Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 9 crises and contradictions iii

economic crisisCapitalism’s crises are the expression of its contradictions, among which must be those that provide grounds for resolution through working class creation of a socialist society.  While the absence of crisis at any time does not mean that the system’s contradictions have been removed, it signals that they must at least have been temporarily contained or limited while continuing to develop, without erupting into violent disruptions of the system. Marx reacted to the return to some sort of prosperity following a crisis as a signal that socialist revolution was for the time being off the agenda.

For capitalism the eruption of economic crisis is also the means by which the contradictions of capitalist accumulation are (temporarily) resolved, by reducing the costs of raw materials and machinery etc.; destroying competitors by making the least efficient firms go bust; increasing unemployment, so putting pressure on workers to increase the pace of work and reducing wages; and by prompting the state to lower legal protections for workers or lower corporate taxes etc.

Only in a crisis does it seem obvious that capitalism is unable to cater for the needs of the majority, and to a degree that stimulates mass resistance and opposition, so what then may result is a political crisis of its rule.  There is less reason to expect the working class and other oppressed parts of society to seek an alternative to the system if it is not in some sort of difficulty.

On the other hand if workers are not prepared to react to crises by defending gains and can’t be radicalised sufficiently to achieve overthrow of the system, or have the social and economic power to do so, then socialists must accept that the limits placed on the scope of working class action at such times do not yet include the system’s overthrow.

While economic and political crises signal the possibility of an alternative and a possible opportunity to create one there is no longer a view that they point to the inevitable triumph of socialism.  Crises can awaken workers to politics, can propel them to political organisation, push them to fight and make them seek out alternatives but if this is true of the vast majority and such development only takes place on the eve of revolution then it is only a minority who enter the fight with some idea of what that fight is, about how it might be won and what constitutes victory.  These are rather weak grounds on which to expect success.

As I noted in the last post – what attitude workers take to crises, how they understand them, who they blame and what solutions they seek are strongly conditioned by their previous experience prior to and outside capitalism’s difficulties.  This strongly determines the outcome of crises

“There are no permanent crises” Marx said, which means that such crises in themselves cannot be the grounds for socialism since these grounds must be continuous and persistent conditions within the capitalist system.  Crises therefore cannot be confused with the contradictions of capitalism that provide the source for anticipating its replacement.

So if not permanent crises, is it the nature of the stage of capitalism that warrants the claim that the possibility of socialism exists, as Marx claimed.  It would appear that for the majority of Marxists the answer is yes: we have been living within the highest stage of capitalism for the last one hundred or more years, set out most famously by Lenin in his short book – ‘Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism’.

Further to this, the other Marxist leader of the Russian revolution wrote a political programme for his supporters in 1938 in which he clearly characterised the nature of the epoch during which he lived:

“The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems. Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger on from one bankruptcy to another.”

“All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”

This political programme, The Transitional Programme, became the guiding strategy for those Marxists who rejected the distortion of socialism by Stalinism in the Soviet Union and who stood in the revolutionary tradition of Marx.

The view that socialism was retarded not so much by capitalism itself, or the political forces that defended it, but by other factors can easily be appreciated in a world in which the most powerful forces claiming to be Marxist ruled over vast parts of the globe. In these countries workers held no political power except through a bureaucracy that ruled in its name and unilaterally claimed to be its leadership.  As long as this was the case the struggle for genuine socialism had to counter the claims of Stalinism that the degenerate bureaucratic dictatorships in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were the future socialist society which Marx foresaw.  In this sense, the view that the crisis facing socialists boiled down to who was able to claim the mantle of leadership might seem to have not a little currency; if only because if Stalinism was socialism then the majority of workers and many Marxists weren’t interested.

Trotsky’s predictions of catastrophe should also be viewed in light of the headlong march towards world war, a war that would exceed the death and destruction of the Great War that had ended only twenty years before.  In fact this second world war had already begun with already catastrophic results for the Chinese people.  When we consider that the possible number of deaths due to World War II is as high as 80 million people it is no exaggeration to have stated in 1938 that “a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”

What matters today is whether the context in which this happened now prevails, or has prevailed ever since it was written in 1938; in other words that “the economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism.”

