Preparing for the year 2014 gave historians a lot of work to do. The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 called forth many books on the character, origins, and consequences of this explosion of violence when the ‘lamps were going out all over Europe’. The war put an end to a long period of peace and dynamic capitalist growth in Europe and opened the age of total war and internal crisis. It had destroyed millions of lives – ten million soldiers and seven million civilians dead and twenty million casualties. It also destroyed the optimism which had underpinned the bourgeois philosophy of reason since the Enlightenment. It ended with the breakdown of huge empires, which in the nineteenth century had still dominated world history: Russia’s czarist empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Austrian Habsburg Empire. Proletarian revolutions at the end of the war – following the example of the Russian October Revolution – opened a new age of class struggle and system confrontation between the Soviet Union and the leading capitalist states. The wave of reactionary counterrevolutions against socialism and communism culminated in Germany’s fascist terrorist regime after 1933, which successfully prepared a new war to make good the defeat of German imperialism in 1918. The self-destruction and decline of Europe – including the British Empire – continued until the end of the Second World War. The USA, which had begun its rise to world power at the end of the nineteenth century, was one of the winners of the First World War. In the years until its entry into the Second World War (against Japan and Germany) in 1941 its economic and financial dominance within the capitalist world had steadily grown.
The ‘Age of Catastrophe’ (Eric Hobsbawm), which lasted from 1914 to 1945, characterised the first half of the twentieth century as an epoch of wars, revolutions, and economic crisis – an epoch which raised the aspirations of socialists all over the world. The overcoming of capitalism and bourgeois class society and the end of colonialism and imperialism all seemed to be realistic goals; victory over counter-revolution seemed possible. The future might belong to socialism – such was the mood. Yet the horror of crimes committed in this period not only agonised the survivors of the concentration camps and of the Holocaust but also the victims of the urban bombings in Europe and the explosion of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition, the future of socialism was burdened by the crimes of Stalinism.
Politicians commemorating this centenary of the ancient killing fields always emphasise the fact that former enemies became allies and friends after 1945 and remain so today. The brutal lessons of the two wars were, so they say, converted into the politics of European and Atlantic integration. However, in reality it was the pressure of the Cold War and US dominance that pushed forward Western European integration projects following the Marshal Plan. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the European Union (EU) was celebrated by its leaders as an extremely successful project to integrate the economic and political potential of the member states into a powerful empire on the way to global power – a particular kind of empire (so they claim) characterised by economic welfare and the peaceful management of interstate and international relations, an empire which might encourage other regions of the world still dominated by war and poverty to follow the European model.
Especially in Germany, however, public references to 1914 reveal a new dimension reflecting new conflicts and power structures of the international order of the early twenty-first century; that is, Germany claims economic and political leadership of the EU. The German government has declared the end of a period of restraint in foreign and security policy, which was a reaction to the crimes committed by Germany in the two world wars resulting in restrictions on German foreign policy imposed by the Allies after 1945. In 2014 two bestsellers on 1914 dominated public debate in Germany. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Herfried Münkler’s The Great War both suggest that Germany cannot be blamed for the outbreak of the war in 1914, with all its consequences lasting until 1945. They conclude that German policy today should no longer be restricted through Germany’s acceptance of guilt. In the end, this change is to some extent a natural result of reality itself, which seems to be falling back into the pre-history of interimperialist rivalry in the run-up to the First World War. Journalists deplore that the ‘ghosts of war’ have returned by way of the Near East and North Africa to Ukraine where a new power confrontation between ‘Putin’s Russia’ and ‘the West’ or NATO is bringing the world to the brink of another Great War. The ‘hot breath of history’ is blowing again through Europe.
At the end of the war in May 1945 – in East Asia in August – widespread hope was expressed all over the world that a new, a better world could now be built upon the ruins of war – a new world of peace, social justice, democracy, and liberty. On 26 June 1945 in San Francisco the founding Charter of the United Nations was signed by representatives of 51 states, including the United States and the Soviet Union. Its preamble declared:
WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
In December 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations ratified the General Declaration of Human Rights. It affirmed classical human rights, referring in Article 1 to the tradition of the 1789 French Revolution (‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’) and added articles in which social rights – including the right to work, to social security, and to health and education – were seen as universal. Together with the conflict resolution mechanism invested in the Security Council, and other instruments of intervention, these declarations constituted a frame of reference for the building of a better world beyond imperialist rivalries, beyond the excessive power politics of national states, beyond colonial exploitation and discrimination, and beyond fascist and racist ideologies open to violence and war based upon different concepts of inequality between people.1 As these declarations were signed by the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union, the leaders of the capitalist West and the socialist East, they offered at least a historical possibility that the new world of peace and social justice might be built within the frame of a global Anti-Hitler-Coalition around the United States and the Soviet Union, which had worked successfully since 1941 to bring down fascism and German and Japanese imperialism.
