The decomposition of capitalist society
Capitalism is in a dead-end; each day that passes presents us with a picture of a society heading for destruction. Since the holocaust of World War II, wars and massacres have continued non-stop on the capitalist periphery; the barbarity of this decadent system, whose prolonged death-agony can only provoke one endless round of destruction, is being laid bare day by day. The recent series of ‘natural' catastrophes and accidents, the increase in gangsterism, terrorism, drug-taking and drug smuggling are so many signs of the generalized gangrene that is eating away at the capitalist body politic all over the world.
Although capitalism's entry into its decadent period was the precondition for its overthrow by the proletarian revolution, the perpetuation of this decadence is not without danger for the working class. The spread of capitalism's putrefaction to every layer of society threatens to contaminate the only class that bears within it a future for humanity. This is why, as capitalism rots where it stands, it is up to revolutionaries not to console the working class with its misery and suffering by hiding the horror of this world in decomposition, but on the contrary to emphasize its full extent and to warn workers against this daily threat of contamination.
The announcement of catastrophes provoked by ‘natural' phenomena or by accidents, killing or mutilating a multitude of human beings, has become part of everyday life. In recent months, hardly a week has passed without the media displaying apocalyptic images of catastrophes that strike one day the under-developed countries, the next the great industrial metropoles of the Western world. Such events are becoming banal; they affect the entire planet. Not only do they increase the general insecurity of existence for the working class, as for the population in general; they are more and more felt as a menace threatening to engulf the entire human race in much the same way as a nuclear war.
As it plunges into decadence, capitalism can only create more destruction
Torrential rain in Bangladesh, hitting more than 30 million people in September 1988; the recent years' drought in the Sahel which has caused famines such as humanity has never seen before; hurricanes in the Carribean or over the island of Reunion, flattening the houses of the local population; earthquake in Armenia, destroying whole towns in a matter of minutes and burying tens of thousands of human beings in the ruins.... All these gigantic catastrophes which have ravaged under-developed countries in recent months are not restricted to the 3rd World or the Eastern bloc. They are tending to spread to the most industrialized regions of the world, as we can see from the appalling succession of air and rail accidents which have claimed hundreds of victims at the heart of the great urban concentrations of Western Europe.
Contrary to what the bourgeoisie would like to make us believe, none of this destruction, this loss of human life, is due to some kind of ‘law of series', or to the ‘uncontrollable forces of nature'. The only aim of these ‘explanations', which the ruling class finds so convenient, is to relieve its system of any responsibility, to hide all its rottenness and barbarity. For the real cause behind all these tragedies, this incalculable human suffering is capitalism itself, and this appalling succession of ‘natural', ‘accidental' tragedies is nothing other than the most spectacular expression of a moribund society, a society that is falling apart at the seams.
These tragedies reveal in the full light of day the total bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production, which since World War I has entered into its period of decadence. Following a period of prosperity where capital was able to develop the productive forces and social wealth to an immense degree by creating and unifying the world market, by extending its mode of production throughout the planet, this decadence means that since the beginning of the century capitalism has reached its own historic limits. Capitalism's decline today is expressed by the fact that it can no longer produce anything today but destruction and barbarity, famines and massacres, on a planetary scale.
This decadence explains in particular why the countries of the ‘Third World' have been unable to develop: they arrived too late on a world market that was already constituted, shared out and saturated (see our pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism). This is what condemns these countries, despite all the hypocritical talk about their ‘development', to being the first victims of dying capitalism's utter barbarity.
The longer its death-agony lasts, the more horribly do capitalism's principal characteristics appear, as the system's insoluble internal contradictions burst into the open.
Obviously, we cannot accuse capitalism of causing earthquakes or hurricanes. It is responsible, however, for the fact that such natural phenomena are transformed into immense social disasters.
Capitalism possesses the technical ability to send men to the moon, to produce monstrous weapons capable of destroying the planet a dozen times over; at the same time it is incapable of protecting the population from natural disasters by building dams against the effects of hurricanes, or by building earthquake-resistant housing.
Worse still, not only can capitalism do nothing to forestall these catastrophes, it is equally incapable of alleviating their devastating effects. What the ruling class calls ‘international aid' to the affected populations is a disgusting lie. Every state and government of the ruling class is directly responsible for the suffering of hundreds of millions of human beings who die like flies every day, victims of cholera, dysentery and hunger.
While millions of children are threatened with death from starvation, in capitalism's great industrial centers millions of tons of milk are destroyed every year to prevent a collapse in the market price. In countries ravaged by monsoons or hurricanes, the population is reduced to fighting over a meager ration of grain, while the governments of the EEC plan to leave fallow 20% of farming land, in order to combat.... over-production!
