What is the future of capitalism?
Platypus Review 133 | February 2021
On October 5th, 2020, the Oregon State University chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a virtual panel entitled “What is the future of capitalism?” The panelists were Conrad Cartmell (DSA Class Unity), Andrea Haverkamp (International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace), Josh Decker (International Bolshevik Tendency), and Doug Lain (Zero Books). What follows is an edited transcript of the event.
Conrad Cartmell: The political crisis of neoliberalism exposed a Left content to be anti-neoliberal since at least the 1990s. The Left exists in an odd situation where a multitude of others, such as Donald Trump in America and UKIP in Great Britain, discovered themselves to be anti-neoliberal as well. These actors are cut from a cloth that the Left finds completely foreign. How is it possible to be anti-neoliberal while being on the right? Perhaps a better way to put it would be: how is it possible to be anti-neoliberal without being conservative?
This mode of political expression came at a time when the ostensible Left began to actively forget the project of socialism. Conversely, what’s needed for a Left today is to cast off the negatively defined politics of the past 30 years and embrace the positive politics of working to produce a socialist revolution. What’s necessary to go beyond the conservatism of anti-neoliberalism is what has been at the heart of socialist politics since Marx: a critique of capitalism and of capitalist politics.
Capitalism is the expression of the contradictory nature of bourgeois social existence in an era of industrial production dominated by capital. John Locke laid claim to the liberatory potential of private property on the basis of each individual person’s labor. It was the revolutionary idea that you own that which you labor upon because labor is wholly your property. Under capitalism, we have a peculiar arrangement where the vast majority of the population, the working class, owns nothing but their own labor while the minority capitalist class owns all of the capital as the objectified form of the labor of past workers. The emergence of these classes, accompanied by a growing preponderance of commodity production and mass unemployment as wholly novel phenomena in world history, is the consequence of the ongoing crisis of capitalism.
Since it is inadequate to simply be anti-neoliberal, it is also inadequate to simply be anti-capitalist. Capitalism produces all manner of glories and miseries, but, unlike all previous societies, also produces the possibility of socialism. The Left must be the midwife of all of the unrealized potential within capitalism—the potential for a society that realizes the freedom that bourgeois society promises but fails to deliver due to the crisis of capitalism.
Unfortunately, the contemporary Left lacks the consciousness of this possibility. I’m going to examine some of the ways this takes shape within the DSA, the largest putatively socialist organization in America. The first way that DSA members, and the Left more broadly, foreclose on future revolutionary prospects is through apocalyptic attitudes regarding ecology and climate change.
You hear frequently that the unavoidable climate cataclysm mandates an immediate transition to a non-capitalist economic system where constant growth and the pursuit of profit are no longer required. Not only does a growing proportion of the capitalist class and their media appendages acknowledge that action must be taken to address rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, but this action is already happening. Flip through the pages of the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times and see commodities traders discussing massive write-downs on proven oil reserves as companies and states around the world lessen their dependence on hydrocarbons. Companies such as Equinor and Royal Dutch Shell are investing in offshore wind farms. These energy companies are attempting to diversify their businesses to brace for a future characterized by anthropogenic climate change. The Left will be surprised when capitalist parties and states prove to be capable of managing the emission of greenhouse gases.
The problem with the Left’s perspective here is not just that it will be rendered obsolete by the capitalists. The apocalypticism inherent in proclaiming “We only have 12 years until we are all dead” shortens the time horizon of potential political action. This necessarily forecloses the prospect of forming an international socialist party to achieve the working class’s political independence.
Another common way of thinking about capitalism’s future in DSA is that, as capitalism changes, certain needs of the population will become more acute in ways that impel people to consider socialist politics. For example, the current coronavirus pandemic has supposedly revealed the need for a more robust social healthcare system. Many DSA members reacted by campaigning for the Healthcare Emergency Guarantee Act introduced to Congress by the much beloved Bernie Sanders. It’s undeniable that these measures would be a great relief to the working class in a time of great hardship. However, it also contributes to the recurring cycle of chasing ghosts. The Left hopes that the masses will spontaneously side with it rather than with the capitalist state actually administering the ameliorating measures.
