The bourgeoisie celebrates 500 years of capitalism
The ruling class is celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery in style. The Universal Exhibition in Seville - the port of departure for this first expedition to reach the Caribbean islands - is the high point for all these hyper-media festivities. But the show will not stop there. The biggest fleet of sailing ships ever to cross the Atlantic is retracing the course of the renowned discoverer; there will be several films of the Columbus epic; dozens of historical novels and university studies have been published, recounting the story of the discovery of America and analyzing its significance. TV programs all over the world have been devoted to the historic event, and the press has not been left behind, since it also has printed hundreds of articles all over the world. Rarely have such resources been devoted to celebrating an event which figures in every child's history book. And this is no accident. Christopher Columbus' arrival on the shores of the New World opened the doors to a period which the historians of the ruling class paint in glowing colors; they call this historical period, beginning in the mid-15th century, the Age of Discovery, or the Renaissance. For this is when capitalism got into its stride in Europe, and began its conquest of the world. The ruling class is not just celebrating the 500th anniversary of a particularly important historical event, but symbolically, half a millennium of capitalist rule.
A discovery made possible by the development of capitalism
The wind swelling the sails of the Caravelles and driving them on to new horizons was mercantile capitalism in search of new trade routes to India and Asia, and the spices and silks "more valuable than gold". This was so true that Columbus believed, to the day he died in 1506, that the shores where his ships had beached were those of India, the land that he had tried so obstinately to reach via a new Western route. The new continent, that he had in fact discovered without ever realizing it, was never to bear his name, but that of America after the navigator Amerigo Vespucci who in 1507 was to be the first to establish that the lands they had discovered were in fact a new continent.
Today we know that the Vikings had already landed on the coast of North America several centuries before, and it is even probable that at other moments in human history, bold navigators had already crossed the Atlantic from East to West. But these "discoveries" fell into oblivion, because they did not correspond to the economic needs of their age. This did not happen to Columbus. His discovery of America was not an accident, a merely individual and extraordinary adventure. Columbus was no isolated adventurer, but one navigator among many launched on the conquest of the ocean. His discovery was a product of the needs of developing capitalism in Europe; it was part of an overall movement which pushed the navigators to seek out new trade routes.
The origins of this overall movement are to be found in the economic, cultural, and social upheavals shaking Europe, with the decadence of feudalism and the rise of mercantile capitalism.
Since the 13th century, commercial, banking, and financial activity had flourished in the Italian republics which held the monopoly of trade with the East. "From the 15th century, the bourgeoisie in the towns had become more vital to society than the feudal nobility... the needs of the nobles themselves had grown and been transformed to the point where even they could not do without the towns; did they not depend on the towns for their only instruments of production, their armor and weapons? Local cloth, furniture and jewellery, the silks of Italy, the lace of Brabant, the furs from the North, the perfumes of Arabia, the fruits of the Levant, the spices of India: all must be bought in the towns... A certain degree of world trade had developed; the Italians roamed the Mediterranean and beyond, to the Atlantic coasts right up to Flanders; despite the appearance of Dutch and English, the Hansa merchants still dominated the North Sea and the Baltic... While the nobility became increasingly superfluous and even a hindrance on social evolution, the bourgeois were becoming the class that personified the advance of industry and commerce, as well as of culture and the political and social institutions," (Engels: The Decadence of Feudalism and the Rise of The Bourgeoisie).
The 15th century was marked by the increase in knowledge which signaled the beginning of the Renaissance, characterized not only by the rediscovery of the texts of antiquity, but also by the wonders of the Orient, like gunpowder, which merchants were bringing back to Europe, and by new discoveries like printing, and the advance of new techniques in metal-working or textiles made possible by the development of the economy. One of the sectors most affected by the new knowledge was that of navigation, a central sector for the development of commerce, since most trade went by water. With new knowledge came the invention of new ships, more sturdy, bigger, and better adapted to navigating the high seas, better sailing techniques, and a better understanding of geography. "Moreover, navigation was a clearly bourgeois industry, which has marked even modern fleets with its anti-feudal nature" (Engels, op cit).
