The neoliberal era (c. 1975 onwards) has been characterised by a) an accelerating compound crisis of the world capitalist system, and b) an unprecedented succession of explosive popular revolts from below. These two features of the era are, of course, intimately connected.
Three times in its history, capitalism has responded to protracted economic crisis by radically remodelling its way of working. The Long Depression, beginning in 1873, was the context for a shift to imperialism, which involved a tight nexus of state, banks, and industry, aggressive competition for raw materials and markets, and rising international tension and arms expenditure, culminating in the First World War.
The Great Depression, triggered by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, saw a shift to various forms of state capitalism, where national economies were managed by some mix of public ownership, government contracts, state regulation, pump priming, and so on. This was normalised during the Second World War and then became the basis of the post-war boom (1948-73).
The crisis which began in 1973 produced the neoliberal turn. In essence, this was a counter-offensive by the international ruling class designed to roll back the popular gains of the post-war period and create new opportunities for private profit.
Wealth was redistributed from the working class and the public services and state benefits on which it depended to the rich and the corporations. This involved dismantling welfare states in the Global North and national-developmental programmes in the Global South.
Until 2008, the strategy, from the perspective of the ruling class, was relatively successful. Trade union organisation was smashed. Social-democratic parties became echo-chambers of the neoliberal consensus. Wages, pensions, and benefits were cut. The living-standards of the majority fell or stagnated. Housing, education, and healthcare were privatised. State employment plummeted and unemployment soared. The wealth of the rich went stratospheric. Corporate power devastated society and planet.
But this did not restore the system to the levels of growth and profitability it had achieved in the state-capitalist era. Instead, to sustain capital accumulation, it became increasingly pathological, dependent on: financialisation, asset inflation, and speculative bubbles; trading in debt and property; privatisation and destruction of the commons, that is, ‘accumulation by dispossession’; the militarised accumulation made possible by rising military, police, and security expenditure; and manic forms of consumerism.
Much of this involves ‘profiting without producing’, whether in the form of exploitation at the point of consumption (monopoly pricing, interest on debt, fees and charges, rent payments, etc), or in the form of ‘hollow’ transnational corporations, where all production is outsourced to sweatshops in the Global South, but the bulk of the profit is appropriated through control of the marketing network.
The effect has been to deepen and accelerate, not resolve, the compound crisis of the world capitalist system. This has economic, ecological, epidemiological, social, geopolitical-military, and political-cultural dimensions.
In a little more detail, our world involves a) a continuing long-term crisis of over-accumulation, relative stagnation, and pathological forms of accumulation; b) an ever-more urgent crisis of ecological breakdown due to climate change and other forms of environmental pollution; c) a new crisis of pandemic disease, rooted in the nature of capitalist agribusiness and now embedded in global society; d) a social crisis in which a tiny corporate elite appropriates grotesque amounts of wealth while billions of people live in absolute poverty; e) a crisis of the geopolitical system involving rising arms expenditure, increasing risk of war, and a swathe of ‘failed states’ where there is warlordism, mafia, mass displacement, and social collapse; and f) a tidal wave of authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, misogyny, fascism, and anti-social narcissism.
In contrast to 1873, 1929, and 1973, the new period of crisis which began in 2008 has not given rise to a new paradigm of capital accumulation. Instead, the failed neoliberal order has doubled down on failure. The international bourgeoisie – the lords of capital and the state functionaries who do their bidding – have no solutions to any of the major problems confronting humanity and the planet. Mainstream politics, hollowed out by its own futility, has been reduced to spin and spectacle.
Revolution from below – a revolution of the working class, the oppressed, and the poor – who make up 90% of the world’s population – has become an existential imperative for people and planet. What are the chances? The rest of this article is an attempt to analyse the global balance of forces, the strength and weakness of mass movements, and what it will take to turn popular revolt into world revolution.
