Everywhere you look, the private enterprise system (capitalism) is in considerable crisis and potential collapse – needing public bailout’s! From privatised care homes, to residential housing; from electrical supply to water supply and waste disposal; from automobile production to gas supply; from local coffee shops to supermarket chains; from agricultural and animal husbandry to food processing and petrol supply; production for profit is failing. Sure it has ensured vast wealth for a relative small proportion of humanity but poverty and/or lifetimes of hardship for the vast majority. Furthermore, this relatively small proportion of the wealthy have produced an elite which has captured positions of power and influence within the private sector and the public sector.
As such they have guided (and often misguided) humanity into the present 21st century situation of increasing chaos and collapse. Moreover, the two most recent facets of this multi-faceted capitalist crisis have demonstrated how unstable the capitalist system is. First, one of the tiniest forms of life in existence (a virus) and, second, the lack of a tank full of petrol or diesel (both of which results were preventable) have had the effect of bringing the whole capitalist mode of production to its knees. This failure of prevention occurs because the elites in control are more interested in their own particular welfare, than the welfare of humanity as a whole. The Pro-capitalist elites (of all political persuasions) have consciously created a system in which everything needed by humanity relies upon one dangerous material resource – oil – and one exploited human resource – essential workers.
First, they have created a form of society which is dependent upon a regular tankful of fossil fuel to produce and transport all products and services which are necessary for everyone, as well as luxury items for themselves. This absolute reliance on fossil fuels is despite the fact that these fossil fuels and their hegemonic use is destroying the planetary ‘balance’ of weather, water, air and biosphere. It is a ‘balance’ upon which all life depends. Yet every item of food, every drop of water, every unit of electricity or gas, every household item now requires motive power by fossil fuels to produce it, transport, consume and dispose of its residue. The whole system of transport they have created by sea, road or air depends upon a substance that is slowly poisoning the atmosphere, the land and the seas.
Second, every item of production in any area of production relies upon a workforce of primary material producers, finished material producers, transport workers and waste disposal workers. To do these tasks, they need to be and remain healthy. Yet, as it has been known for at least a century, fossil fuel burning, unhealthy foods and letting viruses in (and run riot) weakens the health and injures the ability to work of these essential workers. And it is obvious that it is these we rely upon – absolutely – to survive. Not only that, but for many working occupations, this and the intensity of working for capitalists shortens the lives of our essential workers.
The incompetence of elites.
The greed of the elites within the upper and middle classes has been such that they have allowed or tolerated for generations, the fact that essential workers have been given low – pay, poor housing along with education, health care and environments inferior to themselves. Any sensible, rational, collective group of humanity would cherish and nurture the health and welfare of the essential workers upon which it depends. A rational society would recognise that their essential workers contribution supported every other form of human activity and would ensure they were treated equally. Not so capitalism.
The capitalist mode of production whose rationality is personal profit – does the opposite. The capitalist and pro-capitalist elite are even incompetent at reliably running the system which overwhelmingly favours themselves. In the last two years, despite clear warnings, they failed to prepare for; the Covid19 Pandemic; the withdrawal from Afghanistan; the recent driver shortages due to Brexit etc. Further back they failed to heed warnings of icebergs (the Titanic), invasion repercussions, (Iraq), global warming (increasing floods, fires and storms), cladding (Grenfell), the list of incompetences with dire consequences for the non-elite could take up pages.
Many people think that in light of the many global catastrophes, past, present and future, the capitalist system should change direction by being reformed. In the US the Democrats, in the UK, the Labour Party and the Green Party think this is possible. As we shall see they are wrong. The present system and it’s supporters cannot change the system without radically changing themselves and the system.The elites are locked mentally and physically into the capitalist mode of production which disproportionately rewards them.
So too are the middle classes. Good salaries and pensions chain most of the middle class to the coat tails of the capitalist system which to survive needs continual investment with ever more efficient production and ever greater consumption. This drive to continuous relative overproduction is not simply a personal choice – which might be persuaded to change; it is a systemic compulsion which can only be ended when the system runs into the socio-economic equivalent of a Titanic iceberg. In the paragraphs which follow I will summarise the factors which indicate why this is the case.
Productive and unproductive labour.
Under capitalist relationships there are only two forms of paid work. First, there is the type of work which adds to the value of the object worked upon. The second is work which does not add value to the object worked upon but is socially useful. The first is what Adam Smith and others (Marx, etc) described as productive labour; the second is described as unproductive labour. To give a basic example; If a person makes a table out of wood then long term value has been added to the wood; the labour performed on the wood has been productive of value. If a person cleans a table then no value has been added to the table, even though the work of cleaning it was useful – the labour expended in cleaning did not increase the tables value. In general, both types of work are rewarded by payment, but only the first adds a store of value which can be later circulated and it’s value then realised in exchange.
