As long as housing is a commodity, rents will keep rising

Capitalism marches on. And thus housing, because it is a capitalist commodity, has resumed its upward cost, putting ever more people at risk of homelessness, hunger, inability to access medical care and medications, or some combination of those.

There had been a temporary dip in the costs of rentals in 2020 as the pandemic threw a spanner into the economy, but the dynamics of capitalist markets have reasserted themselves. Rent is not only too damn high but getting higher, fast. And almost everywhere, not just in your city.

Here are a few numbers that begin to tell the story:

  • In the United States, rents on residential units have increased at more than double the rate of inflation since 1980.
  • In Canada, rents increased seven and a half times faster than wages from 2000 to 2020.
  • In England, rents grew 60% faster than wages between 2011 and 2017.
  • Germany’s 77 largest cities have a shortage of 1.9 million affordable apartments.
  • In Australia, rent from 2006 to 2022 has increased 12 times faster than inflation-adjusted wages.

Those are countrywide numbers, not specific to particular cities. The numbers are more disastrous in the largest cities.

“Greed” by Rolf Dietrich Brecher

Does this just happen? Could this be, as the corporate media, corporate-funded “think tanks” and the whole panoply of capitalist institutions incessantly propagate, the natural workings of the world? A federal judge in San Francisco, one with a reputation as a liberal, once declared that landlords have nothing to do with rent increases but instead rents rise without human invention in striking down a city law that would have required landlords who kick tenants out of rent-controlled apartments to pay them the difference between the rent they had been paying and the fair market rate for a similar unit for a period of two years.

Perhaps this is what is meant when right-wing ideologues praise the “magic of the market.” More profits just by showing up.

In the real world, actions don’t necessarily happen without human intervention and large trends don’t happen without larger interests. As a case in point, gentrification does not happen spontaneously, but is a result of powerful social forces.

Corporate and government backing of gentrification

A working definition of gentrification is: A process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. The process of gentrification is assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store managers who wish to cater to the newcomers. Once community members are pushed out, real estate money begins to pour in, rapidly pushing up rents and making the area increasingly unaffordable for those who remain. 

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs)

One city where this process was particularly harsh is Detroit. Not only are municipal services withdrawn, schools starved of resources, militarized police unleashed and homelessness criminalized, but a “gentrification to prison pipeline” is set up, with People of Color targeted by the legal system. In a “personal” article published in Truthout detailing his experience in Detroit’s Cass Corridor area, Lacino Hamilton, who was incarcerated for 26 years thanks to a wrongful conviction, gives first-hand testimony. He writes:

“I don’t know which came first, but the changes came hard and fast: mortgage foreclosures, the imposition of tax liens, governments seizing property through their power of eminent domain, the reduction and gutting of city services, city officials ignoring an influx of drugs and prostitution, rampant homelessness, and courts and prisons’ increased presence in our lives. But I am certain we were being pushed out of the Cass Corridor, displaced through a complex network of public and private interests. In the mid 1980s, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young announced that city dollars would be used to finance the development of downtown hotels, so that Detroit could attract convention business. Homes were foreclosed. Businesses were dismantled. And everyday decision-making power was shifted from families and local business owners to state legislators, venture capitalists and a combination of financial institutions and interests. It was as if a number of bombs just went off. Almost overnight the Cass Corridor resembled a war zone. …

Forcing people to evacuate a neighborhood or entire section of a city cannot be achieved by democratic means. It is inconceivable that anyone would vote to displace themselves, right? This explains why police, courts and prison are often used to remove and disappear some people. …

The grim reality of gentrification for a large portion of the Cass Corridor’s population has been evident for years. In the eyes of city officials and the big corporations that now control that section of Detroit, the ‘limits of development’ did not call for public participation but for confinement. We were viewed as obsolete commodities that had to leave whether we had some place to go or not, and many of us didn’t. This is how the city of Detroit’s approach to ‘social development’ came to rely so dramatically on the bricks and mortar of prison at the expense of other responses that would have been both more humane and more effective — such as social development with people in mind, not profit.”

That process is deeply related to other problems imposed on Detroit in recent years, such as the same city officials who assisted the process of gentrification being fleeced by financial industry predators who talked them into buying complex, and poorly understood, derivatives that are much more profitable for Wall Street than the issuance of “plain vanilla” municipal bonds that denominate a set amount of debt paying back a set amount of interest on a specific schedule. Following Detroit having to declare bankruptcy because of the financial fleecing, the city literally became a colony with a corporate lawyer imposed as an “emergency manager” who oversaw the shutting off of water to tens of thousands while allowing businesses to accrue vastly higher arrears without penalty. That corporate lawyer was a partner at one of the biggest law firms in the U.S., Jones Day, which supplied at least a dozen officials to the Trump administration.

Pitting renters and homeless people against each other

Gentrification is certainly not confined to Detroit. Far from it. Nor are the processes set in motion by capitalists, especially those in the real estate industry. In Boston, the United Front Against Displacement, an anti-gentrification organization, has reported on the “onslaught of gentrification being unleashed upon Boston’s working-class residents by developers, construction companies, and the city government.” A part of the city’s strategy was to create divisions between renters and homeless people. The organization writes:

“The cops were also regularly messing with people, allowing them to stay in the park for a week or two and then forcing them to move on. They often push people towards a part of the city known as ‘methadone mile’ because of the concentration of methadone clinics. ‘Methadone mile’ is not somewhere most homeless people want to end up, since there is a lot of stealing, violence, and heavy drug use. The police know this stuff is going on and don’t do anything to stop it, preferring to push homeless people from across the city into a situation where they’re likely to get caught up in violence, have their stuff stolen, or fall back into addiction. …

These dynamics have created significant divisions between homeless people in the park and working-class residents of the surrounding projects and apartment complexes. Many residents have grown frustrated after dealing with unsafe conditions in the park for years, from needles left on the playground to stabbings, fights, and other violence. These problems have so far been a significant barrier to bringing residents of the apartments and the homeless population together.

The major divisions we saw amongst people in the park and between them and local tenants are not unique to this one part of Boston. They reflect a larger strategy that the ruling elite use to keep people down by creating conflict and division between people who really should be organizing together. For instance, the police push homeless people to move into the park and the city fails to provide services or sufficient shelters to them. They do this knowing that it will lead to various negative effects for people living in the area: needles and broken bottles in the park, violence, and so on. Then a section of the tenants will start to blame the homeless for these problems, and potentially support increased police patrols and the like as a result. Then two groups of people, homeless people and working-class tenants, who have a common interest in opposing gentrification, are at each other’s throats instead of organizing together.”

Boston Public Garden (photo by Rizka)

Divide and conquer is of course one of the oldest tricks in bourgeois tool boxes. The new administration of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, shortly after taking office, began sending the police to make hundreds of sweeps of homeless encampments. Mayor Adams claims he wants homeless people to “trust” authorities, but having the police arrest them and throw away their belongings hardly seems likely to earn “trust.” At the same time, he appointed real estate-aligned people to the city board that oversees what landlords can charge tenants in rent-stabilized apartments, who promptly asked for massive increases despite steady increases in landlord profits since 1990, a trend that accelerated from 2005.

Seeing battles for affordable rent in a larger context

Although a full toolbox is needed to combat high rents, one tool desperately needed is rent control. Few localities have it, and in most places that do it is inadequate and in need of strengthening. One place with some of the strongest rent control laws in the United States, yet still not providing needed protection, is San Francisco. 

Randy Shaw, writing on the FoundSF website, has provided a brief history of rent control in San Francisco, noting that a comprehensive struggle must go beyond that issue:

“As rents rose and gentrification and displacement worsened, tenant activists unified around a common goal: strengthening rent control. While Proposition R represented a comprehensive response to all aspects of city housing policy, since 1980 the tenant movement has been a series of campaigns designed to improve the very weak 1979 rent control ordinance. This exclusive focus on rent control had positive and negative implications. The 1979 laws clearly provided tenants with inadequate legal protections against eviction, and permitted automatic 7% annual rent raises, an amount well in excess of inflation. Moreover, San Francisco’s rent control law allowed unlimited rent increases on vacant apartments. This gave landlords an economic incentive to evict, and meant that the housing stock would, as tenants vacated, become increasingly unaffordable. As a result, rent control on vacant apartments (i.e., vacancy control) became the chief goal of tenant groups throughout the 1980s.

Tenants’ exclusive focus on strengthening rent control, however, had a major downside: the movement became divorced from the larger urban crisis agenda. Tenant-landlord and rent control fights were no longer surrounded by discussions of class, economic unfairness, and redistribution of wealth. The broader context of rent control as akin to progressive taxation was replaced by debates whose dialogue excluded the tax benefits offered to landlords, their superior wealth, and the conflict between Democratic Party politicians who espoused Republican, free-market principles when rent control was involved. The tenant movement was increasingly comprised of people whose involvement arose from negative personal experiences with their landlords rather than from a broader political outlook. Progressive activists who came to tenant issues in response to an urban crisis were not drawn to tenant organizations whose only response to the crisis was stronger rent control.”

Could a broader focus have helped pass a 2014 ballot referendum that would have imposed a “speculation tax” on building owners who sell a building in less than five years after buying? The proposed law included exemptions to ensure it would have applied only to speculators. Outspent 12-to-1 by real estate interests, the referendum narrowly lost. An activist with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic believed that a greater emphasis on community organizing would have made a difference; the referendum had been placed on the ballot by four members of the city Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s city council), rather than by activists collecting signatures.

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (photo by “Urban”)

United Front Against Displacement, also active there, reports that “almost all the public housing has been privatized” in San Francisco and Oakland. The organization writes:

“In San Francisco, there is an ongoing citywide privatization scheme … called HOPE SF. The city government, banks like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, corporations like Google, Kaiser Permanente, and foundations in the city are working together to achieve the HOPE SF scheme. HOPE SF’s plan is to eliminate the last public housing in San Francisco (Sunnydale, Potrero, Double Rock/Alice Griffith, Hunters View), which are in working class neighborhoods in San Francisco, by destroying them and building mixed income developments owned and managed by different private developers.”

United Front Against Displacement reports that the San Francisco Housing Authority actually sent them a letter alleging its organizers were harassing tenants! In response, tenant organizers at one of the targeted public housing projects sent a letter to the authority saying its “misrepresentation is particularly shocking” in light of “over a hundred tenants, voicing opposition to the HOPE SF’s privatization of Sunnydale that is destroying our homes.”

Even getting effective laws passed does not guarantee better housing policies will be implemented. In Berlin, for example, a rent cap that would have frozen rents for 90% of the city’s apartments at their June 2019 level for five years was overturned by Germany’s Constitutional Court in April 2021. The German high court ruled that because the federal government had already made a law regulating rents, which allowed landlords to raise rents by 10% above the local market level, state governments can not impose their own law. But this ruling does not simply repeal Berlin’s law, it may even result in higher rents, reports German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The “decision could mean a windfall for landlords as rents are instantly raised by hundreds of euros a month, on top of which landlords could now demand their tenants back-pay higher rents for the past year,” DW reported.

Predatory speculations spread their tentacles

Although everybody who rents is affected by gentrification and the social forces pushing rents upwards, those stranded in low-wage jobs and in particular People of Color are most affected. Racism being an ever present reality throughout the advanced capitalist countries, it would be most surprising if that did not impact housing. And here we have no surprises. A highly useful new book, Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance, prepared by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project collective, provides a series of stories and colorful graphics and charts detailing the precarious state of housing in the nine counties of the San Francisco Bay Area, backed by copious research. For example, research detailed in Counterpoints revealed that although Latinx communities represented 25 percent of the populations of San Mateo County in 2014 and 2015, they were 49 percent of those evicted. Black/African-American peoples were 2.5 percent of the county’s population but 21 percent of the evictions.

Displacement is not confined to cities such as Oakland, but is underway in suburban towns. This is due, in part, to the voracious appetite of financial speculators buying up houses in large numbers to rent out, a trend that catalyzed in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. Geography professor Desiree Fields, writing in Counterpoints, outlines the scale of that speculation, which contributes to rents becoming out of reach. As many as 7 million single-family homes in the U.S. have been converted to rentals since 2008. This is now a suburban phenomenon, not only an urban one, Dr. Fields writes:

“Whereas, for generations, urban crises set off by financial exploitation were largely confined to aging buildings in [the] ‘inner city,’ after 2008, the single-family home, representing middle-class suburban life, became the ‘mascot’ of the crisis. Cul-de-sacs in low-density subdivisions were lined with for sale signs, and auction notices dotted the front yards of McMansions. In sunny California, Arizona, and Florida, ‘zombie pools’ in abandoned properties grew algae and bred mosquitoes, becoming incubators for disease. Speaking to how the crisis overflowed the spatial, racial, and class boundaries of the urban core, Alex Schafran observed, ‘Just as burned-out housing projects in inner cities were the iconic images of the mid-1970s recession, trashed-out tract homes in California and the Sun Belt are the signature images of crisis in post-millennial America.’

In suburbs and exurbs like Antioch, Brentwood, and Pittsburg (and down-at-the-heels sites of industry like Richmond and Vallejo), places where African American, Hispanic, and Filipino American Bay Area residents displaced from the region’s urban core sought affordable (ultimately unsustainable) homeownership, it was these ‘trashed out tract homes’ to which investors — of all kinds — were drawn in the aftermath of 2008. Crisis as opportunity is, of course, nothing new in capitalism. If anything, crisis is one of its fundamental dynamics and how it adapts to changing contexts, thereby reproducing itself anew. And so, as crisis created a ready population of tenants comprised of former homeowners and those unable to qualify for mortgages under tightened crisis conditions, a financial industry ‘somewhere between anxious and desperate for new products’ began to reimagine single-family rental homes as financial assets. The activities of large-scale ‘corporate’ investors have been particularly notable in parts of California and the Sun Belt hit hardest by the crisis.

Able to raise cash cheaply on capital markets rather than relying on the uncertainties of mortgage credit and armed with digital technology allowing them to zero in on properties meeting their investment criteria, these corporate actors enjoyed a distinct advantage over smaller investors. … ‘Wall Street’ landlords saw in single-family rental the ingredients for a novel financial asset: once they had aggregated ownership, bundles of rent checks could replace bundles of mortgage checks, fueling a model of securitization suited to a potentially post-ownership society. … The sale of these financial assets to bondholders allows Wall Street landlords to borrow against the value of the properties, securing a cash infusion to settle previous debts or pay themselves out. Meanwhile, tenants back this loan with their rent checks.”

SkyView Atlanta (photo by Don McCulley)

Similar dynamics are at work on the other side of the U.S., in Atlanta. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, “From Foreclosure to Eviction: Housing Insecurity in Corporate-Owned Single-Family Rentals,” found that evictions are spatially concentrated, meaning minority renters are more likely to be thrown out of their homes, and that corporate landlords are much more likely to evict. The report said:

“We document a high, spatially concentrated evictions rate. More than 20 percent of all rental households received an eviction notice in 2015, and 5.6 percent of tenants received a judgment or were forcibly removed from their homes. Evictions are spatially concentrated; in some zip codes, over 40 percent of all rental households received an eviction notice and over 15 percent of all households received a judgment or were forcibly removed. … We find that large corporate owners of single-family rentals, which we define as firms with more than 15 single-family rental homes in Fulton County [the county centered on Atlanta], are 68 percent more likely than small landlords to file eviction notices even after controlling for past foreclosure status, property characteristics, tenant characteristics, and neighborhood. …  Depending on the firm, institutional investors were between 11 percent and 205 percent more likely to file for eviction than mom-and-pop firms, even after controlling for property, tenant, and neighborhood characteristics.”

Out of control rent increases vastly outpace wages and inflation

This is a trend almost certainly to get worse — the Housing and Urban Development report said that, from 2011 to 2013, institutional investors and hedge funds bought an estimated 350,000 bank-owned homes.

A New York Times report noted that “Various studies have found that corporate landlords are more likely to raise rents, evict their tenants and poorly maintain their properties than smaller landlords.” Financial speculators are rapidly buying up single-family homes and are targeting African-Americans. The report said:

“Real estate investors bought a record 18.4 percent of the homes that were sold in the United States in the fourth quarter of 2021, up from 12.6 percent a year earlier. In Charlotte and Atlanta, investors purchased more than 30 percent of the homes sold in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to Redfin. In Jacksonville, Fla., Las Vegas, and Phoenix, they bought just under 30 percent. …  More than 93 percent of homes purchased by corporations as of May 2021 were bought for under $300,000. Many of them were in predominantly Black neighborhoods.”

