Between the Jackpot and Communism

“Constant crisis had provided constant opportunity. 

That was where his world had come from.”

William Gibson, The Peripheral

Looking out of my back windows I can see the Etihad Stadium and the money that has transformed both a dreary football team and a drab estate into something quite spectacular. To the front, a short walk brings you to some of the most crushing poverty in Britain. A constant reminder that despite all the wealth and advances under capitalism it is a society incapable of providing a good life for all. Moreover, it underlines how everything is churned up and transformed, with millions falling under the wheels of the juggernaut.

Yet capitalism is in crisis. We see this as the wars that were once a world away now sit on the borders of the capitalist centre. The bailouts, the war spending, austerity and the attempts to externalise the crisis of 2008-9 have all failed. We are in a period that Michael Roberts calls the Long Depression or what has become to be called a polycrisis where war, famine, pandemics and ecological collapse have all converged and strengthened the long-term crisis facing capitalism. 

We can also consider capitalism to be driving towards something that looks like William Gibson’s “jackpot” scenario, a culmination and intensification of crises that tipped humanity into barbarism and collapse. In Gibson’s novel The Peripheral’s Wilf Netherton explains there was no one great calamity but “everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves.1 

Does that mean capitalism has nowhere to go? Capitalists who think, agree with Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the Communist Manifesto where they write that the “bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Leading industrialists and billionaires do have an idea: for them the direction of travel looks like Neil Bomkamp’s dystopian 2013 film Elysium, wherein the dirty masses scramble over diminishing resources whilst the bourgeoisie escape to the heavens and to a fully automated luxury capitalism. 

We see this with the advent of commercially useful AI, heralding both an attempt to escape a dead end and, more importantly, the dream of dispensing with human labour. Other breakthroughs will be made. Some will seem like progress. Others – automated drones, deepening surveillance and control – will haunt us. Yet, that scientific and industrial progress is being made does not in and of itself offer capitalism a way out. To go back to Gibson and Wilf, “there were cleaner, cheaper energy sources, more effective ways to get carbon out of the air, new drugs that did what antibiotics had done before, nanotechnology that was more than just car paint that healed itself or camo crawling on a ball cap. Ways to print food that required much less in the way of actual food to begin with. So everything, however deeply fucked in general, was lit increasingly by the new, by things that made people blink and sit up, but then the rest of it would just go on, deeper into the ditch. A progress accompanied by constant violence, he said, by sufferings unimaginable.2

Who can say that with war in Europe and Gaza, civil wars in Sudan, Myanmar and Syria that the technological progress we are seeing is not accompanied by constant violence. There are other morbid symptoms: the endless mass shootings, growing trade deficits, senile political leadership and drug epidemics in the United States reveal a dangerously hollowed out hegemon. We are in the twilight of US domination, as Michael Roberts writes: “US capital’s ability to expand the productive resources and to sustain profitability has been declining.  This explains its intensified effort to strangle and contain China’s rising economic strength and so maintain its hegemony in the world economic order.” Such a situation, with the party dictatorship in China flexing its economic and military muscles in the Pacific, brutally suppressing the people of Hong Kong, leaves us in a period where the proliferation of wars pitting the different capitalist blocs against each other can develop into a general confrontation, another war to end all wars. 

The Hamas-led massacre of Israeli civilians on 7 October opened a pandora’s box that is dragging the entire region towards war. Israel’s siege of Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank with its endless humiliations, petty violence and murders have long enraged the population at large in the Middle East, even as their leaders cut deals with the Israeli state. But the current war on Gaza has reached a level of genocidal violence not seen since 1948. The hard-right Zionist government has slipped the reins of the United States, which in itself warrants a wider discussion on the decline of the world’s policeman. For now we can say that the outcome of the war, beyond death and misery, is unknown, as a drone strike by Iranian-backed militia or an airstrike on military targets within Iran could lead to a regional war, which in turn would set the world alight. To quote Engels, we are “gliding down an inclined plane with increasing swiftness towards the abyss of a general war, a war of hitherto unheard-of extent and ferocity”. 

Glimpses of Resistance

Of course there is no guarantee that this polycrisis will end in the jackpot. Another force, the working class, are in play that can turn the tide. Over the last 18 months we have seen one of the most sustained strikes waves in British history. For the first time in decades strike action began to worry the British state and investors at home and abroad. The spark was falling living standards. There are more food banks in Britain than McDonald’s restaurants. Those on average or low salaries are being impoverished with even what once were high-paid professions in medicine and law becoming increasingly proletarianised, following the trend in education. The determination of hundreds of thousands of workers to defend themselves and each other saw derisory offers from the bosses and the government get pushed upwards. Often not by a lot, but enough to give the capitalists something to think about.