Yet, this ‘open window’ in history articulated neither Hegel’s Weltgeist nor any objective laws of progress governing the history of humanity. History is always made by social actors and forces; thus the situation in 1945 articulated a global relationship of class forces which was the result of class struggles within states and of the war between states. While the First World War had been a clash between imperialist states, the Second World War was, at least according to the politics and ideology of German fascism – a war on three fronts, to restore the power of German imperialism against its imperial rivals in the West, and to destroy socialism and communism not only at home but also through a war against the Soviet Union. Finally the extinction of the Jews in Europe (‘the holocaust’) was the project of a race war combined with economic motives directed towards the expropriation of Jews in Germany and in the occupied states and the opening of ‘lebensraum’ for German colonists in Eastern Europe.
The declarations and programmes for reconstruction after the war in the spirit of antifascism, democracy, social justice, and peace reflected the reality that the communist state in the East and the socialist and communist workingclass movements in the West – its parties and trade unions – had, often in coalition with bourgeois democratic forces, contributed to the victory over fascism. The first post-war governments in Western Europe – even in the occupied zones of Germany – were coalition governments supported by socialist or communist parties. The biggest of them sent their presidents into government: Maurice Thorez in France, Minister of Charles de Gaulle, and Palmiro Togliatti in Italy, member of the government of General Badoglio who in 1944 had led the coup against Mussolini. The constitutions of the immediate post-war period reflected this strong influence of the left; besides the declarations of human rights and the establishment of representative democracy they granted basic social rights as well as elements of economic democracy (workers’ councils and co-determination in industry). Parliaments in different countries passed laws by which the steel and mining industries, but also large parts of the financial sector, were socialised; elements of the welfare state including public health and pension systems were introduced and expanded during the following years. Never before or since has socialism been as strong in the world. The Chinese revolution was approaching victory in 1949; anticolonial movements (for instance in India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Korea) had not only weakened the old colonial metropolis in Europe, especially Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, but also anticipated the collapse of the colonialist system.
This ‘spring of hope’ did not last very long. The window of opportunity was closed with the transition to the Cold War, which at least since 1948 was separating the old allies of the Anti-Hitler-Coalition, internationally and nationally. The ‘Iron Curtain’ separated the two camps, each led by a super-power: the US in the West and the Soviet Union in the East. The First and the Second Worlds covered the northern half of the globe. The Third World, the periphery in the South, was characterised by struggles for national independence against colonialism and imperialism and for socioeconomic development, however over-determined by the underlying frontlines in world power and politics: capitalism against state socialism. The systems were antagonistic. Private property and representative democracy in the West, state property and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, or ‘socialist democracy’, in the East were the basic elements defining ideological warfare: ‘freedom and democracy’ against ‘socialism and anti-imperialism’. Permanent ideological warfare between the systems stabilised power within each of them by legitimising measures of suppression or the persecution of inner opposition.
Communists in the capitalist states, who did not renounce their solidarity with the Soviet Union, were banned and made illegal or severely discriminated against and controlled by secret services. Equally isolated during the climax of tensions between the blocs were independent socialists, in Western Europe for instance, who did not adapt to the climate of confrontation and who opposed the politics of the Cold War and NATO (accepted by the majority of social democrats) and practiced solidarity with the Third World movements. They supported policies of disarmament and détente by opening talks with representatives of the socialist countries in the East, which were initiated in the 1960s. Until then, public opinion had been characterised by the overwhelming presence of anticommunism denouncing communism (and socialism) as aggressive and totalitarian, as regimes of poverty and suppression of the masses. Especially in Germany – where the Iron Curtain divided the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic, and also divided Berlin where the wall was constructed by the GDR in August of 1961 – anti-communism was a kind of state doctrine that put pressure on social democracy and the political, trade-union, cultural, and academic left, criminalising the Communist Party.
In Germany, post-war anti-communism built a bridge between fascist ideology, supported until 1945 by large parts of the population, and the new ideology of ‘Americanism’. Time and again the confrontation between the systems approached the brink of real war. Waves of mass protest in the GDR (1953), Hungary and Poland (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968) provoked calls in the West for interventions; in Berlin (1961) and Cuba (1962) tanks and missiles were directed against each other. In the imperialist wars in the Third World (especially in Vietnam in the 1960s and ‘70s) both superpowers and their allies were engaged in supplying the adversaries with weapons and political support (until in Vietnam the US intervened directly, practicing a particularly brutal form of warfare). Within the systems, such crises bringing them to the edge of hot war strengthened the positions of the ruling regimes, although there were massive protests at home, for instance in France against the war in Algeria in the 1950s as well as in the US against its war in Vietnam.
This ‘Third World War’ – with huge numbers of victims at the periphery – was mainly determined by the logic of atomic armament, which threatened any aggressor with total destruction. The super powers controlled the strategic weapons based on long-distance missiles; the armament race produced ever more effective systems of destruction and defence, raising the costs of the military sector. ‘Warfare capitalism’ – especially in the US – was undergirded by a ‘military-industrial-scientific-complex’ dominating not only the economy but also state apparatuses and the institutions of science and technology. In the Soviet Union, the military sector – with its high-technology departments (missiles, space technology, and computers) – was strictly separated from an economy with low productivity. Military investment by the state, enforced by the arms race between the super powers withdrew resources fundamental for the modernisation of the economy and the improvement of the living standards of citizens. The arms race pushed forward by the West was part of the general warfare to bring down the Soviet Union and socialism. In the 1980s – under Ronald Reagan as US President and Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the CPSU – this strategy scored its ultimate success.