Regardless of whether you rent a single-family house in the suburbs or an apartment in a city, rent is going up, around the world. In the United States, average rent prices have increased at a rate of 8.9% per year since 1980, consistently outpacing wage inflation by a significant margin. By comparison, average wages increase at an annual rate of 3.44%. Thus, as stated above, rents increase at more than double the rate of wages. A report in the online publication Real Estate Witch reports that from 1985 to 2020, the national median rent price rose 149%, while overall income grew by only 35%. That 35% figure may be overstated; the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. wages, adjusted for inflation, have increased by pennies since 1970, from about $22 per hour then to $22.65 in 2019.

To put all this in another way, your rent would be hundreds of dollars less per month if rents had increased at only the rate of inflation over the past 50 years. If rents had risen at the rate of inflation from 2000, today’s rents, on a national average, would average nearly $200 per month less than they do; if rents had risen at the rate of inflation from 1970, today’s rents would average about $380 per month less than they do. That’s money stuffed into landlords’ pockets and all they have to do is put their feet on the desk and let the checks roll in.

Vancouver as seen from Lookout Tower

One final statistic on U.S. rents, this time for New York City: The Housing and Vacancy Survey, conducted triennially for the city by the U.S. Census Bureau, published its latest report on May 16, 2022. The median wage in New York City is only half of what would be necessary to pay for the median rent, a figure calculated by using the standard metric that nobody should pay more than 30 percent of income to rent. The report said, “The median rent of a unit that was available for rent was $2,750, which would require an income of at least $110,000 to afford; yet, the median household income of renters in 2021 was only $50,000.” In 2021, more than half of New York City renter households (53 percent or just under 1 million households) were rent burdened (more than 30% of income going to rent) and one-third were severely burdened (more than 50% of income going to rent).

These trends are accelerating as the brief pause in rent increases in 2020 are now behind us. Median rents for one-bedroom apartments in several Boston-area towns, including Cambridge, are up by at least 30 percent compared to last year. Boston itself wasn’t far behind with a 27 percent increase in median one-bedroom rents.

Rent gouging and spiraling housing costs in Canada, Britain

As dramatic as housing costs are in the United States, the situation may be even more out of control in Canada. Unlike the U.S. and many European countries such as Germany, housing costs did not pause following the 2008 economic collapse. Prices have risen dramatically since 2000, and the trend of institutional investors scooping up housing is more accelerated in Canada than in the United States. Better Dwelling, which describes itself as “Canada’s largest independent housing news outlet,” reports on the rapid increase of speculation in housing:

“Canadian real estate is being scooped up by investors with excessively cheap credit. Ownership data for residential real estate across four regions show a significant share owned by investors in 2020. What’s most impressive is how fast this trend must have accelerated. Cities have seen up to 90% of recently completed homes go to investors, much higher than normal. … Since we’re only looking at cities, no one’s shack in the woods is likely to be included. Only data for Ontario, British Columbia (BC), and Atlantic Canada is available. … About 1 in 5 (21.0%) homes in the median city across the four regions are investor-owned. When isolating new construction (built after 2016), that number rises to 1 in 3 (33.7%) bought by investors. …

Toronto is Canada’s biggest real estate market, and it’s seeing investor-ownership soar. Investors owned 18.4% of the housing stock in 2020, just shy of 1 in 5 homes. Isolating recently completed homes (after 2016), investors owned 39.1% of the new supply. … Vancouver real estate shows a similar trend, but a higher share of investors. Investors owned nearly 1 in 4 (23.5%) of total housing supply in 2020. For recent builds, that share jumps to nearly half (44.0%) of the supply. It’s easy to see how Toronto and Vancouver home prices are so distorted. There’s a lot less friction for home prices when you’re passing the costs on to someone else. … Atlantic Canada real estate is quickly becoming home to a robust rentier class. In Nova Scotia, investors owned 25.5% of total housing stock in 2020 but 48.7% of recently completed homes. New Brunswick has seen a similar trend where 17.2% of total housing is investor-owned, representing 41.0% of recent completions.”

That concentration of ownership helps fuel the dramatic increase in Canadian housing costs. Sales figures show a 318% rise in home prices since 2000, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. House prices in Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver tripled from 2000 to 2020, and the rest of the country wasn’t far behind, as Canadian house prices overall increased two and a half times, adjusted for inflation, from 2000 to 2020. Canadian wages, by contrast, increased only 49% from 2000 to 2020, which really means wages barely improved because Canadian inflation rose 44% from 2000 to 2020.

Across the Atlantic, rent in Britain is too high as well, and it is not only London where such is the case. A report in the Shelter blog reveals that the average renter in England is rent-burdened, by the standard of paying no more than 30 percent of wages to housing. “Other government figures confirm the reality of the affordability crisis in the privately rented sector,” the blog said. “The English Housing Survey (EHS) shows that renters spend 40% of their income on housing costs — double what owner-occupiers pay (19%). Affordability is particularly acute for those with the lowest incomes in England, who spend over 75% of their income on housing costs.”

As noted above, rents in England increased 60% quicker than wages from 2011 to 2017 . The Shelter report said, “And this isn’t just an issue confined to London and the south-east, as you might expect. … So as well as affordability worsening in London, rents in Rugby in the West Midlands have risen at twice the national rate (30% vs. 16%) yet wages have increased by just 5%. Similar figures are seen for East Hertfordshire in the east of England, and in Daventry wages have fallen, while rents have increased by 26%.” In Cambridge, rents increased 36 percent from 2011 to 2017, while wages rose only nine percent. Separately, a 2016 report by the Resolution Foundation found the household income of British renters increased two percent from 2002 to 2015, while their housing costs increased 16 percent.

And on it goes, from Barcelona to Paris to Berlin to Istanbul to Sydney to Melbourne.

Capitalism is global, and it follows that gentrification is global. Rents will continue to rise as long as housing remains a capitalist commodity. That can only change if we create a better world.

Corporate greed keeps the pandemic alive

More than two years on, it is hard to imagine there could be someone who is not sick of the pandemic. Although we can point to multiple reasons for the inability to bring Covid-19 under control, a prominent factor is corporate greed.

The elevation of the private profit of a few over the welfare of the many is, sadly, the ordinary course of events in a capitalist world. This is brightly illustrated by the failure of the world’s governments to prioritize health care over money as exemplified by the ongoing failure to make vaccines available to the Global South.

Business as usual, yes, and it would be easy enough to lament the standards of the United States and its wildly expensive health care system being exported to the rest of the world. The U.S. does play a role here, but this time the U.S. is not the biggest villain. The European Union, with its obstinate refusal to waive any intellectual property rule because of fealty to Covid-19 vaccine makers, has been the biggest roadblock.

As new variations and mutations repeatedly spread, achieving a critical mass of vaccinated people is the only way the pandemic will be brought to an end. Covid-19 may never be fully eradicated but it can be reduced to a background nuisance as are many other illnesses. Hesitancy among many in the Global North to be vaccinated has played a not insignificant role, whether by right-wingers believing the nonsense peddled by the likes of Fox “News” or by people on the Left who, not without reason, are skeptical of Big Pharma.

Nurse graffiti COVID-19 in Málaga, Spain (photo by Daniel Capilla)

Those in the latter category see nefarious motivations behind pharmaceutical companies’ promotion of Covid vaccines. But is this another instance of Big Pharma pushing unneeded or even dangerous drugs? Such things do happen; suspicion does have a basis. But let’s consider what Big Pharma wants, which is no different from any other corporation: To accumulate the biggest piles of money possible. Given the global health emergency that arose in the first months of 2020, the surest path to achieving that goal would be to become the first to develop a cure. The pandemic was that rare instance in which the interests of Big Pharma and the general population coincided, and the vaccine makers wouldn’t be, and indeed aren’t, at all shy about taking advantage of an emergency to rack up huge profits, even by their industry’s standards. And with the whole world watching, a vaccine had better work and not cause undue harm.

Thus, because of unique circumstances, creating a safe, effective product for a real problem was actually in a corporate interest. And the profits, thanks to these rare circumstances and government largesse, are gigantic, a topic to which we will return.

Intellectual property as a weapon

It should surprise no one that the vaccine makers are doing everything they can to keep windfall profits rolling in. That means clinging to intellectual property (IP) law, heavily skewed in their favor, to maintain a monopoly. Capitalist governments have rolled over for corporate interests for decades, making IP laws ever more rigid. National legislation has played a role, firmly augmented by so-called “free trade” agreements that are used as battering rams by the United States, the European Union and other advanced capitalist countries to force open less powerful countries’ economies and force the world’s governments, including themselves, to be subordinate to multinational capital. Seeking to undermine government health care systems, and especially the ability of governments to negotiate lower prices, is often a goal of “free trade” deals, most notably demonstrated in the efforts of the U.S. government to push draconian rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

These developments are anathema to the interests of working people everywhere. It is unconscionable, or should be, when IP rules are used to keep life-saving vaccines away from most of the world’s people. Struggles to make Covid-19 vaccines available to the Global South kicked off quickly, and there is no sign that this issue will anytime soon be resolved. This is not only against the interests of those for whom vaccines remain out of reach, but, given that the pandemic won’t end until a substantial percentage of the world’s peoples are inoculated and thus end the risk of still more dangerous variants arising, it is against the interests of those countries whose governments continue to elevate corporate profits over human life.

What the world needs is for manufacturers anywhere in the world to be granted the unrestricted right to manufacture the vaccines.

To achieve this necessity, what is needed is something called a “TRIPS waiver.” This will require some explanation, as once again a trip into the weeds of global trade policy becomes unavoidable.

Traffic in a British village is reduced from two lanes to one so there would be sufficient space for walkers to maintain two-meter distances from one another. (Photo by Martinvl)

Under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, IP rights are strictly enforced. As the neoliberal variant of capitalism became dominant with the decline of Keynesianism in the 1970s, economic decision-making has been separated from politics, leaving multinational corporations free to move production to the places with the lowest wages and least regulation, constantly on the prowl for locations that can be even more exploited. With components obtained from around the world, assembled in low-wage, low-regulation havens and finished products exported, barriers to trade such as tariffs were necessary and, having won those, corporate executives and financiers next sought to eliminate the ability of governments to regulate them. Thus the era of “free trade” agreements arose, and one of the institutions that was created to enforce corporate supremacy was the WTO.

One of the legs of corporate domination is IP law. How that relates to the pandemic is this: A handful of multinational corporations, interested in the biggest possible profits for their executives and shareholders, can decide who will receive vaccines and at what price. That human life is at stake — more than 6 million have died from Covid-19 — does not make for an exception. As Alain Supiot, writing on international law in the November-December 2021 issue of New Left Review, noted:

“On the one hand, the Preamble to the [World Health Organization] Constitution states that ‘The extension to all peoples of the benefits of medical, psychological and related knowledge is essential to the attainment of health.’ But on the other, since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994, this knowledge has become an object of private property, precisely opposed ‘to all peoples’ by virtue of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Until then, it was accepted in international law that the protection of public health interests took precedence over the interests of patent-holders. The TRIPS Agreement reversed this hierarchy and gave primacy to the protection of industrial property.

Negotiations to enact a waiver are stonewalled

A waiver of TRIPS rules, then, is what is needed. In other words, a comprehensive waiver that, even if temporary for the duration of the emergency, sets aside Big Pharma’s IP rights and allows all manufacturers of vaccines, wherever they are, to produce Covid-19 vaccines. The governments of India and South Africa proposed, in October 2020, just such a waiver to allow the production of one or more of the Covid-19 vaccines. A year and a half later, the world is still waiting, with no resolution in sight.

Sarah Lazare and Paige Oamek, writing for In These Times, recently wrote an article demonstrating the “big lie” of Big Pharma talking points as the industry, in particular Pfizer, furiously resist any weakening of their IP fortresses. They wrote:

“The lie relates to an October 2020 proposal from India and South Africa that the World Trade Organization suspend enforcement of key patent rules so that cheaper, generic versions of Covid-19 treatments and vaccines can get to more people more quickly. (The proposal is referred to as a TRIPS waiver, a reference to the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.) The pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna, concerned with maximizing their present and future profits, emerged as virulent opponents of such a measure, which still has not passed more than a year later, even as just one out of 21 people in poor countries have been fully vaccinated. It is no anomaly that the industry would reject such a proposal — pharmaceutical companies had a big hand in shaping those WTO intellectual property rules in the first place, to protect pharmaceutical monopolies and their profits.”

Negotiations have centered on four-way talks among India, South Africa, the European Union and the United States. A report surfaced in March 2022 that an agreement had finally been reached, but that has been denied, most notably by the U.S. government. Text accompanying the reported agreement was widely and loudly condemned around the world as grossly insufficient, and possibly even adding additional barriers to global vaccine access. Weeks have gone by, and there is no word that any agreement has actually been reached. What the true state of the negotiations may be can not be stated with any certainty, but there is no indication that any deal is imminent. Or that any deal will resemble what is needed by the Global South.

A doctor in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Pablo Jarrín)

A surprise announcement by the Biden administration in May 2021, when President Joe Biden announced support for a TRIPS waiver, in a partial reversal of U.S. policy that has consistently elevated corporate profits above all other considerations, raised hopes. But the Biden administration pronouncement is less than meets the eye, and the European Union has remained obstinately opposed to any waiver. Providing a fresh demonstration of the anti-democratic nature of the EU, that the European Parliament has three times called for a waiver to be approved and many EU countries are in support have had no apparent effect on EU negotiators.

The U.S.-based watchdog group Global Trade Watch, in its analysis, says that accepting the EU proposal would be worse than having no deal:

“The European Union has been the primary obstacle to progress on the waiver. … The EU’s position had been to basically restate existing WTO flexibilities on patents that almost every WTO member already has, while requiring additional conditionalities. … Any proposal that follows the EU position is worse than no action at all, because it could further undermine current WTO rules that already allow governments to issue compulsory licenses. The need for far greater, not less, freedom to make and use medicines in a global health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic is precisely why more than 100 countries have supported the waiver as introduced by India and South Africa.”

The EU, however, is not the only obstacle. The U.S. negotiating position isn’t for a full waiver. The Global Trade Watch analysis states:

“The longstanding U.S. position to support a waiver for vaccines only, excluding the tests and therapeutics, is shameful, particularly as President Biden recently lauded testing and treatment as key tools in fighting the pandemic at this stage. The new proposal only covers vaccines, with tests and treatments to be considered six months after the proposal is agreed, if it is agreed. Given the already seventeen-month delay since the waiver was introduced, it is irresponsible to suggest further delay for tests and therapeutics. … The U.S. had also reportedly suggested limiting the geographic scope of the waiver, which would only further limit the ability to scale up manufacturing all over the world. This demand was apparently agreed, as the proposal now on offer would only apply to developing countries that contributed less than 10% of the world’s exports of COVID-19 vaccine doses in 2021.”

Public statements by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative have not been encouraging. The trade representative, Katherine Tai, “assured” the U.S. Congress that her office is not “working to give away American IP.” With the usual bipartisan commitment to corporate profits, congressional Republicans and Democrats oppose a meaningful waiver, echoing industry talking points to underline their disapproval. A bloc of Republican representatives is seeking to enforce this by introducing a bill that would grant Congress more oversight over negotiations.

Most of the world’s countries back India, South Africa

As many as 120 of the WTO’s 164 countries are said to be backing India and South Africa. Yet many of these countries would be excluded even from the limited and inadequate proposals put forth by the EU and U.S. As noted above, larger Global South countries would be excluded under the U.S. proposal to limit the countries eligible, while also limiting what would be available. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, for example, calls on WTO members to “tackle the current barriers to accessing all COVID-19 medical tools, including treatments and diagnostics, and also addresses patents and non-patent barriers in an effective way.” Dimitri Eynikel, EU Policy Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign, noting the “considerable limitations” of what is on the table, said:

“It is incredibly concerning that the leaked text currently only covers vaccines, but neither treatments nor diagnostics. Excluding treatments and diagnostics is a critical weakness, especially as access to COVID-19 treatments remains a significant problem in many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Latin America, in part because of patent barriers and restrictive licensing deals controlled by pharmaceutical corporations. Excluding countries with significant manufacturing and supply capacity like Brazil is highly problematic as it arbitrarily blocks potential critical avenues to increase access to COVID-19 medical tools for low- and middle-income countries.”

The severe limitations the EU and U.S. are attempting to impose make it unlikely that a “deeply flawed text” can be set right, according to Professor Jane Kelsey of the University of Auckland. Noting that by the end of 2021, more boosters had been given in high-income countries than total doses in low-income ones, Dr. Kelsey wrote, “The leaked ‘solution’ agreed by the informal ‘quad’ (US, EU, India and South Africa) is insufficient, problematic and unworkable. There are too many limitations to make any significant difference and it is a far cry from the original proposal from India and South Africa that would have effectively addressed the barriers.”

Perhaps activists and medical professionals going on the offensive as part of a public-pressure effort is one way that a fair deal might be forced. Nurses from 28 countries filed a complaint in November 2021 with the United Nations alleging human rights violations by the EU and four countries for “the loss of countless lives” in the pandemic. The nurses, representing more than 2.5 million health care workers around the world, named Britain, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland in their filing — the four countries known to be standing with the EU. The nurses charge that “these countries have violated our rights and the rights of our patients — and caused the loss of countless lives” through “continued opposition to the TRIPS waiver … resulting in the violation of human rights of peoples across the world.” The complaint notes human rights obligations to which WTO member states are legally bound.

Nurses demand safe staffing (Photo via National Nurse magazine)

The organizations behind the filing are mostly from the Global South, but among the 28 are ones from Canada (Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec), the United States (National Nurses United) and Australia (Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation)).

Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, which represents more than 175,000 members in the United States, was unsparing in her assessment. She said:

“The maldistribution of vaccines in the face of more than 5 million deaths, many of them preventable, is a devastating reminder of the deplorable disparity of wealth between the rich nations of the north and the global south. To refuse to act simply to protect the profits of giant pharmaceutical corporations is unconscionable, inhumane, and must be ended.”

Upon receipt of the complaint, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Physical and Mental Health, said, “The nurses’ core demand is one I share.” She said:

“States have a collective responsibility to use all available means to facilitate faster access to vaccines, including by introducing a temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property rights under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement). Nurses and health care workers have been on the front line keeping us safe and have witnessed the most painful and heart-wrenching effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their evident commitment to the right to physical and mental health provides them with moral authority.”

No executive or shareholder is any danger of starving

Let us now return to the profit margins of pharmaceutical companies and the massive windfall profits being racked up by Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers, which will provide some context to industry arguments. The business news agency Bloomberg reports that Pfizer’s vaccine generated $20 billion in pretax profit in 2021 while Moderna “is expected by analysts to earn $12.2 billion before taxes this year.” Pfizer’s vaccine may rack up $36 billion in revenue this year.

The pharmaceutical industry was already one of the most profitable. To provide some examples, health technology was found to be the most profitable of 19 broadly defined “major” industrial sectors in the U.S. for 2015 and 2016. A BBC report found that pharmaceuticals and banks tied for the highest average profit margin in 2013, with five pharmaceutical companies enjoying a profit margin of 20 percent or more — Pfizer among them. The most profitable pharmaceutical corporations spent far more on sales and marketing than they did on research and development. With little control exerted over pharmaceutical prices in the U.S., it is no wonder that U.S. health care costs are the world’s highest, greatly exceeding any other country.

Even by these rarified standards, the boost to profit margins from Covid-19 have been noteworthy. Pfizer reported almost $22 billion in net income for 2021, only $3 billion more than it reported for 2020 and 2019 combined. Moderna, which even self-described “capitalist tool” Forbes magazine says produced a vaccine “largely funded by taxpayer dollars,” reported $12.2 billion in profits for 2021. Moderna received a billion dollars in government subsidies for its vaccine, and has, overall, received $6 billion from the U.S. government to develop, test, manufacture and deliver its vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson reported net income of almost $21 billion for 2021, a healthy gain of 40 percent over the previous year, a much larger gain than the gain it reported in revenue. And AstraZeneca reported a 37 percent increase in its core earnings per share (a comparison apparently used to exclude special one-time costs from an acquisition).

So it appears that no executive or shareholder of these four pharmaceutical makers is in any danger of being out on the street.

What is the problem in sharing the technology that would finally put an end to the pandemic? The real reason is that the maximum possible amount of profit wouldn’t be accrued. No big corporation is going to admit that, so other excuses are offered.

Debunking Big Pharma’s favorite talking points

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had a revealing conversation with Pfizer’s chief executive officer. As reported by Bloomberg, Dr. Tedros, on a conference call with pharmaceutical executives, said, “Honestly, I’m not seeing the commitment I would expect from you.” The Pfizer chief executive, Albert Bourla, whined that Dr. Tedros was speaking “emotionally.” Consistent with that exchange, Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer, Paul Stoffels, declared at an industry lobbying group gathering that there was no need for any waivers because the industry’s efforts are “sufficient.”

Letting the pharmaceutical industry have its way quite clearly hasn’t been “sufficient,” given the small numbers of vaccines available to the Global South well more than a year since vaccines became available and the inability to stop the pandemic given that lack of availability. The Bloomberg report admitted that “Vaccine inequality didn’t happen by itself. It was the result of decisions by corporate executives and government officials.”

Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto during the pandemic (photo by Sikander Iqbal)

Big Pharma talking points have revolved around claims that restrictive patents are necessary to encourage research and development, without which supposedly nothing would be invented. (Yet Jonas Salk famously declined to pursue a patent on the polio vaccine.) A new line has emerged during the pandemic: That even if a full waiver were granted, the Global South is incapable of producing vaccines because of a lack of capability or capacity, and thus granting rights would do nothing to solve the pandemic. Government officials backing the pharmaceutical industry loudly echo these claims, among them former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and members of the U.S. Congress who are recipients of Big Pharma donations.

The In These Times article “Big Pharma’s Big Lies About Vaccine Patents,” debunks these talking points:

“It’s clever messaging, because it has an air of expert knowledge, casting companies as patiently informing activists who are well-intentioned but don’t understand how vaccine production works. It also plays to pre-existing racist assumptions that the Global South does not have pharmaceutical sectors capable of producing quality goods, but must rely on its more sophisticated former colonizers. … We don’t have definitive proof that pharmaceutical executives sat in a room somewhere and said, ‘Let’s deceive the public about the world’s vaccine manufacturing capacity.’ But there have been enough activists, scientists, and heads of state pointing out holes in Big Pharma’s narrative to make it highly likely that the industry, at the very least, was aware of challenges to the veracity of its claims. And it was in its interest to ignore them. Remarkably, the industry has shown it would rather build its own facilities from scratch — like the BioNTech facilities in Rwanda and Senegal, which won’t even start construction until mid-2022 — than give Global South countries the ability to produce vaccines themselves.”

India, for example, ranks third in the world in producing pharmaceuticals, measured by volume, and generics already constitute 70 to 80 percent of the world pharmaceutical market. The Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest producer of vaccines by number of doses produced and sold.

It’s not only vaccines that are being held back

Beyond vaccines, what about pills that are being developed? Pfizer has developed a Covid-19 oral antiviral treatment and granted a royalty-free license for the pill to the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool, but the license covers only about half the world’s population. The Associated Press reported, “The deal excludes some large countries that have suffered devastating coronavirus outbreaks. For example, while a Brazilian drug company could get a license to make the pill for export to other countries, the medicine could not be made generically for use in Brazil.”

The Medicines Patent Pool said on March 18 that 35 companies around the world will produce generic versions of the pill, which has received an emergency approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The countries where the generic producers are located include Bangladesh, Brazil, China, the Dominican Republic, Jordan, India, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Serbia, South Korea and Vietnam.

Nonetheless, health care activists note that the license is less than adequate. Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal policy advisor for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign said:

“Pfizer’s license with the Medicines Patent Pool for its potential oral antiviral treatment offers supply to 95 countries by generic companies that take up the license, covering about 53% of the world’s population, but this again shows how voluntary licenses come up short and do not harness the full capacity available globally for sufficient and sustainable production and supply of lifesaving medical tools for all. Many upper middle-income countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, China, Malaysia and Thailand, where established generic production capacity exists, are excluded from the license territory. We are disheartened to see yet another restrictive voluntary license during this pandemic while cases continue to rise in many countries around the world. The world knows by now that access to COVID-19 medical tools needs to be guaranteed for everyone, everywhere, if we really want to control this pandemic.”

What is more important: Ending the pandemic or increasing corporate profits? Life or money? The world capitalist system is making its choice. Should that choice be allowed to stand?

As long as capitalism exists, the threat of fascism exists

Six years is an eternity in politics. Consider what was common opinion at the start of 2016: That changing demographics in the United States favored the Democratic Party; it would soon be impossible for Republicans to win a national election unless they sharply changed from their primary strategy of sending dog whistles to their base of conservative white people, a dwindling percentage of the U.S. population.

Six short years later, there is not only much hand-wringing that Republicans are using bare-knuckle tactics that are poised to give themselves a permanent grip on power despite their minority status but there is open worry of a possible coup by fascistic elements in the Republican Party that would put an end to formal democracy. No longer, it seems, is demographics destiny; the Democratic Party, ever haughtily giving the back of the hand to its base, had believed it merely need show up to win elections.

One year on from Donald Trump’s attempt at a fascist coup — that the attack on the Capitol by his deluded but fanatical followers had no chance to succeed does not mitigate the severity of that day — the Orange Menace’s grip on the worst of the two parties of capital has further tightened. And perhaps Republicans won’t have to resort to widespread cheating and voter suppression to win back the White House — not that the possibility will in any way give them second thoughts about blocking access to the ballot box — given the pathetic performance of Democrats since winning the 2020 elections, a lack of results dismal even by Democrats’ standards of ineptitude.

Fascism is a global phenomenon, not limited to any one country. (Photo by The All-Nite Images from New York)

Many reading these lines will wonder why we should care which party wins since neither of the two parties of capital will work for working people, who constitute the vast majority of United Statesians as they do in any advanced capitalist country. Even the minuscule number of genuine progressives among Democratic members of Congress are constrained by their party’s dominant corporate wing and, due to the material realities of elite politics, inevitably find themselves politically supporting that wing. Nor is the corporate wing reluctant to undercut its electoral base and its progressive colleagues. Witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doing an end-run around the Squad’s refusal to back the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the larger Build Back Better bill passed the Senate by gathering sufficient Republican votes to win passage of the infrastructure bill and thus torpedo the only leverage the party had over its two Senate holdouts, fossil-fuel mouthpiece Joe Manchin and perfidious Kyrsten Sinema. It is impossible to avoid thinking there are other Democrats secretly glad the focus is on those two holdouts, allowing them to avoid the pressure to vote for Build Back Better.

There are others who argue that people should hold their noses and vote for Democrats anyway, given that when Democrats are in office there is more room to maneuver and some possibility of some small reforms. The all-out assault by Republicans, when Trump occupied the White House, on seemingly every front does provide support to lesser-evilism voting. So those who do hold their noses and vote for Democrats won’t get any criticism from me although I can’t bring myself to do it. Whether voting for lesser evils or for socialist or Green candidates, the important thing is to be involved in organizing; taking a half-hour to vote once a year need not detract from activist work.

Nonetheless, there are anti-capitalists, including Marxists, who argue forcefully that Trump and his minions are a unique threat, a threat that rises to the threat of fascism. Fascism is far worse than capitalist formal democracy, sham as the latter is. There is no question, or shouldn’t be, that Trump has aspirations of being a fascist dictator. That alone should be enough to see him and his followers as a mortal threat. Trump does not have sufficient support of industrialists and financiers (however much they applaud what he did for them while in office) to actually become a fascist dictator, and his base, although depressingly large and immune to reason and reality, is not big enough for a successful putsch.

Trump does have the blind support of the Republican Party, after Republican leaders momentarily wavered during the immediate aftermath of the 2021 insurrection, so he does have an institutional base he originally lacked — an institution that has become singularly focused on voter suppression and using all means available to put themselves in a position to overturn election results that don’t go their way. There is indeed here an existential threat to the formal democracy of the United States. History provides no shortage of warnings of what could happen, from Weimar Germany and post-World War 1 Italy to Chile and Argentina in the 1970s.

Fascism is a specific form of dictatorship

First, let’s clarify what the political term fascism means. It does not mean any right-wing movement or politician we don’t like, and shouldn’t be thrown around as such. What it does reference is a specific political phenomenon.

At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.

Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter the content of a fascist movement’s rhetoric, and is invariably the beneficiary. Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists, bankers and landowners who might salivate over the potential profits. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these big businessmen are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism — some form of democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain.

Boston Free Speech rally counter-protesters on August 19, 2017 (photo by GorillaWarfare)

Fascism is instituted when it is no longer possible for capitalists to enjoy the profits they believe they are entitled to, or to put a forceful end to large and rising left-wing movements threatening the power of industrialists and financiers. Neither of these conditions are in place in the United States, and with one party dedicated to using existing legal power to repress working people and giving capitalists all they want, and the other party giving them much of what they want while absorbing and smothering nascent movements, formal democracy works just fine for them. What immediate need do they have of going to the trouble of instituting a dictatorship? (Although some of course would love to have one no matter the circumstances.)

The foregoing does not give us license to be complacent. The economy is fragile, environmental destruction steadily mounts, and the numbers of people willing to oppose capitalism has grown tremendously over the past couple of decades, particularly since the 2008 economic crash. And industrialists and financiers — the bourgeoisie to use the classical term — believe themselves entitled to rule. The most important lesson from studying the fascism of the past is the overwhelming violence they will use to keep themselves in power. (No surprise there, given that violence, slavery, colonialism and plunder established capitalism and has kept it in place ever since.) U.S. capitalists are quite content to have police and the world’s biggest and most well-equipped military at their service, and there has never been much hesitation to use it.

If conditions continue to deteriorate, then Trump (or, more likely, someone with more intelligence and self-control) could be tapped on the shoulder. Trump is hardly the only demagogue out there. It could have happened in the 1930s. In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first year as president, a group of bankers and industrialists, backed by financing from DuPont, General Motors and Morgan Bank, hatched a scheme to institute fascism. Wall Street bond salesman Gerald McGuire approached retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler with an offer for him to be the fascist leader and deliver an ultimatum to Roosevelt to either take orders from businessmen or be forced from office by an army of 500,000 veterans. Their arms were to be supplied by Remington, a DuPont subsidiary.

Butler declined, informed Roosevelt and the plan was defused by leaking it to the press. No one was punished and the coup threat was treated as a joke. Perhaps the coup plotters didn’t do their homework — Butler, in 1929, became the first general officer since the Civil War to be placed under arrest. His crime? Criticizing Benito Mussolini! Butler, summing up his highly decorated career in 1935, said in an interview, “I spent thirty three years and four months [in] the Marine Corps. … [D]uring that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

Don’t confuse form with content

What we shouldn’t get hung up on is appearances. Chilean fascism under Pinochet and the Argentine “Process” took different forms than did the classical German and Italian varieties, and any fascism in the U.S. would have further divergences and would be wrapped in Christian fundamentalism and phony right-wing “populism.” Political culture in North America is such that brownshirts goose-stepping down the street wouldn’t have much appeal, and we need not have that. There were fascist street gangs in Chile and Argentina who did much marauding and received funding, but in those cases the military was the decisive organization. The military and police would almost certainly be decisive in any fascist takeover in the U.S., with crucial support from the right-wing militias that already exist and Trump’s middle-class base that we saw in action at the Capitol during the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

Comparisons of present-day United States to Weimar Germany are easily overstated, but the years leading up to Hitler being handed power (it is a myth that he was elected) are instructive. Consider the full name of the Nazi party — the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Yet workers were whom the Nazis intended to suppress on behalf of their corporate benefactors. At the same time that Nazi rhetoric claimed to uphold the right to strike and other worker interests, Hitler was assuring Germany’s industrialists that such policies were merely an attempt to gain popular support and would not be implemented.

Mural paintings in honor of Jecar Neghme of Chile’s MIR in the place where he was killed by the Pinochet government. (Credit: Ciberprofe)

What Hitler’s corporate bankrollers wanted was clear enough: the destruction of their workers’ ability to defend themselves and higher profits in a stable atmosphere. This Hitler promised in meetings of Nazi leaders and industrialists. But no matter how powerful they are, numerically these big businessmen are a minuscule portion of the population. How to create popular support for a movement that would destroy unions, strip working people of all protections, regiment all spheres of life, mercilessly destroy several groups of society, reduce the standard of living of those who still had jobs and inevitably lead to war? This is not an appealing program.

Germany’s blue-collar workforce mostly didn’t buy into fascist siren songs, and continued to support the Communists and the Social Democrats, although it was sharply divided between the two. Most of the middle class, however, was a different story. The desperate economic crisis of the Weimar Republic devastated the shopkeeper, the professional, the white-collar worker on the lower rungs of management. The middle class was losing or threatened with losing what it had, and its sons and daughters were unemployed with little or no prospects. From here the Nazis were able to draw their votes, and these sons, along with unpoliticized people at the bottom of society, swelled the ranks of the storm troops.

