Sunday, June 11, 2006


Reasons to be socialist, part three

Capitalism is an economic system that is oriented towards profit - not towards the satisfaction of human needs.

So far so platitudinous. Just because capitalism is not designed to satisfy human needs, that does not mean it does not in fact do a reasonable job of doing so. Defenders of capitalism would argue that the pursuit of profit, inadvertently as it were, ends up satisfying human needs. In so far as he saw the bourgoisie as fulfilling some kind of historical mandate to "revolutionise the instruments of production" and thus laying the material foundations for communism and the "abolition of labour", Marx agreed with this in a roundabout kind of way.

But the organising principle of a system clearly matters in terms of what its outcomes are likely to be. (One can make an analogy here with the question of motives and the war in Iraq - just because the war was motivated by, say, a desire to control Middle Eastern oil, does not mean it did not, say, liberate Iraq from the Baath. Nevertheless one would want to have some idea of what the motivations were in order to make any good predictions about what US policy was likely to be and how things were likely to turn out. As a matter of fact I think this is something too often neglected or evaded by left-supporters of the war).

The fact that capitalism is a system oriented towards profit means that the development of labour-saving technology, which in a rational system directed towards the satisfaction of human needs and desires would be experienced as the gradual liberation of humanity from the burdens of material reproduction (as, that is, what Herbert Marcuse called "the pacification of existence") is in fact experienced as unemployment, poverty, social exclusion, degradation.

This much is fairly obvious when you consider the fate of workers made redundant (in more ways than one) by machines - the Luddites being perhaps the classic case. Since technological innovations (i.e. the "instruments of production") are in the hands of profit-seekers, since the criterion for their use is profit and not human needs and desires, they are used not to shorten the working day for all workers but to lay off some so as not to have to pay their wages.

Of course, one alternative, within capitalism, to technological advances being used to replace wage-labourers, is using them to expand production.

There is thus an inbuilt tendency towards incessantly expanding production in capitalism - even beyond human material needs and desires (or at least autonomously determined desires, to get a bit Marcusean again). This is because the alternatives are this: 1) static production (in which case technological advance will allow capitalists to produce the same amount with less wage-labour - thus structural mass unemployment, poverty etc.) or 2) constant expansion of production regardless of human needs (since the same amount of labour will produce ever more as technological advances increase productivity).

Thus the alternative to the "immiseration of the masses" is permanent expansion of production. Thus the imperative of "economic growth". Of course expanded production can only be maintained with expanded consumption - hence the manipulation of desires is a functional necessity of the system, hence the expansion of commercial propaganda i.e. advertising. There may be anthropological consequences to this system of productionism-consumptionism. More ususally discussed, though not in quite this analytical context, are the ecological consequences.

By "capitalism" how broad a set of alternatives do you mean to mark out. I mean, wow, a lot of things go by that name, including versions that involve quite a bit of state intervention in order to help the market function more smoothly, often with the explicit goal of improving human lives, rather than improving profit. Since all modern economies seem to be managed to a greater or lesser extent with these goals, at least officially, this should make some difference, no?
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