Critique Notes 93
Published: 27 June 2022
A nodal point in human history?
There has never been a political–economic situation quite like that of the present time. We are in a unique period within a century-old time of slow, fraught transition from capitalism to socialism. Within that history, the present day has five special features. Firstly it is itself within a world in which the mode of production is outdated and in process of challenge and replacement. Secondly, it has been within a relatively long period of low to zero growth from 2007 to 2020, which looks like returning with the end of the pandemic. Thirdly, the so-called underdeveloped countries are in a dire economic state from Brazil, etc. in South America, to much of Africa to large parts of Asia. Fourthly it is within an increasingly frightening time of global warming, and to cap it all, fifthly, there is the global pandemic, in which millions have died but whose aftereffects look like remaining for some time. Indeed, the immunisation of the global population has some way to go.
At the moment, there are shortages of goods and of means of global transport, and millions waiting for the attention of doctors and surgeons. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has even relaxed its conditions for loans, reflecting a harsher reality, before the pandemic. The political economic situation in the so-called Third World is at breaking point.
These five aspects are the conditions in which an overall war broke out on 24 February between Russia and Ukraine in which NATO is supporting the Ukraine but claiming neutrality in order to avoid a nuclear war. Putin, President of Russia, has threatened nuclear warfare if NATO countries take direct action. Hence Western assistance takes a more subtle form in defence of the Ukraine.
The central feature of the current war has been the invasion of the Ukraine and most particularly the successful battle to defend Kiev or Kyiv, where the President of the Ukraine remains. By April it looked as if KIEV was safe, given the change of strategy taken by Putin to conquering East Ukraine.
However, the forces of the left are still to gather their inherent strength. In Russia apparently the left has resuscitated itself if only as a genuine left. There are four such parties in the official ‘Communist Party’, it would appear, according to one source. In the world in general the left remains divided, timid and worn by the decades of opposition and punishment. Students and younger staff continue the tradition of the left within educational institutions but many of the generation of the 1960s and 1970s have retired, passed on or given up.
At the same time, the left-wing victory in Chile in December 2021 and the probable victory of Lula da Salva in Brazil speak of the beginning of a shift. It is only very mildly showing itself in Europe with the victory of the social democrats in Germany. In France the far right, Le Pen, did well in the elections in April 2022, although Emmanuel Macron was returned to the Presidency of France, having turned to the left for support. The left has also won in a former republic within Yugoslavia, Slovenia, now independent. The reality of the victories of the far right remains, however, even if they have adapted to circumstances, in the personalities of Boris Johnson, UK prime minister and follower of Trump until he got elected, and in Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, not to speak of Italy. The shadows of Stalinism and sectarianism still hang heavily over left movements, not to speak of repression of various kinds. I will return to this topic later. The genuine Marxist left, standing for the fullest forms of democracy, is still to emerge as a global mass movement.
However we have one example of a non-governing left operating under extreme circumstances which is immediately relevant, i.e. in the Ukraine. We read:
Using the fact of Russia's invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has banned several political parties and undermined labour and trade union rights. Ukrainian socialist group Sotsyialnyi Rukh (Social Movement) criticised the actions as undemocratic and warned they risk undermining popular resistance to the invasion.1
Zelensky ‘temporarily suspended the activities’ of 11 parties with alleged links to Russia on 19 March. While most of the parties are very small, the list includes the second-largest party in parliament, the Opposition Platform for Life, along with several organisations that have the words ‘Left’ or ‘Socialist in their name. Days earlier, parliament passed a bill to deregulate labour rights, the Law of Ukraine: “On the Organisatio of Labour Relations in Martial Law” (7160), which was signed into law by Zelensky on March 23’.
As during the Second World War, the left has subordinated itself to the governing right and, in modern terms, to the coalition with Nato, but it preserves its identity. We return to the questions raised below.
