The first in-person book launch for Radhika Desai’s Capitalism, Coronavirus and War: A Geopolitical Economy took place in London, England at the Marx Memorial Library on April 27 at 7PM Local time.
Below you can watch the recording of the event, and see the written of all participants.
About this event
Capitalism, Coronavirus and War – A Geopolitical Economy investigates the decay of neoliberal financialised capitalism as revealed in the crisis that novel coronavirus triggered but did not cause, a crisis that has been deepened by the conflict over Ukraine and its repercussions across the globe.
The author, Professor Radhika Desai, Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba (Canada), is Director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, Convenor of the International Manifesto Group and Co-Editor of New Cold War.
Professor Desai will be joined by Keith Bennett, John Ross, Carlos Martinez, Jenny Clegg, and John Foster. The event will be chaired by Marjorie Mayo.
Let me express my deepest gratitude to the MML for organising this book launch for
Capitalism, Coronavirus and War: A Geopolitical Economy and to the rapporteurs
for making the time to do comment on the book. Greetings to all who are here and
those watching on zoom.
I will focus on the main elements of my argument to give you a flavour of this book,
which distils many decades of my work on understanding capitalism and its
historical evolution in Marxist terms.
1. Capitalism, Coronavirus and War: A Geopolitical Economy argues that the
current NATO war on Russia is the result of a decaying neoliberal financialized
capitalism, complete with its declining imperial system under US leadership,
cadaverously clinging to its fast-ebbing life.
2. The war’s counterproductive results, the unravelling of US influence in various
parts of the world, and of US dollar dominance, further underline capitalism’s
rapidly dwindling options.
3. As the geopolitical economy approach has long argued, while actually existing
socialism was always the leading edge of opposition to that system, today more
and more countries, no matter the political character of their governments, are
no longer willing or able to subordinate themselves to imperialism.
4. The pandemic told on capitalism in both senses of the expression. It exposed
contemporary capitalism’s dirty secrets, its inequality, its productive debility and
gross racism and misogyny, and exacerbated its already mounting difficulties.
What should have been a mere public health crisis, if a serious one, turned into a
knock down crisis pervading economy, society, finance, culture and politics.
5. As the US and UK especially showed, neoliberal financialized capitalism – the
only form capitalism can take if it is to avoid the danger of socialism, performed
as disastrously in the pandemic as the socialist countries, led by China,
performed spectacularly well.
6. After four decades of determinedly neoliberal policies, which were supposed to
revive capitalism, this outcome shows capitalism had passed its use-by date
decades ago, indeed, a century ago, when it entered its monopoly phase, much as
Marx had predicted.
7. The monopoly phase, thanks to the dialectic of uneven and combined
development, developed most fully in the late nineteenth century challengers to
British world market dominance such as Germany and the US, as Hilferding and
Bukharin, for instance, were saying at the time. Britain’s dominance had been
founded on capitalism’s competitive phase. The monopoly phase represented the
culmination of capitalism’s ability to develop the forces of production, brutally
and chaotically as it had done. They would now be developed only through
planning, whether within giant private monopoly corporations or by
interventionist or socialist states.
8. However, capitalism continued to exist in good part because, early in its history,
the Western Left had squandered its potential role in preventing this by turning
away from Marx and adopting a ‘policy of theoretical reconciliation’ with its theoretical antithesis and political antagonist, neoclassical economics. This
blinded them to the reality of imperialism, rendering them incapable of
understanding the main dynamic of the international relations of the capitalist
world, ‘the relations of producing nations’ as Marx called them, its geopolitical
economy. They then became directly implicated in the turn towards a ‘guns and
butter’ reformism that led, inexorably, to European social democracy’s shocking
complicity in the outbreak of the Great War.
9. Within a decade of the publication of the greatest works on the relations of
producing nations of the capitalist world, the classical Marxist works on
imperialism, thanks to its policy of theoretical reconciliation with neoclassical
economics, Western Marxism, in an act of intellectual self-mutilation, fatefully
disabled its understanding of this aspect of capitalism.
10. With this policy of theoretical reconciliation Western Marxism on the one hand
rejected Marx’s analysis of capitalism as contradictory value production on
spurious grounds, such as that the analysis suffered from a ‘transformation
problem’, that Marx did not believe capitalism suffered from chronic demand
deficits and that he was wrong to believe there was a Tendency for the Rate of
profit to fall.
