Today, the two looming “existential threats” are the possibility of nuclear war, and unprecedented human-caused climate change, yet neither of these seems to unduly concern our plutocrats. Capitalism thrives on war, and we forget this historical fact at our peril. Nor do they seem worried about the drastic consequences of global warming, which has been denied, ignored, or downplayed in the corporate media. In fact, it may appear that the big business oligarchs who run the US and dictate policy to a large part of the rest of the world fear very little, perhaps least of all the world’s working classes. These people suffer most from capitalism: they die in large numbers in imperialist wars and are chronically victimized by unemployment and economic crises. They are (and will continue to be) the main victims of capitalist-caused climate change.
The world’s workers have the greatest incentive, and also a long history, of fighting back against oppression. The potential (and, historically, the actual) organized power of workers is what rulers have feared and fear today; in spite of the enormous apparent difficulties in bringing this power to bear, it represents the only possibility of countering big capital. Organized workers cut into profits at home and abroad and at times have represented a revolutionary threat to corporate power. They can disrupt ruling class expansionary plans, up to and including imperialist wars. Thus, big capital fights wars on several fronts but always with the aim of keeping the world’s working classes in a state of atomization essential to the continued functioning of capitalism.
Workers’ labor creates the wealth and power that is then used against them. To be competitive, capitalists replace workers with machinery (today it is computers and robotics) and cut wages. These practices consistently reduce the rate of profit and undermine purchasing power (demand) by depriving workers of jobs and adequate wages. Declining profits spell economic crises and sharper international capitalist rivalries, including competitive wars aimed at preserving or expanding empires. Weaker capitalists go bankrupt; their businesses are absorbed by the stronger, and ownership is concentrated into fewer hands (the 1%, or even a fraction of this) while the world’s workers suffer most from these processes. Monopolistic industries collude to stop price-cutting; but they cannot escape cost cutting measures that target labor and lead to economic slumps. From these fewer but more powerful capitalist big businesses have emerged to dominate economies and governments, currently headed up by the United States whose duopoly party system ensures corporate rule.
In the US, workers’ organized ability to protect themselves from big capital has waxed and waned. Today, it seems to be at its lowest point since the post-Civil War period that culminated in a handful of monopolized industries, “the trusts,” in control of land, railroads, oil companies, factories, and banks. This has all now been “normalized,” but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries large numbers of people opposed this monopolization and swelled the ranks of the Populist and Progressive movements that influenced both political parties and produced presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Neither of them, despite their rhetoric about restoring competition, really aimed to halt capitalist consolidation, but both were highly successful at containing opposition to it. Today, an even tinier minority of the population owns all major means of production, distribution, finance and media; despite their small numbers and tremendous power, they have been unable to overcome the capitalist tendency to produce economic crises and wars.
Workers fought during this period to secure a living wage, greater leisure time, public education, health benefits, and on the job safety protections. Many were influenced by the emergence of socialist ideas that suggested they would never be anything but wage slaves as long as capitalism existed; that workers as a class, the “associated producers,” could run society for themselves. It was not until the Great Depression, however, that workers finally won industrial unions. They did this with militant leadership from the Communist Party of the US whose organizers were willing to struggle against everything that divided the workers, especially racism. Communists also undertook the difficult and dangerous task of organizing in the factories and fields, in the face of relentless attacks on them by corporate bosses, their hired goons, police, and political lackeys inside and outside the unions. After one hundred years of working class struggle, communist organizing helped workers win significant gains. But these have been temporary. Communists were driven out of the CIO in the post-war Truman- McCarthy period, and our post-Great Depression history has been marked by successful corporate efforts to roll back workers’ gains from then until now, when it appears that not much stands in the way of capitalism’s endless drive for accumulation that never seems to be enough.
Wars and economic crises have also taken their toll on the lives of multiple millions of the world’s people. Our corporate elite treats these slumps as “natural” events, but they are wholly man-made, indeed, capitalist-made. Business “panics” have punctuated the history of capitalism, and through the post-Civil War era they were regular occurrences in the world economy. By the early 20th century, the capitalist tendency to produce global “recessions” heightened the competition among the major capitalist powers for markets, resources, and outlets for the investment of surplus capital. This period of increased rivalry among the developed capitalist countries included the erection of tariff barriers against each other’s exports, and pitted them against one another in a struggle for empire that targeted those areas of the world where resources, cheap labor, and “investment opportunities” could be obtained. These included Africa on the periphery of the world economy. Britain and France had established colonies there, but by the early 20th century were being challenged by Germany and Italy for a share in the spoils of empire.
