Past modes of production were notable for their relative stability throughout the course of history. Entire centuries would pass with minimal change in the lives of peasants. Capitalism, on the other hand, has been tumultuous from the start. Stability is short-lived, and sooner or later a crisis erupts in its cyclical fashion. On a world scale, some of these crises have been worse than others. Sandwiched between two world wars, conflicts the likes of which humanity had never seen, the Great Depression was a period of low profitability and tremendous class conflict. By the end of the Second World War, enough capital had been destroyed to reverse the economic decline, and bring about surging profits for the capitalist class. While, for a time it appeared that “stability” and “consensus” brought a relative peace, including a class peace, underneath it was the routing of working-class organization. All the while extraction of surplus value carried on until there was simply no more profit to be had. Crisis hit capitalism again in the 1970s, producing a paradigm shift, and a return to a no-compromise tactic by the capitalist class. The working class fell increasingly under assault, and a process of intensification of labor and reduced real wages brought about another era of false prosperity. The crisis of 2008 broke the consensus, made a mockery of the “end of history” notions of eternal growth and permanent profitability, and reshaped global politics as it threw many workers into precariousness and unemployment. We are still living in the wake of that crisis, and the shuffling of imperialist alliances to meet the needs of national capital has led to massive military build-up and hints at war between the great imperialist powers. In an attempt to wring out meager profits, “belt tightening” austerity was introduced. This brought a decline in living standards for millions of workers. Incoherent cultural politics have sprung up in place of well-defined class politics. Conspiracy theories have instead been used to explain away the defects in a capitalist system. Although it is marketed as a system that brings wealth and freedom, it instead encloses the working class, strips it of time, dignity, and life. In a world where class politics are a whisper heard only from the past, some fictitious cabal becomes the scapegoat. By 2020, the gears of capital continue turning, profits continue to be squeezed from our class, while economists begin to posit that this bull market could continue forever. And then, of course, a crisis begins anew.
Crisis often breeds conspiracy theory. Humans seek patterns in a world where misery appears to strike at random. Our current crisis, brought about by COVID-19, is exceptionally prone to conspiracy theory. A sudden massive disruption of daily life and heavy-handed state action have been followed by the wildest fantasies of “deep state actors” and “secret virus labs”. While the conspiracy theories themselves have had tremendous real-world consequences—convincing some to go maskless at indoor events or to self-prescribe horse drugs—the real threat at this time is occurring in board rooms and geopolitical summits. In some sectors, profits soared, while in many other areas profit came to a screeching halt. Workers had their rent and other debt payments deferred until some later date to be decided upon by their ruling class, but already some debts have come due. The expectation is that workers will take the hit yet again, as if there is no expectation that the class will fight back.
Issue 2 of 1919 has been written at a time when vaccine doses are expiring in one country, while another country digs mass graves for its COVID victims. While the pandemic is still upon us, and feels like a new permanent state of affairs, the assault on workers is accelerating in the background and is largely ignored by bourgeois media. It is critical not to lose sight of this generalized assault. Yet again, the capitalist system enters its malaise, and yet again wages must be cut, benefits shredded, and productivity increased. What makes this period different from 2008 is that there is not much room for further extraction from the class that produces this much needed surplus value. The old standby tactics of wage cuts and intensification of labor are already reaching physical limits for workers unable to remain housed while working multiple jobs, or for those who lost work due to the pandemic but are still on the hook for thousands of dollars in unpaid rent. The United States, Russia, and China have begun instead to focus efforts on “national defense”. A cold war that has been brewing for at least a decade. Despite the consensus being that a conventional world war the likes of the previous two would be too catastrophic to imagine, nations throughout the world are steeling themselves for such possibilities. Imperialist conflict has historically followed similar patterns: increased focus on high tech weapons and defense spending, cutthroat trade diplomacy, and protectionism. All of this portends the unimaginable while media outlets casually discuss the possibility of a war between the United States and China as being ever more likely.
We are also including Part 2 of the Malignant Ulcers of Capitalism series, not in addition to the others but because it speaks to much of the same phenomena. Global birth rates are at historic lows, while access to abortion has become a greater challenge for the working class. China, once known for its One-Child Policy, is now seeking to promote population growth in a bid to stay competitive in global capitalism. In the United States, reproductive freedom is increasingly symbolic, something that exists only in a few places where absurdly restrictive laws have not yet been passed. And while there are cultural forces at play, a strong case can be made that population control—either upwards or down—has always been about the interests of capital and the state.