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New Age of Catastrophe—Mapping out the crisis

Anne Alexander argues that Alex Callinicos’s new book paints a vivid picture of the catastrophe of capitalism and the desperate need for revolutionary change
Issue 2850
An aerial shot shows a large wildfire rip through pine trees. Smoke billows through the air, catastrophe

Fire sweeps through Yellowstone National Park, in 2013. Many more devastating fires have followed worldwide (Pic: NPS Climate Change Response/Flickr)

Some days it is ­tempting to shrug off news of disaster and catastrophe as simply part of normal life. An accelerating parade of financial crises, extreme weather events, pandemics, wars and civil unrest has flashed before our eyes in recent years.

The urgent message of Alex Callinicos’ important new book is that accepting this state of affairs as the “new normal” is perilous. It is vital reading for anyone who wants to be part of the struggle for a future we can live in.

What is at stake, he argues, is nothing less than the fate of human society, which is being hurled towards collapse by the remorseless inner logic of the capitalist system. Confronting this system demands grasping the ­totality of our predicament.

This book provides a ­compelling case for revolution. It draws on the revolutionary Marxist tradition, and a wide array of thinkers who have grasped elements of the problems facing us but not necessarily the whole.

The surface features of this “new age of catastrophe” are often signs of polarisation. These include the deepening tensions between the US and its allies on the one hand, and the rising power of China on the other. As Alex notes, this rift is the dominant feature of world politics today.

The proxy war between Nato and Russia over Ukraine is important. But it is the need to contain the ambitions of the Chinese ruling class to assert itself globally which ­preoccupies the US administration.

The US ruling class likes to frame their battle with their Chinese counterparts ideologically as a struggle between “democracy” and “autocracy”.

Yet a more important fracture in world politics is the polarisation between a resurgent far right and the weaker impulses of ­radicalisation to the left.

The influence of the right has grown spectacularly in recent years. Alex argues this is down to “the accumulated resentments of the neoliberal period, which have been intensified by the economic suffering and dislocation caused by the global ­financial crisis.”

In Europe this is expressed in racist campaigns where conservative politicians unite with far right activists to turn anger about the failures of the system against refugees.

Such strategies both “reveal and repress”, Alex explains. They take the real frustrations of ordinary people and turn them not against the actual authors of their misery—the richest fractions of society—but against imagined enemies.

Nowhere is this process clearer than in the US, which is rotting from within under the combined pressures of ­economic, political and ecological crisis.

This process of decay is now so advanced that we must take seriously the idea that the US has become “the weak link in the advanced capitalist world”, Alex argues.

This is the case even while it remains the most powerful state on the planet, ­outstripping its nearest neighbours in terms of military and financial capability. 

The storming of the US Capitol by a motley gang of Donald Trump’s thugs, egged on by the ex-president himself, was the most extraordinary public example of the explosive tensions within. As Alex points out, Trump’s chaotic behaviour does not have the support of the major players in the US ruling class, or the backing of the US military leadership.

The latter, in particular, were not prepared on 6 January 2021 to ditch bourgeois democracy by enabling a Trump coup.

Yet the same CEOs and generals who recoiled from Trump’s antics preside over the political and economic system which produced his ascent to office in the first place.

This is visible, Alex argues, inside the Republican Party, which has been colonised from within by a far right which is increasingly confident to assert its leadership at local and state government level.

For instance, despite the spectacle at the Capitol more than half the Republicans in the House of Representatives ­supported objections to the electoral count and the ­peaceful transfer of power.

While the power at the centre of the global economic system decays, what of its rising rivals, especially China?

Alex gives short shrift to the idea that either economically or politically, China represents an alternative to the US. The same logic which underlies the US economy also holds sway in China.

It is the crisis of capitalism, and not simply neoliberalism, which now confronts ­humanity. There is a choice between continuing the headlong rush towards societal collapse or “pulling the emergency cord” on the runaway train as it veers towards the precipice.

Alex argues that the only way out of our current predicament lies in revolt and revolution against a system which is hurtling towards destruction.

The root of what ­mainstream commentators like to call a “polycrisis” can be found in the inner logic of capitalism. This so-called “polycrisis” can be seen in the current macabre merry-go-round of apocalyptic events and ­processes including epidemics, floods, fires, ­famines, economic crises and wars.

Two aspects of that system are now interacting with terrifying consequences for human beings as a species and for myriad other species with which we share this planet.

The first of these is a defining feature of capitalism itself. This is the interaction between the central two antagonisms between wage labour and capital on the one hand and competition between ­individual capitals on the other.

The second has been wrapped up for so long with the system’s operation that it is proving almost impossible to disentangle from the first—­reliance on fossil fuels to drive the process of capital accumulation.

As Alex underlines, the system generates pressure on capital to maximise ­profitability and minimise costs in the short-term. This forces bosses to “ignore or conceal” the harm that they may be causing to “their ­workers, to consumers, and to the broader social and physical environment.”

This is why, even when such harm includes making global heating worse, our rulers are incapable of halting the planetary crises they are creating.

Some sections of the global ruling class are belatedly aware of the dangers. Yet the logic of the system propels them towards catastrophe, leading to half-hearted efforts at “adaptation” to the unfolding disaster rather than tackle the problem at its roots.

What will it take to map out a route to the future in times such as these?

Alex’s book offers vital resources for hope as well as sober analysis and devastating critique. He points to movements ­challenging forms of oppression related to gender and racism, as key battlegrounds for developing mass movements from below.

But these struggles need to be guided by an understanding that specific forms of oppression have been embedded into how capitalism works by deep historical processes. The institution of the family and the binary gender relations it creates are one example.

These “family structures are central to how labour power is reproduced under ­capitalism”, Alex argues, “providing it with a workforce fractured by gender and by the multiple forms of oppression to which these structures give rise.” 

Likewise racism cannot be understood fully or challenged effectively without recognising it is produced partly by the toxic legacy of the historic crimes—most notably in the mass enslavement of Africans in the formation of Western capitalism. And partly by the ongoing needs of the ruling class for migrant labour.

The question of how to lift the burdens of oppression is therefore “not merely a moral stand but a matter of self-interest, of practical necessity”. It is also a step on the road towards strengthening ­workers’ ­collective agency.

That agency cannot be remade without ­understanding that “pulling the emergency cord” in an era of climate ­breakdown means seizing state power and revolution—not just strikes, protests and civil disobedience.

Only revolution can shut down and dismantle the “CO2 machine” which is killing us all. This requires recognising that although we live in an age of catastrophe, it is also an age of revolt and revolutions. It is one in which the forms of self-organisation developed by ordinary people can form the basis on which a new ­society emerges.

  • The New Age of Catastrophe by Alex Callinicos. Published by Polity, £18 For book launch in London see here 

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