István Mészáros: Marxian framework, the possibility of socialism and the concept of revolution.
de István Mészáros,
Istvan Mészáros is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Political Theory, University of Sussex (UK) and author of a number of books including Beyond Capital and Marxist Theory of Alienation; the Works of Sartre; Search for Freedom; Philosophy, Ideology and Social Science; The Power of Ideology.
István Mészáros in conversation
Part I: On total social capital, totality of labour, labour theory of value and the question of social agency of transformation.
M. Keshavarz: In your opinion which of the Marxian models can explain the capitalist crises of the modern age?
- The model of reproduction of total social capital?- The model of overproduction?- The tendency for the profit rate to fall?- Or can we combine all these models into one?
Professor Mészáros: Yes, fundamentally you can combine them. But what takes precedence is after all a global view of capital. It is quite ironical that people have been recently discovering that we live in a world of "globalisation". This was always self-evident to Marx, and I discussed it in the same way in my Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture ("The Necessity of Social Control",1971) where I talk at length about "globalisation". Not using that word, but the crucial equivalent categories of "total social capital" and the "totality of labor". The conceptual framework in which you can make sense of the capital system can only be a global one. (This lecture is now reprinted in Part IV. of Beyond Capital.) Capital has absolutely no way of restraining itself, nor can you find in the world a counter-force which could restrain it without radically overcoming the capital system as such. So capital had to run its course and logic of development: it had to embrace the totality of the planet. That was always implicit in Marx.
The other things you have mentioned, like the "declining rate of profit", etc. are in a way subsidiary to the globally expansionary logic of capital, so that you can incorporate all in the global vision. The capital system has a multiplicity of particular constituents, full of contradictions. You have a plurality of capitals, both nationally confronting one another as well as internal to any national community. In fact the plurality of capitals within particular national communities constitutes the theoretical basis of liberalism, deluding itself of being the champion of Liberty writ large. Capital is not a homogeneous entity. This carries with it great complications to the whole question of "globalisation". The way it is customarily presented, "globalisation" is a complete fantasy, suggesting that we are all going to live under a capitalistic "global government", unproblematically obeying the rules of this unified global government. That is quite inconceivable. There can be no way of bringing the capital system under one big monopoly which would provide the material basis of such a "global government". In reality, we have a multiplicity of divisions and contradictions, and "Total Social Capital" is the comprehensive category which incorporates the plurality of capitals, with all their contradictions.
Now, if you look at the other side, also the "Totality of Labor" can never be considered a homogeneous entity for as long as the capital system survives. There are, of necessity, so many contradictions which you find under the given historical conditions among sections of labor, opposing and fighting one another, competing against one another, rather than simply confronting particular sections of capital. This is one of the tragedies of our predicament today. And it cannot be simply wished out of existence. For, as Marx had put it a long time ago:
"Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois but still more the workers, in spite of the fact that it brings them together. Hence every organized power standing over against these isolated individuals, who live in conditions daily reproducing this isolation, can only be overcome after long struggles. To demand the opposite would be tantamount to demanding that competition should not exist in this definite epoch of history, or that the individuals should banish from their minds conditions over which in their isolation they have no control."
These divisions and contradictions remain with us and ultimately they are all to be explained by the nature and functioning of the capital system itself. It is an insuperably contradictory system based on social antagonism. It is an adversarial system, based on the structural domination of labor by capital. So, there are of necessity all kinds of sectional divisions.
But we must also bear in mind that we are talking about a dynamically unfolding system. The dynamically unfolding tendency of the global capital system cannot help being a totally and inextricably intertwined, and at the same time deeply contradictory, system. This is why under the intrinsic determinations of globally unfolding "Total Social Capital" and the corresponding "Totality of Labor" all those other models you have mentioned can be subsumed. This general framework has its own logic, in the sense of inexorably unfolding in accordance with its intrinsic structural determinations and limitations. There are some absolute – historically untranscendable – limitations to this system, which I have tried to spell out in Chapter 5 of Beyond Capital entitled "The Activation of Capital's Absolute Limits".
Question: What is the validity of criticism regarding Marx's thory of the "Conversion of value to price" and the Marxian model in response to that?
Answer: Well, I think it may be too technical to go into the details. You know the way in which modern economic theory was questioning these points. But I don't think that we can make much of it, in that the market system under which we operate makes it necessary to provide this conversion. This takes us back to the question of the "Labor Theory of Value". The foundation of the Marxian conceptual framework is the Labor Theory of Value, concerning the way in which "Surplus Value" is generated and appropriated under the rule of capital. Since under our present conditions of socio-economic reproduction in most countries we have a market framework in which the "plurality of capitals" which I mentioned earlier must adjust itself. You mentioned the "Profit Rate" which is also in the process of constant adjustment. But this adjustment cannot take place without the intermediary of conversion.
If (and where) capital had a straightforward political way of controlling the system's expanded reproduction, there would be (and there was) no need for the intermediary of genuine conversion; the process could be more or less arbitrarily settled on the basis of political decisions, as it actually happened under the Soviet type capital system. In other words, we are again concerned with a subsidiary element of the overall theory. It is a matter of secondary importance whether "Surplus Labor" is appropriated politically or economically. What is of primary importance is that under all conceivable varieties of the capital system it must be appropriated by a separate body superimposed on, and structurally dominating, labor. Here, as you can see, the fundamental category is "Surplus Labor", and not "Surplus Value", as people often erroneously assume. "Surplus Value" and the specific forms of its appropriation and realisation are absolutely essential under capitalism. But the capital system embraces much more than its capitalist variety. There have been – and indeed even today there still are in existence – forms of the capital system which cannot be simply described as capitalist.
You know that many people have tried to characterise the now defunct Soviet system as "State Capitalist". I do not think that such characterisation makes any sense at all. The Soviet system was not "State capitalist"; it was "Post-capitalist". Nevertheless, this system also operated on the basis of the appropriation of Surplus Labor by a separate body, structurally dominating labor and operating the political extraction of Surplus Labor. In other words, the Soviet labor force was not in control of the regulation and allocation of its own Surplus Labor, which in that system did not have to be converted into Surplus Value. The Soviet type system was a historically specific form of the capital system in which the appropriation of surplus labor had to be politically controlled.
That is what has come to an end in the former Soviet Union, but by no means everywhere. Thus, when you think of the Chinese system, there you still find the predominance of the political control of surplus labor extraction. Although many people talk about the "market framework of the Chinese system", in reality – when you consider the totality of China's social metabolic reproduction – the market is very much subsidiary to it. So, primarily, in the Chinese system the political appropriation of surplus labor is still going on, and indeed on a massive scale. In this sense, when you look at the problem of conversion from the angle of "Surplus Labor", rather than "Surplus Value" – which must be present in a particular variety of the capital system – then you find that in the capitalistic variety (based on Surplus Value) it is essential to operate with the intermediary of conversion whose particular details are historically contingent. They also depend on the historic phases of capitalistic developments. Thus the more advanced monopolistic phases of capitalistic development must obviously operate in a significantly different way the conversion of surplus value into prices, as compared to a much earlier phase of development known to Marx.
Question: Under what conditions would not have the "Theory of Value" any validity? Are such conditions technological, economic or related to the human factor?
Answer: The "Labor Theory of Value" can cease to be operating only as a result of a radical socialist transformation. That is the first thing to stress. In order to do away with the Labor Theory of Value, you have to do away with the extraction and allocation of Surplus Labor by an external body of any sort, be that political or economic. But to do away with it, you have to change the whole system altogether. In other words, we can only speak about socialism when the people are in control of their own activity and of the allocation of its fruits to their own ends. This means the self-activity and self-control of society by the "associated producers", as Marx had put it. Naturally, the "associated producers" cannot control their activity and its objectives unless they also control the allocation of the socially produced surplus. It is therefore inconceivable to institute socialism if a separate body remains in control of the extraction and appropriation of surplus labor. Under socialism the "Labor Theory of Value" has absolutely no validity; there is no room for it.
Marx talks about the "miserable foundation" under which in the capital system the perverse extraction of surplus labor must be the regulator of the social reproduction process. To be sure, in every society you need a way of dealing with the problem of how to allocate the resources. For what is the meaning of "Economy"? It is fundamentally a rational way of economising. We do not have an infinity of resources which we could squander at will, as it happens – to our peril – under the capital system. We do not have an infinity of anything, whether you think of material resources or of human energy, at any particular time. Thus we need a rational regulation of the social reproduction process. The important thing is the viability of the social reproduction process on a long term basis, rather than within the irresponsibly myopic and thoroughly unsustainable confines of the capital system. This is why it is necessary to reorient societal interchange from the tyranny of surplus value and from the expropriation of the surplus labor of the producers by a separate body to a qualitatively different one. In the latter, in which the "associated producers" are in control of both the production and the allocation of their products, there is absolutely no room for surplus value to impose itself upon the social individuals. That is to say, no room for the imperatives of capital and capital accumulation.
Because capital is not simply a material entity. We must think of capital as a historically determinate way of controlling social metabolic reproduction. That is the fundamental meaning of capital. It penetrates everywhere. Of course, capital is also a material entity; gold, banking, price mechanisms, market mechanisms, etc. But well beyond that, capital also penetrates in the world of art, in the world of religion and the churches, running society's cultural institutions. You cannot think of anything in our life which is not controlled by capital in that sense under the present circumstances. That is why the "Labor Theory of Value" is valid for the historical period when capital is all-embracing, when the regulation process itself is fundamentally irrational.
And this is by no means the end of the story. It is further complicated by the fact that in the difficult historical period of transition from the rule of capital to a very different system the "labor theory of value" and the "law of value" function in a very imperfect way. This is one of the reasons why the Soviet type capital system was doomed. It was a transitional system which could go either in one direction, towards a socialist transformation of society, which it did not do; or it had to implode and embark on the road of capitalistic restoration sooner or later. This is what we have witnessed, because at a certain point in time the Soviet system was, so to speak, "falling between two stools". It had no way of regulating the economy by some sort of economic mechanism like the market, the price system, and so on. Therefore it could not have the kind of labor disciplining force which we actually have under the capitalist market system.
In our society so many things are settled automatically by the market forces; labor is ruthlessly subjected to the prevailing conditioning tyranny of the market. The crucial question in this regard is, precisely, the labor market. If you look back to the time when the Soviet system under Gorbachev collapsed, you will see that the system's demise coincided with the ill-conceived and futile attempt to introduce into it the "Labor Market". That was the end of the much advertised "perestroika". For the labor market can properly work only under capitalist conditions. That is where the "Law of Value" successfully prevailed – not partially or marginally, but in principle as a matter of course – in the "expanded reproduction of capital". There were all kinds of limits beyond the capitalist world – namely the global framework – under which also the Soviet system had to operate. Under the conditions of twentieth century development many things which in the past could work within the framework of the economically regulated extraction of surplus labor have become most problematical. Today the imperfections of the market and the far from unproblematical operation of the law of value are clearly in evidence also in our system in the capitalistically advanced countries of the West. The ever greater role assumed by the state – without which the capital system could not survive today in our societies – puts very serious constraints on the law of value in our system. Here we are talking about potentially far-reaching limitations which are of course the system's self-contradictions.