This same dynamic is evident in regards to the recent protests against police brutality. The extant Left led with the seemingly radical slogan of defunding the police. As the situation unfolded, it fell upon the better organized forces in society, the Democrats and their private sector affiliates, to resolve the situation and dissipate popular energy. When some cities’ police budgets were reduced, the Left then claimed victory. Direct action gets the goods, as the slogan goes. The real question is: who gave the goods? Until the Left can take responsibility for society, the answer is always the capitalist state.
The politics of resistance have been popular on the Left in my lifetime, and, with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, have become the Democrats’ watchword as well. The object of resistance is varied: resist ICE, Trump, fascism, oil pipelines, the war, etc. However, the politics of resistance invariably represent a conservative outlook. One of conservatism’s most famous proponents, William F. Buckley, Jr. of the National Review, put the job of the right in his day in stark terms: the right stands athwart history yelling, “Stop!”
Such a posture is unsurprising for an avowed conservative like Buckley, and there are indeed situations that necessitate a tactical retreat in politics, but it’s telling that the posture of resistance has become the default one on the Left. The Left’s current state means that resistance equates to popular frontism with powerful groups that always gain much more from the arrangement.
Capitalism and capitalist politics are always changing. Although neoliberalism is on a sharp decline in political legitimacy, the core task of the Left remains the same as it was 80 years ago. There must be a long-term orientation toward producing a sizable and powerful international working class party capable of providing leadership during crises while operating independently of capitalist politics. As the situation stands, other social forces can execute short-term maneuvers to take advantage of social unrest much more effectively than the small, weak, and directionless Left. Even a strong socialist party will be no guarantee of success. Sea changes in capitalism create new discontents that divide society in ways that cut across existing political boundaries. The journey to socialism isn’t a straight path but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Andrea Haverkamp: What is capitalism? At its core, it is both a relationship and an ideology that is reproduced daily and governs our relationships with other people, our relationships with ourselves, our relationship with the planet, and our relationship with non-human animals. Capitalism is insidiously predicated on the notion of “there is no such thing as a free lunch” as being morally justifiable. It also created the widespread social construction of money to further justify selling things at a profit as a moral good. Ultimately, this forges relationships that are built upon greed, deceit, advantage, and disadvantage, and the unsustainable extraction of natural resources and human labor.
Capitalism at its highest level is a pyramid scheme. One of the many contradictions is embodied in the belief that, if you work hard enough, you can climb a ladder toward a bright future with plenty of growth. In order to ascend in the capitalist system, you must have your boots squarely on the heads and shoulders of the people who are also horizontally competing for the position you currently occupy. Another easily recognizable myth is that capitalism led to the greatest increase in freedom and living standards in human history. Evidently, not everyone has experienced these benefits. These ideological relationships shackle us to undesirable work and persist by creating a detachment from ourselves and other people, resulting in a situation where the entire planet is becoming increasingly unlivable.
There is a contradiction between the great quality of life in First World countries and the continual crises that destroy our mental and physical health, the lives of other people, and our planet. The green energy and tech industries embody this. Frauds that swap oil fields for lithium or cobalt fields aren’t going to usher in a leftist future or save billions of people from climate catastrophe. Left politics have sometimes fetishized the capitalist technocracy and its trappings that can lead to the doom of the human race. No new tech app, innovation, or automation will lead to liberation out of capitalism. As someone about to get her Ph.D. in environmental engineering, I can firmly say that the best innovation is to shut down factories left and right. Don’t build any new iPhones or Mac computers. We can manufacture necessities such as vaccines cooperatively without the need for profit margins that restrict people’s access to them.
The class struggle takes place every single day. Movements for gender equality, LGBT rights and survival, Black Lives Matter against police violence, and visbility for sex workers should be central for the Left because they are bottom-up, holistic, and aren’t commodified into the trappings of power. The Left tends to fetishize the old forms of class struggle in factories that produce various widgets. That doesn’t really exist anymore. We have to go to where people are hurting the most and adopt a diversity of tactics. For example, the tenants’ movement in Philadelphia achieved a solid working class victory because it sent 50 homes to a trust managed by activists aiding the city’s homeless population. Here, in Corvallis, local landlords constructed a large off-campus student housing apartment complex called the Sierra that is actually owned and financed by folks in New England. The fight is interconnected. I hope that we can attain a similar class struggle victory here.
