On the Edge of History
Society is undergoing a leap from one base – production with human labor – to another – production without human labor. Leaps have always occurred in history, and are the means by which qualitative change occurs. Yet the leap today is epochal in its nature, more akin to the leap from a classless society – an epoch that lasted tens of thousands of years – to private property – a period which has lasted over 2000 years. Electronic production has introduced a radically new means of production into the economy, not only destroying the current stage of private property, “capitalism,” but, creating the possibility of a break in the continuity of private property itself.
As one society crumbles, another must be made anew. In whose interest will the new society be constructed? This is the essential problem of all historical “moments” of transition. All manner of forces emerge in the battle for resolution. History shows that the class that understands its independent interests, that has a vision of the desired outcome, and that organizes its forces to achieve the political means to enforce those interests in favor of that outcome creates the means to politically enforce its class interests. Preparing the class of growing dispossessed to take on this historic role constitutes revolutionaries’ work in this time of epochal transition.
Capitalism, a Stage of Private Property
The economy is the base of society. The economy is made up of two aspects – production and distribution. Upon this base arises a superstructure that expresses the nature of the base, and that in turn acts back on to that base. Capitalism arose on the basis of industrial production, and the mode of exchange is buying and selling of labor power, with workers constituting the market for the commodities they produce. The source of all value under capitalism – the exchange relation between things – is human labor. A superstructure arose that expresses this relationship, and the state exists to defend and protect and facilitate these productive relations.
As the means of production develop and change, it becomes necessary to adjust the social relations in order conform to the needs of the economy. The demand for reform arises within the clash of the new productive forces and the existing productive relations. Quantitative changes in the means of production bring about the motion for social reform; qualitative changes in the means of production give rise to a motion toward revolution. The outcome is determined, on the one hand, within the parameters of the level of development of the means of production, and, on the other, from the clash of wills of the combatants, their consciousness of class interests, and their ability to organize to enforce their will against those of their adversaries. Society has moved through its different stages in this way both within stages (quantitative) and between stages and epochs (qualitative).
Regardless of the economic content or the political form, these changes in their general application constituted stages in the development of private property, one stage growing out of and connected to the previous one. Private property is an epoch of history, punctuated by different stages of development. Capitalism is one of these stages, as was feudalism. In each stage of development, a superstructure – including state forms – were developed that protected the productive relations and with it, the dominance of one class over another. In each of these stages, advances in technologies made human labor more productive, but did not eliminate its place in production.
Today, electronics is eliminating human labor, destroying the source of all value, and ending that which makes capitalism what it is: a system of buying and selling based on the exploitation of human labor, and the expropriation of the profit from the surplus value created. Without that explitation, profit cannot be realized, and without profit, capitalism cannot survive as a system. In this sense, capitalism no longer exists as it once was, and something new is struggling to be born.
A World of Contradiction
The capitalist class must preserve what they have, but at the same time if they don’t move forward and adapt to the new situation, they will die. They must find new markets, new consumers, and they have to change all of society to do it. They must develop new governing forms, new relations between people, and between nations. They must introduce new ideas to explain and justify what must be done in their interests, and what must be done to those who oppose them. Their efforts give rise to endless impossible contradictions. These contradictions interact with and shape one another, serving only to create more instability and less maneuvering room, to exacerbate and deepen the polarization, and to push the process toward inevitable crisis.
The capitalist class must come to grips with a new means of production that no longer requires labor. That the workers cannot buy back the products they produce creates a fundamental irresolvable contradiction. But this is not the capitalists’ only problem. The worker is no longer producing solely for the home market, but for markets around the world, intensifying the competition for those markets. The more the market shrinks, the greater is the competition, the more rapidly the means of production are developed, leading to ever greater competition, and inevitably, to war and greater destruction and instability.
The capitalists turned to speculation to bolster the falling rate of profit, reaping multi-trillions of dollars and creating billionaires in unprecedented numbers, fueling the expansion of the international financial system and facilitating the development of the world economy. These trillions are circulated and re-circulated in the financial markets of the world. But despite all the bubbles, derivatives and hedge funds, and the world’s economies held ransom to debt and instability, speculation is still insufficient to absorb this glut of money. It has to be invested somewhere, anywhere, in the desperate search to make a profit.
Trillions are plowed back into speculation, but trillions search the globe for investment, regardless of whether there is a return or not. The character of the qualitatively new means of production means that no matter how much or where they invest, the capitalists cannot get themselves out of the hole they are in, which only causes them to speculate even more.
The capitalists are desperate to open up new markets and create new consumers. Africa is one of several potential candidates that they are looking to recycle from among those nations and continents they destroyed through imperialist exploitation. Massive infrastructural projects would be needed, roads and railroads would have to be built, and airports upgraded or rebuilt. They would need modern power suppliers, the extraction and refining capabilities to run them, and ports dug and managed. The sky would be the limit on what could be made from these projects alone.
The pursuit of money on such a scale requires huge conglomerates, mega-corporations, state and cross state involvement, managing a bewildering array of local governments, and protecting projects against widespread violence and warfare. Great networks of financial institutions must be mobilized and trillions of dollars invested. Mechanisms are needed to coordinate the various aspects, navigating and negotiating the overall process, protecting the interests of all involved politically, as well as, militarily, not only nationally, but globally.
In order to politically facilitate the bringing of the rest of the world into these new efforts, the U.S. cannot be seen as “white man’s America.” The black bourgeoisie that is developing – a bourgeoisie that is really an American bourgeoisie that happens to be black – is represented in such leading figures as Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Barak Obama and gives credence to U.S. claims that it is a good and decent country that the rest of the world can trust, and more importantly, with whom they can conduct trade relations. A white backlash is the worst thing that could happen to U.S. foreign policy. The ruling class can use Barak Obama as the icon of the physical coming together of white and black in America. At the same time, there is a historically evolved, objective impulse toward that white backlash.
