The International Situation in the Era of the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Covid-19 is profoundly changing the international situation in many ways. While a number of dangers loom for the working class, several opportunities are also arising for a radical questioning of the capitalist system, which leads us to barbarism.

Despite signs that the situation in Italy may be coming under a bit of control, even if that is shaky, the epidemic seems far from over. The bad news in recent days is that new infections are surging in Asian countries that had appeared to have tamed the spread of the virus — including countries that seemed to be models for other countries. These new cases seem to be from people returning home from abroad, and from the arrival of visitors. Singapore is a key example; the authorities there managed to avoid massive confinement and shutting down the economy, but they have now closed schools after hitting a new peak of infection.

It is very likely that containment measures will continue where they have already been instituted. Countries that had thus far not imposed them are beginning to do so, at least partially. This challenges even the most optimistic prospects for a “gradual lifting” of confinement in the countries most affected. Even if this is done through aggressive policies, such as mass testing, a return of new cases seems almost inevitable (as the Asian case seems to indicate) unless borders are closed completely or very strict containment measures are applied to all people traveling from areas hit hard by the virus.

Even in the hypothetical case of a lull in the epidemic in the Northern Hemisphere with the arrival of summer, there is no guarantee that it will not return next winter. Meanwhile, Covid-19 could spread considerably in the poorer countries of the Southern Hemisphere (even worse than it now is in Ecuador), which would not only be a catastrophe in and of itself but would also serve to keep the pandemic going.

Economic Upheaval

This situation will deepen the economic upheaval. It is a complete delusion to think that with half the world’s population confined, with businesses closed or idling, and with harvests endangered by a labor shortage, among other things, the economy will emerge unscathed from this health crisis. In reality, we are facing a crisis that is going to make things extraordinarily difficult. Unemployment rates are exploding throughout the world, largely owing to the measures that governments are taking, but even after economic activity is reactivated, a large proportion of the newly unemployed will likely not be able to find work. Businesses and banks (including some of the largest) will undoubtedly fail. Indeed, the world economy was already struggling with a number of problems.

Production will be difficult to restart with supply chains so disrupted. For example, raw materials are beginning to run out even for the manufacture of masks and tests, to such a degree that the major powers are resorting to “pirate methods” to obtain masks, ventilators, and other sanitary products needed to combat the spread of Covid-19. Germany and other countries have accused the United States of diverting shipments destined for other countries, either through seizures or by outbidding them for the cargo.

Then there is the “war” over oil prices, which began independently of the pandemic but that with containment measures and a 40 percent drop in oil demand is endangering every producer. Faced with a risk of losing everything, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States all seem to be scaling back their demands and ambitions. Nothing, however, can guarantee the success of the current negotiations.

Risks to the Food Supply

Another serious issue is the food supply and the risk to countries that depend on food imports — especially the poorest countries. This is an issue the press has been covering much more since a warning was jointly issued by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Trade Organization.

Even if most analysts are saying that there currently does not seem to be a great risk of shortages, they are all wondering whether confinement measures will continue and whether governments will begin to implement extensive protectionist measures. Those conditions would make food shortages almost a certainty, first in the countries of the capitalist periphery that are so dependent on food imports. But the problem could also spread to the imperialist countries. These fears have been reinforced by the example of three of the world’s six leading rice exporters, Vietnam, India, and Burma, which have already imposed export restrictions.

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Because the world is much more urban today than it was 50 years ago or during World War II, the issue of food shortages could be fatal for the major capitalist countries as well as the least-developed countries.

This raises a question for working people and the oppressed across the planet: the expropriation, under workers’ control, of agribusiness companies as a way to ensure the production of food for the entire world population. But to prevent the ideologies of nationalism and protectionism from creating hunger for millions of people throughout the world, that production must be planned — workers must therefore control foreign trade, and committees of workers and consumers must be the ones to set prices to keep speculation in check.

Growing Aggression by the Imperialist Powers

Already, this entire situation is heightening the aggressiveness of imperialism. Just when the Covid-19 pandemic calls for global coordination to stem the spread of the virus and to avoid a huge disruption in the functioning of the world economy and supply chains, and even to coordinate assistance to the most devastated and impoverished countries, the imperialist powers (themselves mired in the crisis) are increasing their pressure on the semicolonial world. In part, this is about the response by imperialist countries to the social, economic, and even political crises within their own borders. Undoubtedly, it will be combined with attacks on the gains of the working classes in the imperialist countries themselves — something we are already witnessing.

In this context, it is very likely that imperialist oppression, interference, and even direct intervention in the semicolonial countries will increase. The case of Venezuela is the clearest: the United States has been threatening the Venezuelan regime directly, sending warships and additional troops to the Caribbean region. And on March 26, the United States charged Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and senior government officials of drug trafficking, even offering a reward for assistance in arresting them. All that comes against the backdrop of the blockade and economic pressure that forced the Russian oil and gas company Rosneft to cease its activities in the country.

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As for French imperialism, the government has announced the redeployment of warships to its military-colonial possessions in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean-Latin American region. This is no doubt in response to the steps taken by the U.S. military, especially in the Caribbean, and it is possible that France has information about Washington’s plans. What is certain is that in a situation of growing international tensions, the imperialist powers will not only ramp up their pressure on the dominated countries but will also protect their positions vis-à-vis the competing powers.

Competition between World Powers

Beyond imperialism’s growing aggression against the rest of the world, there is also the issue of competition between the imperialist powers and other world powers such as China. Everyone can see quite clearly the rivalry and friction between the United States and China, but fierce competition between the United States and Germany is also becoming more apparent. If the economic, health, and social crisis deepens globally, we risk entering a period of ever-increasing inter-imperialist conflicts, something we haven’t seen for a very long time.

The European Union (EU) deserves special mention. The pandemic is unveiling its flaws, and we are seeing the acute reappearance of national contradictions within the alliance. The health crisis is deepening the economic weaknesses of the countries in southern Europe, which is increasing tensions among the different governments. It is very likely that after the Covid-19 crisis ends, the EU will be under tremendous pressure that could call into question its current contours or even its very existence.

Finally, the pandemic is exposing one of the fundamental characteristics of imperialism: the fight over natural resources and raw materials. This competition was always around, but it tended to be more muted and was not so obvious to the general public. Now, though, the world powers are competing for masks, ventilators, and sanitary materials. Imagine what will happen if we actually run out of food!

Great Class-Struggle Events to Come?

The current situation makes it imperative that we prepare for major class-struggle events. The health disasters in the imperialist countries, combined with economic disasters, are exposing inequalities and class divisions, as well as just how important precarious workers are for the functioning of society. The economic effects of the crisis and, in particular, the consequences of the measures being taken to combat the virus will be felt sharply among workers, especially the most precarious. On top of that, just about every country is seeing growing discontent among workers in hospitals and, indeed, in the entire health care sector. All this points to a very high level of class struggle after confinement is over.

Hardest hit by this could be France, which already before the pandemic was wracked by powerful social protest from the Yellow Vests and from those fighting pension reform. President Emmanuel Macron finds himself in a very delicate situation: fewer and fewer people trust the government to manage the crisis, especially after all the neoliberal reforms of the health sector his government has implemented. Italy is the other European country where we can expect a very strong social protest to emerge, not only because of the scale of the crisis there but also because of the lack of solidarity shown by its European “partners.” But we cannot ignore that the health and economic crisis is testing the world’s main power, the United States, where Covid-19 brutally lays bare the inequalities and poverty in which millions of its people live. The capitalists and the U.S. government are aware of the potential for tremendous class confrontations in the richest nation in the world. We also cannot forget China: despite strong propaganda about its fight against the epidemic, it has yet to show how it will cope with the slowdown of its economy.

So, too, will the semicolonial and least-developed countries be subjected to strong class-struggle pressures. These countries have far fewer resources with which to keep misery at bay and address the economic and social consequences of the containment measures. On top of that, the imperialists will pressure those governments to increase exploitation while relocating some production and repatriating capital, which will be devastating for the underdeveloped economies.

Before and After Covid-19

We are at the beginning of an important shift (or rather several shifts) in the world. We can only make projections about how the situation will evolve by analyzing the underlying dynamics. Perhaps the pandemic can be brought under control in a few months. Perhaps the bourgeoisie will manage to control the situation and somehow lessen the greatest risks of major confrontations. The one thing that is certain is that the pre-Covid world is over. We cannot yet say how much the world will change, but it will change. International power relations will change. Class relations will change. The question is how violent all these changes will be, because none of it will be done peacefully.

This is why the working class, together with all the exploited and oppressed, must organize. This is necessary not only nationally but above all internationally. We need a class-conscious and explicitly anti-imperialist organization and program to overthrow this entire capitalist system, which today more than ever is leading us to barbarism. This is all the more important for the workers’ movements in the imperialist countries, whose capitalists will be particularly harmful and brutal.

The current global crisis situation shows as never before the need to build an international, revolutionary communist organization of the workers and oppressed.

First published in French on April 6 in Révolution Permanente.

Translation: Scott Cooper

About author

Philippe Alcoy

Philippe Alcoy

Philippe is an editor of Révolution Permanente, our sister site in France.