It must be also added that it is one thing to attempt the full restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, and quite another succeeding with it. Because fifteen years after Gorbachev had started the process of capitalist restoration one can only talk about partial successes, confined primarily to the mafia-ridden business circles of the major cities. The endemic and chronic crisis in Russia, strikingly manifest also in the form that many groups of workers – for instance the miners – do not have even their miserable wages paid for several months, sometimes up to a year and a half, which is inconceivable in a proper capitalistic framework where the fundamental regulator of surplus-labor extraction is economic and not political. This highlights a vital trend of 20th century developments. It is a fact of world-historical significance that the capital system could not complete itself in the 20th century in the form of its capitalistic variety, based on the economic regulation of surplus-labor extraction. So much so, that today approximately one half of the world's population – from China to India and to important areas of Africa, South East Asia and Latin America – do not belong to the world of capitalism proper, but live under some hybrid variety of the capital system, either due to chronically underdeveloped conditions, or to massive state involvement in regulating the socioeconomic metabolism, or indeed to a combination of the two. The endemic crisis in Russia – which may well end in total destabilisation and potential explosion – can only be explained in this context. Understandably, the true significance of this world historical fact – i.e. of the failure of capitalism to successfully impose itself everywhere, despite all self-complacent talk about "globalisation" – is bound to take some time to sink in, given the mythologies of the past and the now predominant triumphalism. However, this cannot diminish the significance of the fact itself and of its far-reaching implications for the future that must arise from the deepening structural crisis of the capital system.
Question: Where is today the proletariat and what role does it play in social change? Where can we find the agency today?
Answer: I think what you are really asking me about concerns the question of the social agency of transformation. For that is what the word "proletariat" summed up at the time of Marx, by which people often had meant the industrial proletariat. The industrial working classes are on the whole manual workers, from mining to various branches of industrial production. To confine the social agency of change to manual workers is obviously not Marx's own position. Marx was very far from thinking that the concept of "manual workers" would provide an adequate framework of explanation of what is required for a radical social change. You must recall that he was talking about how through the polarisation of society ever greater numbers of people are "proletarianised". So, it is the process of proletarianisation – inseparable from the global unfolding of the capital system – which defines and ultimately settles the issue. That is to say, the question is how the overwhelming majority of individuals fall into a condition whereby they lose all control possibilities of their life, and in that sense they become proletarianised. Thus, again, everything comes down to the question of "who is in control" of the social reproduction process when the overwhelming majority of individuals are "proletarianised" and degraded to the condition of utter powerlessness, as the most wretched members of society – the "proletarians" – were at an earlier phase of development.
There are degrees and possibilities of control, up to a certain point in capital's history, which means that some sections of the population are more in control than others. In fact, Marx in one of the chapters of Capital was describing the capitalist enterprise as almost a militaristic operation in which you have officers and sergeants, and the foremen like sergeants are overseeing and regulating the direct labor force on the authority of capital. Ultimately all of the control processes are under the authority of capital, but with certain leverages and possibilities of limited autonomy assigned to the particular overseeing sections. Now, when you talk about advancing "proletarianisation", it implies a levelling down and the negation of even the most limited autonomy some groups of people formerly enjoyed in the labor process.
Just think of the once sharply stressed distinction between "white collar" and "blue collar" workers. As you know, the propagandists of the capital system who dominate the cultural and intellectual processes like to use the distinction between the two as yet another refutation of Marx, arguing that in our societies "blue collar" manual work altogether disappears, and the "white collar" workers, who are supposed to enjoy a much greater job security (which happens to be a complete fiction), are elevated into the "middle classes" (another fiction). Well, I would say even about the postulated disappearance of 'blue collar" work: hold on, not so fast! For if you look around the world and focus on the crucial category of the "totality of labor", you find that the overwhelming majority of labor still remains what you might describe as "blue collar". In this respect it is enough to think of the hundreds of millions of "blue collar" workers in India, for instance.
Question: Can I add something to it? Is Marx's distinction between productive and non-productive labor sufficient?
Answer: Well, sufficient in the sense that you can make that distinction. When you consider the overall reproduction process, you find that certain constituents of the overall reproduction process are becoming more and more parasitic. Think of the ever-rising administration costs and insurance costs in this regard. The most extreme form of parasitism in our contemporary reproduction process is, of course, the financial sector, constantly engaged in global speculation, with very severe – and potentially extremely grave – repercussions on the production process properly so called. The dangerous parasitism of the speculative international financial sector – which is, to add insult to injury, continued to be glorified under the propagandistic slogan of unavoidable and universally beneficial "globalisation" – has an important bearing on the future prospects of social transformation. This takes us back to the vital question of the social agency of change. What decides the matter is not the historically changing relationship between "blue collar" and "white collar" workers, but the socially untranscendable fundamental confrontation between capital and labor. This is not confined to this or that particular section of labor but embraces the totality of labor as the antagonist of caital. In other words, labor as the antagonist of capital – i.e. of globally self-asserting "total social capital", can only be the "totality of labor", on a global scale – subsumes under itself all sections and varieties of labor, whatever their socioeconomic configuration at the present stage of history. We have witnessed what is going on in our societies; in the so-called "advanced capitalist societies" of the West. As it happened and continues to happen, vast numbers of "white collar" workers were and are ruthlessly ejected from the labor process. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of them in every major country.
