Sunday, August 5, 2012

Confronting The Violence of Capitalism

It is often said that capitalism is preferable to Marxism or socialism, if only because the latter has been responsible for far more violence throughout history.  Those who falsely assert this point to Stalin and Mao as primary examples.  Following on arguments from Terry Eagleton's brilliant Why Marx Was Right and Richard Wolff's Occupy the Economy, here are two main problems with this kind of claim:

1) Stalin and Mao were not socialists in the sense that Marx argued for - not even close!  

That is, they were not democratic socialists who insisted on economic democracy for the sake of authentic political democracy (genuine self-government), but dictatorships that simply shifted ownership of the means of production from capitalists to an oppressive and violent state.  It merely shifted from private capitalists to state-appointed ones.  This left the exploitative capitalist mode of production (which Marx obviously criticized) essentially unchanged in what Wolff provocatively calls "state capitalism."  The workers remained in a subordinated position to a competing class; the fundamental contradiction inherent to capitalism (class conflict) remained in place with Stalin and Mao.  Their top-down approaches to developing so-called "socialism" in the Soviet Union and China, respectively, went against the bottom-up approach advocated by Marx.  As Wolff writes, "[The Soviet Union] got rid of the private boards of directors, they got rid of the private shareholders, they closed the stock market.  But they did not turn over these enterprises to be run by the workers in them through institutions and mechanisms of democracy.  What they did instead was dismiss the old, private boards of directors and they replaced them with state officials.  So instead of 15 people running the company who were selected by the shareholders, you had 15 people who were selected by the government or by the Communist Party."
       A final important and relevant issue here, as Eagleton points out, is that Marx never imagined socialism could be brought about under conditions of poverty (as in the Soviet Union and China): "You cannot reorganize wealth for the benefit of all if there is precious little wealth to reorganize...all you will get is socialized scarcity...without the material resources [socialism] will tend to twist into the monstrous caricature of socialism known as Stalinism."

2) The history of modern capitalist nations is just as horribly violent as Stalin and Mao, and even today it continues on a path of (mostly) silent destruction of our planet.  

To blame Marx for the atrocities of Stalin and Mao is rather like blaming Jesus for the horror of the Crusades.  Of course there is a historical connection, but one would be hard-pressed to justify such actions through the teachings of Jesus or the writings of Marx.  But those who are naive enough to say such things also tend to go on to whitewash the bloody history of capitalism.  As Eagleton writes, "Modern capitalist nations are the fruit of a history of slavery, genocide, violence and exploitation every bit as abhorrent as Mao's China or Stalin's Soviet Union.  Capitalism, too, was forged in blood and tears; it is just that it has survived long enough to forget about much of this horror, which is not the case with Stalinism and Maoism."  America, the world's leading capitalist nation, was built on stolen land and on the backs of slaves through genocide and its original sin of racism.
        Beyond this, we must look at the effects of capitalism in contemporary America where the rhetoric of freedom and liberty often serves as a cover for harsh realities.  By privatizing its health system, it has destroyed the lives of countless individuals on the alter of the The Market.  Meanwhile, almost every developed country has a single-payer health system that results in better overall health, longer life expectancy, and lower stress and depression levels for its citizens.  America - the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth - ranks embarrassingly low (37th) by the World Health Organization when it comes to these criteria, thanks to the truly immoral effort to make enormous profits off of people's health and well-being.  As Richard Wolff also explains, America is today the most unequal in terms of wealth and income of all advanced industrial nations (even just thirty years ago this was not the case!).  America is clearly not a democracy, but is in fact a plutocracy - rule by the rich.  So however well capitalism generates wealth - and indeed it does, as Marx himself clearly recognized - it comes about at an enormous human cost, largely today because of ever-increasing wealth and income inequality where the top CEO now makes over 200 times the lowest paid worker -it was only around 25 times more than the lowest paid worker just 30 years ago.  Things have gotten much worse for the poor thanks to neoliberal capitalism, even in America, where (brace yourself) almost half of the population - over 150 million - lives near or below the poverty line.  As Cornel West and Tavis Smiley write in The Rich and the Rest of Us, "There are more than 150 million poor and near poor people living in America who are not responsible for the damage done by the Great Recession. Yet they pay the price.  The poor did not create the deindustrialization of America, unmatched corporate profiteering and greed, more than a decade of foreign wars, and unregulated tax benefits for the wealthy."  And yet the right in this country continue to insist on slashing social welfare programs and giving tax handouts to the rich and transnational corporations.  But in all of this discussion of the many atrocities of capitalism, we certainly cannot forget the cost to the non-human world either.  Make no mistake about it: the blame for our ecological crisis falls heavily on the ideology of neo-liberal capitalism (deregulation, privatization, free trade, etc).  The anthropocentrism of capitalism is plainly obvious, so those who recognize the need for limits to growth and a sustainable economics argue (rightly) for much greater regulation of the market - or even alternatives to the market.  The profit (greed) motive that drives capitalism will only continue to destroy the earth without radical shifts in our economics.  Do not let the lack of a Stalin-type dictator fool you: capitalism is violent in all kinds of ways.

So what is a genuine alternative to capitalism?  Democracy at Work.  I have not found a more persuasive argument for an alternative to neoliberal capitalism than Richard Wolff's idea of economic democracy, which he explains briefly in Occupy the Economy and is releasing a full treatment of in the forthcoming Democracy at Work: The Cure for Capitalism. As Wolff writes, "It was always a mirage to imagine that you could have a political democracy expressed in elections and not also have an economic democracy.  It's really simple.  If you allow an economic system in which 1 percent of the people have more than half the wealth and the other 99 percent have to share the other half, then the 1 percent are not going to be so stupid as to not realize that one of the ways you secure yourself is to control the political system.  And they accomplish that with their money, because that's what they have in abundance...If we want political democracy to work beyond the formality of elections, then we have to change the economic system.  The basic way to do that is through organizing mass movements that can change the organization of production.  We need democracy in the workplace, real worker control of decision-making."

Watch Wolff lecture on Democracy at Work below: