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Permanent revolutions and counter-revolutions at the beginning of the 21st century – our tasks

Saturday 26 April 2014, by Christian Babel

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Report on the world situation to the Fourth International’s International Committee in February 2014.

This introduction to the debate on the world situation at the 2014 International Committee is situated in continuity with that of the three previous years: we remain in the period opened between 2008 and 2011, of open crisis at the financial and economic, ecological and social levels; a period of global instability, profound destabilisation of institutions, impressive mass movements going as far as a revolutionary process in the Arab region… and at the same time, a period where a crystallised progressive political opening is dramatically lacking. Obviously there are developments and questions to consider in more detail with more detachment. These questions are dealt with here in three parts:

1. The dynamics, paradoxes and contradictions of the economic crisis of capitalism;

2. The different aspects of the upheavals underway which are provoked by this crisis;

3. What is at stake for us as a political current: how to intervene in the current transformations of the class struggle, in the processes of mass revolt indeed revolution on the one hand, but also faced with an overall process of weakening of the organised workers’ movement, confronted like the exploited masses as a whole with the rise of mechanisms of counter-revolution and the destruction of social and environmental tissues?

1. The world economic crisis – where are we?

1.1 Characteristics of the crisis

In February 2011, François Sabado asked at this same International Committee, on the crisis which broke out in 2007-2008: “Is it a financial episode analogous to all those that capitalism has known in the past, followed by temporary recessions? Or is it a systemic crisis at two levels: because the regime of financial accumulation developed over more than thirty years is exhausted, and because world capitalism has reached a limit linked to the finite nature of the planet and its natural resources.” And in the case of the second hypothesis, to deduce from it the urgency of measures attacking the roots of the problems: anti-capitalist measures of overall reorganisation of production and society, to satisfy the basic needs of peoples plunged into this spiral of crises.

Three years later and with a little more hindsight, both our more or less impressionistic vision and the more profound Marxist discussions like those recently at the Economic Seminar of the IIRE, go in the direction of the definition of a systemic crisis of capitalism. And there are few bourgeois economists who advocate the opposite, in a return to optimism!

There are many ways to define the current crisis as systemic in nature. I will rest on those of the economists that we are close to: Michel Husson, basing himself on Mandel to define the limits of the “productive order” [1], or Isaac Joshua who speaks of a “crisis of capitalist overproduction of the third type” [2]. In caricaturing a little the history of crises:

 The crises of the 19th century, those of competitive regulation, resolved by the brutal lowering of the cost of raw materials, prices and the purge of debts and above all wages which mis bout àbout, and after significant destruction of capital allowed the recovery of profits, resting on one, or on several motor sectors of production. These crises were intense but short.

 The crisis of 1929 was very intense and very long. Capitalism entered into the period of the dominant wage earner. Hence, at the time of overproduction crises there is no longer any dilution of the t cumulative collapse of production and consumption in an environment of small production. The initial impact is demultiplied and exit from crisis by competition becomes impossible. The latter is no longer endogenous to economic functioning but essentially due to political factors – concretely, it was the war and its outcome which allowed the overall recommencement of capitalist accumulation.

 The current crisis appears comparatively less intense… but its length aboutit also to convulsions whose end cannot be foreseen!

What are the bases of the current systemic crisis? So as to avoid a new paroxysmal crisis like that of the 1930s and 1940s, the response assumed by capitalism in the second half of the 20th century has been commonly called “Fordism” with a constant and generalised economic intervention of the state in the wage relation, and in the regulation of markets and currencies. And when profits fell in the mid 1960s, crystallising a new form of crisis of capitalism in the 1970s, Fordist regulation effectively protected the system from the violence of previous crises, but at the price of a limit to the lasting restoration of profits.

The phase of “neoliberalism” from 1980 onwards relaunched the capitalist offensive by resting on mass unemployment and the sophistication of financial globalisation. Placed before the need to significantly increase the rate of exploitation of the proletariat, capitalist competition has for more than 30 years, exacerbated by transnationals, globalised financialisation to ensure the reproduction of capital. Financial capital has attained an extraordinary predatory power in relation to human beings and nature. This power accumulates new dimensions of wage slavery in the globalised enterprises of industry, agriculture and services, an “accumulation by dispossession” in the dominated economies, and a penetration of the most peripheral societies for the grabbing of land and its monopolisation for export, with a new stage in the destruction of the conditions of survival of entire populations.