The Cold War ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘system of socialist states’ in Eastern Europe. Yet history did not follow a straight and uniform line. In the 1960s and ‘70s the power structure of world politics as well as the internal relationship of social and political forces within the developed capitalist countries was challenged by new social movements and class struggles. Internationally, the victories of anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles (in Algeria, Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Vietnam), the formation of a bloc of non-aligned countries in the United Nations, many of them with a socialist orientation, and the relative stabilisation of the socialist countries around the Soviet Union, which extended its military position (China instead fell into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution), indicated a slight shift in the global power relations in favour of the socialist bloc. The internal situation of the developed capitalist countries was characterised by first signs of decline within the post-war economic ‘Golden Age’, at the same time revealing social contradictions within these countries (for instance poverty in the US mostly based in the black community).
The cultural revolution which started in the late 1950s, with Rock’n Roll and then the Beatles, extended to universities and other institutions of education and culture at the end of the 1960s, producing a new generation of young intellectuals now fighting for institutional transformations within the educational and cultural system. Some of them were inspired by Che Guevara, Mao, and Third World Revolution. Although this wave of ultra-radical protest collapsed after a few years, considerable sections of the younger generations were engaged during the 1970s in left parties, trade unions, and the new social movements. At the same time, Western Europe was shaken by a wave of working-class strikes (and not only in France, Italy, and Britain). Trade unions grew stronger, even in the area of political issues, for example enlarging workers control and economic democracy and reform in the education and social policy systems. The political system shifted to the left. Social democratic and communist parties (especially in France and Italy) increased membership and votes in general elections; they formed alliances oriented towards left governments. In Portugal after 1974 the left wing of the army was in the forefront of a revolution which not only brought down the regime of Salazar but was dedicated to socialist goals supported by a strong communist party. In Chile, Salvador Allende and a coalition of parties proclaimed a new road to parliamentary socialism until it was crushed by General Pinochet’s military coup in September 1973. In Greece, Portugal, and Spain the left played a leading role in the overthrow of fascist and authoritarian regimes; ‘Eurocommunism’ in Italy, France, and Spain presented itself as an ideology independent of Soviet leadership and as a programme for transforming developed capitalist societies in the West by enlarging democracy. The social movements of the 1970s raised new political issues for the left: the ecological and the gender questions and a new concept of political self-determination beyond the traditional arenas of party and parliamentary politics. The Green parties which grew out of these movements of the 1970s originally joined the bloc of progressive forces engaged in direct democracy, criticising the American Empire, the model of industrial capitalism, and the politics of neocolonialism. They were later integrated into governments and became part of the political class.
‘1968’ even spread to socialist countries of Central Europe – in Poland and especially in Czechoslovakia large movements of workers and students opened a radical transformation within the governing communist party itself, which broke with Stalinist traditions and began to accept democracy within the party and within society. The military intervention of Warsaw Pact troupes crushed this experiment in socialist democracy, which was perhaps the last opportunity for a reform of the communist systems in the tradition of 1917 from within. Ten years later, the crisis in Poland was the overture to the final breakdown of state socialism. From now on, the decline of the economy together with discontent among growing parts of the population with political control from above, low standards of consumption, and restrictions of personal freedom could not be stopped. In Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union nationalist tendencies were an expression of these contradictions.
Still, international peace policy continued, following the first steps of détente and negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union after the Cuban crisis in 1962.
Europe – and especially Germany after Willy Brandt and social democracy came into government in 1966 and in 1969 – in the 1970s was the centre of negotiations and treaties on the German Question (including the recognition of the GDR) and on Security, Peace, and Cooperation in Europe. Between 1973 and 1975 in Helsinki nearly thirty European countries – together with the US, Canada, and the Soviet Union – came to an agreement that included the following principles: the inviolability of the existing borders, peaceful regulation of conflicts, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and respect for human rights and basic liberties. The Helsinki Conference and its results were an alternative to the aggressive politics of the Cold War aimed at the defeat of the enemy. Still today, it may teach us how rational politics – on the basis of severely contradictory positions and interests – may reduce the danger of war and nuclear armaments. At the same time it may open the way for internal social and political reforms which are not dictated by the climate of mutual threat and ideological warfare.
