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.

mortality

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).

Back to Part 6

Forward to Part 8

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 6

china1larg.workers.giThe continued growth in the productive powers of society can only mean the increased productive power of human labour, exercised through increasing use of the implements of labour and the organisation and application of scientific knowledge.  This in turn can only manifest itself in the growth of the working class that exercises this power, wields the implements of labour and develops and applies advances in scientific knowledge.

The result has been the increasing creation of the material conditions that can provide the foundations for a more equitable and socially just society.  The most important of these is the growth of the global working class.

From 1980 to 2010 the world’s labour force grew by 1.2 billion, to approximately 2.9 billion, with almost 90 per cent of the growth occurring in what has been called developing countries, including 500 million in China and India.  In the process 620 million people have been lifted out of poverty, as defined by the World Bank at $1.25 per day (at 2005 purchasing power parity).  Global non-farm employment rose from 54 per cent of all jobs in 1980 to 70 per cent in 2010.

From 1990 to 2010 China’s productivity was estimated to have grown by an average of 9.8 per cent per year, about one fifth as a result of the move from countryside to the city.   Wages grew as a result, and the ‘Financial Times’ has recently reported that the scope for this mass migration to continue had now ended.  (All figures from McKinsey)

In what are called the advanced economies 165 million new non-farm jobs were created and a large number of these taken by women joining the workforce.  Over this period the number of women in the labour force rose by 77 million accounting for the majority, 61 per cent, of the net new additions of 122 million.

Average skill levels of the workforce have also risen with the number of college graduates in the world labour force doubling in the economically advanced countries and growing by two and a half times in developing countries.  Around 700 million high school graduates joined the world’s labour force, increasing the proportion of those with secondary education to 48 per cent in 2010 from 39 per cent in 1980.

The assumption that only the ‘advanced’ countries have educated workers with the knowledge and skills necessary for innovation and more advanced production is now untrue.  In 1970 approximately 30 per cent of university enrolments were in the United States but by 2006 this was only around 12 per cent. The share of the world’s Ph.D.’s accounted for by the US has fallen from around 50 per cent in the early 1970s to 18 per cent in 2004.  By 2005 South Korea was sending a larger proportion of its young people to university than the US. And, for example, only 10 per cent of Italy’s working age population had a college degree in 2010, lower than in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.  Countries such as Indonesia, Brazil, Peru and Poland more than doubled their university enrolments in the 1980s and 1990s. (Quoted from ‘The new global labour market’)

The McKinsey report quoted above states that in the advanced countries the share of national income going to labour rose during the 1950s and 1960s, peaking in 1975, but has fallen ever since and is now below its 1950 level.  The wages of less skilled workers have stagnated or fallen in all but a handful of advanced countries while the incomes of those in the top 10 per cent have risen.  Capitalists complain that they cannot get the necessary skilled workers and unemployment among those with only secondary education is nearly twice as high as among those with college degrees.  In the advanced countries unemployment among the least skilled is two to four times higher than the most highly skilled.

As illustration of the insanity of capitalism’s failure to develop in any sort of rational manner, an article in the ‘Irish Times’ earlier this year notes that the Irish State has the dubious distinction of having the most overeducated workforce in Europe with around a third overqualified for the jobs that they do, just in front of Cyprus, Spain and Greece.  It reports one young woman with a degree and a Diploma in primary school teaching who made 80 job applications last year and didn’t get one interview.  As the duration of unemployment grows the skills previously acquired atrophy and the social labour expended on their acquisition is wasted.

So some educated workers can’t get a job commensurate with their education while capitalists complain they can’t get skilled workers.  A further twist is added when you consider the well paid jobs that some workers get have relatively little to do with their accumulated knowledge.

I recall reading some time ago an article in a British newspaper that noted that the knowledge and skills of those with science qualifications is socially wasted in jobs within the media industry, in companies like Google or Facebook, doing jobs that involved not much more than high-tech advertising and selling.  I know of one young woman who has a PhD. in science, in which she studied the transfer of drugs through the body for those with cystic fibrosis but who could only get a decent wage by requalifying as an accountant.

When production is profit driven, without any conscious societal mechanisms to determine social priorities, such waste appears in statistics as remarkable progress.  What isn’t measured is the potential contribution that millions of working people could make but can’t because of the lack of opportunities and subordination and lack of democracy in the workplace that stifles their ambition and creative powers.

Despite all this however it has to be understood that capitalism continues to develop, and the productive power of humanity continues to grow massively.  The need for skilled workers grows even if the system often wastes much of the knowledge and skills created.

There can be no doubt that the ‘civilising mission’ of capitalism, which the last few of these posts have been about, continues.  Of course it does not develop evenly and does not develop without antagonism or contradiction and in the next posts I will look some more at the limited and contradictory character of this development.

However if capitalism were simply as system in crisis we could not explain why it still exists.  If it were not still revolutionising the means of production and developing the productivity of labour it would no longer be the capitalism analysed by Marx and we would have to find some other approach to understanding it.

Most important of all, as I have said before: if capitalism created only oppressed, exploited and alienated human beings where could the alternative come from?

Back to Part 5

Forward to part 7

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 5: capitalism’s achievements

classroom-19th-century-1140x684One comment on an earlier post on the blog relating to the situation in Greece included the following: “So I think the task at hand is not to solve Greece’s economic crisis, this will certainly take years. Rather it is to add some political organisation and direction on to the instinct to fight. I believe that you are thinking too far ahead, overly concerned with what socialism should be in the future, and not really catching the fire of the present.”

