Crises, Social Classes, and Revolution

As of this writing, we are at the start of September 2020. We are still going through the overarching world-crisis of Covid-19 and we are at the end of it’s first US uprising, initiated by the police-murder of George Floyd. Covid-19 is opening-up tons of questions about our capitalist system, the capability of our rulers to rule, and how anti-racism can clear the way for our salvation from Covid-19 in particular, and all of racial capitalism in general.

However, we are not going to navigate this moment with the energy, flexibility, and urgency needed unless we understand that this is a moment of crisis and how it differs from “normal” moments in capitalism.

What Are Crises?

Fundamentally, crises are moments when the ruling class has lost control because the capitalist system has created a problem that the capitalists cannot resolve without making the situation either better or worse for the lower classes (i.e. working class, middle class, peasants, and everyone in between).

The crisis can be caused by:

  • inherent capitalist contradictions (ex: over-production, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall)
  • or by-products of capitalism (ex: imperialist war, accelerated mutation of diseases, police violence, global warming)

Regardless of what causes the crisis, the ruling class can only resolve it by:

  • deepening the problem for the working class to discipline it into accepting the new, worse reality (ex: austerity)
  • or having their hand forced by the lower classes to relieve the situation to the benefit of the lower classes (ex: The New Deal)

All of this is distinct from “normal” times.

During normal times, the typical threats of suffering (i.e. homelessness, unemployment, scarcity-violence, etc.) are awful but they are seen as under control. There is a sense that the situation for individuals and/or communities could get better with some hard work, patience, legislation, and luck. Even the lowest classes can imagine better days.

These are also the times when the middle classes see the suffering as something remote: a tragic by-product of society, or a deserved punishment for some moral/ethical “crime”. But in either case, they see it as something that would never affect them outside of some tragedy.

But during a crisis, the perspective changes drastically. The lowest classes see no hope. Meanwhile, the middle classes are under threat. Suddenly, the suffering that was always distant to them is right at their door. Suddenly, the classes below the ruling class feel like no one is in control. They feel like they need to assert their own class control to rescue all of society so they start to take the streets.

This challenge from the lower classes to ruling class control is the other signifier of a true crisis.

Contrasting Crises: 2008 vs 2020

Crises do not automatically pull the lower classes into action. The level of political development of the masses (i.e. all social classes) determines if the lower classes mobilize and to what extent they are willing and able to assert their own demands.

In 2008, the world economy ran into the inherent capitalist contradiction of over-production of housing (and the corollary over-production of mortgages and hedge funds). But the masses were not ready to deal with this. It was a one-sided crisis in which the ruling class was able to impose austerity and the lower classes had neither the confidence nor organization to take any initiative.

It wasn’t until the Occupy movement of 2011 that any section of the lower classes responded to the crisis of 2008.

Contrast that with 2020. The masses now have the collective experience of:

  • disillusionment with Obama
  • Occupy & The Tea Party
  • #BlackLivesMatter & #MeToo
  • Charlottesville’s Unite the Right protest
  • The 2018 wave of teacher’s strikes
  • Trump and Sanders in 2016 (to name a few of the polarizing events between 2008 and 2020)

Now, the masses have nearly a decade of political experience and organization to build off of and challenge the ruling class for control.

The Lower Classes Take the Stage: 2020

In the context of 2020, the crisis opens up around Covid-19 and the deliberate inaction of the ruling class and their state. The ruling class could have rallied around shutting down the economy and providing a social safety net to guide society through the pandemic. But if they took these logical steps, they risked legitimizing the left-wing politics of socialism in a country that prides itself on its right-wing dedication to the free market.

Instead, the US ruling class vacillated by partially shutting down the economy while providing minimal financial aid. This vacillation caused the right-wing middle-classes to take the initiative. They mobilized around fully re-opening the economy (because the middle classes lack any imagination outside of the capitalist status quo). Suddenly, they were mobilizing armed seizures of state capitol buildings and armed re-openings of businesses, while also engaging in vigilante murders (like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery).

Feeling that the ruling class had lost control of the pandemic, they tried to assert their own right-wing, middle-class demands.

But then the capitalist state murdered George Floyd. The Black community entered the crisis of Covid-19 already hobbled by the housing crisis of 2008, to say nothing of the overarching history of slavery, Jim Crow, and The New Jim Crow. The eruption was tremendous and it tapped into the collective experience of Black Lives Matter (BLM) organizing. Taking a lead from BLM’s experience, the uprising pulled the left-wing masses into the streets to rally around anti-racism in general, and to defund police in particular.

