I am not a patriot and I have no interest in national security. The only thing that matters is working-class security. The working people of what are presently constituted as Russia and China are not my enemy. The working people of what is presently constituted as the United States are not my enemy. My enemy is a global capitalism that is destroying working-class communities around the world and the Earth’s precious, ecological balance on which all life depends.
Not only our future prosperity but our very survival as a species is at stake. The struggle is an existential one, to build an economy that for the first time in history, feeds, clothes and houses billions of working people in dignity and in health while preventing irreversible climate change.
Globalised capitalism is economic and environmental oppression imposed through nation states and enforced by a giant, military-industrial complex. The capitalist future is of massive and growing wealth inequalities between the elites and ordinary working people, of ecological collapse, and of authoritarian states using national security as a weapon against working-class resistance.
We either fight back as a united, working-class movement or perish as wage slaves on a dying planet. We either take back the resources that rightfully belong to working-class communities or allow the capitalist elites to gorge themselves in one last spasm of material excess.
The global working classes will dismantle the military-industrial complex, eliminate the artificial construct of capitalist nation states, and create a new economy that utilises human, technological and natural resources for social need and ecological recovery. This is the age of the proletariat and the Commonwealth of Anarchy.
Strategic Insecurity – The Global Military-Industrial Complex
Capitalism as a global system depends on access to finite resources, secured through imperial power and military coercion. European nations, having consolidated state authority and the internal monopoly of violence, dominated early forms of imperialism, including the use of slave labour. These were the first, modern nation-states with a central, tax-raising administration, and a military and civil infrastructure for mass, industrialised warfare.
In the early 20th Century, European imperialism was superseded by that of the United States, the first continental, capitalist nation state, straddling both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Its leaders anticipated the threat of an energy crisis, where continued growth of the rapidly expanding US economy could not be met through domestic production of fossil fuels. The United States’ industrial pre-eminence depended on access to oil from overseas suppliers.
Through the 1930s, US corporations began a systematic exploration of the vast, Saudi-Arabian oil fields, and in 1945 President Roosevelt met with King Saud to sign an accord providing the United States with long-term access in return for US security guarantees and military equipment. This symbolised the creation of a new, petrochemical imperialism dominated by the United States with support from European allies. It incorporated the oligarchies of the Persian Gulf for supplies of oil and gas, as well as the authoritarian regimes of East Asia for other, essential raw materials.
The Second World War demonstrated the United States’ unprecedented capacity for armaments manufacture, ranging from aircraft carriers in the Pacific and land forces in Europe, to the bomber squadrons that rained down devastation on the civilian populations of Japan and Germany. The over-riding, strategic aims of the Allies were to end the Nazi domination of Europe and an expansionary Japanese imperialism in East Asia that threatened Western interests. A temporary alliance with the Soviet Union and tacit support for the communist forces in China, fighting a guerilla war against the occupying Japanese army, were part of that overall strategy.
By the end of the war those arrangements had been jettisoned. Europe was divided into spheres of influence between the United States and the USSR, while the Chinese communists were successfully conducting a civil war against the pro-Western, nationalist forces. For the elites of the United States this was now a global struggle between capitalism and communism, between irreconcilable, ideological enemies.
A highly-secret document, NSC-68, published in 1950, set out the principles and the agenda of the neo-conservative, Cold-War warriors at the heart of the US establishment. Although nominally at peace, the United States had to be mobilised on a war footing and be prepared for a nuclear and conventional arms race with the USSR that might last for decades. Underpinning this strategy was a simple calculation, that the Soviet Union, with a much smaller economy than the United States, would face a disproportionate burden, diverting scarce resources from civil investment and consumption into armaments. The Cold War was to be both a global, military confrontation driven by US technological supremacy and a form of economic attrition intended to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
For the first time in history there existed a permanent, peace-time military-industrial complex dominated by the giant arms corporations, supported by the national laboratories and other government research establishments, and all guaranteed long-term, public funding for the research, development and manufacture of nuclear and conventional weapons.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the United States constructed a global, military infrastructure in Europe and the Pacific, including air-force bases in West Germany, Italy and the UK, and turning the occupied islands of Hawaii, Okinawa and Guam into giant barracks supporting its Pacific carrier fleets. A final element was the secret, NSA global, intelligence network for the interception of electronic communications, utilising an array of spy satellites and ground-based relay stations.
The Soviet Union compensated for its technological inferiority by having a mass, conscript army stationed in Eastern Europe against the threat of another invasion from the West. But it was also prepared to compete with the United States in deploying tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and a full range of conventional armaments as the Cold War gathered momentum.
Such unprecedented, peace-time mobilisation did not go without criticism. In his 1961, farewell address, Eisenhower warned against the accumulating power of the military-industrial complex, having made previous criticisms during his presidency that excessive military spending involved an opportunity cost of lost investment in schools, hospitals and civil infrastructure. But cold-war paranoia, deliberately orchestrated and fuelled by the neo-conservatives, had created an unstoppable momentum, overwhelming any opposition.
The permanent, peace-time war-machine was now seen as essential to national security. Any economic concerns over excessive military expenditure were outweighed by the association of armaments production and military research with high-technology innovation that contributed to skilled manufacturing work and full employment.
The United States expanded its control of oil and gas supplies across the entire Persian Gulf region through its support to despots and dictators. The main objectives were to guarantee access for Western oil corporations, suppress any democratic opposition to US imperialism and to provide military bases for US power projection.
