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Give Dust a Tongue: Salvage Perspectives 13
Every issue of Salvage is accompanied by a pamphlet wherein the Editorial Collective presents a synoptic overview of certain key aspects of the political conjuncture as we see it – our perspectives. The below is the editorial perspectives essay that accompanies Salvage #13: Give Dust a Tongue.
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The Return of the Strike
Trade unions, wrote Rosa Luxemburg in The Mass Strike, ‘cannot permanently maintain themselves in any other way than by struggle’. From that point of view, British unions have been in an existential crisis for three decades.
Until 2022, the level of industrial action in Britain in every year since 1991 – measured by days lost to strike action – was lower than in any year prior. In 2019, the total number of workers involved in a strike hit a record low of 33,000, the lowest number since records began in the 1890s under Queen Victoria. Never before in recorded history has the level of industrial action remained so low for so long.
This grim picture was compounded by the conspicuous failure of all major flashpoints of industrial action following the 1994 signal workers’ strike: the wildcat strikes by postal workers in 2002, the two big strikes by firefighters in 2002–3 and 2010, the civil servants strikes in 2007, and the broad but short-lived resistance to public sector austerity in 2011. As the springs of successful action dried up so did recruitment and retention, so that the desert of organisation spread to encompass over three quarters of the workforce: union density falling to 23.1 per cent across the whole economy, and just 12.8 per cent in the private sector, by 2021. And these patterns, far from reflecting the peculiar savagery of Britain’s post-Thatcher settlement, were replicated across the industrial world. They were global, representing the success of an international ruling-class offensive under the rubric of neoliberal globalisation.
In 2022, that pattern was abruptly reversed in Britain, with the biggest strike wave – resulting in the most days lost to industrial action – since 1990. However defensive, however goaded into being by a ruling-class offensive headed by a Conservative Party whose nebulous ‘levelling up’ agenda has been trashed by the neo-Osbornites now in charge, this represents a vitally important psychological threshold for a long-stagnant British labour movement. The trade unions, out of ingrained demoralisation at least as much as the conservatism of the union bureaucracy, have long behaved as if they were less powerful and more defeated than they actually are. The self-perpetuating reign of internalised defeat now seems to have been decisively punctured.
Nor is this incipient upturn restricted to Britain. According to figures from the European Trade Union Institute, the annual average of days lost to strike action in 2020–21 was more than half what it was in the entire previous decade in France, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Norway and Germany, while in Denmark the figure for 2020–21 exceeded that for the whole previous decade. The major exceptions to this trend are Cyprus and Greece, both of which experienced massive convulsions of near-insurrectionary militancy in the early 2010s, only to be decisively defeated by financial markets and the European Union. Even in the United States, starting from a much lower base, the number of workers involved in strikes increased by 60 per cent in 2022, according to the ILR Worker Institute’s Labor Action Tracker. Workers there began experiencing a modest revival somewhat earlier than their European equivalents, a pattern already visible in 2018 and 2019. However, the general pattern of uptick attests to the unique configuration of global circumstances after the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the rising costs of energy, supply-chain crises, labour shortages, the legacy of profound state interventions radically reshaping consciousness, and a ruling-class offensive to restrict wages and consumption in the face of inflationary pressures from rising energy and food prices. Altogether, these provided both the incentive for militancy and a unique window of opportunity as worker shortages meant strikes were often settled quickly and in workers’ favour, encouraging others to take action.
In this atmosphere of generalised crisis and nascent tumult – punctuated in Britain by the near-suicide of the Conservative Party under the leadership of ‘gutsy’ (dixit Labour sources) Liz Truss, the calculated indirection of Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, and punitive interest rate rises by the Bank of England – it was leaders from the most democratically militant quarter of the labour movement, Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey of the RMT, who briefly became unofficial media spokespersons for a generalised discontent. Pop-up campaigns, like Don’t Pay UK and Enough is Enough, have drawn surges of unexpected support. While Enough is Enough drew crowds of thousands to rallies across the country, building support, over a quarter of a million people signed Don’t Pay’s pledge to engage in mass non-payment if the government refused to cap energy prices. A poll published in the Times suggested that 1.7 million people might refuse payment. The energy firm E.ON warned the government that a non-payment campaign would represent an ‘existential threat’ to the privately owned energy sector, and it seems likely that such worries contributed to the Truss administration’s commitment to cap annual average energy prices at £2,500 per household – catalysing the crisis of the Conservative Party.
The Left initially met this situation in a state of disarray and demoralisation, following the electoral defeat of the Corbyn project and the grave-stamping triumphalism of the Labour right, the Conservative Party, the national media and every other outpost of a wounded and terrified political establishment. However, in the trade-union movement the Left had continued to grow. In 2019, the insurgent candidate Jo Grady won the UCU leadership election on the strength of her campaigning against the attempted sell-out of a strike over pensions by her predecessor Sally Hunt. In 2020, following Corbyn’s defeat, the victory of the centre candidate Christine McAnea in the Unison leadership elections could have signalled the restoration of order. However, the militant candidate Paul Holmes scored a surprisingly strong second place vote with over 33 per cent, a far better showing than any left candidate received in the 2015 election: had the Left united around Holmes, he could possibly have won. In 2021, the shock victory of the workerist candidate Sharon Graham in the Unite leadership election – despite the left vote being split between two candidates and a rabid, tabloid-backed, red-baiting campaign by the right-wing candidate Gerard Coyne – showed that the Right’s triumphalism was premature. In the same year, Mick Lynch convincingly won the RMT leadership race with no significant right-wing opposition. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nurses – an historically conservative union which still has the King as its official patron – has been in turmoil since 2018, when delegates at an emergency meeting voted ‘no confidence’ in its conservative leadership, starting a dynamic of grassroots pressure for industrial action. This resulted in the union announcing strikes covering nursing staff nationwide for the first time in its history.
