The Metastasis of Capital

Let’s talk about this story of a UK vet who died after losing his welfare benefits:

Screenshot from 2017-05-11 10-33-58

 

Regular readers of this blog may have figured out by now that I’m not exactly pro-military, to put it mildly. However, in liberal bourgeoisie society, defenders of empire like David Clapson are also the most visible victims of capitalism. While a liberal may walk past a homeless woman bleeding out on the street without comment, they always elaborate on how tragic it is when a retired cop or military vet dies of some “tragic,” entirely preventable incident like the one above.

Empire lures people into its war machine with promises of good wages and lifetime benefits, then cuts them adrift in the name of profit. The same goes for the “public sector.” Aside from fundamental necessities like healthcare, what is the main purpose of public spending? To answer this, let us break the question down further.

Q: Who benefits the most from public roads?

A: Private capitalists.

Q: Who benefits the most from reliable public transportation?

A: Private capitalists.

In other words, the entire modern public sector is designed for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to keep labor enslaved to capital.

Let’s take a step back to the last time monopolistic capital was concentrated at similar levels to today: the 1880s. Given free reign over infrastructure, capitalists created company towns in order to extract the most surplus labor value from their workers. The tendency of the rate of profit to decline led the Pullman Company to alienate its workers, leading to the Pullman Strike of 1894. Unfortunately, at the time Marx’s theories were still not widely disseminated, so the frustrated workers merely asked for better terms of slavery. To its credit the early labor movement did push for a reduction in working hours, but they stopped at 40 hours and nobody has dared to ask for further reductions in the years since the New Deal passed.

The bourgeoisie reaction to the labor movement was known as the Progressive movement.

The main objectives of the Progressive movement were eliminating problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and corruption in government.

Initially the movement operated chiefly at local levels; later, it expanded to state and national levels. Progressives drew support from the middle class, and supporters included many lawyers, teachers, physicians, ministers and business people.

Allow me to restate: Progressivism is reactionary.

Why did the bourgeoisie respond to labor demands with their own call for “progress?”

The answer is quite simple, really. They sought the preservation of capitalism.

Lawyers, physicians, ministers, and merchants all share one thing in common: their livelihood depends on the wages of others. If wage laborers have no money with which to pay them, they starve as well.

Compare the following excerpts:

[…] spending on the public sector, schools and infrastructure was considered extravagant. […] Bridges, canals and roads were built, hospitals and schools, railway stations and orphanages; swamps were drained and land reclaimed, forests were planted and universities were endowed.”

[it] included food supplementary assistance, infant care, maternity assistance, general healthcare, wage supplements, paid vacations, unemployment benefits, illness insurance, occupational disease insurance, general family assistance, public housing, and old age and disability insurance.

and

[…] a favorable attitude toward urban-industrial society, belief in mankind’s ability to improve the environment and conditions of life, belief in an obligation to intervene in economic and social affairs, and a belief in the ability of experts and in the efficiency of government intervention. Scientific management […] became a watchword for industrial efficiency and elimination of waste, with the stopwatch as its symbol.

Doesn’t it seem like the second quote describes the first? The sources may surprise you: here is the first, and the second.

Fascism is, unfortunately, the logical conclusion of progressive policies. Every fascist government of the 20th century traces its social and economic policies directly to the Progressive movement. Remember who came up with eugenics? Then you have Margaret Sanger, progressive, feminist icon, eugenicist, and follower of Thomas Malthus, who said the following at the Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in 1925:

Advanced on purely individual, feministic and profoundly eugenic bases, emphasizing the desiderata of Quality as opposed to Quantity in the procreation of humans, serenely indifferent to historical backgrounds, academic discussions and polemics, the new battle for human emancipation focused attention upon the problem of hygienic contraception as a personal problem, and essentially as the problem of womankind.

Let’s add “racist” to that list, too, for the societal effects of eugenicist policies cannot be described as anything but.

Modern Progressives can deny these aspects of the movement’s history, but they cannot change the effects their policies still have. Progressives can talk all they want about creating a system that is fair for all, but that is impossible without abolishing capitalism. As long as private capital exists, as long as an exploitative hierarchy of labor exists, inequality & suffering will remain a fact of life. Abolition of private capital by itself is not enough to solve this: at best, you get a proto-capitalist system like the Soviet Union. This is not a dig against the Soviets: they really wanted a better system, and in most ways, they had one. But like the American labor movement, when they had the opportunity to reduce hours of labor, they balked. After the Great Patriotic War, they never returned to the concept of reducing hours of labor, which ultimately spelled their doom, much as the American labor movement’s refusal to push for reducing hours of labor ultimately turned it into a reactionary bourgeois tool.

At this late stage of capitalism, I simply can’t accept that the solution to the problem progressives created by empowering the state is giving the fascist state even more power. This is not the post-war Soviet Union. We have no workers’ councils; we are not represented by the fascist state. No amount of well-meaning legislative proposals or Constitutional amendments can fix this mess. The system is designed to resist change.  People have been trying to change the Democratic Party from within for over 100 years. What do they have to show for it? Third Way? All of the great gains of the labor and civil rights movements were fleeting at best.

I can’t believe this needs to be said, but the “founding fathers” were bourgeoisie trash.

How are we going to pass a constitutional amendment – like, say, ending Citizens United – without control of 2/3rds of the states? How are we supposed to gain control of those states when a small minority of wealthy reactionaries have an iron grip on all the state machinery? What good would gaining control of electoral machinery do, anyway, when even solid-blue states like CA are dominated by their own minority of wealthy reactionaries?

Capitalism has metastasized in the United States. Reforms are like chemotherapy: they cannot cure the patient, and only prolong suffering.

Draw your own conclusion as to what needs to be done.

fully automated amazon.communism

One of the recurring critiques against socialism and communism is the reliance on centrally planned economies, as if a socialized monopoly is somehow far worse than privately-owned, exploitative capitalist monopolies. The same bourgeois economists who gush over how capitalist mergers create economies of scale through vertical integration also talk about how central planning will never work, ignoring that central planning is simply the vertical integration of an entire economy with the economies of scale that result. Either these economists are simpletons, or there is a far more sinister motive at play.

Of course, early attempts at central planning tended to include spectacular failures. Some of these were due to sheer hubris on the part of the planners, who have on occasion been criticized for trying to bend reality to their will, but more often it was mundane: miscommunication, delays, war, etc. Over-reporting yields and under-estimating demand tends to be shrugged off under capitalism as a market failure, but those same capitalists shriek in delight when they hear that the Soviets were not, in fact, infallible.

Looking forward to a future in which capitalism has collapsed, we may then wonder what to do next. Do we go back to backbreaking, labor-intensive organic farming and dissolve the cities, as it seems some on the environmentalist left wish to do? Or will we expropriate the tools of automation that led to the downfall of the capitalists, and put them to use for the common good? Let us assume for a moment that we do the latter, in which case we should ask what those tools might look like.

As it turns out, in Amazon.com’s relentless drive to expand to all sectors of the economy, they have in fact produced one possible roadmap to fully automated luxury communism. Setting aside the fact that most of the goods they supply are made with barely sufficient wage labor in the global south today, over the last twenty or so years they have put together a remarkable supply chain with automation, as seen in this video:

Even though they rely on robots to shuffle pallets around the warehouse, they still employ thousands of people to pick goods. Of course, those jobs are far from safe from automation – stock picking is a mundane, repetitive task that is an ideal target for robots like Baxter:

But even this is rather boring compared to some of Amazon’s newer forays into automation, such as delivery by drone and floating distribution centers.

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Of course, in true capitalist fashion, Amazon’s patent suggests absurdly luxurious uses for this technology, as described in the previously linked CNN piece:

The patent cites sporting events as a place where the aerial warehouse would be especially useful. The drones could deliver items such as team paraphernalia or food to large crowds in a small area.

A more critical look at this delivery technology might suggest its usefulness in, for instance, disaster relief: imagine being able to move a fleet of fully automated delivery centers loaded with supplies into a region devastated by an earthquake.

However, all of this pales next to their latest concept: an automated grocery store.

Setting aside the obvious problems of wastefulness and packaging – which could perhaps be partly solved with ubiquitous automated recycling, but I digress – this concept store more than anything I have ever seen reflects the potential future of fully automated communism, and it wouldn’t even require the smartphone app! If goods are freely available at no cost to all, then the “store” would be more like a virtual quartermaster. As people pick up what they need, when they need it, the store’s computer system merely needs to request restocking through the automated supply chain. It neatly sidesteps the common grocery store problem of 2-5 different competing brands for each category, minimizing wasted space, and the compact size of the stores means that they can be sited within urban communities rather than in the suburban hinterlands.

This is not to say that these stores should carry everything: trying to package fresh produce tends to be excessive, like these individually-wrapped bell peppers or plastic trays of pre-sliced apple bags. Community gardens, farmer’s markets (which, without money, would probably look more like tiny fairs than markets) and automated urban hydroponic vertical gardens could all be ways to supply cities with fresh, local produce on demand.