The Nazis skillfully appealed to German middle class fears of economic dislocation, the increasing numbers of unemployed blue-collar workers, the threat of being swallowed by big business, and political instability (although the Nazis were the most responsible for the last of those four), creating the social base needed by the economic elite to bring its movement to power. A movement that was as anathema to the middle class as it was to the lower economic ranks, although its middle-class supporters were blind to that reality as the Nazis simultaneously appealed to its grudges against societal elites.

In the last election before President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, the Nazi vote was 2 million less than the combined vote for Communists and Social Democrats. Although there were many Communists who bravely battled Nazis in the streets, there was no attempt at a united defense of the two parties or their armed followers. The Communists, the Social Democrats and the unions all failed to mount any effective challenge, and the leaders of what remained of Germany’s centrist and nationalist right-wing parties thought they could control Hitler. Had the Communists, Social Democrats and the unions made a common fight against the Nazis, that would have been enough to stop Hitler’s accession to power.

Once in power, Hitler quickly arrested the political opposition, putting Communists, Social Democrats, union leaders and others into concentration camps. Within weeks, the right to strike was abolished, union contracts were canceled and an employer-aligned fascist “union” began to replace the existing unions. With opposition silenced by terror, severe oppression of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, artists and others began. Once Hitler had destroyed all political opposition, there was no need to maintain his corps of street thugs, some of whom began demanding that the populist promises begin to be fulfilled. The storm troops, too, found out those promises were fantasy and this potential internal Nazi opposition was crushed in the murderous 1934 “Night of the Long Knives.”

From German shopkeepers to U.S. small business owners

Yes, history never repeats exactly. But what is noteworthy here is the class composition of Nazi support beyond big capitalists, who provided huge sums of money. It was shopkeepers, professionals and the white-collar workers on the lower rungs of management. This is consistently the case with fascist movements. It was the middle classes who supported a military overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, as did the parties they voted for. (Both parties of the opposition to President Allende’s Popular Unity government were banned after the takeover; Pinochet’s blood-soaked dictatorship was a régime for Chilean big business and U.S.-based multinational capital, not a régime for shopkeepers or white-collar professionals, nor even big business’ political representatives, as they would soon find out.)

Although the middle classes in a capitalist country, particularly in advanced capitalist countries, are highly heterogeneous, including a wide mix of people with varying interests and thus unable to constitute an organized bloc, the weight of their demographic size can make them decisive if large numbers go one way or another. Large numbers in the U.S. are anti-fascist and/or Democratic Party partisans, and many of their sons and daughters are describing themselves as socialists, even if an ill-defined socialism that is more oriented toward strong reforms of capitalism unable to be accommodated by Democrats. Nonetheless, it is from middle class ranks that support for Trump comes. That has been seen clearly as hundreds of Trump’s insurgents are prosecuted (albeit treated with kid gloves in contrast to the harsh treatment of Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protest movements).

Raleigh-Durham IWW stands with clergy at the stairs to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia (photo by Anthony Crider)

The “Tea Party” that arose during the Obama administration was a classic “astroturf” operation, a “movement” that was begun, organized and funded by corporate interests such as the organizations of the Koch Brothers and Republican Party leaders like Dick Armey. It is a straight line from the Tea Party to Trump; they have similar social bases and many of the same financial benefactors.

A study by two University of Chicago researchers, for example, found that more than half of the January 6 insurrectionists held white-collar positions such as small business owners, architects, doctors and lawyers. The two researchers, political-science professor Robert A. Pape and senior research associate Keven Ruby, also found that a large number of the insurrectionists live in counties that have seen declines in their White, non-Hispanic population, also not a surprise given the “great replacement” canard Trump-style fascists are fond of peddling. That of course was a prominent theme in the 2017 fascist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Whatever capitalist country you live in, it can happen there. Fascism is capitalism stripped of all democratic veneers. In every fascist state, wages drastically decline accompanied by draconian laws stripping working people of all protections at the same time that corporate profits rise dramatically, all in an atmosphere of state-organized terror. The only safeguard against this happening in any capitalist country, including the United States, is for working people to organize in their own defense. Given the sorry record of social democracy, no help from there will come to the rescue in Europe. In the U.S., it would be laughable to believe the Democrats would save us from potential Republican dictatorship, whether a conventional authoritarianism or an outright fascist régime.

The long history of Democrats falling to their knees

Democratic Party ineptitude and weak-kneed acquiescence has been on display long before the Biden administration and current congressional majority’s yearlong lack of resolve. From Jimmy Carter’s austerity setting up the start of the neoliberal era for Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton ramming through regressive legislation that Republicans could only dreamed of having done to Democrats’ meek “me too” in response to Newt Gingrich’s Contract On America and the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress to Barack Obama’s serial capitulations to Democrats’ present inability (unwillingness?) to implement the programs they were elected to fulfill, and instead give the Pentagon another raise, liberals are persistently run over by conservatives. But however weak-willed Democrats are, that is only one side of the picture.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Democrats believe in so-called “American exceptionalism,” imperialism and corporate control of society just as fervently as do Republicans.

Liberalism has reached an intellectual dead end, however much individual liberals may yearn for alternatives. There are various reasons that can be assigned as to the cause of the Democratic Party’s — and, thus, North American liberalism’s — steady march rightward: Dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, cowardliness. Although these factors form a significant portion of the answer to the puzzle, an underlying cause has to be found in the exhaustion of North American liberalism. Similar to European social democracy, it is trapped by its core desire to stabilize an unstable capitalist system.

In contrast to the Right, which loudly advocates what it stands for and uses all means possible to get it, liberals are caught in the contradiction of knowing changes are needed but unable to put forth anything beyond the most tepid reforms, a bit of tinkering around the edges. The Democratic Party is not only reliant on corporate money, but in thrall to ideologies that promote corporate domination, propaganda blasted across the corporate media and propagated through a thick web of “think tanks” and other well-funded institutions. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly fall to their knees when the world’s industrialists and financiers, acting through their corporations, think tanks and the “market,” pronounce their verdict on what is to be done.

There is no secret formula waiting to be discovered. The only way to prevent a fascist takeover is through the same methodology that is the route to a better world: A mass movement of movements linking together struggles, organizing with people who don’t look like us and uniting across borders. As long as capitalism exists, the threat of fascism exists.

COP26: What you’d expect when oil companies are in and environmentalists are out

The annual get-together of the world’s governments, where in most years they express concern about global warming and announce they will continue to talk about it, was not quite the usual washout this year, as small progress was made, at least theoretically. But even if this year’s promises come to fruition, the new round of pledges fall well short of what is needed.

The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as COP26, concluded its two weeks in Glasgow with congratulations all around for themselves by government participants, as is traditionally the case. If you were to judge by the participants’ pronouncement, you’d think the environment is on the verge of being saved.

For example, the official communiqué issued by the conference loftily declared, “COP26 has today concluded in Glasgow with nearly 200 countries agreeing the Glasgow Climate Pact to keep 1.5C alive and finalise the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement.” To be fair, there was more acknowledgment that more work needs to be done than is customary, as the communiqué also said, “The Glasgow Climate Pact, combined with increased ambition and action from countries, means that 1.5C remains in sight, but it will only be delivered with concerted and immediate global efforts.”

Glasgow at night (photo by Jcdro16)

But are those very much necessary “concerted and immediate global efforts” going to be undertaken? Ah, details. Another sentence in the communiqué declared, “All countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their current emissions targets to 2030, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in 2022. This will be combined with a yearly political roundtable to consider a global progress report and a Leaders summit in 2023.” We haven’t, alas, dispensed with the “we were happy to talk and we will be happy to talk some more” folderol that has been traditionally offered in lieu of sufficient action.

Consider the most recent conference results. COP25, two years ago in Madrid, ended with a statement that the conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” but limited its action to announcing two more years of roundtables; COP24, which featured the host Polish government promoting coal, ended in an agreement to create a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism to meet greenhouse-gas emission goals that also have no enforcement mechanism; and COP23 in Bonn ended with a promise that people will get together and talk some more.

They’re “concerned” but not concerned enough to do much about it

It is only proper to acknowledge when progress, however meager, is made, although the bar set by recent conferences is woefully low. Congratulations don’t seem to be in order here. The one tangible accomplishment is that many of the governments representing the world’s biggest contributors to global warming did agree to strengthen their goals to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The bad news is that the new commitments remain well short of meeting stated goals. The worse news is that the commitments still have no enforcement mechanisms. Peer pressure appears to remain the preferred methodology, which thus far has not imbued the world’s environmentalists with confidence. For sound reasons.

For example, an effort to have the COP26 negotiators agree to a “phase out” of coal was watered down to a “phase down,” a vague formulation with no specific meaning, and financial transfers from industrialized countries to underdeveloped countries most at risk (which are often the least culpable) have been below what has been promised and well less than what would be sufficient to mitigate damages. Mary Robinson, the former United Nations commissioner for human rights, wrote, “This represents a failure of leadership and a failure of diplomacy. World leaders must be held accountable for the climate disaster playing out on their watch. It is time to call out those who have obstructed the negotiations in Glasgow, and those who continue to downplay the climate emergency.”

Marchers for climate justice in Tanzania.

That would be difficult to argue against, although moral arguments have had limited effect thus far. Unfortunately, the final text from COP26 is full of the “concerns” and “notes” that past conferences have featured. For example, the final text states that it “Expresses alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of warming to date, that impacts are already being felt in every region, and that carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted.” Furthermore, the text “Urges Parties that have not yet communicated new or updated nationally determined contributions to do so as soon as possible” and “Acknowledges the importance of coherent action to respond to the scale of needs caused by the adverse impacts of climate change.”

That will show the atmosphere!

The context here is that the world’s governments agreed at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-Industrial Age average, a change from the previous commitment of 2 degrees, although no corresponding pledges were made to reach either goal. Following COP25 two years ago (COP26 was postponed a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic), the pledges then in existence by the world’s governments, were they honored in full, would have allowed global warming to reach 3 degrees, a catastrophic result. This was the conference in which the world’s governments were to have committed themselves to reach the Paris Climate Summit goal.

Temperature goal remains on paper, not in real world

What was actually achieved with the latest round of promises? Climate Action Tracker reports that 123 countries and the European Union submitted new NDC (nationally determined contributions) targets, although a dozen did not strengthen their commitments, a list that includes Australia, Brazil and Russia, each among the world’s biggest contributors of greenhouse gases. An analysis by the Tracker, a collaboration between Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute, has found that were there to be full implementation of submitted and binding long-term targets and 2030 targets, the world’s temperature would increase by 1.7 to 2.6 degrees Celsius from the pre-Industrial Age average. That is well above the 1.5-degree goal.

Full implementation of just the goals set for 2030 would be enough for the world’s temperature to rise by 1.9 to 3 degrees. Worse, what the Tracker calls “real world action based on current polices” would result in a temperature increase of 2 to 3.7 degrees. The report concludes, “It is clear there is a massive credibility, action and commitment gap that casts a long and dark shadow of doubt over the net zero goals put forward by more than 140 countries, covering 90% of global emissions.” Furthermore:

“Under current policies, we estimate end-of-century warming to be 2.7°C. While this temperature estimate has fallen since our September 2020 assessment, major new policy developments are not the driving factor. We need to see a profound effort in all sectors, in this decade, to decarbonise the world to be in line with 1.5°C. Targets for 2030 remain totally inadequate: the current 2030 targets (without long-term pledges) put us on track for a 2.4°C temperature increase by the end of the century.”

The climate science news site Carbon Brief is not more optimistic. Although dismissing critics who say nothing happened at COP26, Carbon Brief nonetheless said that “current policies will lead to a best-estimate of around 2.6C to 2.7C warming by 2100 (with an uncertainty range of 2C to 3.6C)” and if both conditional and NDCs are met for 2030, the projected warming by 2100 would be 2.4C (1.8C to 3.3C). In the best-case scenario if all long-term net-zero promises are kept, global warming would be held to around 1.8C (1.4C to 2.6C) by 2100, though temperatures would likely peak at close to 2 degrees in mid-21st century before declining.

The above estimates are not set in stone and could prove to be underestimates, Carbon Brief wrote:

“These warming numbers come with some important caveats. First, uncertainties — due to climate sensitivity and carbon cycle feedbacks — are quite large. For example, while current policies are expected to result in around 2.6C to 2.7C warming, the Earth could, in fact, end up with anywhere between 2C to 3.6C or so, depending on how the climate system responds to emissions. These uncertainties are cause for caution and increase the urgency of emissions reductions.”

Despite rhetoric, oil companies welcome but environmentalists aren’t

Corporate influence is never far away when governments attempt to reach policy decisions, and COP26 was no exception. A look at the list of corporate sponsors on the COP26 official website shows at least two natural gas companies and assorted other corporations that would not seem to be appropriate for an environmental summit. Oil companies were also well represented.

DeSmog reports that, although oil companies were not allowed formal roles at COP26, oil majors and state oil companies participated in large numbers as part of business and trade groups or national delegations. “The official participant list is full of executives and employees from the largest publicly traded oil companies in the world, including Royal Dutch Shell and BP,” DeSmog reports. The investigative and research news site adds:

“The presence of oil interests does not stop at the employees and executives from national oil companies and government ministries. Even though the COP26 organizers banned oil companies from sending their own delegations, prominent publicly traded oil majors have found other ways to attend the climate negotiations as well. According to DeSmog’s tally, at least three dozen oil executives gained access to the talks thanks to business and trade associations — and those are only the ones who publicly listed their oil company affiliations. For instance, Royal Dutch Shell sent at least six employees under multiple designations.”

What DeSmog reports is only the tip of the iceberg. Corporate Europe Observatory’s Corporate Accountability campaign reports that more than 100 fossil fuel companies and 30 trade associations were represented at COP26, with so many attending that if the fossil fuel lobby were a country delegation, it would have been the largest. “At least 503 fossil fuel lobbyists, affiliated with some of the world’s biggest polluting oil and gas giants, have been granted access to COP26, flooding the Glasgow conference with corporate influence,” Corporate Accountability reported. Corporate Europe Observatory researcher Pascoe Sabido said:

“COP26 is being sold as the place to raise ambition, but it’s crawling with fossil fuel lobbyists whose only ambition is to stay in business. The likes of Shell and BP are inside these talks despite openly admitting to upping their production of fossil gas. If we’re serious about raising ambition, then fossil fuel lobbyists should be shut out of the talks and out of our national capitals.”

That access is in contrast to environmentalists, who had no such ability to influence negotiations. Mitzi Jonelle Tan, spokesperson for Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, told Democracy Now!:

“It’s funny and ironic, actually, that on the COP26 website, they said they were aiming this to be the most inclusive COP ever, and I think this might have been the most exclusive one. Aside from having all those difficulties and obstacles to actually get to Glasgow, when we get there, COVID was used as an excuse to not let observers come into the important negotiations, yet the fossil fuel industry, the fossil fuel lobbyists, with over 500 delegates, which is more than any other country, was always welcome, was always given the platform, was always given space. And so you can really see that, once again, the U.N. climate summit just prioritized the voices of the privileged and not those that are most affected by the climate crisis.”

Net zero is net unrealism

What efforts that have been made by Global North governments have generally been expressed as goals toward achieving “net zero.” Net zero represents a stabilization in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; that is, the amount of greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount of greenhouse gases that are removed from the atmosphere. The year 2050 is the most common date for countries to say they will achieve net zero, although some countries have pledged to reach that one or two decades later. Of the three largest contributors to greenhouse gases, the European Union and United States have 2050 pledges and China’s goal is “before 2060.”

Are these goals achievable, and, if so, will they be sufficient? This is an important question as the EU, the U.S. and China together account for 46 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions — more than 16 times the contributions of the 100 least-contributing countries. Climate Action Tracker rates EU and U.S. efforts as “insufficient” and China’s efforts as “highly insufficient.” This rating system “evaluates a broad spectrum of government targets and actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement temperature limit.”

No country is rated as compatible with the Paris Agreement, and only eight countries are rated as “almost sufficient.” Britain is the lone industrial country to receive this designation; the others are Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria and The Gambia. (The worst category, “critically insufficient,” includes Iran, Russia and Turkey.)

Most of the world is far from achieving net zero. But would doing so truly avoid global catastrophe? Perhaps not. Net zero aspirations are based on the hope that forests and farmlands will pull enough carbon dioxide out of the air to offset the remaining greenhouse-gas production that would still be occurring. Two environmental research scientists, Doreen Stabinsky at the College of the Atlantic and Kate Dooley of the University of Melbourne, throw cold water on this escape hatch. Simply put, too much is being asked of nature.