The liberalisation of the world economy is much more intense in certain aspects than at the end of the 19th century, when elements of industrial and commercial protectionism were very significant. But the role of states is not comparable (the share of public expenditure in GDP was, in 1913, at less than 9% in the USA and in France, against, respectively, more than 30% and more than 50% today). It remains specific in the current convulsions with in particular the voluntarist action of the central banks, which constitutes an essential difference, it should be stressed above, between the current | “neoliberalism” and the classical period of 19th century liberalism.

This neoliberalism has functioned to restore the rate of exploitation, structurally and geographically extend the space of the commodity, and profits have gone upwards. However the efficacy of the capital invested has not followed, none of the innovations, however rapid and numerous, have taken on the motor significance of railways, electricity or cars. From this viewpoint, let us remember the paradox enunciated by the US economist Solow: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”. This characteristic lack of efficacy partly explains the difficulty in the increases in profit resulting in an overall investment dynamic, and thus accumulation for a real exit from crisis.

The credit economy allowed for a time a rate of growth sufficient to give the impression that the crisis could be overcome, but the growth differentials between the big economic zones of the world have increased. And finally, globalization has also had the effect of extending more rapidly the dynamics of economic destabilisation! The contradictions are thus sharpened. As Isaac Joshua puts it, “state intervention on the one hand, and weak flexibility of wages and prices on the other, both reduce the breadth of the current crises … Globalisation of productive capital and financialisation of the real economy, on the contrary, increase instability.”

The strong pressure on wages having a negative effect on consumption, the ultra-sophisticated credit economy and the extension of the capitalist area have for while compensated for this effect on production outlets. But we now know that the current crisis was preceded by a turnaround in profit rates. At the end of 2007, the credit economy and generalised speculation had reached their limits, and led to the explosion of the financial bubble starting from the famous “toxic credits”. Since then, the transfer of losses from banks to public finances, justified by governments to “save the economy” has allowed the bourgeoisie to retake the initiative by leading the assault against public deficits.

This orientation has led to very tough austerity plans everywhere, but most especially traumatising in Europe. These aspects have already been largely dealt with. We have then concluded that behind the initial big spending, the balance of the dominant bourgeois ideology remains firmly anchored in néolibéralism and is not at all shifting towards Keynesianism. Thus, the reforms of banking regulation against speculation appear very limited, while banking concentration becomes astonishing: the value of assets managed by the biggest US investment group, Black Rock, approaches the GDP of Germany; those (in descending order) of the banks Mitsubishi, Deustsche Bank, Crédit agricole or BNP-Paribas approach the GDP of France.

So what results in 2013, what perspectives in 2014?

The year of 2013 was still one of weak economic growth or more or less deep recession according to the country. Yet the debt crisis seems for now contained, and perspectives of slow resumption of growth are made for this year, but with what solidity? A question is then posed: will the debt crisis portend a new deep fragilisation of the system, or finally a necessary evil from the viewpoint of capital which will reconsolidated on the basis of this purge? Several elements should be taken into account.

1.2 Very diverse situations according to the role of the dominant central banks

 In the USA, the Federal Reserve has an expansionist role to counter the recession (massive buyout of financial securities, in addition to very low so called “director” interest rates for loans), which after the crash of 2009 has led to a resumption around 3.5 to 4% in growth this year, but with notable fragilities: new bubbles - property or internet – appear menacing.

In China, the central bank has incessantly used monetary creation to reflate its economy and growth is again high (7-8%). But with new fragilities: banking and property, rampant corruption, loss of competitiveness. Still more than for the USA, there is fear of bank failures with unknown consequences.