Look at this question in the United States. Once upon a time the "white collar" workers had some sort of job security, accompanied by a relative little autonomy for their kind of activity. All this is now disappearing, going out of the window. Here the computerised "advanced machinery" and the question of technology very much enter the picture. But even in this context technology always takes the secondary place to the question of the imperative of capital accumulation. That is what ultimately decides the issue, using the "inevitable progress of technology" as its alibi for crushing human lives on a massive scale. So, we have the "proletarianisation" of the once upon a time more secure labor force. This is an ongoing process. Unemployment is endemic and ubiquitous; you cannot find today a single country which does not have it to an increasing degree. I mentioned in my Introduction to the Farsi edition of Beyond Capital that in India there are three hundred and thirty six million people (336,000,000) on the unemployment registers; and you can imagine how many more millions are not registered at all. This is the predicament of humanity today. Just look around, what is happening in Latin America, the growing unempolyment in Africa, and even in Japan: not so many years ago hailed as the "miracle" country. Now every month I read in Japanese publications about a new record of unemployment. In fact, Japan today has a considerably higher rate of unemployment than the United States. What an irony. For not so long ago the Japanese way of dealing with these problems used to be considered the ideal solution.
The cancerous growth of unemployment is affecting today every single country, including those which did not have it in the past. Take for instance Hungary. Now it has an unemployment rate higher than the very high rate in Germany. Here you can see the big difference between the capitalist and the Soviet type post-capitalist system. There was no unemployment in the Soviet type countries in the past. There were various forms of underemployment, but no unemployment. Now in Hungary unemployment is equivalent to something much higher than what we have not only in Germany but also in Britain and in Italy. You understand the gravity of unemployment. Look at what is happening in Russia. Russia once did not experience unemployment, and now its unemployment rate is massive. And, as mentioned earlier, even if you are employed in Russia, like the miners, they do not receive their wages for months. You have to bear in mind all the time that we are talking about a dynamic process of unfolding and transformation. This process threatens humanity with devastation, and the social agency that can do something about it – indeed the only feasible agency capable of instituting an alternative way of controlling the social metabolism – is labor. Not particular sections of labor, but the totality of labor as the irreconcilable antagonist of capital.
To be continued.
This interview was made with the Iranian magazine Naghd in May 1998. The Farsi translation appeared in Naghd no 25, February 1999. Part II will appear in the next issue of iran bulletin.
Istvan Mészáros is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Political Theory, University of Sussex (UK) and author of a number of books including Beyond Capital and Marxist Theory of Alienation; the Works of Sartre; Search for Freedom; Philosophy, Ideology and Social Science; The Power of Ideology.
This article is part one of an interview given to with Persian Quarterly Naghd (Kritik), June 2nd, 1998. Part two will be published in the next issue of iran bulletin
Part II On: The need for renewal of the Marxian framework, the possibilty of socialism and the concept of revolution.
M Keshavarz: Before I start asking about the objective possibility / the real possibility of socialism, I would like to ask about Marx. What aspects of Marx's theory are vulnerable or need to be renewed? Which parts do you think need it? Methodology, sociology, historical or economic theory"?
Professor Mészáros: The Marxian framework is always in need of renewal. Marx was writing in the middle of the 19th century and died in 1883. Things have immeasurably changed since that time. The tendencies of transformation which we have witnessed in the recent past, with their roots going back to the first few decades of our century, are of such character that Marx could not even dream about them. Above all, this concerns the way in which the capital system could adjust and renew itself, so as to postpone the unfolding and maturation of its antagonistic contradictions. Marx was not in a situation in which he could have assessed the various modalities and the ultimate limitations of state intervention in prolonging the life-span of the capital system. When you think of 20th century economic development, a key figure in it is John Maynard Keynes. The fundamental aim of Keynes was precisely how to save the system through the injection of massive state funds for the benefit of private capitalist enterprise,. so as to regulate on a permanent basis within the framework of undisturbed capital accumulation the overall reproduction process.
Now, more recently we had "monetarism" and "neo-liberalism" which pushed aside Keynes and indulged in the fantasy of doing away with state intervention altogether, envisaging the "rolling back the boundaries of the state" in a most absurd way. Naturally, in reality nothing could correspond to such self-serving fantasies. In fact the role of the state in the contemporary capitalist system is greater than ever before, including the time of the post-war two and a half decades of Keynesian developments in the capitalistically most advanced countries. All this kind of development is totally new as compared to Marx's lifetime.
In the same way and even more, adding to the complications, is what happened in the former Soviet Union and in general to the Soviet type system. When you have a revolution which wants to be socialist, with the objective of bringing about a socialist transformation of society, that is one thing. But when you look at the type of society which came out of it, you must say that it is quite something else. Because the rule of capital – even if in a very different way – continued also in the Soviet type post-capitalist system. Looking at it more closely, we find an important connection with Marx. For Marx talks about the "personifications of capital", which is a very important category. Marx uses this category when he talks about the private capitalists, since there was no other form visible in his lifetime. But he perceives, with great insight, that what truly defines the commanding personnel of the capital system is that they are personifications of capital. They have to operate under the objective imperatives of capital as such.
The ideologists and propagandists of capitalism like to perpetuate the mythology of the "enlightened capitalist" and the "benevolent caring capitalist" who are bound to take very good care of the workers as the general rule, referring to those who behave differently as "the unacceptable face of capitalism", to use a former Conservative British Prime Minister Edward Heath's expression. This is a grotesque fantasy, even when it is not voiced with complete cynicism, as admittedly it was not done so by Heath himself. For all capitalists have to submit to the objective imperatives emanating from the unalterable logic of capital expansion. If they do not do so, they will quickly cease to be capitalists, unceremoniously ejected from the overall reproduction process as viable commanding personnel by the self-same logic. It is inconceivable for the capitalist to function on the basis of being the helpers of working class aspirations. That would be a contradiction in terms, given the necessary structural domination of labour by capital in all conceivable varieties of the capital system.