At the same time, the great feudal states were created and strengthened. This movement, however, expressed not the reinforcement of feudalism but its regression, crisis and decadence. "It is obvious that... the crown was a factor of progress. It represented order in disorder, the nation in formation against the fragmentation of rival vassal states. All the revolutionary elements which were forming below the surface of feudal society were as much forced to rely on the crown, as the latter was forced to rely on them." (Engels, op cit).
The extension of Ottoman rule into the Middle East and Eastern Europe, concretized in the fall of Constantinople in 1453, led to the war with the Venetian Republic in 1463, and cut the Italian merchants off from the lucrative trade routes to Asia which had virtually been their monopoly. The economic necessity of opening new routes to the treasures of the mythical Indies, Cathay (China), and Cipango (Japan), and the hope of laying hands on the source of Genoan and Venetian wealth, were enough to encourage the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal to finance their maritime expeditions.
And so, during the 15th century, the conditions and the means came together in Europe, which were to make possible the sea-borne exploration of the world:
* the creation of a mercantile and industrial class, the bourgeoisie,
* the development of new knowledge and techniques, especially in the field of navigation,
* the formation of the states which would support seafaring expeditions,
* the end to the traditional trade with Asia, which encouraged the search for new routes.
From the beginning of the 15th century, Henry the Navigator, King of Portugal, financed expeditions down the coast of Africa, and set up the first trading posts there (Ceuta in 1415). The African off-shore islands were colonized in passing: Madeira in 1419, the Azores in 1431, the Capo Verde islands in 1457. Then under the reign of John II, the Congo was reached in 1482, and in 1498 Bartolomeo Diaz rounded the Cape of Storms (later to become the Cape of Good Hope), opening the route to India and its spices which Vasco da Gama was to follow in 1498. Columbus' expedition was thus one among many.
At first, he offered his services to the Portuguese, to explore a Western route to the Indies, but the latter (who had probably reached Newfoundland in 1474) refused, because they were concentrating on opening a route around southern Africa. Just as Columbus benefited from the experience of the Portuguese sailors, so his own experience was to help John Cabot who reached Labrador in 1496 in the service of England. For Spain, Pinzon and Lope in 1499 discovered the mouth of the Orinoco; Cabal reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, while searching for a way round Africa. In 1513, Balboa admired the waves of what was to be called the Pacific Ocean. And in 1519 began the Magellan expedition: the first to circumnavigate the world. "But despite the feudal or semi-feudal forms in which it appeared at first, this urge to seek adventure far away was already incompatible at heart with feudalism, whose basis was agriculture, and whose wars of conquest basically aimed at the conquest of territory." (Engels, op cit).
Thus it is not the great discoveries which provoked the development of capitalism, but on the contrary the development of capitalism in Europe which made these discoveries possible, whether on the level of geography or of technique. Like Gutenberg, Columbus was the product of capitalism's historic development. Nonetheless, these discoveries were to be a powerful factor in accelerating the development both of capitalism and the class which it embodies it: the bourgeoisie.
"The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonization of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a new development." (Marx, Engels: The Communist Manifesto).
"From the 16th to the 17th centuries, the great geographical discoveries provoked profound upheavals in trade and accelerated the growth of mercantile capital. It is certain that the passage from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production was also accelerated, and it is precisely this fact which is at the source of certain thoroughly erroneous conceptions. The sudden extension of the world market, the proliferation of commodities in circulation, the rivalry between European nations to seize the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and finally the colonial system, made a great contribution to liberating production from its feudal chains. However, in its manufacturing period, the modern mode of production only appeared where the appropriate conditions had been formed during the Middle Ages, for example if we compare Portugal to Holland. If, during the 16th, and in part also during the 17th centuries, the sudden extension of trade and the creation of a new world market played a preponderant role in the decline of the old mode of production and the rise of capitalist production, this is because it took place, inversely, on the basis of an already existing capitalist production. On the one hand, the world market formed the basis for capitalism; on the other, it is the latter's need to produce on a constantly wider scale that pushed it continually to extend the world market: here, it is not trade that revolutionized industry, but industry which constantly revolutionized trade" (Marx, Capital).