Ever since the early 1970s the dynamic forces of economic growth within the developed capitalist countries of the West have been exhausting themselves; the explosion of oil prices after 1972 was only one factor determining reduced growth rates. Economic stagnation and inflation were characteristics of the Western economies. At the same time, unemployment was continuously growing. The end of the ‘Golden Age’ was in the air. With the end of the Bretton Woods system, which had since 1944 fixed global currency rates of exchange (in the West) under the leadership of the US dollar and the Fed, the US in 1973 pursued national-interest policies connected to the stability of the US dollar and the attractiveness of the American financial markets. Conservative and liberal political forces, which were afraid of class struggle and of a further shift to the left, from now on opted for a fundamental change in economic and social policies at home. Situated within the ideological ‘counter-revolution’ against Keynesian policies, which was led by the ‘Chicago Boys’ around Milton Friedman and oriented to Friedrich Hayek, politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan waged a battle against the working class and the left, but also against state intervention policies. Neoliberal political economy ‘proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework to such practises’.2 Socialism, the welfare state, and militant trade unions were blamed for economic crisis, state debt, and unemployment. Neoliberalism propagated a programme of liberalisation and deregulation: privatisation of public enterprises and social security, reduction of social benefits, flexibility of the labour market (in order to create a large cheap labour force, recruited among women and immigrants), and the reduction of wages by weakening the unions. Internal class war was complemented by returning to the language of the Cold War in international politics and preparing a new round of nuclear armament.
Once elected to government the neoliberals went to work implementing this programme step by step. In the 1990s it was extended as economic ‘shock therapy’ to the former socialist economies of Eastern Europe. China, however, since 1978, after the death of Mao, followed policies of ‘modernisation’ under Deng Xiaoping, which led the country towards state capitalism and opened it to the world market. Thus, three dramatic developments occurred at the end of the twentieth century anticipating major challenges of the twenty-first century: a) the rapid advancement of China – governed by a communist party – to an economic and political world power within 25 years, b) the failure of military dictatorships and of the politics of the ‘Washington Consensus’ in Latin America and a shift to the left in many countries, opening the road to a ‘socialism of the twenty-first century’, and finally c) the wave of religious and political fundamentalism which – since the Iranian Revolution in 1978 – has pervaded the Islamic word from North Africa to the Near East and even to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, even spreading to the immigrant communities within the developed countries of Western Europe.
Through the end of the century the politics and ideology of neoliberalism proved extremely successful in North America and Europe. The political left and the trade unions, which had been so strong in the 1970s, fell into deep crisis. The communist movements and parties all over the world were severely hit by the final crisis of the Soviet Union and its allies. The biggest communist party in the West, the Italian Communist Party of Gramsci and Togliatti, which had grown much stronger in the 1970s, disappeared at the beginning of the 1990s; the French Communist Party had been in steady decline since the late 1970s. Social democracy adapted to the hegemony of neoliberal ideology and politics; New Labour under Tony Blair, and later the German SPD under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, implemented radical reforms in the spirit of global financial capitalism and free-market-policies, deconstructing the welfare state, weakening the unions, and creating a large sector of cheap and precarious labour. The transfer of industries, especially to East Asia, reduced industrial labour in the traditional centres of capitalism. Resistance from the ranks of the working class remained quite weak. The industrial working class, which was still the backbone of trade union power in the 1970s, was hit by processes of deindustrialisation and rising productivity as a consequence of the microelectronic revolution in communication and production. At the same time new sectors of the working class – without experience in class struggle and trade-union organisation – expanded within the service sector and especially in the areas of low-paid, part-time, and precarious work. The declining core sectors of the white male national working classes were confronted with rising numbers of female workers in the service and care sector as well as of immigrants (of colour) and refugees who provided cheap labour (below the national standards for wages and social security resulting from long trade-union struggles) and claimed benefits from the national welfare states. Racist conflicts growing out of this constellation further weakened the traditional power of the national working classes and their organisations.
Between 1989 and 1991, the Cold War and systemic confrontation led by the two superpowers had come to an end. Francis Fukuyama, a US neoconservative intellectual, proclaimed the ‘end of history’. The West – private property, free markets, and representative democracy, together with NATO – had triumphed over socialism. States and political and social actors were entering a new period of history characterised by the predominance of the global capitalist economy and its contradictions as well as the policies of the big powers, as they established a new world order according to their specific interests. The US, as the remaining superpower, now claimed world leadership – economically, militarily, and ideologically. If necessary, the US would accept the role of the world’s policeman, of a ‘good imperialist’, in order to neutralise or repress those who might disturb or threaten this order. At the same time, starting in the 1980s, the EU moved forward. The Common Market, the Economic and Monetary Union with the introduction of the common currency (the euro in 18 member states) and the establishment of the European Central Bank, and enlargement to the former socialist countries of Eastern and Southeastern Europe were the most important steps of a complete restructuring of European integration now dominated by the logic of free markets, competition, and neoliberal policies within the member states. In 2000 the EU’s Lisbon Summit proudly proclaimed that the EU was on its way to become the most powerful economic region of the world. The Treaty of Lisbon aimed at adapting the institutions and the decision-making processes within the EU to the enlargement of the Union, but also opened the way for a common foreign and military policy which was regarded as necessary in order for the EU to become a powerful global actor, as a new kind of multinational empire.