Putin and the far right
The deliberate decision to wage war on the ordinary citizens of the Ukraine by Putin and his entourage is beyond comparison in the present time. The last comparator in political power in human history is that of Hitler and the Fascist Parties of the 1930s and 1940s. The relatively recent occupations of Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Syria, etc. showed the reality of power in two senses. On the one hand the Capitalist Powers conquered third world countries but on the other hand, unlike the years of imperial conquest, those countries could not play a successful role supportive of Western Capital. Indeed it is not difficult to point out the failure of the former Soviet countries of Eastern Europe. Their relatively developed status within Soviet Eastern Europe has been lost. It is no accident that Hungary and Poland have far right governments. On the one hand, while undoubtedly developing economically, with the exception of East Germany, the growth and depth of the economy are technically less than might have been expected given the potential.
In the case of Russia, this is due to the elimination of the former range of industries to the point where Russia is essentially a backward country. In terms of industrial output, Russia is level with Italy, although it has a population 2.5 times larger, a fact frequently mentioned. Its chief reason for being included in lists of developed countries is the fact that it has inherited 4000 or so nuclear weapons, giving it formal equivalence with the USA. Russia is number 72 in a list of countries by GDP per capita. The USA, of course, is near the top of that list.
Putin's role as dictator of Russia has consolidated itself since he was originally elected in 2000. Since the invasion of Ukraine, officially 15,000 have been detained for protesting against the war and 186 charged under a new law for spreading false news or discrediting the armed forces. ‘The ratio of losses, equipment and personnel is basically three to one, three on the Russian side for everyone on the Ukrainian side’.2 This includes ‘dozens of Russian fighter planes’, etc.
The global scene
The revolution of October–November 1917 in Russia opened up or pushed the world to the changes already wending their way through the economy and society. Elections to parliamentary bodies were opened up to more of the population, women were enfranchised, and with time the minimum age for the right to vote was brought down to 18. Nonetheless, it was only after the 1960s that one could talk of all those not of white colour having equal rights to vote and even then it was 1994 before everyone over 18 could vote in South Africa. And yet South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world. Russia is within this more general environment of limited or false democracy. The authoritarian streak has increased over time. This change is reminiscent of the initial changes in the Soviet Union itself, although it was much faster. It is hard to avoid drawing more important conclusions.
Social democratic and right-wing parties and their personnel make great play of the way the tendency to struggle towards fuller forms of democracy, or control of the society from below, has apparently mutated into its opposite – a vicious dictatorship. Such was the fate of the USSR, where Stalinism was responsible for millions of deaths not to speak of those incarcerated. Associated with its inhuman operations was an ideology which had considerable influence, in spite of its dubious and internally contradictory nature. Although it used Marxist terminology it was its direct opposite and was intended as such.
It does not require a deep analysis to realise that the overthrow of an undemocratic form of control without a workable incentive system and hierarchical socio-political apparatus leaves the society open to a form of direct centralised control. Feudalism and capitalism have their own incentive systems, while monetary reward can work very well, but it has its limits within a capitalist system, both in time and in an increasingly complex international and interpersonal system. Planning is the alternative but it requires a highly developed industrial society with a relative abundance of products. In other words, a society in which shortage is the name of the game can be administered with a system of extensive controls but genuine planning is limited. A level of corruption is inevitable, whether it is among the administrators or the distributors or both. In principle it could be tolerated for a limited time as the system establishes itself, after which it either phases itself out or is suppressed. The incentive system in the USSR clearly did not work. On the one hand, punishments through dismissal, salary reduction–increase, etc. were hard to enforce; on the other, the regime of permanent shortage of desirable goods devalued the payment itself.
The reward system based on a genuine market both for goods and for labour power is a different matter but it requires a shortage of available jobs as well as a developed economy with the necessary industry. Soviet Russia and the Ukraine did not fit this model. The high level of discontent feeds into the quality and quantity of work performed. There is an inevitable and increasing level of discontent in the society. The ending of the Stalinist system was not accidental.
A full, open and genuine discussion of the fundamental issues and real possibilities for humanity would not only attract much of the population, but it would also split the bourgeoisie itself. This reality has been part of Marxist dialogue since the Communist Manifesto 174 years ago. The situation is more acute today because of the totality of the pandemic, the long period of economic downturn, the suddenness of global shortages and the increasingly clear effects of global warming. The bourgeoisie or the powers that be do not want to put all these serious barriers to future life on Earth on the table, as it were, so instead we have odd warnings and research isolated from the necessary finance or government investment. The reality is that more concessions, of an immediate kind, within the system, were made during the period of the pandemic – January 2000 to the present – than in previous periods of peacetime. With vaccination becoming generalised with up to four shots of various vaccines, and the passing of the Omicron variant, the issue has been one of ensuring the defence of the population in the less developed countries.
