The new age of catastrophe

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Piranesi (VII) - I Carceri / As Prisons, digital drawing, 2023


Commentary on the newly released book by Alex Callinicos

Capitalism is in crisis everywhere and, therefore, “the shadow of catastrophe” hangs over us. The Covid-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, rising inequality, rising poverty levels between and within nations, along with the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of powerful individuals and corporations. Now, all this is crowned by the imminent catastrophe of climate collapse.

“The age of catastrophe,” as Eric Hobsbawm coined it, began with World War I and was followed by the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, and ended with World War II and the Holocaust. The new age of catastrophe, as named by Alex Callinicos, in which we have lived for at least a decade, could end with the destruction of life on the planet, whether by climate breakdown, war or both. Does the pessimism of the intellect come to overthrow, in fact, the spirit of the optimistic will!?

Of course, it was capitalism that produced this situation. And this is in line with Marx's synthesis: “accumulate, accumulate! Behold Moses and the prophets.” Capital's need to grow and, with that, seek more and more resources, whether precious minerals in the soil or fish in the sea, drives the capitalist system. This is how it increasingly destroys the livelihoods and health of populations across the planet, especially in the Global South. The power of global capital and its institutional proxies, such as the IMF and World Bank, captures the state or at least heavily influences the direction of government policy, rendering left-wing political parties powerless to change much. Now, this feeds a pessimism that sees the situation as hopeless.

However, as Slavoj Žižek proposed in 2017, one must have the courage to admit that this hopelessness could, paradoxically, help bring about radical change. Alex Callinicos has written a book that admits the numbing escalation of the catastrophe, but provides enough ammunition for those who wish to see a future with more optimism.

His approach aims to “integrate the different aspects of our situation into a structured whole”. As one would expect from a Marxist and Trotskyist activist, he strongly advocates socialism as the solution, as well as mass mobilization of the working class, organized from the bottom up, as the way to achieve it. Capitalism and its driving forces are, of course, at the root of all the problems that add up to create this catastrophic situation.

The book initially provides a historical perspective to understand the driving facts of the first era of catastrophe, the golden age, that is, before the effects of neoliberalism brought this new era. This first is followed by chapters on the environmental crisis, the global economic situation, the geopolitics of a multipolar world, the different directions, both left and right, of popular reaction to imperialism, racism and economic decline, ending with a chapter that looks to the future and to the forces that can effect radical socialist change.

At the root of the first catastrophe was the rivalry of different national and imperialist capitals in a globalized world of relatively free trade. This ended, in 1914, with a war that saw the triumph of British and French imperialism as well as the humiliation of Germany. This fact fueled the popular discontent that was taken advantage of in Germany and Italy by Hitler and Mussolini, with consequences that ended in another world war. The attempt to assert German imperialism was tragic.

On the other hand, the formation of the USSR and the rise of Japan, together with the eventual understanding of the US that the future of Europe and the Far East was a matter that intertwined with its own imperialist interests, created, after 1945, a bipolar world that lasted until the end of the 1980s.

The US and USSR mapped their spheres of influence, while the Global South managed to formally overcome the crudest colonialism, thus trying to resist the hegemony of its formerly imperial rulers. By asserting non-alignment with the imperialist blocs, it can play one bloc against the other to assert itself in the meantime.

Furthermore, the Soviet bloc and emerging China provided material support to many of the liberation movements in Asia and Africa. This bipolar world continued through the postwar boom; the world economy remained relatively stable because of Keynesian economic policy and international cooperation until the contradictions of the system itself resulted in the collapse of the post-war settlement.

A neoliberal world of freer trade, floating exchange rates, financial liberalization has developed. There was, then, another turn of the century's globalization, this time organized in trade blocs regulated by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and dominated by financial corporations and increasingly larger and more concentrated global producers.

The big difference this time is the climate emergency. Fossil capitalism, as Alex Callinicos argues, is the main engine of the “progressive destruction of nature”. Fossil extraction is at the heart of the system of capital accumulation, and fossil producers, with their bank-funded exploration investments, have a tight grip on governments whose environmental policies inevitably reflect the interests of the producers. Thus, geopolitical consequences arise that tend both towards global warming and towards increased production of renewable energy.

Global warming produces a desire for access to the Arctic region, which is expanding geopolitical rivalries both commercially and militarily. On the other hand, the rush to renewable energy puts China in a powerful position as a manufacturer of batteries and solar cells and a miner of the minerals needed to produce them. In any case, the destruction of nature seems to be guaranteed in that order.

As he points out, Marx argued that capitalist agriculture had a deteriorating effect not only on the workers but also on the soil. It is clear that chemicals and mechanization helped to slow down or even reverse both processes. However, its unintended consequences increased the pollution of rivers and seas by seeping chemical fertilizers into the water, as well as producing the effects of desertification on soils and their ability to retain water due to overcultivation of fields.


