István Mészáros is professor emeritus at the University of Sussex, where he held the Chair of Philosophy for fifteen years. His books include Beyond Capital, Socialism or Barbarism,The Structural Crisis of Capital,The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness (two volumes), and, most recently, The Necessity of Social Control—all published by Monthly Review Press.
Leonardo Cazes (LC): In today’s world, nation-states seem to have less and less power compared to international financial organizations and even inter-state political organizations such as the European Union. So what is this state that we must conquer?
István Mészáros (IM): The allegedly less and less power of nation-states is a great exaggeration, voiced by governments in the interest of justifying their failure to introduce even some of their thoroughly limited and once solemnly promised social reforms. The facts speak otherwise. To give only a few examples: Syriza, armed with a large electoral mandate, is today trying to assert Greek interests against IMF and EU control, and in the United Kingdom the Party that is bound to receive by far the largest percentage of improvement at the May 2015 General Election calls itself UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party. Moreover, under the impact of UKIP’s growing success in Britain also the governing Conservative Party is threatening to leave the European Union unless its demands for a major change in the country’s national interest are met. Indeed, the breakup of the European Union itself is by no means to be excluded. Even more important in this respect is the vote in Scotland just a few months ago—to the most remarkable degree of 45 percent—in favor of becoming an independent nation-state, which they are likely to achieve at the next occasion when they can vote on the issue. At the same time, the Catalan region in Spain is trying to assert its interests in the same sense, as an even more recent vote testifies. In Belgium we have similar contradictions, at times with explosive manifestations, and also in Italy, in the region of the Alto Adige, there is a strong movement pressing for independence. Nor should we forget that in Central Europe the country of Slovakia not so long ago divorced itself from what is now called the Czech Republic.
Thus the reality is not the elimination of nation-state aspirations but an overheating cauldron of perilous contradictions and antagonisms on a variety of levels, ubiquitously asserting themselves among the given and aspiring nation-states and even within the framework of the state formations invented as the projected solution of past inter-state antagonisms, like the—far from unified—European Union. The chronic insolubility of the underlying problems presents great dangers for the very survival of humanity. Just in relation to our own days, should we perhaps blindly ignore the fact that the United States is threatening to arm the Ukraine nation-state against Russia, with incalculably serious potential consequences? Where are now the heady days when world political leaders were loudly trumpeting “the end of the Cold War”? And, well beyond the U.S.-Russia confrontation, what should we think about the antagonism on our not too distant horizon between the United States and China—the most powerful nation-states—for the planet’s highly contested material resources? An antagonism manifest already in a limited way but with an undeniable tendency to intensify. The rival nation-states are totally incapable to offer any solution to these antagonisms, and no international financial organization, nor the wishfully devised inter-state political organizations, can even scratch the surface of such grave problems.
The overwhelming historical failure of capital was—and remains—its inability to constitute the state of the capital system as a whole, while irresistibly asserting the imperatives of its system as the material structural determination of societal reproduction on a global scale. This is a massive contradiction. Inter-state antagonisms on a potentially all-destructive scale—as presaged last century by two world wars still without the now fully developed weapons of total self-destruction—are the necessary consequence of that contradiction. Accordingly, the state that we must conquer in the interest of humanity’s survival is the state as we know it, namely the state in general in its existing reality, as articulated in the course of history, and capable of asserting itself only in its antagonistic modality both internally and in its international relations.
LC: Why do you, in the book’s title [The Mountain We Must Conquer: Reflections on the State], compare the state to a mountain that must be conquered?
IM: In the most straightforward sense, because the road that we must follow in the interest of survival and advancement is barred by the giant obstacle—many Himalayas on top of one another—represented by the overall decision-making power of the state. And we cannot avoid or bypass this mountain. The perilous fact is that a mere handful of nation-states have the power to destroy the whole of humanity, jealously guarded by them as their “security” and “self-defense” in their real and potential confrontations with each other. And the overwhelming majority of humanity can do absolutely nothing against that for as long as the states and their necessary rivalry survive. Nothing could be more absurd than that.
