Democratise capitalism or destroy it?

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The slogan ‘democratise capitalism’ appeared on the side of the Tent City University at the St Paul’s occupation, provoking sharp debates which eventually led to the banner being taken down.

This outcome shows that the occupations at St Paul’s, UBS and elsewhere have provided a very fruitful space for discussion among all those who are dissatisfied with the present social system and are looking for an alternative. ‘Democratising capitalism’ is not a real option, but it does reflect the views of many people participating in the occupations and the meetings they have generated. Again and again, the idea is put forward that capitalism could be made more human if the rich were made to pay more taxes, if the bankers lost their bonuses, if the financial markets were better controlled, or if the state took a more direct hand in running the economy.      

Even the top politicians are jumping on this bandwagon. Cameron wants to make capitalism more moral, Clegg wants the whole world to be like John Lewis, with workers owning more shares, Miliband is against ‘predatory’ capitalism and wants more state regulation.

But all this, coming from the politicians of capital, is empty chatter, a smokescreen to prevent us seeing what capitalism is not, and what it is.

Capitalism can’t be reduced to the ownership of wealth by private individuals. It is not simply about bankers or other wealthy elites getting too much reward for too little effort.

Capitalism is a whole stage in the history of human civilisation. It is the last in a series of societies based on the exploitation of the majority by a minority. It is the first human society in which all production is motivated by the need to realise a profit on the market. It is therefore the first class-divided society where all the exploited have to sell their capacity to work, their ‘labour power’, to the exploiters. So while in feudalism, the serfs were compelled by force to directly surrender their labour or their produce to the lords, under capitalism, our labour time is taken from us more subtly, through the wage system.

It therefore makes no difference if the exploiters are organised as private bosses or as ‘Communist Party’ officials like in China or North Korea. As long as you have wage labour, you have capitalism. As Marx put it: “capital presupposes wage labour. Wage labour presupposes capital” (Wage Labour and Capital).

Capital is, at its heart, the social relation between the class of wage labourers (which includes the unemployed, since unemployment is part of the condition of that class) and the exploiting class. Capital is the alienated wealth produced by the workers – a force created by them but which stands against them as an implacable enemy. 

Capitalism is crisis

But while the capitalists benefit from this arrangement, they can’t really control it. Capital is an impersonal force which ultimately escapes and dominates them as well. This is why the history of capitalism is the history of economic crises. And since capitalism became a global system round the beginning of the 20th century, this crisis has been more or less permanent, whether it takes the forms of world wars or world depressions.

And no matter what economic policies the ruling class and its state tries out, whether Keynesianism, Stalinism, or state-backed ‘neo-liberalism’, this crisis has only got deeper and more insoluble. Driven to desperation by the impasse in the economy, the different factions of the ruling class, and the various national states through which they are organised, are caught in a spiral of ruthless competition, military conflict, and ecological devastation, forcing them to become less and less ‘moral’ and more and more ‘predatory’ in their hunt for profits and strategic advantages.

The capitalist class is the captain of a sinking ship. Never has the need to relieve it of its command of the planet been so pressing.

But this system, the most extreme point in man’s alienation, has also built up the possibility of a new and truly human society. It has set in motion sciences and technologies which could be transformed and used for the benefit of all. It has therefore made it possible for production to be geared directly for consumption, without the mediation of money or the market. It has unified the globe, or at least created the premises for its real unification. It has therefore made it feasible to abolish the whole system of nation states with their incessant wars. In sum, it has made the old dream of a world human community both necessary and possible. We call this society communism. 

The exploited class, the class of wage labour, has no interest in falling for illusions about the system it is up against. It is potentially the gravedigger of this society and the builder of a new one. But to realise that potential, it has to be totally lucid about what it is fighting against and what it is fighting for. Ideas about reforming or ‘democratising’ capital are so many obstacles to this clarity.

Capitalism and democracy

Like making capitalism more human, everyone nowadays claims to be for democracy and wants society to be more democratic. And that is why we can’t take the idea of democracy at its face value, as some abstract ideal that we all can agree to. Like capitalism, democracy has a history. As a political system, democracy in ancient Athens could co-exist with slavery and the exclusion of women. Under capitalism, parliamentary democracy can coexist with the monopoly of power by a small minority which hogs not only the economic wealth but also the ideological tools to influence people’s thinking (and voting).

Capitalist democracy mirrors capitalist society, which turns all of us into isolated economic units competing on the market. In theory we all compete on equal terms, but the reality is that wealth gets concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. We are just as isolated when we enter the polling booths as individual citizens, and just as remote from exercising any real power.

In the debates that have animated the various occupation and public assembly movements from Tunisia and Egypt to Spain, Greece and the USA, there has been a more or less continuous confrontation between two wings: on the one hand, we have those who want to go no further than making the existing regime more democratic, to stop at the goal of getting rid of tyrants like Mubarak and bringing in a parliamentary system, or of putting pressure on the established political parties so that they pay more heed to the demands of the street. And, on the other hand, even if they are only a minority right now, we have those who are beginning to say: why do we need parliament if we can organise ourselves directly in assemblies? Can parliamentary elections change anything? Could we not use forms like assemblies to take control of our own lives – not just the public squares, but the fields, factories and workshops?

These debates are not new. They echo the ones which took place around the time of the Russian and German revolutions, at the end of the First World War. Millions were on the move against a capitalist system which had, by slaughtering millions of the battlefronts, already shown that it had ceased to play a useful role for the human race. But while some said that the revolutions should go no further than instituting a ‘bourgeois democratic’ regime, there were those – a very sizeable number at that time – who said: parliament belongs to the ruling class. We have formed our own assemblies, factory committees, soviets (organisations based on general assemblies with elected and revocable delegates). These organisations should take the power and then it can remain in our own hands – the first step towards reorganising society from top to bottom. And for a brief moment, before their revolution was destroyed by isolation, civil war and internal degeneration, the soviets, the organs of the working class, did take power in Russia.      

That was a moment of unprecedented hope for humanity. The fact that it was defeated should not deter us: we have to learn from our defeats and from the mistakes of the past. We can’t democratise capitalism because more than ever it is a monstrous and destructive force which will drag the world to ruin unless we destroy it. And we can’t get rid of this monster using the institutions of capitalism itself. We need new organisations, organisations which we can control and direct towards the revolutionary change which remains our only real hope.  

Amos 25/1/12      

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