There is a crisis haunting anti-capitalism, a crisis of aimlessness.
At a time when there is an apparent resurgence in anti-capitalist activism across the world it might seem overly obviously, perhaps annoyingly churlish, to ask what precisely anti-capitalism is objecting to? A likely response might go something like this: ‘It’s obvious is it not? One only needs to casually glance at the figures to see the mess we are in: inequality between rich and poor growing year on year, high levels corruption and profiteering in the financial sector, growing unemployment, worsening real average wages, the disappearance of the middle class, governments marching in step to the corporate drum, the increasing militarization of the police, the privatization of public institutions, representative democracy reduced to management for capital, ecological catastrophe looming, the retreat of the commons. . .the list goes on and on. One does not need to have studied all those thousands of pages of Theories of Surplus Value to understand that the system is rotten head to toe. Even if we disagree on the precise nature of this monster called capitalism, we all know what’s wrong with it and what needs to change.’
But do we?
Today there are a plethora of nominations for the object of anti-capitalism, from the insipid Smithian critique of its monopolistic tendencies (not long ago invoked by Business Minister, Vince Cable), to generalised anti-corporatism, to environmentalist anti-growth advocacy. Added into the mix are voguish theoretical reformulations from the continental school, whose anti-capitalism insists upon the way capitalism constrains ‘lines of flights’, suppresses difference, encourages the techno-scientific domination of nature, and so and so on. This ideological stew of negativity against capitalism tends to assume that given the totality of capitalism in the 21st century that there is little point in specifying what the critique of capitalism is - and this pluralistic common sense also warns against insisting upon any one objection against other conceptions. Whether or not this is a legitimate position, though, is open to question. For many of the above concerns could well be contradictory; or worse, certain rejections of capitalism could be merely transitive with more encompassing critiques such as the expansion of disciplinary technologies of governance, modernity, or even science itself. If we cannot agree on what the object of our critique is – what is the specificity of this thing we call ‘capitalism’? – how can there be any certainty that our critiques are targeting the same thing? Moreover, how do we know that the systems we wish to supersede this nebulous object are proximal enough so that given the rise of a new regime of post-capitalism (however construed) it would not be less preferable according to some conceptions than the regime we presently inhabit today?
Of course, one way around this problem would seem to be to return to Marx himself, as it is clearly Marx’s critique of capitalism, no matter whether advocated or derided, that comprises the reference horizon for all alternative anti-capitalisms to this day. Yet, here, to our surprise, things get no clearer, for there seems to be even in Marx’s writings rather diverse potential bases for anti-capitalism.
Is it the old thesis from The Communist Manifesto that a communist regime would liberate the forces of production once the socialisation of labour is held back from the inhibitions of private property? This conception would imply that anti-capitalism is ultimately tied to the efficiency of production and the cause of eliminating material scarcity. How credible a basis for anti-capitalism this is today in light of the obvious successes of capitalism in ramping up efficiency, agricultural production, and commodity manufacture is not clear. There are certainly areas of the economy where private ownership has inhibited development to eliminate scarcity – one thinks of the UK’s housing crisis – but it does not seem generalizable enough to warrant an overthrow of the entire economic regime. Further, predominant environmentalist critiques might suggest that it is in fact the over-production and wastefullness of contemporary capitalism which is the problem with it, not the inverse. It appears a dead end is reached this way.
So could it be instead that Marx’s proof from Capital, wherein it is shown that all profit derives from the exploitation of labour, which gives us a more solid, contemporary ground for anti-capitalism? This route would definitely go some way to explaining how vast inequalities develop under free market capitalism. Alone, however, it does not appear enough. Why? Because when Marx was writing the absolute deprivation of the working classes was such that exploitation was synonymous with extremely poor material conditions for workers. At least in most Western countries a combination of welfare statism and the rise in the overall levels of production has shifted the objective referent somewhat. Exploitation and inequality lose some of their material bases for stimulating and necessitating a comprehensive overthrow of the system and they then, in contemporary conditions, need to be supplemented by moral appeals to justice. Yet history tends to show that as long as people see overall standards of living going up they will tolerate exploitation and inequality. If, following the present crisis, this no longer remains the case then perhaps this critique will regain some of its potential, and people will want a post-capitalist world that eliminates exploitation and reduces inequality. But that remains to be seen. I wouldn’t bank on it.