Yet even as they fight to bring more consumers into the market, where will those consumers come from? Africa is wracked by poverty, disease and war brought on by the legacies of imperialism. Even in those countries that are growing and creating a “middle class” and where markets – such as India and China – give rise to the capitalists’ dreams of billions of consumers, the populations are so poor that they cannot sustain the avalanche of goods being produced.
Yet, the objective laws of capitalism drive the capitalists forward. It is enough that there is money to be made in buying up or in building infrastructure in Africa or Latin America, in the promise or belief that they can produce enough jobs to keep the pump primed just enough, to keep the money circulating just enough, while at the same time, looting public treasuries or squeezing broader swaths of the world’s workers for more and ever more money. Capitalism has no logic other than maximum profit, and every decision flows from that, regardless of its impact on the lives of the world’s people, or even other capitalists.
Straddling Two Worlds
Capitalism cannot exploit in the same old way, and so it can’t function in the same old way. Something new is developing on the basis of private property. It has certain elements of the old capitalism, both in terms of the exploitation of labor-power, as well as, the forms in which that takes place. At the same time, we are seeing something new develop, something still rooted in capitalist productive relations, but needing to extricate itself from those relations in order to preserve private property.
In times of transition from one quality to another the state grows increasingly unstable, forced as it is to straddle both the old and the new. The state today is trying to construct a form of production based on private property, but without the producing class of the past. The dissolution of the base of capitalist productive relations is underway, but the new is still ambiguous, unformed. The state is bound by law, custom, and history to defend and protect the existing relations of capitalism. Yet, the new cannot be ignored, and the state must still guarantee private property in whatever guise it may appear. It is this double contradiction that makes the situation so unstable; the state must protect what is surely dissolving, while at the same time it must protect the historical continuity of which it is a part – private property. Its instability arises from the transition itself.
The growing economic crisis is bound to bring on political crisis – the clash of two antagonistic processes, with one forced to destroy the other to survive. The developing crisis is the impossibility of maintaining the bourgeois democratic superstructure with the qualitatively new economic foundation that is being created.
The capitalists cannot remain where they are, yet they cannot go forward. It will be in their fight to make the leap from a capitalism that is dissolving to a new order still based on private property that they will fight for new political forms.
New political forms arise in transition
Revolution requires no subjective commitment to humanity’s wellbeing, but grows out of an objective demand for change. Marx understood this when he wrote in the Communist Manifesto of the bourgeoisie as revolutionaries of their time. On the basis of the shift from manufacturing to big industry, the bourgeoisie seized power, tore up the old world and remade it in their own image. They were not attacking private property and neither did they care about the millions of people whose labor they exploited around the world to underwrite their power as a class. But in the moment of transition from agriculture to industry, in every country, they put forward a program to solve the problems of this transition and fought to attain the political power to implement that program.
Similarly, fascism arose as a revolutionary political resolution to the problems of societies, indeed a world, in transition and crisis. In Germany, for example, the Weimar government, wracked by the world economic depression, and developing toward political crisis, could not contain both the communist and the fascist elements. One or the other side had to be crushed.
The fascist movement was not monolithic. All kinds of forces came toward them, not the same, but more alike than not, with the fascists at the core. Although they made use of these forces, Hitler and his fascists did not seek to return to Bismarckian Germany, or the restoration of principalities and their petty monarchs, or to stabilize the Weimar government. They sought to tear up the old world order and create something new – Germany at the head of a great world empire – starting first with Europe and Russia to the East and the British Isles to the west – in which millions of peoples would toil for the profit and pleasure of the great German master race. Bourgeois democracy was replaced with the new fascist state under which the German people would benefit only so long as they remained a base of support for Nazi war and conquest.
Fascism under today’s qualitatively new conditions represents the bourgeoisie’s struggle (a class which is itself being transformed) to align the superstructure with the changing nature of private property relations. Fascism today seeks to facilitate a whole new world order based on private property without capitalism.
Communism is arising, Marx wrote, not as “an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself, but the real movement which abolishes the present state of things,” aligning society with the promise of the new means of production. Communism seeks to facilitate a whole new world based on the public ownership of the socially necessary means of production and the distribution of the social product according to need. The productive relations of communism are not developing, and will not develop, in the midst of the dissolving relations of capitalism, or in opposition to those relations, and must be consciously fought for.
After the Elections
A deepening economic crisis; an intensifying competition for markets; an increasingly unstable geopolitical world order in which the U.S. is fighting to remain dominant; the further unraveling of the old political party alignments; and a growing clash within the institutions of government and society are all interacting with one another, and pushing and pulling on one another. The next president will be charged to manage this developing chaos, caught on the horns of the dilemma of epochal transition.
The resolution of this dilemma will have to take a political form. As capitalism as an economic system continues to disintegrate, and the political system of rule becomes increasingly unable to solve the problems of either the workers or the capitalists, the various tendencies are going to separate and come out with their own programs. Up to this point, we have only had conservative (such as, right-wing republicans) or reactionary (such as, the Ku Klux Klan) motions in the U.S. We will need to sharpen our ability to recognize the nature of these programs from those of the fascists and not be deceived by misconceptions or old categories of the past.
History plays no favorites. The objective conditions create the possibility, but it will take political revolution – a subjective act – to determine the outcome. The League’s mission, strategy and tactics aim to achieve the first necessary stage in the line of march toward the final outcome – uniting the scattered revolutionaries on the basis of the demands of the new class, to educate them and win them over to the cooperative, communist resolution of the problem.
Political Report of the Standing Committee of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, June 2008
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