G7 Versus BRICS: Power Struggles Are Not Class Struggles

Class struggles have likewise continued in all societies, thereby evolving in different forms and foci.

6 mins read
Aerial photo taken on Aug. 17, 2020 shows the container dock of Yangshan Port in Shanghai, east China. This year marks the 30th anniversary of China's announcement that it would develop and open up Shanghai's Pudong, which epitomizes China's continuous efforts to deepen reforms and open its doors to the world. (Xinhua/Ding Ting)

Class struggles interact with but are different from power struggles. The ancient conflicts between city-states Athens and Sparta were power struggles, while within each, slaves and enslavers engaged in class struggles. Britain and France were absolute monarchies in late European feudalism fully engaged in power struggles. At the same time, class struggles between lords and serfs internally agitated both “great” powers. Now, after slavery and feudalism have largely ended and capitalism prevails globally, great power struggles exist between the G7 and BRICS and among their member nations, as well as other nations. At the same time, class struggles exist between employers and employees in all nations. Power and class struggles condition and shape one another. Both have been and remain core aspects of history; so too have ideological habits of confusing and conflating them.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany’s monarch, said in 1914 as World War I began, “I no longer recognize [political] parties, I recognize only Germans.” He used nationalism to unify a class-divided Germany to help win the war. The Kaiser had been shaken by more than the increasingly serious struggles among world powers over colonies, world trade, and foreign investment. He was stunned too by the rise of Germany’s Marx-inspired Socialist Party across the decades before the war. Germany’s class of capitalist employers had been similarly shaken and stunned. For a country increasingly and deeply split between labor and capital, German nationalism was the employer class’s strategy both to thwart socialism and win the war. Key to that strategy was getting people to think (and self-identify) in terms of national and ultimately military struggles, and not class struggles.

Germany’s strategy failed. It lost World War I, the monarchy ended, and its Socialist Party became Germany’s postwar government. Socialism emerged from the war far stronger in Germany than it had ever been. Much the same was true for World War I’s other combatant nations. More or less all of them had used nationalism to mobilize their war efforts and to undermine and displace class consciousness. For the war’s winners, nationalism may have served its purpose for them to achieve victory. Yet, it did not vanquish or banish socialism. Instead, socialism captured its first government (Russia) and split into socialist and communist wings that each drew mass attention and engagement. Both wings spread globally and quickly in the 1920s and even more in the 1930s as capitalism imposed its worst crash ever on most nations across the world.

Now, a century later, power struggles intensify and sharpen across global capitalism. The power of the United States, hegemonic during the Cold War, is now declining. The earlier decline of Europe, punctuated by the loss of its colonies and two deeply destructive world wars, continues. Both Europe and the United States face the stunning, unprecedented speed of China’s economic growth and concomitant rise to global power status. Already, China’s network of alliances, especially the BRICS, confronts the United States and its alliances, especially the G7. The rise of China and the BRICS adds to their power struggles with the United States and the G7. That rise is also realigning power relations between the Global North and Global South and, in one way or another, among all nations and within international organizations.

Class struggles have likewise continued in all societies, thereby evolving in different forms and foci. Most importantly, socialists now focus decreasingly on the struggle between private property and free markets as capitalism, versus state property and state planning as socialism. Many socialists reacted to 20th-century experiences with state power in the USSR and the People’s Republic of China by shifting their focus. State power and planning, while not dismissed as socialist goals, were seen increasingly as insufficient by themselves. Something more or different was needed to yield the post-capitalist system that socialists could and would embrace. Socialists refocused their priorities on the transformation of workplaces. Based on a critique of the capitalist hierarchy inside factories, offices, and stores—and its social effects—socialists increasingly stress proposals to democratically reorganize production there. Each worker in an enterprise will have an equal vote to decide what, where, and how to produce as well as how to dispose of the product (or net revenues where the product is marketed). The democratization of all workplaces (households as well as enterprises) becomes a central thrust of what socialism has come to mean.

