Editorial: Scientific advances and the decomposition of capitalism

See also :
Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Scientific advances and the decomposition of capitalism

The system's contradictions threaten the future of humanity

What does the present hold for the future of humanity? And is it still possible to talk of progress? What future is being prepared for our children and future generations? To answer these questions that everyone is asking today in such an anguished way, we must contrast two legacies of capitalism on which future society depends: on the one hand, the development of the productive forces which are in themselves promises for the future, notably the scientific discoveries and technological advances that the system is still capable of making; and on the other, the decomposition of the system, which threatens to destroy any progress and compromises the future of humanity itself, and which results inevitably from the contradictions of capitalism. The first decade of the 21st century shows that the phenomena resulting from the decomposition of the system, the putrefaction of a sick society[1] are growing in magnitude, opening the doors to the most irrational actions, to disasters of all kinds, generating a kind of “doomsday” atmosphere that is cynically exploited by states to create a reign of terror and thus maintain their grip on the increasingly discontented exploited.

There is a complete contrast, a permanent contradiction, between these two realities of today’s world which fully justifies the alternative posed a century ago by the revolutionary movement, notably by Rosa Luxemburg repeating the formula of Engels: either transition to socialism or a plunge into barbarism.

As for the positive potentialities that capitalism carries, this is classically, from the point of view of the labour movement, the development of productive forces, which constitutes the foundation for the building of a future human community. These forces principally consist of three elements, which are closely related and combined in the efficient transformation of nature by human labour: discoveries and scientific progress; the production of tools and increasingly sophisticated technological knowledge; and the workforce provided by the proletarians. All the knowledge accumulated in these productive forces will be usable in the construction of a new society; similarly, the workforce would be increased tenfold if the whole world population was integrated into production on the basis of human activity and creativity, instead of being increasingly rejected by capitalism. Under capitalism, the transformation, the mastery as the understanding of nature is not a goal in the service of humanity, the majority of which is excluded from the benefits of the development of these productive forces, but a blind dynamic in the service of profit. In this way, in capitalism, the majority of humanity is excluded from the benefits of the development of the productive forces.[2]

The scientific discoveries within capitalism have been numerous – not least just in the year 2012. The same real technological prowess has been paralleled in all areas, demonstrating the extent of human genius and knowledge.

Scientific advances: a hope for the future of humanity

We will illustrate our discussion with a just a few examples[3] and voluntarily leave aside many recent technological discoveries or achievements. In fact, our objective is not to be exhaustive but to illustrate how man has a growing set of opportunities concerning theoretical knowledge and technological advances, which would allow him to control nature of which he is a part, as much as his own body. The three examples of scientific discoveries that we will give touch on what is most fundamental in knowledge and which have been at the heart of the concerns of humanity since its origins:

  • what is the matter that composes the universe and what is its origin;
  • where does our species, the human species come from;
  • how to cure disease.

A better understanding of elementary particles and the origins of the universe

Basic research, while not generally contributing to discoveries with an immediate application, is nevertheless an essential component of man’s knowledge of nature and, therefore, of his ability to penetrate its laws and properties. It is from this perspective that we must appreciate the recent demonstration of the existence of a new particle, very similar in many respects to what is called the Higgs Boson, after a relentless hunt via the experiments made at CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, which mobilised 10,000 people to work on the LHC particle accelerator. The new particle has this unique property of giving elementary particles their mass, through their interaction with them. In fact, without it, all elements in the universe would weigh nothing. It also allows a more refined approach to understanding the birth and development of the universe. The existence of this new particle had been theoretically predicted in 1964 by Peter Higgs (along with two Belgian physicists, Englert and Brout). Since then, the Higgs theory has been the subject of debates and developments in the scientific community that have led to the identification of the actual existence, not just theoretical, of the particle in question.