"Manufacture and the movement of production in general received an enormous impetus through the extension of intercourse which came with the discovery of America and the sea-route to the East Indies. The new products imported thence, particularly the masses of gold and silver which came into circulation, had totally changed the position of the classes towards one another, dealing a hard blow to feudal landed property and to the workers; the expeditions of adventurers, colonization, and above all the extension of markets into a world market, which had now become possible and was daily becoming more and more a fact, called forth a new phase of historical development..." (Marx, The German Ideology)
With the discovery of America in 1492, symbolically, a new page was turned in the history of humanity. A new epoch opened, where capitalism began its triumphal march towards world domination. "World trade and the world market inaugurate, in the 16th century, the modern biography of capitalism," (Marx). "The modern history of capital dates from the creation of trade and a market between the old and new world in the 16th century," (Marx). "Although the first outlines of capitalist production appeared early in some towns of the Mediterranean, the capitalist era only starts with the 16th century," (Marx, Capital VIII).
Today, the bourgeoisie's sumptuous festivities are celebrating the opening of this new era, the era of its own domination, the beginning of the construction of the capitalist world market. "Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the development of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages." (The Communist Manifesto).
Before the great discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries, the Incas and Aztecs were of course completely unknown, but the civilizations of India, China and Japan were almost as much so, and what was known contained as much fable as fact. The discovery of America marked the end of a historical period characterized by the development of multiple civilizations, which either knew nothing of each other, or barely communicated by means of a relatively limited trade. Now came not only the exploration of new sea-lanes, but the opening of new trade routes to European commodities. The development of trade put an end to the separate development of civilizations outside Europe. "The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate." (ibid). "The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country... [Industry's] products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature." (ibid).
This is the eminently revolutionary role that the bourgeoisie has played: it has unified the world. By celebrating, as it does today, the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and the first significant step in this unification by the creation of the world market, the bourgeoisie is only singing its own praises.
The bourgeoisie enjoys honoring this 16th century, which witnessed its own affirmation in Europe, and heralded its worldwide rule to come, as the century of the Renaissance, of the Age of Discovery, of the flourishing of science and the arts. The ruling class likes to see itself in those Renaissance men who symbolize the prodigious advances in technique, concretized in the tumultuous development of the productive forces that capitalism was to make possible. In them, it salutes the quest for universality which is its specific characteristic, and which it has imposed on the world, by fashioning the world in its own image. The ruling class could not ask for a more flattering picture of itself, and one that best epitomizes the progress that the bourgeoisie once represented for humanity.
But there is another side to every coin, and the other side to the wonderful adventure of Columbus discovering the new world is the brutal colonization and merciless enslavement of the Indians, the reality of capitalism as a system of exploitation and oppression. The treasures that left the colonies for the mother-country, there to make capital run smooth, were extorted "by the forced labor of the indigenous population reduced to slavery, by violence, pillage, and murder" (Marx, Capital VIII).
The colonization of America: capitalist barbarity at work
Capitalism did not only provide the techniques and the accumulated knowledge which made possible the voyage of Columbus and the discovery of America. It also provided the new God, the ideology which drove the adventurers on, to the conquest of the seas.
Columbus was driven, not by the love of discovery, but by the lust for profit: "Gold is the best thing in the world, it can even send souls to paradise", he declared, while Cortes went further: "We Spaniards suffer from a sickness of the heart whose only cure is gold". Thus: "It was gold that the Portuguese sought on the African coast, in the Indies, and throughout the Far East; gold was the magic word which drove the Spaniards across the Atlantic to America; gold was the first thing the white man asked for, as soon as he accosted on a newly discovered shore" (Engels, op cit).