If this were so then the series of posts of which this one is a part, dealing with Marx’s alternative to capitalism growing out of capitalism itself, would have little need to go beyond a political analysis of the class struggle and specifically how and why the working class still allows itself to be politically led by political forces opposed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

to be continued

Back to part 8

Forward to part 10

Towards a Revolutionary Party in Ireland?

swpieA friend sent me a link to an article he thought was dreadful saying it might be worth me replying to.  By coincidence I had looked at the site on Sunday to see the latest on what the Socialist Workers Party was saying and thought I would read one of the articles.  I saw this one but thought I wouldn’t waste reading yet another article on the revolutionary party.  Read one you’ve read them all.

Of course being bad isn’t necessarily a good reason to review something but I read it in my lunch break anyway.

Having done so I thought that it really is woeful and although it makes some unremarkable decent points these are put in the service of an argument so flabby it barely evokes disdain.  Lots of questions are raised but only in the question-begging sense and all the real difficulties are avoided.  Like when was the last time a party that could reasonably call itself revolutionary was built in Europe?

The article gives three reasons “why a revolutionary party must be built.”  The first is to “bring together activists from Clondalkin and Ballyfermot, Artane and Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Sligo, Wicklow and Wexford.”  The author has in mind the recent anti-water charges campaign but also recent strikes. “Without a party the tendency would be just to sit back as individuals either cursing at the TV or worse being influenced by it.”

A revolutionary party will tell workers not to trust their trade union leaders.  Their activists will provide workers with good arguments against racism because they have “people who know the facts, the history and the arguments.”

Why you need a party for activists to unite, in the water charges campaign for example, is not explained. In fact pretty obviously you don’t need a party, never mind a revolutionary one, you just need a democratic campaign.  Unfortunately the anti-water charges campaign never became such an organisation, which it should have been the priority of socialists to create.

Why you need a revolutionary party so you don’t sit on the couch and swear at the TV is beyond me.  I recall the SWP standing one of its leading members for leader of Ireland’s biggest trade union SIPTU but his manifesto never mentioned social partnership and the policy of open collaboration of the unions with the bosses and the state.  One part of history with its arguments and facts the author appears to have forgotten.

The second reason for needing a revolutionary party is that “forming a left government is, in itself, not enough.” The working class has to “move towards revolution and smashing of the capitalist state.”  Were I an innocent abroad I would wonder why the SWP, as part of People before Profit, stands in elections with a programme totally devoted to winning governmental office.  Because if it doesn’t the manifesto doesn’t make any sense.  No mention in it of distrusting the capitalist state never mind smashing it.

The final reason is that while revolutions may break out spontaneously they don’t succeed without a revolutionary party.  The author gives the example of the Irish revolutionary process between 1919 and 1923 and “the counter-revolution” that betrayed the 1916 rising.  A perfect example of what is wrong with the whole article.

Between 1919 and 1923 there was no socialist revolution to betray and 1916 was no such a revolution.  More facts and history misunderstood and arguments I take to task here, here, here and here.  To be fair to the SWP I don’t recall reading any left wing group doing anything other than paint the 1916 rising in colours of red that it didn’t display at the time.

The reason a revolutionary party is needed in a time of revolution is apparently because the working class will not have a uniform level of political consciousness.  And this is true.  What we don’t get explained is how the majority of workers will develop revolutionary consciousness.  It is this problem that I have been looking at in my series on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism.  And this is the real problem, given the total lack of real revolutionary challenge to capitalism for nearly a century.  In some countries, including Ireland, the challenge has never occurred or even looked likely.

The real deficiency with the hastily constructed article is the avoidance of this problem coupled with a view that a revolutionary party will be built by groups like the SWP.