There is a quote by Adrienne Maree Brown that states, “We hone our skills in naming and analyzing. I learned in school how to deconstruct, but how do we move beyond beautiful deconstruction? Who teaches us to reconstruct?” To create a supermajority movement, we need to abandon a competitive ideation that consists of trying to push our individual ideas onto others. It is not about having the number one idea, but having ideas that come from and work for more people. There is a whole wealth of diverse identities and experiences on top of the working class model that should matter to the Left. We must have many uncomfortable conversations where not all of us are going to feel correct. That is how the Left should respond to this crisis. We have all learned to deconstruct, but how do we begin to construct alternative futures?
Josh Decker: I’ll begin by presenting a broad overview of a Marxist understanding of capitalist development in America over the past 50 years. In his book, Invisible Leviathan, which includes a detailed empirical study of the U.S. economy, the Marxist economist Murray Smith calculated the overall after-tax rate of profits since World War II (the rate of profit being the central regulator of the capitalist economy). The trend from the 1950s to the 1980s shows a long-term decline in the rate of profit from around 14 percent in 1950 to a low of around five percent in 1986. In the 1970s, commonly apprehended as a crisis of profitability, this decline in the rate of profit correlates closely to a rise in what Marx called the organic composition of capital—the ratio of capital investments in technology and other dead factors to surplus value—which is the basis of profit and the variable capital of a productive worker’s wages.
Beginning with Jimmy Carter, ramping up under Reagan, and continuing through George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, successive administrations adopted neoliberal policies designed to facilitate capital’s attempt to restore profits. Profits rose in the second half of the 1980s despite the overall long-term picture of decline. The story of neoliberalism in the U.S. and in the rest of the advanced capitalist world and beyond is well-known, with attacks on working class living standards in the form of real wage stagnation or decline, deregulation of business, deindustrialization, and the growth of fictitious capital, globalization, union busting, and rising inequality.
The neoliberal period witnessed a rise in the rate of profit from around that five percent in 1986 to 16.5 percent in 2006—the highest of the entire post-war period. Indeed, between 2001 and 2007, the nominal rate of profit skyrocketed. However, the puncturing of the housing bubble in the U.S. and the ensuing financial crisis of 2007-2008 revealed the extent to which fictitious profits had been central to the supposed prosperity of the preceding period. Starting from 2009, the Obama administration continued to use the state to prop up financial capital, pursuing the corporate bailouts initiated in the last days of the Bush presidency.
The rate of profit (including in the non-financial sector) did rise from its calamitous three percent low in 2009 to over five percent in 2013. Achieving this rate of return, which in the post-war heyday would’ve been considered ruinous, was only possible with a massive increase in public debt. Trump began his presidency by criticizing Obama for racking up the national debt, but he has followed the same policy trajectory. According to the OECD, general government debt as a percentage of GDP has almost doubled over the past 20 years, from 72 percent in 2000 to 135 percent in 2019. The absolute size of the U.S. public debt is now closing in on $27 trillion.
The American economy, as well as other advanced capitalist economies, is essentially in a period of low growth enabled by huge infusions of money from the government. This has caused skyrocketing private and public debt, depressed working class living standards, and the export of internal problems to the external field through outsourcing and neo-colonial pillage. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated a looming economic downturn of momentous proportions following more than a decade of global economic slump since 2009, which was termed the “Long Depression” by Marxist economist Michael Roberts.
It’s unclear whether the state will permit or prevent the bankruptcies that’ll result in such a massive destruction of capital values as to significantly lower the organic composition of capital and set the stage for a renewed period of robust accumulation and profit-making. The point is that, under capitalism, the only road out of depression is littered with the hopes, livelihoods, and lives of millions of people. There will be no new New Deal, Green or otherwise, under capitalism.
We can’t discuss capitalism’s future without analyzing the ecological crisis. The world isn’t going to end in a decade but accelerating climate change will play an important role in shaping what life under capitalism is going to look like in the coming period. Last November, the UN Environment Program published its emissions gap report, which noted that immediate annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 percent would be required to merely contain the global temperature increase to within 1.5 degrees celsius. Emissions continue to rise without any massive reductions. Expect global temperature increases of between two and four degrees celsius by the end of the century.
