Work, Europe and Utopia – part three by Henri Brugmans

3. The final crisis of Capitalism?

Contrary to what is widely believed, Marx and Engels never condemned capitalism or propagated socialism for reasons that were primarily ethical. It is true that Volume One of Capital contains pages of violent denunciation, in a description of the condition of the working class in England towards the end of the “hungry-forties“. But the two patriarchs wanted to found their “scientific” socialism primarily on the position that a historical epch could not be superseded until it had run its course. Only utopians could imagine that a purely moral revolt, along with an optimistic vision of the future, would be sufficient to make the Revolution succeed. Marx and Engels, in contrast, placed their faith in inexorable (impossible to stop) laws of historical change: ” History is on our side”.

The important question is, has capitalism now reached the end of its course? Has it become an obstacle to progress rather than an impetus? In order to answer this question, we must try to specify the forces pushing forward the capitalist mode of production.

Put very simply, the driving force of capitalism is the quest for profit. In the abstract, this is not a matter for alarm or indignation. In THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels sung the praises of capitalism and applauded its triumphal progress as it swept aside obsolete modes of production, which though venerable were doomed. They even exaggerated in their eulogies (a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, typically someone who has just died), claiming that miracles of the past, such as the pyramids and cathedrals, were as nothing compared to the achievements of capitalism. The quest for profit is perhaps not a very noble aspiration, but “it works”, the proof is there: great economic progress has been made under its influence.

But it is precisely this progress which endagers the future of capitalism. Because of its progressive nature, it has to be incessantly searching for new areas of activity, new groups of workers to exploit, new markets for its products, new interest-bearing ventures, new openings for making profit. For profits gained from the original areas of exploitation are subject to diminishing rates of return, while areas as yet unexplored enable further profit-realising advances to be made. Hence the interest that capitalists – or at least some of them – took in colonial domination, modern imperialism. While the opportunities for speculation in traditional industrielised countries were now almost non-existent. the colonies provided new and even better openings offering attractive rates of retur. The political and administrative emancipation of the ex-colonies has not prevented this system from bearing fruit under changed circumstances, for capitalism has always been very adaptable.

The problem is, the inhabited world is not infinite. It is always possible to make money, plenty of it. But possibly not indefinitely and always at an increasing rate. And to complicate matters further, some of the “aid” given to Third World countries was profitable at first, only to become “counter-productive” later. Thus, somewhere overseas, a factory, making shoes, for example, is set up, or even blast furnances. From the point of view of Europe, America, or Japan, it is a good deal, producing a good return. But the moment this industrialisation begins, it becomes competitive, and certain traditional sectors of capitalism suffer as a consequence. Some enterprise in Taiwan produces steel that is at least as good as that of Lorreine – and cheaper. The “new industrial” countries are certainly sitll few in number; the “Gang of Four” naturally springs to mind: Singapore, South Korea, Hongkong – and Taiwan, of course. But already looming on the horizon is the vast area of Brazil whose possibilities are immense, with resources above and below ground and a population measured in tens of millions. In short, the clients of yesterday are one by one becoming the rivals of today. Under these circumstances, how do we solve our crisis, relieve our unemployment? How also, do we develop a useful form of protest? Today, what use are working-class protests, displaying banners proclaiming the “Right to Work”? It is this time very much a matter of a fundamental transformation of the entire economic system, with our political parties and trade unions – whose chief links are with their own particular nations – finding themselves out of touch with reality. It seems as if we are witnessing the last throes of capitalism. The situation is complex: on the one hand, we have seen in recent years an avalanche of bankruptcies in industry – in spite of the government aid which is frequently given to endangered firms. These are, moreover often endagered by their own congenital (particular trait from birth or by firmly established habits) weakness, to such an extent that all that the public authorities succeed in doing is to prevent the crisis achieving what ought to have been done long ago: the “pruning of dead branches”, restoration to health, rationalisation of the economic organisation. On the other hand, however, the large companies – precisely the multinationals – have not succumbed (failed to resist) to the crisis at all. Often, paradoxically enough, they have even profited considerably, the stock exchanges providing a faithful record of their financial success. Thus, at the same time as national governments artificially maintain companies which scarcely deserve it, the giants of capitalism are in good shape and contempuous (beneath considerations) of “politics”. It is they who hold the reins of the industrial, commercial and banking system. No one calls them to account. This form of capitalism is far from being on its last legs, it transcends parties, trade unions, states. But its position is both stronger and yet paradoxically more threatened than might be believed.

Certainly, capitalism has learnt to live with a series of labour laws, which it initially denounced as a dangerous threat to productivity. Thus was born the so-called “mixed” system, a “social market economy” in the words of Ludwig Erhard. This become a fact of history, and has given a new lease of life to the capitlist regime. But at the same time, public opinion becomes more and more distrustful of this regime for producing bankruptcies at the same time as monopoly capitalism, which no longer has anything in common with the old competitive liberalism.
Furthermore, an economic regime which -in the Southern hemisphere- condemns hundreds of millions of human beings to famine -in the Norhtern hemisphere- hundreds of millions of human beings to unemployment, places itself in a morally indefensible position. Hence the conclusion which is becoming more and more widespread, that capitalism is doomed, founded upon shifting sands, and that it must be replaced.

But it is also here, precisely, that the strength of the present regime is to be found. Given that the system must be replaced, the question remains, by what? In effect, the socialists (and who is not a “socialist” these days?) have either brought about totlaitarian regimes, or have shown themselves incapable of formulating an alternative plan, except one that only has credibility as ascheme for the whole world. In fact, the so called “socialist” countries are less and less a good advertisement for socialism. Their weighty bureauchracy has made possible remarkable successes, it is true, in domains such as space exploration and, especially, armaments. But by contrast, the ordinary consumer still has to queue in front of food and clothing shops. On the other hand, non-totalitarian socialists are still bogged down in national politics to such an extent that their promises of “transforming human life” ring false. In conclusion, the dare shadow of “Gulag” hangs over the working class movement wherever it is dominated by communists, while in countries committed to social democracy, national constraints on action condemn the Left of sterility. This state of affairs is manifestly a major political and moral trump card of capitalism, which is likely to survive its crisis – for want of anything better.


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