Any movement of the working class capable of building a challenge to capitalism, that at some stage will achieve its overthrow in a political and social revolution, will be created over decades. It will involve political radicalisation that can only be the result of profound and lasting strengthening of the working class not simply in ideological or political terms but through its developing economic and social power – proving that ideas and politics reflect the economic and social development of society.  In short – the working class and its radicalisation will create the mass workers party capable of revolution and not small organisations.

This is what Marx meant by “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”  The alternative conception of the SWP is of a crisis in which workers search for a solution and a revolutionary party becomes big enough to convince them to follow it in overthrowing capitalism.  It is not the result of a long-determined objective of greater numbers of workers based on their prior accumulation of economic, social and political weight in society that culminates in the conquest of political power.  Instead it becomes a question of accumulating, not this power, but the cadres of a small but ever-increasing organisation.  This prognosis becomes ridiculous when the smallness of the organisation reveals itself clearly to be inadequate to this historic task.  And the SWP author cannot help betraying this reality.

He claims that there is substantial radicalisation of the working class in Ireland North and South and that significant progress can be made in building a revolutionary party.  The first slip is to fail to define ‘significant’ and the second is to assume that the SWP is that revolutionary party.  The final one is the conclusion to the article where the task is reduced to recruiting individuals and having regular and interesting meetings.  In between is the attempt to buttress the first claim by pointing to the anti-water charges movement and the marriage equality referendum victory in the South.

As the author says, the anti-water charges movement reflected not only anger at this measure but also at the economic crash, the bank bail-out, wage cuts, the USC, Household Charge, community cuts, health cuts, housing crisis and “everything else”.  However the “water charges were a piece of pain that the working class felt it could do something about.”  However if we were really approaching the creation of a mass revolutionary party then this would simply not be the case.  The working class would feel it could do something about all these other injustices and would reflect its knowledge that it really did have the power to do something about all of them.

The anti-water charges campaign has led to no cumulative mass organisation of workers able to take up the other attacks.  The marriage referendum involved a democratic question that did not question capitalism so why would it lead to mass socialist radicalisation?  In the North the case for radicalisation rests on flimsy evidence that amounts to a few strikes, “small campaigns” and the election of two PbP candidates to the Stormont Assembly.  It therefore has to ignore the failure of the strikes, the smallness of the campaigns and the continued dominance by two sectarian parties one of which has ideological views about gay rights, women’s rights and evolution that might embarrass Donald Trump.

This overestimation of the significance of current facts is testament to a small organisation that thinks it has made it big, which it has in comparison to its previous history and others on the left, but which retains a narrow view of the world that ultimately reflects its still limited position in society.  The small mindedness of its politics is the failure to appreciate just how far away we are from revolution being on the agenda.  A cause for despair only if you fail to appreciate the facts, fail to understand history and have no arguments as to how revolutionary politics would be relevant in a prolonged non-revolutionary situation.

The SWP author is right to note that in Ireland there is no mass social democratic or Stalinist parties.  It is therefore the case that formations like the SWP/PbP and the similar Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance can potentially play a much more significant role in advancing the political organisation of the working class.  However to do this they will have to discard the narrow sectarian practices of the past, and face up to the more difficult questions that they face.  To do this would mean a truly revolutionary evaluation of their political history, the arguments they have unthinkingly relied upon and the real political facts of Irish society and its place in the world.  This article shows how far they are from carrying out such a task out and ironically how far they are from any sort of revolutionary party.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 8 – crises and contradictions ii

A view common among Marxists is that socialism will arise out of a crisis of capitalism.  This is believed for a number of reasons.  The most fundamental is the view that socialism will arise from the contradictions of capitalism and these contradictions give rise to repeated crises; crises of overproduction, of profitability and of class relations.  Economic and political crises point to the inevitable triumph of socialism as every such capitalist difficulty signals the possibility of an alternative and the opportunity to create one.

A more common sense way of understanding it is that if capitalism continued to deliver the goods then why would anyone fight to change it?

