Capitalism Rejected? / By William Bowles

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Wherein Bill Bowles sets forth the reasons—for the obvious good of humanity and planetary survival— why the capitalist beast should be brought to heel, and inexorably destroyed.

atlasshrugged1_1SO I GET THIS NOTE:  would I like to write an essay under the heading of Capitalism: Rejected, to which I immediately added the question mark, after all, a host of countries rejected the damn thing throughout the course of the 20th century only to see their labours, their dreams shattered as capitalism launched its successful counter-revolution. 

Nevertheless, what are the chances that we could, once more, reject the beast, at least within our lifetimes? This is, as far as I’m concerned, the burning issue of our times, perhaps more so now than at any previous time.

It’s long fascinated me that with so much actual knowledge and experience about how exactly capitalism works that we on the ‘Left’ have failed to produce a workable and convincing alternative. All kinds of theories have been advanced as to why, especially in the aftermath of the collapse of the socialist projects.

One explanation, laid out in a book Marx’s Revenge by Meghnad Desai, advances the theory that there are two major reasons as to why socialism failed first time around. Firstly, he says that in essence, the success of the Bolshevik revolution pre-empted the spread of capitalism across the world, thus stopping the full development of capitalist productive relations and the commensurate development of a global, industrial working class that would have formed the basis for a world socialist revolution. This follows from Marx’s original idea that it was only when capitalism was no longer able to expand, in other words when it had filled as it were, every available niche, every market, would the objective conditions exist for socialism to come about as a world phenomenon.

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. The need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx.

Understandably, Marx saw this process as ‘progress’, as laying the groundwork for a future communist revolution. One thing I am sure he did not foresee is that such endless and insane production would threaten the basis for maintaining the ecological balance that has made the emergence of human existence possible.

But does this undermine Marx’s basic premise about industrial capitalism being the basis for a future communist society? And, as intra-capitalist rivalries resurface once more with the end of the Soviet Union, we are seeing a return to the ‘bad old days’ of imperialism unleashed as never before, given the immense technological power it now possesses. The situation is made worse by the failure of socialism, insofar as it’s given rise to a struggle between modernism and tradition best epitomised by the rise of fundamentalism in all its forms. A deeply unsettling trend that threatens to undo all the gains of the past century of struggles.

Second, and related to this idea, Desai says that the development of socialism under conditions of scarcity is impossible; crudely put, there just isn’t enough dosh to go around. Trying to develop socialism in conditions of under-development and within a world capitalist economy is doomed to failure, unless the major capitalist economies can also be overthrown. This goes back to the century old ‘socialism in one country’ debate between Trotsky and Lenin.

Of course, all this is with the benefit of hindsight, after all, should the Bolsheviks have aborted their revolution predicated on the idea that it was premature? Lenin and the Bolsheviks were convinced, wrongly as it turned out, that the Bolshevik Revolution would trigger a more general revolution right across Europe, especially in Germany, the most developed of the capitalist economies in Europe and the one with the most advanced working class.

Instead, the Bolshevik Revolution – which occurred in a country that had more in common with the economies of the colonial world – triggered revolutions in countries which were least able to put socialist theory into practice, at least as Marx envisaged it.

So were all the cards stacked against socialism from the getgo?

At this point I’m tempted to ‘put the cat amongst the pigeons’ by advancing a totally heretical idea, at least when set against so-called ‘classical’ socialist philosophy, namely that the fundamental nature of capitalist production is the antithesis of socialism; the factory, the assembly line, the mass production of an endless stream of products, the ‘excreta’ of which is polluting the biosphere and which is the basis of wars and exploitation, has to be dumped. The socialists of the early 20th century looked to the most ‘advanced’ economy, the United States, as their model, seeing it as the shortest route to development, perhaps not realizing that capitalism and industrialism were joined at the hip. That ultimately, the idea that industrial production is essentially neutral is false. As the climate goes down the tubes and along with it the finely tuned planetary ecology – the biosphere – that exponential industrial capitalist (and ‘socialist’) production has upset, it raises the fundamental question of whether ‘development’ of the kind we have had for the past centuries is a dead-end, both literally and metaphorically.

