The core of Marx’s critique of capitalism lies in class relations, which can be traced back to the dawn of recorded history – and coincides with the dawn of agriculture. There is evidence that prior to agricultural societies, hunter-gatherers formed smaller communal societies, and this continues into the present day in many indigenous communities. That living history alone should be sufficient evidence to disprove any notion of competition as being fundamental to human nature, which is key to many arguments in support of capitalism.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels call for the building of a revolutionary class consciousness amongst the oppressed (the working class of capitalism, or the proletariat) with which the entire system of class relations, and the state which enforces it, may be abolished. Communism, after all, is nothing more than the return of society to its pre-agricultural state of communal relations and sharing, without discarding the advances made possible by agriculture and technology.
Another critical element of Marx’s theory of capital is the cyclical nature of its crises, and how these crises drive greater exploitation and alienation of the working class. In my earlier piece, The Implications of Abolishing Wage Labor and Capitalism, I briefly touched on the current crisis cycle of wage labor and automation within capitalism and offered three possible outcomes. After further reflection, I have revised my possible outcomes:
- The crisis ends with a basic income guarantee saving capitalism.
- The crisis ends with a full employment guarantee saving capitalism.
- The crisis accelerates, resulting in full alienation of the working class.
The third possible outcome is the most interesting, as it opens up several new possibilities from a communist perspective.
Capitalist futurists like Scott Santens are obsessed with the concept of a Universal Basic Income as a solution to the crisis of wage labor and automation that is currently underway. The usual argument is that basic income will redistribute a portion of the profits accumulated by the top 1% equally among citizens, which will in turn boost spending and stimulate the economy according to the predictions of Keynesian economics. An alternative form of basic income utilizes a form of “qualitative easing,” otherwise known as state expansion of the money supply, to provide a universal subsidy for the same Keynesian effect.
While capitalist futurists may be tempted to argue that any future in which basic needs are met and work is voluntary is a sufficient advance from the current capitalist welfare state, basic income fails both conditions upon closer examination. While a guarantee of money is indeed an improvement over the current system, it only guarantees demand for basic needs and does nothing to ensure that the market is optimally producing enough supply (and enough of the right kind of supply!) to meet demand. Like all other bourgeoisie economics, it remains irrationally reliant on the invisible hand.
Second, saying that work will be voluntary because everyone gets an average subsidy somewhere around the poverty line is patently absurd. This is little better than the voluntary work argument of anarcho-capitalists, who suggest that the starvation of the destitute is merely due to choices on their part. Because of the previous lack of guaranteed supply of necessary goods such as housing, it is impossible to guarantee that the monthly budget of necessities for everyone receiving basic income will remain below the level of the subsidy. It’s important to note that many tenant lease agreements expressly prohibit subletting, artificially constraining the supply of multiple occupant housing and thus keeping prices elevated. Work will, therefore, remain involuntary for the vast majority of basic income recipients living in major metropolises: if the price of available housing exceeds the basic income budget, what other choice exists besides getting a job?
Finally, the parasitic nature of capitalism should never be ignored, and that is exactly what basic income does. As Silicon Valley tech companies have drifted toward offering “software as a service,” which is basically a form of high-profit indefinite-term lease agreements, the same thing has happened in impoverished communities across America. Payday lenders sprung up to offer “short term” cash loans, bail bonds, and automobile-backed collateral loans at ludicrous interest rates, while companies like Rent-A-Center and Aaron’s appeared everywhere to offer moderately expensive consumer goods like flatscreen TVs and furniture sets at “low” rental prices, hoping that the cash-strapped poor would find a perpetual $19.99 monthly bill for a sofa preferable to a $500 one-time purchase. Once the poor victim is hooked on the service, the fleecing begins with upselling and ends with late fees, penalty rates, collections, and repossession. It is absolutely naive to assume that these practices would not multiply under a basic income guarantee.
Therefore, the major problems with basic income from a Marxist perspective have nothing to do with its viability in terms of bourgeoisie economics such as concerns of hyperinflation. It seems rather clear that basic income will work as advertised. However, since universal basic income advances the dissolution of neither class relations nor the state, and disguises the continued alienation of the working classes with pleasant-sounding liberal propaganda terminology like “opportunity” and “freedom,” it will only ensure the survival of capitalism and thus the continued oppression of the proletariat.
I also remain skeptical that a universal basic income will be universally adopted by capitalists because of prevailing views about the “laziness” of workers. Years of tireless repetition of anti-communist and anti-socialist propaganda lines have practically embedded them in the conservative dogma. Most conservatives will fail to see UBI for anything other than what it is – a welfare reform program – which runs against their desire to abolish welfare entirely. With any luck and robust bipartisan opposition, UBI will continue to remain nothing more than a liberal pipe dream.
At this point it is worth considering the second alternative to UBI: fascist full employment. Since this is a policy with a long and successful history of implementation, unlike UBI, it should therefore be considered an even greater threat to the advancement of full communism. The first nation to advance a policy of full employment was Nazi Germany, in response to the Great Depression, through a program of civil works (including the construction of the Autobahn) and more importantly, defense spending. This massive surplus of productivity was what allowed the Nazis to initially surprise their complacent neighbors through overwhelming force at the opening of World War II, although they quickly ran into resource limits as the war dragged on and the Soviets mobilized their war economy in return.
British economist John Maynard Keynes maintained silence on the success of Nazi Germany’s economic program on account of the brutality of the Nazis, according to biographer Robert Skidelsky. I can only imagine his horror at seeing the most successful implementation of his policies coming from the worst fascist state ever to exist outside of America. Perhaps that explains this interesting passage in the preface to the German edition of his 1936 work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money:
Nevertheless the theory of output as a whole, which is what the following book purports to provide, is much more easily adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state, than is the theory of the production and distribution of a given output produced under conditions of free competition and a large measure of laissez-faire.
After the second World War, Britain achieved full employment between 1950 and 1973, and while America never stated a policy of full employment to the extent Britain did, they have attempted to keep the official unemployment rate around 5% for many years. Most recently, Western legislators have once again picked up the baton of full employment.
The question that remains with full employment (in the British sense, not the American one) is how it will interact with increasing levels of automation. In Capital, Marx provided mathematical proof that capitalists will not invest in new means of production (i.e. machinery or automation) if they cannot make a greater profit with it than with the present means of production. Since full employment policies use the state to both subsidize unproductive work and absorb surplus productivity in the form of expanded infrastructure and stockpiles of military hardware, we may infer that full employment may in fact serve as both a check on the rate of automation (since there is no profit to be found in automating a job that the state is subsidizing) and an accelerator (due to demand for military hardware and autonomous systems).
One country that pursued a stated goal of full employment that I failed to mention earlier was the Soviet Union. While it was quite literally the furthest thing from a fascist state, meeting almost none of Umberto Eco’s criterion, it called for full employment as part of its “war economy” policies, most of which were maintained up to its dissolution aside from a brief period of attempted reform under Lenin’s “New Economy.” Just like the fascist states and western imperialist powers, the Soviet Union absorbed the resulting surplus of production by building national infrastructure and expanding and upgrading the Red Army.
Communism and the Left Acceleration of Capitalism
The end case of either universal basic income or full employment policies (and, quite honestly, it seems that we are headed for a horrific merging of the worst parts of both ideas) would seem to be found in an accelerating system of global warfare, which I’m sure would please the capitalists of the military-industrial complex immensely. It would be a dystopic system in which armies of low-wage, completely superfluous service workers “support” a consumer economy-as-a-service while the automated factories of the military-industrial complex churn out weapons for both sides of imperialist wars in the global south. In other words, the final result looks exactly like the capitalism we live in, only worse.
It is my suspicion that, given the amount of superfluous labor that currently exists in the economy, it should be possible to sustain a near-Western lifestyle with zero socially necessary human labor if we eliminate all non-essential “necessary” work, which should free up enough resources to finish the process of automating all the remaining essential work (as well as bringing the root cause of anthropogenic global warming to its well-deserved end.) Subsequently, human labor would only exist on a strictly voluntary, self-directed level, much like hobbies today – with the difference that free time would be universal rather than a scarcity as it is today.
Since it has become clear to me that the continued evolution of capitalism with either a basic income or full employment will present further challenges to abolishing labor and creating such a society, I am therefore opposed to both policies. The question, then, is what policy should communists support to advance the destruction of capitalism?
We may find the answer in what has been termed “accelerationism,” a difficult to grasp concept that Karl Marx was developing before his death, evidenced by his increasingly gloomy tone throughout the third volume of Capital. It may have even hastened the death of Marx’s close friend Friedrich Engels when he attempted to piece together volume 3, as described in this unsettling post by Vincent Garton that also points an accusing finger at the fourth volume of Capital for the collapse of the Second International. Unfortunately, the contradictory nature of acceleration also has a tendency to drive ideology far into the realm of nihilism and reaction, as seen in the case of Nick Land. It is good to ask uncomfortable questions, but we must take care when interpreting the answers lest we fall into the same trap.
The first question we must ask is: what will come after the latest crisis of capitalism, if we do not resolve it through some form of fascist state intervention? As Marx postulated, the crisis cycles of capitalism drive workers toward greater levels of alienation, i.e. continued loss of the value of their labor. The steady rate of profit demanded by capitalists, according to the traditional understanding of Marx’s labor theory of value, necessarily must be obtained by extracting an ever-greater share of value from the worker’s productivity. In other words, as profits rise, workers get paid less while being forced to work longer for the same wage.
However, this traditional understanding runs into a major hiccup around 1932, when the United States and most other nations partly decoupled their currencies from gold, and again in 1970, when the remaining ties to gold were blown away. Since fiat currency as a representation of gold (or another highly valued commodity) is the cornerstone of Marx’s labor theory of value, removing it makes most of volume 1 of Capital nothing more than a historical curiosity for analyzing capitalist relations prior to the Bretton Woods system. It does not, however, invalidate Marxism itself – which interestingly enough predicts its own demise, or more accurately evolution, as a fundamental function of dialectic materialism.
This understanding allows us to see how capital managed to evolve past the crisis of the Great Depression. At the time, demands for unionization, 8-hour days, and fair labor standards were forcing capitalists to cut into their profit margins. President Roosevelt responded to these demands with the labor reforms of the New Deal, giving the labor movement the appearance of victory, while simultaneously destroying the value of the dollar by making it illegal to hoard gold. While the unions celebrated their victory, he effectively pulled the rug out from under them by creating the conditions under which the currency could be devalued. While some of the other reforms were rolled back almost immediately under his successor, it was not until the 1970s that the full extent of this damage to the labor movement started to become clear.
In so many words, we can see that all of the “gains” lauded by bourgeois politicians, those scale-covered lying sacks of filth who entrance voters with sweet-sounding propaganda in order to extract donations of their hard-earned yet utterly worthless currency, are themselves utterly worthless. More than anything, the betrayal of the labor movement (and later, the civil rights movement!) serves as concrete proof that the incremental reform advocated by bourgeois socialists and so-called progressives is nothing more than breathing room for capitalists to regroup in before beginning their next assault on the proletariat. There is nothing the bourgeoisie fear more than the revolution of the proletariat, and they will stop at nothing to prevent it from happening.
It is this stubborn, deeply ingrained drive to save capitalism that will be the greatest source of resistance for left acceleration. We are already witnessing how left-leaning reformists are busily splitting themselves into two camps: one for the defense of wage slavery, in the form of full employment, and other advocating for the creation of a basic income subsidy for capitalism. For that is what basic income really is: a means of preserving the profit margins of capitalists by ensuring that “consumers” will always have money to spend.
We should, instead, firmly reject any attempt at reforming capital. The old byline of Democrats and their supporters (like the always useful DSA) has been “change the system from within.” But history has proven that such attempts always result in a weaker, watered-down, milquetoast version of the same system. This is because hierarchical systems like bureaucracy and capitalism are self-perpetuating: they will automatically resist any changes that could weaken the power structure, because such a change may threaten the system’s existence. We may therefore infer the corollary of this generalization is that hierarchical systems will always accept changes that will strengthen the existing power structure.
Deng: capitalist sympathizer, or visionary accelerationist?
The Communist Party of China is an intriguing bundle of contradictions in this sense. They still claim adherence to Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, while openly contradicting many of the orthodox views of both ideologies. One interpretation of this is that the bourgeoisie effectively took over over the Communist Party of China thanks to Deng Xiaoping and the failure of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. However, if we accept the accelerationist premise that capitalism will suffer a sudden implosion and transition to fully automated luxury communism at some indeterminate point in the future, we must ask if Deng was therefore a committed communist who was merely ahead of his time, in the same vein as Marx and the two final volumes of Capital.
In this regard, the CPC’s debate over the nature of the primary stage of socialism is enlightening. They describe their current economic system as part of the primary stage of socialism, which began in 1950 and thus is expected to conclude by 2050 – less than 35 years away. The next stage that will follow it is not elaborated upon, but fully automated luxury communism might be a good guess.
A look at recent headlines will reveal how China has dramatically shaped the narrative of capital globally. The Chinese today are at the center of major technological developments including industrial robotics: Foxconn plans to eliminate nearly all human jobs in its suicide-prone iPhone factories. Chinese investment currently props up the US dollar as well as the Eurozone. The Chinese state is likewise playing a crucial role in the industrialization of the states of the “global south.” Their efforts are not completely compatible with orthodox views of capitalism, but viewed from the perspective of a deeply communist nation trying to accelerate the global collapse of capitalism, China’s policies may start to make a certain amount of sense. The only question that remains for me is whether this was intentional or merely accidental.
I am aware that this piece is likely to raise far more questions than it answers, which is good. I personally have severe doubts about the likelihood of sudden capitalist collapse and instant communization thereof. At the same time, the progression of capitalism and imperialism has created a pervasive surveillance state that casts into doubt the success of previously successful revolutionary models.
The answer that comes to me, then, is local organization of communal assemblies (similar to the Soviets, or the people’s assemblies under Mao’s teachings) and continued education of the populace in preparation not so much for armed revolution, but rather in the event of sudden collapse. Unlike the rich white survivalists, as communists we recognize that strength lies not in the quantity of munitions and supplies an individual may stockpile, but rather the shared class consciousness and mutual support of a true community.