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Capitalism and contradiction

John Harris said something in the Guardian today which resonated with me. His article is about how, when we question the Liberal Democrats’ free market, orange book clique taking over the party and being further to the right than some Tories, we forget that the party will not collapse “under the weight of its own contradictions” but will continue to fight on – the Labour party is one case in point.

Firstly, we at TCF certainly do not forget that the Labour party organised around the central contradictions of free market, laissez-faire capitalism, and I suspect not many others have forgotten this either.

Secondly, to use the Liberal Democrats being in power, as Harris does, as a sign that they are a working force, and not collapsing “under the weight…” does not add to his argument at all – the Liberal Democrats were mere kingmakers in the coalition, and their downfall has yet to be seen (I’m thinking the snubs they’ve been getting from the electorate locally, and the scheming eye of Simon Hughes).

By comparing them with the Labour, Harris is not matching like for like.

But nevertheless, the thing he said which resonated with me:

Marx and Engels may not be quite the influential titans they once were, but even among some of the most modernised minds on the left, one of their followers’ behavioural tics is alive and well: surveying something you either don’t like or can’t understand, and then loftily pronouncing that it will fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions. So far, it hasn’t applied to capitalism. Neither, I would wager, will it be true of either the coalition or the Liberal Democrats, though that doesn’t seem to have quietened August’s loudest political noise.

Having been to university myself, I too have been a Marxist (a phase that sadly wore off soon after I left), but I always saw this point – made by many – a little stupid. And Marx was not naive to this point. Because an economic model does not fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions, that does not mean it is not a spent force and that the end of history is in capitalism (which is why Francis Fukuyama wrote that book Our Posthuman Future – to show that he was wrong in 1989); it means either that we are playing with rusty goods so to speak (by which I obviously mean its existence is continued only because people are desperately trying to keep afloat a broken system for as long as possible after its sell by date, because it makes them better off) or that it has had to supplement itself with other models so as to sustain itself.

I think it is a cross between the two – a system that is past its sell by date that has saturated itself with liberal or social democratic systems of government welfare to hide that fact that its cracks are enormous (and they quite often fail to hide those gaps).

It was a flippant remark, but it’s not an unusual critique of Marx. The real case is he was right about capitalism, he just underestimated the power of bullshit by capitalists.

  1. Jon
    August 25, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    G.A. Cohen (in ‘If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?’) comments on something similar to the point you’ve made. Engels (says Cohen) identifies 3 stages on the route from capitalism to socialism, which are not comprehensive or even necessarily in order, but more of a general framework.

    “1. Widespread major changes in ideas about society arise in response to changes in the mode of production (ie capitalism)

    2. Ideas critical of a mode of production arise on a broad scale only when and because that mode is obsolescent – that is, no longer suited to the needs of production.”

    However, the fact that the mode of production is “obsolescent” and “no longer suited” does not mean that Capitalism is now completely spent, it simply means that it is not as efficient as it could be. Neither does it mean that Socialism is fully formed (like a foetus ready to be born, to borrow another metaphor), ready to replace Capitalism at a moment’s notice. Thus, the many criticisms of Capitalism that exist are not proof in and of themselves of Capitalism’s complete demise, but rather symptoms of its steady decline.

    For Socialism to overthrow Capitalism, there must be true proletarian class consciousness, and until that has developed (presumably evolving from or simply replacing the current liberal identity-conscious view), the forces of Capital will continue to prop up their stale system.

    • August 25, 2010 at 5:46 pm

      oh that’s perfectly put, far better than how I put it. It’s always good to have G.A. Cohen in your toolbox – I should try and dig him out more often

  2. August 26, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    “For Socialism to overthrow Capitalism, there must be true proletarian class consciousness” this has always worried and frustrated me. Just how do we achieve “proletarian class consciousness”?

  3. Jon
    August 27, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    It’s a very good question Paul, but there needs to be an evolution of the left (speaking in the broad sense) from seeing individual struggles against racism, sexism, etc. as separate problems.

    Such issues need to be viewed through the prism of Marxism, which leads to the conclusion that all these issues stem from class struggle, and that at the root of almost all society’s ills is the oppression of the working class by the forces of Capital.

    For example, if I say, “Women and men should have total equality in the workplace,” this is a feminist argument. If, however, I say, “Women are paid less in the workplace because cheaper labour is in the interest of those who control Capital,” the statement becomes a Marxist one, and leads to the question of whether equality in wage-slavery is enough.

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