Workers demonstrating in Rouen, France, 5.12.19, photo by GR

Workers demonstrating in Rouen, France, 5.12.19, photo by GR

2020: Class struggles and capitalist instability will intensify

Today’s developing mass movements of workers and youth in many countries against the ‘establishment’ and capitalism will spread around the world in 2020, writes Socialist Party general secretary, Peter Taaffe.

On a world scale, 2019 has ended in the tumultuous manner in which it began and unfolded. It has finished with the shallow electoral ‘triumph’ of Boris Johnson’s Tories.

Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror emphasised this when he pointed out that “an unfair electoral system favours Tories when they gained one MP for every 38,265 votes nationally, while Labour needed 50,717.”

He showed that “Johnson won by raising the Tory vote a measly 1.2% because Labour lost in a 7.9% plummet. Corbyn’s 32.2% share is still higher than Gordon Brown’s 29% in 2010 and Ed Miliband’s 30% in 2015.”

The victory of Boris Johnson’s Tory party means that there will inevitably be bitter class conflict. “Today they are ringing the bells, but tomorrow they will be wringing their hands” wrote Johnson’s 18th-century predecessor as prime minister, Robert Walpole.

Even before Johnson assumed power, capitalist commentators, like Peter Oborne, warned of his systematic deceit, as a journalist, MP and minister in Tory governments.

The consensus among capitalist journalists was that this adventurer lies as he breathes! His crass insensitivity means that he will blunder into conflicts with those who were allegedly his ‘friends’ and supporters on 12 December, the day of the general election.

The day before the election, in order to avoid answering awkward questions on the scandalous state of the NHS, he fled into a cold-room of a dairy – evoking the headlines in the kept capitalist press that even for Johnson this was a “fridge too far”.

Nevertheless, he clawed his way back to power with the colossal assistance of the media, and particularly of lying journalists in the BBC like Andrew Neil, the creature and past editor of the scurrilous Sunday Times. There he did the bidding of the odious press tycoon Rupert Murdoch in the mass sacking of workers at Wapping. We should never forget that this ‘hired gun of Murdoch’ vilified Liverpool workers over Hillsborough.

Emily Maitlis and Laura Kuenssberg from the BBC also showed scandalous bias in their ‘interview/interrogation’ of Labour spokespersons.

Unfortunately, however, Labour’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘neutral’ position on Brexit allowed Johnson and the Tories to seduce significant sections of former Labour voters to support their worst enemies, the Tories.

Even Johnson, immediately after the election results, recognised the fragile nature of this when he stated that many Labour voters had “lent their votes” to him to “get Brexit done”.

However, if the Socialist Party’s position had been adopted on opposition to the capitalist EU, ie Brexit on a class and socialist programme, then it would have been possible for the radical features of Labour’s manifesto to cut through and win a majority.

Unstable Tory government

Nevertheless, Johnson’s government is inherently unstable. It will be a government of crisis because the capitalist system, upon which it rests, has never really recovered from the crisis of 2007-09, which was the biggest collapse of the productive forces for 80 years.

There is the beginning of stock market falls and a general slowing down, particularly in Britain.

The level of poverty is indicated by the fact that mortality rates in parts of Britain, such as Blackpool, Manchester and Hull is higher than in parts of Turkey, Slovenia and Romania.

The economy is flatlining – dropping to a crawl, with the current account deficit at £92 billion, 4.3% of GDP (2018). 70% of young people believe that owning a home will be near impossible for them.

That is why capitalists in the election campaign did everything possible to malign and distort Jeremy Corbyn’s position and particularly Labour’s manifesto on such crucial issues as a mass council housebuilding programme and cancellation of tuition fees, although it should have gone further and also called for the cancellation of student debt.

Capitalist commentators such as Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer, dripping in bile and poison, blamed Jeremy Corbyn in advance of the election for any defeat that Labour was to suffer. Michael Heseltine, Andrew Neil, et al, also railed against Corbyn personally, and particularly his radical policies on nationalisation and council housing.

However, an indication of the authoritarian, anti-working class and right-wing character of this government is the threat by Johnson in the public transport sector to make strikes illegal under his government unless they agree to provide a continuation of ‘minimum services’.

This is in effect statutory strikebreaking. The TUC and individual unions themselves must meet any such threat with plans for unified strike action involving the whole of the movement.

RMT union members demonstrating against Johnson's threat to the right to strike, London 19.12.19

RMT union members demonstrating against Johnson’s threat to the right to strike, London 19.12.19   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Global protests

However, Britain is not alone in suffering the heavy hand of capitalist state repression. Workers in one country after another throughout the world have risen in the past year against dictatorships – veiled and otherwise – or against threats to democratic rights.

Latin America has been engulfed by a wave of revolutionary protest, from Chile and Bolivia to Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil.

After decades of repression in Chile just a tiny increase in fares on public transport acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back. The explosive mood that had built up over decades saw the unleashing of the marvellous movements of the Chilean youth and working class.

Bolivia followed soon after and these movements will not die down as the masses discover their strength and press forward for fundamental change, even revolution.

