The new age of catastrophe

Lincoln Seligman, Anger at Litigation


Commentary on the newly released book by Alex Callinicos

It is tempting sometimes to shrug off news of disasters and catastrophes as if they were simply part of normal life. An accelerating sequence of financial crises, extreme weather events, pandemics, wars and civil unrest has unfolded before our eyes in recent years.

The urgent message of Alex Callinicos's important new book, The new age of catastrophes, consists of saying that accepting this state of things as a “new normal” is dangerous. It is, therefore, vital reading for anyone who wants to participate in the fight for a future in which they can continue living.

What is at stake, he argues, is nothing less than the fate of human society. Behold, it is being thrown to collapse by the internal logic of the capitalist system, which does not hold any remorse for its disastrous deeds. Confronting this system requires understanding the totality of our situation.

This book provides a compelling case for a major transformation of society. It draws on the revolutionary Marxist tradition and a wide range of thinkers who have understood the problems we now face, but not necessarily in their entirety.

The most superficial characteristics of this “new era of catastrophe” have presented themselves through polarization. For it includes deepening tensions between the US and its allies, on the one hand, and the growing power of China, on the other. As Alex Callinicos notes, this rupture is the dominant feature of world politics today.

The proxy war between NATO and Russia in Ukraine is also an important signal. However, it is the need to contain the ambitions of the Chinese ruling class to assert itself globally that truly worries the US administration. The US ruling class likes to frame, ideologically, this battle that their Chinese counterparts are fighting as if it were a fight between “democracy” and “autocracy”.

However, an even more important rupture in world politics consists of the polarization between a resurgent far right and the weaker impulses of a radicalization on the left.

The influence of the right has grown spectacularly in recent years. Alex Callinicos argues that this is due to the “accumulated resentments of the neoliberal period, which have been intensified by the economic suffering and dislocation caused by the global financial crisis”.

In Europe, signs of bad times have appeared in racist campaigns through which conservative politicians have joined forces with far-right activists to turn anger over the system's failings into rancor against refugees.

Such strategies “reveal and repress” – explains Alex Callinicos. They take the real frustrations of ordinary people and turn them, not against the real authors of their misery – the richest fractions of society, but against imaginary enemies.

Nowhere is this process clearer than in the USA, a country that is rotting from within under the combined pressures of economic, political and ecological crises. This process of decay is so advanced that we must take seriously the idea that the USA has now become “the weak link in the advanced capitalist world” – argues Alex Callinicos.

This is the case even if it continues to be the most powerful state on the planet, surpassing all others, close or not, in terms of military and financial capacity. The invasion of the US Capitol by a motley gang of Trumpist thugs, encouraged by the former president himself, was the most extraordinary public example of explosive internal tensions. As Alex Callinicos points out, Donald Trump's chaotic behavior does not have the support of key actors in the US ruling class, nor the support of the US military leadership.

The latter, in particular, were not prepared on January 6, 2021 to abandon bourgeois democracy, allowing a Trump coup. Yet the same CEOs and generals who recoiled from Donald Trump's antics preside over the political and economic system that produced his rise to office in the first place.

This is visible, argues Alex Callinicos, within the Republican Party, which has been colonized from within by a far right that is increasingly confident in asserting its leadership at the local and state government level. For example, despite the grim spectacle seen on Capitol Hill, more than half of Republicans in the House of Representatives continued to support objections to the electoral count and the peaceful transfer of power.

While the power at the center of the global economic system is in decline, what can be said of its rising rivals, especially China?

Alex Callinicos gives little importance to the idea that, economically or politically, China represents an alternative to the US. The same logic underlying the North American economy also prevails in China. For him, this is a crisis of capitalism – and not simply a crisis of neoliberalism, which now confronts humanity. There is a choice between continuing the headlong rush to social collapse or “pulling the emergency cord” on the runaway train as it heads toward the precipice.

Alex Callinicos argues that the only way out of our current situation is in revolt and revolution against a system that is heading towards destruction. The root of what traditional commentators like to call “polycrisis” can be found in the internal logic of capitalism. This so-called “polycrisis” can be seen as a consequence of the macabre carousel of events and apocalyptic processes, including epidemics, floods, fires, famines, economic crises and wars.

Two aspects of this system are now interacting with dire consequences for humans as a species and for the myriad other species with which we share this planet.

The first of these is a defining characteristic of capitalism itself. This system contains an interaction between the two central antagonisms, on the one hand, between wage labor and capital and, on the other, between individual capitals that compete with each other, sometimes fiercely. The second concerns the functioning of the system, which is proving to be so decisive that it hides the first. Furthermore, the process of capital accumulation is so founded on dependence on fossil fuels that one way out, every way out, seems obliterated.

As Alex Callinicos highlights, the system generates pressure on capital to maximize profitability and minimize costs in the short term. This forces employers to “ignore or hide” the harm they may be causing to “their workers, consumers and the wider social and physical environment”. This is why, even when such damage includes worsening global warming, our governments are unable to stop the planetary crises that are being created.

Some sectors of the global ruling class are belatedly aware of the dangers. However, the logic of the system drives them towards catastrophe; thus, efforts to “adapt” to the unfolding disaster are quite timid. The problems, therefore, are not being faced.

What does it take to chart a course for the future in current times?

Alex Callinicos's book, while a sobering analysis and a devastating critique, offers vital resources for hope. He points to movements that challenge forms of oppression related to gender and racism as key battlegrounds for developing mass movements from below.

But these struggles need to be guided by an understanding that specific forms of oppression have been built into the way capitalism works by deep historical processes. The institution of the family and the binary gender relations it creates are an example. These “family structures are central to the way labor power reproduces itself under capitalism.” Alex Callinicos argues that it “provides a workforce fractured by gender and the multiple forms of oppression to which these structures give rise.”

Likewise, racism cannot be fully understood or effectively challenged without recognizing that it is produced in part by the toxic legacy of historical crimes – most notably the mass enslavement of Africans in the formation of Western capitalism. And, in part, because of the ruling class’ ongoing needs for migrant labor.

The question of how to alleviate the burdens of oppression is therefore “not just a moral position, but a question of self-interest, of practical necessity.” It is also a step on the path to strengthening workers’ collective agency.

This agency cannot be remade without understanding that it is necessary to “pull the emergency cord” in the face of climate collapse. But this, he says, requires the seizure of state power through revolution – just strikes, protests and civil disobedience not enough.

Only revolution can shut down and dismantle the “CO machine2” that killing us all. This requires recognizing that, although we live in an age of catastrophe, it is also an age of uprisings and revolutions. It must be seen that the forms of self-organization developed by ordinary people can become the basis on which a new society emerges.

*Anne Alexander is a political activist.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal Socialist Worker.


Alex Callinicos, The new age of catastrophes. London, Polity Press, 2023, 256 pages. []

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