Very Late Capitalism?
Late capitalism is the epoch in history of the development of the capitalist mode of production in which the contradiction between the growth of forces of production and the survival of the capitalist relations of production assumes an explosive form. This contradiction leads to a spreading crisis of these relations of production. (Ernst Mandel, 1972:500).
It is a delicate operation to discern what, within any social critique, is itself ideology, is itself millennialism, is itself despair, is itself anxiety. Greta Thunberg’s first book calls for a sea-change in world systems, but specifically in that economic. And while it is certainly the case that humanitarian crises as well as those environmental have been exacerbated by a cut-throat dog-eat-dog system of exchanges and values, it is also equally the case that, as Marx himself suggested much closer to its advent, Bourgeois capitalism has been ‘the best system yet invented’. It has created unprecedented levels of wealth and spread that wealth far wider than any other economic dynamic in human history. It has levelled both systems of caste and class. It has elevated the Bourgeois class to political power. It has made the genders far more equal. It has invented technologies that can aid a radical democracy of the kind Thunberg envisages, and most importantly, in its dogged doggerel of individuated ideology, it has exhibited no respect for either gods or kings alike.
And all of this Marx realized in his own day. For he and Engels, communism would surpass its predecessor in both its humanity and its equalizing force. Thunberg’s too easy dismissal of such an idea that has never been tested at a national level contradicts the entire heritage of her own critique. With some minor local exceptions, the communism authentic to Marx and Engels is as yet an untried device. Given the remainder of her basic suggestions for change, her own view is essentially the same as was theirs.
Now this is not necessarily a terrible thing. ‘Communism’ is, at least in theory, simply a more equitable and humane version of capitalism, for in the transition from one mode of production to the next, in this case, the means of production remain unchanged. Indeed, Marx had himself to understate this issue within his own dialectical modeling due to two problems: One, purely theoretical, which had Engels’ historical evolutionary scale-level model cohere on the basis of a double change; both means and relations of production were altered in each of the world-shifting limens that had preceded the proposed, and still hypothetical, ‘communist revolution’. And two, purely political; Marx and Engels could not afford to extoll overmuch the system they desired to overthrow.
And thus neither can Thunberg. Overcoming capitalism is made possible only by the presence of the dynamic forces within capitalism itself, just as Marx understood the case to be for the potential communist outlook. For him, the nation in which he was eventually exiled was in fact the ‘closest to communism’, that of Victorian England, replete with its world-wide colonial empire so derided by Thunberg. That pseudo-communist revolutions occurred in backward, non-capitalistic nations such as Russia and China were world-historical events, to be sure, but ones doomed to failure on Marx’s rubric alone. The ‘small is beautiful Star Trek technocratic humanism’ which settles down like a light drizzle upon the umbrella of future visions of a better world could only be had with the high technologies that capitalism invented. This is not capital ‘selling the communist the rope’ by which the latter will hang the former, but rather presents a series of opportunities for the more ethical use and deployment of resources unimaginable in any other economic system, in any other mode of production.
And it is not a case of mere technology. The greatest triumph of capital rests not in its products nor its wealth, but in its human liberation, the very human freedom Thunberg so casually denigrates as being delusional within capital. Not quite so. Freedom is a modern construct that is ‘value neutral’, in that it can be manipulated as a sacred ideological cow – and all political parties in the Bourgeois state do this – or it can be realized by the individual in his or her own existential journey, and indeed, only there. The ‘pathless land’ of Krishnamurti is our unwitting and perhaps ironic guide to this kind of authenticity, and the very idea that a human being, fragile, mortal, subject to both ‘the insolence of officials’ and ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ alike, should even be able to dream of such an existential business is nothing if not astonishing. And this dream, realized in a yet few persons but available in theory to all humanity, is the central dream not of communism, but of capitalism.
Why so? Because along with the idea of freedom comes the conception of the individual. Though its Enlightenment sovereignty and holism is long gone, even in its fragmented and fractured ‘postmodern’ form it is yet more free. Gone are its loyalties to family, to credo, to crowd, even to vocation. The modern self replaces only itself with a further, hopefully wiser, guise of itself. We do ‘die many times to become immortal’, as Nietzsche intoned. That capital places the privileged in a position where they may exercise this basic human freedom on the backs of others makes most attempts at such unfree. Hence the alienation that Marx stated was a hallmark of Bourgeois relations of production. Even in our radical freedom, we are divorced from our shared birthright, our common humanity. So much so, that we do not tend to think of the distant others who are yet enslaved by our very attempts to end the slavery of the modern self.
This much is true of capital. Even so, the idea that it must be overthrown as its own dialectical force is likely overblown and premature. For within it lie the keys to its own evolution, not revolution. An equitable taxation policy, a surcharge on stock trades of the Tobin variety, an emphasis on sharing innovations, especially in the climate and medical fields, an awareness that we are one species and one world, an adherence to Ricoeur’s dictum that ‘the love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world’, none of these need be sought in a system other than the one we have today. In his day, Marx was understandably coy about his discovery that the essential characteristic of communism were already present in capitalism, but we today have no need to be so. For Thunberg and others to be ignoring this historical insight makes it much less likely that their vision of the future will indeed occur at all.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.