Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Capitalism is a society beset by problems, from poverty, unemployment and homelessness to war, violence and insecurity. As the current recession shows, even those who consider themselves to be comfortably off and with a relatively ‘good’ job may still be thrown out of work with little notice. The housing market is in such a state that many people cannot sell their homes and estate agents are closing almost as quickly as pubs. The fact is that capitalism throws up problem after problem, and this is an in-built aspect of the system’s operation.
Now, socialism will not be a society without problems. There will doubtless still be personal disagreements and dislikes, and natural disasters to disrupt the straightforward functioning of everyday life. But we can say with some assurance that the problems of socialism will be very different from those of capitalism.
We may distinguish two situations. The first consists of problems of capitalism which will simply not arise in socialism; the second of problems that socialism will be far better equipped to address and to solve than capitalism is.
All the economic difficulties of capitalism will automatically be things of the past in a socialist society. The idea that there could be people who want to work but are forced to sit around idle, while at the same time there are others who badly need the goods or services that the first group could provide, would be totally alien. There would be no unemployed building workers alongside homeless people or inhabitants of slums. No unemployed agricultural workers alongside the starving. Anyone who wishes to contribute to production will be able to do so, without considerations of profit and the market being of any relevance. Poverty will vanish in a society based on free access and production for use, and people will not starve while food is exported. So all the problems of destitution, insecurity and worry will be gone, since these are created by capitalism’s rationing of goods and its exploitation of the working class. Concepts like booms and slumps and recession and unemployment will have been confined to the history books.
Equally, war will no longer exist. With no contending countries and no ruling classes, there will be no need for vast armies making use of the latest weapons technology. Issues such as ensuring the availability of raw materials like oil will not arise, since they will be the common property of all the earth’s people. Resources, both natural and human, will no longer be wasted on killing and inventing new ways of killing other humans.
At the same time, there will be other problems which will exist in socialism, and for which the establishment of a co-operative commonwealth will not automatically provide a solution. Environmental issues would be a prominent example of this. Under capitalism, the profit motive and the short-term nature of planning combine to cause pollution and destruction of the environment. Socialism would be unable to simply stop interfering with the world we live in, since production of any kind assumes some sort of interaction with our environment. Nor can we say now how much mess capitalism will leave behind for socialism to grapple with. To what degree, for instance, will global warming have gone beyond the point of no return? How much oil will still be available, and how will energy be produced?
There are no easy answers to such ecological questions, and we cannot just dismiss them by saying that socialism will evince a concern for the environment that capitalism never can. Rather we can point out that satisfying human need and caring for the environment will be at the forefront of socialism’s priorities. If they come into conflict, decisions will have to be taken about whether to emphasise one or the other in a particular case. The answers cannot be given yet, since we do not even know just what the questions will be. But from anything other than a capitalist perspective, caring for the world is part of satisfying human need, since we are part of the planet and must always live within it.
Friday, June 19, 2009
From the Western Clarion, Dec. 1917
One of the most amazing paradoxes to be found in modern civilization is the workers belief that they are free. Every experience points to the fact that they are quite the reverse. Their whole life, from childhood to the grave, is composed of actions most of which are either unpleasant, irksome, or revolting.
As soon as he leaves school (that institution for turning the growing crop of wage slaves’ children into serviceable material for industry) the actions of the young worker are determined , not by desire, but by stern necessity. The larder of his parents too often needs immediate replenishing - the clothes of his younger brothers and sisters - aye, and of his parents too, require replacing. He must go to work. He has arrived at a stage of development when his energy is of sufficient strength to be of use in industry. He owns a commodity now - labor-power. He must sell it. From that moment the labor-market has his destiny within its grasp.