The idea that in their attempt to overcome the structurally entrenched inequities and remedy their grievances in a lasting way the people could use “civil society” against the power of the state is extremely naïve, to say the least. Just like the presumption of calling the pathetically limited organizations which depend for their finance and functioning on the resources conceded to them by the state “NGOs,” that is, “Non-Governmental Organizations.” Such self-contradictory mythologies cannot offer solutions to our worsening problems. The state is theoverall political command structure of the capital system in any one of its known or conceivable forms. Under the present conditions it cannot be otherwise. That is because the societal reproductive order of capital is antagonistic to its inner core, and it needs the problematical corrective function of the state in order to turn into a cohesive whole the conflictual constituent parts of the system’s incurable centrifugality. Once upon a time this kind of correction was not only tenable but carried with it an all-conquering historical advancement. Today, however, the once-successful corrective functions of the state fail to work enduringly, as the deepening structural crisis of the capital system makes it amply clear. The result is ever-greater destructiveness not only in countless wars but even in the domain of nature itself. This is why I argued that Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase, “socialism or barbarism,” needs to be modified in our time to “barbarism if we are lucky.” For the annihilation of humanity is bound to be our fate if we fail to conquer the mountain-size destructive and self-destructive power of the capital system’s state formations.
LC: You pointed out that the state, as we know it, is founded in a given capitalist social metabolic order. Do we need to take over the state to remake this order? Or will the transformation of society create the conditions for the transformation of the state?
IM: The state as such cannot remake capital’s social reproductive order because it is anintegral part of it. The great challenge for our historical time is the necessary eradication of capital from our social metabolic order. And that is inconceivable without eradicating at the same time also the state formations of capital as historically constituted in conjunction with the system’s material reproductive dimension and inseparable from it.
The fact that the state as the necessary corrective to capital’s incurable centrifugality can superimpose itself on the systemically harmful conflictual constituent parts of the given social order does not mean that the state can impose anything arbitrarily fancied by the political personifications of capital. On the contrary, corrective state-imposition is objectively mandated by the self-expansionary imperative of capital’s material reproductive order—an order utterly incapable of recognizing any limit to its self-expansionary interest, thereby generating a fateful contradiction. The ultimate untenability of this contradiction is revealed by the fact that what is internally—within the given national framework—a self-expansionary requirement and achievement, in its international drive becomes most problematical and potentially even all-destructive. The repressive reality of monopolistic imperialism and its wars is not intelligible without this perverse self-expansionary dynamism instituted by the most powerful states.
Thus the way in which overall decision-making in the social metabolic process has to be radically altered requires the elimination of the just mentioned fateful contradiction between the system’s internal dynamics of productive reproduction and the repressive international drive inseparable from it, as experienced in capital’s social order safeguarded and legitimated by the state.
LC: Some intellectuals see the financial crisis, which started in 2008, as a crisis of capitalism. To save the banks, states took on a gigantic debt. Is this capitalist crisis also a crisis of the state?
IM: Undoubtedly, the crisis we are talking about is also the profound crisis of the state. The deceptive—and self-deceiving—appearance and illusion that is now promoted by the defenders of the system is that the state successfully resolved this crisis by pouring astronomical funds of trillions of dollars into bankrupt capital’s bottomless hole. But where do the astronomical trillions come from? The state as the inventor of those funds is not the producer of any funds, even if it can pretend to be their sovereign dispenser with its more or less openly cynical devices of “quantitative easing,” etc. However, the unpalatable truth is that the overwhelming majority of states in the present world are bankrupt—to the tune of $57 trillion according to the latest figures—no matter how well they might be able to camouflage their bankruptcy ex officio.
Many years ago, in an article written in 1987 and first published in 1989 in Brazil, in Ensaio, I quoted from the authoritative London Financial Times the Federal Reserve Governor of the United States at the time, Robert Heller, claiming that the $188 billion annual U.S. balance of trade deficit then represented “a healthy continuation of the current economic expansion.” And I commented with these words: “If $188 billion balance of trade deficit, coupled with astronomical budgetary deficits, can be considered the healthy continuation of economic expansion, one shudders to think what will the unhealthy conditions of the economy look like when we reach it.” By now we are much nearer to it. So the answer is clear enough already, indicating the catastrophic indebtedness and veiled bankruptcy of the most powerful capitalist economy, the United States, counted now on its own not far from $20 trillion, and inexorably increasing. This happens to be the case, no matter how melodiously the Federal Reserve Governors can sing their tune about the claimed “healthy continuation of expansion.”
LC: In the book, you seem to believe that the so-called “withering away of the state” is inevitable. What makes you believe that?
