The scale of the global crisis demands a radical response

It is increasingly a truism that, around the world, politics is being reshaped at an extraordinary pace. 

In the West, ongoing stagnant or declining living standards, alongside grinding austerity and the gutting of what remains of social welfare, have combined with the massive accumulation of riches by the tiny minority at the top to destroy the credibility of the neoliberalism championed by centre right and centre left parties for the last 30 years.

The reshaping of the global order resulting from the decline of US economic power and the rise of China is creating enormous geostrategic instabilities. 

Wars in Syria and Yemen continue to claim a horrific toll and have created millions of refugees. The threat of a wider Middle Eastern war is ever present, as is the prospect of a proxy conflict between the US and China in Asia. A nuclear confrontation between the US and North Korea is now far from unthinkable.

This global maelstrom, which is taking place in a climate crisis spiralling out of control at an alarming pace, only adds to the sense that the political order has failed.

Brexit, Donald Trump, and the rise of racist far right and openly fascist parties on a scale not seen since the 1930s, are one manifestation of the political crisis. But so too is the rise of new movements on the left. 

Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US are two electoral examples. But there is a broader sense that something has to give. Paul Giffard-Foret, writing in this issue of Red Flag about the half a million strong union march in Paris a few weeks ago, and the speculation about a new rebellion on the lines of May 1968, comments, “For the workers’ movement, struck down by years of counter-reforms and austerity measures, the outcome now seems either total collapse or outright rebellion”.

The crisis in world capitalism – and for the first time in a long time, that is the way it is being understood by wide layers of people – poses the need for a radical alternative, for a new movement of the left that aims not to tinker with the system, but to transform it.

Such a movement is still in its infancy around the world, and has endured no small number of false starts over the past decade. But as the far right in its various forms moves to fill the gap opened by a disintegrating centre, the urgency of building a new radical left becomes every day more evident.

The political establishment in Australia tries to comfort itself by saying things are different here. After the South Australian election and the Batman by-election, the usual media hacks waxed lyrical about how the centre had held and the challenge to the established parties had peaked.

They are deluding themselves, and not for the first time. These same people wrote gushing opinion pieces about how the centre had been saved when Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency less than a year ago. Those heady days are now a distant memory.

In Australia, the economic situation is not as dire as in Europe and North America, but stagnant wages, insecure work and increases in rents, housing prices and other costs of living are biting. And the established political parties here are as bereft as their international counterparts of any long term strategy to restabilise politics. 

The Liberal Party is already in a state of perpetual upheaval, its centre, which represents stable, technocratic capitalist rule, under an endless barrage from an increasingly deranged right (deranged, but in some ways still more cognisant of the current political conjuncture than the hapless Turnbull).

Labor has responded to the international political winds by tacking left on economic issues, but is so tied to running the system on behalf of the bosses, it is impossible to imagine it adopting anything beyond the mildest reforms to the status quo. 

The union leadership, too, clearly senses that it is both necessary and possible to end the inertia that has led to collapsing union membership and endless incursions on workers’ rights and conditions.

But they, like Labor, are paralysed by their ties to the existing social structure, incapable of envisaging a struggle that goes beyond the mildest of regulatory reforms.

Labor and the unions – and the Greens as well – want a gentler, kinder capitalism. They will not get it. The world system is careering towards wars and climate catastrophe. Simultaneously, economic, social and political divisions are becoming ever more acute. 

If the alternative to the raging fury of the Trumpist and fascist right is dour centrism, or parties and movements suggesting mild reform, then the Trumpists and the fascists will win.

The enormity of the crisis confronting the world demands a shift in politics on a similar scale. We need a new socialist left prepared to put forward a radical challenge and fight for a fundamental transformation in the way our society is organised.