This distinction is important to the understanding of all class-based societies and for capitalism in particular. This is because all those who work productively (adding value to objects for circulation) create the essential objects and services which they – and all the unproductive workers (whatever their privileged status) – consume. The annual production of embodied value by productive workers in class-based countries, must on average meet the annual needs of all classes. This includes the value containing their profits, interest and rents. Therefore the more unproductive people there are in a community (or country), the less of the total annual value produced is available for the productive workers. Furthermore, the greater must be the annual production of productive working people in that country to ensure all needs – including privileges – are met.
Moreover, if unproductive (upper and middle-class) people are more influential or powerful than productive people (workers) – and invariably they are – then in general they will ensure they are better rewarded for their unproductive work than the productive workers are rewarded for theirs. Hence the immense wealth gaps in capitalist nations between productive workers and unproductive workers. For such ‘capitalist’ systems to continue, the annual production must always – on average – also keep up with the annual needs of any additional unproductive people added to their population.
Consequently, the more professional, artists, musicians, writers, media commentators, athletes, bureaucrats, royalty and politicians there are in any country, the harder the essential productive workers must continually be made to labour. The productive workers of each country (supplemented by those in other countries) have to produce those extra value-added products needed ‘by everyone‘ in two ways. Either by an increase in the actual numbers of productive workers or – as the trend now is – by the same number working faster (using automated machinery or by a more intense use of their time and skill).
The class barriers to substantial change.
It is at this point that the above abbreviated broad description reveals how all the classes have become locked into the 20th and 21st century capitalist (and earlier state-capitalist) systems. The elites needed capitalism to continue in order to survive as unproductive workers – in the way they have come expect. The upper and middle classes clearly need the capitalist system to continue in order to get rewards disproportional to their unproductive efforts. Thus apart from an enlightened few, as unproductive classes, they have no incentive to do more than advocate small reforms.
That is to say, reforms which do not radically alter the class-based system. This productive/unproductive economically alienated dichotomy is the rapidly disintegrating economic foundation on which all reformist political parties, left, right and centre are based. Lacking an example of, or even a concept of an alternative egalitarian mode of production, the working classes must seek jobs and cling to whatever destructive capitalist work – is offered. They must do so in order to live or alternatively try to survive in any other way possible.
All this means that attempts to change the capitalist system by reform will be resisted and fail because the ‘powers’ in control and their supporters will not willingly cut off the profit-based source of their own desires and expectations. On the other hand, if, as noted, the majority of working people see no other realistic alternative their consciousness will also reluctantly cling to capitalism. In this latter regard, the days of masses of workers congregated in factories, docks, mines and other large – scale industries are gone. And along with them, the hoped for mass consciousness reinforced by a class struggle against capital and enhanced by a common, job-related experience of oppression.
Furthermore, there is now little real understanding of the underlying capitalist cause of the many devastating effects people are struggling against and even less on what they could be organising for.
New conditions require new perspectives.
Lacking huge congregations of workers facing common conditions (in factories, mines, docks and fields) and lacking a closely shared experience of exploitation and oppression, it now seems inevitable that capitalism will need to collapse significantly for ‘disconnected’ populations to have their consciousness changed sufficiently for a post-capitalist mode of production to arise out of the ashes of capitalism’s self-destruction. And this possibility is by no means a given. Indeed, there is a possibility of even more easily deflected April Spring type uprisings, protests and civil wars commencing also in all countries.
These new 21st century realities suggest that the revolutionary-humanist, industrial-based, class perspective of Karl Marx needs an adjustment to the sources of solidarity but clearly not of purpose. This adjustment involves a complete repudiation of the authoritarian, mass-production-based, Bolshevik, Maoist, Stalinist and Fascist, middle-class, top down, sectarian ‘unproductive’ leadership models. Marx in the 19th century had already broken with those who denied essential workers should not and could not organise or run their own form of society.
The practical outcomes and failures of Leninist, Trotskyist, Maoist and Fascist ‘visions’ merely confirmed revolutionary-humanist (and some Anarchist) opinions, of this kind of middle-class mis-leadership. The two now neglected but increasingly urgent pre-revolutionary tasks of revolutionary-humanists in the 21st century I suggest are the following.
