Global finance capital has seized control of the economies of most nation-states. The citizens watch, helplessly, as money and goods are transferred with little regulation across borders. They watch as jobs in manufacturing and the professions are shipped to regions of the global south where most workers are paid a dollar or less an hour and receive no benefits. They watch as the taxes of the rich and corporations are slashed, often to zero. They watch as austerity programs dismantle or privatize utilities and basic social services, jacking up fees to consumers. They watch as chronic unemployment and underemployment devastate workers, especially the young. They watch as wages stagnate or decline, leaving working men and women with unsustainable debts.
This economic tyranny lies at the root of the unrest in Hong Kong, India, Chile, France, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon as well as the rise of right-wing demagogues and false prophets such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It does not matter whether liberals or conservatives, Tories or Labour, Republicans or Democrats are in power. Finance capital is impervious to political control. The newly defeated Labour Party in Britain, by adopting a Brexit-neutral stance in the election, badly misread the zeitgeist. Yes, its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had to contend with hysterical warnings of economic collapse and endured a smear campaign—amplified by a media mouthing the accusations of his Tory opponents—that included claims he was a threat to national security and an anti-Semite, but his and Labour’s failure to appreciate how desperate workers were for a solution, even one growing out of magical thinking about the promise of Brexit, was a mistake.
Brexit is not a realistic alternative to economic tyranny. But it at least offers a hope, however unfounded, of shattering the bonds of corporate power. It posits itself as a weapon in the war between the insiders and the outsiders. That this desperate hope by the outsiders is peddled by con artists and charlatans such as Johnson and Trump is part of the sickness of our age, an echo of the economic distortions and right-wing populism that saw fascists rise to power in Italy and Germany in the first part of the 20th century.
Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Exxon Mobile, Walmart, Apple and Amazon are the modern versions of the East India Company or La Compagnie Française de l’Orient et de la Chine. These and others among today’s global corporations, with the assistance of the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, have created unassailable monopolies and effectively hollowed out many nation-states, both physically and culturally. Forlorn, derelict urban wastelands, populated by the bitterly dispossessed, are as common in France or Britain as they are in America’s Rust Belt. Governments, captive to corporate control, have been prostituted to transfer wealth upward, swell corporate profits and crush dissent at the expense of democracy.
The decay and rupture of the social bonds that once held our societies together have unleashed the dark pathologies of opioid, alcohol and gambling addictions and led to an explosion of hate crimes and mass shootings, along with suicide. Social control provided by work, civic and political participation—bonds that integrated us into our communities and gave us a sense of place, dignity and agency—has been handed over to a heavily militarized police, a massive prison system and a judicial system complicit in abolishing basic rights, including due process and privacy.
So, to steal a line from Vladimir Lenin, what is to be done? Can a reformist political candidate, a Bernie Sanders or perhaps an Elizabeth Warren—although I question the authenticity of Warren—defeat Trump and the retrograde forces that empower him? Or will the U.S. reformers suffer Corbyn’s fate? In short, can the system be reformed from the inside? Or will we have to take to the streets, as the people are doing in Chile, Lebanon, France, Hong Kong and elsewhere, to demand the overthrow of corporate rule?
The left, even under Corbyn, is not ready to speak in revolutionary language. Revolutionary rhetoric within the political system has been adopted by the neofascists and the hard right. The Brexit debate is about blowing up the system, not working within it. Those who support Brexit and Johnson will, like those who support Trump, be betrayed. But the language employed by Johnson and Trump is about destruction, and this yearning for destruction runs deep among the working class. The tragedy is that by backing these demagogues the public is complicit in its own enslavement.
Extinction Rebellion, which I support, is attempting to counter this corporate assault and the consequent ecocide with revolutionary language and sustained civil disobedience designed to make governance impossible. I hope Extinction Rebellion will gain enough popular support to raise a strong barrier before the corporate state starts employing the brute force outlined in Operation Yellowhammer, the six-page British government plan that calls for the possible deployment of 50,000 regular and reserved troops and 10,000 riot police to cope with the unrest that might be caused by food and medical shortages following Britain’s departure from the European Union.
The violent suppression of protesters in France, Chile, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, India and Hong Kong is already underway, a window into what may be coming to England, the United States and other countries that attempt to throw off the yoke of corporate oppression.