These contradictions include the contradiction between capital and labour in which capital accumulates and grows through augmenting itself with the value created by labour for which labour is not remunerated in wages.  These contradictions also include the tendency for the development of the forces of production to conflict with the relations of production within which they develop.  The productive forces of machinery, technology and other means of production and productive relations determined by the ownership of these means of production by capitalists and the exclusion from ownership of those who create and work with these means of production, the working class.

The contradictions are the tension between the more and more effective socialisation of production and its private capitalist appropriation. Production is more and more subject to a division of labour with hundreds if not thousands of components produced and shipped from all over the world before final assembly in one location.  This final product such as a computer can then join thousands of other products in creation of another final product such as a car.  The workers who produce this final product likewise consume commodities created from all across the world which are themselves assembled from products created across the globe.  A vast meshed network of companies, of communications and transport has been created by capitalism that requires an enormous degree of co-ordination and planning by millions of workers to ensure this all takes place, and takes place profitably.

Yet this production is sold on a market in competition with other similar products from other companies or in competition with very different goods that could equally be bought instead.  Only after the fact is it recognised whether the labour employed in producing these goods has been wasted.  If the prices obtained for them do not result in sufficient profit the capitalists will close down, reducing production and reducing the market for goods generally as workers are laid off and supplier companies equally reduce employment.  If this happens on a big enough scale economic crises result.

Were imbalances in production to arise in an economy under workers’ collective ownership this production would be rebalanced without making workers suffer for any misallocation.  It would be in the interest of everyone to reallocate this labour to produce goods or services for which there is more need.  With capitalist appropriation however, despite the socialised nature of production, despite the enormous cooperation and scale of planning required, it is only the private profit of individual capitalist companies that counts.  And if this means closing down productive assets, wasting resources and creating unemployment well . . production is only for profit under capitalism.  It is competition not cooperation which predominates, competition between companies for sales of commodities and competition between companies to extract the maximum surplus from their own and other workers.

For Marxists this global economic result arises from the very nature of the commodity itself and its simultaneous existence as a use value and as a value.  As a commodity it must have usefulness for it to be purchased by anyone but it must also have a value that can be exchanged with other commodities and money.  At the end of the day it is the value in exchange that matters for the capitalist because it is from this aspect of the commodity that profit is derived.

A more common way of describing this is that production is for profit and not for use; commodities are produced only in so far as they procure a profit but which are only purchased in so far as they are useful.  Goods and services are produced which are profitable but which only a tiny minority of the world’s population find useful while goods useful to millions are not produced because they are not profitable.

The craziness of this has been on display in Ireland, which has had an enormous economic boom largely built in its last years upon housing and other property production. A boom that eventually turned to bust not because everyone had a decent home, or the commercial fabric of society had been completely renovated, but because the prices demanded by developers and construction firms could no longer be afforded by those expected to buy or rent. Prices collapsed, building firms went bust sacking tens of thousands of construction workers; developers went bankrupt, their loans could not be paid and the banks that lent them the money then also went bust, unable to remain solvent given the scale of the bad loans on their books.

The capitalist State then stepped in to assure the banks’ solvency by guaranteeing their loans and when it was proved that it could not afford to do so it too went bust; so the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund also stepped in to ensure that the State could make good its guarantees to the banks – in exchange for the State cutting the tripe out of state services, increasing taxes, lowering public sector wages and reducing public sector employment.  The State survived all this by spreading its debts across the generations so that even in 2050 the children and grandchildren of the boom generation will be paying for the boom and the bust.

At the peak of the boom 90,000 houses a year were being built by employing around 274,000 workers. Last year fewer than 13,000 new homes were built while demand is running at 25,000 a year.  There are over 1,000 families homeless compared to 400 at the beginning of last year while there are an estimated 90,000 families on waiting lists for social housing.  But this is happening in a country that has 230,000 vacant homes, some in “ghost estates” in far-flung towns where few Irish people now wish to live — if they ever did.