The consequences of even a two degrees celsius rise will be catastrophic. Theoretically, there could be a form of capitalism that employs alternative energy sources, but capitalism exists in the real world where there’s an entrenched, immensely wealthy, and extremely powerful fossil fuel industry. Granted, this industry has made some investments in alternative energy sources, but it isn’t going to abandon its core business. I live in Canada where investments in the tar sands in Alberta are increasing despite mounting public pressure campaigns to ditch coal, natural gas and oil as sources of energy.
In order to avoid a 1.5 degrees celsius rise in temperature, a reform-minded capitalist government would need to completely overhaul the world’s industrial plans by replacing existing greenhouse gas emitting consumer and capital goods within the next decade. Market mechanisms and atomized private property in the means of production and transportation aren’t compatible with this goal. Even if they were, capitalism can’t afford that transition. The downward pressure exerted on the profit rate by the initial phase of the shift forced by the government would thrust the economy into a deeper depression.
Presently, we’re living through a transitory form of capitalism that’s more prone to convulsive economic, ecological, public health, and geopolitical crises. In short, we’ll experience what’s happening now, only worse. There’s no inherently terminal crisis for capitalism because, if isn’t entirely abolished, the system will continue to reproduce itself. However, it’ll do so by destroying the environment and waging war on working people at home and other nations. Indeed, we’re still in the imperialist epoch, so the oppression and exploitation of neo-colonial countries persists. Tensions between the great powers will grow sharper, bringing us closer to war.
I don’t like painting such a bleak picture, but I’m afraid it’ll prove to be accurate unless we fix it now. It’s no secret that I’m an International Bolshevik Tendency advocate for a working class socialist revolution to get rid of capitalism and introduce a democratic regime of workers so that we can rationally plan for a future of equality, sustainability, and human happiness.
We were asked to think about how our prognosis for capitalism could inform a new generation of people struggling for revolutionary transformation. It’s clear that reforms will not cut it. From Marx and Engels, to the early Comintern, to Trotsky’s Fourth International, there has been the perspective of advancing a program of transition from capitalism to workers’ power. These are rational and necessary demands that, taken as a whole, can’t be met by the system.
Groups such as the aforementioned DSA claim to want socialism and even sometimes talk about revolution. I hope the members of these groups genuinely mean that because then we have a common goal, if not yet a shared program. A transitional program isn’t something that sits on a shelf or hangs in the air. It’s a material factor in history, but only if it’s embraced by a large number of people organized into a party.
Lenin won because he understood the centrality of the revolutionary party and program.That’s why the ruling class, the social democrats, and the reformists will always hate him. It’s why we owe him an enormous debt as we prepare for the task of sweeping away capitalism in the 21st century.
Doug Lain: I want to give a contrarian answer to the question of what is capitalism. Capitalism is the most dynamic system of social organization the world has ever seen. It produces wonders that have improved the quality of life of billions of people across the planet for a while now. Socialists shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of scientific innovations under capitalism. If we have a radical break from capitalism, we will have to seriously consider how to continue driving scientific developments and innovations in the future. When conservatives such as Steven Pinker champion the wonders of capitalism, they aren’t entirely wrong.
However, capitalism, viewed as a globally expansive financial system, is based on commodity production and distribution determined by the production and expansion of value based on socially necessary labor time. It also possesses its own political and ideological institutions that facilitate the production of this value as needed. Most of all, it relies on the reproduction of the working class and the mostly voluntary cooperation of billions of people who are willing to exchange their time for a wage.
Capitalism is contradictory on a number of levels. Firstly, capitalism promises wealth and simultaneously produces a vast amount of real wealth alongside poverty in order to reproduce itself. Even if the wages in a given country at a given time are high, they can never lift the vast majority of the population out of having to work and be exploited. The system is always adjusting itself so that there are enough workers available in order to increase the surplus.
Secondly, capitalism undermines itself through a tendency for a declining rate of profit even as it streamlines production and increases efficiency. There’s a fundamental contradiction between the forces of production and social relations. It usually expresses itself by destroying the forces of production either by devaluing the monetary value of property or devaluing property physically. A good example of this happened recently when farmers destroyed their own supplies of milk to ensure that the price wouldn’t be driven down. Lowered prices would’ve forced them out of business, so the milk was going to be destroyed either way.