A World on Fire
A wave of pro-democracy revolutions destroyed the old Stalinist regimes across Eastern Europe in 1989. Between 1990 and 1994, no less than 35 African governments were brought down by protest movements, mass strikes, and new elections. A ‘pink tide’ swept through Latin America during the 1990s and 2000s, affecting Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, and Venezuela, in some cases toppling conservative governments and replacing them with more radical ones rooted in popular mass movements. Between 1999 and 2003, the world was shaken by first massive anti-globalisation protests, then massive anti-war protests, many of them involving hundreds of thousands of people.
Following the 2008 crash, a wave of anti-austerity and pro-democracy protests rocked the world, sometimes with huge confrontations between protestors and police in major cities like Athens, Madrid, and Istanbul. A slew of pro-austerity governments collapsed in Europe, but the movement peaked in the Middle East, where the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings engulfed much of the region and toppled dictators in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.
At the end of the 2010s, a new wave of mass protest erupted across the world, with major struggles in Belorus, Chile, France, Hong Kong, Iran, Lebanon, Sudan, Thailand, and many other countries. Up to 25 million Americans participated in Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, launching a movement that went global, resulting in the biggest anti-racist mobilisations in world history.
How are we to explain this extraordinary turbulence, this succession, in a sense, of ‘revolutionary rehearsals’, where semi-insurrectionary urban mass movements challenge the authority of the repressive state in the metropolitan heartlands of neoliberal capitalism?
When Bookmarks published a volume entitled Revolutionary Rehearsals edited by Colin Barker in 1987, it featured five mass struggles of the preceding two decades – the events of May-June 1968 in France, the Popular Unity government of 1970-73 in Chile, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-75, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the Solidarność movement in Poland in 1980-81.
Organised labour – that is, workers organised in trade unions and workplace-based assemblies – was central to each of these struggles. Though they involved other forces, to a greater or lesser extent, the participation of the organised working class – in mass strikes, in factory occupations, in the great street protests – was decisive.
Last year, Haymarket published a sort of sequel, Revolutionary Rehearsals of the Neoliberal Age, edited again by Colin Barker but now with Gareth Dale and Neil Davidson as co-editors. In addition to two theoretical articles which top and tail the book, there are detailed studies of the 1989 East European revolutions, the end of apartheid in South Africa, three decades of struggle in Sub-Saharan Africa, the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998, the popular movements in Bolivia in the early 2000s, the Argentine rebellion of 2001, the pink tide in Latin America in general, and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011-13. The book can be highly recommended. It is rich in lessons.
What is clear throughout is the sharpness of the distinction between the upheavals of 1968-81 and those since 1989. The working class is always present, of course, as it must be in almost any kind of mass protest movement in the modern world; but, in the neoliberal era, only occasionally and episodically as an organised working class, acting through its own mass organisations (unions, assemblies, parties).
Characteristic of most recent struggles is the predominance throughout of bourgeois leadership of one sort or another. Mass movements may propel to power a bourgeois opposition – more liberal, more democratic, more responsive to popular demands, at least initially.
But neoliberal capitalism, with its imperatives of exploitation and accumulation, goes unchallenged in this ‘political circus of recycled elites’. The system’s failure to generate a new paradigm of capitalist development means that the incoming elite has little to offer. It reimposes neoliberal policies, cracks down on resistance, and, in due course, is liable to face further popular uprisings.
The film of history keeps being re-run. This is the general pattern. Let us now consider this process in more detail.
From Consent to Coercion
When the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci tried to get to grips with the resilience of capitalism in the face of popular revolt in the interwar period, he came up with the concepts of ‘hegemony’ and ‘commonsense’. Hegemony, he argued, was not simply a matter of crude indoctrination with reactionary ideas; it was something pervasive throughout the institutions, structures, processes, norms, and values of everyday social life. It became a set of commonsense notions – unquestioned, inescapable, taken for granted – which guided ordinary people in their daily lives.
Crucially, however, hegemony and commonsense – making possible a large measure of consent to class rule – were anchored in social and political realities that appeared to give people some stake in the system. This was the particular advantage of liberal parliamentary democracy – with its elections, national assemblies, local councils, democratic freedoms, etc – over dictatorship. This was the advantage of a system which allowed trade unions to organise, social-democratic parties to operate, welfare reforms to be enacted. The state appeared to represent the universal interests of society as a whole, its governance determined by the people themselves.
