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The Combination of Capitalism’s Four Crises

Economic - Social - Imperialist and Ecological


The Economic Crisis


Paced by a succession of cyclical crises, capitalism has seen its rate of profit fall since 2014 in the main economies of the Western world, a fall that heralded the coming recession that the pandemic has only accelerated, as shown in graph 1 below:


Graph 1 Profit rates in the US

The current challenge for the ruling class is to restore the profitability of its capital. Several means are being deployed, ranging from the most conventional, such as austerity measures, social budget cuts and multiple pension ’reforms’, etc., to the most perverse, such as the use of inflation and rising interest rates, which constitute formidable taxes on wage earners (see the article Inflation, interest rates and the distribution of wealth in this issue):


Graph 2 UK inflation, 11,5% in December 2022

This inflation erodes the proletariat’s standard of living all the more, as it is much higher in basic foodstuffs, as shown in graphs 3 and 4 for the UK and France, yet these are more important in the budget of a low-wage household:


Graph 3 UK – Total and food inflation


Graph 4 Inflation in France total and food

All these austerity policies are combining to drive real wages down (graphs 5 and 6) and spur renewed class struggles in several Western countries:


Graph 5 UK – Fall in real wages when the red curve is below zero: between 2008 and 2015, in 2017 and since 2022


Graph 6 FR – Fall in real wages during the subprime crisis (2008), during the pandemic (2020-21) and since May 2022


Where is the class struggle at?


This upturn in social conflict in certain countries (graph 7) contrasts with the decline in social conflict over the past half-century – 1974-2022, graph 8:


Graph 7 UK – Soaring social conflict in 2022


Graph 8 Strike index in 16 Western countries [1]

Why this decline in the major Western developed countries, and what could potentially change today with the resumption of struggles following the explosion in inflation?


A) Half a century of declining social conflict

The dramatic decline in industrial disputes since the mid-1970s is the result of the confluence of several factors which have progressively combined to break down collective solidarity between workers:

1- De-industrialisation, dismantling of workers’ concentrations and outsourcing

The de-industrialisation of the developed West long predates globalisation, which only became significant in the 1990s. Competing with the emerging countries of the time (Japan and Germany – Graph 9), the old powers of the 19th Century, the United Kingdom, and the 20th Century, the United States, began a slow process of de-industrialisation in the 1950s. It was not until the 1970s, however, that a clear decline occurred in all industrialised countries:


Graph 9 Industry’s share of total employment

This decline is the result of a dual dynamic, both economic and social. On the one hand, an economic dynamic, as the slowdown in growth from the 1970s onward and the ensuing difficulties in developed countries prompted manufacturers to locate their new production units in large middle-income countries, in order to gain easier access to their domestic markets (such as Brazil or Mexico for the automobile industry, for example). On the other hand, social dynamics, because the explosion of strikes in 1966-74 – often wildcat strikes – prompted employers to dismantle large concen-trations of workers and develop subcontracting, including from abroad.

This relative de-industrialisation, coupled with the dismantling of large concentrations of workers and the recourse to subcontracting, considerably weakened the working class, its cohesion, its internal solidarity, its numerical strength, its social impact in the event of conflict and, consequently, degraded its social and working conditions.

2- Rise of structural unemployment since 1974

A second factor that profoundly contributed to the decline in social conflict since 1974 was the explosion in unemployment that began at the same date (Graph 10). Unemployment, with its attendant fear of losing one’s job and no longer being able to repay one’s loans, gradually paralysed the social body and anaesthetised struggles. This inexorable rise in unemployment in Europe from 1974 onwards and the start of the fall in the strike index at the same date (graph 8) are perfectly correlated, to such an extent that the peak in the rise of the unemployment curve also corresponds exactly to the lowest point in the fall in social conflicts!


