Why Capitalism is Decadent
Socialists refuse to be taken in by the assertions that capitalism is not only the most viable economic system possible but that it also represents continuous progress. After all, the evidence to the contrary is everywhere — inner-city nightmarish conditions, beggars in the streets, homelessness, increasing violence and drug abuse. . . . and, of course, to deal with this ‘progress’, more police officers!
For most of the politicians, economists and historians this century, “the future” has been equated with progress. Even those who have never expressed a belief in the miraculous have invariably claimed that there has never been any reason to think that the future will bring anything other than development and advancement in the overall condition of the human species. While many have recognised that capitalism is not perfect, and have thus spent time trying to perfect it, they have never seriously countenanced an alternative to it because none seemed necessary or relevant. So long as capitalism is defended and emerges victorious, they have argued, humankind will prosper; thus to defend capitalism is to support progress. One historian—Francis Fukuyama—was so confident of the invincibility of capitalism as a progressive social system that a few years ago he pronounced that history had ended with the triumph of the world market and the rise of bourgeois liberal democracy, claiming that minor difficulties notwithstanding, human progress was assured.
While such an attitude has been the prevailing establishment view it has not always been held quite so enthusiastically by the rest of the population. It is, after all, the working class majority in society who have most direct contact with—and experience of—the system’s inadequacies, being a subject class with little or no economic power. Today, the ruling class view of progress has less resonance among the working class the world over than perhaps ever before. Recent opinion polls in ‘advanced’ states like Britain have suggested that 60 per cent and more of the population now believe that the kind of world today’s children will inherit will be worse than their own generation inherited, apparently the highest number to take this view since records began. It is a view replicated in a great many industrialised countries let alone in the less developed ones and in the ‘Third World’, where meaningful progress for the majority has long been a sick joke indeed.
Is progress still possible?
For our part as we watch the twentieth century draw to a close, socialists do not argue that progress is assured or that, contrariwise, we are all doomed. Socialists contend that lasting progress is possible for humankind—but only under certain conditions. These conditions do not appertain at the moment and most people are right to recognise this and right to question the traditional ruling class viewpoint they have been fed. They are right because we are no longer living in a society that is progressive in any real sense, but one that is reactionary or decadent.
In using the term ‘decadent’ to describe modern society some explanation is necessary. Standard dictionary references to this term elicit the following definitions: “a state of decay”, “lacking in physical and moral vigour”, and “decline—especially in sexual morality”. To those most familiar with the word it probably conjures up visions of a society resembling something out of the Borgias or the hit musical set in 1920’s Weimar Germany, Cabaret. In popular usage decadence, sexual licentiousness and moral decline are synonymous. For our purposes the wider definition of decadence being taken to refer to something in a state of decay, and existing without vigour, is the most useful.
For instance, over many decades—in fact about 100 years—socialists have argued that the type of society we live in today is decadent. Indeed, it is because we think that capitalism is decadent that we are politically organised to help bring about its overthrow. But that does not necessarily mean we contend that capitalism is drowning in an ocean of sexual immorality. Instead, we say capitalism is decadent because as a way of organising human affairs it is now outdated or obsolete.
To understand this it is necessary to briefly examine the socialist view of historical development, derived in the main from the pioneering work of the early socialists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For without an understanding of the socialist view of social change it is impossible to fully comprehend why we say that capitalism is a decadent social system.
The key to history
During the last century Marx and Engels developed what is usually termed their Materialist Conception of History, an analytical tool which has since been used by socialists to explain historical events and social changes. ‘The basis of Marx and Engels’ contention—derived from an investigation of past social changes and the forces that motivated them—was that society is not basically a static entity, changing only superficially, but is periodically subject to dynamic change and development. These changes are characterised chiefly by alterations in the way in which humans organise themselves to get what they need to live—food, clothing, housing, entertainment and so on.
The chattel slave society of Ancient Rome and the feudal society of the Middle Ages were organised on a very different basis to modern capitalist society, for example. Whereas once the dominant form of social organisation was for slaves to be physically owned and compelled to work for the benefit of their masters—often in appalling conditions—the inefficiency of this arrangement led at a later stage in human history to the development of feudalism, where feudal serfs worked part of the week for their own upkeep and livelihood and the rest for the feudal lord. Today we have capitalist society where there is still a class division between two main classes, the difference being that now the majority subject class ‘freely’ sells its ability to work on a market in return for wages and salaries in order to live. Like in the other private property systems of Ancient society or feudalism, this subject class is still exploited by a dominant and unproductive class—in this case, the capitalists. However, the nature of social organisation has clearly changed.
“All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the stock exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. ”