"Following Columbus' report, the Council of Castille decided to take possession of a country whose inhabitants were quite unable to defend themselves. The pious project of making converts to Christianity sanctified its injustice. But the hope of finding treasure was the real motive behind the enterprise ... All the Spaniards' other enterprises in the New World, after Columbus, seem to have had the same motive. This was the sacrilegious thirst for gold ..." (Adam Smith).
The great civilizing work of European capitalism initially took the form of genocide. In the name of this "sacrilegious thirst for gold", the Indian populations were subjected to pillage and forced labor, to slavery in the mines, and decimated by the diseases imported by the Conquistadors (syphilis, tuberculosis, etc). Las Casas estimated that between 1495 and 1503, the islands' population fell by more than 3 million, massacred in the wars, sent as slaves to Castille or exhausted in the mines and other forced labors: "Who will believe this in future generations? Even I, who write these lines, who have seen with my own eyes and know everything that happened, can hardly believe that such a thing was possible." In just over a century, the Indian population fell by 90% in Mexico (from 25 to 1.5 million), and by 95% in Peru. The African slave trade was developed to make up for the dearth of labor as a result of the massacre, and throughout the 16th century hundreds of thousands of negroes were deported to repopulate America, the movement only increasing in intensity during the centuries that followed. To this should be added the transportation of thousands of Europeans condemned to forced labor in the mines and plantations of America. "The discoveries of gold and silver in America; the extirpation of the indigens in some instances, their enslavement or their entombment in the mines in others; the beginnings of the conquest and looting of the East Indies; the transformation of Africa into a precinct for the supply of the negroes who were the raw material of the slave trade - these were the incidents that characterized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production" (Marx, Capital, Chap 24)
The thousands of tons of gold and silver that flooded into Europe from the American colonies, and which served to finance the gigantic upsurge of European capitalism, were soaked in the blood of millions of slaves. But this violence, characteristic of capitalism's colonial enterprise, was not reserved for far-off countries. It is proper to capitalism in every aspect of its development, including in its European homeland.
Capitalism's violent conquest of Europe
The methods used, without restraint in the ferocious exploitation of the indigenous population in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, were used in Europe to drive the peasants from the land and transform them into wage slaves to satisfy the demands of the rapidly expanding manufactures. For millions of peasants and laborers, the period of the Renaissance which the bourgeoisie likes to display in the agreeable light of scientific discovery and artistic achievement was a time of poverty and terror.
Capitalism's development in Europe was characterized by the expropriation of land; millions of peasants were thrown off the land, to wander the highways. "The expropriation of the immediate producers is effected with ruthless vandalism; and under the stimulus of the most infamous, the basest, the meanest, and the most odious of passions" (Marx, Capital, Chap 24). "A whole series of thefts, outrages, and tribulations ... accompanied the forcible expropriation of the people in the period that lasted from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 18th" (Marx, Capital, Chap 24). "The spoliation of the property of the church, the fraudulent alienation of the state domains, the theft of the common lands, the transformation of feudal property and clan property into modern private property (a usurpation effected by a system of ruthless terrorism) - these were the idyllic methods of primary accumulation. They cleared the ground for capitalist agriculture, made the land part and parcel of capital, while providing for the needs of urban industry the requisite supply of masterless proletarians" (Marx, Capital).