Capitalism has spread, concentrated, and been subjected to several crises. Capitalism’s political class is tasked with creating new political and ideological projects to maintain the system even as it literally leaves people to rot on the streets. Fordism and the welfare state were failed attempts to maintain capitalist relations, but created capitalism with a human face for a time. Neoliberalism was another strategy for overcoming the contradiction of capitalism by greasing the wheels of exchange to ensure that productive investment remained relatively profitable even as the rate of profit continued to decline.
Class struggle takes place today, but mostly not in a self-conscious manner that involves organized workers’ responses to capitalist events and policies. The most promising example of class struggle recently was the Amazon workers who demanded safer working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. They wanted more lenient rules regarding sick leave without the threat of being replaced. Since Amazon workers are crucial to the free flow of capital and sometimes are the only source that provides people with their basic needs, they became even more central due to the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe the workers understood their power at that moment. Of course, the Amazon workers can’t organize and stand alone against the capitalist class.
Class struggle isn't political in the U.S. and perhaps isn’t political anywhere. The Left that sometimes claims to be trying to facilitate class struggle mostly fails at actually doing so. The Bernie Sanders campaign, for example, was framed as a way to create working class political power. However, when Sanders failed to get the nomination, nothing remained in the organization for workers to take up because his donor list and the people working for him at the grassroots level liquidated into the Democratic Party.
Capitalism is in a crisis marked by the interregnum between neoliberalism and whatever comes next. Capitalism’s growth under Obama and Trump after the economic crisis in 2008 may have been undone by the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic, a disaster waiting to happen, is the appearance but not the underlying cause of the crisis. Economic crises can become political as the managing classes attempt to forecast when the bubbles pop and productive investment becomes less possible. Both the failures of the Trump administration and the Democratic Party reflect that the crisis has become political today.
The future of capitalism that I envision is colored by the past and is probably mostly wrong, but I can imagine a conflict between the United States and China emerging, or even World War III. That might be a way to finally overcome the long economic crisis that we’ve been in since the early 1970s because it would devalue capital. However, it may devalue or destroy more than just that. I can also imagine that there will be attempts to tighten belts and reorder political power. Maybe the U.S. will lose its foremost position as a world power. It certainly feels that way right now.
What I think is very unlikely is what Chris Cutrone, the former president of the Platypus Affiliated Society, argued for in a piece titled “Why not Trump Again?” This was before the COVID-19 crisis but he has repeated it since then. He predicts that we’ll enter a very long boom and, since the crisis, expects a v-shaped recovery. I don’t think there’s any reason to be that optimistic even if it might be a better outcome for the Left by making organizing easier. We should be prepared for what we read about in the papers. What should the Left do regarding massive evictions, increases in unemployment and poverty, and continued violence? I’m open to suggestions.
CC: Doug summarized the point well when he said class struggle might be taking place in an objective sense while its active participants aren’t actually conscious of the class character of their demands. To be a little provocative, struggle as resistance is certainly taking place but class struggle, as socialists historically understood it, isn’t.
Regarding Andrea’s remark about movements for equality such as Black Lives Matter, feminism, and LGBT, I think, even if we have an extremely holistic notion of what class is as a universal category, that doesn’t mean the current discontents understand that class, as a category, exists and their own positioning within it.
Current struggles are taking place firmly within the limits set by the administrative logic of contemporary capitalism. I worked for a mid-sized corporation and we had what were basically internal affinity groups. For example, you could join one based on if you’re a gay man, a recovering alcoholic, or a member of an ethic minority and then organize and even make certain demands that are fully endorsed, accepted, and encouraged through the group. That’s just one example at one company, but I think it demonstrates that there are outlets that allow people to acceptably bring up complaints and politically organize themselves within capitalism.