Neoliberalism shattered this conception. Deregulation removed social protections. Cuts, outsourcing, and privatisation caused public service and welfare provision to decay. Anti-union laws and police violence against workers broke the power of organised labour.
In the Global South, ‘structural adjustment programmes’ imposed by the IMF and the World Bank – and implemented by local elites – eviscerated national-development programmes, exposed fragile economies to competition from global capital, and caused unemployment and poverty to skyrocket.
The earthworks of civil society eroded away. The integral state became the coercive state. Corruption and cronyism – linking local elites with global capital – flourished.
Other factors, too, were corroding the foundations of hegemony and commonsense. Untrammelled transnational corporate power was unleashed on the world, and the speed with which capital turned over accelerated sharply with digitalised communications, global supply-chains, and click-button movements of money. In this neoliberal churn, hundreds of millions were dispossessed and displaced, rupturing old patterns of social life, trampling underfoot inherited structures, routines, and mores. Vast slum mega-cities became the holding-centres of the newly precarious and newly surplus.
On the one hand, neoliberalism created a looser, more unstable, more volatile, more unpredictable and explosive social mass. On the other, it destroyed much of the old infrastructure of resistance – class-based community, rooted labour organisation, collective memories of struggle. Trade unions shrank in size, workplace organisation atrophied, strike rates plummeted. And something else was lost: the very idea of power from below and socialism.
With the retreat of the state and the collapse of Stalinism (‘actually existing socialism’) in 1989, much of the Left lost its bearings. Both the social-democratic/reformist and Stalinist traditions had oriented on the state. Socialism was to be either the gift of a liberal-democratic state captured by socialist politicians or that of a state-capitalist regime run by a bureaucratic dictatorship. Neither of the two dominant left traditions thought in terms of socialism below – the working class acting for itself, building alternative structures, fighting for a new democratic order based on popular assemblies.
The Left has met the neoliberal era, especially the period of deep crisis since 2008, weak and disoriented. This has enabled bourgeois/neoliberal political forces – social-democratic, liberal, even conservative – to retain control over political processes set in motion by successive popular uprisings.
In particular, the politics of popular uprisings, though these tend to be powered by social distress, have tended to crystallise around the question of democracy – liberal parliamentary democracy – and this has allowed recycled elites to retain their grip on the standard of revolt. The shift to coercion, the militarisation of the relationship between states/elites and the common people, has had the ironic consequence of preventing political revolutions from ‘growing over’ into social revolutions.
Towards Dual Power?
The separation between economics and politics has always been a central feature of bourgeois society. The fusion of the two, on the other hand, has always been central to socialist revolution.
In bourgeois society, the realm of private property, capital accumulation, and social relations of exploitation is kept distinct from that of parties, elections, parliaments, and governments. The former, the economic foundation of the social order, is a given, something permanent, inevitable, not in question. The latter, the political superstructure, rests on this foundation. So liberal parliamentary democracy is limited in two senses: not only is it representative, not direct; but also it operates only in a narrowly defined political realm, not in the workplaces, on the estates, or in the community.
It is only when this separation begins to break down that we move towards a social-revolutionary crisis; that is, when people begin to organise themselves democratically and take direct action at the base. It is when workers take over the factories, peasants take over the land, and communities take over the running of estates, schools, hospitals, etc that the very existence of capitalism itself is brought into question.
So long as the system can corral popular discontent within the frameworks of the bourgeois state – reducing it to matter of recycled elites – it faces no substantive challenge. Whereas the emergence of organs of direct democracy – the Russian soviets of 1917, the Italian factory councils of 1920, the Spanish collectives of 1936, the Chilean cordones of 1972, the Iranian shuras of 1979, the Argentine asambleas populares of 2001 – creates a potential ‘dual power’, two alternative state forms co-existent in a moment of revolutionary crisis, the old repressive bourgeois apparatus on the one hand, the new people’s state emerging organically in the context of mass struggle from below on the other.