11. On the other, consequently, Western Marxists lionised capitalism, now shorn of
contradictions and the ‘memento mori’ or reminder of death that was the TRPF,
as prodigiously productive and incessantly capable of developing the forces of
production. This Schumpeterian rather than Marxist understanding of capitalism
particularly weakened their ability to understand what actually existing socialism
had achieved by building considerable prosperity without the privilege of
imperialism and, indeed, in the teeth of its resistance.
12. The Thirty Years’ Crisis of 1914 to 1945 was a comprehensive crisis of capitalism
and of the imperial world it had wrought
13. Not only did 1914 constitute the peak of imperialism but also of capitalism.
14. This was why eminent thinkers like Keynes and Polanyi believed at the close of
the crisis period that the world would turn to building some sort of socialism.
15. The same diagnosis led their opponents, like Hayek, to fear it and seek to forestall
16. These hopes and fears were not dispelled by the post-war golden age. After all,
a. the golden age did see communism establish itself from Prague to
Pyongyang, subtracting vast swathes of the world from capitalism entirely;
b. the developing world embarked on national autonomous development that
took distinctly socialistic forms; and
c. the homelands of capitalism, for their part, witnessed the greatest surge in
their growth ever, thanks not to any capitalist dynamism but entirely
because their senile monopoly capitalisms were ringed around with
socialistic structures including macroeconomic management for full
employment, progressive taxation, substantial state ownership, financial
repression including capital controls, industrial regulation, recognition and enlargement of substantial workers’ rights and strong unions and, not
least, the welfare state.
17. Inevitably, having abandoned Marx, Western Marxists misattributed this growth
to capitalism’s own mojo; this was a radical misdiagnosis.
18. Notwithstanding these socialistic constraints, the underlying capitalist character
of First World economies landed them in a deep crisis by the 1970s. In response,
their political leaders choose to roll back, rather than deepen (which was the
other choice, as many were aware at the time) postwar socialistic measures,
falsely claiming they were responsible for the crisis, and not for the growth that
had preceded it. These leaders thus concluded that rolling them back would
release capitalism’s animal spirits and turbocharge its productive revival.
19. Capitalism, Coronavirus and War explains why this neoliberal turn failed.
Capitalism’s inability to generate growth, let alone the sort of broad-based
prosperity that was possible in the postwar period, became manifest. Rather than
productive dynamism, capitalism could only generate financialization: a deadly
combination of rising indebtedness and asset price bubbles that strangulates
production, increases inequality and provokes routine financial crises.
20. This type of capitalism sported not the advanced financial systems that originally
developed in the countries of ‘finance capital’ but the archaic, speculative and
predatory financial system of the UK which, from the 1970s onwards, was also
imitated by the US in its quest to emulate the UK’s nineteenth century world
dominance by making the dollar the world’s money.
21. The resulting neoliberal financialized capitalism is the only sort of capitalism now
possible. It cannot survive without crises, both the sort to which it is prone – such
as the public health or climate crises, both of which are internal to capitalism in
addition to regular financial and economic crises – and the sort it must foment,
such as the ongoing war, in order to keep going. Like fascism, lacking its own
stability, it can only continue in existence amid the bubbling froth and confusion
22. Ever since we turned back from the socialistic path of the post-WWII era, we
have been paying the price, economically, socially, culturally, politically and
internationally, of keeping capitalism alive.
23. As a result of the debility of the left, rooted in the compromises with imperialism
and its ideology, neoclassical economics I mentioned above, humankind has paid
the price for far longer than it needed to.
24. The struggle against imperialism is hence most important task if we are to stop
paying this price both because imperialism keeps capitalism going in its
homelands and prevents the urgent transition to socialism outside them.
I hope this has given you some idea of the structure of my argument. There is much
besides in the book which I cannot possibly rehearse here but I look forward to
discussing what most interest my rapporteurs and the members of the audience.
Radhika’s book is certainly impressive in scope and in its multiple layers –
parallel strands of argument.
There’s the history of capitalist crises and reconstructions which traces
through the contradictions which are only to be resolved through planning.
Within this discussion is the history of imperialism, of states and of socialism –
the Russian and the Chinese revolutions – contradictions which are seen to
be working out today in the US/NATO proxy war against Russia and the New
Cold War on China.
Then there is a parallel strand setting out the evolution of economic thought
from Marx to neoclassical theory to Keynes to neoliberalism, exposing the
Western Marxists’ compromise with neoclassical theory. The inability to really
grasp the contradictions of capitalism and where value comes from renders
the Western Left blind to imperialism, dismissive of the Global South and not
least socialist China. I couldn’t agree more.
