As Class Conflict Intensifies, Imperial Decline Pushes Capitalism into a Corner

Rainer Shea 
During late-stage capitalism—the era where capitalism has stopped being a revolutionary force and started being reactionary—the bourgeoisie function within a perpetually contracting range of options. During the mid-19th century, when the bourgeoisie were fresh off from defeating the feudal ruling class, their system was vibrant and continuing to grow. But no sooner had they achieved this than was Marx able to observe that the rate of profit has a tendency to fall. His conclusion was that because capitalism is centered around accumulation—with capitalists constantly needing to reinvest the surplus value from labor back into the productive forces—the system comes to demand too much of itself. Productivity runs up against limits, despite the bourgeoisie needing ever more productivity to make their investments pay off.

It was after World War II that this concept would be proven most dramatically. In 1946, the U.S. rate of profit by current cost measures was around 26%. In 2019, this had been cut in half, with there being a consistent decline in profits throughout all of the decades in between. Even though profit margins have since come to surpass late 2019 levels, this has come at the cost of a vast acceleration of late-stage capitalism’s contradictions. The elite publication the Wall Street Journal admits that this jump in profits has occurred not despite the pandemic, but because of it, and that it’s the largest firms that have fared best. Monopoly, austerity, privatization, the neglect of the most vulnerable, and other facets of crisis capitalism are why the rich have gotten trillions of dollars richer throughout the last two years. This has provoked the U.S. proletariat into its biggest revolt in decades.

Over 4 million workers, around 3% of the U.S. workforce, are now on strike in some form or another. They’re primarily from the industries that have suffered the most abuses of their employees during the pandemic: healthcare, social assistance, transportation, food service, housing, utilities. These have been the essential workers, yet they’ve been treated the worst, with workers from companies like Kroger unable to afford groceries and Amazon workers dying during tornadoes because of the company’s forcing them to work despite the danger. In response to the broader, more banal types of worker abuses, where people get paid a minimum wage that’s far too low to keep up with today’s increasingly inflated living costs, record numbers of U.S. workers have quit their jobs during the last half-year alone. The mega-corporations are now struggling to find new employees as around 11 million job positions remain open. The proletariat—which ever more falls under the definition of the “precariat” or the lumpen—increasingly judges working to be against its own interests due to how severe the exploitation levels have gotten.

This development is pivotal in the route towards revolution, because only the proletariat has the economic leverage needed to reverse the power dynamic. If the lumpen stopped working, the economy would merely be deprived of the underground markets. If the proletariat stopped working, there would be no economy. And we’re getting closer to that point.

Where is this leading? Not towards a repeat of the New Deal. The bourgeoisie now lack the maneuverability to implement social democracy. With the rate of profit being deeply deficient compared to its earlier state, neoliberalism is the only model that can keep the system afloat. Biden won’t be the new FDR, he’ll double down on unchecked capitalism and fortify the repressive state—as he’s been doing with his enabling of the further militarization of police, and with his government’s failure to implement a social benefits expansion.

What the bourgeoisie are doing is destroying the potential for a release valve for the rising class tensions. If the masses won’t be given relief, and if neoliberalism will continue to bear down upon them during the same time that global warming is estimated to further expand inequality, they’ll mobilize in ever greater numbers. Whether this mobilization takes the form of protests even larger than the record ones we saw in 2020, or further mass quittings, or more drastic types of revolt, the ruling class is therefore not going to find relief either. As the years and decades go on, there will be an upswell of class conflict that gets bigger the more they try to ignore the demands of the masses.

There are means for suppressing this kind of revolt. The imperialists tried and tested them during the Cold War, when the CIA installed military dictatorships in Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries which carried out mass murder campaigns against those involved in the labor movement. In Indonesia, where the killings were the most numerous and where communist affiliations are still illegal, this repressive approach—called the “Jakarta Method”—has succeeded at neutralizing class struggle. But Indonesia is just one piece in the global class war, and its story of (for the moment) total wipeout of communist organizing won’t necessarily be repeated in the imperialist countries. Regimes like the one in Indonesia are only able to exist because imperialism has been strong enough to prop them up. And when imperialism reaches the end of its current process of collapse, the proletariat will have far more leverage.

This is already happening with the rise of China, and of its multipolar world order. During the last year, China’s GDP per capita surpassed the global average. This has occurred around the same time that China, and the other socialist countries, have beaten back the pandemic almost incomparably better than the failed state the USA has. China has even managed to do this while finally eliminating extreme poverty, going against the capitalist world’s trend where tens of millions have been pushed into extreme poverty during the last two years. China’s example of Marxism-Leninism is also reversing neo-colonial inequities. It’s providing countries like Ethiopia with the development tools to stand on their own feet economically, further showing the world that socialism is the route to prosperity. At the same time, the imperialist countries are accelerating their war on the working class, both in the imperial center and worldwide; the IMF has exploited the pandemic to impose additional austerity, privatization, and wage cuts onto 81 countries.

The bourgeoisie must resort ever more to these destructive policies, because intensifying exploitation is the only way to keep capitalism functioning during the age of imperial decline. They must in turn invest ever more into militarism, repression, and surveillance to counter the social instability which comes from this engineered destitution. Even if these measures ultimately produce a fascist purge in the imperial center, bringing home the empire’s methods for neo-colonial anti-communist terror, the ruling class will orchestrate these murders amid unprecedented desperation and uncertainty.

The imperialists got away with the Jakarta Method because it was a way to foist capitalism’s worst evils onto the exploited world. But with the collapse of imperialism, which has forced the bourgeoisie to import the exploited world’s conditions into the imperial center, this dynamic is losing its economic foundations. The masses in the center increasingly have an incentive to gain revolutionary consciousness, to act in solidarity with the victims of imperialism instead of ignoring their subjugation. This is because they’re increasingly being subjugated themselves.

Capital’s contraction is shrinking the social base needed for capitalism to continue existing, rendering imperialism’s traditional tools for survival obsolete. Revolutionary release valves, and the foisting of capitalist violence onto the exploited world, are becoming less viable, with the bourgeoisie’s only alternative being ever greater inequality and repression. As Mao predicted, over 90 percent of the global population will ultimately rise up against imperialism. With the decline of the U.S. empire, this unification against the oppressor grows closer.

Rainer Shea: Exposing the lies of capitalism and imperialism. Subscribe to his newsletter on Substack.