Twenty-first century capitalism has globalized squalor and inequality. The Global Wealth Report published by financial giant Credit Suisse estimates that the richest 0.6 percent of adults own nearly 40 percent of the world’s total wealth. The poorest 70 percent of adults own less than 4 percent. According to the United Nations Development Program more than 850 million people are undernourished.
The inequality appears worst in the Global South where millions of landless labourers in Asia, Latin America and Africa fight for the right to work for a pittance. In these regions 1.4 billion people live on less than $US1.25 per day. Factories producing components for Western export markets employ millions of workers for a fraction of the retail price of the goods that they make. In the Middle East and North Africa entire generations of young university graduates complete their studies only to find no jobs left for them. In India, where more than 400 million peasants and landless labourers live in poverty, the countryside is scarred by an epidemic of suicides amongst farmers who cannot repay their debts.
In Western countries economic crisis has devastated whole sections of the population. Unemployment in the European Union now tops 26 million. In the worst hit countries, Spain and Greece, joblessness has hit Depression rates. Austerity has slashed social security and pensions. Diseases wiped out decades ago are now reappearing, and mental illness and suicides have become more widespread.
In the United States, for so long capitalism’s poster child, almost 50 million live in poverty and more than 12 million are jobless. Millions have been forced out of their homes while the government has shovelled billions of dollars to the wealthy in bank bailouts. Marino Valensise, chief investment officer at Baring Asset Management, told the December Reuters Investment Outlook Summit that “The US has never been as unequal as today. The American dream has become an American nightmare over the past 20 years.”
A global fightback
The slogan “One world, one pain” fits the experience of billions of people around the world. The system simply cannot meet the basic needs of vast sections of the population. Much of the time discontent or anger at their situation doesn’t lead anywhere. It can appear that there is no way of fundamentally changing the world. Yet where capitalism globalises injustice, it also spreads resistance.
In country after country there have been mass demonstrations, strikes and riots fueled by opposition to the effects of the five year long economic turmoil triggered by the financial collapse of 2008. Widely accepted political certainties have been thrown into doubt – the virtues of the market, the idea that our rulers know how to manage the system and the benefits of “shared sacrifice”.
Greek workers have held no fewer than 20 general strikes in recent years and the political situation has shifted sharply leftwards. In Spain, there have been two huge general strikes in eight months. And for weeks, Spanish students and young workers, the indignados, occupied city squares demanding “Real democracy now!” The indignados in turn helped inspire the Occupy movement which started in Wall Street in September 2011 but spread quickly to hundreds of cities across the world.
In 2012 the momentum slowed in some quarters, but not decisively. Workers across Southern Europe staged a serious coordinated general strike against austerity involving millions of workers. In Eastern Europe there have been big protests and strikes in Romania, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
In China there has been no economic crisis. But the breakneck pace of economic growth has simultaneously raised the expectations of the population and left many living in a state of economic despair. The number of what the government calls “mass incidents” has been rising rapidly – from 40,000 in 2002 to 180,000 in 2010. They involve anything from marches to strikes to sit-downs to riots to kidnappings of bosses and lower party officials. Everyone from peasants to school students to migrant workers to factory labourers has been drawn into the struggle for land, for better wages, union rights, a curb on environmental destruction and the right to live a life free of state harassment.
In Indonesia the workers’ movement is beginning to stir after years of severe repression, while workers in India organised the biggest strike in world history in February 2012 – a massive 100 million downed tools to fight for better wages and more employment protections.
Democratic revolution in the Arab world
Socialists argue that only a revolutionary movement can seriously challenge the inequality and injustice of capitalism. And the last two years have shown that revolutionary movements can score dramatic victories.
It was a desperate act that unleashed the pent-up rage of the Arab workers and poor. On 17 December 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in protest at constant police harassment in the town of Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi’s martyrdom led quickly to a mushrooming of protests. Militants in the trade unions took up the call for mass resistance, and general strikes followed. Within one month the dictatorship of Ben Ali, who had ruled since 1987, was over. Mohamed Sghaeir Saihi, spokesperson for the teachers’ union, explained:
“The revolution was born in the poor neighbourhoods, in the marginalised towns and villages. These places had nothing – no transport, no health services, no schools and no work. Anyone who opposed the regime could be stopped, interrogated, followed and files would be kept about them. People rose up because they wanted a dignified life, and a fair distribution of wealth, but also because they longed for the smell of freedom.”
Illustrative of the shared experience of working people across borders, the Tunisian Revolution became the Arab Revolution as millions across the region were inspired by the successful mass actions. Uprisings and protests erupted in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Libya and Morocco. In Egypt millions flooded into central Cairo and Alexandria. As in Tunisia, Egyptians were not just venting their rage at state repression and crushing of democratic rights but also at the denial of economic rights – bread and fuel were becoming luxuries for the poor.
Tens of thousands of industrial workers went on strike, spelling the death knell for the hated dictator Hosni Mubarak. The army chiefs turned against the president in the hope of saving the system from which they derived their own enormous wealth and power.
For a period it looked as if dictators would be swept aside across the region. Savage repression and Western intervention held back the tide for a period. The brave revolutionaries of Bahrain were battered into submission. In Yemen the dictator Saleh fell, but only to be replaced by his own vice-president in a power transfer deal. In Libya the popular mobilisation was derailed. But the people of Syria battle on despite the deaths of tens of thousands.
And if the revolutionary wave today ebbs in some countries, in others it continues to advance. In Tunisia and Egypt the masses continue to struggle and grapple with the question of how they will forge a better future for themselves and make good the demands of 2011. Everywhere the mass of those turning out onto the streets are united in their opposition to dictatorship, economic hardship and attempts by the regimes to foster sectarian divisions within their own ranks.
Clearing the “muck of ages”
British historian Lord Acton famously wrote, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But the Egyptian and other mass democratic revolutions show that power in the hands of the mass of workers and the poor leads to a sense of social responsibility. It is their lack of power the rest of the time that is the cause of so much corruption, passivity, and social decay.
A revolution is a process through which power is transferred and old certainties are shattered – certainties about how people are supposed to follow the orders of their leaders, how people are impotent in the face of the market or state police and military institutions, and about who can have a say in the running of the world.
In Egypt, society was turned upside down. The most important debates were no longer those being conducted by the establishment behind closed doors. Now they were had out in the public squares and in workplaces. The least “important” people, like cleaners, taxi drivers, students and manufacturing workers, became the most central. What the mass of workers and poor decided – and they decided to fight back the police, to shut down the centre of the city, to take back the streets from the state, to strike until their demands were met – changed the face of not just Egyptian society, but world politics, in the course of just weeks. The rich and privileged were forced into the role of spectators to the creation of a new order.
The subordinate status of women to men was challenged in the midst of the struggle, the divisions between Muslim and Christian were overcome, and a new collective spirit was forged. A KFC outlet was taken over and turned into a makeshift medical centre to treat injured demonstrators. Managers were chased from factories by the workers they had long oppressed. Thousands volunteered to cook, clean, teach and do whatever was required to ensure that hundreds of thousands could permanently occupy downtown Cairo until the regime fell.
One question that has been asked (countless times) of revolutionaries is: “But who will collect the rubbish after the revolution?” The transformative effect of the Egyptian revolution gives us an insight into how people might conduct themselves in a future society. Once the revolution was underway, thousands spontaneously began sweeping the streets and cleaning up the neighbourhoods around the demonstrations. One volunteer told the Daily News Egypt, “We are here cleaning our country Egypt, which is our property and not anyone else’s.” Another journalist observed:
“This feeling of Egyptian pride is contagious as people are encouraging others to come outside with brooms and bags, voluntarily cleaning the streets. Muslim women have been taking their scarf pins to help attach ‘Keep Egypt Clean’ signs to men’s shirts; men themselves embrace one another with smiles, with hope and a love for the maintenance and environment of their country.”
Street-sweeping might seem just a curiosity, and irrelevant in the context of a dictatorship crumbling. But this small example is illustrative of a broader phenomenon. The mass of the population wanted to “cleanse” their society of the corruption and decay of dictatorship. As they realised their power, the cleansing process began to spread to all areas of life. There was a newfound sense of ownership felt by masses of people who were ordinarily denied a say over how their city was run. This translated into a newfound sense of respect for themselves and their environment. People wanted to show their neighbours – and the world – that they could make their city and their lives far better if they had real control.
This is the sort of transformation Karl Marx had in mind when he wrote: “Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way. But because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” The experience of revolution, of shared struggle, transforms the participants in an outpouring of common humanity.
