1990s >> 1997 >> no-1110-february-1997

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.

Utilising Marx’s analysis, socialists contend that the motive force for such changes in society are the material forces of production. These chiefly consist of the instruments of production themselves (tools, machines, etc.) and the productive skills and knowledge at society’s disposal. In the last analysis, it is technological change which periodically revolutionises the productive skills and tools of society as humankind attempts to increase its power over production. But it is important to stress that this theory is not mere technological determinism—while technological change does tend to ultimately lead to major social change, it does not do so automatically, since humans make history. Any wider social change made necessary by technological development will only come about when struggled for by a group of humans—usually a new social class with a unique relationship to the means of living. Indeed, it is precisely the social grouping which comes to play the key organising role for the new productive methods as these methods are transformed by technological development, that will tend to emerge as the new dominant class in society. This grouping will not achieve dominance automatically and will have to struggle for this position by becoming conscious of its own interests and by then capturing political power from the old dominant class.
We argue that it is this scenario which broadly explains historical change through various social epochs. It explains, for instance, the demise of feudalism and the rise of the capitalist class and capitalist relations of production, and similarly it can be used to chart the decline of capitalism and the rise of the forces in society that have a class interest in its abolition and in the establishment of socialism.
Inventing history
The conditions which gave rise from the seventeenth century or so onwards to the capitalist mode of production—based on wage labour, market exchange and capital accumulation—have now clearly changed in an important way. This is because the role of the dominant class in society—the capitalists—has significantly altered. When the capitalist class emerged as the ruling class in society it was because they originally played a key technical role in the rise of the market economy as it superseded feudalism. Most people arc taught at school the stories of inventors and entrepreneurs such as Arkwright, Watt and others who played such a notable part in the development of the Industrial Revolution. In fact the view of the capitalist class as being the key innovators and inventors in society still persists to a degree, and was used by Margaret Thatcher among others as a form of modern-day justification for the free market It is, however, a view which is no longer to any significant extent supported by reality. Today, very few indeed of the richest men and women in the world have invented or introduced anything to hasten productive development. For every capitalist like Bill Gates of Microsoft there are many times more like the Duke of Westminster, George Soros or the Sultan of Brunei, who only work—if at all—at overseeing their finances.
This was a phenomenon noted in a work which was in many ways a fine application of the Materialist Conception of History, where Friedrich Engels argued in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that the transformation of industry and the means of distribution into large joint-stock companies, trusts and state property demonstrated the increasing irrelevance of the capitalist class regarding the management and development of society’s productive forces. He argued from the perspective of the late nineteenth century that as capitalism takes hold:

   “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. ”

In other words, as capitalism takes root, the more isolated and independent nature of human activity in feudalism is replaced by a huge network of socially interconnected production, initially spurred on by a class of entrepreneurs, but then sustained by the mass of the population who come to operate capitalist society from top to bottom, even performing the tasks that the capitalists once did themselves. The capitalist class achieve an economically privileged position in society, and do not have to work or directly involve themselves in the productive process any longer. Hence the key organisational role in society clearly passes from the class of capitalists to the wage and salary earning working class who create all the wealth, including the large part of it appropriated by the capitalists for their own purposes.
As capitalism develops in this way its fundamental contradiction becomes ever more apparent—a socially operated and highly interconnected means of living based on the collective effort of the majority on the one hand, private ownership of this means of living by a tiny parasitic minority on the other. Socialists argue that this fundamental contradiction of capitalism, from which much else follows, can only be solved by the replacement of the capitalist class’s private monopoly of the means of production and distribution by collective ownership by society as a whole—socialism.
(To be continued)