Decadent capitalism's appalling barbarity is not only expressed in its impotence to relieve the suffering of the victims of natural disasters. The permanent and insoluble crisis of the systern is itself an immense catastrophe for the whole of humanity, as we can see from the increasing pauperization of millions of human beings reduced to a state of desperate wretchedness. Capitalism's inability to integrate the immense masses of unemployed into the productive process is not a problem limited to the ‘Third World'. In the very heart of the most industrialized nations, millions of proletarians are being reduced to a state of abject poverty. In the richest state of the world, this transformation of immense masses of workers into down-and-outs is particularly clear: in the United States, millions of workers, mostly full-time wage earners (representing 15% of the population living below the poverty line), are being made homeless and forced to sleep in the streets, in pornographic cinemas (the only ones to remain open all night) or in cars, because they cannot afford a place to live.
The more capitalism is stifled by its generalized crisis of over-production, the less is it able to overcome the famines in countries like Ethiopia or the Sudan which today are turning into veritable genocides. The more it masters technology, the less it uses it for the good of the population.
In the face of this appalling reality, what use are all these ‘humanitarian' campaigns for ‘aid to the victims and/or the starving', all the appeals for ‘solidarity' launched by 57 varieties of media stars? How ‘effective' are all these charitable organizations, which in the advanced countries run soup kitchens or overnight hostels for the homeless? What is the meaning of all these wretched subsidies that some states distribute to those who are destitute? At best, all such ‘aid' put together is only a drop in an ocean of poverty and famine. In the Third World, they only put off the tragic deadline for a few weeks; they just manage to prevent the advanced countries from looking too much like the Third World. In fact, all this ‘aid', these ‘solidarity campaigns' are nothing but sinister masquerades, a sordid and cynical racket, whose real ‘effectiveness' is measured in their ability to buy consciences and hide the barbarism and absurdity of the world in which we live.
The better feelings of bourgeois humanism have their limits. Despite the crocodile tears of clergymen and other ‘charitable souls', despite the ‘willingness' of governments to help, these limits are dictated by the fact that the bourgeoisie cannot escape the laws of its own system. This is even more evident today when, after three quarters of a century of decadence, these laws are getting completely out of control, as can be seen in the series of catastrophic accidents in the industrialized countries.
In recent months, the proliferation of railway accidents, especially in the urban networks of advanced countries like France or Britain, has demonstrated that insecurity does not only threaten the populations of under-developed countries, but hangs over the entire world, in every aspect of daily life.
And, contrary to the lies peddled by the bourgeoisie, railways accidents like those at the Gare de Lyon in Paris (June 88), or Clapham Junction in south London (December 88) are not caused by human error, any more than mere bad economic management lies at the root of the present dilapidated state of the productive apparatus, or of the decaying public transportation which daily kill or mutilate hundreds of human beings in the most industrialized countries.
This series of accidents is nothing other than the disastrous result of every bourgeois state's policy of ‘rationalizing' production; in their insatiable quest for profit and competitivity in the face of a worsening world economic crisis, no saving that can be made by eroding the security of workers and of the population in general is too small to be worthwhile, whatever the cost in human lives. This ‘rationalization', which in the name of productivity is engaged in a more and more widespread destruction of productive forces, is in fact completely irrational. Labor power is being destroyed, not only through unemployment but in the deaths and injuries provoked by the catastrophes and accidents at work caused by this same ‘rationalization'. Technical resources are being destroyed as factories are closed, but also by the material damage caused by all these ‘accidents'.
Similarly, all the disasters that the ecologists blame on ‘technical progress' the growing pollution of air and water, ‘accidents' in chemical plants such as Seveso in Italy or Bhopal in India which caused more than 2,500 deaths, nuclear catastrophes as at Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, the oil slicks that regularly destroy coastal plant and animal life thus endangering the ocean's food chain for decades to come (as we have seen lately in the Antarctic), the destruction by CFC's of the ozone layer that protects every living thing from ultra-violet radiation, the rapid disappearance of the Amazon rain-forest, the planet's main source of oxygen - are nothing other than signs of decadent capitalism's irrational, suicidal logic, of its total inability to master the productive forces that it has set in motion, and which now threaten to upset for centuries to come, if not definitively, the planetary equilibrium necessary to the survival of the human species.
And this suicidal logic, the infernal machine of decadent capitalism, takes on still more terrifying proportions with the massive production of ever more sophisticated engines of death. All today's most advanced technology is today oriented towards arms production, in the perspective of massacres infinitely more murderous than those unleashed today (in ‘peace' time) in the countries of capitalism's periphery. There is no limit to the horror of this bloody monster that is decadent capitalism.
But all this destruction is only the tip of the iceberg, the visible signs of a more general phenomenon affecting every aspect of capitalist society. It is the reality of a world that is falling apart.
The ideological decomposition of capitalist society
This decomposition is not limited solely to the fact that despite all the development of its technology, capitalism is still subject to the laws of nature, or to its inability to master the means that it has set in motion for its own development. It affects not only the system's economic foundations, but every aspect of social life through the ideological decomposition of the ruling class' values which, as they collapse, drag with them every value that makes life in society possible, and in particular through an increasing atomization of the individual.
This decomposition of bourgeois values is not a new phenomenon. It was already marked during the 1960s by the emergence of marginal ideologies, which at the time could still offer an illusory hope of creating islands of a different society, based on other social relationships, within capitalism.
This decomposition of ruling class values was expressed in the appearance of the ‘community' type ideologies - the fruit of the revolt of petty bourgeois strata already hit by the crisis, and especially by the decomposition of society - and of the hippy movement of the 60s and early 70s, as well as by a whole series of currents advocating a ‘return to the earth', the ‘natural life', etc. Basing their existence on a supposedly ‘radical', contestationist critique of wage labor, commodities, money, private property, the family, ‘consumer society', etc, all these communities set themselves up as ‘alternative' or ‘revolutionary' solutions to the collapse of bourgeois values and the atomization of the individual. All justified themselves on the grounds that a better world could be built simply by ‘changing mentalities' and proliferating community experiments. However, all these minority ideologies (built on sand, since they were born of social strata which, unlike the proletariat, have no historical future), did not just peddle what their subsequent collapse has since proved to be mere illusion. In reality, their project was nothing other than a grotesque parody of primitive communism. This nostalgia for the past was merely an expression of a perfectly reactionary ideology, whose essentially religious basis is moreover revealed by the fact that all these ‘purifying' themes were taken up almost to the letter by mystic sects such as the ‘Moonies', Hare Krishna, ‘Children of God' and the like, which have arisen since from the ruins of these communities.
Today, the communities of the 60s and 70s have given way either to religious sects (for the most part exploited if not directly manipulated by the capitalist state and the great powers' secret police), or to still more ephemeral phenomena such as the huge gatherings at rock concerts organized by bourgeois institutions like ‘SOS Racisme' in France, ‘Band Aid' or Amnesty International; in the name of great humanitarian causes (the struggle against apartheid or world hunger), such gatherings have nothing better to offer the new generations than an ersatz of community and human solidarity.
But for several years now, capitalist society's ideological decomposition has been expressed above all by the development in the very heart of the great capitalist industrial metropoles, of nihilist ideologies of the ‘punk' variety, which express the void into which all society is increasingly thrust.
Today, such is the misery and barbarism engendered by the complete dead-end of the capitalist economy that the whole of society is more and more being stamped in the image of a world without any future, on the brink of an abyss. It is the realization of this dead-end since the beginning of the 80s that has wiped out all the ‘alternative solutions' of the communities of the previous two decades. The hippy communities' utopia of ‘peace and love' has been succeeded by the ‘no future' of the punk and skinhead gangs that terrorize the inner cities. The love, pacifism, and beatific non-violence of the previous years' marginal communities has been followed by the violence, the hatred, and the urge to destroy that animates a marginalized youth, left to itself in a world without hope, a world which has nothing to offer but unemployment and misery.
The whole of social life is being stifled today by the nauseating odors of this decomposition of dominant values. Society is ruled by violence, ‘every man for himself'; the gangrene affects the whole of society, but especially the most deprived classes with its daily round of despair and destruction: the unemployed who commit suicide to flee their wretchedness, children murdered and raped, old people tortured and assassinated for a few pennies.... The advanced state of decomposition of capitalist society that infects the great industrial concentrations is expressed in the development of insecurity, the law of the jungle.
As for the media, they both reflect and propagate this decomposition. Violence is everywhere on television and in the cinema; blood and horror splatter the screens daily, even in films aimed at children. Systematically, obsessively, all the means of communication take part in a gigantic campaign of brutalization, especially of the workers. No means are neglected: the screens are filled with confrontations between sporting ‘heroes' swollen with anabolic steroids, with calls to participate in all kinds of lotteries and games of chance which day after day sell the illusory hope of a better life to those who suffocate in their own misery. In fact, the whole of cultural production today expresses society's rottenness. Not only cinema and television, but also literature, music, painting, and architecture are increasingly unable to express anything but anguish, desperation, the void.
