• Time of Alternatives: The Left 100 Years After the October Revolution

  • By Alexander Buzgalin | 21 Feb 17 | Posted under: Contemporary Capitalism , History , Transformative Strategies
  • The undermining of commodity production began one hundred years ago with a qualitative leap in the manipulation of market and consumption by corporations. No anti-cartel legislation can touch the market power of the largest capitals. Today the market does not primarily stimulate effectiveness but serves as a shield for the involution model that is leading the world into a dead end. We have been caught in a spider’s web in which the corporate spiders manipulate us and not only subject production and consumption to their interests but commercialise the entire life of people. Everything is for sale: art and education, healthcare and love, nature and the state. The market is becoming total. It is a power that subjugates people more thoroughly than the Stalinist NKVD and dictates behavioural norms more sharply than any communist propaganda. Coming up against the limits of consumption with demand in material production lacking purchasing power, the market is forced to shift to the virtual world. Increasingly, it is not only commodities and services that we are sold but also symbols and signs. We are falling into a simulated market and submitting to the rhythm of the brand economy. And this involves everything – from the poor Asian worker, who dreams of being able to buy brand goods, to the millionaire, who has to keep up with the state of the art.

    However, what is most important is that capital is extending commodity relations into spheres in which market forms are irrational – the spheres of public goods. The fruits of science, education, art, and any of the results of creative activity are transmittable and therefore do not have to be lost. These goods must not be sold; their consumption must not be subjected to norms – there are plenty of them for everyone, they are not limited. Everyone can have access to them, just as we have access to the goods in public libraries or Wikipedia. This is an area in which the ownership of all things is possible and necessary for all people.

    Today’s social production increasingly rests not only on the highly socialised goods of productive labour but also on the public goods of this same labour. Antagonistic and foreign to this kind of production are both the spontaneity of the market’s self-regulation and the total power of the market and the fetishism of money. The result is the crisis of consumer society and the thwarting and dying off of the stimuli of progress arising in the market. These problems can be mitigated by state regulation of the capitalist market economy. But this cannot resolve the contradictions of the totally simulated market.

    In the last 100 years capital has also changed. It became global and transformed the contradiction between labour and capital into a worldwide contradiction. Capital, which is primarily concentrated in the north, is represented by the strongest players of the contemporary world – the transnational companies, the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, etc. It is based in the USA and the EU and is defended by NATO as the world policeman. Wage labour, which is increasingly concentrated in the South, is divided, unorganised, and is defended neither by the nation-states nor by the influential international organisations.

    Capital has created a system of subjugation and exploitation that unites all of its historical forms within it: the semi-feudal compulsion to work vis­à-vis the poorest strata, the classical exploitation of the enormous industrial proletariat in the semi-periphery, the extraction of monopoly profits and imperial rents as well as the subordination of the real-economy sector to the financial sector, the exploitation of general natural resources, and the appropriation of cultural capital, the creative capacities of people.

    New forms of domination have emerged. Financialisation did not simply lead to hyper-profitability in the spheres of financial services and speculation. It led to finance capital, once partly tamed and limited by the welfare state, becoming omnipotent once again. Today, virtual fictitious financial capital is not simply interwoven with industrial capital, as it was 100 years ago; now it governs production and the others economic spheres. It assumed not only a fictitious but also a virtual form, which lives in worldwide information networks and represents a ‘spider of spiders’, a black box of financial bubbles. This capital spawned the world economic crisis, whose flame was dampened only at the cost of deploying budget funds and with the help of so-called financial socialism.

    It gave rise to a new kind of worldwide contradiction: asymmetrical and hybrid wars, in which terrorism has become an answer to the democracy of cruise missiles.

    It led to the undermining of democracy’s formal rules of the game through political manipulation. A new law reigns in today’s world. To the degree that political technologies become more effective and use arbitrary methods – from PR campaigns to armed intervention in the affairs of sovereign states – democracy is transformed into a fiction and politics becomes the production of passive products, that is, votes, out of a passive raw material, the electorate.