A potential ancestor of vertebrates that lived 500 million years ago

Illustrating the Darwinian and materialistic theory of evolution, two British and Canadian researchers have found evidence that, a hundred years after its discovery, one of the oldest animals that populated the planet, Pikaia gracilens was an ancestor of vertebrates. They examined fossils of the animal produced by different imaging techniques that allowed them to accurately describe its external and internal anatomy. With the help of a particular type of scanning microscope, they have carried out an elementary mapping of the chemical composition of fossils in carbon, sulphur, iron and phosphate. Referring to the chemical composition of present animals, they have then deduced the whereabouts of the various organs in Pikaia. Where is Pikaia on the tree of evolution? Taking into account other comparative factors with other related species found in other regions of the world, they conclude: “somewhere at the base of the chordate tree”, chordates being animals that possess a structure that prefigures the spine. Thus, this discovery allows the reconstruction one of the “missing links” in the chain of living species that have inhabited our planet for billions of years and which are our ancestors.

Towards a total cure for AIDS

Since the early 1980s, AIDS has become the leading epidemic scourge of the planet. Nearly 30 million people have already died, and despite the enormous resources deployed to fight it and the use of therapies, it still kills 1.8 million people a year,[4] far more than other particularly deadly infectious diseases such as malaria or measles. One of the most sinister aspects of this disease lies in the fact that a person who is the victim, even if they are not now condemned to a certain death as was the case at the beginning of the epidemic, remains infected throughout their life, which submits them, in addition to ostracism by part of the population, to extremely restrictive medications. And indeed, a major step in healing people infected with the AIDS virus (HIV) was taken this year by a team from the University of North Carolina. The drug which it tested on eight HIV positives has nothing to do with current antiretroviral treatments. By blocking HIV replication, these reduce the concentration of HIV in the body, to make it almost undetectable. But they do not eradicate it or heal the sick. Indeed, early in the infection, copies of the virus are hidden in some long-living white blood cells, thus escaping the action of the antiretrovirals. Hence, the idea of destroying once and for all these “reservoirs” of HIV through the action of a drug which would make the white blood cells in question recognisable by the immune system, which can then destroy them. The tested drug promisingly permits the detection of these “reservoirs”. It remains to ensure their destruction by the immune system, and even stimulate it for this purpose.

It should be immediately noted that current scientific discoveries and technological developments would occur in another type of society, especially in a communist society, where they would have already been surpassed. The capitalist mode of production based on profit, profitability, competition but also marked by chaos, irrationality, deterioration and alienation, and often the destruction of social relations, constitutes a serious obstacle to the development of the productive forces. Nevertheless, it remains a positive aspect of today's society that is still capable of producing such things, even if it significantly impedes their realisation. By contrast, decomposition as it stands today is specific to capitalism. The longer this continues, the more this decomposition will be an increasingly onerous burden on the future, the more it will obliterate it.

The morbid projection of capitalism threatens to engulf humanity

The reality of the everyday world is that the crisis of capitalism, which has reappeared and has been getting worse for decades, is the cause of the increasing difficulty of living; and it is because neither the bourgeoisie nor the working class have been able to open up a vision for society that social structures, social and political institutions, the ideological framework that allowed the bourgeoisie to maintain the cohesion of society, can only disintegrate further. Decomposition, in all its dimensions and current symptoms, shows all the morbid potential of this system that threatens to engulf humanity. Time does not favour the proletariat. In its fight against the bourgeoisie the proletariat is engaged in a “race against time”. The future of the human species depends on the outcome of the struggle between the two decisive classes in today’s society; on the proletariat's capacity to strike the decisive blows against its enemy before it is too late.

Behind the senseless killings lies the irrationality of capitalism that condemns us to live in a world that no longer makes sense

One of the most striking and dramatic signs of this decomposition recently has been the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown (Connecticut), in the United States on December 14, 2012. As in previous tragedies, the horror of this massacre of 27 children and adults by a single person has something that chills the blood. However, this is the thirteenth event of its kind in this country just in the year 2012.

The massacre of innocent lives at school is a horrible reminder of the need for a complete revolutionary transformation of society. The spread and depth of the decomposition of capitalism can only lead to further acts as barbaric, senseless and violent. There is absolutely nothing in the capitalist system that can provide a rational explanation for such an act and still less reassure us about the future of such a society.