Now, that takes us back to the question of the "personifications of capital" as the connecting link with Marx's vision. For the "personifications of capital" must obey and impose on the workers the objective imperatives emanating from the logic of capital, according to the changing socio-historical circumstances. And that is highly relevant to understanding the way in which you can have a variety of different "personifications of capital" which we have witnessed in the 20th century. Marx knew only one – the ("single" or shareholdingly "combined") private capitalist – form of personification of capital. But we have seen several different ones, and may still see some new and quite unexpected permutations in the future, as the structural crisis of the global capital system unfolds.
One of the principal reasons why I wrote Beyond Capital was precisely to consider the future. It is the future we must bear in mind with critical eyes, in order to be active participants in the historical process, fully aware of and concerned about the fateful implications of capital's destructive power at the present stage of history. Capital has been with us for a very long time in one form or another; indeed in some of its more limited forms for thousands of years. Nevertheless, only in the last three to four hundred years in the form of capitalism which could fully work out the self-expansionary logic of capital, no matter how devastating the consequences for the very survival of humanity. This is what must be put in perspective. When we are thinking about the future, in the light of our painful historical experience we cannot imagine a situation in which the overthrow of capitalism – in terms of which in the past we used to think about the socialist revolution – solves the grave problems confronting us. For capital is ubiquitous; it is deeply embedded in every single area of our social life. Consequently, if we are to have any success at all, capital must be eradicated from everywhere through a laborious process of profound social transformation. The aspirations of socialist change on a lasting basis must be related to that, with all its difficulties. It must be constantly watched that the potential personifications of capital do not impose themselves on the objectives of future socialist revolutions. Our perspective must orient itself toward devising and successfully asserting the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of the personifications of capital, in whatever new form.
The Marxian framework must be constantly renewed in that sense, so as to be able to cope with the bewildering twists and turns of "the cunning of history". There is no area of theoretical activity – and Marx would be the first to agree to this proposition; in fact he did it explicitly – which could escape the need for thoroughly renewing itself with every major historical change. And the fact is that from Marx's lifetime to our present conditions there has been a massive historical change.
Just to mention one more important consideration in conclusion to this question, Marx was to some extent already aware of the "ecological problem", i.e. the problems of ecology under the rule of capital and the dangers implicit in it for human survival. In fact he was the first to conceptualise it. He talked about pollution, and he insisted that the logic of capital – which must pursue profit, in accordance with the dynamic of self-expansion and capital accumulation – cannot have any consideration for human values and even for human survival. The elements of this discourse you can find in Marx. (His remarks on the subject are discussed in the 1971 lecture on The Necessity of Social Control mentioned earlier.) What you cannot find in Marx, of course, is the utmost gravity of the situation facing us. For us the threats to human survival are a matter of immediacy. We can today easily destroy humanity. The means and weapons are already at our disposal for the total destruction of humanity. Nothing of the kind was on the horizon in Marx's lifetime. The underlying destructive imperatives can only be explained in terms of the mad logic capital applies to the question of economy. As I stressed earlier, the true meaning of economy in the human situation cannot be other than economising on a long-term basis. Today we find the exact opposite. The way in which the capital system operates makes a mockery of the necessity of economising. Indeed, it pursues everywhere with utmost irresponsibility the opposite of economy: total wastefulness. It is this profit-seeking wastefulness that directly endangers the very survival of humanity, presenting us with the challenge of doing something about it as a matter of great urgency. This was unthinkable under the conditions when Marx had to write, although you can project the words on pollution which he wrote in his critique of Feuerbach's ahistorical assessment of nature, amounting to an idealisation of nature taken completely out of its social context and totally ignoring the impact on nature necessarily exercised by the capitalistic labour process. You can find Marx's critical remarks in The German Ideology, but obviously not a full development of this complex of problems as they confront us in their immediacy and urgency.
We were celebrating in March 1998 the 150th Anniversary of The Communist Manifesto. The question is: has humanity got another 150 years to go? Certainly not if the capital system survives! What we have to face is either total catastrophe, due to the capital system's monstrous wastefulness, or humanity must find a radically different way of regulating its social metabolism!
Q: How do you describe the objective/real possibility of socialism?
A: Well, for the moment this is a very difficult question, because of what has happened in the recent past and in some ways is still happening. What we have to bear in mind is that the great historical challenge for present and future generations is to move from one type of social metabolic order to a radically different one. It cannot be stressed enough what an immense and difficult historic task this is. It never had to be faced in the past with the dramatic urgency which is inescapable today.
The social order of capital which we are all familiar with has culminated in an all-embracing and dominating system in the last 3 to 4 hundred years. In the 20th century it has also succeeded in suffocating, undermining or corrupting every major political effort aimed at going against and beyond it. But it would be a great illusion to assume that this means the end of socialism. This is how in the last few years neo-liberal propaganda tried to describe what has happened, triumphalistically shouting that "we have done away with socialism once and for all". Mrs. Thatcher who was the Prime Minister of Britain for more than a decade, boasted that she has "seen off socialism for good". She was talking about the working class movement, groups of workers and trade unionists, especially the miners. At the time there was a miners' strike which has been defeated by the combined efforts of the capitalist state and the Labour Party leadership under Neal Kinnock. Mrs. Thatcher characterised the miners as "the enemy within". Despite its liberal pretences her side has no fear of, nor reservations about, talking of you and of all those who maintain their aspirations for the establishment of a socialist order as "the enemy" and "the enemy within".
