For many, the first months of 2021 were cause for cautious optimism. After almost a year of the pandemic, COVID cases started to trend downwards worldwide as the vaccine rollout began. Trump had lost the US election and, despite sinister soundbites, seemed incapable of overturning the vote. A world economic recovery was well underway, and in January 2021 the IMF revised its projections for economic growth upwards. 2020 had stretched the social fabric to the breaking point in many countries—anti-lockdown riots, the Black Lives Matter rebellion, fear of economic collapse—but now that pressure seemed to be easing, and talk of a return to normal flourished.
The story of 2021 is largely of how this sense of forward momentum at first plateaued, then fragmented, in the face of profound forces undermining the stability of the world capitalist system.
The first straw in the wind was on 6 January. Trump stood on a podium overlooking thousands of his supporters who had gathered in Washington DC to protest against the joint session of Congress as it formally voted to accept Joe Biden’s election victory. Inside the Capitol Hill complex, a number of hardline Republicans attempted to derail the process. Meanwhile, the crowd outside were whipped into a frenzy, not in the least by Trump himself, who told them, “If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country any more”. The crowd then marched up to Capitol Hill, broke through police lines, and laid siege to the Congress.
At the time, the Capitol Hill riot could be seen as the last gasp of 2020. The backlash against the protesters, hardline Republicans and Trump himself was overwhelming: Twitter suspended Trump’s social media account, 170 corporate executives signed a statement calling on Congress to immediately certify Biden’s election victory, and the FBI began an extensive investigation into the Capitol Hill rioters.
With Trump and his supporters so thoroughly discredited and Biden entering the White House as the great saviour of democracy, it seemed to many that either the Republican Party would have to purge its extremist elements or it would suffer years, if not decades, in the political wilderness.
At any rate, the inauguration of Joe Biden on 20 January, exactly one year after Xi Jinping formally confirmed human-to-human transmission of COVID, appeared to mark the end of an era of instability in US politics, particularly in regards to the pandemic. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it: “There’s a clear case for optimism. Science has come to our rescue, big time, with the miraculously fast development of vaccines against the coronavirus. True, the United States is botching the initial rollout, which should surprise nobody. But this is probably just a temporary hitch, especially because in less than three weeks we’ll have a president actually interested in doing his job”.
While Biden entered the White House, the world still struggled with the pandemic as it entered its second year. The devastation caused by the virus across the globe was immense. In April the world passed 3 million reported deaths from COVID. In the first six months of 2021, COVID deaths surpassed those of the previous year.
India was a particularly gruesome example. In April a second wave of the virus tore through the country, and COVID deaths skyrocketed from a reported 140,000 at the start of April to more than 400,000 by July. By comparison, the United States’ military fatal casualties during the entire Second World War were 407,316.
Despite some uneven success with the vaccine rollout, the existence of such large numbers of infected people meant that large swathes of humanity had become Petri dishes in which new mutations of the virus could begin to emerge. It is likely that the Delta variant came out of the carnage in India. As 2021 drew to a close, another variant, omicron, had also emerged. The failure to pool together the collective resources of humanity in coordinated action to eliminate the virus could mean that, in one form or another, it will be with us for a long time.
And while the pandemic stubbornly refused to disappear, governments around the world pushed ahead with their plans to reopen their economies and win their populations to the idea of “living with the virus”, hoping that whatever vaccination rate they managed to reach was high enough.
The fallout from COVID this year wasn’t confined to new variants.
On 23 March Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in the world, was buffeted by strong winds and became wedged in the Suez Canal. By the time they eventually moved the ship on 29 March, 369 other container vessels were lined up behind it, delaying an estimated $9.6 billion in world trade.
The Ever Given incident revealed a point already made clear during the pandemic. While we live in a globalised economy, that economy is still based on real material processes of production and exchange. And in the highly mobile, competitive and profitable world of 21st century capitalism, any break in the chain of the system can cause major damage. While the Suez Canal was cleared relatively quickly, leading the Economist to declare “global supply chains are still a source of strength”, more serious logjams began to ripple through world trade in the second half of 2021.
The root cause of this was, funnily enough, the roaring back to life of the world economy with the end of lockdowns and the early successes of the vaccine rollout. As factories, film studios, offices, cinemas and restaurants sprang back into life, a huge groundswell of demand gripped the world system. Producers struggled to make products, freight companies struggled to transport them, and everywhere companies rushed to regain their lost profits from 2020 and manoeuvred to out-compete their opponents. This caused enormous logistical problems for the intricately complex but utterly shambolic global system of international trade and supply chains.
Other events in 2021 revealed in a more positive way that, underneath the hubbub of global capitalism, it is still the labour of workers that makes the world go round.
While the levels of resistance didn’t reach the same levels as in 2019 and 2020, workers once again hit the streets in rebellions that rocked governments. In Myanmar a military coup led to the eruption of a heroic struggle for democratic rights. At the heart of this mass movement was a wave of strikes that paralysed banks, shipyards, transport, railways, major factories, large-scale farms, oil refineries, mines, hospitals, schools, shopping centres and marketplaces. As the democratic struggle intensified, it cohered around the demand for a general strike to shut down the country's economy and overthrow the military junta.
It wasn’t just in Myanmar that the spectre of the general strike raised its head. Throughout the year, an underground movement of strikes and protests has continued to develop in Iran in response to increasing inequality, the spread of COVID and an authoritarian government. Tens of thousands of workers have shut down petrochemical plants, warehouses and textile factories. While the movement has not reached the point of threatening the fundamental stability of the Iranian regime, its persistence now for a number of years despite extreme difficulties is another spark of hope in a barbaric world.
Mass protests also returned to the streets of Sudan as the limited gains of the revolution were threatened with destruction by a return to outright military rule. Again the movement gravitated to the general strike as the key weapon against the military authorities.