AH: I flatly reject the notion that Black Lives Matter, the ongoing police defunding movement, and groups demanding jobs, workplace representation, and freedom from violence at the hands of the capitalist state don’t qualify as class struggle. There’s a real failure by many on the Left to perceive, for example, Silvia Federici’s work, Black Lives Matter, and the Portland strippers’ union as class struggle. What qualifies as class struggle seems to be a matter of whether these movements are using the specific language and frameworks set forth by people disconnected in more or less overt ways from the struggles of women, queer folks, trans folk, black and brown people, and indigenous people.
Class isn’t an identity. It usually isn’t something you’re born into in the United States, but it’s different from your skin color and gender. It’s a superstructure that dominates all of our lives disproportionately. If rectifying how the average white family in this country owns ten times the amount of wealth and financial resources compared to the average black family isn’t class struggle, then I don’t know what is. If we can’t understand that then clearly we’re on the side of the oppressors rather than the resistance.
Although I’m an anarchist, I agreed with Josh’s statement concerning the necessity of a party. There are many people like myself who believe that the revolution won’t happen anywhere other than in the workplace and self-governed areas. However, we need a diversity of tactics that include large international parties that break down national barriers and push revolutionary goals.
JD: Doug’s opening remark about capitalism’s dynamism and its ability to appropriate surplus value and drive the system forward is something Marx recognized in The Communist Manifesto. At the same time, we’ve observed the limits of capitalist development for more than a century now. Someone in the audience asked about what imperialism means today. I want to note that the imperialist epoch is the exhaustion of the historically progressive moment of capitalist development. Even in that supposed progressive phase, it was horribly oppressive and murderous. Capitalism’s limits today probably mean that a green capitalist economy won’t develop in the 10- to 40-year window needed to avert the unfolding environmental catastrophe.
How has the Left failed in various ways? To be honest, I’ve never liked “Left” as a term. Does it refer to the Democratic Party or parts of it? Does it refer to labor parties or social democrats in Canada or the UK? Who is the Left and who has failed?
I agree with Conrad that groups such as the DSA feed into a popular front that operates within capitalism’s framework and the status quo. However, we have to engage in the real world as well, meaning we don’t have the right to dictate what qualifies as class struggle. I’m not referring to the corporate brand of Black Lives Matter or the promotion of visible women and minorities. There are real struggles going on now on the streets that aren’t self-consciously socialist but still express the acute suffering of working people.
Marx’s formulation of the “class in itself” in distinction to the “class for itself” can help address the question of whether the struggles that are going on today by working people count as class struggle. Our job as revolutionaries is to take these struggles and move them beyond the framework of the current system, to lead the class to become a “class for itself,” and by making it conscious of its historic mission in birthing a new social order of communism.
DL: The key disagreements on this panel revolve around what qualifies as class struggle, who constitutes the working class, and who is the Left. We can connect these issues by considering the Left to be the intellectuals, derived from the working class or somewhere else, who want to create socialism and take responsibility for the organization of class struggle. The Left’s goal should be for the working class to become political and become a class for itself, resulting in the transformation of society into a new mode of productive life beyond capitalism.
I don’t think you can dismiss class struggle on the basis that it isn’t political yet. For example, it isn’t clear whether the demand for wages for unpaid domestic work is a part of the class struggle. These demands are more like a step towards class struggle, which is still better than a lot of what’s going on today.
The main questions for people who want to create socialism are the extent to which we need to engage with the class struggle, our basis of engagement with it, and opportunities where we can organize the working class. I highlighted the example of Amazon workers as one such opportunity. For a while, Black Lives Matter had the potential to create a crisis that might’ve led to some sort of political organizing but it was pretty clear to me that, even though there were some working class elements, the movement lacked the ambition to a socialist politics.
The final question I’m putting forth is if we can conceive of climate change as being a force that might devalue enough capital to set up a new boom. Could a climate catastrophe be our new World War II by destroying vast assets and enabling capitalism to renew itself?
Andrea, much of what you describe as the exploitative relation of capitalism used to be understood as cooperation by the emerging Third Estate. Trade, including profiting off of each other, was more cooperative than highway robbery. Your example of the new student housing would’ve been considered as bringing the world together, providing a basis for peaceful cooperation rather than invasion. How and is this cooperation redeemable?
For Doug, specifically, how do you regard the fact that the falling rate of profit for Adam Smith was a way of facilitating development and production, and that he associated a rising profit rate with monopoly and a subsequent lack of freedom?
