Socialist Worker

It’s right to be this afraid

Coronavirus, climate catastrophe and nuclear war make us feel existential dread about the future of the world. But there is an emergency brake says Simon Basketter

Issue No. 2696

Genuine disasters meant medieval societies were often preoccupied with the end of the world

Genuine disasters meant medieval societies were often preoccupied with the end of the world


As the year 1000 approached, property and family were abandoned, work stopped, cults were formed and panic spread. Christian Europe waited in dread for the end of the world.

It’s often presented as an outbreak of mystical and illogical behaviour.

Most accounts came after the reformation as protestant clerics tried to claim their Catholic predecessors were stuck in a peculiar form of irrationality.

Later historians, keen to show the onward march to secularism, ironically made up events which hadn’t actually happened.

It is the way newspaper columnists today write smug articles about how the snowflake millennials all need to toughen up and stop worrying.

But the panic leading up to 1000 was rooted in real events. Christian outposts in Europe were struggling against invading armies. Growing crises in feudal production combined with famines and epidemics.

There was plenty to be worried about even without counting the general misery the majority of people lived in.

The system will sell us back our fears and encourage us to stockpile the popcorn and toilet roll

Today the media both urges us to panic, and then condemns people who do.

A Daily Express newspaper headline recently read, “Coronavirus panic and African locust plague spark Bible apocalypse fears.”

The small print a few lines down made clear that these were “outrageous claims”.

Tories fail to take action we need on coronavirus
Tories fail to take action we need on coronavirus
  Read More

In fact it is understandable that people worry about the coronavirus and wonder about what kind of things can make them more or less safe.

All the more so as the Tories have dithered for weeks over how to respond because what they care about is keeping profits flowing, not people’s health.

Yet separate from these real fears, there is an apocalypse industry.

There are endless films and TV shows and novels and video games based on the end of the world.

It doesn’t matter what kind of apocalypse it is. Natural disasters were huge for a bit, then zombies and other pandemics.

The system will sell us back our fears and encourage us to stockpile the popcorn and toilet roll.

There is also a peculiar strand of pro-system ­thinking that argues that climate catastrophism is the problem.

It is a disguise for climate denial. What they usually mean is that arguing there is a climate emergency is the same as holding a sign saying the end is nigh while waiting for the rapture.

Capitalism is heading to the abyss because it based on the accumulation of profit to the abyss

It is usually expressed by Piers Morgan-like characters with a prurient hostility to Greta Thunberg and shouldn’t really detain sensible people.

So most parts of the world have a flood myth.

They tell how a great force beyond our control came, and everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died.

But that doesn’t mean the seas aren’t rising and catastrophic climate change hasn’t already started. People are terrified by visions of the world ending from climate catastrophe, nuclear war or global diseases because it is sensible to be scared.

Many people rightly get weary and are tired of living but scared of dying.

The capitalist system rests on the exploitation and oppression of people and planet. It is heading to the abyss because it based on the accumulation of profit to the abyss.

If you aren’t a bit afraid you aren’t paying attention.

Atomic Cloud Rises Over Nagasaki, Japan

Atomic Cloud Rises Over Nagasaki, Japan


The world itself and our place in it can seem alien to us. Because it is.

Throughout history humans have laboured on nature to create what they need to survive, entering into cooperative relationships to do so.

That which should be most essential to our lives—labour—becomes a burden we must endure.

Workers don’t just lose control of the labour process through alienation, the products of their labour become commodities.

They no longer meet our needs, only the needs of an impersonal market and the bosses’ pursuit of profit.

We are alienated from our very nature as humans and the planet we live on.

But apocalyptic thinking can have downsides. One is that false claims of catastrophic risks can be used to cause real disaster.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified by the false catastrophic lie that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons and planning to use them.

As George W Bush put it, “We cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” A million dead Iraqis was the catastrophe.

There are plenty of threats which are real and nowhere near being solved. But unsolved does not mean unsolvable

Another risk is eat, drink, be merry, or snark—for tomorrow we die. The tasks we face are too big to deal with, so let’s not. A good meme will not save us from the end of the world.

There are plenty of threats which are real and nowhere near being solved. But unsolved does not mean unsolvable.

One way that will lead to more anxiety is believing that the threats we face are so big that we will all automatically come together to fix them.

At the beginning of the 20th century some socialists thought that because capitalism was becoming a global system, the pursuit of profits would end wars.

Both the integration of the world system and the ­commitment to making cash would prevent it.

This is flawed for a number of reasons, including the First and Second World Wars.

The doomsday clock where scientists say how close we are to destruction is currently two minutes to midnight.

The nuclear bomb took capitalist logic to its obscene conclusion
The nuclear bomb took capitalist logic to its obscene conclusion
  Read More

The clock originated as the arms race reached its illogically logical endpoint.

Nuclear war could wipe everyone out. It was mutually assured destruction. Mad.

In the early 1960s during the Cuban Missile Crisis president John Kennedy toyed with nuclear war.

He engaged in ­brinksmanship to make up for his failure to topple Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Russians blinked but it was a close call. Nixon launched his “madman strategy” to convince the Russians he might nuke Vietnam.

It didn’t work—the US lost the Vietnam war. This oddly again led to the belief that our rulers will see sense even if just for their own protection.

Later the socialist historian EP Thompson did much to kickstart the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s. He was a proponent of what he called “exterminism”.

The argument was that, because the threat of nuclear war is so extreme, we all have an interest in stopping it.

So we need to convince our rulers that it is against their interests to blow up the world.

Karl Marx pointed out that the rich wallow in their alienation.

Those who oversee the system may well end up destroying us all—including themselves.

This currently looks quite likely.

They are quite happy to condone, carry out and applaud indiscriminate bombings and the wholesale murder of people and planet.

Turning anger into revolt isn’t just a good idea, it’s necessary

Faced with this, some can think that spectacular attempts to throw some of the violence of the system back at society will spur change.

It is a strategy that has repeatedly failed.

We have to look to a force that is strong enough to stop our rulers, rather than appealing to them or trying to blow some of them up.

Angst is understandable. But turning anger into revolt isn’t just a good idea, it’s necessary.

Reforming parliament, breaking windows, or even bombing buildings will not stop the wrecking machine that is the current system. But revolutions can.

They break out when the great mass of people, whose work keeps the system going, move into action on their own behalf.

People can suddenly find they cannot go on living in the old way.

Crises can paralyse but they can also be a spur to liberation.

People are repeatedly faced with a choice between enduring a terrible worsening of their lives or fighting back.The fightback does not always occur, nor is ita guaranteed success.

As the Marxist Walter Benjamin put it, “It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race traveling in the train applies the emergency brake.”

The emergency brake would stop the catastrophe and allow the revolutionary potential of humanity to realise itself. And we don’t have much choice.

Ending the carnage of the First World War took global revolts of workers and soldiers across countries. It took revolution.

Stopping the end of this world will take the same.


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.