The Left is incredibly fragmented, with no idea what socialism is, how to begin
discussing how to get there. So to me this book is very welcome and I’ll take
the opportunity to raise some issues around uneven and combined
development, planning and international solidarity.
First, you say uneven and combined development produces a pluripolarity of
states which each in their own way strive to compete and industrialise – or fail
as the case may be.
So pluripolarity as you see it is ‘a ramshackle arrangement of states’ rather
than a hegemonic order. For me it is a terrain of struggle along intertwined
axes of imperialism/anti-imperialism, capitalism/socialism; hegemonism/counter-hegemonism. Rather than a continuum of pluripolarity, I think there are distinct phases defined by different challenges and opportunities demanding different strategies of unity and struggle. So the WW1 phase of inter-imperialist rivalries differed from WW2 where socialist and revolutionary forces joined with US and British imperialism to defeat fascism.
I would argue that multipolarity today is set in the strategic frame of upholding
the UN against the US hegemonic drive, which isn’t absolute, which is
constantly adjusting, but which is hegemonic in supporting a rules-based order to secure the general conditions of imperialist exploitation. So other
imperialist powers depend on the US role but also compete up to a point.
On planning, you say business conglomerates demonstrate the potential for
planning but we only need to look at the Soviet and Chinese experience to
see how difficult this is. And of course planning in the Soviet Union was very
different from China’s increasingly flexible approach even using stock
markets. How does planning resolve the contradictions in capitalism. Where
should we start? Should we think about stages? Does de-dollarisation play a
Maybe also Lula’s visit to China fits here? He seems to have got a grip on
Brazil’s capacities, and he’s saying to the Chinese please invest here and
here and here. Isn’t this a kind of planning, directing finance to chosen areas
As to the Left: a better frame than international solidarity to achieve a shift
towards a more positive world view is international cooperation or win-win
which presents the Global South as an opportunity.
There is a win-win also the Xi-Macron deal which sees China drawing France
away from war into a strategic partnership starting to redress global
inequalities – well I wish the UK government would do the same. But who
would support me here? You speak about divisions in the neo-liberal
capitalist class – can these be exploited? Are there some sections more
averse to war, more ready to adapt to multipolarity?
It is now becoming more clear how US decline is opening spaces for new
initiatives for peace, development, tackling climate change especially from
China and the Global South – demanding reforms to parts of the rules based
order, demanding implementation of other parts as well as building
alternatives. What is now needed is understanding of the challenges and
opportunities here so as to develop strategies to align domestic popular
agendas with the new internationalism.
The book presents a huge amount to consider; it also weeds out a lot of chaff
like MMT, basic income – in these ways the arguments bring the Left into the
right ball park to work out how to move forward.
As a tutor at Marx Memorial Library I welcome Capitalism, Coronavirus and War because our educational work needs Marxism that is accessible, that can be popularly understood and used, as it should be, in the wider working class movement.
Capitalism, Coronavirus and War is a book that invites and demands such use. It takes use back to the classics that we currently use: to Marx‘s Poverty of Philosophy, to the Communist Manifesto, to Capital and Lenin’s Imperialism, and shows why they are relevant today.
Capitalism, Coronavirus and War will therefore join them in our teaching. Its great merit is that it forces us to look at the development of capitalism as a whole – as a class-based system developing through its own contradictions and crises.
It sets aside fashionable verbiage and provides some devastating critiques of recent fads – of Modern Monetary Theory, of Varoufakis, Mazzucato and Piketty
Instead it focusses on three simple terms: Planning, Party and the State.
Of the need for a planned economy – planned in the interests of working people.
Of the need for disciplined working class parties based on an understanding of what Marx actually wrote – as in the Communist Manifesto.
And thirdly for a state that represents the class interests of working people as a whole.
The book also shows that the world can change. Written over a year ago it talked of a global realignment against US imperialism. Today we can see this clearly. Countries across the Global South have now largely joined the BRICS countries in their refusal to follow the US-led war drive against China – and, most remarkably, this shift has extended to the Middle East.
A year ago the book described capitalism as trapped within a cycle of low growth. This April we saw the IMF’s Global Stability Report saying very much the same thing: that we are entering an era of minimal capitalist growth, that this is a result of severe declines in productive investment, that new investment will increasingly depend on the capitalist state and that global ‘value chains’ are disintegrating – mechanisms for the transfer of the global surplus to the imperialist countries are
increasingly being challenged.
In the book’s presentation, I might personally have liked more weight attached to class, to issues of mass working class mobilisation – without which party and the state can become drained of progressive socialist content. I also remain something of a sceptic about ‘Uneven and Combined Development’. Not that capitalist world development cannot be described in these terms. It definitely can – at least for the period after the emergence of the world capitalist market. My concern is that UCD is more a generic description and, if we halt there, it can deflect us from what is
actually needed, a ‘concrete’ and dialectical analysis of each development.
But these are minor issues. The book represents a welcome and important challenge. It focuses on the real problems that face humanity: a new cold war at time of global pandemics and climate change. And it is particularly welcome for combining long-term perspectives with this immediate relevance – and for its accessibility.
I’m going to focus on one single theme of the book: humanity’s historical trajectory in the present era – what Samir Amin described as the long transition from capitalism to socialism.
Francis Fukuyama published ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ over thirty years ago, positing – as many of you will remember – that, in the light of the collapse of European socialism, so-called liberal capitalism (what Marxists call bourgeois democracy) had proven its superiority and should be considered a final destination for humanity.
Much of the Western left at least tacitly bought into these ideas. With the Soviet Union gone, and the West entering an age of debt-fuelled ostentatious consumerism and rampant individualism, the social democratic left applied a policy of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, epitomised in Britain by Blairism.
Meanwhile the Soviet-aligned far left suffered an understandable crisis of confidence.
Further East, you had the pursuit of socialism with Chinese characteristics. But that wasn’t something many people on this side of the planet were able to get their heads around or really take seriously.
It’s worth remembering that Fukuyama didn’t get a great deal of traction in China. In fact, just a few months before The End of History was published, Deng Xiaoping talked about the Soviet collapse and its relationship to humanity’s overall path towards socialism: Feudal society replaced slave society, capitalism supplanted feudalism, and, after a long time, socialism will necessarily supersede capitalism.
This is an irreversible general trend of historical development, but the road has many
twists and turns. Over the several centuries that it took for capitalism to replace feudalism, how many times were monarchies restored! So, in a sense, temporary restorations are usual and can hardly be avoided. So don’t panic, don’t think that Marxism has disappeared, that it’s not useful any more and that it has been defeated.
Nothing of the sort!
Radhika’s book brings an exceptional clarity to this question. She rigorously shows that the contradictions inherent in capitalism simply cannot be overcome in the long run. The fundamental contradiction between socialised production and private appropriation, identified by Marx over a century and a half ago, leads inexorably to crisis and collapse.
In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, in the aftermath of WW1 and in the run-up to WW2, collapse felt imminent. The communist movement of the time talked in terms of the general crisis of capitalism, of capitalism having run out of steam in its ability to move human progress forward.
Our movement was thinking in terms of a very different ‘end of history’: the death of
capitalism, the triumph of socialism, and a shared global multi-generational project towards a classless society.
In the event, following World War 2, capitalism was able to buy itself a reprieve, in no small part by borrowing tools from the socialist shed – nationalising, regulating, investing in social welfare systems, prioritising employment, and so on.
But there’s no Keynesian measure that can fix capitalism in the long term. The thirty-year boom wasn’t the new normal; it was an anomaly. And when that golden age came to an end in the 1970s, the Western ruling classes responded with a vicious systematic attack on the working class and the oppressed nations; an attack which continues to this day, and which is widely referred to as neoliberalism.
At a superficial level, this worked well, in that the rich got richer – approximately the whole point of the economic system. But the poor also got poorer – neoliberalism has never been a rising tide that lifts all boats. And in the long run it couldn’t make capitalism sustainable or viable.
Just look at the state of Western capitalism today, after decades of austerity, privatisation, deregulation, financialisation, casualisation and attacks on trade unions.
Just look at how ill-prepared we were for the pandemic. Just think about how badly we’d do with the next pandemic. Look at the state of our infrastructure. Our health systems. Look at how we’re failing in the face of climate change.
Look at how the US and its allies are pursuing wars, proxy wars, sanctions and
destabilisation – as the principal means to try and retain their influence, and to boost
profitability via the military-industrial complex.
Contrast that with China. What’s the big news coming out of China? Ending absolute poverty, handling the pandemic exceptionally well, developing green energy systems, protecting biodiversity. Promoting multipolarity. Promoting peace and equality in international relations.