IM: In this matter there can be no question of inevitability. Saying that the “withering away of the state” is necessary only means that it is a vital condition required for solving the problems at stake. But it makes no claim that the indicated requirement will be inevitably realized. On the contrary, by underlining the danger that the state, with its overwhelming power of destruction, can put a catastrophic end to all transformatory and emancipatory effort, it counters all illusion of so-called “historical inevitability.”
There can be no such thing as “historical inevitability” in the direction of the future. History isopen-ended, for the better or worse. Highlighting the requirement of the state’s “withering away” was meant in the first place in order to counter the wishful/anarchistic illusion that the “overthrow of the state” can solve the disputed problem. The state as such cannot be “overthrown,” in view of its deep-seated social metabolic embeddedness. The private capitalist property relations of a given state can be overthrown, but that is no solution by itself. For everything that can be “overthrown” can also be restored, and indeed had been, as the fate of Gorbachev’s Perestroika amply demonstrated it. Capital, labor, and the state as such are deeply intertwined in the organic whole of the historically constituted social metabolism. None of them can be overthrown on their own, nor indeed “reconstituted” separately.
To make the required change calls for the radical transformation of the social reproductive metabolism in its entirety and in all of its deeply interconnected constituent parts. And that can only be successfully done in tune with the changed historical circumstances, within the limited framework of our planetary household. This is the meaning of the socialist alternative to capital’s by now perilously overstretched and dangerously wasteful social metabolic order. And such an alternative is not a question of “inevitability.” Inevitability must be left to the law of gravity whereby the stones dropped by Galileo from the leaning tower of Pisa were bound to reach the ground with certainty. This is why I wrote in the conclusion of my book that “what the socialist alternative appeals to is the tangible requirement of historical sustainability. And that is also offered as the criterion and measure of its feasible success…. It is defined in terms of historical viability and practical sustainability, or not, as the case might be.”
LC: One of the main criticisms of the Marxist conception of history is that it is very teleological. Is not this view—that the state collapse is inevitable—also somewhat teleological?
IM: Only the mechanical dogmatic Marxists would argue in such terms. Marx never did. After all, he wrote seven decades before Rosa Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism” that the advocated alternative was required by human beings “in order to save their very existence.” In other words, if a thinker clearly asserts that the ongoing self-destructive human action—which arises from the inner antagonisms and dangerous contradictions of the given social reproductive system, established by human beings themselves—can put an end to historical development, that is the opposite of believing in a mysterious teleology of historical inevitability, not its advocacy.
In any case, it is always much easier to indicate the increasing likelihood of a collapse or implosion than to project in concrete terms even the bare outlines of a feasible positive outcome. For the latter depends on a great multiplicity of interacting factors, set in motion by more-or-less conscious human efforts confronting one another under bewilderingly complicated historical circumstances and shifting relation of forces. This is why the development of social consciousness within the framework of rival value systems, together with their educational requirements, is so important. It would be nothing more than self-defeating illusion to expect the positive outcome to appear through the fictitious suprahuman agency of some preexistent, quasi-Messianic, historical teleology.
LC: You are quite critical of “representative democracy,” but do not show enthusiasm for so-called “direct democracy.” Instead, you propose a “substantive democracy.” What are the bases and how would such substantive democracy work?
IM: The advocacy of something like direct democracy by Rousseau, embraced by the early phase of the French Revolution, had a historical precedence over representative democracy. The latter had been devised more like a countermove than a self-originating, and in that way sustainable, form of political control. After all, we should not forget that the great liberal/utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham started his intellectual career as an opponent of the American Revolution, in the heat of that revolution itself. Representative democracy had been conveniently adopted by many parliaments but produced very limited results. It is a form of control very problematic even in its own terms of reference and claimed achievements. Hegel’s criticism of it was very much to the point when he wrote in hisPhilosophy of History that, in such a form of political administration, “The Few assume to be the Deputies, but they are often only the despoilers of the Many.” He could also point out that the Many are not simply the “Many,” but simultaneously also the “All.” Thus even if the Many could be truly represented by their temporarily dominant party, that would still leave so many of the “All” outside in the cold, in the name of what Hegel considered the tyranny of the majority over the minority. But of course he could not go beyond that, given his own class horizon and economic conception, adapted from Adam Smith’s political economy with its capital-oriented blessing and curse rolled into one.
