Instability in Time of Epochal Change
“May you live in interesting times.” Blessing or curse – or both? The instability and insecurity of the current historical moment is making all of society – the owners of its vast wealth as well as those who must work or starve – crave and grasp for whatever seems possible to bring things back into balance and stability.
The owners of wealth pursue changes in government, law and the State that will enable them to hold on to and increase what they have in the face of increased economic instability and the threat of social and political challenge. Those who must work to live desperately hang on to what jobs they can get and hope for better times. At the same time, the process spawns revolutionaries who begin to see that another type of society, another economic system, is necessary. And not only necessary, but made possible by the very instability that surrounds them.
The epochal shift from the economic system of capitalism, with its production and distribution based on wage labor, to a system based on laborless production and electronics is at the root of the social and political changes affecting individuals, organizations, institutions, governments – the world as a whole.
Consider the period 1700-1850. The static and ossified feudal system, based on agriculture, began to weaken and eventually crumbled in the face of new science being applied to production. Increased trade, cottage industry, manufacture and eventually the growth of capitalist enterprises and industrial production undermined the old stability and tore society apart. The forces of the new fought for the changes they needed to move forward; the forces of the old fought to maintain the old way of life; each attempt to preserve stability contained the germs of its demise.
Masses were forced from the land into city slums, aristocrats sold their birthrights for consumption, a new class of owners of wealth arose. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man”, Adam Smith, John Locke, Tom Paine, Hegel, Marx, the American and French Revolutions: all are reflections of society becoming aware of the basic changes taking place in society and fighting out the results.
Consider American slavery and the Civil War. In spite of the protests of the abolitionists, the Constitution of 1787 welded free and slave states together in an alliance that reflected a temporary stability, but one fraught with conflict. As economic changes, the growth of northern industry, and westward expansion undermined the attempts to preserve unity, the compromise became more and more unstable.
The abolitionist movement grew in the 1830s and men and women fought out the battle over slavery in art, literature, newspapers, churches, organizations, Congress – and with weapons in bloody Kansas and Harpers Ferry. After centuries of slaves’ suffering and resistance, after a century of abolitionist advocacy, what made the end of slavery finally possible was the breaking of the ties, however unstable, that held slave- and free-states together. The instability of the system itself opened the door for revolutionary change.
Today’s epochal changes are reflected in countless ways in the thoughts and understandings of the individual participants. People perceive and experience the features of an economic crisis in myriad ways. Multi-million dollar bonuses, tax cuts and bailouts inadequately comfort a capitalist class faced with volatile markets, threats of inflation, international competition and collapse. How will the system survive when market methods of distribution conflict with robotic production? The working class faces the lack of decent-paying jobs, foreclosure and homelessness, inadequate health care, decimation of public education and social services and the destruction of their cities and towns in the US, and famine and destitution around the world.
With economic, social and political power, the capitalist class is struggling over the process of making the changes in society and government that will shore up their ability to make a profit and their increasingly unstable control. Ironically, each attempt to institute stability introduces further instability into the system. Government bailouts encourage risk and anger the populace. Printing money stimulates the economy (although less than hoped) but risks inflation. Wars send a message of power and support the military-industrial complex, but foster instability at home and abroad.
We are entering into a revolutionary period, a period in which one economic foundation of society is crumbling and another is struggling to be born. As the new economic basis emerges, changes in the superstructure begin to form on that new basis – even as elements in society struggle to preserve or go back to what once was. We can see the outlines of the new possibilities before us.
One possibility is reflected in the narrow unity of corporations and the government in which society is ruled by and for the property owners with limited or no democratic participation and force and violence become the primary methods of control. Though they may be forced to move in this direction to protect private property, the owning class can guarantee themselves little security in such an inherently unstable and fascist State form.
The other possibility is, as yet, a dream in the minds of most: the abundance of the world used to guarantee a decent life for all. Yet, objectively, in a world where electronics and robots produce, there is no other way for humanity to survive.
Revolutionaries are committed to making this dream a reality, to agitating and propagandizing among all those fighting for a decent life to bring the understanding that will guide the way to that change. Like the dreamers of the 18th century who imagined human beings governing themselves, and like the abolitionists who had a vision of a world without slavery, we are entering an “interesting time.” Such times of instability are those in which dramatic and fundamental social change is not only necessary, but possible.
(This Building Block article on the Leap is the third in a series of four. The focus of the final article will be on the quantitative aspects of the Leap.)
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011