Look also at the splendid movements in the Middle East and in the Maghreb.

Algeria, geographically the biggest country in Africa, had overthrown French imperialism through revolution in the 1950s and 60s but had subsequently degenerated at the top into an ossified autocratic clique. A mass movement, particularly young people, has demonstrated for democratic rights and improvements in living standards.

They have been followed by a magnificent uprising in Iraq, which in the past was mired in sectarian division and blighted by terrorism. Workers are attempting to throw off this legacy and reach out for class unity, jobs and democratic rights, as the Socialist predicted they would even in the darkest days of sectarian conflict and division.

At the end of June 2009, we wrote: “Only a socialist and class solution can offer a real long-term solution to the Iraqi people. The germs of this have been marvellously displayed in the solidarity between Shias and Sunni in the midst of the bloodletting and carnage in Iraq of the past fortnight. The democratic and socialist forces, although small, and particularly of the working class, should mobilise for a programme which has the present attempts at unifying the Shias and Sunnis as its starting point” (the Socialist, 26 June 2009).

It has been the Iraqi militias close to Iran that have attempted to bloodily repress the movements in the country.

The Shia dissident cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opposes the Iranian government’s interference in Iraq. The Shia in Iraq increasingly look to their own power, rather than leverage outside. As one Iraqi worker commented: “Previously the spectre of the chaos and suffering in Syria silenced our protests but not now!”

We can look forward to the emergence of a non-sectarian workers’ movement which could be the key that unlocks a mass movement to change society in a socialist direction.

This in turn has helped to push the mass movements in neighbouring Shia Iran with which Iraq shares a 900-mile border.

Struggles over the last two years have shown the rebirth of the workers’ organisations in Iran and now it has experienced the biggest mass movements of opposition, and consequently of strike action, in response to increases in living costs through rises in taxes and the price of petrol.

The participation of a new generation of young people has terrified the mullahs who still rule the roost. 200,000 workers and youth have been involved in demonstrations, with an estimated 700 banks torched as outraged workers and youth react to deteriorating living standards.

This year Sudan faced similar upheavals, as has Lebanon in the biggest movement of opposition to the government for at least 14 years, since the previous ‘cedar revolution’. Consequently, Lebanese flags flew on the skyline and in protests rather than those of the sectarian militias.

Hong Kong

The magnificent movement in Hong Kong is also a precursor to coming upheavals in Asia, and above all in China.

The radicalisation of Hong Kong has been most noticeable in the under-18s. Many, if not the majority, of the Hong Kong students, engaged in battle with Carrie Lam, the stooge of the Chinese regime. Many carried a will on their person in case of death from the brutal repression.

Despite the brutality meted out to them, even because of this, they inspired the whole of Hong Kong in its mighty display of opposition to Lam and her puppet-master Xi in Beijing.

Their radicalisation and hardening led to a break with the traditional caution of the student movement, which in turn led to the mass revolt reflected in the landslide result of the municipal elections in Hong Kong. Things will never be the same again in Hong Kong or China.

The battle for universal suffrage is one which could lead the mass movement to demand a revolutionary constituent assembly in Hong Kong – linked to an uprising of workers and youth, with the election of delegates to a series of committees to coordinate the struggle.

Hong Kong riot police lob tear gas grenades at democracy protesters, photo public domain

Hong Kong riot police lob tear gas grenades at democracy protesters, photo public domain   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

It is vital – as is undoubtedly taking place now – that steps should be taken to organise the outline of a mass movement in China in opposition to the present rotten regime. It is impossible to keep a people of one billion in chains forever. Hong Kong will have inspired those in Taiwan who are looking for independence, as too with the Uighurs in Xinjiang, but also linking up with their co-workers and youth in Hong Kong and China.

We are in such an underlying explosive and integrated world that seemingly small events in one country can trigger continental and even worldwide movements, as the example of Chile and Latin America demonstrates.

Therefore the events of Hong Kong will find a path, maybe with some delay, to influence the youth and the working class of China itself.

Eastern Europe

This applies to Europe – east as well as west – as it does to the rest of the world. Growth of the world economy at 3% is the lowest since the global recession.

Eastern Europe threw off the impediment of ‘communism’ – in reality top-down Stalinism – thereby hoping to climb the ladder of ‘endless progress’.

Latvia lost 27% of its population, mostly to the capitalist west, as it went in search of economic salvation.

Some countries, like Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, are probably better off than 30 years ago, largely because of inward investment from the west, but this can disappear if it serves the interests of foreign capital.

Poland, with big inward investment, has seen its economy triple in size over the past three decades with no recession since 1992. It is second only to Australia in managing to escape recession in this period.

However, according to one economic expert, in Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria more than “half the population are worse off”.

Moreover, Eastern Europe is now returning almost to the situation that existed in the inter-war period, with right-wing demagogues resting upon precarious economic foundations, which necessitate ‘strong’ right-wing populist governments.

This will in turn provoke mass oppositional movements, as we see in Hungary with prime minister Viktor Orbán losing control of Budapest and other cities.