Despite its relative merits over representative democracy, the idea of direct democracy is also very problematical. For by envisaging itself as the alternative to representative democracy in the political domain, it is still far removed from even beginning to realize the great historic task of the radical transformation of the social metabolism in its entirety. By no means surprisingly, even its extremely limited institutional counterexample demanding “recallable delegates” as against the “representative deputies” now elected to the political body, proved to be totally incompatible, over the past two centuries, with the established social reproductive order. Also the once sincerely meant suggestion about giving nothing more in pay to such delegates than to the factory workers came to absolutely nothing, although Lenin himself passionately advocated it in his State and Revolution and also after the successful October Revolution. In Western capitalist societies we have heard a great deal about the proposed virtue of having workers, or even some workers’ councils, rightfully participating in the decision-making of their enterprises, as an element of direct democracy, expecting from it a major transformation of society as a whole in due course. This is like the fox in the fairy tale at the foot of the tree telling the crow who has a big chunk of cheese in his mouth how beautifully he can sing, and asking the crow to do so in the hope that he drops the cheese. But the crow is not a fool to accommodate the fox and remain hungry. The question of substantive democracy is a matter of the vital decision-making processes in all domains and at all levels of the societal reproduction process, on the basis of substantive equality. And that requires the radical alteration of the social metabolism as a whole, superseding its alienated character and the alienating superimposition of overall political decision-making by the state over society. That is the only sense in which substantive democracy can acquire and maintain its meaning.
LC: In Europe, Asia, and Latin America, the streets were filled by protests against the established power, whether dictatorships or democracies. How do you evaluate these movements? Can they be the engine of a fundamental change of capitalist society?
IM: There can be no doubt about it, we have been witnessing the most remarkable protest demonstrations all over the world in the last few years. At the same time, since the demands of the people involved in these massive protests have not been met, there can be very little doubt that they will reappear all over the world and even intensify if they continued to be frustrated. However, it would be unwise to jump to an optimistic conclusion in view of the immense size of these worldwide protest movements. Thus, it would be far too premature to see in them already the engine of a fundamental change of capitalist society. These protest movements are certainly the harbingers of a necessary fundamental change. The magnitude of the fundamental change required is indicated not only by the worldwide mass demonstrations that say unmistakably “no” to the perpetuation of their manifold grievances, but also by the subsequent expression of sympathy and solidarity by masses of those who were not yet in the streets. A word of caution is nevertheless required because it is always easier to say “no” to the hurtful existent than to elaborate the positive alternative to it. If our criterion and measure of the required alternative is historical sustainability, that applies also to the emerging mass protest movements. They have appeared all over the world on the whole spontaneously and in a great variety of forms directly related to the multiplicity of their particular grievances. At some point in the future, however, they must cohere into a historically sustainable force if they are to become what you rightly describe as an “engine of a fundamental change of capitalist society.” One can only hope that such strategic cohesion unfolds sooner rather than later, let alone after it becomes too late.
LC: Europe has witnessed the rise of new left parties, often classified as “radical.” Syriza won the elections in Greece and Podemos is the second-largest political force in Spain. How do you see these new parties? What kinds of changes are possible within current structures?
IM: Syriza and Podemos are good examples of the necessary response to the imposition of cruel austerity measures by the internationally managed financial and state authorities on Greece and Spain, aggravated by the servile submission of their national governments in question. But well beyond these two countries, the dehumanizing austerity measures are becoming visible and intolerable in many parts of the capitalist world, including those countries that once belonged to the handful of privileged “welfare states.” What makes these parties particularly significant is not only that they have arisen on the long-slumbering left but also that in a very short time they succeeded in acquiring a great mass of supporters. In this way they clearly underline the untenability of the established social reproductive order which has to resort to cruel austerity measures even in capitalistically advanced Europe, after promising for so long—and totally in vain—the diffusion of universal welfare everywhere in the world. The hoped for success of the worldwide protest movements mentioned in the last question can be greatly helped by the development of such parties. But also in this respect a strategically viable overall conception elaborated by them, envisaging a historically sustainable alternative to the existing order, remains the necessary requirement.
LC: More than twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, why do you believe that the socialist alternative is not only possible, but necessary?
IM: In historical terms twenty years is a very short period of time. Especially so when the magnitude of the task presents itself as the need to change radically the social reproductive metabolism as a whole from an order of substantive inequality into one of substantive equality. And the historic challenge for securing an order of substantive equality is not a matter of the last few decades. The demand for it had been eloquently asserted by Babeuf and his comrades of the “Society of Equals,” not twenty but exactly 220 years ago, when they insisted that “We need not only that equality of rights written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; we want it in our midst, under the roofs of our houses.” Their demand was totally incompatible with capital’s consolidating order, and they were executed for it. But the historic challenge did not die with them, since it involves the whole of humanity. And no partial solution or its failure can eliminate that condition.
