Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 8 April 2019

Capitalism and the Apocalypse - Part 2

The reason why we use the term “overpopulation” to indicate the first of the “twin evils” of capitalism is that capitalism pushes population increase to the limit of sustainability so far as human and natural resources are concerned. As we have shown, it is impelled to do so by that end-less accumulation of capital that is its essential goal, it’s raison d’etre. The intrinsic and imprescindible goal of capitalism is not the achievement of a particular human level of well-being, but rather the never-ending numerical or accounting task of maximizing the return on investment – profit. Needless to say, overpopulation has an automatic reflex therefore in “overconsumption” because, if the working population and the reserve army of the unemployed exceed what is sustainable, it must follow that the level of consumption is also unsustainable. Just on its own, the overconsumption needed to satisfy the reproductive needs of overpopulation will push humanity toward ecological catastrophe.
But that is not enough. Overconsumption is only one intrinsic aspect of overpopulation which, in turn, is an intrinsic aspect of capitalism. There is a separate reason why capitalism pushes us toward the destruction of our ecosphere: this aspect we can call consumerism. Consumerism is distinct from overconsumption in that the latter is tied more strictly to the process of the extraction of surplus value from workers – hence of the accumulation of capital and finally of overpopulation. Consumerism is quite distinct from overpopulation and overconsumption because whereas these are merely factual aspects of the operation of capitalism, requisite operational aspects of capitalist industry and accumulation, consumerism is instead the very ideology of capitalism in that it serves not so much an organic purpose in capitalist production but much rather a propagandistic role in the subjugation and exploitation of workers. Indeed, many languages used the word propaganda especially after World War Two until it was replaced with the far less pejorative word “advertising”: thus, the direct political use of capitalist propaganda was turned into an innocuous “advertence to consumers” – a simple “notice” serving the useful purpose of “adverting your attention to” a given product..
Consumerism is, as it were, the sugar-coating that allows workers and the proletariat at large to swallow the bitter pill of capitalist exploitation and lack of real participatory democracy in liberal parliamentary bourgeois regimes. How so? The wage relation is one of violence in that workers would never accept to sell their living activity in exchange for the dead product of their living labour - that is surely an “exchange” that amounts to fraud (if unwitting) or violence (if workers are aware of it). Of course, the very fact that workers are willing to work for “a fair wage” means that the capitalist mode of production does have a minimum of legitimacy (Weber). Nevertheless, legitimacy does not mean absence of conflict: capitalist society is founded on social antagonism between capitalists and workers - and specifically on the antagonism of the wage relation. The question then arises of why the antagonism of the wage relation has not exploded into open social conflict - into civil war in many advanced industrial capitalist societies. The answer has to do with capitalist growth and development. Let us see how this works.
The “specificity” of a capitalist society consists in the ability of capitalists to dominate living labour, workers, not just through explicit coercion but rather through a complex set of institutions that force workers to exchange their living labour for the objects that they themselves have produced, with “dead labour” - again, not through direct coercion from a particular capitalist toward particular workers because the capitalist does not “own” the workers as is the case with slavery or with feudal relations where the “serfs” are tied to the land, the feud or glebe. One of the fundamental institutional pillars of capitalism – as against feudalism and slavery, for instance – is that workers are “formally legally free” in the sense that their employer (the capitalist) does not “own” them the way feudal lords and ancient masters did. Because capitalists have no ownership of workers but simply purchase their labour-power on the “free market”, it follows that capitalists compete with one another for workers’ labour-power. Part of this competition gives rise to a simple paradox to which the bourgeoisie is exposed: although each individual capitalist wants to pay his workers as little as possible, the same capitalist wants other employers to pay their workers as much as possible so that they may spend their income on the goods he produces! This is a variant (the converse, if you like) of the “paradox of thrift” first illustrated by Marx in Capital and then adopted by Keynes.
The result is that workers’ consumption is distorted in two very nefarious ways, deleterious to society and to the environment. The first aspect is that capitalists cannot produce goods that emancipate workers from wage labor – this occurs indirectly through wage-push and demand-pull inflation. The second aspect is that capitalists must employ marketing to persuade workers to spend their wages on the repressive goods they force them to produce. This obviously results in the most horrendous irrational waste!
The third aspect of consumerism is the ideological component – “marketing”. Hence, the pervasive bombardment of workers through “advertising” and the relentless emphasis on “consumer choice” as a substitute for true participatory democracy is tantamount to the collective brainwashing of our “democratic” societies.
Profit and Uneven Development
For the reasons we have listed here, if we wish to understand why the global population keeps growing to the point where it is becoming unsustainable for the ecosphere, then we have only the capitalist mode of production to blame. But the objection will be promptly moved: if that is so, why is it that the most advanced capitalist countries are beginning to experience stable or stagnant or even declining populations? The answer is relatively simple: as capitalist accumulation grows, the process runs against political and environmental limits as capitalist ruling classes attempt  to keep their own national populations pacified through rising living standards relative to other nations. But then, second, this first condition requires the presence of other nations (especially if under the control of authoritarian dictatorships – notably China at present) where populations of potential workers can absorb the profits accumulated in the more advanced industrial capitalist countries.
This model of international capitalist division of social labour is premised therefore on the “uneven development” of national economies - not just in terms of industrial development but also in terms of the adaptation of national institutions to the industrial requisites of the bourgeoisie. As nations become more advanced from an industrial viewpoint, they also are left with no choice but to emancipate their own working classes. Yet at the same time, these more advanced capitalist nations need to find less advanced nations whose working populations they can exploit and expand through higher rates of fertility! An important example is the desperate attempt by the Chinese Dictatorship to redirect it’s excess capital away from its own subjects to New areas it can more easily exploit – Africa in particular, where the existence of easily corruptible dictatorial regimes makes this absorption of excess capital less exposed to domestic conflict generated by the excessive wage emancipation of Chinese workers.
It goes without saying that this process of “uneven development” gives rise to tremendous conflicts between the more advanced and the less advanced capitalist countries - in all sorts of directions from migration pressures, to international tensions as each nation seeks to unload its domestic wage antagonism on other countries.

The Military Apocalypse

Perhaps the greatest immediate threat of this irrational process of capitalist accumulation is that capitalism needs the existence of national boundaries and of authoritarian and despotic nation-states to be able to ensure the constant process of overpopulation in the less developed despotic nation-states – “the periphery” -, and of consumerism in the parliamentary nation-states that capitalists use as a refuge in case of conflict with the exploited nations – we call these advanced capitalist nation-states “the metropole” as opposed to the newly-exploited states of “the periphery”.
Hence, we have a clear contradiction between the process of capitalist “globalization” and the simultaneous rise of international conflict that threatens to lead any moment now to a new world war!

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