But with what do we replace it if the poor of the planet are to enjoy the fruits of their labours? This conjures up images of an unrealistic ‘return to nature’ such as was envisaged by the early socialists such as William Morris, who wanted to re-invent an economy based on hand-crafted production and the cooperative, an idea which was to re-emerge later as Syndicalism or the self-managed, worker-owned enterprise.

Of course, it could be argued that the industrial system, which is still essentially a 19th century form, is but a phase through which we pass on our way to some more rational system integrated into the Gaia, but will we survive in order to realise it? [1]

The problem with this approach, given that in theory at least, we know what needs to be done, is the reality that capitalism is an addiction for vast swathes of the planet’s population, either because they want, or appear to want, what capitalism offers; consumer goods, the automobile, washing machines, the whole, fucking nine yards.

The key here is that as socialists, we do know what needs to be done; first and foremost, we need to break the habit of capitalism. This entails a complete transformation of our consciousness, our priorities, the most difficult thing to do. Those of us who are, in theory at least, ‘lucky’ enough to be born in a developed economy are unlikely to give up our privileges voluntarily, only a complete collapse of capitalism or an ecological catastrophe on a vast scale is likely to force us to re-order our current priorities. Will it come to this?

At this point, I’d like to posit the idea that given time and in a world without two competing ideologies, the scientific and technological developments of the past centuries do make it possible to envisage an advanced technological civilisation, global in scope that does use resources rationally, doing ‘more with less’, that satisfies the needs of everyone. Obvious you might think, again, we do know what we need to do, the only thing getting in the way of such a future is capitalism itself, a system that is incapable of revolutionising itself out of existence. Only an alliance of the most advanced elements of capitalist society can produce such a revolution.

The infuriating aspect of the current situation is that many of these essential ingredients do already exist, for example, the ‘green’ movement, the misnamed anti-globalisation movement, the deep unhappiness that many within developed economies feel, that manifests itself as a deep yearning for a lost past, whether mythical or real. A loss of meaning, of belonging to something larger than alienated families, whose only salvation is spending, consuming, trapped on a treadmill that has no end. Moreover, there are many millions of us who are clinically sick because of it all, our mental hospitals are crammed with the casualties of capitalism. It’s true to say that capitalism is bad for your health, but then so was industrial socialism.

Hence, one of the fundamental problems we confront lies not in the objective conditions within which we live but in the subjective, our states of mind, states that see no solution except to drop out of the political process as struggle is pointless. We have lost faith in our ability to take charge of our own destinies and largely because the promise that socialism made has not been realised.

It should be apparent that there is a paradox wrapped up in an enigma here, for the objective conditions created by industrial capitalism of the 19th century that led to working people demanding to be in control of their own destinies whether through trade unions, political parties and all manner of expressions of what used to be called working class culture, have not been realised. Indeed, some would argue that we have been let down by the promises of the socialists of the 20th century, that the countries that embarked on the socialist ‘road’ failed us.

Or, perhaps we failed ourselves and for the very reasons I stated above, namely our addiction to capitalism was just too strong to break the chains that bound us. It would be just too easy to blame our own failures on the Soviet Union or China, or anywhere else that took the non-capitalist road, no matter how distorted they were. But can we not think for ourselves? Apparently not.

This doesn’t mean that the ideas, the ethos, the yearnings were false, for they still occupy the central issue of our times, which the ‘war on terror’ epitomises, albeit in a nihilistic expression, for failing to offer a progressive and viable alternative to capitalism opens up the way for the Usamas of this world to fill the gap that would have otherwise been filled by a truly revolutionary consciousness.

The rise of the anti-globalisation and global justice movements points to the fact that the struggle is far from over, indeed, it could be argued very forcefully, that these point to the beginnings of a new socialist movement but coming about in a very different environment from the traditional one of advanced capitalism. The problem for these movements is that they lack a clear alternative programme beyond a vague ‘anti-capitalist’ ethos. It seems that at every juncture we see that the problem is the failure of socialist theory to come up with the goods.

But if we as socialists have failed to meet the challenge, the idea of socialism most definitely occupies the capitalists, if not us. It is what they fear more than anything else. What else is the rollback of our civil rights all about if not to pre-empt any organised resistance to capitalism that must surely come about? Why the obsession with Chavez’s Venezuela or Fidel’s Cuba and the attempt to brand them, or any other country that challenges the hegemony of capital, as ‘terrorist states’, if not the underlying issue of socialism, or at least the idea of it, versus that of capitalism?

