How will capitalism end?
We discuss this with Steve Paxton, author of How Capitalism Ends. History, Ideology and Progress (Zero Books, 2023).
Steve Paxton’s book on Russia, Unlearning Marx. Why the Soviet Failure was a Triumph for Marx, published in 2021, stated that the development of technology under capitalism now allows the production of ‘the material abundance required by a free society’ but that the capitalist system by its very nature does not allow this to take place. His book, reviewed in the Socialist Standard in 2022, did not go so far as to propose any kind of detailed remedy for this but rather referred the reader to his upcoming book about ‘the end of capitalism and what comes next’. That book has now been published and the author has agreed to discuss it with the Socialist Standard.
Socialist Standard: Your book contains great analysis of class in terms of capitalist society being divided into two distinct classes, those who possess sufficient capital not to have to sell their energies to an employer and those – the vast majority – who aren’t in that position and have to seek paid employment to survive. It also presents a very detailed and effective demolition of arguments that insist on the inevitability of the market and deny that effective economic calculation would be possible in a non-monetary society. But to what extent do you see the end of capitalism, which is part of the title of your book, as leading to a non-monetary society, to a society without a market?
Steve Paxton: I don’t see a post-capitalist society as necessarily having no room for markets at all. Just as markets existed before capitalism, they may well exist after capitalism. The important thing is that there will be significant differences from the way markets operate under capitalism. In pre-capitalist societies, you couldn’t consider the markets in labour or commodities as free markets in the way that people do under capitalism. So in a post-capitalist future, we might still see markets, but they’re likely to be very different from those we experience under capitalism. The first thing we need to remember is that socialism makes an important distinction between ownership of the means of production and ownership of personal property. Impersonal property is incompatible with socialism, but nobody’s coming for your toothbrush or your bicycle. So I think there’s always room for some kind of market mechanism, the difference being the ownership pattern underlying that market mechanism. The problem with capitalism isn’t that people buy and sell things. It’s the position we start from, in which the only thing one group of people have to sell is their labour power, and they have to do that to survive. So, I guess it’s important to really define what we mean by capitalism. There are in fact competing ideas of what capitalism means. And that’s the case even within Marx. Sometimes he talks about it as a mode of production, and sometimes he talks about it as an economic structure. But I like to take Marx’s idea of capitalism as an economic structure, the sum of class relations, of production relations. It’s basically who owns what and what ownership means is what defines capitalism. So, under capitalism, the dominant production relation is that most people are proletarians, which means they own only their labour power. They’re free to sell that labour power to any capitalist, but because they own no productive forces, they’re actually unfree, in that they must sell that labour power just to survive. So, if that’s how we view capitalism, then markets in themselves are not intrinsically or inherently capitalist. Capitalism is defined by the concentration of ownership of productive resources in very few hands and the consequences that flow from that. It’s true that, once you have a market, you have the potential that some people are just better at buying and selling. But it also has to be said that most of the inequality of ownership under capitalism doesn’t come from the particular skills of entrepreneurs. It comes from people starting with a massive fortune in the first place and starting with lots of resources. So if you remove those things, then the ability to get rich from a market becomes much more limited. At the same time, there’s no hard and fast rule that everyone’s income must be equal.
SS: So how would you see a more equal society with money and a market working?
SP: Under socialism, you might have a situation where, for example, there’s basic income, and on top of that, maybe people that do particularly unpleasant work, particularly hard work, work that no one else wants to do, or maybe work that requires a particular set of skills, will be rewarded more. But these differences would, again, be differences in income, not wealth. And they would be very, very limited compared to today’s great inequalities. Providing income inequality, is structurally limited, it needn’t in itself be a bad thing. Then the person who chooses to work 20 hours a week rather than 40 shouldn’t mind not getting some of the benefits. That’s the choice that people can make under socialism. It’s not a choice they can make under capitalism. So I think that, while it’s possible that we might be able to work out a way to get by without markets at all, just the existence of markets doesn’t necessarily derail the socialist project.
SS: What would be your objections to a moneyless, wageless society as opposed to the kind of thing that you’ve described? After all, Marx did talk about socialism as the abolition of the wages system.