At the present time, if you look around the world you find that capital has the upper hand everywhere. But is it able to solve the grave problems constantly created by the functioning of its own mode of social metabolic reproduction? Far from it. On the contrary, given its insuperable antagonistic contradictions, capital is unable to address these problems. Instead, it continues to generate them on an ever-increasing scale. This is what keeps on the historical agenda the question of socialism, despite even the most massive and concerted efforts aimed at doing away with it. Capital's success consists only in postponing the time when it becomes an unavoidable necessity to confront the grave problems of its system, which now continue to accumulate. There have been many social explosions in the past in response to the contradictions of the established social order, going back prominently to 1848 and 1871, and in some ways to the French Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath. Yet, to date the aspirations of people for a truly equitable social order were frustrated and on the whole even the most heroic attempts have been countered and repressed by the power of capital, in one way or in another. So many of the encountered problems remain perilously unsolved. What is in this sense quite untenable is precisely the kind of adversarial, antagonistic mode of social reproduction process which both continues to generate our grave problems and at the same time prevents their solution. For the adversarial structural determinations constitute an absolute necessity for the functioning and reproduction of the existing system, whatever the consequences might be. These determinations are ineradicable. Notwithstanding all triumphalism, they are not going to go away. The devastating consequences of such a structure will come back again and again. There can be only one kind of solution: the removal of the structural antagonism from our social metabolic reproduction. And that in its terms is conceivable only if the transformation embraces everything, from the smallest constitutive cells of our society to the largest monopolistic transnational corporations which continue to dominate our life.
Thus, although in a superficial sense capital is undoubtedly triumphant, in a much more fundamental sense it is in the gravest possible trouble. This may sound paradoxical. Yet, if you recognise the way in which capital can dominate the social reproduction process everywhere, you must also recognise that it is structurally incapable of resolving its problems and contradictions. Wherever you look you find that what appears to be – and is loudly advertised as – a rock-solid lasting solution, sooner or later crumbles into dust. For instance, just try to survey in your mind the ephemeral history of "economic miracles" we had in the post-war decades. What sort of "miracles' were they? We had the "German miracle" and the "Japanese miracle", followed by the Italian, Brazilian, etc. "miracles". As we may well remember, the latest of them was the most tendentiously advertised miracle of the "Asian tiger economies". And what happened to that "miracle"? Like all the others, it has evaporated, leaving its place to a severe crisis. Today you cannot find in the world one single country which is not facing some absolutely fundamental problems, including the recent calamities on the stock exchanges of Russia and several Eastern European countries. Well, if you now read the bourgeois newspapers, they are all in some sort of panic. Their headlines are frightening and self-frightening as to what is really going on. I remember that at the time when the "Asian miracle" was at its peak, the notion of this pretended "miracle" was also used as an overwhelming disciplinary argument against the working classes of the Western capitalist countries. "Behave yourself! Accept the standard of living and the work practices of the kind which the workers in the Asian tiger economies do, or you will be in deep trouble!" A system which claims to have resolved all its problems in the "post-industrial" Western "advanced capitalist" countries, and then has to rely for its continued health on such an authoritarian blackmailing message, does not promise much for the future even in its own terms of reference. Again, in this respect there is, and there can only be, one viable and sustainable solution. It is socialism. Socialism in the sense which I mentioned earlier; i.e. the elimination of the now given adversarial/antagonistic framework in which one section of the population – a tiny minority – has to dominate the overwhelming majority as a matter of insurmountable structural determination. That is to say, a form of domination which totally expropriates for itself the power of decision making. Labour as the antagonist of capital has absolutely no power of decision making; not even in the most limited context. That is the vital and unavoidable question for the future. And in that sense, I am convinced, the chances for the revival of the socialist movement sooner or later are absolutely great and fundamental.
Q: The concept of "revolution" in your opinion?
A: Yes, the concept of revolution remains very important and valid if we define it as a profound ongoing revolutionary transformation of all facets of our social life. One should not take the concept of revolution to mean "one big push that settles everything once and for all", nourishing the illusion that after cutting off a few heads you have won. For Marx's use of the concept of revolution – clearly stated in many contexts – was "Social Revolution". He said that the big difference between past revolutions and a socialist "social revolution" was that the revolutions of the past were essentially political in character, which meant changing the ruling personnel of society, while leaving the overwhelming majority of the people in their position of structural subordination. This is also the context in which the question of the "personifications of capital" must be considered. Breaking a smaller or greater number of heads, that you can do with relative ease, engaged in the "big push" for overturning something; and all this usually happens in the political sphere. This is the sense in which the concept of "revolution" was defined even recently.
Now, we know from bitter experience that it did not work. To proceed in that way is not enough. So, we have to go back to what Marx was saying about the "social revolution". I must also emphasise that this concept of the social revolution was not originally Marx's own idea. It is a concept which emerged from Babeuf and his movement way back during the turbulent aftermath of the 1789 French Revolution. Babeuf was executed at that time, accused with his group of "conspiracy". In reality he was pressing for "a society of equals". The same concept reappeared in the 1830s and during the revolutions of 1848. In such times of revolutionary upheaval the idea of "social revolution" was in the foreground of the most progressive forces, and Marx very rightly embraced it.
In a radical social transformation – we are talking about a Socialist Revolution – the change cannot be confined to the ruling personnel and hence the revolution must be truly and all-embarrassingly social. That means that the transformation and the new mode of controlling the social metabolism must penetrate into every segment of society. It is in that sense that the concept of revolution remains valid; indeed, in the light of our historical experience, more valid than ever before. A revolution which not only eradicates but also implants. The eradication is as much a part of this process as what you put in the place of what has been eradicated. Marx says somewhere that the meaning of "radical" is "to grasp matters at their roots". That is the literal meaning of being radical, and it retains its validity in the social revolution in the just mentioned sense of eradicating and implanting.
So much of what is today firmly rooted has to be in the future eradicated through the laborious processes of an ongoing – if you like "permanent" – revolutionary transformation. But the terrain on which this is done cannot be left empty. You have to put in the place of what has been removed something capable of taking deep roots. Talking about the social order of capital, Marx uses the expression "an organic system". I quoted a passage where he talks about it in the Introduction to the Farsi edition of Beyond Capital. The capital system under which we live is an organic system. Every part of it supports and reinforces the others. It is this kind of reciprocal support of the parts that makes the problem of revolutionary transformation very complicated and difficult. If you want to replace capital's organic system you have to put in its place another organic system in which the parts support the whole because the parts also reciprocally support each other. This is how the new system becomes viable, capable of standing firm, growing, and successfully moving in the direction that secures the gratification of every member of society.
