Thoughts on the Left’s Response to Capitalism’s Global Death Spiral, by Gary Olson


Image by Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr

by Gary Olson
Guest Writer, Dandelion Salad
December 6, 2021

For those whose personal and political identities are virtually indistinguishable, these are especially vexing times. Specifically, during this historical stage of capitalism it’s challenging to abide by Gramsci’s optimism of the will and heart and not acquiesce to pessimism of the mind, to the intellect’s awareness of certain recalcitrant realities in our world. And residing in the belly of the global beast also compounds one’s sense of personal responsibility.

In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx, with assistance from Friedrich Engels, wrote: “All that is solid melts in the air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face facts with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relation to his kind.” It hasn’t exactly come to pass, has it? It’s true, as the two young German philosophers predicted, that to survive, capitalism must constantly revolutionize the means of production, but its current global iteration presages a dystopia that promises to destroy us all. Will this occur before the working class slips off its chains and, shovels in hand, begins digging the graves of the bourgeoisie? The time frame is perilously short but can we honestly claim to be near the Manifesto’s “sober sense” today, that capitalism has forced us to see things as they really are? And even if that moment arrives, what then?

Several weeks after penning a long piece about my Norwegian-American ancestors and U.S. settler colonialism, my personal muse had remained ominously silent and until today, I’ve been forced to follow suit. My Facebook page continues to feature daily doses of memes, photos, Thursday music, and inspiring quotations but they mostly functioned to keep flagging morale (my own and others) in check until new or refashioned old ideas surfaced.

In that vein, as I peruse the usual left-wing web sites, I note that working class grievances remain in heavy rotation where they receive insightful treatment by some immensely talented writers. I don’t for a moment discount the importance of fighting to prevent matters from getting worse or pursuing genuine non-reformist reforms.

However, except for a few exemplary essayists like Chris Hedges, I also discern a paucity of pieces addressing the “big picture,” the larger framework under which everything else is subsumed and especially, how to dismantle that system. Even the most witheringly effective indictments of our social, economic, political and intellectual life will mention the causal link to capitalism but then invariably trail off and conclude with permutations on the tired coda “We are the solution.”

It’s my strong sense that we need more imaginative thinking and discussion about how to rid the planet of corporate capitalism and the psychopathic predator class’s power and control that’s responsible for monstrous crimes, obscene inequality and an accelerating death spiral toward mass extinction.

Even authors who take on the daunting task of delineating what a better future might look like, rarely engage in or encourage speculation on how to get there. And let me quickly add that I’m as guilty as anyone for reiterating alarmist warnings that “the sky is falling” (Henny Penny was right) but then assuming that simply laying out irrefutable facts will convince people that revolutionary measures are not only warranted but overdue.

Bob Dylan once wrote “When you ain’t got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose.” But just how often is this the case in First World settings like the United States where members of the working class know they’re getting screwed over but also know that they’ve at least survived. Further, they’re also realizing that “working within the system” — like expecting salvation from the deplorable Democrats — is a transparent fool’s errand.

Even as people increasingly “get” this, taking the next step is very serious business. Conjuring up Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has poignantly posed the question, “Should I conform to the prevailing order, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous forces bestowed upon me by one of history’s irresistible forces? Or should I join those forces, taking up arms against the status quo and, by opposing it, usher in a brave new world?” Quite understandably, people are hesitant, even fearful. For us not to acknowledge that fear is disingenuous, self-defeating and patronizing. It also fails to convey sufficient humility because we can’t offer any guarantees about the future. However, keeping this reality in mind, we must attempt to move forward.

By my lights, the only remaining viable option — and its chances for success are exceedingly slim — is “street heat” that our overlords and their enablers can’t absorb and co-opt. The latter has already happened with Black Lives Matter and the once promising Poor People’s Campaign. Both performed inestimable service but now behave more like adjuncts to the Democratic Party.

We need a multiracial, class-based movement willing to engage in waves of sustained, non-violent civil disobedience where the risk of arrest is likely. Embracing creative tactics involving occupations, (think, indigenous people’s resistance encampments in U.S. and Canada) wildcat strikes, protest pop-ups, unofficial walkouts and selective sabotage will assume important roles. A multitude of activities, all of equal value, are indispensable to success.

Kim Petersen, an astute political analyst and former co-editor at Dissident Voice, notes that ideally this would morph into a general strike requiring a “steadfastness of purpose” and solidarity in the face of a certain ruthless response to crush it. At that point, it’s not inconceivable that defections within the ranks of the army, national guard and police will occur.

A first step in this process is encouraging people to think and converse about the immediacy of this threat. Reminding people of all the radical resistance in U.S. history is important as is participating in small acts of resistance that can be the embryonic stage, the catalyst for major social and political transformation. They can be useful exercises for those experiencing physical and emotional discomfort at breaking the law for the first time, a sort of confidence building dress rehearsal.

We are left with the following: On the one hand, prematurely engaging in large-scale resistance without further educational efforts, patience and due diligence is tantamount to undisciplined, ultra-left childishness. It would be gift to the ruling class. On the other hand, waiting too long to act is to court mass death. It’s not hyperbole to assume that if don’t take matters into our own hands, survival itself will be problematic for our children and grandchildren.