Western Europe

In Western Europe a new period of organic instability has opened up that is already triggering mass opposition like the colossal movement in France in defence of pension rights, which Macron is attempting to snatch away from working people.

A warning of what was to come had been indicated by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement which has developed over the last year.

Macron has met with a chorus of disapproval from the masses for proposals to extend the working life beyond 62 and effectively cutting early retirement.

The fury of the French workers was summed up in the colossal one million-strong demonstrations embracing all sections of the working class: railway workers, teachers, air traffic controllers, and many others, who have marched through the streets, chanting that the “streets will always be ours”.

Marching in Rouen, December 2019, photo by GR

Marching in Rouen, December 2019, photo by GR

A recent opinion poll indicated that 89% of the people thought that they were living through a social crisis and 67% said they felt Macron didn’t understand those social difficulties. In other words the government, particularly Macron, was out of touch and could therefore, like his presidential predecessors, provoke a massive social collision – shades of the battle in 1995 which defeated the Juppé plan and even of the mass general strike of 1968?

Moreover, this situation is likely to get worse as the EU suffers from the global trade slowdown, the economic problems arising from Britain’s exit from the EU and Germany’s industrial recession. This will add to the disruption caused by the US-China trade conflict.

At the same time Italy faces a drawn-out crisis from the rise of the political fortunes of the populist far-right Lega (the League). It is no longer in government with the Five-Star Movement, which enhanced the fortunes of the Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini through its coalition with him.

Nevertheless he seems to be riding high and dominates the Italian political scene: “The far right is near the peak of its popularity right now” (Opinion, FT, 24 November 2019), standing at 34% for La Lega and 10% for its allies in the ‘Brothers of Italy’.

However, the ‘Sardine’ movement, with tens of thousands of people squashing into squares all over Italy against the Lega and its racist agenda are an anticipation of future movements by Italian workers with their powerful class traditions and history that will stir into action against Salvini and bankrupt Italian capitalism.

German capitalism, the economic powerhouse of Europe, is stagnating and has started to decline, with its three most important sectors – cars, mechanical engineering and chemicals – in “economic difficulties” and announcing job cuts. Unemployment is rising in regions with a high concentration of industry.

On the political front the coalition of the social democrats (SPD) as the junior partner to the hapless ruling party the Christian Democrats, which has lasted for six years, is fraying at the edges. Support for the SPD has plummeted to a catastrophic 14% in opinion polls with big pressure from the base to break with the coalition.

A new ‘political’ arrangement involving some kind of national agreement between the SPD, Die Linke (Left party) and the Greens seems to be on the cards at a certain stage. However, the need for a clear socialist message through a genuine mass workers’ party to politically arm the mighty German working class for the big class battles is ever more necessary in the upheavals which impend.

There are similar developments in northern Europe. Finland, in a possible harbinger of events in other Nordic countries, faces choppier economic seas. The Finnish prime minister, a social democrat, has been forced to step down because of his ‘mishandling’ of a postal strike! He did not support the postal workers but his coalition partners in a capitalist party accused him of interfering too much in the labour market!

Instability worldwide

The explosive situation in the US will be crucial for international developments in 2020. Trump has faced a deep-going crisis, and is threatened with impeachment proceedings, although it is far from certain that this will be successful in any trial in the Republican-dominated Senate.

The presidential election in 2020 will also be extremely polarised. It remains uncertain who will secure the Democratic nomination. Although Bernie Sanders has won support, the emergence of Warren and Biden has made it more complicated than in 2016. However, growing class polarisation within the US will mean developments there will be crucial for the world situation.

In 2019 capitalism, and those who seek to manage and control this system, demonstrated beyond any doubt the incapacity and impossibility of doing this in the interests of the majority throughout the world.

Demonstrating for action against climate change, photo Paul Mattsson

Demonstrating for action against climate change, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Capitalism is now more unequal than ever – with Britain one of the most unequal societies in the world – and is a system dominated by a billionaire plutocratic elite which has become less and less answerable to the peoples of the world.

And one thing is certain: revolts of the peoples of the world will continue so long as this system is allowed to exercise its dominance: “The world’s tolerance for income inequality and billionaires is declining sharply everywhere”, said Alberto Ramos of Goldman Sachs. These understated words indicate looming mass class opposition to this system.

Because of its failure to come forward with solutions to destructive and terrible climate change, as environmental activist Greta Thunberg has indicated, we have experienced in recent years the hottest decade on record. Only a planned economy can begin to solve this problem, which is only possible on the basis of socialism and democracy.

And yet new theoreticians and darlings of capitalism, like Branko Milanovic, have produced weighty books which seek to convince us that the capitalist system is the ‘sole’ way forward for humanity. However, as we have demonstrated, this analysis is completely faulty as it has proposed no real lasting solutions (see the next issue of Socialism Today, February 2020).

Capitalism as a system is an absolute barrier to the further progress of humankind. The real alternative to this is socialism, organised on a democratic basis. 2020 will see big steps forward to realise this goal.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 20 December 2019 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.