Even so, if the need for precise payment is eliminated, then it becomes possible for the automated grocery store to simply bring in boxes of produce, which people pick through, and cycle the boxes as they empty out. Large-scale automated farming, of course adapted for better ecological sustainability, will still be a necessary and important part of a post-capitalist food distribution system. And without the capitalist drive for ever-greater profits, care can be taken to ensure that the global system will continue to function for generations to come.

What’s more democratic than democracy? Demarchy

In the West, democracy is held to be the highest form of government. It is suggested that any government which does not derive its power from the people is illegitimate, even as Western “democratic” governments actively work to subvert the will of the people through various machinations. A 2014 Princeton study by Gillens and Page [1] revealed the extent of this subversion, concluding that public opinion has a “near-zero” impact on U.S. law. The following video from Represent.Us highlights the findings:

However, like most upper-middle-class (bourgeoisie) reformers, the folks at Represent.Us are stuck in the same trap of attempting to change a system that is actively fighting changes from within. What they decry as “corruption” is merely the logical outcome of a society in which money–or more accurately, capital–is the highest moral authority. Bourgeois liberals clearly live by the adage “Money is power,” while pretending it’s false by promulgating myths of opportunity and equality.

Even as these reformist groups suggest the way to fix unbalanced representation is through the passage of “anti-corruption acts,” county election boards all across the US are purging hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls thanks to systems like Interstate Cross-Check. The remaining wreckage of the civil rights movement’s gains, like the Voting Rights Act, is steadily being cleared away by conservative judicial rulings at all levels of the federal court system. The much-vaunted checks and balances of the Constitution have, in the end, turned out to be little more than a speedbump for capital – almost as if they were not, in fact, intended to prevent oligarchy, but rather a bulwark to defend the bourgeois revolution of 1776 from a future popular revolt.

If it is indeed democracy that we seek, and not the twisted parody of democracy that bourgeois capitalism has produced, then we must dispense with all of the bourgeois sensibilities we carry along with us. We must distill society down to the bare elements, and re-shape it anew. In programming terms,we might call this a “refactoring” of society: recognizing that the old system was incapable of achieving the desired result, starting over from a clean slate with the desired result in mind and rebuilding a functionally equivalent system without re-using any of the old code outside of, perhaps, some universal shared elements.

During this endeavour, we must question all the norms of the previous society, and ask ourselves why systems operated the way they did. How did American electoral politics develop the way they did? How was that related to the original requirement for all voters to be white landholders? Why is it, for all the reverence toward the ancient Greek democracy of Athens, elections by lot were never seriously considered in the West?

Likewise, it is telling that Western states blast former and current states like the Soviet Union and Cuba, respectively, for being anti-democratic and authoritarian. Soviet, for example, literally means “council” in English. Anti-communists like to scare people by implying that the “all power to the Soviets!” cry of 1917 was a cry for authority, when in fact it was a purer expression of democracy (“All power to the workers’ councils!”) than the American revolutionary cry of “no taxation without representation.”

The following video explains the functioning of Cuban democracy, which is likewise based on popular assemblies or councils:

The appeal of popular assemblies should be obvious. Indeed, this concept forms the cornerstone of participatory politics, an idealized system of nested councils in which every person votes (participates) in a local council, elects a representative to be sent to the next council up, and so on until all of humanity is represented by a single elected council, which could be accomplished in as few as 6 council levels depending on the number of members per council.

nested_council

However, this system still relies on elections. This means that at least one person must be willing to run for the next level council from within each council, convince a majority of members to vote for them, and repeat the process for each level of council until all levels have been filled. This promises to be tedious, mostly uninteresting, and not terribly rewarding for most people unless driven by an ideological motivation – which may be a good thing, but more often than not, we see politicians driven by naked ambition rather than any sort of altruism. Parpolity, as designed by Professor Shalom, thus appears to replicate the failures of Western electoral politics.

One possible solution to this is explored by Belgian writer David van Reybrouk in his book “Against Elections.” [2] He advocates for a return to the ancient practice of election by lot, alternately known as sortition or, when practiced as a form of governance, demarchy. Instead of forcing each council in a nested system as proposed under parpolity to have its own tiresome elections, all members would instead place their names into a pool to be randomly drawn from. This is little different from lottery or drawing systems, and as such methods of preventing fraud are easily carried over. A series of campaigns and elections that might take months may instead be reduced to a few days of random selections, allowing a rapid re-organization of society under participatory demarchy.

Sortition also has further, more everyday, applications. It can easily be used to replace elections in any popular body, as long as a majority agrees with the requisite rule changes. Associations, party chapters, union chapters, and the like may all benefit from the impartiality (and proportionality!) of sortition.

Of course, we can fully expect the upper class and their admirers to strongly resist any such changes to existing bourgeois states, as it would destroy the power structures they have carefully built over the years to perpetuate the forced division of labor under capitalism. This means that any such speculative proposals are only useful following the collapse of capitalism and the bourgeoisie state, whether through its own failings or because of proletarian revolution.

References and additional reading:

  1. Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspective on Politics, 2014.
  2. David van Reybrouk, “Against Elections,” Policy Network, 2014.
  3. Brian Martin, “Demarchy,” 1989.
  4. Stephen H. Unger, “Government by Jury,” columbia.edu, 2013.

In Search of Class Consciousness

In 1920, Lenin wrote the essay “Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” concerning the aftermath of the postwar German revolution and the abortive Communist revolution that occurred during it. Most of his essay thus is concerned with identifying those responsible for the failure of said revolution. He lays the blame squarely at the feet of the petty-bourgeois, who he claim possess

diffuseness and instability, that incapacity for sustained effort, unity and organised action, which, if encouraged, must inevitably destroy any proletarian revolutionary movement. [1]

This critique still seems relevant today, nearly 100 years after he wrote this essay. We have witnessed similar diffuseness and instability in the Occupy movement, which, unable to consolidate around a clear set of demands, served primarily as an incubator for activists who later took key roles in Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and even the Donald Trump campaign. Occupy’s rejection of proletarian identity, best recognized in their “We are the 99%” slogan, implicitly refused to recognize the systemic nature of capitalism. Instead, they shifted blame onto the “top 1%” of capitalists, absolving the rest of society that aids and abetts that same top 1%. As Lenin said,

It is a thousand times easier to vanquish the centralised big bourgeoisie than to “vanquish” the millions upon millions of petty proprietors; however, through their ordinary, everyday, imperceptible, elusive and demoralising activities, they produce the very results which the bourgeoisie need and which tend to restore the bourgeoisie.

As we saw in 2016, Occupy resulted not in a mass revolution and the toppling of Wall Street, but instead was merely one in a series of events that culminated in the election of Donald Trump. Occupy’s diffusive and non-proletarian nature also made it easy for the bourgeoisie to co-opt its message and monetize it. For instance, when the co-founder of the “Occupy Democrats” organization joined the board of advisers of a patent services company, this is how they described him:

Omar Rivero is the founder and editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats, a grassroots political organization that has close to 300,000 likes on Facebook. He studied Industrial Labor and Relations at Cornell University, earned a Master’s in European Business from the European School of Management (ESCP-EAP), and is now a political activist. Omar ran for office for the Florida House in District 118 and intends to run again in 2016.

In addition to being a rising political star, Omar Rivero is also an inventor and a talented entrepreneur. He has partnered up with World Patent Marketing to build and develop a multimillion dollar, futuristic social media network to compete with Facebook and Twitter. [2]

It is important to note that Rivero didn’t found Occupy Democrats until 2012, after the main Occupy movement had died down, its activists largely returning back to their previous lives. His attempt to “occupy” the Democratic Party was merely one of the latest in a long series of failed attempts at political entryism, and Occupy Democrats’ role in the 2016 election consisted mostly of creating memes to share among like-minded bourgeois liberals on social media.

Another common trait in American activism is the veneration of the “founding fathers,” the “American dream,” and a semi-mythological creature known only as “opportunity.” To quote Omar from the previous press release,

I am living the American Dream and I am going to make sure that every citizen in this country has the same opportunity that I had.

At this point, we should perhaps stop and ask ourselves what the “American Dream” really is. Its origins may be found in the settler mythos, and the first recorded reference to it came from a British colonial governor, who said Americans “for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled; if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.” [3]

Laurence Samuel argued more recently in his book “The American Dream: A Cultural History,”

For many in both the working class and the middle class, upward mobility has served as the heart and soul of the American Dream, the prospect of “betterment” and to “improve one’s lot” for oneself and one’s children much of what this country is all about. “Work hard, save a little, send the kids to college so they can do better than you did, and retire happily to a warmer climate” has been the script we have all been handed. [4]

Despite the fact that this “dream” has been proven to be a myth repeatedly, leading the late comedian George Carlin to joke “it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it,” it has been unquestioningly embraced by many like Omar Rivero. Even Martin Luther King Jr, in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” tied the struggle for Black liberation to this nationalistic settler mythos:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. [5]

The prevalence of this mythos in American culture presents a serious problem for the struggle for proletarian consciousness. As I argued before, our reverence of the founding fathers is deeply problematic. Likewise, we embrace a Protestant work ethic despite the vast majority of our labor being absolutely unnecessary and superfluous. These are not new issues; this shared national identity and dream is a tool of capital, a very effective method with which the bourgeoisie can infect the ranks of the working and poor and turn them away from a proletarian class consciousness. As Lenin argued,

The abolition of classes means, not merely ousting the landowners and the capitalists—that is something we accomplished with comparative ease; it also means abolishing the small commodity producers, and they cannot be ousted, or crushed; we must learn to live with them. They can (and must) be transformed and re-educated only by means of very prolonged, slow, and cautious organisational work. They surround the proletariat on every side with a petty-bourgeois atmosphere, which permeates and corrupts the proletariat, and constantly causes among the proletariat relapses into petty-bourgeois spinelessness, disunity, individualism, and alternating moods of exaltation and dejection.

