Reform and Revolution
The defining characteristic of capitalism is that the owners of capital exploit human labor to produce commodities that the workers must then purchase with their wages in order to live.
Labor-replacing technologies completely shatter that relationship. Neither robots nor permanently unemployed workers do any shopping. Society polarizes into two great camps — one side possessing the vast wealth of society and the abundance being produced — with the other living permanently in abject poverty and want. The further along that this antagonism develops, the further our society moves away from reforming the existing system and moves toward revolution.
It was just a matter of time before this economic antagonism found its political expression. One example of this is evidenced by the polarizing effect of the Trump campaign and presidency. The size, the scope, and the sustainability of the demonstrations against the policies of the Trump administration have caused many in the movement to compare this period with the civil rights and antiwar upheavals of the 1960s. The demands of the movement today are around many of the same issues as they were back then: healthcare, education, housing, jobs, racism, police brutality, women’s rights and war are just some of those issues.
In the past period these demands could be partially met and some reforms in the interests of the workers could be obtained because the capitalist system was still expanding. Today this is not the case. In the 1960s there was still plenty of room for technological developments that were compatible with the capitalist system. For instance, fundamental changes in the production process and the economy of the South overthrew the sharecropping system and gave rise to the civil rights movement. In 1947 International Harvester introduced the mechanical cotton picker into southern agriculture. As mechanization spread it cheapened the labor of agricultural workers, lowered their wages, and wiped out sharecropping. Cotton for centuries had been exclusively picked by hand. By the 1970s it was completely picked by machine.
Agricultural laborers, no longer needed in the South, led to the Great Migration of around 5 million people to higher wages and steady employment needed in northern and southern cities. At the same time industrial manufacturing was expanding around the globe. Its rapid expansion in the U.S. was in large part due to the fact that the U.S. was the only industrialized country whose industrial infrastructure wasn’t ravaged by the destruction of World War II. The industrialization of the South was part of that process. To achieve its economic goals the ruling class had to dismantle the old system of segregation and Jim Crow. This intersected with the great historical struggles and goals of African Americans for freedom and equality. This was the last great reform to be won in this country. It was a reform, because it left capitalist relations of production untouched.
What began in the 1970s as labor-replacing, electronic technology that was no longer compatible with capitalism has rapidly grown and is now becoming more economically and politically polarized. The upsurge of a movement for the basic necessities of life is proof of this. While many participants in the movement perceive themselves as resisting Trump, they are actually rebelling against capitalism and its private property relationships. Epochal changes in the production process and the economy have brought about what we are going through now.
Today the capitalist economic system has penetrated every corner of the globe. It has nowhere to expand. Social orders do not disappear until there is no longer any room for an economic system to expand. Unprecedented production and unprecedented want describe our time. Millions of workers in the U.S. are struggling to survive, demanding the basic necessities of life. Today, any reform efforts to gain free universal healthcare for all, free universal and equal education for all, or an end to homelessness, challenges the private property of the capitalist class.
While these struggles may appear to be efforts to reform the system, they are actually struggles to transform our society from one based on a system of private property to a new cooperative system where the society owns the means of production and the social product is distributed according to need. High technology automation is producing such abundance that it makes distribution according to need a practical necessity. Today is a revolutionary time that is calling forth the creation of a new society that promises an economic paradise for all of humanity.
This Building Block article is one of a series that explains a basic concept of the revolutionary process, challenging readers to explore its meaning for political work in today’s environment.
March/April 2018 Vol28.Ed2
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