Pandemic politics: 2020 in hindsight, and a perspective on 2021

by Omar Hassan • Published 15 February 2021

2020 is gone, but it will not be forgotten. Like 1914, 1929, 1974 and 2001, historians will record it as a moment when the social and economic status quo was radically disrupted and a new era of politics was born. As with each of these evocative dates, the events of last year have both concrete and general aspects; triggered by particular and unpredicted incidents, yet fundamentally conditioned by longer-term contradictions that have been exposed and intensified by the crisis.

The catalyst in this case, of course, was the disease dubbed COVID-19. Marxists such as Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms make Big Flu, have written extensively about the connection between intensive capitalist agricultural practices and the emergence of this and other viruses, so there is no need to repeat their arguments here. Their essential point is that COVID-19 should not be seen as an exogenous shock (that is, something coming from the outside) to our otherwise healthy social system. Rather, the pandemic is a side effect of capitalism’s extractive relationship with the natural world, mediated through and multiplied by globalised chains of production, distribution and travel. This growing likelihood of global pandemics is just one example of how this dynamic will have deadly consequences far beyond planetary warming. If policies remain unchanged, we will see the unravelling of many more of the ecological processes that have kept us safe until now.

The health crisis that spread from China across the world in turn triggered an unprecedented global economic meltdown. The second quarter of 2020 saw the largest fall in GDP ever recorded in the US, a stunning 9.5 percent contraction. This was no outlier; records were smashed in country after country, dwarfing the economic contractions of the Great Depression. Yet the world recession was triggered voluntarily, as governments locked down their economies to try to stop the spread of the virus. As such, there was a substantial bounce in the third quarter: record-setting growth followed record-setting contractions in a range of wealthy economies.

States responded to the initial crisis with unprecedented levels of monetary and fiscal support for the economy. According to a survey conducted by Statista in early October, Japan had expended the equivalent of 21 percent of annual GDP to hold-off an economic meltdown, while the numbers for Australia and the US were around 14 percent each. Compare this with the 2009 peak of the global financial crisis, when Australia and the US deployed stimulus worth the equivalent of just 2 percent of GDP. While welfare spending has been a bigger feature of measures this time around, big capital remains by far the biggest beneficiary. It is hard to predict the political and ideological impact that this spending will produce, but it seems likely, in the short term, that core neoliberal principles of budgetary discipline and aversion to debt will be set aside. Having said that, the ruling class offensive against workers goes on, as shown by the new anti-union legislation proposed by Scott Morrison’s government.

In addition to direct fiscal spending, the loose monetary policy of the last decade has continued, with interest rates bottoming out and, in a number of cases, heading into negative territory. The unimaginably large amounts of credit flowing through the system have produced a range of odd and potentially destabilising side effects. First, contra the voodoo economics of modern monetary theory, the debts accumulated by states will have to be paid back at some point. While some advanced economies – most notably the US – can borrow enormous sums on the basis of strong credit ratings and economic fundamentals, most are not so lucky. Despite some leniency from the IMF and other international lending agencies early in the pandemic, a number of so-called emerging economies are facing sovereign debt crises. As a result, they’ve been forced to cut social spending and devalue their currencies, making life harder for workers and the poor, further undermining economic growth and increasing the burden of repayment where state debts are denominated in foreign currencies such as the US dollar.

A second side effect of cheap credit is a boom in share markets, which have continued to rise despite little evidence of profit growth. The historic average of the share price to real earnings (PE) ratio for the S&P 500 (an index measuring the performance of 500 of the largest listed companies in the US) is about 15. It currently sits at an inflated 37 – the third highest ever recorded. Tech companies are in a distorted league of their own, leading one Financial Times writer to speculate that US stocks may be on track to become the largest bubble in history. Zoom’s PE ratio reached an astronomical 800 last year before settling at more than 250. At the time of writing, newly launched Airbnb shares are trading at more than $140, while DoorDash is selling for $170. Neither company has ever made a profit. In an interview with Red Flag last year, Marxist economist Joel Geier pointed out that even established companies have been affected by this bubble: “Apple had profits of US$58 billion last year, compared to $59 billion two years ago. Its stock market valuation two years ago was $720 billion, but in [October] it was valued at $2 trillion!”