If industry is brisk perhaps a little latitude will be his, as to what kind of work he is able to get. The wages may be a little better than “last year,” and the boss may not be quite so tyrannical, but work he must. He sets the alarm at 7:00, not because he particularly relishes the biting air of a winters’ morning, but because circumstances over which he has no control have ordered that the hum of industry shall begin at 8:30 am. At first the youthful vendor of human energy may look upon the search for work as a kind of adventure. The factories, or other places of industry he visits in quest of a buyer are so big - do busy - so bewildering. But as the days roll by and he still finds himself jobless, the glamor of his new experience begins to wane. Egged on by his parents, who need what little support his meagre wages will afford, he continues on his daily round, together with other lads like himself on a similar mission. At last the memorable day arrives. He gets a job! ‘Tis true the wages are insignificant and the hours long, compared with the drudgery of school, but he thinks, he will soon “rise.” Alas! for youthful hopes! Once a wage-slave, and industry embraces him, not with the fond embrace of a mother but with the embrace of an angry bear which which crushes life itself from out its victim - he has become the appendage of a machine. His speed must be its speed. Other boys have done it - other boys, capable, willing, and anxious to do it, are outside - he must - and does. But at what cost? His youthful frame is strained to its utmost. His mind, dulled by the daily toil amidst the noise and dust of his surroundings becomes the mind of a wage-slave, capable of thinking only of work or of the crudest recreations. Freedom? Sure. Free to quit his job - and starve. He must keep on - and toil, till the machine, through its owner, casts him off, and this it does at frequent intervals.
The products of the facory in which he works belong to the owner of that factory, as a matter of course. Has that owner not put out his good money in raw materials, machinery and wages? And, as capitalist must he not be recompensed for his investment? To profit by the ownership of his factory he must sell the product of his workers’ toil and he does - provided there are buyers for it. This capitalist, too, considers himself free, but economic forces prove otherwise, for, will what he may there comes a time when the market will not absorb his goods - the orders dwindle - competition with his fellow capitalists brings prices tumbling - he faces actual loss - he closes his works and thereby separates the workers from the means of production - and incidentally from their meal tickets. This dearth of buyers upon which follows stagnation of business, unemployment and misery, spring from causes that lie at the roots of capitalist society itself, and is clearly undesired by both capitalist and worker. The former suffering at least a loss of profit , perhaps ruin; the latter poverty, perhaps starvation.
Under capitalism all products, and labor-power as well, take the form of commodities. They only change hands through the medium of an exchange - through buying and selling. But in order to buy there must first have been a sale of something at least as valuable as the commodity to be bought. The purchasing power of the vast majority of the people is limited strictly to their wages, which are reduced by competition to a level determined by the bare necessities of life, whilst the development of machinery has so increased labor’s productivity that only a small portion of industry’s is necessary to feed, clothe, and shelter the working class. The balance cannot be consumed by the owners of the means of production - capitalists cannot personally consume millions of tons of flour, steel rails and tobacco, neither can they wear millions of pairs of boots nor ride in countless autos. They can consume unlimited values in the form of luxuries, and they do, but in order to buy these, the commoner commodities, the production of which supplies them with their income, must first be sold. The wages of the working class only buys a part, consequently a surplus gluts the market and causes stagnation, relieved only by re-investment in undeveloped countries, a dangerous though necessary expedient, since the development of “new” countries creates competitors hitherto non-existent for a shrinking market.
As the young wage-worker grows it becomes more and more apparent that the commodities he is able to withdraw from the market as a result of spending his wages merely suffice to enable him to re-appear on the morrow as a worker; that the raw material upon which he works functions only as an absorbant of his energy, and that the whole process constantly reproduces him as a worker and his boss a capitalist.
The years roll by. With manhood comes manhood’s necessities. He gets a “home.” His job becomes from that time on, all the more precious. The freedom to wander, in search of work, has lost its old significance and charm. An anchor is upon his life. The spectre of dismissal constantly haunts him and raises thoughts not only of poverty and starvation for himself, but also the maddening site of a hungry wife and children. Toil he must! Work becomes his one obsession - overtime, or rather the few extra nickels it brings in - almost a necessity. Free? Of course he is! Free to work - when his masters need him. There can be no doubt, however, that he is free from many things. No wrinkles sear his brow as a result of the heavy responsibilities which the burden of industrial stewardship entail. No sleepless nights result from his activities “in society.” No legal problems dig his death. Freedom, from comfort, from leisure, from art and, above all, from property, is his inalienable right as a wage slave.