As of writing, these strikes are beginning to bear significant, if uneven, fruit. In January 2023, speaking before the Commons transport select committee, the rail minister Huw Merriman admitted that it had cost the government more money to try to break the RMT’s strike than it would have cost to settle immediately. The justification for doing so was to send a signal regarding other public sector pay deals, and to insist on the need for ‘industry reform’ – referring to the government’s modernising maintenance agenda that would shred jobs and conditions. In March 2023, Network Rail reportedly offered a pay rise amounting to a 9.2 per cent increase for the highest paid members and a 14.4 per cent pay rise for the lowest paid, plus 1.1 per cent on basic earnings and backpay, not conditional on accepting the modernising agenda. This does not mean the deal should necessarily be accepted by RMT members. It does not mean that the train operating companies will offer similar pay rises. And the offer is not as generous as it might sound, given an 8.8 per cent rate of inflation over the twelve months to January 2023. But it does mean that, after months of obstructing a settlement, the government’s position is weakening. The signs were already there in February 2023, when the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU) was offered a 12 per cent pay rise, an increase from an initial offer of just 2 per cent. Similar settlements are being seen in the private sector, where employees of Drax Hydro Limited won a 16 per cent pay increase. That these deals have been offered in response to the most militant, most disruptive action by, in the case of the RMT, the most demonised sections of the labour movement offers a clear lesson to workers: be demonic.
But there is also a danger of premature triumphalism. Several unions have been willing to call off strike action in the middle of talks, without any agreement on the table. Ambulance workers and nurses suspended their strikes after the government finally agreed to talks. The UCU, whose members have suffered a prolonged decline in real salaries, amounting to 17 per cent between 2009 and 2019, suspended its strike action without any real agreement having been struck. The disarray into which both major factions in the union – both composed largely of politically-minded socialists – have been thrown by the most transparent management manoeuvring demonstrates an old truth: that the politics of union leaders are less important than the militant mobilisation of the rank and file, which in this case has been highly uneven. It would suit the Tories well if the caution of the union bureaucracy and settlements ending the most disruptive strikes isolated the weakest unions and broke the dynamism of the strike wave just as it was proving politically paralysing.
As the government seeks to contain its industrial difficulties, it is turning hard toward the ‘culture war’ frontlines. Conservative deputy chair Lee Anderson admitted in an interview that this was a necessary pivot given that the Tories no longer had Brexit as an issue or Boris Johnson as its bumptious, populist advocate. Among the thematics of officially sanctioned sadism and vengeance are a racist war on migrants instantiated in legislation to ‘stop the boats’ of refugees crossing the channel, which Home Secretary Suella Braverman calls an ‘invasion’, deport those who arrive and ban them from ever returning as refugees. A smaller front is the war on ‘woke’, or those ineptly derided by Michael Gove as ‘radical social change activists’. But perhaps the most novel and toxic tactical foray is in the terrain of transphobic panic.
In January 2023, the British government announced that it would for the first time use Section 25 of the Scotland Act to block a piece of legislation passed overwhelmingly by the Scottish parliament. The Gender Recognition Reform Bill had sought to make it more straightforward and dignified for trans men and women to obtain legal recognition. In line with advice from the World Health Organisation, it permitted sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate, removed the necessity for all applicants to receive a psychiatric diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and reduced the time period required for an applicant to ‘live as’ their gender from two years to three months. None of these minimally humane provisions impacted any other piece of legislation. The government claimed that it was incompatible with the Equality Act of 2010, and would negatively impact its implementation: this was simply untrue, as Scottish MSPs had painstakingly crafted and amended the legislation to ensure this didn’t happen. Even bracketing principle, the use of this constitutional nuclear option was vastly out of proportion to any possible legal effect of the bill.
What is this about? In part, an exhausted and strategically adrift Tory leadership has been handed an energising campaign issue by a media-generated moral panic. For the last five years, a compulsively vicious British media has alighted on trans women, children and men (in roughly that order) as their latest whipping posts. Newspapers, eschewing trans or specialist insight in favour of incitement, steer their paid attack dogs toward prurient, prudish and puritanical evocations of the dangers to women and children from transgender people. The most flea-bitten, paranoid and sectarian hacks of erstwhile ‘radical’ feminism, from Julie Bindel to the hitherto obscure Kathleen Stock, are discovered regurgitating the hallucinatory polemics of Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys, are handed column inches to graft onto their careers, and are turned into folk heroes of anti-woke resistance with lavish book deals and television appearances. News anchors, with cynically innocent expressions, pose loaded questions to politicians: Does a woman have a cervix? Does biology matter? Are trans women dangerous in womens’ toilets and prisons? Should children be permitted to take gender-affirming hormone treatments?
In 2020, the toothless press regulatory body IPSO released a report on the ‘aggressive and damaging’ coverage of trans people by newspapers that eschewed trans or expert insight in favour of incitement. One of the most damaging and demoralising aspects of this furore has been the collusion of the liberal press, a chunk of the Labour Party, elements of the trade-union bureaucracy, and even fractals of the Left in the transphobic crusade. In a study for the 2021 UCU conference, on the legacy media’s efforts to delegitimise Stonewall for its trans-supportive stance, Dr Gina Gwenffrewi found that the Guardian had been a leading belligerent in the offensive.
A segment of the Left is keen to assert the common sense of a reductive materialism, that ‘interests’ trump ‘desires’ in the not-very-lonely last instance, and that such culture-war strategy should be understood as deflection, and distraction from ‘real’ class interests. While there is, of course, a truth to this – deflection and distraction has long been part of the stock in trade of the ruling class against its class enemies – the assertion has always partaken of anxious border-guarding as much as of analysis: the trenchant assertion that such-and-such is epiphenomenal is a code for a plea that we stop talking so much about such-and-such. There should be no question about the importance of locating such oppressive discourses and ideologemes within the context of capitalist profit maximisation. Apart from anything, that is key to unpicking and strategising for liberation within a terrain wherein, far from pitting ruling class against working class, the ‘culture wars’ divide factions within the ruling-class and capitalism, too, even while they are united with their opponents in the ultimate aim of hegemony. But as with the related and (legitimately or otherwise) stigmatised understandings of the world known as conspiracy theories, this is far from suggesting that such ‘culture wars’ do not express real material interests, or have very real material political consequences. The Left cannot decorously bypass them to focus on ‘real’ issues such as wages. Not least because the opposition of ‘interests’ and ‘desires’ is utterly unavailing: there is no interest that does not express a prior, intentional orientation toward the world. If ‘gender-critical’ women claim an interest in not sharing a toilet with a trans woman, it goes without saying that other women, both trans and cis, declare an opposing interest in not living in a transphobic society. Neither interest is entirely without some objective referent, however bent around paranoid phantasmagorias in the case of transphobes, but each is also the expression of a desire. The question is not how ‘objective’ the interest in discussion is, but how rational. The challenge – and challenge it is – is precisely to integrate such issues as part of a rigorous and anti-moralist approach to these vexed questions, which engages with but does not start and end with them. Or, put otherwise, the task is to discern the precise meaning of these ideological mediations in relation to the totality of the world capitalist system.
