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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

March 10 – Socialism or Barbarism

In his theory of historical materialism Marx is appropriating at a very profound level what had heretofore been the province of conservative thinkers.  Socialism will come about not, fundamentally speaking, because individuals are persuaded to think it is a good idea in terms of utility or morality. (Of course, if most people do not come to see it as a good idea, then it will not happen either.) Nor will it happen because the ruling class has been persuaded to step aside. It can only happen when the time is right and the objective conditions are ripe. Again, there is flood of debate about how this right time might be scientifically specified in advance of the fact. But this demand for predictability is based upon a misunderstanding of the kind of science of history Marx is developing. In general, though, it is clear that socialism becomes what he calls a “real possibility” only when capitalism is manifestly incapable of developing the productive forces beyond a certain point, at a point where society is increasingly and more frequently faced with crises and collapse. At certain points in history people are faced with a dilemma and a choice. Either they radically change their social system and social relations or they have to live with a serious regression behind what they have already achieved.

It should be clear, then, that the superstructure is not simply an effect trailing along in the wake of an economic base. The bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, have been the first to really show what human activity can bring about. “The bourgeoisie during its rule, “ says Marx, “of scarcely one hundred years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than all preceding generations together.” The law of value, enforcing the ceaseless accumulation of surplus value, has sparked a tremendous acceleration of the development of human productive forces. But the law of value could itself not have come into being, nor persisted, unless the various elements of the superstructure had not given rise to the required relations of production. State, politics and ideology operate so as to maintain and preserve the relations of production. They are, the superstructure in a determinate form is, absolutely essential in the preservation and maintenance of the whole.

If workers really did understand exploitation , then they would not feel they were treated as equals or treated fairly when entering into the wage contract. This feeling is  an ideological, superstructural factor absolutely necessary to the maintenance of capitalist relations of production. Consequently, those relations will not change without a change in the class consciousness of the workers. The distinction between a base and a superstructure must not be interpreted as a distinction between what is essential and what is unessential, or even as a distinction between what is primary and what is secondary.

As capitalism matures it is marked by an increasing lack of correspondence between the forces and the relations of production. The relations of production increasingly fetter the further development of the productive forces. Eventually this contradiction becomes so grave that the necessity of a collective decision emerges. The choice becomes one between socialism or barbarism. During the first phase of capitalist development, the choice was between capitalism or barbarism, if you think of feudalism as being relatively barbaric. And, until the work of the first phase is done, Marx’s qualified support lies with capitalism. But at some point, at the point where at least a working class has come into existence and achieved a sufficient degree of political maturity, there is a shift.

Marx is himself ambiguous as to what that point might be and how severe the conflict between the further development of productive forces and the present relations of production has to get before a choice is forced upon us. A hundred and fifty years have passed since the time Marx predicted that out of the self-destruction of capitalism, humankind would soon choose to move  toward a higher form of social system. And because this prediction has not come true, many think that, well --- “Marx was wrong”. Capitalism has continued to expand, despite all the distortion that has been introduced into the productive forces, but with increasing difficulty and with decreasing resemblance to its earlier liberal and individualist forms. Yet it seems far from moribund. “No social order,” says Marx, “ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been 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.” It seems to be a clear enough statement. And, in retrospect, it applies in a rough and general way to the manner in which capitalism appeared within and then displaced feudalism. However, it also clearly indicates that from within the thick of this development, where our experience takes shape, it is very difficult to know whether that point is rapidly being approached or not. Not only socialist parties in their propaganda, but also Marx himself, were constantly talking as though the moment were about to arrive with the next economic downturn, the next war, or the next political uprising in Paris. They were too optimistic about socialism, or too pessimistic about capitalism, depending upon the way you want to look at it, in terms of judging the moment of arrival.

But a judgement of misplaced optimism, within the boundaries allowed by a theory is far different from the verdict that a supposed theory of historical inevitability has been falsified. For Marx’s is actually not a theory of  historical inevitability. The only thing that is inevitable in it is the eventual self-destruction of capitalism. This is not at all difficult to accept. It is even trivial as a prediction. Nothing lasts forever. Should we believe that a thousand years from now capitalism, Disneyworld, Hollywood, Republicans and Democrates will still be kicking around? That real question is what will replace it? It is not necessarily going to be something higher or better.

Marx knew perfectly well that some institutions and even certain social systems as a whole, such as the Indian caste system, or the centralized agrarian bureaucracy of traditional China, could persist in a sort of fundamental stagnation even for millennia. But capitalism has not yet found a way to stagnate. This is one of its unique and important features. It does not seem to enjoy the option of stagnation, because of the grow or die rule.  Capitalism is forward motion, more profit, a higher GDP each year --- or else. Capitalism means the further expansion and penetration of the market principle, more invention and newer technologies, and a heavier ecological footprint. If more, and more, profits are not being made, then capitalism has to go because that is what it is.

In terms of the model Marx is developing, the point of social revolution is the point at which the growing contradictions between the forces and relations of production is no longer solvable within the framework of the already existing relations of production or the given superstructure. The maintenance of the wage relation and of profit-seeking as the central pillars of the social order are no longer compatible with the maintenance of the achievements of civilization at their present level. It is at this point that class struggle assumes an essential transformative role. It goes on all the time and is never unimportant, but it becomes the essential vehicle of revolution at these choice points. In the various revolutionary transitions from feudalism to capitalism, it was the middle class that bore the demands of the development of the forces of production. It was that class that spoke for “historical necessity” at that point. If civilization were to move forward it was, by hindsight, a possibility only under the leadership of the bourgeoisie. Now Marx is thinking that something similar will take place at the next historical point of choice, only under the leadership of a class to end all classes.

In Marx’s idea of modern socialism and communism, the “associated producers” reassert their power as a community of social individuals in order to determine according to their own plan who will do what, when, where and how. This is done on the understanding that whatever is done is directly for the benefit of the associated individuals and not, by making a profit, to serve the expanded reproduction of capital. In capitalist society, according to Marx, each capitalist employer must grow by expanding his investment and profit or go under. Capital must be accumulated at an expanding rate or else the society begins to fall apart. “Accumulate, accumulate, that is the law and the prophets,” says Marx somewhere in Capital.

The fragmentation of society introduced by capitalist accumulation is not, however, something that Marx simply denounces. A utopian socialist or a feudal socialist might simply denounce it. Marx, however, points out that the substitution of dependence on pseudo-natural things for dependence on superior persons and gods is an essential step forward in human history. A modern communal society would be impossible without the preparation afforded by capitalism, or by some other arrangement that did the work of capitalism. And the essential work that capitalism does is  precisely to smash the old customary, superstitious and particularistic bonds and produce individuals oriented towards personal worldly freedom and capable of relating to all others as equals. So dependence upon money is an essential social step forward to a realm of freedom. In capitalism, the individual, even the exploited worker, maybe especially the alienated worker, already experiences the self as distinct from its social function. I experience myself no longer as peasant or artisan, but as a human being compelled to do abstract labour. I experience what Marx calls my “universality” only in alienated form, but my social function, my job, is firmly seen as something accidental. It is not nearly so much an attribute of who I am as it was in pre-capitalist societies. It is one of the ways I express myself. I could be doing something else, perhaps many other things.

This liberation of the self from its “natural” embeddedness in primitive and feudal social relations is an essential step towards communism. It is the freed individual who makes this return to community, and she makes it consciously and deliberately. Marx’s formula for this is that in modern communism the associated individuals subordinate their social activity as their own power. In all previous stages, in “pre-history”, the individuals were subordinated to their social activity. Even in primitive communism they were still subordinated to the economic necessity ruling their communal economy. In the last stage of “pre-history”, Marx says, the associated producers subordinate the economic process to their own requirements as free individuals. It is for this reason that planning is so important. In day-to-day politics socialists focus so strongly on the particular wrongs of capitalist society that economic planning through the state emerges as an apparent solution to the problems of capitalist inefficiency, or as a way of minimizing the rate of unemployment or of smoothing over the “business cycle”. In Marx’s idea of communism it has a much higher significance. In communism there is an equation of planning with freedom and with democracy. Communist society is one in which we plan together on the basis of personal equality. We do not expect to control all that happens perfectly. We plan it in the way we conceive an individual might plan his life. In Rousseau’s terms, the conditions of society ought to be made solely by those who come together to form it. And that for Marx is rational freedom.

Were individuals to consciously recover their labour as their own social labour and plan it together, then both the “free market” and the state disappear. Market and state disappear together. The state does not replace the market. The abolition of the state means the abolition of illusory solidarity, just as the abolition of the market means the abolition of an illusory dependence upon things. Our independence of one another, which requires our forced coordination through an impersonal, thing-like “invisible hand”, is actually an illusion. In feudal society, people knew very well that they were dependent on one another. But interdependence and solidarity were only conceivable as an organic hierarchy.

