Imperialism and Crisis in times of pandemic

By Luis Meiners, ISL US

‘The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.’ Antonio Gramsci

Crisis make long term tendencies surface. The Covid19 pandemic has not been an exception. One element that has become increasingly clear is the decline and crisis in US imperialist hegemony. The portraits of international leadership and the american dream, have given way to real life images of thousands of people in food bank lines and the world´s most staggering numbers of Covid19 cases and deaths. Trump´s daily press briefings are the tragedy and farce combined, as early denialism has morphed into a display of overplayed success stories and suggested disinfectant injections.

One of the most notable aspects of the current crisis has been the vacuum of international leadership. There has been no coordinated response on an international scale. States have engaged in large scale competition for medical supplies. The global institutional framework has gone into “lockdown”. Trump´s administration cutting finance to the World Health Organization in the midst of the pandemic summarizes much of the broader picture.

While mainstream media focuses on Trump´s responsibility and even rattles on his personal style, both of which should undoubtedly be criticized, the deep roots of this crisis are purposely not addressed. What is failing is not just Trump, but the entire system that is built upon putting profits before people´s lives. Covid19 has triggered the most significant capitalist crisis in almost a century, and with it the entire structure of US hegemony is cracking.

The unipolar world and its crisis

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US emerged as the undisputed leader of a unipolar world. US imperialism sought to organize the world according to the need of the new hegemony. This meant incorporating states into the international framework of institutions that had been built for this purpose and expanding influence through new institutions and trade agreements. Thus the “Washington consensus” emerged.   

Both capitalist parties of the US were committed to this imperialist strategy. The Clinton administration concluded efforts towards signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that had begun during the Bush administration. During the Clinton years around 300 bilateral and multilateral trade agreements were signed.

US imperialism also acted as a global gendarme, attempting to stabilize a world order under it´s hegemony. One of the most important military interventions of this period was in the Balkans, with Clinton as commander-in-chief and US led NATO bombings. These interventions were carried out under the false banner of “humanitarianism”.

Under George W. Bush US imperialism attempted to consolidate its hegemony by tightening control over the Middle East. The strategy envisioned swift wars and regime change in Afghanistan and Irak, seizing the post 9/11 opportunity to justify increased militarism. These would in turn serve as a platform for further control over the region and its strategic resources.

But events would prove that a unipolar new world order was not an easy gamble. By the end of the 1990´s class struggle in Latin America was on the rise, and a series of rebellions and revolutions would hit several US backed governments in the region and thus striking a blow to US imperialism in what it had always dubbed as its “back yard”. In Irak and Afghanistan its military offensive got bogged down in endless wars with no clear signs of victory. They also sparked a rise in anti – war sentiment with huge demonstrations around the world and inside the US. Its military allies in Europe and elsewhere also faced growing anti-war movements. These actions were part of a surge in class struggle with mass movements against neoliberal globalization. From Seattle against the World Trade Organization in 1999, to Genoa against the G8 summit in 2001, mass protests took to the streets against institutions that embodied neoliberal globalization and US hegemony. Against this backdrop, the US became increasingly isolated as its plans to consolidate its imperialist hegemony backfired and it would start to face increasing competition on the world stage.

The rise of China

One of the most important changes that took place over the past decades has been the rise of China as an imperialist power. The Covid19 crisis has seen the growth of already existing tensions between China and the US. The former is using the opportunity to extend its political, economic and diplomatic influence. Meanwhile, in the United States, Trump and Biden exchange cross accusations of being too soft against the Chinese government.    

The rise of China to the main stage of international politics was preceded by a huge economic and social transformation that led to the restoration of capitalism. In the early 1980´s a series of economic reforms started to drastically change the country. Capitalist transformations in agriculture led to massive migration from the countryside to the cities. This new urban population of around 300 million people would make up a new working class of internal migrants stripped of all rights, which allowed for the regime to break previous resistance from industrial workers and start promoting radical market-oriented changes in the state-owned enterprises. They would also feed the growing industries established in the Special Economic Zones opened to direct foreign investment. These changes soon turned the country into the “world´s workshop”.