Further adding uncertainty is the fragile state of the world economy prior to the crisis, evidenced by the manufacturing recession and slowing growth visible in late 2019. This followed a decade of anaemic growth in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, a period described by British Marxist economist Michael Roberts as the weakest economic recovery ever recorded. In the US, there is evidence that government stimulus and the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying programs have disproportionately assisted large companies, which have survived the crisis better than smaller rivals. It is yet to be seen whether this leads to the kind of economic rationalisation and restructuring required to boost profits, or merely the unnatural survival of unprofitable zombie companies. The main short-term impact is a rapid expansion of the wealth of big capital. The world’s 2,200 billionaires added an eye-watering $1.9 trillion to their portfolios in 2020. In Australia, billionaires increased their wealth by more than 50 percent.

For now, the biggest factor weighing on the global economy is the terrible mishandling of the virus. The recovery in the third quarter of 2020 will not be sustained; the resurgence of the virus in most of Europe and the US has sent many economies into recession again. The hospitality and tourism sectors are some of the hardest hit, but are by no means alone. Commercial real estate markets have been plunged into crisis as businesses abandon expensive office space and encourage their employees to work from home. Airlines have been losing money at an extraordinary rate, though many have been kept afloat by government handouts worth $160 billion. In October, almost 200 European airports were said to be close to bankruptcy, even before the second wave snuffed out hopes of a quick revival in travel. While many businesses hung on during the first lockdowns, the new wave of infections and lockdowns could be the knockout blow for many small and medium enterprises that have less access to credit.

Demystifying the lockdown debate

With a few notable exceptions, ruling classes have responded to the pandemic with negligence and incompetence. Their policies have resulted in the death of nearly 2 million people, and the immiseration of many more. Their first instinct was to do nothing and hope for the best. A Financial Times investigation found that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stalled for weeks before closing schools and non-essential industries, resulting in the worst recorded urban outbreak with the highest death rate in the world. The same article assessed New York to have been a crucial node in the spread of coronavirus across the US, while the New York Times reported that the delays cost the lives of at least 36,000 people. This experience was by no means isolated to New York or the US. Governments everywhere were slow to react, more worried about economic growth than the lives of their citizens. Borders were left open, large gatherings went ahead, and the deadly virus was allowed to make its way across the globe. Here in Australia, the federal government delayed imposing serious border controls until after the Ferrari Formula One team – fresh from virus-ravaged Italy – arrived in Melbourne for the Grand Prix. For its part, the Victorian Labor government refused to call off the most bourgeois of all sporting events until thousands had begun queueing outside the racetrack. The farcical incident clarified the lines of the debate that would define the year: a conflict between corporate profiteering and public health.

In comparison to what followed, however, the policies implemented in the first phase of the crisis seem positively enlightened. After a few months of dithering, most governments implemented social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders while cases were still at relatively manageable levels. But as the economic implications of the lockdowns became apparent, governments eased public health measures, despite the obvious risks. In Italy and Spain, for instance, restrictions were lifted when daily case numbers, adjusted for population, were higher than at the peak in Australia. A number of US states ended their first lockdowns with daily case numbers higher than when they started. And as the second wave of the virus broke in the second half of 2020, governments were much slower to act: it took daily death tolls in the hundreds before rigorous public health measures were reintroduced.

Though much attention has focused on hard-right opposition to public health measures – most notably, Trump – the ruling class response to the pandemic has cut across traditional left-right divisions: the Socialist/Podemos alliance in the Spanish state has acted more or less identically to liberal Emmanuel Macron in France and conservative Angela Merkel in Germany. New Democracy in Greece has been more decisive than most on the European continent, with schools and the hospitality industry largely closed since November. The general pattern has been leaders delaying necessary action until the last possible moment and then opening the economy before the virus is under control, all the while trying to shield corporations from as much of the economic fallout as possible. Even socially liberal Sweden, which refused to lock down for most of 2020, has now fallen into line, though an entire year had to pass before the government mandated the simple act of mask wearing. One exception is several governments in Asia, which, having experienced SARS and other pandemics more recently, were prepared to rapidly implement strong health measures to good effect.