Graph 10 Unemployment rates – EU-15 and France

3- The strategy of the Left in power

To cope with the upsurge in social unrest between 1966 and 1974 – many of which escaped the control of the trade union and left-wing apparatuses – the ruling class developed a strategy aimed at transferring social revolt from the streets to parliament. This was the heyday of the hopes generated by the arrival of left-wing teams in power: the ’Common Programme’ in France (signed in 1972 between the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Movement of Left Radicals) with Mitterrand coming to power in 1981; the hope of a ’Historic Compromise’ in Italy between the Christian Democracy and the Communist Party in the mid-1970s, which led to ’national solidarity’ governments between 1976 and 1979, supported by the PCI which remained in opposition; the democratisation of dictatorial regimes in Portugal (April 1974), Greece (July 1974) and Spain (November 1975) and the accession of left-wing teams to government: Mário Soares’ in Portugal (1976-78 and 1983-85), Andréas Papandreou’s in Greece (1981-89) and Felipe González’ in Spain (1982-96). This transfer of protest from the factories to parliamentary hopes will powerfully anaesthetise the intensity of social conflicts.

4- Growing household debt to compensate for the sharp drop in the wage share

While household indebtedness was not the same explanatory factor behind the decline in social conflicts as the previous three, it did nevertheless significantly reinforce it. Indeed, people in debt are much less likely to protest when they fear losing their jobs. This factor has played an increasingly important role since the 1980s, in the wake of neo-liberal policies to reduce the wage share (see Graph 22 of our article on The obsolescence of capitalism in this issue), as households have seen their incomes slow down or fall, and have compensated for this by taking on debt, as the graphs 11 and 12 show for the United States and France respectively.


Graph 11 Wage share (right) and household debt (left) as % of US GDP


Graph 12 French household debt as % of disposable income


5- Individualisation and ‘uberisation’ of the wage relationship breaking down solidarity between workers

The application of neo-liberal logics, which began in the 1970s and 80s, has progressively weakened previous conventional policies and contributed to the individualisation of the wage relationship, making proletarians increasingly competitive with each other and powerless against their bosses. The transformation of wage-earners into bogus self-employed and the ‘uberisation’ of work via IT platforms are the ultimate outcome.

6- Repression of vanguard workers

In addition to all these objective causes, there was a more subjective factor highlighted by Henri Simon in one of his testimonies: “the bosses cleaned up by firing all those who had put themselves forward in 1968 and in the immediate post-68 period; several hundred factory militants paid the price of this bosses’ counter-offensive (I was one of them in 1971)”. It should also be noted that left-wing apparatuses and trade unions also proceeded to cleanse themselves of their most radical elements.

7- Loss of class identity and doubts

Finally, a second subjective factor gradually demoralized the proletariat and its vanguards: the loss of wage-earners’ class identity and the discrediting of anything presented as an alternative to capitalism. Indeed, even if totally institutionalized and mystified in organizations integrated into bourgeois legality, as are the left-wing trade unions and political apparatuses, the proletariat after the 2nd World War was still very numerous and concentrated, and recognized itself as a social force carrying an alternative. However, the role played by the unions as guardians of capitalist legality, and even as saboteurs of massive and/or radical struggles led by wage earners; the anti-worker and repressive policies of left-wing governments, some of them downright neo-liberal; the patent failure of all bourgeois-nationalist governments or movements claiming to be “socialist” in the Third World (Algeria, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.), as well as the collapse of the countries of Eastern Europe, i.e. of what seemed to represent an alternative to capitalism but were in reality totalitarian state capitalisms, all served to deeply demoralize wage earners (and even the militants of their vanguard political organizations) from leading the struggle and continuing to fight their way out of capitalism.

In addition to the decline in social conflict and the resulting demoralization, a deep-seated doubt developed about the revolutionary potential of the proletariat and about communism as a possible alternative. This doubt is all the more important as the retreat of almost half a century has given way to the expression of discontent among the middle classes, significant sections of which are also undergoing a regressive dynamic. The radical nature of some of these expressions has led some to believe that “classic” workers’ struggles have had their day, and that it is now time to turn to “new forms of struggle”.

The recent protests by wage-earners against the explosion of inflation, as in recent months in the UK and France with the struggles against pension reform, as well as in other countries, albeit in a minor mode, have not swept away, but have seriously questioned these doubts and reaffirmed that the working class has not disappeared and still has a not inconsiderable potential for combativity!