A fundamental challenge came with the election in Iran of a nationalist, progressive government under President Mossadeq in 1953, with a popular mandate to nationalise oil production in order to fund desperately needed anti-poverty programmes. The CIA oversaw a military coup that removed Mossadeq and installed a pro-Western puppet-regime in its place. The pattern of US subversion against democratic movements extended across the continents of Africa and Central and South America. The CIA funded and armed military dictatorships and right-wing, authoritarian regimes and also organised coups against democratically-elected, left-wing governments, as with Chile in 1973.
Despite challenges, including the communist revolution in Cuba and the defeat of US forces in Vietnam, the pattern of economic imperialism, underpinned by military coercion, proved remarkably successful, extending control over the global, petrochemical economy. The military-industrial complex now dominated all government institutions and was guaranteed sustained, long-term public funding for new generations of armaments.
By the late 1980s, the Soviet Union faced collapse, economically exhausted by the Cold War and with the communist leadership unable to maintain authority as it desperately attempted to carry out a fundamental, economic restructuring. Russia’s new leadership formally dismantled the Soviet Union in 1991 and pushed through a rapid privatisation programme, effectively a fire-sale of state assets that led to economic chaos and the virtual collapse of manufacturing output. What emerged was a kleptocracy, a billionaire, capitalist class that took control of Russia’s oil and gas reserves for sale on world markets.
In contrast, China’s communist leadership retained political control through the oppression of widespread protests against authoritarian rule. The economy was opened to foreign investment and to rapid expansion around the mass production of consumer goods for Western markets. State industries retained a strategic role in arms production but a nominally communist regime was now fully integrated into globalised capitalism with its own billionaire elite.
Perhaps even the cold-war warriors of NSC 68 would have been surprised by the sheer scale of their victory. The ideological challenge of communism had been effectively eliminated and Western corporations had extended their privileged access to strategic resources, all underpinned by the military supremacy of the United States.
Manipulation of popular fear and anxiety during the Cold War had proved highly effective in generating acceptance of the permanent, peace-time military-industrial complex. The collapse of communism was swiftly followed by the manufacture of other, necessary enemies and, even though stripped of any ideological context, they served a similar function. Rogue states, the axis of evil, terrorism, or more recently, the reinvention of China and Russia as rivals on the classic, balance-of-power chessboard, all contributed to the growing architecture of western militarism.
None of this was inevitable and the modern world could have looked very different. Elevating communism to an existential threat was always nonsense and a less confrontational policy could have created the momentum for continued disarmament at the end of the Second World War as the platform for civil, economic reconstruction. The original plan of the Allies had been for a neutral and demilitarised Germany at the centre of a revitalised, European economy, freed from the burden of military spending. Instead, the continent was divided into competing power blocs. Even Marshall Aid, intended to support the continent’s civil, economic recovery through US loans, was transformed into military funding for armaments production in Western Europe.
Similarly, at the end of the Cold War, Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership put forward a comprehensive plan for nuclear and conventional disarmament. Resources would be freed for civil investment, allied to international development funding and environmental programmes that addressed the growing threat from climate change. For a brief period during the early 1990s that Common Security agenda looked as if it might be taken seriously but, despite some modest reductions in military spending, the popular hopes for a substantial peace dividend never materialised. Instead. the US neo-conservatives used the NSC-68 playbook for a new round of militarism.
We now have a global insecurity system and a global military-industrial complex to oversee the petrochemical economy in favour of capitalist elites. Authoritarian powers are being extended in the name of national security to protect those elite interests, alongside a comprehensive, electronic surveillance network and a militarised police force to suppress popular protest. The military-industrial complex feeds on this self-generated insecurity to consolidate its institutional power.
This is the exact opposite of real, working-class security, of a demilitarised and democratically-owned economy focused on social utility and on the existential threat of irreversible climate change.
Economic and Environmental Insecurity
The birth of capitalism was the death of humanity. The crisis is both economic and environmental. When England’s mill owners first organised production around fossil-fuels and a mass workforce, they created the perfect storm. Firstly, an economic system that generated vast inequalities of wealth between a capitalist elite and an urbanised, working class, forced by land enclosures into the grim factory regimes and slum housing of the cities. Its labour value, the real source of wealth, was appropriated as profit. Secondly, a form of industrialisation that was only possible through the fossilised energy of coal, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and filth into the rivers. All environmental costs were dismissed as externalities.
Those dynamics are stronger today than they have ever been. Capitalist corporations have created a global proletariat and an international division of labour. The most obvious examples are the giant assembly plants in China, where consumer goods are produced by mass workforces to service Western markets through global supply networks. Components are sourced from subsidiaries in other East-Asia countries connected, in turn, to raw materials extracted from deep underground by the miners of Africa and South America. All are subject to the same capitalist dynamic of low wages, corporate profit expropriation and elite wealth accumulation, at the expense of the material needs of the workers who produce the wealth.
Capitalism’s inherent environmental destructiveness is demonstrated by the historical record of the major oil corporations. In the 1970s, clear, scientific evidence existed that fossil-fuel emissions were already having a serious impact on the global environment through raised temperatures. The oil corporations funded their own, secret studies that anticipated the melting of the ice caps and raising of sea levels. But those findings were suppressed.
Even as the scientific consensus emerged in the 1980s on dangers from climate change that required curbs to fossil-fuel emissions, and rather than endanger profitability, the oil corporations mobilised their collective resources for a cynical campaign of disinformation, obfuscation and political lobbying to undermine that consensus. They insisted that no clear, causal relationship could be made between carbon emissions and temperature rises, a grotesque and despicable lie.
Only after decades of obstruction, when the causal chain had become scientifically irrefutable and popular agitation for action on climate change unignorable, did the oil corporations publicly accept the science that they had perverted. By then, massive and, potentially, irreparable damage had been done. While a series of international climate accords requested reductions, the overall levels of carbon have continued to increase year by year and are still on an upward trajectory.