Another exception has been a minority on the hard right, such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, who have downplayed the virus and refused to take any significant action. These figures have caused damage to their countries through their reactionary populism, yet their political success has been mixed. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán faces a united parliamentary opposition and declining popular support, and Trump was decisively defeated in the US. The story in Brazil is mixed: a program of cash handouts to the poor has kept Bolsonaro’s support from crashing, but he remains vulnerable. This highlights the fact that though much of the hard-right base is imbued with COVID denialism as part of a broader anti-scientific conspiracist outlook, it remains a relatively small part of the population. There is so far little evidence of the right expanding its political support through this approach, with strict public health measures enjoying mass support almost everywhere.

In Australia, there has been arguably the most serious political fight around public health in the advanced capitalist world. Politicians started the crisis by singing from the same songbook, as Morrison’s national cabinet, consisting of the PM and the state premiers, implemented a range of measures. The impact was to substantially boost the credibility of governments at every level. Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan, for example, enjoys a record 92 percent popularity rating for his strong handling of the issue. But after the virus escaped from Melbourne’s poorly supervised quarantine hotels, politics reasserted itself in a brutal way. Labor Premier Daniel Andrews came under sustained assault from the Liberal state opposition, the Liberal federal government, big business groups and members of his own party. While some of the criticisms focused on the botched hotel quarantining procedures, their real target was his reintroduction of one of the world’s most severe lockdowns, and his insistence that it be maintained until daily cases dropped below five. The media – led ably by the ABC – did its best to create a sense of social and governmental crisis. Interviews with small-minded business owners obsessed about making a profit filled the news day after day, supplemented by a contrived concern for our collective mental health. They hoped to generate a mood of absolute hostility to the Andrews government that would force it to relent and open the economy ahead of schedule. It failed miserably. A serious political polarisation ensued, but polls repeatedly showed that Andrews enjoyed overwhelming public support for his strong public health measures. It is significant that working-class solidarity allowed so many to hold the line – against a tidal wave of capitalist propaganda – that people’s lives are more important than the needs of business and “the economy”. The results speak for themselves: while the UK and Victoria had a similar number of daily cases in the middle of June, as of writing this piece Victoria had one, while Britain had more than 60,000. While it is yet to be seen if other countries follow the lead set by the Andrews government, his preparedness to preserve the lockdown to the point of elimination has set a new benchmark and will undoubtedly make it harder for other Australian leaders to get away with letting the virus rip.

The question of lockdowns has vexed the radical left for much of the year. Many have allowed concerns over authoritarianism and racism to overshadow the need to protect workers from the pandemic. This error was somewhat understandable at first, given the novelty of the pandemic, and that the left everywhere has spent years campaigning against border restrictions and the anti-democratic expansion of police powers. Some on the left have also been hostile to lockdowns because of the effect it can have on workers and their livelihoods, especially in countries with more minimal welfare.

Yet it has been clear for many months now that the ruling class has been more interested in maintaining business as usual than in using the crisis to opportunistically quash democratic rights. This has been true even of hard-right governments like those of Trump, Bolsonaro and Modi, who might have been expected to grant themselves new powers under the cover of this major catastrophe. The general needs of capital accumulation – and lack of a clear threat on their left – means that these leaders have emphasised instead the value of freedom to live and work unburdened by concern for others. Some countries have seen major attacks on workers’ rights in this period, including Greece and France, but this is no reason for the left to abandon the argument for public health. In any case, it is incontrovertible that the scale of the health crisis requires enormous and intrusive action by the state. Most left (and right) critics of lockdown acknowledge this implicitly, by arguing for tracking and tracing as a supposedly less authoritarian alternative. Yet in many ways, tracking and tracing systems – especially when integrated into mobile and CCTV networks – entail more granular surveillance and control over the population, and are also more likely to be maintained after the pandemic.