Yet the disorienting, disequilibrating effect of the Sturm und Drang over trans rights is but one variant in a general contagion of reactionary ideologemes. Chetan Bhatt has astutely suggested that the nascent exsuscitation of fascism in recent years has been conjured up by the metaphysical obsession with ‘white extinction’. As ‘whiteness’ loses its currency as a social and psychological wage, the new far-right literalises this as a ‘genocidal’ offensive by ‘globalists’. Insightful as this analysis is, it does not sufficiently apprise the centrality of sex panic, of which the trans panic is one highly intoxicating (because toxic) facet, to the new far-right and to the authoritarian energies circulating.
This can take a highly traditional, religious form, as in the detectable increase in ‘pro-life’ agitation outside abortion clinics in Britain. But more often it manifests in a syncretic millenarianism, with proto-religious elements of demonology and redemption as in the QAnon theory that the world is run by a Satanic paedophile conspiracy. And so, at local libraries each week, parents taking their children to the wholesome entertainment of Drag Queen Story Hour have to wade through crowds of reactionary agitators, including QAnon aficionados and members of the would-be paramilitary anti-vaxx group Alpha Men Assemble, maligning the storytellers as ‘groomers’. Far-right groups like Britain First regularly lead marches at Dover and provocations targeting hotels housing asylum seekers, partly on the grounds that they contain young men likely to prey on girls. That itself draws on over a decade of insidious news stories, and Labour and Tory MPs from Sarah Champion to Suella Braverman, falsely suggesting that child abuse and ‘grooming gangs’ are problems particular to Pakistani men. Since the examples cited in these polemics typically include offenders from a range of national backgrounds, it’s safe to assume that the word ‘Pakistani’ is not intended as a geographical reference, but as a euphemism for ‘paki’.
Worryingly, this racist sex panic has now produced a number of ‘lone wolf’ and ‘mob’ explosions. In November 2022, after a series of far-right marches in the town, a man drove into Dover, firebombed asylum seekers waiting at the port, then drove to a local petrol station and killed himself. His goal, he explained in tweets, was to ‘obliterate Muslim children’ and ‘there [sic] disgusting women’. Then, in February 2023, a crowd of roughly 400 young men gathered at the Suites hotel in Knowsley, Merseyside, and rioted, some using the sledgehammers they had brought to attack police vehicles. The riot was precipitated by viral footage purportedly showing a young man, assumed to be an asylum seeker, chatting up a fifteen-year-old girl. While members of the far-right were present, the organisation appears to have been spontaneous and local. Of course, that revelation was sufficient for Britain’s doyens of reactionary inanity, such as Allison Pearson, to set aside usual protocol in describing rioters (typically in the most dehumanising terms possible) and commend them as ‘ordinary, decent people’ legitimately outraged and unfairly stigmatised as racist by the liberal elite. This was no less than should be expected from a press pack that has been supplying the raw materials for such reactionary shitstorms.
While these iterations of sex panic are local and imbued with specifically British sources of melancholia – such as the inability and unwillingness of the state to protect life during a pandemic or secure consumption during a cost-of-living crisis, or the fact that the poorest citizens of Britain would be better off if they lived in ‘poor’ Eastern European countries from whence comes the migrant labour so cheaply exploited and demonised, or the fact that Britain is experiencing an epidemic of anxiety and depression driven by precarious living conditions and the palpable experience of facing uncontrollable disasters – they receive their significance, in part, from the global mise-en-scène of sexual anguish. The war on ‘gender ideology’ initially launched by the Catholic Right has found partisans from Hungary to Brazil. The Proud Boys hail the Taliban for recovering their country from ‘globohomo’. Hindu nationalists accuse Muslim men of seducing Hindu girls with a ‘Love Jihad’. The Christchurch murderer reiterates the mantra of Muslim ‘birth rates’, their fecundity apparently suggesting a worrying potency in contrast to a whiteness enfeebled by global liberalism. One of the main incitements to recreational, manifesto-touting massacres is the perception that the loneliness of the young male is due to the world’s domination by sexually proficient Chads and Staceys who refuse to share the sex fairly. The pervasive and multicausal experiences of vulnerability, violability, disorientation, dissatisfaction and demoralisation are being consistently and symptomatically figured as problems in the sexual order.
That the impulse to restore existential order – sent askew by the pathologies of capital accumulation reaching new limits without finding solutions sustainable even for the relatively short-term, the intensification of inter-imperial rivalries under the pressure of ecologically-induced energy and supply crises, the decomposition of political hegemony as representative institutions self-consciously evacuate themselves of representative content the better to exclude the untrustworthy popular classes, the loneliness and distrust engendered by the growing precarity of life-building and the evisceration of common spaces, and the epistemological crisis brought on by the ever more effective subsumption of knowledge production by private capital – manifests itself as a drive to violently reinstate cisheteronormativity, is surely significant. That Britain – with its singularly stagnant political culture, intellectual philistinism, and position of relative decline in both the international division of labour and the imperialist chain – should be so taken even on parts of the Left with images of trans subversion, is no less so.