The planet is entering the final stages of capitalist ecocide. The scientific warnings have, if anything, seriously underestimated the scale and urgency of the unfolding ecological catastrophe. Only in the last year of heat domes, with the highest temperatures ever recorded in human history, of biblical floods and forest infernos, has it been acknowledged by governments that this is an existential crisis. Nor can it be characterised as a long-term process, with robust natural systems that will gradually recover through remedial action on emissions, returning the climate to something like it was prior to the industrial revolution.
The real significance of the climate tipping-point should be its immediacy. A recognition that beyond a certain level, one we may already have reached, nature’s vitality and resilience become an illusion. Life’s wonderful diversity exists only because of an extraordinary balance of natural forces whose inter-relationships across land, sea and air, we barely comprehend. Capitalism is a wrecking-ball destroying those complex eco-systems and, potentially, all life on the planet. Our generation bears witness as species become extinct, as Pacific islands disappear into the ocean, as droughts bake arable land, as cities are submerged under hurricane storms and tidal floods.
The future of working-class communities requires an immediate cessation to fossil-fuel production but capitalism’s response is diametrically the opposite, to maximise the return on corporate investment and protect the material accumulation of the elites. All this is wrapped up in the diversionary rhetoric of the transition to a post-carbon economy where reductions in the most polluting elements will take place, particularly the phasing out of coal, along with corporate diversification into renewable energy. Carbon capture and other technological innovations complete the picture of a comprehensive strategy that avoids what the capitalists propagandise as the threat of economic chaos from an abrupt end to fossil-fuel production, as they, benevolently, usher in a new era of clean energy.
But under their strategy, even if coal is eliminated, peak oil production will occur only in the 2040s or 2050s. This timescale is necessary for the transition to a broader, petrochemical corporatism, controlling a supply chain that extends from fossil-fuel energy at source, to the full range of carbon-based products, including plastics and nitrates. There will certainly be a higher proportion of renewables in the future energy mix but growth paths also require increased, overall energy-generation, in which fossil-fuels continue to play a significant role.
As essential raw materials become exhausted, energy-intensive extraction will be required to exploit less accessible resources. Further investments in fossil fuels are inevitable to generate the material base for the petrochemical economy. This will be capitalism’s final legacy, irreversible climate change and a petrochemical shroud over a dead planet.
The Rise of Working-class Politics and the Enabling State
From the earliest days of capitalism, a working-class and trade union movement emerged, determined to improve the lives of ordinary working people. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this was met with repression by the British ruling elite, haunted by the spectre of the French Revolution and by its rallying call for liberty, equality and democracy. Peaceful, mass demonstrations with limited objectives for electoral reform and trade union representation were violently suppressed, as with the Peterloo massacre in 1819. Only after decades of popular protest and campaigns was male suffrage gained.
The Labour movement, itself, was divided between revolutionary elements agitating for the overthrow of capitalism and those advocating parliamentary representation and reform. For communists, human history was a series of economic eras, with capitalism as the final, if brutal, industrial and technological transformation that would lead to a communist society. The seeds of communism rested with the industrial proletariat, a working-class that, collectively, challenged the exploitation of labour by the capitalist class to bring about revolutionary change.
Marxists looked to a cadre of dedicated leaders as the vanguard of a communist party, while others in the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movement put forward the vision of grass-roots, economic democracy and workers control. Issues of production and distribution would be decided on a local basis through direct democracy in which all workplaces were represented. The ultimate objective was the dismantling of state institutions and all forms of state power.
Irrespective of these ideological divisions, post-capitalist revolutionaries were agreed on the emancipatory potential of a new, proletarian age. The world’s resources were sufficient, not only to provide for the basic material needs of all working people, but also to realise their full potential as individuals sharing socially-useful work, combined with free time for personal creativity. Even at this early stage, the environmental threat from pollution was recognised but there was also confidence that an ecological balance between nature and humanity could be restored in a post-capitalist society free from elite accumulation.
The main focus of the labour movement during these decades was on parliamentary representation. The Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893, with the first Labour MPs elected in the early 1900s. Yet this was also a time of massive, industrial unrest and agitation, with strikes across major sectors of the economy. Although focused on wages and conditions, they were led by radical trade union leaders who were prepared to organise a general strike as the first stage in a revolutionary transformation. Working-class agitation spread from Europe to the United States and onto the emerging, global proletariat.
Imperial power struggles led to the First World War and to mass, industrialised carnage. But it also brought with it unprecedented economic and social upheaval and the first successful, communist revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks, under Lenin, overthrew a social-democratic government by offering ordinary Russian people an immediate end to a war that had led to mass slaughter and to severe food shortages. Soldiers abandoned the front-line and returned home with the promise of peace and land reform.
During this crucial, early period of the revolution, mass support rested on the soviets, self-organising workers councils, across all the main industries. The Bolshevik leadership saw these as a rival source of power and centralised all worker representation through the communist party, crushing the soviets completely. Elite, cadre control provided the perfect vehicle for state-authoritarianism under Stalin’s dictatorship.
Anarchists looked to the Paris Commune and the Spanish Civil War as examples of how a truly working-class, revolutionary movement could be organised. France had suffered a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, with the country invaded and partially occupied. The working people of Paris effectively took control of the city in resistance to the invasion. The main functions of government were carried out through the communes, local electoral districts, as the basis for a form of direct democracy, with a series of radical reforms including price controls on basic commodities and free education. The French government, determined to put down what it saw as a revolutionary threat to its authority, laid siege to the city, eventually defeating the Communards who were rounded up and summarily executed.