For many, particularly in the Third World, this background has partially engendered a feeling of desperation both among the population and among those who want change, whether as participants in the global struggle for survival or as observers. This has been partially or wholly facilitated in the New (2022) year with the emergence of a particularly belligerent ruling elite clique in Russia.
The nature of a transitional period
The shift from one mode of production to another requires the introduction of changes both in the process of production and in the overall mode of living. It involves a level of production that secures both a high standard of living for all and the full enjoyment of forms of creation, building and learning/understanding, etc. in a co-operative and collective form. The move in that direction, however, threatens the stability of existing forms and those who benefit most from them.
The result appears to be one in which those in power find it inconceivable that society can change so radically, especially as they lose their role in controlling aspects of the society. The period since the Russian Revolution has seen horrendous wars, forms of victimsation, etc., along with attempts to go the opposite way. Today the issue is not whether such a new society is not necessary but whether it is possible.
In this issue of Critique we have included an article on the emergence of that transition with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Roman Rosdolsky came from the Ukraine and we have included an article by him together with a commentary.
Rosdolsky discusses the role of the individual in history in a revolutionary time. The example is the Russian Revolution itself. The right and centre ignore or talk down the very real revolution planned on 7 November 1917 in Russia. How do we combine the very real technical development of society with the participation of all citizens both in decision making and in raising opportunities for living a long and enjoyable life. Development of human society in all its aspects is clearly on the horizon while those who benefit most from the present day form of production and distribution, like, perhaps, the 700 plus multibillionaires in both China and the USA, prefer the status quo. The structure of control and the inequality in society are partly hidden and well guarded. Rosdolsky brings out the function and ability of leadership and hence the importance of Lenin and of Trotsky. It should be noted, in contrast, that the UK only opened up voting to women over 30 and all men to the franchise at this time.
There are some on the left who see leadership as a continuation of control and hence a form of social inequality. Clearly anarchists have a different viewpoint from Marxists at this point. Each stage of society has its own forms, including particular forms used by the left. Connected to this issue is that of ‘long term trends’. Rosdolsky brings this out with some force in his examples. The discovery of trends and laws in human history is itself crucial in understanding the history of the past and for predicting future development. The difference between Marxist Political Economy and orthodox economics is unbridgeable. Today the latter is under considerable pressure.
In principle it ought to be possible to set out laws or tendencies in existence during the transition period but no one has written about them. Clearly the Stalinist forms in existence in a number of countries, such as China or the former USSR were not socialist or permanent.
The tendency to maintain or to try to achieve an authoritarian state with unlimited powers seems to be a feature of Stalinist and possibly post-Stalinist states if we look at Hungary, Poland, etc. China is an obvious example of a fully authoritarian state claiming to be on the path to socialism. Post-Soviet Russia is clearly on the way to being a fully developed dictatorship. Whether it will get there is not clear.
This editorial is being written at a time when the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is under threat of losing his leadership of the Conservative party in the UK and so his position as Prime Minister. Even if he remains, his future as leader is limited in time. Johnson himself went to Eton and Oxford and took a Conservative line, which was consistent with the possibility of later promotion. Having given the impression of being a liberal, he nonetheless turned to support Trump, apparently hoping, inter alia, that the latter would make trade concessions to the UK. In government he has rather pursued a centrist line outside of immigration, over which the House of Lords has not yet passed government proposals. The Conservative Party only received 42 per cent of the vote but a majority of some 80 seats. He does not have majority support, therefore, among the electorate. In fact, at the moment he has much less than that, as shown by a recently lost by-election. Some 43 seats changed allegiance from Labour to Conservative in the North of England at the General Election in 2019, giving the Conservatives the majority in the House of Commons. In the UK, Boris Johnson has shown his contempt for a number of democratic rules. He was in fact being investigated for contravening a set of those rules during the pandemic. The sudden international threat provided by Russia has stabilised the UK and the party relations in Parliament.
