Much-Too-Late Capitalism and Its Discontents
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Thursday February 23, 2006 05:35 by Marc Silverstein - Impact Collective nabat at hotmail dot com 954-592-6330
When the voracious appetite of capital is whetted, it searches for its primitive accumulation. The state-capitalist regimes of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union in particular, mocked the corpses of Marx and Engels in order for their states to conform to the ruling bureaucrats’ real needs, which were the same needs as any newly industrializing (read: capitalist) nation: to colonize a people or class as primitive accumulation (in this particular historical example, primitive “socialist” accumulation).
"Much-Too-Late Capitalism and Its Discontents"
by Marc Silverstein
When the voracious appetite of capital is whetted, it searches for its primitive accumulation.(1) The state-capitalist regimes of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union in particular, mocked the corpses of Marx and Engels in order for their states to conform to the ruling bureaucrats’ real needs, which were the same needs as any newly industrializing (read: capitalist) nation: to colonize a people or class as primitive accumulation (in this particular historical example, primitive “socialist” accumulation).
The Russian peasantry, especially under Stalin but even during the rein of Lenin and Trotsky, made a good candidate for this process of brutal usurpation and forced collectivization. The labor of the peasantry and working class are usurped by the bureaucratic caste in power, whose class interests are both disguised by and personified in the figure of the Commissar or Chairman. As the whole illusory community is wrapped up in the fairytale of resolving the contradictions of capitalism – what cannot be resolved (class society) by even the most clever or capable, is strengthened beyond the wildest dreams of the players involved.
State power by its very nature is not based on transparency – relationships of domination, authority, and submission are not real, human relations. The official line of the state-capitalist regime is that of a “united people” still warding off the remnants of reaction. In reality, this is just a rallying cry for the continual maintenance of a society based on misery and alienation, a pseudo-community. It differs in no essential respects from American jingoism, a veritable “Support Our Troops” sticker forever branded on the national psyche.
A rotting corpse is emptied of its organs, stitched up, and sprayed with a thick coat of preservatives and sweet-smelling perfumes. It is then carefully placed in a coffin made of thick marble and sealed tight. If left out in the open, the coffin will slowly decompose, the perfume will wear off, and the layers of preservatives will be no match for the ugly reality of the corpse. Hidden under six thick inches of dirt, such a facade will stand a better chance, steered away from the turbulence of the earth above. But one day it will be discovered, as all things are, maybe in a mangled state, but nonetheless a chapter to a mangled history and a pathetic past.
The totality of social relations we live under is a rotting corpse. It demands of us that we pay, that we quantify our existence, that we conform to the nauseating logic of money, of property, of social classes, of authority. If we refuse, they deceive us with their media – if that fails, they bludgeon us to death and mock us in their cells. Those who refuse, those anarchists (opposing all rulers), are the living embodiment of life, of presence, of the repressed desires sacrificed on the altar of commodities. The anarchist laughs heartily in the face of authority, she defies every impediment to the full realization of her freedom, of her potentiality actualized. The anarchist grasps freedom and understands it with her whole being – not only intellectually, but as “the great, surging, living truth that is reconstructing the world, and that will usher in the Dawn” in the words of Emma Goldman.
The anarchist is bewildered by the irrational rationality of work; she is confused by the Protestant ethic: to work incessantly for the “value” of commodities personified by “money”. She asks herself, Why do people act as they do? To realize their desires, to fulfill creative urges, to produce valuable things that are of use, whether practical or aesthetic or both? If capitalism is so adamant about “rationality”, why does it produce the most obscene, irrational, and outrageous events in history?: the Nazi holocaust, Stalin’s gulags, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the paramilitary death squads in the U.S. client states of Latin America, and even closer to home in the genocide of the Native Americans and the Black communities in the U.S.
And Francis Fukuyama(2), FOX News, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and all the other spokespeople of Ideology – why are they so jubilant, so secure, in their “End of History”, in the permanent triumph of neoliberal capitalist democracy? Can’t they see how fragile, how vulnerable, how aching to implode this society is from all its multiplicities of contradictions?
