Globally there is a productive capacity to feed everyone, and yet 16 million people in the Horn of Africa face starvation. The effects of drought in parts of northern India have meant millions more facing the same prospect.
Whether explained by the effects of global warming or deforestation - both results of capitalist production - there have been devastating floods this year in a number of countries. In Mozambique hundreds died and 300,000 were forced to leave their homes. In Bhutan, Bangladesh and India, floods have caused the deaths of hundreds and at least 5 million homes have been destroyed. There have also been lethal floods over the past year in China, Brazil and Russia.
In 1998, when Hurricane Mitch hit central America, 10,000 died and 2 million were made homeless. Last year, when cyclone Orissa hit eastern India 10.000 died t eastern India 10.000 died or disappeared. The far more limited effects of hurricanes when they hit the east coast of the US show that they’re not inevitably catastrophic. In July in the Philippines heavy rains caused the collapse of huge mounds of rubbish in one of the shanty town areas of Quezon City. Hundreds died because poverty forces them to earn a ‘living’ by camping next to this toxic mountain and rummaging through it for scraps to sell. In Venezuela mudslides caused a similar disaster. In Nigeria 300 people died after an oil pipeline explosion: here again it was poverty which has led people to try to syphon off oil for sale on the black market. People don’t die just because it rains or there’s a strong wind, it’s because of the conditions they live in, and the desperate need to be near any available source of income or water. Christian Aid have estimated that within 20 years 75% of the world’s population (mostly in the poorest countries) will be at risk from drought or floods.
In the wake of such disasters, and also the experience of refugees from imperialist wars, comes disease - typically cholera, malaria or dengue fever. The possibility of epidemics is exacerbated by population movements, poor sanitation, water contamination and the disruption of an already poor infrastructure. In thedy poor infrastructure. In the case of Hurricane Mitch there was already a cholera epidemic in parts of the region when it struck. As for AIDS, the fact that 11 million people, 80% of those who have died, have come from Africa almost speaks for itself. A virus, like the wind or the rain, is neutral, but the conditions in which people subsist have an enormous weight in determining whether you live or die.
But it’s not just in the ‘underdeveloped world’ that the lethal nature of capitalist society takes its toll. The seriousness of ‘global warming’ has been emphasised by the appearance of a mile-wide stretch of water at the North Pole. In the summer a heatwave with previously unheard-of temperatures hit parts of the Middle East and the Balkans. In Rumania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Turkey and Greece dozens of people died. Certainly, the heat was exceptional - contributing to record numbers of forest fires across the region, and states of emergency declared in many parts of Greece, for example. But the reason the heatwave was fatal for so many is attributable to conditions in the cities, the extent of pollution and living in low-cost buildings erected with no consideration for the climate. Earthquakes in Turkey have also demonstrated the inadequacy of accommodation built on the cheap.
The US has also been affected by forest fires this summer - the worst for 50 years, with some 11 states in the west affected and 6 million acres destroyed. Even with 20,000 civilian and 2,000 military firefighters, with 150 aircraft, in an operation costing $15 million a day, there are some fires that they just can’t put out and are relying on the snow that will come later in the year. A particularly alarming demonstration of the potential for the damage to escalate occurred when fire raced through Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington. Hanford, a former site for the production of nuclear weapons, has the largest store of nuclear and hazardous waste in the US. The fires got dangerously close to stores of waste from plutonium production for nuclear weapons. An emergency was declared until the wind changed and the flames went in a different direction.
Above all, when you look at the state of the capitalist world, it is the proliferation of wars which shows the system’s fundamental nature. The wars in Angola, in the Congo (where half a dozen countries are involved), the wars between impoverished Ethiopia and Eritrea, in Sierra Leone and many other parts of Africa, in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and across Asia (where both India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapstan now have nuclear weapons), in the Middle East, against the Kurds in several countries, in Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus - these are just some of the multiplicity of current wars, places where ‘peace’ is only a pause between conflicts. The big powers, far from being neutral or ‘humanitarian’ forces, are often caught red-handed at the heart of the barbarity. In Iraq, over the last decade over 1.5 million have died as a result of the imposition of sanctions. Since December 1998 the US and Britain have continued to bomb Iraq on an almost daily basis. Britain alone has averaged 10 tonnes of bombs a week over that period. The results of the ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Kosovo are also plain to see: an economic and ecological calamity in ex-Yugoslavia and beyond, and no end to the mutual slaughter between ‘ethnic’ gangs, each one backed openly or secretly by the different occupying forces vying to impose their influence in the strategically important Balkans area.
A society falling apart
These, then are aspects of the current state of capitalist society. Capitalism does not just mean the buying and selling of commodities, but all the social relationships that flow from a system of production based on the exploitation of wage on the exploitation of wage labour. Once a factor of progress and unification of the world economy, capitalism has been historically obsolete since the early part of the 20th century. Its historical senility has been demonstrated by the replacement of the old business cycle of boom and bust with the devastating spiral of world economic crises and world wars that began in 1914.
After the period of reconstruction that began in 1945, capitalism plunged into a new global economic crisis at the end of the 1960s. This crisis has been deepening inexorably for decade after decade, posing once again the historical alternative between war or revolution. With the ruling class unable to impose its final solution, a mobilisation for world-wide inter-imperialist war, and the working class not yet able to mount a revolutionary offensive against capitalism, there is a social stalemate, which has pushed capitalism into a state of decomposition. It is this falling apart of capitalist society, this descent into chaos, that lies behind the increase in imperialist antagonisms, and the greater frequency and more debilitating effects of each successive disaster.
The state is the main enemy
Capitalism, therefore, has not just passed its sell-by date - the assed its sell-by date - the stench of its decomposition is becoming noxious. In this process the capitalist state acts as a force to try and maintain the rule of the exploiting class. It is the state which is at the centre of all economic, social and military questions.
In the name of ‘anti-capitalism’ and the ‘campaign against globalisation’, people all over the world, in Seattle last November, internationally on May Day and on September 24 in Prague, have been encouraged to protest against institutions such as the World Trade Organisation or the International Monetary Fund. These bodies undeniably have their place in the network of bodies in which the ruling class defend their system of exploitation and fight among themselves for the spoils. But the fundamental weapon of their domination remains the capitalist state. Supposedly ‘supranational’ bodies like the WTO or IMF function either as tools of the biggest capitalist states or as battle grounds for their rivalries.
In opposition to capitalist class rule there is only one potential force - the working class. And the power of the working class lies in its position at the heart of the capitalist system, as the class which creates the vast bulk of value in society. When workers strike they take away the labour power ey take away the labour power that capitalism depends on for its very existence. When workers struggle they immediately come up against the state power of the bourgeoisie. When workers discuss their struggles and how to take them forward there are the beginnings of an independent class consciousness. The campaign against ‘globalisation’ is a protest by a variety of different forces, with a range of different class interests - including some for whom ‘anti-capitalism’ really means support for the nation state and bourgeois democracy against ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘undemocratic’ bodies like the WTO. The working class, by contrast, has no country, no nation state to defend, and it is the only social force which has a direct interest in destroying the capitalist state, throwing down all borders and creating a world-wide human community. In this issue of WR there is an article on the mass strikes in Poland 20 years ago. Such struggles give a glimpse of the potential power of the working class. As an example it is still absolutely valid today, and for the future.