This is reported in Ireland and elsewhere as if this was a peculiarly Irish problem, but not only have there been property booms across the world but housing and property booms are only the most visible manifestations of classic crises of overproduction that have been a feature of capitalism for almost two centuries.  Visible because the commodities overproduced sit there staring everyone in the face for years.  This is not an Irish problem, although it has to be said that the Irish are very good at doing it with houses, but is a classic capitalist problem of desperate need not being addressed because to do so would not deliver the requisite profit.

housing 1
It has been reported by the Society of Chartered Surveyors in Ireland that it costs €330,000 to provide a standard family home, a figure that appears to have changed little despite the deep recession!  Construction costs account for less than half of this figure with the rest made up of fees, levies, site acquisition costs, finance costs, and tax and profit margins.  Developers would rather hoard land they over-paid for in the boom because to do otherwise would mean them accepting a loss.  This would then hit the banks who everyone is pretending are now fine and no one wants a repeat of the 2008 crash.  So the process of the previous boom and bust is repeated for the sake of avoiding another one.
Housing 3

But very few people can afford houses at these prices and single people and those on even average incomes can’t afford them and would drown in a sea of debt if, or rather when, interest rates increase (although of course no one is thinking of this now). Instead the solutions put forward by the Government include grants to first time buyers, which will simply increase prices by the amount of the grant, or subsidies to developers, who will probably pocket the money while maintaining their asking price.  In short, the same policies pursued during the boom.  As the table below shows the huge debt already built up is a big constraint on any solution that seeks to stuff working class people with even more credit.

Housing 2

The solution is to build affordable houses by expropriating the land holdings of developers and re-employing many of the construction workers who were made unemployed in the crash.  However, this calls for a radical break with the prerogatives of private property which is a more entrenched religion in Ireland than theCatholic Church.

From the point of view of our look at Karl Marx’s alternative to this sort of mess there is another striking question that arises.  Just how do such crises lead to replacement of the system that produces them with a new one called socialism?

Yes, capitalism leads to these crises and yes, they would not arise within a socialist society, but what is the mechanism by which this contradiction leads from the former to the latter? What leads workers from recognising there’s a crisis to understanding that it’s a result of capitalism and agreeing that socialism is the answer, and then fighting to introduce it?  All while their starting point is not so much a very conscious rejection of socialism so much as a recognition/acceptance of capitalism because it is the system that actually exists, works (however badly) and places them in a subordinate position within which, by and large, they are powerless to effect very radical change, either as individuals or even as individuals that are part of collective organisations.

A lack of understanding of what socialism actually is and little confidence that the world can be changed, or that they must do it themselves, are not even the first condition of this problem but the result of the more basic conditions within which workers live.  Is there a contradiction at this more basic level of workers’ everyday lives that can provide the experience that they can learn from either directly or indirectly; that capitalism does not have to be accepted and that an alternative can actually exist, already exists even if in an underdeveloped form that must be developed further?

In all this it is clearly the development of political consciousness that is key.  Only through its development will workers become active makers of their own future, seeking greater and greater control over their lives and thus greater and greater control over society.  But Marxists believe that it is material conditions that generate consciousness and it is not at all clear that conditions of crisis can generate socialist consciousness.  They have not done so in Ireland.  Some of the first posts on this blog were a record of how previous capitalist crises generated reactionary solutions and the growth of xenophobic and racist solutions today are testament to this.

Marxists do not believe that the rational superiority of socialism on its own will lead to socialism.  Or rather, to be more precise, Marxists do not believe that rational argument about the superiority of socialism over capitalism will bring it about.  It plays a vital part in the work of socialists in the workers’ movement but rational argument is ultimately only powerful if it corresponds to the rational development of capitalism itself.

If capitalism tended more and more to a state antithetical to socialism, to a position that was further and further away from the possibility of collective workers’ ownership of the means of production, then ultimately no amount of rational argument about the putative superiority of socialism would matter because it could not arise in the real world. And if it could not arise in the real world the argument as to its superiority would not be rational either. A world built on unqualified love between all members of humanity may appear a rational argument, as opposed to the hate and oppression of the existing one, but it is not rational because we all know such a society cannot exist.

