Whither Capitalism? : Towards a 21st century Socialism
Posted by Taimur Rahman on June 12, 2006
Published in The Post 12/05/2006
While some intellectuals wishing to defend the dominance of private property may ask this question in order to deflect criticism of capitalism, most people around the world wish to know whether there really is an alternative. The propaganda barrage of neo-liberal capitalism has been so one sided, especially since the defeat of socialism in the Soviet Union, that in this typhoon of cacophony most people are liable to become apathetic and resign to their fates muttering beneath their pessimistic breath, “There is no alternative.” Those who openly express glee at the fact that there is no alternative to privatization, liberalization, supporting the war on Iraq, US hegemony, and so on, and beckon us to prostrate ourselves before the mighty altar of the modern God, money, have clearly made their peace with the world of exploitation and are racing, falling on top of each other, for a larger piece of the pie in this dog-eat-dog world. Let us leave such people to their devices and address those who are genuinely concerned about the fate of a world where 900 million don’t have enough to eat in the context of a world where there is excess capacity for food production.
Let us look at the options carefully. The first thing we have to recognize is that the roots of the most serious problems in the world today are not merely cultural, political, or social. Instead the cultural, social, political problems are manifestations of a society in which the economic system is set up by the rich, for the rich, and of the rich. The cultural, social, and political problems can only be addressed simultaneously and in conjunction with the economic problems of society.
Of all the diverse cultures, political and social systems in the world today, one thing is common to them all (with the exception of a handful of countries): they are dominated by a system of production at whose heart is private property. This system of production, that we call capitalism, operates according to certain laws. In the capitalist system it is inevitable, despite the efforts of even the best developed welfare state, that the rich get richer and the poor remain poor, and relatively become poorer. The most pressing problems of our times owe their existence, in one form or another, to the vastly increasing social chasm between the world of poverty and the world of wealth. This growing social chasm will lead, inexorably, to a growing conflict between the rich and the poor. As long as the motor of the market continues to drive the economic foundations of the world, no matter how many times the rich manage to suppress, cajole, or deceive the poor, an ever greater number of people who daily lose their social position to the world of wealth will continue to ensure that the conflict continues. The cynic might be apt to point out all the various mechanisms that the ruling class is able to utilize in the service of maintaining its class hegemony — for the last hundred years or so, not merely democracy, human rights, peace, and civil society, but even religion has been in the service of capital — but even they would be forced to concede that the contradiction will continue to resurface indefinitely as long as the social chasm between the rich and the poor continues to widen. Given the ever-growing proportion of the relatively poor (though the number of absolute poor may even be fewer), each successive upheaval against the world of wealth is bound to meet with a continuously wider base of support from society. In the long view of history, therefore, it seems inevitable that at a certain point in time the ever growing proportion of the relatively disenfranchised, whom Frantz Fanon poetically referred to as the “Wretched of the Earth”, will be the heirs to the final destruction of a society dominated by class privilege.
If all this is true, and it is difficult to find a plausible reason to reject the inexorable march of history in this direction — the destruction of the Soviet Union notwithstanding — despite all the infinite permutations and combinations of cultures, political systems and social relations, the essential question of our historical epoch boils down to, essentially, the struggle against an economic system based on private property. Or in other words, the struggle for the establishment of an economic system based on collective property — which would, strictly speaking, imply the end of property as such.
A centuries worth of cold war propaganda against all the historical advances of the oppressed may have momentarily convinced millions of people that the alternative to capitalism is significantly worse, but that is no long term guarantee that people will not attempt to find a path to their liberation. Socialism, which is nothing other than the manifestation of the struggle against private property, may well begin in the 21st century with the outward trappings of a relatively non-revolutionary or non-threatening movement, especially from the point of view of capitalism, but with growing confidence in its historic mission will no doubt take on colours that begin to reflect, if not in letter, certainly in spirit, the Red tinge of ages considered long past by the Fukuyamas of the world. Whereas all eyes have turned to Latin America where one country after another finds itself in the midst of a landslide left-of-centre victory, crucial social movements are poised to emerge or have already emerged in the industrialized north. The ‘Battle of Seattle’ shattered the quiet, sounding the opening salvos of a renewed struggle against capital in the era of globalization. The strength of labour, compressed like a giant spring, is bursting forth once again and their renewed energy can be gauged by the enormous rallies this Labour Day 2006.
Let us first turn to the heart of capitalism: the United States of America. The Associated Press reported at least 1.1 million people took part in the Chicago protests but that estimate was based solely on police accounts. As many as one-third of students didn’t go to school and the protest was estimated as the largest protest in the history of Chicago. Over a half million marched in Los Angeles. In Denver, at least 75,000 people — about one-sixth of the city’s population — participated in a march on the state capitol. 50,000 people gathered in a series of protests in Florida. In New York City, over 100,000 marched from Union Square down Broadway. In Los Angeles about one in every four students was absent. In Germany, the heart of capitalist continental Europe, conservative police estimates indicated that more than half a million Germans took part in about 500 Labour Day rallies. Police estimates in Russia recorded 1.5 million participants in demonstrations. In Manila, Philippines, 5,000 anti-riot policemen had to be called out to control the hundreds of thousands of people calling for the resignation of President Gloria Arroyo. In Indonesia about 13,000 anti-riot policemen were called out to protect President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who was denounced by thousands as an “enemy of the working class”. Tens of thousands gathered in Japan against the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
May Day 2006 proves that the question now is not whether the working class or socialism will arise Phoenix-like from the ashes; that is increasingly being considered a given. The question now revolves around the form of socialism that will become dominant in the 21st century.
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