1990s >> 1997 >> no-1114-june-1997

Beyond the Profit System

The only way to stop capitalism plunging the world even deeper into the mire is for the working class to look beyond the confines of the profit system .

All systems of private property society pass through periods of ascendancy or progression and then through a period of decadence when they have outlived their usefulness. Socialists contend that having created the material conditions for its replacement by socialism—a society of free access to abundant and available wealth—capitalism is now a politically decadent social system. Given the level of productive potential in society, it is now obsolete, being the real cause of poverty amid opulence, economic crises of overproduction for the market but not for need, and never-ending wars over economic and political power.

Indeed, its development is now such that having extended its tentacles into every aspect of human existence, the market economy is eating away at the very fabric of collective life, extolling the virtues of competition, aggression and an ‘every man for himself’ culture the like of which has never been experienced before. This has resulted in massive waves of crime, drug abuse, corruption, violence and spreading ideological poisons like religious fundamentalism and ethnic cleansing. Even in the so-called “democratic” and “advanced” heartlands of world capitalism, the market economy is exhibiting real signs of what can be termed social decadence as well as political obsolescence. As capitalist society appears to rot on its feet under the pressure of its own competitive economic momentum, the very gains of centuries of civilisation are put into question. The onset of this period of social decadence has been the product of the working class’s inability to put an end to capitalism—it has certainly not been inevitable, any more so than periods of social decadence in earlier systems of society were.

Economic decadence?
As well as the type of social decadence that now characterises world capitalism, other private property systems have gone through a period of pure economic decadence too. This occurs when the pace of growth of the productive forces slackens and then finally comes to a halt; in other words, when the limits to growth of an economic arrangement in society have been reached and a social system can develop the forces of production no more.

The notion of economic decadence or limits to growth has led many theorists astray—including some allegedly in the Marxist tradition. No system of society ever collapses like a pack of cards, and the predictions of those like the old Communist Party and ILP who thought it would were dashed time after time. Likewise today, Trotskyist and Left Communist groups who have long given up any hope of a majority working class revolution dream up fantasies of capitalism collapsing, with the vanguard of the working class rising like a phoenix out of the flames to build a new society on the ashes of the old.

Notwithstanding such infantile fantasies, it is certainly true to say that all societies have had economic limits beyond which they have been unable to progress and that this situation has generally been reached when the way in which society is organised has become a pure economic fetter on the forces of production. This factor undoubtedly influenced the decline and eventual supersession of previous societies like Ancient Rome and feudalism. These systems did not collapse but stagnated until the forces capable of sweeping them away were able to do so. In the example of feudalism, that system was not superseded by capitalism until the new productive methods and organisation of the capitalist class were consolidated, heralding an era of unprecedented economic growth based on industrialisation and the wage labour/capital relationship that went with it, a relationship which succeeded in sweeping away the stagnant and inefficient old feudal lord/peasantry ties.

Capitalism has been the most dynamic social system in the history of humankind and if limits to capitalist growth are ever reached it will be because the working class has been unable to replace the global market economy with world-wide common ownership and production for use. Capitalism will not collapse, it will simply reach a point whereby eventually it cannot expand the productive forces any further. Given the internal dynamic of capitalism there can only be one cause of this should it ever be reached—a halt to growth will occur only if there is no longer a sufficient mass of the system’s lifeblood, profit. In turn this situation is only likely to come about as a product of technological progress and all it brings with it in terms of developing the productive potential of society.

Capitalism has developed production over the last two centuries and more through the extraction and expansion of profit. The sole source of profit in capitalism is, of course, human labour but no matter how much the intensity of exploitation is increased so that more unpaid labour is given, there has to reach a point where, because of continuing automation and replacement of labour in the production process, this can no longer be sufficient to ensure a growth in total value production, of socially necessary labour inputs.The volume of unpaid labour turned into surplus value would no longer be able to rise sporadically as at present, but would halt and even start falling if the process was carried far enough. As a result, the mass of profit available for reinvestment in production would halt and eventually enter into a downward long-term spiral rather than an upward one. Such a development would have serious consequences for all those components of the market which are particularly dependent on capitalist economic growth—state finance and welfare provision, rises in wages, maintenance of social cohesion and environmental conditions to name but the most obvious. It would be a much more serious and damaging set of circumstances than the current difficulties associated with the current squeeze on the rate and mass of profit after tax—similar in consequence but more devastating in impact.

Pure economic decadence and its attendant limits to capitalist growth may be a situation that is never reached. If capitalism goes on long enough, though, it is a definite possibility, even a likelihood. Just as the onset of political decadence was followed eventually by the development of social decadence, so— eventually—economic decadence could follow unless something is done.

Time for action
Anyone with money enough to travel will know that there are still pockets of calm here and there on this planet, but what is becoming increasingly difficult to deny is that the world is a mess and is becoming a bigger and more horrible mess as the days, months and years go by. Many shut their eyes to it, but quite how long they will be able to carry on doing so is only a matter for speculation. Large tracts of Planet Earth are a stinking hole and the stench is wafting in all our directions.

Among the bourgeois commentators still broadly supporting capitalism, more and more demonstrate a distaste for its effects. Typical, in BBC Radio 4’s 1996 Analysis Lecture was Professor Paul Kennedy. In his talk to various diplomats, politicians and business leaders he commented on the dangers global capitalism is already bringing with it. He asked his audience whether there was a solution to the disturbing trends encouraged by the spread of the world market and its prevailing competitive ethos, putting his own views in the following words:

“Perhaps in fact there is no answer and we simply have to brace ourselves for what [the economist] Schumpeter termed the “creative gales’ of capitalism. Or perhaps Marx, lying in his grave and at present almost universally scorned, has a slow smile creeping across his face as he sees the convulsions ahead. That would be the final, and greatest, irony of this twentieth century of ours.”

Karl Marx, whose works were variously distorted by so many of those who claimed to be his supporters and ridiculed by his opponents, may indeed have the last laugh. Though only human and therefore fallible, Marx’s analysis of society has in many respects been proven remarkably accurate save for one thing—admittedly the most important—his prediction of socialism.

As capitalism heads deeper into its senility, manifesting new signs of its obsolescence by the day, it is up to the world-wide working class of wage and salary earners to fulfill Marx’s last hope, though not for his sake—for our own. Sooner or later; socialism, a system of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use will have to figure on the agenda of the working class if humankind’s collective existence and very survival is not to be put at stake. It is to facilitate that process that the Socialist Party of Great Britain and our companion parties in the World Socialist Movement exist and it is why this series of articles has been written. Our message to the working class is that capitalism’s time has gone. The choice before us is now “socialism or barbarism”, a progressive move to the next higher stage of social evolution, or a regression from which we may never recover. The choice is yours—but don’t spend a lifetime thinking about it.

Dave Perrin