Road map to the future
This article is a contribution to the debate inside and outside the Movement for a Socialist Future, about how socialism can be achieved. Paul Feldman and Corinna Lotz show that the seeds of a new form of society are growing within globalised capitalism.
Karl Marx put forward the revolutionary idea that each class-based society in history develops within itself the conditions for the emergence of a new kind of social order.
In social, as in organic life, the new begins within the old as a fragile, tiny cell or tendency, but then takes on more
and more features, grows larger and differentiates into a more complex organism until it can no longer coexist with the old, and must break free of it.
This profound idea, strongly inspired by Hegel's dialectical method of thinking, has become reality in today's globalised capitalist economy. Marx explained how the changes in the forces used in economic production come into conflict with the existing forms of property ownership and control.
He used this approach to explain how forms of capitalism had arisen from within the womb of feudalism, reaching a point where the two could no longer cohabit. To enable its continued development and satisfy their growing interests, the new class of capitalists overthrew the feudal landowners in social revolution.
The fundamental conflict in capitalist society is between the concentration of ownership of the productive forces in the hands of the capitalist class and the unbridled development of those very same forces, which include machinery, technology and last but not least, the working class.
The conflict between these two produces insoluble and repeated crises, because the ever-expanding productive forces are imprisoned within the narrow confines of private ownership. This is the driving force for instability and economic slump.
Despite the fact that the means of production are privately owned, the productive process from its early days in manufacture compelled the capitalist system to adopt collaborative, social forms of labour and technique.
These were manifested in the division of labour, in the rise of the factory system and international market and are usually referred to by the term "socialisation". Thus from the start there was a coexistence (and conflict) of the private and the social.
Over the last 30 years, the increasingly globalised systems of production and distribution, driven on by new technology, together with the transformation of financial markets, have given rise to a qualitatively new forms of socialisation.
Information products are becoming cheaper to produce and are turned out in greater and greater quantities. This lowers the per unit rate of profit, and, with competition forcing prices down, creates an accelerating crisis for producers and the need to launch new models with ever greater frequency. Manufacturers desperate to make profit are linking apparently free products to service contracts (computers, mobile telephones, etc). Competitive edge is improved by making IT products more and more user- friendly.
All this creates a population of more than 100 million digitally-literate people who can communicate in a way that transcends states and governments, not only in the wealthier countries, but also countries such as India, the second most populous in the world.
New structures such as the Internet have arisen, which are not profit-driven and did not originate from a capitalist firm's desire to compete with its rivals. These structures demonstrate the concrete possibility of organising society in an entirely different way.
The Internet began as an academic communication system run on a non-profit basis, which allowed different computer systems to "talk" to each other. Through collaborative free association it has established a world-wide standard for a global communication system used for a thousand different purposes by countless millions of people, anarchic and out of control.
What we see here is a tendency towards the abolition of capitalism from within, which Marx noted. Writing about the emergence of shareholding companies and monopolies in Volume III of Capital, he insisted: "This is the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself, hence a self- dissolving contradiction, which prima facie represents a mere phase of transition to a new form of production.
"It manifests itself as such a contradiction in its effects. It establishes a monopoly in certain spheres and thereby requires state interference. It reproduces a new financial aristocracy, a new variety of parasites in the shape of promoters, speculators and simply nominal directors...It is private production without the control of private property."
Capitalism itself, in its need to overcome its internal crisis – including the tendency of the rate of profit to fall – thus creates "counter-capitalist" forms. Embryonic socialist forms therefore come out of the system which tend towards its own abolition. Private property is being eroded and undermined at its very core.
As many have pointed out, the new technology of globalised capital has meant changes which have undermined traditional labour organisations, broken down forms of social protection developed by the workers' movement and led to increased exploitation in factories, offices, shops and call centres.
Commentators point to these facts to claim that capitalism has established a new, supreme form of control, a "new world order". Socialism, they say, is no longer possible, and only imaginable as a quaint utopian pipe dream.
But these observations about the new shape of capitalism miss out the most fundamental changes of all. Private ownership and control of the means of production is increasingly outstripped by the changes in the forms of production, the features of which we have outlined above.
Writers such as Alex Brummer of The Guardian, when studying today's world economy, believe that the capitalist system only survived the collapse of the Russian economy in 1998, and its "domino effect" on emerging markets from the Far East to Latin America, due to "America's love-affair with the cyber-world and the extra-productivity and wealth that has generated".
If this is the case, then it follows that the world economy cannot possibly survive a crash of the "virtual economy and financial markets".
The mushrooming value of e-commerce and Internet shares over the past months is recognised by experts in the
history of capitalist markets as no more than an illusory "bubble.com".
Exactly when and how the bubble will burst cannot be predicted. But it is certain that the trillions of dollars being recycled through the world's financial markets every day do not generate new value. They themselves are an expression of the underlying instability of the entire system.
The mass use of information technology, its increasing cheapness and availability means that countless millions of ordinary people can now have access to ideas and information which previously was the prerogative of the few, with revolutionary implications.
Capitalism cannot, of course, abolish itself. The development of ideas and concepts which can release the power of the masses and transform the socialisation of the system into socialism itself, is the key to the future.
This article first appeared in Socialist Future magazine