Social production – the real foundation of humanity.
To be really radical is to grasp things at their root and this is an absolutely necessity in the current economic and financial crisis. In this context, it can hardly be denied that the fundamental requirements at the root of all human life are sufficient amounts of food, water, clothing and shelter. They are what keep us alive. All other aspects of life, education, entertainment, science, technology, fashion, politics, in short culture, are dependent upon and develop alongside these basic economic requirements. Furthermore these fundamental requirements – along with the complexity developed on the basis of these fundamentals – are the products of social forces and social means of production. Only in the realms of fantasy and fiction have human beings fulfilled their economic or social needs as isolated individuals. Social means of production, have existed – and created regular surplus products – from the earliest hunter-gather societies to the present day urban and industrial societies.
The only modifications to those social means and forces of production have occurred by a) changes in human skills and knowledge; b) changes in the technical base of these means; and c) in the relationships of those people or classes controlling those means. A recognition of this process is the basis of the historical materialism comprehensively developed by Karl Marx. His clearest formulation of this view is contained in his foreword to the ‘Critique of Political Economy’ written in 1858. From his extensive studies, Marx concluded that ..“At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production..” From that point on, Marx reasoned, these relations turn into fetters and an “era of social revolution” begins.
In this article I will outline and consider on the basis of the current ‘five-fold crisis of capitalism’, what stage of development the productive forces of society have reached in the 21st century. This will lead into an identification of in how these ‘forces’ are in conflict with the existing economic and political ‘relations’ governing them. However, before doing so it is worth bearing in mind an important warning offered by Marx.
“In studying such transformation it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production”….and…“the ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” (Marx ‘Preface to ‘Critique of Political Economy.’ emphasis added RR)
The ‘forces’ of social production in the 21st century.
At their most general, the forces of production under the 21st century mode are the same as any other. They comprise of raw materials, auxiliary materials, tools and energy – human and natural. However, who ‘controls’ these forces determines the class nature of society and how and in what form the ‘surplus’ product is extracted from the direct workers. Under systems of slavery the slave owner owned and controlled the ‘forces’ – raw materials, the auxiliary materials, the tools and the sources of energy. Under the Feudal mode, the landowning aristocracy and under the capitalist mode it is those who own ‘capital’ and ‘land’. The capitalist mode is just the latest exploitative social mode of production devised by humanity.
Using the factory system initially and later automation and interconnected machinery in place of small machine tools, the social ‘means of production’ have – during the domination of capital – become immense – along with the surplus. Utilising electrical power in place of coal and steam and fewer skilled, educated workers in place of masses of skilled and semi-skilled workers, the 20th and 21st century forces of production have been expanded to a very high degree. So high in fact that a number of game-changing ecological and social transformations have now taken place. The social forces of production are now so highly developed that they regularly produce along with huge profits, more finished items than can be sold at a profit, causing gluts, recessions and crises. They also create more pollution and ecological destruction than the planet can sustain. All these related factors are now game-changers. Humanity cannot afford either symptom any longer, nor the economic system which produces them.
Another major game-changing transformation is with regard to the ordinary citizen of capitalist countries. It is a fact that fewer and fewer workers are needed to produce more than sufficient amounts of necessaries, such as food, water, clothing, shelter and numerous other products which modern society is now accustomed. This in turn has created large-scale permanent unemployment for many people. A humane form of society cannot allow millions to exist in poverty just because industry does not need them. The third also related consequence of this development in the 20th century was to free large numbers of citizens to be employed in what have become known as the welfare and public services sectors. Any civilised society can no longer do without such ‘cultural’ aspects of life. These general changes are all irreversible transformations of the ‘material conditions – which have matured within the framework’ of capitalist society.
Thus during the 20th century we have witnessed the creation of education, health, fire, social services, local and national government etc, – all non-profit making functional economic and social forms. They are also forms which have absorbed up to 60% of the working populations in most advanced capitalist countries. It is a welfare provision that is extremely beneficial to all sectors of workers and middle-classes since the post Second-World-War period. Social production looked so good that it was seriously considered in the mid 20th century that technology and amalgamation of production – all things being equal was the new norm. It would quickly allow full employment and a reduction working hours for all workers – white-collar and blue. To the optimistically inclined, a future ‘golden age’ seemed possible. So what prevented this and how come we now find ourselves once again deep in a ‘dark age’ of wars, pollution and poverty for the bulk of humanity?
The ‘relationships’ of social production in the 21st century.