In the aftermath of the massacre at the Connecticut school, and as was also the case for other violent acts, all parts of the ruling class have raised questions: how is it possible that in Newtown, known as the “safest town in America,” a deranged individual found a way to unleash such horror and terror? Whatever the answers suggested, the first concern of the media is to protect the ruling class and to conceal its own murderous lifestyle. Bourgeois justice reduces the massacre to a strictly individual problem, suggesting indeed that the act of Adam Lanza, the killer, is explained by his choices, his personal desire to do evil, an inclination which is inherent in human nature. Denying all the progress made for many decades by scientific studies on human behaviour which allow us to better understand the complex interaction between the individual and society, Justice claims there is no explanation for the shooter’s action and advances as a solution the renewal of religious faith and collective prayer!

This is also how it justifies its proposal to imprison all those who display deviant behaviour, reducing their crimes to immoral acts. The nature of the violence cannot be understood if one dissociates the social and historical context in which it expresses itself precisely because it is based on relations of exploitation and oppression by the ruling class on the whole of society. Mental illnesses have long existed, but it appears that their expression has peaked in a society in a state of siege, dominated by “every man for himself,” by the disappearance of social solidarity and empathy. People think they need to protect themselves against ... what exactly? Everyone is considered a potential enemy and this is an image, a belief reinforced by the nationalism, militarism and imperialism of capitalist society.

Yet the ruling class presents itself as the guarantor of “rationality” and carefully avoids the question of its own responsibility in the propagation of antisocial behaviour. This is even more flagrant in the judgments by an American army court martial of soldiers who committed atrocious acts, as in the case of Robert Bales who slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians, including 9 children. Not a word, of course, about his consumption of alcohol, steroids and sleeping pills to calm his physical and emotional pain, or the fact that he had been sent to the one of the deadliest battlefields of Afghanistan for the fourth time!

And the United States is not the only country with such abominations: in China, for example, on the day of the massacre at Newtown, a man with a knife wounded 22 children in a school. Over the last 30 years, many similar acts have been committed. Among other countries, Germany for example, another country at the heart of capitalism, has also experienced such tragedies, like the massacre in Erfurt in 2007 and especially the shooting, which took place on March 11 2009 at the Albertville-Realschule college in Winnenden, Baden-Württemberg, which caused sixteen deaths including the perpetrator. This event shows many similarities with the drama of Newtown.

The international scope of the phenomenon shows that attributing the killings to the right to the possession of weapons is primarily media propaganda. In fact, there are more individuals who feel so overwhelmed, isolated, misunderstood, rejected, that the killings perpetrated by isolated individuals or attempted suicides among young people are growing more and more numerous; and the same fact of the development of this trend shows that faced with the difficulty they have to live, they see no perspective of change that would allow them to hope for a positive evolution in their conditions of life. Many paths can lead to such extremes: in children, the insufficient presence of parents because they are overworked and morally weakened or corroded by anxiety brought about by unemployment and insufficient income or, in adults, a feeling of hatred and accumulated frustrations faced with the feeling of the “failure” of their existence.

This causes such suffering and such disorders in some people that they hold the whole of society responsible and in particular the school, one of the key institutions through which the integration of youth in society is supposed to be accomplished, which previously normally opened up the possibility of finding a job but which now often only leads to unemployment. This institution, which has in fact become the place where many frustrations are created and as many open wounds, has also become a prime target, as a symbol of the blocked future, of personality and dreams destroyed. Blind murder in the school environment – followed by the suicide of the killers – appears as the only means to show their suffering and to affirm their existence.