"Thus it comes to pass that a greedy and insatiable cormorant and very plague of his native country, may encompass about and enclose many thousand acres of ground together within one pale or hedge, the husbandmen be thrust out of their own, or else, either by cunning and fraud, or by violent oppression, they be put besides it, or by wrongs and injuries they be so wearied that they be compelled to sell all: by one means, therefore, or by other, either by hook or crook, they must needs depart away, poor, silly, wretched souls, men, women, husbands, wives, fatherless children, widows, woeful mothers with their young babes, and their whole household, small in substance, and much in number, as husbandry requireth many hands. Always they trudge, I say, out of their known, accustomed houses, finding no place to rest in. All their household stuff, which is very little worth, though it might well abide the sale, yet being suddenly thrust out they be constrained to sell it for a thing of naught. And when they have wandered abroad till that be spent, what can they then else do but steal, and then justly, pardie, be hanged, or else go about begging. And yet then also they be cast in prison as vagabonds because they go about and work not; whom no man will set a work though they never so willingly proffer themselves thereto" (Thomas More's Utopia, quoted by Marx in Capital, Chap 24).
"A masterless proletariat had been created by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, and by successive acts of forcible expropriation of the land. But it was impossible that those who had been thus hunted off the land could be absorbed by the rising system of manufactures as quickly as they were "set free. ... Large numbers of them became beggars, thieves, and vagabonds; in part from inclination, but far more often under pressure of circumstances. In the end of the 15th century, and throughout the 16th, there were enacted all over Western Europe cruel laws against vagrancy. The ancestors of the present working class were punished for becoming vagabonds and paupers, although the condition of vagabondage and pauperism had been forced on them" (Marx, Capital, Chap 24).
Punished, and how! In England under Henry VIII (1509-1547), healthy vagabonds were condemned to flogging and imprisonment. On a second offence, the sentence was a further flogging and the loss of half an ear, while at the third offence the vagabond was considered as a felon and executed as an enemy of the state. During Henry's reign, 72,000 poor devils were executed in this way. Under his successor Edward VI, a law passed in 1547 declared that any individual unwilling to work would be judged a slave of the person who had denounced him; should he try to run away, he would be branded with an "S" on the cheek, while a second attempt to escape was punished by death. "In Elizabeth's time, 'rogues were trussed up apace, and that there was not one year commonly wherein three or four hundred were not devoured and eaten up by the gallows'" (Holinshed's Chronicles of England, quoted by Marx). Meanwhile, in France, "it was prescribed that every man in good health from 16 to 60 years of age, if without means of subsistence and not practicing a trade, was to be sent to the galleys. Of like nature are the statute of Charles V for the Netherlands, dated October 1537 ...Thus was the agricultural population - forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from home, coerced into vagrancy, and then whipped, branded, and tortured by grotesque and terrible laws - constrained to accept the discipline required by the wage system" (Marx, Capital, Chap 24).
"Throughout the developed countries, the number of vagabonds has never been so great as it was during the first half of the 16th century. Some of these vagabonds joined the army in time of war, others roamed the country begging, others went to the towns to try to scrape a wretched living out of day labor, or other occupations not regulated by the guilds" (Friedrich Engels, The Peasant War, Chap I).
The peasants, stripped of their lands and thrown out to wander the country were thus not only reduced to beggary or obliged to submit to wage labor, they were also abundantly used as cannon fodder. The new canons and arquebuses were infinitely more destructive than the pikes, swords, bows and crossbows of the old feudal wars, and demanded an ever growing mass of soldiers to assuage their bloody appetites; the technical and scientific progress of the Renaissance were used to good effect in perfecting both weapons and the means of producing them. The 16th century was a warlike one: "...wars and devastation were day-to-day phenomena at the time" (Engels, ibid). Wars of colonial conquest, but also and above all wars in Europe itself: the "Italian" wars of Francois I of France, the Hapsburgs' wars against the Turks, who besieged Vienna in 1529 and were defeated by the Spanish navy at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Dutch war for independence from Spain from 1568 onwards, the war between England and Spain which led to the annihilation in 1588 of the Spanish Armada, the greatest war fleet ever to sail, by the English navy and bad weather. The innumerable wars between German princelings, the wars of religion... These wars were the product of the upheavals shaking Europe with the development of capitalism. "Even in what are called the wars of religion during the 16th century, it was really a matter above all of very positive material class interests, and these wars were class wars, just as much as the internal collisions which occurred later in England and France" (ibid). But the bitter conflicts (behind the banners of religion) among the national states emerging from the Middle Ages, the feudal princes, and the new bourgeois cliques, were all forgotten when it came to putting down, with utter ferocity, the peasant revolts provoked by poverty. Faced with the peasants revolts in Germany, "Bourgeois and princes, nobility and clergy, Luther and the Pope, all united against 'these peasant bands, looting and murdering'" (the title of a pamphlet by Luther published in 1525 in the midst of the peasant rising, as Engels noted). "They must be torn apart, strangled, their throats cut, in secret and in public, as we strike down rabid dogs!" cried Luther. ‘And so, my dear lords, cut their throats, strike them down, strangle them, liberate here, save there! If you fall in the struggle, you could never have a holier death!'" (ibid).