“Since the world does not yet have technologies capable of removing carbon dioxide from air at any climate-relevant scale, that means relying on nature for carbon dioxide removal,” the two write. The idea that machines will be able to pull huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air remains in the realm of fantasy. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years; CO2 must be removed through some means, natural or technological, to have any hope of achieving net zero. As to the potential for the natural world to remove 5 gigatons per year of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as some optimistic forecasts hope for, Dr Stabinsky and Dr. Dooley write:

“Reaching the point at which nature can remove 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year would take time. And there’s another problem: High levels of removal might last for only a decade or so. When growing trees and restoring ecosystems, the storage potential develops to a peak over decades. While this continues, it reduces over time as ecosystems become saturated, meaning large-scale carbon dioxide removal by natural ecosystems is a one-off opportunity to restore lost carbon stocks. Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere — in forests and other ecosystems — doesn’t stay there forever, either. Trees and plants die, sometimes as a result of climate-related wildfires, droughts and warming, and fields are tilled and release carbon.”

If you can’t remove it, you shouldn’t produce it

The two scientists write that ecosystem restoration has the potential to reduce global average temperature by approximately 0.12 degrees C, but such a decline would not occur in time to offset the warming expected within the next two decades. Net zero strategies that rely on temporary removals to balance permanent emissions will fail. There is no alternative to drastically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The unreality of net zero pledges put forth by oil companies is laid bare by Dr. Stabinsky and Dr. Dooley:

“ActionAid reviewed the oil major Shell’s net-zero strategy and found that it includes offsetting 120 million tons of carbon dioxide per year through planting forests, estimated to require around 29.5 million acres (12 million hectares) of land. That’s roughly 45,000 square miles. Oxfam reviewed the net-zero pledges for Shell and three other oil and gas producers — BP, TotalEnergies and ENI — and concluded that ‘their plans alone could require an area of land twice the size of the U.K. If the oil and gas sector as a whole adopted similar net zero targets, it could end up requiring land that is nearly half the size of the United States, or one-third of the world’s farmland.’ These numbers provide insight into how these companies, and perhaps many others, view net-zero.”

Not realistic, to put it mildly, given that reforestation at such scales would require removal of a significant portion of the world’s farms. And on top of that, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes net zero. Governments can set their own metrics — yet another area of no real accountability — and we also have to think about methane, which although found in far lesser amounts in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is nonetheless a far more potent contributor to global warming on a molecule-to-molecule basis. Jeff Mackler, writing in CounterPunch, put this together:

“U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has called for a clearer definition of net zero. ‘There is a deficit of credibility and a surplus of confusion over emissions reductions and net zero targets,’ he said, ‘with different meanings and different metrics.’ Indeed, each polluting nation employs its own ‘metrics,’ including positive and hyped deductions for the ‘natural capacity’ of its land mass to absorb carbon dioxide while omitting from its calculations negative factors like deforestation, not to mention the myriad of escaping methane from appliances, fracking and always leaking supermarket refrigeration facilities around the world. Methane’s global warming intensity exceeds CO2 by a factor of 80! Biden’s methane reduction pledge flies in the face of the fact that the U.S. stands first in the world in natural gas fracking, the chief poisonous polluting [byproduct] of which is methane.”

The chimera of carbon trading to achieve an illusory net zero

Unfortunately, the above does not exhaust the list of issues with net zero. Some national net zero goals will be met, in part, through “carbon trading.” One of the agreements reached at COP26 was a deal that permits countries to buy offset credits representing emission cuts by others, which will then be used by the buyers to “achieve” climate targets.

A tax on such offsets, intended to fund climate adaptation in poorer nations and advocated by them, will not be included. According to a Reuters report, “The deal suggests developing nations capitulated to rich nations demands, including the United States, which had objected [to] the levy.” That the carbon trading scheme is being hailed by Brazil’s extreme Right, anti-environment government, is more than enough to question it. The Reuters report said, “The deal was ‘a Brazilian victory’ and the country is gearing up to become a ‘big exporter’ of carbon credits, its environment ministry said on social media. … ‘It should spur investment and the development of projects that could deliver significant emissions reductions,’ Brazil’s chief negotiator Leonardo Cleaver de Athayde told Reuters.”

Terminus of Kangerlugssuup Sermerssua glacier in west Greenland (photo by Denis Felikson, via NASA)

The carbon trading deal, codifying Article 6 of the Paris Agreement after six years of negotiation, does have mechanisms to largely eliminate the double counting that countries like Brazil had previously wanted but does not appear to completely eliminate such practices. But even without double counting, using markets will make it less likely that net zero will be reached in reality rather than only on paper. A report by the Center for International Environmental Law notes, “[C]ountries that aim to meet a significant portion of their [2030 emissions targets] through such offsets — and about half of all countries that submitted [2030 emissions targets] by 2018 indicated an intent to participate in the markets — are less likely to pursue deep decarbonization swiftly than those that focus on domestic cuts. And those countries with a financial interest in exceeding their self-determined contributions, to sell ‘excess’ reductions, are less likely to set ambitious targets.”

To put it in stronger terms, Sebastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Center, said, “Net zero is a scam. It is used as a smokescreen to avoid actual transition away from fossil fuels and carry on business as usual by relying on unproven carbon capture technologies and offsets. … Article 6 creates a way for public and private investors to weaponize the Paris agreement for the sake of profits at the cost of local communities and indigenous people’s rights.”

So why are fossil fuels subsidized to astonishing amounts? These subsidies are not trivial: A 2015 paper by four economists published by, of all places, the International Monetary Fund estimated the amount of subsidies thrown at the fossil fuel industry as US$5.6 trillion per year. Trillions! That total includes environmental costs in addition to direct corporate subsidies and below-cost consumer pricing. Some — only some — of the damage from these massive subsidies are premature deaths through local air pollution; exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use; crowding out potentially productive public spending on health, education and infrastructure; discouraging needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure; and increasing the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.

Capitalism is not only cooking the planet to the point where portions of our planet will become uninhabitable and massive disruption to agriculture is certain, but the leading causes of the problem are lavishly subsidized. Who could dream up such a death-wish scenario? Yet here we are. As long as we live under capitalism, incentives will be for more growth, more energy usage, more waste, more accumulation, more inequality, and that inequality will make the struggle for environmental justice and to reverse global warming ever more strenuous. It is simply impossible to decouple the world economic system from the looming environmental catastrophe. The two go together.

Are we up to creating the massive global movement that is the only mechanism that can save the world? If not, our descendants are not likely to believe short-term profits for a few now will be a fair exchange for an unlivable planet for the many then.

China’s winding road toward capitalism

There is perhaps no bigger controversy among partisans of the Left than the nature of China and its economy. Is it socialist? Capitalist? State capitalist? A hybrid? That so much debate swirls around this issue is its own proof that the question doesn’t have a definitive answer, at least not yet.

What can be agreed upon is that China has experienced decades of extraordinary economic growth. But the nature of that growth, and the base upon which it has been created, are also subject to intense debate, arguments that necessarily rest on how a debater classifies the Chinese economy. An additional debate is whether China’s growth is replicable or is the product of particular conditions that can’t be duplicated elsewhere. And what should be at the forefront of any debate is how China’s working people, in the cities and in the countryside, fare under a tightly controlled system that promises to bring about a “moderately prosperous society.”

Setting out to examine China from that last perspective is a new book, The Communist Road to Capitalism: How Unrest and Containment Have Pushed China’s (R)evolution since 1949. As you might guess from the pungent title, Communist Road, authored by activist Ralf Ruckus, is not only critical of the Chinese Communist Party, but comes squarely down on the proposition that China has become a capitalist society. Despite China’s increasing integration into the world capitalist system, the increasing emphasis placed on markets and widening inequalities, the proposition that China has moved to capitalism is quite controversial for many people on the Left.

Mr. Ruckus begins his argument by suggesting that a more gradated approach to Chinese history since the 1949 revolution better captures the stages of China’s development. He presents four different ideas commonly put forth that attempt to define the nature of China’s economy. These four concepts are capitalist from 1949 to now; socialist from 1949 to now; socialist and then capitalist; and a four-stage approach of transition to socialism, socialism, transition to capitalism and capitalism. There is a fifth conception not mentioned by Mr. Ruckus — that China is not classifiable as capitalist or socialist, a perspective put forth by the Marxist economist Samir Amin. Dr. Amin, in his The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, argued that asking if China is socialist or capitalist “is badly posed” because it is “too general and abstract.” Dr. Amin wrote that although “the Chinese project is not capitalist does not mean that it is socialist, only that it makes it possible to advance on the long road to socialism” but added that China could also “end up with a return, pure and simple, to capitalism.”

Thus there is more than one nuanced perspective. The last of Mr. Ruckus’ four offered ideas (the four-stage approach) and Dr. Amin’s hybrid approach appear the most viable among the five theories in our struggle to understand the contours of Chinese development. It is the four-stage approach that provides the spine for Communist Road. Whether or not we are in agreement that China has become capitalist (on its own terms) or is moving toward capitalism, that China is in danger of a long-term, or even permanent, turn to full-on capitalism shouldn’t be a source of heated dispute. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Central European satellites, and their return to capitalism on disadvantageous terms, provides proof, even for those who believe China remains a socialist country, that capitalism could be its future. Nor should it be expected that deepening entanglement with the world capitalist system doesn’t present its own dangers.

Social confrontation across four periods

Early on, in the opening pages, Mr. Ruckus states that his “main focus lies on social confrontation and the ruptures and continuities they produced in the PRC since 1949,” and he does not waver from that focus in discussing his four periods (transition to socialism, socialism, transition to capitalism and capitalism) of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. The coming tale of urban and rural unrest is set early when the author writes, “[T]he actually existing socialism constructed [in the first two periods] was very different from both the preceding and the following economic, political, and social systems. Furthermore, actually existing socialism was largely distinct from the socialism desired by proletarians, peasants, and women* who had been involved in revolutionary organizing since the 1920s.” [page 7]

Continuing to set out his thesis in the opening pages, Mr. Ruckus argues that “the overall character of the system qualified as capitalist from the mid- to late-1990s onward, because the main driving force of the economy was capital accumulation and the generation of profit, and because the CCP leadership and other sections of the ‘elite’ formed a reconfigured capitalist ruling class that appropriated a large part of the wealth produced through the exploitation of workers and peasants.” These reforms were successful because “they could build on the foundations socialism had created and, second, because so-called globalization, with new industrial production clusters and supply chains … offered a historical opportunity for attracting foreign capital and for developing the PRC economy the CCP regime made use of.” [page 9]

The reference to CCP cadres as a “ruling class,” and a capitalist ruling class no less, is bound to set off significant controversy. That is perhaps a technical side issue we can sidestep here. A larger issue for the reader of Communist Road is whether the author makes his overall case effectively. The four core chapters of the book cover the four defined periods, starting with the transition to socialism. In these first years after the 1949 revolution, substantial improvements were achieved in social conditions, including life expectancy, child mortality, health care, income equality and literacy.

Shanghai (photo by dawvon)

At first, the CCP followed the model of the Soviet Union with an accumulation and industrialization strategy with similarities to “authoritarian capitalist late comers” using Taylorist and Fordist production techniques; the form of technology and work organization was seen as neutral. As with the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s, the capital and labor power for industrialization could only come from internal sources. In the countryside, the peasant economy was left intact until the mid-1950s, with land reforms benefiting poor and middle peasants. There were benefits for women, too — a 1950 marriage law granted them equal rights with men, although full equality did not come as women workers tended to be relegated to “softer” work with lower pay and fewer work points.

With the onset of nationalizations in the mid-1950s, a brief political opening up, the “Hundred Flowers Campaign,” widened the spaces for criticism, but the window was soon shut when criticism was deeper than the CCP had anticipated. Nonetheless, the party retained significant sources of support as it launched the Great Leap Forward, a collectivization and industrial drive. The Leap failed, leading to acute shortages of food as a decline in the size of the rural workforce as urban industries rapidly expanded, mismanagement, poor weather and false reports filed by local authorities combined to create a disaster. Millions would die.

Conflicting currents in the Chinese Communist Party

Communist Road places the blame squarely on Mao Zedong. But perhaps the situation was not so clear-cut. Minqi Li, for example, in his book The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, flatly states “it was Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi who were responsible for the Great Leap Forward,” and quotes Liu as praising officials who reported implausible, wildly inflated crop yields as “having overthrown science.” At the same time, Mao cautioned against the “exaggeration wind” but party leaders, following the leads of Deng and Liu, who were in charge of party propaganda, continued to agitate for ideas to be “liberated.” (As an aside, Dr. Li’s research found that the peak of the death rate during the Great Leap Forward was lower than the normal death rate during the 1930s; by the 1970s, the death rate was about one-fourth what it had been in the 1930s.)

Dr. Li concludes his analysis of the Great Leap Forward by stating “a privileged bureaucratic group” had taken control of the party; now no longer a party committed to revolutionary ideals and willing to self-sacrifice but rather “one that included many careerists who were primarily concerned with personal power and enrichment.”

That is not different from Mr. Ruckus’ overall conclusion, although he asserts that Mao “was held responsible” for the Great Leap Forward and “pragmatic leaders” like Deng and Liu “instituted reforms that were supposed to deal with the fallout of the GLF.” [page 56] During the next period of upheaval, the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, is, consistent with the book’s perspective, examined from the standpoint of workers and peasants by Mr. Ruckus. Separate from the struggles within the party hierarchy, he writes that the Cultural Revolution was a series of mass outbreaks for better working conditions and permanent jobs as part of a struggle against the “red bourgeoisie” (a term used by some Cultural Revolution participants) and the CCP that was “exploiting workers.”

Forbidden City, Beijing (photo by Adamantios)

Unrest continued across the 1970s, with workers demanding more egalitarian wages and bonuses, a say in decision-making and work conditions, and fewer privileges for party cadres; the experiences gained during the Cultural Revolution were put to use by grassroots organizers. This was also a period where investments in education and health care paid off — literacy, life expectancy and child mortality all continued to improve. Unrest was met with a mix of responses, including repression, concessions, co-optation and reforms.

China, as can now be seen in hindsight, was on the brink of dramatic changes as Mao and much of the revolutionary generation were approaching their deaths. Separate from that, China had opened relations with the United States in an effort to ease its isolation and gain access to technology; the split with the Soviet Union also played a role in this development. The Deng faction would win the power struggle following Mao’s death, and then use the democracy movements to defeat their party opponents before suppressing the movements, Mr. Ruckus writes. The commune system was dismantled, farmland was leased, collective structures disappeared and local governments began to rely on taxes, fees and enclosures. Wages were increased, but the “iron rice bowl” of benefits was attacked and associated with the ousted Mao-aligned Gang of Four. The right to strike was abolished, more workers became temporary hires and rules restricting migration were eased to encourage an exodus into the new special economic zones where foreign capital could set up.

Here, Mr. Ruckus is on firm ground in characterizing the period from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s as a transition to capitalism. He writes that hopes that the Deng reforms would lead to improvements were disappointed. Changing labor relations and less job security led to continuing worker unrest and student mobilizations. The death of a prominent party reformer, Hu Yaobang, sparked mass demonstrations and the Tiananmen Square occupation of 1989, by any standard a crucial turning point.

Tiananmen Square as a turning point in Chinese history

Here, perhaps more than at any other point, is where Communist Road must make its case. The Tiananmen Square occupation “ended in failure,” Mr. Ruckus writes, because “CCP leaders were determined to keep their grip on power” and because of the movement’s weaknesses, “above all, the division between students and workers. Student leaders did not want to involve the working class.” That was, in part, because of a fear that “working class involvement would necessarily lead to a harsh response from CCP leaders.” [page 109]

One of the leaders of Tiananmen, Wang Chaohua, who wrote a series of essays on the event after escaping China, said the more important mistake was to not develop a political agenda and thus “failed to propose a political agenda that could have reflected the scale of popular engagement — and thus missed the opportunity to transform the protest into a constructive political movement,” in the words of J.X. Zhang, who reviewed in New Left Review Dr. Wang’s Chinese-language collection of Tiananmen essays. Dr. Wang laments a “lack of independent political consciousness among Chinese workers” who “as a whole still partly identified their collective interests with those of the ruling party, which claimed to be ‘the vanguard of the working class.’ ”

Activist workers who did participate nonetheless would bear a heavy share of the crackdown that followed the military attack that put an end to the occupation. It is possible that thousands were killed in the military crushing of the occupation and a certainty that thousands more landed in prison. What was to come next?