    And most importantly, the stage of late capitalism is not only the twilight of the bourgeois mode of production but also of the long stage of humanity’s pre-history, which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called, not coincidentally, the ‘realm of necessity’. This period of thousands of years produced the most diverse forms of social alienation. It is not only a question of market and capital. It is also about slavery, serfdom, and Asiatic despotism, war and terror, and state and religion. Global capital reproduces almost all of these.

    In addition, the contemporary era also produces global threats – the threat of the destruction of ecological equilibrium. Here it is precisely the hegemony of global capital today that reproduces and intensifies the whole spectrum of social alienation whose basis in the twenty-first century is the contradiction between capital and labour. Capital has led the world to a dead end. The way out of it is known: the liberation of labour and human beings from all forms of alienation produced by global capital and its phenomena.

    The first worldwide attack on this power began in October 1917. And although the world revolution did not occur, the first experience of the creation of a non-capitalist society became a reality in the USSR and the other states of the world socialist system. Another reality was worldwide social reforms. These first practices ended infelicitously. It is thus all the more necessary today to achieve a breakthrough and find new sources of the emancipation of labour and human beings.

    The left: social base, identity, goals of struggle

    The defeat suffered at the end of the twentieth century in the first worldwide battle for socialism delivered a painful blow to the left movement. Counter-revolution and counter-reform demoralised the forces of social emancipation. Wage workers as a class for itself increasingly changed from being a politically and ideologically organised force to a class in itself, a social stratum that in itself did not represent a political force in a position to recognise and realise its strategic interests. This was also fostered by the process of deindustrialisation in the countries of the capitalist centre and the post-Soviet area, in which the industrial proletariat also shrank numerically in this part of the world.

    In Russia, the catastrophic destruction of material production, the ‘shock without therapy’ of the 1990s, the struggle for survival, as well as the illusion of patriotic unity with power also led to a declassing of a large section of wage workers. Still, there is another side of the coin. Throughout the world the class of wage workers has undergone great change. The epoch of the global hegemony of capital led to essential changes in the structure of the forces of production and, in what followed, the structure of employment. The centre became the world that concentrated the most developed forces of production and simultaneously the most irrational in terms of how they are deployed – the world of virtual technologies which are above all used in the production of various simulacra (from financial derivatives to computer games). But this irrational production causes the appearance of a massive stratum of creatively active workers who are occupied with both useless things (advertising, finance, etc.) and socially useful activity (education, the healthcare system). The world of industrial labour increasingly became a periphery.

    A new social structure of global capitalism has thus formed. Even under current conditions the predominant class is still the class of wage workers. However, the most skilled and cultured strata of this class are occupied in creative professions – worker-innovators and engineers, pre-school teachers in kindergartens, teachers and university professors, etc. The main content of these professions can and must be creative activity, as, for example, the not alienated dialogue of the teacher with the student or of the physician with the patient. This is what in the USSR was called the 100-rouble intelligentsia, since they earned 100 roubles on average. This stratum possesses a powerful social-creative potential but is burdened with deep contradictions.

    According to his or her objective conditions a person in these professions creates unlimited social goods, technical innovations, a good feeling amongst children, pictures, and computer programmes. The results of their work are sharable, are not lost, and they can and must be the property of all. By its content their labour is general and free, that is, communist labour. But if this creative worker falls under the power of capital he/she is transformed into the creator of private property, which in some cases is also privileged. Even if this property in the end belongs to the head of the company (which it normally does), the creative person still receives a part of the intellectual rent from the employer. That is why he/she has sold to capital not only his/her labour power but also his/her talent, his/her personal qualities and becomes a participant in the exploitation of humanity’s cultural wealth. A section of creative people, especially in the countries of the centre, not only produces cultural values but simulacra that reinforce the power of the market and of capital. This involves not just brokers and PR specialists but also teachers, scientists, and others. And this contradiction objectively impedes the inclusion of the class of the intelligentsia in the struggle for social emancipation.