Leaving aside whether this was true of this particular post on Greece or even of other posts; a point I have made is that the Marxist movement is too concerned with attempting to “catch the fire of the present”.  This has usually meant jumping on whatever bandwagon it thinks might propel it along in some opportunist direction.  This is informed by the view that socialism will arrive through a capitalist crisis that precipitates political revolution that will destroy the existing state and then introduce the new society.  All of which it will lead through “catching the fire” in some sort of eschatological conflagration.

Missing is the development of the alternative, evolving within capitalism in advance of any crisis, that creates and develops workers’ power in the present and most of all creates the conditions that means workers actually seek a socialist alternative long before any crisis.  Missing is the building of a working class movement that fights for an alternative society now, sees such a new society as its answer to its problems and does not limit itself to the necessarily defensive struggles against capitalist attacks.

This understanding of the working class movement, as embodying the future alternative within itself, is now more or less completely lost but would have been the foundation of workers’ socialist consciousness during most of the first century of the movement’s existence.  So, the building of mass workers’ parties, trade unions, friendly societies, educational organisations and cooperatives were all seen to be the visible rise of the more or less inevitable final victory of socialism.

No such confidence now pervades the socialist movement and part of this impoverished outlook is the perspective of fighting for and relying on the state to deliver the goods.  This and/or the view that some future, but always more or less near, political crisis will quickly precipitate a struggle and a consciousness adequate for a successful political revolution.   A view that forgets that socialist revolution is distinguished by it being primarily a social one and the Marxist view that social being determines consciousness: that is the development of consciousness is based on the development of capitalism, including what workers do over many decades to develop their own power and organisation within it. There is no exception in such a view for small groups propagandising for revolution, crisis or no crisis.

The patient building of workers organisations, such as cooperatives, is viewed by some as simply reform of capitalism when in fact no successful revolution will be possible without them.  Opposition to what has been termed the stages theory of revolution, that every workers struggle is inevitably limited to certain non-socialist goals, is confused with rejection of the truth that the working class will go through stages of development and that earlier stages that do not immediately threaten the system are also just as necessary because they are expressions of the workers own activity and power.

That this has been more or less forgotten is both a product and producer of the decline of the socialist movement.

That is why I started to write a series of posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism, because without such an alternative there will be no, well to state the obvious – alternative!  It’s why this series is now continued.

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In the last post on Marx’s alternative I said I would look at the evidence that the development of capitalism continues to provide the grounds for socialism as an alternative.  By this I mean the contradictory nature of capitalism is still creating on an increasing scale its gravediggers, the working class, and that even “with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.” Marx.

A look at the long term development of capitalism illustrates what Marx called its civilising mission, a product not just of the growing requirements of capitalist production for an educated and relatively healthy workforce but of the needs of the capitalist state itself that provides most of this education.  By 1985 mass education was compulsory in 80 per cent of the countries of the world and over 90 per cent of the world’s children spent some time enrolled in school.

Estimates for the year 1900 put participation rates in primary education at under 40 per cent in most parts of the world outside North America, northwest Europe and English speaking areas of the Pacific, where it was over 70 per cent.  By the beginning of the twenty-first century every part of the world had achieved the minimum of the most industrialised countries at the start of the 20th century and most had exceeded it.

The picture of course is far from universally rosy and a 2007 UNESCO report estimated that in 2004 781 million adults did not have minimum literacy skills and close to 77 million children of school age were not enrolled in school.  Nevertheless the twentieth century was the first in human history in which the majority of the world’s population learned to read and write.

The development of higher level education has been just as dramatic.  In 1900 roughly half a million were enrolled in higher education institutions across the world.  By 2000 the number had grown two-hundredfold to 100 million people.  Growth in higher education has not slowed but accelerated in the latter part of the twentieth century; particularly after about 1960, with enrolment rates climbing rapidly, especially of women.  This growth has created what amounts to a global higher education system with “the same subjects . . . taught with the same perspectives leading to very similar degrees . .” (The Worldwide Expansion of Higher Education in the Twentieth Century)

If we look at population and health we can see the capacity of the productive system to support a growing population and improved health.  “Since 1800, global population size has already increased by a factor of six and by 2010 will have risen by a factor of ten. . . . The length of life, which has already more than doubled, will have tripled . . In 1800, women spent about 70 percent of their adult years bearing and rearing young children, but that fraction has decreased in many parts of the world to only about 14 percent, due to lower fertility and longer life.” (The Demographic transition: Three centuries of Fundamental Change)

Global life expectancy (years at birth) in 1700 was 27, still 27 in 1800, 30 by 1900 47 by 1950 and 65 by 2000, while population was 0.68 billion, 0.98, 1.65, 2.52 and 6.07 billion in the same years.  This decline in mortality began about 1800 in northwest Europe, and in many lower income countries at the beginning of the twentieth century, accelerating after the Second World War.

“The first stage of mortality decline is due to reductions in contagious and infectious diseases that are spread by air or water. Starting with the development of the smallpox vaccine in the late eighteenth century, preventive medicine played a role in mortality decline in Europe. However, public health measures played an important role from the late nineteenth century, and some quarantine measures may have been effective in earlier centuries. Improved personal hygiene also helped as income rose and as the germ theory of disease became more widely known and accepted. Another major factor in the early phases of growing life expectancy is improvements in nutrition. Famine mortality was reduced by improvements in storage and transportation that permitted integration of regional and international food markets . . .”