Behind the campaign on posting police at school doors, the idea instilled is that of distrusting everyone, which aims to prevent or destroy any sense of solidarity within the working class. All this is the origin of Adam Lanza’s mother’s obsession with firearms and her habit of taking her children, including her son, to the shooting range. Nancy Lanza is a “survivalist”. The ideology of “survivalism” is based on “every man for himself” in a pre-and post-apocalyptic world. It promotes individual survival, making arms a means of protection in order to get hold of the few remaining resources. In anticipation of the collapse of the US economy, which for the survivalists is on the brink of happening, they store weapons, ammunition, food, and teach ways to survive in the wild. Is it so strange that Adam Lanza was invaded by a feeling of “no future”? On the other hand, this means that we can only have confidence in the state and in the repression it metes out as the guardian of the capitalist system, which is the cause of the violence and horrors that we live through. It is natural to feel horror and great emotion faced with the massacre of innocent victims. It is natural to seek explanations for completely irrational behaviour. This reflects a deep need to be reassured, to have control of one’s own destiny and to lead humanity out of an endless spiral of extreme violence. But the ruling class takes advantage of the population’s emotions and uses its need for confidence to get it to accept an ideology that only the state is capable of solving the problems of society.

In the United States, this is not only on the fundamentalist margins of the Republican camp, but in a whole series of religious ideologies, creationists and others who all exert their weight on the functioning of the bourgeoisie and on the consciences of the rest of the population.

It should be clear that it is the maintenance of a society divided into classes and the exploitation of capitalism, which are solely responsible for the development of irrational behaviour, which they are incapable of eliminating or even controlling.

Wherever you look, capitalism is automatically directed towards the pursuit of profit. The left may think that contemporary capitalism remains on a rational basis, but the present experience of contemporary society reveals a worsening decomposition, one part of this society expressed in a growing irrationality where material interests are no longer the only guide to its behaviour. The experiences of Columbine, Virginia Tech and all the other massacres perpetrated by isolated individuals show that it does not need a political motive to start randomly killing any of our fellow human beings.

The generalisation of violence: delinquency, organised crime, drug trafficking and the gangster morals of the bourgeoisie

A wave of delinquency and crime shook certain cities in Brazil during the months of October and November 2012. Greater São Paulo was particularly affected, with 260 people killed during this period, but other cities, where crime is generally much lower, were also the scene of violence.

The extent of the violence is hard to doubt, as well as its impact on the population: “The police kill as well as the criminals. It is a war that we saw every day on TV”, said the director of the NGO Conectas Direitos Humanos. This new calamity only adds to the general poverty of a large part of the population.

Among the explanations for this situation, some point to the prison system, which creates criminals instead of helping their rehabilitation. But the prison system is itself a product of society and in its image. In fact, no reform of the system, the prison system or any other, can stop the phenomenon of organised crime and police repression, and therefore of terror in all its forms. And the major problem is that it will only get worse with the global crisis of this system. This is readily observable in Brazil itself. Thirty years ago, São Paulo, which today appears as the capital of crime, was a quiet town.

In the case of Mexico, we see mafia groups and the government itself enrol elements belonging to the most impoverished sectors of the population for the war they are engaged in. Clashes between these groups, which hit the population indiscriminately, leave hundreds of victims on the list of what the government and mafias call “collateral damage.” The mafias profit from the misery caused by their activities related to the production and trade of drugs, in particular by converting the poor peasants, as was the case in Colombia in the 1990s, to drug production. In Mexico since 2006, almost 60,000 people have been killed, either by the bullets of the cartels or the official army; a majority of those killed were victims of the war between the drug cartels, but this does not diminish the responsibility of the state, whatever the government says. In fact, each mafia group emerged under the protection of a fraction of the bourgeoisie. The collusion of the mafias with the state structures allows them to “protect their investment” and their activities in general.[5]

The human disasters that cause the war of the drug traffickers are present throughout Latin America, but the violence exemplified in Brazil and Mexico is a global phenomenon that is far from alien to North America or Europe.

Large-scale industrial disasters

No region of the world is spared by these and their first victims are usually the workers. Their cause is not industrial development per se, but industrial development in the hands of capitalism in crisis, where everything must be sacrificed to the objectives of profitability faced with the global trade war.