Clearly, then, "revolution" cannot be simply a question of "overthrowing". Anything that can be overthrown can only be a very partial aspect of the social revolution. The historically known varieties of capitalism can be overthrown – in some limited contexts it has already happened – but capital itself cannot be "overthrown". It has to be eradicated, in the sense described above, and something must be put in its place. Likewise, the capitalist state can be overthrown. However, once you have overthrown the capitalist state, you have not removed the problem itself, because the state as such cannot be overthrown. This is why Marx is talking about the "withering away of the state", which is a fundamentally different concept. Moreover, the thorniest of these problems concerning the task of revolutionary transformation is that labour as such cannot be "overthrown". How do you "overthrow" labour as – together with capital and the state – one of the three supporting pillars of the capital system? For labour is the basis of the reproduction of society.
There have been all kinds of fantasies, especially in the last few decades, that the "information revolution" does away for good with labour, and we live happily ever after in the "post-industrial society". The idea of work becoming play has a respectable lineage, going back to Schiller. However, its capital-apologetic recent renewals constitute a complete absurdity. You can abolish by some decree wage labour. But that is very far from solving the problem of labour's emancipation, which is conceivable only as the self-emancipation of the associated producers. Human labour as productive activity always remains the absolute condition of the reproduction process. The natural substratum of the individuals' existence is nature itself which must be rationally and creatively controlled by productive activity – as opposed to being irresponsibly and destructively dominated by the irrational, wasteful and destructive imperatives of capital-expansion. The social metabolism involves the necessary interchange among individuals themselves and between the totality of individuals and recalcitrant nature. Even the original, non-apologetic idea of work as play in the 18th century was inseparable from the idealisation of nature: the ignorance or denial of its necessary recalcitrance. But the recent capital-apologetic rejoinders defy all belief, given the overwhelming evidence of the wanton destruction of nature by capital which the propounds of such theories cynically ignore.
You must have read books and articles in the last two or three decades about the so-called "post-industrial society". What the hell does that mean? "Post-industrial"? For so long as humanity survives, it must be industrious. It has to work for reproducing itself. It has to create the conditions under which human life not only remains possible but also becomes richer in human fulfilment. And that is conceivable only through industry in the most profound sense of the term. We will be always industrial, as opposed to the self-serving propagandistic fantasy according to which the "information revolution" will render all industrial work completely superfluous. Characteristically, at the same time when the champions of capital-apologetics were talking about the "post-industrial" paradise, they were also approvingly talking about transferring the "smoke-stack industries" to India, or to China, to the Philippines, or to Latin America. So the "smoke-stack industries" have to be removed from the "advanced capitalist" West! But where do the "captains of industry" put the poisonous smoke-stacks of Union Carbide? They are transferred to Bhopal in India, with catastrophic consequences, killing several thousand people and blinding and injuring countless thousands more. Does that make society "post-industrial"? Far from it. Such "transfers of technology" only mean that the capitalist West sends its dirty linen to some "underdeveloped" part of the world – the so-called "Third World". At the same time, with utmost cynicism the ideologists and propagandists of the system also maintain that such transfers mean "modernisation" on the American model, as a result of which in due course people everywhere will be rich and happy in a fully automobilised society.
The much needed revolution means a fundamental change to all that. Nothing can be solved by overthrow alone. The overthrow or abolition of some institutions in specific historical situations is a necessary first step. Radical political acts are necessary in order to remove one type of personnel and to make it possible for something else to arise in its place. But the aim must be a profound process of ongoing social transformation. And in that sense the concept of revolution remains absolutely fundamental.
Q: Western workers, having organized Unions, try to adjust their Marx to the work situation in today's world. Their voice and struggle do not go beyond limited actions for welfare, higher wages, etc. In the East, on the other hand, because of dictatorship, delayed economic pressures and lack of theoretical knowledge the social movements aim at not only better life, but also at the overthrow of their capital system. Globalization and privatization have created opportunities for movements against capitalism. The radical movement seems to originate from the East rather than the West. What do you think?
A: Well, I think we have to examine the facts, and then you will find that some of what you say is right, but with historical qualifications. That is to say, what you describe reflects conditions of perhaps two or three decades ago, and less and less those of today. When you consider some crucial demands of the labour movement in Western capitalist countries, like France and Italy, they cannot be described as simply demands for improving wages. Take, for example, the demand for the 35 hours week without loss of pay, which has been granted by the French government. There is now in France a law – to be implemented from 2,000 – 2,001 – according to which the working week will be reduced to 35 hours. This is not a wage demand. The same thing is happening in Italy, where there is a very important push for the realisation of the same objective. I can perhaps find a quotation for you from one of the leading figures in the Italian movement for the 35 hours week, Faust Bertinotti. He had to answer a question coming from a woman reader of the daily paper of Rifondazione. As you know, the condition of women workers in all capitalist societies is worse than that of men. (Not that it is rosy by any means for their male counterparts.) She was asking the question: "If we have more hours for ourselves", as a result of the 35 hours working week, "how shall we utilise them?" This was Bertinotti's answer:
"When we say that it is not only a matter of trade union objectives, but of civilization, we are referring precisely to the horizon of the question you are posing: the important question of time, and the relationship between work-time and life-time. First of all, we know, from Marx, that the theft of work-time, at a certain stage of historical development, becomes a very miserable foundation of production and wealth and organization of society: moreover we know that the struggle against exploitation can only go together, be intertwined and closely connected with, the struggle against alienation; that is to say, against that mechanism deeply inherent in the nature of capitalism, which not only takes away from each worker the product of 'living labor', but induces estrangement, heterodirection and the oppressive regulation of life-time. In this sense, the 35 hours, beyond the benefits they will be able to trigger off from the point of view of employment, do come back to the central question of the betterment of one's own life: of the self-government of time, to put it in non-contingent political terms. Because there will not be a real social transformation without a project of collective self-government of working time and life-time: a real project, not a hypothesis elaborated from the outside of the social subject and of individual subjectivities. This too is a great challenge for politics and for our party."