One of today's most flagrant signs of all this decomposition is the increasingly massive use of drugs. This has taken on a different meaning from the 60s; drugs are no longer used to flee into illusion, but to take frantic refuge in madness and suicide. Young drug users are no longer ‘getting high' collectively by passing round a ‘joint' of marijuana; they are ‘getting smashed' on alcohol, crack and heroin.
The whole of society, not just the users, is now infected by this cancer. The bourgeois state itself is being eaten away from the inside. This is true not only of Third World countries like Bolivia, Columbia, or Peru where drug exports are all that keeps the economy afloat, but also of the USA which is one of the world's major producers of cannabis, whose value makes it the third national crop after corn and soya.
Here again, capitalism comes up against an insurmountable contradiction. On the one hand, the system cannot tolerate the massive use of drugs (the US annual consumption amounts to about $250 million, the equivalent of the entire defense budget) which encourages the spread of crime, mental illness and epidemics like AIDS, and is a calamity from the purely economic standpoint; on the other, drugs trafficking is now one of the pillars of the state not only in under-developed countries like Paraguay or Surinam, but in the heart of the world's most powerful ‘democracy', the USA.
The American secret service is largely financed by cannabis exports, to the point where George Bush, who today champions the struggle against drug abuse, was directly involved in it as head of the CIA. The corruption tied to the drug trade that feeds today's capitalist state is not confined to the drug producing countries. Every state is directly contaminated, as can be seen in the recent scandal over the laundering of ‘narco-dollars' which involved the husband of an ex-minister of Justice in a country as ‘clean' as Switzerland.
Nor is the traffic in drugs the only domain in which corruption is rotting away the bourgeoisie's political apparatus. All over the world, hardly a month passes without a new scandal sullying the highest dignitaries of the state (and as always, these scandals only reveal a tiny part of the real picture). For example, as we write, virtually every member of the Japanese government up to and including the Prime Minister is caught up in a gigantic web of corruption. The rottenness has reached such a point that the bourgeoisie has the greatest difficulty in finding ‘presentable' politicians to replace those that resign, and when they finally think they have discovered that rare bird, the ‘incorruptible politician', it is only to discover a few days later that he was one of the first to get his head in the trough. Needless to say, Japan is not the only advanced country where such events take place. In France, it is the Socialist Party, which in elections regularly denounces the ‘moneyed powers' which is now in the forefront of an ‘insider trading' scandal (use of secret information obtained from government contacts to get rich in a matter of hours), and an intimate friend of a President renowned for his denunciation of the ‘corrupting power of money' who has been stuffing his pockets. Indeed the means used to get rich quick (stock market speculation) is itself significant of the rottenness of capitalist society, where the bourgeoisie drains a major part of its capital, not into productive investment but into ‘games of chance' designed to give a rapid and massive return. Increasingly, the Stock Exchange looks like the gaming rooms at Las Vegas.
Although up to now, capitalism has been able to push the most extreme effects of its own decadence out to the periphery (the under-developed countries), today they are coming back like a boomerang to strike its very heart. And the decomposition which today is infecting the great industrial centers spares no social class and no age, not even children. Crime and delinquency among children are already well known in ‘Third World' countries, where for decades economic disaster has plunged the population into atrocious misery and generalized chaos. Today, the prostitution of children in the streets of Manila, the gangsterism of the kids in Bogota is no longer an exotic and far-off scourge. They have come to the heart of the world's greatest power, to the most developed of the United States - California - right on the doorstep of Silicon Valley where the world's most advanced technology is concentrated. No image could sum up better the insoluble contradictions of decadent capitalism. On the one hand, a gigantic accumulation of wealth, on the other an appalling misery dragging gangs of children down into suicide and crime: young girls hardly out of puberty taking refuge in prostitution, or in search of a reason to live; children no more than ten years old taking refuge in the use and traffic of drugs, caught up in the infernal spiral of gangsterism and organized murder (in Los Angeles, no less than 100,000 children organized into gangs handle the retail drug market, and in 1987 were responsible for 387 murders).
Nor is it only in the USA that a rotting capitalism sows desperation and death in the young generations. In the great industrial concentrations of Western Europe, quite apart from the incredible increase during the last ten years of delinquency and drug abuse among adolescents, the suicide rates are taking on disastrous proportions. France, along with Belgium and West Germany, is the country with the highest suicide rate in Western Europe for the 15-24 age group. With an official average of 1000 suicides per year, representing more than 13% of the death rate in this age group (as against a rate of 2.5% in the rest of the population), the figures have tripled between 1960 and 1985.
