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Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Immanuel Kant, as students of his philosophy will recall, asks three questions, to which he offers The Critical Philosophy as answers.  The questions are:  What can I know?  What ought I to do?  For what may I hope?  Kant's answer to the last question is, roughly speaking, immortality, but as an atheist I am unable to follow him down that path.  Instead, I concern myself with what we may hope for in this life, rather than in any life to come.

Two years ago, I was invited by Professor Charles O'Kelley to deliver my paper, The Future of Socialism, at a conference he was organizing at the Seattle Univerity Law School.  For that occasion, I prepared some remarks designed to bring my 2007 paper up to date with references to the 2008 crash.  Illness prevented me from attending the conference, but it occurs to me that readers of this blog might be interested in what I planned to say.  I should warn the faint of heart among you that my conclusions are not optimistic.  The original paper is available at, accessible by following the link at the top of this blog.  Here is the text of my Seattle remarks as I prepared it eighteen months ago.

My paper, "The Future of Socialism," is essentially an extended riff on one famous passage in Karl Marx's 1859 work, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.  Here, once more, is the passage:

No social order disappears before all of the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material components of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.
           Marx, who was the first great historian of economics, drew this conclusion from his study of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England, a process that had only recently been brought to completion when he was writing.  As for a possible transition from capitalism to socialism, he was disdainfully scornful of those reformers, labeled by him "Utopian Socialists," who contented themselves with imagining ideal sets of social and economic arrangements without any attention to the facts on the ground that might conceivably lead to the establishment of such fantasies.
Since I am committed to this socialist dream, by family inheritance as well as by philosophical persuasion, the first seventy-eight years of my life have been something of a disappointment.   But as Bobby Kennedy liked to say, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, so taking my cue from Marx, whose response to the failure of the revolutionary uprisings of 1848 was to hole up in the British Museum and write a book, I decided some time ago to see what I could figure out about the conditions under which a transition from capitalism to socialism might take place
One of the many things Marx taught us is that if we wish to understand social and economic change -- what he called, in another context, the "laws of motion" of a capitalist economy -- we must look to capitalism's most advanced sector, for it is there, if anywhere, that the elements of a new order will mature "in the womb of the old society."  I decided to look, therefore, at the trajectory of development in the modern corporation, and not in the sphere of small business enterprises or utopian counter-communities, to see whether I could identify new social relations of production developing in utero.  The result of my explorations was the paper you have before you.

I shall not try to summarize my argument, which you have read, but will simply repeat the conclusion:  In a modern multi-national corporation, of the sort that dominates the world economy today, internal economic decisions necessarily take on the logical form of planning decisions rather than profit maximization decisions determined solely by market forces.
In the time allotted to me today, I am going to try to relate my thesis to the dramatic economic crises that have erupted since the paper was written several years ago.   Although my paper focuses exclusively on the individual firm, a parallel argument can easily be made with regard to the entire international capitalist system.  As Marx argued, capitalism in its original form combines an ever more rational organization of production with a chaotic and anarchic process of distribution.  The result is a series of crises of over-production and under-consumption, once described as booms and busts but now described more serenely as "the business cycle."  Marx believed that capitalists, locked in a death struggle of competition, would be unable to take collective action to respond to the threat of a catastrophic collapse, but history has proved him wrong.  Chastened by the Great Depression that Marx had presciently foreseen, and guided by the visible hand of John Maynard Keynes and his epigones, capitalists by fits and starts have learned to use the state as an instrument for the stabilization of the sphere of circulation, to use Marx's term for the market.

What we witnessed in the aftermath of the American investment crisis of 2008, and what we are witnessing now in the midst of the Eurozone crisis, are the fitful, halting, but deliberate efforts of capital to achieve a higher level of international economic planning in order to ensure the steady expansion of profits and the security of accumulated wealth.  The process is not pretty, and it goes without saying that it is inflicting terrible harm on those who do not command the heights of the economy, but I have no doubt that capital will manage to save its neck.  The steady expansion of capitalism demands the stabilization of the accumulation process, even at the expense of the immiseration of the working class [which, I will remind you, includes almost all of the people who like to call themselves "middle class" in a desperate attempt to distinguish themselves from those of darker skin.]

There are of course loud and insistent voices, both in the United States and abroad, celebrating the "free market" and decrying any intervention by the state in its Eleusian mysteries.  But it is worth noting that these are, for the most part, the voices of politicians and professors of economics, not business leaders, for the latter understand quite well that the reliability of their profit depends on a stability that the free market cannot ensure.
It would be a mistake, I believe, to view the bailouts, the new regulations, the ad hoc reconfigurations in the Eurozone as temporary measures designed to return a momentarily unhealthy capitalist system to its previous condition.  That is, no doubt, the way in which these changes are viewed both by those imposing them and by those on whom they are being imposed.  But I suggest that we are actually seeing a new, more integrated economic system emerging, one that exhibits many more of the structural features of a planned economy.

