Capitalism and Late Imperial Struggles

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Recently dramatic peoples uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have revealed the foreign policy contradictions of the advanced democratic capitalist countries that support and trade with these nations oppressive regimes. In the case of Tunisia and Egypt for example, the question has arisen (in many blogs although not in the general media, naturally) why these apparently progressive democratic countries do this, are they actually evil? Why are the apparent rights that their people enjoy at home not extended outwards to other nations? 

What does it mean if a capitalist country, like the US for instance, expresses itself outwardly in a right wing almost fascist manner supporting fascistic figureheads in other nations, but at home, inwardly is a liberal democracy with a "balance" of political forces?  

What it must mean is quite surprising: The outward form can be little else than the unfettered expression of the interests of its capital, which seeks to be expanded wherever it may, and which fears most any genuine economic socialism, which would prevent this expansion ("growth"), so, more out of fear than reason or greed it tends to support what it feels to be the furthest 'safe' distance from the left. 

If, inwardly this same nation has the same tendency to do what it does externally, which we must assume it would do, its democracy must need to balance this by a strong pull towards the left by its people, who are, as we know, obliged to defend themselves against the extremes of capitalism and its periodic economic crises (i.e. unions, industrial strikes, associations). This means that, just to prevent the, so to speak 'innate' tendency of capitalist politics to pull to the right (in the form of unfettered capitalism), there must in fact be, in say a nation like the US, a strong leftward political tendency, which is the surprise because it does not always seem that way superficially in the US, of course.  

I have had to state these terms in the form of "left versus right" tendencies but really here I think we are talking about progress versus reaction. The progress is towards the culmination of the capitalist crisis in the dissolution of capitalism as an economic structure, the reaction is always to prevent or retard this real progress. One form of prevention is the creation of kinds of socialism without economic socialism, in other words fake, partial or superficial socialism or socialist policies that exist politically within the capitalist economy and provide the 'balance' of political forces. The latter suggests always that history has ended with the capitalist mode of production and economy, and all else is just a struggle of political ideas about how to run it well.  

In this lies the modern academic separation or partition between politics and economics, which are considered like different realms of existence. Political economy, which at least shows a relation between the two, is too dangerous, it seems, in that it reveals by default the connection between our political life and our economic activity, and might possibly therefore refer us to its secret: class struggle.  

The idea that a nation like the US might support unpleasant regimes because it is, in some possibly religious way "evil" is here in this sense refuted. It is only usually a question of fearing the emergence of regimes that may not service its capital, capital itself cares not who owns it. 

And here we find therefore, also, that it is not a question of all repressive regimes being the same, there are those that tend towards genuine socialism and those that tend towards fascism. Advanced capitalist democracies waver internally, always in political and economic crises between these points. It is usually thought (in the usual places) that a nation like North Korea is essentially no different to a nation like Saudi Arabia, which superficially is true, but in fact the level of politics and class struggle is very different and at a different stage of historical development. This is why the recent revolution and uprising in Tunisia and Egypt (2010) for example should not be confused or conflated with protest activity against socialist nations. 

Early forms of socialism are expressed both inwardly and outwardly in militaristic forms, its politics is undeniably repressive, but in this case it is (if so) repressive of an entirely different economic tendency, namely the tendency: that towards capitalism and the return of the capitalist economy by way of political reform, which is a kind of reform that always seeks not just political freedoms alone, which it argues for, but secretly total economic change (back to capitalism), and not necessarily to liberal democracy but any form of politics (i.e., fascist) that allows for and encourages the expansion of capital markets. 

So we see here that it is capital that rules the foreign policies and external political relations of the capitalist nations, which always, when the crisis gets tough, revert to outright competition (trade barriers, protectionism), and if this fails, war, its ultimate expression. It is capital that tells the politicians and heads of global banks how to act to defend its interests. However, these interests always are taken as being identical to the interests of certain of the competing bourgeois classes, which they may in fact be if they have judged the situation and laid their bets correctly.

Just as we have already often talked about early and late forms of capitalism, which is common parlance these days, so it is equally justified to talk about late and early forms of socialism. I here take socialism in the strict sense of the period of transition from capitalism to communism, when the class struggle still exists but when the working class holds the chief power over a primarily socialist economy. 

Of early socialism one suspects we now know most of its characteristics. 

It is likely in fact to be militaristic, this is because it must defend itself and its economy given it is surrounded by advanced capitalist nations that compete with it too well and in most cases would prefer to destroy it and replace the economy with a capitalist one. A part of this militaristic nature will be exemplified by the of cult of personality of its leaders; because of a need in this case for a strong party, the likelihood of nepotism and corruption will be higher within these political parties, and so also the likelihood of these parties falling back into pre-socialist ideologies. On the other hand they will be (and have been) very good at defending their socialism in a "hot war," because their socialism and militarism is by definition disciplined and "war" based at these times. 

