Since the early 1970s, capitalism has become increasingly volatile. Little has been learned from the crash of 2008 and we seem to be moving in the direction of another crash before too long. Many mainstream economists believe it is not a question of “if” but “when” we will experience this crash.
In the past, capitalism has been able to recover from such crashes and stumble along to the next crisis. The “recovery” since 2008 has been achieved by transferring wealth from the bottom to the top, making work more precarious, bailing out the banks and doing little to sanction those who were responsible for what happened. The ‘recovery’ has mostly bypassed people who are less well off.
Global warming is the new factor this time round. It now threatens the current system itself. Keeping the global rise in temperature under two degrees, and ideally under 1.5 degrees, is in conflict with the need to make profit and to sustain economic growth. It is unlikely that governments will agree to do anything that threatens that growth. They will look for ways to modify the system without fundamental changes to it and, if possible, they will try to make money from environmentally-friendly initiatives.
While this may buy us time, global warming cannot be fully addressed without a change in the economic system. As the effects of global warming increase, as elites seek to maintain and even increase their privileges, the system will become increasingly unstable and unworkable for the majority of people, both in the wealthier countries and in others across the world.
In addition to this, the lifestyles of many of us in the wealthier countries are unsustainable and will have to change if human societies are to survive. One way or another, huge change is coming to our political, economic, and social environment. The challenge is to manage this change so as to minimise its potential destructiveness and to have a decisive impact on the type of society that emerges.
Signs of Instability
We are already seeing the impact of these developments. The current waves of economic and war refugees are being joined by increasing numbers of climate refugees. Desperate efforts are being made to restrict entry to wealthy nations but this fortress mentality is not a solution, it will not be enough to stop the influx, and conflicts will deepen.
We are also witnessing greater competition between power blocs leading to increased tension and new wars.
At the same time, violent extremism will continue and possibly be added to as the major world powers try to bolster their power and maintain their privileged positions by support for groups that undermine or threaten their rivals.
All of this is paralleled by the growth of right-wing fascism and the rise of populist leaders. Further attempts will be made to blame and scapegoat particular groups such as immigrants. Typically, in periods such as this, anti-Semitism comes to the fore. If past history is a guide, some of this will be encouraged and supported by people of privilege in a mistaken belief that this will strengthen their hold on power.
Overall, in this scenario, we can expect to see a period of increasing social unrest, political instability, global tension, and increasing climatic challenges, along with increased surveillance of populations, suppression of social movements, restrictions on human rights in the name of security, and growing intolerance and scapegoating of Muslim, Jewish, immigrant and other minorities. Historically, periods such as this have tended to be very destructive.
The combination of these and other factors will make the economic and political system even more unstable. In the wealthier countries, the inevitable response will be to squeeze the people at the bottom even further to help maintain the system while social services and other resources will increasingly be curtailed.
Added to all of this is the danger from nuclear weapons. The threat from this source is huge and unpredictable. The detonation of a dirty atomic bomb by extremists, the actions of a rogue nuclear state, the desperate reactions of a major nuclear power or simply an accident or miscalculation could have untold consequences. Our unpreparedness and our unwillingness to confront the issue of nuclear weapons, particularly as the global situation becomes more unstable, leave us hugely vulnerable.
It is clear from these developments that capitalism is becoming more and more unworkable and heading for disintegration. From this perspective, the “collapse” of capitalism is not a sudden, overnight event. It is a prolonged period of increasing instability and hardship for the bulk of the world’s population along with desperate attempts by elites to hang on to their privileges regardless of the cost to others. It is not a simple phenomenon where suddenly the system ceases to function at all. However, it does mean that the old system can’t continue as before. In the current circumstances, global warming is the major factor that likely spells the end of capitalism as we know it. This will probably happen in the lifetimes of people alive today.
Capitalism, of course, could adapt and continue in a different form with an even more sharply divided population. A rich elite could continue to live lives of great privilege along with a deeply impoverished population that barely subsists. It is possible that large corporations could subvert the power of governments and a combination of widespread surveillance, brutal repression and social engineering would be used to keep people in line and passive. In essence, it would be a form of corporate fascism. We already see indicators of these developments in different countries but the future is not determined and what actually comes about will depend on a wide variety of factors.
This latter scenario implies that there is no progressive or effective opposition. But, of course, there will be and we can learn a lot from the failures of previous revolutionary movements. One thing we know is that new systems evolve within the old crumbling system. The alternatives to this oppressive system are already evolving and part of the work we have to do is to learn about progressive initiatives already being taken in different places around the world.
The type of society that ultimately emerges will depend on the interplay of a variety of forces, some reactionary and some progressive. No one person, organisation or social group can, on their own, determine the nature of that future society. Our challenge is to organise so that we are part of a movement that has a progressive and decisive impact on what does develop.
We can also spell out what will likely characterise an effective challenge to those who attempt to maintain capitalism and privilege at any cost.
Such an opposition will have a radically different vision for society. It will be characterised by a cooperative organisation of work and grassroots-based political structures. Its relationship to the earth and environment will be strongly shaped by the values currently embedded in the cultures of indigenous peoples. The focus will be on sustainability and care of the environment. Relationships will be based on a celebration of diversity and a commitment to ensuring a non-oppressive culture of respect for all.
In terms of its structure, this opposition will comprise grassroots movements rather than simply political parties. Without widespread mobilisation there is little chance of success. Focusing on gaining political power on its own has never brought about long-term, effective change.
Effective movements will also be non-violent. From a practical point of view, elites can always muster greater military and police power and will not be overthrown militarily. Violence will only intensify divisions, cause huge loss of life and not succeed in fundamental system change.
The leadership of any effective opposition movement will reflect the widest possible diversity and include many identities that tended to be on the periphery in previous movements.
Realistically, if it is to succeed, any such movement will be led substantially by women. This is not to say that men won’t play important leadership roles but it will be clear that they do this to support and back the leadership of women.
The leadership will also be composed substantially of people of colour and indigenous people. Again, this is not to say that other groups will not be represented in leadership but key leaders will be drawn from those groups not previously at the centre.
The leadership will largely be younger people with older people playing an important role in supporting and backing those young leaders.
Central to the work of these movements will be the building of strong alliances across all these diverse constituencies. This will be at the heart of their power.
The aim of such strong, diverse movements will be to reach a point where their numbers will be too great to overcome. In the face of united, popular and committed movements, elites will have little option but to accept the demands of the people.
So, people today face two possible futures. One is where they resign themselves to the consequences of a harsh system trying to maintain itself at the expense of tackling global warming and becoming increasingly rigid and unworkable.
The other is to take charge of what’s coming and build a rich life organised around offering hope to people and working to bring about a society no longer organised around greed and oppression. Among other things, such a life will entail staying connected to our significance, our creativity, and our power, building close relationships across many diverse social identities, having a clear understanding of how oppression divides people, and a commitment to the unity and liberation of all humans.