The need for socialist revolution
All the fightbacks around the world bear many differences in detail and intensity. Yet when we see photos or video footage of strikes and demonstrations – whether mass demonstrations in Egypt, Occupy encampments in New York or textile strikes in Bangladesh – each share familiar characteristics: appeals for unity in resistance, the consciousness of an “us” and a “them” in terms of social privilege, and a determination to hold the line against attacks from the state. Everywhere there is yearning for a decent life, which butts up against the reality of capitalist exploitation.
In this system all the wealth of society is created by working people, yet the world’s productive resources are owned and controlled by a minority who don’t work. All of the most important decisions – like how the land is used, what gets produced, where it gets produced and who works to produce it – are made by this minority on the basis of what will help them to make more money and increase their power. The business competition between these elites is ruthless. The first capitalist to show a human heart in the business world will be the first filing for bankruptcy. This is the basic logic of the system. And it is the root of the problems the mass of humanity faces.
We need a new system where the earth’s resources are collectively owned and decisions are based on human need rather than profit. To achieve such a world we need a socialist revolution – a revolution led by those who produce all the wealth of society, the working class. We are often accused of being utopian dreamers on this front. But contrary to the popular stereotype, revolution is a result, not of the mass of the population spontaneously becoming Marxist revolutionaries, but of the failure of the allegedly “more realistic” project of reforming the system.
When people’s expectations of how the world should be are so dramatically at odds with how they actually experience it, they are propelled to do something to change things – write letters of protest, demonstrate in the street, strike in their workplace or vote in elections. Often minor things can be changed and reforms won with patient effort. Yet at certain places and in certain times, those who are simply seeking a reasonable life can also come to find that the system refuses to concede even basic things like a living wage. In so many parts of the world this is the case today. In these instances people can be pushed to more militant actions – the voter becomes a protester; the one day strike becomes a general strike.
When those who are supposed to be in charge, the politicians and the business leaders, prove themselves incapable of dealing with the problems that the mass of the population endures, people can be pushed further. Complete failure at the top of society poses the question not just of replacing one politician with another, but of running things in a different way. For example, in Greece and Spain workers have been told year after year that things will get better if only they sacrifice. But the politicians have only made things so much worse. Among huge sections of the population, there is nothing but hostility to the mainstream political parties and the existing political process. That is the basis for the slogan “Real democracy now!” Many don’t know what real democracy would look like, but they know that what they have now is not it.
When the combination of unmet expectations and impotent capitalist institutions coincides with a severe economic or political crisis there is the prospect of a socialist revolution. When all the avenues of reform have seemingly been exhausted, workers can start to bypass the existing institutions like parliament, the courts and the pro-capitalist political parties to create their own assemblies to decide how to run things. In Bolivia in June 2005, such an assembly was convened in the most dramatic of circumstances. Luis Gomez, who was present in the capital La Paz, described the event:
“The most combative sectors of the social movements (the urban and rural Aymara [Indigenous people], the miners and El Alto [a city adjacent to La Paz] university students, among others) have expanded their siege of the centre of State power: there have been clashes with the police for hours in attempts to take the Plaza Murillo. This morning there were more people in the streets than before… Perhaps half a million people, perhaps more, according to the calculations of a leader from District 8 of El Alto.
“The public school teachers arrived earlier…they went out alone to shut down central La Paz. A half hour later the two immense marches from El Alto arrived, one made up of the city’s southern districts and another from the north. The mineworkers’ federation arrived, as did the factory workers, the students, followed by the peasant farmers… together [they] held another great council like the one last week…
“The council’s decisions, approved by hundreds of thousands of raised hands, came out around noon: 1) Total hydrocarbon nationalisation, and the occupation of gas and oil wells. 2) Out with Mesa [the President] and the National Congress.”
Hundreds of thousands of raised hands – that was “real democracy now”. In the ensuing weeks, the strike and protest movement deepened. The country was completely shut down, the president resigned and the oil fields were occupied. The most reactionary sections of the ruling class and the most militant sections of the movement were calling for civil war – a war between the rich and the poor, the robbers and the robbed – in order to settle things once and for all.