    This makes the task of fostering the broadest development of the sphere of production of public goods amongst the most important in the left’s struggle for social emancipation. Due to its economic condition, this growing stratum is close to the industrial proletariat and is becoming a new potential subject of the struggle for social emancipation. The material basis for this, the content of its activity, is general free labour. However, this stratum will only become a real subject of social emancipation to the degree that it, first, acquires features of a specific class, the class of creative workers employed in the social sector, and, second, that it consequently becomes a class for itself and finds its political and ideological expression.

    This is possible to the extent that the teacher and physician, the artist and the scholar, the social worker and the ecologist free themselves from the power of capital and its state, and transform themselves from conformists, who can tend to their private intellectual garden thanks to the appropriation of new machines (computers, 3-D printers, etc.), into freely associated producers of the world of culture. The path to this is the inclusion of this stratum in the struggle for the broadest development of the public sector and the de-commercialising and de-bureaucratisation of their activity, for the self-management and appreciation of their labour. But the social basis of the left should not at all be reduced to this proto-class.

    The decisive producer of the material wealth of society in the twenty­first century remains the class of wage workers employed in the sphere of socialised material production. At the beginning of the twenty-first century this class became not only the most numerous in the world; it also still remains the social stratum the social character of whose work makes it into the bearer of the principles of collectivity, organisability, and discipline. By dint of its social position, it is precisely this class that has an objective interest in the emancipation both of its labour and of its free time (the latter being a specific trait of recent decades) from subjugation to capital.

    In terms of the social (self-)emancipation of the industrial proletariat and the tasks of the left in the realisation of this imperative, little has changed in the last 100 years. There are also material reasons for this. As we stressed at the outset, capitalism, in its essentials, remains capitalism. What is more, the spiral of the negation of the negation, which destroys the welfare state and has created the massive class of industrial wage workers brings us back to tasks that were regarded as old-fashioned fifty years ago. This is why it is necessary for the left to remember and once again, without being embarrassed, to bring back to centre stage the fundamental programmatic assertions of left social democrats and communists. But it is not only about remembering; the situation has so changed that new content and forms have to be found for the orientation to old slogans.

    What this first of all requires is an organisation of the working class that incorporates economic and political tasks and is based on the self-organisation of the wage workers and not on delegating the defence of their interests to a trade-union bureaucracy and paid specialists. Second, the old task of bringing class-consciousness and self-awareness to the world of workers. This involves decoupling the industrial working class from the norms of consumer society, including the products of show business, and the appropriation of authentic culture and the basis of a theory of social emancipation. Impulses for this are already present in the practical participation in one or another form of voluntary socially creative work. Third, it involves the inclusion of the industrial working class and its organisation in the realisation of the general tasks of social self-emancipation, tasks which go beyond the framework of the narrow class interests of wage workers.

    The realisation of these tasks presupposes the development of a unity or an alliance of the industrial proletariat and the above-described new mass intelligentsia formed through practice. This is no longer an alliance of the class with a small stratum of intellectuals forming the working class’s ideology. This is the unity of two classes, which are equally interested in social emancipation and which are close to each other due to their socio­economic position in society and are becoming increasingly closer.

    A key for the unification of the old and the new in such organisations can be the creation of open free associations, of models of self-organisation that combine the principles of the communist party (the practical participation in the work of the organisation, unity of action, conscious discipline) and modern network organisation (openness, voluntariness, non-hierarchical relations). I would point out that such associations are based on the following principles: first, the participation of each member in the common practical activity and not only in the formal approval of the programme and the payment of membership dues; second, the openness of the associations in terms of admission, that is, integration in the joint activity, and of exit, that is, the termination of this collaboration; third, the voluntariness and, of course, non-remuneration of the work; fourth, the freedom, the self­evident unity of self-organisation and responsibility, self-management, and subordination to the discipline of the joint work of realising the commonly worked out goals. As a hypothesis I would add a fifth principle to this enumeration: the principle of authorship: social creativity, like all other creativity, is oriented to authorship; the author can lead a collective like a conductor of a symphony orchestra but she/he can also simply put forward a theme that can be developed in free improvisation as in a jazz band. The forms can be very varied.