Understanding the pandemic in class terms is essential. In responding to this new and dynamic situation, our guiding principle should be to defend the lives and interests of workers against the profits and power of the bourgeoisie. The experience in China, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere decisively shows that elimination of the virus – often mocked as a utopian dream by the ruling class – is achievable. Strict lockdowns are an essential tool, one that the ruling class has generally refused to deploy until too late for fear of the economic consequences. In this context, Panagiotis Sotiris’ critique of the ruling class’ alleged “lockdown strategy” is way off the mark both empirically and politically. Far from representing a new phase of neoliberal authoritarianism, public support for lockdowns indicates widespread feelings of social solidarity and a preparedness to sacrifice for the common good. That such attitudes exist even when few political organisations have argued for them, such as in the US, is evidence that it is a product of working-class good sense, rather than neoliberal propaganda. While we should be prepared to fight against inevitable excesses that go with any mobilisation of state power, the first priority is to ensure that the basic measures needed to protect public health are taken.

The alternative is a kind of workerist libertarianism that has nothing to do with working-class politics: the arguments that lockdowns increase the powers of the state could easily be applied to welfare systems and road rules. As well, it’s important to remember that it is workers, the poor and the racially oppressed who’ve been disproportionately impacted in terms of deaths and long-term illnesses, because they are concentrated in more dangerous jobs that cannot be completed from the safety of home. It is therefore ridiculous to argue that keeping society and the economy running more-or-less as normal is in any way anti-racist or pro-worker. Rather, to the extent that governments pursue these policies, it’s to preserve profits for the capitalists. There are occasions when the left will need to oppose authoritarian overreach, a position made tricky due to our overall support for staunch public health measures. The successful Democracy is Essential campaign, initiated in Sydney by Socialist Alternative and NSW Greens leader David Shoebridge, demonstrated exactly how this can be done:

The crackdown on protest cannot be justified on the basis of legitimate health concerns. We, along with the majority of Australians, support the various restrictions and lockdowns that have been in place in recent months to control the spread of the deadly Coronavirus. Indeed, many of us have argued that they should go further. But at the moment, protests are being singled out in an absurd and hypocritical way. In NSW, up to 10,000 are now allowed to attend NRL matches, and 50 in a single corporate box. 300 can be in a casino, pub, or restaurant. Schools are not closed. Thousands are once again flocking to beaches. 500 can attend community sporting events. And yet 21 protesters, socially distanced and wearing masks, is deemed illegal … Some will say that protests should be put on hold for the moment, given the danger of COVID-19. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, we don’t know how long this ban on protests could last … Secondly, the injustices and urgent causes about which we are protesting have not been put on hold.

On the same lines, raising the slogan of internationalism in opposition to border closures and lockdowns is fundamentally mistaken. While some have pointed to the impossibility of locking down countries such as India and Peru as proof that the tactic is flawed, these places could have avoided the virus altogether if China had locked down earlier. Even after it spread from Wuhan, millions of lives could have been saved if New York, northern Italy and other early hotspots had acted decisively. Bourgeois reluctance to lock down and close borders needs to be understood as a reflection of their commitment to minimising disruption to the world economy, rather than some concession to ethical principles. Germany, for instance, has insisted on allowing migrant workers from Eastern Europe to continue crossing borders that were otherwise closed. This policy risked the lives of hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers and their families to ensure agribusiness could make a profit. In Australia, university bosses have been campaigning to allow the early entry of international students – who pay exorbitant fees and are often forced to live and work in squalid conditions – despite the risks to the broader population. Against this liberal defence of murder, we should insist that the best thing a country can do for the international working class is eliminate the virus in its own territory, freeing up resources to be allocated to more needy regions. Wealthy countries like Australia should be exporting doctors, medical equipment and other forms of aid to the worst hit areas, and welcoming tens of thousands of refugees for treatment and resettlement. But all of this is only possible once the virus is under control.

Of course, lockdowns on their own are insufficient. A range of additional measures are required to make the process as humane and effective as possible. To avoid permanent lockdowns, and to facilitate internationalism, countries need dramatically improved testing, tracing and quarantining facilities run by the government, not by profit-seeking corporations. The most obvious is that governments pay for workers’ wages and massively improved welfare systems to ensure that nobody falls through the cracks. Serious programs of public education are also necessary to give people the tools to understand how social solidarity from below can assist the measures taken from above in keeping everyone safe. Public amenities should be drastically improved so that those who live in working-class neighbourhoods can enjoy green spaces and other essential elements of a good life. Finally, there needs to be quality tracking and tracing systems that ensure the preservation of privacy. This final point is often counterposed to lockdowns, but in reality is complementary to them. Given the exponential growth in contacts with each new case to trace, keeping overall numbers low is crucial for tracing to be a realistic option. If this all sounds utopian, the unprecedented spending splurge unleashed by governments proves yet again that there are sufficient resources to fund everything we’ve ever asked for; it’s simply a matter of priorities and building the forces that can fight for what’s needed.