The 1960’s vision of a new golden age quickly dimmed and the harsh reality of the capitalist mode of production began to break through in the 1970’s and 80’s. This is because under this present system not all things are equal. Capitalism is not a system based upon satisfying the needs of the vast majority of people but – apart from the post-war welfare provisions reluctantly granted – it is a system dominated by the pursuit of profit. When the rate of profits started to fall around the late 1960’s the key agents and beneficiaries of the capitalist mode in many advanced countries set into sustained motion three broad tendencies.
The first was to attempt to lower wages and/or increase productivity. The second, was to re-locate industrial production abroad to places with cheap labour. [This led to increased unemployment among workers in industry adding to those shaken out by automation etc.] Third; the economist intellectuals among the capitalist class began to see that many elements of the public welfare services could be taken over and made to produce profits. All three of these tendencies were either implemented or not reversed by the successive alternating governments of Tories and Labour in the UK. From Harold Wilson (Labour), to Edward Heath (Conservative), and on to Callaghan (Labour) and Thatcher (Conservative) in one way or another they all attacked the non-profit-making sectors of society. Their counter-parts of recent times Blair/Brown (Labour) Cameron/Clegg (Conservative/Liberal) have the same aim in mind.
It is important to recognise the success of the previous ‘nationalised’ industries of aircraft, car manufacture, steel, petrol, coal, electricity, rail and road transport, water, sewage, electricity, gas, telephones, education, health services, local and national government in the UK and elsewhere. They delivered quality products and services at low costs – because they were not directly capitalist. Because of capitalisms previous failures in these sectors, they were developed as large-scale, non-profit making industries and institutions. Undoubtedly they were not perfect, but that was not the real reason for their eventual ‘privatisations’. The real reasons were that the capitalist classes and their hangers on were not satisfied with their already disproportional levels of wealth and income, they wanted even more. And with the politicians of the UK, USA and Europe in their pockets, they knew how to get their way.
Their disproportional relationships of power and control over the economic and social aspects of life, in all countries, meant the neo-liberals were in a position reverse the historic development of societies along lines of large-scale non-profit-making welfare services paralleled by automated and computerised industrial and commercial production. All the pieces were in place for advancing humanity and ensuring no-one starved or were homeless. Large-scale production of necessities and provisions, needing fewer workers was a material fact. Well developed skills and practices, in science, education, health, communications, transport, the arts, etc were also established facts. Humanity could potentially leave behind the horrors of previous Victorian and post-Victorian stages of capitalist development and move on.
Of course humanity has not moved on and is in one sense has now been put into reverse. Despite the proliferation of advanced technological gismo’s, large-scale unemployment, poverty, wars and vast disparities in wealth have returned. The reason this has occurred is in line with what was noted above; “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production..” The potential of these productive forces of society, to feed, cloth, house, educate, heal, entertain, every person to a satisfactory standard is prevented by the existing relationships (people) propping up the existing relations of production. The huge material forces of society and the vast majority of people in each country who staff and operate them are indeed now in conflict with the existing relations of production and those who control them.
The fetters to the development and improvement of these social forces, lie in the class relationships controlling these means and forces of production. Or in more popular terminology – the ruling class and their elite supporters! They don’t just govern society but control it at all levels. The disproportional class relationships of power controlling our forces of production, are played out in the economic and political spheres of life. The control this 1% or 2% capitalist class exerts functions through its minority ownership of the means of production, exchange and communication. This economic domination is supplemented by their control and/or influence of governmental power at all levels – Parliaments, Congresses and the state – and their influence upon politicians of all political persuasions.
It is in their institutions, clubs and executive committees, that they decide what is to be produced and what is not. It is there they decide how much pollution and environmental damage is acceptable. It is how they decide when and where to go to war. It is how they decide how much tax we pay, how much tax money is spent on armaments, which type of industries are to get incentives and grants (and which are not), when to bail out their buddies in the banking industry, even who is allowed to vote to put them in power again. Using these institutions they can even decide to steal our savings as the recent case of Cyprus illustrates. This power and influence of the 1 or 2% is what the healthy, humane ‘productive forces of society’ (ie. the vast majority of the people) are in conflict with. And this conflict is played out at the ideological level.
The ideological content of this historic struggle.
Because of the wealth, power and influence the capitalist class as a whole wields, the ideas of this class tend to dominate the whole of society. The ability to pay for and set up institutions and pay the salaries of journalists, academics, economists and scientists, means that ideas which are favourable to its domination are the dominant ideas. Over its two hundred years of domination many of those ideas have come to be accepted as common-sense. Everyone, from young to old is predominantly bombarded by ideas which rationalise and justify that ‘the existing relations of production’ are the only natural and sensible ones. That the ‘individual’ is more important than the collective. That private enterprise is more efficient than collective, when it clearly isn’t – except in making profits for the already rich. Ideas such as ‘there are no other alternatives to austerity’. There are alternatives but of course they don’t get widely publicised nor will they be implemented. This makes the struggle against these capitalist ideas and assumptions a difficult one and one with very few outlets for expression.