The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, witnessed the other significant attempt to create an anarchist, revolutionary movement, this time on a much larger scale, involving several regions of Spain and the major cities of Barcelona and Valencia. Spain’s Republican government faced a fascist coup led by elements of the army. A coalition of forces was brought together in the war against fascism, including anarcho-syndicalists who represented a significant element of the Spanish labour movement, advocating direct control of industry by workers.
During the early period of the Civil War, the Republican army successfully repelled the initial, fascist assault, providing the opportunity for anarchists to organise various forms of urban and rural workers control over production. Agricultural land was redistributed to cooperatives and workers councils planned the output of major industries in the cities.
But this was a period of intense disruptions to supplies and serious shortages of materials as the fascists launched a sustained assault on Republican-held territory. Internal disputes between the communist and anarchist forces erupted into violence, further weakening Republican resistance. Eventually the fascists, with superior armaments and supported by Nazi Germany, overwhelmed the Republican army. Hundreds of thousands were killed and many more forced into exile. Yet, as with the Paris Commune, for a short period of time, and despite overwhelming forces against them, a regional economy was organised in a clear and practical vision of anarcho-syndicalism intended to transform the lives of several million, ordinary working people.
For Labour movements in Western Europe, parliamentary representation had led to some post-war successes. In the UK, the Labour Party under Ramsey MacDonald formed a minority government, with Liberal support in 1924. Although in power for only a short period of time, it did carry out a slum clearance and council-house building programme, working closely with local authorities.
However, the most significant event in Labour history was not the first Labour government but the General Strike of 1926. The miners refused to accept a cut in wages and took industrial action, effectively closing down all coal production. The Trades Union Congress, with wide support from the labour movement, called a General Strike that, if successful, could have led to significant gains for working people. But the union leadership quickly capitulated to the Conservative government’s demand that the miners returned to work before any negotiations took place. The strike was called off, all momentum was lost and the miners forced back on reduced wages.
This major defeat was the prelude to economic depression and mass unemployment. The Wall Street Crash in 1929, a near total collapse in share prices following years of financial speculation, led to bank closures and dramatic falls in manufacturing output, spreading out from the United States to the global economy. The Great Depression was made even worse by the deflationary policies of governments, responding to falling tax revenues with steep cuts in public expenditure.
Rather than challenge this Treasury orthodoxy, the first majority Labour government, 1929-31, again with MacDonald as Prime Minister, fully endorsed and embraced it. Cuts were made to unemployment benefits as millions were thrown out of work. The Labour movement was torn apart as MacDonald and other senior members of the Labour cabinet formed a National Government, dominated by the Conservatives, to force through this programme against widespread opposition, as working people faced terrible poverty and destitution.
Out of this crisis emerged what would become the dominant, social-democratic model, the Enabling State, with active government policies to intervene and maintain full employment. According to Keynes, its leading theorist, the essential problem was a lack of overall demand in the economy. Rather than cut government expenditure in a depression, it should be expanded to provide an initial stimulus that, in turn, through a multiplier effect, created further demand across a range of goods and services. An economy returning to full employment would generate increased tax revenues, cancelling out any initial, government deficits.
To some extent, Keynesianism influenced Roosevelt’s New Deal in the mid-to-late 1930s, with US federal programmes such as road building and dam construction to provide employment and stimulate economic recovery. But, for social democrats, this form of government intervention was always only a temporary measure meant to restore confidence in the normal functioning of a capitalist economy. The New Deal was partially successful but unemployment remained a serious problem.
The onset of the Second World War demonstrated the real potential for active state intervention, in this case, to totally transform the economy from civil to military production, using a national planning framework for the allocation of materials and labour. It was this combination of active government investment and planning that would lay the foundations for a post-war economic reconstruction. The state had proved its ability to mobilise for war and would now be mobilised to win the peace for working people.
The prospects for a decisive victory against Germany and Japan had become clear once the United State joined the Allies and detailed plans for post-war reconstruction were well underway by 1942. But the Labour government, having won a landslide victory in 1945 on a popular mandate for radical change, faced what many thought were insurmountable problems. Government debt was at historically high levels, cities had been devastated by air raids, and there were shortages of basic materials. The post-war economy also had to absorb millions of armed forces personnel and those redeployed from arms production.
Yet there was also an absolute determination and resolve not to return to the economic orthodoxies of the 1930s that had led to depression and mass unemployment. Rather than the feared recession, demobilisation and the reconversion of industry were carried out quickly and effectively. The economy benefited from the release of pent-up savings, accumulated during the war, that were used to purchase consumer goods. This initial boost was sustained through active, government policies that, by 1947, had led to full employment.
Issues of debt repayment were secondary as the Labour government, with mass support from the labour movement, prioritised public investment, including the nationalisation and modernisation of coal, electricity and the railways; a slum clearance and council housebuilding programme co-ordinated with local authorities; the creation of a National Health Service free at the point of use, and basic welfare protection against unemployment and illness.
Despite the much-needed investment, that sense of radical purpose was not sustained. Nationalised industries, instead of being the platform for industrial democracy, became highly centralised, managerial bureaucracies. Other detailed plans to bring land into public ownership, overhaul agricultural production and to make the country self-sufficient in staple foods were never implemented.
Tragically, from the perspective of long-term, post-war reconstruction, the Labour leadership enthusiastically supported the United States in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and in the remilitarisation of the economy. Instead of leading Europe in civil investment and peaceful reconstruction, centred on assistance to a demilitarised and neutral Germany, the Attlee government turned the UK into an overseas base for the US air force, navy and the NSA. Billions of pounds were diverted to nuclear weapons and conventional rearmament as civil, public spending was cut and charges imposed on some NHS services. The post-war militarisation of the UK economy was as much a lasting legacy of the Attlee government as the NHS.