Capitalism has always produced its own discontents, beginning with its original process of primitive accumulation. The “return of the repressed” is here, now, at the beginning of the twenty first century.
If history has ended, why are the forces that wish to negate history, and at the same time realize their own his- & her-stories, assaulting the citadels of exploitation and oppression more than ever? If history has ended, and there is no question, they say, that it has, then why at the brink of a new century are people more secure than ever that a “New world is possible – only destroying capitalism!”?
Why is the sacrosanct commodity being contested on a new terrain, on a terrain that declares itself in opposition to any continued survival of this “post-historical” era? When the French rioters in early November 2005 burned cop cars and smashed corporate buildings beyond repair, when rebellious, pissed, unemployed youth fought bitterly against their miserable existence, when they for once transformed exchange-value into the value of individual subjectivity acting on its own impulses and desires and taking what it needs freely without forgiveness and guilt, when the role of the cop and the hated CRS riot police – notorious for their repression of May ‘68 – as the strong-arm of the commodity and of private property was put into practice (they were responsible for numerous brutal beatings of Arabs), it became evident to all but the hardline ideologues blind in their hardline stupidity and narrow-mindedness – that history has not declared itself to be over, indeed far from it.
In capitalist society, the totality of individual and social relations, are warped. Not only are these relations reified(3), transformed into relations of commodities to each other (and commodities gaining human status), as can be evidenced by the frequent adoption of business and technocratic jargon into everyday conversation and the visible lack of any real community, but also these relations must be subservient to the hierarchical consumption of commodities, of “goods”. This process is hierarchical because these “goods” occupy an illustrious position in contrast to the miserable wasteland the multitudes of humanity are forced to inhabit. As human beings become more and more estranged from themselves, their own wants, desires, feelings, needs, and relationships, their own lives – the commodity gains more and more of a human status.
This is the alien-world of much-too-late capitalism, where everything is topsy turvy and nothing makes sense. To capital, the commodity is sacred, while the human is expendable. The human is the means, the commodity the end. It is "immoral" and "criminal" to defy commodity logic. And for precisely that reason those who fight back and refuse this nightmare are labeled “criminals” and “immoral”, “barbarians” or worse. The creative individual, as a living subject that makes his own history, is merely a pleasant daydream – because not the individual but the ethereal object holds the upper hand, the hand that is invisible, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding the economy and society. Is this hand really invisible? Or maybe the guardians of capital are doing all they can to give this hand the appearance of invisibility. The truth is, the hand is not invisible — and neither is it invincible. It really becomes transparent if we struggle against existing conditions. The “invisible hand” of capital is not transcendental; rather it is the negation of this hand that is transcendental. Negation transcends the space-time of capital and of its domination and suffocation of life, of the dictatorship of commodities.
The cracks in the system become blocks and stones – blocks and stones that can be used as weapons, as we tear up every block and stone the whole world over to build our barricades. This transcendence, this supersession of the metaphysical rule of Ideas, and not just Ideas but material reality, is the moment when our real individual, subjective her- & his-stories begin and when this “End of History” ends.
From its inception, capitalism has been incapable of creating any cohesive human community in any genuine sense. In its wake, traditional communities, social interactions, and ways of life have been disrupted, poisoned, and severely destroyed. Customs that were based on the collective sharing of the joys of life were deemed the most threatening. The potlatch ceremonial feasts of the Northwest Coast American Indians based on the ostentatious destruction of property (or communal re-distribution of property), containing an inherently insurrectionary spark due to this very questioning of property itself, were banned by the Canadian government up until 1951. Games have been replaced with ESPN, feasts with McDonalds. Capitalism can’t stand to see what it views as “idleness”, but what is actually natural human activity, free of any compulsive or schizophrenic motivation.
If we turn to another corner of the world, Great Britain, we see the same trends emerge. Nature, leisure, and freedom must be sacrificed to the insane demands of productivity and capital accumulation. When the capitalist bosses imposed the Industrial Revolution on the British people, they forced the masses of small-scale peasants and self-employed craftsmen into proletarians (wage-slaves). In 1811, Ned Ludd led a large contingent of these newly proletarianized workers in revolt against work, against the new technologies. They sabotaged their machinery and even clashed in battles with the British Army, who were called in to quell the riots. From primitive accumulation to the present day, workers have detested this imposition of alienating work and its accompanying “leisure-time”.
