A global pandemic that has killed millions and which is very far from over; a spiral of climate catastrophes – wildfires, droughts, floods – with the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting that the world faces the real threat of a runaway acceleration of global warming; three, four, or five sided wars from Afghanistan to Africa, and sharpening tensions between the two most powerful imperialist states, the USA and China; a world economy which was already locked in a near permanent crisis since the end of the 1960s and is now further convulsed by the pandemic and the lock-downs, resulting in rising inflation and an apparently paradoxical combination of unemployment and labour shortages. Little wonder that apocalyptic moods have become more and more widespread, whether expressed in overtly religious terms through the rise of Islamic, Christian and other fundamentalisms or through a variety of dystopian science fiction visions of Earth’s future.
At one level, such visions are part of the growth of nihilism and despair, or express the vain hope of overcoming despondency by returning to a past that never existed, or escaping into a “New Heaven and a New Earth” (Revelation 21:1) given to the faithful by powers outside ourselves and outside of nature. But these ideologies are also a distorting mirror reflecting what is really happening in present day civilisation.
In the past, prophesies of the “Last Days” became widespread above all in periods of the decline of an entire mode of production, as during the decadence of Rome or the waning of the Middle Ages. The Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, with its symbolism of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, actually points to the essential characteristics of a society in its terminal phase: led by Death, the other horsemen are War, Pestilence, and Famine – the last one carrying a scale which shows that the price of bread has become prohibitive for the poor. And in the long downward slide, both ancient slave society and feudalism were indeed devastated by incessant wars between factions of the ruling class, by plagues such as the Black Death, by famine and – even if these were not fully commodified systems like capitalism – by inflation and the devaluation of the currency.
It’s not hard to see that the Four Horsemen are abroad again. In a way, they are interbreeding. War gives rise to famine, as in Yemen and Ethiopia. The destruction of nature gives rise to new plagues like Covid, and also threatens terrible famines and wars over dwindling resources. And all of these spectres react back on the underlying contradictions of capitalist accumulation, intensifying the global economic crisis to a degree not seen since the 1930s.
The “end of the world” foreseen in ancient and mediaeval apocalypses really signalled the end of a particular mode of production, which was to be replaced by a new mode of production, a new form of class rule. But capitalism is the last class society, and its headlong drive towards the abyss faces humanity with the single alternative: communist revolution or the destruction of humanity. Capitalism is the most dynamic, the most productive, but also the most destructive system in history, and with its terrifying nuclear arsenals and its inability to curb the devastation of the natural environment, capitalism can truly bring about the end of the world, of the human species and perhaps all life on the planet.
Capitalism cannot be controlled
Some parts of the ruling class retreat into denial: Covid is just a little flu (Bolsanaro), climate change is a Chinese hoax (Trump). Its more intelligent factions see the danger: hence the enormous sums sacrificed in the lock-downs and pumped into the race for vaccines; hence the numerous international conferences on climate change, like COP26 due to be held in Glasgow in November, where few will openly dispute the grim scenarios that will be presented to them by the report of the IPCC.
And within the population as a whole, there is a growing concern about these problems, even if, for the moment, the danger posed by war and militarism has been eclipsed by the threat of Covid and climate change. But the protests organised by organisations like Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and Youth for Climate are a dead end because they can never go beyond demanding that the governments of the world start acting sensibly, put aside their differences, and come up with a serious global plan.
But the governments, the world’s states, the ruling class, are themselves only expressions of the capitalist system, and they cannot abolish the laws which drive towards war and ecological destruction. As in the days of the Roman Emperors and the Absolute Monarchies, the decadence of capitalism is also marked by a grotesque hypotrophy of the state machine, aimed at submitting the laws of capitalist competition to some level of control (as well as repressing all those who question its rule). But in the end capital cannot be controlled. By definition it is a power which, though created by human hands, stands above and against human needs. By definition, it is an essentially anarchic social relation which can only thrive through competition for the highest profit. And the state machines which some see as holding the answer to the world’s problems have been swollen to their present size above all by the need to compete with other states on the world market, both at the economic and the military levels. Capitalism can never become an “international community”, and in the terminal phase of its decline the tendency towards disintegration, towards every man for himself, towards chaos, can only get stronger.
In 1919, the platform of the Communist International insisted that the world imperialist war of 1914-18 announced capitalism’s entry into the “epoch of the breakdown of capital, its internal disintegration, the epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat”. But it also emphasised that “The old capitalist ‘order’ has ceased to function; its further existence is out of the question. The final outcome of the capitalist mode of production is chaos. This chaos can only be overcome by the productive and most numerous class – the working class. The proletariat has to establish real order – communist order”.
The capitalist apocalypse is not inevitable . Bourgeois society has unleashed the productive forces that could be transformed and put to use in order to realise the age-old dream of a true human community and a new reconciliation with nature. While previous class societies foundered on crises of underproduction, capitalism suffers from a crisis of overproduction, an absurdity which points to the possibility of overcoming scarcity and thus eliminating once and for all the exploitation of one class by another. And in the proletariat, the international working class, it has created the “productive force” which has a material interest in the creation of a society without classes.
There is an immense gap between the present state of the working class, which has largely forgotten its own existence as a force antagonistic to capital, and the revolutionary class movement which gave birth to the October revolution of 1917 and the Communist International, the most advanced political expression of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave. The only way to bridge this gap lies in the capacity of the working class to struggle in defence of its own material interests. In this sense, of all the horsemen of capitalist doom, it is the economic crisis and the resulting attacks on workers’ living and working conditions which contains the possibility of compelling the proletariat to unite in defence of its own class demands, to recognise its common interests, and to develop the perspective of overthrowing its enemy.