Prior to and during this period of emerging imperialist rivalries the US’s physical distance from Europe and its own unchallenged power in the Western Hemisphere removed it from Europe’s conflicts, as it exploited its own backyard. It’s early “settler colonialism” was based on exploiting Native Americans in the fur trade, as well as ruthlessly attacking them to seize their lands for farms and plantations operated by slave labor. This “Manifest Destiny” drove the US across the continent and cost Mexico half of its territory. It also, ironically, led to the Civil War as North and South confronted each other over what labor system (slave or free) would expand into these newly won lands. The US then staked claims in the Caribbean, seized the Philippines from Spain, annexed the Hawaiian Islands, and relentlessly pursued the economic penetration of Latin America while ensuring that compliant governments were installed and overthrowing those that were not. US moves to preserve its empire continue today in the Middle East and now in Venezuela.
Given its size and the power differential in the Western Hemisphere, the US could work its will with a relatively small military. Once it fully shifted its attention and aspirations to the economic penetration of Europe and Asia, this would change. The First World War was a harbinger. This war was a fully capitalist war, a life and death struggle for markets, resources, and labor. Germany and Japan were latecomers whose rise as dominant manufacturing powers forced them to look for markets and resources in areas that were already part of the British and French imperial spheres.
The world thus divided into competing alliances and the result was the First World War that began in 1914. Marx pointed out to the world’s working classes in the mid-19th century that their collective interest lay in uniting against the capitalists in all countries. Indeed, Europe’s socialist parties tried and failed to short-circuit the war by appealing to British, French, and German workers not to fight each other for the profits and aggrandizement of the big capitalists in “their” nations. In the US, the leader of the Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs, was jailed for his opposition to the war. But workers generally remained the captives of nationalism and the result was unprecedented carnage as workers and peasants from opposing nations slaughtered each other in the trenches.
In Russia, however, a small revolutionary communist party, the Bolsheviks, consistently urged the workers and peasants to fight their rulers at home rather than join them in an imperialist war. By 1917, the Russian Revolution took that country out of the war. Shortly after this the US entered the First World War on the side of Britain and France, its major trading partners, to whom US bankers had lent a great deal of money. A German victory threatened American investments as well as the balance of power in Europe. But the First World War did not “make the world safe for democracy.” Instead it and the Great Depression set the stage for further imperialist conflict as Germany, the big loser in the war, joined by Italy and Japan, looked again at a globe already divided between the established powers.
Victory in the Second World War was the culmination of US power. As in the First World War, the US emerged from this global conflict with none of its cities bombed (except Pearl Harbor). Compared to its allies (not to mention the Germans and Japanese), it had far fewer casualties. It was the Soviet Union that suffered most, with nearly 27 million deaths, both civilian and military. In fact, the Red Army fought the Nazis virtually alone, and broke the German war machine at Stalingrad and Kursk well before the D-day invasion in June of 1944. The US ended the war with Japan by dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first and only time (so far) in history that atomic weapons were used.
In the post-war world, the US was the leading imperial power, now also committed to waging an anti-communist “crusade” against those countries where revolutions were in progress (China) or had taken place (Russia), or might take place (in Italy and France which had large communist parties). US rulers feared the possibility that capitalism might be overthrown by revolutionary forces anywhere in the world, thus depriving American business of investment outlets, and, worst of all from the corporate elite’s point of view, providing an example for the world’s workers. The Soviet Union was the primary antagonist, while war and the growth of US military power became the life-blood of the now-leading capitalist nation. Our rulers portrayed their war making as “defensive” and the American people were generally acquiescent.
It took American military intervention in Vietnam against a peasant-based independence movement, coupled with a revived Civil Rights Movement here during the 1960s to alert millions of Americans to the fact that the US war against the Vietnamese people was imperialism in action. As in previous war, Americans doing the fighting were working-class whites, and people of color who were treated as second-class citizens at home. At the height of the war, the military drafted hundreds of thousands of young men; many were sent to Vietnam and returned home in body bags. A mass anti-war movement emerged at home and in the military against the established corporate political leadership and mass media. Large numbers of Americans understood that the US ruling class could not function without dominating other countries, preferably by its economic power and control of capital but with military power in the event that the people of those countries actually desired to control their own lives and economies independently of the US.
It was clear to more Americans than perhaps before or since, that our big business elite loved war and profited greatly from it. They especially thrived on attacking poor, weak countries trying to establish some independence from US corporate tentacles. A Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, rode roughshod over such efforts with the overthrow of democratic governments in Guatemala and Iran when these countries tried to take control of their own resources (land and oil). Yet with no small irony it was Ike who called attention to the systemic nature of US empire- building with his warning about the (still) unchecked power of “the Military Industrial Complex.” A Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, posing as the “peace” candidate in 1964, escalated the War in Vietnam as the US sought to replace the French empire in Southeast Asia. Not one of these countries posed a real threat to US power.
The 1960s were like a momentary parting of the Red Sea. Since then, the waters have flowed back over Americans, and our rulers have worked overtime to erase the lessons of our recent history from the minds of new generations who did not experience it for themselves (and no doubt many who did).