New Cold War: Weather Balloons and Tanks
In early February 2023, the US government and national media embarked on a paranoid bender about the intrusion into the US of veritable flotillas of minatory Chinese balloons. It began when, on 4 February, the US Navy shot down a Chinese balloon hovering in US airspace off the coast of South Carolina, on the orders of Joe Biden. In the ensuing weeks, there followed a flood of media speculation that the balloon was part of a Chinese spying programme, demands from NBC and the New York Times to repel the aggression, and claims of a ‘balloon gap’ in which the inscrutable foe had a lethal edge over Washington. Several more flying objects were shot down on Biden’s orders. Nor, it was disclosed, was this the first assault wave of Chinese balloons. There had been others before, scandalously disregarded under both Biden and his equally sinophobic predecessor. It has not been established conclusively that the balloon was a spycraft, and Biden quietly admitted that all the other objects shot down were probably operated by domestic companies or research bodies rather than the Chinese.
This collective hallucination and pant-wetting recalled nothing so much as the late and unlamented ‘Havana Syndrome’, in which a bipartisan political and media consensus asserted that a range of minor idiopathic symptoms experienced by several US government and military personnel were the result of a global enemy campaign. So subtle was this campaign that it could not be localised, for the symptoms erupted everywhere, from New Delhi to Washington, DC. Anonymous intelligence officials briefed journalists that Russia was likely to blame, but they could not be sure. Eventually, the story reached an absurd yet characteristic apotheosis when the CIA quietly confirmed that the symptoms were not the result of a campaign by a rival state. It may be that, just as the famous ‘Puerto Rican syndrome’ expressed a thwarted rebellion on the part of Puerto Rican soldiers drafted to the US military, these various ailments somatically literalised a troubling apprehension of imperial vulnerability among the personnel. Either way, as in the balloons farago, otiose statesmen along with serried ranks of manicured national security reporters and their shadowy ‘sources’ had conjured out of miniscule data a national syndrome that made the porosity of American power abruptly vivid.
Such are the pathologies of decline, which is felt everywhere. During the Trump administration, several international journalists of both neoconservative and liberal-imperialist complexion had exhibited a lachrymose sense of post-Washington melancholia: the US, they complained as Trump trashed the doctrine of ‘multilateralism’, no longer wished to lead, or even to hold their hands through the world’s unfathomable darkness. And notwithstanding their relief at Biden’s election, his subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan, more or less on Trump’s schedule, elicited an outcry of similar bourgeois discontent.
But when, a little over a year ago, Moscow undertook the patently irrational gambit of invading Ukraine, and then made a series of unforced military errors in doing so, it seemed like the old gang was finally getting back together. Biden, despite his initial reticence, soon declared that he was prepared to spend billions on a long war in Ukraine. Boris Johnson was briefly in his element as the sort of Churchill-impersonator you might have ordered from Wish. Macron, increasingly beleaguered domestically, took his ‘Jupiterian’ strut to the world stage. NATO was delighted, almost immediately presented with new applications for membership from historically neutral Sweden and Finland. The poetasters of eternal Cold War, such as Anne Applebaum and Robert Kagan (who enjoys some connections to the Biden White House) were thrilled by the opportunity for that shrill bellicosity which is ever misunderstood as ‘moral clarity’. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was the ideal ally for this confederacy: an autocratic liberal and a former celebrity with an excellent sense of public relations, whose position as the international representative of a nation attacked and oppressed by Russian imperialism made him instantly relatable on all social industry networks. Narcissistic empathy for ‘people like us’ enabled a felt solidarity that required no thought whatsoever. Out came the Ukraine flags, decorating all feeds, and featured on pubs and homes in middle-class English suburbs.
And yet, over a year on from Vladimir Putin’s deranged and murderous gamble – the aims of which are still scarcely intelligible if one assumes the slightest strategic intelligence in the Kremlin – the afflatus has gone out of the thing. There is little to show for either the US or Russia, as there is simply no sign of either Moscow or Kyiv achieving its stated objectives. Notwithstanding the augmentation of Usonian and European military budgets and the international commitments of weapons, rockets, tanks and eventually aircrafts to Ukraine, and notwithstanding the obvious disarray of Russia’s armed forces, Putin does not appear to be running out of steam or new lines of attack. It is hardly plausible that Ukraine could outright defeat the Russian military, but is also unbelievable that Russia would achieve anything but a pyrrhic victory. The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest over his war crimes, but it scarcely carries any credibility: neither Russia nor the US are signatories to the Court, it has never prosecuted or even inconvenienced a war criminal of any serious clout, and its activity largely consists of tackling politically easy cases of alleged war criminals from sub-Saharan Africa.
Finally, and this is where the balloon frenzy reveals itself as a form of displacement typical of dreamwork, the US may not even get much say in a negotiated settlement if the stalemate persuades Putin of the need for a face-saving deal and Zelensky of the need to moderate his official Russophobia, which has been manifest in extraordinary laws banning the main opposition parties for being pro-Russian. In late February 2023, to the dismay of Washington and NATO’s headquarters in Brazil, but eliciting the cautious endorsement of Kyiv, the Chinese government published a twelve-point position paper on the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine. Calling for ‘all parties’ to respect ‘the sovereignty of nations’ under international law, rejecting sanctions on Russia, and criticising ‘expanding military blocs’ (obviously NATO), it suggested that China would mediate between Kyiv and Moscow in securing a ceasefire and negotiated settlement. Volodymyr Zelensky was circumspectly positive about Beijing’s ‘respect for our territorial integrity, security issues’, and his deputy foreign minister welcomed the proposal. Three weeks later, in mid-March, talks hosted in Beijing resulted in a new deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China’s role as mediator had been kept secret until that point. The shift in relations between Saudi and Iran is already leading to palpable geopolitical results, with a Saudi delegation present in the Yemeni capital Sana’a to discuss with Iran’s Houthi allies the possible end to the savage war in Yemen. The extent to which China’s role is causal is obviously unclear, but – at the very least – it is centrally involved in this new moment.