Could it be the more political argument then? This would focus on the working classes taking power and instituting a properly democratic regime like the Paris Commune. The point here would be avowedly political: the bastards at the top do not represent us, we want real, direct democratic participation of the working classes (or 99% – why not?) in government. Yet is an argument for more democracy a necessarily anti-capitalist one? In a context which presumes that the real enfranchisement of the masses would be of necessity anti-capitalist like in the 19th century it makes sense, but today? Is it not just more likely that a political anti-capitalism based on true democracy would just result in a fairer, more distributive capitalism, but at the end of the day still capitalism nonetheless? For me this is the shallowest interpretation of Marxist anti-capitalism.
The final candidate for Marxist anti-capitalism would work from Vol. III of Capital, and is probably the most unpopular one today. With Marx’s theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, the corollary prediction is that this leads to economic crisis, and furthermore that the only possible resolution to these crises is the destruction of capital allowing the accumulation process to begin afresh – either that or long term economic stagnation. Because the decline of the rate of profit is also premised on an increasing percentage of capitalist investment going into technological means of production (i.e. automation) this would imply growing unemployment too. So anti-capitalism, thus conceived, would be based on doing away with crisis, unemployment, and finding a new motor for development other than the profit motive. It is an appealing thesis, but one that hinges on its central prediction being true. If it is true, the options are stark: its stagnation, crisis and decline or a new system. The problem is short memories. Capitalism can recover after the crises, and what’s to say people won’t just accept these awful periods as necessary evils for the least worst economic system on offer?
So it appears that even Marx under contemporary conditions cannot give us an unequivocal basis for anti-capitalism. Hence the recent appeal amongst the left for invoking the objective possibility for ecological catastrophe. Here, at last, we seem to have in our hands an undeniable, scientifically proven imperative for instituting a new socio-economic regime. Capitalism is premised on growth and unrelenting expansion, ergo if we want to solve the ecological crisis we need to be anti-capitalists. What’s wrong with this argument? It’s flawed because it works by proxy. Sure, given the current supremacy of capitalism there is no doubt there is some responsibility, but capitalism is not carbon emissions. Carbon emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels because they are easiest way to extract energy from the earth and this energy is necessary for the development of material well being. It seems likely that any technologically advanced civilization would have had to go through a period of fossil burning to raise general living standards as a first source of energy extraction. Therefore, there is an implicit transitivity of this critique a critique of science and development per se.
To compound the woes of ecological anti-capitalism, what does the communist future look like that says to people, ‘capitalism can’t do it, only we can make the tough choices to keep your material standards of living the same or worse?’ Probably a communist future that never comes to be. Or alternatively, a communist future that ends up the exact opposite of the optimistic vision Marx originally laid out in The Communist Manifesto. It seems incredibly unlikely that people would commit to major economic and social change for the purpose of institution of ecological austerity, even if complemented with eliminating exploitation and reducing inequality.
So where am I going with all of this? I want to argue that, quite the opposite, what post-capitalism needs is an imaginary that intersects the above justifications with a positive vision of the future that capitalism has failed to deliver. And part of this means rescuing the most lasting merits of the Soviet experiment. For while everyone can agree that the USSR had many failings, it remains the case that the artistic, architectural and technological development it stood for was in many cases a widely recognized concrete achievement. No one can deny the quality of their space programme. Even recently in London there has been two major exhibitions showcasing some of futurist ambitions of Soviet communism: Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Red Skies season of Soviet science fiction at the British Film institute. There is an element of aesthetics here as well as actual ambitions. The primitivist image of the far left today is more and more beginning to mirror the world of ecological austerity they argue only they can institute. Tents, dogs on a string, soup kitchens – it is not always clear whether the squat aesthetic of activist left is not just a necessary consequence of direct action, or an ambition for the future itself. The point is, how on earth will communist groupings ever hope to attract enough people committed to radical change without some sort of vision for the future which feeds peoples’ desires for something different than capitalism nowadays delivers? And one thing that capitalism today seems particularly poor at is large scale, technological projects. Whilst we clearly have the money and technology – even as a fraction of the social surplus – to develop moon bases and plan a trip to Mars there simply is no will to do so at present because of the absence of a Cold War space race or any profit motive. Whereas small scale gadgetry has developed at an incredible pace with capitalist profit incentives, this has not been matched by commensurable progress with large scale technological developments.
In sum, in order to recapture the imaginary of people, to allow them to associate communism not simply with just, if miserable conditions of equality and ecological austerity, we need to return to the point where the average person on the street would look at the below image and say ‘Beautiful. But it’s just a dream; we would need communism before we ever see that come true.’