Of course, a revolution does not neatly fit any schema. Nor does major crisis and privation necessarily lead to socialist revolution. If that were the case half of the world would surely be living under socialism by now. In Bolivia, the political crisis abated and much of the struggle was channelled into electing a popular left government. Subjective considerations like the traditions of struggle, the expectations of the population, the calibre of the union leadership, and the arguments of revolutionaries – to convince more people of both the need for fundamental change and how to achieve it – are important determinants in whether and how a movement progresses.
There is, however, an elementary dynamic that is driven by the failure of the system itself.
It can be seen in the Arab Revolution, even though it has not (yet) become a socialist revolution in any country. In some cases the movements started out by tentatively demanding a few modest reforms of the constitution. But faced with state repression, people quickly radicalised. “Reform” was replaced by “The people want the fall of the regime” as the chant that rang out in the streets of hundreds of towns and cities in the region. The new demand posed a strategic question: “How to achieve it?” The simple answer was greater militancy, actions that defied the law and the state and strike actions that began to shut down the system.
But the case of Egypt also shows why the revolutionary movement cannot stop halfway in hope that institutional reform will address the masses’ problems. The millions who filled the squares of Cairo and Alexandria two years ago believed that the country’s army could be trusted to bring justice to the people who had been abused by dictatorship for 30 years. Within months many were forced to change their minds as the generals attempted to consolidate power.
In the elections of 2011 and 2012 many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood voted for the party hoping that it could settle scores with the old regime, only to find it making peace with the generals and the big corporations that profited from Mubarak’s crushing of dissent. Anger at this state of affairs has brought hundreds of thousands back to the squares in recent months.
There is continuing frustration about the fact that much of the old regime is still in place, the lack of jobs, the abysmal level of the minimum wage, the poor health and education systems. The political and economic issues are inseparable. Egyptian capitalism has been built on low wages and state support for industry, rather than support for workers. To address the problem of poverty the entire structure of Egyptian capitalism needs to be challenged. That can only seriously happen by power being transferred into the hands of the mass of the population.
The working class is central to the revolution because workplaces are key sites of power. They are where all the things society needs are produced. They are the source of all the profits of the system, therefore the source of the ruling class’s power. When workers take over the factories, the mines, the telecommunications facilities, the docks and the power stations, they take the heart of the system.
While workers taking control of production and using society’s resources to meet human need is a key goal of a socialist revolution, the main task is to smash the existing state apparatus. While the capitalists still have in their control the police, the army, the courts and the prisons, any gain of the revolution can be put under threat. The full might of repression can be unleashed against the population – as in Syria and Bahrain, where tens of thousands have been killed. Even without unleashing mass repression, the existing state proves an obstacle to progress. For example, in South America a “factory recovery” movement was born in the midst of the 2001 economic crisis in Argentina. Several hundred companies have been put under workers’ control. But the cooperatives are partially hamstrung as they are forced to operate to a certain degree in accordance with capitalist norms and within the capitalist legal system, which privileges private property over human need.
A socialist revolution, then, is one that is thoroughgoing. It does not stop halfway, but totally transforms society, putting power directly in the hands of workers through democratic assemblies elected from workplaces. It defends itself by disbanding the old state and organising a new one, constructed out of the workers’ assemblies, the trade unions, factory committees, the revolutionary party, and workers’ militias that replace the old police force. Where exploitation is the basis of capitalism, the revolution rewrites the legal and moral code so that it is now made a crime.
Death, taxes and revolution
At the height of the French Revolution, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his friend, the scientist Jean-Baptiste Leroy, and quipped, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” He might have added revolution to the short list. Rebellion is a constant feature of our world. Every decade a revolutionary movement breaks out somewhere. So the question is not “Can a revolution happen?” but “Where will it happen next?” and “How can it win?”
The scale of the crisis in Europe, the continuing revolutions in the Middle East and Latin America, the mass discontent and social explosions in China – the preparedness of peoples all over the world to fight – suggests that the next decade will see more revolutions. Millions will be drawn into the streets and into political activity, many for the first time in their lives. This will to fight and the politics that informs it will shape world politics in the next decade.
There is no guarantee that our side will win. But it is clear that under this system poverty, war and oppression will continue, and that they will provoke resistance. In the process of struggle and defeat the world working class will learn how to create a society where the fruits of our labour will be enjoyed by all, where no child need fear for their education, no worker need worry about whether or not they have a job tomorrow, no sick person need be anxious about the cost of medical care and no elderly person need fear impoverishment in their old age. That’s a world worth fighting for.