B) An effective awakening of class struggles?

For lack of hindsight, it is still premature to answer this question in the affirmative, despite an undeniable resurgence of class struggles in several countries, a resurgence which contrasts sharply with the social calm of the previous four or five decades (see graphs 7 and 8 above).

The fact remains that, whatever the extent and duration of this revival of class struggles in certain countries, others will inevitably be forced to emerge in view of the increasingly strong conjunction between the four crises of capitalism, struggles in which the links between social, war and ecological disasters and the responsibility of capitalism will appear with ever greater clarity.

However, the length and depth of the half-century-long retreat from social conflict, and the ideological disorientation it has brought about, mean that we are starting from a lower base and with fewer points of support than ever before: little awareness of a common collective interest in perspective beyond immediate demands; no or very little tendency to take charge and self-organize struggles; no clear, shared awareness of the situation and the forces at play; a profound loss of past experiences; no program or project, however vague; lilliputian, fragmented revolutionary organizations that are content to harp on old, obsolete programs… Worse still, a lot of accumulated illusions and disorientation, the result of decades of capitalist ideological bludgeoning, and no preexisting organizational mediation whatsoever. Everything will have to be built on the spot, in the movement, with very weak and theoretically unprepared political forces.

One aspect of this theoretical unpreparedness is the cruel lack of analysis of the Asian area within the Communist Left. Indeed, a revolutionary analysis must adopt an international point of view, and even more so when it comes to assessing the state of the balance of power between classes. Today, almost two-thirds of the industrial proletariat is concentrated in Asia, often in gigantic units of tens of thousands of workers, whose social dynamics are very different from those of developed (but heavily deindustrialized) Western countries, as shown in graphs 13, 14 and 15 below. The synthetic index of strikes in the rest of the world (i.e. excluding China and developed Western countries), shown in graph 13, does not indicate any clear downward trend as in developed countries, but an overall maintenance from 1953 to 2010. As for China, strikes increased from the start of its economic emergence until 2015 (graph 14). Thereafter, they have declined over the last ten years (graph 15).

Yet it is hard to find an analysis that would enable us to understand this difference in dynamics and its implications. And for good reasons: the phenomenon of the emerging countries was first totally denied, since it was declared theoretically and practically impossible [2], then ignored for a long time, before finally being timidly acknowledged, but without any coherent explanation and without drawing out all the economic, imperialist and social implications. We proposed an initial analysis in 2007, but it went unheeded [3]. We subsequently have amended and extended it in several texts published on the Controversies website, but without addressing the social dimension to which we intend to return.


Graph 13 Index of strikes in several African, Asian and South American countries [4], 1953-2010


Graph 14 Strikes in China – 1978-2013


Graph 15 Strikes in China – 2011-2023

In view of these observations, claiming that the Asian proletariat is young, lacks experience and is more susceptible to democratic illusions is a poor way of escaping the theoretical indigence of the Communist Left about Asia… because this was also largely the case for the proletariat in Russia in 1917! Yet today, the working class in Asia is far more educated and concentrated, and lives in a far more developed society, than was the case in Russia at the beginning of the 20th Century.

In other words, simply asserting that the proletariat in the major Western countries has not suffered a historic defeat, and that it still possesses a potential of combativity, is clearly insufficient, because we can neither overlook its weakening as a result of deindustrialization, nor ignore the fact that two-thirds of the world’s proletariat is located in Asia. What’s more, given the characteristics of its retreat over the last half-century, as described above, if large-scale struggles were to arise in the West, they would have the enormous task of rebuilding from almost nothing.

And of all the things it lacks, the most decisive, and undoubtedly the most difficult, are for the proletariat to re-appropriate its class identity, that a project and program are elaborated and disseminated on a par with the present historical situation, and that vanguards emerge who are capable of analyzing and carrying forward these perspectives – which, unfortunately, is still very far from being the case!


