Not far from my home in Los Angeles are about a hundred houses that have been boarded up for years. The houses were bought up by the city in the late twentieth century through eminent domain in order to make way for an extension of the 710 freeway that dead ends into my El Sereno neighborhood. But opposition from affluent communities further east eventually killed the project, leaving the houses to lay vacant. Meanwhile, there were on any given night in 2020 some 130,000 homeless people in the city, a thousand of whom died in the streets in the first ten months of that year.
One may imagine that this homeless crisis was the result of a shortage of housing. Yet in 2020 there was a surplus of luxury homes, so much so that 93,000 housing units in the city laid vacant. The problem was not the lack of housing units but the lack of profits to be made by the corporate real estate developers who could not find enough high-income people to rent or purchase their speculative investment properties. In fact, nearly seventy percent of residential units in the city were owned by these corporate developers and investment funds that also owned seventy-six percent of all empty lots, accounting for twenty-two square miles of vacant land.
As the coronavirus ripped through Los Angeles in 2020, and as many families who lost employment due to pandemic closures faced eviction from their rental units, the homeless and housing rights activists stepped up their struggle for shelter, fearful that the virus placed those living in the streets at great risk. Organized into a “Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community” movement, twenty unhoused families who were living in cars and encampments, with the support of several hundred peaceful community activists, removed the boarding in a number of the empty state-owned houses one cold winter day on the eve of the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday and settled in. But the comfort of a roof over their head did not last long. At least fifty police patrol vehicles surrounded the homes on the very night before the holiday to violently evict the occupants, for the most part, mothers and young children. The police used battering rams to knock down doors, hogtying and dragging out anyone who resisted and arresting sixty-two people for trespassing and burglary.
The violence and cruelty of city authorities against its most vulnerable residents is emblematic of what took place around the world in the face of the Covid-19 contagion. If humanity survives into the twenty-second century, historians will surely look back at the pandemic as a before-and-after turning point. In a period of weeks, the global economy tumbled into freefall, with losses estimated at over $8 trillion in just the first six months of the contagion. The pandemic was devastating for the world’s poor majority, as hundreds of millions faced unemployment, poverty, hunger, and death. Contrary to popular perception the pandemic did not cause the crisis of global capitalism, for this was already upon us. It did, however, intensify this crisis many times over, further catalyzing trends and processes well underway prior to the outbreak. If the pandemic was a time of great suffering and deprivation for several billion people it was also a golden opportunity for ruling classes to increase their wealth and to heighten their control and surveillance. It set off political and civil strife around the world as governments, unable to cope with the fallout, were exposed as callous instruments of wealth and corruption.
The pandemic is therefore but a staging point for a larger story. Global Civil War: Capitalism Post-Pandemic is about the world that is emerging in the wake of the plague. The extent of polarization of wealth and power, of deprivation and misery among the world’s poor majority, already defied belief prior to the outbreak. In 2018, just seventeen global financial conglomerates collectively managed $41.1 trillion dollars, more than half the GDP of the entire planet. That same year, the richest one percent of humanity led by 36 million millionaires and 2,400 billionaires controlled more than half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent – nearly six billion people – had to make do with just five percent of this wealth. The result is devastation for the majority. Worldwide, 50 percent of all people live on less than $2.50 a day and a full 80 percent live on less than $10 per day. One in three people on the planet suffer from some form of malnutrition, nearly a billion go to bed hungry each night and another two billion suffer from food insecurity. Refugees from war, climate change, political repression and economic collapse already number into the hundreds of millions.
Such savage inequalities are explosive. They fuel mass protest by the oppressed and lead the ruling groups to deploy an ever more omnipresent global police state to contain the rebellion of the global working and popular classes. Global capitalism is emerging from the pandemic in a dangerous new phase. The contradictions of this crisis-ridden system have reached the breaking point, placing the world into a perilous situation that borders on global civil war. The stakes could not be higher. The battle for the post-pandemic world is now being waged. Global Civil War provides the “big picture” synthesis of a global capitalism mired in deep crisis, cascading social and political conflict, and the breakdown of the post-WWII international order. This “big picture” helps us contextualize the current worldwide political conjuncture as we tumble towards global civil war and step into an unknown future.