The world economy of the 1990s was driven forward by financial markets and by the integration of rapidly industrialising countries in East Asia (at first the so-called ‘Asian Tiger’ states, then the People’s Republic of China) into the capitalist world market. At the same time, the global financial markets were dominated and regulated by the ‘Dollar-Wall-Street-Regime’,3 accompanied by American military dominance. With the ‘Volcker shock’ in 1979 the Fed had increased interest rates to establish a permanent antiinflation parameter which would guarantee that the US dollar, backed by US Treasury Bonds, would provide a reliable anchor for international finance.4 From the 1980s on, financial crisis and instability – provoked by national debts, unstable rates of exchange, and speculative bubbles – has shaken many countries and regions and has been combined with sudden collapses of the stock markets, currency rates, the growth rates of industrial production, and the GDP: in Mexico, Russia, Turkey, Argentina, and East Asia (1996/97). In the so-called ‘dot.com crisis’ of 2002, which started in the US, new markets of high-technology investments, which had inspired the boom of the US stock markets at the end of the 1990s, crashed and brought down the world economy. Finally, these instabilities converged in the big crisis of 2008 when in the US financial markets broke down, the crisis spread throughout the world, and economic growth rates fell. Massive state intervention was needed to prevent a catastrophe in the financial sectors and the labour markets. Crisis management proved quite successful in some countries (like Germany with its strong export-oriented industries). In others the economy is characterised by stagnation. Crisis management at least prevented an explosion of unemployment as in the crisis following 1929. The power of the financial sector has been restored and new speculative bubbles (most notably in the real estate sector and the stock markets) have built up. Other countries of the EU, especially in Southern Europe, were severely hit by the financial and economic crisis after 2008 and then by the consequences of the authoritarian crisis management within the EU, which was imposed throughout the EU by the new leadership of Germany. Mass poverty and unemployment, increased state debt, and continued negative growth rates are the burdens of the so-called ‘crisis countries’. The global economy since 2007 has been on a path of stagnation and deflation. However, the BRICS countries (headed by China) continue to be locomotives of the world economy, although they too have entered a period of declining growth rates.
The climax of neoliberal hegemony was reached about the turn of the century in 2000, although of course with diverse trajectories in different countries. On the one hand, financial instability and the dismantling of the welfare state created new forms of social insecurity. The privatisation of social risks involving age and health created widespread uncertainty and anxiety about the future (not only of older people, but chiefly of the youth). Unemployment is still high, and flexible and precarious work is on the increase, not only in the lower segments of the labour market but also in employment sectors reserved for the academic middle classes. On the other hand, people began to be conscious of the continuously growing polarisation between the incomes and the wealth of the rich (and the superrich) and of the lower classes, including the lower segments of the middle classes, which were confronted with a steady tendency towards economic decline and the expropriation of expectations, security, and rights. ‘Winner-TakeAll-Politics which make the rich richer and turns its back on the middle class’5 increasingly violated peoples’ common sense of social justice and the just distribution of income and wealth, as well as of the role of a democratic state.
As neoliberalism destroys social cohesion, the crisis of democracy proceeds.6 The crisis in representation is expressed by the falling rates of electoral participation and of party and union membership, especially among the lower classes and youth. Opinion polls confirm the negative image people have of most politicians. New forms of a radical right-wing and antidemocratic political populism, which attacks the ‘old political system’ and its representatives, scored impressive results in recent elections at the European and the national and regional levels. In the US the Republican Party (including the Tea Party movement) shifted sharply towards the extreme right. The reputation of the political class among ordinary people and youth is rapidly eroding as scandals, corruption, and lies seem to be natural attributes of a political life and culture dominated by big money, big party and government power, and mass media as instruments of mass manipulation. ‘Post-democracy’ (Colin Crouch) or ‘democracy without demos’ (Peter Mair) describe this tendency to hollow out democratic institutions. Economic and financial elites are increasingly exerting direct influence on processes of political decision-making in the state apparatuses. The authoritarian tendencies in the capitalist world are reinforced not only by right-wing or openly fascist protagonists but also by the implementation of austerity policies which restrict the constitutional rights of parliaments and force governments to accept the dictatorship of the European Central Bank and ‘Troika’, which executes austerity policies from outside. ‘Market democracy’ – neoliberalism’s ideal – subjugates democratic politics (which are based on peoples’ sovereignty and choice) to the laws and rules of the market, which means the rules of competition and the interests and power of the upper class.