Capital is not an absolute entity, fixed in time and space. It is a dialectical process that is determined by its interactions with its antithesis – the entire world of humans and nature. The dynamic history of class struggle has created in time a layer of society that claims to represent the cry of the exploited and desperate: the Democratic Party, vanguardist and reformist left-wing political parties, the official labor-union apparatus, NGOs, liberal charity groups. This is nothing other than capitalism’s left-wing. We have to contend with not only the wolf, but the fox – as Malcolm X said on numerous occasions. The liberal psuedo-opposition is vitally necessary for the maintenance of capitalism, because it gives us the illusion that qualitative change is possible under the present system, and it also confuses and debilitates people’s ability to see clearly by misleading them about the nature of that very system – refusing to connect the dots between the various “causes” and “issues” (hunger, starvation, disease, homelessness, war, ecological destruction, racism, etc.) in the world, or to view them from anything but the most superficial and idealist perspective. Capitalism is not an abstraction, a concept, an ideal – it is a set of social relations, wherein every movement, every step, every action is governed by dead objects.
It would be a mistake to view the economy in capitalist society as in any way autonomous from the whole spectacular superstructure of society. It is deeply intertwined and bound up with philosophy, law, government, science, art, religion, sexual relations, mental health, the corporate media and its deliberately false oppositions (Bush vs. Kerry, Support Our Troops vs. Support Al Qaeda, The “Free Market” vs. Authoritarian Dictatorship etc.), every possible gesture of daily life – whether one of submission and contentment or one of negation and refusal. This is not to say that the negation of class society is futile, but only that capitalism has outstretched its tentacles and sucked the life out of humanity like a morbid Leviathan – with a force stronger than gravity. Its tentacles have surveyed every nook and cranny of the globe for its life-denying system to take reign and to find even more sources of capital accumulation as well as various forms of surplus-value to oil its machinery and churn out endless commodities. The capitalist does not just exist in the factory or the fields any longer, this multi-headed hydra can be found everywhere one cares to look. This paradoxically has the effect of broadening and deepening the possibilities for anti-capitalist struggle today: anywhere and everywhere is a potential target of attack.
The government of dead objects over the exploited and oppressed has a most clever tactic on its side. I’m speaking here of the cycle of alienation of production and consumption. Marx pointed out that the worker’s product approaches him as an alien, hostile force; the more he produces, the less he lives. The more time the worker spends producing commodities, the more he himself becomes a commodity. But every producer is at the same time a consumer. The consumer buys the alienation of the producer (entertainment, alcohol) to replace his own feelings of alienation and powerlessness. The worker becomes trapped in a vicious cycle that enslaves him completely. Will we, the “workers”, “producers”, and “consumers” that allow this cycle to go round and round, continue to wallow in our despair and accept the totality of this society – or will we instead take the torch to society, to realize our creative projects and desires not in some future utopia, but through our daily struggle against these conditions? When we revolt, when we destroy – we are at the same time creating. We are destroying whatever prevents us from the fullness of a life lived without hesitation, without dead time or trivial pursuits.
(1)Primitive accumulation is a concept that Karl Marx introduces in part 8 of the first volume of Capital. It explains how the capitalist mode of production came into being in the first place – an original accumulation which did not result from capitalist production, but formed an external starting point to it. It is created by “divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.” Primitive accumulation has been historically achieved through means of colonialism and brute force (i.e. the genocide of the Native Americans, the despoliation of Africa, enclosures of communal land in Great Britain, etc).
(2) Francis Fukuyama is a neoconservative American political economist. He argues in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) that the progression of human history as a struggle between competing ideologies and ways of viewing the world is largely at an end, with the world settling on Liberal Democracy after the Cold War as the best society possible.
(3) Reification, in this sense, refers to the consideration of a human being as an abstraction, not as a living, concrete subjectivity. It can also mean to regard or treat an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence.