing of Communists and their allies in the Parliamentary elections. Enjoying little popular support and with much encouragement and resources from the West, Russia’s liberals have sought to bring down the Medvedev/Putin government through mass protests against electoral irregularities. While electoral fraud is a fact and directed mainly at Russia’s Communists, while the Communists support the struggle for transparent elections, the liberals are seizing on the issue as their own best chance to better their marginal role in Russian politics.
At the same time, in the time-honored bourgeois tradition, Vladimir Putin --the ruling class candidate for Russian President in the forthcoming elections – has thrown up a Trojan horse candidate disguised as the opposition: an expatriate, playboy billionaire who owns a US NBA basketball team. The hope, of course, is that the billionaire’s resources will generate a hollow media campaign to confuse and split the opposition.
The deceptions and ruses of imperialism and its liberal chess pieces ultimately serve imperialism. The broad masses astutely see the call for “democracy” or “free elections” as useful only insofar as they actually lead to their empowerment and well-being. For working people, this is, and should be, the litmus test for their support.
In Russia, as in the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the masses will rally against bad leadership under the banner of “democracy,” but they want more than a hollow procedural victory; they want peace, a better life, a promising future. Twenty-first century liberals offer only the meager morsel of elections and not the nourishment of justice and prosperity. That is why Russian and Egyptian liberals fared so poorly in recent elections. That is why Russian Communists made big gains.
My hope for the New Year is that working-class-oriented, working-class-based movements, especially Communist and Workers Parties, will bring this nourishment to all the peoples of the world.