The workers’ belief in their so-called freedom, is however, not so strange after all, if the money factors which go to form his ideas are taken into consideration. Thoroughly imbued at school with a method of thought which seeks to explain human events by attributing them to genius and which endows mankind with a free will upon the nature of which depends the individual’s success or failure, the worker started life ill-equipped to withstand the hollow plattitudes of press and pulpit, patriot and politician. He starts, in fact, a mental slave. In the commercial struggle he sees capitalists crushed and reduced to the ranks of the proletariat, whilst some of the members of his class may be seen to rise. The intervention of the contrast , as between equals, obscures the true relation between himself and his boss. Past history, what little he knows of it seems to repeat “The poor ye have always with ye.” It is pleasant for him to consider himself free and the condition of his brain, made sluggish by long hours, toil, adulterated and ill-cooked food, and lack of proper recreation, make apathy inevitable.
Change, however, is the one certain law of nature. The quickly succeeding events, which characterize this age of machinery as the age of “progress,” are having an effect. “Freedom” has been played up too much. “Democracy” has been stuffed down the workers’ throats til its stink forces them to take notice and think about it. The time has come for a change in thought.
The sooner the better.
Friday, June 12, 2009
This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin The Origin of Species but also of the publication of Marx’s first economic writings after his more detailed study of the workings of capitalism, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
The Preface to this work contains a summary of Marx and Engels' materialist conception of history. Marx comments that during the course of his studies he reached the conclusion that the explanation of social development was not to be found merely in the realm of ideas but rather in the material conditions of life, and that a proper understanding of capitalism is to be found in economics. Marx then gives a condensed account of his key concepts and their likely relationships which provided the guiding thread for his historical research:
“The general result at which I arrived and which, once won, served as a guiding thread for my studies, can be briefly formulated as follows: in the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundations the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so we cannot judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation. In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individual; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close.”
Discussions of this passage usually omit the first sentence above where Marx says the following “general result” served as a “guiding thread” for his research. This makes it clear that his theory of history is not a substitute for actual research. The materialist conception of history is a method of investigation, not a philosophy of history. Marx and Engels emphasised this point in their first explanation of their materialist (in the practical sense of the word, not in its acquisitive sense) outlook:
“Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material, to indicate the sequence of its separate strata. But they by no means afford a recipe or schema, as does philosophy, for neatly trimming the epochs of history. On the contrary, our difficulties begin only when we set about the observation and the arrangement – the real depiction – of our historical material, whether of a past epoch or of the present” (The German Ideology, 1846).
As Engels wrote: “...the materialist method is converted into its direct opposite if instead of being used as a guiding thread in historical research it is made to serve as a ready-cut pattern on which to tailor historical facts” (Letter to Paul Ernst,4 June 1890). And Marx emphatically rejected “general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical”. He poured scorn on a critic who:
“... insists on transforming my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in western Europe into an historico-philosophical theory of the general path prescribed by fate to all nations whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves in order that they may ultimately arrive at the economic system which ensures, together with the greatest expansion of the productive power of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. He is doing me too much honour and at the same time slandering me too much” (Letter to the editorial board of Otechestvennive Zapiski, November 1877).
Despite the numerous warnings, many commentators have concluded that Marx's theory of history, as set out in the 1859 Preface, is a form of productive forces (or technological) determinism. For instance, in his influential book GA Cohen claims that “high technology was not only necessary but also sufficient for socialism” (Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, 1978). But socialism is not inevitable; the fatalism of determinism is fatal for the socialist movement which requires a politically active class conscious working class to achieve our self-emancipation as a class.
The 1859 Preface assumes the development of human productive forces throughout history, but this is not automatic or inevitable. In Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) social and political development did not occur exactly as outlined in the 1859 Preface, but that was not the point. Marx's hypothesis showed the key concepts and where to look in researching the past and present. That study reaffirmed the importance of understanding the specific contexts of material circumstances and humans as agents of historical change:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.”
If this looks like stating the obvious (apart from the sexist assumption), to some extent it is because of Marx's influence on public thinking about history. In his day prominence in historical writing was given to the role of ideas – for example, nationalism, freedom, religion – in explaining social development. This is still not unknown today and there are many who, explicitly or implicitly, reject the materialist theory of history for its revolutionary conclusions.