“In recent decades, the continuing reduction in mortality is due to reductions in chronic and degenerative diseases, notably heart disease and cancer (Riley, 2001). In the later part of the century, publicly organized and funded biomedical research has played an increasingly important part, and the human genome project and stem cell research promise future gains.”

“Many low-income populations did not begin the mortality transition until some time in the twentieth century. However, they then made gains in life expectancy quite rapidly by historical standards. In India, life expectancy rose from around 24 years in 1920 to 62 years today, a gain of .48 years per calendar year over 80 years. In China, life expectancy rose from 41 in 1950–1955 to 70 in 1995–1999, a gain of .65 years per year over 45 years.” (The Demographic transition: Three centuries of Fundamental Change)

Again however the gains in life expectancy are not uniform and the productive advances of capitalism, some of which are reflected in public health and medical advances, are subordinated to the accumulation of profit.  This is most clearly seen in the two significant exceptions noted in the article quoted above – the stagnation in mortality gains and increased mortality from HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and the decline in life expectancy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union arising from their transition to capitalism.  The article quotes the UN in 2002 noting that male life expectancy in the Russian Federation was 60, similar to that of India.

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Does capitalism still have a civilising mission? Marx’s alternative – part 4

huajian-shoe-factoryIn the last post on Marx’s alternative to capitalism I noted that he extolled the achievements of capitalism, without which socialism could not be built.  In the Grundrisse he noted “the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.”

This is very far from the attitude of most Marxists today, who have a tendency to see crisis and decline everywhere.

Perhaps, as might be implied from the quote above, the progressiveness of capitalism is only in relation to previous society, and that today it is a wholly reactionary system from which no development is possible or at least none with any progressive features.  Its replacement must therefore arise from its contradictions and crisis and not from any progressive element within it.

The days of the progressive development of capitalism are over.

The Communist Manifesto is famous for its paean of praise to the wonders of capitalist achievements, and this at a time when capitalism hardy existed on most of the globe – “It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades . . . The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. ”

But perhaps again this praise is purely relative to earlier epochs.  Capitalism has exhausted any progressive content it once may have had.  After all, didn’t Lenin refer to the highest stage of capitalism and did Trotsky not say that:

“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 . . . 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.”

That catastrophe did of course arrive in the shape of the Second World War and the potential for catastrophe undoubtedly continues to exist within capitalism today.  The decline of the United States and the rise of new powers once again raise the spectre of economic competition that may drive rival nation states into war.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading the Guardian review of books and a review of a book by the BBC correspondent Mark Urban, who argued that new powers are developing conventional forces that can begin to rival those of the US. This means that in any conventional conflict the US may be tempted or driven to use nuclear weapons.  It’s not as if they haven’t used them before.

“Now, says Urban, Russia, China and India have such strong conventional forces, and America has cut its forces so much, that in the event of a conflict “the US would be left with the choice of nuclear escalation or backing down”.  He adds: “Against a full-scale invasion of South Korea, the US would have little choice but to go nuclear.” Russia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and some other countries could “mount a credible conventional defence that would leave the United States having to think the unthinkable, with profound implications for the world”.”

While there is a lot more to say about such a scenario the point is that under capitalism humanity has no rational control of its own development and no guarantee against the most irrational acts leading to its destruction.

However the view noted above – that capitalism can no longer be viewed in fundamentally the same way as Marx did in the 19th century is mistaken.

Straight after noting capitalism’s wonders far surpassing the Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals Marx states that “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”

So the development of society continues under capitalism and the imperative to accumulate unpaid labour means the continued development of the forces and relations of production and growth of the working class.  As I will show in the next post this continues to require the phenomenon of the ‘great civilising influence of capital’ because if it did not, the development of capitalism would be away from a possible socialism and not towards it.

A working class more and more exploited and oppressed, more and more demoralised, despite the massively increased social division of labour and the cooperation required for it to function; and despite the undreamed of development of technology, would patently be unable to put itself forward as the new rulers of an even more advanced society.

A purely reactionary system without fundamental contradictions out of which a new society could emerge would not be that investigated by Marx.  A contradiction-ridden system on the other hand will combine development with retrogression, the potential for the new within the embrace of the old.

Crises will occur and must occur in some way if a new society is to be given birth out of the old but the nature of this crisis must be one that allows a new society to fully develop and not simply represent a process of decline of the old.  Under capitalism it is not crisis that create the contradictions of capitalism but crises which are the means of expressing these contradictions and resolving them in whatever way and for whatever period of time.

The importance of acknowledging this is apparent when we consider the ‘new’ phenomenon of anti-capitalism, as if being anti-capitalist is inherently progressive.  In the Communist Manifesto Marx was able to analyse various types of reactionary socialism, and various types of this exist today.  Much of the left is keen to retreat into nationalism and older forms of capitalist development in response to capitalist crises in their latest form, buttressed by the idea that there can be nothing progressive in its current development.

We see this today in much of the left’s opposition to the Euro for example, as if the drachma or punt were some sort of positive alternative.  In Ireland the nationalist and republican tradition has allowed many leftists to seek progress through assertion of a ‘national sovereignty’ that is simply impossible to achieve even if were desirable.

All seem to have forgotten that socialism is not the resistance of the working class to capitalism, which can continue ‘forever’ if it does not involve an alternative, and this alternative is a higher form of society, not a retreat into the past.