Crises are ephemeral, they are the means by which capitalism resolves its contradictions, even if only temporarily. They generally weaken the working class and its movement and they often present opportunities to disorient them.  They invite immediate solutions when many workers generally experience capitalism as individuals or are not grouped in organisations that are by their nature capable of providing answers.  What attitude workers take to crises, how they understand them, who they blame and what solutions they seek are strongly conditioned by their previous experience prior to and outside capitalism’s difficulties.  Generally this experience does not prepare them for taking conscious control of society, which is the essential challenge posed by the greatest crises.

Capitalist crises therefore give expression to the contradictions of capitalism but are not themselves the contradictions upon which the alternative higher form of society will arise.  History is replete with subordinate classes’ willingness to fight against their oppressor classes, such as the countless rebellions by Chinese peasants against their ruling dynasties or medieval peasants against their feudal lords.  But even when the contradictions involved in their class antagonism burst through in successful rebellion no stable society was created by these victorious oppressed class because the class contradiction evoked no mode of production resting on the unified class interests of the victorious class.

Even when the class of feudal lords disappeared from history it was not a peasant mode of production that was eventually built on the bones of their feudal rule.  Similarly, when the working class in Russia succeeded in overthrowing the Tsarist state and the capitalist economy in Russia it failed to create a new socialist society because the material conditions would not allow a new socialist mode of production to grow and develop.

So basing the alternative to capitalism on the crises of capitalism is not enough.  Developing consciousness of the need for an alternative is not even enough.  The contradictions that exist must contain within them the potential for a new socialist society to arise out of them.  In other words, it is not enough that there is contradiction but that the contradiction is resolved, in this case in a new and higher form of society.  And for this to be the case the nature of the contradiction has to contain the potential for this to occur.

It is not that the contradiction creates a clean slate upon which something new can be built but that the new arises from within the development of the contradiction itself.  Clearly the nature of this is therefore key, for its development must not only contain the end of the old but the beginning of the new at one and the same time.  Consciousness by the working class of the necessity for a new society is necessary for it to happen because it must be its creation but this is only possible if the process exists in reality.

Back to part 7

Forward to part 9

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 7 – crises and contradictions i

white-america-1-e1448033371744Last year an academic paper noticed that there has been a marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.  The effect of this has been dramatic: if the previous decline in mortality among this group of people had continued as before there would have been almost half a million fewer deaths during these years.

There has also been an increase in morbidity among this section of the population, reflected in increased self-reporting of poor health, pain and psychological stress.  Nor can this be put down to the well-known increase in obesity among some sections of the American population because this decline in the health of middle-aged men and women has affected both the obese and non-obese, with the former accounting for only a small fraction of the overall deterioration in health.  This worsening has particularly hit those with a poorer education, those with only a high school degree or less, and is primarily the result of increases in the rates of suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.

fd2a8a276c172deed75f43e23ef7b229The significance of this is even more noteworthy because this segment of the US working class was part of the embodiment in the middle of the twentieth century of the American dream and therefore of the capitalist vision epitomised during the American century.  Visions of white families in suburbs, owning automobiles and domestic appliances, in new homes with pretty gardens and white picket fences were a domestic ambition so strong it fired the imagination not only of American workers but millions of the poor across the world who wished to become American.  An ambition millions succeeded in achieving.

In the twenty first century this dream is collapsing amid widening inequality, stagnant wages, deindustrialisation and an increase in economic insecurity, with precarious employment and pensions reliant on the vagaries of the stock market.  It is reflected in large increases in disability; falling participation in the labour market, particularly among women and addiction to prescription painkillers where for every death in 2008 due to addiction there were 10 admissions for abuse, 32 emergency department visits, 130 people who were abusers or dependent and 825 non-medical users of the drugs.

I remember seeing a programme on the collapse of the Soviet Union which noted that a French researcher had predicted its fall due to an increase in infant mortality.  No one is predicting the collapse of US capitalism but things are really bad when people stop living longer and start dying earlier.