Underpinning the resistance, for example, to reducing our consumption of oil or the uncontrolled consumption of resources, whilst 80% of the planet’s population live in poverty, is the struggle against an idea, for that’s all it is at this point in time, an idea, the most dangerous ‘terrorist’ of them all.

There are then, two strands to capitalism rejected; one at the ‘front line’, in the developing world and the other, the subjective struggle that is occurring within our own imprisoned consciousness, here in the developed world. Can these two strands be joined together? In fact, is socialism ever possible unless they are joined?

These two questions make up the bedrock of the struggle, for whilst it is true that the struggle at the ‘front line’, in the developing world, is one that will go on regardless of whether or not we join it, the experiences of the 20th century surely should have taught us that the two struggles are joined at the hip.

And although the two struggles are taking place on very different terrains, it is impossible to conceive of either succeeding without the success of the other. Yet if Desai’s thesis is correct, that socialism is impossible to achieve under conditions of scarcity and underdevelopment, surely one should argue for the spread of capitalism?

The problem with this argument is that capitalism in some countries is only possible if there is under-development in others. This is after all what made capitalism as we know it possible in the first place! It is precisely this under-development that makes the current situation possible and at the same time, untenable.

So, how to resolve this apparent paradox? In my opinion, the onus is on us, in the developed world and a struggle not merely to express ‘solidarity’ with our brothers and sisters in the developing world, but to break the chains that bind us to capitalism.

In order to do this the Left and progressives in general must break away from a deeply imbued racist mindset that precludes their identifying with the great majority of the planet’s population, who are not white, and relinquishing the privileges that go with belonging to this elite, the so-called white race. This is not merely paying lip service to opposing the more overt expressions of racism, as some kind of ‘add-on’ before getting back to the business of ‘anti-capitalism’, or business as usual. For racism is something that goes to the very core of our position of privilege in the world. It pervades and determines all our assumptions about who we are as human beings, and the same can be said of the relationship between the sexes. Formal expressions of opposition to racism and sexism don’t really confront these issues, for as with our addiction to capitalism, it’s what we refuse to see and hence won’t confront that are the major obstacles to transformation.

For as long as we regard people of colour as the ‘Other’, as essentially not belonging to ‘our’ world, as people who do not experience life as we do, we will not be able to deal with the fundamental issues that maintain the rule of capital. It is a sorry reflection on the Left in the developed world that we have failed to come to terms with the centrality of racism in maintaining the rule of capital. By racism I mean the ideology that has underpinned the justification for capitalism over the past five centuries.

Many of us on the Left refuse to see that the lives we live are directly dependent on the exploitation of the poor of the planet, not because we don’t care but because the white Left see that “their very existence is now imperilled and there’s danger in being scared to death of losing those privileges of white supremacy and covering by accentuating the objective, racist economic relations of capital”, [2] when the reality lies in changing our own consciousness. This means embracing, without reservation, a vision of a single humanity united by common needs, and common desires and dreams. I contend that until we face this very uncomfortable truth, we will not be able to escape our addiction to the capitalist way of life.

The struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries were largely about our material conditions and understandably so. Where we failed is in the realm of the ‘subjective’. Subjective insofar as the issues that are now central to our future survival hinge upon jettisoning the values we have taken onboard as our own, on reprioritising our lives. But in order to do this it is necessary first to reject consumer capitalism and in so doing undermine the entire rationale for Western ‘civilisation’. So if you like, the first act is not overtly political, it is instead the rejection of a set of values that are alien to life on the planet.

But don’t misunderstand me, I am not advocating some idealist, ‘back to nature’ philosophy. Instead, it means the rational and sensible use of the vast knowledge we now have of how the planet, how nature works and our place in it. It’s ‘Marx meets Buckminster Fuller’ with Norbert Weiner thrown in for good measure. Capitalism is structurally incapable of doing this. Capitalism’s motto, if it has one, is ‘expand or die’, an ethos that is diametrically opposed to the idea of a sustainable, human-centred socialism, such as I am advocating.