If the Conservative Party implements the promise to ‘level up’, it will change history and the nature of the Conservative Party itself. No extra money has been provided, so it is unlikely to make genuine or substantial changes. However, the Labour Party has not come up with a radical alternative and given its present composition in the House of Commons and its programme it is unlikely to do so. This is obviously no accident. A genuine reform of the economy so as to employ more people, within a highly developed economy itself, is still awaited.
The UK has possibly the highest relative percentage number of victims of the pandemic in Europe, precisely because the government wants to show its support for business, more particularly ‘small business’. At the same time, the expected rate of growth has also declined because of the exit from the EU itself. The government is trusting the openness of the economy to offset these factors but that is a utopian stance. There has been an increase in the number of vacancies but that is a conscious decisions by workers to avoid collective forms of work.
In fact, given the current decline of the UK both economically and politically on the world scene, neither party has a workable solution to the UK's economic problems let alone the considerable balance of trade deficit. What will happen to the balance of payments is not clear given the importance of finance to the UK and the exit from the EU. The only beginning of a way out of the impasse in the UK would be the victory of a left-wing party to rebuild the British economy at the same time as organising a redistributive budget and assistance for left parties in the EU. While that is highly unlikely for some time, given that no other solution is in sight, it is nonetheless inevitable.
The abject failure of the present government and its pusillanimity may reflect the fact that the right has no way out. The Labour Party has tended to follow the government with minor criticisms. It seems to want to commit suicide, with its attacks on the left, and critical support for much of the government's approach.
We can understand world events best by starting from the proposition that the dominant world power, the USA, has reached its political economic apex and has begun a process of real decline. This is not just a question of the quantity and quality of weapons, defensive or offensive, as important as they are. It involves, inter alia, problems with the rate of growth and its nature. Expectation of life in the USA is below that of several major European countries, and educational standards for the majority remain lower than needed. The very fact that the dictatorial form is now embraced by a section of the electorate, let alone implicitly or explicitly by the faction behind Trump, is an indication of fear on the part of a section of the ruling class, and of despair by workers. If the capitalist system is threatened, we may expect a reaction on the part of the ruling class. They can see that the economic failure of the system since 2007–8 has been accompanied by an increasing degree of discontent, even if the left has yet to come to life. They have a range of manoeuvres and forms of control both national and international. They also can engage in forms of action which take the centre of attention from the real issues.
Russia is effectively fulfilling this function, given its inherent instability.
Balance of power
At the same time as the ruling class in the UK and USA wrestle with their problems, Putin is accused of threatening and conducting a war against the Ukraine, which is receiving aid and a promise of direct protection from Western powers. Russian tanks and armed men were conducting military exercises on the borders of the Ukraine and Russia for some time and as of Monday 21 February they went into territory which was Ukrainian, although largely owned and occupied by people of Russian origin. The area did have a history of Russian dominance, but local workers initiated a seizure of power, in which the ideology was that of ‘workers’ power’ rather than nationalism in 2015. How far that continues to be crucial is not clear, although little is heard of it. By 24 of February at 6 p.m. the Russian army and air force had gone in full to occupy the claimed territory. They appeared to claim an occupation of the two provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Thereafter the Russian army went on to ‘take on’ critical towns/cities in Ukraine, with Herson, Mariupol, etc., taking their turn in being bombed.
The UK and in particular its Prime Minister and its Foreign Minister are taking a particularly strong line against Russia. Indeed, the strongest line of all. It is not surprising that Boris Johnson has taken a gamble on such a strong line against Russia in order to get more general support, especially from the USA. The Ukrainian President has been less belligerent than the UK cabinet ministers, while thanking the British for their help. In contrast the French President has spent many hours in negotiations with the Russians. Clearly the stance taken has depended on factors other than the need to avoid and then contain a Russian invasion of the Ukraine and a possibility of global warfare.
Talks between Russia and Ukraine began on the Monday on the Belarusian border, five days after Russian president Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine. Kyiv was demanding an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. David Arakhamia, head of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky's party in parliament, confirmed that Abramovich was playing an ‘advocacy’ role in the negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow. At time of writing – late-February 2022 – the press was reporting the US and UK governments proclaiming a continuing near certainty of an imminent invasion. This was after the predicted invasion did not take place on the date expected. The entry of Russian troops on Monday 21 February is only a new invasion if the Russian assistance to the earlier (2014) seizure of power by local forces is ignored. By early March (4th) it seemed that Putin's troops were beginning to succeed in taking over important towns.