 Europe is globally the “sick man” of capitalism: the Euro zone is the most threatened by the fragility of the institutional edifice bringing together heterogeneous capitalisms, and by a monetary and credit policy which has amplified the crisis to an unexpected length. The differences in development of GDP reach a record level (Northern Europe +3% in relation to 2007, against -9% in the South). Even if they have not been reduced since 2007, public and private debt seem however well straitjacketed by the European Central Bank and the new tools of regulation (European Financial Stability Facility, European Stability Mechanism), which reduce tensions on interest rates for borrowing, with a monetary policy which remains restrictive. The countries stigmatised as “PIIGS”, Southern Europe and Ireland will be under control in return for drastic “purges”. Germany and Northern Europe are doing well enough, but France is experiencing social attacks unprecedented since the mid 20th century and the pressure of fiscal competition is strengthened everywhere. After a year of stagnation in 2013, will we see the beginning of a capitalist solution, all profit for the employers? Or at least a shock, the precipitation of a real deflation (a fall in prices and wages with compression of the economy) for a new phase of the crisis?

 The policies of the big central banks have effects on the other economic blocs, old (Japan) or “emergent” (East Asia, India, Brazil and Latin America, Russia, Turkey): rather than winners, will they not be victims of the beginning of US and Chinese recovery and big monetary discrepancies? The money markets indeed show a great feverishness, and some of these economies like Argentina, India or Russia were locked in a vice in early 2014 by the dynamics of the USA or Europe, with monetary and financial flights which destabilize them.

1.3 Jobs, unemployment and profits

The elements of the economic crisis in each country are used to justify the offensive of the dominant classes. The battles for competitiveness, against rights and social gains, for the commodification of the environment reform the state rules which still serve neoliberal deregulation.

 This offensive rests on mass unemployment, which continues to increase (more than 200 million worldwide), and is at the maximum in Europe: 26 million in the EU or 11% of the active population ( 6% in Germany as against 20% in the countries of the south of the continent). And there is a general rise of precariousness in employment. In these areas, women are the most affected, as well as youth, because these are the two categories first experimented with for all the techniques of precarity.

 Competition for international investment and relocations between continents, countries and even inside each country are used increasingly visibly to strengthen wage slavery…but also end up in a numerical growth of wage earners. These wage earners are increasingly subject to precarity, with the articulation inside them of global segments of production and also inside each enterprise of secure workers and poorer more precarious workers who are frozen in this situation. We note that it is first this “halo of employment” which reacts when the economy revives.

 Profits: the transnationals continue their movement of concentration and strengthen their power in relation to the states. But if the stock exchange indices return to their levels of before 2008, profits, complex to analyse for Marxist economists, do not seem overall to have recovered until now, because of an still weak efficacy of capital invested (or productivity of capital) despite the increased rate of exploitation. Hence profits continue to orient towards a rentier distribution to shareholders rather than productive investment. We should specify our analysis per sector, and for example study more precisely the cars sector, which has returned to its pre-crisis level of production, for its pivotal place in capitalist production.

Conclusion: the deployment of the current economic crisis has been global, but unequal according to the part of the world. For now, we cannot speak globally of an exit from the crisis, more than 6 years after its explosion: profits are not consolidated, the economic “recovery” is fragile and the elements of destabilisation are very significant.

Capitalism continues to function, protected by its sophisticated organisation and its great flexibility. But the economic convulsions and dizzying growth of inequalities prevent a solid restoration of its legitimacy, in a world where access to information is without precedent, allowing for example the demonstrative fact that: “the 85 richest people possess as much as half of the world population” (Oxfam report 2014), to be broadcast everywhere.

2. Destabilisation and growing socio-political crises

2.1 The dynamics of inter-imperialist competition

Even if they remain the two biggest capitalist and imperialist blocs, the positions of the USA and still more Europe are weakened, to the benefit, first, but not only, of a shift of power towards Asia, primarily China. Hence the inter-imperialist struggle to recover or acquire positions of geopolitical domination is exacerbated.

 The neoconservative counter-offensive of the Bush era USA has been a clear failure. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have proved disastrous, and Obama’s attempt to adopt a less aggressive basis in the context of the Arab revolutions is no longer convincing. The desire of the USA to concern itself first with the Far East, with the EU taking the initiative elsewhere is not really working. Thus we see attempts to develop a “pax Americana” with Iran on the one hand, and Israel on the other… with little success! And the credibility of the US government in the world suffers from the Wikileaks or Snowden/NSA affairs. At the same time, the governance of Obama is weakened by his difficulties in imposing his domestic policy: budget “shutdown”, limits of Obamacare. At the same time, the USA remains the biggest capitalist power, which tries constantly to push its advantages. Thus it convinced the EU governments in 2013 to enter final – and secret – negotiations for a new free trade treaty for a big transatlantic market (TAFTA), which will open to unrestrained competition entire layers of European economies (public services and contracts, social, cultural and environmental protection and so on) and would thus give big private groups extravagant rights to exploit peoples and nature.

