Reconstruct Society on a New Basis
A recent survey by the Brookings Institution found 42% of the American people believe that capitalism is either “not working too well” or “not working at all.” It also found that 44% believed that capitalism and the free market system are at odds with Christian values.
Along with this anti-capitalist sentiment comes a political awakening – an outrage against injustice and a loss of faith in the government.
They are right: Production without labor is destroying capitalist production relations. The ruling class is using its political power to protect private appropriation and their interests at the expense of the people of this country and the world.
Revolutionaries can and must politicize this awakening, unite the outrage with the vision of a new society that does away with privation and inequality, and infuse it with the confidence that this vision is possible. To do that we have to understand the underlying change. Only then can revolutionaries fight for its direction.
New Motive Force
A new motive force is replacing human labor in production.
This is no small change. At other stages of social development, the defining motive force ranged from animal and human power to electro-mechanical power driving machinery. Today’s microchip stores and transmits not only specific, programmed mechanical movements – but also the capacity to make virtually instant decisions based on new information received. As it transmits the decision-making capacity of human labor, the microchip is replacing living labor in one aspect of production after another.
As an economic system defined by the buying and selling of labor power as a commodity, capitalism cannot survive this new motive force. But the ruling class can use its political power to preserve its wealth and continue private appropriation of the social product.
Private Property and the State
Productive forces that replace labor mean that property relations built around mechanics, labor power and value are becoming untenable. Although the new motive force begins to destroy capitalist production relations, the State still has to protect and promote private property – the private appropriation of the social product. The ruling class uses its political power to give legal expression to the needs of private property under new conditions.
Private property is not simply a big accumulation of wealth. Nor is it the same as personal property, in the sense of someone’s bed or books or bicycle. Property relations refer to relationships in society, relations between people and property.
At its essence, property is a legal question – in the broad sense of ownership and appropriation. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels described in their writings the main stages of appropriation of the social product – the stages of private property up to and including capitalism. In mediaeval society, the means of production were suited for individual use, and accumulation was based on individual production.
The emergence of large-scale industry called for the concentration of the means of production in the hands of the capitalists and the separation of laborers from their tools. In the first volume of Capital, Marx summed up this centuries-long period of social development in a few words: the “expropriation of the immediate producers … [the] dissolution of private property based on the labor of its owner.” He also anticipated the possibility of the end of all systems of private property: the “expropriators are expropriated.”
Property relations, in the sense of who owns what and who appropriates the product of labor, are the legal expression of the production relations at a given stage. They are the legal framework in which those production relations operate, whether those production relations be ancient slavery, feudalism, or capitalism.
Here we are not talking about “legal” simply in the narrow sense of “laws.” There need be no law on the books that says the owners of the factories get to appropriate the product of the workers’ labor. Yet everything in society is set up that way: Workers have to work in order to get money to buy the necessaries of life. Capitalists hire the workers and appropriate the fruits of their labor.
Changes in private property relations recast relationships within society – relationships among classes in society, government, the State, corporations, and property. When the owning and appropriating class needs to re-shape these relationships in order to continue private appropriation under new conditions, it uses its political power to do so.
Legal and political changes at the origin of capitalism shaped society to facilitate the new production relations. Capitalist relations of production first developed in agriculture, in a particular area in England. Beginning in the 16th century large landowners fought for a series of laws that began the private enclosure of lands that had previously been accessible to the whole village. People could no longer graze their sheep or cut their hay where they used to.
These laws began to reshape society in the interest of the rising capitalist class. They separated workers from the land, forced them to sell their labor power to the capitalists, in agriculture and then in industry. They promoted the rise and expansion of capitalist production relations and, ultimately, the export of a new form of inequality to places far beyond the English shores.
Specific legal and political relationships also shaped U.S. capitalism. Here there was no 19th century capitalism without the depraved and murderous enslavement of millions of African Americans. Propelled by the capitalist market, slave labor – especially on the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Valley – drove the explosion of the U.S. onto the world market.
In the irony and dialectic of history, at a certain point the property relationships of slavery had to be abolished in order for capitalist production relations in the U.S. to move on to their next stage of growth and expansion. After the Civil War the 13th Amendment abolished the right of one person to own another as property. But it did not end the capitalism whose expansion was made possible by that slavery. As the world so painfully knows, the period after the Civil War saw an expansion of capitalism that catapulted the U.S. from the second-rate country it had been in 1840 to a first-rate imperialist power within 60 years.
Particular relationships of private property were suited to capitalism’s growth at one stage. At another stage they became a fetter. Laws were passed. Books were written. War was waged. Political and legal changes ensured capitalism’s growth under new conditions.
Legal and Political Changes Shape Society
Today, the foundation of American society is again shifting – this time in a qualitatively new way. The introduction of the microchip into production replaces human labor and introduces an antagonism to the production relations of capitalism. Production without labor calls for distribution based on need.
