To understand what is now taking place at the social and political levels of most capitalist countries (for example the January 2021 storming of the US Capitol building) it is essential to comprehend and monitor the economic level. This is because it is the economic level which is the foundation upon which all else is erected. To offer a crude analogy; whatever positive or negative condition the upper floors may be in – any radical change in the foundations of a building will effect the whole superstructure. Understanding the foundations helps to explain what is happening to whatever stands above them. Conversely,continually arguing about the superstructure takes attention away from what is wrong with the whole structure.
Yet in socio-economic affairs such upper level of viewing of society is often what is undertaken by commentators of left, right and centre persuasions. They attempt to analyse what is happening in society as a whole by reference to what takes place in politics. In this way political awareness can mislead social understanding. If the reader doubts this assertion then consider the following;
“The political mind is a political mind precisely because it thinks within the framework of politics. The keener and more lively it is, the more incapable is it of understanding social ills.” (Karl Marx, in Marx/Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3 page 199.)
Why would Marx, who for most of his life, was an avid supporter of working people’s struggle against the capitalist mode of production, bother to write the above (and much else about politics), unless he had reliable evidence for it at the time? And in my 60 years of working class activism, Marx’s observations have been confirmed by ample evidence many times over. Even the sharpest and most eloquent political activists have proved (and are still proving) that their political framework of reference renders them incapable of discovering or focusing on the real source of social ills and recognising how anger against the whole system becomes deflected away by politics.
To return to the building analogy, for a moment; many politically motivated activists do the equivalent of closely examining the walls, etc., then suggest fixing the bulging brickwork and re-plastering it or adding another room – thinking that radical renovations will make the underlying structure sound. However, it doesn’t in buildings and it doesn’t in human communities. For, what lies underneath the disintegrating political, social and cultural walls of modern capitalist societies is an economic foundation which is being hacked away and which is now resting on an ecological substratum that is also being savagely undermined.
The economic foundation of the capitalist mode of production is built upon the separation between the millions of people who do the day to day work to produce what is needed (and desired) and the ownership or control of the means of production which these workers use to make the things we all need. By utilising science and technology (automation, computers and machine learning), particularly intensified over the last two decades, the owners/controllers of the means of production have simultaneously increased the levels of global production and decreased the numbers of workers needed.
Once again, more goods can be produced than can be sold at a profit and by systemic unemployment, fewer working people are able to pay for as much as they did before. Even before the Covid19 pandemic, the relative over-production this change created resulted in relative and absolute levels of global poverty with millions of ordinary people rendered homeless and starving. In this way, the economic foundation of capitalism has become increasingly narrow and unstable whilst sections of the working population have become discontented, resentful and in many cases desperate.
This popular resentment and desperation is not yet being channelled by activists at the foundations of capitalism, but in various substitute directions, such as crime, civil unrest, finding scapegoats, victims turning on other victims and in many cases (as in Europe and USA) dissatisfaction with one or other of the main political establishments.
And is it not the case that over several decades left, right and centre political establishments have earned the level of distrust and anger currently directed against them by one section of society or another?
Furthermore, the very productivity of the science and technology based means of production owned and/or controlled by the capitalist elite, has increased pollution, ecological destruction and climate change to such an extent that the natural substratum on which the capitalist mode of production rests is increasingly undermined. Clean air, stable climate, fresh water, fertile soil, unpolluted, well stocked seas, abundant insect and animal species, were the natural basis and founding bedrock upon which all modes of production – including capitalism – are rooted. However, the capitalist mode of production is rapidly destroying the natural substratum of the planet which life in general and humanity in particular, needs in order to survive.
So it is the above noted shrinking economic foundation of capitalism and the destruction of the natural ecological substratum which are the fundamental source of political expressions of much ‘populist’ discontent along with the many and varied social ills which humanity now faces. The disintegration of these capitalist dominated foundations is so profound and irreparable that taking sides politically over substantial cracks in the superstructure will not solve our problems – a real social revolution is needed.
In other words, the essential foundations of all human productive activity noted above need to be re-cast and rebalanced in the form of non-profit, non-hierarchical, sustainable public services and co-operatives.
However, because politics has become such a fetish and an important means of elite rule, political understanding in general serves to obscure the real source of social problems. The populist political mindset, therefore, seeks power to implement solutions based upon political identity (or even on particular victim status) along with dogmatic political understandings. Not for the first time, political affiliation is being projected as a means of finding a solution to multiple problems, when in fact it stands in the way of socio-economic solutions.
Moreover, political understanding took a particularly nasty and virulent sectarian form in extreme left and right-wing movements which developed in response to an earlier 20th century crisis of capitalism. The extremes of sectarian politics offering radical, hierarchical, non-humanist solutions to capitalist engendered poverty and unemployment were exemplified and personified in National Socialism (Fascism), Bolshevism (Communism) and Zionism. In and out of power, not only did these sectarian political movements fool people about real causes of their distress, but they killed and tortured those who who disagreed with their party line, and also killed and tortured their own party members – if they dared to disagree with the leadership.
In positions of power political and religious sectarians have consistently used it to terrify their citizens into submission and in some cases channelled them into horrendous wars.
Current political and religious sectarians are taking on new anti-establishment identities (such as Trumpism/populism/Islamism etc.) as well as a few dressing up as radical lefts or democratic liberals, while others are content to don outdated uniforms and insignias. In the absence of a revolutionary-humanist alternative, all the above are the present and future power-hungry figureheads of discontent – not the initial creators of it. It is important to note that; this general citizen discontent can outlast any particular sectarian leaders whether discredited or not.
For example, after his supporters marched on the Feldherrnhalle in 1923, Adolf Hitler was put on trial, publicly mocked and jailed. But he and the Nazi oligarchy later gained absolute power by cleverly surfing the mounting wave of German discontent fuelled by the economic crisis and the continuing failure of Weimar Republic politicians to radically change the economic foundations of German society.
Of the ten defining characteristics of politically sectarian forms an outstanding one is with regard to how extremely intolerant and disrespectful they are of alternative views or opinions to their own. If in doubt of this assertion, the reader can check the intolerance level of any centre, left or right political (or religious) identity campaign they come across, by politely disagreeing with a central principle currently maintained by them. The resulting reaction will provide a litmus test of the extent and ferocity of their political-identity form of sectarianism. At the same time such a test will provide an indication of how obstructive that particular political identity mindset will be to an inclusive campaign of liberation for all suffering humanity.
Roy Ratcliffe (January 2021)
[For a more extended description of sectarianism see ‘On Sectarianism’ on this blog and for a more comprehensive analysis with many detailed examples see the book ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti – Capitalist Struggle’. ]
Thanks, Roy, for this eloquent exploration of the dilemmas faced in holding firm to a revolutionary humanist understanding whilst welcoming and encouraging open and pluralist debate. I’m finding the level of contemporary intolerance deeply disturbing. Over on the Left [does this depiction mean much anymore?] in this last week Paul Mason has supported the closing down of the right-wing inclined TalkRadio, whilst George Monbiot has called for the criminalising of what he dubs an act of ‘disinformation’. They need be aware of what they wish for.
Keep on prodding us into critical directions.