Early type socialism, all the same, has in fact been adept at helping poorer nations struggle to compete with vastly more powerful capitalist nations and their vicious competition (as the political form has also helped capitalist nations during times of war), but sometimes this has been, inevitably, at the expense of liberties which in the long term unless addressed can have a detrimental effect and cause stagnation. Sometimes some early socialist forms have even surfaced, it seems, more as a kind of stop-gap or "temporary socialism" as a way to survive as an intact nation to achieve a more developed capitalism later when it is possible to compete with the advanced capitalist countries on a more equal footing, either as a deliberate policy or otherwise. That this is possible proves that socialism can be a viable, strong economic force, but also that it is at the same time immature and, so far, relatively inflexible. 

Another aspect of early socialist societies is that they have a tendency to comprehend socialism and to characterize it in quasi-religious terms (contrary to the non-religious terms of Marxism), which may or may not relate strongly to the cult of personality of leaders. This religiosity may be humanistic or traditional, and can I suggest be regarded as an aesthetic level "hangover" from previous conditions and relations with regard to customs, rituals, and traditions which do not disappear overnight with any progressive revolution. So, for instance, we will hear talk of "sacred duties" and "holy wars" against the bourgeois opposition. This seems to be more likely from societies that have only recently emerged from a feudal or semi-feudal economic background and have little experience of actual capitalism except as an external competitive force.

Later forms of socialism we are less able to judge because they hardly exist. 

We might conjecture however that they would, if emerging from a world where more socialist countries now existed than capitalist countries, or where there is more of a balance, not need to be so militaristic and disciplined, therefore they would be able to be more "relaxed" and democratic and have a fairer distribution of leadership responsibilities, and be able to concentrate more on improving the living standards of its populace. In fact we might conjecture that it is probably only in this period that socialism will actually be able to be properly socialist in some nations and the people feel the true broad benefits and freedoms of the socialist economy.

So, early forms of socialism can be described as still struggling to achieve socialism, not communism as such (this is in any case the classical Leninist definition). It is only in the later period that we might expect there to be a move towards the famously quoted "withering away of the state." And of course here we are talking of long periods of time and of global uneven development, uneven development of the social level both within different societies and nation states, and uneven development between these and their levels and other nation states, of course with their own uneven conditions of development. Different nations are today at vastly different stages of development within this global struggle. 

While it may seem that advanced capitalism holds all the cards and can easily defeat early socialism in the long run, as indeed it has with the demise of the Soviet Union (in my preliminary assessment I believe the USSR had not reached a mature stage of economic development), advanced capitalism also has advanced contradictions, as shown in the current massive economic crisis, and must compete with early capitalist nations (as well as early type socialist nations), which, in some cases may lead it to the situation where the best or indeed only weapon it has to defend itself against the new and ‘more virile’ competitor capitalist nations is precisely socialism. 

So the situation reverses, and inverts itself.

This is perhaps the situation today or the one that is emerging. 

The western capitalist nations are confronted by capitalist China with a communist party at its helm which seems to be "running capitalism" more competitively than the old capitalist parties of the west. Meanwhile these capitalist parties search in vain for a solution to their debts and their deficits, which seem to them out of control because growth has stalled. China may hold in the end the most debts as the biggest creditor; the western capitalists may try to reduce the value of these debts. In the interim they try to compete with China, to exploit their workers more to reduce the deficit and so, restart the endless "growth," the financial market and exports, which they require to service the debts and compete. But, barring revolutions, soon the debt burden and the austerity they enforce must be such that even the cheap products exported by the new capitalist nations of China and India, based on extreme exploitation of their workers, will be impossible to buy because of the impoverishment of the workers in the older capitalist nations and the drying up of credit for anything but the servicing of the debts, and a crisis will ensue in these "upstart" nations in turn, which have less of an internal market for their exportable products. 

Uneven development and uneven contradictions, communists running capitalism and capitalists running socialism, this will likely characterize the future. The period of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism is far from over in this sense, and there remains the worry of a new round of protectionism and custom controls, currency manipulation and then global war, a tendency only to be resisted by protests and uprisings of the working people. And this we are seeing, at the moment, heroic struggles by the people of North Africa.