The corporate state loathes the political left, but the American political left, by agreeing to operate within the constrained and largely rigged electoral system, is easily neutered, as liberalism was this year in Britain and was in 2016—and will be in 2020—in the United States. America’s Democratic Party leadership, as hostile to its progressive candidates as many in the Labour Party hierarchy in Britain were to Corbyn, employed a series of measures to prevent Sanders from obtaining the nomination in 2016. They included a superdelegates scheme, the use of hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate money, iron control of the Democratic National Committee and blocking those registered as independents from voting in Democratic primaries. Politicians such as Sanders and Corbyn are easily dispatched.
But while the corporate state detests political mavericks such as Sanders and Corbyn, it both hates and fears the revolutionary left. The revolutionary left speaks an unvarnished truth about corporate power and calls out the entire political ruling class for its complicity. It is not interested in accommodation. It seeks to disrupt and paralyze the corporate state. When many thousands, as in Hong Kong, take to the streets shouting slogans like “There are no rioters, only a tyrannical regime” and “It was you who taught me that peaceful marches are useless,” the corporate ruling elites begin to worry. This is why populist leaders, including Eric Drouet of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, in France, are arrested. It is why Roger Hallam, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, spent six weeks in jail this fall in Britain. It is why Edward Leung is serving a six-year prison sentence on charges of rioting and assaulting a police officer during the 2016 Fishball Revolution in Hong Kong. Revolutionaries refuse to play by the rules.
These global revolutionary movements embody a resurrection of the concept of the common good, the belief that a society should be structured around caring for all its members, especially the most vulnerable. They are forces of solidarity, even community. They understand, as the economist Karl Polanyi wrote, that there are two kinds of freedoms. There are the bad freedoms to exploit those around us and extract huge profits without regard to the common good. And there are the good freedoms—freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of meeting, freedom of association, freedom to choose one’s job—that the bad freedoms destroy. The bad freedoms, championed by an atomized, hyper-individualistic consumer culture, which kneels before the cult of the self, have triumphed. The death grip of the ruling elites was illustrated in recent days in Madrid, where world leaders refused during COP25—the United Nations’ conference on climate change—to take meaningful action to halt the climate emergency, an existential threat to humankind.
The bankrupt ideologies of globalization and neoliberalism, formulated and used to justify the consolidation of wealth and power as well as the ecocide that is devastating the planet, have, however, lost their credibility. Neoliberalism, the idea that once regulations on corporations and trade barriers are lifted and taxes slashed, a society will prosper, was always an absurdity. None of its promises could be defended by the history and theory of economics. Concentrating wealth in the hands of a global oligarchic elite—eight families now hold as much wealth as 50 percent of the world’s population—while demolishing government controls and regulations, sending production to the global south, privatizing public services and destroying labor unions does not distribute wealth. Allowing global speculators to use money lent to them by the government at virtually zero percent interest to buy back their stock does not distribute wealth. Permitting corporations to engage in structured asset destruction through inflation, to strip assets through mergers and acquisitions, to raise the levels of debt incumbency to enforce debt peonage on the public, to engage in corporate fraud that includes the dispossession of assets, does not distribute wealth. The raiding of pension funds, credit and stock manipulations and looting the U.S. Treasury when the bubbles and Ponzi schemes evaporate does not distribute wealth. Such actions funnel wealth to those at the top. They create enormous income inequality and monopoly power. They fuel discontent and political extremism. They make the planet uninhabitable for most species. They destroy democracy.
But economic rationality was never the point. The point was the restoration of class power. Neoliberalism transforms freedom for the many into freedom for the few. The idiocy of the intellectual gurus who sold us this ideology—Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand—should have exposed the con from the beginning, but they were given ample platforms, while their critics, the old Keynesians, were pushed out and silenced. Freedom became equated with freedom of market forces to do anything the capitalists wanted. And that freedom doomed us and looks set to doom the ecosystem on which we depend for life. Karl Marx in volume one of “Capital” explained over a century ago how freedom of the market always results in social inequality.
The loss of credibility of the reigning ideology has led the ruling elites to forge an alliance with right-wing, neofascist demagogues such as Trump and Johnson who employ the tropes of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, bigotry and misogyny to channel the public’s growing rage and frustration away from the corporate elites and toward the vulnerable. These demagogues accelerate the pillage. They accelerate the hatred, racism and violence that act as a diversion. And they accelerate the social unrest that becomes the excuse for the imposition of tyranny. Hope lies in the streets. Millions of people in Hong Kong, India, Chile, France, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon understand. It is time to join them.