The destructive grip of capital

By Tapani Lausti

István Mészáros, The Necessity of Social Control. Monthly Review Press 2015.

Politicians around the world are busy trying to convince citizens that they know the road to economic recovery. Every little sign of economic growth and every small percentage in the fall of unemployment are greeted as if something dramatic has happened or is going to happen. The road to recovery requires austerity, we are told. As István Mészáros’s mockingly notes “… people should forget all about the astronomical expenditure on armaments and accept sizeable cuts in their standard of living, in order to meet the costs of “environmental rehabilitation”: that is, in plain words, the costs of keeping the established system of expanding waste production well oiled.” (pp. 27-28)

Indeed, Mészáros emphasises that we live in a system which “cannot separate “advance” from destruction , nor “progress” from waste – however catastrophic the results. The more it unlocks the powers of productivity, the more it must unleash the powers of destruction; and the more it extends the volume of production, the more it must bury everything under mountains of suffocating waste.” (pp. 49-50)

Who, you may ask, is István Mészáros? After all, his name does not tend to appear in the mainstream press. This is how John Bellamy Foster describes him in the forward to this book: “István Mészáros is one of the greatest philosophers that the historical materialist tradition has yet produced. His work stands practically alone today in the depth of its analysis of Marx’s theory of alienation, the structural crisis of capital, the demise of Soviet-style post-revolutionary societies, and the necessary conditions of the transition to socialism,” (p. 9)

In contrast to the neoliberal delusions of temporary hiccups on the road to global prosperity, Mészáros has for decades been warning about the more probable road to human self-destruction. He says that the structural crisis of capital casts a cloud over present-day societies: “The problems continue to become more severe, and the political system is incapable of responding because the political system operates under the ever more constraining margins of capital.” (p. 58)

Among global capital system’s contradictions and antagonisms Mészáros sees chronic unemployment as the most explosive phenomenon. A system that needs constant expansion in conditions of global competition aims to worsen the labor force’s conditions, thus undermining the system’s vital conditions of its own expanded reproduction. The danger of destructive uncontrollability is ever-present.

The contradictions are becoming more visible. However loudly politicians shout about parliamentary democracy, more and more people have started to realize that their life is being shaped by extra-parliamentary forces. Neo-liberal ideology was not so much forged by economic thinkers but rather appeared out of the reality of capital’s current inability and/or unwillingness to grant welfare state benefits to the working classes. This inability brings to the surface capital’s inherent aggressive nature. It has always denied producers the possibility to freely unite in free and creative, democratically owned work places. When the need for such working life starts to enter the imagination of larger masses of people, the repression becomes more pronounced. Many governments are currently applying laws to stop people even from demonstrating.

This reality will sooner or later force workers to switch from a defensive stance to movements capable of challenging the hierarchical society which capital needs to keep everyone in their place. Mészáros writes: “The only force which can introduce this change and make it work is society’s producers, who have the repressed energies and potentialities through which all those problems and contradictions can be solved. The only agency which can rectify this situation, which can assert itself, and find fulfillment in the process of asserting itself, is the working class.” (p. 59)

The urgency to fight the capital system is highlighted by aggressive actions by the most powerful nation, the United States, to control the world in whatever way, including war. The United States uses 25 per cent of the world’s energy and prime material resources although the US population is only four per cent of the world’s population. From the point of view of US capital it is rational to seek control of the world economy. But behind this narrow rationality lies extremely dangerous irrationality which is pushing the world towards uncontrollable conflicts. It is not by chance that the most dangerous conflicts appear in the oil-rich Middle East. But ultimately American strategists have had the control or breakup of Russia and China in their plans since these countries represent serious obstacles in the quest for world control.

The Western “democratic” nations mainly go along with this American pursuit of hegemony. Underneath, however, tensions exist. The aggressive stance of the US in Ukraine, for instance, is being watched suspiciously by European capitalists. Huge Russian orders from big German and French companies have been cancelled because of sanctions imposed on Russia at American insistence. Indeed, long before this latest crisis Mészáros forecast that sooner or later inter-imperialist antagonisms will erupt into the open. Washington, on its part, approves of greater European unity only as long as it does not threaten American global preeminence.

Apologists for the capital system love to declare that what we have is the best possible system. It is hard to imagine a more blatant intellectual bankruptcy. These ideologists are blind towards what is happening. Societies controlled by capital are speeding towards self-destruction. As dangers brought by climate change become more and more evident, movements against the system’s destructiveness have started to grow. Many decades ago, when environmental questions were discussed only in small circles, Mészáros was already writing about sustainable development.

Let me quote Mészáros at length: “The great challenge of sustainable development we now have to face cannot be properly addressed without removing the paralyzing constraints of the adversial character of our social reproduction process. This is why the question of substantive equality cannot be avoided in our time, in contrast to the past. For sustainability means being really in control of the vital social, economic and cultural processes through which human beings not merely survive but can also find fulfillment, in accordance with the designs they set themselves, instead of being at the mercy of unpredictable natural forces and quasi-natural socioeconomic determinations. Our existing social order is built on the structural antagonism between capital and labor, and therefore it requires the exercise of external control over all recalcitrant forces. Adversiality is the necessary concomitant of such a system, no matter how much waste of human and economic forces must be paid for its maintenance.” (p. 126)

As to the astronomical military expenditure mentioned by Mészáros, he emphasises the absolute certainty of the United States default at some point in near future: ”When exactly and in what form – of which there can be several, more or less directly brutal, varieties – the United States will default on its astronomical debt cannot be seen at this point of time. There can be only two certainties in this regard. The first is that the inevitability of the American default will deeply affect everyone on this planet. And the second, that the preponderant hegemonic power position of the United States will continue to be asserted in every way, so as to make the rest of the world pay for the American debt for as long as it is capable of doing so.” (p. 95)

This book is a collection of Mészáros’s older and newer writings. It helps the reader to understand what is currently happening in our dangerous world. The human race has mountains to climb to save itself from the destructive grip of capital.

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