Exceptions have become the norm

Capitalism and Catastrophe

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Covid and climate change aren’t aberrations: they are aspects of the system’s permanent global crisis.

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by Alex Callinicos
Socialist Review, January 2021

“The end is in sight. Effectively deployed testing may be able to ameliorate social distancing until the vaccines arrive …To have several highly effective vaccines for this horrible virus after less than a year is a quite astonishing achievement, among the greatest things that we — by which I mean both humanity in general and molecular biologists in particular — have ever accomplished.”

So wrote Rupert Beale of the Francis Crick Institute in the London Review of Books early last month. But before we start celebrating, we should remember that a year ago the possibility that the world might be engulfed in a pandemic that would kill millions and spark the worst economic slump since the 1930s was beyond the imaginings of almost all of us.

Beale ends his article with a warning: “We’ve been skillful, but we have also been lucky. A Sars-CoV-2 vaccine turns out to be relatively easy to develop. The virus that causes the next pandemic may not be so forgiving.” The recent rapid spread of infections thanks to the emergence of a new strain of Covid-19 is a grim reminder of the limits of our ability to understand, let alone to control nature.

So we should know better now. Many of us have been reading pioneering Marxists such as Mike Davis and Rob Wallace who have been warning for years that capitalism’s destruction of nature was creating the conditions for pandemics such as Covid-19. This pandemic may not have been predictable, but that there would be pandemics (in the plural) comparable to the terrible influenza outbreak of 1918-19, which killed between 50 and 100 million people, certainly was.

The world historian W.H. McNeill wrote in his classic Plagues and Peoples (1976): “it is always possible that some hitherto obscure parasitic organism may escape its accustomed ecological niche and expose the dense human populations that have become so conspicuous a feature of the earth to some fresh and perchance devastating mortality.” As McNeill understood, the relationship between humans and their microparasites — viruses and bacteria — isn’t stable. The neoliberal era has seen capitalism industrializing agriculture on a world scale and invading the surviving wild spaces. Now we begin to see the results.

Catastrophe is becoming no longer exceptional but normal. This is penetrating mainstream planning. The Brookings Institution, an intellectual stronghold of the US Democratic Party, has published a call for the incoming administration of Joe Biden to set up a commission on Covid-19 comparable to the investigations of the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks.

The author, think-tanker Elaine Kamarck says, this commission wouldn’t simply hold Donald Trump to account, but address “how should we prepare for high-intensity, low-probability events?” These so-called “black swan” events are supposed to be rare and unpredictable, falling outside the normal pattern of events, but have a large destructive impact. But they “seem to be increasingly prevalent in the 21st century.” For example, “climate change is going to make natural disasters more frequent and more deadly.”

This isn’t simply an intellectual and policy challenge for the ruling classes worldwide. It puts some pressure on Marxism as well. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a way of thinking about catastrophe. It was classically formulated by Rosa Luxemburg in her Junius Pamphlet (1916) against the First World War:

“We stand today, as Friedrich Engels prophesied more than a generation ago, before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism, that is, the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism, against its methods, against war.”

Socialism or barbarism, in other words. And indeed Eric Hobsbawm called the period between 1914 and 1945 “the Age of Catastrophe” — the two world wars, the Great Depression, the victories of fascism and National Socialism, the triumph of Stalinism, the Holocaust. Luxemburg had an almost visceral sense of the profundity of this chain of disasters, of which she was an early victim, battered to death by a proto-fascist militia in January 1919.

But after 1945, watched over by the United States, advanced capitalism rebuilt itself in Western Europe and Japan, and the world economy experienced its greatest boom. The working class in the rich North didn’t stop fighting, but for a quarter of a century it experienced full employment and an expanding welfare state. Catastrophe receded in the West — although in Korea in the early 1950s, Indonesia in the mid-1960s, and Indochina till the end of the 1970s it remained a terrible reality.

The 1970s marked the start of a new era of protracted economic crises, what Michael Roberts calls “the Long Depression.” Neoliberalism was the ruling class riposte, which inflicted a series of severe defeats on the organized working class, restructured production (thereby promoting the industrialization of parts of the South), and relentlessly commodified all spheres of life. But it failed to restore profitability sufficiently to allow a relatively stable economic expansion of the system.

Global growth has been increasingly driven by the development of financial bubbles that stimulated consumption and investment. States always helped to engineer these bubbles, but since the crash of 2007-8, growth has come to depend on the injection into the financial system of new money by central banks that boosted asset markets, pushing up the price of real estate, stocks and shares, and bonds, and made the rich even richer. The new economic giant China has its own version of this dynamic based on debt-financed investment in export industries, which is contributing to a declining growth rate.


In 1938 Leon Trotsky wrote: “The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth.”

This wasn’t actually true then, and it certainly isn’t true now. Productivity growth is slowing down because investment is stagnating in the absence of robust profitability, but the productive forces continue to expand, and innovations such as AI and electric cars still emerge. The rapid discovery of Covid-19 vaccines is an illustration of this technological vitality.