However, increasing dissatisfaction with the economy and democracy has not yet led to a general uprising or a rebirth of the left. It is only in Latin America that left governments were elected after the failure of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and the neoliberal policies of the 1980s. The working class in the developed capitalist countries of the West remains quite passive, while in China and other Asian countries the number of industrial strikes is increasing. Right-wing populism – based on national ‘welfare chauvinism’ and hostility to foreign immigrants and Muslims – is marching on. Even the crisis produced modest results after 2008 in terms of popular unrest. Nevertheless, there are new tendencies to left-wing popular resistance and protest. Only in a few countries is the political left nearing a majority sufficient for governing – for example, in Greece with Syriza. Trade unions which have lost members and power in recent decades are still tied up in defensive positions seeking cooperation with capital and the state. Still, the number of strikes – even of general strikes – in Europe has significantly increased during the last few years. In 2011, however, a wave of democratic and social movements passed through North Africa and the Arab world (‘Arabellion’) and subsequently reached Europe (for example, the ‘Indignados’ in Spain), the United States (with ‘Occupy’), Turkey, Brazil, and other places. ‘It’s kicking off everywhere’, was the joyous announcement greeting a new ‘period of social unrest’ or even of ‘global revolution’.7 Though these movements had very different roots in their national history and religious culture (in the first place, Islamic fundamentalism) they articulated a radical critique not only of their political regimes, or of corrupt systems of representative democracy, but also of financial capitalism and neoliberal policies, which produce and preserve massive poverty and the division between rich and poor. Young people with academic degrees were in the frontline of these movements protesting against high rates of unemployment among young people and young academics in many countries. In some countries regimes were brought down; in Egypt, the most important centre of the Arabellion, the military counter-revolution restored the old regime. In the Islamic world the influence of an extremely radical fundamentalism, attacking secular regimes oriented towards the West, grew even stronger in various civil wars (Libya, Syria, and Iraq). In Europe and the US these movements criticised social inequality and financial capitalism’s hollowing out of democracy (‘we are the 99 per cent’). But their honeymoon did not last very long – protest could not be expanded over time and sustained everywhere. The fire of protest is nevertheless flaring up in many countries and regions of the ‘one world of capital’, though of course shaped by national and regional traditions and cultures. This recent wave of protest might be regarded as an early symptom of future large movements that question the ideology and the power of regimes sustaining global capitalism.
After the demise of the Soviet Union US policies were aimed at assuring and expanding the status of ‘Number One’ in the world economy and in world politics. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush embarked on several wars: to destroy Yugoslavia, to bring down Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to conquer the Taliban in Afghanistan, to eliminate the regime of Gadaffi in Libya, and later of Assad in Syria. After the ‘Nine-Eleven’ terror attacks in 2001, George W. Bush declared war on terrorism throughout the world. His successor Barack Obama has continued this war with many direct US military operations, for instance in Africa, and by using the new military technology of drones. These wars did not lead to clear victories; they illustrated the limits of US world dominance in many respects. In Afghanistan, the US army and its allies were eventually forced to leave the country; they had lost the battle. The ‘liberated’ countries (like Iraq and Libya) here descended into chaos, civil war, and mass poverty and produced new generations of terrorists who viewed the West and the US as their main enemy. The fate of millions of refugees en route to Europe and North America documents the barbaric character of the present world order. Many of them – among them many children – are killed and drowned in the process. Once they reach their destination country they are forced to live in inhuman conditions and are confronted with the native population’s racism. The conflicts in the Islamic world, especially the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinians, have not been resolved. On the contrary, the brutal war against the people living in Gaza and Israel’s landgrabbing policies have radicalised the enemies of the West and the US.
On the other side, military spending has put the US economy and national budget under pressure. Increasingly, the contradictions between US global policies and the country’s domestic situation are seen as symptoms of US decline. Extreme wealth, very high incomes, and the biggest military budget in the world contrast with mass poverty, public and private debt, the decay of cities and whole regions, the rise of criminality, moral decline, and the ongoing discrimination against black people and immigrants. World poverty is still concentrated in the South of the globe, although economic development in East Asia has reduced global poverty rates during the past twenty years. At the same time, this development has created huge cities, industrial complexes, automobile traffic, etc. Pollution and emissions have worsened the ecological crisis and climate change. The world’s megacities, and the whole of the developed countries in the West, have become centres where the antagonisms of global capitalism are concentrated. Their business centres demonstrate the wealth and power of financial capital; their slums or ghettos collect the losers of globalisation and neoliberalism. ‘The future of human solidarity depends upon a militant refusal of the new urban poor to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism’.8
The limits of US world dominance reflect the outlines of a new world order. Despite decline, the ‘American Empire’ is still the most powerful empire in the world. Since the beginning of the millennium, however, new structures in the distribution of world power are emerging. New empires are in the making. In East Asia, China is on the way to becoming a great power alongside India. Japan, with US support, is being freed of the military restrictions which the US imposed on it after the war. Russia, which in the 1990s fell into a deep political, economic, and moral crisis, has slowly recovered under the presidency of Vladimir Putin. Alliances within the BRICS countries and closer relationships with China have strengthened the international position of Russia. Putin is criticising the West for the enlargement of NATO to include former components of the USSR. NATO (and the EU) have continuously tried to integrate Georgia und Ukraine. In both cases Russian policies reacted, even with military intervention, to the expansion of NATO and the West to its borders.