What the double illusion of liberal ideology hides (when it considers both market and state to be natural to human association) is the reality of class power behind the appearance of freedom and equality. The marvelous thing is that it requires no conspiracy of evil geniuses to get this illusion going or to sustain it. Ideology, in Marx’s view, is not a lie or a factual error. It is a “reification” of capitalist social being, its rationalization and justification. It is a description, and even scientific analysis, of what is as natural as opposed to variable, and because it is natural as not subject to the historical intervention of human beings.

So when looking at Marx’s ideas about revolution and about communist society, it is important to keep in mind the connection they have with the earlier theory of alienation. The liberation of the productive forces that is to take place under socialism is none other than the liberation of human capacities and the human senses and the human solidarity that Marx was talking about in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. The fettering of the forces of production is not just an external, objective or “economic” matter. It is not a matter of necessarily producing more and evcer more goods for individual consumption. That fettering is also a restriction of the self, of the capacities of social individuals. To be riveted to one or several narrow slots in an increasingly detailed division of labour is something that is perhaps becoming more and more difficult for people to take. This is so not only because many of the slots are getting narrower, but because our education and aspirations are getting broader. In order to prepare us for doing one or a few very specialized kinds of work, capitalism has to afford more and more of us a very broad education. This is a contradiction that we experience quite directly. The vast majority of us (here in the developed West) are not peasants or even blue-collar factory workers. Nor are we profit-oriented capitalists. We are slotted for narrow jobs in bureaucracies accompanied by various levels of salary and degrees of status – but slots nearly as narrow as many assembly-line jobs. But that is not what we are educated for.

When it is misunderstood as a predictive theory analogous to a weather forecast Marxism has the serious problem of being unable to ascertain the precise point at which contradiction would lead to revolutionary crisis. But Marxism, although it is not a predictive theory, does assign the crucial role of revolutionary transformation to the working class. The working class, however, has not, in fact, insisted on revolutionary change, even though socialist intellectuals and agitators have been hectoring it for more than a hundred years. In no economically developed country has capitalism even come close to being replaced by socialism. And so some Marxists, while remaining so in all other essentials, have become quite skeptical or pessimistic about Marx’s notion that the working class (at least as Marx knew and understood it) will make this revolution. It is possible to be a Marxist in the sense of accepting his critique of capitalism and his ideas about the general possibility and desirability of socialism, while having lost confidence in his specific ideas about exactly how this was to come about.

This pessimism about the revolutionary capacity of the working class corresponds to a loss of the nearly blind optimism that reached its height in the nineteenth century. Socialists are not the only ones who are less optimistic these days. Liberals are less optimistic too. The glib predictions of the end of ideology or the end of history and of the possibility of endlessly sustained economic growth, which belonged to the liberalism of the last two generations, that sort of liberal optimism now seems to belong to a different era. Liberals are less optimistic that John Stuart Mill’s utopia is going to come about so easily. And socialists are less optimistic that Marx’s utopia will come about so easily. Barbarism looks much more likely then it did a hundred years ago. Should that turn you into a proponent of barbarism, or force you to accept it? Does Marx’s flawed judgement as a prophet of imminent working-class revolution mean that he was wrong in his critique of capitalism?

Marx’s theory of crisis, though, is far from being a dead issue. And there are lots of people still engaged in trying to produce a theory of crisis appropriate to contemporary forms of capitalism. Moreover, in Marx’s Grundrisse, the preparatory sketches for Capital, he began to play with an alternate scenario based upon the increasingly scientific basis of modern production, a scenario that some are entertaining these days as an important part of a different idea of the transition to socialism. And this is in terms of automation. Automation based upon informatics and robotics may conceivably reach such levels of sophistication and such proportions that jobs will become increasingly rare. If there are fewer workers around with the wherewithal to purchase the products manufactured by robots, what happens to capitalism? Who will buy its stuff? What will the rest of us be doing? There is also what has been called the “second contradiction of capitalism”, which refers to the ever increasing cost of doing what is minimally necessary to adapt to the ecological damage connected with the accelerated globalization of capitalist production.

Of course, both of these scenarios involve a choice. We could end up with a streamlined 1984 scenario in which a narrow elite of technocrats manages a class of service workers, an infinitely expanding “defense” budget and a growing population of the partially employed, “underemployed”, unemployed and unemployable. The vast number of “misfits” of such a hypothetical future age of automation would not even really resemble Marx’s notion of a “reserve army of the unemployed”. They would form a shattered underclass of drones, leading a powerless existence without meaning and even without responsibility. Maybe this 80% of the population could spend most of its time watching television and lobotomized on dope. Would it be excessive to call this barabarism?

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