In my previous posts in this series on Marx’s alternative to capitalism I have noted the prodigious development of the capitalist system across the globe and its achievement of what Marx called its ‘civilising mission’.  This, I showed, was evidenced by increasing life expectancy, better health, higher levels of education, higher living standards and the sheer increase in numbers of the working class and the world’s population. In fact five out of six of my posts were an attempt to substantiate the argument that the civilising mission of capitalism continues into the twenty first century.

But surely this is now blown apart by this example of the death of the American dream, something inconceivable 60 years ago?

A few years ago I met an American socialist who I believe was from Detroit who was not so much arguing but simply incredulous that anyone could believe other than that capitalism was in crisis and failing badly

But world capitalism is not Detroit.

Accepting this point however, is it not the case that socialists should be pointing out the failures of capitalism, its crises and its contradictions?  After all, if capitalism is to be overthrown and replaced it must be because in some way it has failed.  Surely a capitalism that keeps on developing and retains a ‘civilising mission’ is not one that will suffer this fate? 

Should socialists not criticise capitalism and certainly not heap praise on it and its achievements?

Marx himself, although he praised capitalism’s prodigious development of the productive forces and the human capacities it had unleashed, hardly spared it his condemnation. Development brings industrialisation and the goods and services that change peoples’ lives for the better but it is built on exploitation of humanity and degradation of the planet’s resources and ecosystem.  Capitalist industrialisation brings the capitalist phenomenon of periodic or partial unemployment on a massive scale – “it makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth.” (Marx)

So the International Labour Organisation estimated that there were 218 million unemployed workers in 2009 and that of the 1.4 billion wage workers in 2011 many are only employed part time or precariously employed and a further 1.7 billion are “vulnerably employed”, being “own-account” workers (including street workers in poorer countries or those engaged in subsistence agriculture) and “contributing family workers” (those who worked unpaid in the home).  “In most of the world, open unemployment is not an option; there is no safety net of unemployment compensation and other social welfare programmes.  Unemployment means death, so people must find work, no matter how onerous the conditions” (Michael Yates, all quoted in ‘The Global Reserve Army of Labour and the New Imperialism’)

So why the series of posts on capitalism’s ‘civilising mission’?

The short answer is that the arguments set out above are mistaken.  The slightly longer answer is that they are wrong because they are one-sided.  The longer response again is that the whole answer is not simply an addition of capitalism’s achievements and its failures, of its successes and crises, or more simply of its good bits and its bad bits.  Even to understand its contradictions is not to think of a good side and a bad side in opposition.

To seek simply to condemn capitalism requires a standard by which it should be judged to have failed – it must have failed against some criteria.  Even if there were ‘good bits’ to capitalism to weigh in the balance against its ‘bad bits’, which together would allow one to make a judgement, some measuring criteria would be required by which to determine the relative weight and importance of its good and bad aspects.

But what would these criteria be?  They could be derived from what capitalism itself claims to defend, uphold and promote – economic growth, political equality, equality of opportunity, individual freedom, efficiency, modernisation and progress.  It would then be possible to, indeed socialist regularly do, expose these claims as hypocritical, false, misleading, one-sided and often simply untrue.  But this would be to limit one’s case to the criteria that capitalism’s defenders themselves identify as important and socialists usually find themselves making arguments that go beyond what capitalism can accommodate and what its supporters will consider legitimate.

Appeals to loftier ideals such as justice or fairness beg the question of how such things are to be defined and how realistic or practical any definition is, given the real world we live in.  A definition of justice that cannot possibly exist in the real world is not just because these criteria must apply to a world which is possible.  A just and fair world that cannot exist is neither just nor fair.  The civilising mission of capitalism is therefore not one of the ‘good’ sides of capitalism against which the bad must be weighed.  This civilising role of capitalism is itself grounds on which the alternative to capitalism rests.

