The followers of Karl Marx were undoubtedly disappointed by the outbreak of World War I. After predicting that nations will be engulfed by masses of angry proletariat rising up against their capitalist overlords in protracted class struggles, Marxists instead saw nations coalesce around their central governments and the ruling elites in a war among nations. Rather than uniting with their counterparts in other states to form a global front seeking to topple the bourgeoisie across international borders, workers stood together with those who Marxists considered their economic oppressors. Rather than refuse to participate in a war that was instigated by political and economic elites, the proletariat fought in the front, often willingly, by the millions, killing their proletarian comrades from enemy nations.
This has particularly been true in Africa, where European colonial powers, despite exploited Africa for cheap labor and natural resources, called upon African workers to serve as soldiers for the metropole in the many wars up to the dissolution of colonial empires. Many Africans, both willingly and unwillingly, served in the armies of their colonial masters to protect the “nation.”
Such outright display of fervent nationalism has been used to disprove the basic assumption of the Marxist theory of class struggle. Marx and his protégés thought that proletariats, forced to do the bidding of elites due to the needs of daily survival, would overthrow these elites when the time is right. Workers, when they have little left to lose, would initiate violent struggles to topple the economic system that chained them to the very bottom. Instead, the elites have, again and again, been successful in appealing to the notion of shared national and ethnic identity to rally the proletariat to their side and prevent the rise of a global workers’ political movement.
How were the ruling elite able to get the proletariat to abandon the goal of destroying an economic system that shackles them to poverty, and instead support the continuation of the system in the name of national strength and prosperity? How were the elites able to persuade the proletariat that the welfare of the nation as a whole, despite primarily benefitting the economic and political elites, is greater than the individual welfare of the proletariat as a class impoverished by the national system?
Many later Marxists noted that it is the ability of the nation to modify the system that earned it the allegiance of the proletariat. Habermas notably stated that the state was able to pacify the prospect of outright class conflict by top-down reforms of the capitalist system at the national level. The resulting “welfare state” greatly reduced the suffering of the workers when compared to their situation under “classical” capitalism. As the economic fortunes of workers in different states diverge through the different application of national economic policies, the goals and intensity of their struggles also diverge, making worker unity and resonance across national borders ever less possible.
However, as the economic fortunes of nations diverge due to policies, a new prospect of global class struggle is emerging. In this brand new struggle, groups of workers are no longer the unit of international struggle, as Marx predicted. Instead, groups of nations are the new proletariat, seeking to have their voices heard in a geographically converging system of global capitalism.
The battle lines are already drawn in this new class struggle. On one hand is a small group of developed states, enriched by their hosting of globally active multinational conglomerates (MNCs). These MNCs, by peddling goods and services to the developing world that cannot efficiently produce domestic alternatives, have come to control the commanding heights of a global means of production and a disproportionate amount of global wealth. The power of the rich world MNCs to concentrate global wealth has only become greater in the internet-connected world today, when Big Tech has been able to generate wealth from a foreign country that uses its online services, without paying a cent in tax or generating a single job in the country.
On the other hand are underdeveloped countries, including those in Africa, unable to escape the traps of poverty given perpetually unequal access to opportunities to learn the skills and mindset they need to construct a modern innovative economy. Their struggle parallels the struggle with lack of opportunities suffered by black Americans in a segregationist US as described by DuBois.
To defuse potential conflicts stemming from this global economic inequality, rich states would be wise to co-opt the developing world in the same way the bourgeoisie used the welfare state to deflect the economic concerns of the workers in the Habermasian view. The consequence of a global class struggle, unlike a local one, is not civil but a world war that threatens the destruction of not just the assets of a few hated capitalists but human civilization itself.
Yet, there is a worrying and glaring lack of action on the part of the rich states and their MNCs today even as the world is plunged into a global pandemic. The developed world is hoarding COVID vaccines, giving them not only the economic bargaining power to profit off poor states with no ability to produce their own, but also the very ability to determine who lives and who dies in the global South. Just as Marx predicted that the proletariat will finally rise up when their very survival is threatened by the system, a belief among poor states that they will continue being ravaged by COVID, even as the rich world sees the light at the end of the tunnel, may finally see them rising up against the global capitalist system for which they permanently remain at the bottom.
For the rich world to successfully stave off a new class struggle, the first step is a redistribution of political and economic resources. Just as the welfare state took from capitalists to give to the proletariat, the rich world must be willing to give up some power, in the form of proportionally more political representation in international organizations and taxes from MNCs given to developing countries.
Given the lack of one central international authority that compels the rich world to change course, global level redistribution promises to be much more difficult than the national level one that established the welfare state. But the consequences of violent class struggle from not redistributing will also be much more devastating than it would ever be within any nation.