Back to good old Marx in the brave new world of globalisation

By Dipankar Bhattacharya

A decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is now an established fact that capitalism rules the roost in the world. The supremacy of capitalism as the dominant system does not face any immediate challenge. Yet the dominant voice of capitalism is no longer one of euphoria. The triumphalist cries of a few years ago are increasingly giving way to notes of caution and uncertainty. More and more people now realise that what collapsed with the demolition of the Berlin wall or the disintegration of the Soviet Union was not just Soviet-style socialism but also the edifice of what had come to be known as the welfare-state version of capitalism. The end of the Cold War period has come to signify the beginning of a new era of great uncertainties in which even good old capitalism looks increasingly unfamiliar.

This new era has begun to lend a new relevance to Marx and Marxism. Even bourgeois thinkers and writers have developed a new fondness for Marx. They are pleasantly surprised that way back in the 1840s and 1850s, Marx could so brilliantly apprehend the dynamic of what they now call globalisation! Indeed, passages from the Communist Manifesto have begun to find their ways quite mysteriously into World Bank reports and some of the best bourgeois commentaries on globalisation (see, for instance, the Thomas Friedman best-seller The Lexus and the Olive Tree). Of course, they would cite only passages where Marx highlights the essential capitalist thrust for accumulation and expansion and the latent potential for tremendous growth of productive forces and production, conveniently bypassing the basic Marxist analysis of crises and the inherent contradictions of capitalism. Even the most critical bourgeois thinkers have never been prepared to think beyond capitalism, and it is quite natural that their reading of Marx will be only selective and sanitised.

In certain ways, the present period appears comparable to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when Marx was immersed in his analysis of capitalism and Marxism was yet to establish its ideological sway over the international working-class movement and the radical or progressive discourse. That was when Marxism collaborated and contended with all sorts of non-capitalist or anti-capitalist ideologies even as it developed its distinct and thorough analysis of capitalism and the bourgeois state. The First International (International Workingmen’s Association, 1864-73) was a global united front of sorts comprising Marxists, anarchists and various schools of trade unionists. The anti-globalisation protests today present a somewhat similar picture, with perhaps a much wider array of ideological shades and political currents. A whole range of schools of dissent and resistance are maturing in their own ways. Marxism no longer occupies the hegemonic heights in a way it did during the world war years or, for that matter, even during much of the Cold War era. But Marxism is quite used to it. In the course of its history of 150 years and more, Marxism has been engaged in a relentless war with the ideologies of capitalism, and it has often had to fight its way back under extremely hostile conditions.

Let the bourgeois intellectual world feel surprised and shocked over the return of Karl Marx. We Marxists now also need to return to Marx. We need Marxism today not just as a doctrine of resistance. More importantly, we have to rediscover the depth and breadth of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. We need Marxism as a guide to action as well as comprehension.

Let us look at this question of globalisation. Whether we talk of technology, production, trade or, most obviously, communication and finance, we are witnessing an unprecedentedly rapid and massive integration of the world capitalist economy. It is true that the thrust to globalise is an inherent tendency of capitalism, but it is not always that one sees the operation of a tendency with such great force and unmistakable clarity. It is also possible to argue that the world has seen phases when trade was probably even more free and migration of labour more widespread (of course, the developed countries continue to be highly restrictive of the mobility of labour), but that does not in any way reduce the tremendous impact and intensity of the present conjuncture. In spite of tremendous technological changes, the rise of mega-corporations and mind-boggling volumes and mobility of finance, we can still rediscover any number of insights in Marx’s analysis of capital and capitalism, which can enable us to gain a better understanding of global capitalism.

In their accounts and analyses of globalisation, non-Marxist thinkers, and especially bourgeois ideologues, often give us only a technological picture centred on the information revolution or what is now known as the new or ice (information-communication-entertainment) economy. The underlying framework of capitalism or imperialism, defined as the highest phase of capitalism by Lenin, is either taken for granted or sought to be hidden behind the blinding dazzle of technology. In other words, the discourse of globalisation is used to camouflage capitalism and to nurture illusions about a democratic capitalism, equating globalisation with democratisation. Friedman, for instance, describes globalisation as a convergence of three democratisations: democratisation of technology, democratisation of information and democratisation of finance.