First; to really understand and learn from the failures of the past attempts to go beyond capital and Second; to revive the hard won, but neglected revolutionary – humanist understandings of previous generations. These two tasks will require a process of serious self and peer group facilitated education along with relaying this knowledge to the new generation who in the future will hopefully come to realise the need for a post-capitalist, humanist based mode of production.
Roy Ratcliffe ( October 2021)
There are two separate dichotomies here.
There is the distinction of productive and unproductive work, then there is the distinction of socially useful and socially superfluous work.
So what is the peculiar importance of productive work, which may also be socially superfluous, eg. building war planes for repressive regimes?
Is it that only productive work actually enlarges capital, even if it is otherwise useless?
If this is the case then I am beginning to see your point of view, otherwise I am completely confused.
The people who fixed my hernia did nothing to enlarge capital (I would say they actually shrank something) but as far as I was concerned they were socially useful.
Hi Leslie. Thank you for your comment it i’s much appreciated..
Yes you are spot on again. This article was my attempt to explain the socio-economic perspective of the capitalist class as far as what they consider is productive and unproductive labour with regard to capital dxpansion. You point out the fact that harmful things, weapons aimed at killing people etc can be profitable but not socially or humanely useful. The other side of that coin is that the birth of a human being is socially useful but is not (as yet) something capitalists can profitably invest in and use to increase their capital. That said the neo – liberal advocates of capitalism are doing their best to find ways to make useful services into sources for profitable investment – starting to privatise health care being one.
In this article I am trying to point out that capitalism cannot be reformed out of its death spiral of environmental pollution, resource and ecological destruction, unemployment and relative overproduction. The only possible way to save the planet and it’s life forms is to alter the mode of production, where the criteria for production ceases to be profit and returns to criteria that are socially useful and environmentally supportive. In that case what is useful needs to become a fully democratic decision of people not the decidion of an assembly of elites – as now. Production then could be directed to those things useful and essential on the one hand and useful but none essential on the other. Such decisions constantly being made bearing in mind the human and ecological implications of these future forms of production, consumption and disposal.
I think there may be a need for a second part to this article because as it stands, it fails to deal with the question of the logical outcome of another potential alliance between those capitalists who have abundant supplies of surplus capital and those (the unemployed workers) who are now surplus to the requirements of capitalistic, computer aided productive labour. The last few times such alliances of alienated people occurred, the results were Imperialism and two world wars. A section of the European capitalist elite allied with the disgruntled de-classed workers and in the first case exported capital to the rest of the globe in the form of (Heart of Darkness) Imperialism. In the second case the European AustriaHungarian and German empire elites tried to expand their capitalist – based interests and using an assasination as reason started the first world war, but then failed to expand and instead militarily destroyed surplus capital and surplus workers. In the third case a section of the defeated German authoritarian capitalist elite allied with disgruntled de-classed German workers and middle class (forming national socialism/Fascism) and tried to export German capital throughout occupied Europe, and eventually Russia, culminating in the Second World War.
In the twenty first century, we again have a superfluity of capital and a surplus of displaced workers and ruined small businesses. So what will happen next? The current stirrings of 21st century populism exhibit a similar pattern to the 19th and 20th century disgruntled capitalist elites allying with disgruntled de-classed workers and leaning in authoritarian directions. (eg Trumpism etc.) The question arises what are the alternatives if a fourth such attempt to rescue capitalism from its own contradictions occurs particularly when it is realised that reform is impossible. Hence, perhaps a second article to consider the possibilities. Regards, Roy
You once mentioned the historic era characterized by sailing ships, warehoused and market stalls, it conjures up a picture anyway.
Now you have written about “Heart Of Darkness” imperialism, are we somewhere in the same era here?
I once read a story of that name by Joseph Conrad, if that is the reference then I am not sure about Conrad’s attitude to imperialism as it was set in the then Belgian Congo, and the worst excesses of
imperialism in that region (Which I only found out about recently) were not even mentioned by Conrad,
Though it was a grizzly tale.
Hi Leslie. No I think we are approaching a similar capitalist contradiction to the ones I mention in the earlier reply and in a few other articles, (ie Imperialism) but in a new era which although it contains similarities to earlier ones, it also has important differences. Conrad”s Heart of Darkness although narrowly focussed does contain some important observations. One in particular is particularly relevant. It is that in the European heartlands of capitalism (England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland etc) all of which ‘scrambled’ for africa, the public in general were not ignorant of what was taking place in their nations ‘heart of darkness’ enclaves. I will try to outline more of this perspective in the next article – part 2. Regards, Roy