The imperialist smoke screen continues with the demonization of Putin and Russia, while the “War on Terror” remains as a default rationalization for US militarism. Both of these have served the interests of the billionaire class whose oil-grabbing interventions in the Middle East go back at least to World War II, if not earlier. There, the U.S has labored to undermine pan-Arab nationalism and encourage a turn to Islamic fundamentalism against the efforts at land reform and socialism made by leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. In the ‘80s, the US intervened in Afghanistan funneling money and weapons to the billionaire Saudi Osama bin Laden against the Russians, further enabling the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. After hijackers (the majority from Saudi Arabia; NONE from Afghanistan or Iraq) flew planes into the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, the US invaded both those countries, though there was NO evidence that either had anything to do with the attacks. American taxpayers provide billions to Israel as it seizes and builds settlements on Palestinian land. But the US has no problem with Israel possessing nuclear weapons, unlike the hysteria over a possible Iranian nuclear bomb. Far from wanting an end to terrorism, our corporate class incites and encourages it because, at no cost to them, it instills fear and obedience in the American populace. This has gone on under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Nor does our bought-and-paid-for media ever remind us of this history.
Those now in the streets over Trump’s open white supremacy and naked efforts to ensure unchecked corporate domination did little or nothing for years as that master of “progressive” rhetoric Barack Obama took over and expanded George W Bush’s War on Terror policies. He authorized air and drone strikes that killed women and children in the Middle East and Afghanistan (America’s longest war – so far), and deported record numbers of undocumented workers trying to find employment.
If anything underscores our corporate elite’s continuing imperialism, it is their current moves against Russia that began under Obama and included an American-engineered ouster of Ukraine’s elected president, supported by a neo-Nazi street movement in Kiev. The role played in this by agents and officials of the US government (and the long history of similar actions by the US, like those mentioned above) has been kept from the American public while the media demonizes Russia, and NATO is used to move American troops up to Russia’s border.
We have been treated on a daily basis to a drumbeat of anti-Putin rhetoric from US politicians like Hillary Clinton and the DNC that echoes throughout our corporate media. Trump’s inept efforts to place US relations with Russia on a more businesslike footing (no doubt, with concrete monetary rewards for him), have been blunted by his own bungling and the untoward power of those who see Russia (and China) standing in the way of their imperial ambitions to control the world’s resources, markets, and labor. US rulers seem unafraid, even eager, to provoke a war with one or both of the other major nuclear-armed powers, Russia and China.
In fact, the threat of a nuclear war ought to grab everyone’s attention, but it does not seem to have done so. What global climate change? At best it will flood the coasts, disrupt agriculture, and make large parts of the earth unlivable; at worst it will end in widespread extinctions, possibly including humans. Are US rulers afraid of the consequences of global warming? Apparently not, because almost nothing has been done to address it at its source by curbing and eliminating the burning of fossil fuels; instead, a major effort has been underway, led by Exxon-Mobil, to discredit the science behind it.
The two looming existential threats, nuclear war and global warming, do not appear to bother US rulers in the least. What, indeed, could frighten this very small, but inordinately powerful monopoly capitalist class? They currently have a death grip on our economic system, our politics and governing institutions, and the dominant media to ensure the continuing rightward movement of our public discourse. They have successfully checked the union movement, while endlessly featuring in the media the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who has give his imprimatur to the neo-fascist promoters of racism, sexism and homophobia. These ideas help to keep workers divided against one another instead of coming together against their common class enemy. The capitalists know from long experience how to successfully wage class warfare. Their police terrorize the large and often segregated population of black workers who are deprived not only of civil rights and educational opportunities, but the very right to live by their labor. Meanwhile, a pseudo-left element of the Democratic Party promotes the continuing divisiveness of “identity politics” instead of working class solidarity.
The Democrats lost the last election because they refused to stand up for working people, in spite of having a majority in both Houses of Congress at the beginning of Obama’s presidency. Instead, we got Donald Trump with a Republican majority in Congress set on destroying all the gains made by workers’ struggles since the Great Depression.
Will we see anything different out of this election cycle? Democrats have re-taken the House, and potential Democrat presidential candidates, led by Bernie Sanders, are talking a more working-class-oriented line. But we’ve been here before! The people turning out to support Bernie are a small step in the right direction, but if they end up being herded back into the clutches of the corporate-controlled Democratic Party, then we will still be in the grip of big capital. Play by the rules, we are told by our political leaders, though neither big business nor their bought politicians have any qualms about breaking any rules that stand in the way of their power and profits. We are bounced from one establishment party to another while the big banks loot the economy. We are fed illusions about constitutional guarantees like “free speech” without any reflection about who has the power to have their voices heard. Big capital suppresses pro-working class ideas while promoting fascism.
What, then, might pose real leverage against our big business elite? We have an answer in the recent history outlined above: the capitalist class fears a mass international revolutionary working-class movement with the potential to end their rule and replace it by a productive system based not on the exploitation of the many for the profit of a few, but on human need: from each according to his/her abilities to each according to her/his needs. Such a movement should include as many people as possible and be organized around the demand for equality and respect for the earth and its limits. The evidence that our rulers fear this is apparent in the one hundred plus years of their anticommunist efforts to discredit, distort, defame, and demonize such a movement.