The ruling class cannot stop the economic revolution and its fundamental threat to exchange based on labor and value. But it can wield its political power to protect its interests under these new conditions. It is acting directly and openly to wield the power of the State against everything, from public education to the earth’s endangered ecology.
This economic and political motion has been the merger of the corporations and the State. It uses the power of the State to direct key aspects of the economy, serve corporate interests and protect private property.
This merger is the basic structure of fascism. It has been a protracted process. But when the cyclical crisis of under-consumption came to a head in the financial crisis of 2008, it gave the ruling class the opportunity to advance this merger to a higher phase of its development. The merger required and made possible a wide spectrum of domestic laws and regulations, legal contracts and global agreements that subjugate society to the corporations.
Protecting private property today is not only police guarding surplus food from hungry people. As immoral and obscene as that is, there’s more to it. Today a vast array of new laws, regulations, legal agreements and precedents aims to protect the economy and uphold the private appropriation of the social product, even as the production relations of capitalism are being destroyed.
One spot on this spectrum addresses the reorganization of the financial sector. The Federal Reserve granted exemptions to the financial sector and Congress approved its deregulation, opening new avenues of investment.
Banks are now allowed to buy up infrastructure that stores and delivers commodities. JPMorgan is moving to gain control of the copper supply. Goldman Sachs collected about $5 billion in fees over the last three years by moving aluminum back and forth among its 27 industrial warehouses in the Detroit area – money making money based ever more remotely on labor and production of value.
The path is cleared for the owners of money to make more money in new arenas of speculation made possible by the microchip. Credit default swaps bring in high returns for some investors – and wreak havoc on cities that have to pay off the banks and cut allocations for the public good. The microchip can put knowledge about anything – from the genetic structure of plants, animals, and humans to changes in interest rates and currency values – onto the market for sale or speculation. Scientific knowledge about natural resources is thrown onto private markets. Some hedge funds now focus their speculation on water supply, drought or how fast a glacier dissolves into the earth’s warming waters.
Changes to the legal and political superstructure are destroying relationships in society once assumed stable. A new generation of global trade agreements protects the profits of the world’s corporations at the expense of the people of the world. Banks that are deemed “too big to fail” become exempt from the rule of law, and are given the funds and liquidity to become even bigger. Under the banner of “austerity,” legal contracts are broken, cities cut essential services, and public workers lose their pensions. The regime of austerity is reshaping society in the U.S., Greece, Ukraine, and around the world.
Meaning of Legal and Political Changes
Adjustments to the legal and political superstructure are cementing the bonds of the merger between the armed force of the State and the economic power of the corporations. The consolidation of the economic, political, and legal framework of fascism is well underway.
These are not subjective choices, nor policies that can be chosen or repealed. They are the attempts of the ruling class to protect its interests in the face of the objective forces that are destroying a system based on labor and value.
Out of this process is evolving a new system of private property – a system where money makes money, where wealth and exchange become ever more detached from labor and the production of value. No new system springs fully developed from someone’s mind. It takes place step by step, as the ruling class uses its political power to solve specific problems.
The ruling class has to try to ensure the continuity of private property. They cannot forever preserve a system of exchange based on labor when labor is being replaced and value is being destroyed.
In this objective sense the ruling class is on the strategic defensive. There is no economic solution. The only route to protecting private property is political force. They have political power, but political laws cannot overcome economic laws. They cannot ensure the continuity of a system of exchange in an economy that is increasingly separated from value.
But they have to try. As destructive and far-reaching these political and legal adjustments are, their offensive can only be a tactical one. The beginning of the end of value based on labor sets the objective basis for the abolition of private property.
Profound Revolutionary Potential
Despite its dangers the current political moment also holds tremendous revolutionary potential. As it is for the ruling class, so too is it for the working class. The subjective, conscious aspect of the process is decisive.
Each political step awakens more people and brings them into awareness and struggle. Now is the moment to meet the anti-capitalist awareness and anti-fascist sentiment and politicize it with widespread propaganda.
With the political power of the State so openly in the hands of the corporate exploiters and appropriators, with these private interests so nakedly assaulting the public, there arises the potential for a break in the continuity of political thought. It is urgent that revolutionaries take advantage of the objectivity of this political moment to politicize the growing sense of the injustice of these laws and develop class consciousness.
The conscious aspect of the revolutionary process is more than the awakening and response of people to the disruption in society. It may start there. But more decisive is the stages of the consciousness of the need and possibility to reconstruct society on a new foundation. Consciousness is not just more and better struggle within the system and against its effects. Consciousness is indispensable to the struggle to rid society of the cause of injustice and inequality – the struggle for the political power to reconstruct society.
Will the abundant physical and cultural wealth, scientific understanding and productive capacity, that are the results of thousands of years of human knowledge and production, continue to be subjugated to private profit? Or will humanity transcend the world governed by the laws of private property to achieve a new level of its development? The future is up to revolutionaries who feel deeper and see farther – and who organize themselves to unite the consciousness of the solution with those who are struggling against the problems.
Political report of the LRNA Resident Standing Committee, January 2014
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