Thus our fight for freedom is not merely a fight against capitalism, but also the ideology that infects our society and hinders our fight. This, more than force of arms, is what necessitates the vanguard. It is entirely possible for self-organized armies of anarchists to fight against capital, as witnessed during the Spanish Civil War. But their disunity and internal divisions also makes them weak to divide and conquer strategies, which capitalists have perfected over hundreds of years of colonialism, both militarily and psychologically.

At this point some perspective is needed. What, exactly, is the scope of the project we find ourselves facing? It would seem that attitudes toward home ownership might serve as a useful proxy for petty-bourgeois ideology. The U.S. Census Bureau provided this helpful table:

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In 2016, there were 135 million housing units, or 1 unit for every 2.4 people in the United States. (Coincidentally, this should disprove the notion of a housing shortage: what we have instead is an unequal distribution of housing, with 17 million vacant units.) Of these 135 million units, some 58 million are owned by landlords, who have always been a core part of the bourgeoisie. Of the remaining owner-occupied units, then, it is worth examining which owned outright, and which are mortgaged. Fortunately, FiveThirtyEight examined the results of the American Community Survey for us and produced this useful graphic:

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Extrapolating from the survey results, we can then estimate that roughly 27 million households own their homes outright. Of these, it appears at least a third own more than one property, according to this HUD paper on second ownership. Combining the various statistics, we may infer that around 43% of all US housing is owned by 7-9 million households. This allows us to set a lower bound on the size of the bourgeoisie class in the United States.

Subtracting that same amount from the 75 million total owner-occupied housing units, the remaining 66 million or so–57% of all households–might be expected to fall into the petty-bourgeoisie: some saddled with mortgages, some not, but all wishing they could enjoy the luxury of rental income. Considering how home ownership is an integral part of the American dream, we should further question how much of the remaining 36% of renting households aspire toward ownership. For that, we may turn to this blog post from the National Association of Realtors, which unfortunately paints a bleak picture for communists:

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According to NAR’s Aspiring Home Buyers Profile report, 90% of renters – nearly 33 million – “want to own one day.” If we add these renters to the 66 million who already own one home, we may then place an upper bound on the petty bourgeois of 99 million households, or roughly 85% of all US households. This means that only 8-9% of households have rejected this key part of the American dream mythos for whatever reason.

At this point some might be tempted to throw up their hands and ask how revolution is possible if >91% of the populace will resist. We may, however, want to reconsider our preliminary classification of renters after considering the other points made by the above chart. A large majority of those 33 million renters cannot afford to buy housing, and this statistic is unlikely to change in the future since high housing prices benefit the existing owners. Second, buying a home requires saving money for a down payment of at least 3.5% according to FHA rules; this merely adds to the impossibility of purchase for renters, given the tendency to live paycheck-to-paycheck at lower income levels.

Furthermore, there may even be inroads to the masses of “homeowners” thanks to financial engineering techniques introduced by capitalists. One such technique is the ARM, or adjustable-rate mortgage. Most notoriously employed in the lead-up to the 2008 housing bubble, these loans are made at low initial rates to convince renters that homeownership is possible; by the time the loan “resets” to a higher interest rate later on, the selling capitalist is long gone and the “owner” is left paying for a loan they cannot afford, which typically leads to foreclosure and a return to renting.

This forced division of class between owners & aspiring owners without sufficient means is something that can, and should be, exploited. It’s always worth remembering that capitalism requires exploitation to function: it always has, and will continue to, alienate the petty bourgeoisie if left unfettered. This is why Lenin advocated for “prolonged, slow, and cautious organizational work” to re-educate the petty-bourgeoisie.

Accelerationist purists believe that communism is the inevitable result of capitalism consuming itself. On this point, I disagree. History does not follow a path toward freedom. If it did, debt and slavery would never have emerged around the same time as agriculture. The alienation of labor by capitalism can just as easily be used by fascists to attract support from the proletariat, as we witnessed in 1930s Spain, Italy, and Germany, as well as recently with Brexit, Donald Trump, and possibly Le Pen in France. The policies of fascism, such as imperialist war and full employment, can then be employed to propel capitalism through its crisis stage of contraction and into the next bubble of expansion. For this reason, we may conclude that capitalists may be reliably expected to turn to fascism rather than allow fully automated luxury communism to exist.

At the same time, there seems to be a tendency among revolutionaries of both anarchist and Marxist persuasion to dismiss the potential usefulness of capitalist alienation. If we can provide answers for the alienated petty-bourgeoisie before fascist propagandists do, we may discover an opening. Lenin’s concept of the revolutionary vanguard is not outmoded; if anything, it is more relevant than ever in an accelerating capitalist world. The vanguard’s primary job is education since revolutions arise from class awareness. If we can provide for both the physical and intellectual needs of the alienated masses, then we should let the capitalists embrace their worst exploitative tendencies domestically: it may become our best recruiting tool.

References

  1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch05.htm
  2. http://globenewswire.com/news-release/2015/02/23/708599/10121333/en/Omar-Rivero-Founder-of-Occupy-Democrats-and-Outspoken-Opponent-of-Patent-Troll-Scams-Joins-World-Patent-Marketing-Board-of-Advisors.html
  3. https://books.google.com/books?id=DlmrAAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA513&ots=QGpNa8Mn5t&dq=Origins of the American Revolution (1944)&pg=PA77#v=onepage&q=77&f=false
  4. https://books.google.com/books?id=domiAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA7#v=onepage&q&f=false
  5. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
  6. https://www.census.gov/housing/hvs/files/currenthvspress.pdf
  7. https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/how-many-homeowners-have-paid-off-their-mortgages/
  8. https://www.huduser.gov/periodicals/ushmc/spring2004/article_ushmc-04q1.pdf
  9. http://economistsoutlook.blogs.realtor.org/2017/02/14/affordability-is-main-hurdle-for-aspiring-home-buyers/

 

Accelerating Toward Communism

Introduction

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:

  1. The crisis ends with a basic income guarantee saving capitalism.
  2. The crisis ends with a full employment guarantee saving capitalism.
  3. 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.

Basic Income

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.

Full Employment

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.

Conclusion

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.

The Cruel Prank of Housing

The “American dream” of suburban home ownership is little more than a cruel prank pulled on the working class by capitalists. The obligation to pay for housing is the primary tool used by capital to enforce unnecessary labor.

While rent is preferable for capitalists in terms of maximizing profits, most vividly in the company towns of the 1880s, health and safety standards have cut into their profits. Rent presents another disadvantage for the capitalist in that the tenants have no obligation to stay. This has been somewhat addressed through lease terms and first and last month deposits, but even those will not stop a motivated tenant from leaving.

Mortgages resemble most closely the indentured servitude of colonial America. In exchange for the promise of one day becoming a capitalist landholder, tenants indenture themselves to 30 years (or more) of payments, which for most people means doing anything they can to hold onto a job. While the idea of making a fixed payment for housing every month for 30 years is bad enough, adjustable rate mortgages are even more pernicious; resets are designed to weed out unprofitable “owners” and return housing inventory to the banks, who can then sell the same piece of capital again for pure profit.

Let us, then, further examine the pros and cons of rentals and “ownership.”

The owners of rental units are called “landlords” because, like the feudal lords of medieval Europe, they hold near-absolute control over their small domain. No tenant may improve or alter their residence without the express permission of the owner. Painting a unit is considered taboo, yet landlords will often charge tenants exorbitant prices to repaint a unit after they vacate it. The same goes for flooring, appliances, and anything else that wears out with use. This lack of freedom, and the promised freedom of the “American dream,” creates pressure on tenants to “work harder,” save up, and “buy” their own housing.

But the American Dream is an illusion, like the sweet scent of a Venus flytrap. The “freedom” of “ownership” granted is little more than a way for the real owners of the land (the capitalist financiers) to pass off the cost of maintenance and improvements to the mortgagee. In the rare situations that a mortgagee actually manages to pay off their loan, for instance after a lifetime working at an auto factory in Detroit, they remain liable for paying the state property taxes based on the perceived “value” of the land in perpetuity. They also remain liable for paying for basic necessities such as drinking water, regardless of quality of service, as seen in Flint, MI. This places further pressure on the working class to push for higher wages and/or retirement benefits in anticipation, as well as forcing retirees to either re-enter the working class, or become landlords themselves by either renting out rooms or their entire house.

