How can we determine what are the main class and social conflicts in today’s world? We know there are multiple struggles in every country, and between countries. But what are the key relationships that define the social conditions and political battles we face? Here we need an analytical framework to understand the workings of capitalism, to guide us in formulating our strategy and tactics. Many socialists have used the concept of “contradictions.” This presents two major opposing forces such as the working class and capitalist class, or Russia and Ukraine; it allows us to locate and understand the most important conflicts and contending classes, nations, or social groups.
But contradictions take different forms in different countries under diverse circumstances. And sometimes there is a primary global contradiction such as a world war. Underneath the primary or main contradictions are secondary elements which appear in the complex relationships between different types of oppressions and exploitations. In the following short essay, we will try to articulate the four primary (or main) contradictions that exist in countries throughout the world, appearing within their own national context, that play out differently in each country.
Taken together, they help us understand the historic conjuncture we face, and determine the main tasks to advance the struggle for justice and socialism. Recently left theorist Vijay Prashad suggested what he called “Eight Contradictions of the Imperialist ‘Rules-Based Order’” (2023). Prashad identified many of the contradictions and flashpoints that humanity faces. While we agree with the effort, in effect he delineated eight major challenges but failed to identify which contradictions truly serve an overarching role in today’s world. As Vijay’s contribution was a short essay, our reply is also short, and hopefully the first step in a necessary and fruitful discussion.
In the following we seek to identify four global contradictions that are shaping the planetary conjuncture. Each contradiction contains or can contain a subcategory that is worth noting, but that subcategory is operating within the context of the specific contradiction.
- Transnational capital transformed the relations of production between labor and capital based on new forms of organized global production and finance. Therefore, the contradiction between the working class and capitalist class is expressed through the organization of global capitalism. These changes were engineered by a transnational capitalist class and implemented through neoliberal policies that included attacks on the social contract and unions, austerity, privatization, efficiency drives, cuts in corporate taxes, and massive offshore capital havens. As a result, poverty, insecurity and precariatization grew, causing severe political tensions. The consequence has been political instability and the need to regain legitimacy for capitalist rule. The effects have been heightening class contradictions with several expressions.
Different strategies have emerged between two competing ruling-class power blocs, one being authoritarian neo-fascist capitalism, the other a neo-Keynesian bloc with an economic strategy in the green modernization of the means of production. We are not referring to states, but rather ruling class power blocs seeking hegemony, and in competition with each other within states. Such blocs consolidate around a political ideology and economic model of accumulation. But neither have consolidated as a global hegemonic bloc. Both have a mixture of globalist and nationalist tendencies, and some combine authoritarian and Keynesian policies. While the complexity of each country needs careful attention, we believe a global pattern of development has emerged.
There is growing radicalization within the working class and middle class. One response is growing right-wing nationalism, racism, misogyny, heterosexism, xenophobia, and sometimes far-right religious extremism, expressed in the mobilization of reactionary populism. The second is a left and progressive reform response expressed in the growing militancy of social movements and electoral activism.
Lastly there are growing geopolitical contradictions set off by the economic and social failures of global capitalism. The need for state legitimization and an outlet for the crisis has generated nationalist economic and political conflicts between states, as well as tensions between transnational capitalists and state elites.
- The contradiction between capitalism and nature, manifested through multiple crises including global climate change, deforestation, species extinction, massive toxic pollution, extractivism, and rapidly approaching environment tipping points. This has spurred the development of a global environmental movement with a large base among youth and indigenous peoples, as well as a section of the ruling class dedicated to greening of the means of production through market mechanisms. There are contradictions between the social movements and the modernizing bourgeoise, as well as between those forces and capitalist factions defending fossil fuel and opposing progress on environmental policies and regulations.
- The contradiction between patriarchal/male supremacist forces vs. emancipatory women’s movements and the movements of gender non-conforming people, manifested in a counter-revolution against both women’s freedom and the victories of the LGBTQ+ movements. Some of the most reactionary expressions include attacks on reproductive rights in the US, and oppressive policies pursued by the Taliban and Iranian government. At the same time, we see the rise of resistance within the US, the Iranian feminist movement, the Kurdish revolutionary movement in Syria, as well as many others.
- The contradiction between global imperialist powers and the transnational capitalist class vs. the peoples of the historically marginalized former colonial and semi-colonial world. The anti-colonial stage of struggle in which the former patriotic national bourgeoisie fought to replace the colonial system, and allied with the popular masses, has passed. The ruling bourgeoisie in the former colonial and semi-colonial states are no longer a strategic ally in the struggle against global capitalism. Instead, the ruling bourgeoises in the Global South compete and collude with transnational capitalism to have a greater share of capital and markets, and a greater say in capitalist global governance institutions. The most powerful and most wealthy are themselves part of the transnational capitalist class. They exploit national resources and labor for their own benefit and for the benefit of their transnational partners. Their competitive contradiction is centered on becoming more ingrained in global capitalism. Therefore, the national question remains, but is distinct from that of the pre-1970 world.
Beyond internal capitalist rivalries, the contradiction between global capitalists and the working classes and the popular masses of the Global South manifests through battles to preserve and expand democracy via opposition to tyranny, austerity, environmental injustice, and the pro-active fight for governing power within the capitalist system. These movements work for structural change, but they are not yet movements for full social transformation and for working-class state power. These movements, while centered on the popular masses, can include the petit-bourgeoise, sectors of the small national bourgeoisie, and patriotic state elites. The Pink Tide movements in Latin America are the best example.