We continue our series of articles describing why capitalism is a reactionary, decadent social system ripe for its abolition and replacement by a genuine socialist society.
In order to end the contradiction at the heart of capitalism between socially interconnected production carried out by the majority (the working class who produce but don’t possess) and private ownership of the means of living by a tiny minority (the capitalists who possess but don’t produce), socialists argue that the working class must become conscious of their real class interests. This means they must become conscious of the need for socialism, a new system of society based on common rather than class ownership, democratic control rather than minority power and leadership, and production for use rather than for sale and profit. If capitalism with its manifold inadequacies and contradictions is to be ended, the working class must organise itself for the capture of political power from the dominant capitalist class, and then must transform the economic structure of society by abolishing the capitalists’ ownership and control of the means of living
In putting forward such an analysis of society and reasons for fundamental social change, socialists are not advancing a disembodied theory which reality does not match. This is because the material conditions for socialism already exist, having been created by capitalism itself. Firstly, there is a highly developed productive potential in the world, so much so that capitalist agencies like the United Nations and its Food and Agricultural Organisation declare that given the level of productive development brought about by the working class under capitalism, there is no reason why anyone on this planet should not live a full and satisfying life free from hunger, poverty or preventable disease.
Secondly, a class exists which has a clear material interest in bringing about a new social arrangement based on common ownership and production for use, where human activity is geared solely towards meeting people’s needs and desires. This class—the working class— exists the world over, is the largest class in society, and performs all necessary social functions, making, administering and distributing all the goods and services that exist in capitalism, not directly for themselves but for the enrichment of the capitalists.
Because of these two factors socialists maintain that capitalism has created the conditions for its own abolition. In a political sense it is now an unprogressive, decadent social system, wracked by its own contradictions and ripe for replacement by a more advanced social order. Today it is no longer natural scarcity or humankind’s inability to master nature which causes death, poverty, stress and insecurity, let alone the other evils of modem life—it is the way in which society is organised.
Production for profit, the very thing which spurred on capitalism to conquer the world and develop technology to the level it is now at, is precisely the factor which prevents that technology and productive potential from being used to satisfy the needs of the majority in society. Illustrations of this abound, and this journal for one is always full of them. Hundreds of thousands of building workers on the dole while there is a major housing problem and homeless roaming the streets; famine and starvation amid overproduction of foodstuffs across large sectors of the globe; millions dying from preventable diseases while the most advanced medical technology that has ever existed could cure them—these are all the inevitable products of a system based on the competitive accumulation of profit for the capitalists rather than for the wider satisfaction of social need. And none of it is either inevitable or natural.
It is clear that the system of ownership land distribution that exists in capitalism is entirely inappropriate and outdated given the level of the productive forces in society. For this reason alone capitalism can be termed ‘decadent’, and it probably has been a decadent social system acting as a real barrier to human progress since the beginning of this century—and most certainly by the time of the First World War in 1914. At this time a highly developed global productive system had been developed on the basis of the world market and an international division of labour The factor preventing the establishment of socialism from this point on was political rather than technical, specifically the lack of socialist consciousness among the world’s working class.
That the working class has not succeeded in overthrowing capitalism has been the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century. However, human organisation has not frozen at this point and the development of capitalism did not grind to a halt at the moment it created the potential for its own demise. Indeed, it was at the advent of capitalism as a truly world system that the contradictions of capitalism started to become most pronounced and its obsolescence most apparent. For instance, it has been in the period since capitalism has become in a political sense decadent that economic crises and slumps—which have always been endemic to the system of production for profit—have become truly world events plunging the working class into greater misery while production of useful articles is curtailed, not because too much has been produced for need, but too much for the market at an adequate rate of profit.
In the progressive, ascendant capitalism of the nineteenth century, crises and slumps tended to be more localised. The crises of 1848, 1873 and 1895—the most severe and significant in that they extended well beyond one region or country—were not sufficient to halt the overall growth of the productive forces being built up under the reign of the market economy. Though these crises seemed severe at the time and had devastating enough consequences for the working class, it was only in the decadent capitalism of the twentieth century that an event such as the October 1929 Wall Street Crash could have occurred with the subsequent massive world slump and banking crisis of the early 1930‘s. On that occasion total world production fell catastrophically, registering significant declines in all the major industrialised countries, while world trade fell by a colossal two thirds from its 1929 level.