Covid-19 and the war against nature

The effects of human activity on nature have been well demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The book has a particularly interesting section on the effects of 'disgusting' industrial agriculture in the XNUMXth century, not to mention the much more intensive versions that followed.

He references the work of epidemiologist Rob Wallace, who rooted the Covid-19 pandemic in climate change. These caused animal life forms to cluster close to areas of human settlement, thus increasing the risk of disease spreading from animals to humans, as seems to have happened in this case. The immediate response to the virus-induced pandemic was to find a vaccine, and that put us in the grip of corporate capitalism. We are locked into the race played by the big pharmaceutical companies to develop an effective vaccine.

The story of this process is a perfect example of corporate greed, state capture and the global inequality that conditions everything. Big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer made a fortune off the vaccine because they sold it at a profit, unlike the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine which sold at cost (though not for long thanks to Bill and Melinda Gates, as he explains). Not surprisingly, this latest, supposedly less effective vaccine was soon discarded, presumably because of the takeover of state health services by large corporations.

The greater level of inequality that has developed both nationally and globally has resulted in higher levels of infection nationally the lower the household income and internationally, the poorer the country, the less vaccine availability. The effects of measures to protect people from the virus have inevitably involved much tighter control of their lives, especially during lockdowns, but most explicitly in China, whose zero-transmission policy has effectively kept people in lockdown.

This greater degree of government control has been fodder for conspiracy theorists. However, it is more likely to be yet another example of bureaucratic authoritarian tendencies on the rise. In the past, they seem to have been reversed or at least limited through popular action, which has happened even in China. They were, in part, ignored, as was the infamous case of the British Prime Minister at the time.


Falling profit rates

Events such as the Covid pandemic challenged neoliberal orthodoxy's support for a minimal state and led to a form of demand management governed by central banks (technocratic Keynesianism): keeping interest rates low and printing money (quantitative easing) to keep economic activity at a level that would maintain public services essential to private sector activity, as well as to keep the people who provide the labor for these services fed and hydrated.

The pandemic and now the Russia-Ukraine war have obscured a deeper crisis of capitalism that has been created by one of its “old friends”, namely, the tendency to cut the rate of profit. Drawing on the work of Michael Roberts, Alex Callinicos shows how the decline in the global rate of profit appeared in the 1960s, how it was followed by a profitability crisis in the 1970s, as well as a neoliberal recovery in the 1980s and 1990s to the early 2000s. From then on, the specter of crisis loomed on the horizon, which was strongly manifested in the financial crisis of 2007-8. A drop in the rate of profit over the next decade set the stage for the Covid-19 shock of 2020.

Of course, these overall profit rates tell us nothing about their distribution. But we know that banks and financial institutions have become powerful actors in all global companies, driving the shift of economic activity and especially manufacturing activity towards areas where labor is cheaper and where productivity is high thanks to the use of advanced technology. last.

As he points out, the engine of capitalism is credit provided by banks, apparently unlimited until the economic crisis causes a loan default, as happened in 2007-8. Then, the interdependence of financial institutions is exposed, causing the weaker ones to fail, thus threatening the system as a whole. Thus, the technocratic Keynesian rescue of the money markets by central banks guaranteed the liquidity of the system and the continuity of credit creation, essential for the subsistence of the capital system.

Does technocratic Keynesianism spell the end of neoliberalism? This is a question raised by Alex Callinicos in concluding his chapter on economics pertaining to the new era of catastrophe. The answer is complicated. In exposing this complexity, he sees neoliberalism as comprising a specific conception of freedom: strengthening institutions to preserve markets, allowing capital accumulation to prosper, and ensuring that the capitalist class is protected and able to accumulate. It also consists of a set of monetarist economic policies that theoretically control the quantity of money supplied, thus maintaining a stable price level.

However, in practice what is really controlled is the demand for money, mainly through the interest rate. In addition, reducing government spending, privatizing public services, and increasing unemployment to curb wage growth has ended up controlling inflation, but it also weakens unions, especially when anti-strike legislation trumps unemployment.

While neoliberalism seemed to require a smaller state, it required much more state intervention to ensure that markets functioned “efficiently”, restoring, if possible, more opulent rates of profit. However, the emergence of technocratic Keynesianism seems to suggest a possible retreat of neoliberalism. Therefore, it seems necessary that an increasingly important role be given to the State so that it can make the economies work again.

As he argues, a resistance to this trend will only be successful if it comes from below (and the increasing strike activity that we now see especially in the Global North gives some hope that this will happen); otherwise, neoliberal policies will continue to impoverish the working class and expand the precariat.


imperialism and war

The climate emergency and the perpetuated economic crisis may become irrelevant in the face of the catastrophe of a nuclear holocaust. After 1945, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States introduced the world to weapons of mass destruction. The USSR developed its own nuclear bomb, which produced the stalemate and blockade of mutually assured destruction. This did not prevent US imperialism from asserting its hegemony over much of the world, especially in that part formerly controlled by British and French colonialism.