I have tried to make this easier to appreciate by pointing out that the amazing economic growth of capitalism has produced an ever larger world working class without which, obviously, there can be no socialism.  And without a working class that has developed a relatively high cultural level we cannot expect socialism either.  The civilising mission of capitalism has created both.

This is generally understood among some Marxists only in the sense that unless the productive forces have developed sufficiently there will not be the level of resources necessary to ensure that inequality will not breed class divisions after any successful socialist revolution.  If society cannot develop sufficient levels of consumption to satisfy the needs of everyone then class divisions will re-emerge.  Society’s productive powers will be distributed so that these are owned by a separate class because society as a whole cannot address the needs of everyone. 

Leon Trotsky explained how this laid the foundation for the development of Stalinism after socialist revolution in Russia in 1917:

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.

A raising of the material and cultural level ought, at first glance, to lessen the necessity of privileges, narrow the sphere of application of “bourgeois law”, and thereby undermine the standing ground of its defenders, the bureaucracy. In reality the opposite thing has happened: the growth of the productive forces has been so far accompanied by an extreme development of all forms of inequality, privilege and advantage, and therewith of bureaucratism. That too is not accidental.

In its first period, the Soviet regime was undoubtedly far more equalitarian and less bureaucratic than now. But that was an equality of general poverty. The resources of the country were so scant that there was no opportunity to separate out from the masses of the population any broad privileged strata. At the same time the “equalizing” character of wages, destroying personal interestedness, became a brake upon the development of the productive forces. Soviet economy had to lift itself from its poverty to a somewhat higher level before fat deposits of privilege became possible. The present state of production is still far from guaranteeing all necessities to everybody. But it is already adequate to give significant privileges to a minority, and convert inequality into a whip for the spurring on of the majority. That is the first reason why the growth of production has so far strengthened not the socialist, but the bourgeois features of the state.” (The Revolution Betrayed)

So there are two reasons why socialists in particular should welcome the development of the productive forces that capitalism is responsible for – the material foundations for socialism in terms of sufficient consumption for everyone in society and the growth of the working class that develops as these productive forces develop.

To these are added the civilising mission of capitalism through the productive forces developing new and higher needs that lead to a higher cultural level among the working class, on which basis it becomes more and more fit to become the ruling class of a new society.

The development of the productive forces must also be welcomed for other reasons which we shall come to in future posts.  What is important for the argument here is that the development of capitalism’s productive forces is necessary for the future of socialism.  As Marx explained in a letter written two years before his death:

“The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present.  . . . Scientific insight into the inevitable disintegration of the dominant order of society continually proceeding before our eyes, and the ever-growing passion into which the masses are scourged by the old ghosts of government – while at the same time the positive development of the means of production advances with gigantic strides – all this is a sufficient guarantee that with the moment of the outbreak of a real proletarian revolution there will also be given the conditions (though these are certain not to be idyllic) of its next immediate modus operandi [form of action].”

In this quote Marx does not seek to place class struggle and the development of the productive forces, which can only mean the development of capitalism, as opposites but welcomes both as positive factors leading to socialist revolution.  Yet many socialists cannot think how the development of capitalism assists its eventual overthrow and can only conceive that capitalism must be in perpetual crisis, feeling that without this not only is there no prospect for socialism but no rationale for it either.  But if this were true then the prodigious development of capitalism over the last two centuries or so would have proved the advent of socialism impossible.

It is enough to recognise that such a viewpoint, which leads to denying capitalism’s continuing growth, divorces socialists from some of the concerns of workers who experience its reality, its ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides, without ideological blinkers. If it were indeed true that only capitalism’s failures or crises were grounds for socialism then we would have to recognise that those grounds are not enough.

So, the marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013 is all the more remarkable because it contrasts sharply with the experience of other demographic groups.  Mortality declines among Hispanics and black non-Hispanics continued to decline, as they did for this segment of the population in France, Germany, UK, Canada, Australia and Sweden.


All-cause mortality, ages 45–54 for US White non-Hispanics (USW), US Hispanics (USH), and six comparison countries: France (FRA), Germany (GER), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE).

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