As capitalism has become more interconnected on a world basis, economic crises have had the opportunity to spread and deepen more than previously, shaking virtually the whole system itself rather than just a minority of its component parts. The sectors of the globe not under the hold of the market have diminished rapidly this century, providing less opportunity than in capitalism’s heyday for the system to plunder at little cost vast resources from undeveloped areas. This phenomenon played an important part in kick-starting the rapid (and still unprecedented) period of capitalist development in the fifty or sixty years after 1850, but its influence has waned considerably and nearly all capitalist growth is now “internal” to the system itself—in other words, dependent purely on the exploitation of wage labour rather than annexation and imperialist plunder.
Since capitalism became a world system the only sustained period when real overall production increased at anything like the rate of the last half of the nineteenth century was in the wake of the massive post-WWII reconstruction. Since then capitalism has entered another phase of periodic world crises—1968, 1974-5, 1980-2, and 1990-3, with only a comparative handful of developing countries on the Pacific Rim being in any way able to buck the effects. These countries have had the advantage of cheap labour and have been unencumbered by welfare payments and other sources of high state expenditure, all of which the more advanced states have sought to cut back on to bolster sagging profit rates.
During this time of renewed global economic crisis, world inequality, poverty and indebtedness have grown at an unprecedented rate. Just 358 people in the world now own as much wealth as half of the rest of the global population put together—2,800,000,000. Meanwhile the majority in society exist on inadequate diets with insufficient medical care, with hundreds of millions living in appalling conditions of absolute poverty. Large tracts of the planet—over 100 countries—see their real incomes falling year on year, with little sign of improvement. Never before has the gap between the wealth of the richest and the poorest on this planet been so huge, or the consequences of it so disabling and destructive.
Law of the jungle
Decadent capitalism is the system that has brought about devastating world economic crises and it is also the system that has brought with it another new phenomenon—the world war. In decadent capitalism the world is entirely divided up between competing capitals and nation states. Since the imperialist scramble of the late nineteenth century there has simply been nowhere else left to conquer. Wars were barbarous enough in capitalism’s ascendancy with several million killed in conflicts ranging from Crimea, to China, to the civil war in the United States. But given the increased tensions and competition that have appeared as the capitalist class has vied for control of an already carved-up planet, the twentieth century has seen the very existence of the human race put in jeopardy. This century has become the era of truly world wars and twice already the world has been plunged into orgies of destruction and barbarity the scale of which has never before been experienced. The 1914- 18 conflict left at least ten million dead, the 1939-45 war at least 40 million.
According to the politicians whose job it is to deceive us, the period since 1945 has been one of unprecedented peace. This view, in actuality, could not be further from the truth. Since WWII the wars between the various capitalist states and blocs haven’t stopped and since 1945 there have been over 150 major armed conflicts. Indeed, since 1945 there has not been a single day’s peace on this planet. Today, at least 25 wars are raging across the globe.
On an average yearly basis the number of deaths from war in this period has been more than double that of the nineteenth century and seven times greater than in the eighteenth century. This has reflected the greater populations involved in wars and the more destructive nature of the weaponry involved, although significant medical advances have meant that many lives have been saved during wars that would have certainly been lost in earlier conflicts.
The nature of warfare has changed in many ways in decadent capitalism. In particular, civilian casualties have increased dramatically. As an illustration, over 2 million children have been killed in wars in the last decade alone, actually more than the number of soldiers killed. However, the key point is this—whereas periods of decadence in earlier systems of society led to the devastation of entire countries or even empires, world capitalism threatens the whole planet with annihilation, increasingly tailoring its production towards destruction and the development of ever more hideous weapons of war. It is horrendous enough that the policeman of the world, the United States, should be stocked up with nuclear warheads and other mass instruments of death. That the up-and-coming gangster states from the Middle East, the Far East, Africa and Latin America are developing such capabilities is a truly chilling thought And even more chilling still is that it is now only a matter of time before a terrorist organisation gets its hands on them. Terrorists in Japan have already been prepared to use chemical weapons. Who will be first with a nuclear device?
Nuclear capability for the land of Walt Disney is terrifying indeed, for the gangster states and terrorist groups it may be of literally earth-shattering import. In the light of such prospects socialists say what the ruling class increasingly think but are usually afraid to admit to the mass of the population—a society with such awesome weapons of destruction in the hands of Iraq, Iran, North Korea or even one day the IRA or the US militia men is not a society that offers humankind a serious future.