The Digitalized Dictatorship
The centerpiece of Global Civil War is a novel analysis of the radical restructuring of transformation of global capitalism based on a much more advanced digitalization of the entire global economy and society and of the social and political struggles breaking out worldwide around this process. The global capitalist system was in the midst of this novel wave of transformation when the outbreak hit, turbo-charging the process and also rousing new waves of popular struggle. Twenty-first century capitalism is very different from earlier variants as the system that developed in previous centuries. The transformation of world capitalism starting with late twentieth century globalization forms the backdrop to the burning political matters of our day.
Global Civil War lays out in broad strokes the post-pandemic world of global capitalism we are entering, wracked by conflict, contradiction, suffering, struggle, and hope. The crisis of global capitalism is both an economic, or structural, crisis of stagnation and a political crisis of state legitimacy and capitalist hegemony. It is also existential because of the threat of ecological collapse as well as the renewed threat of nuclear war, to which we must add the danger of future pandemics that may involve much deadlier microbes than coronaviruses. The pandemic lockdowns served as dry runs for how digitalization may allow the dominant groups to step up restructuring time and space and to exercise greater control over the global working class. The system is now pushing towards expansion through militarization, wars and conflicts, through a new round of violent dispossession, and through further plunder of the state.
Historically, epidemics dramatically alter the political, social, and economic landscape. Throughout history they have been a force for upheaval and often radical change in society. The black death that ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1352 killed an estimated 25-30 million people, anywhere between thirty and sixty percent of the entire European population. The plague severely reduced the labor supply for European feudalism, raised the price of labor and strengthened serfs in their struggles against landlords and aristocracies. In this way, the aftermath of the plague threw European feudalism into a terminal crisis and eventually generated conditions propitious for the rise of capitalism.
The Covid-19 pandemic is similarly altering the global landscape. It has hastened a new round of restructuring and transformation based on a much more advanced digitalization of the entire global economy and society; on the application of so-called fourth industrial revolution technologies. The changing social and economic conditions brought about by the pandemic and its aftermath are accelerating the process. These conditions have helped a new bloc of transnational capital, led by the giant tech companies, interwoven as it is with finance, pharmaceuticals, and the military-industrial complex, to amass ever greater power and to consolidate its control over the commanding heights of the global economy. As restructuring proceeds it heightens the concentration of capital worldwide, worsens social inequality and aggravates international tensions. Enabled by digital applications, the ruling groups are turning to ratcheting up the global police state to contain social upheavals.
Finally, we finally turn to the global revolt: the proliferation of conflicts arising from the ravages of global capitalism as alternative futures are disputed. Capitalist crises are times of intense social and class struggles. There has been a rapid political polarization in global society since 2008 between an insurgent far-right and an insurgent left. The ongoing crisis has incited popular revolts. Workers, farmers, and poor people have engaged in a wave of strikes and protests around the world. From the Sudan to Chile, France to Thailand, South Africa to the United States, a “people’s spring” is breaking out everywhere. Yet the global revolt faces a number of quandaries and challenges to advancing an emancipatory project. At the same time, the crisis animates far-right and neofascist forces that have surged in many countries around the world and that sought to capitalize politically on the health calamity and its aftermath. Neofascist movements and authoritarian and dictatorial regimes have proliferated around the world as democracy breaks down.
While we typically associate dictatorship with strongmen and military rule — and sadly, these types of dictatorship are spreading — it is clear that the world’s people live under a new type of dictatorship, that of transnational capital. In recent decades transnational capital has subordinated virtually the entire world’s population to its logic and its domination. I mean dictatorship in the literal sense of the word, such that transnational capital dictates as it becomes more powerful, omnipresence and deadly than any other dictatorship in history. The concentration of economic power in the hands of transnational capital generates a concentration of political power that underscores the dictatorial reach of what I call the transnational capitalist class.
The global civil war is about a struggle of humanity against this dictatorship. Simply put, the vast majority will be unable to survive for much longer should global capitalism continue down its current path. Digital transformation may enhance many times over the power of transnational capital to further dictate the terms of social and economic life. I italicize may because the intractable crisis of global capitalism generates social strife and political conflict and throws up resistance that may push back against this power. As we peer into the future we must remind ourselves that it is not predetermined, that our collective action and contingency in historic outcomes means there are many possible futures. This dystopic digitalized dictatorship is only one possible future, albeit one that is rapidly coming into focus at this time. Thus, this book is as much a political warning as it is an analytical and a theoretical contribution to understanding contemporary global society.