What has prevented the development of forms of dual power in most revolutions of the neoliberal era? What has guaranteed that they have been limited to mass street protests that it has been possible either to crush (by police action) or contain (by democratic concessions)?
Let us consider for a moment a partial exception. During Bolivia’s Water and Gas Wars in the early 2000s – a wave of mass struggle that eventually brought Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) to power in 2006 – the epicentre was the slum city of El Alto. Located on the edge of a highland plain, El Alto looks down on La Paz, the national capital, situated in the lowland plain below. It is home to a fast-growing proletarian population, many of them originally ex-miners or indigenous peasants, which by the early 2000s numbered around 650,000 and is now around a million.
Both the miners and the peasants imported a culture of resistance into El Alto. As the struggle rose, El Alto was organised into a network of popular assemblies, some representing neighbourhoods, others particular groups of workers or renters or consumers. At the peak of the struggle, huge columns of protestors would descend from El Alto into La Paz, laying siege to the neoliberal regime of the president. Other times, under full-scale police attack, barricades would be erected on approach roads and tens of thousands would mobilise to defend the slum.
El Alto – like Petrograd in 1917, Barcelona in 1936, or Budapest in 1956 – formed a revolutionary vanguard, a model of organisation and militancy, that galvanised resistance across the country. Convulsed by strikes, demonstrations, and street battles in October 2003, with the numbers filling downtown La Paz reaching 400,000, the neoliberal regime collapsed when the president fled.
The popular movement did not take power. Its energy was funnelled by Evo Morales’s MAS – and this, a left-reformist ‘pink tide’ party propelled to power in 2006, eventually accommodated to neoliberalism, making new contracts with foreign corporations, expanding the extractive sector of the economy, deprioritising local industry and small-scale agriculture.
But Bolivia’s great revolutionary crisis might have taken a more radical turn, because two essential prerequisites of socialist revolution were in place: a network of rooted, stable, popular mass organisations based on popular assemblies and direct democracy; and organised, sizeable, openly anti-capitalist/revolutionary political currents embedded in this network.
One could cite other examples. The 2001 movement in Argentina involved factory takeovers, popular assemblies, and a militant movement of the unemployed. The 2019 revolution in Sudan was co-ordinated by networks of neighbourhood resistance committees.
But none of these movements has succeeded in breaking the neoliberal straight-jacket; none has been able to move from protest and resistance towards self-emancipation based on direct democracy; none has been able, in this way, to pose the question of state power. So far.
From Hegemony to Capitalist Realism
This historic failure of the radical imagination has occurred in the context of an extraordinary collapse in hegemony. Opinion polls and election results reveal plummeting levels of support for politicians, judges, police, and media; and, more broadly, for corporations, state functionaries, and all kinds of bureaucratic authority.
The term ‘democratic deficit’ fails to capture the depth of the cynicism and withdrawal. The whole social order is perceived to be a racket, the elites who preside over it uniformly corrupt and self-serving. Neoliberalism faces a potentially fatal ‘crisis of legitimacy’.
What has prevented this from turning into a social-revolutionary challenge? I want to suggest three factors:
The prevalence of capitalist realism
I am, of course, using the term coined by the late Mark Fisher. I think it captures a fundamental ideological challenge facing the Left in the early 21st century. I shall underline the point with a historical comparison.
It is no exaggeration to say that between the 1880s and the 1970s there were literally tens of millions of people who believed that socialism was a viable alternative to capitalism capable of realisation in the near future.
This was not just the vision of a revolutionary minority. It was inscribed on the banners, written into the constitutions, and proclaimed from the platforms of the labour and social-democratic movements as a whole. The argument between revolutionaries and reformists was not about the aim – socialism – only the method – insurrection to overthrow the state versus elections to secure control of it and legislate the new order into existence.