In the next post on Marx’s alternative I will look at the evidence that the development of capitalism that Marx thought provides the grounds for socialism continues to exist.

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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.

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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 2

333869336In the first part of this post on Marx’s alternative to capitalism we noted that this was ‘simply’ the real alternative that is already growing within capitalism and is composed of the working class that the development of capitalism creates.

Workers have no, and are not to be encouraged to produce, “ready-made utopias”.   Such blueprints are always presented to workers rather than arising from them, they must “work out their own emancipation”.   In doing so they will necessarily “have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men”. (Marx, The Civil War in France)

The working class is the product of the prodigious development of the forces of production under capitalism but it can only achieve emancipation if it becomes conscious of its revolutionary role. So, in some way, capitalism must not only provide for the development of the forces of production, increased division of labour and cooperation across the globe and increased planning within and between companies and production facilities, upon which a higher society can be built, but it must also provide the grounds for the development of this consciousness.

Capitalism does this by removing the relations of personal dependence that, for example, ties the peasant serf to the lord of the manor or the artisan to his master and to the Guild.  In doing so it atomises individuals and promotes an ideology of individuality that in juridical terms makes people free, independent and responsible but which in reality is expressed in an estrangement of people from each other.

This estrangement is routinely expressed through terms such as the ‘rate race’; the view that ‘charity begins at home’; that you ‘have to look after your own’, or ’look after number one’ or in the thousand and one various ways in which the unity of humanity is disintegrated and vanished under capitalism.  This is not primarily an ideological phenomenon but a realty that workers are indeed in a rat race.  As a poster campaign put it some years ago – many are only a couple of pay cheques away from homelessness.  Almost all workers are an illness away from relative or absolute poverty.  Lack of ownership of the means of producing a livelihood means an inescapable compulsion to sell one’s labour power in the market under circumstances more or less totally out of one’s control.

This estrangement is universal and the idea of free individuality finds roots from this universal separation.  Its universality creates the possibility of it being overcome. This is done through the development of the forces of production that puts workers in a similar relationship to those who own the means of producing life’s necessities creating the conditions within which unity around common class interests can be built.

The development of the forces of production themselves, based on advances in scientific understanding and its practical application, has implications both for the material and moral/spiritual development of the working class.  The extraordinary development of the productivity of labour that is a feature of capitalism cannot fail over an extended period to have an effect on the material conditions of the working class.  The current level of development of the productive forces could not have been achieved simply by seeking to meet and increase the consumption demands of the richest in society.

Capitalism constantly seeks to advance the consumption of society in order to accumulate capital and thus consciously and unconsciously produces new needs and new desires and, through this, new capabilities that create not just the material but also the spiritual and cultural preconditions for socialism.  If it did not, if capitalism left workers as limited and narrow in outlook as the peasant class that preceded it, there would be no grounds for a new higher society, for who would bring it into being?

This development takes place under capitalism, under the determining dynamic of the production of profit from the exploitation of labour, and thus this development is distorted, often thwarted, partial, uneven and limited.  It is subject to advance and retreat and it is ‘dumbed down’ and commodified.  It takes place not as a rational objective of society but as one whose development is in contradiction with the system’s rationale of seeking the expansion of capital through the appropriation of more exploited labour.

This process is what Marx calls the “civilising mission” of capitalism, without which there could be no talk of socialism:

“Thus, just as production founded on capital creates universal industriousness on one side — i.e. surplus labour, value-creating labour — so does it create on the other side a system of general exploitation of the natural and human qualities, a system of general utility, utilizing science itself just as much as all the physical and mental qualities, while there appears nothing higher in itself, nothing legitimate for itself, outside this circle of social production and exchange.

Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.

For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.  In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life

It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Grundrisse)

But how can capitalism be called civilising?  Is it not the Marxist case that capitalism is inhuman and that the historic choice is between socialism and barbarism? Does Marx not speak, in relation to British rule in India, of “the profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation.”

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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 1

DSC_0136The reason why a person will identify themselves as a Marxist will be biographical, a product of their background, history and circumstances, their attitudes, character, personality and intellectual curiosity.  All these will be individual and accidental to a greater or lesser extent, the product of one’s actions and decisively, the views and actions of others that one comes into contact with, directly and indirectly.

On the other hand their background and circumstances and the views and actions of others that influence them will be social, the product of society as a whole.  Even their individual character and intellectual curiosity will be shaped strongly by their social circumstances.  So also the reason to identify as a Marxist is not individual or accidental but crucially derives from the content of Marxism itself.

It constitutes the most rational alternative to capitalism and all the irrationality and oppression that that system entails.  The most consistent and coherent alternative to capitalism is Marxist because Marxism comprehends capitalism in a way that is adequate to its replacement.

Marxism best encapsulates the view that ‘another world is possible’ because it best understands capitalism itself and can identify whether, and to what extent, an alternative can develop out of it.  Any alternative must come out of it in some way, yet be sufficiently different to actually be an alternative, and not a refurbished version of existing society which must enforce the limitations and strictures of the existing system. Marxism must therefore identify in what precisely this alternative consists.

The strength of Marxism is not that it has developed a brilliant idea from the brain of an exceptional intellect but that it seeks to bring to consciousness the development of capitalism itself and the alternative that is pregnant within it.

“In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” Karl Marx 1843.

If capitalism does not contain within it the struggles that will replace it, and the grounds for those struggles to succeed, then there will be no alternative to capitalism, at least not with the features or characteristics associated with a socialist alternative.

