Thoughts on the Left’s Response to Capitalism’s Global Death Spiral

For those whose personal and political identities are virtually indistinguishable, these are especially vexing times. Specifically, during this historical stage of capitalism it’s challenging to abide by Gramsci’s optimism of the will and heart and not acquiesce to pessimism of the mind, to the intellect’s awareness of certain recalcitrant realities in our world. And residing in the belly of the global beast also compounds one’s sense of personal responsibility.

In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx, with assistance from Friedrich Engels, wrote: “All that is solid melts in the air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face facts with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relation to his kind.” It hasn’t exactly come to pass, has it? It’s true, as the two young German philosophers predicted, that to survive, capitalism must constantly revolutionize the means of production, but its current global iteration presages a dystopia that promises to destroy us all. Will this occur before the working class slips off its chains and, shovels in hand, begins digging the graves of the bourgeoisie? The time frame is perilously short but can we honestly claim to be near the Manifesto’s “sober sense” today, that capitalism has forced us to see things as they really are? And even if that moment arrives, what then?

Several weeks after penning a long piece about my Norwegian-American ancestors and U.S. settler colonialism, my personal muse had remained ominously silent and until today, I’ve been forced to follow suit. My Facebook page continues to feature daily doses of memes, photos, Thursday music, and inspiring quotations but they mostly functioned to keep flagging morale (my own and others) in check until new or refashioned old ideas surfaced.

In that vein, as I peruse the usual left-wing web sites, I note that working class grievances remain in heavy rotation where they receive insightful treatment by some immensely talented writers. I don’t for a moment discount the importance of fighting to prevent matters from getting worse or pursuing genuine non-reformist reforms.

However, except for a few exemplary essayists like Chris Hedges, I also discern a paucity of pieces addressing the “big picture,” the larger framework under which everything else is subsumed and especially, how to dismantle that system. Even the most witheringly effective indictments of our social, economic, political and intellectual life will mention the causal link to capitalism but then invariably trail off and conclude with permutations on the tired coda “We are the solution.”

It’s my strong sense that we need more imaginative thinking and discussion about how to rid the planet of corporate capitalism and the psychopathic predator class’s power and control that’s responsible for monstrous crimes, obscene inequality and an accelerating death spiral toward mass extinction.

Even authors who take on the daunting task of delineating what a better future might look like, rarely engage in or encourage speculation on how to get there. And let me quickly add that I’m as guilty as anyone for reiterating alarmist warnings that “the sky is falling” (Henny Penny was right) but then assuming that simply laying out irrefutable facts will convince people that revolutionary measures are not only warranted but overdue.

Bob Dylan once wrote “When you ain’t got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose.” But just how often is this the case in First World settings like the United States where members of the working class know they’re getting screwed over but also know that they’ve at least survived. Further, they’re also realizing that “working within the system” — like expecting salvation from the deplorable Democrats — is a transparent fool’s errand.

Even as people increasingly “get” this, taking the next step is very serious business. Conjuring up Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has poignantly posed the question, “Should I conform to the prevailing order, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous forces bestowed upon me by one of history’s irresistible forces? Or should I join those forces, taking up arms against the status quo and, by opposing it, usher in a brave new world?” Quite understandably, people are hesitant, even fearful. For us not to acknowledge that fear is disingenuous, self-defeating and patronizing. It also fails to convey sufficient humility because we can’t offer any guarantees about the future. However, keeping this reality in mind, we must attempt to move forward.

By my lights, the only remaining viable option — and its chances for success are exceedingly slim — is “street heat” that our overlords and their enablers can’t absorb and co-opt. The latter has already happened with Black Lives Matter and the once promising Poor People’s Campaign. Both performed inestimable service but now behave more like adjuncts to the Democratic Party.

We need a multiracial, class-based movement willing to engage in waves of sustained, non-violent civil disobedience where the risk of arrest is likely. Embracing creative tactics involving occupations (think, indigenous people’s resistance encampments in U.S. and Canada) wildcat strikes, protest pop-ups, unofficial walkouts and selective sabotage will assume important roles. A multitude of activities, all of equal value, are indispensable to success.

Kim Petersen, an astute political analyst and former co-editor at Dissident Voice, notes that ideally this would morph into a general strike requiring a “steadfastness of purpose” and solidarity in the face of a certain ruthless response to crush it. At that point, it’s not inconceivable that defections within the ranks of the army, national guard and police will occur.

A first step in this process is encouraging people to think and converse about the immediacy of this threat. Reminding people of all the radical resistance in U.S. history is important as is participating in small acts of resistance that can be the embryonic stage, the catalyst for major social and political transformation. They can be useful exercises for those experiencing physical and emotional discomfort at breaking the law for the first time, a sort of confidence building dress rehearsal.

We are left with the following: On the one hand, prematurely engaging in large-scale resistance without further educational efforts, patience and due diligence is tantamount to undisciplined, ultra-left childishness. It would be gift to the ruling class. On the other hand, waiting too long to act is to court mass death. It’s not hyperbole to assume that if don’t take matters into our own hands, survival itself will be problematic for our children and grandchildren.

Finally, although much of the above sounds Dr. Gloom and Doomish, even bordering on existential dread, that would be a misreading of my intent. As long as I remain a sentient being, I won’t give up or give in to the dark side. For me and many others the Rosa Luxemberg’s “socialism or barbarism” remains the only alternative. The numbers are overwhelmingly on our side and my will and heart tell me that “A People United Can Never Be Defeated!” isn’t just a catchy rally chant if enough people believe it.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Contact: Per usual, thanks to Kathleen Kelly, my in-house ed. Read other articles by Gary.