Lastly, everyone explained why capitalism is contradictory, but does it also point beyond itself?
AH: The exploitive relation of capitalist relations and ideology are antithetical to widespread cooperation. How can it be cooperation if so many people are freezing to death year after year?
We can look at the past 50 years, even back to the Spanish-American War, to debunk the notion that capitalism encourages peaceful cooperation rather than militaristic or aggressive nationalist tendencies. Even today, the United States supports coups in South American countries with large lithium fields necessary for the manufacturing of batteries.
CC: The exploitative character that cooperation takes on is what is specific about the crisis of capitalism. This crisis seems to also point beyond itself because capitalism produces a society based entirely on cooperative labor and industrial production across great temporal and spatial scales.
The point of socialism would be to take up this society in crisis and move it in a direction in which those malign effects won’t be central to how society reproduces Itself.
JD: Capitalism has dimensions that are cooperative and promote freedom and egalitarianism. This is the basis of the law of value. However, capitalism is simultaneously horrific because its foundation is a social relation rooted in exploiting living labor. The system as a whole moves in contradiction, which was what I expressed when I mentioned the role of the falling rate of profit.
DL: Adam Smith had a price theory about the declining rate of profit, where competition would drive down prices. Marx’s theory had more to do with the gradual speeding up of commodity production so that increasingly less value was embodied in each commodity. The totality of capital would be thrown into a crisis where it is unable to meet people’s needs for a time. These periodic massive crises, as part of the big-time business cycle, cause a lot of human suffering in order to spur innovation in production.
It’s clear that this contradiction can’t continue. We have to discard many of the commodities we’re producing or deny people access to them in service of this abstract value based on labor-time and a class relation. Capitalism points beyond itself, namely by producing so much wealth and so many opportunities that it has to destroy.
When people see how society denies itself and will never attain its own ambitions, the working class might be able to take up and transform the means of production to create a new world.
Doesn’t class struggle imply the working class being organized politically as a class and not as employees of the same company or members of an ethnic constituency?
AH: We should be open to a diversity of tactics and not consider political parties as the only option. However, Socialist Alternative in Seattle has won seats on the city council and improved the lives of working people as an explicitly socialist party. Fight for 15 and the Amazon tax initiatives were working class victories. They also channeled the Black Lives Matter protests to cut and redirect the police department’s budget to social services.
JD: The working class will struggle in ways that are specific to the circumstances in which they find themselves. In the U.S., those circumstances are also defined by the way capitalism has used the invented category of race to pit workers of different nationalities against one another in the same way it continues to use unpaid domestic labor by women.
The working class is struggling now as a “class in itself.” How do we get it to understand its historic condition? It’s not going to be by waiting for the class to simply embrace a socialist program. Lenin’s key insight was the centrality of the party in bringing the program to the working class. The party is how we’re going to get from where we are to where we need to be.
AH: I want to underscore Josh’s point about the invention of race under capitalism.
America’s global domination and its violent system of race-based slavery created the construction of black, as opposed to white. The one drop rule, in which one single drop of African ancestry makes you black, is fundamentally a labor issue.
Emancipation and slave revolts were a form of militant working class struggle. The same goes for the self-determination of indigenous people and their relationship to their land. The invention of land ownership emerged via a racialized context. Those legacies continue to shape class dynamics and history today within the working class.
Are ancient miseries the same as ours under capital? Do we really need Marx or just the Sermon on the Mount?
AH: In some ways, the ancient miseries of plague, pestilence, food, and security remain with us. Also, when considering my own roots, I recognize that a lot of Jewish practice centers on equality and the situation of workers.
Recently, my rabbi spoke out about supporting unions in the synagogue. Spirituality and morality can offer guidance to the Left on how to think about capitalism as a complex human question. Maybe, in 150 years, we'll look back on other thinkers, who we don’t even recognize today, as being as impactful as Marx. I think Marx is compelling and widely applicable because he most closely describes the era of capitalism we live in.
CC: If the problem that you see in society is inequality between ethnic groups or the sexes, it bears noting that these inequalities have existed since the dawn of civilization.
