Last week the G20, (Group of Twenty) of leaders from some of the world’s largest economies, met in Hamburg, Germany. The self-selected ‘cabal’ of ‘Caesars’ meeting at the G20 represented 85% of the world’s GDP, had limited political mandate to make decisions, and excluded most of the ‘Global South’. They embodied the world’s richest elites making decisions affecting the world’s poorest, behind closed doors. One evening, leaders from Trump to Trudeau, were entertained in a concert hall by Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, while tens / hundreds of thousands of citizens protested the impacts of global capitalism on burning streets outside.
US President Donald Trump was in Hamburg with his wife and the rest of his nepotistic entourage masquerading as officials. He came face to face with Putin for the first time. They possibly shared strange handshakes, maybe they even chest bumped. Trump continued to defy political consensus, maintaining his isolationist policies on climate change and economic protectionism. Turkey’s President attended, but his crack down on opposition forces continued at home. China’s President Xi sat among leaders of the capitalist west while the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo died in prison.
But despite the mustering of defences, and the show of strength, global capitalism is on the run. It’s contradictions and limitations are becoming ever clearer. Indeed, the G20 heads of state first met in response to the Global Financial Crisis, to stabilise capitalism and to improve ‘global governance’. Agenda items this year included global economic growth, international trade, financial market regulation and ‘issues of global significance’ such as migration, digitisation, terrorism and climate change. In addition to limits to growth, a globally saturated market, deindustrialisation leading to a ‘middle class crisis’ and nationalist populism and instability in the west, these globally significant issues are threats to global capitalism. Globalisation, say some economists, has lost its dynamism, it has run out of new markets to exploit. With the hollowing out of developed western economies and saturation of markets and credit, and the emergence of protectionism, capitalism is at ‘tipping point’, it may already have eaten itself, and the G20 are doing everything to keep it alive.
Global capitalism, rather than creating a rising tide that lifted all boats, has instead led to ‘the great convergence’, a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. Nearly all gains from globalisation have been concentrated in six countries, and the greatest benefits have accumulated in China’s emerging middle class and the elite 1% mostly from the US. Now, eight billionaires own the same as the poorest half of the world’s population – about 3.6 billion people.
But an alternative agenda was evident at the G20 too. The G20 meeting provides a focus for dissent. It becomes a lightning rod for a range of concerns about the current economic model. More than 100,000 protestors attended the Hamburg G20, not just the world leaders. There was an ‘alternative global solidarity summit’. Greenpeace interrupted a bulk freighter bringing in a shipment of charcoal in protest against fossil fuels. The ‘Zombie march’ of 1000 clay caked artists highlighted the malaise of civic apathy. Masked protestors dressed in black were met with a phalanx of special armed police forces with aggressive attitudes, water cannons, armoured vehicles and even a ‘survivor tank’ designed to withstand chemical and nuclear attack. 15,000 police were deployed, 400 of whom were injured. 400 protestors were arrested, but the number of injured protestors was unreported. A city official described the melee as ‘organised and long prepared criminal violence as never witnessed before’. Protestors were charged, bashed with truncheons, punched, run to the ground. In turn, cars were burned, shops were looted, it was a ‘new dimension of violence’ on the streets of Germany’s second largest city.
Past gatherings of world leaders at G20 meetings such as in Seattle in 2010, have also been accompanied by civil unrest and riots. It’s been easy for conservatives to decry the acts of protest and dissidence and to blame the protestors rather than the police, the police state or the international system that inflicts violence at personal, civic, cultural and ecosystem levels. Campaigners for global justice and against the inequalities and destruction of global capitalism, have been derided for being environmentalists, fascists, Marxists, ‘obscurantists’. They’ve been condemned as privileged white kids wearing branded gear protesting against sweatshops. But they’ve shone a light against inequality, injustice, exploitation, war, manmade environmental disaster, the very consequences of capitalism on grand scale. Opponents to globalisation have had their views and values dismissed because of their ‘ignorance of (trickle down) economics’, they’ve been belittled and ignored because they’re from affected distant countries, they’ve been beaten down and hidden by walls of police.
But loss of jobs, homes, hope and land don’t just affect people in the Third World as multinationals move on in. Hopelessness, alienation, inequality, middle class poverty, are all being felt as consequences of global capitalism, and rejected, in western democracies too. The election of Trump, the Brexit vote, the rise of far right and populist politics across the developed world, are all consequences of global capitalism and a distrust of the establishment and contemporary economic solutions.
So while opponents of global capitalism who adopt radical tactics to express their discontent, attack weaknesses in the edifice from without, angry middle class voters in the US, the UK, France, Italy and beyond, use the ballot box as a way of being heard from within, with further economically destabilising results. Globalisation has led to alienation, alienation to instability. Instability further undermines the economic project though it’s already seriously wounded from its own contradictions and limits. The reactionary path of protectionism, closed borders and nationalism further breeds isolationism and fear. Global problems like climate change, migration, the crisis of capitalism and the need for system alternatives, have no national solutions. But global capitalism with its concentration of wealth and power, with its control over access to work, a home of ones’ own, its attack on human dignity, is no sustainable solution either.