It would be churlish to deny the challenges that the pandemic has posed to the kind of organising needed to win such demands. Social distancing and lockdowns make much of the organising that the left takes for granted more difficult. On the other hand, the social and economic devastation caused by the virus – and the necessity of continued work in a range of industries – has provided trade unions with opportunities. Unions could have reversed a long-term trend of declining membership and engagement by fighting to protect their members’ lives and conditions. Short of mass industrial action, it would be well within unions’ capacities to organise campaigns of sick-outs and stayaways like those which spontaneously occurred in the early days of the pandemic. Essential workers continue to have enormous economic and political leverage due to their vital role during the pandemic. This could be used to demand better equipment, services and conditions for themselves and the class more broadly. As well, unions could have experimented with massive online events and creative actions for workers stuck at home, raising demands for more public housing, moratoria on evictions, permanently increased welfare payments, spending on counselling, tutoring and women’s services, and so on. The experience of the National Education Union in the UK is illustrative. That union has spearheaded two separate rebellions in favour of shutting down schools, both of which achieved meaningful victories. On 3 January, it held an online meeting viewed by almost 400,000 participants, having recruited 6,000 new members in the 24 hours after taking a defiant stand against Boris Johnson’s drive to reopen schools. This action forced the government into an embarrassing U-turn and implementing a broader lockdown.

Far from driving similar campaigns, the union movement in Australia has been asleep at the wheel. It entered the crisis in its weakest state in well over a century, both organisationally and politically. The idea of class collaboration, that is, the policy of conflating the interests of workers and bosses, is totally unchallenged. Faced with Australia’s first economic crisis in decades the union bureaucracy’s instincts for class collaboration kicked in automatically, with leaders keen to prove their loyalty to capital and the “economy” over their own members. This policy was driven from the top, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus spending much of the year in meetings with the government and heads of big business. Little wonder that she received plaudits from a wide range of ruling-class figures (establishment journalist Michelle Grattan wrote glowingly of her constructive and pragmatic relationship with the Liberal government). This mirrors the basic approach of federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who has made his title of opposition leader redundant by signing off on every major policy of the Liberal government.

Though the ACTU and the ALP have long been an embarrassment to any decent unionist, individual unions have been no better. The teachers’ unions have done their bit to keep the economy running as usual, refusing calls by rank-and-file teachers to shut down schools on multiple occasions. Their stubborn defence of the safety of in-class teaching was contradicted by the decision of the some AEU branches to bar organisers from visiting schools on OHS grounds. The powerful CFMMEU has spent the year aggressively championing the “right” of the construction sector to work through the pandemic, putting out joint press releases and radio advertisements with the Master Builders’ Association. But the prize for the most disgraceful union betrayal of 2020 goes to the National Tertiary Education Union, which offered university bosses an historic 15 percent wage cut in exchange for a role in overseeing the restructuring of – read: swingeing cuts to – the sector. While Socialist Alternative members and supporters in NTEU Fightback were successful in beating back this scandalous assault on workers’ living standards, the attacks have come thick and fast at a local level with little resistance from the NTEU leadership. This despite there being some evidence that university budgetary catastrophes flagged earlier in the year may not be eventuating due to better than expected student enrolments. Overall, Australian unions have been at best irrelevant to defending their members in this historic crisis, even when controlled by a “left” bureaucracy as in the CFMMEU, AEU and NTEU.

Vaccine apartheid

News that scientists had developed multiple viable vaccines has been celebrated across the world. The world owes a lot to the dedication and talent of the research teams that achieved this breakthrough in record time. Yet the discovery raises as many political issues as the pandemic itself. First, it suggests that the decades spent developing vaccines for diseases that plague poor countries are at least partly a function of under-investment rather than technical limitations. Roughly $20 billion was invested in developing a vaccine for HIV between 2000 and 2018, while as of August 2020 $39.5 billion had been invested into a vaccine COVID-19.