The alternative to this two-pronged capitalist system is communal housing. Communal housing operates under the fundamental understanding that land, which predated our brief existence, and will continue to exist long after we pass on, simultaneously belongs to no-one and yet everyone. Once we understand that land is a resource that we all must share and protect for future generations, concepts of exclusive ownership reveal themselves as exploitative and evil.

The danger of this realization for capitalists cannot be understated. If the hoodwinked working classes, or in Marxist parlance the petit-bourgeoisie, recognize the fundamental contradictions of capitalism and feel empowered to take up revolutionary action, the capitalists will undoubtedly lose. Thus they engage in a broad war of propaganda against any and all criticism of capitalism. They deliberately conflate underground communities – existing in capitalist-owned spaces like the “Ghost Ship” warehouse – with true communal housing to discredit the concept. Likewise, anarchist squatter communes are painted as health and safety hazards in an attempt to make people think that is the only outcome of communal living.

Capitalist landlords in areas like Oakland are looking for only one thing, which is profit. When a housing market like the Bay Area becomes obscenely imbalanced, it creates an incentive to add unsafe living spaces in an attempt to maximize rents. The Ghost Ship was not a self-organized collective: it was a profit-seeking scheme driven by a capitalist.

On the other side, squatters have little reason to care about the buildings they inhabit, as they are explicitly owned by capitalists. Operating under the fear that the police will kick them out at any time, they will do whatever they can to minimize the risk of detection. What good is having running water or electricity if it alerts the bourgeoisie State to your “illicit” existence?

Only by abolishing private ownership can we create true communities:

where shelter is guaranteed to all;

where all have the freedom to express themselves in their personal space;

and where we act for the common good rather than in the interest of profit.

On Fully Automated Luxury Communism, pt.1: Production

Embracing automation and zero employment is one way to clean up the inefficiency and waste of capitalism without abandoning technology. What happens to the people, on the other hand, depends on whether this giant economic leap is implemented under capitalism or communism, as I examined in my previous piece. Under capitalism, there’s either an apocalypse (the newly superfluous people are eliminated) or a dystopia (Manna, the Matrix, etc.) Under communism, full automation and the abolition of wage labor yields something described as “fully automated luxury communism,” which countless reactionary thinkers over the years have derided as a utopian fantasy.

For years, capitalists have pursued automation because it increases efficiency, which enriches the capitalist. Vertical integration is another thing that increases efficiency, but attempts to vertically integrate tend to be fought under anti-trust. The reason for anti-trust legislation and breaking up of monopolies has less to do with fairness for “consumers” than it does with protecting the profits of other capitalists. This is why nationalization was popular in wartime. It generally allowed for increased efficiency with some tradeoffs.

But there is a major difference between capitalist monopoly or state nationalization, and fully automated luxury communism. Under fully automated luxury communism, the goal is meeting the needs of all with minimum waste. Capitalist monopoly turns the gains of efficiency into personal gain, while state nationalization turns it toward an advantage in war/trade. Capitalists love to make fun of Soviet Russia for its lack of choice in consumer goods, but really, do we need 18 brands of deodorant? Branding is not about choice; it’s about manipulating the psyche to create the illusion of choice. You can still have choice with a single supplier, if different products are required. This isn’t hard.

The land usage footprint for decentralized capitalist manufacturing and commerce is staggering, too. For instance, Los Angeles: 12% – 1/8th – of the city is either industrial or commercial, while 31% is suburbs to house the rich and petit-bourgeoisie and only 7% is medium to high density housing for the working classes.

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Of course the greater Los Angeles area is much larger than the city, and includes cities like Irwindale, which have almost no residents. The land usage of this and other San Gabriel Valley cities is listed in the following table:

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Almost all of this industrial usage was created between WWII and the Cold War to meet military demand. Much of it is horribly contaminated. Here’s the EPA’s list of Superfund sites in California, of which a good chunk are in the LA area. This pattern basically repeats itself when looking at any other city that was considered strategically important to wartime industry. Similar patterns emerge in other countries, including Russia. And in China, but primarily driven by capitalist demand rather than military. This is where the “Iron Triangle” comes into play. Of the three attributes (fast, good, or cheap), you can only pick two.

The military is only interested in having kit that works, delivered yesterday. Environmental safety is the usual victim. Likewise, the capitalist marketplace is only interested in having marketable goods delivered as cheap and fast as possible. In other words, the environment always takes a back seat to “necessity” or “profit.”

This is why Russell Means offered a scathing critique of Marxism as he saw it in 1980:

Capitalists, at least, can be relied upon to develop uranium as fuel only at the rate which they can show a good profit. That’s their ethic, and maybe they will buy some time. Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available. That’s their ethic, and I fail to see where it’s preferable. Like I said, Marxism is right smack in the middle of European tradition. It’s the same old song.

But before we attack him for misunderstanding Communism, the historical context of communism in 1980 bears mentioning. The most powerful, most well-known communist nation in 1980 was, of course, the USSR. The only problem with this understanding is that the economy of the USSR, as this four-part series of articles from Aufheben concludes, was more proto-capitalist than it was communist:

We have argued that in order to break out of its backwardness and subordinate position within the world division of labour the state bureaucracy, which had formed after the Russian Revolution, sought to make the transition to capitalism through the transitional form of state capitalism. In its efforts to industrialise the Russian state sought the forced development of productive-capital that required the suppression of the more cosmopolitan and crisis ridden forms of money and commodity capital. However, while such forced capitalist development allowed an initial rapid industrialisation the distortions it produced within the political economy of the USSR eventual became a barrier to the complete transition to capitalism in Russia.

As such we have argued that the USSR was essentially based on capitalist commodity-production. However as a consequence of the historical form of forced transition to capitalism there was dislocation between the capitalist nature of production and its appearance as a society based on commodity-exchange. This dislocation led to the deformation of value and the defective content of use-values that both provided the basis for the persistence of the distinctly non-capitalist features of the USSR and led to the ultimate decline and disintegration of the USSR.

Even if one disagrees with the above conclusion, it should be worth noting that the economy of the USSR evolved accidentally from the specific circumstances of the Russian Civil War, when the Bolsheviks were forced to adopt a policy of “war communism” in response to capitalist systems breaking down. By the time Lenin began to enact reforms to the bureaucracy post-war with the New Economic Policy, his health was failing and the reforms were unfinished at his death in 1924. The Five-Year Plans that followed starting in 1928 effectively marked a permanent return to war communism. The bitter fight against fascist Germany during World War II, and the subsequent “cold” war with the imperialist United States that followed, offered no room for Lenin’s bureaucratic reforms to ever be realized.

A similar struggle for economic and bureaucratic reform took place in China. As Chairman Mao wrote in 1967,

If our country does not build up a socialist economy, what is it going to be? It will be like Yugoslavia, a capitalist country in fact. The proletarian dictatorship will be transformed into a bourgeois dictatorship, worse still, a reactionary and fascist dictatorship. This problem deserves our fullest attention and [I] hope our comrades will give it their thought.

This was his justification for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Following its failure, we subsequently witnessed China’s gradual transformation to capitalism through the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and those who followed after him. A former Red Guard had this to say about his part in the revolution:

When I see privileges being given back to the old bourgeoisie, even the former capitalists, and how privileges are also being given to this new class of party cadres and officials, I am really outraged. When the rest of us are really having problems with housing, with jobs, with education, even with getting enough food to eat, these people are establishing a sort of neo-feudalism assuring themselves comfortable lives…. I do not want another Cultural Revolution – 10 years of turmoil did enough damage – but I think we were right in trying to smash the old system.

If Lenin and Mao, two of the most influential theorists in Marxism since Marx himself, were both concerned about the burgeoning bureaucracies of their respective states, what does that leave us with? We are presented with the odd situation of “actually existing communism,” composed of half-measures in times of desperation, functioning as a strawman for the attacks of vocal critics of communism on both the left and right.

Perhaps, then, a better state to discuss critically is Cuba. While Cuba embraced many of the Soviet models, its leaders were not so dogmatic as to apply them rigidly. As discussed in my last post, Cuba only needs to import around 16% of its total food, making it largely self-sufficient. Its people have adapted to limited resources forced by the US embargo, meaning that the excesses that we associate with capitalism simply do not exist there. This is represented starkly in the following chart of energy use per capita:

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One other interesting point from this chart is the relationship between Cuba and China. Until 2002, China’s per-capita energy usage was incredibly low, if slowly trending upward: this was partly due to its largely undeveloped rural nature until then, but also because it mostly produced goods for domestic use. US trade with China was “normalized” in 2000, and capitalists quickly rushed to exploit China’s resources and labor. Since the passage of PNTR, China’s industrial output has skyrocketed, and with it, energy usage.

