No future for petty bourgeois defeatism

Gorbachev told the Soviet people that the revolutionary class interests of the world’s toilers must be subordinated to the concept of a “universal human interest”. Too much stress upon the “enemy image” of imperialism, too much class struggle, risked freezing all further human history into a “nuclear winter”. Now the people of the former USSR have to live with the results of this revisionist cowardice, as do the rest of the world’s masses. So much for serving the “universal human interest”!

Green reformism at best concedes that capitalism is “part of the problem”, but sees all talk of revolution as a distraction from saving the planet “here and now”. After all, the argument runs, no planet = no history, so let’s put the class struggle on hold until we have staved off ecological disaster. Yet it is the very capitalist commodity production relations which impose the anarchy of production, so destructive alike of the natural world. Only planned socialist economies under proletarian control will be able to steer us through the coming environmental crises.

The yellow streak running through all varieties of petty bourgeois defeatism is the refusal or inability to understand that human society is capable of outgrowing the capitalist phase of social development. Those who dare to question this gloominess are liable to find themselves accused of hastening the ecological apocalypse by their cheerful insistence on the transitional character of capitalist society and the revolutionary role of the toiling classes in making history.

Needless to say, this “better dead than red” gloominess is not above rehearsing its jeremiads in mock “Marxist” phraseology when occasion suits. Take for example a gem from one Daniel Buck published in

Socialist Register 2007

and reprinted in the Spring 2007 edition of the magazine

Variant 28

, entitled ‘The Ecological Question: Can Capitalism Prevail?’.

The question the author sets himself to answer is whether environmental collapse will bring with it the end of capitalism. Throughout a long and turgid article, two equally pessimistic answers to this question vie for supremacy. One part of him wants to believe that the feared environmental catastrophe will be so bad that hundreds of years of civilized development will be wiped out, taking capitalism with it. Another part of him is so mesmerised by the seeming permanence of capitalism that he cannot believe that even such a catastrophic setback for human society could suffice to loosen the bourgeois grip. (The notion that capitalism might end and humanity prosper simply doesn’t get house room!)

Nowhere in this supposedly “Marxist” appraisal of the situation facing our species is there any recognition of the fact that, when capitalism collapses, it will do so first and foremost under the weight of its own inner contradictions, not essentially as a result of any external shock. Whilst such apparently random external shocks may provide the immediate stimulus, the development from capitalism to socialism and communism can only in essence be driven by the inward contradictions generated within the antagonistic social relations inhering in capitalist commodity production.

So events connected with global warming might indeed provoke or accelerate revolution, but only because the embryonic new society is maturing within the womb of the old. Whilst the spectacular failure of capitalism to cope with the environmental challenges facing humanity makes it harder for the apologists for capitalism (Dan Buck

inter alia

) to hide the hopelessly degenerate and reactionary character of imperialism, it is not in essence global warming that will sink capitalism. Global warming does not make history. The masses make history.

Having blinkered himself in this fashion, our scholar tries to use “Marxist” arguments to prove that somehow capitalism will be able to overcome every obstacle by coming up with endless technological fixes – never recognizing that the biggest fetter to the development of the productive forces is capitalism itself! Recalling the “predictions in the late nineteenth century that the impending exhaustion of coal reserves would lead to the collapse of the industrial world – predictions made just before the discovery of petroleum”, he notes correctly that technological innovation is spurred on by capitalist competition. What he fails to observe, however, is the way in which the basic contradiction between social production and private appropriation asserts itself more and more sharply as capitalism develops and degenerates.

Every time a technological advance gives a temporary profit advantage to one capitalist gang over another, the composition of capital shifts further from variable (wages) to constant (plant, fuel, overheads, transport). The competitive advantage to the individual capitalist is necessarily temporary, since the measure of socially necessary labour time required to produce a given commodity simply adjusts downward as the new “industry standard” imposes itself. However the shift in the ratio of variable to constant capital is permanent – and cumulative. In the long term this is very bad news for capitalists everywhere. Why?

Because the manufacture of surplus value is achieved solely by the exploitation of living labour, and the relative scope for that exploitation narrows with every shift within the composition of capital from variable to constant. Whilst the massive and rapid expansion of commodity production conceals this for lengthy periods of time, the downward pressure upon the rate of profit makes itself felt in crises of overproduction which, from the beginning of the twentieth century, have played out globally in imperialist wars, anti-colonial struggles and communist revolutions. Our scholar somehow fails to notice this epoch of wars and revolutions, inseparable from modern capitalism, unless we are to take such poetic abstractions as this – “economic landscapes are frequently swept away in periodic rounds of creative destruction” – to include the horrific destruction of “surplus” capacity and “surplus” human lives in the course of imperialist wars. By ignoring the epoch of wars and revolutions, he hopes to impress his readers with the progressive side of capitalism, and conceal from them the moribund and parasitic character of modern capitalism, i.e. of imperialism.

Taking refuge in the nineteenth century, Buck tries to recruit Marx in his half-hearted efforts to prove that capitalism can outwit history and keep itself in permanent residence through endless waves of technological innovation. He contrives this by the simple expedient of quoting only those passages from the Communist Manifesto which speak of the revolutionary character of capitalism as it confronts all pre-capitalist social forms, where “all fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away” by a “constant revolutionizing of production” – and ignoring all the other interesting things the Manifesto has to say about the reactionary fetters capitalism imposes on social development and the progressive role of the proletariat in digging capitalism’s grave!

