1990s >> 1992 >> no-1059-november-1992

Against the market

Socialism will uproot every vestige of the market economy. As socialists, we do not accept the need for some “invisible hand” beyond the control of human beings, to govern human affairs and give them coherence.We deny emphatically that a complex modern society that can leave its footprints on the face of the moon as surely as it can detect the sex of an unborn baby, is only possible because individuals submit themselves to the discipline of the marketplace. We reject the ahistorical belief that human history, which only recently gave rise to one class that prostitutes itself to another for a wage or salary, has come to an end in the experience of contemporary capitalism.

In this battle of ideas what is being contested is what it means to be a human being.

Poverty and plenty
Capitalism is a system riven by contradiction. At the most basic level there is, in Marxist terminology, a contradiction between its “forces of production”, the technological potential that capitalism has built up. and its “relations of production” that work to limit or constrain the manifestation of this potential. Economic scarcity is artificially maintained for the sake of perpetuating an outdated social system.

To perpetuate a system which has “objectively” outlived its use it is imperative that it be subjectively entrenched. For it cannot continue without the acquiescence of the majority upon whom the burden of its shortcomings fall. It thus needs to account for these in ways that deflect criticism from itself.

Take poverty for example. As in the Victorian era, so today there is a tendency to see this as something which is, unwittingly or otherwise, self-inflicted. This personalisation of blame is the mirror image of the myth of the “self-made man”; in each case the explanation for an individual’s fate is held to lie within the individual concerned. By the same token, society congratulates the millionaire on his millions and washes its hands of the pauper’s poverty. The interconnection between them is lost, broken and mystified in this fragmented and individualistic world-view.

That the roots of poverty are fundamentally structural cannot be doubted. Consider the facts. Why, for example, does homelessness exist when, in Britain alone, literally hundreds of thousands of homes stand empty and large numbers of building workers cannot find work? Why is food allowed to be dumped and farmers paid not to produce when there are millions of people grossly underfed?

Clearly, something gets in the way of satisfying human needs that could be so easily met. That something is the overriding priority of the profit motive. The market economy does satisfy some human needs but only incidentally and on condition that they are backed up by purchasing power. Yet the very means whereby working people express their purchasing power—their wages and salaries—constitute costs that have constantly to be curtailed to ensure profitability in a competitive market.

Empty houses and unploughed fields represent only the visible tip of an iceberg of structural waste. Arguably, of much greater significance are those activities which, though integral to the operation of a capitalist economy, do not meaningfully contribute to the satisfaction of human needs.

Such activities, directly or indirectly, account for roughly half the total workforce in the formal sector today and absorb huge quantities of resources. They embrace a vast range of occupations—from ticket collectors to tax consultants, from pay clerks to pension-fund managers. They vividly illustrate the potential of production that is trapped under capitalism, a potential that can only truly be glimpsed from a perspective that is fundamentally anti-capitalist.

In a socialist society such activities would cease to have any purpose; they would simply stop. The labour and resources tied up in them will be redirected into socially useful production. With productive effort much more effectively targeted, far more could be produced to satisfy human needs even without a commensurate increase in total effort.


This growing burden of structural waste is the most potent manifestation of what is capitalism’s major contradiction. But what is the practical significance of this contradiction for the process of changing society?


We should not put a too mechanistic construction on this process. For a growing contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production to translate into an intensification of class struggle would seem to imply something else must happen. Otherwise there is no reason to suppose that the contradiction could not grow indefinitely without having any discernible effect on social attitudes.


One possibility is that working people would need to undergo a marked deterioration in their living standards in order to adopt a more militant class conscious outlook. However, there is again no reason to suppose that the development of capitalism and the exacerbation of its inner contradiction will bring about absolute impoverishment. In fact. Marx foresaw the possibility of the development of capitalism being accompanied by an absolute rise in the living standards of the working class (albeit a relative fall by comparison with the wealth of the capitalists). Moreover, far from absolute impoverishment being a necessary precondition of class militancy, the opposite was more likely to be the case: his analysis of the “lumpenproletariat” in 19th century France suggests that it was precisely this most downtrodden and impoverished section of the working class which was most easily co-opted into the most reactionary of causes.


By and large the living standards of the working class have risen significantly since Marx’s day. While we should not judge progress by the yardstick of what our grandparents lacked but, rather, according to what we are capable of realising today, it is clear that the absolute impoverishment of the working class in the developed world (and over the long term) has not happened. And barring some unforeseen ecological collapse of our life-support systems, precipitated by capitalism’s rapacious short-sighted appetite for economic-growth, it is unlikely to happen.