 The European Union, which structures the convergence of neoliberal capitalist interests, manifests at the same time very little political unity. Whereas the foreign policy of the EU is inconsistent, British and above all French imperialism try to play their own hand with few consolidated results: no grip on Libya after Western interventionism; growing destabilisation of the Sahelian area in Africa; return to the saddle of Russia in the Middle East starting from the Syrian conflict. Hollande and Cameron attempts to resume the traditional polices of their imperialisms in “projecting” themselves outside Europe have weakened their governments, while that of the union around Merkel benefits from “centre-periphery” relations inside Europe. Finally, the rise of centrifugal forces inside certain states is confirmed: in the Spanish state, Britain, Belgium and so on.

 Structural adjustment polices and the modes of imperialist intervention in Africa dislocate numerous state structures. The economic growth which can be noted in some countries for the moment leads only to increased inequality, the destruction of food crop economies and despair. The installation of China as a new imperialist actor, the France-USA rivalries ; the eruption of opportunist religious fundamentalisms as new ideological actors, as well as the reactions of the Western imperialisms (interventions in Mali and in the Central African Republic) continue to push this continent into war, chaos and humanitarian disaster. After South Sudan, is it Cameroon’s turn, or somebody else’s?

 In the Far East, we have for several years witnessed a rise of inter-imperialist tensions between Japan, China, the USA as protector of ASEAN, in particular for the control of the China sea, but also with North Korea. In early 2014, other tensions sharpened in eastern Europe as Putin rejected any new weakening of the Russian grip on its neighbours, like Ukraine. With the exacerbation of economic competition and the renewal of the use of chauvinism as derivative of the social and political problems internal to each country, the risks of an increased degree of confrontation between states are real and growing.

2.2. Ecological disasters, commodification of the environment and displacements of populations

The consequences of climate change only begin to manifest themselves in the entire world- but are felt first in the tropical zones. We see already the current damage (droughts and floods), but also the disasters that can be attributed to this change, like the exceptional storms which pose the question of raising the level of humanitarian solidarity and reconstruction, in a period where states and international institutions are increasingly ineffective at this level (see the balance sheet of Haiti). The development of our specific response to disasters is the subject of a specific contribution in this session, starting from the typhoons in the Philippines and the experiences of solidarity that the Fourth International has been involved in there.

Faced with these perils for humanity, the capitalists assume the role of vultures in relation to the environmental crises, and in particular the climate and energy crises, to create new sources of profits (“green capitalism”, carbon stock markets, and so on). Whatever the ecological awareness of the populations, the threats to the environments are still massive and degrade the living conditions in numerous areas and places: accelerated deforestation in particular in the equatorial zones; pollution of maritime and river waters and seizure of fresh water; predatory mining operations, the scandal of shale gas, dangers and price of nuclear power (thus the consequences of the catastrophe at Fukushima are far from being settled) and so on. At the same time the transnationals continue pressure for the appropriation of land, agricultural inputs and the patentability of the living. All these actions are today detonators of essential struggles.

Finally, neoliberal globalisation, the social, environmental and political crises multiply armed conflicts and the forced displacements of population, which together have a terrible human cost. While the countries of the North and in the first place Europe are transformed into inaccessible fortresses which literally push back into the sea migrants and refugees, millions of human beings are left in makeshift camps in the countries of the South. These phenomena have re-emerged in Africa or Asia, and now around the Syrian conflict. The abandonment of the refugees will be an increasing source of scandal and destabilisation of the world situation.

2.3 The explosion of mass movements against different aspects of the crisis

The mass movements which continue to emerge have economic, social, institutional and ecological dimensions. Faced with the degradation of their situation and the absence of a future for youth, the mass revolts articulate these dimensions in a renewed manner, mostly apart from the old workers’ movement which is integrated into the dominant policies, or broadly outmoded.

