Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 7 May 2016

The Nemesis of the Liberal Bourgeoisie

Someone’s “nemesis” is not, as it is currently misconstrued, simply someone’s “enemy”. A nemesis is much more than just an enemy, just an accidental foe. A nemesis is the avenger of the Gods, it is the divine retribution called forth by the blasphemous “pride” or “hubris” of those the nemesis has been sent to quell and destroy. There is therefore a necessary dialectical link – not merely an accidental one – between hubris and nemesis: hubris is hubris because it invites its own nemesis: this is the dialectical foundation of Greek tragedy. Tragedy arises from an all-too-human failing – that of being blind to our human limits, and therefore of trespassing on the territory of the Gods. What the liberal bourgeois media dub as “populisms” are the nemesis of the bourgeoisie, liberal or conservative: they are the necessary (hence, “divine”) retribution for a social class that has used its political power to destroy the political organisations of the working class around the globe. Yet the capitalist class, the rule of capital, cannot subsist without the effective antagonism of the working class. Not workers, but workers organized as a class, are the “motor” of capitalist accumulation. Once the process of accumulation is carried too far, mainly through the dismantlement of working-class cohesion, capitalist industry must come to a grinding halt through insufficient “aggregate demand” and therefore through “excess savings”. But the consequent deterioration in the living conditions of workers makes the restive working class and the growing numbers of pauperized middle-class citizens easy prey for demagogues whose only aim is to seize political power for its own sake. That is the point at which the Reason and Civilised Values of the “enlightened bourgeoisie” come crashing down – and the liberal bourgeoisie, so besotted with its “eternal values”, meets its own nemesis.

That point, my friends, is exactly where we find ourselves now. In its unceasing effort to conceal the brutality of the wage relation and to deflect its pernicious outcomes, the bourgeoisie is keen to trumpet its adherence to abstract ideals such as “liberty, equality and fraternity” as well as “humanity”. At the same time, however, its culture industry – from Hollywood to the mass media to “social networks” – relentlessly propagates and inculcates the savage brutality of capitalist daily life – starting from the compulsion to work, starting from “the dictatorship of the factory”. What we have, then, is an apparently “democratic society” and an “authoritarian workplace”. It is, as it were, as if the bourgeoisie constantly hid its dictatorship at work (“the base”) through the smoke and mirrors of “life-style” (“the superstructure”). Yet in reality the two cannot be held separate for very long: no matter how long the bourgeoisie seeks to present the society of capital as a consumerist paradise, the brutal reality of exploitation, of wage labour as the ineluctable fate of human existence in the society of capital, must eventually break through the thin veneer of “consumer choice” (of Facebook, Netflix and Apple Apps, to be clear).

The brutal and ineluctable reality of capitalist social relations is that you cannot “save the environment” if most workers have to drive to get to work, you cannot have “safe neighbourhoods” if workers are condemned to a life of unemployment and upheaval, you cannot have “peace” if most people have to struggle each day purely in order to survive – physically as well as psychologically. The reality is that capitalist accumulation requires a surplus of living labour so as to force workers to alienate their living activity every day “in exchange for” so-called “wages” – which are simply the equivalent of their own objectified living activity. The greater is the ability of workers to emancipate themselves from the rule of capital, the greater is the need for the bourgeoisie to expand the pool of available living labour so as to compress and repress the political emergence of the working class. To give an indication, just consider the fact that in the last thirty years the size of the global working class has more than doubled! And while Western capital enabled the Chinese dictatorship to enrich itself by exploiting and expropriating hundreds of millions of its own people, at the same time it dismantled the political organisations of its own working class which now finds itself “competing against” the wild excess of human factory fodder that has been created overwhelmingly in Asia. Only now that it is meeting with its own “nemesis” is the Western bourgeoisie awakening to the possibility that its “liberal democratic society” may no longer be “liberal”, let alone “democratic”. The fatal delusion of the bourgeoisie has always been to confuse “liberalism” and “free markets” with “democracy”. – Without realizing instead that “free markets” are dependent on the most “illiberal” and “undemocratic” market of all: the labour market! The “market”, that is, where human beings are coerced into alienating their living activity, their “labour”, in exchange for the products of their own living activity – in exchange for “wages”! This is the tragic paradox on which capitalist industrial civilization rests – and the hard reality that summons it to its nemesis.

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