Capital’s tendency to create a universal class society with its emancipatory opportunities is something completely unprecedented in history. If we’re not discussing class struggle or socialist politics born out of class struggle, there’s no reason to consider Marx. If anything, thinking about Marx outside his historical context is detrimental because of the temptation to abuse his works in service of things irrelevant to what he analyzed.
JD: Marx provides a coherent picture of the way capitalism works and the way its contradictions create the potential for a cooperative communist society.
The historical agent to bring about this transition to a new mode of production, a new kind of society, is the working class, which is why class struggle is essential. Class struggle happens regardless of whether or not there is a Marxist party and it would’ve happened without Karl Marx ever having taken a breath.
DL: We don’t need Jesus to come along with a new Sermon on the Mount because we’re facing a material problem, the fetish, rather than an ideological one.
The fetish is how we ideologically come together and create our own condition of capitalism. Because we have created the conditions of capitalism, we’re forced to think things through on the level of class, economics, and material production rather than our personal understanding of the universe or relationship with God.
Christ’s time was obviously different compared to now. Could the Sermon on the Mount have facilitated changes in social reality? What was the Sermon on the Mount? Marx could help us address these questions because he turned away from a mere ideological critique of the world to a material one.
If capitalism is not dynamic enough to respond to climate change, is it nonetheless dynamic enough to still manage crises? Is the legacy of Trotskyism or Lenin needed to go beyond just the management of crises?
CC: Capitalism can be sluggish, but as Doug mentioned, it’s also the most dynamic social system that has ever been produced in world history. We shouldn’t give into apocalypse fascism or rosy thinking.
Capitalism in the 21st century won’t be all that different from the 19th or 20th centuries. There will be booms and busts. There will be wars of varying magnitude. There will be new environmental emergencies that must be managed. As long as the Left merely resists changes and responds to things in the moment, there’s no reason to hope for any significant change.
DL: Some sort of vanguard party, the capture of state power, and a transitional strategy are necessary. In the past, however, there wasn’t enough emphasis on creating new forms of production. It was very difficult in Russia and China to make the leap from a capitalist mode of production to socialism, given that neither had fully developed capitalism.
In order to organize the working class, we’re going to have to promise them something better than capitalism, which means developing at least some idea of what cooperative production will be like.
JD: Trotskyism’s importance comes from the idea that a party is necessary to create a revolution. There are several examples over the past century where the working class achieved a remarkable level of mobilization and organization, even class consciousness, but failed to overcome various obstacles due to the absence of a sizable Marxist party.
Consider France, May 1968. Recent struggles aren’t on the same level as 1968 but still had considerable potential. All these historic examples have not resulted in a “class for itself” taking power besides the Russian Revolution of October 1917. This was only possible because of the Bolshevik Party. We need a similar kind of party developed through ongoing struggles in workplaces, unions, protests, and meetings like this.
Short of the victory for socialism, we will continue to experience periods of busts and booms that take place in the context of the system moving in a generally downward direction, against the backdrop of an ecological crisis. The working class has the choice of barbarism or socialism.
This supports what Doug mentioned—we have to offer a society in which we can actually provide for people’s needs in terms of food and housing, where there is no arbitrary oppression, and can have enough free time to pursue our own interests. That is a perspective we can put forward as a practical solution to the problems that people are facing right now.
AH: The beleaguered term “the Left” has been raised throughout this panel. I think of the Left as the communists, socialists, anarchists, anti-capitalist meme pages, and all the various labels in between these groups. We’re unified by having a critique of the capitalist status quo that isn’t shared by our liberal comrades.
We’re all members of the Left, we’re all thinkers, and we all have something to offer. I’m sure we can somehow work together and find things we agree upon. I haven’t read Trotsky. I’m in more of a Rosa Luxeumburg and Emma Goldman-inspired camp. I may not be the most theory-dense person, but I have a perspective aligned with my own interests in a cooperative household.
Each member of a cooperative household has something to give. One person who lived in our house was going through a rough patch, but we allowed them to live there rent-free because they washed the dishes. It’s not about getting underpaid, exploited immigrants to do our household labor, or for people to be paid minimum wage to wash dishes. As soon as we figure out a way to wash dishes that works for everyone in a household and across all households without strife, then we’ll have identified a model that can work.
Transcribed by Duyminh Tran and Andony Melathopoulos.