The two previous articles on the current decline and fall of the capitalist mode of production, dealt with the self – imposed economic pits the capitalist elites have dug in front and around the essential production and consumption of human communities. The articles also dealt with the insurmountable ecological barriers to continuous capitalist economic expansion posed by the physical limitations of the planet on which we live. Three sets of ideas, dealing with humanities overall troubled existence were also outlined. This third article will indicate the source and origin of past and present totalitarian ideas which emerge as hoped for solutions to the humanitarian failures caused by the capitalist mode of production.
However, before going further, we should perhaps remind ourselves that the citizens and governing elites of previous empires, whether, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, or Roman, never seriously doubted their system would survive nor saw the decline and fall coming. Yet all that is now left of these ‘magnificent empires’ are a number of statues, artefacts etc., and numerous ruins. Those historical systems also produced extraordinary wealth for a few, extraordinary poverty for the many and brutal forms of oppression for conquered peoples and slaves. This bifurcation of humanity in terms of wealth and power has been the model for ‘civilisations’ then – and now!
The elites controlling the various Imperial type nationalist empires of capitalism in the 21st century, are no different in this regard. They too maintain their present system regardless of the negative consequences to most people, ecological balance and all other life forms. Now, as then, a number of rational voices have expressed doubts about the sustainability of the system we live within (from Rachael Carson on) but these warnings too are either ignored or drowned out by the babble, of arrogant optimism and a readiness for aggressive military action.
Because the modern capitalist mode of production, is based upon a mass of working class labouring people spread across the globe, it is important to stress the following. It is the daily labour of the often poorly paid and housed working class which supplies all the essential needs of the capitalist and pro-capitalist elite first and foremost – and then their own. It is also clear that being born into an existing mode of production, means that the individuals of all classes tend to view the capitalist system as natural or logical, when it is purely historical. Those classes brought low by the system sink further into poverty and despair whilst surrounded by the ostentatious wealth of the elites.
Despite the obvious inhumanity and injustice of the present system, the capitalist and pro-capitalist elite, demonstrate an overwhelming concern and effort not only to maintain this system but to maintain its class based inequality. Therefore, when a sufficiently large economic crisis comes along to destabilise it, this causes a reassessment of political tactics within the governing ‘establishment’. For some individuals among the elites, the politics of ‘normal’ times is no longer suitable or reliable enough to sustain it. Furthermore, when the system periodically falls apart, these people invariably seek an authoritarian method to hold it together. In the past, firm authoritarian leadership has been the logical capitalist solution when ‘their’ mass capitalist societies enter a severe crisis.
The development of mass societies.
It is important to remember that as capitalism developed, it led to a general foundation and development of mass societies. The earlier period of local production for local small village and town use was replaced by large-scale production for mass consumption. This capitalist mode of production, was qualitatively and quantitatively different than everything that came before. Mechanically assisted, mass production for towns of many thousands and cities of many millions, required a different pace and rhythm to production from that of local rural life. Sudden interruptions to essential production for mass capitalist societies needed to be avoided because not only would profits cease if it was interrupted, but existential problems for huge numbers of people would occur.
Consequently, production – as a national or global whole – motivated by profit, needed to parallel, if not replicate, the working of an individual large-scale factory dedicated to profit. Thus under the capitalist mode of production a new mechanised and electrically driven pattern of general human existence has emerged. The more extensive mass capitalist societies have become, the more they need to resemble a machine regulated by time and it’s workers to resemble uncomplaining cogs located within an extremely large perpetual motion industry. Productive outputs, especially those which are essential to life, such as food, water and transport, need to be performed as regular as clockwork or the social system will potentially collapse from the ground up. Moreover, practically every adult in any mass society recognises (at least in part) that their actual survival requires that the entire economic system is continuously in operation.
Taken to its logical extreme, the 20th century ‘just in time’ supply and internet chains reflect the above noted need for the global capitalist mass economy to operate as if it were a continually functioning perpetual motion machine. Yet at the same time this capitalist logistics system demonstrates it’s unique fragility and superficiality. To sell us its myriads of non-essential profitable products and to compensate for our increasing loss of community through competition and alienation, the globalised capitalist mode of production must exert – as far as possible – total and instantaneous control of all aspects of life.
