Preface to the Coming World Crisis

Trump’s election has accelerated talk on the left of the end of (neo-) liberalism and the rise of fascism in the West. The prospects for world war seem closer now. As when the 2008 crash is placed in history, comparison is usually with the 1930s. We need rather to develop a perspective on 1900-2100 as a whole. There have been enormous demographic shifts in that time: Europe had 25% of the world population in 1900, Africa 7.5%; Europe is predicted to have a 6% share in 2100 and Africa 40% — all the Americas, Europe and Russia, Australasia and Oceania together will then account for only 18%, Africa and Asia 82%.

Racism and imperialism were the driving force behind international relations a century ago; recently they have seemed to go underground, but now they are on the rise again. The First and Second World Wars transformed global society in every way. The last three decades are directly analogous to the decades before to the Great War. The collapse of national capitalism and neoliberal globalization today bear comparison with 1913-14. Europe and China are the most vulnerable to a general outbreak of hostilities. The US will probably emerge from a major war stronger than before. It seems that Western progressives face a stark choice between an anti-war movement now and revolution afterwards. In any case they must reach out for allies to where most of the people live and look forwards as well as backwards

There is a growing consensus among the radical left in Europe and the United States which has crystallized after Brexit and Trump’s election. It is that the end of liberalism in all its forms is nigh and the West/Security Council will soon be ‘fascist’, if Le Pen becomes French President. Poor old Britain may be an exception; according to me, it is breaking up and its state is no longer able to project power inside or outside its territory. But to use the term ‘fascist’ is to focus on the wrong period, like referring to post-2008 as a return to the Great Depression. We need a longer-term perspective, such as the 20th and 21st centuries taken together, if we want to place our moment in world history.

In 1900, Europeans controlled around 80% of the world’s land surface. Europe itself had a population of 400 million, a quarter of the world’s population (36% including lands of temperate zone new settlement). Europe’s expansion was fuelled by a demographic explosion, 1830-1930; it was the main centre for imperialism and machine industry. Africa’s population share was only 7.5%; it’s land area was almost double that (14%), with hardly any cities and almost no machines — the ‘scramble for Africa’ from the 1880s was easy, feeding notions of White racial superiority. By 2100, Asia is projected to have 42% of the world’s population (down from 60% today) and Africa 40% (up from 15% today). The rest – North, Central and South America, Europe and Russia, Australasia and Oceania — will by then muster 18% between them, Europe 6% (including many migrants from Africa and Asia). This shift will occur in 200 years.

Between the 1880s and 1914, 50 million Europeans left their home ‘continent’, three–quarters of them to the United States. The same number of ‘coolies’ from India and China moved to the Tropics in the main. As W. Arthur Lewis pointed out in The Evolution of the International Economic Order (1978), these two human rivers had to be kept apart, since they were paid 9 shillings and 1 shilling a day respectively for roughly the same kind of work. The division of the world into highly paid industrial workers and low-paid agricultural workers thus began later than most people think, around 1900. In 1870 in Britain, the best indicator for annual fluctuations in the economy was the weather at harvest-time.

The two global streams met however in the United States and South Africa, where Whites already controlled substantial Black populations who were beginning to move en masse to the cities. Segregation, apartheid, the colour bar thus began later than began in earnest in those countries as a result. The Whites realised that they were outnumbered by the rest. This was the prime political issue around 1900. Robert Vitalis, in White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (2015), shows that IR was driven at first by racism and imperialism, not by conflict between states or geographical blocs, as it has been since 1945 (when racism went officially underground and is now coming to the surface once more). Foreign Affairs started out in 1910 as The Journal of Race Development. The question then was how the Whites could retain control in the face of a declining share of the world’s population. This is an even more pressing issue now that capitalism has gone global with the emergence of China, India, Brazil and other countries.

The outbreak of the First World War changed everything. In the previous three decades, financial imperialism (what Karl Polanyi (1944) called haute finance, aka the Rothschilds, J.P. Morgan etc.) ruled the world, the Russian economy grew at an average annual rate of 10%, all that human movement spawned new forms of thinking and self-expression, such as cubism, relativity and quantum etc – in a word, modernity. Until then, no-one thought that nation-states could control the turbulence of urban markets, industrial capitalism and population movement – states were fixed, an outmoded relic of an agrarian age that lasted for 5,000 years. A new alliance between capitalists and the military landlord class in revolutions of the 1860s and early 70s gave birth to national capitalism — the attempt to manage money, markets and accumulation through central bureaucracies in the interests of the citizen body as a whole. This gestated through the age of imperialism and became the twentieth century’s dominant social form.

After the Great War, the senseless slaughter in the trenches undermined Europeans’ belief in their own monopoly of racial superiority, reason and civilization. The hit movie of 1922 was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, showing an Eskimo’s resilience in the face of appalling natural forces. In the same year Malinowski launched modern anthropology with Argonauts of the Western Pacific, T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land, Joyce Ulysses and Wittgenstein his Tractatus. A good fraction of the western intellectuals were signalling the retreat from empire, just as they are now from neoliberal globalization.

During the Great War, states mobilized and killed off vast armies, they controlled industrial production, set prices in markets and rationed supplies, monopolised propaganda. Trade, transport and migration were severely disrupted. After the war, the race was on to determine which kind of state would rule the world — welfare state ‘democracy’, fascist or communist? The world economy, led by Wilson — who saw that nationalism would undo the European empires, especially the British — turned inwards to national capitalism and import-substituting industrialization for 60 years (‘socialism in one country’ was an attempt to revive Russia’s three decades of growth before the war).

The Second World War knocked out fascism and unleashed the anti-colonial revolution and the Cold War, followed by three decades of developmental states in the western capitalist, Soviet bloc and newly independent countries. For the first and only time, governments gave priority to increasing the purchasing power of working people and investing in public infrastructure (not least its military component). This was the last world revolution and it generated the biggest boom in economic history; Reagan and Thatcher’s neoliberal conservatism (ably assisted by Kohl and Nakasone, not to mention Deng, Pinochet, the Chicago school etc.) was the counter-revolution.

The collapse of both national capitalism and neoliberal globalization in our time is more reminiscent of 1913-14 than anything else, now with the United States as Britain and China as Russia. British power was already in decline then and many would like to think that American power is on the way down now. I beg to differ and so does Trump. The United States still has all those weapons and bases around the world, a third of the world market, the world currency (a haven in times of turbulence) and generates most of the hardware, software, content and giant organizations of the internet/cell phone economy, which is fast becoming the world economy. Mercantilism has never gone out of fashion. The Americans can probably ensure that the fighting takes place somewhere else, unless they are foolish enough to declare war on Mexico. Europe will be the main and permanent loser in this world crisis (EPW August 23, 2014). China imports massive quantities of food and energy and, like the other Asian manufacturers, still relies on the global demand for its exports, without having yet established production for the home market in its stead (Lenin’s recipe in The Development of Capitalism in Russia, 1899, still the best book on capitalist growth ever written). Africa’s future is more indeterminate than most; and with 2 out 5 human beings living there by the end of this century, that is worth thinking about.

Clearly there is nothing inevitable about any of this — the demography, world money and markets, war, the internet’s future, the end of national capitalism, its potential replacement, the political forms emergent now. I would bet that the United States will emerge stronger from what’s coming up. In any case, progressives had better start thinking outside the box of an insular Western politics and link up with where all the people are. The most hopeful political coalitions when I was younger were the anti-war and nuclear disarmament movements. They are largely forgotten today – who wants to recall nightmares? A vigorous global anti-war movement before it happens might be one suitable response. Maybe that is as unlikely as an immediate solution to the world’s money problem. Many people will have to lose a lot more than they have already before they will contemplate the radical change necessary to address these contradictions effectively.

In 1938, C. L. R. James published a little book, The History of Negro (now Pan-african) Revolt in which he predicted African emancipation from colonial empire soon. He had no takers from African politicians then; and the European far left (he was Britain’s most prominent Trostkyist at the time) insisted that the revolution had to take place in Europe before they would give Africans their independence. The Second World War changed all that. The Third World War would do the same. We have to decide between trying to stop it or, like the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the fascists afterwards, take revolutionary advantage of the disaster.

Keith Hart is International Director, Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria and Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology, London School of Economics. He has taught at a number of universities, for the longest time at Cambridge. He contributed the idea of an informal economy to Development Studies and has written extensively on money. His recent books include The Human Economy (2010) and Economic Anthropology (2011).


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