The sixth presidential council of the World Federation of Trade Unions is meeting in Johannesburg from February 9 to 12 at a time when billions of the wretched of the Earth are going through the blast furnace of the deepest and widest global capitalist crisis in generations.
What appeared as a financial sector meltdown from 2007 to 2009 has morphed into a severe sovereign-debt crisis in marginal European countries that is now engulfing the core eurozone economies. “Theoretical capitalism”, that is, neoliberalism, is now moribund and existing capitalism is stagnating across the imperial triad of North America, Europe and Japan. Elected governments are toppled from above by monopoly finance capital, replaced by technocrats in Greece and Italy, and the spectre of a second Great Depression, invoked by the impending default of Greece, haunts us all.
Meanwhile, our misplaced optimism and even delusions about the economic “decoupling” of China and its Brics bedfellows (Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa) from this mess have been fanciful. The sweeping global character of this crisis reveals the dialectical iron law of the uneven and combined development of global capitalism in operation: no part of the globe, including China, is immune. Protests, strikes and riots in China have more than doubled since 2005.
The crisis has already lasted longer than the 1930s slump. The 2009-2010 stimulus packages have tapered off and the resultant socioeconomic crisis is assuming a political character in many countries. This shows the qualitatively and systemically different nature of the present crisis, as illustrated by its indifference to the traditional Keynesian demand stimulants. All we can see is the continuation of a long-term trend of declining profitability in the Western productive economy, which is feeding a volatile financialisation of capital. The declining share of the working class in the national income is causing too little consumption, which even the historically low interest rates and Federal Reserve chairperson Ben Bernanke’s “quantitative easing” in the United States are failing to ameliorate. Thus, with the income levels of workers frozen or declining in real terms, the resultant mass indebtedness remains toxic.
It seems that global capitalism is approaching its limits, both economically and ecologically. It can be argued that the mass protests in the West indicate a potential political crisis ahead. Indeed, capital has only one way out of this crisis and that is by destroying value — the shutdowns and mass retrenchments are an act of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” and its austerity attacks on public-service workers and vulnerable sections of poor communities are shifting the crisis to the working class. Such traditional, temporary ruling-class remedies are disabusing working people and the youth of their illusions about the American dream and social-market Europe as they come to terms with the structural adjustment measures the poor of the global South suffered in the 1980s and 1990s.
At this historical moment, the workers of the world, under the umbrella of the world federation, are looking for answers from the presidential council meeting. Their rising militancy in Europe and parts of the US (the refreshing youth-led 99% movement) and the struggling masses of Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and others have already had a huge impact on global politics.
For the world federation, as a radical and class-oriented global trade union movement, this crisis calls for building a militant workers’ movement in workplaces, especially in the West, where the class-collaborationist International Trade Union Federation is committed to social peace at all costs. This trade-union federation has neglected the organisational strength of workers on the ground.
Addressing the low union densities in these countries must be linked to international solidarity struggles resisting austerity and imperial wars for energy resources in the Middle East, and the Western and Chinese scramble for African primary commodities. We must enhance class and political consciousness in favour of socialism. Capitalism is in crisis — a cyclical crisis rather than a terminal one.
The neoliberal regime of accumulation has failed to resolve the crisis of social-democratic accumulation between 1945 and 1975. The symbiotic relationship of “state capitalism” (of the Brics and the developmental state of the global South) and the imperial triad compels working-class platforms such as this presidential council to reinvent socialism and reconsider how to structure its revolution in the 21st century.
Fikile Majola is the general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union