The claim that Marxism is the social and political alternative to capitalism thus rests on its claims to understand the development of capitalism so that the alternative it poses is not then a utopian one, sprouted more or less fully formed from the brain of this or that social reformer, but from the perceptible development of capitalism itself.

Just as the alternative to capitalism grows out of capitalism itself so too does the understanding of the alternative grow in the same way from the development of the system.

This is held to account for Marx’s known aversion to setting out a blueprint of what the alternative will look like.  It was, for example only when Marx was in his mid-50s that he claimed he had found, or rather the working class itself had found, through the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871: “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”

In his review of this experience Marx made many observations on the alternative to capitalism that apply today, including that:

“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”

A book published a few years ago is an extremely useful guide to Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism, more particularly of the principles that underpin it.  It demonstrates that the alternative is not some perfected socialist state or society, not some condition of social equilibrium but a movement of people and their own self-activity and self-development.

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence,” (Marx in The German Ideology).

There is no end-state to socialism, perfect or otherwise, but the social conditions that allow the full flourishing of the individual and humanity as a whole, which will in turn change social conditions.

Socialism cannot be reduced to principles such as a planned economy because planning itself is only one human activity, the totality of which is the expansive alternative that Marx foresaw.

The alternative to capitalism is the self-development of humanity, its overcoming of an alienated existence within which its own powers over its environment and its own development appear separated from and oppressive to it.  So humanity understands the danger of environmental destruction but has no transparent means of control to stop it despite its own actions being the cause of the threat.  So it witnesses economic disruption, unemployment, poverty and suffering, caused by a drop in ‘value’ of pieces of paper – shares, bonds, swaps, options, derivatives etc -that it has created but which by themselves are simply pieces of paper, which in any rational society it would be impossible for them to cause the suffering involved in economic crisis.

Emancipation therefore is the result of the actions of humanity itself, led by a class within society whose liberation must entail the liberation not only of itself but of society as a whole – what is called a universal class because it represents the universal interests of all humanity.

This universal class is the product of the prodigious development of the forces of production under capitalism, to a degree that could never have been conceived in previous history, including the rapid development of technology, scientific knowledge and overall cultural development.

It is people however who create history, ‘history’ itself does nothing, and it is the development of the working class that is the carrier of the wonders of the new capitalist society and the bearer of the new within it.

What is required then is that the working class becomes conscious of its role in existing society and the necessity for it to change this society.  Decisive for the working class is therefore its awareness of itself as a separate class with its own interests, requiring a change in the consciousness of the mass of workers.

This change in consciousness to an awareness of class interest does not mean the nullification of individual personality or character but the recognition of shared interests that will allow creation of a society in which the free development of individuals is the condition for the free development of everyone; no one is subject to the requirement to work to live in order that someone else can live without working.  The creation of wealth will be for the satisfaction of individual needs and desires and not the pathological pursuit of profit for a few.  People will labour to satisfy their needs not the accumulation of money, wealth and capital for others.

The structures of society will therefore be the consciously directed products of human activity, transparent in their operation.  They will not entail the domination of people by impersonal, disembodied powers such as the ‘rule of the free market’ or ‘rule of law’ or ‘state authority’, over which individuals feel and have no control.  No longer will workers face wage cuts or unemployment because the things they produce are no longer profitable to produce and the needs of ‘the economy’ then require the sacrifice of their livelihood.  Things no longer control them, they control the things that would not exist without them.  No longer will the price of pieces of paper wreak economic devastation.

Instead workers will control the things that are their creation, including the machines they build, the firms they create, the agencies that provide services or set rules for them – all the organisations appointed for any purpose that affect them.  They control them because they work in them.  Managing them is not a detached function to be carried out by a separate class or bureaucratic group but is the task of everyone.  Management and control become part of everyone’s job description.

By this means the supreme authority, the State, that rules over society is not set apart from it but is gradually abolished through its functions being incorporated into society itself and into its day to day functioning.  Only in this way can the  rule of a minority become the rule of the majority, can the working class become the new ruling class, before there is no class system whatsoever because no relations of economic and social domination exist.

For this to happen the majority of society have to be not so much ready to carry out these million and one tasks but more and more actually carrying them out beforehand.  The problem then is not so much to revolutionise the means of production or state structures but to revolutionise the working class.

So how does capitalism create the conditions for this?  In what way does capitalism itself prepare the ground for its supersession by the working class?

Forward to Part 2

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 4

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As part of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument that the state is not essentially a capitalist one they state that society is more complicated than it once was.   Implicitly they must be arguing that it is less fully capitalist since the state now performs functions that workers should be defending.  Indeed they go much further than this:

“A further reason for not smashing the existing state is that we need it. . . . The modern state is needed for the simple reason that it performs socially necessary functions without which a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse. And compared to the pre WW I state, today’s one runs vastly more essential services like healthcare, education, food and pharmaceutical safety regulation, environmental controls, provision of infrastructure, and a civil and criminal justice system.”

“If those functions go unfulfilled by a future socialist polity, the day-to-day experience of life for everyone will quickly degrade leading to an erosion of support for the socialist government (or polity). Court summonses for drink driving, to take just one example, will have to be issued under a socialist administration just as much as they would under a capitalist one. In theory, the state justice system can be replaced by popular tribunals but rules of procedure, expertise in summarising and arguing the law, administrative clerks and the like cannot just be recreated at will. The legal norms are the product of a long, messy, and less than edifying social evolutionary process. Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment.”

