A system in crisis ― but people are fighting back

Demonstration in Tunisia, January last year.

If the uprisings of last year have proved anything, it is that progressive change is not out of reach, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. In the face of overwhelming odds, the Arab Spring has brought changes in the region that were unthinkable 18 months ago.

However, it is still common for people advocating radical change to be sneered at, regarded as naive fools or dangerous loonies.

But when you take an honest look at the state of the world today, it is those who think things should not change are the ones that start to look foolish or crazy.

The world is in the grip of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The crisis was the logical result of the capitalist system ― a system that regards the ever-growing accumulation of wealth as the priority, above all other needs.

Banks across the world boosted their earnings for years, trading financial products that turned out to be worthless. This crazy practice is generated by a need to find a way to raise wealth when the global trend was one of a declining rate of profit.

When banks were about to collapse, many Western governments bailed them out and shifted their losses to taxpayers, who are now burdened with huge debts for generations.

The economic situation was bad enough already for most of the world's population. Billions live in extreme poverty.

Globalissues.org said that in 2008, more than 3 billion people lived on less than US$2.50 a day. It said 80% of the world's population lived on less $10 a day.

This crisis for the world's majority ― predating the crisis for the world's economy ― is the result of the logic of the capitalism, in which huge amounts of wealth and political power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of people.

The recent revolts across the world ― from the Arab world to Europe and even the huge Occupy Wall Street movement in the belly of the beast ― follow decades of attacks on the living conditions of working people.

These attacks, given the name “neoliberalism”, have taken many forms. They have included cutting government services, privatising public assets, and attacking working conditions and democratic rights.

These policies were imposed, especially on indebted “developing nations”, by institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Such institutions are now in charge of the fate of countries such as Greece.

War also remains an outcome of this system. Modern wars carried out by Western forces are often dressed up as well-intentioned humanitarian interventions. It does not take much to see they are simply part of a long line of imperialist attacks on weaker nations.

The human carnage is hidden from public view, as is the brutality of the invading forces. When examples of this horror are exposed, it is excused as an aberration.

In reality, however, millions have died or were forced to live in misery and fear as a result of imperialist wars in the past decade.

These wars are little more than a naked grab for control, aimed at ensuring the continued domination of the economic interests Western governments support.

Another product of the system is the environmental crisis.

No significant action has been undertaken to address climate change despite the dire warnings of scientists and the very limted time frame in which we can turn things around. Standing in the way of action is big business, whose profits are threatened by the necessary shift away from burning fossil fuels for energy production.

However, environmental problems go further than just the climate. A 2010 study published in Nature identified that long-term human life on the planet depended on natural systems remaining within nine “planetary boundaries”.

The study said boundaries for climate change, the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss had already been crossed. Also, boundaries for land use change, the phosphorus cycle, ocean acidification and freshwater use could be crossed soon if things do not change.

Ordinary people are often blamed for environmental problems due to their participation in the consumerist culture in which we live.

However, ordinary people have little say in what gets produced and the highly wasteful way things are made and disposed of under capitalism.

The natural world is treated like a “free bounty” by big business, to be robbed of resources then used as a dump at little cost to those making huge profit from it.

The environment and the wider community end up paying a heavy burden in the long-run, while capitalists make a killing in the short-term.

The rich minority (aptly identified as “the 1%” by the Occupy movement) have power over the economy, the media and the main political parties. This gives them the ability to ruin the lives of the 99% for their own personal gain.

Except that this time, the conditions for the continuation of human society are under threat.

But even when many people acknowledge the problems, they are often cynical about the prospect for positive change. We are told we are powerless to fix these problems ― they are the inevitable result of “human nature” or that the opposing forces are too powerful to be stopped.

However, these arguments ignore the fact that all over the world, people are not only resisting attacks, but are changing their societies for the better.

Several countries in Latin America provide examples of mass movements of the poor pushing back the power of the elites and putting pro-people leaders into government.

In Venezuela, policies promoting wealth redistribution and participatory democracy under the elected government of Hugo Chavez have resulted in poverty more than halving.

A decade on from the popular uprising that defeated a coup and restored Chavez to office, that an International Consulting Services poll revealed 53% of Venezuelans support the type of socialism advocated by Chavez as a system that guarantees their nation's development. Only 21% described capitalism as such a system.

The changes won in Venezuela, and in some other Latin American nations, are the result of a concerted struggle over many years by ordinary people. All the rights and conditions we enjoy are the result of such struggles, and any new gains will have to be fought for in the same way.

By uniting to take collective action, the wealth and influence of the 1% can be challenged. At the same time, alternatives that break with the status quo can be promoted and built.

The and the are two organisations that help produce Green Left Weekly. They seek to struggle for a world that meets the needs of people instead of profit-making, one where all are involved in the important decisions about how society is run. In a word, socialism.

This struggle needs young people willing to fight to make it a reality.