We can therefore see from the preceding graph and other information that Russell Means’ generalization is more true of capitalists than Marxists:

Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available.

Efficiency, at its most basic, is using the minimum amount of resources for a given task. If we are starting with an extremely inefficient capitalist economy, it only makes sense to start by cutting out the most wasteful parts of the system. Depending on how much of the “economy” we could thus eviscerate, it is therefore entirely possible that existing renewable and nuclear sources would be sufficient to power global communism for many years to come simply by evening out the imbalance between rich and poor regions, shown in the below data:

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Now before anyone claims this will mean reducing Americans to “third world” levels of poverty (ignoring that extreme poverty already exists in our fine capitalist dystopia), we should take a look at the distribution of US energy consumption.

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Based on the first figure above, transportation, industrial, and commercial use accounts for nearly 80% of US energy consumption. Of that 32% of industrial usage, nearly a third of it goes toward refining petroleum for – you guessed it – transportation.

What happens in a world that views commuting long distances to work pointless jobs 8 hours a day, 5 days a week an archaic anachronism? From this paper we find that (in Belgium, anyway) commutes account for 30% of trips and 45% of distance traveled:

Among all the residential commuting within the Walloon region of Belgium, home-to-work and home-to-school trips account, respectively, for 30% and 17% of trips and for 45% and 9% of the total distance travelled (Hubert, 2004).

Given the sprawling nature of US cities, it’s not inconceivable that those numbers could be as high as 80% here. With commutes out of the picture, the remaining trips could be easily replaced by a mix of automated public transit, bicycles, and walking.

Perhaps “never have to sit in traffic again” should be used as a slogan by communists. Other potential slogans follow: “never have to flip burgers again,” “never have to deal with bosses again,” etc.

Going back to Russell Means once again, he makes this point:

Being is a spiritual proposition. Gaining is a material act. Traditionally, American Indians have always attempted to be the best people they could. Part of that spiritual process was and is to give away wealth, to discard wealth in order not to gain. Material gain is an indicator of false status among traditional people, while it is “proof that the system works” to Europeans. Clearly, there are two completely opposing views at issue here, and Marxism is very far over to the other side from the American Indian view. But let’s look at a major implication of this; it is not merely an intellectual debate.

Communism, in its simplest form, is the abolition of private property and the collective sharing of resources. That, however, does not preclude the community from itself accumulating excessive resources, no matter the reason. That accumulation may even be for a good reason: in order to better resist imperialism, as was the case with Russia and China.

Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Program, presented this slogan: “To each according to his needs.” If we relate this slogan to the spirituality Russell Means described, then it goes without saying that Communists should shun wealth. The remaining material difference between Communists and American Indians therefore comes down to what is meant by “need.”

Here it is worth considering the status of the Americas as occupied native land, which ties into land usage mentioned before. We tend to talk about the land as if it is our birthright, which might have been true for the Russian peasants, but not American settlers. As settlers and descendants of settlers, our connection to the land here is tenuous at best and written in the blood of natives. The very least we could do as communists, after abolishing the current bourgeoisie system of property rights, would be to talk with the indigenous nations–with the understanding that, as heirs to a settler empire, we have nothing to offer them that was not stolen from them in the first place.

However, the overly simplistic solution of returning 300 million descendants of settlers back to their ancestral lands is an obvious non-starter. For one, it’s a self-inflicted form of ethnic cleansing, and it’s certainly not fair to descendants of slaves brought here involuntarily. Second, somebody has to clean up the mess we and our ancestors made. That’s really what reparations boils down to, once you abolish property and money: it’s about trying to heal past wrongs.

 

In the next part, I plan to examine what food and housing might look like under fully automated luxury communism.

 

Link to the Twitter thread that spawned this post

Where to Begin?

Adapted from V.I. Lenin’s original, published in Iskra in 1901.

In recent years the question of “what is to be done” has confronted leftists with particular insistence. It is not a question of what path we must choose (as was the case in the late eighties and early nineties when the DLC was formed), but of what practical steps we must take upon the known path and how they shall be taken. It is a question of a system and plan of practical work. And it must be admitted that we have not yet solved this question of the character and the methods of struggle, fundamental for a party of practical activity, that it still gives rise to serious differences of opinion which reveal a deplorable ideological instability and vacillation.

On the one hand, the “Incrementalist” trend of the Third Way Democrats, far from being dead, is endeavouring to clip and narrow the work of political organisation and agitation. On the other, unprincipled eclecticism is again rearing its head, aping every new “trend”, and is incapable of distinguishing immediate demands from the main tasks and permanent needs of the movement as a whole. This trend, as we know, ensconced itself in the Bernie Sanders movement. During his campaign, he described his platform of moderate social-democrat policies as socialist, leaving many wondering if he was attempting to de-stigmatize the term among indoctrinated Americans, or co-opt the growing movement toward socialism. He spoke of creating a “political revolution” (how energetic we are now—both revolutionary and political!) that would sweep progressive Democrats into office on his coattails. Following his loss at the hands of fellow Democrats and the subsequent victory of the other bourgeoisie party, there has been talk of “resistance”; of “ceaseless calls for street protests”; of “becoming ungovernable”; and so on, and so forth.

We might perhaps declare ourselves happy at Democrats’ quick grasp of the need for resistance and organization, calling for the formation of a strong well-organized movement, but reading the guide shows their aim is limited to winning isolated concessions, and there is a clear lack of enthusiasm for storming the fortress of the capitalist regime itself. Furthermore, the lack of any set point of view in these individuals can only dampen our happiness.

The Implications of Abolishing Wage Labor and Capitalism

Abolishing wage labor and capitalism itself sounds like a simple solution to exploitation and imperialism, but much like the sudden fridge horror one might be faced with a few hours after watching an innocent children’s cartoon, there are some scary implications that arise upon further thought.

First is the realization that radical changes in the way we live are required, because the bulk of modern society is based on meaningless and unnecessary make-work.

In the past, Keynesian efforts to achieve full employment in both the United States and Britain drew criticism for making up useless work, although a look at the history of the Works Progress Administration will show that it resulted in major modernization of water and sewer infrastructure across the country. What self-described socialists like Bernie Sanders overlook when they talk about infrastructure spending is that all the labor-intensive, back-breaking work WPA did nearly a hundred years ago is now accomplished with the help of heavy equipment, lowering the total number of workers required to do the same job.

Automation, however, has not freed us from make-work. In fact, it has accelerated the trend. In France, one solution to unemployment has been the creation of fake jobs. Their original purpose was to give students and unemployed workers switching careers the experience needed to re-enter the workforce, but as the European economic crisis worsened, policymakers adapted the system to provide long-term jobs for the masses of unemployed.

If you think Potemkin companies are just a peculiar European quirk, however, think again. Capitalism is commonly defined as the private control of trade and industry for profit. There is no law that states that goods produced by private capital must serve a useful purpose; the only principle in capitalism is that profit must be generated for the capitalists. This has led to the rise of entire industries built around the selling of goods and services that are not necessary (let alone beneficial) to human existence.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, either. In fact, we could argue this was a driving force behind the creation of capitalism. The mercantile traders of early colonialism created a market for tobacco in Europe once they realized its addictive properties. Supply naturally followed demand once people realized there was money to be made growing tobacco in the Americas. Nobody needed it. The growth of sugar cane plantations was the same: exploiting a quirk of evolutionary biology for profit.

Capitalism, in other words, is a giant house of cards built on fundamentally wrong assumptions about human nature. Take the usual liberal criticism of rioters. “If only they would stop smashing shit and make their voices heard at the ballot box.” This attitude is partly based on the incorrect assumption that the only viable outlet for expressing speech is at the ballot box. That’s wrong, but for reasons that have been discussed in depth elsewhere. Instead, I will argue the main reason for that liberal attitude is because riots threaten to expose the sham that is the capitalist economy.

In what way does Starbucks or McDonalds provide a service necessary for the existence of human life? Will society collapse without overpriced lattes and mediocre sandwiches provided 24/7? Even setting aside questions of basic utility, would society be in any way lessened by the elimination of overpriced lattes & sandwiches?

Fast food chains are merely the tip of the capitalist iceberg: they are its most visible elements of excess. Moving down the ladder, we have foodservice suppliers. Many of these companies exist solely because of chains like McDonalds. Another step down and we have processors, who take farm output and turn it into various packaged forms for food service and distribution. Demand for these packaged foods is created based on marketing at the top levels, whether it’s individually wrapped oranges at Whole Foods, or bags of precut lettuce and grated cheese destined to be turned into Doritos Loco Tacos at Taco Bell. In other words, manufactured demand for fast food creates demand for food services.

Then you have the farms, which today are mostly owned by agricultural conglomerates rather than family farmers. Some of them are run by co-ops – it doesn’t matter. They all exist in a capitalist market and all respond to price stimuli. Outside of a few hyperlocal farms, farmers are isolated and insulated by the market and the state respectively against people’s needs. The farmer doesn’t have to care about the state of nutrition in the nearby community. They grow product and sell to the market based entirely on what will net them the most profit. When there are miscalculations, there is an expectation that the state will intervene in order to preserve their profits, as was done under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 when FDR ordered crops to be bought up and destroyed.