Now that is where you can see that the fight for the 35 hours week is not simply a "trade union demand". It challenges the whole system of social metabolic reproduction, and therefore it would be most inaccurate to describe it as nothing more than a "trade union demand".
You are right that for a long time economistic demands constituted the horizon of the labour movement in the capitalistically advanced countries. But this narrow orientation cannot be maintained any longer. This connects us with the question of the chances for socialism. The labour movement is now pushed in the direction that it has to raise the question of work-time and life-time. The reduction of work-time is to a very limited extent only a wage demand. The workers do not want simply an improvement in wages. True, they say that "we do not want to lose what we already have". But the objective logic of the situation is that they are losing it anyway for other reasons. Because one of the important losses of the last 30 years of capitalistic development is what I call "the downward equalisation of the differential rate of exploitation". In Western capitalist countries the working classes for a long time could enjoy the benefits of the "differential rate of exploitation". Their conditions of existence, conditions of work, were immeasurably better than what you had in the "underdeveloped countries" of the so-called "Third World". A concept which I always rejected as the self-serving propaganda of Western capitalism, because the "Third World" is an integral part of the one and only, profoundly interconnected, world.)
Now, however, we find deteriorating conditions everywhere. The "downward equalisation" is evidenced also in the capitalistically most advanced countries. Now workers have to face being threatened in their basic conditions of existence, because unemployment is spreading everywhere. Fighting against unemployment cannot be considered simply a wage negotiation. The time has passed a long time ago when you could treat "marginal unemployment" – at the peak of Keynesian expansion – in those terms. Thus the working classes even in the capitalistically most advanced countries have to face up to this challenge.
You are, of course, right that the conditions are incomparably worse in the East. But it is important to stress that the countries concerned are an integral part of the system of "total social capital" and the "totality of labour". Anything that happens in one part has an impact on the conditions somewhere else. The conditions of the labour market are deteriorating everywhere, including the Western capitalist countries. In Canada as much as in the United States, or in England, Germany, France and Italy. The pressures are intensifying and, I may add, this means a necessary change in the orientation of the Western working class movement. If you examine the history of the working class movement in the 20th century, you will find that one of the great tragedies of this history was the internal division described as the separation of the so-called "industrial arm" of the movement (the trade unions) from the "political arm" (the political parties}. This separation has meant the severe constraining – you may even call it the castration – of the labour movement, through confining its action to very narrow limits. The political parties are confined to a situation whereby the people they are supposed to represent have the chance to vote – to put a piece of paper into the ballot box once in every four or five years – and thereby renounce their power of decision making in favour of whoever is in parliament.
Now what is significant about the ongoing changes is that it becomes necessary to make the trade union movement itself (the "industrial arm") become directly political. This is now beginning to happen in some European capitalist countries (notably in France and Italy) as well as in Japan. And I trust that it will happen in the not too distant future also in Canada and in the United States. This is the qualification I would add to your question. Things have been and are significantly changing under the impact of the tendential law of capital's development for the downward equalisation of the differential rate of exploitation in the age of the structural crisis of the capital system as such, and not simply of capitalism. You know what I am talking about; I discuss this problem in great detail in Beyond Capital. Under these conditions it is no longer possible to retain people in their submissive predicament.
I can mention to you the British miners who were waging a one-year-long struggle; not for wage improvement. It would be inconceivable to endure for a whole year the hardship, the misery, the discrimination, the hostility and the repression of the state for the sake of improving their wages by 10, 20, or even 50 dollars per week, when they were losing much more even in financial terms in the course of their struggle. The miners in Britain were eventually defeated through the concerted action of the state and, sadly, as mentioned already, also of the Labour Party, their presumed "political arm". And what happened to the labour force of the British miners? At the time of the strike their numbers were in the region of 150,000; today this number is down to less than 10,000! This is the reality of the situation. This is what the workers had to fight against. The extermination of their numbers, the transformation of their mining towns and villages into the wasteland of unemployment. Thus, now more and more groups of workers also in the capitalistically advanced countries are forced to proceed in the same way as the British miners did. I can also mention to you another case, the Liverpool dock workers who endured the extreme hardship of strike not for one year but for two and a half. This kind of action, this kind of struggle which is simultaneously industrial and political, is quite unthinkable within the narrow framework of "trade union objectives".
Q: Thank you for accepting our interview. Would you like to add anything for the Persian reader?
A: Well, I can only wish great success to you all in our joint enterprise and struggle for a radical social transformation which we all badly need. And I trust that you will be moving in that way.
This article is the second part of an interveiw made with the Iranian Quarterly Naghd (Kritik) in May 1998. The first Part was published in iran bulletin no 21-22, Spring-Summer 1999. The Farsi translation appears in Naghd in February 1999. The first part of the dialogue was on the " total social capital, totality of labour, labour theory of value and the question of social agency of transformation"
Istvan Mészáros is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Political Theory, University of Sussex (UK) and author of a number of books including Beyond Capital and Marxist Theory of Alienation; the Works of Sartre; Search for Freedom; Philosophy, Ideology and Social Science; The Power of Ideology.