Finally, although much of the above sounds Dr. Gloom and Doomish, even bordering on existential dread, that would be a misreading of my intent. As long as I remain a sentient being, I won’t give up or give in to the dark side. For me and many others the Rosa Luxemberg’s “socialism or barbarism” remains the only alternative. The numbers are overwhelmingly on our side and my will and heart tell me that “A People United Can Never Be Defeated!” isn’t just a catchy rally chant if enough people believe it.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He can be reached at:

Previously published on Dissident Voice, Nov. 30, 2021

From the archives:

The Road To A Climate Hell Of >4 Degrees C Is Littered With Untruths, by Andrew Glikson + Greta Thunberg: COP26 Is A Failure

The Frontier is Closed: Capitalist and Constitutional Chickens Coming Home to Cancerous Roost, by Paul Street

The Tragedy of the Worker, by Aragorn Eloff

Abby Martin and Paul Jay: Afghanistan, 9/11 and Climate Change, Part 2 + Current Climate Extremes Double at 2 Degrees Warming and Quadruple at 3

Working Conditions are Getting Worse in the US, by Pete Dolack

Geo Maher: A World Without Police + Nonviolence and Restorative Justice (Must-see)

Earth Burns and the Capitalist World Talks, by Pete Dolack

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Changes In Consciousness and Belief Systems Don’t Need Decades, Much Less Centuries, To Change, by Pete Dolack

Beyond Voting by Howard Zinn + What Else You Can Do: 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action by David Swanson

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Left’s Response to Capitalism’s Global Death Spiral, by Gary Olson

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  14. I’m grateful for these comments and they demonstrate what I meant by needing “more imaginative thinking and discussion.” I noted the need for “further educational efforts” but I could have gone into more detail and the suggestions offered here are all solid ones. We might disagree on the amount of time remaining but other than that, I found this a constructive response. I hope it generates more conversation.

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  17. Olson asks what is to be done. I will offer my own views on that, though they differ only slightly from his.

    The first question is the Hamlet question, of whether or not to take up arms against the status quo. Olson barely nods at this question, but goes on as though he has answered yes. I too answer yes, but I will justify that answer in slightly greater detail. The status quo has long meant great and unnecessary suffering for many people, through wars, poverty, exploitation, etc. But recently the crimes have increased to the level of extinction. Climate apocalypse is worsening more and faster than the corporate press lets on. The fight against capitalism is now a fight for the survival of our species. If/when the ecosystem crashes, the capitalists will survive only slightly longer than the rest of us; then they will run out of canned food.

    So why do they not change course? Well, it is a mistake to think of the ruling class as a single conscious entity. Just as our economic system forces you and me to compete against each other for meager wages, so too it forces the plutocrats to compete against each other for their vast fortunes. Any plutocrat who thinks even briefly about the ecosystem, or anything else other than short-term private profits, will lose the competition, will be replaced, will cease to be a plutocrat. The plutocrats may have more comfy cells than you and I, but they are as trapped on this crazy train as the rest of us. It is up to you and me and a million others to derail the train. And so recruitment is our big task.

    Olson then goes on to say that “street heat” is our only option. I disagree with that analysis. What we need is to educate the public, by whatever methods possible, and “street heat” is one of those methods. It is not the only method. Personally, I keep writing leaflets, to try to explain what is going on.

    Too many people do not yet understand what is going on. Different people, seeing the same phenomena, may interpret those phenomena in different ways. In particular, too many people will interpret the “street heat” in the wrong way; they will not understand the point of it. Explanations are needed; the correct explanation is not obvious to many people; different things are obvious to different people.

    To omit the explanations, or given them too little emphasis, is a common mistake among leftists. Too many leftists keep calling for “massive nonviolent civil disobedience” (a phrase that Chris Hedges uses incessantly), but too many of those leftists omit discussing the educational efforts to explain that disobedience. The explanation is crucial.

    And we leftists are not all in agreement about the explanation. For instance, Olson blames the ills of the world on “corporate capitalism.” This suggests that some other sort of capitalism might be okay. I disagree; I blame our problems simply on “capitalism”; I do not believe any kind of capitalism can be okay. Evidently Olson and I have different answers to these questions: What is capitalism, really? What is its fundamental nature? What does it do, and why, and under what circumstances? I don’t know how we can resolve these differences, except perhaps keep talking.

    Some leftists have begun speaking of sabotage. I think that presently that is a very ineffective tactic. Look at its results. For instance, a few anti-pipeline protestors manage to shut down a pipeline for a few hours, and for that they got several years in jail. And how much was the public educated by this action? Not very much, I think.

    I like the idea of teach-ins, which were used in the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War and to protest the establishment culture in general. Protesters occupy some space that “belongs” to the public or to the establishment, and they use it to give an open-ended educational program. Teach-ins today would have this additional feature: Any lectures and any written materials could be disseminated through the internet. Teach-ins today might also have this feature: the establishment might use more police force to break up the crowd. But that would teach the public something too. The establishment looks bad for silencing Julian Assange; they will look worse if they have to silence a lot more of us.

    But I’m not sure of any of this.

    Some Marxist-Leninists are quite sure of their analysis, as though what we’re going through were identical to 1917 Russia. But it’s not identical. I don’t think anyone can be sure. There are no guarantees. We just have to apply a mixture of thoughtful planning and instinct, do the best we can, and hope for the best.

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