However Kiev remained in the hands of its residents and the Ukrainian President, Zelenskyy, continued to broadcast to citizens and the world. He appealed publicly to God. Attempts at negotiations failed, since the Russians made clear that they wanted to subject the Ukraine come what may. However by 18 March, almost 4 weeks later, the reality had changed against the Russians. Although they had entered numerous towns causing what appeared to be substantial damage to various buildings and captured the nuclear plant in Chernobyl, the chief effect on the Ukrainian side was the displacement and escape of a few million women and children, as well as the killing of hundreds of Ukrainians and many more Russians.
It is not easy to see what Putin and his supporters wanted. They appear to have rejected genuine Marxism, socialism, etc., as well as the ostensible form of the Stalinist/Soviet kind. At the same time, Putin has established friendly relations with Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, etc. It would seem that he has retained part of the Stalinist ideology. Stalinism was strongly nationalist, Russian nationalist in particular, and one must assume that Putin and his underlings have retained this. Indeed, of course, Stalin, unlike Lenin or Trotsky, is venerated within Putin’s ideology. The Ukraine is the unfortunate victim in that it was subject to Russian control for several centuries. The explanation appears to be that Putin expected a very rapid total conquest with limited resistance. By 24–25 March the Russians had announced that they were confining themselves to a limited area. However, on 26 March they then bombed Lviv. They later followed this up by retreating from Kyiv and apparently claiming to want the eastern Ukraine, but nonetheless embarked on an attack on Lviv in the west and by the end of April were back to attacking Kyiv.
The nature of the Putin war
In his March 18 2014 speech marking the annexation of Crimea, Putin declared that Russians and Ukrainians ‘are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus’ is our common source and we cannot live without each other.3
There can be no question but that the present Russian regime represents a section of the Russian elite or ruling class. It is clear that a ‘free and fair election’ would produce different results. That, of course, might depend on how open and genuinely ‘fair’ the nature of the election was. It is also clear that Russia has arbitrarily annexed Ukrainian territory. While it appears to be true that there was an element of workers’ revolutionary action originally involved, that does not alter the arbitrary Russian de facto annexation. Effectively the Russian regime took advantage of the situation twice to proclaim their dominance. The ‘West’ has preferred to ignore the reality of the 2014 de facto occupation and so proclaim the present invasion as a new unacceptable contravention of implicit and explicit global rules.
It is worth exploring over a few sentences the dilemmas faced by Putin. The old Soviet regime came to an end because the undemocratic form of control had reached the limit of its possibilities both economic and political. The Soviet Union after Stalin and his successors was not socialist but neither was it capitalist and it lacked both the necessary democratic form and genuine planning. Crucially the force for socialism was also absent. There is no stable third form which is neither capitalist nor socialist. The increasing mass discontent could no longer be held by direct force. The solution adopted of a limited capitalist form combined with less direct control than under Stalinism has resulted,for whatever reason, in the closing of much of secondary/tertiary industry. While the educational system survives in an adapted form, and mass dissidence and discontent are clear, the system in Russia combines limited forms of Western-style capitalism with the less used Western forms of control. State-recognised Russian religion, limits to freedom of speech, the gaoling of dissidents and demonstrators, etc. are part of modern Russian ideology and practice. In other words, it is a form of control less overwhelming and total than under Stalinism but remaining undemocratic, in a less extensive and brutal way until this war began. Inevitably, the youth, intellectuals and spontaneously organised workers find modes of dissidence.
The population is discontented, with a substantial number, a majority even, preferring a return to the Soviet Union. Such a regime has a limited life, with most of the population pressing for freedom of speech, better opportunities for a livelihood and higher salaries. A few million citizens left the country in the 1990s, although the USA, in particular, put up barriers fairly quickly. Clearly opportunities and income are considerably higher in the West, creating both a permanent drain and increased internal discontent. Indeed, the Levada/Reuters polls effectively show not only that the majority would prefer a return to the USSR but also that this number is increasing. This is obviously unsurprising, given the declining standard of living, but its undemocratic nature, and the lack of availability of literature on an alternative, make discontent very real. The logic, indeed, leads either to a genuine socialism or to some utopian hybrid. Putin and his personnel must be aware of this situation. Indeed, he has made positive references to the former Soviet Union.