Public investment still retained a strategic role in rail, steel, coal, the utilities and, latterly, aerospace, shipbuilding and telecommunications. The UK also had a network of public research establishments, that despite the concentration on military R&D, extended into the physical sciences, engineering, health and agriculture. Local authorities continued their programmes for council housebuilding, and some local authorities maintained municipal farms.
The Enabling State also actively supported the trade union movement in its efforts to represent all working people on pay and conditions, both through legislation and at the workplace, asserting the rights to pensions, employment protection, sickness and holiday entitlements, as well as health and safety standards. Mass representation and collective strength gave working people confidence to put forward more radical proposals for workers control.
Perhaps the most significant in the UK was the Lucas Plan during the mid-1970s, designed by trade unionists representing all the various sites of the company around the UK. Instead of military production, at a time when redundancies were planned by the management because of cuts in orders, the Plan proposed a range of civil alternatives. These included medical, transport and environmental technologies that utilised the skills of the workers as well as the existing industrial capacity of the company.
At a national level, radical versions of the Enabling State were represented in a series of Alternative Economic Strategies, recognising the strategic value of public assets but calling for much wider public ownership, as well as substantial cuts to military expenditure and an arms conversion programme. This would be the Transitional State, for a new era of industrial democracy and workers control.
But far from being a platform towards a radical future of economic democracy and demilitarisation, the Enabling State was already unravelling, becoming the vehicle for a sustained attack on the labour movement that inflicted a more comprehensive defeat than even the General Strike.
The Neo-Liberal State and the Revenge of Capital
Longer-term trends towards capitalist accumulation were becoming clearer by the 1970s. Through mergers and acquisitions, global corporations were expanding their control of markets and locating production in low-wage economies. Financial capital reflected the power of the corporations, with massive currency flows beyond the control of nation states.
This was combined with a sustained attack by neo-liberals on the Keynesian model that underpinned the Enabling State. Government intervention, according to right-wing ideologues, far from stimulating the economy, was an expensive distortion responsible for high inflation and low growth, ultimately damaging the country’s international competitiveness. Trade unions artificially raised wages and costs while hindering the movement of workers out of declining industries into more profitable markets. In a globalising economy, with the free movement of capital based on the decisions of private corporations, the nation state had to attract inward investment by providing a skilled and flexible workforce.
The Labour government had already acceded to some of these demands when, at a time of growing unemployment, it cut public expenditure and imposed wage controls under the terms of a loan from the IMF in 1976. But this was only the prelude to a comprehensive political and ideological assault carried out by successive Conservative administrations on the very concept of a national, economic development framework, public ownership of industry and import and currency controls.
By the mid-1980s, the scale and extent of the neo-liberal assault was clear. Firstly, even the limited and defensive powers of the trade unions were smashed. Beginning with the miners, on strike against savage proposals for the closure of collieries around the country, the Thatcher government mobilised a carefully-constructed plan to maintain energy supplies using accumulated stocks of coal, while restricting benefits payments for miners’ families. The miners were effectively starved back to work and the pit closure plan enforced.
This was followed by a host of anti-trade union legislation, cuts to public expenditure and mass unemployment as manufacturing production slumped in the worst recession since the war. An accelerated programme of privatisation lay at the heart of the neo-liberal agenda, to inflict a decisive and irreversible defeat on the labour movement as a source of opposition to globalised capitalism. The Enabling State had simply proved to be a staging-post for the Neo-liberal State.
The New Labour government, elected under Tony Blair in 1997, enthusiastically endorsed, neo-liberalism. Public expenditure restraints were maintained and there was never any question of re-establishing public ownership, even of basic utilities, nor of a comprehensive, public-housing programme. Rather than legislate on trade union rights and trade union representation, New Labour oversaw a growing casualisation of work, with temporary contracts in what had previously been secure employment and enforced self-employment with companies shedding their responsibilities for pensions, sick pay and holiday entitlements.
The UK’s military-industrial complex was extended through the modernisation of the Trident, nuclear weapons system and a new generation of conventional weapons. Blair played a pivotal role in offering the United States both political and military support for the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 to secure oil supplies, deliberately misleading the country over the threat from weapons of mass destruction as legitimacy for a war that left hundreds of thousands dead and millions more as refugees.
But the triumph of neo-liberalism faced its first major challenge with the financial meltdown of 2007-08, ironically requiring forms of state intervention that would have been previously thought unimaginable. Again, as with the Great Depression of the 1930s, it emanated from the United States and spread across the world. Speculative property investments, using new financial instruments such as Credit Default Swaps, created a massive credit bubble. When the US stock markets were shaken by a slowdown in manufacturing demand, share prices overall fell, leading to the withdrawal of funds and a cascade of bad debts that left major financial institutions exposed to the threat of bankruptcy.
Only massive and co-ordinated state intervention by Western governments, including the nationalisation of banks, could stabilise the system, but at the cost of high government debt and continued support through quantitative easing to maintain liquidity in the economy. The neo-liberal states framed this, not as a crisis of capitalist speculation, but of excessive public financing that had to be resolved by austerity economics and by deep cuts to public expenditure and public services. Stabilising the financial system guaranteed that the assets of the capitalists elites increased in value, while essential services and public sector jobs were slashed, alongside real-term cuts to wages.
Despite continued state intervention, the economic recovery was only partial, depending on historically-low interest rates and further rounds of quantitative easing. There was never any indication of a return to the trend growth of the post-war era. If anything, clear signs of economic stagnation were emerging in both Europe and the United States before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, with all of its profound impacts that are still unfolding.