In Europe, the EU, since the late 1980s, has been on a path of constructing a multinational empire united by a common market, a common monetary policy, and by more and more common responsibilities of the Union in security policies and foreign affairs. The EU was severely hit by the crisis after 2008, which is still shaking large parts of member states. Crisis management within the EU has so far prevented its breakdown but has also deepened the social and political differences within it. At the same time, it has enabled the rise of Germany, the economically dominant power up to now, to political leadership within the Union. The dominant sectors of the ruling classes within the EU are quite conscious of the risks presented by the crisis. Their common goal is still to build the EU as a powerful global player in the twenty-first century alongside the other great power blocs. ‘Embedded’ German leadership might speed up this process, which is still hampered by many contradictions and countertendencies. In the poorer parts of Europe, where austerity policies have pushed millions into poverty, Germany and its chancellor Angela Merkel are not very popular. In the big neighbouring countries, German power and its rise to leadership is still regarded uneasily, with feelings stirred up by memories of the twentieth century’s two world wars.
A different sort of empire-building can be associated with the BRICS countries as well as with the much weaker alliances between Latin American countries with a socialist orientation (ALBA). Still, even these new interstate relationships in the twenty-first century have already reduced the economic influence and the political power of the West, especially of the US. They are thus part of the transformations occurring in the global structure of economic and military power and the incentives of national governments or the EU and NATO to translate them into policies. The project of a transatlantic free trade area (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP) is an answer to these ongoing changes within the distribution of power in the world. Former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who is in favour of this treaty, described it as the ‘Economic NATO’, as the reinforcement of the alliance of declining centres of the North Atlantic West, which has dominated the world since 1500, against the rising empires in the East.
Imperialist policies are oriented to preserving and improving the external conditions of an internal regime. The old and new empires are capitalist empires dependent on profits realised by open doors to the world markets, the protection of investment, safe routes for transports and energy supply, and by stable political constellations on the borders of the empire. Military power has always been used to guarantee these conditions. Ever more competition and conflicts between these old empires and the new empires in the making slowly come to the surface as the main lines of conflict of international politics, and they overdetermine local or regional conflicts, for instance in the Near East. In the Far East, the US is trying to build alliances between Japan, India, Vietnam, and other countries against the growing power of China. Quite peripheral conflicts about small islands immediately turn into aggressive nationalist campaigns and confrontations between governments, which react by increasing their military budgets. In the Near East, the wars in Iraq and Syria of course have specific causes. In Syria, civil war was the consequence of the uprising of large parts of the population against the dictatorship of Assad and his family and against the miserable conditions of their lives. These movements, however, were used to justify military interventions by the West, with Turkey and some Arab states, which had an interest in weakening the Assad regime as a regional strong power allied with Iran, Russia, and China and supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel. The conflict around Ukraine, which came to a head starting in late 2013, is an example of the new types of geopolitical conflicts and wars which are, on the one hand, nationally rooted in the misery of large parts of the population and the anger against corrupt political regimes. On the other hand, the movement which led to the fall of the Yanukovych regime was directly oriented towards anti-Russian policies and towards EU and NATO membership and against the interest of large parts of the Russian population in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. The West intervened massively to support this orientation. Russia and President Putin, together with the Russians in the Ukraine, reacted by supporting the founders of the ‘people’s republics’ in the Donetsk region and the Crimean referendum for membership within the Russian Federation. When the Ukrainian army initiated a war against these ‘peoples’ republics’, war had in effect come back to this part of Europe. It restored the aggressive language and culture of the Cold War by constructing the new enemy, which was now Putin. It is bringing together the allies within NATO and the EU against the common enemy, allowing Germany to lift the restrictions on its military interventions and weapons’ exports, which had been imposed by the victors of the Second World War as well as by German self-restraint in the decades following the war. Inter-imperial rivalry – but between old and new imperial power blocs (which can no longer be on the national state level but are dependent upon one or more powerful national states) – will be a characteristic of the twenty-first century.
‘Never again war!’, ‘Never again Fascism!’ These were the slogans after 1945, inspired by the bloody experience of the first half of the twentieth century. For seventy years Europe did not return to war, and fascism did not have a chance in politics (though the regimes in Spain and Portugal until the early 1970s stood in the tradition of European fascism and yet were supported by the US, NATO, and Western European governments). At the same time, outside the First and the Second Worlds, there were wars against anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements and civil wars, which as a whole killed about 12.5 million people, most of them in Africa and Asia. Even higher was the number of those who died from hunger and epidemics due to lack of hygienic conditions and medical treatment. So, the world as a whole was far from living in peace. In the north, peace was guaranteed by atomic weapons capable of destroying mankind several times over. This was the crazy logic of the Cold War and of global class struggle. As we approach the seventieth anniversary of May 1945, many parts of the world are experiencing war, civil war, terrorism, and the activities of criminal gangs as part of their daily experience of violence and the lack of human rights and constitutional stability. Fascism or right-wing populism, nationalism, and racism are ideological and political answers to a world which is going out of joint. Three majors forces are responsible for the conflicts within the present world: a) the dynamics of capitalist growth, producing social instability and new social antagonisms, mass poverty as the sources of migration, and the continuous destruction of the environment and nature including the potential catastrophes of climate change; b) geopolitical conflicts and power politics between the old and new empires; c) religious fundamentalism which has declared war on the Western world and its culture. At the same time the weakness of working-class politics and of socialist strategies and programmes is a characteristic feature of the present crisis.