What, then, of socialism -- which is to say economic planning in the interest of the people as a whole rather than merely of the monied interests?   It is as unlikely to emerge from this new stage in the development of capitalism as it was from earlier stages.  In addition to the three reasons I sketched in my paper, I should like now to add a fourth.
For the first three centuries of its development, capitalism had an insatiable need for ever greater amounts of cheap labor.  It was that need that produced chattel slavery in the United States and it is the same need that has driven capital on a ceaseless world-wide quest for populations who can be employed for a pittance.  Marx was quite correct that profit is grounded essentially in the exploitation of labor. 

In recent years, however, the explosive expansion of mechanization, and its most recent form, robotics, has produced a situation never before seen.  Very large segments of the world's working class are now superfluous -- no longer needed by capital to sustain its profitability.  We can observe this new phenomenon in the United States, where millions of workers, even those with significant levels of technical skill, are more or less permanently unemployed.  At the moment, of course, America is experiencing unusually high real unemployment as a consequence of the slowdown in business activity, but I am fearfully confident that as business picks up, unemployment will stabilize at levels that in previous decades would have been considered unacceptable.

This fact, that there are simply more people of working age than capital needs, creates a problem for capital, because the Americans marginalized by capitalism's great success have a troubling tendency to grow restive as they lose their homes and health care and begin to go hungry.  Thirty-nine years ago, James O'Connor published a very interesting little book called The Fiscal Crisis of the State.  In it, he pointed out that the state expenditures that we classify as "social welfare expenses" actually perform two quite different functions in a modern capitalist economy.  The first function is to socialize some of the expenses of preparing the labor force for employment, thus relieving capital of most of those expenses.  Hence state-funded public education, and a medical system intended to keep workers healthy enough to labor.

The second function of social welfare expenses is quite different -- its purpose is to dampen social unrest that, if it were to erupt, would disturb the steady accumulation of capital.  O'Connor was convinced that these two functions were in conflict, and that the second of them would eventually cost so much that it would seriously interfere with profitability.  The present day debates about Social Security and Medicare, and the efforts by Republicans to drive down the already low taxes paid by capital, are simply the modern expressions of the forces O'Connor identifies in the early seventies.
The only hope for the socialization of the economy, so that it can respond to human needs rather than to the demands of capital accumulation, is the mobilization of the working class, whether in the union halls or at the ballot box.  But the permanent marginalization of large numbers of working men and women, coupled with the steeply pyramidal wage structure of which I wrote in my paper, will, I fear, frustrate efforts to bring into the world in nascent form a new, humane, just social order.

Although the objective conditions for socialism are indeed developing in the womb of capitalism, as Marx foresaw, there is no joy in the neighborhoods I frequent.  The explosive growth of capitalism in the last half century has not been matched by a growth in the scope and depth of the organization of employees, as workers are now called.  Instead, there has been an ever-greater fragmentation of the working class, which is now virtually powerless in the face of the heaps of capital its productive efforts have created. 
I am by nature an optimistic person.  My friends view me, if I may invoke Winnie the Pooh, as a Tigger, not an Eeyore.  But I am very much afraid that my declining years will be as disappointing as my youth and middle age have been.




Charles Pigden said...

Dear Professor Wolff,
I'm not sure whether this is a compliment or an insult, but your analysis sounds distinctly Galbraithian to me, though I am not well up enough on his stuff to give you chapter and verse.

I also think you are missing a very important point. Climate Change, which the current system seem incapable of preventing , is likely to produce a catastrophic drop in the earth's fertility with massive food shortages leading to the death of hundreds of millions perhaps billions of people. This will probably put paid to capitalism - at least as currently configured - but it is not likely to give rise to a form of socialism that one can look forward to with hope.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I assume you mean John Kenneth and not his son, but either way, I would be quite happy to be associated with them. I agree completely that climate change can, and most probably will, produce massive world-wide dislocations whose social and economic effects are very hard to project. But almost certainly a crisis, or series of crises, of that sort would be more likely to produce tyranny than socialism.

Magpie said...

In Australia we can see in out towns what happens to "surplus populations": here we call it Aborigines.

Although it's not a pretty sight, it's not the worse that can happen.

Another less radical possibility is this:

"Illegal kidney trade booms as new organ is 'sold every hour'".

Under these less radical scenarios something like H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" could turn out to be quite prescient.

However, ultimately, I can imagine a more radical scenario, where a final solution to the "surplus population" problem could be attempted: Monowitz.

I am, of course, leaving aside climate change, which Charles Pigden mentioned.


I am sorry to say these things, and I hope you guys don't pay too much attention to my ramblings.