That’s just one branch of this perverse tree we call capitalism, with so many interlinked branches that it resembles a bramble thicket. The farmer, for instance, relies on industrial products like tractors and harvesters to reduce the labor needed to grow and harvest. Food processing requires even more machinery to clean, sort, manipulate, and package the food. Distribution requires load handling equipment, warehouses, and fleets of trucks. Of course McDonalds wouldn’t even be as popular as it is without the personal automobile and the drive-through that it spawned. None of these things are actually necessary to have a productive or even modern society. In fact, our definition of modern is skewed.

Take Cuba, for instance, where the US embargo resulted in a shortage of automobiles and agricultural equipment. We don’t need to buy new cars every 3.5 years – the same investment could be instead put into maintenance of the existing vehicle. This isn’t the best thing from an efficiency standpoint, but debating the efficiency of individual cars overlooks the fact that compared to other forms of transportation, personal cars are extremely inefficient. Anyway, most of Cuba’s crops are grown solely for domestic production. Because of the lack of machinery, they’re also more labor intensive. According to the World Food Program, this has resulted in Cuba needing to import around 84% of its food. This estimate, however, is based strictly on the Cuban rationing system, and more scientific estimates place net food imports around 16% of total consumption, ironically the inverse of the WFP’s figure.

In other words, Cuba is largely self-sufficient, if a bit less “efficient” than capitalist countries, despite the lack of infrastructure. Furthermore, Cuba’s agricultural exports are cash crops – luxury goods like sugar and tobacco. These are goods that would have little value if not for the markets that were created by early capitalists. We can therefore see, by contrasting Cuba with the US, the excesses inherent in capitalism that drive the expanding use of resources.

Moving further from food, the industrial sector requires factories and raw materials, which in turn requires energy and mining. The major factor that sets capitalism apart from earlier forms like mercantilism and feudalism is of course energy. Exploiting the energy found in fossil fuels like coal and oil was what allowed this massive interlinked industrial structure to develop in the first place; today, we call it the Industrial Revolution. We talk about automation and the elimination of human labor, but it is energy that makes automation possible in the first place. Karl Marx described this steady march of capitalist automation in his 1847 work Wage Labour and Capital:

No matter how powerful the means of production which a capitalist may bring into the field, competition will make their adoption general; and from the moment that they have been generally adopted, the sole result of the greater productiveness of his capital will be that he must furnish at the same price, 10, 20, 100 times as much as before. But since he must find a market for, perhaps, 1,000 times as much, in order to outweigh the lower selling price by the greater quantity of the sale; since now a more extensive sale is necessary not only to gain a greater profit, but also in order to replace the cost of production (the instrument of production itself grows always more costly, as we have seen), and since this more extensive sale has become a question of life and death not only for him, but also for his rivals, the old struggle must begin again, and it is all the more violent the more powerful the means of production already invented are. The division of labour and the application of machinery will therefore take a fresh start, and upon an even greater scale.

He then concludes by saying:

Finally, in the same measure in which the capitalists are compelled, by the movement described above, to exploit the already existing gigantic means of production on an ever-increasing scale, and for this purpose to set in motion all the mainsprings of credit, in the same measure do they increase the industrial earthquakes, in the midst of which the commercial world can preserve itself only by sacrificing a portion of its wealth, its products, and even its forces of production, to the gods of the lower world – in short, the crises increase. They become more frequent and more violent, if for no other reason, than for this alone, that in the same measure in which the mass of products grows, and therefore the needs for extensive markets, in the same measure does the world market shrink ever more, and ever fewer markets remain to be exploited, since every previous crisis has subjected to the commerce of the world a hitherto unconquered or but superficially exploited market.

Which brings me back to liberal critiques of Marxism. Have you ever noticed how it always hinges on bourgeoisie ideas of democracy? Cuba, despite being a thriving democracy, is labeled a dictatorship. The United States, which was recently downgraded to a “flawed democracy,” still considers itself the leader of the democratic world and claims that its CIA-led actions to install dictators in democratic, socialist countries are for the freedom of their people.

Liberals are interested in protecting the status quo at any cost. To be liberal is to be invested in capital, or desirous of it. Liberalism professes a desire for equality while simultaneously supporting the conditions that prevent equality. In this way, conservatives are more honest than liberals. They make no claims of equality, professing only their desire for riches. Both will stand fast against any attempt to destroy the capital which they so jealously hoard. This is key to understanding fascism.

Police are the first line of defense for these fascists. They exist to protect “order”, that is, the system of property and slavery. The history of policing and the reasons for abolishing it are well described in this pamphlet from A World Without Police. Knowing of the link between police and fascists leads to the realization that fascists will not let us abolish the police. For if the police are abolished, who then will protect the fascists from the oppressed masses? Historically, that job falls to the military. The only problem for fascists is that the military leadership sometimes gets ideas of its own. But this doesn’t mean that the military is an ally of the working classes. They’re usually just interested in switching seats at the top, a pattern seen in military dictatorships all over the world.

Now that we’ve covered the structure of capitalism and fascism, how does the abolition of wage labor affect it?

Oddly enough, the ultimate goal of capitalists is the same as that of communists: the abolition of wage labor. Capitalists want to replace wage slaves (the replacement for chattel slaves) with robotic slaves, and they’re already well underway. Andrew Puzder, the nominee for Secretary of Labor and CEO of CKE Restaurants Inc. had the following to say about robots:

They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.

Of course, the capitalists never talk about what will happen to the unemployed masses once they finish this massive undertaking. But proponents of Universal Basic Income seem to have the ready-made answer: taxing the capitalists for the minimum needed for survival, or when taxes prove unpopular with the capitalists, they’ll just have the fascist state print the currency needed. Who’s going to question it? As long as the masses have the valueless currency they need to buy the output of the capitalists, the system will continue.

“But wait,” somebody might say, “printing currency will lead to hyperinflation.” Well, let’s look at the “accepted” causes, shall we?

The International Accounting Standards Board has issued guidance on accounting rules in a hyperinflationary environment. It does not establish an absolute rule on when hyperinflation arises. Instead, it lists factors that indicate the existence of hyperinflation:[6]

  • The general population prefers to keep its wealth in non-monetary assets or in a relatively stable foreign currency. Amounts of local currency held are immediately invested to maintain purchasing power
  • The general population regards monetary amounts not in terms of the local currency but in terms of a relatively stable foreign currency. Prices may be quoted in that currency;
  • Sales and purchases on credit take place at prices that compensate for the expected loss of purchasing power during the credit period, even if the period is short;
  • Interest rates, wages, and prices are linked to a price index; and
  • The cumulative inflation rate over three years approaches, or exceeds, 100%.
  • Let’s look at the first condition: non-monetary assets. This has been impossible since the ’70s as explained here.
  • There is also no such thing as a relatively stable foreign currency since global currencies are all fiat currencies now. What are Americans going to start circulating instead of dollars? The pound or the Euro? The renminbi? How are they going to get it?
  • Under a universal basic income, everyone gets the same amount of subsidy and thus purchasing power (outside the capitalist class) is theoretically equal. I am, of course, presupposing the introduction of basic income is closely timed with the capitalist abolition of wage labor by automation.
  • The fourth point, wages linked to a price index, is obviously made spurious by fact of automation.
  • The last point about sustained inflation has been meaningless since the end of the gold standard. The rate of inflation will be whatever the state assumes is necessary, and it has, in fact, remained relatively static for the past several years.

Credit markets as we know them would disappear under universal automation and basic income. With universal subsistence set at or slightly above the property line as has been proposed, buying housing would become almost unheard-of among those who did not already own property. This in turn would drive further inequality between the rentier capitalists and the masses. Instead, I would expect the already massive payday lending and appliance/furniture rental sectors to take advantage of the guaranteed payments of a basic income to further expand; one of the trends in software has been a shift from large, expensive enterprise systems to on-demand Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).

We may therefore infer that the end result of a fully automated economy with a Universal Basic Income is “Economy-as-a-Service,” where capitalists own all durable goods and the masses rent from them.

UBI purists may point out that full automation is still nowhere near being reality, but even if some amounts of labor are required, for instance to maintain the machines, why should we assume it will require highly paid labor? Chattel slavery has existed in one form or another since the creation of agriculture as I argued in my previous post. Slavery still exists in the United States in the form of prison labor, and I see no reason why a society with UBI would suddenly stop imprisoning people for bullshit legal violations.

Another argument for basic income claims it is merely a necessary step toward socialism, but I maintain that any step that entrenches capitalism is a step in the wrong direction. As proletarians, we should be opposed to any half-measures that prolong the existence of capital. At the same time, we are not reactionary. Fighting for a return to primitive communism and subsistence farming seems counterintuitive, yet that is exactly what radical environmentalists like Naomi Klein would have you believe is necessary to stop capitalism.