“At this point,” Mr. Ruckus writes, “the PRC was just a final step away from its transition from socialism to capitalism. This step might not have happened if not for the global transformation of the Cold War confrontation between the capitalist West and the socialist East and the dialectic of economic crisis, investment relocation, and industrial development that had shifted the global manufacturing center to East Asia over the course of the 1980s and 1990s.” [page 110]

Tiananmen Square (photo by そらみみ (Soramimi))

Similarly, Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, argued that as the Tiananmen Square protests were getting underway, the Chinese government “was pushing hard to deregulate wages and prices and expand the reach of the market.” She even reported that Milton Friedman, the notorious godfather of Chicago School economics, was invited to China in 1980 and again in 1988 to provide advice! Ms. Klein quotes another Tiananmen leader, Wang Hui, who said popular discontent against Deng’s economic changes that included lower wages, rising prices and “a crisis of layoffs and unemployment … were the catalyst for the 1989 social mobilization.” The violent end to the occupation, according to Professor Wang, “served to check the social upheaval brought about by this process, and the new pricing system finally took shape.”

What were the results once the Deng-led CCP was able to resume its restructuring? Mr. Ruckus doesn’t hold back from a catalog of negative changes: The use of special economic zones to draw in foreign direct investment (FDI), job security guarantees replaced with contracts, welfare provisions scrapped, privatizations, state-run companies converted to state-owned enterprises expected to maximize profits, 50 million laid off and an intensification of work. “Growing job insecurity, unemployment, low wages, the loss of welfare protection, and higher work pressure led to discontent,” he wrote. “[State-owned enterprise] workers started organizing a wave of protests against the restructuring of the state sector that would last into the 2000s. Moreover, the deterioration of living conditions in the countryside triggered peasant unrest in the mid- and late-1990s. These two cycles of struggle marked the beginning of the capitalist period in the PRC,” which the author dates from the mid-1990s. [page 114]

“Crossing the river by feeling the stones”

This transition need not be seen as either inevitable or the result of a plot by some party leaders, according to Communist Road. “This transition was not the result of a detailed master plan or blueprint but of a series of — often experimental — reform steps taken to improve the country’s economic performance, save the socialist system, and stabilize CCP rule. This is the meaning of the phrase ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’ that Deng Xiaoping allegedly used to describe his understanding of the course of reform.” [page 115]

Restructuring of state-owned enterprises would further develop as the 1990s drew to a close and China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Another crucial milestone in China’s path toward capitalism Mr. Ruckus could have explored further is Jiang Zemin’s “theory of the three represents.” Only a passing reference to then-President Jiang’s allowing private capitalists to become party members in 2001 hints at this development. But this development went beyond a mere widening of party intake. The “Three Represents” reference is an official line announced in 2001 the party should represent the most advanced productive forces, the most advanced culture and the broadest layers of the people. Promulgated by President Jiang, it is a declaration that the interests of different classes are not in conflict and that the party can harmoniously represent all classes simultaneously. One can of course enunciate such a program if one wishes, but such a theory has nothing in common with Marxism.

Another piece of evidence that the book could have cited but didn’t is the party’s increasing stress on the use of markets. The Communist Party leadership switched the role of the market from “basic” to “decisive” in 2013 at a key Central Committee plenum, and continuity with this course was laid down by the party at the October 2017 party congress that again stressed the “decisive role” of the market. Communist Road focuses on social movements and grassroots activities, and spends little time on party developments, and although not discussing these party declarations is perhaps consistent with the intent of the book, more reportage of party debates would have enriched the text and provided further underpinning for its central thesis.

The book does document continuing unrest across the 2000s; much of the strikes during this period were wildcat actions as organized actions were prohibited. Since Xi Jinping became party general secretary and president in 2012, the party has tightened control and increased surveillance, and although unrest and wildcat actions have not ceased, there is support for the government from the middle class, which has seen benefits from the reforms, and wages have increased.

Conceptualizing socialism beyond a narrow definition

In trying to unravel the complexities of how the Chinese economy might best be conceptualized, a basic question that should be asked is: What is socialism? Is socialism merely the absence of capitalism? Or is it something more? A definition frequently put forth by socialists (and not only them) is that state ownership of the means of production constitutes socialism, understood as a transitional stage toward communism, to use the classical formulation of Karl Marx. This was the foundation on which the Soviet Union, from the 1930s on, could proclaim itself a socialist society, updating that to referring to itself as a “developed socialist society” in the Brezhnev years as an additional developmental step.

But is that all there is? I would argue that the elimination of a bourgeois social class as the owners of the means of production and the replacement of that social relation with common or state ownership is a pre-condition of socialism, not the actual content. Nor does it have to mean state ownership of all enterprises, although it is inconceivable for a socialism to exist that doesn’t place in state hands banking and a few, large key industries. If socialism means political and economic democracy in a society where everybody has a voice in the decisions that affect them, their communities and/or the enterprises in which they work; wages and other compensation reflect contributions to the work performed; and there are no centers of power built on the accumulation of capital, then neither China nor any other country can be classified as achieving socialism.

In his writings on the Soviet Union, the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher developed the term “post-capitalist” for the Soviet Union and its Central European satellites. This provides a neutral term that acknowledges that capitalist economic relations had been abolished without suggesting a transition to a higher state had been completed. That has long seemed to me to be a highly useful way to conceptualize the Soviet economy. It certainly wasn’t capitalist, or the United States and other Western capitalist powers wouldn’t have poured so much time, energy and money into attempting to defeat the Soviet bloc with such sustained intensity.

People’s Grand Hall in Chongqing (photo by Chen Hualin)

It is reasonable to draw some parallels with Dr. Amin’s conceptualization of China as neither capitalist nor socialist. He pointed to the communal nature of land in rural China, which is not a commodity that farmers can sell, as “absolutely prevent[ing] us from characterizing contemporary China (even today) as ‘capitalist,’ because the capitalist road is based on the transformation of land into a commodity.” Other commentators point to the fact that banking and finance remain firmly in state hands to buttress their arguments that China is not capitalist. Dr. Amin in his analysis noted that transnational capital can’t pillage China’s natural resources and China’s integration into the world system is “partial and controlled.” Land, however, is frequently taken by city or other local governments and sold to commercial interests; one estimate made in 2017 is that 4 million farmers were losing land annually. Moreover, that China is one of two countries large enough to enter the world capitalist system on its own terms (India being the other although neither the Hindu fundamentalist neoliberal BJP nor the ever rightward-moving Congress chooses to do so) doesn’t mean capitalist relations are absent from the workplace.

The analogy with the Soviet Union is not a snug fit, given that Soviet Union retained a post-capitalist, or at any rate, a non-capitalist, form of government through the early years of Mikhail Gorbachev, not beginning to introduce elements of capitalism until a series of reforms rammed through the parliament in 1990.

On balance, then, although Dr. Amin presented a learned and serious interpretation (and who was clear about the danger of a return to capitalism even while believing market openings were justified), Mr. Ruckus’ four-stage conception gives us the best understanding of the Chinese economy and where it, at least for now, is going. One more opinion popularly floated that we haven’t discussed is that China has indeed moved to capitalism, but only as a temporary expedient to develop faster, and will one day expropriate private capital and become a socialist power strong enough to fend off the capitalist powers. Given the opaqueness of the CCP, none of us outside the party are in any position to know with authority its leadership’s long-term intentions.

What we can do is analyze the actions and words of CCP leadership, which has carried out a slow progression toward capitalism. President Xi has recently begun taking steps to reign in certain Chinese capitalists and has more frequently talked about Marxism, but whether these are the opening moves of a reversal of policies or simply an assertion of party rule will not be known for some time. And even if it were true that the moves toward capitalism are intended to be a temporary expedient, becoming more deeply entangled in markets and the capitalist world system carries its own momentum, a drift not at all easy to check. There are industrial and party interests that favor the path China has been on since the 1990s, and those interests represent another social force that would resist structural moves toward socialism.

An ambivalent and contradictory path

In its summation, Communist Road acknowledges that the four-stage conception “has its limitations.” There are not clear borders between the stages nor is there a straight historical direction. “The long transition from socialism to capitalism in particular was not only gradual and intermittent but also ambivalent and contradictory,” Mr. Ruckus writes. “[M]any of those subperiods [within the stages] overlapped, as unrest from below was often vibrant and erratic and took years to develop and grow, while containment measures and reforms from above were also staggered and long-lasting.” [page 166]

A corollary is a rejection of the idea that “so-called capitalist roaders in the CCP leadership” executed a master plan. “There is no evidence for such a master plan, and blaming the transition mostly on deviant CCP leaders ignores structural factors, both domestic and global. … [I]t was the result of structural features of the form the CCP regime took in the 1950s and 1960s and of social, political, and economic dynamics that made the transition to capitalism in the following decades possible and likely (though not inevitable).” [page 173]

The book concludes with “lessons for the left” that offers “elements of a left-wing strategy.” Two necessities, the author writes, are analysis of the process of class recomposition from the perspectives of proletarians and other oppressed peoples, and forms of organizing that break down divisions among proletarians, activists and intellectuals. Open discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of movements, resistance and organization, and of socialist governments, are vital as well as that movements should be in the hands of those struggling and should represent themselves. Finally, movements must organize globally; the social struggles around the world of recent years occurred simultaneously but were “divided along North-South lines and by national markets, sexism, racism, and migration regimes. These divisions can be overcome, and it is one of the tasks of left-wing organizing to provide resources and create bridges that connect struggles.”

We must base analyses on material reality, not on what our hopes or dreams wish nor on the name of the organization presiding over a country. No single book can be the last word, and some of the conclusions of Communist Road are sure to draw some strong disagreements. Regardless of where you stand on the central questions under discussion, Ralf Ruckus has provided a strong argument, backed by ample evidence, for the thesis that China has become capitalist, as well as a useful, brisk history from below of China since 1949. Both are welcome contributions.

Is 20th century social democracy really the best we can do?

Predictions are difficult to make, especially, as the old joke goes, when they are about the future. Particularly fraught have been predictions of the demise of capitalism. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that because capitalism remains the world’s dominant economic system, predictions of the system’s demise are not only wrong, but destined to be wrong in the future.

“Conventional wisdom” here, of course, is nothing more than a display of the axiom that the intellectual ideas of a society are those of the dominant class. Certainly, both industrialists and financiers would like us to believe that nothing fundamental can change. Bourgeois ideology proclaims that through every possible channel every day.

Yet what is of human creation is not permanent; everything of human creation has an expiration date. Capitalism will be no different.

When will capitalism be transcended and what will follow? That central question has been asked for two centuries and, given the increasing intensity of economic crises, mounting inequality and looming environmental catastrophe, is as important as ever. The unending series of protests, uprisings and movements dedicated to either forcing systemic reform or outright replacement are eloquent testament to how capitalism fails most of the world’s population.

Night view of the Gate of Enlightenment in Madrid (photo by Luis García (Zaqarbal))

Nonetheless, there is no arguing that capitalism remains firmly in the saddle, with no existing social movement anywhere near strong enough today to put the system at risk. Does that mean we should regard past predictions of capitalism’s demise as mistaken or wishful thinking? Perhaps only an ambiguous answer, at least preliminary, is appropriate. For those who wish to see capitalism continue indefinitely — those who benefit and those so frightened by propaganda that anything else is literally unimaginable — there is an easy answer: Yes. For those who wish for a better world, an economic system based on human need and in harmony with the environment, the answer is no. 

Whether yes, no, maybe or let’s wait and see, an examination of why predictions of capitalism’s demise are thus far off the mark is a healthy exercise. I thus was interested in a new book wrestling with these issues, Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures since Karl Marx by Francesco Boldizzoni. Foretelling is a curious hybrid as the author is quite critical of capitalism but also has a pessimistic outlook regarding its replacement; it is rare for a book to receive praise from a Wall Street Journal reviewer and New Left Review contributor Wolfgang Streeck. Foretelling provides a strong challenge to the thinking of critics of capitalism and those who subscribe to leading theories, particularly Marxist, of the end of capitalism.

Such a challenge is healthy, and those who are interested in a basic history of economic thought for the past 200 years would do well with this book. Whether it succeeds in its core intention, however, is a separate matter, although any conclusions will partly depend on a reader’s perspective. 

Capitalism will end, as do all products of history

We get a good sense of Professor Boldizzoni’s perspective in his introduction, where he writes that capitalism will end, or slowly turn into something new, like all products of history, although there is no guarantee it will be something better. The brutality of prior systems lives on in capitalism. The slow growth rates of a more service-oriented economy has led to more “distributional conflicts,” and the Left must find effective tools to deal with it or the “populist right” will take its place. To all but capitalism’s more fervent apologists, this can hardly be considered controversial. But we also read here a foreshadowing of pessimism with a passage declaring “this battle to ‘overthrow the system’ is lost from the start” — believing it raises false hopes and thus “does not do progressivism any service.”

Capitalism isn’t going anywhere in the near future and past predictions have not been borne out, so a hard look, if we are intellectually honest, is warranted. It is healthy to have ideas challenged, so let us engage with these ideas.

Before getting to the heart of its argument, the first four of the six chapters of Foretelling the End of Capitalism are a wide-ranging survey of thinkers from the early 19th century to the early 21st, across the full political spectrum. These are not deep excavations but do provide basic understandings. These are mostly solid introductions to the evolution of thinking on the topic of political economy and important theories that have arisen, except for weaknesses with some Marxist writers. For example, a brief discussion of fin de siècle German social democracy — Eduard Bernstein vs. Karl Kautsky vs. Rosa Luxemburg — is shallow; the author only sees the surface of Kautsky’s writings and does not grasp what lies below the surface, nor how to interpret the evolution of Kautsky’s thinking, without which it is impossible to understand why Kautsky would come to draw close to Bernstein, an outcome the book entirely misses.

That is no more than a minor point. More serious is what this reviewer considers among the most bizarre interpretations of fascism he has ever come across. Professor Boldizzoni writes that fascism, or more specifically, Nazism, was “the middle ground between the liberal and Soviet worlds.” He presents the ideas of several writers on fascism, but all but one are hopelessly confused and serve only to obfuscate. Incredibly, there is not one word from Leon Trotsky, the preeminent analyzer of Nazism during the 1930s — an inexcusable omission. Nor is the orthodox communist conception as handed down by Josef Stalin presented. Although that conception was badly mistaken with tragic circumstances, it should have been discussed, given the consequences of that line being put into action.

It is true that fascism is notoriously difficult to diagnose, but if approached from a class standpoint, it becomes understandable. At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It is a phenomenon squarely at the far right of the political spectrum; it is not an ersatz “third way” precursor. Fascist movements have a social base, which provides support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base, rooted in middle class white-collar professionals and small business owners. (That is still true today; look at the profile of the Trump followers who have been arrested for participating in the January 6 attack on the U.S. capitol building.)

“In National Socialism, everything is as contradictory and as chaotic as in a nightmare,” Trotsky wrote in a vivid 1932 essay, using the intentionally misleading formal name for the Nazis. “Hitler’s party calls itself socialist, yet it leads a terroristic struggle against all socialist organizations. It calls itself a worker’s party, yet its ranks include all classes except the proletariat. It hurls lightning bolts at the heads of capitalists, yet is supported by them. … The whole world has collapsed inside the heads of the petit bourgeoisie, which has completely lost its equilibrium. This class is screaming so clamorously out of despair, fear and bitterness that it is itself deafened and loses sense of its words and gestures.”

Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements. Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary even though its beneficiaries will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. The massive profits pocketed by industrialists in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Pinochet’s Chile and elsewhere speak volumes, as do the draconian anti-labor laws implemented. Fascism is capitalism stripped of all democratic veneers.

Are the reasons behind capitalism’s staying power psychological?

Nonetheless, these early chapters are useful for other theorists who are discussed, including John Stuart Mill, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Jürgen Habermas and several writers of the late 20th century. The author skillfully dismantles the apologia for capitalism’s inequality offered by publicists masquerading as economists. In the final two chapters, Professor Boldizzoni explicates his core arguments. Here we find no illusions about the nature of capitalism nor misunderstandings of its social relations. Capitalism is a socio-economic system, not a type of economic activity, imposed by force; an “institutionalized social order” in which even human labor is reduced to a commodity. Capitalism is kept together through hierarchy and individualism, upholding new forms of previous master/slave and lord/serf relations.

So why have forecasts of capitalism’s demise been so far off the mark thus far? Or, perhaps, we might better phrase this question as: Why does capitalism persist despite the misery and opposition it continually spawns? Foretelling the End of Capitalism begins to answer this question by offering three factors — “cognitive distortions that affect the forecasting process,” faults in the construction of social theories and, decisively, “the faith in progress that underlies modern thought.” This is further teased out through two mistakes — overgeneralization through drawing overly broad conclusions or magnifying specific events and “black and white thinking,” an example of which is ignoring that there are “many varieties” of capitalism. Seeing the next system only in terms of the negatives of capitalism and, finally, a misunderstanding of culture underlie mistaken forecasts, the book asserts.

All this comes down to “cognitive distortions” and “theoretical flaws,” working together and in conjunction with “a more general mental disposition” common to those who attempt to predict what may happen in the future. “The entire history of social forecasting and its mistakes is intertwined with faith in progress,” Professor Boldizzoni writes. All of his reasons are psychological. There is nothing material!

A garment factory (photo by Fahad Faisal)

This is the reasoning of someone who believes the current world is the only possible world that can be, whether that belief is conscious or hidden in the unconscious. Capitalism has not fallen; therefore those who forecast its eventual end are dreamers outside reality. It is as if there are no material reasons for the continued life of capitalism, some of which have to do with the very pillars of capitalism that the author himself explicates well.

It is certainly possible to draw up a list of theoretical failings far more specific than flawed enlightenment thinking. No single or small group of developments can possibly encompass all the factors that have kept the world economic system in place. I have previously written that no serious discussion of this question, however, should exclude these factors:

  • The early pioneers of the socialist movement seriously underestimated the ability of capitalism as a system to adapt and therefore did not foresee the ability of working people to extract concessions for themselves. 
  • The early pioneers failed to understand the buoying effect that would be provided by imperialism (for the leading capitalist countries). 
  • Many of the early pioneers clung to an overly mechanical (mis)understanding of social development that led to a passive belief in an automatic unfolding of revolution that implied, incorrectly, that powerful capitalists would simply sit back and allow themselves to be overthrown. (Kautsky and Bernstein are emblematic here.)
  • Many leaders during the Soviet era continued to hold to a similar overly mechanical belief in future revolution while at the same time failing to grasp the nuances of capitalist development. 
  • An overly centralized world movement that retarded the theoretical developments needed for local conditions, blocking the creation of innovative leadership while at the same time discouraging existing local leaderships from attempting revolutions. 
  • A too narrow conception of “working class” or “working people” — a tendency to visualize only blue-collar manual workers as working people, a declining percentage of the population in increasingly technological capitalist societies. Such narrow horizons served to exclude a large proportion of wage workers, with the result that movements purporting to be organizations of working people instead divided them at the start. 

I am under no illusion that the above list exhausts the catalogue of factors. Obviously, the ability and willingness of the governments over which capitalists hold decisive sway to use violence to keep industrialists and financiers in power; the ability to disseminate propaganda in a variety of forms through an array of media, schools and institutions; and the willingness to invade, overthrow and impose military violence and sanctions against any country that challenges capitalism’s masters so as to make life there difficult are indispensable factors as to capitalism’s staying power. The last of this paragraph’s factors goes a long way in itself as to why alternatives to capitalism have faltered. 

Every attempt at constructing a post-capitalist economy has been met with overwhelming military, financial and other forms of force, putting them on a war footing. We can not know what might have been created if those countries had been allowed to peacefully develop, and this factor is indispensable if we are to seriously ponder the acceptance of “there is no alternative” propaganda. Despite the acknowledgements of bourgeois culture’s orientation toward wealth accumulation and cultural processes, Foretelling the End of Capitalism offers lectures on the weaknesses of enlightenment thinking rather than analyzing material conditions.

Culture as the glue holding together capitalism

Professor Boldizzoni puts forth the thesis that political, economic and social structures are all held together by “a powerful glue”: culture. Capitalism, he writes, is the product of a particular Western family of cultures, with hierarchy and individualism the most important factors. Behavior standards “change slowly”; it “may take several centuries” for culture to transform. He writes, “The emergence of a new system will be possible when the circumstances under which the old one was formed have eventually ceased to exist. It will reflect the changes in the material circumstances as well as in the culture sphere that are to occur over the next few centuries. The transition, however, will be so gradual that it will be barely noticeable.”

There is plenty to unpack in the preceding paragraph. That culture is a “powerful glue” keeping capitalism is indisputable, and that changes in “material circumstances” will facilitate a transition to a new system is also not in dispute. But these assertions, which certainly would not be controversial to a Marxist, are odd in light of the author’s criticisms of Karl Marx. It is unavoidable to note that those criticisms are rooted in a shallow understanding of Marx’s body of work. The author makes the common mistake of seeing Marxism as overly mechanical, teleological and offering a “perfect society,” nor does he grasp the subtlety of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” admittedly a confusing phrase that might better be retired. (“Dictatorship of the proletariat” simply means the predominance of working people, the vast majority of people in capitalist society, without reference to any particular governmental form. All capitalist societies constitute a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” the predominance of industrialists and financiers, which has taken many forms, including formal democracy and fascist.)

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

These misunderstandings are possible because Marxism’s 20th century practitioners in the Soviet bloc presented it in overly simplified terms, seeing it themselves in a mechanical manner. And that was not new. Friedrich Engels, in an 1890 letter to Joseph Bloch, lamented that he and Marx had put so much emphasis on economics. “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it,” Engels wrote. “We had to emphasize this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we have not always had the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights. … Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have mastered its main principles, and those even not always correctly.”

We can conceptualize Marxist materialist philosophy like this: The flow and movement of any phenomenon or idea takes varying directions, and far from always in an expected direction. As the concept of “flow” implies, history and social development do not consist of discrete steps or stages. Philosophical, political and religious ideas (which are built on the materials of their predecessors); the prevailing culture (which include traditions shaped in the conditions of the past that have survived into the present); and local geographic factors influence not only each other but also influence economic conditions. What was a cause can become an effect, and an effect can become a cause. These forces are given concrete form within a state, the form of which (including its legal structure) is based on the material conditions of life — the economic structure is the foundation on which society is built and which therefore shapes social consciousness. 

Properly understood, Marxism is not, and has never been, a reach for utopia; its founders were scornful of the utopians of their time. Still more puzzling is Professor Boldizzoni’s bizarre aside that Swedish social democrats were “seeking the achievement of a perfect society.” That would certainly be news to them. The post-World War II Swedish model sought full employment, equality and the transfer of excess profits to the collective ownership of employees. Better than ordinary capitalism and envisioned as an evolutionary route to a future socialist society, but hardly nirvana.

How high should movements aim? 

Nordic social democracy is what the author seems to have in mind when he references “many varieties” of capitalism. Yes, there are national differences in capitalism, sometimes significant, but given the domination of the United States and its ability to dictate to the rest of the world, it is unrealistic to see that there is anything other than a single world system. And Swedish capitalism is far removed from any “perfect society” — dominated by corporate power and subject to the pressures of corporate globalization the same as other small or midsized capitalist country, Sweden today has inequality and poverty levels above the European Union average. 

Sweden’s failure to institute even the most rudimentary beginnings of an evolutionary path to a socialist economic democracy under the 1970s “Meidner plan” of forcing companies to issue stock to public agencies until the public had majority control succumbed not only to the might of local capitalists and the pressures of corporate globalization, but because of the failure of working people to organize. Without a massive movement, no project of socialism, or, if you prefer, economic democracy, can succeed.

Blockupy 2013: Securing the European Central Bank (photo by Blogotron)

If we are dwelling on disagreements here, it is because these areas of dispute are central to the author’s thesis. What should be done? Professor Boldizzoni forecasts that although capitalism will be replaced, it will last for centuries to come. No mention of the environmental crisis — humanity doesn’t have one full century, never mind several, to wait! There is also the matter of the inability to achieve endless growth on a finite planet, and capitalism’s need for continual growth in a world into which it has expanded to almost every corner. (But it should be acknowledged that he has the intellectual honesty to make his own forecast and thus risk being as wrong as those he’s discussed.) He concludes by lamenting “we must come to terms with the limits of the possible” and declaring “the social democratic experience” the height of achievement. This conclusion brings into sharper relief why he is so insistent on seeing any attempt to move past capitalism as utopian.

What is the possible? A standard list of social democratic reforms, such as the “power to tax,” the power to pursue industrial policy and “monetary sovereignty,” offered as counters to European Union policy and centralization. Public ownership of infrastructure and banking is also put forth. These would be welcome reforms, but more than a century of working for reforms within capitalism rather than overcoming it has put the world in precisely the place it is today. Reforms can be won through social struggle, but once movements stand down, the reforms are taken back. Movements must aim higher.

If we believe the world can’t be better, that it can’t be meaningfully changed, that we have no choice other than tinkering around the edges as capitalism destroys the environment, then nothing will get better. Our conditions will actually get worse because there is no stasis. A better world is possible and speculating on what some basic concepts of a better world might look like is necessary if we are to get there. Giving up is not an option. Study of material conditions and the multitude of factors as to why predictions of capitalism’s demise have yet to come to pass — or, to put it in a better way, why capitalism has proven so resilient — are indispensable to achieving an understanding of our present and providing ourselves with the tools necessary to build the movement of movements, working across borders, that is the path toward any possible better world. Lamenting the weight of enlightenment thinking isn’t that route.

Foretelling the End of Capitalism is correct that there won’t be a sudden collapse of capitalism. If no social movement intervenes, capitalism has several more decades of life and would likely be followed by something worse, in a world of environmental disaster, rising seas and dwindling resources. Decades, not centuries — the present path of humanity is unsustainable. There is no substitute for a post-capitalist future, and the past need not dictate the future.

As always, the value of a book isn’t measured by whether we agree with everything in it. If Foretelling didn’t have much of interest to offer, I wouldn’t have written this essay. The question the book attempts to answer is a challenge that must be confronted because it is a question that remains all too relevant. But although the author in good faith sought to interrogate the predictions of the past to provide an understanding of today, he instead produced a cry of defeat and despair.

How the U.S. is able to dictate to the rest of the world

The United States government is able to impose its will on all the world’s countries. The rest of the world, even some of the strongest imperialist countries of the Global North, lie prostrate at the feet of the U.S. What is the source of this seemingly impregnable power? Which of course leads to the next question: How long can it last? 

The U.S. moves against any country that dares to act on a belief that its resources should be for its own people’s benefits rather than maximizing profits of multinational corporations or prioritizes the welfare of its citizens over corporate profit or simply refuses to accept dictation in how it should organize its economy. The military is frequently put to use, as are manipulation of the United Nations and the strong arms of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). But sanctions are a frequently used tool, enforced on countries, banks and corporations that have no presence in the U.S. and conduct business entirely outside the United States. The U.S. can impose its will on national governments around the world, using multilateral institutions to force governments to act in the interest of multinational capital, even when that is opposite the interests of the country itself or that country’s peoples. And when a country persists in refusing to bend to U.S. demands, sanctions imposing misery on the general population are unilaterally imposed and the rest of the world is forced to observe them.

In short, the U.S. government possesses a power that no country has ever held, not even Britain at the height of its empire. And that government, regardless of which party or what personality is in the White House or in control of Congress, is ruthless in using this power to impose its will.

This power is most often wielded within an enveloping shell of propaganda that claims the U.S. is acting in the interest of “democracy” and maintaining the “rule of law” so that business can be conducted in the interest of a common good. So successful has this propaganda been that this domination is called the “Washington Consensus.” Just who agreed to this “consensus” other than Washington political elites and the corporate executives and financial speculators those elites represent has never been clear. “Washington diktat” would be a more accurate name.

Much speculation among Left circles exists as to when this domination will be brought to an end, with many commentators believing that the fall of the U.S. dollar is not far off and perhaps China will become the new center of a system less imperialistic. On the Right, particularly in the financial industry, such speculation is far from unknown, although there of course the downfall of the dollar is feared. In financial circles, however, there is no illusion that the end of dollar supremacy in world economics is imminent.

There are only two possible challengers to U.S. dollar hegemony: The European Union’s euro and China’s renminbi. But the EU and China are very much subordinated to the dollar, and thus not in a position to counter U.S. dictates. Let’s start here, and then we’ll move on to the mechanics of U.S. economic hegemony over the world, which rests on the dollar being the global reserve currency and the leveraging of that status to control the world’s multilateral institutions and forcing global compliance with its sanctions.

Europe “helpless” in the face of U.S. sanctions

A February 2019 paper published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, discussing the inability of EU countries to counteract the Trump administration’s pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, flatly declared the EU “helpless”: “In trying to shield EU-based individuals and entities with commercial interests from its adverse impact, European policy-makers have recently been exposed as more or less helpless.”

The legislative arm of the EU, the European Parliament, was no more bullish. In a paper published in November 2020, the Parliament wrote this about U.S. extraterritorial sanctions: “[T]his bold attempt to prescribe the conduct of EU companies and nationals without even asking for consent challenges the EU and its Member States as well as the functioning and development of transatlantic relations. The extraterritorial reach of sanctions does not only affect EU businesses but also puts into question the political independence and ultimately the sovereignty of the EU and its Member States.”

No such open worries are going to be said in public by the Chinese government. But is China better prepared than the EU? Mary Hui, a Hong Kong-based business journalist, wrote in Quartz, “China is actually far more vulnerable to US sanctions than it will let on, even if the sanctions are aimed at individuals and not banks. That’s because the primary system powering the world’s cross-border financial transactions between banks, Swift, is dominated by the US dollar.” We’ll delve into this shortly. As a result of that domination, Ms. Hui wrote, “the US has outsize control over the machinery of international transactions—or, as the Economist put it, ‘America is uniquely well positioned to use financial warfare in the service of foreign policy.’ ”

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

In 2017, then U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin threatened China with sanctions that would cut it off from the U.S. financial system if it didn’t comply with fresh United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea in 2007; he had already threatened unilateral sanctions on any country that trades with North Korea if the United Nations didn’t apply sanctions on Pyongyang.

So neither Brussels or Beijing are in a position, at this time, to meaningfully challenge U.S. hegemony. That hegemony rests on multiple legs.

The world financial platform that the U.S. ultimately controls

The use (or, actually, abuse) of the two biggest multilateral financial institutions, the World Bank and the IMF, are well known. The U.S., as the biggest vote holder and through the rules set up for decision-making, carries a veto and thus imposes its will on any country that falls into debt and must turn to the World Bank or IMF for a loan. There also are the U.S.-controlled regional banks, such as the Asian Development Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, that impose U.S. dictates through the terms of their loans.

Also important as an institution, however, is a multilateral financial institution most haven’t heard of: The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, known as SWIFT. Based in Brussels, SWIFT is the primary platform used by the world’s financial institutions “to securely exchange information about financial transactions, including payment instructions, among themselves.” SWIFT says it is officially a member-owned cooperative with more than 11,000 member financial institutions in more than 200 countries and territories.

That sounds like it is a truly global entity. Despite that description, the U.S. holds ultimate authority over it and what it does. U.S. government agencies, including the CIA, National Security Agency and Treasury Department, have access to the SWIFT transaction database. Payments in U.S. dollars can be seized by the U.S. government even when the transaction is between two entities outside the U.S. And here we have a key to understanding.

The skyline of Beijing (photo by Picrazy2)

Beyond the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to acquire information is the status of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency, the foundation of the world capitalist system of which SWIFT is very much a component and thus subject to dictates the same as any other financial institution. What is a reserve currency? This succinct definition offered by the Council on Foreign Relations provides the picture:

“A reserve currency is a foreign currency that a central bank or treasury holds as part of its country’s formal foreign exchange reserves. Countries hold reserves for a number of reasons, including to weather economic shocks, pay for imports, service debts, and moderate the value of its own currency. Many countries cannot borrow money or pay for foreign goods in their own currencies—since much of international trade is done in dollars—and therefore need to hold reserves to ensure a steady supply of imports during a crisis and assure creditors that debt payments denominated in foreign currency can be made.”

The currency mostly used is the U.S. dollar, the Council explains:

“Most countries want to hold their reserves in a currency with large and open financial markets, since they want to be sure that they can access their reserves in a moment of need. Central banks often hold currency in the form of government bonds, such as U.S. Treasuries. The U.S. Treasury market remains by far the world’s largest and most liquid—the easiest to buy into and sell out of bond market[s].”

