Saturday, July 28, 2007

Capitalism Today


Capitalism Today

Capitalism first began to emerge, within feudalism, in Europe and elsewhere, as long ago as the fourteenth century. Through a long series of struggles, revolutions and wars capitalism established itself as the dominant mode of production in Europe by the beginning of the 19th century. It was at this point that Karl Marx became the first person to produce a comprehensive analysis of capitalism’s structure and laws of development. It is useful to compare capitalism today with capitalism in Marx’s time to see what has changed and what remains the same.

The most immediately obvious change is in capitalism’s scale of operation. In the 1840s, when Marx began his analysis, capitalism may have been dominant in Europe but in its developed industrial form it was still more or less confined to a small corner of the north-west – Britain, The Netherlands, Belgium, parts of France and Germany. Today it is truly global.

Capitalism, by means of trade and, indeed, its armed forces, long ago ‘reached’ and affected virtually everywhere but now there is probably no country on the planet where the majority of goods are not produced on a capitalist basis. In 1848 Britain, the so-called ‘workshop of the world’, was by a long way the leading economic power, with France its nearest rival. By the end of the 19th century Germany had displaced France and the USA was advancing swiftly. By the end of the First World War the United States had clearly overtaken not only Britain but all of Europe. By the end of the Second World War US dominance was even more entrenched, with the state capitalist USSR its only serious challenger.

Today the USA remains economically, and, of course, militarily, dominant but, despite its victory in the cold war, its economic lead over the rest of the world is much diminished. In the fifties and sixties ‘economic miracles’ in Germany and Japan put America under pressure and now there is the emerging challenge from China, with India also making huge progress. In addition there are numerous significant and independent centres of capital accumulation, such as South Korea and Brazil, dotted round the world. Capitalism has thus ‘filled up’ the world more completely and is more poly-centred than ever before.

Along with this geographical spread has gone a huge increase in the size and range of capitalism’s major corporations – the Exxon Mobiles and Wal-Marts, the Toyotas and Samsungs – in other words in the concentration of capital, and in the intensity of global economic integration. It is not simply that the international transportation and sale of raw materials and manufactured goods has grown immensely but that the actual manufacture of individual commodities has become an international process.

The growth of the system has been anything but smooth, passing through severe international crises such as the Great Depression of the thirties and the international recessions of the seventies and eighties, and numerous national or regional upsets, nevertheless overall it has been massive.

The economic role of the state has also generally increased substantially, but again the process has been extremely uneven. Since the onset of neo-liberalism in the seventies and the ‘collapse of communism’ in 1989-91 the role of the state has clearly declined compared to the days of Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt and Keynes, but not nearly as much as neo-liberal ideologues expected or wanted.

Another major change has been the rise in the average standard of living of the masses, first in the advanced industrial countries of the so-called West, and second in a significant number of newly industrialising countries. Cross-cultural statistics on living standards are tricky and unreliable, but figures on life expectancy give the broad picture. In 1850 in the US life expectancy for the average white male was 38 years, and for white women, 40 years. By 2001 that had risen to 75 years for men and 80 years for women. In countries such as Canada, Sweden, France and Australia it is similar but even higher, while in Mexico, Brazil, Poland and even China it is now over 70.

Viewed superficially and one-sidedly these changes could be seen as a success story for capitalism. However, what has remained unchanged is even more basic than what has changed. First, the fundamental social relations of production are the same. The main forces of production are still owned and controlled by tiny minorities who produce in competition with one another, on the basis of the exploitation of those who live by the sale of their labour power The immediate producers remain alienated from their labour and the products of their labour – they produce a world not under their or, ultimately, anyone’s control. Society is divided into antagonistic classes – bourgeoisie and proletariat – whose interests are diametrically opposed. Second, the fundamental dynamic of the system also remains unchanged; it is the same in China today as it was in Britain in the Industrial Revolution, namely the drive to accumulate capital i.e. to pursue profit before human need.

Precisely because of this underlying continuity all the changes in capitalism described above have their dark or negative side.

The rise in living standards, though real, has been massively uneven – using again the measure of life expectancy we find, for example, Angola on 37, Mozambique on 40 and South Africa on 42.5 – and accompanied by rising inequality, both within nations and between them. In the US in 1980 the pay of company Chief Executives was 42 times that of a production worker; by 2000 it was 525 times greater! In 1998 the United Nations Development Program reported that the world's 225 richest people now have a combined wealth of $1 trillion which is equal to the combined annual income of the world's 2.5 billion poorest people and the wealth of the three richest individuals now exceeds the total GDP of the 48 poorest countries.

The economic growth experienced by capitalism has been paralleled by a growth in its destructive tendencies. In terms of wars and mass slaughter the 20th century was, by a huge distance, the most costly in history and today the capacity to eliminate human life is greater than ever. The emergence of the US as sole super power (and the potential threat to its position from China) has made it more not less inclined to use and threaten military force. To this must be added the devastating threat capitalism poses to the environment, and thus the future of humanity, through climate change.

But by far the most important consequence of the apparent international ‘triumph’ of capitalism has been, precisely as Marx foresaw, the production, in greater numbers with greater geographical spread.(from South Korea to South America), concentrated in ever growing giant cities (from Kolkata to Cairo), of its own gravedigger – the international working class.

John Molyneux

July 23 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What is fascism?


What is fascism?