SP: I don’t really have an objection to it, but I think it’s also something that isn’t a necessary component of moving beyond capitalism. It might be something that we need to go through a few more stages before we arrive at. It might be that, once we’ve got rid of all the stuff that is actually the real problem with capitalism, then we realize that money wasn’t really the problem in the first place. When people talk about getting rid of money and using labour vouchers or tokens, that’s just money, isn’t it? That’s just calling money something else. Maybe we should have different currencies. So you get a basic income in one money that you can spend on basic necessities. And then, if you want to contribute more, particularly if you’re prepared to do an unpleasant job or work longer hours, then you get a different currency that you can spend on luxuries. Anyway, we need to focus on getting rid of the real problems of capitalism, which are the fact that a small number of people own all the productive resources and most people own no productive resources.
SS: Just to clarify that we definitely wouldn’t suggest labour vouchers or tokens as a replacement for money. What we suggest is a society of free access to all goods and services, where you wouldn’t need labour vouchers or tokens. When Marx talked about labour vouchers, he was talking about the possibility of using them at an earlier stage of productive development. We would argue that we are now well past that stage and that enough can be produced now to satisfy everyone’s needs the world over, if goods and services are produced and distributed rationally. But to move to something a little bit different, at one point in your book you refer to a socialist government, and you seem to be favourable to the kind of political position of the Labour Party under Corbyn. But can there be such a thing as a socialist government given that in, in Marxian terms, governments are the executive committee of the capitalist class, and therefore a socialist society should involve the abolition of government over people as we know it and its replacement by the cooperative administration of things?
SP: I do write from a Marxist point of view, but I tend not to describe myself as a Marxist because, when you do that, people expect you to defend everything Marx said or wrote. On the other hand, I think you can see Marx’s ideas as a coherent whole while not necessarily defending everything he had to say. But I’m not an anarchist and I guess I’m looking a bit more short-term. I’m looking at what our next horizons should be. There’s very short term, for example not having a Tory government, saving the NHS and things like that. And there’s very long term and the ideal society that might be moneyless and have no government. But there’s a big chunk there in between, which is what we should be aiming for. On governments, I do agree that they’re the committee of the ruling class. But that’s under capitalism. Governments under socialism don’t have to be of that kind; they can represent a different interest. They can represent the people rather than the ruling class. In terms of leadership style and some of his policy positions, Corbyn was closer to my position than any other Labour leader since I was in short trousers. Labour as it stands, after a hundred or something years, isn’t really representing the working people. We need a socialist party. I know you would say there is one, the Socialist Party of Great Britain. But we need a socialist party with mainstream political clout. We need socialist MPs, but those MPs who would describe themselves as socialist are unfortunately trapped inside the Labour Party. First of all, we need to get rid of the first past the post electoral system. But there’s also plenty to do outside Parliament in terms of trade unions and industrial relations and worker organization.
SS: What you seem to be saying is that, if we look too far into the future, that takes the focus away from what’s happening right now and the possibility of immediate improvements in workers’ conditions. The Socialist Party would tend to argue more or less the opposite. That is, if you focus on short-term reforms, slight changes to the system, any of which could be easily withdrawn anyway, then you take the focus away from the longer term from the possibility of a really equal society, which we could have if enough people wanted it and were prepared to work towards it. In other words, if you put off the demand for socialism, aren’t you putting off socialism and, in that light can’t reforms actually be the enemy of revolution?
SP: I’m not really advocating that we should focus on short-term gains. I’m saying that we shouldn’t reject and we shouldn’t criticize those who do focus on short-term gains. If they’re fighting for a better minimum wage, I’m not their enemy and they’re not mine. We’ve got plenty of enemies, without picking on people who want basically the same as us but are maybe less ambitious. So, while I think our focus should be on a transformation of society away from capitalism into socialism, I also think that we’re not going to get there in one fell swoop, and so the way has to be incremental, via small gains, but gains that make a transformative difference rather than those that just make capitalism a bit less unpalatable. There’s nothing that says that we must have some kind of sudden or dramatic change to get from capitalism to socialism. It’s most likely to happen by gradual and peaceful means. It’s where we end up that’s the most important thing, not how many steps it takes to get there. People are suffering under capitalism, so obviously the sooner the better, but also it needs to be something that’s sustainable. But we shouldn’t underestimate the positive role that the state could play. It’s happened before – with the NHS for example. No one took any violent action to seize any hospitals. The NHS was the obvious answer to people’s healthcare needs. So the state can offer a better alternative than the private sector. And that can apply to education and housing too.