One picture of ordinary soldiers’ attitude to the war is provided by an article by Peter Pomerantsev in The Atlantic, of 1 May 2022. He brings out that the apparent enmity of the two sides, Russia–Ukraine, comes from above and has no inherent basis. Given the number of people demonstrating over the country against the invasion of the Ukraine, the absurd incarceration of Alexei Navalny, who is no more than a liberal, one can only conclude that Putin has embarked on an impossible enterprise of maintaining a form of total dictatorial control.
The global hegemon – the USA
The USA is the leading industrial power but other countries like Germany have caught up and overtaken it in some areas, not to speak of China, which is on course to reach the same overall level in a couple of decades. US troops remain in Germany as well as in a series of other countries, while its ships patrol the world. Yet the days of the easy invasion of Viet-Nam, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. are over. The population of many countries was clearly opposed to the invasion of Iraq, as shown by their demonstrations, while, in general few want to sacrifice their lives for the goal of subordinating another country and its population. The form of capitalist subordination has changed with the development of the means of production; the nature of production itself has changed both in its form and its output, while the number of years spent at work has potentially increased with the extended lifespan. At the same time, the increase in global population is moving towards its potential steady state and with it the need for the majority being involved in long periods of monotonous work. Instead, work, as predicted, can potentially become humanity's prime want – a period of life when everyone can express themselves through exploration and discovery in association with their fellow citizens.
In the West, the post-World War II euphoria following the victory over the far right in the form of the Nazis and their global associates, as in Japan, Italy, etc., allowed the formation of anti-Soviet and anti-left-socialist doctrines after the 1939–45 war. In fact, neither was an immediate threat to capitalism. The peaceful expiry of the USSR should have made that clear. Unfortunately, the genuine socialist movement had been effectively reduced over many years to small sects both through direct imprisonment and effective assassination. The right and far right governments of the post-war periods saw to it that socialism and socialists were ostracised. Future generations will produce many books on the different ways in which individuals were discriminated against for being on the left, with some assassinated and imprisoned in various countries of the world. The literature, films, etc. all produced a subtle and not so subtle effect, which were part of the more general apparatus that has held back the evolution of society.
The latest summary of the state of the global economy by the IMF provides a useful supportive comparison. Kristalina Georgieva, the Managing Director of the IMF, has pointed to inflation, growth reduced to 3.6 per cent for 2022–3 and rising food and fuel prices in particular. She deplores the Ukrainian crisis. The overall theme of the problems with inflation, an apparent slide between a shortage of labour or of jobs depending on the country, and wages is clear although not the same in different countries. The fighting in the Ukraine hangs heavily over this situation.
Modern capitalist society as it has evolved up to the pandemic has effectively left the class relationship in a clear if stark form of a few hundred individuals who are billionaires, 700 or so each in the USA and China, plus a few million people who range from well paid to multi-millionaires in the crucial capitalist countries plus China. However, the USA has had a figure of over 20 trillion dollars for its GDP for a few years now; one bank – the bank of NewYork–Melon – alone holds over 41 trillion dollars for its non-investment depositors. The USA is clearly the heart of modern capitalism, although in decline, and the governments of other countries have to show their respect. However, it is clearly in decline, as is capitalism as a whole, allowing the kinds of problems that Putin has created, while the Third World is in a severe crisis.
Both Putin and Johnson have lost the support of much of the population if they ever held it.
In the USA Biden is having trouble implementing his programme, while his electoral support seems to have nose-dived. Above all the so-called Third World or less developed world has reached a dead end. Growth is low to negative while poverty rules. The global disaster of the pandemic has highlighted the reality of mass poverty and its effects.
Politically the pandemic has shown up the countries and the political parties which take a right-wing line of refusing to lock down and limit travel as much as is required. More than one thesis will be written in the future of the failure of Conservative philosophy and politics in this period. On the one hand they provided monetary compensation for those off work as a result, while on the other they tried to avoid the lockdown itself. Although the compensation itself went beyond previous amounts in comparable circumstances, it was still insufficient for many, depending on the particular balance of political and economic forces in the various countries.