The 1859 Preface identifies certain well-documented “modes of production” found in history, whose constituents are “forces of production” (productive technology) and “relations of production” (economic classes). Present-day capitalist production relations involve minority class ownership of the means of life, which means the majority must sell their labour power for a wage, while production is geared to profit for the few. In feudalism – where aristocrats owned most of the land and peasants were tied down to that land by a host of restrictions, including the requirement that they did unpaid labour for their liege lords. There was slavery – where the bodies of the producers were the property of slave owners and were bought and sold like land or goods. The Asiatic mode of production (sometimes called “oriental despotism”) was a system where millions of peasants were engaged under military pressure to raise water for the irrigation of crops. There were various types of primitive society – the key one being the primitive communistic tribal form, where localised common ownership was practised.
The actual correspondence between forces of production and relations of production takes place through the mediation of the class struggle and the balance of class forces – what Marx called “the respective power of the combatants” (Value, Price and Profit, 1865). For example, China's rise as a capitalist super-power has taken place mainly through the Chinese state's ruthless use of cheap and plentiful labour power, rather than advances in its productive technology. For the workers of the world the materialist conception of history is a vital tool in our emancipation, for taking informed political action to bring class-divided society to an end.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Monday, June 1, 2009
Book Review: Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left by Murray Bookchin. AK Press. 1999.
Murray Bookchin is on the same wavelength as us in that he, too, stands for a classless, stateless society of common ownership in which money becomes redundant and the principle "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" applies.
But the agreement does not stop there. He recommends Marx's analysis of how the capitalist economic system works ("As a study of the capitalist economy as a whole, it [Capital] has no equal today. Marx's economic studies are central to any socialist analysis"). In this book, largely a collection of interviews, he also argues that, although capitalism can offer the occasional palliative, it can never be reformed so as to work in the interest of the majority. And he defends rationalism, science and technology against the current wave of New Age mysticism and self-indulgent life-stylism (including fighting the police on demonstrations) that has infected the Green and anarchist movements. He opposes so-called "identity politics", seeing this as essentially seeking a better deal for women, gays and blacks within capitalism as well as being divisive.
So where do we disagree? As a boy Bookchin had been a member of the US Communist Party's youth section, then he became a Trotskyist. By the 1960s he had come to call himself an anarchist and wrote a series of influential articles that were later published as Post-Scarcity Anarchism. His main argument was that current scientific knowledge and technology had made it possible to establish more or less immediately a decentralised society which would not only eliminate material want but also allow the state and hierarchies to be dissolved and money to be abolished.
In one of the essays called "Listen Marxist!" he gave the vanguardists with their advocacy of "proletarian dictatorships" and "transitional states" a real trouncing in the same sort of way we do. Only he mistakenly attributed the source of their views to Marx, whereas the essay should have more accurately been called "Listen Leninist!". Interestingly enough, while still disagreeing with Marx (as over questions of history and the need to win control of the central state) he backtracks considerably in this book on his earlier criticisms.
The major disagreement between him and us is precisely over this last point of the need for the majority to win control of the central state in the course of establishing socialism. In classic anarchist fashion he opposes this on the grounds that, supposedly, it would lead to the perpetuation of the state under new management. He accepts that to win control of the state the majority would need a party but argues that any party must inevitably reflect the state.
He is on very weak ground here as, contrary to classical anarchism (indeed, some other anarchists regard him as not being an anarchist for this), he is in favour of those who want a decentralised, classless, stateless society participating in local elections. But this too involves organising as a party. But if such a party, operating at local level, can organise itself on democratic, non-hierarchical lines why can't a party contesting national elections do so?
Bookchin does in fact advocate co-operation between local "libertarian municipalist" parties, so why couldn't they constitute a federation based on the principles of delegated democracy to win control of central state power without becoming a statist party? And if they could, why not do it? Surely this would be a better strategy than working to win control of local councils in the hope that when a majority of them had been won "the nation-state's power would be sufficiently diminished that people would withdraw their support from it, and it would collapse like a house of cards"? Far better, if only to minimise the risk of violence, to organise also to win a majority in parliament too, not to form a government of course but to end capitalism and dismantle the state.