But capitalism shows all the signs of being stuck in a long-term economic impasse. Neoliberalism continues to dominate policy-making, but its heroic age is long behind it. It runs on auto-pilot, administered by central banks and bureaucracies like the European Commission, with the financial markets as their enforcers. Hence the irruption of the far-right into mainstream bourgeois politics, exploiting the discontent created by the Global Financial Crisis and endless neoliberal “reform.” But, as the Trump presidency showed, these disrupters don’t have a coherent alternative economic program, as (in their different ways) Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler had in the 1930s.

It’s an overstatement to say that the system is breaking down. It’s more accurate to suggest that it is generating destructive consequences that it finds increasingly hard to manage. Through the decades since 1945 catastrophe loomed as a growing shadow on the horizon. It became clear a long time ago that, short of the ultimate catastrophe of nuclear war that hung over the Cold War era (1946-1991), the main threat came from the way the blind process of capital accumulation destroys the natural world of which humans are but a dependent part.

Chief among these forms of destruction (though, definitely not, as Covid-19 has taught us, the only one) is climate change. Ian Angus shows in his excellent book Facing the Anthropocene that global warming isn’t simply a long-term consequence of human intervention in nature or even in capitalism’s growing reliance on fossil fuels, which began with the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th century. The famous hockey-stick charts showing rising temperatures and their effects really take off in the mid 20th century, thanks to the industrialized war-making of 1939-45, literally fueled by oil and coal, and the subsequent expansion of what Andreas Malm calls fossil capital in the long postwar boom and the spread of production to East Asia.

The inevitable consequence of this process — chaotic climate change — was long predicted by scientists and activists, including the growing school of ecological Marxists. Now it’s here. Take Cyclone Idai, which caused widespread flooding and deaths in East Africa in March 2019. I was brought up in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). We used to take seaside holidays in Beira, a port city on the coast of neighboring Mozambique. Idai put Beira under six meters of water, destroyed nine tenths of the city, and killed a thousand people. And it belongs to a much larger pattern. According to the UN, six million people were affected by flooding in East Africa in 2020, five times the number four years ago.

The exceptional is becoming normal. The burning of the Amazon in 2019 caused widespread shock. Since then we’ve had wildfires and flooding in Australia, and, over the summer, there were the wildfires on the west coat of the United States — darkness at noon in San Francisco. Of course, rich countries such as the US and Australia can cope more easily with disasters such as these. But, as the pandemic shows, decades of privatization and austerity have pared down state capabilities, making it harder for governments to respond effectively (assuming that they have the will to, as those of Trump and Boris Johnson plainly did not).

The pandemic has also dramatized a feature of plagues and famines as old as class society. The poor are far more vulnerable to catastrophe because they lack the resources to buy their way out of danger. The mortality figures for Covid-19 have been coded for race and class. The other side of the equation can be seen, for example, in increased demand for luxury yachts. In these the rich can shun centers of infection and continue to run their businesses and accumulate yet more wealth.

In these contrasts, and in the relentless pressure on many workers to risk their lives daily we see what the Argentinian Marxist philosopher Natalia Romé calls “the normalization of barbarism,” which penetrates the very pores of society. We can see as the great radical critic Walter Benjamin, writing just after the outbreak of the Second World War suggested, “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

The Marxist thinker who addressed catastrophe most systemically was Theodor Adorno. A German Jew, he was able to escape Europe after the Nazi seizure of power, unlike his friend and mentor Benjamin, who committed suicide when prevented from fleeing Vichy France in September 1940. Adorno returned to Germany from American exile in 1950, but he never forgot. In his philosophical masterpiece Negative Dialectics (1966), he wrote: “The world spirit … would have to be defined as permanent catastrophe.”

Adorno made it clear that, by “the world spirit”, he was referring ironically to capitalism. At the center of his imagination of catastrophe was Nazism and the Holocaust. Nevertheless, his judgement seems exactly right. Capitalism, having overstayed its welcome, has become “permanent catastrophe,” even if — for the time being at least — this takes the form less of state violence than of fire, flood, and plague.

As ever, the question is: What is to be done? What Adorno called his “damaged life” left him less than optimistic. He wrote: “Today the thwarted possibility of something other has shrunk to that of averting catastrophe in spite of everything.” But the two — achieving “something other” and “averting catastrophe” — can’t be so easily counterposed. Of course, we should organize to stop things getting worse – during the pandemic, to fight for protection of essential workers and against the bosses’ threats to wages, conditions, life, and liberty.

But if capitalism is the catastrophe, the only way we can keep ourselves and our children safe is by getting rid of it. The idea of a Green New Deal, pioneered by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US, is a step towards the kind of systemic alternative to capitalism that is needed.

But Jeremy Corbyn’s downfall underlines the bitter resistance capital will mount. Rebuilding a strong left, with revolutionary socialists at its core, is the most urgent of tasks.