The long post-WWII boom in the Global North and the formation and expansion of what became the European Union (EU) challenged but did not undermine US hegemony, secured through NATO and other similar alliances around the world. Its military power, however, was challenged in Indochina, but reasserted in the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It promoted economic globalization, including bringing China into the WTO to ensure that it complied with the rules.

However, such an inclusive policy was not offered to Russia, a country historically divided between those looking towards Europe and those looking towards Asia. Placing Russia in NATO and the EU would have not only promoted the interests of global capital, but also challenged China. The likely outcome now, especially given the war in Ukraine, is greater cooperation between China and Russia, with the former moving westward and further challenging Washington's unipolar view of the world. However, as Callinicos also notes, the war brought Europe and the US closer together, not only by boosting and expanding NATO, but also by reorienting Europe's dependence on Russian gas towards a “pink” dependence on the US.

If an economic bloc had allied Europe with Russia and China, this would have crystallized as a major threat to US hegemony. Now, China's own rise to world power status is now seen as a bigger problem. As he notes, globalization should make these kinds of national rivalries redundant as economic interdependence between major powers solidifies with the rise of global capital.

But since the concentration of semiconductor manufacturing is in Taiwan and the specialty gases needed to manufacture them are plentiful in Ukraine, you immediately have a problem. Behold, these countries become strategically critical to the main economies that dominate the planet. When China regards Taiwan as one of its lost provinces, such economic and geopolitical factors lead to the same result: a potential military conflict over control of strategic resources.

Alex Callinicos is right to argue that “the world is becoming a much more dangerous place”. He is also right to point out that the way the US and its allies are presenting current conflicts, in the form of a battle between liberal democracy and autocracy, is taking us back to the paranoid discourse of the Cold War.


The Rise of the Far Right

There is certainly a struggle within bourgeois democracies to preserve hard-won freedoms against the growing threat of the far right. As Gramsci wrote about times similar to the present; these are times when the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born, resulting in the appearance of “a variety of morbid symptoms”.

One of these symptoms is the rise of Donald Trump's populist extreme right in the US, which has been threatening liberal democracy in that country. It shows how this extreme right managed, with a strong racist bias, to mobilize those who suffered from the neoliberalism of the political “elite”, as well as migrants and refugees. His argument is that the neoliberal order is disintegrating and that “workers' struggles from below” are not yet powerful enough to offer an alternative that produces a “new” socialist. And that, in his opinion, is leaving the space open for the empty promises of the extreme right.

Taking a more global view, it mentions developments in countries such as the Philippines, Brazil, India and Egypt. Here, he says, is a pattern of failed neoliberal policies combined with corruption and mismanagement. This mix generates new right-wing or military governments that rise on the basis of cultural nationalism and involving especially anti-Muslim tropes.

Alex Callinicos's research on the far right in Europe shows that it follows a similar path, combining racism and xenophobia with Euroscepticism. And this, for him, manifests itself most obviously in the UK, where the Conservative Party mainstream, in an act of self-preservation, adopted some of the policies and attitudes of far-right parties, especially in committing to the Brexit. As he notes, while these parties have managed to rein in popular discontent, they lack coherent economic policies to replace typically neoliberal ones.

For those who often feel like we're back in another version of the 1920s and 1930s, he points out the differences, the most obvious being the absence of a powerful, revolutionary left against which the far right can rally. Furthermore, the current extreme right lacks an alternative economic strategy to neoliberalism, while the Italian fascists in the 1920s and the German Nazis in the 1930s had very clear policies of state intervention and direction of the economy, aimed at armaments.

However, the levels of discontent are such that they give the far right significant political influence. There is even the possibility of fascist elements gaining some strength as political movements. Callinicos illustrates these trends with a discussion of the far right in the United States, strikingly described as the possible weak link in advanced capitalism.

The idea that the most advanced and powerful state in the world is the weak link is motivated by the extreme right’s attack on the capitol in January 2021. Alex Callinicos identifies three “determinations” of that event: first, the effects of neoliberalism, especially the contrasting fortunes of large corporations with their huge profits and overly rewarded top executives and the large part of the population with falling or stagnant real wages or without jobs; second, political structures such as the Electoral College system of choosing a president that can result – as in the case of Donald Trump – in the election of a loser in the popular vote, as well as a senate that underrepresents the most populous states; and third, the racial divide that sees African Americans overrepresented at the lower end of the income distribution and, most evidently, overrepresented in police shootings.

