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Saturday, June 2, 2012


I caught a bit of an interesting discussion on cable TV yesterday in which one of the commentators was talking about the attitudes of the Occupy Movement participants toward established political parties and the rules and regulations of voting, law-making, and such.  The thrust of this man's comment [I never caught his name] was that the Occupy folks are completely disenchanted with both parties and view Capitalism itself as the root of our current problems [rather than particular laws regulating Capitalist institutions and behavior.]  Instead of devoting their time and energy to political campaigns, he said, the people in the Movement to whom he talked had decided to commit themselves to direct action to make changes in the world around them.

This got me thinking, once again, about a very large question that has absorbed my attention for much of my life:  How do the fundamental economic and associated institutions of a society change, and what, if anything, can individuals do to influence the direction of that change?

It will not come as a surprise to the readers of this blog that whenever I think about this question, my first impulse is to return to Marx and remind myself of what he had to say, for all that he wrote a century and a half ago in a different country. 

Marx's thought about this question was deeply influenced by the ideas of the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, who conceived of the economy as a system, on the analogy to the physical system of nature, governed by general laws that operate more or less independently of the wishes and beliefs of particular individuals.  Marx liked to talk of the "laws of motion of Capitalist economy," invoking Newton.  He understood, of course, that this was at best an analogy.  Economic actors are persons with consciousness, desires, intentions, and beliefs, whereas physical objects have none of these characteristics.  Nevertheless, his study of the early capitalist economy of England convinced him that large structural changes, such as the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, are the quite unintended result of the interaction of countless particular actions and decisions rather than the outcome of deliberate programmatic planning.  He wrote dismissively of people like Proudhon, Fourier, and Saint Simon, whom he called "Utopian Socialists" because they substituted wishful fantasies for rigorous analysis.

One of Marx's most powerful insights was that Capitalism is constantly changing, evolving, developing.  Marx identified three great tendencies or directions of change, all of which he thought would drive Capitalism in the direction of Socialism.  These major tendencies were, First, the irresistible concentration and centralization of capitals, leading to huge firms that would dominate entire industries;  Second, the corresponding unification of the Working Class, whose concentration in ever larger associations of workers would be the unintended by-product of the centralization of capitals; and Third, an ever more exacerbated succession of booms and busts, caused by the fratricidal competition of capitalist firms, which would end in a world-wide crash out of whose ashes Socialism would emerge.

In my opinion, Marx's fundamental approach was absolutely right.  He denied that Capitalism was simply rationality writ large [the view of the apologists for Capitalism], but instead was a particular socio-economic formation in a constant process of change, and he correctly identified ever-greater centralization of capital as the dominant tendency.  He was wrong about the corresponding unification of the Working Class, and although he was right about ever greater financial crises, he was wrong to think that in such crisis the Working Class would take control of the economy and society and carry through the final establishment of Socialism.

In my essay, "The Future of Socialism," which is on and soon will be published by the Seattle University Law Journal, I went into a good deal of detail about exactly how I think fundamental changes are growing within the "womb of the old order," to quote Marx's evocative phrase.  The pessimistic conclusion of that analysis is that utopian projects for the transformation of Capitalism are no more likely to succeed now than they were in Marx's day.

I expect that governments will continue to become more skillful, by fits and starts, at managing the booms and busts of contemporary Capitalism.  I also expect that inequality will continue to grow as Capital finds that it can wrest profits from the economy despite the progressive immiseration of an ever-greater proportion of the working population.  It is possible, I suppose, to view such abominations as the Citizens United Supreme Court decision as evidence of the desperation of a Capitalist managerial class ever more fearful of a popular uprisings, though even a congenital optimist like me finds that rather fanciful.

But of one thing I am, unfortunately quite convinced, namely that small-scale, local, people-to-people actions will not, and indeed cannot, accrete into a force producing a fundamental change in the socio-economic organization of modern Capitalism.

What then is to be done? as Lenin famously asked.  It is, I suppose, an evidence of my advancing age that when I ask that question, my mind turns to Dylan Thomas' greatest poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Chris said...

And neither will campaigning for Obama....

At least the Occupiers are standing firm to principle in the face of defeat, whereas progressive support for Obama is being complicit in defeat.

Unknown said...

This Capitalism that we now see rode into existence first on the forests of Europe and the Americas, next on coal, now oil. Is it Utopian or merely prescient to, "...commit themselves to direct action to make changes in the world around them?"

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, I certainly hope it is prescient! Nothing would ease my last days more. It is not something I like to argue about, because I do not want to discourage actions that might, at the very least, make the world a less bad place. I suppose my pessimism comes from having spent an entire long life hoping for a transformation that has never come. In a way, living through the events of the 40's and 50's and 60's makes the disappointment worse, because for a brief moment it looked as though we were winning.

Jerry Fresia said...

At the risk of sounding like Polyanna, I would take heart in the following: it is unlikely that in the 40s, 50s, or 60s, a Marxist, atheist scholar would have been appointed to improve the chances of graduation for young Black women in North Caroline (or that there would be an Afro-American Studies department -?? - and one chaired by a Black woman with a militant activist past). Certainly it would have been impossible then for the handsome son of said Marxist to marry a man. And while in North Carolina 50 years ago a Black man would have been denied service at a lunch counter, this summer a Black man, in North Carolina, will be re-nominated as President of the United States. Arab nations are in revolt. "Occupy" is not only not relenting but seems to be international. It appears to me that all the good raging of those decades past has moved the ball forward quite some distance. Has it accreted "into a force producing a fundamental change in the socio-economic organization of modern Capitalism"? Don't know, but check out the platform of the Coalition of the Radical Left, headed by a young Communist, that now has a decent chance of setting a progressive agenda not just in Greece but in a number of European countries (see their impressive platform here:
Bottom line: capitalism is on the defensive just about everywhere. Oh, those laws of motion.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I can see that I need to hang out with you a bit more! I am prepared to embrace that view of the world. What is there to lose?

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"