The disclosure of its involvement, and Ukraine’s reaction to its initiative, suggested two worrisome things for the United States. First, Zelensky’s hitherto belligerent response to calls for negotiations, which in one interview included entertainingly dismissing Putin as a ‘nobody’, may have concealed a deeper anxiety about the prospects, and the limits of Western support. Biden and NATO allies may be willing to munify a ‘long war’, but they are not willing to risk direct engagement with Russia in order to tilt the balance decisively in Ukraine’s favour. The fact that Ukraine is open to such overtures suggests that they’d quite like a way out. Second, Zhongnanhai could do far more damage by exploiting Washington’s hegemonic decline than through the fetchingly nineteenth-century technique of dispatching a hot air balloon to get an executive view on the enemy. For, just as Washington could not possibly be received as a good-faith arbiter of dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran – given its long-standing friendship with the Wahhabi theocracy and sabre-rattling at the Islamic Republic – it is also difficult to see how Washington could be accepted as a sensible third-party in a war that it has been funding and arming. If there is to be a ceasefire, and if there are to be negotiations, then Chinese state-capitalism – which remains, trade wars aside, massively intricated with US capitalism – looks like a more plausible winner than either Moscow or Kyiv.
This, it must be acknowledged, is a highly perilous situation. The decomposition of traditional Washington’s neoliberal world order, coupled with ascendant nationalism and the periodic crises produced or inflamed by climate disaster from pandemic to energy crunch, have all intensified and been intensified by imperialist rivalries in recent years. The Biden administration, while no doubt eager to exploit Moscow’s substantial self-inflicted damage to its assiduously cultivated international reputation for brutal efficacy, has done almost everything it has with an eye to its rivalry with China, from expansive industrial investments to stimulate domestic capital accumulation and adapt the system to the new era of ecological crisis, to escalating tariffs on Chinese goods going far beyond anything Trump imposed, to desperate efforts to undercut Chinese commercial and diplomatic influence in the African continent. The US military is currently engaging in the largest joint military exercises with the Philippines in years, under Ferdinand ‘Bong Bong’ Marcus Jr, while the Chinese government has engaged in its own military drills, simulating strikes on Taiwan – which it considers to be its territorial possession.
The intensification of inter-imperialist rivalries pivots far more on the strange co-dependence and conflict between the US and China than over Russia. For example, while the US and China are engaged in a face-off over Taiwan, Macron has visited China with the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who articulates the executive, class-wide perspectives of the European bourgeoisie. While wrapping up lucrative trade deals, Macron reiterated the doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’ – first articulated by European Union rulers in relation to Trump – and insisted that Europe must not become a ‘vassal’ for US interests. He also lent his verbal support to a potential Chinese role in mediating between Russia and Ukraine. This complicates any ‘new Cold War’ narrative, since the clarifying global bipolarity that directed and constrained imperialist antagonisms in the period from 1945 to 1990 are no longer there. The relative decline of the US, and the self-conscious ‘autonomy’ of Europe, make the dream of refounding Cold War alliances an exercise in imperial nostalgia. That is what is so dangerous: the further the US falls, the more Europe vacillates and the more ‘global China’ eludes US efforts at encirclement, the more likely are further expostulations of nationalist hysteria and further advances from farce to tragedy.
Energy Famines and ‘Natural’ Disasters
In Kahramanmaraş, in Şanlıurfa, and in Aleppo, the February 2023 earthquake along the East Anatolian fault struck buildings knowingly not designed to withstand such tremors, and they fell fast, in pancake-fashion. A total of 41,156 people were killed in Turkey and a further 5,801 in Syria.
The East Anatolian fault is a ‘strike-slip’ fault. The Arabian plate pushes north against the Anatolian plate, which pushes westward. The horizontal friction as – propelled in their motion by heat generation from the decay of radioactive elements deep inside the planet – they grind together, builds up as seismic energy. If it is not regularly discharged in earthquakes, the debt will be paid in more and bigger earthquakes in the future. This is an unavoidable, catastrophic aspect of the earth’s energetic system, and the majority of the Turkish land mass is permanently at high risk of earthquakes.
There is, notoriously, and even when the most catastrophic natural forces are loose, no such thing as a ‘natural disaster’. As earth scientist Ben Wisner and his colleagues have been documenting for years, every earthquake, flood, famine, wildfire and storm is conditioned by a cluster of vulnerabilities that are ‘man-made’. Of the 1976 Guatemala earthquake, which killed 23,000 people and injured 76,000, Wisner et al write in At Risk:
The physical shaking of the ground was a natural event … However, slum dwellers in Guatemala City and many Mayan Indians living in impoverished towns and hamlets suffered the highest mortality. The homes of the middle class were better protected and more safely sited, and recovery was easier for them.
And so it is in Turkey and Syria, where earthquakes have been far more lethal than other major quakes in Northridge, California or Kobe, Japan. Despite lower maximum intensity of ground-shaking, and lower population density, recent earthquakes on the East Anatolian fault have killed more because the power of the inertial forces created by the energy conducted into the structures of the buildings easily overwhelmed the poor reinforcements and displaced the different floors of the buildings. The result was that, when the buildings collapsed, the floors were tightly packed together, leaving so little space that the chances of finding a breathing body in the wreckage was in most cases negligible.
While earthquakes are unavoidable, decades of Turkish state policy of cramming the working class and millions of Syrian refugees into cheaply built, poorly designed and often illegal apartments constructed by corner-cutting developers in the most dangerous earthquake zones could have been avoided. Equally avoidable was the refusal to impose elementary earthquake-proofing in the design, and the retrospective legalisation of illegal constructions by Erdogan’s 2018 ‘zoning amnesty law’. And what certainly could have been avoided was the triumvirate of counterinsurgent bombing campaigns waged from Damascus, Moscow and Washington, DC, which so devastated Aleppo that the surviving residents were forced to construct new and unsteady homes out of the salvaged ruins.
‘Natural disasters’ may, but do not necessarily, beget ‘disaster communities’ of the sort about which Rebecca Solnit has written. As the sociologist Kai Erikson describes in his study of collective trauma, there may be a wave of euphoric fellow-feeling among survivors, but in the aftermath communal faultlines can be prised wider apart, forming a social chasm of blame and bloodletting. So it has been in Turkey where, within days of the disaster, social industry campaigns driven by Turkish fascist Ümit Özdağ started to scapegoat Syrians for looting, stealing aid or even causing the disaster, spawning outbursts of mob violence and harassment – sometimes resisted, we note, by countervailing outbursts of solidarity. Scarcely days after the disaster, moreover, the European Union introduced ‘tougher’ rules for ‘irregular migrants’, extinguishing hope for many of those refugees. ‘Natural disaster’, then, enfolds within it not just the social massacres concomitant on class, imperialism and racism, but the casual bureaucratic cruelty of Enlightened liberalism and the kind of theodical nationalist reasoning – evil comes from the outsiders – that perpetuates further miserable death and ruin. This is a chronotope of the climate future, as the constitutively catastrophic propensities of the earth’s energy system are catalysed by capitalogenic carbon emissions, and hypertrophied by capitalism’s systemic cheapening of poor, black and migratory life.
Since the beginning of 2022, the chronic crisis in the earth’s energy system has erupted in the predictably acute form of floods in Pakistan, eastern Australia and California, raging wildfires in California, Arizona, France, Morocco and Texas, deadly heatwaves in India, Japan and Pakistan, droughts in China, and typhoons in the Philippines. In each case, the source of the surplus of wild, destructive energy driving such ‘extreme weather’ comes from the addition of what Joseph Fourier called ‘dark heat’ – infrared radiation reflected from the earth’s surface having absorbed solar radiation, and trapped by carbon molecules in the atmosphere – to the earth’s system.
Wildfires, for example, are a natural occurrence on a planet packed with organic fuels in the soil, carbon-based organisms and an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Annual peaks of solar radiation routinely, as a matter of ecological balance, burn up the grasslands and forests of Australia, California and Siberia. Even in Britain, heathland and moorland need small, regular wildfires to thrive. But on a hotter planet, the wildfires are becoming more frequent, more intense, and are themselves releasing more heat energy into the atmosphere. The average heat energy released by annual western wildfires in the United States, for example, is 1.4 × 1018 Joules. But in 2020, wildfire season released 5.6 x 1018 Joules of heat energy, enough to supply the world’s energy demand for four days. Half-way into 2022, the wildfires in Europe were already 273 per cent above the average for a whole year. Wild energy, disproportionately loaded into the earth’s system by the 100 corporations responsible for 71 per cent of annual emissions – and even allowing that those corporations have outputs, employees and consumers, the effective power to emit is in their hands – sets up predictable yet stochastically distributed ‘natural disasters’, calamities which are then compounded by structurally distributed vulnerabilities.
It is a proof of the intrinsic anarchic wastefulness and misallocations of the fossil capitalist system that, even as surpluses of wild energy are pumped into the earth system, human populations experience energy shortages and global price inflation without equivalent in recent experience. The proximate causes of shortage are in no case ‘natural’. They include a short-term decline in oil and coal investment as a result of recent commodity price crashes, the preeminently ecological crisis of the Covid-19 outbreak which resulted in sharp economic contraction and rapid rebound stressing energy supplies while also delaying maintenance work (in, for example, North Sea oil extraction), and Russia’s imperialist war on Ukraine and inter-imperialist rivalry with Washington resulting in energy sanctions and restricted gas supply from Gazprom to Europe. The banal dynamics of capitalist investment driven by expected profit rates, prices determined mainly by supply and demand, and access determined by state policy, created this energy crisis.
We even hear talk of ‘energy famine’, a concept that first popularised during the OPEC crisis of 1973-74. In September 2022, in the deepest trough of the energy crisis, John Gray warned of a potential ‘energy famine’ coming to Europe. In the United States, the ecomodernist, nuclear-shilling Breakthrough Institute warns of ‘electricity famine’ as local providers facing energy shortfalls resort to rolling blackouts. But, like the devastating El Niño-triggered food famines discussed in Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts, energy famines do not arise merely from scarcities. They result from the way scarcities are produced and mediated by markets, property rights and states. That is why there was no ‘energy famine’ in Europe, where most states – often under pressure from mobilised citizens, as in Britain’s Don’t Pay campaign – resorted to expedients such as price controls and subsidies to insulate their electorates from the worst. Given the chaos of the earth system, energy famines are likely to become a more pervasive reality in the future, but to understand them aright one must first talk about the work/energy regime, and systems of unequal energy exchange (capitalism and imperialism).
The work/energy regime is essential. The energy that is available to us is a result of labour processes, from mining and refineries to supply chains and distribution. As Andreas Malm reminds us in Fossil Capital, ‘No piece of coal or drop of oil has yet turned itself into fuel … fossil fuels necessitate waged or forced labour – the power of some to direct the labour of others – as conditions of their very existence.’ More fundamentally, the purpose of energy in a capitalist system is to enable more work: minimum energy in, maximum work out.
The same austere logic of capitalist efficiency was a primary source of the El Niño food famines that, as Davis documents, made the ‘Third World’. As drought struck British-ruled India, for example, colonial administrators insisted on withholding aid as far as possible, on the grounds that it would be an inefficient deployment of caloric resources. Where aid was distributed, it was tied to demands for back-breaking labour. Refugees fleeing the stricken countryside were expected to travel to camps, from whence they would be deployed as ‘coolie labour’ on railroad and canal projects. Davis is even able to tell us what was considered an adequate minimum of calories for their rations: 1627 calories a day was considered sufficient for heavy labour in Madras, about half of the minimum that Bengal labourers needed fifteen years previously. Minimum energy in, maximum work out.
Relations of unequal energy exchange also magnified the crisis to Biblical proportions. The railroads that the British poetasters of the ‘free market’ had supposed would ensure an efficient distribution of food had actually been used to speed stocks out of India to England during the years of plenty, because English farms had suffered reduced yields. Internal relations of unequal energy exchange also prevailed, as the same rail networks were used to ensure that what stocks remained were shuttled from drought-stricken regions to whichever populations could pay the highest price.
Similar dynamics will determine who suffers from energy famines in the future. The hoarding of stocks of gas and coal, and the privileged access that imperialist states have to those resources, is only the beginning of the problem. Electricity, which may be produced by renewable energy sources as much as by burning coal, is not the sort of physical object that can be hoarded as stock. It is a mediated, social and cultural thing, distributed through normative structures of access embedded in pylons, generators and undersea power cables. The pre-eminently capitalist solution to energy famine in the ‘Third World’, much as it was to the integration of the ‘First World’ working-class into the system, has been ‘access’ to the grid. Yet access to the grid, in India, South Africa and Puerto Rico, has not meant effective access. In these cases, effective access depended on non-commodified pricing, public ownership or regulation – practices which have generally been foreclosed by the regime of neoliberal globalisation. In Puerto Rico, for example, the energy famine resulting from Hurricane Maria in September 2017 was conditioned by exorbitant pricing as empire-produced dependence on imported fossil fuels resulted in the highest energy prices in the US. As a result, the state energy firm, controlled by the same oil giants that sold oil at elevated prices to the country, had accumulated unpayable debts totalling $9 billion. On the eve of the storm, it had declared bankruptcy, and the privatising vultures were circling. As a result, months after the hurricane 40 per cent of Puerto Rican households were still without electricity.
This is not to say that a ‘true’ energy famine is impossible in a rich, imperialist democracy. For example, Texas suffered an energy famine over two years ago amid severe winter storms, not because of energy shortages in the United States but because of a privatised, streamlined-for-profit energy system and the corporate-aligned politics of Texan administrators who deliberately made the state an ‘energy island’ so that it wouldn’t be subject to Federal regulations. Where energy famine occurs, it will be caused not by shortage, still less by the absence of nuclear power, but by a confluence of property relations, state policy and market imperatives potentiating the catastrophic latencies in the earth’s energy system and then choking off supplies, above all to the working class. The energy crisis is, as ever, a crisis born of what Jason W Moore calls capitalist world-ecology.
Cancelling the Apocalypse? The Global Economy
In the twilight of 2022, the lands resounded to wailings and the gnashings of economists’ teeth. The outlook for the world was widely understood to be particularly grim. In October 2022, the IMF limned ‘the weakest growth profile since 2001 except for the global financial crisis and the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic’. The aftermaths of those epochal shocks, dramatically exacerbated by the devastating energy crisis and supply-chain impact following Russia’s war with Ukraine, would see inflation at a generational high, and a severe cost-of-living crisis. Overall, the world economy was ‘experiencing a broad-based and sharper-than-expected slowdown’, with growth forecast to slow from 6 per cent in 2021 to 2.7 per cent in 2023. Though not technically a recession, this would, the IMF warned, ‘feel like one’. This was particularly the case given the immense unevenness in the world economy: the IMF saw US growth likely to slow to 1 per cent, Britain to 0.5 per cent and Germany entering recession.
And the IMF predictions were among the most optimistic of mainstream commentators’. The WTO predicted growth of 2.3 per cent, the OECD and UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) 2.2 per cent. No wonder that two thirds of the economists polled by the World Economic Forum in January 2023 saw a global recession as likely, and one fifth as extremely likely.
Of course, with the predictability of sunrise, the policies that such mavens advocated for in response were overwhelmingly acts of class war.
Thus, for example, the remorseless focus on tightening interest rates, usually with reference to what the economist John O’Trakoun, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, has dolefully called the ‘doom loop’. This is the notorious ‘wage-price spiral’, whereby rising workers’ wages lead businesses to raise prices, thus fuelling inflation overall. This nostrum of holy bourgeois writ has seen new life in the post-Covid-19 recovery, which gave workers a degree of leeway to demand better wages. In mid-2022, Forbes magazine added propheteering to profiteering, to warn that ‘We Need To Talk About The Worker Wage-Price Spiral Before It’s Too Late’, as if its readership were not already voluble on that very topic. In June 2022, Boris Johnson warned that ‘[w]hen a wage-price spiral begins, there is only one cure and that is to slam the brakes on rising prices with higher interest rates’. The UK’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Simon Clarke, warned that ‘if we end up in a world where … all settlements try to match inflation or even exceed it then we are … actually creating the conditions whereby those expectations become baked in. … That is the inflationary risk.’ A more decorously expressed version of the concern – and one, to be fair, that stood alongside other less imaginary economic bugbears – lay behind the governer of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, calling for workers’ ‘restraint’ when it comes to pay rises, and the Bank’s continued rise in interest rates. That is, to put it plainly for the sake of ‘the economy’, workers have to get poorer in real terms.
Such ruling-class strategies prioritise the weakening of the working class – the ruling class’ class enemy, that is – over any amelioration of the global capitalist economy, even on its own terms. That the narrow focus on raising interest rates risks recession, for example, is hardly news. Nor is it news that this is often the explicit aim: Paul Volcker, a pin-up of the hardest version of this strategy, proclaimed in 1979 that ‘[t]he standard of living of the average American has to decline’. So, mutatis mutandis, today: November 2022, the governer of New Zealand’s central bank, Tim Scott, agreed with a Finance and Expenditure select committee that the bank was deliberately engineering a recession, though he did dream fondly of a ‘job-rich slowdown’. The world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, warned in its 2023 Global Outlook that central bankers ‘are deliberately causing recessions by overtightening policy to try to rein in inflation’, making ‘recession foretold’.
Such anti-inflationary norms are predicated, to varyingly overt degrees, on that wage-price spiral. What’s telling is that even according to capitalism’s own more honest analysts, that spiral is imaginary. As the IMF itself put it in November 2022, in a comprehensive analysis of wage and price movements over the last six decades, ‘[w]age-price spirals, at least defined as a sustained acceleration of prices and wages, are hard to find in the historical record.’
The point is not that inflation should be of no concern to the working class. What is not imaginary, of course, is the weakening of labour represented by its decreasing share of value. And this is the point of these policy prescriptions, rather than any that might relatively benefit the working class over capitalists, such as price controls, rent control, caps to CEO pay, or higher taxes on the rich and corporations. ‘What if’, as Hadas Thier puts it, ‘instead of raising prices, businesses just made do with smaller profit margins? After all, US corporations are currently making record profits, posting their fattest margins since 1950.’ As Société Générale strategist Albert Edwards has recently argued, a ‘primary driver of this inflation cycle is soaring profit margins’, making it what he calls ‘greedflation’. As resistant to mere facts as ever, though, capitalist central banks are mostly staying the interest-rate course.
Such questions, however, might initially seem less pressing than they were some months ago, after the immediate threat of recession abruptly receded.
A combination of a warm winter and better-than-feared oil and gas reserves have minimised the projected energy shortages; consumer spending has remained higher than expected; and the Chinese economy has opened after its Covid-19 lockdowns. The EU Commission now predicts that Europe will evade ‘technical recession’ in 2023, and the IMF has raised its forecast for global growth to 2.9 per cent. And in the US, the unemployment rate recently fell to its lowest rate in over half a century.
These phenomena are real and important, and the outlook for the global economy has improved. But it remains weak, uncertain and highly uneven. The devil is, as ever, in the details.
The flurry of relief is at figures that, globally, are way below pre-pandemic figures (roughly 3.8 per cent growth per year during the 2010s), which were, in turn, below the average before the recession of 2008. Geographically, half of the forecast expansion is expected to come from China and India alone. The major advanced economies are forecast to see growth slowing to 1 to 2 per cent, and the Eurozone only 0.7 per cent (a tiny rise that obscures great variety within). The economy of the Britain itself, a particularly failing state, is set to be particularly badly placed over the forthcoming months. The Bank of England only reversed its forecast of recession in March 2023, and then only declared the likely narrow avoidance of a ‘technical recession’. As the website economicsobservatory.com damply put it, these figures ‘mean that the country’s economic performance in 2023 might not be quite as weak as previously expected.’
China itself is aiming at growth of ‘around 5 per cent’, roughly in line with World Bank predictions. Considerably higher than most of the rest of the world this may be, but this is the state’s lowest target in decades. This reflects what the ratings agency Moody’s has described as the ‘headwinds’ it faces, including the deeply unstable international environment, increasingly ill-tempered competition with the US, a shrinking working population and the results of a vast property bubble. Even if, as many analysts committed to the Kremlinological decoding of signals from Beijing assert, this 5 per cent figure is likely an acceptable floor rather than a rigorous prediction, this is a clear attempt to manage expectations, and a reset of standards for the regime of accumulation. The era of Chinese capitalist mega-growth is effectively over.
If that implies, however, that China may not replace the US as the most powerful economy on the globe soon, or ever, as many prognosticators have been predicting for some time, that is not any evidence of the strength or stability of the US itself. Even in these less-bad-than-expected days, its economy is in a parlous state. As Michael Roberts has shown, the US’ reduction in unemployment and uptake of jobs is more an artefact of statistics than evidence of a healthy economy. ‘January ’, he writes, ‘saw a statistical adjustment that added in an extra 1.6 million to add to the payrolls that had been missing from data’. And the shift in Americans in full-time work between March 2022 and January 2023 was zero: the figure for both months was 132.6 million. Part-time jobs, however, rose by 1.5 million: what is deemed the labour market’s ‘strength’ is a situation in which workers are forced into part-time work – much of it casual – and wherein, as the cost-of-living crisis continues, many will have to take two or three such jobs to survive.
Already, it is beginning to look as if reports of the death of the US recession have been greatly exaggerated. Jobs added in February 2023 were lower than Wall Street expected. Layoffs are up fivefold in a year – and are a giddying 38,487 per cent higher in tech than they were a year ago, bespeaking the end of yet another bubble. The high-profile collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, the largest bank failure since 2008, is not a high-profile anomaly but, as even the business press acknowledges, a possible warning of more trouble. ‘How deep is the rot’, the Economist asked in March 2023, ‘in America’s banking industry?’
Which takes us back to those interest-rate rises, to which the Fed remains committed – if not with the fervour some ideologues demand. They will, of course, do less than nothing to address these problems. Indeed, as one CNBC commentator puts it, echoing Marxist common sense and the declarations of monetarists themselves, ‘as the central aim of the Fed’s inflation fight, a recession may well be a feature, rather than a bug, of current monetary policy’. This is only ‘irrational’ if one understands the role of economic stability, bracketing even equality or the delivery of necessary goods and services, as the most important job of central banks. As soon as one is clear that that is a nice-to-have at best, but that the disciplining of the working class is non-negotiable, these policies seem less deranged.
None of this, of course, is to say that a recession will definitely occur 2023, or even next. It is, though, to insist that the rush of ‘good economic news’ this year is tissue-thin, and the situation unstable and dangerous. Marxists are sometimes upbraided by our opponents for our jeremiads, for seeing crisis everywhere we look, for never allowing that things might improve. Improve they might, and to deny that is not socialist theory. There is a key difference between the countless capitalist ideologues – who predict, regular as metronomes, that the boom-bust cycle is over, that happy times are here again, that the doomsayers are definitely wrong – and the socialist critics – who insist that any such reversal will itself reverse, that the situation is inherently crisis-ridden and will inevitably get worse again, at great human cost. The former claims have been proved false, and the latter correct, literally 100 per cent of the time, throughout human history.
Tragically, however, for all that rectitude, a faith that underlies some socialist prognostications on these points is, in fact, quite wrong. A certain Marxist catastrophilia can be predicated on the comforting belief that once the situation gets bad enough, the only way is up. Late capitalism is a constant, brutal proof that that does not follow. There can be badness and catastrophe all the way down; apocalypse without redemption.
Every issue of Salvage is accompanied by a pamphlet wherein the Editorial Collective presents a synoptic overview of certain key aspects of the political conjuncture as we see it – our perspectives. The above is the editorial perspectives essay that accompanies Salvage #13: Give Dust a Tongue.
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