In a more modest way, there was a small uptick in strikes in the United States in October. Coal miners in Alabama and nurses in Massachusetts, who had been on strike for some months, were joined by whiskey distillers, bus drivers, hotel workers, teachers and academics. The limitations of these strikes were obvious, particularly after the planned strike of 60,000 film and television studio workers was called off by their union leaders. Despite this, they revealed a truth often forgotten: the working class isn’t dead and gone, but simply unorganised and often passive. This small uptick in strikes revealed what could be possible if socialist activists were in a position to rebuild their roots in workplaces across the country. The more substantial rebellions in Myanmar, Iran and Sudan are even more revealing and reinforce the central argument of socialists—that the working class has the power to change the world.
It was on the right wing of politics, though, that some of the most sustained political mobilisations took place this year. As governments responded often incoherently to the persistence of the pandemic, reactionary movements took to the streets in large numbers.
These movements took on particular features in different countries, but their similarities were striking. In the US as Biden’s economic plans ossified in the Senate, the Republican Party regained its confidence and rallied its forces against any halfway sane plans to deal with the virus. Across the country, right-wing activists coordinated and funded massive electoral campaigns to get far-right nutjobs elected to school boards. Their campaigns centred on reopening schools and ending mask mandates for staff and students. As they gained success after success, the movement emboldened the Trumpian wing of the Republicans to resist any push to move the party back to the centre.
The most dramatic expressions of the far right were on the streets. In Italy a mass protest against vaccines revealed their fascist character when they smashed up the building of the Italian General Confederation of Labour. A similar scene took place in Melbourne, where a far-right rally attacked the offices of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union.
These attacks were not just a flash in the pan. As European governments started to introduce vaccine mandates in November in order to drive up the stagnating vaccination rates, riots broke out across the continent. Tens of thousands took part in often violent protests against health restrictions in Belgium, Croatia, Italy, Northern Ireland, Switzerland, France, Germany and Austria. And here in Australia, we have seen months now of often weekly demonstrations by far-right activists in most major cities.
This is a very dangerous development and puts significant pressure on governments around the world to abandon what little they are currently doing to contain the pandemic. For the socialist left, it confirms the need to understand clearly that opposition to health measures is not a healthy reaction to authoritarianism but a deeply conservative rejection of the idea that there should be any serious government limitations on the free market.
While the virus continues to shape and reshape politics, other issues, in the long run potentially even more devastating for humanity, have also reared their head throughout the year.
At the end of October the COP-26 UN Climate Change Conference met in Glasgow. It was a stomach-churning example of hypocrisy and greenwashing in the face of existential disaster. While the pandemic had initially encouraged the idea that we could “build back better”, COP-26 made it clear that governments around the world are committed to rebuilding the old world of inequality, climate crisis and corporate greed.
In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report spurred a new generation of climate activists across the world by explaining that we have only 12 years to cut global emissions in half or risk irreversible climate catastrophe. Three years later, and little has been done except the adoption of the essentially meaningless goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
It isn’t only the climate threatening our future. The pandemic has also exacerbated geopolitical tensions between the two major centres of capitalist power in the contemporary world: the US and China. Beijing has been quick to point out how much better it has dealt with COVID compared to the West, while the US and its allies have responded with a renewed ideological crusade against China.
Biden has been at the forefront of this campaign, proving himself to be more aggressive than Trump. The Biden administration has sharply refocused the US military on the challenge of China, pulling the last American troops out of Afghanistan and launching the AUKUS alliance to facilitate this.
But it hasn’t been just the US. The Australian government has, if anything, been more openly beating the drums of war. When former Prime Minister Paul Keating criticised the approach of the Australian government and asked why we should be drawn into a military confrontation over Taiwan, he was showered in abuse from all sides of Australian politics. Minister for Defence Peter Dutton accused him of being a “grand appeaser” and argued that it “would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action”. It has now become mainstream in Australian politics to contemplate kicking off World War III.
These tensions are unlikely to go away. It is the classic dilemma of modern imperialism. For a long time, one power rules the world and shapes the structures of global politics to suit its interests. Then a new rival emerges, posing first an economic challenge and then inevitably a military one. In the past this dynamic has driven the world into devastating conflagrations that have buried tens of millions of people. It is yet another reminder that capitalism in the 21st century will be marked by the threat of war.
2020 was one of those years that will go down in history as a turning point, and 2021 continued the turbulence of the previous year. While issues like the climate crisis, growing tensions between the US and China, the instability and inequality of the world economy and the hollowing out of political institutions and ruling parties had been boiling away for decades, the outbreak of COVID revealed how deeply these fissures cut into the structures at the heart of global capitalism.
As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once wrote about a previous shift in the world system:
“Everybody recognises that the war of 1914-18 represents a historical break, in the sense that a whole series of questions which piled up individually before 1914 have precisely formed a ‘mound’, modifying the general structure of the previous process.”
The shift can be expressed easily. If you had told your closest and most trusting friends in December 2019 that a pandemic was about to grip the world, killing tens of millions of people, including in the most stable and powerful capitalist countries, and forcing governments to shut down the world economy and international travel, you would have been laughed at incredulously.
In the last two years, many of the old certainties, particularly for those of us in the advanced capitalist countries, have been overturned. Who can still believe that, even if they fail at everything else, governments can at least be relied upon to ensure our lives are protected? Who can still believe that mass death and pandemics are something which take place only on the fringes of the world system, not at the heart of global capitalism? Who can still think that problems of life in the 21st century are just minor potholes on a general march towards progress, rather than indicators of something fundamental about the way in which our societies are organised?
Whatever 2022 might have in store for us, the central question remains: how are we going to overcome this runaway system?