An important message from John Bellamy Foster
In mid-February, I was teaching my undergraduate Political Economy course at the University of Oregon, when several students expressed a deep-felt conviction that nothing ever really changes in the social realm, except technology, since human behavior always remains the same. This was an understandable outlook, given their actual experiences: a twenty-year-old university student today was only eight years old at the time of the Great Financial Crisis in 2008.
I responded, in terms familiar to Monthly Review readers, that human behavior was not always the same, that history was full of turning points, during which days are sometimes years, and a single decade may reveal the contradictions of a century. The great movements in history are volcanic and often erupt when one least expects it. I pointed out that we were at the peak of the business cycle, which would be followed by economic crisis. On top of deepening economic stagnation there were signs of a Wall Street bubble ready to burst. We were witnessing a polarization of income and wealth unprecedented in human history; widening class, racial, and gender divides; the growth of both neofascism and socialism; and a liberal-democratic state that was coming unhinged. The decline of U.S. hegemony in the world economy was giving rise to a U.S.-driven New Cold War against Russia and China, including a renewed threat of global thermonuclear conflagration. For those living in the Fortress America, at the very center of a world empire, it was difficult to understand how insulated we were materially and ideologically from the harsh conditions imposed on most of the Global South, where revolution was often the only answer to imperialism.
The developing global ecological crisis, I explained, threatened the planet as a place of human habitation, with the “fate of the earth” to be determined in a matter of decades rather than centuries. This led to the question of the novel coronavirus, resulting from the disruption of ecosystems and other species (including wild species), generating new zoonoses. It was practically certain, I pointed out, that the novel coronavirus would spread in a major way to the United States.
Not long after, COVID-19 hit the United States with full force, Wall Street stocks plunged, unemployment soared, and the students in my class were faced with the need for social distancing. Several indicated that they were absolutely astounded that so many of the abrupt changes that we had been talking about in class only weeks before, when everything had seemed calm, had suddenly come to pass.
My course on Environmental Sociology the following term, beginning at the end of March, commenced with a consideration of the COVID-19 epidemic and the general crisis. In the context of examining these developments in relation to the general environmental crisis we were forced to confront both environmental racism and the larger historical context of racial capitalism. Just after we had reached that point in the class, at the end of May, the George Floyd murder—which Cornel West called a “lynching at the highest level”—took place, followed by a storm of protests and riots across the entire country. This required a discussion to a much greater extent than hitherto in the class of the increasing authoritarianism of the U.S. state and the neofascist character of the White House, providing a big-picture view of these developments. I was asked by students suddenly alerted to the full scale of the crisis of U.S. capitalist state to explain the rise of the right, Jim Crow, McCarthyism . . . all the way to Trump.
As the class ended in the midst of all of this, students banded together to continue their discussions while some threw themselves directly into the solidarity struggle. We talked about combining theory and practice. Again, the treatment of these issues in this class, which seemed so relevant to the students, was simply a product of the analysis that we had built up over the years and continue to develop in Monthly Review.
I took all of this as testimony to the strength Monthly Review’s analysis over the decades. At the end of January, MR Online had published “Notes on a Novel Coronavirus,” by Rob Wallace, the author of the 2016 MR Press book Big Farms Make Big Flu. In the Review of the Month for May, Wallace and his scientific colleagues discussed “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” explaining the sources of the pandemic and the inability of the system to respond. This work was closely connected to the ecological analyses developed in MR during the previous decades. The treatment of the neofascism in the White House drew on my 2017 Monthly Review Press book, Trump in the White House. In addressing the protests and riots in response to state-directed racial killings, I was able to present to the students the analysis developed in the forthcoming special July–August issue of Monthly Review on “racial capitalism.”
MR has been able to play this kind of leading role in understanding the contradictions of our time because of its rigorous, deeply informed critique of capitalist development. The essence of that approach is seeking to grasp that the “truth is the whole,” which, however, can only be understood in its historical movement and concreteness. This is connected to the ability to step beyond capitalism and look at it from the outside, from the standpoint of a more rational, egalitarian, and sustainable social order, namely socialism. It is now clear that the necessary, sustainable human development path is toward socialism, toward a society of substantive equality and ecological sustainability. How the crucial transformations will take place and what historical agents will get us there are of course the big questions, though we know that the third-world proletariat and the increasingly diverse working class in the developed countries are both essential parts of the picture. What is certain is that hundreds of millions of people around the world are already engaged in the struggle, and that there is only one path forward for humanity, toward a deeper socialism than ever before: a socialism of the earth.
This is fundamental to Monthly Review’s outlook, a view forged over many years of struggle, both theoretical and practical. But we cannot hope to continue this struggle, especially in a pandemic, without your help.
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John Bellamy Foster