The 16th century was not one of emerging liberty, as the bourgeoisie would have us think. It was one of a new oppression that rose from the ruins of disintegrating feudalism, of religious persecution and the bloody suppression of plebeian revolt. It is certainly no accident that the Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1492, the same year as the discovery of the New World. Millions of Jews and Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity, or forced into exile in fear for the lives. This was not unique to Spain, still deeply marked by feudalism, and the intransigent Catholicism that was its ideological mainstay; throughout Europe, pogroms and religious massacres were commonplace, the persecution of religious or racial minorities a constant, and the oppression of the masses the rule. The horror of the Inquisition was echoed by Luther's rage against the rebellious peasants in Germany: "The peasants have their heads full of oat-straw; they do not hear the words of God, they are stupid; this is why they must be taught the whip, and the arquebuse, and it is their own fault. Pray for them, that they are obedient. Otherwise, no mercy!". Thus spoke the father of the Reformation, the new religious ideology which covered the bourgeoisie's advance in its struggle against feudal Catholicism.
At this price, by these methods, capitalism imposed its law, and by undermining the foundations of the old feudal order, liberated the development of the productive forces and produced a wealth that humanity had never dreamt of. But if the 16th century enormously increased the wealth of the bourgeois merchants and the states, the same could not be said for the workers. "In the 16th century, the situation of the workers had, as we know, got much worse. Money wages had risen, but not at all in proportion to the devaluation of money and a corresponding rise in the price of commodities. In reality, they had therefore fallen." In Spain, between 1500 and 1600 prices increased three or four-fold; in Italy between 1520 and 1599, the price of wheat was multiplied by 3.3; in England, between the first and the last quarter of the 16th century prices were multiplied by 2.6, and in France by 2.2. The fall in real wages as a result has been estimated at 50%! The merchant bourgeoisie and the reigning princes were quick to act on Machiavelli's advice: "In a well-organized government, the state should be rich and the citizen poor" (Machiavelli, The Prince, 1514).
"So much pains did it cost to establish the 'eternal natural laws' of the capitalist method of production, to complete the divorce of the workers from the means of labor, to transform at one pole the social means of production and the social means of subsistence into capital, while transforming at the other pole the masses of the population into wage workers, into 'free laboring poor', that artificial product of modern history. As Augier said, money 'comes into the world with a birthmark on the cheek'; it is no less true that capital comes into the world soiled with mire from top to toe, and oozing blood from every pore" (Marx, Capital, Chap 24). Rosa Luxemburg, writing about the relationship between capital and non-capitalist modes of production, which take place "on the international stage", notes that: "Its predominant methods are colonial policy, an international loan system - a policy of spheres of interest - and war. Force, fraud, oppression, looting are openly displayed without any attempt at concealment, and it requires an effort to discover within this tangle of political violence and contests of power the stern laws of the economic process.
Bourgeois liberal theory takes into account only 'peaceful competition', the marvels of technology and pure commodity exchange; it separates it violently from the other aspect: the realm of capital's blustering violence which is regarded as more or less incidental to foreign policy and quite independent of the economic sphere of capital.
