The civilising mission of capitalism – Marx’s alternative part 3

lewis-hine1So Marx understood that capitalism’s compulsion to increase the appropriation of unpaid labour through development of the forces of production and exploitation of workers also meant the expansion of the consumption of the working class and development of its needs and capacities as a result; what has been called capitalism’s civilising mission. But Marx also referred to the “inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation.”

Today, and over the last half century, many people have been radicalised by the threats of nuclear annihilation or environmental catastrophe, both of which are products of capitalisms’ productive powers and its irrational social and political relations.  But opposition has more often than not failed to identify the source of the threat or the solution.

It has also been noted at the end of the twentieth century that there had not been a single year since 1816 without at least one war going on in the world.  The twentieth century itself witnessed human slaughter on a truly massive scale with more than 9 million deaths in the First World War and 57 million (37.8 million of them civilians) in the Second World War, with 80 million between 1900 and 1950 in total.  The relative peace since is purely relative with proud claims that war had been abolished in Europe, for example, blown away by the war in the former Yugoslavia and now in the Ukraine.

This contradiction is not one that exists in Marx’s argument but one that exists in reality, as Marx explains in Chapter 15 of Volume 1 of Capital:

“We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous.

We have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.

This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes.

It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.”

Marx compares capitalism favourably to its predecessors:

“Thus the ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious, or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production.

In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers etc., of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature — those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature”? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which make the totality of this evolution — i.e., the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick — an end in itself?

What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?

In bourgeois political economy — and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds — this complete elaboration of what lies within man, appears as the total alienation, and the destruction of all fixed, one-sided purposes as the sacrifice of the end in itself to a wholly external compulsion.”

Overall growth of productive powers and increased planning within capitalism – between firms and countries – and increased coordination of a massively developed division of labour is a growth of human power and civilisation, not just potentially, but in creation of the preconditions for socialism; the potential for the creation of a society without material and cultural want, for a future society in which the level of production can remove the necessity for class inequality.

If socialism must arise out of capitalism and capitalism were purely barbaric, containing within it no contradictions that presage the new society, socialism would be a utopian dream because the agents of change who are to bring it about would simply be products of barbarism.

Back to Part 2

Forward to Part 4

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