The Coming Catastrophe

Amar Kant

Government officials are desperately seeking light at the end of the tunnel. People are continually told the rate of increase of infection and deaths is declining in Italy and Spain, but still the corpses pile up alarmingly. In three weeks, Donald Trump has gone from saying it's all under control in America to saying the US is likely to experience 240,000 deaths. Now the United Nations says this is the worst crisis facing humanity since the Second World War. No-one knows how long periodic lockdown and economic disruption will last. The feeling that this is a judgement on austerity and neo-liberalism is widespread, on the Left and beyond. It seems self-evident that the rundown of health and other public services has hobbled the medical fight back, as has the extreme reluctance of the American and Western governments to disrupt economies by early testing, tracking, and containing.

For one thing, the roots of this crisis go deeper and the implications for the system are much more profound than the loss of several months' production and some tens of thousands of deaths. This corona crisis is triggering the third major crisis of human civilisation in the last century. The first major capitalist calamity was the First World War and its aftermath, roughly 1914-23, the product of the insane attempt to solve inter-imperialist rivalries by industrialised warfare. It resulted in millions of deaths, economic collapse in Western and Central Europe, an international flu pandemic which also killed millions, and of course a revolutionary wave, especially in Russia, Germany, and Hungary.

The second major crisis was from 1929 to 1945, from the Wall Street crash and the 1930s slump to the end of the Second World War, in which more than 50 million lives were lost. That crisis was of course occasioned by the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan. This third crisis is the consequence of the social effects of neoliberal globalisation, and encompasses not only the coronavirus catastrophe, but the mushrooming environmental cataclysm and the imminent collapse of a stagnating global economy based on debt, manic consumption, and soaring inequality. If this multiple crisis is disastrous and prolonged, as seems inevitable, it is likely to produce huge shifts in world politics. The people across the world are at a point of no return and the final outcome is devastation for world capitalism not the working class.

In the coming days many thousands of old and poor people will get the disease, and then just stay at home and die.

The last 12 months have been symbolic of the climate emergency facing humanity. In Australia, record wild-fires choked most of the big cities, as the flames destroyed hundreds of homes and killed dozens. Record wild-fires also occurred in Russia and Brazil. The United States suffered from bouts of chaotic extreme weather that also killed scores of people. This included the 'Polar Vortex' in January 2019, which crashed temperatures to as low as -56º C, unprecedented flooding of the Plains and MidWest in July, and a deadly heatwave also in July and responsible for many deaths. The nearby Bahamas were smashed into by Hurricane Dorian, one the most destructive on record. These weather events were superimposed on a background of perhaps the most threatening consequences of climate change–the melting of the glaciers and polar caps and rising sea levels. In January 2020, 11,000 scientists published a statement warning that the world's people face 'untold suffering due to the climate crisis' unless there are 'major transformations to global society'. 'We declare clearly and unequivocally that Planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,' their declaration states. 'To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.' The environmental crisis is not just linked to the corona crisis because it is happening at the same time. Deforestation, the destruction of traditional ecosystems, the spread of intensive factory farming controlled by giant agribusiness firms, the growth of filthy, overcrowded slum cities alongside, with minimal infrastructure, sanitation, and public-health provision, this creates the perfect environment for the generation and spread of new and more deadly virus epidemics.

The advent of the corona crisis sent the world's financial markets into a spin, demonstrating their extreme sensitivity to interruptions to immediate profit streams. This in turn reflects the fact that neoliberal austerity has failed to cure the underlying causes of the 2007/8 crisis; indeed, the cure–massive injections of debt into the system in the form of 'quantitative easing'–has only worsened the underlying crisis.

Companies are also addicted to expanding their operations through bank debt. Banks are only too willing to issue debt because this boosts their 'assets' and their revenue streams in the form of interest. But once there is a significant interruption to production and consumption, the ability of debtors to repay, and thence the value of debts, is put in question. This is exactly what happened in 2007/8, when the 'subprime' mortgage debt mountain turned out to be worthless. The system offers nothing but increasing human misery and ecological breakdown. It is historically redundant, utterly parasitic, and must be destroyed. The Far Left must rise to the challenge of the neoliberal catastrophe–or the Far Right will fill the space. The Covid-19 is creating millions of desperate people, made unemployed or just deprived of work, unable to access creaking welfare systems or just not covered by them–for example, the huge number of people reliant on the 'informal' economy in Italy and Spain. Economic desperation is likely to lead to a rise in criminality, violence, and social unrest. Who will organise it? Who will lead it? The Far Right or the Far Left?

(The piece was written in March, 2020)

Vol. 53, No. 29, Jan 17 - 23, 2021