Drawing heavily on Mike Davis' analysis of the US Marxist, it shows what the social basis of Trumpism is. It is constituted as a capitalist class that owns “real estate, private equity, casinos and services, which range from private armies to the practice of usury in jails”. Donald Trump is able to present those at the bottom of the income distribution as victims of a political elite more concerned with helping other countries than their own.

As he suggests, Trump's relationship with big US business is "ambivalent". Their low-tax, less-regulated policies haven't hurt them, though, although Biden's election has re-established a government that corporate America can happily do business with. However, the US is still such a divided country that it is possible to think about the possibility that a civil war could break out, especially in the wake of major weather disturbances.

Even if Donald Trump is not allowed to run again as a presidential candidate, Trumpism will remain, and as the number of unemployed and disorganized working class grows, the support of these lumpen elements will help the growth of this right-wing extremism. The book could have said more about working-class support for the right both now and during the Nazi era. It could also explain what the organized working class could do and how it could deal with this situation.


From here to where?

Now, where does the left go from that point? What actually needs to be done? In his final chapter, Alex Callinicos takes up Raymond Williams' “resources of hope”. At the same time, he again turns to Gramscian's notion of "antagonistic forces" as the agent of radical change. He roots them, like Gramsci, in the organized working class, but recognizing that this class has now been subjected to a series of defeats under neoliberalism. He discusses the possibilities of current struggles over gender and race as those that can help shape “the new subject of working-class emancipation”.

The discussion of gender politics focuses on the emergence of the trans movement, which asserts the right to choose one's gender. This view has been the subject of criticism from feminists as well as the political right and far right. What they have in common is the separation of the biological from the social, but, as he argues, these two determinations are inextricably interconnected.

The importance of the reproduction of the workforce, not to mention the power of religion, makes the family the norm and heterosexual relationships a preference. But other reproductive family structures can exist with same-sex and transgender relationships thanks to progress in medical science, which allows for gender reassignment. All these developments challenge not only the gender norms that have been so important to the reproduction of the workforce under capitalism, but capitalism itself.

Movements against racism which, as he notes, are being “institutionalized within capitalism as a whole”, are also avenues by which activists can move from a specific campaign to a more generalized struggle against the system. The long experience of darker people of color with poor living standards is now spilling over to other (especially professional) sections of the working class who have never lived precariously or seen a decline in living standards. The globalization of production creates a coincidence of interests between the working class of the global North and the South. Moreover, the world working class mentioned in the Communist Manifesto “could thus begin to emerge as a collective agent in this era of catastrophe”.

The digital age presents all sorts of possibilities for democratic planning, rather than the relatively rigid attempts at central planning employed in the past under state socialism (the term, given its political loyalty, is Alex Callinicos's own; but here prefer to speak of “state capitalism”).

Marx, he reminds us, conceived of socialism as self-emancipation, so planning must be a bottom-up process. Digital platforms like Amazon and Facebook collect huge amounts of data about individual consumption behavior and they could feed a process of negotiation with production units, led from the bottom up. Above all, planning will require managing the climate emergency nationally and globally: carbon trading markets and quasi-markets will not.

Alex Callinicos consults a wide range of literature on the subject, though surprisingly not referring in this case to Paul Mason's work on the ways in which capitalism is already hinting at what the post-capitalist future might look like. In large part, through digitization, there is a reduction in the possibilities of making profits; behold, the prices of many goods and services tend to zero; in the case of some digital services, it can be seen that they are already free.

This critical theorist references other works by Mason. In the final section of the book, he argues strongly against a left-center popular front coalition to combat the resurgence of the far right and the prospect of fascism. He argues, unlike Mason, that the original popular front was unsuccessful in defeating fascism in the 1930s.

He points out that the reference to class interests has always been crucial for a good understanding of effective alliances: the left largely comprised the organized working class, while liberal (bourgeois) centrists represented sections of capital whose interests fundamentally disagreed with the interests of the organized working class. Defending bourgeois democracy requires solid class action from the organized left, not collaboration with this class enemy. Only a United Front, unifying leftist political forces connected to the organized working class, according to him, can succeed in mobilizing opposition to fascism to confront it wherever it appears.

The organized resistance to capitalism, the construction of a socialist revolution is, for him, the only viable alternative to the catastrophe that is waiting. Although he presents a Trotskyist Marxist view of successful political activity, one does not have to be a Trotskyist to agree with most of his analysis. You have a book that tries to pull together the different strands of our current situation into a coherent and intelligible whole, and it does so in a highly readable way. The future may seem pessimistic, but this book provides enough material to feed the optimistic will that is now lacking.

* Peter Lawrence is professor emeritus of development economics at Keele University's School of Business. He is editor of Review of African Political Economy.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on Review of African Political Economy


Alex Callinicos. The new age of catastrophe. London, Polity Press, 2023, 256 pages.

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