Coming up with a left answer to these conflicts and risks is not an easy task. The parties and unions of the working-class movements in the old centres of capitalism have been weakened by the manifold defeats they suffered in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Still, even small left parties are important voices in parliaments and the media; strong unions are necessary instruments in confronting the logic of precarious wage labour and the expropriation of social rights in the struggle for alternative policies oriented towards redistribution of income and wealth, the strengthening of workingclass purchasing power, and in moving towards ecological transformation. New social movements – in the areas of ecology, gender equality, urban gentrification, and the critique of capitalist globalisation and global financial capitalism – still play an important role as indispensable elements of a ‘bloc’ of social, political, and cultural forces able to challenge and, in the end, transform the existing rule of financial capitalism and neoliberal policies. This left bloc is also necessary to oppose the policies of reconstructing the Cold War frontlines and militarising foreign policy. It must fight for conflict resolution through negotiations, by strengthening democracy and popular forces and by strengthening the authority of international organisations dedicated to conflict resolution and peace-keeping activities. To be sure, in different parts of the world the left is confronted with specific tasks rooted in the history, political culture, and class relations of different countries and regions. Be that as it may, Eric Hobsbawm, at the end of his seminal The Age of Extremes, which appeared in 1994, was able to identify the general orientation: ‘We live in a world captured, uprooted and transformed by the titanic economic and techno-scientific process of the development of capitalism, which has dominated the past two or three centuries [...]. The future cannot be a continuation of the past, and there are signs, both externally and, as it were, internally, that we have reached a point of historic crisis […]. Our world risks both explosion and implosion. It must change.’9
The early socialist and communist working-class movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were quite optimistic about the transformation from capitalism to socialism. The catastrophes of the past century (including the seventy years between 1945 and 2015) have taught the left that progress is not an iron law of history carried out by the working class. In the past seventy years progress was made by socialist policies that reduced poverty, expanded public education, and built the welfare state and stable democratic constitutions. Progress was also made by the victories of anticolonial movements, by great efforts to build non-capitalist economies and societies after the victories of socialist revolutions, and finally by military interventions against fascism. In Europe, peace and progress in social democracy was a result of countervailing powers acting against the dynamic forces of unrestrained capitalism. Capitalism was ‘civilised’ internationally by the existence of socialist countries; at home Western capitalism and its political representatives – after the catastrophes of the capitalist economy and bourgeois society in the first half of the twentieth century – were forced to accept ‘class-compromise’ policies. Progress was made by these policies of ‘embedded capitalism’: full employment for a period, welfare state institutions, a large public sector, and peace policies. Strong left parties and unions were elements of these politics, which characterised the development of Western Europe until the mid-1970s. However, any progress in these areas was a result of intensive struggles between capitalist (conservative and liberal) class forces and democratic and class movements from below. Today the left is still confronted with the consequence of the neoliberal policies of ‘dis-embedding’ the capitalist economy and the financial sectors from democratic and social controls. This ‘dis-embedding’ eventually opened the way for the return of the dangers of war, cultural barbarism, and antidemocratic political ideologies and movements. The left now must be part of larger initiatives and alliances to ‘re-embed’, that is, ‘civilise’ capitalism at home and in international politics. Within these alliances the left connects the politics of ‘civilisation’ with the perspective of general welfare, social justice, ecological balance, democratic self-government, and peace beyond capitalism and imperial policies.
This essay draws on the author’s recent books (see under Literature).
Davis, Mike, Planet of Slums, London and New York: Verso, 2006.
Deppe, Frank, Politisches Denken im 20. Jahrhundert [Political Thought in the Twentieth Century], five volumes, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag, 1999–2011.
Deppe, Frank, Autoritärer Kapitalismus: Demokratie auf dem Prüfstand [Authoritarian Capitalism: Democracy on Trial], Hamburg: VSA-Verlag, 2013.
Deppe, Frank, Imperialer Realismus? Deutsche Außenpolitik: Führungsmacht in ‘neuer Verantwortung’ [Imperialism Realism? German Foreign Policy: A Leading Power ‘With New Responsibility’], Hamburg: VSA-Verlag, 2014.
Gowan, Peter, The Global Gamble: Washington’s Faustian Bid for World Dominance, London and New York: Verso, 1999.
Hacker, Jacob S. and Pierson, Paul, Winner-Take-All-Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914– 1991, London: Michael Joseph, 1994.
Mason, Paul, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, London and New York: Verso, 2013.
Packer, George, The Unwinding. An Inner History of the New America, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
Panitch, Leo and Gindin, Sam, The Making of Global Capitalism. The Political Economy of American Empire, London and New York: Verso, 2012.