A society that slaughters and corrupts its children like this is running headlong to its own destruction.
Only the proletariat can extricate society from this dead-end
This society's general decomposition is not a new phenomenon. The same has happened to every decadent society in the past. But compared to previous modes of production, the rottenness of capitalism is taking the form of a barbarity unprecedented in human history. Moreover, unlike past societies, where several modes of production could exist simultaneously in different parts of the world, capitalism has become a universal system which subjects the whole world to its own laws. As a result, the different disasters that affect a particular part of the planet in the context of society's general decomposition, inevitably spread to the other parts, as we can see for example in the extension to every continent of diseases like AIDS. For the first time in history, it is thus the whole of human society which threatens to be swallowed up by this phenomenon of decomposition. Whereas in the past, the social and productive relationships of a new society could emerge within the old as it collapsed (as capitalism developed within declining feudalism), the same is no longer true today. Today, the only possible alternative is the construction of another society on the ruins of the capitalist system; this new, communist, society will bring about the full satisfaction of human needs thanks to a blossoming of the productive forces that the laws of capitalism make impossible. And the first stage of this regeneration of society can only be the overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie by the only class which today is capable of offering humanity a future: the world proletariat.
"Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need - the practical expression of necessity - driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation" (Karl Marx, The Holy Family, in Collected Works Vol 4, p. 37).
What Marx wrote last century, when capitalism was still a flourishing system is still more true today. Faced with this decomposition that is menacing the very survival of the human race, only the proletariat, because of the place it occupies within capitalist productive relations, is capable of bringing humanity out of its prehistory, of building a true human community.
Up to now, the class combats which have developed in the four corners of the planet have been able to prevent decadent capitalism from providing its own answer to the dead end of its economy: the ultimate form of its barbarity, a new world war. However, the working class is not yet capable of affirming its own perspective through its own revolutionary struggles, nor even of setting before the rest of society the future that it holds within itself.
It is precisely this temporary stalemate, where for the moment neither the bourgeois nor the proletarian alternative can emerge openly, that lies at the origin of capitalism's putrefaction, and which explains the extreme degree of decadent capitalism's barbarity. And this rottenness will get still worse with the inexorable aggravation of the economic crisis.
The more capitalism plunges into its own decadence, the more drawn out its death agony, the less the working class of the central countries of capitalism will be spared the devastating effects of its putrefaction.
In particular, it is the new generations of proletarians who are menaced by contamination from the gangrene eating away at society's other strata. Despair leading to suicide, atomization, drugs, delinquency and other aspects of marginalization (such as the lumpenisation of unemployed youth who have never been integrated into the productive process) are so many scourges which threaten to exercise a pressure towards the dissolution and decomposition of the proletariat and consequently weaken or even call into question its capacity to carry out its historic task of overthrowing capitalism.
All this decomposition which is more and more infesting the young generations could thus deal a mortal blow to the only force able to give humanity a future. Just as the outbreak of imperialist war in the heart of the ‘civilized' world, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in the Junius Pamphlet, decimated in a few weeks "the elite troops of the international proletariat, the fruit of decades of sacrifices, and the efforts of several generations", so decadent capitalism can mow down, in the years to come, this "fine flower" of the proletariat which is our great strength and hope.
Given the gravity of the present situation of capitalist decay, and the high stakes involved, revolutionaries must alert the proletariat today against the danger of annihilation that threatens it. In their intervention, they must call on the workers to transform this rottenness that they are subjected to daily into a greater determination in developing their combat and forging the unity of their class. Just as they must understand that their struggles against misery and exploitation bear within them the abolition of warmongering barbarism, so they must become conscious that only the development, the unification, and the international generalization of these struggles will be able to rescue humanity from the hell of capitalism, from this collective suicide where the old world's decomposition is dragging the whole of society.
The only gleam of hope in this rotting world is the present struggle of the world proletariat for class solidarity, especially in the great industrial concentrations of Western Europe. This alone can prefigure any kind of embryonic human community. Only from the international generalization of these combats can a new world emerge, with new social values. And these values will only spread to the whole of humanity when the proletariat builds a world rid of crises, wars, exploitation, and the results of all this decomposition. The despair that increasingly submerges all the non-exploiting strata of society will only be overcome when the working class heads consciously towards this objective.
And it is for the world's most concentrated and experienced proletariat, the workers in Western Europe, to take up the responsibility of standing in the vanguard of the world proletariat in its march towards this perspective.
Its combats alone can provide the spark that will light the flame of the proletarian revolution.