Last month, under conditions of extreme economic turmoil, the Sri Lankan masses burst into the presidential palace in Colombo, forcing hated president Gota Rajapaksa to flee and, soon after, announce his resignation. It immediately prompted the most frantic discussion amongst representatives of the ruling class, who are terrified of similar events occurring elsewhere.
As the Financial Times wrote in the week following Rajapaksa’s overthrow: “Economic pressures bring political instability — and today economic pressures are everywhere.”
Bloomberg warned that a “historic cascade of defaults is coming for emerging markets”. More than 19 countries, with a population of more than 900 million people, have debt levels that mean there is a real possibility of default – including El Salvador, Ghana, Tunisia, Egypt, Pakistan, Argentina and Ukraine.
A heavy debt burden, rampant inflation, rising interest rates and severe supply shocks all contributed to Sri Lanka’s dramatic economic collapse and subsequent social explosion. These are now generalised features of the global economy – and particularly those countries known as ‘emerging markets’ in the bourgeois press, i.e. poorer and less-developed countries.
A huge amount of inflammable material has built up in world politics. In the coming period, we can be certain to witness the eruption of explosive revolutionary movements all around the world, as this material ignites.
The revolutionary turmoil that has swept Sri Lanka – an island nation of 22 million people – has grabbed world headlines. It has inspired millions of workers and young people everywhere to the same extent that it has terrified ruling classes. But almost every country in South Asia is facing similar intractable economic contradictions.
Sri Lanka was the first country in the region to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout in April, but it was soon followed by Pakistan. And now Bangladesh has become the latest to seek an IMF loan. Bangladesh had been hailed as a ‘shining beacon’ of the emerging market, on account of its booming, hyper-exploitative garment industry.
But devastating floods and the war in Ukraine have exposed the fragility of the country’s economy, which relies heavily on imported fuel – fuel that the government is now seeking to preserve through scheduled power cuts. But try as it might to pass on the effects of the crisis to the working masses, in the last year its foreign exchange reserves have nevertheless fallen by $6 billion.
India, the biggest economy in the region, has seen its foreign reserves fall to their lowest point in 20 months; whilst the Indian rupee has fallen six percent against the US dollar in the last year.
But the strategists of international capital are most terrified of all about what is to come in Pakistan. The country now has only $6 billion of foreign reserves left in total, the equivalent of less than six weeks of imports. Its currency, the rupee, has plummeted to an all-time low, and IMF-directed fuel price hikes have inflamed anger up and down a country that was already a powder keg following the fall of Imran Khan’s government in April.
14-hour power outages, the most severe in a region wracked by an energy crisis, have compounded the suffering of a blistering heatwave, leading one man from Turbat in Balochistan to comment to The Guardian: “We are living in hell.”
Hundreds of millions of people across the world would echo that very sentiment: life is becoming intolerable. Bourgeois commentators are beginning to feel that revolution is inevitable.
But revolution in Pakistan, a country of 220 million, would cause shockwaves that would reverberate around the world. “The international fallout from Pakistan’s internal collapse would be much bigger than Sri Lanka,” said one political scientist in the Financial Times. “I think there are many outside [powers] who would want to avoid an outright disaster in Pakistan created by an economic collapse.”
That’s quite an understatement! As Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development candidly stated: “If history is any guide, we know that Sri Lanka’s government will likely not be the last to fall.”
Whilst the strategists of capital fret about a domino-effect of revolutions and crumbling regimes in South Asia, this is far from the only region of the world where explosive material is accumulating. In Latin America, El Salvador is edging ever closer to default. Argentina too has had to turn once more to the IMF.
The country is now on its third finance minister in the space of one month, while inflation is forecast to hit 90 percent by the end of the year. A striking illustration of how unbearable life has become was given in an interview with Reuters by one of Buenos Aires’ ‘cartoneros’ – impoverished individuals who make their living picking through waste in the city’s skips and dumps to find cardboard, plastic, or glass for exchange at recycling centres.
“Every day we are collecting less,” said Joaquín Rodríguez, complaining that, as people are unable to buy as much as before, they are also not throwing as much away. “People have no choice but to do the same work as us: there are more and more cartoneros and less waste.”
But perhaps the most significant events in recent weeks have been the developments in Panama. Although the mainstream media is keen to stress that protests there are rare, even the BBC has admitted the country “is on the verge of social collapse”. One of the most unequal societies in the world, the price of fuel there has risen almost 50 percent since January, while unemployment stands at 10 percent and inflation is accelerating.
By July, the masses had clearly had enough. Taking after protestors in Ecuador, who blocked roads in June to demand a fuel price cut – they blockaded the essential Pan-American Highway with parked trucks and burning tires. A sign at one of the protests accompanying the blockades summarised the plight of many, reading simply: “¿Gasolina o comida?” – “Gasoline or food?” – the same question that men and women in Sri Lanka are being forced to ask themselves today.