What Buck neglects to acknowledge is that capitalism becomes a victim of its own success, which is why the bourgeoisie prefers to forget about its own revolutionary origins. By demonstrating in its own ruthless practice that all forms of class-exploitation are transient, capitalism also demonstrates its own transience. By constantly raising the bar of productive technology, it constantly sharpens the contradiction between social labour and private appropriation. And by raising up a proletarian army of the exploited, capitalism succeeds in raising up its own gravediggers, who will perform that revolutionary task in the name of all humanity.

It is clear throughout that the author, despite his best efforts to paint capitalism as carrying into the future a beacon of progress for humanity, is unable even to convince himself. So lacking is he in any real confidence that capitalism can deliver social progress that he feels obliged to supplement his official optimism with some suitably gloomy health warnings. While capitalism may survive, he says, “this is not to say that we can safely embrace rosy visions of utopian futures and abandon apocalyptic dystopian ones”. (The sigh of relief is almost audible as he settles back into the more congenial gloom.) Nor are we “to envision a rosy democratic future, in which radical new technology will make energy and food and water cheap and plentiful and available to all”. Instead, it seems, the reader is invited to imagine a world in which capitalism lingers on forever for want of anything better emerging, a world whose peoples are to submit without a murmur to living out a perpetual half-life in the shadow of a system which refuses to die.

Feeling in his bones that indeed there is no future for capitalism, “rosy” or otherwise, Buck does his best to rubbish the idea that capitalism actually conforms to laws of social development which are general in scope and which dictate its past, its present – and its lack of a future. Unable to affirm a future for capitalism with any degree of scientific conviction, petty bourgeois defeatism instead retreats from science itself, covering its flight under a postmodernist smokescreen of “spatio-material histories”, “trajectories”, “sites and “radical rounds of time-space decompression”. What all this gibberish boils down to is the assertion that capitalism is bound to carry on in one version or another, regardless of which historical phase of development gave birth to this or that form of capitalism. This ahistorical nonsense is, as always, served up with a “Marxist” sauce.

Marx explained that capitalist commodity production already existed prior to the application of large-scale machinery, tracing the origin and development of capitalist commodity production from its earlier phases of home-working, handicraft and manufacture. He showed how the producer was already divorced from his means of production long before the factory system made this obvious to all.

Buck seems to have some of this at the back of his mind when he notes that the “social division of labour and social relations featuring the separation of the proletariat from the means of production are thus analytically prior to machinery, and thus to any particular source of energy”. But where Marx traced the life history of capitalist commodity production in order to give a scientific analysis of social development, Buck is interested only in proving that there are many kinds of capitalism, so if one kind fails under the impact of global warming, another more primitive kind can take its place

ad infinitum

! In place of dialectical materialist development science, we have pick and mix pluralism, projecting a fantasy world in which the bourgeoisie can tack endlessly back and forth within its own past history, forever evading its own future extinction.

Capitalism develops unevenly: this is well known. But to Buck, this means that you cannot have a single unified history of capitalist development: “because capitalism has never existed everywhere”, it follows that “its history can be divided between histories of its development in the core and its expansion into and incorporation of places once peripheral”. By the same logic, we might demand that we have two different physics, one to explain the behaviour of water and another to explain the behaviour of steam. How wrongheaded of scientists to try to explain the behaviour of both water and steam by one and the same physics! How perverse to insist on a single unified physics that can encompass both water and steam and can explain how one transforms into the other in a dialectical leap!

In fact, the business about “cores” and “peripheries”, if it means anything, is presumably about the relationship between imperialism and the rest of the exploited world. In examining that picture, what strikes even most non-Marxist observers is precisely the way in which imperialism (or the less accurate but more commonplace “globalization”) willy nilly draws ever wider circles of humanity into its net of exploitative social relations, creating ever new proletarian armies of potential gravediggers of capitalism in the process. Even Buck’s remark about “how capitalism creates non-capitalist spheres outside and even inside itself on which to feed”, intended to prove that “the capitalist mode of production … will never be total and complete”, rather provides further striking evidence of the relentlessness with which imperialism expands and consolidates its grasp on all productive existence.

Pre-capitalist social arrangements are indeed brought into a relation of dependence prior to complete absorption. However imperialism’s problem is that it cannot artificially impose under-development for perpetuity, cannot for ever preserve whole swathes of the planet as development-free sources of looted resources and cheap labour, cannot help but raise the bar of productive development there also, thereby generalizing the inner contradictions of capitalism on a truly global scale, and raising up yet more millions of its own potential gravediggers.

Above all, what Buck cannot countenance is the notion that the labouring masses of world society, the sole creators of all value, will successfully overthrow imperialism, end the anarchy of capitalist commodity production which has such devastating consequences for the natural environment, and set about building planned socialist economies based on the fulfilment of human need rather than the augmentation of capitalist profits. Only the most ingrained pessimism would suppose that the exhaustion of fossil fuels will pose a problem too knotty for resolution by a human race no longer condemned to carry imperialism on its back.

Once released from the fetters imposed by imperialism, there is every prospect that the masses of the world, armed with Marxism-Leninism, will prove more than capable of clearing up the mess left by the exploiters and opening the way for the next great leap of human progress.