In December of 1999, the lefty cartoonist Dan Perkins (pen name “Tom Tomorrow”) ended a cartoon with these words:
What can you do? You don’t matter. Your vote doesn’t matter. Your protests don’t matter. Go ahead, march in the streets and chant your little slogans. The political sophisticates and media elites will smirk at your naivete, your misguided nostalgia for the sixties, and then they will steer the conversation back to the stock market or the fabulous new restaurant they’ve recently discovered. They’re not worried about you.
And yet…something extraordinary just happened in Seattle. Demonstrators took to the streets and made their voices heard-and it made a difference. The media were forced to address issues they had previously swept under the rug, to explain why anyone could possibly be opposed to unfettered global capitalism. In a few short days, the entire debate was altered, perhaps irrevocably.
You know something’s wrong. Maybe it’s time to start making some noise about it. Happy new millennium.
Twenty years later, the brief moment of hope for working class revolution that Perkins described has become a routine occurrence. Almost every week since November of last year, France’s Yellow Vests have been agitating in the streets for the restoration of social benefits, livable wages, taxing the rich, climate action, and (according to a Yellow Vests assembly from this month) the abolition of capitalism. As the Yellow Vests in France continue to demand change amid violence from police and attacks from the media, similar rebellions are happening around the world.
Additional Yellow Vest movements have happened worldwide, from Russia to Canada to many countries throughout Europe. America’s lack of such a mass protest effort is clearly only temporary, as the United States is brimming with the same revolutionary energy that’s appearing in much of the rest of the world. This year, strike action in the U.S. has hit a 32 year high as its teacher strikes have escalated. Around the U.S. the Poor People’s Campaign has been using civil disobedience protests to continue Martin Luther King Jr’s vision for a just society. Similar rebellions are underway in seemingly every other place where poor and working people are oppressed, with examples ranging from the additional teacher strikes in Europe to the anti-government protests in Algeria to the massive recent communist-led general strike in India.
These events make up the first stage of a revolutionary period that the capitalist world has entered into. Resistance efforts against corporate power are overall much more frequent than they were just a few years ago, and we have every reason to expect the class struggle to keep accelerating in the coming years. This is because unlike during the time of the WTO protests, the victims of global capitalism have reached their breaking point.
In America most of all, inequality has been steadily increasing throughout the developed world for almost half a century. Those in the more wealthy countries have seen their living standards decline to the point where in the United States alone, half the population is poor by modern standards. The global concentration of wealth has also led to increased poverty in the poorer nations, with NAFTA having devastated Mexico’s economy and similar damage having been done to the Latin American countries where neoliberal reforms have taken place. The imperialist powers have long carried outcorporate looting in the global south, but now that inequality has risen so much in both parts of the world, ordinary people in the dominating nations have a shared sense of victimhood with their counterparts in the foreign sweatshops.
With the capitalist world’s extremely debt-ridden and unstable economic system heading for a crash that will likely be worse than the one from 2008, this restlessness among the lower classes is no doubt going to keep intensifying in the coming years. Unemployment, lowered wages, consumer debt, slashed social benefits, and government handouts for the rich will all explode after the next financial crisis, and this will drive more people to get out and fight for their rights.
But while it’s certain that the next decade will see great efforts to reject the current system, a vision for what we want society to look like next hasn’t yet been adequately articulated. This clarification of our collective goal for the future is where the anti-capitalist movement will be needed. We can’t water down our demands and accept a setup where capitalism continues with some reforms. We need to infuse our protests with an explicitly pro-socialist message, which can be articulated through signs at demonstrations, posts on blogs and social media, and public statements on behalf of the protesters. The world’s poor and working people must unite under an agenda which includes taking the means of production away from the capitalist class.
If this movement is equipped with the aspects that have been historically needed for socialist revolutions-such as an armed population of revolutionaries and strong institutions to support the people’s struggle-we’ll have a much better chance at defeating capitalism. Like all ruling classes, the capitalists won’t give up their power willingly, and they’re demonstrating this by preparing to violently crush a rebellion. President Trump’s declarations of global war on socialism are backed by the power of America’s security apparatus and militarized police departments. And Trump’s statement last month about his supporters potentially carrying out violence on his behalf showed that he and the rest of the ruling class are willing to use military force to defend their power. We’re committing ourselves to a power struggle where violence should be avoided as much as possible, but which will no doubt entail violence because of the violent nature of the people in power.
In short, this revolution will require a lot more than mere street marches. But as Perkins assessed about the WTO protests, any act of resistance can have an impact. And we’ve entered an era where acts of resistance are reaching a tipping point.