Whatever the future uncertainties, the pandemic already represents a fundamental crisis of neo-liberalism, one where the health, economic, environmental and political dimensions intersect to threaten every working-class community around the world.
Covid-19, both in its origins and scale, is a direct result of neo-liberal policies. Despite repeated warnings from health organisations that a global pandemic was probable, austerity economics had already undermined public health preparations, ranging from cuts to the network of early-warning centres that identified and isolated outbreaks, through to grossly inadequate protective equipment for hospital and care staff. Zoonotic transmission accelerated as global agribusiness cleared forests, replacing them with cash crops for animal fodder, transported, in turn, to intensively-farmed herds.
After the original outbreak in the Wuhan province, the Chinese authorities carried out the first large-scale lockdown to control the spread of the virus. Manufacturing output was badly hit, affecting Western corporations heavily dependent on the region and disrupting their supplier networks well before the epidemic spread to Western countries. When further, national lockdowns were announced, whole sectors of the global economy ground to a halt. Western governments were forced to intervene on a scale that was far more extensive than even the financial crisis. Central was a furlough scheme for millions of workers, with the state paying a large proportion of their wages, combined with loans and credit facilities to companies.
It is easy to be dazzled by the sheer scale of public expenditure and accumulated debt, even to view this as a sea-change towards active government on a scale not seen since the Second World War. But the agenda is not societal transformation, it is neo-liberal consolidation. Capitalist nation states have effectively used the emergency support schemes as a further form of state subsidy to globalised capitalism, this time, not simply to maintain liquidity in the economy as in 2007/08, but to directly guarantee the material assets and profitability of corporations.
Only this can explain continued share price increases at a time of negative growth in the economy and further widening of the already obscene division in wealth between the elites, protected in their luxury enclaves, and working people, exposed to a deadly disease and expected to return to unsafe workplaces or face the threat of unemployment and destitution.
Even as the economy was eased out of lockdown through mass vaccination programmes and as output levels recovered, there were predictable inflationary pressures and difficulties with global supply chains, leading to shortages and delays. Wages that had stagnated for a decade were hardly able to match cost-of-living rises. The tax burden to repay debt, although involving some increases on corporations, fell mainly on working people. Even the more optimistic forecasts saw the initial recovery as short-lived, with low growth levels through to the mid 2020s and even beyond.
Nearly two years on, the pandemic has not been resolved. Vaccination programmes have largely bypassed poorer nations saddled with debt and unable to pay market prices, leading to a pool of infections from which new strains can emerge. The continued clearing of forests for agribusiness provides further vectors for zoonotic transmission. After an all-too-brief reduction in carbon emissions during lockdown, fossil-fuel emissions have returned to their upward trajectory as the petrochemical corporations relentlessly extend global resource exploitation through the international division of labour. The drumbeats of war are growing louder, with the real threat of direct military confrontations between the United States and both China and Russia, leading to full-scale conventional, or even nuclear war.
The prospects for working-class communities, assailed on all sides, could not be bleaker.
The Transformational State – Towards a Workers Commonwealth
The existential crisis of globalised capitalism is reaching its terminal phase. Any comprehensive, working-class alternative must encompass the sheer scale of that challenge for deep, structural transformation.
The Green New Deal has gained widespread support and represents the main attempt to re-establish the Enabling State, deliberately echoing the Roosevelt programmes of the 1930s. Now the emphasis is on public investment in renewable energy and the construction of a low-level/carbon-neutral economy. A priority is the Just Transition, ensuring that workers in the fossil-fuel industries have access to alternative employment in the renewable sector and in energy-efficiency programmes. Various proposals are put forward for funding this transition, including progressive taxation and forms of quantitative easing directed to public investment through government bonds.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership the Green New Deal was at the heart of the Labour Party’s strategy for economic renewal, providing skilled employment and encouraging trade-union representation. More recently, the Biden administration has funded a public investment programme, mainly through extended borrowing, that focuses on neglected infrastructure and on renewable energy.
As with all the historical examples of the Enabling State, there is a vast chasm between ambitions and the hopelessly-limited, policy frameworks. A post-carbon economy requires public ownership and investment in manufacturing capacity across all the essential sectors, including social housing, public transport, agriculture and the utilities, as well as renewables and energy efficiency programmes, while simultaneously dismantling the petrochemical economy and the military-industrial complex.
A working-class alternative has to move far beyond the Green New Deal and even the Alternative Economic Strategies of the 1970s, which, at least, recognised that public investment was at the heart of a revitalised manufacturing base as the platform for workers control, combined with a comprehensive disarmament and arms conversion policy.
There are two main phases in the transition to a Workers Commonwealth, an emergency programme to eliminate carbon emissions followed by the development of an anarchist economy. During the initial phase, the main issue will be the funding of public investment without dependency on government borrowing and debt accumulation. To a large extent, government debt is the mirror image of the historical and future costs of capitalist crises, externalised as public liabilities, while corporations and elites have been provided by nation states with protection for private, asset-based accumulation. A global wealth tax will restore funds expropriated from working people and held in offshore tax havens. This new tax base neutralises the debt issue, with the ongoing responsibility for both interest and total debt repayment transferred from working people to capital.
The second requirement during the emergency phase is to close down the military-industrial complex and the petrochemical industries, transferring funding and resources to the civil, post-carbon economy. Public investment will be allocated equally on a regional basis to eliminate all carbon emissions and to directly improve the quality of life for all working people.
Local authorities will have the initial responsibility for a programme of social housing built to rigorous environmental standards, as well as city-wide retrofitting of insulation to all public and private housing and other properties. New forms of democratically-owned and accountable organisations will deliver these programmes, either directly through local authorities, or through workers co-operatives, alongside others responsible for renewable energy programmes. Local authorities will also carry out plans for an integrated road/rail, public-transport system using electric vehicles. Similarly with agriculture, they will co-ordinate the expansion of local food production both on existing farms and from community-owned land in the form of market gardens and allotments with the objective of self-sufficiency in basic produce.