It is evident that more and more people are daily being drawn into the vortex of technology, information and finance; but if we differentiate between victims and beneficiaries, between passive and active participation, between being at the receiving end and being able to influence and make decisions or “choices”, then we can only talk about the creation of possibilities of democratisation. And, to be sure, these possibilities cannot be realised without overthrowing the rule of capital. To correct the picture, Marxists or left-wing intellectuals and activists have started qualifying the term as imperialist or capitalist globalisation to demarcate it from a possible and desirable socialist globalisation or internationalisation. Ellen Meiksins Wood prefers to replace the word globalisation by what she calls universalisation of capitalism.

Unprecedented expansion of capitalism, both extensive and intensive, is undeniably of the essence of globalisation. This means the logic of commodity production has successfully penetrated many hitherto untouched areas, both geographically and in terms of human activity. The process has been greatly facilitated by the mind-boggling ongoing advances in technology. Thanks to digital technology and the communications revolution, virtually every idea can be transformed into information, and every activity can be converted into digitised data. All these data and information then enter the complex circuit of commodities, whether in the sphere of production, exchange or consumption. This explosion of commodities has also reinforced what Marx called “commodity fetishism”. Once again we need to tear apart the veil of commodities to grasp the real character of capital and capitalist production.

Marx and Engels repeatedly made it clear that capital itself embodies the essential antagonism between social production and private appropriation. Capital, they argued again and again, is a collective product which can be set in motion, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, and hence capital represents not personal, but social power. The Marxist argument against productive capital has nothing to do with its size or composition; it is directed only against its social or class character. By calling for abolition of bourgeois private property or conversion of capital into common property, they wanted precisely to resolve the antagonism between social production and private appropriation in favour of social appropriation.

The role of the capitalist, they noted, had started becoming redundant in the process of production at quite an early stage of the development of capital and industry. Way back in the Communist Manifesto, they characterised the bourgeoisie as an “involuntary promoter” of industry. In Capital they trace the growing disappearance of the capitalist from the process of production. “Just as, at first, the capitalist is relieved from manual labour so soon as his capital has reached that minimum amount with which real capitalist production begins, so now, he hands over the work of direct and constant supervision of the individual workman, and groups of workmen, to a special kind of wage-labourer.” (Capital, Volume 1). With the development of credit, “the money capitalist is confronted by the investing capitalist … the mere manager, who has no title whatever to the capital whether by borrowing or otherwise, performs all the real functions of the investing capitalist as such; only the functionary remains and the capitalist disappears from the process of production as a superfluous person …” (Capital, Volume 3). Eventually, the joint-stock company “reproduces a new aristocracy of finance, a new variety of parasites in the shape of promoters, speculators, and merely nominal directors: a whole system of swindling and cheating by means of company promoting, stock jobbing, and speculation. It is private production without the control of private property.” (Capital, Volume 3).

From the joint-stock companies to the present-day multinational corporations, from money capital wedded to industrial production to high-velocity finance chasing the speculative mirage, today the capitalist has grown still more superfluous. The disappearance or dissolution of the capitalist into a whole new variety of parasites, a veritable army of speculators, is a growing feature of contemporary capitalism. This has taken parasitism to incredible lengths, and we can see the kind of havoc it is playing with the productive economy. In a way this is reflected in the growing contribution of the service sector to the gdp of almost every country. Of course, the service sector is no longer confined to the realm of exchange or circulation; advances in technology and changes in methods of production have in many ways blurred the earlier distinction between manufacturing and service sectors. But whether production takes place in the manufacturing sector or in the service sector, the association of substantial sections of the bourgeoisie with the organisation and processes of production is getting more and more remote.