We should not overstate the extent of this material success. We would do well to remind ourselves that even in the most developed parts of the developed world there are still millions of people in a chronic condition of wretched hunger. In the United States, some 9 percent of the population— 12 million children and 8 million adults— do not receive a sufficient nutrient intake for growth and good health (Scientific American, February 1987). Nevertheless 9 percent of the population do not constitute a majority and. indeed, according to most nutritionists a much larger percentage of the American population are overfed.


Turning to the underdeveloped world, however, we find a very different situation. Since the war, the income-gap between them and the developed world has steadily widened as has the distribution of wealth within many of these countries. In some of them—notably in sub-Saharan Africa—living standards have fallen as a consequence of the encroachment of market forces on the subsistence economy.


It is sometimes argued that the success of capitalism—and by implication, the continuing justification for it—may be judged by the fact that it is able to support a larger, and still growing, population than ever before. This, of course, glosses over the fact that a significant proportion of the food produced—in parts of Africa, up to 80 percent—does not enter the market economy at all. Without the safety net of the subsistence economy, famine on a catastrophic level would surely ensue. More to the point, is the fact that we have the technological knowledge and resources today to make hunger everywhere a scourge of the past; it is because it has failed to utilise this potential that capitalism stands indicted.


Paradoxically, the more capitalism erodes the absolute foundations of material poverty, the more “spiritually” impoverished and alienated do our lives become. Like the mythical snake doomed constantly to devour its own tail, we can never find satisfaction or peace. Urged on by the advertisers’ hype to consume without limit, we pursue what must forever elude us.


“We are”, observed Erich Fromm, “a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent—people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save” (To Have or to Be?, 1976). In the face of this organised meaninglessness of the marketplace we retreat into a protective shell. Rather than engage with the world we seek to escape it. As Robert Cooperstein perceptively points out. it is not that “commodities do not provide the illusion of real satisfaction so much as they satisfy the real need for illusion” (The Crisis of the Gross National Spectacle).


Life, in short, has become a kind of spectator sport. We move through it, each in his or her own little fragile bubble of existence, buffeted by forces too diffuse to comprehend and too powerful to overcome.


Yet, in the end, human beings cannot be reduced to so many electrons along an electric current. We are not mere units to be pushed around by a world market and pressed into hired labour at the whim of capital. We need to validate our own identity as social and human beings by meaningfully participating in the life of others. We need to express ourselves in ways that contribute to the common good, to be valued and wanted for what we can give to society in return for the benefits of being a member of it.


Capitalism is a system of wage slavery notwithstanding the spurious freedom of the wage contract. It cannot be otherwise where the means of production are monopolised by a small minority. It imposes upon us conditions that conflict with our deepest needs.


This theme is one that socialists need to address as the old images of cloth-capped poverty fade from the social landscape.The realisation that human beings do not live by bread alone compels us to expand our definition of basic needs to embrace also our emotional needs as an integral part of human existence.


Mary Midgley argues brilliantly in her stinging attack on the existentialists for whom “hell is other people“:


  The notion that we “have a nature”, far from threatening the concept of freedom, is absolutely essential to it. If we were genuinely plastic and indeterminate at birth, there could be no reason why society should not stamp us into any shape that might suit it.

Even Marx


  though he officially dropped the notion of human nature and often attacked the term, relied on the idea as much as anybody else for his crucial notion of dehumanisation. (Beast and Man).

To attempt to incorporate a “moral dimension” into the cut-throat world of capitalist competition—as exemplified by such organisations as the Institute of Business Ethics—must remain a futile gesture. Capitalism cannot be humanised. The segregation of morals and money is as entrenched today as when the limited company was first legislated for, relieving investors of any liability beyond the sum they invested.


If human values are to prevail over money values this will surely come about in spite of capitalism and not because of it It will come about as a result of a growing and resolute movement working in opposition to capitalism. And it will find its ultimate expression in a new type of society that will not place morality on a public pedestal as an impractical yardstick by which to judge its transgressors but will integrate it into every aspect of social life. Society will come to be a seamless whole, an experience which our “primitive*’ forebears once lived through and a prospect which our modern technology, at last unfettered, will greatly enrich.


Robin Cox