The transition will involve an end to all employment in the arms and petrochemical industries, but these job losses should not be exaggerated. Employment in the major arms corporations has declined significantly in the past thirty years and petrochemicals has always been one of the most capital-intensive sectors. Where there are localised concentrations of employment, closures will be taking place in the context of public investment in the post-carbon economy and funding for skills retraining in civil manufacturing and service industries.
By the end of this first phase, the material base for a Workers Commonwealth will be in place, all major sources of carbon emissions will have been eliminated and external debt marginalised. For the first time in the history of industrial society, working-class communities will be in a position to carry out a full evaluation of economic capacity and to determine the priorities for future production, skills training, and research and development, using a range of criteria that reflects the social utility of labour and a restoration of the ecological balance. Social value will be maximised as income is recirculated through the local economy and the currency is no longer vulnerable to capitalist, financial speculation.
Following the closure of all military research establishments, scientific and technological resources will be transferred to other research institutions and universities, with the emphasis on continued reductions in energy demand throughout the whole economy. A major objective will be to lower material throughput using locally-sourced and recycled materials, with the emphasis on long-term resilience and ease of maintenance. The ultimate goal will be to create a complete processing, manufacturing and recovery cycle that eliminates the use of global supply networks and further extraction of finite resources. Other priorities will include energy storage, new forms of urban food growing on marginal land, integrated plans for flood defences and continued improvements to public health.
By the end of the emergency phase, the material benefits to working-class communities will be substantial. The basic cost of living will have been reduced through energy-efficient housing, controlled rents, and cheap public transport. Good quality and accessible food, the elimination of pollutants and disease-control programmes will all contribute to improved public health.
Necessarily, there will be debate on how resources are allocated, such as the balance between consumption and future investment. Examples include the application of robotics and artificial intelligence, with the potential to free workers from repetitive and alienating labour, against a full economic and environmental evaluation of continued dependency on global supply networks and finite resources. Similarly, the need for agricultural production has to be reconciled with the environmental benefits of rewilding, both in terms of bio-diversity and carbon storage. Building a consensus will involve democratic planning through workers councils and citizens assemblies.
Workers Commonwealths will, in the post-emergency stage, engage with each other on building a new economic and political system to replace nation states and the institutions of globalised capitalism and militarism. In the UK’s case, Workers Commonwealths will, initially, be coterminous with major regions of England, the smaller states of Scotland and Wales and a united Ireland, with populations averaging between 5-6 million people, operating as self-sufficient economies, and with shared responsibilty for on-going public spending such as transferred state pensions and environmental restoration programmes.
Crucially, there will be an end to fiat currencies as the Workers Commonwealth’s finances, despite these on-going obligations, will reflect the real value of its economic base, free from debt and financial speculation, and therefore, an accurate aggregate of how resources can be distributed. With the end of capitalist nation states, all international institutions can be dissolved, including military alliances like NATO, financial institutions like the IMF, economic cartels like the European Union and political organisations like the United Nations.
External relationships between Workers Commonwealths will emerge organically from the democratic standards embedded in the everyday functions relating to workers rights and economic and environmental justice, without the need for regulatory frameworks. Instead of capitalist and militarist globalisation, there will be free associations on the whole range of economic, scientific, and cultural activities. The Commonwealth of Anarchy will be a true, social exchange that builds on the historical ambitions of working people over generations to realise their vision for peace and prosperity.
We are at war with globalised capitalism and it is a war that the human race and the planet is losing. Working-class communities are subject to corporate, fossil-fuel destruction, imposed by nation states and enforced by a military-industrial complex that combines economic imperialism with domestic oppression.
Freedom, prosperity and progress are the slogans emblazoned on the capitalist wrecking-ball. There is no freedom when the Earth is dying. There is no prosperity when working-class communities are overwhelmed by floods, hurricanes and fire storms. There is no progress when every technological innovation is devoted to the capitalist elites’ insatiable appetite for material consumption and to the death-machines of the military-industrial complex.
Real freedom can only exist when the ecological balance has been restored; real prosperity when working people have the resources to live full and healthy lives; real progress when technologies enhance the social utility of of goods and services essential for working-class communities.
Even to put forward a post-capitalist and post-militarist agenda is to be dismissed as a fantasist. But the stakes could not be higher, between a future of capitalist catastrophes or of working-class emancipation. The odds may seem stacked against us but working people have the power to achieve revolutionary change, based on the principles of mass action, anarchism and self-government.
The initial transition to a post-carbon economy is an entirely feasible one, within a ten-year timescale, using existing industrial and technological capabilities but it requires a sustained reallocation of resources from elite accumulation and the black-hole of the military-industrial complex. This is only the first, and relatively small stage, in the complete transformation of industrial society, with the clear objective to dismantle globalised capitalism and replace it with Workers Commonwealths.
The enemy is formidable and well-resourced. Never before have capitalist corporations held such economic and political power. Never before have the capitalist elites accumulated so much wealth. Never before has the military-industrial complex had the range of weaponry to carry out anything from individual assassinations using remote-control drones to planetary destruction with nuclear missiles.
The received model of transition, the Enabling State, is totally and utterly inadequate in the face of this existential crisis. The Green New Deal has won support for its vision of public investment in renewables and skilled, well-paid jobs for millions of working people. Compared to the neo-liberal alternative, grotesquely charicatured by Donald Trump’s elevation of domestic, fossil-fuel production into a national virility contest, the Green New Deal seems both feasible and attractive. Real progress can be made on carbon emissions while building an international coalition for more ambitious targets in the future.