While the US is playing divide and rule in the Middle East, China’s facilitating
rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, pushing for peace in Yemen.
While the US and its allies are trying to turn the Ukraine crisis into a never-ending war – fighting to the last Ukrainian, as various people have commented – China is pushing heavily for negotiations towards a peace based on common security.
So what we see is this startling contrast between a decaying capitalism and a rising, diverse socialism – in a growing family of socialist and progressive countries – that’s blazing a trail for humanity.
And Radhika’s book situates that contrast within a historical trajectory from capitalism to socialism that started a long time ago, perhaps we can say with the Paris Commune of 1871.
In my view that’s a very important point, and it should give our movement confidence that history is on our side.
Overall, Radhika’s book is a crucial contribution to our collective understanding of the
modern world. It really deserves to be widely read. Certainly anyone involved in progressive movements, anyone that considers themselves to be anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist, should read it, study it, engage with it, argue with it and discuss it.
Thank you, Radhika, and comrades.
It’s a pleasure for me to say a few words on this occasion.
To my mind, Radhika Desai is one of the most important, profound, innovative, and principled Marxist scholars and theoreticians presently writing in the English language.
And integral to why I say this is that she is also someone who is never afraid to put herself on the frontline. Never afraid of engaging with the really difficult issues. Her two recent visits to Russia alone attest to this. In a word, she passes Marx’s “the point is to change it” test with flying colours.
Building on her groundbreaking 2013 work, ‘Geopolitical Economy: After US hegemony, globalization and empire’, this latest book continues and deepens her theoretical trajectory and explorations, building on her previous work, but in the context of a rapidly developing and unfolding situation.
As Xi Jinping always reminds us, the world is experiencing changes unseen in a century. We have:
– A once in a century global pandemic, throwing into stark relief capitalist and socialist
– An ever-deepening economic crisis in the capitalist world.
– Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine and US-led NATO’s proxy war against Russia.
Above all, the tectonic plates of the global balance of forces are shifting in a way not seen since perhaps 1492. Most especially, of course, we see the rise, or more accurately in world historic terms, the return of China.
Dedollarization must be kept in perspective, but it is real and it is happening. Look out for the ‘snowball effect’. China’s creative diplomacy is redrawing the geopolitical and geoeconomic map of the Middle East.
This shift in the global alignment and balance of forces is generally referred to as multipolarity. But additionally, Radhika has promoted Hugo Chavez’s concept of pluripolarity. To take account of the proliferation of forms and systems.
These concepts are of course controversial. And the subject of sometimes heated debates among Marxists. Some say they neglect class struggle. And in my view some who use these concepts do indeed err in that direction. Others claim they are a rehash of Kautsky’s theory of ultra imperialism.
Radhika’s great strength is that she uses what I’d call the dialectical method. What she often terms combined and uneven development. She indeed locates the early stirrings of pluripolarity in inter-imperialist rivalry – as well as that between modern imperialism and such more traditional societal formations as the Tsarist, Ottoman
and Austro-Hungarian empires.
But she recognizes the qualitative and fundamental change represented by the emergence of actually existing socialism with the October Revolution in 1917. “All changed, changed utterly”, in the words of the poet William Butler Yeats, writing about events in Ireland the previous year.
And, in the wake of the October Revolution, and the development of the USSR, came the anti-fascist victory of 1945, the formation of the United Nations, the emergence of the socialist camp, the disintegration of the colonial empires, the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, and so on.
Above all, of course, the historic return of China and the rise of a new socialist China.
All this runs like a red thread through Radhika’s work, meaning that she situates pluripolarity not as an end in itself, but rather as the essential pathway to socialism.
One of her key points is her insistence that not only classes, but nations, too, are pivotal in the global struggle for, and transition to, socialism.
Again, some Marxists, particularly in the Global North, may find this heretical.
However, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels said that the working class must first win the battle for democracy. Must constitute itself as the nation.
Radhika’s work proceeds from the premise that socialism did not perish with the events of 1989-91.
And those socialist countries that survived – China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba – are precisely those that proceeded to the building of socialism via the anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation. And who see socialism, of course, as the universal cause and aspiration of working and oppressed people everywhere, but equally as being actually synonymous with their very national identity and existence.
The same may also be said of those countries, like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, in particular, that presently seek to embark on a consciously socialist project.
Standing in, theorizing, and developing this understanding, without which, historical experience would tend to suggest, a viable and sustainable socialist project is not possible, is perhaps the greatest significance and contribution of Radhika’s work.