This includes controlling the main means of communication , which the capitalist elite develop to serve their interests and to make profits and influence the opinions expressed upon it. Alongside elite control of intellectual production, transmission and consumption, lies their control of raw material supplies, production of commodities and services, transport, sales and consumption, and the disposal of waste – in all its various forms! In each area, control is in the hands of capitalist or pro-capitalist elites! In the latter case, the lack of one key component (recently, fuel, computer chip, HGV drivers, internet connection, etc. etc.) can bring the whole national and global process to a potential standstill.
Moreover, it is this capitalist produced need for total economic and political control that is the material basis which gives rise to the emergence and re-emergence of totalitarian political ideas and action by elites. Tragically, those who lack clear alternative perspectives frequently follow this internal, mass society logic of capitalist authoritarianism and adopt thsee ideas also. As was the case a generation ago.
20th century totalitarianism.
During the last severe crisis of capitalism, (in the early to mid 20th century) a section of the elite preferred to promote right-wing authoritarian regimes (personified by the ‘strong’ men – Hitler, Mussolini, Franco); another section preferred strong left-wing authoritarian regimes (personified by the ‘strong’ men – Stalin, Mao, Tito); yet others preferred a more centrist authoritarian regime (ie a variety of authoritarian coalition male-led governments). Despite their many subtle differences, each of these three elite responses sought to retain privileged positions for the elite and retain a wage-slave existence for the working classes.
The lack a knowledge or understanding of the fact that another non-profit, secure mode of production, has actually emerged within capitalism, means that members of all classes in mass capitalist dominated societies, will again be susceptible to ideas of a totalitarian political solution. The recognition of the practical need to hold the inherited economic system together – to survive – spawns simplistic strong-leader hopes among all classes.
As noted above, in the 20th century severe crisis numerous members of all classes turned to either Bolshevism, Fascism, Maoism or neo-liberal coalitions as hoped for solutions to keep the system of mass societies fed, housed and clothed. So the success of 20th century strong man politics was not, as some bourgeois intellectuals presumed, and some still presume, because the masses were all so dumb they could be easily manipulated by their chosen leaders eloquence. No! The seeming logic of having to conserve mass production based capitalist societies simply overwhelmed the thinking of people of left, right and centre persuasion.
In this regard, it is important to recognise that to defend the capitalist mode of production, all those 20th century authoritarian tendencies were quite prepared to annihilate as many people as was necessary. They did so twice – by total war, (once during 1914-18 and again during 1939-1945). But then that’s what all politically ‘strong’ men in a crisis are programmed to do – even though the administrative structures they create may differ. Nevertheless, before they were able to thrust most of humanity into those mid 20th century apocalyptic abysses, these authoritarian saviours (sic) had to achieve two preliminary outcomes. First; they had to promise the working classes and the poor, a better future by being prepared to fight and die for it, and second; they needed to divide mass societies into hostile camps. They accomplished this outcome by utilising and amplifying the ideologies of nationality and race.
21st Century de ja’ vue?
However, although the 20th century state-capitalist forms, such as Fascism Bolshevism, Maoism, and neo-liberal coalitions did – after total war – restabilise the capitalist mode of exploitation and managed to partly feed, clothe and house mass societies (although very badly), all was still not well. The problems of alienation, exploitation, oppression of working people and relative overproduction crises not only continued but soon rapidly increased, from 1960 onward.
So within decade or so after this wholesale, 1939/45 total-war destruction, a crisis period of overproduction and internecine hostility began once again. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries in advanced capitalist countries, trade union workers were pitted against non-trade union workers for adequate pay; students were pitted against pensioners for adequate benefits; immigrant workers were pitted against indigenous workers for adequate jobs and housing; communities were torn apart.
Furthermore, in the 21st century, it has – at last – become glaringly obvious that producing for mass societies by the profit-based capitalist mode of production, is steadily and progressively damaging the essential ecological resources and environmental conditions needed to sustain the planet and all its life forms. To anyone not blinkered by self-interest, a less destructive mode of production needs to urgently replace the current profit – driven mode or the profit seekers (despite Cop 26 elite blah, blah) will simply urge the system on regardless of its foreseen and unforeseen consequences.
For several decades, the play sheet of divide and conquer has been routinely borrowed by the elites and the decades of low pay, unemployment and austerity have followed. However, this progressive planetary despoilation and degradation of toiling humanity has not been enough to solve the current capitalist crisis. So once again Nationality and Race are set to be the two main ideologies which elites will try to use to divide humanity and prevent a radical global transformation. These two ruling class ideologies will be critically considered in part 4 of this series.
Roy Ratcliffe (November 2021)