What has capitalism ever done for us?
Some who read Marx’s seminal work Capital are quite surprised, or even shocked, to encounter the great revolutionary extolling the virtues of the capitalist mode of production. We even encounter reactionaries using this to somehow justify their faith in the contemporary version of capitalism and its corrupt and destructive nature. They seem to believe that this shows even capitalism’s greatest enemy to be complicit in their admiration for exploitation, inequality and injustice.
For socialists this merely illustrates their ignorance of the evolution of the productive forces and the historical context it creates. Just as the Left continually point to the promotion of the state ownership of industry in The Communist Manifesto as still being relevant as a policy today we see a complete misunderstanding of how history proceeds and how it decides what political strategies are relevant at a particular time and place and not the ideological needs of the radicals of either the Left or Right.
It goes even deeper than this because for many, and unfortunately this includes the great majority, it is inconceivable that although humanity has created the economic systems we cannot control them – they control us. Just as in nature the evolutionary forces are beyond the control of any particular species so the cultural and economic manifestations of human productive activity have been a matter of mystery and so elude those who seek to understand and so control them. Ironically, we only realise this now because economic evolution’s current historical context has made this possible. Marx wasn’t born with a specific genius to understand capitalism but capitalism created the possibility that someone like him could understand it. Everything depends on historical context – and here’s why.
The success of our species is entirely due to our technologies – from bone axes to nuclear power and from the invention of language to its abstraction called writing our frail bodies have been protected, to a great degree, from the murderous rigours of nature. The eventual symbiosis of humanity and its technologies evolved into a total synthesis where it became meaningless to speak of one without the other. An understanding of humanity and its cultural evolution became the study of modes of production and the specific classes that became politically dominant because of this.
Any dissection of the propaganda/ideology of these dominant groups always reveals an economic foundation. In this country in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the struggle between capitalism and its representatives and the reactionary forces of feudal autocracy was bloody and without pity. The superficial religious ideologies of either side were promoted as the cause of the conflict but we see it now as the climax of a great class struggle created by emerging and old forms of production and their economic and political prerequisites. We also see that the attempted establishment of socialism by the True Levellers or Diggers was premature and only happened because of the political anarchy of the time. Not only were Cromwell and his bourgeois followers extremely successful at war but also at commerce, trade and exploitation. With the exception of a brief attempt at a counter-revolution in 1688, which was easily crushed, capitalism was established and the liberation of the productive forces was unleashed.
This ‘Industrial Revolution’ is what Marx refers to in his praise of capitalism. To him the creation of an educated working class together with the explosion of production (which made such education necessary) were the requisites of socialism. Capitalism was, for him, just a stepping stone towards socialism. Those who thought that socialism could be imposed without going through this capitalist stage have only to look to the tragedy of Bolshevik Russia to find their answer.
Today after unprecedented acceleration and change we find that capitalism has developed to a stage where automation, computerisation and organisation have the potential to liberate humanity from hunger, disease, ignorance, superstition and cultural isolation but instead we see food destroyed because it cannot be sold at a profit, medicine being priced beyond the means of those who need it most, systematic subversion of education into ideological conditioning, rising religious intolerance and the turning of information into fake news on the internet. Why? Because capitalism, like feudalism before it, has become a fetter on production. Production for profit necessitates buying power to create viable markets but also partly negates this consumerism by continually seeking to hold back the wages of those who produce the commodities that they are obliged to buy back! Today’s historical context renders capitalism irrational and anachronistic.
In the movie Kingdom of Heaven the character Balian asks Saladin: ‘What’s Jerusalem worth?’ The Saracen leader turns and says ‘Nothing’ but after a pause he turns again and says, with a smile, ‘Everything’. The same reply would be relevant to the question that is the title of this article. Capitalism and socialism are not involved in an eternal struggle resembling positions of ‘right or wrong’ or ‘good or evil’ but rather one of the recognition or otherwise of historical inevitability. The tiny parasite class and their ideological lickspittles of the mass media would still have us believe that in the midst of economic crises, war, pandemics, poverty, racism, genocide and crime that capitalism is still ‘the best of all possible worlds’.