If you use dollars, the U.S. can go after you

Everybody uses the dollar because everybody else uses it. Almost two-thirds of foreign exchange reserves are held in U.S. dollars. Here’s the breakdown of the four most commonly held currencies, as of the first quarter of 2020:

  • U.S. dollar 62%
  • EU euro 20%
  • Japanese yen 4%
  • Chinese renminbi 2%

That 62 percent gives the U.S. government its power to not only impose sanctions unilaterally, but to force the rest of the world to observe them, in conjunction with the use of the dollar as the primary currency in international transactions. In some industries, it is almost the only currency used. To again turn to the Council on Foreign Relations explainer:

“In addition to accounting for the bulk of global reserves, the dollar is the currency of choice for international trade. Major commodities such as oil are primarily bought and sold using U.S. dollars. Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, still peg their currencies to the dollar. Factors that contribute to the dollar’s dominance include its stable value, the size of the U.S. economy, and the United States’ geopolitical heft. In addition, no other country has a market for its debt akin to the United States’, which totals roughly $18 trillion.

The dollar’s centrality to the system of global payments also increases the power of U.S. financial sanctions. Almost all trade done in U.S. dollars, even trade among other countries, can be subject to U.S. sanctions, because they are handled by so-called correspondent banks with accounts at the Federal Reserve. By cutting off the ability to transact in dollars, the United States can make it difficult for those it blacklists to do business.”

Sanctions imposed by the U.S. government are effectively extra-territorial because a non-U.S. bank that seeks to handle a transaction in U.S. dollars has to do so by clearing the transaction through a U.S. bank; a U.S. bank that cleared such a transaction would be in violation of the sanctions. The agency that monitors sanctions compliance, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), insists that any transaction using the dollar comes under U.S. law and thus blocking funds “is a territorial exercise of jurisdiction” wherever it occurs, even if no U.S. entities are involved. Even offering software as a service (or for download) from United States servers is under OFAC jurisdiction.

Two further measures of dollar dominance are that about half of all cross-border bank loans and international debt securities are denominated in U.S. currency and that 88 percent of all foreign-exchange transactions in 2019 involved the dollar on one side. That forex domination has remained largely unchanged; the figure was 87 percent in April 2003.

Dollar dominance cemented at end of World War II

The roots of the dollar as the global reserve currency go back to the creation of the Bretton Woods system in 1944 (named for the New Hampshire town where representatives of Allied and other governments met to discuss the post-war monetary system as victory in World War II drew closer). The World Bank and IMF were created here. To stabilize currencies and make it more difficult for countries to reduce the value of their currencies for competitive reasons (to boost exports), all currencies were pegged to the dollar, and the dollar in turn was convertible into gold at $35 an ounce. Thus the dollar became the center of the world financial system, which cemented U.S. dominance. 

By the early 1970s, the Nixon administration believed that the Bretton Woods monetary system no longer sufficiently advantaged the United States despite its currency’s centrality within the system cementing U.S. economic suzerainty. Because of the system of fixing the value of a U.S. dollar to the price of gold, any government could exchange the dollars it held in reserve for U.S. Treasury Department gold on demand. 

Rising world supplies of dollars and domestic inflation depressed the value of the dollar, causing the Treasury price of gold to be artificially low and thereby making the exchange of dollars for gold at the fixed price an excellent deal for other governments. The Nixon administration refused to adjust the value of the dollar, instead in 1971 pulling the dollar from the gold standard by refusing to continue to exchange foreign-held dollars for gold on demand. Currencies would now float on markets against each other, their values set by speculators rather than by governments, making all but the strongest countries highly vulnerable to financial pressure. 

“Imperialism is the real virus.” (photo by Paul Sableman from St. Louis)

The world’s oil-producing states dramatically raised oil prices in 1973. The Nixon administration eliminated U.S. capital controls a year later, encouraged oil producers to park their new glut of dollars in U.S. banks and adopted policies to encourage the banks to lend those deposited dollars to the South. But perhaps “encourage” is too mild a word. The economist and strong critic of imperialism Michael Hudson once wrote, “I was informed at a White House meeting that U.S. diplomats had let Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries know that they could charge as much as they wanted for their oil, but that the United States would treat it as an act of war not to keep their oil proceeds in U.S. dollar assets.”

Restrictions limiting cross-border movements of capital were opposed by multi-national corporations that had moved production overseas, by speculators in the new currency-exchange markets that blossomed with the breakdown of Bretton Woods and by neoliberal ideologues, creating decisive momentum within the U.S. for the elimination of capital controls. The ultimate result of these developments was to make the dollar even more central to world trade and thus further enhance U.S. control. Needless to say, bipartisan U.S. policy ever since has been to maintain this control.

U.S. sanctions in action: The cases of Cuba and Iran

Two examples of U.S. sanctions being applied extraterritorially are those imposed on Cuba and Iran. (There are many other examples, including that of Venezuela.) In the case of Cuba, any entity that conducts business with Cuba is barred from doing business in the U.S. or with any U.S. entity; foreign businesses that are owned by U.S. companies are strictly prohibited from doing any business with Cuba. Any company that had done business in Cuba must cease all activities there if acquired by a U.S. corporation. Several companies selling life-saving medical equipment and medicines to Cuba had to cease doing so when acquired by a U.S. corporation.

Meanwhile, U.S. embassy personnel have reportedly threatened firms in countries such as Switzerland, France, Mexico and the Dominican Republic with commercial reprisals unless they canceled sales of goods to Cuba such as soap and milk. Amazingly, an American Journal of Public Health report quoted a July 1995 written communication by the U.S. Department of Commerce in which the department said those types of sales contribute to “medical terrorism” on the part of Cubans! Well, many of us when we were, say, 5 years old might have regarded soap with terror, but presumably have long gotten over that. Perhaps Commerce employees haven’t.

The sanctions on Cuba have been repeatedly tightened over the years. Joy Gordon, writing in the Harvard International Law Journal in January 2016, provides a vivid picture of the difficulties thereby caused:

“The Torricelli Act [of 1992] provided that no ship could dock in the United States within 180 days of entering a Cuban port. This restriction made deliveries to Cuba commercially unfeasible for many European and Asian companies, as their vessels would normally deliver or take on shipments from the United States while they were in the Caribbean. The Torricelli Act also prohibited foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba. … The Helms-Burton Act, enacted in 1996, permitted U.S. nationals to bring suit against foreign companies that were doing business in Cuba and that owned properties that had been abandoned or confiscated after the revolution. Additionally, the Helms-Burton Act prohibited third-party countries from selling goods in the United States that contained any components originating in Cuba. This significantly impacted Cuba’s major exports, particularly sugar and nickel. 

[T]he shipping restrictions in the Torricelli Act have increased costs in several ways, such as Cuba sometimes having to pay for ships carrying imports from Europe or elsewhere to return empty because they cannot stop at U.S. ports to pick up goods. Shipping companies have partially responded by dedicating particular ships for Cuba deliveries; but in most cases, they tend to designate old ships in poor condition, which then leads to higher maritime insurance costs.”

The United Nations estimates that the cost of the embargo to Cuba has been about $130 billion.

However distasteful we find the religious fundamentalist government of Iran, U.S. sanctions, which are blunt weapons, have caused much hardship on Iranians. The same restrictions on Cuba apply to Iran. The Iranian government said in September 2020 that it has lost $150 billion since the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and that it is hampered from importing food and medicines.

The Trump administration’s renewed sanctions were imposed unilaterally and against the expressed policies of all other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. With those governments unable to restrain Washington, businesses from around the world pulled out to avoid getting sanctioned. EU countermeasures were ineffective — small fines didn’t outweigh far larger U.S. fines, European companies are subject to U.S. sanctions and favorable judgments in European courts are unenforceable in U.S. courts.

Sascha Lohmann, author of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs paper, wrote:

“Well ahead of the deadlines set by the Trump administration and absent any enforcement action, major European and Asian companies withdrew from the otherwise lucrative Iranian market. Most not­a­bly, this included [SWIFT,] which cut off most of the more than 50 Iranian banks in early November 2018, including the Central Bank of Iran, after they again became subject to U.S. financial sanctions. …  [T]he exodus of EU-based companies has revealed an inconvenient truth to European policy-makers, namely that those companies are effectively regulated in Washington, D.C. … [T]he secretary of the Treasury can order U.S. banks to close or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining of correspondent or payable-through accounts on behalf of a foreign bank, thereby closing down access to dollarized transactions — the ‘Wall Street equivalent of the death penalty.’ ”

The long arm of U.S. sanctions stretches around the world

The idea that sanctions can be the “Wall Street equivalent of the death penalty” is not a figment of the imagination. Two examples of sanctions against European multinational enterprises demonstrate this.

In 2015, the French bank BNP Paribas was given a penalty of almost $9 billion for violating U.S. sanctions by processing dollar payments from Cuba, Iran and Sudan. The bank also pleaded guilty to two criminal charges. These penalties were handed down in U.S. courts and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The chief executive officer of the bank told the court “we deeply regret the past misconduct.” The judge overseeing the case declared the bank “not only flouted U.S. foreign policy but also provided support to governments that threaten both our regional and national security,” a passage highlighted in the Department’s press release announcing the settlement.

Why would a French bank agree to these penalties and do so in such apologetic terms? And why would it accept the preposterous idea that Cuba represents any security threat to the U.S. or that a French bank is required to enforce U.S. foreign policy? As part of the settlement, Reuters reported, “regulators banned BNP for a year from conducting certain U.S. dollar transactions, a critical part of the bank’s global business.” And that gives us the clue. Had the bank not settled its case, it risked a permanent ban on access to the U.S. financial system, meaning it could not handle any deals denominated in dollars. Even the one-year ban could have triggered an exodus of clients in several major industries, including oil and gas.

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

This was completely an extraterritorial application of U.S. law. An International Bar Association summary of the case noted, “the transactions in question were not illegal under French or EU law. Nor did they fall foul of France’s obligations under the World Trade Organization or the United Nations; no agreements between France and the US were violated. But as they were denominated in dollars, the deals ultimately had to pass through New York and thus came under its regulatory authority.”

It does not take direct involvement in financial transactions to run afoul of the long arm of U.S. sanctions. A Swiss company, Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), was forced to agree to pay $8 million to settle allegations that it provided blacklisted airlines with “software and/or services that were provided from, transited through, or originated in the United States.” Among the actions punished were that SITA used software originating in the U.S. to track lost baggage and used a global lost-baggage tracing system hosted on servers in the United States. Retrieving baggage is a service most people would not consider a high crime.

Can the EU or China create an alternative?

Dropping the widespread use of the dollar and substituting one or more other currencies, and setting up alternative financial systems, would be the logical short-term path toward ending U.S. financial hegemony. The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, in a 2018 report, quoted the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, “We must increase Europe’s autonomy and sovereignty in trade, economic and financial policies. It will not be easy, but we have already begun to do it.” DW reported that the European Commission was developing a system parallel to SWIFT that would allow Iran to interface with European clearing systems with transactions based on the euro, but such a system never was put in place. In January 2021, as the new Biden administration took office, Iran dismissed it entirely, Bloomberg reported: “European governments have ‘no idea’ how to finance the conduit set up two years ago, known as Instex, and ‘have not had enough courage to maintain their economic sovereignty,’ the Central Bank of Iran said in comments on Twitter.” 

It would seem that Teheran’s dismissal is warranted. The European Parliament, in its paper on U.S. sanctions being imposed extraterritorially, could only offer liberal weak-tea ideas, such as “Encourage and assist EU businesses in bringing claims in international investor-state arbitration and in US courts; Complaints against extraterritorial measures in the [World Trade Organization].” Such prescriptions are unlikely to have anyone in Washington losing sleep.

What about China? Beijing has actually created a functioning alternative to the World Bank and IMF, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Just on the basis of the new bank representing a bad example (from Washington’s perspective), the U.S. government leaned heavily on Australia and other countries sufficiently firmly that Canberra initially declined to join the bank despite its initial interest, nor did Indonesia and South Korea, although all three did later join. There is a possibility of one-sidedness here, however, as China has by far the biggest share of the vote, 27 percent, dwarfing No. 2 India’s 7 percent, giving Beijing potential veto power. And with US$74 billion in capitalization (less than the goal of $100 billion set in 2014), it can’t realistically be a substitute for existing multilateral financial institutes.

China has also set up an alternative to SWIFT, the Cross-border Interbank Payment System (CIPS), a renminbi-denominated clearing and settlement system. CIPS says it has participants from 50 countries and regions, and processes US$19.4 billion per day. But that’s well less than one percent of the $6 trillion SWIFT handles daily. The Bank of China, the country’s central bank, is on the record of seeking an alternative to the dollar system so that it can evade any U.S. sanctions. “A good punch to the enemy will save yourself from hundreds of punches from your enemies,” a 2020 Bank of China report said. “We need to get prepared in advance, mentally and practically.” The report said if Chinese banks are deprived of access to dollar settlements, China should consider ceasing the use of the U.S. dollar as the anchor currency for its foreign exchange controls.

That is easier said than done — China holds $1.1 trillion in U.S. government debt issued by the U.S. Treasury Department. That total is second only to Japan, and Beijing’s holdings comprise 15 percent of all U.S. debt held by foreign governments. The South China Morning Post admits that China holds such large reserve assets of U.S. debt “largely due to its status as a ‘safe haven’ for investment during turbulent market conditions.” Although Beijing seeks an erosion of dollar dominance and fears that U.S. economic instability could result in another world economic downturn, its use of the safe haven is nowhere near at an end. “While it is clear that China is keen to lessen its dependence on US government debt, experts believe that Beijing is likely to continue buying US Treasuries, as there are few risk-free low cost substitutes,” the Morning Post wrote.

Coupled with the restrictions on renminbi conversion, Chinese institutions are today far from a position of challenging current global financial relations. The U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley recently predicted that the renminbi could represent five to 10 percent of foreign-exchange reserves by 2030, up from the current two percent. Although that would mean central banks around the world would increase their holdings of the Chinese currency, it would not amount to any real threat to dollar dominance.

No empire, or system, lasts forever

The bottom line question from all of the above is this: Will this U.S. dominance come to an end? Stepping back and looking at this question in a historical way tells us that the answer can only be yes, given that there has been a sequence of cities that have been the financial center. Centuries ago, the seat of a small republic such as Venice could be the leading financial center on the strength of its trading networks. Once capitalism took hold, however, the financial center was successively located within a larger federation that possessed both a strong navy and a significant fleet of merchant ships (Amsterdam); then within a sizeable and unified country with a large enough population to maintain a powerful navy and a physical presence throughout an empire (London); and finally within a continent-spanning country that can project its economic and multi-dimensional military power around the world (New York). 

No empire, whatever its form, lasts forever. But knowledge of the sequence of capitalist centers tells us nothing of timing. Each successive new financial locus was embedded in successively larger powers able to operate militarily over larger areas and with more force. What then could replace the U.S.? The European Union has its effectiveness diluted by the many nationalisms within its sphere (and thus nationalism acts as a weakening agent for the EU whereas it is a strengthening agent for the U.S. and China). China’s economy is yet too small and retains capital controls, and its currency, the renminbi, isn’t fully convertible. U.S. Treasury bills remain the ultimate safe haven, as shown when investors poured into U.S. debt during crises such as the 2008 collapse, even when events in the U.S. are the trigger.

There are no other possible other contenders, and both the EU and China, as already discussed, are in no position to seriously challenge U.S. hegemony.

Here we have a collision of possibilities: The transcending of capitalism and transition to a new economic system or the decreasing functionality of the world capitalist system should it persist for several more decades. Given the resiliency of capitalism, and the many tools available to it (not least military power), the latter scenario can’t be ruled out although it might be unlikely. Making any prediction on the lifespan of capitalism is fraught with difficulty, not least because of the many predictions of its collapse for well over a century. But capitalism as a system requires infinite growth, quite impossible on a finite planet and all the more dire given there is almost no place on Earth remaining into which it can expand.

Although we can’t know what the expiration date of capitalism will be, it will almost certainly be sometime in the current century. But it won’t be followed by something better without a global movement of movements working across borders with a conscious aim of bringing a better world into being. In the absence of such movements, capitalism is likely to hang on for decades to come. In that scenario, what country or bloc could replace the U.S. as the center? And would we want a new center to dictate to the rest of the world? In a world of economic democracy (what we can call socialism) where all nations and societies can develop in their own way, in harmony with the environment and without the need to expand, and with production done for human need rather than corporate profit, there would no global center or hegemon and no need for one. Capitalism, however, can’t function without a center that uses financial, military and all other means to keep itself in the saddle and the rest of the world in line.

Yes, the day of U.S. dethronement will come, as will the end of capitalism. But the former is not going to happen any time soon, however much millions around the world wish that to be so, and the latter is what we should be working toward. A better world is possible; a gentler and kinder capitalism with a different center is not.