Looking Forward to the Beginning of History


A while ago, I wrote about how, after capitalism, we will all be like characters on the TV show, The Hills.  Of course I was kidding (kind-of), but let's get serious.  What can we expect in the foreseeable future, as we transition out of capitalism?

Karl Marx once wrote that the end of capitalism brings "the prehistory of human society to a close." (Preface to a Critique of Political Economy, 1859)  In other words, we, who are still living during the capitalist mode of production, are still living in prehistoric times.  History has not yet begun.  This is, of course, the opposite of the opinion of people like Francis Fukuyama, who wrote about the "end of history".  There have been people on the left, as well, who saw the coming conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie as the climax of history - think of the famous anthem, "The Internationale," written by Eugene Pottier and translated into English by Charles Hope Kerr, whose chorus begins with the stirring line, "'Tis the final conflict!"  But Marx thought that only after this conflict would history begin.

I may have my differences with Marx, but I think he was right about that.  History - which, as we know, is the history of class struggles - will begin after the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  The coming conflicts, after this struggle, will be so great as to make the battle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat a mere prologue, a tiny skirmish barely worth mentioning, and not yet part of history proper.  After the bourgeoisie is defeated, and ceases to exist, then the real struggle begins, and it will a much more difficult, terrifying, and protracted struggle - more dangerous, more uncertain, harder to predict.  We prehistoric people are probably incapable even of conceiving of it.  One thing is clear: it won't be just one more conflict after the collapse of the bourgeoisie.  It will be many, many more conflicts - an indefinitely long series, with no end in sight.

I remember going to meetings of the old International Socialist Organization.  I was never a member, but I was curious.  (I've also gone to meetings of the Vaisanavas - the "Hare Krishnas" - and many other organizations.  I'm a very curious person.)  Every meeting of the I.S.O. went the same way:

1. They would have some topic for the evening.  It might relate to race, or to the patriarchy, or the rights of people with disabilities, or perhaps some current event like war, or something to do with Israel/Palestinian conflict, etc., etc., etc..  Whatever it was, somebody would talk about that for a while.

2. Then they would inevitably come to the conclusion that the root cause of the problem is capitalism.

3. And so, (they'd declare) instead of focusing on this one, narrow issue, we should focus on fighting against capitalism- with the implication that, once we get rid of capitalism, this other problem will go away, too.

4. So get out there and sell some more newspapers!

Obviously, those people were idiots.  The future they imagined was the very definition of utopianism.  Marx was much more insightful, in his insistence that history - that is to say, struggle - begins after the end of capitalism.

What will history look like, once it finally begins?  Although it is somewhat difficult, I think we can imagine some possibilities.

For instance, let's imagine a world in which workers own the means of production through a system of workers' councils.  What are the foreseeable conflicts they will face?  Many.  There will be no more class that gets to live off of the labor of these workers - no more bourgeoisie.  But there will still be conflicting economic interests.  Most obviously, there will be conflicts between the economic interests of the workers who produce a given product, and the people who use that product.  Whether you call such people "consumers" or not is up to you, but someone is going to use this product, if it is not entirely useless.  

Now, it is true that in some ways these groups' interests will be partially aligned - perhaps more closely aligned than they are under capitalism.  For instance, planned obsolescence would not be desirable for either the workers or the users of the product.  All around us today, we see lightbulbs that have to be changed regularly despite the fact that the technology of long-lasting bulbs has existed for decades, cars that are not built to last the way they were in the 1950s, new cell phones replacing what would be perfectly usable cell phones, except for the mandatory OS updates that slow them down and make them more of a hassle than they're worth, and so on.  

There's no need for any of that.  In a worker-run society, the workers that produce the products would be just as opposed to unnecessary obsolescence as the users are, because constantly producing more junk would just mean more work, and less leisure.

Even so, the interests of the workers that produce a product really do conflict with the interests of its users in some undeniable ways.  This conflict can get fairly complex, but to over-simply drastically, users of a product generally want the workers that produce it to work harder, to produce more, and better products, while the workers want to work less hard, thus producing fewer, and lower-quality products.  Under capitalism, the price-point acts as a kind of negotiated settlement between these two opposing interests.  Without this communication tool, people will have to find other means to resolve this political tug-of-war.

It gets much more complex as we begin to consider entire supply chains, where a product of one factory or workplace becomes the materials of another (the workers in the mine supply the workers at the blast furnace, who supply the workers at the steel converter, who supply those at the refinery, including the picklers, who supply those who cast steel into slabs, who supply those who press it into plates, who supply those who form it into cold-rolled strips, who supply those who stamp it into net shapes, who supply those who assemble these with other parts to form a washing machine, who supply laundry rooms, who supply hospital workers, and so on and so on...).  These are not lines, but networks, since each node in this progression is being supplied not by one supplier, but many suppliers of different products.  And it only gets more complex as we consider the workers who transport all of these supplies from one site to another, and the energy sector supplying all of them.  And each one of these connections in this network is a potential point of conflict.

As we imagine these conflicts multiplying on a global scale, we begin to imagine the scope of the problems involved.  And these conflicts will be far more intractable than the the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.  That one is, at least in theory, very easy to solve: we just don't need a bourgeoisie.  But in the later conflicts that will emerge, there won't be such a clear, cut and dry solution, because products do require both people to produce them and people to use them.  Perhaps, in addition to workers' councils, there could be consumers' councils.  But how to resolve conflicts between them?  Undoubtedly, finding the answers will be difficult, and it seems more than likely that these conflicts will be extremely bloody - so as to make the wars between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat seem almost benign by comparison.

There has long been a strain of leftist criticism of worker ownership of the means of production, which goes something like this: "Worker ownership of the means of production?  You're basically just talking about co-ops.  And the problem with co-ops is that once the workers start self-management, they are disciplined by market forces to become just like the capitalist stockholders they replaced.  Either they will replicate the capitalist firm, or they will be wiped out by the market.  The problem with the firm is not who is in charge of it.  The problem is that there is a firm at all."  Such critics come so close to getting it.

The problem that these critics are pointing out is real.  But it's a good problem to have.  In fact, it's a good problem to have because it's real.  It is the problem that we should be having, because it is the real problem we should be dealing with - the real problem that underlies all the fake problems that we busy ourselves with all day, in these prehistoric times.  And the only way we're going to solve this problem is by confronting it, head-on.  And the only way to confront it is for workers to assume control of the means of production.  From any other position, we will always be looking at the problem through a glass, darkly.  Who is in charge of the firm may not be the problem, but it certainly is a problem.  What the aforementioned critics are ignoring is the problem of class - class antagonism, and the domination of the bourgeois class which makes confronting the issues they describe effectively impossible.  Getting rid of the bourgeois class will not solve the problems they identify, but it is a prerequisite to solving them.  History - the history of the solution of this problem - can only begin after the bourgeoisie has gone the way of monarchy and imperium.

And this is only one kind of conflict we can imagine in a post-capitalist world.  We can imagine many, many more.  I feel that these conflicts are inevitable, and we should treat the notion that there is any kind of easy answer that will make them go away with the deepest suspicion.  Instead, we should be bracing ourselves, and disciplining ourselves, and readying ourselves for them.  History is coming at us, whether we're ready or not. 



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