There seems to be a surprising consensus in the commentariat that we are finally living in the world of late-stage capitalism. The term itself was coined by Werner Sombart in his 1902 work Der Moderne Kapitalismus, to refer to a hypothetical period of capitalist excess and decline which he later asserted began with the first World War. In keeping with the title theme of my previous post, The Metastasis of Capital, I will instead dub this phase “terminal capitalism,” as it is becoming ever more clear that there is no silver bullet left that can magically fix capitalism in perpetuity. Capitalism will end: the only question is how long that process will take, and who will be harmed in the process.
As an aside, it is highly interesting that Sombart, of whom Engels was “pleased to find such understanding of Capital at a German university,” went on to sympathize with the Nazis and even wrote a book asserting that capitalism was the fault of the Jews. This underlines the uneasy position of communists, who may not only legitimize the bourgeoisie oppressors by seeking to ingratiate themselves with them, but also, by identifying the weaknesses of capitalism and speculating on how to fix it in their critiques, hand the bourgeoisie dictatorship gift-wrapped solutions to the perpetual crises of accumulation within capitalism.
Such is the case with modern monetary theory, basic income, and the service sector, three ideas that expand on postulates in Marx’s Capital and derived economic practices such as Keynesianism. The first states that the (bourgeoisie) state has the unlimited power to create fiat currency without any negative consequences, and is a direct result of the abolishment of the gold standard starting with the New Deal and ending with Bretton-Woods, a process that Marx postulated was an inevitable consequence of capitalism:
This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime.
With the end of private gold hoards, the bourgeoisie state was left standing as the sole holder of all wealth. Although capitalists carried on as if nothing had happened, in reality the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie had expropriated and centralized an entire nation’s capital overnight. The 74 years between the signing of Executive Order 6102 and the 2007 crisis of accumulation could be described as a long, drawn-out version of the 7 stages of grief, and the final acceptance of this fact is reflected in the media headlines about late-stage capitalism.
One of the ideas often passed off as a way of “solving” the deliberately uneven distribution of resources (and over-accumulation of wealth in the “top 1%”) under capitalism is the second idea I mentioned: a universal basic income. It proposes to directly distribute an equal amount of fiat to every citizen of the bourgeoisie dictatorship. But since that accumulated wealth is now entirely notional, and the over-production of goods in terminal capitalism means that the basic needs of every person on Earth could be met today, what UBI produces in reality is a way to ensure that workers are locked into serfdom, where necessities like housing are always kept barely out of reach, forcing one’s participation in self-alienating labor in order to “earn” the required tokens to “buy” the remaining necessities.
Demonstrating how capitalism relentlessly destroys all aspects of the bourgeoisie society that created it, Quartz ran an article entitled “Exhausted by the herd, single South Koreans are gingerly embracing the ‘YOLO’ lifestyle.” In so many words, the article describes how the pressure of capitalism to maximize dwindling profits, and thus surplus value, takes away so much of the wage-slave’s available time that they are forced to push away all other connections that we take for granted in society: friends, family, and indeed even the community. In the West, this is most viscerally realized in the form of the cubicle farm, an innovation that allowed capitalists to maximize workers per office space. Of course, even the cubicle farm is slowly withering away, being replaced most visibly in Silicon Valley by “open office spaces” that create a cheap, fake facsimile of the communities capitalism destroys inside the workplace itself.
This leads us to the service economy. The alienating nature of wage labor under capitalism was explored in considerable depth by Marx in the chapter on Estranged Labor in his 1844 Paris Manuscripts:
We have proceeded from the premises of political economy. We have accepted its language and its laws. We presupposed private property, the separation of labor, capital and land, and of wages, profit of capital and rent of land – likewise division of labor, competition, the concept of exchange value, etc. On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that finally the distinction between capitalist and land rentier, like that between the tiller of the soil and the factory worker, disappears and that the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes – property owners and propertyless workers.
Furthermore, in the manuscript form of Volume I of Capital, Chapter One, Marx clearly states that a commodity does not necessarily need to be physical in order to be a commodity:
There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom.
When the means of production begin to reproduce themselves without requiring any additional wage labor or capital derived from such wage labor, the accumulation of capitalism, which rests entirely on surplus labor as Marx described, begins to fall apart. The unsettling conclusion inferred to here is that the service economy is capitalism’s solution to the crisis of physical accumulation brought on by widespread automation.
Once the process of capitalist consolidation and expropriation has resulted in all natural resources and smaller capitals being owned by a single capital controlled by the dictatorship of the entire bourgeoisie class – for the sake of argument let’s call it Washington – it will possess a monopoly on all resources and production, without requiring any wage labor at all. The physical need for work will have been eliminated while keeping work for the sake of work intact. Instead of imbuing labor value into physical objects, the worker’s labor value now remains with the worker. Instead of creating commodities, the worker becomes the commodity, much as Marx predicted.
Artificial scarcity would continue to be the status quo, while the only “real” work would be found in selling oneself to meet the needs of others. The alienation of the worker under capitalism would express itself, finally, in the wage slave selling themselves as a commodity in order to obtain the artificially scarce necessities of life. These commodity-slaves, particularly at the bottom, would be entirely subservient to the needs of others, unable to do anything except keep themselves alive and presentable, while the bourgeoisie dictators of the state would have their every need attended to at no pain to themselves – having finally attained the position of royalty that they aspired to (while claiming to demand their abolition) so many centuries before.
If history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, the liberation of the worker as a self-made slave, forced to sell themselves as a mere commodity to fulfill the whims of the bourgeoisie, is a farcical repetition of the slave-courts of ancient royalty.
In other words, a UBI would be nothing more than a superficial lessening of the burden on the commodity-slaves, a demonstration of the benevolence of their rightful rulers. It is the universal cake distribution of these aspiring Marie Antoinettes, having forgotten what their forebears did to the French aristocrats.
The good news, if there is any, is that the bourgeoisie do not yet possess complete control over the means of production. The national capital of China, for instance, is still controlled by the Communist Party. More importantly, and more relevant to those of us in the imperial core, and particularly the US, workers still nominally control their labor. It is true that the penalties for withholding labor continue to worsen, as the fascist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie continues to corrupt mass labor organizations from within and crack down with martial force from without.
The tactics of labor, Black liberation, and antifa movements provide some hope, demonstrating that temporary shutdowns are indeed possible and changes can be effected with limited numbers of activists. The challenge facing communists today, then, is one of the proper strategy to employ these tactics with in the aim of abolishing classes by overthrowing the mutually reinforcing bourgeoisie class rule of the fascist state and the capitalist system of wage slavery.