The implosion of the Soviet system had its deep-seated ground of determinations. To mention very briefly only two: the explosive contradictions of a multinational empire repressing its national minorities, as inherited from the Tsars, and the wishful proclamation of “socialism in one country,” on the ground of the actually prevailing post-revolutionary capital system. With regard to the first fateful contradiction—whose dangerous reverberations can be heard even today—Lenin advocated for the national minorities the “right of autonomy to the point of secession,” and he sharply criticized Stalin as an arbitrary “national socialist” and a “Great-Russian bully”; whereas Stalin degraded the national minorities to the status of “border regions” required for maintaining “the might of Russia.” As to the second fateful misrepresentation, Stalin and his followers claimed the “full realization of socialism in one country,” in total contradiction with Marx’s view that the alternative social order “is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples all at once and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them.”
Babeuf and his comrades appeared tragically early on the historical stage with their radical demand. At that time capital still had the potentiality of world-conquering expansion, even if its mode of operation could never overcome the problematical features of what even its best defenders in the field of political economy described as creative or productive destruction. For destruction was always an integral part of it, in view of the increasing wastefulness inseparable from the inexorable self-expansionary drive even at the ascending phase of capital’s historical development. The greatest and most perilous irony of modern history is that the once-championed “productive destruction” has become in the descending phase of capital’s systemic development an ever-more-untenable destructive production, both in the field of commodity production and in the domain of nature, complemented by the ultimate threat of military destruction in defense of the established order. That is why the socialist alternative is not only possible—in the earlier mentioned sense of its historical sustainability—but also necessary, in the interest of humanity’s survival.
Part 2: Substantive Equality and Substantive Democracy
The problem of substantive determinations concerns a most fundamental change of a future society in which, in order that such a society should be historically sustainable, the vital orienting principle of the social metabolism must be substantive equality. It goes without saying that likewise some other regulatory concepts (for instance substantive democracy) are inseparable from the same requirement, in the sense that they all must be conceived and implemented in the spirit of substantive equality.
For me it is a matter of the greatest theoretical and practical political importance that we should contrast our conception of the radically different social metabolism of the future—without which humanity could not possibly survive—with the existing forms. This is why I use the expression “substantively democratic” (and of course “substantive democracy,” in its fundamental defining characteristics, is inseparable from “substantive equality”) in contrast even to the once-genuine liberal conception of democracy, which could not possibly be under any condition substantive, even when it managed to be more-or-less substantial in a limited political sense. In that limited sense, politics can be more or less “substantially democratic” under a liberal regime, but never substantively democratic. In the case of my contrast, there can be no “more-or-less substantively democratic” or “more-or-less substantively equal.” It is either substantively democratic and substantively equal, or it is not. In other words, in the latter case it is not substantive at all. By contrast it is perfectly legitimate to talk about “more-or-less substantially democratic” or “more-or-less substantially equal” political/social relations under certain historical conditions.
This is the sense in which I used the expression “substantive” in Beyond Capital and continue to use it in what I am now writing on the state. In fact I discussed these problems in the same sense already in my book on Marx’s Theory of Alienation, which I started to write in 1959 in London. And indeed, my deep concern with the crucial substance of this matter goes back in a quite explicit form all the way to the autumn of 1951, to a conversation that I had with Georg Lukács, at the time when the Hungarian government increased the price of the vital food and clothing items by 300 percent, and salaries/wages by only 18–21 percent.
At that time we had a discussion of this measure in the Hungarian Writers’ Association with Márton Horváth (who strongly attacked Lukács in the 1949–1951 “Lukács debate”), who was the member of the Party’s Politbureau responsible for Cultural/Ideological Matters. Some of my writer friends and colleagues recited the answer Horváth wanted to hear, saying that the people enthusiastically approved the declared change. I stayed in total silence, but he turned to me and asked: “And you, Comrade Mészáros, what have you heard?” My answer was: “I don’t know which part of the country my friends have visited, but where I live, in a working-class district, people are swearing and cursing the party and government.”
