The socialist society envisaged by Karl Marx can only be built on the achievements of capitalism and what has been called its civilising mission. This progress rests on an enormously increased productivity of labour, which has reached such a level that the productive forces of society now realistically promise a society that more and more meets the needs of all its members, with inequality and insecurity vastly reduced and material poverty eliminated.
Within capitalism, progress inevitably involves increased exploitation since exploitation of labour is how this society increases productivity. But progress there has undoubtedly been and without it socialism would not be possible.
Capitalism has created this possibility but capitalism now stands in its way.
When I first became interested in socialist politics in the mid-seventies I used to visit the Communist Party bookshop on High Street in Glasgow. I remember picking up a CP pamphlet extolling the virtues of the ‘socialist’ countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR. It set out the daily calorific intake of the average citizen in a number of these countries with East Germany the top performer.
Even at the time this jarred and seemed somewhat disappointing. I was by no means rich. I lived in a tenement with an outside toilet and shared a bedroom with my sister, while my mother slept in the living room. But I never once thought that I was going to suffer from a lack of calories; in fact I barely thought about food and was too busy running around to worry about it.
Now of course, in the space of less than a lifetime, a problem in the most developed capitalist societies is not a lack of calories for the average working class person, which I knew from my Scottish granny had been a problem in the past, but too many calories!
Reading some material on inequality and its effects, as argued in the book ‘The Spirit Level’, I came across some quotes that illustrated how very different the problem is now. Now the stereotypical poor person is overweight or obese, or rather the latter are nearly always working class or poor, while the equivalent rich person is slim and healthy. The capitalist food and drink industry specialises in feeding fatburgers and sugar-filled drinks to the poor while offering exotic sounding pulses, vegetables and bottled water in delicatessens for the discerning middle class.
I exaggerate of course; this is a distorted caricature albeit with a grain of truth, but the most important truth is that in many countries, for the vast majority of the population, an adequate food supply is not a problem. Problems with its supply lie elsewhere, including in the exploitation of the humanity and nature that ensures its production.
While the productive forces of society more and more are capable of offering increased economic security, freedom from social stress and worry, and a promise of a fulfilling life, capitalism is more and more demanding that this promise can be offered for only some and on more and more unacceptable terms. These terms include zero hour contracts, massive increases in debt, an absence of rights in the workplace and increasing threats to political rights outside it. Working into your seventies is now the prospect for those in their youth and young adulthood.
Nevertheless, despite all this, it is unquestionable that progress has been made. Had it not, then on what grounds could we claim that all these impositions and threats are unnecessary? That an alternative is eminently possible?
A second aspect of this progress is that because it is capitalist progress it is accompanied by repeated crises, which can lead to sometimes dramatic falls in living standards for some, and constant insecurity and increased exploitation for many others; who are required to work longer and harder and with relatively less remuneration while having less and less security over their employment.
The financial crisis has come and many think it has also gone, with the answer to it being austerity and the bankers going back to business as usual. Severe world-wide recession threatened after 2008, followed by crisis in the Eurozone and crises in developing countries as commodity prices fell. This was only partially offset by continued growth in China, which is now also threatened by a similar credit boom and overcapacity
From being the fastest growing country in the west, the UK is now slowing dramatically while the Irish State, although it crashed, is now supposedly booming. These booms and busts make crisis appear a constant threat, the boom period demonstrating the legitimacy of capitalism and the bust demonstrating the difficulty of, and for, an alternative.
For many these crises are proof that the contradictions of capitalism are insurmountable, are intrinsic to the system and cannot be escaped. Just as progress under capitalism is built upon exploitation, so it is also achieved through crises. It is crises that most violently reorganises production and ensures its further development. Crises therefore not only express the irrationality of capitalism but also its rationality, its ability to achieve further development through destruction.
The most common alternative understanding is one that proposes that the system can be cleansed of its most irrational aspects while also ensuring that the growth that characterises capitalism can continue, and even increase. The private greed that disfigures the system can be ameliorated by the state, which can be regarded as the representative of society as a whole and can act on its behalf. Freeing this state from direct and indirect control of the 1% is therefore the most important task.
Marxists question this alternative and point out that inequality is not primarily a feature of market outcomes, of inequality of income, of working conditions, employment, housing and general welfare. It is a question of utter and complete inequality in the conditions of production that generates income inequality and all the other inequalities that condition the general welfare of the majority of society. What is distributed, and is considered fair distribution, is determined by how the wealth of society is produced in the first place.
Marx put it like this – “before distribution can be the distribution of products; it is (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2), which is a further specification of the same relation, the distribution of the members of society among the different kinds of production. (Subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production). The distribution of products is evidently only a result of this distribution, which is comprised within the process of production itself and determines the structure of production.”
If the means by which the wealth in society is produced is not owned in common, by everyone, but by a small number so becoming a separate class, then the distribution of income and wealth that flows from this production will primarily benefit this class.
This is why we have massive increases in productivity and material wealth but it is accompanied by increased exploitation and inequality. Why it is accompanied by crises, in which private appropriation of the fruits of production, and of the means of production itself, conflict with the greater and greater cooperation required to make this production possible.
Nor do Marxists believe that the state is the true representative of society as a whole. It is not ‘captured’ by the 1%, its functions are determined by the structure of society as a whole, by the fact that the means of production belong to a separate tiny class. The state can adjust, within limits, inequality of income, housing and working conditions but it cannot fundamentally adjust the ownership of production that is the guarantee of general inequality. In acting to defend the regular and ordered functioning of society, it must by this fact alone defend society’s fundamental structure, lest any radical change threaten its stability or the stability of the state itself.
And even if this were not the case, the argument for a socialism based on ownership of production by the state has floundered on the experience of the ‘socialist’ states in Eastern Europe and the USSR, which, before their collapse, could boast that their system fed their people.
Marx’s alternative is not based on the state, which is the instrument of capitalist rule, but is based on the progress that capitalism has created, it development of the productivity of labour and most importantly on the labour itself that performs this productive work. Marx’s alternative is therefore based on the working class and its potential to control society.
Crises demonstrate the necessity of an alternative but in themselves do not create that alternative. They can demonstrate what is wrong, but it is what it is possible to replace this system with that is the question. Only if the contradictions which give rise to crises contain within themselves their progressive resolution is it possible for there to be a progressive alternative to capitalism. So, what is the nature of the contradiction that Marx identified that promises that a fundamentally different society is possible?