This uptick in strike action and working-class movements have led capitalists in Britain and abroad to dial up state violence and barriers to trade union organisation. This is seen most clearly in the attempt by the Tory government to impose minimum service levels within specified public services to break the power of strikes. But the increasing surveillance and intimidation of protest movements, limiting freedom of assembly and the handing out of hefty fines and prison sentences to protestors alongside the heavy policing of the internet are policies that have a common root. As John McInally explained at the Talking About Socialism meeting in November last year, the capitalist class at home and abroad are incapable of offering any meaningful reforms, such as a decrease in the working day. Instead, we find the working day being extended as more work from home or are tied to the workplace via their phone no matter the time of day or location.

This inability to offer meaningful reforms opens the door to greater authoritarianism in order to safeguard profits. I concur with Sublation Media’s Douglas Lain’s observation in Cosmonaut Magazine last year that “we might understand that the publicly declared war on the whole of society’s civil liberties is also a war on our own project for emancipation.” Across the world, limits on protest, unions, freedom of speech and association are the go-to tools of the international capitalist class. The idea that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand has always been a fantasy peddled by a pliant media and reproduced by the gullible. The hard-won freedoms – both personal and collective – are slowly being stripped away and we are staring down a future of capitalism with Chinese characteristics. We know this to be true, as Mark Fisher commented fifteen years ago that “ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.” 

Again, this is not the only story, we have witnessed movements in Iran against the theocratic regime; yellow vests in France; strike movements across the world in defence of living standards and a worldwide mass movement against the war on Gaza. Everywhere you look workers have been or are moving into struggle, whether for democratic freedoms or in defence of their living standards. 

There will be some on the revolutionary left who will see this as enough, that simply under the weight of struggle a revolutionary situation will unfold and spontaneously the working-class majority will begin to realise that they must take power. If we want to win, we mustn’t tread a step down this dead end again. The anti-capitalist movement at the turn of the 21st century and the Occupy movement – during the early days of the 2008 crisis  – rejected the need for a party. Taking action was more important than thinking or spelling out the enemy, let alone our solutions, an approach that left us with no political organisation infrastructure in which to really challenge capitalism. I agree with Jodi Dean’s observation :

This rejection of the party as a form for left politics is a mistake. It ignores the effects of association on those engaged in common struggle. It fails to learn from the everyday experiences of generations of activists, organizers, and revolutionaries. It relies on a narrow, fantasied notion of the party as a totalitarian machine. It neglects the courage, enthusiasm, and achievements of millions of party members for over a century. Rejection of the party form has been left dogmatism for the last thirty years and has gotten us nowhere3

Others in the workers’ movement, the trade union bureaucracy, the remnants of Stalinism and the social democratic and labour parties, will seek to divert the growing anger into the existing state-loyal parties or down the safe avenues of consumer identity politics where they will be managed and declawed. In the place of these state-loyal parties, who act as the left flank of the capitalist class we need a party of extreme opposition. A party that wants to supersede capitalism, yes, but also a party that takes up democratic demands in opposition to the constitutional order.

Freedom of Speech and Democracy

The wellspring of the communism of Karl Marx is the struggle for democracy. Our movement has from its very inception been at the heart of that struggle. Take, for example, the Chartists and their fight for the vote, the struggle to abolish child labour and to limit the working day., More than this: communists fight for the majority to come to power, not just to take office but to have a real say over our daily lives, the direction of our society and to put need and want ahead of profit seeking. In 1872 Marx speaking at the the Hague Congress of the First International, talked of the historic task of the working class as such: 

“In our midst there has been formed a group advocating the workers’ abstention from political action. We have considered it our duty to declare how dangerous and fatal for our cause such principles appear to be.

Someday the worker must seize political power in order to build up the new organisation of labour; he must overthrow the old politics which sustain the old institutions, if he is not to lose Heaven on Earth, like the old Christians who neglected and despised politics.

The media, politicians of Labour and Conservative, along with the parts of the British state have gone into overdrive to drown out and silence alternative views on Gaza and Palestine, even handing D Notices to the press to prohibit any report on the British army deploying special forces from Cyprus to Israel. The compliant media did what they were told but to their credit the editors of Socialist Worker ignored and openly reported on their imposition. 