The neoliberal counter-revolution has largely eradicated this socialist vision. The smashing of labour organisation, the degeneration of social democracy, the collapse of Stalinism, the retreat of the state, the evisceration of public services and welfare provision, the disintegration of stable working-class communities – these developments have destroyed the very foundations of the socialist vision.
What remains is a far more pervasive ‘commonsense’ than Gramsci could have imagined to the effect that there really is no alternative to capitalism. The organised working class of the 1930s was instinctively socialist. Atomised, alienated, and anomic, the disorganised working class of today finds it, as Fredric Jameson put it, ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’.
The rise of the Authoritarian Right
We have written extensively about creeping fascism elsewhere. We have also made an explicit link with William I Robinson’s concept of the global police state. These two developments are complementary.
On the one hand, the system’s crisis of legitimacy, in the context of rising social distress and discontent, has given rise to a radical ideological shift away from progressive universalism towards authoritarian nationalism and racism, that is, from a politics based on general wellbeing to a politics based on scapegoating, chauvinism, and hatred. On the other, we have seen a marked shift towards coercive, repressive, militarised state power.
The ideological shift is rooted in a pandemic of extreme narcissistic individualism – effectively, the internalisation of the dominant neoliberal culture of competition, materialism, and selfishness which has flourished with the decay of integrative civil-society institutions.
Working-class communities were once bound together by ties of family, neighbourhood, union, political party, and generic class consciousness. Much of this has gone. The individual has been cast into a dystopian social world of instrumental interactions, implacable bureaucracy, and existential loneliness. This is the seed-bed of the new fascism.
It is different in many ways from the that of the 1930s. One difference relevant to the argument here is that it is largely without substance. Whereas interwar fascists offered jobs and security in the context of national economic recovery, the new fascists, in service to transnational capital, offer mainly psychological compensation for lowly status and meagre rewards.
The term ‘sado-populism’ has been used to describe this. Deep-rooted psychic insecurity, emptiness, and rage achieves catharsis in the abuse of others. It is the nightmare depicted in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
‘If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’
The absence of revolutionary agency
The predominance of social democracy and Stalinism – both variants of state-oriented ‘socialism from above’ – between the 1920s and 1970s casts a long shadow over our world. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,’ Marx wrote in his analysis of the failure of the 1848 revolution in France. So it is with us.
Buried under a mountain of social-democratic obfuscation and Stalinist calumny is the revolutionary tradition of ‘socialism from below’, of the self-emancipation of the working class, of the smashing of capital and the state by a popular movement based on direct democracy and mass mobilisation.
This is not an alternative to ‘socialism from above’: it is the only kind of socialism there is. The social democrats managed a capitalist economy and introduced only such reforms as were compatible with it. The Stalinists created a state-capitalist economy based on exploitation and accumulation – different in form but not substance from corporate-capitalism.
Not the least problem we face is the legacy of theoretical muddle we have inherited from the 20th century Left. We have to restore to general view the real Marxist tradition and win a new generation to its central conception of popular power, of working people acting for themselves to change the world – and not stopping until they have smashed the repressive state, taken over the corporations, and dispossessed the rich of their wealth.
The Revolutionary Imagination
One of the reasons it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism is that the world as we know it could very well end yet capitalism still survive. Is it not perfectly possible to imagine a form of capitalism amid the wreckage of ecological and social breakdown? Or even amid the radioactive winter following a nuclear war?
Capital is the self-expansion of value. It is an eternal process of exploitation and accumulation. Throughout history, it has displayed immense powers of both regeneration and implantation.
Modern failed states like Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, and the Congo offer clear examples. Societies rendered inert by war, displacement, and impoverishment, where humanity is plunged into a primitive struggle to survive, have spawned virulent forms of warlord and gangster capitalism.
On a global scale, in a future dominated by the Authoritarian Right, we can imagine enclaves of ethno-barbarism, where centres of capital accumulation are sheltered within a repressive apparatus of militarised borders, concentration camps, state surveillance, mass indoctrination, and police violence – something akin to Stalinist Russia in the 1930s – or, for that matter, its satirical caricature, Orwell’s Airstrip One (Britain) in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Those who argue that everyone – the rich included – have an interest in averting catastrophe are fools. I am sorry to be blunt. But we cannot afford the luxury of political stupidity.