After the defeat of the Tiananmen uprising this movement accelerated. Privatizations led to a sustained increase in the share of privately owned companies. The elevated rate of exploitation allowed for extraordinary profits for both domestic capital and foreign investment from corporations that outsourced their production to China. This manufacturing and exporting boom provided a hugely favorable trade balance that allowed China to become one of the world´s bankers.

In the 2000´s, as the US faced increased difficulties, China advanced and consolidated its international stance becoming an increasingly important trade partner for much of the world, specially for countries exporting natural resources. When the 2008 crisis hit, China developed a massive infrastructure plan, as more and more countries became dependent on exports to it. It has also become increasingly important as a provider of overseas investment, which went from $45 billion dollars in 2004 to $613 billion in 2013. This also became more diversified, with growing investment outside of Asia into Latin America, Africa and Europe. The “Belt and Road” initiative is the most ambitious example of China´s new role in the world economy. The global stage has therefore become one of increased international tension and competition.

Inter-imperialist tensions escalate

In the aftermath of the 2008/9 crisis, US imperialism had to face a world in increased turmoil. The greatest example of this was the Arab Spring which toppled decades long dictatorships, including important US allies such as the Mubarak regime in Egypt. The US intervened to thwart revolutions and prop up counterrevolutionary regimes, but only contributed to further destabilize the entire region.

But a world with increased social and political polarization wasn´t the only concern for US imperialism. Under the Obama administration counterbalancing China became a top priority. The approach adopted for this was to attempt to guarantee US control over the Pacific, isolating China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) was a key initiative in this sense, establishing a trade agreement between countries in the entire region and explicitly leaving China out, to hinder the expansion of it´s influence through both trade and diplomacy.  

Trump has further increased tensions with China, moving from a strategy based on isolation and containment towards a more directly confrontationist stance. This can be seen in the US withdrawal from the TTP and the trade war initiated by Trump in 2018. This escalation is not without logic. It expresses the need for US imperialism to face a rising rival in the stage of its own decline. Beyond Trump´s seemingly deranged style lies the clear logic of an imperialist power attempting to sustain its hegemony.

Pandemic and Perspectives

The US is still the hegemonic imperialist power. But its crisis has undoubtedly accelerated with the pandemic. A Hollywood ending in which “America saves the day”, seems completely out of the picture. Over the past decade we have witnessed a world marked by increased polarization, with entire regions sinking into increased instability. Part of this was increased inter-imperialist tension and the exacerbation of regional conflicts.

The pandemic and the economic crisis it triggered have dealt a huge blow to globalization, and to the world order built upon US hegemony with its international institutions and geopolitical balances. This will produce further escalating tensions in the world. Trumps recent threats to Iran, and more notably the pressure building up in the South China Sea with increased military presence of both China and the US are the latest signs of this.    

The governments of both the US and China stir nationalism and throw cross accusations at each other, as they continue to unload the effects of the crisis upon the working class and all the oppressed. While parts of the left yield to the pressures of campism, supporting China´s counterrevolutionary government, revolutionary socialists must clearly stand both against US imperialism and China´s capitalist and bureaucratic regime.

But as capitalism and imperialism unleash unseen misery upon millions, the working class is fighting back. We can expect quick changes in the consciousness of millions, as the American dream and other promises of capitalism give way to the experience of deep structural inequality, increasing poverty and injustice. Even liberals such as in the The Economist see this. A recent editorial of the journal argues that “A deep, long recession will stoke anger, because the pandemic has held up an unflattering mirror to rich societies. (…) So might the realization that an unfair burden has fallen on ordinary people. (…) The popular demand for change could radicalize politics faster than it did after the financial crisis in 2007-09.”[1] The world we are moving towards will be full of dangers, we may very well witness the time of monsters to use the words of Gramsci, but it also has immense opportunities for revolutionaries. It is time to organize, to fight for the birth of something new. This is our struggle in the International Socialist League.   

[1] The Economist, Life after Lockdowns.