Bourgeois commentators, however, have a different way of presenting the picture. They say it is the labourer who is becoming superfluous. This superfluity of labour is sought to be demonstrated not only through enormous levels of retrenchment and casualisation of labour, but also theoretically by referring to the new economy. They point out that not only has the knowledge-economy begun to catch up with, if not supersede, the old bricks-and-mortar economy, in terms of output, but it has also profoundly changed the production patterns of the latter. Automation has started acquiring incredible proportions. In 1992, the Lexus luxury car factory in Toyota City, which Friedman uses as a symbol of the emerging pattern of developed industrial production under globalisation, was producing 300 Lexus sedans each day employing 66 human beings and 310 robots. And the job done by all these human beings was essentially of the nature of quality control work. In other words, surplus is produced either by robots or increasingly by self-employed professionals or knowledge workers, replacing labour from the pivotal position held earlier in any scheme of material production.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that for every such Lexus plant, the world economy is still dotted with thousands of sweatshops. And such sweatshops are fairly well dispersed. Integration also means interpenetration, and hence we have growing pockets of the Third World in the First World, just as we have islands of First World prosperity coming up within the Third World. As for the claim of the new economy replacing the old economy, the real-life relation between the two is clearly proving to be much more complementary. Software cannot but presuppose hardware. Intellectual production can thrive only on an ever expanding foundation of material production. Even assuming that the Lexus plant will increasingly become the norm in material production, it in no way refutes the absolutely central and original role of labour in the generation of surplus.

Capital, however knowledge-intensive or high tech, is nothing but accumulated labour. And the challenge precisely is to reverse the existing relationship between dead labour and living labour. As the Manifesto put it: “In bourgeois society, living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labour. In Communist society, accumulated labour is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer.” Of course, when material production is carried out on a highly mechanised or automated basis, the mediation between dead labour and living labour undergoes a certain twist. The outcome is unemployment, dead labour converting living labour into idle labour. Another related development is the growth of casualisation or flexibilisation of labour, which generally means a throwback to so much more dehumanisation and disempowerment.

Let us not forget that the vision of communist society in Marx is premised on an absolutely abundant supply of all material and cultural necessities of life so that humankind can begin to move from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. The technological progress attained so far by human civilisation under capitalism, or in spite of capitalism, is quite commensurate with this direction. The vision of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” can be realised only in a society where labour is highly refined and surplus abundant. There is already a steady swelling of the middle classes (who “rest with all their weight upon the working class and at the same time increase the social security and power of the upper class”) with great improvements in living standards. But capitalism being capitalism, freedom can be a privilege only for a fortunate few. Prosperity under capitalist logic can be accompanied only by a further accentuation of social disparity.

It is true that in hours of profound capitalist crises and victorious revolutions, Marx and all subsequent Marxist thinkers have at times tended to be carried away by an element of over-optimism. But overall, in its history of a little more than a century and a half, Marxism has never hesitated in acknowledging the resilience of capitalism. In sharp contrast to utopian visions of alternatives to capitalism, in Marxism the journey “beyond” capitalism is routed “through” capitalism. “No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society”, wrote Marx in his 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. And talking about productive forces, Marx and Engels repeatedly noted the many impulses to their development: constant revolutionising of the instruments and methods of production, creation of new needs and wants, a constantly expanding world market giving a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country, and most crucially, the enforced periodic destruction of productive forces, the universal war of devastation.

Development of productive forces apart, they also paid due attention to the fact of greater social mobility under capitalism than any previous mode of production. For instance, we come across this extremely insightful passage in Capital (Volume 3):

This circumstance, that a man without wealth, but with energy, strength of character, ability, and business sense, is able to become a capitalist, is greatly admired by the economic apologists of capitalism, since it shows that the commercial value of each individual is more or less accurately estimated under the capitalist mode of production. Although this situation continually brings an unwelcome number of new soldiers of fortune into the field, and into competition with the existing individual capitalists, it also consolidates the rule of capital itself, enlarges its basis, and enables it to recruit ever new forces for itself out of the lower layers of society … The more a ruling class is able to assimilate the most prominent men of the dominated classes the more stable and dangerous is its rule.