"In reality, political power is nothing but a vehicle for the economic process. The conditions for the reproduction of capital provide the organic link between these two aspects of the accumulation of capital. The historical career of capitalism can only be appreciated by taking them together. 'Sweating blood and filth with every pore from head to toe' characterizes not only the birth of capital but also its progress in the world at every step, and thus capitalism prepares its own downfall under ever more violent contortions and convulsions," (The Accumulation of Capital).
Today's bourgeois humanists, who are celebrating so fervently the discovery of America, would like us to think that the extreme brutality of the colonization which followed was only an excess of emerging capitalism, in its mercantile forms, and still entangled in the meshes of a brutal Spanish feudalism - hardly more than a youthful misdemeanor. But this violence was not limited to the Spanish and the Portuguese. The work begun by the conquistadors was to be continued by the Dutch, the French, the British and by the young North American democracy that emerged from the war of independence against British imperialism in the 18th century: slavery survived until 1868, and in North America the massacre of the Indians continued until the very eve of the 20th century. And as we have seen, such violence was not limited to the colonies. It was universal, indelibly stamped on the whole life of capital. It was carried over from capital's mercantile phase into the brutal development of large-scale industry, where the methods tried out in the colonies were used to intensify exploitation in the metropolis. "The cotton industry, while introducing child slavery into England, gave at the same time an impetus towards the transformation of the slave system of the United States, which had hitherto been a more or less patriarchal one, into a commercial system of exploitation. Speaking generally, the veiled slavery of the European wage earners became the pedestal of unqualified slavery in the New World" (Marx, Capital, Chap 24).
Obviously, as it celebrates the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, the bourgeoisie is not celebrating these great deeds, this merciless massacre driven on by criminal greed. The bourgeoisie prefers to sweep capitalism's barbaric reality under the carpet, and to offer us only the agreeable image of the progress of the Renaissance, with its artistic, geographical, technical, and scientific discoveries.
Half a millennium after Columbus: capitalism in its crisis of decadence
Today, the ruling class is singing its own praises as it celebrates Columbus' discovery of America; it is using this historic event in its ideological propaganda, in order to justify its own existence. But times have changed since the Renaissance.
The bourgeoisie is no longer a revolutionary class, rising to overthrow a decadent and disintegrating feudalism. It is long time since it imposed its rule on the farthest corners of the planet. Columbus' discovery heralded the creation of the world capitalist market, and this was completed at the turn of the century. The dynamic of colonization inaugurated in the New World has spread everywhere. Like the pre-Columbian civilizations of America, the ancient pre-capitalist civilizations of Asia collapsed under the blows of the development of capitalist exchange. By the beginning of the 20th century, there was not a single pre-capitalist market that was not either directly controlled or under the influence of one or other of the great capitalist powers. The dynamic of colonization, which enriched mercantile Europe through pillage and the ferocious exploitation of native populations, and which opened new markets to the tumultuous expansion of capitalist industry, had itself come up against the limits of planetary geography. "From the geographical viewpoint, the market is limited: the internal market is limited in relation to the internal and external market, which in turn is limited in relation to the world market, and this, although it can be expanded, is itself limited in time" (Marx, 'Mat‚riaux pour l'‚conomie: limites du march‚ et accroissement de la consommation'). Confronted for more than a century with this objective limit to the market, capitalism can no longer find solvent outlets in proportion to its productive capacity, and is sinking into an inexorable crisis of over-production. "Over-production is a particular consequence of the law of general production of capital: produce in proportion to the productive forces (ie, according to the possibility of exploiting, with a given mass of capital, the maximum mass of labour), without taking account of the real limits of the market nor of solvent needs..." (Marx, Mat‚riaux pour l'‚conomie: besoins, surproduction, et crise).