 There is the revolutionary process in the Arab region: after the fall of the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, we see the continuation of the mass movements up until the fall of the succeeding governments and in particular the Islamist governments, and the crisis of the Muslim Brotherhood has reached Turkey. The mass revolts have subsided in some countries (Morocco, Jordan and so on) but continue or emerge elsewhere (Sudan and even Saudi Arabia, for example). However as the Syrian people experienced in a heroic but terrible fashion, the counter-offensive of the state apparatuses and the fascistic religious currents broadens. And the weakness of socialist perspectives is increasingly problematic. Gilbert Achcar provides us with essential tools for understanding the process in its complexity and its probable continuation over a long period, with advances and partial retreats, and to help it to develop.

 There are socio-political explosions which emerge from urban crises and the fight against corruption, which shake some countries which had been believed to be stabilised for the dominant classes: in mid-2013, we have seen at the same time a revolt in Turkey based on the defence of Gezi park and Taksim square, and one in Brazil based on opposition to transport prices and the conditions of the soccer World Cup. Aspirations to democracy and social justice constitute ferments of revolt in numerous emergent countries which are only waiting to explode.

 We also see new specifically proletarian revolts in East Asia, with political representation sometimes very weak or disjointed: Bangladesh, Cambodia and so on .These are new areas for the search for radical alternatives to capitalist globalisation.

 In southern Europe and the Balkans, faced with an unprecedented degradation of living conditions, social setbacks, the revolts and mass mobilisations are structural, renewing or spreading, even if the victories are rare, even without defeating austerity, even without political outlet: Greece, Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, and now Bosnia – while the old worker’s movement is dying, what potential do the new social movements have? The fate of the situation in Greece thus takes on an especial importance.

 In the ex-USSR, the opposition to the “democratures” as specific regimes of the security services, oligarchs and corruption manifested itself strongly in Russia in 2012-2013. In early 2014 the impressive movement around “Maïdan » in Ukraine overthrew the ruling clan through mass activity. This is the approach that is needed: despite a very high level of repression, beyond the manoeuvres of Western imperialism, and with an extreme political confusion, the popular movements seek their path!

 In Latin America, the limits of extractivist neo-developmentalism in its diverse varieties have been reached, from its most anti-imperialist (Venezuela), up to the most integrated in neo-liberalism (Brazil), via intermediary forms (Argentina). New mass movements appear, but the reactionary right is also lying in wait.

Despite their frequent confusion but because of their just demands, we support virtually all these extraordinary street revolts. Rare exceptions are Thailand and Venezuela, since from what we know of them they are structured from A to Z by ultra-reactionary sectors. And we see last that without a progressive outlet in the medium term, mass movements can be transformed into destructive communal riots, and be more globally defeated by counter-offensives of the dominant classes mobilising counter-revolutionary instruments.

2.4 The counter-revolutions advance

With the sharpening of the economic crisis, counter revolutionary tendencies crystallise on the basis of the previous offensives of the dominant classes: with the organisation of social regression intrinsic to neoliberalism, development of the “war on terror” apparatus by governments on the one hand, rise of ultra-reactionary activist currents on the other, which combine.

 The dominant political forces are deeply shaken, reacting by state apparatuses challenging democratic rights in the name of the defence of national interests: generalised electronic surveillance, from the USA to China; new laws threatening the freedoms of association and activists; perfecting and brutality of anti-demonstration devices. Numerous recent affairs have shown that no continent escapes the criminalisation of working class, democratic, cultural activity: in Europe (Spain, France, Russia), Asia (Pakistan, China), Africa (South Africa, Egypt) and Latin America (Argentina).

 Including in Europe, where democratic gains were most stabilised, we see democratic rights reduced at all levels: parliamentary functioning challenged by the “Troika”» (European Commission-ECB-IMF), anti-activist laws and legal decisions, inflated security and police apparatuses and equipment, including private ones;

 Ultra-reactionary and fascistic currents intervene increasingly effectively on the public scene everywhere in the world, under very varied forms and sometimes combined, criminalising the rights of women, lesbians, gays, bi-, inter- and transsexual (LGBTI), challenging social public services:

• the Tea Party in the USA, “Manif pour tous” in France ;

• racist populist movements in Europe, against Arabs and Muslims, black people and in a still more generalised manner against Roma ;

• far right populism in power in Hungary and perhaps soon in India;

• neo-Nazi movements in Greece or in eastern Europe, sometimes very much present inside cross-class movements of democratic opposition;

• fundamentalists of all religions, on the march everywhere, who threaten the right to education, women’s or LGBTI rights, the rights to artistic expression, and which increasingly go as far as murder; and religious fundamentalisms which divert and attempt to crush popular liberation movements;

• jihadists who carry out armed operations as far as veritable military conflicts, which worsen in a good part of Africa and Asia.