China and its influence
Since the USA began to insist, as from 2018, on the enforcement of the agreement in 2002 with China, to the effect that China would open up its economy fully to US competition, the global economy has been reversing its almost two-decade-long acceptance of Chinese production and global trade. There has been a step-by-step attempt to reduce the trading and so incorporation of China economically and politically. The Chinese regime has itself reacted blow for blow. The effect on the Chinese economy is considerable and bound to grow.
It is quite clear that within a finite time – possibly 30 years – China will catch up in terms of GDP and the economy in general with the USA. If helped by the USA it will be quicker and clearly the reverse is true. It is not possible to rule out odd warlike incidents. Given that the Chinese population is close to five times the size of that of the USA such a result is to be expected. The next step would be one in which the standard of living of the majority of the population will overtake that of the USA.
Sixty to eighty per cent of the GDP in China comes from the private sector. To all intents and purposes the economy is a capitalist one, under the supervision of the Communist Party. The 700 or so billionaires are subordinated and accept their status, at least formally.
The subordination of the capitalist class – owners of commercial and industrial property – is complex in that there is an inter-dependency which changes over time.
According to Wikipedia:
State-owned enterprises accounted for over 60% of China's market capitalization in 2019 and generated 40% of China's GDP of US$15.66 trillion in 2020 with domestic and foreign private businesses and investment accounting for the remaining 60%.4
An important article has been produced discussing the role of private industry by The Peterson Institute for International Economics: Tianley Huang and Nicholas R Lardy, ‘Is the sky really falling for private firms in China?’, 14 October 2021.
The article argues that while there is a process at work, looking at private companies, in fact it is only a relatively small sector of private technology that is involved. It is described as a ‘sweeping regulatory crackdown’. However, the article argues that the ‘internet companies subjected to this campaign are a small component of a large private sector that is still investing, growing and outperforming the state sector’. In the past decade, there were it seems some 20 million private firms in China and their numbers increased by four times by the end of 2019, but there were only ‘266 thousand firms controlled by the state’ which have increased ‘only marginally’.
Clearly one needs to know the exact nature of the industrial division to estimate its importance in terms of the role of the state and society as a whole. Put ‘dynamically’ or theoretically the fundamental question is where China is going. It is clearly not just of importance for China in itself but for the world as a whole.
In fact, of course, China is not the only country which has been faced with the choice of forms of ownership and control. In a sense, it is a global question which has been partially dealt with but remains. The forces governing the evolution towards state ownership include those which are demanding global social ownership, although they are not the same. There are fundamental social forces at work which include the class demands of the ruling class and its dependents. They protect their own private ownership of property and its income and prevent, if they can, forms of social ownership. The question becomes more complex as production, transport, housing, health, etc. become ever more developed, expensive and integrated both in the sector and between sectors. If humanity followed this trail it would peacefully socialise most sectors as the development both of social governance and the economy become ever more integrated both internally and between the different forms.
In answer to the last paragraph, non-Marxist economists talk of everlasting scarcity, complexity, social and individual differences, etc., and laugh at the idea that it could be different. In other words, some people will always be stupid, incapable of acquiring the learning ability of those who are now in power or providing a defence for those in power. ‘There will be ever more hurdles to jump over after the required exploration and research. Human beings need competition to draw their skills and overcome natural laziness’. In fact, these objections are centuries old and have been shown to be wrong in the very considerable development of humanity to this day.
The transition period again: a new stage
The essential point is that we have reached a new stage in the transition period, where it is possible in a relatively short time to provide the global population with both necessities and a good if improving life on the way towards a genuine socialism. At the same time, human beings in developed countries already have increasingly long lives in which their abilities are being further developed and those can last much longer. However, we are not there yet, and the openings towards that goal can be kept partially closed, muddied or guarded by a system afraid of being replaced. Such a future used to be decried as technically impossible but that is less true today, with the development of medicines, special drugs, various foods, the necessity of exercise, etc. Nor does the future eliminate the possibility of global exploration with the possibility of a meeting with other beings.
Modern capitalist society as it has evolved down to the pandemic has effectively divided into the developed and less developed countries, and in the developed countries there is a clear division between those who are well off, including in the USA and China some 700 individuals in each country who are billionaires.