But, it is perhaps the general rejection of modernism that underpins the failure of the Left to produce a new analysis of a revanchist capitalism. By this I mean that the failure of the socialist projects of the 20th century to ‘deliver the goods’ has had the not unexpected effect of triggering a general rejection of modernism, thus the return to absolutist and what we choose to call fundamentalist ideologies that promise a return to some idealised past. This is not a new phenomenon, and indeed is indicative of times of social upheaval and disruption.

Thus, although it is probably true to say, especially in the poor countries of the world, that capitalism is rightly being rejected, at the same time, socialists have failed to produce a convincing alternative, or at the very least convince people that they have a viable alternative to the various idealisations being offered in its stead.

At the same time, it also true to say that a comparable malaise infects those of us in the developed world, where for very different reasons we also find a rejection of modernism and strive to ‘return’ to an idealised past. The challenge for socialists is how to unite these two strands. Much depends, I contend, on breaking the ties that bind us to a culture of consumption, one into which we are locked through debt, dependence and an inherited ideology of empire that has split us off from our common humanity.

Thus far, socialists in developed countries have failed to produce a coherent response to this reality, and I argue that this is for precisely the same reasons, namely that we too are part of a privileged minority that benefits from the plunder of the planet’s poor and their resources. The paradox of the situation is not lost on me, for at the same time we suffer from diseases of wealth; mental illness, drug dependencies, a deep dissatisfaction with the lives we lead, in jobs most of us hate, that deliver no satisfaction; social alienation and the resultant breakdown of networks of support and solidarity.

By contrast, the ruling political class is all too aware of this ticking time bomb, in part it explains the construction of the corporate, security state, precisely for the coming breakdown already being manifested in the actions of the most alienated and oppressed amongst us, the so-called under-class of which the ‘riots’ in France and in cities across the UK are but the tip of the iceberg of unrest.

For the rest of us, it manifests itself as a rejection of the political process itself, expressed through the complete loss of legitimacy suffered by the ruling political class. It is therefore with a sense of real urgency that those of us who call ourselves socialists need to confront these fundamental issues, issues that are first and foremost ‘subjective’; that is, we have to answer our own loss of legitimacy as socialists and dare I say it, as standard bearers of modernism.

williambowlesWilliam Bowles has been working in the fields of the arts, media, communications and of course, politics, for over thirty-five years and during that time he has covered a lot of ground and on three continents. Standing still is not an option. He now devotes most of his time to his online journal ‘Investigating new Imperialism for which he writes as well as publish work by other writers. Recently published work includes a section for ‘Devastating Society’, a collection of writings on the ‘neo-con’ assault on democracy (Pluto Press, UK), ‘The Macintosh Computer – Archetypal Capitalist Tool?’, for Data Browser 2 (Autonomedia, NY) and other essays and reviews.

3 comments on “Capitalism Rejected? / By William Bowles
  1. The Revolution must be personal! It is THE only way and that means allowable by universal law/god/chaos, whatever. Sorry to break it to you folks, but there IS something you can do – and it’s ALL you can do: Change. Start by thinking of yourself as a Being and not a Consumer. Get in touch with your NEEDS – begin with a month-long fast (consult your doctor) and discover what your body needs to exist. The resulting perspective will undoubtedly make you rethink your role in the grand scheme of things. You may find yourself becoming VERY angry at the amount of energy you have put into utterly fruitless pursuits. Then you’ll think of all the other humans doing the same as you and want to either implode or explode. Then you might tell five friends and hope that they will choose to revolutionize their life, too. Like now – say it with me, “I am a Being, not a Consumer!”

  2. Great piece. Highly inspirational to one like me who has become far too cynical of any breakthrough in the largely self-imposed passivity of the real left.

  3. Ecological collapse, climate change and petro-depletion are underway. It is those on the periphery with some access to arable land who are in the best survival situations. Those of us dependent on the long fossil-fuel dependent supply chains to deliver food and other essentials are in a world of hurt.

    Maldevelopment of land bases — suburbanization, industrial agriculture, over-population — will cause our societies to fail catastrophically.

    What solutions in the context of such a future are offered by an industrially-oriented socialist model?

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