Originally published in the New Left Review, in 2011.
In great upheavals, analogies ﬂy like shrapnel. The electrifying protests of 2011—the ongoing Arab spring, the ‘hot’ Iberian and Hellenic summers, the ‘occupied’ fall in the United States—inevitably have been compared to the anni mirabiles of 1848, 1905, 1968 and 1989. Certainly some fundamental things still apply and classic patterns repeat. Tyrants tremble, chains break and palaces are stormed. Streets become magical laboratories where citizens and comrades are created, and radical ideas acquire sudden telluric power. Iskra becomes Facebook. But will this new comet of protest persist in the winter sky or is it just a brief, dazzling meteor shower? As the fates of previous journées révolutionnaires warn us, spring is the shortest of seasons, especially when the communards ﬁght in the name of a ‘different world’ for which they have no real blueprint or even idealized image.
But perhaps that will come later. For the moment, the survival of the new social movements—the occupiers, the indignados, the small European anti-capitalist parties and the Arab new left—demands that they sink deeper roots in mass resistance to the global economic catastrophe, which in turn presupposes—let’s be honest—that the current temper for ‘horizontality’ can eventually accommodate enough disciplined ‘verticality’ to debate and enact organizing strategies. It’s a frighteningly long road just to reach the starting points of earlier attempts to build a new world. But a new generation has at least bravely initiated the journey.
Will a deepening economic crisis, now engulﬁng much of the world, necessarily speed a global renewal of the left? The ‘bullet points’ that follow are my speculations. Designed to instigate debate, they’re simply a thinking-out-loud about some of the historical speciﬁcities of the 2011 events and the outcomes they could shape in the next few years. The underlying premise is that act two of the drama will entail mostly winter scenes, played out against the back-drop of the collapse of export-led economic growth in the BRIC countries as well as continuing stagnation in Europe and the United States.
Engine of revoltThe campus rebellions of 1968 in Europe and the US were spiritually and politically fuelled by the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, guerrilla insurgencies in Latin America, the Cultural Revolution in China and the ghetto uprisings in the United States. Similarly the indignados of the last year have drawn primordial strength from the examples of Tunis and Cairo. (The several million children and grandchildren of Arab immigrants to southern Europe make this connection intimately vivid and militant.) As a result, passionate 20-year-olds now occupy squares on both shores of Braudel’s fundamental Mediterranean. In 1968, however, few of the white youth protesting in Europe (with the important exception of Northern Ireland) and the United States shared the existential realities of their counterparts in countries of the South. Even if deeply alienated, most could look forward to turning college degrees into
affluent middle-class careers. Today, in contrast, many of the protesters in New York, Barcelona and Athens face prospects dramatically worse than those of their parents and closer to those of their counterparts in Casablanca and Alexandria. (Some of the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, if they had graduated ten years earlier, might have walked straight into $100,000 salaries at a hedge fund or investment bank. Today they work at Starbucks.)
Globally, young adult unemployment is at record levels, according to the ILO—between 25 and 50 per cent in most of the countries with youth-led protests. Moreover, in the North African crucible of the Arab revolution, a college degree is inversely related to likelihood of employment. In other countries as well, family investment in education, when incurred debt is considered, is paying negative dividends. At the same time, access to higher education has become more restricted, most dramatically in the US, UK and Chile.