Given the late stage of capitalism we live in, it has never been more critical to build revolutionary awareness in the working class. The clock is ticking, and we’re almost powerless as it is between debt and the power of the fascist state.

Victory in the only puts us one step forward on the wage treadmill, while capitalist-driven automation marches alongside us. The failure of the US labor movement can be chalked up to the fact that it was subverted by bourgeoisie interests and neutered by the state. This chart reflects the declining power of the labor movement, which is no accident. The call for higher wages has always played into the hands of the capitalists. The Vancouver branch of the IWW had a eureka moment back in 1984, but even they stopped short of the mark. They were unable to envision the complete destruction of the capitalist structure.

It is ironically the capitalists who are most invested in destroying the wage labor system as it currently exists. I think the reason they haven’t fully warmed up to UBI, even though it is necessary for preserving capitalism, is because of free time. Right now, debt is the lever by which they ensure we work as much as possible, thereby minimizing free time. Free time is the most dangerous thing to a capitalist: it is time in which they cannot control the working class. Debt keeps us ever anxious, afraid of losing not only possessions but necessities. The threat of homelessness always hangs over us. Once capitalists figure out a way to reconcile UBI with control over our free time, rest assured they will immediately adopt it. This capitalist fear of free time was most evident in their response to , wondering why the protesters “weren’t working.”

The biggest advocates of claim that people will still find work to do. The problem is, such work wouldn’t be controlled. It also rests on the fundamental assumption that jobs will still exist for those who want them. Again: the capitalists hate jobs as much as we do. We are messy, inefficient, counterproductive gears messing up their perfect machine. Being a sociopath is almost a prerequisite to becoming wealthy. The rich hate us, which leads to an uncomfortable realization: we are disposable to the rich. They’re not stupid, either. They can see this crisis coming as well as we can.

In other words, there are three possible end-cases for capitalism.

  1. Automation and welfare/UBI are combined to form a dystopic nightmare where free time is controlled via methods like drugs and virtual reality to prevent uprising.
  2. They bring about the apocalypse, trusting in their preparations to survive & rebuild a tiny, technocratic elite society.
  3. A proletarian revolution occurs, abolishing all fascist states and ushering in a new age of global socialism.

But the capitalists are smart, and have taken steps to ensure that the conditions of the Bolshevik Revolution don’t take place again. Therefore, the only path I can see to making sure we reach #3 is by subverting their attempts to reach #1 or #2. In other words, advocating for basic income is little better than outright collaborating with them. The same goes for slavish adherence to the lesser-evilism of the Democratic Party and bourgeoisie electoral politics. I don’t know how many times revolutionaries can say it, but it bears repeating:

WE CANNOT CHANGE THE SYSTEM FROM WITHIN.

Abolishing capitalism doesn’t just mean abolishing wage labor. It means the abolition of class, which requires rethinking our entire society. If anyone wants to argue that communists are too class-focused, they’re right. We focus on class because we wish to abolish it. Along the way, we can’t lose track of identity and historical oppression. If we have the opportunity to right past wrongs, we should. We must examine past attempts at achieving socialism, identify their strengths, and learn from their weaknesses.

Only by doing this can we build a better society.

Slavery, Racism, and Capitalism

The Internet, for all its flaws, excels at one thing: disseminating information. Not all of that information is factual, but as long as one understands that and takes everything with a grain of salt (and checks cited sources) it remains an invaluable tool for learning.

This piece was inspired by an enlightening thread started by Twitter user @anthoknees.  In it, he points to the common anti-Black (and anti-indigenous) bias shared not just by white people in America, but also people of various other ethnicities. In particular, a common lament in the Black community is the ease with which lighter-skinned people are able to benefit from perceived “whiteness,” a phenomenon known as white-passing. Those people are thus able to benefit from the structural systems of white privilege in Western society, even if they are themselves sometimes discriminated against as people of color.

The discussion brought me back to a point I had heard previously, which was how the enslavement of Africans in America had etched a discriminatory hierarchy in the nation’s psyche that has endured long after the actual institution passed. Wealthy whites were able to keep other poor white people under economic oppression, because they could point to the Black slave or the “savage native” and tell the white poor how they were superior because they were free and enlightened men. As settlers and migrant workers continued to arrive, they then assumed positions in this hierarchy founded on the backs of enslaved Africans, over the bodies of indigenous Americans. In this shared loathing of others, the capitalist oppressors were able to create a perverted sort of solidarity among the working poor to stifle resistance to their illegitimate exploitation.

How did this pernicious symbiosis between capitalism and slavery come about? To answer this question, we must examine the origins of slavery and capitalism together. It is worth studying the entire history of slavery for proper context;  an excellent synopsis can be found in the University of Houston’s Digital History publication The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery.

From Prehistoric Communism to Slavery

Let us begin in prehistoric times. Stephen Shenfield’s article Driven from Eden? points out how prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed copious amounts of leisure time, as they only needed to work 2-4 hours per day gathering food. These historical traits led Frederich Engels, in his treatise The Origins of the Family, to remark:

At all earlier stages of society production was essentially collective, just as consumption proceeded by direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities.

Around 8000 BCE, however, a major shift in labor took place known as the Neolithic Revolution. At this time, the earliest “advanced” civilizations began to form in places like Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley of India, and the Yangtze River Valley in China. One important factor all these civilizations shared was the systematic use of agriculture, as opposed to the occasional gardening that the mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers would engage in. Instead of all the members of the tribe engaging in brief amounts of work and sharing their resources, the concentrated resources of agricultural harvests–the first form of wealth–began to divide society into classes. Walls were built around villages to defend the wealth of the villagers from the surrounding nomadic tribes; we may presume that the walls were built through the promise of food for the laboring villagers, if not by outright coercion.

Slavery arose around the same time  as agriculture in these early civilizations. The first recorded reference to slavery is found in the Sumerian code of Ur-Nammu, but the actual practices clearly predate the text. The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery notes that slavery “was apparently modeled on the domestication of animals.” The earliest slaves appeared to be predominantly captives taken in battle. It was not until ancient Greece that slaves became a dominant part of the labor force. This practice was extended further in Roman times, and continued in the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia.

The Normalization of Slavery

The various contrived explanations for slavery found in societies that practiced it serve as evidence of its unnatural nature. Aristotle made the following claim in his Politics:

For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…

In Natural Right and the Problem of Aristotle’s Defense of Slavery, Marquette professor Darrell Dobbs argues that Aristotle was not referring to any innate predisposition to slavery, but rather “child-rearing and other other cultural practices.” Regardless, arguing over whether Aristotle meant nurture when he talked about nature overlooks the fact that such dysfunctional forms of nurture would not exist without the institution of slavery. The argument, then, is rather tautological: slavery is natural because it teaches the enslaved that slavery is natural.

Examining another ancient society, in his 1994 work Race and Slavery in the Middle East Bernard Lewis writes:

The ancient Israelites did not claim that slavery was beneficial to the slaves, but, like the ancient Greeks, they felt the need to explain and justify the enslavement of their neighbors. In this, as in other matters, they sought a religious rather than a philosophical sanction and found it in the biblical story of the curse of Ham. Significantly, this curse was restricted to one line only of the descendants of Ham, namely, the children of Canaan, whom the Israelites had subjugated when they conquered the Promised Land, and did not affect the others.

These practices continued with the introduction of Islam in the 7th century CE, but it made several important legal changes as Lewis again notes:

The Qur’an, like the Old and the New Testaments, assumes the existence of slavery. It regulates the practice of the institution and thus implicitly accepts it. The Prophet Muhammad and those of his Companions who could afford it themselves owned slaves; some of them acquired more by conquest. But Qur’anic legislation, subsequently confirmed and elaborated in the Holy Law, brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far-reaching effects. One of these was the presumption of freedom; the other, the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances.

Since all human beings were naturally free, slavery could only arise from two circumstances: (1) being born to slave parents or (2) being captured in war.

This made slavery under Islam more progressive than in Europe, where indentured servitude was a typical punishment for debt, as described in Digital History:

During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, England’s population grew by a over a third–much faster than its economy. To address a sudden explosion of crime and poverty, England’s rulers forced the poor to toil in workhouses, and beginning in 1547, enslaved persistent vagabonds and branded them with the letter “S.”

Colonialism and a New World

The first slaves in the Americas were not indentured servants; they were indigenous peoples taken by none other than Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492, as described in the journal of his voyage:

“I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses, that they may learn to speak.”

On October 14, he continued exploring the ways that the natives might be enslaved:

[F]or these people are very simple as regards the use of arms, as your Highnesses will see from the seven that I caused to be taken, to bring home and learn our language and return; unless your Highnesses should order them all to be brought to Castile, or to be kept as captives on the same island; for with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.

Not coincidentally, the voyages of Columbus and other European explorers around this time were primarily focused on gaining wealth for their respective crowns, either through the acquisition of gold directly (as with Columbus and Cortez) or the lucrative trade in spices, tea, silk, and other exotic goods from Asia. Slavery, as an accepted part of European society, meant that these explorers had few to no moral qualms with the ruthless exploitation of indigenous peoples.