SS: We’d absolutely agree with you that violent conflict couldn’t be on the agenda to achieve socialism, but in response to your incremental focus, how do you see democratic political action by a majority at the ballot box to bring in the kind of system of free access to goods and services that we advocate, even if you think that is a long way off? Given that we already live in a post-scarcity world, where we can produce everything we need, isn’t it just a question of planning so that it can be made available in a freely accessible way once a majority at the ballot box votes for representatives who are in favour of that?
SP: One problem is that we can’t have socialism when there is the number of socialists that we have now. We need to have more socialists. But the problem with that is that many of the people that see themselves as socialists spend all their time insulting the kind of people that are closest to us on the ideological spectrum and berating them for not yet being socialists. What we need to do is to actually convince them to be socialists. And then, as I’ve said before, an obstacle is the lack of proportional representation. If we had a democratic electoral system where everybody’s vote counted for the same amount, we could end up with a socialist party with, you know, maybe 20 or 30 MPs. And that would be enough to say we’re not coming into coalition with anyone unless we get these red lines. We want this minimum wage, for example. That doesn’t drive us past capitalism, but it moves us in the right direction. It’s a process of bringing people on a journey. Look at the huge amount the first post-war Labour government did, and then even in the sixties when Wilson got in, they pushed again. So many things were nationalized. But they made the mistake of not introducing a democratic electoral system. If they had, Thatcher would never have become Prime Minister and all these things that we gained in the post-war period wouldn’t have been wiped out over the last 30 or 40 years.
SS: We wouldn’t see proportional representation within capitalism as constituting any kind of step towards socialism. Some countries do of course already have proportional representation, but would you say that this has moved them any closer to socialism?
SP: Well, you could also look at somewhere like New Zealand, which has got proportional representation and is much better off for it. The Scandinavian countries too. The usual experience of proportional representation is that those countries that have it end up being more progressive and less in thrall to the interests of global capital. Of course, there are still capitalist governments in all of those countries, but they are generally less right-wing than the governments in places like Britain and America. Having said that, I agree that proportional representation doesn’t deliver anything on its own, but without it we’re not really going anywhere.
SS: You may have noticed that, in recent years, there’ve been lots of what you might broadly call anti-capitalist books published and some of these at least are arguing the same kind of things as the Socialist Party. They’re arguing that the only way to get rid of capitalism is to get rid of the market, money and the wages system. You yourself touch on this in your book, when you refer to Marx’s description of socialism as a society based on from each according to ability to each according to need. So do you think there’s a possibility that in the future you might move to this kind of position yourself, that, rather than arguing that things need to get a bit better gradually, you might join us in asking for the whole pie now?
SP: That is what I think we should be asking for, but, realistically, are we going to get it? There are two things we have to have: a vision of where we want to get to, and a vision of how we get there. I think you look a bit further into the future than I do. And I think that, if we can get rid of capitalism as I’ve defined it – the means of production owned by a tiny number of private individuals – then we’re moving towards some kind of system of common ownership. That’s my focus, and ultimately I think the marketless, moneyless society is one of the ways in which we protect that. But while it’s good that people should try to work out recipes for the future society, you have to acknowledge that, by the time we get there, some of those assumptions that those people are making aren’t going to be true anymore. I think it’s still a worthwhile project to try and envisage the kind of details of exactly how the future society would operate, as people like Michael Albert and Ben Burgess are doing. But I also think that we have to accept that, if you tried to do that in 1820, you’d have a horse pulling a cart instead of an engine. In other words we always have to adapt our ideas as we go along. But once we have the big change – that is in the ownership of the means of production – once that’s held in common, then we can look at all the other ideas – maybe to labour tokens or to a moneyless society with the market completely eradicated and free access. But those arguments weren’t really in the scope of my book.
SS: We don’t actually go in for, as Marx put it, ‘recipes for the cookshops of the future’ either, but we do try to outline a broad structure for the future society we advocate. So we’d agree that, when we get the society we’re aiming for, the particular level of development and technology reached at the time will determine the exact details of production, distribution and social organization. Does that seem reasonable to you?
SP: Yes. For example, we now have this situation where producing more copies of something doesn’t have an additional cost. If you’re going to buy more than one copy of my book on Kindle, it doesn’t cost anything. That server is running already. The electricity is being used, the storage space is there, the bandwidth is there. Whether one person or a thousand people buy it tomorrow, it doesn’t cost the printer, the publisher, the retailer any more. And that kind of thing didn’t really exist until very recently. Many of the things we would need would have zero marginal cost per unit sold. And that makes a massive difference in how an economy could work and why people choose one thing over another, a massive difference that, even 50 years ago, people could probably not have envisaged.