With the outbreak of the Israeli war on Gaza, and the accompanying attacks on our democratic rights, make clear that we need a consistent opposition to the British state and its security apparatus. Winning the battle for democracy entails breaking apart of the existing state. That includes the abolition of the police, the standing army and the raising of a people’s militia in their place. There is a lot of backsliding from those who claim the revolutionary mantle in the workers’ movement on such demands, either to keep soft lefts happy or to hide the true programme of the communists. Take, for example, the unfortunately named Communist Party of Britain, being neither communist nor a party, which wants to bring British military spendingto at least the average European level”, leaving the generals with a few less tanks to play with until the European average ticks up like it is doing now at the behest of the United States. Should the working class come to power with such a policy it will likely fall to reaction and defeat. A lesson communists have learnt the hard way from the Paris Commune to Chile to even the open threats of a coup by generals against the social democratic policies of allotment keeper and jam maker Jeremy Corbyn. The officer caste, the standing army and the entire military industrial complex are blatant barriers to democratic advance and a communist future.

As the capitalist press falls in line and the range of voices diminish, it is important that the communist left becomes a beacon for unfettered freedom of speech. That the Islamist scumbags of Hizb ut-Tahrir are now to be regarded as terrorists for holding a backwards and feudalist view of the world in their heads having committed no acts of violence or terror reinforces a dangerous precedent that could easily be applied to revolutionaries and communists. With war abroad and crisis at home the limits on acceptable debate, on freedom of thought and speech, are being tightened, leaving us heading towards a situation where  “grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom4. It is therefore lamentable that sections of the left, the trade unions and anti-racist fronts all fall in behind state censorship and restriction, and go along with state anti-racism, so long as it is directed against the far-right and fallen minor celebrities. Communists are for a kaleidoscope of opinion within the worker movement and society at large. With freedom of speech and a genuinely free press, the worker’s movement can debate and organise, to expose the capitalists and build up a space where the working class educates itself and prepares itself to take power. Without this, the capitalist class and their lackeys will always have the upper hand.

Under capitalism freedom of speech and the press must constantly be defended and won anew every time the working class begins to rise as it is doing today. Until the working class comes to power real press freedom, real freedom of speech can’t be won, Lenin explained at the first congress of the Communist International that under capitalism “freedom of the press means freedom of the rich to bribe the press, freedom to use their wealth to shape and fabricate so-called public opinion.” We see this daily. Striking workers are demonised for wanting a decent life, climate activists are routinely doxxed and attacked by the press for inconveniencing the public, and when it comes to those who threaten capitalist power, all bets are off. Even Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong anti-fascist and peace campaigner can be painted as a vile racist. For communists, the goal, then, is to fight for the working class to come to power on a programme that follows Lenin’s argument and ensures that we build a society where “there will be no opportunity for massing wealth at the expense of others, no objective opportunities for putting the press under the direct or indirect power of money, and no impediments in the way of any workingman (or groups of workingman, in any numbers) for enjoying and practicing equal rights in the use of public printing presses and public stocks of paper”. Our democracy and that of the capitalists are worlds away from each other. Our democracy seeks to put the majority, the working class, firmly in the driving seat.

Winning the battle for democracy, turning the enormous wealth of the world to providing a good life for all and safeguarding our planet instead of the endless cycles of wars, the crashes and crises, the drive toward ecological collapse all in the search for greater profit requires a tangible and credible alternative. That the ideas of communism have found a new popularity over the last few years among the youth is not enough. Neither is hoping for greater strike waves or bigger social movements. What is needed is a permanent organisation that openly makes the arguments for a communist alternative across the worker movement and society. That requires the unity of marxists, as marxists, within a single communist party. The myriad of groups, papers and sects that exist today can’t simply be welded together, especially not into some broad party abomination. No! Real unity is found through commitment to common work, the critical and open exchange of views on any and all subjects and building comradely relations between different communist and workers’ organisations. By starting down such a path communists can begin to bring together and politically arm the working class so that humanity avoids the barbarism of Gibson’s jackpot but instead secures a communist future and Marx’s “Heaven on Earth”.

  1.  William Gibson, The Peripheral (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014), 321 ↩︎
  2.  Ibid, 321 ↩︎
  3. Jodi Dean, Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging. (New York: Verso Books, 2019), Ch.1. ↩︎
  4.  Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works: Volume 1 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 112 ↩︎

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