It is not the case that early socialism represents a kind of "backwardness" with regard to late advanced capitalism (from what point could we measure this?) but in some sense it will be indeed backward on some levels (political, ideological, aesthetic) in just this respect, and this is to be expected. The bourgeoisie will be able to stigmatize and ridicule certain characteristics of early socialist societies. On the other hand the advances made by socialism can be startling in their relative speed. What perhaps represents the biggest obstacle for it to its development is the necessity for high discipline and a constant defensive posture to defend its gains, and this "attitude" seeps into its cultural forms and permeates through its society. 

Simply the knowledge of this problem being a problem is one solution, given that the characteristic formations may lead to the "strict" position that "all problems are solved" (as with aspects of late Stalinism), which is nevertheless obviously incorrect and so seems absurd.

Photo courtesy AFL-CIO

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  • Very thoughtful article. We need more such analysis of post-wwII developments and trends. I was especially glad to see the author referring to socialism as having to do with the working class holding the power over the economy.

    Too many articles these days describe nations as "partly socialism" as if there were no qualitative way to tell what's socialism and what's capitalism. It's like being partly pregnant.

    Posted by jim lane, 02/10/2011 4:54pm (7 years ago)

  • Where the state of a capitalist democracy forcibly redistributes the wealth of the people into private hands, as it has with the bailouts, it has been called socialism (albeit for the rich). But let's not fool ourselves over names: the accurate label for this is fascism.

    Socialism is not the redistribution of wealth to the poor, and especially not to the rich, but the retention of wealth by those who actually create it in the first place, in the investment and development of the productive forces and the creation of use values, rather than in exploitation. For the capitalist economy 'growth' means only the expansion of capital, it does not matter what that growth includes as a product (it may be useless, polluting, addictive, immoral).

    In Tunisia and Egypt, the state is and has been used to force the conditions of capitalism onto people and to enforce the profits of the biggest corporations and rich individuals. The state in these nations represented and represents their status as democratic, as does almost every political regime one can think of on the planet. Yet the regimes were and are fascist.

    In a nation like the UK or US, where there is still a functioning democratic process, the state is not fascist, but the more it enforces the transfer of social wealth to the rich in the midst of the crisis the more this becomes an embedded process, and so fascism becomes more likely because democracy becomes weaker. The weakness of the governments and politicians in these countries to prevent this (when even they may want to), and the strength of will and narrow mindedness of the capitalists whose only focus is their profits, is a grave danger today.

    Very few 'experts' have pointed out the connection of the global economic crisis to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, but it is the resistance, and the only kind of resistance there can be (unless the bourgeois class becomes rapidly more enlightened), to this process that has been a significant factor in the aspirations of the people.

    Some commentators in the press have recently likened these uprisings to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the anti-socialist 'velvet' revolutions. There are superficial likenesses, mostly generated by the impossibility and unpopularity of imposing socialism through socialist imperialism (during the long aftermath of WWII). The similarity is these people seek self-determination. But after that the resemblance breaks down. What oppresses these peoples is an imposed capitalism and forms (albeit very poor forms) of democracy, and a catalyst to the revolt has been the peoples defence against the conditions of the global capitalist economic crisis. Perhaps the Gdansk shipyard workers were unable to unravel socialism from imperialism, which is not surprising in the circumstances they faced, but the following economic conditions imposed by the free market world did not create a good outcome for them and today have led, in another place, to an opposite conclusion.

    Posted by Gary Tedman, 01/30/2011 1:09am (7 years ago)

  • Whenever an "advanced" capitalist nation, like the u.s. for example, finds itself in an economic crisis, it always turns to socialism to save itself. The current disastrous u.s. depression is a clear example. The capitalist system, which is fatally flawed from the start, has crashed the debt-based economy. In order to maintain the system of usury that creates the perpetual debt upon which the capitalist system is based, the parasites of the "financial industry", an oxymoron if ever there was one, must socialise the losses they have incurred. They turn to socialism and require the people to "bail them out" with their tax dollars. Meanwhile, during the socialisation of the losses, the fascist corporatocracy is experiencing record profits, which are, of course, totally privatised. Society as a whole never sees a penny of that "profit", which it in fact created. There are two "economies" at work. The socialist economy lays all the debt and loss on the backs of the people whilst the capitalist economy redistributes all the wealth upward into the hands of the parasitic elite.
    The capitalist parasites will stop at absolutely nothing to perpetuate the myth of infinite growth and profit, which is clearly impossible on a planet with limited, non-renewable resources. Defiance of the laws of nature and physics, and capitalism is completely based upon such defiance, can only result in utter disaster for everyone, the capitalist elite included. They will ultimately destroy themselves but not until they have brought unimaginable suffering and oppression to the people of Earth and death to numbers beyond comprehension. There is, in fact, a very real possibility that capitalism may bring about the extinction of the human race.

    Posted by Richard William Posner, 01/28/2011 12:35pm (7 years ago)

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