"At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or - what is but a legal expression for the same thing - with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters." (Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).
This reality, which once determined the end of the feudal system and the necessity for the development of capitalism as a progressive factor in the liberation of the productive forces, has today come home to capitalism itself. It is no longer a source of progress. It has become a barrier to the development of the productive forces. In its turn, it has entered its epoch of decadence.
The consequences have been dramatic for the whole of humanity. In the days of Columbus and the Renaissance, until the construction of the world market was finally completed, capitalism, despite its barbarity and violence, was synonymous with progress, because it was identified with the growth of the productive forces, and with the resulting fantastic explosion of discoveries. Today all this is finished, and capitalism has become a barrier to the development of the productive forces. It no longer embodies progress, and only its barbaric side is left.
The 20th century has amply demonstrated this sinister reality: constant imperialist conflicts, punctuated by two World Wars, massive repression, famines such as humanity has never suffered before - these have caused more deaths in the last eighty years than in centuries of brutal development. The permanent crisis has plunged the majority of the world's population into hunger. Throughout the world, the population is being subjected to a process of accelerated pauperization, and a tragic degradation of living conditions.
Characteristically, whereas the 19th century was marked by the development of medicine, the ebb of the great epidemics, and the rise in life expectancy, in this last quarter of the 20th century, the epidemic diseases have returned in strength: cholera, malaria, and of course AIDS. The development of cancer is the symbol of capitalism's present impotence. Just like the great epidemics of bubonic plague which demonstrated the decadence of feudalism, today's epidemics are dramatic expressions of the decadence of capitalism, and its inability to defeat the disasters that have plunged humanity into suffering. Life expectancy is now stagnant in the developed countries, and is declining in the under-developed ones.
The capacity for discovery and innovation which needs to be mobilized to confront these diseases are increasingly held back by the contradictions of a system in crisis. Austerity budgets are imposing more and more cuts in funds for research. The greatest efforts of invention are devoted to military research, sacrificed on the altar of the arms race, devoted to the manufacture of ever more sophisticated and barbaric means of destruction. The forces of life have been press-ganged into the service of death.
We see this reality, of a capitalism which has become decadent and a barrier to human progress, at every level of social life. And this the ruling class absolutely has to hide. For centuries, the fantastic progress of discovery and new exploits was there for all to see, and upheld the bourgeoisie's ideological rule over the exploited masses, which it subjected to the brutal law of profit. Today, there are no such exploits any more. Let us take just one, significant, example: the conquest of the moon. Presented twenty years ago as a repetition of Columbus' adventure, it has remained sterile. The conquest of space, the new frontier which was to fire the ambitions of today's generation and make them believe in the constantly renewed possibilities of capitalist expansion, has dwindled away under the weight of the economic crisis and technological failure. Today, it looks like an impossible Utopia. The hope of travelling to other planets and far-off stars, the great project, has been reduced to a plodding and routine commercial or military use of earth's upper atmosphere. Capitalism is incapable of carrying out humanity's leap out of our earthly garden, because in near space there are no markets to conquer, no natives to reduce to slavery. There is no more America, and no more Christopher Columbus.
The New World has aged. North America, which for centuries represented a new world for the oppressed of the entire planet, an escape from poverty where anything was possible (even if this was in large part an illusion), has now become the symbol of the rotten decomposition of the capitalist world and its aberrant contradictions. In America, that classic symbol of capitalism, the dream is dead and only the nightmare is left.
The bourgeoisie no longer has anything, anywhere, to show to justify its criminal rule. To justify today's barbarity, it can only glorify its past. This is the meaning of all the din over Columbus' journey five hundred years ago. To polish up its blemished image, the bourgeoisie only has its past glories to offer, and since this past is itself none too magnificent, it has to embellish it with virtues it never had. Like a senile old man, the bourgeois are lost in their memories; they are trying to forget themselves, and to forget that they are frightened of the present, because they have no future. JJ, 1.6.92.