The worst defeat suffered by the working class in the 20th century – the coming to power of Hitler and the Nazis – led directly to the worst catastrophe for humanity in the century, the Second World War, and the worst single crime against humanity, the Holocaust. This nexus of events, therefore, poses a number of questions of the highest political importance: what was the cause of the Nazi phenomenon? What was the nature of the Nazi movement? What enabled it to take power? Could it have been stopped? Could it happen again? Above all, what lessons can we learn from the past to help ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

Obviously it is not possible to deal properly with all these issues in a single column, but what I will try to do is to set out the main lines of the Marxist analysis of Nazism, which can then serve as a basis for fuller answers to the above questions. This analysis was developed principally by Leon Trotsky in 1929-33, i.e. the years of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and it is best understood in relation, and contrast, to the bourgeois and the orthodox communist, i.e. Stalinist, interpretations of Nazism.

The bourgeois view of Nazism, embodied in thousands of press articles, books, films, TV programmes etc., oscillates between seeing it as an outgrowth of the German national character (its supposed authoritarianism, militarism, cruelty etc.) and as the product of the evil genius of one man, Hitler, who allegedly hypnotised an entire nation with his demonic oratory. These two interpretations, which formally contradict one another, are complementary in that they avoid any connection with social forces or economics, and especially any connection with capitalism.

However, two simple and obvious facts expose the falsity of the bourgeois view in both its versions. The first is that German Nazism was part of an international fascist movement that did not begin or end in Germany, but which existed with varying degrees of strength in almost every country, including supposedly ‘moderate’ Britain, and which first came to power with Mussolini in Italy. The second is that Hitler and his Nazi Party only became a serious political force in Germany in the wake of the international economic crisis that began with the Wall St. Crash in October 1929. Prior to this Hitler’s supposed oratorical powers had little appeal to the German people.

For Trotsky, and for all Marxists, fascism as a whole was a product of, and response to, the international crisis of capitalism that gripped the system following the First World War. It was an attempt to resolve that crisis in the interests of capital by dispensing with parliamentary democracy, establishing a reactionary dictatorship, and crushing the working class.

To this general analysis Trotsky made a crucial addition. He saw that fascism was not just a policy or political trend promoted by the capitalist class as such, or even by a section or wing of big business. Rather fascism began as a real mass movement based in the lower middle class or petty bourgeoisie. This class suffered acutely and in a particular way in the economic crisis: on the one hand crushed from above by the banks and giant monopolies, on the other pressured from below by the trade unions and organised working class. Driven to despair by the economic crisis and feeling ground between the great millstones of the two major classes the petty bourgeoisie ‘went berserk’, and became fertile ground for fascist demagogy.

It is this class basis, which provides the key to the understanding of fascist and Nazi ideology, including its anti-Semitic component. In one direction, ‘anti- capitalist’ rhetoric, but directed against international and finance capital rather than capitalism as such. In the other direction, and much more serious, bitter anti- communism , anti-socialism and anti - trade unionism. Then, uniting both elements, at least in the fascist imagination, anti-Semitism – the Jews as the sinister conspiracy behind both finance capital and communism (after all were not Rothschild and Marx both Jews?).Finally, standing above the classes, the mythical exaltation of the state, the nation, the leader and the race.

The petty bourgeois basis of fascism also shapes its development as a movement. No matter how many supporters it attracts fascism cannot take power by itself, because the lower middle class cannot overthrow the capitalist class proper. Instead it has to be ‘lifted’ into power by big business, as happened in Germany in the autumn of !932. But the ruling class will only take the risk of partially relinquishing control of their state to dangerous outsiders under extreme pressure and it has to be convinced a) that the severity of the crisis is such that it can no longer continue to rule in the old way, and b) that the gamble of unleashing the fascists on the organisations of the working class will succeed. Equally the fascists have to have proved themselves worthy of ruling class backing, by demonstrating in practice their ability to take on the workers’ organisations on the streets.

If the petty bourgeois base of fascism makes it dependant on big business, it nevertheless enables it to offer the ruling class something beyond what is offered by ‘ordinary’ police or military dictatorship. This is a mass cadre at grass roots level which can smash workers’ organisations in the workplaces, on the estates, in the streets, far more thoroughly and effectively than just external operations by the police or army.

This analysis, developed in detail by Trotsky in his brilliant writings on The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, not only captured the essence of fascism but also showed how it could be fought. First, because fascism was such a mortal threat to all workers’ organisations, it was necessary to establish maximum working class unity against fascism by means of the workers’ United Front. (It was precisely this unity that Stalinism sabotaged in 1929-33 with its ultra-left notion that social democrats were social fascists). Second, the petty bourgeoisie could be won over to the side of the working class or at least neutralised, provided the socialist left could convincingly present itself as able to resolve the chronic crisis of the system. In the end this meant proving in practice its ability to overthrow capitalism. ( Again it was just this that was prevented by the later Stalinist policy of alliance with the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ in the Popular Front.)

The contemporary relevance of these lessons should be clear. The crisis of the system, though less acute than in the 1930s, is still with us and, therefore, so is the threat of fascism, regardless of national character or individual leaders. If the threat is not yet immediate, all the more reason it should be nipped in the bud by strong united working class action. However to eliminate the fascist threat for good, to make the slogan ‘Never Again’ a permanent reality, it is necessary to destroy its breeding ground, the xcapitalist system.

John Molyneux

4 July 2007