Unlike the middle classes, the working class (centered in the Black community) was able to imagine an alternative to the status quo: a world where the police are defunded out of existence, and social welfare programs are expanded or funded into existence. The uprising around George Floyd is the largest uprising in US history and has proven the appeal of anti-racism and of these demands.

In other words, both the middle classes and working classes have put forward their solutions to the crisis that the ruling class has been unable to resolve.

The Pace of Time and Radicalization in a Crisis

Precisely because crises are defined by the lack of control by the ruling class and the attempt to assert demands of the lower classes, these are moments of rapid change. During the “normal” times, the ruling ideas of the day are the ideas of the ruling class. But because the ruling class has lost control, the ruling ideas of the day are suddenly up for debate by the masses: and the debate is fast, furious, and physical. Each class continues to move to increasingly radical positions to counter its enemy.

Suddenly, the idea that Covid-19 is a hoax is considered legitimate by millions of people even as hundreds of thousands die from it. Suddenly, the concept of Abolition becomes mainstream, even though it was considered left-wing lunacy only a few months ago. Suddenly, there is a struggle between classes to define the ruling ideas of the day via the movements and organizations on the ground. The fact that the lower classes have started to take the stage and assert themselves means that ideas

During normal times, things follow a slow, gradualist timeline. Individuals and organizations think of time in terms of months, years, and decades. Personal and organizational goals are set along these timelines.

But during a crisis, things change on a nearly hourly basis. Suddenly, Jacob Blake is shot in the back 7 times by police on August 23rd. By August 25th, Kyle Rittenhouse has murdered two BLM protesters and injured a third. In 48 hours, gasoline has been poured on the working class uprising and the middle class fascists have found their first hero. Suddenly, the question of reigniting the uprising becomes a question of jump-starting self-defense in neighborhoods and cities.

Any organization that fails to recognize the new pace of time and radicalization during a crisis risks falling far behind the masses and becoming irrelevant precisely when the masses need leadership and structure.

Crises and Revolutionary Potential

“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” — V.I. Lenin

Lenin described the pace of events in a crisis like this:

There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.

This is not just a poetic phrase. This is the pace of life under a crisis in which the ruling class has lost control and the lower classes have the confidence to try and assert their own control. Having too many cooks in the social kitchen leads to all kinds of social chaos.

But the two factors of crises mean that, if the capitalists aren’t able to resolve things quickly (through the violence of the state and austerity, or through social democratic reforms) then the longer that the masses are on the stage of history the more they might develop their skills, consciousness, and organization. If the lower classes reach a heightened level of skills, class consciousness, and organization: they might overthrow the ruling class and establish themselves as the new rulers.

If a given crisis reaches this level of struggle, the balance of class forces creates a revolutionary situation.

As Lenin put it:

To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.

Revolutions aren’t always positive. A revolution can erupt and:

  • the working class wins — establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat
  • the middle class wins — establishing a fascist dictatorship
  • the ruling class wins — establishing a military dictatorship

(These are just a few examples since history can always generate surprises.)

But regardless of how revolutionary moments end, the moments themselves are inevitable. The result is not inevitable (as listed above), but the revolutionary moments themselves must periodically erupt because of both the inherent and by-product characteristics of capitalism.

The Crisis Before Us

Currently, there are three things at the tops of everyone’s minds:

  • the election between Trump and Biden
  • the coming economic depression
  • the need for self-defense against the rapidly coalescing, fascist, middle classes

The danger, the real and mortal danger, is in thinking that self-defense should be last on this list (or not on this list at all). The murder of two BLM protesters by Kyle Rittenhouse and the police murder of Michael Reinoehl (anti-fascist organizer) should be wake-up calls to the US Left. We need to start the discussion of how we defend ourselves. This is the single most immediate task.

With that, we need to begin combining our struggle for abolition with the need to both organize the unemployed and prepare for the coming evictions and foreclosures. Self-defense and anti-racism will have to underline these struggles. They will have to be the nucleus around which the crisis is resisted.

Whether or not Trump wins, the fascists are mobilized. They’ve coalesced around The Thin Blue Line and against Black Lives Matter. They’re convinced that Trump will be re-elected and they are prepared to either celebrate his win or riot at what they assume will be Biden’s theft of the election. They’ve started arming themselves and showing up armed at protests to assert their middle-class control.

How are we preparing to assert our working-class control in this crisis? How are we preparing so that, if this crisis becomes a revolutionary situation, we make sure we come out on top?

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Ken Barrios

Born and raised in Chicago to immigrant parents. A member of the ISO from 2006–2010. DSA member since 2018. Revolutionary abolitionist socialist for life.