We live in a transitional period from one social system to another, from capitalism to socialism. We can trace the transitional forms in their evolution. The tendency towards the formation of large financial and industrial companies, with a proportion being nationalised, has been endemic to the modern economy. The reverse tendency, of de-nationalisation, has been one which has been part of the period from the 1980s onwards and is associated with parties which are on the right or moving to the right. Further examination of privatised companies of this latter period do not show a great success. The railways in the UK are closely associated with government intervention of different kinds. In other countries like Germany they remain nationalised. Nationalisation as opposed to socialisation has been used under conditions where the nature of the commodity is such that it needs large-scale finance with considerable risk that the investment is not fully refunded. Clearly defence is one area where this applies. Sections of the economy where nationalisation has been used include housing/building, education, transport and health. While the nationalised form has been often overtaken with government privatisation, the result has not excluded its repeated use.
Major companies have governing boards which elect a few officers for a period of time. Shareholdings can be widely spread, with very few or no individuals holding more than a small percentage of shares. The governing of a large major company requires both a knowledge of the products and its possible future as well as of the crucial managers and their abilities. As automation evolves and the population increase declines, so will the number of tedious, monotonous, tiresome or boring hours worked. Marx's era when work is seen and felt to be humanities’ prime want will not be far off.
The so-called Third World is close to its last gasp. A rapid growth of population, especially in Africa, is combined with the negatively changing climate, limited educational facilities and insufficient industrial and agricultural growth. Measures are being taken to reduce the factors causing increased atmospheric heat but they are clearly too limited.
A laissez-faire capitalist society lacks the necessary instruments for rapid, international change brought on by complex supra-national instruments. The most developed industrial societies will have to lead the way. Since the USA is today the single global hegemon, its actions are crucial.
There has been a real evolution of both the Eastern countries of Europe as well as the West itself in the last 20 years. The status and real economic and political power of the USA have declined over the same period. It still is the most powerful global power but its previous position of global hegemon was superseded by the Trump depiction of the USA as the more ambiguous number one country or power.
Conclusion: the transition period again, and its meaning today
The orthodox economic support for a utopian form of market exploitation seems to be undergoing a lingering death. The fact that modern economies are necessarily monopolistic has resurfaced in economics departments and political economy is returning. At the same time, Putin is also looking backwards, at least since 2018, to a Stalinist political economic past. A genuinely democratic Russia would have a totally different economic basis, which is why it does not exist, and Putin and his supporters know that, of course.
In short, we continue to live in a transitional period, which appears to have its own stages of development, however complex and however limited in its progression. Unfortunately, we have also witnessed an almost unbelievable shift backwards towards dogma and extreme religion. The Islamic forms have been most successful but the percentage engaged in religious learning in Israel is high. In parallel we now see those who transgress the law suffering penalties which would have been regarded as excessive or extremely harsh in the earlier post-war years, not to speak of countries clamping down on political and intellectual dissidence.
Clearly the increased penalties, list of contraventions, real and potential, reflect an increasingly unstable society, something to be expected in a period of fundamental change. The world has witnessed a rapid move from the countryside to the towns, from agriculture-based living, construction, etc. to urban jobs and forms of living and survival. The problem is that the process is still continuing, indeed even beginning in parts of the world. At the same time,
Now Sinopec, China's state-owned energy giant, is freezing an investment and marketing deal with Russia. At this rate, Putin should not count on a return invitation soon. As he raises the stakes at the table, the Chinese cannot get out of the casino fast enough.5
Finally, the above paragraph has become commonly accepted. It also points to the limited life expectation of both Putin and and the politico-economic form in Russia.
- See https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/ukraine-democratic-socialists-challenge-zelenskys-attack-workers-political-parties.
- See https://news.sky.com/story/ukraine-russia-war-latest-news-putin-zelenskyy-ceasefire-nato-visa-live-updates-12541713.
- See https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lseih/2020/07/01/there-is-no-ukraine-fact-checking-the-kremlins-version-of-ukrainian-history/.
- See https://dbpedia.org/page/Economy_of_China.
- See https://www.ft.com/content/541c7570-8df6-4d36-b580-e3d261daa4d7.