 In this context, we should stress the violence and reactionary determination with which women’s rights are everywhere attacked in all areas, and threatened in a broad manner at the institutional level, as in Spain in relation to abortion rights.


We are faced with several counter-revolutions, which pose old but renewed tactical problems:

• What level of political alliance is possible against them?

• How to deal with fascistic or fundamentalist currents which infiltrate movements of popular anger?

3. Permanent revolutions and counter-revolutions at the beginning of the 21st century – our tasks

We must act in a very contradictory situation, with many paradoxes (happily we think dialectically!): there is on the one hand a numerical growth of the working class at the world level and of mass struggles; on the other hand there is a crisis of capitalism which is becoming exhausted, and notable counter-revolutionary offensives, in a context of loss of structuring of the workers’ movement and of socialist perspective. But an essential thing is that the fear of confrontation with the established powers has decisively decreased in very many situations.

 Revolts and revolutions (in the objectivist sense of Lenin) are very powerful and determined, invent new forms of struggle, but have a limited self-organisation, and formulate little alternative of power – and they do not succeed in obtaining or consolidating conquests. Hence, they are only partially “examples” and continue in great confusion. How to advance, in particular at the level of consciousness?

 The impossibility of capitalism satisfying the aspirations of the broad masses prevents it from stabilising situations by the methods of bourgeois democracy. That frees spaces for more directly counter-revolutionary instruments. But why so many difficulties for the redeployment of the workers’ movement and its revolutionary component?

 The crisis of the old workers’ movement continues: ever closer integration of social democracy into the bourgeois apparatuses (grand coalition governments in 16 European countries, the Hollande presidency in France and so on), and integration of the big trade union confederations. Social democracy is no more than a form of bourgeois alternation, with a historic left culture “for the gallery”. Neo-reformism, incarnated by the old CPs or the new left coalition parties, has trouble in developing the spaces to the left of social democracy that it has been able to recreate. They come up against the difficulty of developing dynamic perspectives, sometimes advocate new protectionist impasses, and often have a “campist” vision of relations between the big powers which has led them to repudiate mass uprisings for liberty, like those of the Syrian or Ukrainian peoples. It is also necessary to analyse the evolution of nationalist movements of progressive origin, faced with a multiform world capitalist crisis which places them before decisive challenges of orientation.

Finally, what balance sheet can we draw of the wave around the global justice movement, now in reflux as an attempt to overcome these crises?

 The revolutionary and anti-capitalist left seeks to emerge from marginality in the new mass movements. It still intervenes in the social movements, sometimes obtaining significant electoral results, superior to its real influence. But it does not find sufficient points of support to present a credible progressive political opening, and fragments.

 Our current, the Fourth International has come to position itself in an irreplaceable manner: seeking the self-organisation of the masses, of unity to win essential essential social and democratic demands; fight against imperialism and reject campism, formulation of anticapitalist and ecologist programmes, feminist and internationalist, adapted to the new situation of convulsions and transitional towards socialism, starting with the expropriation of the banks and socialisation of the big groups like those of energy which destroy humanity and the planet. But at this stage of strong rejection of the “political apparatuses” that is not enough to gain significant influence! We need to find bridges between the level of organisation of the masses in struggle and the organisation of political parties for the victory of the proletariat against all exploitation. And we must follow closely the new experiences of regroupment of the radical or revolutionary left, in their specificities: in the Spanish state, in Britain, in Argentina and so on.

 We are more or less present, we intervene to the extent of our forces in many countries, but there are some who are at this time particularly emblematic of the responsibilities of our current, like Greece, Syria, Bosnia, Venezuela, on which we should reflect in our international contribution.

The central issue is for us to found new international articulations between exploited classes, between the various forms of struggle against oppression. How to revive international solidarity and political struggle? Because failing that, the tendencies towards reactionary fragmentation of society could triumph!

February 22, 2014