The most typical case is the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, whose gravity is only surpassed by Chernobyl (one million “recognised” deaths between 1986 and 2004). On March 11, 2011, a massive tsunami flooded the east coast of Japan. More than 20,000 people were killed, thousands are today still missing. Countless people have lost their homes. The bourgeoisie is, in fact, directly responsible for the deadly magnitude of Fukushima. For the purposes of production, capitalism has concentrated populations and industries in an insane way. Faced with this nuclear disaster, the ruling class has once again shown its negligence. The evacuation of the population started too late and the safety zone was insufficient. The government mostly avoided a large-scale evacuation because it wanted to absolutely minimise the perception of the real risks involved.

In and around the nuclear plant, recorded radiation levels reached a fatal intensity. Shortly after the disaster, the Prime Minister launched a suicide-commando of workers, many of whom were unemployed or homeless people who had to undertake the task of reducing the level of radioactivity in the plant. More than 25 years earlier, at the time of Chernobyl, the Stalinist regime in the USSR, on the verge of collapse, found nothing else to do than to send a huge army force of recruits to fight the disaster. According to WHO, about 600,000 to 800,000 “liquidators” were sent in, and hundreds of thousands have died or fallen ill due to radiation. The government has never published reliable official figures.

In a country of high technology and overcrowding like Japan, the effects are even more dramatic for the population. The irreversible contamination of the air, land and oceans, clustering and storage of radioactive waste, the permanent sacrifice of protection and security on the altar of profitability cast a harsh light on the irrational dynamic of the system at the global level.

“Natural” disasters and their consequences

Certainly, we cannot blame capitalism for being the origin of an earthquake, cyclone or drought. On the other hand, we can blame it for the fact that all these cataclysms related to natural phenomena are transformed into huge social disasters, into massive human tragedies. Thus, capitalism has the technological means to make it capable of sending men to the moon, producing monstrous weapons capable of destroying the planet dozens of times over, but at the same time it can’t afford to protect people in countries exposed to natural disasters, which it could do by building dams, diverting rivers, building houses that can withstand earthquakes or hurricanes. This does not fit into the capitalist logic of profit, profitability and cost savings.

But the most dramatic threat hanging over humanity, which we cannot develop here, is ecological catastrophe.[6]

Ideological decomposition of capitalism

This decomposition is not limited solely to the fact that capitalism, despite all the development of science and technology, finds itself increasingly subject to the laws of nature, and unable to control the means it has put in place for its own development. It also reaches the economic foundations of the system but is reflected in all aspects of social life through an ideological decomposition of the values of the ruling class, which brings with it a collapse of all values making social life possible, particularly through a number of phenomena:

  • the development of nihilistic ideologies, expressions of a society that is more and more being sucked into the void;
  • the profusion of sects, the revival of religious obscurantism, even in some advanced countries, the rejection of coherent, constructed, rational thought, including in some parts of the “scientific” milieu, and which through the media takes a prominent place in stultifying advertisements, mindless shows;
  • the development of racism and xenophobia, of fear and therefore of hate for the other, the neighbour;
  • “every man for himself”, marginalisation, the atomisation of individuals, destruction of family relationships, exclusion of the elderly.

The decomposition of capitalism reflects the image of a world without a future, a world on the brink, which it tends to impose on society as a whole. It is the reign of violence, of the “resourceful individual,” of “every man for himself”, the exclusion that plagues the whole of society, especially its most disadvantaged, with their daily lot of despair and destruction: the unemployed who commit suicide to escape their misery, children being raped and killed, the elderly tortured and murdered for a few dollars ...

Only the proletariat can get society out of this impasse

Regarding the Copenhagen summit in late 2009,[7] it was said that it was dead, that the future had been sacrificed for the present. This system has as its only horizon profit (not always in the short term), but this is more and more restricted (as illustrated by speculation). It is going straight into the wall but it cannot do otherwise! Was the former Democratic candidate for United States president, Al Gore, sincere when, in 2005, he presented his documentary An Inconvenient Truth showing the dramatic effects of global warming on the planet? In any case, he was able to do so because he was no longer “in business” after eight years’ vice-presidency of the US. This means that these people who run the world can sometimes understand the dangers involved, but whatever their moral conscience, they continue in the same direction because they are prisoners of a system that goes towards catastrophe. There is a mechanism that exceeds human will and whose logic is stronger than the will of the most powerful politics. Today the bourgeoisie themselves have children who are concerned about the future ... The looming disasters will hit the poorest first, but the bourgeoisie will also be increasingly affected. The working class not only bears the future for itself, but for all of humanity, including the descendants of the current bourgeoisie.