The rich are personifications of capital, of the process of capital accumulation, of its logics and imperatives. They are congenitally incapable of anti-capitalist action. Like every ruling class in history, they will protect their wealth and power by defending the system on which it depends by any means necessary – by war, by fascism, by genocide, by whatever it takes.
In the film Elysium (2013), the rich and powerful live on a luxurious artificial world above the Earth, while the mass of humanity fester on the planet below amid poverty, disease, and squalor. Versions of this dystopia are already in preparation. The super-rich market for luxury yachts and private islands is booming. Billionaires have become space tourists.
Yet many of the preconditions for an international revolution of the working class, the oppressed, and the poor already exist.
The productive capacity of the world economy has never been greater. It is now sufficient to satisfy all the basic material needs of the whole of humanity. A socialist economy, moreover – one reconfigured a) for efficiency and sustainability, b) to eliminate all forms of waste, and c) to serve human need not private profit or war making – could rapidly and massively increase the production of socially useful goods and services.
The working class is now the great majority of the world’s people. Concentrated in large workplaces and mega-cities, it is capable – as the revolutionary rehearsals of the neoliberal era have demonstrated again and again – of prodigious feats of organisation, mobilisation, and resistance. Occasionally, too, it has revealed its capacity to bring the social crisis to a decisive point by creating an embryonic alternative state based on new organs of participatory democracy.
Then there is the depth and intractability of the accelerating crisis of the system, a compound crisis that now constitutes a clear and present danger to human civilisation, that threatens us with comprehensive ecological and social breakdown in the decades ahead.
What is missing is socialist consciousness – or what I am calling here ‘revolutionary imagination’ – of the kind which inspired millions of people in the early 20th century.
Consciousness and imagination must be organised. To become a political force they must be embodied in mass organisations or parties.
Revolutionaries cannot predict when social discontent will explode into mass struggle, let alone trigger it by their own actions. What they can assume, given the depth of the crisis, the volatility of the social mass, and the huge number and range of popular explosions we have seen in the neoliberal era, is that we live in an age of revolution. The question is not if there will be further explosions, but when and where.
But we cannot know when and where until it happens. The whole history of revolutionary movements is a history of sudden, spontaneous, unexpected ruptures.
Revolutionaries who say there will not be a revolution in the next decade are mystics, not Marxists. They pretend to have a crystal ball, to be able to see into the future, to know what cannot be.
The job of revolutionaries is to prepare. The job of revolutionaries is to live what George Lukacs called ‘the actuality of the revolution’. This means knowing that revolution is an existential imperative, that revolutionary crises will recur, that such crises may generate forms of dual power, and that direct democracy and socialist transformation may then be on the agenda.
Preparing means involvement in every immediate, partial, reformist struggle, but always, in the context of such struggles, seeking to generalise, deepen, and spread the resistance, and seeking also to project a radical vision of a single, massive, multi-faceted but unified explosion.
It is necessary to organise revolutionary consciousness and imagination by building anti-capitalist parties – in whatever form – in the present. While it is true that mass organisations grow out of mass movements, it is also true that the organisations that grow most will tend to be those that achieve critical mass soonest.
A revolutionary crisis is a fracture, a gap in time, a moment of supreme opportunity. The ruling class will close up the fracture as quickly as possible by whatever mix of coercion and concession seems most apposite. Revolutionaries have to work to prise it open and persuade the masses that they must force their way through.
As Daniel Bensaïd put it:
‘Be ready! Ready for the improbable, for the unexpected, for what happens.’
To be ready, we must build an organised expression of revolutionary consciousness and imagination.
All the objective conditions exist for a red-green revolution. What is missing is the subjective condition: an international network of socialist revolutionaries who are the embodiment of a vision of direct democracy, anti-capitalist revolution, and the world transformed.