The ideologies promoted by the capitalists classes and their pro-capitalist supporters fall into two broad categories. In the first category are those which promote private property, hierarchy and wealth accumulation. For example; the assumption that if you have enough wealth, this entitles you to exploit the labour of those who haven’t; the assumption that it is natural to have governors and governed; and the assumption that if your ancestors stole land, then you are also entitled to keep it. The second category are all those which promote divisions among humanity. Individualism, racism, nationalism, sexism, religion etc. I am more important than you. My religion, my nation, my ethnicity, my gender etc., is not only different but is better than and superior to yours. Make my sector an exception to the austerity cuts! The capitalist classes need all these ideologies and promote them because they are so few in number that they need those they rule and oppress to be as divided as possible.
These divisive ideologies are partially based upon the facts of life, but of course not the whole facts of life. In complex inter-connected economic societies such as the current global ones, complicated as they are by multiple ‘identities’ and ideologies, the simplest truths often take the longest to comprehend. The obvious fact that those who are the workers in each nation, whether blue-collar or white, have more in common with each other than with their own capitalist and pro-capitalist elites, is confused and concealed by the domination of these divisive ideologies. The obvious fact that in a general crisis, campaigns to save ones own sector from austerity cuts is self-defeating. Left on our own – you and I – cannot win and why should other sectors actively support us, if we do not actively support them? In any case the current problems are not sectional but general, the current crisis is not tangential but wholly systemic and needs a social-wide response.
Another simple truth which seems difficult for many people to comprehend concerns the need for revolutionary change. Most people recognise revolutionary transformations in their everyday life. Rapid changes in technology, transport, medicine, understanding are welcomed as necessary for society to move on beyond previous modes of transport, medicine, technology and knowledge. Old equipment and many ideas are happily discarded and relegated to the scrap heap. But not the way society is governed. Politics at all levels is self-evidently totally corrupt, broken and outmoded, yet it is still peddled as the solution to our problems.
Even in the face of catastrophic ecological and social disasters many seem blind to the necessity for revolutionising the mode of production and governance. We no longer travel by horse, communicate by ship-bound parchment or consult tradition and magic for damaged limbs or sickly stomachs. Yet millions are still resigned to the capitalist control of economic and social welfare. This is despite the fact that they are daily ruining the economy, finances, politics, law, the environment and not least of all – ruining vast numbers of lives via indiscriminate war.
If the material conditions of social production are sufficient to solve all the major problems facing humanity, we have to ask what is stopping such a use apart from a few thousand members of the elite and their armed mercenaries? If the task facing humanity is to gain control of the current ‘forces of production’ and use them for ‘humane’ social purposes rather than for the purpose of corporate greed and wealth accumulation for the few – what is holding us back from even thinking about this? If it is the previously noted divisions of individualism, nationalism, sexism, racism, religion and sectarianism – then given the scale of the problems – isn’t it time to give these up? Clearly, the final condition necessary for such a solution lies in the material force of the majority of the population recognising that this capitalist mode of production is a fetter and needs to be burst asunder and work collectively toward that end.
Of course, alternative ideas need to search out those in struggle, but those in struggle need to seek out alternative ideas. Yet it seems only a sharp shock from the unfolding reality will wake the majority of people from their accustomed passivity; only the loss of status will rid many of their most treasured illusions. At the moment there are those who vigorously reject the neo-liberal conservatism of the Tories, Liberals and Republicans but remain wedded to the neo-liberal conservatism of the Labour Party or the Democratic Party and their analogues elsewhere. This and the pressures to look after number one, too conform or to take the easy way out, are all shameful betrayals of our common humanity. They are a betrayal and denial of the social nature of our productive forces. These ideological pressures need to be resisted. We are once again at a cross-roads, we either struggle to become a transformative humane society or we fight among ourselves and descend into a inhumane parody of one.
It has often been said that the idea of a post-capitalist mode of production is nothing more than a utopian dream. In fact it is the continuance or resurrection of capitalism as a basis for justice, peace, equality and ecological welfare which is the utopian fantasy. Until more people come to realise this through their direct experience it is down to those who subscribe fully to humanist, non-sectarian values and practices to become part of a non-sectarian anti-capitalists movement. A movement which argues for basing the future mode of production on the best examples of non-profit-making industries and services, (suitably modified) which capitalism was forced to introduce in the 20th century. And creating alternative communal forms of organisation. [See ‘Defending Public Services’.]
Roy Ratcliffe (April 2013.)
[See also ‘Workers and others in the 21st Century’.]