This kind of socialism grew out of but also challenged the macro, state-focused socialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, where state-owned-and-operated enterprises continue to organize production around the employer-employee dichotomy, they invite socialists’ criticisms much as private-owned-and-operated enterprises do. The same applies to democratic socialisms or social democracies where enterprises remain privately owned and operated but are subject, along with markets, to heavy state supervision, taxation, and controls. Enterprises’ private versus state forms, important as their differences are for other reasons, often do not differ in class terms. Both typically display the employer/employee internal organization of production. If going beyond capitalism to socialism means a transition to micro-level workplace organizations that are democratic, then such transitions apply to both public as well as private enterprises.

This newly emerging socialist focus challenges both the United States and China, the G7 and BRICS, despite the different balances of state and private enterprises among them. Further, the now fast (and thus dramatically) changing power relations among them have impacts on every nation’s class struggles. For example, G7 sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war, and their inflationary impacts on Europe and the United States, have sharpened employer versus employee struggles as a result of those inflationary and anti-inflationary policies in many nations across the world. One of those policies—sharp interest rate rises by the U.S. Federal Reserve—is squeezing nations with large dollar-denominated external debts. The squeezed nations’ employers and employees react in ways that often intensify their class struggles.

One major past and present problem has been the widespread tendency to confuse or conflate power and class struggles or else to see one and be blind to the other. Partly, these problems resulted from nationalist efforts, like Kaiser Wilhelm II’s, to repress class consciousness. While other problems emerged when cultures refused or rejected class consciousness perhaps because of their mass media’s dependence on capitalist owners and advertisers. Often both socialists and anti-socialists contributed to the confusion and blindness. That happened when the Cold War (1945-1990) and its lasting legacy effectively persuaded many on both sides to equate socialism, communism, and the USSR as one pole versus capitalism, democracy, the United States, and the “West” as the other pole.

In today’s newly emerging international economic order, contending nationalisms are again strong. Power struggles once again capture headlines: U.S. versus Russia and China, the G7 versus BRICS, and the Global South versus Global North. Power categories not only displace class categories from analytical debates about major world affairs but that displacement also invades discussions about nations’ internal affairs. Power struggles are routinely mistaken for class struggles. Or class and class struggles disappear altogether from discourses.

The rise and struggles of the BRICS against the G7 should not be confused with class struggles. No government among them is committed to replacing capitalism with socialism in the sense of transition beyond the employer-employee mode of internal workplace organization. Nor is any government among them committed to replacing capitalism in the older senses of moving systemically from private to public enterprise ownership and from markets to planning. Yet within all of them, there are groups and movements that are committed to replacing capitalism with socialism in accordance with one of its definitions.

Karl Marx and others saw the conflict between the British Empire and its North American colony, culminating in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, as primarily a power struggle, and not a class struggle. Those wars did not pit slaves against enslavers, nor serfs against lords, nor employees against employers; they were power struggles. However, within them, moments of such class struggles did occur. The Napoleonic wars were power struggles, yet within them too, struggles of serfs against lords often occurred. The Napoleonic wars among feudal powers both weakened them all and stimulated capitalist classes to push for an end to feudalism across Europe. In the last two centuries of wars against colonialism and neocolonialism—power struggles—there were many class struggles interwoven with them.

The power struggles now between the G7 and BRICS will interact with the class struggles going on within both blocs. The leaders, ideologues, and mass media of both blocs focus chiefly on those power struggles. The advocates of class change must clearly differentiate power from class struggles if they are to focus mass consciousness and activism on the latter. Thus, the BRICS bloc is surely challenging the G7’s and the U.S.’s hegemony in the world economy. The power struggle of competing blocs is not, however, a socialist movement challenging capitalism. Nor is China or the Global South now mounting such a challenge. The power struggles of China, BRICS, and the Global South against the U.S., the G7, and the Global North may provoke new class struggles as well as influence all those already underway. How they do so will depend in part on how we understand and engage with the difference between power and class struggles.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Richard D. Wolff

Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Socialism, and Understanding Marxism, the latter of which is now available in a newly released 2021 hardcover edition with a new introduction by the author.

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