The vast sums of money that governments have directed to coronavirus research this year have been crucial to the breakthrough. Despite nearly two decades passing since SARS emerged in 2002, little funding was allocated for developing an understanding of the coronavirus. The rapid end of the SARS pandemic meant that there was no economic incentive to support scientists overcome early obstacles to vaccine development. To kickstart research into COVID-19, governments gave out enormous grants. Pfizer has received $1.9 billion from the US government, while Moderna benefitted from $4.1 billion in government handouts as of December. In the year to November, the US government alone had spent $10.5 billion on vaccine development, manufacturing and distribution. In May, the New York Times reported that an EU-organised teleconference raised $8 billion in one day. Yet these extraordinary outlays do not give governments control over the vaccine, a share of the profits made, or any other mechanisms of public accountability and control. Instead, taxpayers have simply subsidised the cost of developing an urgently needed social good from which these massive corporations will now be able to profit. This is just the latest instance of the parasitic relationship between drug companies and publicly funded research labs. A 2018 report by the Center for Integration of Science and Industry found: “[National Institutes of Health] funding contributed to published research associated with every one of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration from 2010-2016. Collectively, this research involved >200,000 years of grant funding totalling more than $100 billion”.

This explains why Trump’s attempts to cut funding to the National Institutes of Health have been rejected by Congress and big pharma alike. This pattern is replicated globally. A 2008 paper estimated that the taxpayers cover two-thirds of all upfront drug research and development costs globally, and that roughly a third of new medicines originate in public research institutions. The centrality of public funding for basic health research is yet another refutation of the myth that the market will direct resources to their most rational use.

Then there is the issue of vaccine distribution. There are enormous logistical challenges involved in administering the vaccine in much of the underdeveloped world, where the necessary equipment and human resources are rare to non-existent. Thus we have the absurd scenario where a country like India is planning to export hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine that it will struggle to distribute to its own population. But India is relatively fortunate compared to many countries, which lack any means of accessing a vaccine because the wealthy countries early in the pandemic signed deals with drug companies to corner the market. A report by the People’s Vaccine Alliance found that wealthy countries have purchased enough doses to immunise their populations three times over, while just 10 percent of the underdeveloped economies will get access this year. It also reported that all of Moderna’s, and 96 percent of Pfizer’s, predicted output for 2021 has already been purchased by rich countries, which means it could take until 2023 for poorer regions to be fully immunised. Nothing shows this divide more starkly than the situation in Israel, which is rolling out the vaccine for its own citizens, but refusing access for Palestinians suffering under their endless occupation.

Even within national borders, there are important debates about who gets first access to the precious early doses. Alongside healthcare workers, US states such as New York and Illinois have included financiers and bankers on the list of essential workers, meaning they could get early access even as they work from the safety of their penthouses and gated communities. This is just one quirk of the depraved US health system, which also lacks a coordinated method for distributing the vaccine rationally and efficiently. The result is a decentralised mess perfectly suited to being corrupted by corporate interests, and incapable of deploying the doses already received in a timely manner. There are already signs that a black market will emerge as the wealthy and politically connected do all they can to secure early doses.

Ongoing crises

While the vaccine may eventually end the pandemic, it will not be for many months now. Officials in the US, which is likely to have best access, have indicated it will take until at least the end of June for everyone that wants a vaccine to get it. If the death rate stays at around 2,000 per day, another 300,000 Americans will have died by then. In Australia, the government has promised that everyone will be immunised by October, but that leaves plenty of time for new waves if health restrictions are lifted recklessly. We should expect the pandemic to continue ravaging the advanced capitalist nations for months to come, and for substantially longer for poorer regions. The health crisis and its devastating economic side effects are ongoing.