Characteristically, he retorted: “Comrade Mészáros, you are supposed to lead them, not to tail them!” This showed that he knew very well what the people at large thought, but he wanted to know how the writers will propagandize the Party’s decision. Given the big difference in income between the workers and the leading writers, the vital food and clothing price increases did not significantly affect the writers, but they did the workers painfully. The 18–21 percent increase in their salary reasonably compensated the writers, whereas the workers suffered a major reduction in their need primarily for essential food and clothing supplies as a result of their inadequate wages.
The next day I told Lukács about this bewildering experience in the Writers Association and he laughed with me with irony and even sarcasm, signaling his disapproval of Horváth’s behavior. And then he explained to me that a more equitable solution would be impossible, requiring massive sums that the economy could not afford. At that time the only thing I could say was: “I understand that, but there must be another way.” At that stage in my life I had no proper idea what that “other way” could and should be, and how a real alternative to the existing huge iniquities could be brought to practical realization. I only knew that “there must be another way.” And of course I also knew that the masses of the people were swearing and cursing and that they were my class comrades and childhood companions.
It took me several decades of hard work, in a period of great historical storms and reversals, to understand the complex historical and social ramifications of the vital difference between what is called “greater equality” (which means no real equality at all) and the historically irrepressible requirement of substantive equality.
Liberal democratic societies often assert their claim to insuperable political legitimacy by their proclaimed intent to institute political reforms for “representative democracy,” “greater equality” (coupled with “progressive taxation,” etc.), and promising to guard society from “excessive state interference.” In reality, very little of all these claims and intents stands up to serious examination. But Soviet type post-revolutionary societies also failed to live up to their proclaimed tenets and in the end reverted to the most iniquitous capitalist mold (see Gorbachev, etc.). By temporarily overthrowing the capitalist state they were able to introduce for a while some limited social reforms but not the necessary structural change that entered the historical horizon through the objective challenge for the realization of substantive equality.
In truth, the question of substantive equality is linked to a number of vital issues that I can only summarily mention here. It concerns capital as such (i.e., the capital system in its entirety) and not just capitalism.
Likewise, it concerns the state of the capital system as such, (i.e., the capital state in any one of its known and feasible varieties), and not just the capitalist state. In other words, it is a question of the redefinition and historically viable ongoing reproduction of the social metabolism in its entirety, and not just the overthrow of the established political domain.
The illusions attached to the notion of “direct democracy,” etc. must be evaluated in this sense, within the framework of the radically redefined mode of societal reproduction. For the unrealizable projections of “direct democracy” remain unrealizable precisely because they are trapped by the structural limitations of the given political domain, when the unavoidable historical challenge is the radical transformation of all levels of the social metabolism in a non-hierarchical way. Politics can initiate major, indeed fundamental, social metabolic changes but by itself it cannot constitute them. It can affect in a significant way the conditions of material reproduction, but it is itself dependent—even for the way in which it can articulate its demands for major change—on the nature of the given or envisaged material (as well as, of course, corresponding cultural-ideological) reproductive framework.
Strategic political changes are always formulated in terms of such—no matter how inexplicit or even cynically camouflaged—material structural framework, which happened to be under the conditions of past history marked by the objective premises of class determination and class exploitation. And when in our time a socialist overall political decision-making is envisaged for the future, it must spell out its own practical terms of reference in accordance with the envisaged material reproductive framework of the new society. “Direct political” means very little, if anything at all, in this respect, whereas materially substantive (as already Babeuf was demanding it—in his words, “under the roofs of our houses”) makes all the difference.
For its historical viability, this kind of redefinition of politics and society requires the total eradication of capital from the social metabolism. There can be no substantive equality (or substantive democracy) without that. Naturally, this requirement carries with it also the total eradication (or the “withering away”) of the state as we know it. Capital’s reproductive metabolism cannot be eradicated without it. For the state is by its innermost nature necessarily hierarchical. It has been historically constituted as the expropriator and usurper of overall decision-making from the societal reproduction process. Moreover, the material reproductive framework of capital’s social metabolic order could not function at all without the structurally entrenched hierarchical decision-making processes of the corresponding capital state.
One more consideration must be also firmly emphasized here: capital’s powers of restoration. For by its nature capital cannot be other than inexorably all-dominating, since it cannot acknowledge any limit. Hence the complete absurdity of the Gorbachevian (and any similar) fantasy postulating the “controlled market society.” (As we know only too well, this fantasy can have many wishful varieties, especially under conditions of severe economic crises).