The Imperialist Conflicts


Thanks to its principle of proletarian internationalism, the Communist Left has been able to clearly denounce the imperialist war in Ukraine and firmly resist the nationalist sirens, as we have widely reported on our website. However, the theoretical corpus deployed in the analyses that are supposed to underpin these positions displays the same dogmatic and archaic weaknesses as we show in detail in the article of this review n°6 on The erring of the ICC on inter-imperialist relations.

For example, the lack of analysis of the Asian region described above is reflected here too by an enormous weakness: the inability to clearly recognize the trend towards the reconstitution of two geopolitical blocs around Washington and Beijing, with a view to re-dividing the world. The proletariat’s renewed combativeness, the absence of its enrolment behind national flags, China’s still significant military unpreparedness, the ‘every man for himself’ attitude and the dissensions within the respective allies of the United States and the Middle Empire constitute very poor fig leaves revealing the blindness in the face of the obvious pursuit of the constitution of two imperial blocs aiming at a violent re-division of the planet.

Since the end of the 19th Century, the international scene has been characterized by a geopolitical bipolarization of the world, with each side vying for hegemony:
a) Already prevalent before its formalization in 1882, the opposition between the Triple Entente (France, England, Russia) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary) fighting over the planet led to the First World War.
b) Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 re-polarized the world between the Axis countries (Germany, Italy, Japan) and the Western bloc, leading to the Second World War.
c) In 1945, the Cold War began between the Soviet and American imperial blocs, who fought a veritable Third World War in the Third World. Indeed, all the wars fought in this context have resulted in as many deaths as in the Second World War.
d) Finally, after a quarter-century hiatus, a new imperialist polarization is taking place between China and the United States, each explicitly claiming to constitute the hegemonic pole.

Admittedly, China is still a military dwarf, while the United States is a military superpower. Admittedly, the proletariat in these two poles is not yet drunk with nationalism and ready to die on the battlefield for “its” own leaders. Certainly, the alliances of these two poles are still far from fully formed. Nevertheless, the momentum is clearly there. All the more so since, unlike the Axis countries or the Soviet bloc in the two previous polarizations, this one brings together two entities whose economic importance has become almost equivalent. The two measures below are ample proof of this:

1. The OECD, which brings together 38 developed countries (including North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia), accounted for two-thirds of world GDP two decades ago, but less than half today!


Graph 16 Share of GDP in world GDP at PPP

2. Even more precisely, the G7 (USA, Germany, Japan, France, UK, Italy, Canada) accounted for two-thirds of global manufacturing output in 2000, but only 37% in 2020, whereas the six emerging economies (China, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and Brazil), which accounted for only 10% of global manufacturing output in 2000, now account for 38%, i.e. more than the G7. As the rest of the world’s share has remained constant at around 25%, we have witnessed a veritable global shift over the past two decades:


Graph 17 World manufacturing production

This implies a major difference: whereas the weakest bloc was the most aggressive in the past, today it’s up to the USA to take the initiative and actively defend its still current pre-eminence, especially in military terms.

So, for the time being, the USA’s objectives are, on the one hand, to irreparably weaken Russia – the only country currently capable of eradicating America with its nuclear arsenal (which is not yet the case with China) – and, on the other, to avoid any consequent alliance between Russia and China, enabling the latter to catch up more quickly on its military backwardness. However, beyond this conflict in the Ukraine, there is a major issue at stake between China and the United States, as Hillary Clinton, the former head of US diplomacy, made very clear when she recently declared that: “Russia is ‘a short-term threat’ and China is ‘a long-term threat’”, warning the West against China’s expansionist ambitions, while seeing Moscow only as a temporary threat [5].


The Ecological Stakes


The major ecological challenges are well known and widely accepted in the scientific community. Even highly consensual academics, such as Greta Thunberg in her latest book, have come to the obvious conclusion that these major issues stem from the deadly dynamics of capitalism, and cannot be resolved if we remain within a logic guided by profit maximization. Of course, they do not defend a revolutionary perspective, far from it, but the idea that a green capitalism is impossible is gradually gaining ground, unless the working class is made to pay the entire cost! Yet it is also the working class that is already suffering the most harmful consequences, and will suffer the most devastating ones tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the Communist Left’s understanding of these issues is equally poor. A blind spot in its analyses throughout the twentieth Century – with the exception of a very few writings – it is only very recently that it has begun to address these issues, but only to limit itself to a double observation that is invariably repeated: (1) ecological disasters are proof of the bankruptcy of a capitalism that urgently needs to be abolished, and (2) ecological struggles are piecemeal struggles that need to be denounced because they divert the proletariat from its class terrain.

While the first observation is certainly self-evident, the second is much less so, and will become even less so as “ecological struggles” continue to multiply and amplify in the years to come. Going back to Marx, it’s easy to understand why this second observation is fundamentally flawed.

After the physiocrats, Marx was the first modern economist to integrate nature into his understanding of the foundations, dynamics and contradictions of capitalism. Unlike all the theories of mainstream economics, which limit the factors of production to capital and labor, Marx includes nature: “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is as much the source of the use values (of which indeed all material wealth consists!) as is labor, which itself is only the expression of a natural force, human labor power. (…) Only in so far as man in advance relates to nature, the first source of all means and objects of labor, as its owner, treats it as belonging to him, his labor becomes source of use values, and thereby also of wealth” [6].

In the same sense he wrote in the first Volume of Capital : “Labor, therefor, is not the only source of the use values it produces, of the material wealth. Labor is its father, as William Petty says, and the Earth its mother” [7].

What’s more, thanks to current work on the publication of his complete works, we now know that the main reason he didn’t complete the other volumes of Capital was because he wanted to integrate two topics that occupied the bulk of his research in the last years of his life: nature and its ecological limits, and the historical foundations of capitalism, as developed in several recent works! [8].

For all these reasons, to which we’ll return in greater detail in other contributions, we believe that the struggle to safeguard the living conditions of the working class includes the safeguarding of nature, since “labor is only the expression of a natural force, human labor power. (…) Only in so far as man relates to nature, as its owner, treats it as belonging to him, his labor becomes source of use values, and thereby also of wealth.”

In a mode of production that is now obsolete [9], the immediate struggles of the proletariat will inevitably become multi-factorial: economic, political, social and ecological.

C.Mcl., May 2024.

Translation: H.C., October 2023 (reviewed by the author).


[1USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France, UK, Italy, Norway, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan.

[2“The period of capitalist decadence is characterised by the impossibility of any new industrialised nations emerging. The countries which didn’t make up for lost time before World War I were subsequently doomed to stagnate in a state of total underdevelopment, or to remain chronically backward in relation to the countries at the top of the sandcastle. This has been the case with big nations like India or China, whose ‘national independence’ or even their so-called ‘revolution’ (read the setting up of a draconian form of state capitalism) didn’t allow them to break out of underdevelopment or destitution. MC & FM in the International Review n°23 (1980) of the International Communist Current (ICC).

[3Namely: The sources, contradictions and limitations of the growth in Eastern Asia. This is the introduction to a three-part article that can be found on the ICC website (editor’s note).

[4Algeria, Burkina Fasso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chile, Hong Kong, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Malawi, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

[5Statement made during the geopolitics program of ‘France Culture’ on June 11, 2022.

[6K. Marx, 1875, Randglossen zum Programm der deutschen Arbeiterpartei, I. (MEW Bd. 19, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1962, 1987, p. 15).

[7K. Marx, Das Kapital Bd. 1, 1. Kapitel: Die Wahre. (MEW Bd. 23, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1962, p. 57/58).

[8Notably: ‘Le dernier Marx’, éd. l’Asymétrie ; ‘La nature contre le capital – L’écologie de Marx dans sa critique inachevée du capital’, Kohei Saïto, éd. Syllepse ; ‘Les dernières années de Karl Marx’, Marcello Musto, éd. PUF.

[9Cf. the next two articles in this issue: ‘The succession of modes of production. A validation of historical materialism’ and ‘Obsolescence and periodization of capitalism’.