In other words, if Marx talked about the periodic crises returning ever more threateningly, about the falling rate of profit and about the bourgeoisie arming its own grave-diggers, he was also very much alive to the constant development of productive forces and to factors lending stability and consolidation to the rule of capital. Even the most critical bourgeois thinkers, who do not write fictions about a friction-free or crisis-free capitalism, cannot rid themselves of the fond hope of holding the positive and negative sides, the expansive and preservative aspects on the one hand and the restrictive and destructive aspects on the other, in an eternal balance. Schumpeter calls it creative destruction and believes capitalism can endlessly go on perfecting this art. Friedman talks of a dynamic balance between the Lexus and the olive tree, his chosen metaphors for the global and the local. They make it sound like a natural law, and through all his rigorous study and analysis of capitalism, the one thing Marx did was to demystify this “naturalness” of capitalism.

Long before the Fukuyamas came up with their thesis of the end of history, Marx was able to detect and reject this “endist” streak common to all bourgeois economists. In his famous polemic with Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx said quite categorically, “When they say that the present-day relations—the relations of bourgeois production—are natural, the economists imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature. Thus, these relations are themselves natural laws independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any.”

For Marx, history continues to progress through capitalism and beyond. As we have already noted, this question of “beyond” grows from “within”. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow for the wealth created by them, noted the Communist Manifesto. The contradiction between production for its own sake, production for the satisfaction of human needs and production for profit, production for capital, is perpetual and central to capitalism. In his analysis of capitalism Marx follows this contradiction through to its end and this is how he arrives at socialism and communism. “The real limitation upon capitalist production”, says Marx in Capital (Volume 3),

is capital itself. It is the fact that capital and its self-expansion are the beginning and end, the motive and aim of production; that production is regarded as production for capital, instead of the means of production being considered simply as means for extending the conditions of human life for the benefit of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and augmentation of the value of capital, which is based upon the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers, must take place, are always conflicting with the methods of production which capital must employ to attain its ends. These methods lead directly towards an unlimited expansion of production, towards an unconditional development of the productive forces of society.
The means, the unconditional development of the productive forces of society enters continually into conflict with the limited end, the self-expansion of the existing capital. Thus while the capitalist mode of production is one of the historical means by which the material forces of production are developed and by which the world market they imply is created, it represents at the same time a perpetual contradiction between this historical task and the social relations of production which it establishes.
The ultimate cause of all real crises is always the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses, in contrast with the tendency of capitalist production to develop the productive forces in such a way that only the absolute power of consumption of society would be their limit.

If in the present era of globalisation propelled by scientific and technological revolution, the world is witnessing gigantic strides towards an unlimited expansion of production and unconditional development of productive forces, the accentuation of inequalities within and across countries and regions continues to resist this tendency with one real crisis after another.

Meanwhile, the relentless development of technology has unleashed tremendous subversive potential, replenishing the ranks of grave-diggers with a whole range of new weapons. If the capitalist is fast becoming superfluous, much of the old architecture of the bourgeois state is being rendered anachronistic. The arrival of the internet has opened up enormous possibilities of human cooperation which can finally bid farewell to the bureaucratic state machine. As the world is reduced to the cliched global village, there is evidently an unimaginably greater international awareness of the crises and contradictions of capitalism. The extent of human misery and environmental degradation has never been known so thoroughly. And as recent protests show, many people have begun to tread the path from awareness to action, from “virtual” community to real solidarity. As capitalism spreads to every nook and corner of the world and as it seeps through every pore of social life and human activity, it has to own its contradictions like never before. Nothing really remains external any more, nothing can spill over into another domain. Like wealth outgrowing the narrow confines of bourgeois society, the crises and contradictions lurking in every corner too leave the system increasingly bursting at the seams.

As globalisation accentuates inequalities and aggravates the crisis of survival for most of us at the receiving end in the Third World, it undoubtedly has to be resisted and our current moorings have to be defended. This immediate, defensive nature of the battle is inescapable, and we Marxists will invariably find ourselves surrounded by all sorts of revivalists and utopians, conservatives and reformists in this battle. As Marxists, we will of course demarcate ourselves by carrying the defensive battle of resistance into the realm of subversion and transformation. And for the journey forward, we will return again and again to Marx for new insights and inspiration.

This article originally appeared in the May 2001 issue of Liberation, central organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).