The discovery of precious metals and cash crops in the New World changed everything, for metals must be mined and crops must be planted and harvested. Columbus and the conquistadors who followed him turned to slavery as a means of obtaining more gold and silver once they had stolen all the valuables they could readily find. Sugar cane plantations sprung up all around the Caribbean. A substantial portion of the indigenous Taíno population and culture was wiped out between enslavement and diseases like smallpox on many of the islands, and this pattern repeated itself during colonization of the mainland to a lesser extent.

Europeans thus turned to Africa as a source of expendable labor, having been familiar with it through the slave trade maintained by the Arabs. With naval power of their own, they saw no need to let Arab slave merchants take a cut and went straight to West Africa to set up shop. Along the way, they learned of Africa’s own riches, setting the stage for the colonial exploitation that continues to this day.

The Genesis of Capitalism

No discussion of the history of capitalism would be complete without mentioning the 6-part documentary series Capitalism, which details how mercantilism evolved into capitalism. Again, I find it worthwhile to take a step back.

Roman society had many of the aspects that we now associate with capitalism, as argued in this Quora post. In that way, it was not very dissimilar from mercantilism: both periods had existing power structures that the merchant classes worked in, but did not upset. The collapse of Rome effectively put any further evolution of the merchant class on hold outside of the Arabic world for several hundred years.

Through the Middle Ages and into medieval Europe, merchants slowly gained increasing amounts of power under feudal lords, eventually coming to dominate societies such as the Republic of Venice. Much like modern capitalists, merchants derive their wealth from the labor of others by adding a “profit” margin to the goods they trade, but unlike capitalists, they did not typically control the labor of others directly. Most of the slaves in Europe were used in domestic service. Exploiting slave labor for the agriculture and the production of goods was more common in the Near East, particularly under Ottoman rule (Christoph Witzenrath, Eurasian Slavery, Ransom and Abolition in World History, 1200-1860, p.222).

Once the new-found merchant classes were dominant in their societies, they pushed to do what any self-respecting capitalist would do: expand. Venice developed an effective monopoly on trade within the Adriatic Sea. The tales of Marco Polo, himself a Venetian trader, inspired others like Columbus to set out for fame and fortune. Thus began the heyday of mercantilism, with the merchant class wielding considerable power and influence over society while remaining nominally obedient to their feudal lords.

The expansion to the Americas (and later Africa) upset the status quo. While colonization was conducted in the name of the crown, and typically financed by the treasury of the crown, it was primarily a private, for-profit enterprise. Forced labor provided its backbone.

Developments in common law created entities such as the British East India Company (ca. 1600) and Dutch East India Company (ca. 1602). These are generally considered to be the first multinational corporations, and they assumed a broad mantle of quasi-governmental powers that had formerly been reserved for the crowned nobility. The Dutch East India Company, in particular, was granted the power to wage war, set up colonies, negotiate treaties, execute convicts, and mint its own coinage. As I argued in my last piece, Why I’m Not Celebrating Constitution Day, the American Revolution resembled nothing more than a heavily-armed corporate tax revolt. This may explain the striking similarity between the flag of the East India Company and the Continental Congress’ Grand Union Flag.

To assume that the theories of Malthus, Ricardo and Smith mean that capitalism sprung fully-formed during the 19th century like Athena from the head of Zeus is silly. Capitalism is nothing more than the latest (quite possibly final) stage in the evolution of private wealth throughout the ages. Like all other economic systems going back to the dawn of agricultural civilization, it was built upon slavery and requires slavery to function.

While we may have fashioned ourselves progressive enough to abolish slavery, slavery is still a fact of life in most of the world. It may be explicit, like enslaved fishermen in southeast Asia, or implicit, in the form of wage slavery most of us take part in without realizing it. Even here in the United States, we have enshrined slavery to this very day in the very amendment that supposedly abolished it with these words: “except as a punishment for crime…”

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The Enlightenment creates a monster

From the ancient world through the medieval era, race as we know it did not exist. Instead, most societies divided the world into a few groups: Jew and gentile for the Israelites; citizens and barbarians for the Greeks and Romans, etc. In both the Christian and Muslim world, people were divided based on believer and non-believer. The Muslim world experienced a schism immediately after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE between his followers and those who claimed Ali was the rightful successor, which developed into the present divide between Sunni and Shia. Much like Christianity, this initial schism led to further division and internal conflict, as well as the creation of violent reactionary sects.

While Christianity remained relatively united for the first millennium, the unity was enforced by the Roman Emperors starting with Constantine through a series of ecumenical councils, and various sects that were deemed heretical were violently persecuted. The fall of the western Roman Empire fueled further division as the Roman patriarch assumed more of the former western Emperor’s powers and often acted independently of the other patriarchs. This came to a head in 1054 CE when the patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other amidst misunderstandings and intrigue in an event known as the Great Schism. Five hundred years later, the Protestant Reformation increased division further.

When they were not busy killing each other, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Episcopalians alike found unity in persecuting the “others.” We may therefore infer that ‘whiteness’ as an identity has its origins in this European Christian identity based on the persecution of others. This “other” was usually broken down into further sub-groups: Jews, Muslims, and pagans, all of whom were to be treated with suspicion if not outright hostility. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are probably the best-known examples of Christian intolerance.

As the Enlightenment called various fundamental aspects of religion into question, and secularized governments around the world, it also altered this shared Christian identity. The notion of human species emerged, with three to five “races” as subtypes. Some ethnologists argued that the various “races” of humanity were in fact separate species. Christian was replaced with Caucasian while the various “others” were re-classified using various pseudo-scientific means like phrenology.

The end result of this ‘Enlightened’ quest to pigeonhole the wide variety of Homo Sapiens was found in the eugenicist policies supported by many progressive leaders in early 20th century America. Ironically, those same policies heavily influenced the Aryanism of Nazi Germany. Race was used to construct various justifications for the continued existence of slavery in America, and segregation after slavery was officially ‘abolished.’

This legacy of racism is toxic, and inextricably tied to the very notion of whiteness. Simply acknowledging that race is fictional does not absolve oneself of benefiting from its very real effects on society. To make matters worse, the re-emergence of religious conservatism has brought back the historical, religion-based forms of otherness. Even noted (white) atheists like Richard Dawkins have managed to muddy the waters by stoking Islamophobia while brushing off the very real threat of reactionary Christianity.

While there is no scientific basis for race, this social construction of race is very much real and has had an indelible effect on millions–if not billions–of lives over the last two centuries. That impact cannot be erased with a few words; the only suitable reparation for the impact of racism and religious intolerance is the dissolution and abolishment of the discriminatory systems that maintain both.

Abolish All The Systems

This may sound hyperbolic, but I am quite serious about it. Every aspect of modern society–from the way we live, the goods we buy, the churches we attend, to the politicians we elect–has been built around our oppression.

The way we live is a twisted parody of early civilizations. Instead of living in close-knit communities where resources are shared for the benefit of all, we build miniature castles anywhere we please, regardless of the impact to the environment or the potential usefulness of that land to society.

We regain some of that community by attending religious services with others, but any sense of community often disappears the moment we leave the church grounds. Furthermore, the divisive rhetoric often employed by religious leaders imposes unity within the community by creating an external, existential threat, whether it is another religious group, queer and non-binary people, or the very act of pleasure itself.

Liberal, republican politics, so rigidly clung to by those on the modern right and even the center-left, tell us that the most democratic form of government is one in which we the people surrender our collective power to an elite cabal of capitalists by voting for the best-sounding liar every few years. British humorist Douglas Adams brilliantly satirized this peculiar absurdity in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish:

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
“What?”
“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
Ford shrugged again.
“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”
“But that’s terrible,” said Arthur.
“Listen, bud,” said Ford, “if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say ‘That’s terrible’ I wouldn’t be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.”

It is a curious accident of history that we revere the ancient democracy of Athens, in which only the “citizens,” comprised of the upper class and wealthier parts of the middle class, were allowed to participate. The lower classes, such as the poor “free” men and of course the slaves, were disenfranchised, and women were not even considered a class of their own. But even the rigidly class-centric Athenian democracy was superior to modern bourgeoisie democracies in some regards: the very notion of electing officials was rightly regarded as oligarchic in nature, as Aristotle describes Spartan elections in his Politics:

By others the Spartan constitution is said to be an oligarchy, because it has many oligarchical elements. That all offices are filled by election and none by lot, is one of these oligarchical characteristics; that the power of inflicting death or banishment rests with a few persons is another; and there are others.

Going back to the beginning, we may re-examine prehistoric tribal society in this light. While these societies were unable to support the large populations of modern agricultural societies, they nonetheless were communal in nature, enjoyed substantial leisure time, and were broadly equal. The question that has plagued humanity since the institution of agriculture and forced labor, then, is how to regain this egalitarian sense of community without sacrificing the benefits of agriculture and other aspects of modern and industrialized society. We may even conjecture, to echo Marx, that there is an ancient spectre of Communism haunting modern civilization.