Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 17 – social classes

The relations established when people produce together is fundamental to the overall position they occupy in society. These relations of production are therefore fundamental to all the social and political questions faced by individuals.

Yet in mainstream conceptions of politics these fundamental relations do not exist – rent, profit and wages are all the expressions of relations of production but they are simply treated as a given, and the distribution of population in receipt of them also simply assumed.  Instead of examining the foundations of society, what already exists is simply assumed to be natural.

The class categories that are employed, such as ‘middle class’, are politically loaded to express either neutrality between those who work and those who own capital, and/or beg the question of what these people are in between.  Old class categories such as A, B, C1, C2, D and E are recognised as outdated even in their own terms while newer categories such as these don’t explain anything, while smothering fundamental divisions.  In Britain, and also Ireland, cultural expressions of class such as speech come to represent class, again without explaining it. Politics, as marketing, packages people into all sorts of random categories, from ‘squeezed middle’ to ‘just about managing’ to ‘people who get up early in the morning’ and ‘hard working families.’   How could real alternatives to what exists arise from such misconceptions?

All these categories appear as more or less random aspects of the lives of working people who above all else have to work for a living but cannot be categorised as such, cannot be informed that their fundamental characteristic is one of class defined by relations of production.  Other divisions heaped upon them, such as those based on religion or race, help make this a reality while these and other basic divisions such as sex overlay such division, adding, reinforcing and obscuring all at the same time but never replacing or eradicating.

Identification of new categories of social existence – be they defined in workers’ roles as consumers, the ‘affluent worker’, or as producers, ‘professionals’ or ‘precariat’ – might reflect some reality of capitalist development but never at the most fundamental level.

Marx doesn’t reject the reality behind these categories but sees their elaboration as the working out of the contradictory development of capitalism:

‘Incidentally, . . . although every capitalist demands that his workers should save, he means only his own workers, because they relate to him as workers; and by no means does this apply to the remainder of the workers, because these relate to him as consumers. In spite of all the pious talk of frugality he therefore searches for all possible ways of stimulating them to consume, by making his commodities more attractive, by filling their ears with babble about new needs. It is precisely this side of the relationship between capital and labour which is an essential civilising force, and on which the historic justification—but also the contemporary power—of capital is based.’ (Marx, Grundrisse)

This property of capitalism is not incidental, as Marx notes, ‘the simple concept of capital has to contain its civilising tendencies etc. in themselves; they must not, as in the economics books until now, appear merely as external consequences. Likewise, the contradictions which are later released, demonstrated as already latent within it.’

The unavoidable development of capitalism by its nature contains contradictions that are fundamental to it, and being fundamental, involve progress that presages its supersession by an alternative social system, based on its massive increase in the productivity of labour.  This gives rise to variations in the roles of workers in production and to their relation to, and aspirations for, the fruits of the productivity of labour in their role as consumers.

The relations of production therefore define the classes which individuals belong to, even if they have not the slightest notion that this is the class position they occupy or even misinterpret their class interests, whether due to racism, nationalism or whatever.  In reality most people do understand that they occupy a particular class position, and are members of a class, although fewer then define themselves and their social and political interests with class politics consistent with this position.

This is truer of individuals within the working class than capitalist class, whose members generally have a much higher level of consciousness of their membership of their class and appreciation of what political interests they therefore must pursue as a result. While socialists usually concern themselves with the point of view of the oppressed and exploited class and their political ideas; when it comes to the consciousness of the exploiting classes, the decisive role of production and productive relations on the form of political consciousness is much more apparent.

The rich are more conscious of their wealth and its source, because they have it, than those who actually created it but do not.  They are more conscious of who they continue to get it from, and their competitors for it, from within their class and from other classes.

This, however, does not also prevent some of them from misinterpreting their class interests or making erroneous political calculations. Not everything individual capitalists do reveals their essential ‘true’ nature and ‘true’ interests.  This is one reason why socialists should not simply seek the opposite of what one political representative or section of the capitalist class happens to advance at any particular time, but seek to identify and advance the political interests of the whole working class independently, taking account of the whole constellation of class relations.

Today, we only need to think of the numerous and varied state, state-sponsored and private think tanks proclaiming the benefits of capitalism, forecasting its development, developing policies for it and providing consultants to implement changes, to appreciate the level of class consciousness of the capitalist class, and also its variety of outlooks.

Classes are therefore collectives and not simply an addition of atomised individuals.  Atomised individuals as such do not exist, as we are all products of families, friends, work colleagues, and those we interact with on a daily basis.  More than that, our lives are products of millions of people we will never meet who set rules by which we live, through laws, regulations and standards.

Literally millions of people impact on our lives in a way that we take for granted most of the time, as we must or we would spend our time thinking of nothing else.  The cooperation among millions of people to ensure our society works, produces and consumes, that we may continue to live, grows and grows every year.

When we enter the world we do not choose how we do so and do not choose to which class we belong.  Only in young people’s sci-fi films, such as ‘Divergent’, is it possible to pick how one wants to live in society and the role we want to play.  Our position in society constrains our choices and conditions how we lead our lives, so determining our view of the world, which we can never look at totally afresh, free of any preconceptions.  What we can do is become as conscious as possible of what these are.

When Marxists therefore define a society as capitalist we mean certain things which must be studied in order to be fully understood.  Even the idea of capitalism as an example of a particular set of relations of production must be determined through research and study involving understanding the practical reality of individuals’ everyday lives.  The limits of such explanation must be determined in the process, and cannot be taken as completed or timeless without need for continual rethinking and development, just as the world changes and develops itself.

In capitalism, the relations of production define the existence of a class that has to sell its labour power in order to live and, in order that they produce for society, that they be combined with the means of production.  These means of production include factories, offices, transport, shops, warehouses, docks, mines and all machinery and equipment of every kind that workers employ when they work.  The latter are owned by a separate class of capitalists, and sometimes the state rather than private corporations.

Just as there are no individuals who can properly be understood apart from the world they inhabit, with its many other individuals, so classes cannot be understood at the individual level.  A worker may negotiate a pay rise with an employer, but what makes the worker a member of a class is that they cannot survive without selling their capacity to work to a capitalist.  Similarly, a capitalist is just such a person because they own the office or factory and the worker does not.  They have the money to pay the worker for her capacity to work on their behalf.  This work is carried out not because of the consumption needs of the capitalist but because he wants to make a profit from the labour performed by the worker.

A well-paid worker, or someone who considers themselves middle class, can hire childminders or even a few hours of a person to clean their house, but they will never get rich doing so because the childminder or cleaner is not paid in order to make a profit.  The money paid in wages to the childminder or cleaner is not therefore capital aimed at procuring profit.  No matter how well paid the worker is, she will not be better off financially from having paid wages to childminders or cleaners.

The capitalist on the other hand will hope to make a profit and become richer through paying wages to his workers, who can indeed be childminders or cleaners, whose services are sold to others, and who are paid less by the capitalist than the value of the labour they perform on his behalf.

The worker on the other hand, no matter how affluent she is likely to become, cannot abstain from selling her labour power because she has no other source of income.  For the vast majority neither savings nor family support can substitute for their wage or salary.

In such a society, the need to sell one’s labour power exists because the ability to cosume at the prevailing standard of living expected in that society cannot be achieved through the worker labouring on her own behalf or through ownership of capital in any form, be it money or material means of producing commodities.

At the beginnings of capitalism peasants or farmers who owned or had customary rights to land could provide for themselves and did not need to sell their ability to work to someone else.  Capitalism sometimes drove them from their land in order to make them dependent on selling their labour power to capitalists.  Ironic then, that capitalist ideologues condemn workers for not standing on their own two feet while their system originates, and can only stand on its feet, through depriving the labouring population of its independent ownership of the means of production.

These are the characteristic relations of production under capitalism.  These relations dominate people’s lives because they determine what they do eight or more hours a day; what income and security they can provide for their families; what levels of consumption they can aspire to; and what general social characteristics they will share with neighbours and friends.  In short, all these social characteristics are entwined with the relations of production, which are therefore infused into every aspect of our lives.  Our culture as expressed in everyday behaviour is not reducible to our relations of production but neither is it separate from these relations, which define the fundamental social relationships of which our daily lives consist.

This is what is meant by the first section, quoted in an earlier post, of the ‘Preface’ of 1859 drafted by Marx:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter Into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

Back to part 16

Forward to part 18

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?

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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.

Back to Part 4

Forward to Part 6

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.

Back to Part 3

Forward to Part 5

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?

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