The economic crisis combines the deﬂation of popular assets (home values and thus family equity in the US, Ireland, Spain) with steep inﬂation in essential cost-of-living items, especially fuel and food. In classical theory, where broad price trends are expected to move in unison with the business cycle, this is an unusual bifurcation; in reality, it may be more ominous. The mortgage crisis in the United States and elsewhere is internal to the larger ﬁnancial crisis, and will either be solved by government intervention or simple destruction of claims to value. The base price of crude oil, in turn, may fall as industrial Asia slows down and production levels rise in Iraq. (The peak oil debate seems to me both indeterminable and interminable.) But food prices appear to be rising as a secular trend, determined by forces largely external to the ﬁnancial crisis and industrial slowdown. Indeed, a growing chorus of expert voices has been warning since the early 2000s that the global food-security system is collapsing. Multiple causes feedback and amplify each other: diversion of grains to meat and biofuel production; neoliberal slashing of food subsidies and price supports; rampant speculation in crop futures and prime agricultural land; underinvestment in agricultural research; volatile energy prices; exhaustion of soils and depletion of aquifers; drought and climate change; and so on. To the extent that slower growth will reduce some of these pressures (Chinese eating less meat, for example), the sheer momentum of population increase—another three billion people in the lifetime of today’s protestors—will maintain the demand-side pressures. (GMCs, of course, have been promoted as a miracle solution, but more likely for agro-corporate proﬁts than net harvests.)
‘Bread’ was the ﬁrst demand of the protest at Tahrir Square, and the word echoes almost as loud in the Arab Spring as it did in the Russian October. The reasons are simple: ordinary Egyptians, for example, spend about 60 per cent of their family budget on crude oil (heating, cooking, transportation), ﬂour, vegetable oils and sugar. In 2008 these staple prices suddenly shot up by 25 per cent. The official poverty rate in Egypt abruptly increased by 12 per cent. Apply the same ratio in other ‘medium income’ countries and staple inﬂation erases a substantial fraction of the World Bank’s ‘emergent middle class’.
Waiting for China to land
Marx blamed California—the Gold Rush and its resultant monetary stimulus to world trade—for prematurely ending the revolutionary cycle of the 1840s. In the immediate aftermath of 2008, so-called BRICs became the new California. Airship Wall Street fell from the sky and crashed to earth, but China kept ﬂying, with Brazil and Southeast Asia in tight formation. India and Russia also managed to keep their planes in the air. The resilient levitation of the BRICs astounded investment advisors, economic columnists and professional astrologers—all of them proclaiming that China, or India, could now hold up the world with one hand, or that Brazil would soon be richer than Spain. Their euphoric credulity, of course, arose from an ignorance of the superb sleight-of-hand techniques used by the Houdinis in the People’s Bank of China. Beijing itself, in sharp contrast, has long expressed signiﬁcant fears about the country’s over-dependence upon exports, the insufficiency of household purchasing power, and the existence of an affordable-housing shortage side by side with an immense real-estate bubble.
Late last fall, articles of faith from the China optimists suddenly dwindled in editorial pages and the ‘hard landing’ scenario became the bookmakers’ favourite. No one, including the Chinese leadership, knows for how much longer the economy can keep ﬂying in the face of global headwinds. But the unavoidable casualty list of foreign passengers is already compiled: South America, Australia, much of Africa and most of Southeast Asia. And—of particular interest— Germany, which now trades more with China than with the United States. A thoroughly triangulated global recession, of course, is precisely that non-linear nightmare that I alluded to at the beginning. It is almost a tautology to observe that in BRIC-bloc countries, where popular expectations of economic progress have recently been raised so high, the pain of re-immiseration may be most intolerable. Thousands of public squares may beg to be occupied. Including one called Tiananmen.
Western post-Marxists—living in countries where the absolute or relative size of the manufacturing workforce has shrunk dramatically in the last generation—lazily ruminate on whether or not ‘proletarian agency’ is now obsolete, obliging us to think in terms of ‘multitudes’, horizontal spontaneities, whatever. But this is not a debate in the great industrializing society that Das Kapital describes even more accurately than Victorian Britain or New Deal America. Two hundred million Chinese factory workers, miners and construction labourers are the most dangerous class on the planet. (Just ask the State Council in Beijing.) Their full awakening from the bubble may yet determine whether or not a socialist Earth is still possible.
— An adapted excerpt from Contraventions: Editorials from New Left Review, Edited by New Left Review and Susan Watkins.[book-strip]