The arrogance of the ruling class
Before COVID-19 erupted onto the scene in 2020, and long before the war in Ukraine, numerous countries saw explosions of revolutionary anger back in 2019. Among them was Lebanon.
In 2019, the corrupt Hariri government had been struggling to meet its repayments – leading it to implement increasingly brutal austerity measures in an attempt to unlock aid from the IMF and other international creditors. The situation that led to revolution was already unendurable.
Today, it is not uncommon to see miles-long queues outside bakeries, and outbreaks of violence as hunger takes its toll. Before the Ukraine war broke out, the country imported 60 percent of its wheat from that country. The country already defaulted on its debt in March 2020, pushing four out of five Lebanese people below the poverty line. Now the masses are in a state of utter desperation.
The situation has been aggravated by the drastic reduction in wheat storage capacities due to the August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut; which, besides causing widespread devastation, destroyed the silos that previously housed 85 percent of Lebanon’s grain. One need only recall the slogans circulating in the wake of that tragedy – the result of callous ineptitude by corrupt officials – to get a sense of the mood bubbling over in Lebanese society: “Today we mourn, tomorrow we clean, the next day we hang the guillotines.”
Although there is enough food grown on our planet to feed 10 billion people, inflation and supply shocks are sending food prices rising, placing basic staples out of reach of millions of people. Egypt is currently facing one of the worst food crises in its modern history. The biggest wheat importer in the world, Egypt is heavily reliant on Russia and Ukraine. 80 percent of its imports of this essential cereal come from those two countries.
The comments by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi epitomise the indifference and complacent stupidity of ruling classes all over the world. The masses cannot afford bread? Well, why don’t they avoid starvation, suggests Sisi, by eating leaves as the Prophet Muhammed did? Amr Adib (worth $42 million), the top-rated news show host in Egypt, has suggested that people simply stop buying organic food items.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, one cabinet minister proposed that people save money for importing food by… refraining from drinking more than two cups of tea per day! In Uganda, president Museveni told the people: if there is no bread, then they should eat cassava (a tuberous root)!
We might add the comments by Boris Johnson, Britain’s beleaguered Prime Minister, who, when asked what the price of bread is earlier in the year, answered that he had no idea, but that he could “tell you the price of a bottle of champagne”.
Such breathtaking arrogance is perhaps one of the most startling signs of the complete rottenness of the old ruling class. Parallels jump out with the pampered aristocrats of 18th Century ancien regime France, and the words attributed to Marie Antoinette, who is said to have answered complaints that the masses have no bread with the immortal words, “let them eat cake”. The ruling class is utterly detached from the mood in society. Like the ancien regime, they are ripe for overthrow.
Just as the ruling classes are detached from the mood in society, the masses feel increasing detachment with the political system that lords it over them. In Tunisia, a referendum held last month to approve a new constitution – which effectively consolidates president Kais Saied’s one-man rule in the country – saw a turnout of only 27.5 percent. This shows a complete rejection of bourgeois politics, with most Tunisians having moved beyond a desire to ‘fix the system’. As a Reuters article pointed out: “Many Tunisians, when asked about the political turmoil, point instead to a looming economic crisis as the most urgent issue facing the country.”
But while liberal commentators bemoan Saied’s “nail in the coffin of the Arab spring,” the Tunisian workers are on the move once more. In June, the General Union of Tunisian Labour (UGTT) was pushed by its members to call a one day public sector strike. In striking contrast to the referendum turnout, 96.2 percent of the UGTT membership participated in the mass shut-down.
Symptoms of revolution
What the above examples show – and there are many, many more besides – is that a qualitative shift in the world political situation is undoubtedly taking place. In 1908, Lenin talked about an accumulation of ‘inflammable material’ in world politics. This is an apt description of the state of affairs in the present day.
Then, as now, the fury of the masses was rising, from Persia to Turkey, India to China. Within ten years, the Russian masses were victorious in overthrowing capitalism for the first time in history.
Today, the suffering of the masses is growing more and more acute with each month that passes. The world is once more approaching a period of revolutionary upheaval. A century ago, Lenin explained that among the conditions for revolutions, “the lower classes must be unable to go on living in the old way”, whilst “the upper classes can no longer rule in the old way”.
We can see how true that is today. Whilst the masses are being tortured, the ruling classes of one country after another are facing crises, splits and scandals. There is no lack of “inflammable material” all around the world. Each day it amasses in ever-greater quantities. What is missing is the subjective factor, that is: a revolutionary organisation capable of directing the energy of the masses towards the historic goal of ending capitalism – and the oppression and want inherent in that system – and finally carrying out the world socialist revolution.