Reform Versus Revolution
Capitalism cannot be made humane for the majority of the population by tinkering with it in the right way; those of you trying to do so are wasting your time. The negative features of capitalism are fundamental to it (it cannot exist without them) and therefore any efforts to ameliorate their effects will be only partial and temporary. Building a humane system requires that the system of structured inequality, necessary to preserve capital, must be overthrown, and a fundamentally different system put in its place, one which prioritizes the needs of humans over the needs of capital. That does not mean turning our backs on the positive features of capitalism, it simply means building upon these accomplishments by ending class society and commodity production for the market and replacing it with conscious human direction.
Capitalism has a two-sided nature: on the one hand, it has increased production and productivity to levels unimaginable previously; on the other hand, it impoverishes the overwhelming majority of the population. From where does the two-sided nature of capitalism derive? In a society characterized by general commodity exchange a class tends to form controlling sufficient resources to purchase means of production as well as means of subsistence. Another class (comprising the overwhelming majority of the population) tends to form that lacks these resources.
Lacking the material means of survival, “free” wage-laborers are forced, through structural economic coercion, to work for the capitalist of their choosing, under terms favorable to the capitalist, in order to survive. What are the terms? Work hard, for the minimum possible amount, or we’ll replace you with someone from the 5-10% continuously unemployed. What happens if a firm does not follow this fundamental drive and does not exploit its workers? It is forced out of business as its per-unit labor costs rise by competition from firms that do exploit their workers. As such, capitalism is enormously productive because of its inherent tendency to lower per-unit labor costs without the need for extra-economic coercion on workers: work or starve. Yet these productivity advantages do not accrue to the majority of the population. We live in a society in which those who enjoy most of the benefits of society are almost completely separated from those who shoulder the burden.
In sum, there is under capitalism a fundamental, irresolvable antagonism of interests between workers and capitalists, between those who work and those who do not. And we have not yet even touched upon effects on the system as a whole, such as periodic crises deriving from its anarchical, unplanned nature, much less the negative consequences for the environment, for cultural development, etc. Regarding the former, the lack of conscious planning leads to booms and busts. For example, overproduction of the means of production (such as raw steel) goes unsold, which leads to layoffs of workers in those industries, leading to decreased consumption of consumer goods, leading to layoffs in consumer goods production, a fall in the purchase of means of production, a collapse of the entire productive apparatus, a collapse of bank capital, and finally a recovery, but only after much hardship for workers. In crises we have the absurdity of a mass of people unable to buy goods with which to survive at the same time we have a glut on the market of those same goods looking for a buyer.
Now then, given the foregoing depiction of capitalism as a system (rather than the piecemeal, ad hoc depiction in liberal theory) the question at hand for us here is “what is to be done?” The logical course of action for humanity is to build a system that best meets the needs of people, and, for the reasons mentioned in the foregoing (in particular, the polarization of wealth necessary for class society and the structural coercion for most individuals associated with it) that cannot be capitalism. In a later post I will discuss the necessity to abandon individualist methodology in both explaining and replacing capitalism. But for now let me conclude by presenting a very general outline of where we should be going.
The radical vision begins as the conclusion that current conditions (be they the perception of inequality in society, degradation of the natural environment, etc.) are no longer tolerable. In this first contact with capital the reality of what is being contested is only peripherally understood, and thus only specific instances of oppression are challenged. However, as the systemic nature of the injustices being faced becomes clearer the focus moves beyond simple reforms into demands that the system itself be changed. Class consciousness (which is, above all else, the consciousness of classes, the awareness that society is divided into classes based upon those who control and those who do not the means of production) can be seen to arise from this examination.
The ultimate goal is the replacement of capitalism with a system in which one’s creativity is not squeezed into and limited by the confines of commodity production and consumption, a system in which individuals are not selling themselves for money, a system in which one’s dreams can be extended beyond the hope for more and/or nicer “stuff.” One can only imagine what the individuals who make up the working class (the overwhelming majority of the population) can accomplish once they have been liberated from the constraints within which they exist under the present capitalist system.