    The above-mentioned imperative of the left struggle for the abolition of the ‘realm of necessity’ is as a whole and at the same time the basis of quite practical tasks for left movements. The path towards social liberation is blocked by a complicated system of alienated relations. This is consumer society, which transforms active people into possessing people, in which the imperative of Being is squeezed out by the imperative of Having. This is market fundamentalism, which transforms everything into sellable and buyable commodities. This is the subordination of free time to capital, which results in people’s lives outside work becoming, in the best of cases, a bit of recuperation after personality-destroying labour and, in the worst of cases, a kind of mental atrophy. It is also political-ideological manipulation, which makes of a formally free citizen a marionette of political technologies and the mass media.

    Freeing up this path and helping the class to self-awareness, to gather its forces and develop habits of struggle is only possible through a twofold activity. First, through integrating de-alienation into everyday work. The appropriation of authentic culture is the second element. The person integrated into social creativity gains a practical need for culture. In appropriating culture she/he becomes capable of producing a new world through the knowledge of things. Only in this way does the class gain social muscles and a social brain, without which its struggle is doomed to failure. Collaboration in the initiating and development of activities for realising these tasks is a mission of the left. This purpose of the left is on the one side extraordinarily abstract. However, every abstraction requires a concretisation; it is a matter of ‘small’ things, of the transformation of these imperatives into a system of concrete forms of organisation, principles of activity, and fundamental elements of the strategy of left forces.

    The time of alternatives: revolution, reforms, and the strategy of the left

    Must left social forces, which have set for themselves the goal of overcoming the power of capital, support reforms? Doubtless yes, because notwithstanding the temporary attenuation of the contradictions these provide essential preconditions for the victory of socialist revolution, create social muscles for working people, and improve the quality of their lives. Another aspect is to carry out those reforms which, even if minimally, promote de-alienation, and which curb the economic and political power of capital even if only partially. The left’s minimal programme is established to realise those reforms oriented to these tasks:

    • orienting the economy to goals of an eco-social and humanly oriented development, with the creation of a system of related social, humanitarian, and ecological norms; the selective regulation of the economy; strategic planning and other forms of reining in the market power of companies and the manipulation of consumers;
    • the nationalisation of all natural treasures and the full deployment of all natural rents for development goals; social and state support of all forms of solidary economy; transparency and the social responsibility of the business world; the participation of employees in the management of the enterprise including the right of veto in social questions;
    • establishing transparency and limits to all transactions of finance capital and developing forms of social control over them; the prohibition of offshore businesses and the introduction of the Tobin Tax; debt cancellation for the poorest countries of the South;
    • the immediate creation of a tax system that ensures the taxation of no less than 50 per cent of the personal income of society’s wealthiest strata; the use of this revenue for the goal of social development; the creation of a social consumption fund system through which social tasks can be realised, among them the ensuring of full-employment;
    • the expansion of the sphere of production of public goods and free and general access to them along with limits in the realm of intellectual private property; the expansion of universally available education throughout an entire lifespan, high-quality and free healthcare, access to sports activities, and universally accessible real culture, etc.;
    • ensuring constitutional reforms oriented to the establishment of norms for direct participation and the introduction of a broad spectrum of forms of direct citizen participation in administration (direct and grassroots democracy); strengthening the role of social movements and other grassroots institutions of civil society as well as decreasing the role of political organisations based on professional work;
    • curbing the activity of private and state mass media; expanding support for independent social information networks;
    • the democratic reform of the UN and other international institutions through strengthening the role of international civil society; the abolition of NATO and analogous organisations, the radical reduction of strategic offensive weapons and other weapons of mass destruction;
    • the establishment of large international centres that offer free access to public goods, above all to products of the most diverse kinds based on state-of-the-art technology, to healthcare and medicines, to agricultural education, science, art, in the IT sector, etc. on the basis of revenue from the Tobin Tax and voluntary donations.

    All of these and many other concrete reform orientations, which in part limit and undermine capital’s global hegemony, are not only well known; they have also been accepted by a broad stratum of international civil society and international continental, national, and regional social forums. They can be found in the programmes of thousands of international and national social movements and left parties, etc. The struggle around them has already begun. 

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