The last part of this long quote is particularly bad, with it having more in common with Edmund Burke than Karl Marx.  It is also amusing that they choose what might seem an everyday and unremarkable state function such as enforcing road traffic laws since we have just seen how the Irish State through the Garda have torn up thousands of penalty points. Even in performing such a humdrum function the state exhibits its propensity to bias and corruption.

As for the response to their overall argument, it is not the point that certain state functions, or rather certain functions currently carried out by the state, should not be done.  The question is how and by whom and for what purpose?

When we look at how the current state performs these roles we can see how it does so in subordination to the capitalist economic system.

We shall do this ‘logically’ but it should not be forgotten that the historical evolution of the state shows how it acquires its capitalist character.  So for example, as Marx pointed out, the growth of the state and the debts of the state became a powerful means of developing capitalist accumulation.

When capitalists turn money capital into productive capital they need to buy labour power capable of carrying out certain tasks effectively and efficiently.  Workers need to be healthy and with increasing levels of education to carry out increasingly complex tasks.  Even routine and boring tasks are not completely devoid of training.

The capitalists could try to pay for the health and education of their own workforce by themselves.  Unfortunately if some capitalists did this other capitalists would not and would then poach the healthy and skilled workers educated and kept healthy by competitors.  Such is one of the contradictions of capitalism.  Much better then to socialise the cost by getting the state to provide health services and education.

The market provided by the health and education services can then be milked by capitalist providers of health and education products such as drugs, medical equipment and hospitals and schools built through Private Finance Initiatives.

This then costs the health and education services more than necessary and results in either poorer quality services or higher taxes. And although these taxes are paid overwhelmingly by workers, who pay for the welfare state, the capitalists prefer cheaper and effective health and education services so that the value of labour power they pay for does not decline by higher taxes on workers’ income putting pressure on them to raise wages to compensate.

So the contradiction within capitalism isn’t removed, it is just displaced.  Getting the state to carry out functions doesn’t resolve the contradiction between seeking healthy and skilled workers and keeping down the costs while trying as much as possible to make these services easily exploitable commodities subject to direct capitalist provision.

The capitalist system doesn’t find it easy to negotiate through these requirements so, for example, it constantly reorganises the NHS in Britain, boosts then restricts private finance, changes school governance one way and then another and seeks to make working class children more suitable for employment while trying to limit the costs of educating them.

But all these changes of policy and seemingly confused changes of direction within state provided services are not direct examples of struggle between a progressive state and private capital but expressions of the contradictions of the capitalist system itself.

They do not reflect the pressure of the working class as against that of capitalists, although the working class will have its own views and interests bound up in such issues.

In Ireland and in Britain the working class has not been so weak for a very long time and while welfare is being tightened it is not being abolished.  Were welfare states the simple result of the balance of forces between capitalist and workers we would have expected much greater changes.

When the capitalist has bought labour power the state does not generally intervene in their prerogatives or that of their managers and then only if these are challenged by workers.  Factories and offices however generally don’t work without infrastructural facilities such as roads, transport, water and power and sometimes the state provides these or regulates the private companies that do.

Again the desires the private companies that do can often conflict with the needs of the private companies that use their services.

When production has ceased and the goods and services need to be sold to workers or to other capitalists the state intervenes by setting minimal standards, including contract laws and customer protection legislation, and supporting trade through tariff reductions, provision of insurance and sponsoring trade promotion.

When money is recovered from sales it goes into the financial system in one way or another and once again the venality of this system is a problem not just for workers but also for certain capitalists who would like the state to increase credit to business, reduce charges  and make the financial capitalists less privileged.  Opposition to ‘parasitic’ finance is not the monopoly of the left but has been a theme of the most reactionary movements in history.

In summary the main functions of the state as it has developed both reflects the needs of the growing capitalist system and reflects its contradictions.

An historical analysis also undermines the view that such aspects of the state as welfare, the ‘welfare state’, are examples of working class influence on what the state does.  The first steps in welfareism were taken by Bismarck in Germany, by the Liberal Party and Conservatives in Britain and a welfare state exists in the Irish State where there has never been a social democratic government of any type.

The argument that state functions have to be carried out for society to function is true but this does not support the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument but exposes their strategy, for it is not technical aspects that define state functions but the social relations of production that define the roles that are performed.

Were the state to start to carry out the economic functions currently performed by the capitalist class and on an international basis it would undermine the functioning of the capitalist system itself and would lead to economic dislocation and collapse.

This would happen because of the sabotage of the capitalist class itself, because of the internationalisation of capitalist production which the nation state cannot substitute for without enormous economic regression and because the state cannot carry out the economic functions of capitalism without either being the capitalist itself or it beoming the sort of society we saw in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

This sort of society proved unviable. It collapsed almost everywhere and is no model to emulate where it has not.  The inability of the state to substitute itself for capitalism both shows that it is not the road to socialism, or socialism would also be unviable, and that it is workers’ owned means of production that is.

In other words the functions carried out by the state that are recorded above are necessary for society to work without severe economic regression but only in so far as the society is a capitalist one.  Too little state intervention and the economic system will regress but too much and it invades what are more properly tasks of private capitalists.  The contradictory nature of capitalism, the bureaucratic rationality of aspects of state functioning and ideological disputes all mean that the concrete operation and role of the state is constantly in dispute.

The working class has an interest in who wins (temporarily) in this struggle but it does not take sides but advances its own powers to impose its own solutions upon the system and its state by ultimately replacing both.

The functions of the capitalist state are therefore performed because of the way the capitalist system works and are performed in a way determined by that system.  Just as the way the capitalist system works seems natural so does the workings of the state and the respective roles that they both have. All seem natural.

The economic system produces what Marx calls commodity fetishism where the attributes of people become the attributes of things.  The productive relations formed by people to produce the things they need become requirements of ‘the economy’, which has demands which people can’t control but can only accede to.

The actions of the state are complimentary to this economic system so that what it does not do – the activities of the capitalist class – also seems natural.  Just as capitalism delivers economic growth the state is seen to distribute the fruits of that growth.

The need of the former for the services of the latter become, as in the argument of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, mere technical functions that must be performed regardless so that the class character of the state is not at all fundamental.

These technical requirements however only exist because of the capitalist nature of the mode of production and would not exist as they do in another mode of production.  For example under a socialist mode of production health services, education, product safety and infrastructure provision would not be carried out by the state or any state-like body.

The capitalist character of the state is therefore reflected in a number of ways.

So for example, the claim that the state is autonomous is also held to be proof that it is not capitalist.  But to the extent it is not autonomous it directly reflects particular (capitalist) interests and for socialists the fact that it does in general exist autonomously from society is also demonstration that it exits separate and opposed to it, including from  the vast majority of society, particularly its working class.  Under the new society no body autonomous from society with any political powers would exist.  The powers of society would be wholly integral to it under socialism.

We have seen that what the state does and does not do demonstrates its capitalist character.  Under a new society it will disappear and no coercive body above or autonomous from society would exist.  The state, as Marxists have claimed, will wither away.

The personnel of the state are carefully selected, vetted and trained.  In Britain the most important forces declare loyalty not to the people but to the Queen.  In Britain and Ireland and elsewhere there is no greater crime than those committed against the armed forces of the state.  Witness the media coverage of killings of Garda for example.

The most senior positions in the state are almost invariable held by members of the most privileged classes and their rank and position within the state cements this where it does not create it.  Many can make a lucrative career on the Boards of capitalist corporations when they leave state employment.

The bureaucratic and hierarchical structure of the state reflects its need to insulate itself from democratic control and accountability.  When it needs to enforce its wishes it acts with force and decisively, it is hard.  When it evades accountability it appears as a blancmange, a maze and an impenetrable system in which no one appears to know how things work and no one is responsible.  One may as well try to pick up mercury with tweezers or cut through water.  Excuses are offered that we have asystemic failure but no one in this system made up of people is responsible.  Once again the actions of people become the property of things.

Laws are broken by the state so we have an enquiry.  When laws are broken by workers they are put in jail.  In no other country in Western Europe more than Ireland is it less credible to believe that the state is a neutral upholder of the law.   A cursory examination of the actions by state forces in the North of the country would explode the most ingrained prejudices, except of course the North of Ireland is always held up as a place apart.  And so the state always upholds the law except when it doesn’t.

The state is also a nation state so right from the start loyalty to it immediately involves division, the division of the working class, even when the workers belong to the same firm and would be out of work were their fellow (foreign) workers to fail to carry out their labour as they should.  The state teaches dependency on it not on the cooperative labour of the working class of all countries without which “a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse.”

The symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology of the state all make it inimical to working class self-emancipation from the rules symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology that oppress it.

In the final part of this post I will look at the argument that the state is, on the contrary, the mechanism of working class liberation.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 3

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“Marxists see the state as a form of class rule. It is not a free floating entity above the messy reality of class conflict but rather a tool for suppressing the exploited, that is, an organisational tool of those in control of the means of production. For much of history, this is essentially an accurate description and it remains fundamentally true to this day. In Ireland alone, the continuous and truly massive transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists arising from the latter’s losses in property speculation is a graphic illustration of the balance of class power.”

“. . . But modern society is more complicated than pre-capitalist social formations. The exploited are not as powerless and thus have gained a measure of influence over the state itself, the degree of which depends on the balance of class forces at any given juncture. The strength of the working class in Europe over the 20th century is reflected in the significant gains that it made, winning concessions on everything from maternity pay to lower retirement, from national health services to a reduction in militarism.”

“The western state is open to influence by other sectors. That is, it is dominated by capitalists and will, when push comes to shove, tend to favour their interests rather than those of other sectors. That tendency, however, demonstrates not that the state is intrinsically structured to deliver capitalism but that the social dominance of the capitalists manifests itself in the political choices made by those who control the state. Capitalist control of the investment process is key because most states are dependent on capitalists for a functioning economy, which itself is necessary to keep its population relatively satisfied and to generate income via taxation.”

“The state’s own capacity to reproduce itself, then, is dependent on capitalist investment but importantly it is not itself a capitalist formation as is proven by the existence of non-capitalist sovereign powers throughout history. The state, as a powerful entity with a distinct history and a degree of freedom regarding accruing resources, could attempt to usurp the capitalist position by supplanting its role in the investment process. Indeed, that is what we largely advocate. . . and a process of democratisation of the state is best seen as a parallel process to democratising the ownership of capital itself, rather than as either as a precursor or a successor to it. Until that balance of power is altered there is little reason to expect the state to escape its subservience to the needs of capitalists.”

“The state, in other words, does not operate on capitalist lines. It operates in a capitalist context. . .  The state is not, then, an eternal verity destined to contaminate all those who touch it but rather a site of struggle that reflects the balance of forces in wider society. It is a tool whose usefulness depends very much on who is wielding it and for what purpose. . . . but even if the premise of the state as an intrinsically capitalist one does not hold up, there is the further issue of whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation.”

These are the views of Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien on the state.  In summary they say that the state has become more complicated, and so it has, and give its welfare functions as evidence of this.  The state has had a long history and has not always been capitalist and nor is it intrinsically capitalist now.  Rather it is open to pressure from forces in society, including the working class.  However the role of investment by capitalists, on which the state itself depends for functioning, means that the state tends towards supporting capitalism.  This however can be changed as both the state and capital is democratised with democratisation of the former being the means to democratise the latter.  So much so that it can be used to transform current society into a socialist one.

The view of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien is essentially of a rather passive reflector of outside forces that has developed its own interests but which is a powerful mechanism that can be employed to revolutionise society.  Not altogether a very consistent or coherent analysis.

Let’s take the role of investment which Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say is the key question.

Why is it that only the capitalists invest and so can influence the form of the state and how it operates?

This is because capitalism rests on the exclusion of the working class from ownership of the means of production.  When capitalists invest they also buy the labour power of workers and in order to make a profit, to extract surplus value in Marxist terms, they must pay workers less for the labour they perform than is included in what they produce.  The value of the labour performed by workers that they receive in wages is less than the value of the goods and services they produce.  This surplus value pays for the state among other things.

This arrangement seems natural and democratic since no one is compelled to work for any particular employer, can start their own business if they want and can ask for higher wages if they think they deserve more.  They enter into an employment contract voluntarily and as citizens with equal rights.  The state sets laws which reflect and guarantee this natural, democratic and equitable arrangement.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien can presumably see that the process of investment is but one part of an economic arrangement that places some with the ownership of capital and the many without and that this is neither natural or democratic nor equitable.  The role of the state is to protect this system so why can they not see that it too is neither natural or democratic or equitable but is rather intrinsically oppressive because it is based on the capitalist system itself?

If the state more and more took over the role of investment, i.e. took over the role of employing workers to produce surplus value, it would not be democratising capital but itself becoming the capitalist.

The apparent harmony of the capitalist system is exposed when  workers challenge the right of capital to exploit them either through strikes, occupations, pickets or pursuit of any restriction on capital that the owners of the means of production find unacceptable.  The state in these cases protects strike breakers, expels workers occupying workplaces, restricts or attacks pickets and allows sometimes the most egregious behaviour of capitalists to go unpunished.

The state will often sacrifice its own tax revenue to defend capitalists and in the case of the Irish state will see itself go bankrupt to bail out native and foreign bond holders and the banks.

What the state does not do, and has never done, anywhere and at any time – even in periods of mass working class pressure when Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say it should – is organise strikes, attack strike breakers, plan occupations and pass laws that threaten the profitability of capitalism.  Sometimes, in extremis, it will nationalise capitalist concerns but since the state is itself capitalist this can easily be reversed, as it has been so many times.

The harmony of capitalism is therefore undermined by class struggle and the state exists to resolve this conflict.  Since this conflict can be resolved in ‘normal’ and peaceful periods through negotiation or compromise the state will support this.  In periods of crisis when it cannot be resolved the state will apply its force to defend capitalism.

In normal times the basic legitimacy and rules of capitalism are not contested so resolution means defending capitalism by default.  In periods of crisis workers break the rules and the state, as rule maker, must defend these rules or see its role destroyed so that defending itself is coincidental with defending the capitalist system on which the rules are based.

Since the rules apply to everyone and, as we have said, the economic system seems natural, democratic and equitable the rules and the state that defends them appear not to be defending any particular interest but the general interest, the national interest.  Workers who break the rules are charged with attacking the national interest, which is one reason why socialists are so opposed to nationalism since it binds workers to a state that defends and protects their exploitation.

So the state does indeed reflect class struggle but it is the means by which one class deploys the overwhelming power it disposes of in society, by virtue of its monopoly of the ownership of the means of production, to dominate and suppress the class of workers on whom it relies to expand its capital.

As law maker it sets rules which can only be consistent with the dominant mode of production and which are ultimately enforced by the most openly and patently reactionary arms of the state – the police, army, prisons and judicial system.  By these rules, as the old English saying goes:

They hang the man and flog the woman,

Who steals the goose from off the common,

Yet let the greater villain loose,

That steals the common from the goose.

The capitalist state therefore appears to be autonomous from any particular economic interest but the essential characteristic of the state is not its autonomy but its class character.  This autonomy is often exaggerated by Marxists and it is not uncommon for particular capitalist class interests to dominate to the detriment of others.  Political history is replete with conflicts between various sections of the capitalist class – industrial versus landed, large versus small, monopoly versus competitive, national versus comprador and foreign, declining versus growing, financial versus manufacturing.  This is why ideally the state does have autonomy.  But it cannot have it from the system as a whole.

How the state does this is a question of historical development but we must nail the argument that just because the state existed before capitalism and therefore could not then have been capitalist, it is not its class character which is its essential nature.  Before the capitalist state there was a feudal state and sometimes the bourgeoisie fought what is termed ‘bourgeois revolutions’ in order to make the state a capitalist one.

In these cases the transference of power was one from one exploiting class to another while socialism is the taking of power by the exploited majority.  That is why it cannot be achieved by simply taking over an oppressive and exploitative mechanism and developing it into a mechanism of liberation and freedom.  But we shall come back to that.