After a period of prosperity when it was able to achieve a quantum leap in the productive forces and wealth of society, creating and unifying the global market, this system has since the beginning of the last century reached its own historical limits, marking its entry into its period of decadence. Balance sheet: two world wars, the crisis of 1929 and the new open crisis in the late 1960s, which does not cease to plunge the world into poverty.

Decadent capitalism is the permanent, insoluble, crisis of the system itself, which is a huge disaster for all humanity, as revealed in particular in the phenomenon of increasing impoverishment of millions of human beings reduced to indigence, to abject poverty.

By prolonging itself, the agony of capitalism gives a new quality to the extreme manifestations of decadence, giving rise to the phenomenon of the decomposition of the latter, a phenomenon visible in the last three decades.

Whereas in pre-capitalist societies the relations of production of a new society in the making could hatch within the old society in the process of collapsing (as was the case for capitalism which could develop within declining feudal society), this is no longer the case today.

The only possible alternative can be the building, on the ruins of the capitalist system, of another society – communist society – which, by ridding humanity of the blind laws of capitalism, can bring full satisfaction of human needs through a development and control of the productive forces that the laws of capitalism make impossible.

Just as it is the evolution of capitalism which is responsible for the current collapse into barbarism, this means that within it, the class that produces most of the wealth, which not only has no material interest in the perpetuation of this system but, on the contrary, is the main exploited class, alone is capable by its revolutionary struggle of drawing behind it the whole non-exploiting population, of reversing the present social order to pave the way for a truly human society: communism.

So far, the class struggles which, for forty years, have developed on all continents, have been able to prevent decadent capitalism from making its own response to the impasse of its economy: unleashing the ultimate form of its barbarism, a new world war. However, the working class is not yet able to affirm, through revolutionary struggles, its own perspective or to present to the rest of society the future it carries. It is precisely this momentary impasse, where, at present, neither the bourgeois nor the proletarian alternative can affirm themselves openly, which is the origin of this phenomenon of capitalist society rotting on its feet, which explains the particular degree now reached by the extreme barbarism of the decadence of this system. And this decomposition is set to grow further with the inexorable worsening of the economic crisis.

Against the distrust of all spread by the bourgeoisie, must be explicitly opposed the need for solidarity, which means trust between workers; against the lie of the state as “protector” must be opposed the denunciation of this organ which is the custodian of the system that causes social disintegration. Faced with the seriousness of the issues posed by this situation, the proletariat must be aware of the risk of annihilation that threatens it today The working class must take from all this decay that it suffers daily, in addition to the economic attacks against all its living conditions, an additional reason, a greater determination to develop its struggles and forge its class unity.

The current struggles of the world proletariat for its unity and class solidarity constitute the only glimmer of hope in the midst of this world in total putrefaction. They alone are able to prefigure an embryonic human community. It is the international generalisation of these struggles that will finally hatch the seeds of a new world, from which will emerge new social values.

Wim / Sílvio (February 2013)


[1]. “Decomposition, final phase of the decadence of capitalism”, International Review n°62, 3rd quarter 1990.

[2]. It may be noted that in the early development of computers, the most powerful computers were used exclusively in the service of the military. This is much less true today for all leading areas, although military research continues to absorb and direct most advances in technology.

[3]. Information relating to these examples is mostly extracted from articles in the review Research on discoveries made in 2012.

[4]. UNAIDS figures for 2011.

[5]. See “Mexico between the crisis and narcotrafic” in International Review n° 150, 4th Quarter 2012.

[6]. Read about it Chris Harman, A People's History of humanity  From the Stone Age to the New Millennium (2002), especially pp.653-654 of the French edition, La Découverte, 2011

[7]. See our article “Save the planet? No they can’t!” in International Review n°140, 1st Quarter 2010