There are other, arguably more fundamental, factors shaping global politics beyond the coronavirus. As mentioned earlier, the pandemic is just one symptom of a broader ecological catastrophe that continues to develop. Unsurprisingly, both market mechanisms and UN summits have failed to deliver the radical shift away from fossil fuels required to prevent disastrous global warming. A shocking $269 billion of recovery funding has been earmarked for the fossil fuel industry, with just $177 billion for renewables. And while certain pro-capitalist commentators celebrate statistics showing that investment in renewables will surpass fossil fuels for the first time this year, the fossil fuel industry remains overwhelmingly dominant as the source of global energy, with almost all of the major players planning to significantly expand oil and gas production by 2030. The climate movement has been subdued in the past year, but the sentiment that drove the climate strikes, and in Australia the enormous demonstrations against the bushfires, has not disappeared. The disjunct between the ecological views of the majority and the destructive policies of the ruling class will continue to be an important political factor, one that will interact dynamically with the increasingly volatile realities of climate change at a local and global level. This will manifest most obviously in mass mobilisations that are likely to continue in various forms, but will also have political ramifications, contributing to the ongoing crisis of legitimacy faced by mainstream political parties.

In another sign of the underlying fragilities of the world capitalist system, there was yet another wave of insurgent movements for democracy in 2020, rocking country after country despite the dangers posed by the pandemic. Places as diverse as Thailand, Belarus, Chile, India, Iran, Nigeria and Poland witnessed enormous mobilisations as activists stood up to repressive regimes with courage and persistence. Following the experience in Hong Kong and Lebanon in the previous year, most of these movements are motivated by a desire for genuine democratic control over society, rather than strictly economic grievances. While specifically working-class actions have been missing from many recent protest movements, in Belarus and especially Iran, the working class has been central, both symbolically important and the resistance’s driving motor. Considering that organisers in Hong Kong tried (and failed) to launch a general strike in 2019, the mixed but generally positive experience of climate and women’s strikes, and the massive strikes of both workers and farmers in India, we can tentatively say that the idea of the strike is being re-established in the popular imagination as an important tactic for popular resistance. Having said that, workers in most places have little to no capacity to shut down the means of production at a national level. There are no shortcuts to building that kind of power. The rank-and-file networks required to organise mass industrial action – as opposed to school walkouts, lunchtime stunts or management-supported workplace shutdowns – take serious organising underpinned by political commitment. Regardless, this process of reconstituting a specifically working-class culture of activism will be made easier in the conditions of general political rebellion that are likely to persist.

The most important of these movements in 2020 – in the advanced capitalist world at least – was the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. The scale of the demonstrations was unlike any anti-racist movement in US history, the New York Times reported on separate polls estimating that between 15 and 26 million Americans participated in protests during May and June. The movement was far larger and more multiracial than in the first iteration of BLM in 2014, many overwhelmingly white towns hosting substantial mobilisations. Its impact was both national – winning majority support – and global, generating sizeable mobilisations in Britain, France and Australia, among others. Democrats, many of them Black, control the cities where the police are most violent and where the movement was strongest. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop many activists from framing the effort to elect Joe Biden as central to ending police violence in US cities, an approach that saw the movement essentially wound up by August. Though some momentum has undoubtedly been squandered as a result, the killing of Blacks by racist cops will continue. Given that, and that Biden has less talent than Obama’s toenails, it’s safe to say that future explosions are inevitable.

Institutional racism is just one factor that could destroy Biden’s attempt to stabilise US politics. There is a long and growing list of challenges for his administration to overcome, including the pandemic, the ongoing fragility of the real economy, political mobilisations on the left and the right, economic turmoil in the underdeveloped economies, the growing confidence of regional powers to act independently of US interests across the world, the shenanigans of the hard right, and most of all, the rise of China. It may turn out that distributing a vaccine for COVID-19 will be the easiest part of Biden’s presidency. For the radical left, we can only hope that’s the case.

Resisting barbarism: Contours of the global rebellion

Omar Hassan surveys world politics at the turn of the decade, with a focus on the exhilarating return of mass revolutionary struggle.

The crisis in neoliberalism and its ramifications

Tom Bramble discusses the multifaceted world crisis that exploded in 2008 following decades of neoliberalism.

New movement, new debates: The contested politics of climate change 

Sarah Garnham assesses the new climate movement and makes a case for a revolutionary perspective.