In view of all these considerations the only historically sustainable solution for the future is the radical reconstitution of the social metabolism, in the spirit of the orienting principle of substantive equality. This can be only envisaged well beyond the unrealizable “substantially more equitable” never-nowhere-land of pious hope. It is by no means surprising that in the course of the already-known historical development, advertised in terms of the wishful postulates of liberal-democratic “more equitable redistribution of wealth” (in the name of the “welfare state,” or whatever else), the promises came to absolutely nothing. Not only not “substantially more equitable” social relations, but not even a little more so. On the contrary, we have witnessed the obscenely ever-greater concentration of wealth. So much so that even some decent neoclassical political economists, like Thomas Piketty, expose it in their writing, even if without any solution.
Reorganizing society by transferring the power of decision-making to the freely associated producers is the only feasible way of introducing meaningful planning. This happens to be an absolute condition, totally incompatible with the inherent nature of capital because of its structurally insuperable centrifugality. This dimension of the fundamental social metabolism of our established order—namely its incompatibility with comprehensive planning, rather than partial/antagonism-generating, big-corporation “planning”—is further aggravated by the systemic requirement of capital’s material reproductive metabolism that inexorably tends toward materially invasive globalization, without any feasible corresponding overall decision-making process on the state-legitimatory political plane. For it is nothing short of complete absurdity if (or when) the apologists of capital’s established social metabolic order envisage a global system of their liking without a globally viable and historically sustainable planning process.
Naturally, a non-antagonistic rational planning process on a comprehensive global plane is inconceivable without its appropriate modality of interchange among the constitutive cells—call it the “microcosms”—of the all-embracing social order. In this sense, globally viable planning is feasible only on the basis of a laterally coordinated (i.e., truly non-hierarchical) societal reproduction process. This is a paradigm question of social reciprocity at the core of which we find the historic requirement of substantive equality. Without planning, the unavoidable global interchange in our present and future societal reproduction cannot be considered historically sustainable. At the same time, planning on a global scale is inconceivable without the removal of structural-hierarchical iniquities so evident in our present world.
In this respect, again, the advocacy of “substantial” (in terms of some postulated—but unrealizable—change) means nothing at all, because its orienting framework and corresponding measure within whose confines it projects improvements remain the existing, structurally entrenched hierarchical order. The so-called “more equitable” may be “relatively more substantial” in a partial sense than its earlier variety, but it inevitably fails—as actual historical development amply proves—in the vital sense that it represents no real challenge to the existing social order with regard to its self-sustaining and self-justifying structural parameters, well-illustrated by the proclaimed liberal “more equitable” claim. (See the original projections—by the liberal Lord Beveridge and others—on the “welfare state” and its pathetic historical realization and ultimate liquidation even in the handful of privileged capitalist countries.) To get out of that structurally iniquitous social order we need qualitatively different substantive equality as the orienting principle and also the appropriate measure of achievement.
This is also the only way in which the question of transition toward a socialist transformation of the social metabolic order can acquire its proper meaning: by providing also the criteria, as well as the measure, in terms of which particular achievements toward a substantively equitable society as a whole can be ascertained.
To be sure, for historically understandable reasons, the particular political movements that try to assert their policies must promise tangible results to their potential followers. This is a very difficult problem because it tends to impose the demands arising from the short-term hopes of political movements on the historically sustainable perspective of the long term. In truth, however, strategically viable transformation is not feasible without the full observance of the objective and subjective requirements of the long term. Yet unfortunately, often the distinction between “strategy and tactics” is used to justify the neglect of the long term, by saying that “so-and-so” was meant “only tactically,” although it directly contradicted the strategically viable long term.
The truth of the matter is that the pursuit of such tactics can painfully derail the necessary long-term strategy. Moreover, there can be no viable strategy without an orienting framework appropriate to the overall determinations of the historically ascertainable long-term tendencies and potentialities. This is why our concern with the contrast between substantive and substantial is a matter of vital importance. In envisaging a historically sustainable socialist transformation, there can be no departure from the radical orienting principle and measure of substantive equality in terms of which the period of transition to a fundamentally different social metabolic order can be constantly evaluated.
All this is perfectly compatible with Marx’s views. But in our given historical time the conceptual framework must be articulated in the above sense, reflecting the aggravated and ever-worsening conditions of capital’s irreversible descending phase of development, with its tendency toward humanity’s global destruction, preventable only through the constitution of a substantively equitable social metabolic order. Our critique of the state must be conceived from this perspective.