Dominant trends in the capitalist world system in the context of the pandemic

Edgardo Lander

1. With the pandemic, debates that had already been taking place from a wide political spectrum of questioning neoliberal globalization are accelerating. The fragility of the productive chains long established with the aim of maximizing short-term corporate profits has fallen to bare in their extraordinary vulnerability. What happens in one link in the chain can have global consequences. Dependence on imports for materials is as critical as basic health equipment and food. This situation has placed in political debate the need for higher levels of self-sufficiency or sovereignty in many different countries of the world. The pandemic has stripped the world like never before. While richer countries are grabbing vaccines for their population and refuse to relax the rules on protection of intellectual property controlled by pharmaceutical corporations developed thanks to massive public funding, many countries in the South will not have widespread access to vaccines until 2022, according to estimates by the People’s Vaccine Alliance[1].

2. In the context of the pandemic, many old debates have been reopened, from the broadest political / ideological spectrum about the role of the State, about the need for universal public health systems, and about the irrational dogma according to which the market is the best answer to all the problems we face. Could this lead to change, or will we return to normal once the pandemic is over?

3. The most important and urgent challenge facing humanity is the global ecological crisis. Despite many international conferences and agreements in recent decades, we are witnessing the continuous devastation of conditions that make life on planet Earth possible, the accelerated reduction of biological diversity, dynamics of deforestation, air, water and land pollution, overfishing and GM monocultures, all being accelerated. There is little time to avoid not only catastrophic, but irreversible transformations. There is a sort of apathy towards the idea that, even if we know the gravity and urgency of the situation, we can make drastic changes in the patterns of production and consumption, altering the deep inequalities prevailing in access to the planet’s common goods. The interests of short-term maximization of profits of capital continue to impose themselves on life.

4. Technological transformations of our time are, in essence, oriented by corporate powers and political elites of the world. Consequently, far from developing capabilities to respond to the ecological crisis and the needs of most of the population, they deepen the problems we face. Despite the central role that technological patterns play in shaping contemporary societies, these developments are everywhere outside the democratic control by the population and essentially outside the public debate. Among others, there are three areas where new technologies are crucial:

  1. Military technology, focusing on issues such as a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons (which makes their use more probable) and drones equipped with autonomous capacity to decide when and whom to murder. 

  2. Genetic engineering that, through manipulation and appropriation of life and privatization of seeds, is part of a global cultural war against peasant life and human food. This is a war directed at the control of the production and commercialization of food all over the planet. 

  3. And the technologies of surveillance capitalism, such as those that make possible the system of Chinese social credit, in the tradition of Orwell’s dystopia (1984), whereas, since the beginning of the pandemic, the use of these surveillance systems has accelerated to the extent that these new systems will be difficult to reverse. 

5. The left continues to go through a deep crisis. The experiences of the left in power, particularly with socialism of the Soviet bloc in the twentieth century and the progressive Latin American experience of this century, far from invigorating the pursuit of another world (the slogan of the WSF), towards more egalitarian and pluricultural society, against state-centrism and patriarchy, have been not conclusive. Restrictions on democracy and corruption have been part of these experiences, allowing conservative and extreme right forces to gain ground carrying the banner of democracy and honest administration. In addition, the left has often adopted policies promoted by neoliberalism such as it was in the case of Latin American extractivism. In many cases, the left has been unable to reflect critically on these experiences, therefore imposing severe obstacles to anti-capitalist struggles and imaginaries. In Venezuela, the political / cultural effect of the 20 year experience of the Bolivarian process has been a clear displacement of Venezuelan society from a social-democratic consensus to the right and a growing depoliticization.

6. In different parts of the world today, the extreme right and new forms of authoritarianism are flourishing on the tradition of governments in the Southern cone imposed by military repression. They take new forms based on growing conservatism and social authoritarianism. These policies put forward by Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi and Victor Orbán have enjoyed very broad support of their respective populations. Many of the people that used to support socialist and social democrats in Europe vote today for the right-wing parties and even for the far right. In the United States, they vote for Trump, where liberal democracy is in crisis while racism and white supremacism have grown stronger.

7. With the pandemic, in addition to the impacts on health, hundreds of millions of people have lost their sources of employment. Hunger is generalized. At the same time, the concentration of wealth is accelerating, which extraordinary qualitative leaps. Between the months of March and November of this year, the total fortune of the five richest billionaires in the United States increased by 34.2%.

8. We are witnessing an increase in militarization and what many experts see as a new wave of wars. The United States is challenged to maintain its full global hegemony, especially in the economic field, while China is becoming a superpower that threatens its supremacy and, because of that, is assuming an increasingly aggressive posture towards China and Russia. The consequences are strained relations, characterized by intense technological competition, aggressive trade war and a significant reorientation of both the military doctrine of the Pentagon, the war against terrorism of Bush and Obama, and the long-term strategic competition with China[2]. These geopolitical rearrangements can hardly occur peacefully. The threat of a nuclear conflict reappears on the horizon.

9. The reactions, resistance and opposition to these now hegemonic trends have been vigorous in different parts of the world. This is certainly the case in the US where mass mobilizations continue against racist police brutality illustrated by the killing of George Floyd. The powerful activism of Black Lives Matter (BLM) has highlighted the extraordinary weight of the United States’ colonial and slave capitalism history, reproduced by systemic racism in the contemporary era. In India, the peasant movement against market reforms and deregulation of the agricultural sector which threaten their way of life has faced stiff resistance. Policies by the Modi government are resisted, including a recent national strike and several multiclass and multi-caste mobilizations throughout the country. The authoritarian posturing of the Chinese government has faced massive and determined opposition from the people of Hong Kong. In Latin America, when it seemed that, with the failure of the progressive governments, a marked shift to the right would be taking place, we witnessed the vitality of the broad Chilean popular movement, converging to the call for a new Constituent Assembly. In the recent Bolivian elections, a strong rejection of the racist right was expressed. In Brazil, Bolsonaro has lost in the recent municipal elections. In Italy, activists are taking steps to re-articulate diverse anti-capitalist social movements and organizations at the national level. After years of struggles, women’s movements in Argentina appear to be close to gaining approval for the decriminalization of abortion.

In brief, we are not facing a world unable to resist hegemonic tendencies. In the second part of this seminar, we will reflect on the multiple struggles, projects and proposals as alternatives that are now in debate. The question is: What do we have to do? What are, or can be, today’s systemic alternatives to this exploitative and destructive global order of life?

[1] The alliance brings together Oxfam, UNAIDS, Amnesty International and many more.

[2] National Security Strategy, Pentagon, February 2018.