But, as with all the historical examples of the Enabling State, the deep, structural power imbalances of globalised capitalism remain in place. Funding will be severely limited and constrained by debt issues. Corporations will continue to extract fossil fuels as part of the growing exploitation of finite resources, reinforcing an international division of labour that condemns billions of working people to poverty and environmental degradation. The military-industrial complex will dominate public investment that should be available for carbon elimination. Its priorities will be autonomous weapons and global surveillance, ranging from space satellites to deep-ocean sonars. The planet will, quite literally, be a matrix for the coordination of total warfare.
Rather than a Just Transition, this is the Great Deception. For fifty years the fossil-fuel corporations lied to us about their impact on climate change until the evidence was overwhelming and impossible to ignore. Commitments to diversify into renewables and to develop techno-solutions like carbon capture are simply the next in the long line of cynical distractions.
Their strategy, now, is to accept the phasing out of the worst polluting elements, most obviously coal, but to control the policy agenda so that nation states guarantee a return on investment in existing fossil fuel production, as well as funding for corporate restructuring around the higher-value elements of the petrochemical economy. Long-term extraction of fossil-fuels will be part of the overall expansion in energy production well into the 2050s and presented by corporations and their political acolytes as the only realistic, transition process.
The Enabling State is the handmaiden of globalised capitalism, providing a superficial gloss of radicalism as the capitalist and militarist elites tighten their grip on the world’s resources and dictate the terms of reference for climate-change policy. The immense wealth gap between rich and poor will grow wider, the extraction of scarce resources to service the obscene, material life-style of the capitalist elite intensified, and the militarisation of air, land, sea and space completed.
Working-class communities around the world face the terrifying consequences of irreversible climate change and permanent war-preparation – droughts, floods, fires, pandemics and mass slaughter. Hundreds of millions will flee disaster zones in search of sanctuaries that no longer exist, surrounded by machine-gun towers and razor-wire fences, while the elites live lives of decadence in their luxury fortresses.
But the enemy is increasingly vulnerable to working-class resistance. Ours is a strong tradition of political and economic struggle that, even in these desperate times, offers hope for radical change. From the Diggers and Levellers in the English Civil War; to the Chartists who fought for the common ownership of land and universal suffrage; to the Communards of Paris and the anarcho-syndicalists of the Spanish Civil War – across the world, hundreds of millions of ordinary, working-class people have organised general strikes, mass demonstrations, and global, solidarity networks in the fight for working-class emancipation. Today, as capitalism enters its terminal phase, the demands for economic and environmental justice are growing stronger and stronger. Mass movements have brought about revolutionary change in the past and can do so again.
Capitalist, nation states have not been handed down on tablets of stone. They are the product of specific historical conditions, from the rapid industrialisation of the 19th Century and the dismantling of internal barriers to trade, through to imperial power projection and mass mobilisation of human and technological resources for total war
It is no coincidence that the symbolic power of the largest and most heavily-militarised rests on their legacy of sacrifice and calls to patriotic duty, forged in the struggle for independence and the crucible of civil wars. That historical imagery bears no relationship to their essential function as transmission mechanisms for globalised capitalism and as barriers to working-class emancipation. Whether it is the state-capitalism of China, the klepto-capitalism of Russia or the corporate-capitalism of the United States and its satellite, the United Kingdom, elite power is preserved and working people oppressed.
Only when there is economic democracy can there be true, political democracy. That is why a mass working-class movement determined to dismantle capitalism will be met with the full coercive powers of the nation state. Martial law will be declared, the militarised police force will carry out mass arrests and imprisonments, and special operations forces will be deployed as execution squads using surveillance systems and remote-control weapons.
No one should be under any illusions about the scale of state violence and the potential loss of life during a revolutionary struggle. But the ultimate goal is clear, to replace the perverted patriotism of capitalist exploitation with working-class solidarity, where all working-class communities can live in shared peace and prosperity. These are true, human loyalties worth fighting for and defending.
The seeming paradox of the transformation is that we will have to use state power to dismantle state power. But the capitalist nation state as independent and sovereign is an illusion that preserves the myth of a shared identity and shared obligations, while the process of accumulation by the capitalist elites continues unencumbered. This is not our nation state, it is the elite’s nation state. This is not our debt, it is the elite’s debt. This is not the elite’s wealth, it is our wealth. There is no paradox in stripping away the essential functions of exploitation and oppression to reveal the hollowed-out, state corpse. We are simply repossessing the resources necessary for the rapid elimination of carbon emissions and for the basic industrial and technological infrastructure of Workers Commonwealths.
State power will no longer exist and workers will have the freedom to determine their priorities for future investment, having developed their own manufacturing and supply networks for renewable energy, social housing, transport, health and agriculture. Significantly, there will be a substantial reduction in overall energy requirements and material throughput, the elimination of pollutants, greater bio-diversity and environmental resilience.
The whole corrupt, institutional edifice of globalised capitalism will have been dismantled, most significantly, the United Nations, exposed as the disney-face of capitalism and militarism with its interminable charade of climate-change and arms-control conferences.
There will be no need for treaties since each Workers Commonwealth will already embody workers rights, environmental protections and comprehensive disarmament. Free association and free movement will lie at the heart of a renaissance in working-class cultural and social life. The end of the state will signal a revolutionary momentum, to release the full, creative potential of every working person on the planet.
We are not the last generations in the war of capitalist catastrophes. We are the first generations in the war of working-class liberation, the new age of the proletariat – the Commonwealth of Anarchy.
Steven Schofield, January 2022