During the twentieth century the dominant circumstances of political life were clear. As capitalism evolved from manufacturing to finance, the character of international relations changed. Crude militarism, while constant, was increasingly aided by covert operations, and most importantly by economic penetration. The United States as the hegemonic actor on the world stage during most of the century was the clear target of anti-war activism and class struggle at home. National liberation movements rose up to resist the drive for imperial control. Since contradictions existed in international and intra-national affairs our task was clearly to struggle against imperialism, monopoly capitalism, racism and sexism.
Twenty-first century global political economy is also characterized by these key features. Perhaps the “grand narrative,” as post-modernists would call it, remains the same. But, and this is critical, the politics of daily life is far more complicated and it is these complications that give the appearance of chaos. The old narrative and the chaos we experience need to be understood together; particularly among those of us who are committed to the vision of a twenty-first century socialism.
First, the current violence in the Middle East/Persian Gulf is escalating and spreading to other regions. The vicious violence in Paris and Beirut by presumably ISIS followers leads to mass murder. ISIS seems to represent a new brutal form of anti-systemic violence that shows no mercy or humanity. It has its roots in French and British colonial rule in the Middle East, United States collaboration with the Saudi monarchy, western support for the creation of the state of Israel in contradiction to those living on the land, a US-led war on Iraq in 1991, and the US wars of the twenty-first century in Afghanistan and Iraq. Blood is on the hands of every western power in the region but, in terms of victims of violence everywhere, blood also is on the hands of ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Syrian government, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, Russia, and Iran. Violence is about economic control, political hegemony, nationalism, resistance, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, religious sectarianism and fundamentalisms. The violence is also about arms transfers, racism, and hate.
Second, imperial violence proceeds as global capitalism consolidates its control of the economies of the world. The Transpacific Partnership creates a so-called free trade zone covering about forty percent of the globe and is in the process prefiguring a challenge to Chinese influence in Asia. To complete the “Asian pivot” the United States has increased its military presence in the South China Sea by further cooperating militarily with the Philippines and Japan.
Third, very much below the radar, the United States expands its military presence in Africa with the establishment of AFRICOM, arms aid, and training of militaries on the continent. Presumably, the US militarization of Africa would check the growing economic influence of China.
Fourth, international and domestic violence, economic decay, and threats to life itself, are inextricably connected to the rapidly deteriorating global climate brought on by fossil fuels. Devastating changes in climate-flooding, draught, rising sea levels, life-threatening hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes-make life more unbearable and are coupled with economic inequality, the global distribution of weapons, and rising ethnic animosities leading to hopelessness, violence, and rightwing populist anger.
Within the United States the attack on workers, Blacks, and women escalates to an almost fever pitch. Households living below livable wages reach 35-40 percent in many states. Real wages and steady jobs with benefits decline. Economic circumstances among African Americans and Latinos lag behind whites by 10 to 30 percent. And the inequality in the distribution of the wealth of US society increases.
Attacks on Blacks increase in the streets, in the political arena, in public schools and in higher education. Black Lives Matter, the Fight for Fifteen, and recent protests on over 100 college campuses reflect fightbacks against the escalation of systemic assaults on people of color. And we cannot forget that a prime mover of the toxic atmosphere of American political life is fueled by profound racial hatred of a president who happens to be an African American.
The assault upon women, particularly vile campaigns to shut down Planned Parenthood, and brazen homophobia reflected in so-called religious freedom campaigns spread throughout the nation.
And the real meanings, the master narrative about war, violence, exploitation, racism, and sexism are masked by a media discourse that transforms politics from concrete realities to the partial truths about terrorism, the threats to free speech, arguments about political correctness, and the need to be tough, vigilant, and armed to protect the so-called national security of the United States at home and abroad. Media frames fuel and are fueled by a growing rightwing populism in the United States and Europe that ironically mirrors the rise of terrorism in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
As we reflect upon the movement-building of the twentieth century and the context of a seeming “politics of chaos” in the twenty-first century, the tasks of the Left are clear. First, it needs to clarify, refine, and develop the “grand narrative” about the global political economy and its connections with capital accumulation, class, race, gender, homophobia, and the environment. The theory and practices of the twentieth century were not wrong. But they need to be adapted to the seeming economic, political, and environmental chaos of today.
Second, the left needs also to do what it has always done: fightback against all reaction, international and domestic. Today this includes resisting expanding war and imperialism abroad and challenging racism, chauvinism, police violence, and the destruction of existing government programs at home.
Frederick Douglass’ admonition still makes sense: If there is no struggle, there is no progress.