Capitalism in a blind alley
In the period from 1948 to 1973-74, we witnessed a fireworks display of industrial and technological innovation the like of which has never been seen. Yet the very successes of the capitalist system are now turning into their opposite. At this time of writing, there are officially 22 million unemployed in the advanced capitalist economies of the OECD alone, even without considering the hundreds of millions of unemployed and under-employed in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Moreover, this is not the temporary cyclical unemployment of the past. It is a chronic ulcer gnawing at the bowels of society. Like some dreadful epidemic, it strikes down even sections of society which believed themselves safe in the past.
Despite all the advances of science and technology, society finds itself at the mercy of forces it cannot control. At the beginning of the 21st century people look to the future with growing anxiety. In place of the old certainty there is uncertainty. The general malaise affects first and foremost the ruling class and its strategists, who are increasingly aware that their system is in serious difficulties. The crisis of the system finds its reflection in a crisis of ideology, reflected in the political parties, official churches, morality, science and even what passes nowadays for philosophy.
Private ownership and the nation state are the two straitjackets that hamper and restrict the development of society. From an objective point of view, the conditions for world socialism have existed for decades. However, the decisive factor that permitted capitalism partially to overcome its fundamental contradictions was the development of world trade. After 1945 the domination of the world by the United States, dictated by the need to stave off revolution in Europe and Japan and contain the Soviet Bloc, gave them the opportunity, through the Bretton Woods agreement and GATT, to compel the other capitalist powers to lower tariffs and remove other obstacles to the free flow of trade.
This was in complete contrast with the economic chaos of the inter-war period when the intensification of national rivalries expressed itself through competitive devaluation and trade wars that led to the strangling of the productive forces within the narrow confines of private ownership and the nation state. As a consequence of this, the period between the Wars was one of crisis, revolutions and counter-revolutions, culminating in the new imperialist slaughter of 1939-45.
In the post-war period, capitalism partially succeeded in overcoming the fundamental crisis of their system through the integration of world trade, creating a largely unified world market. This provided the basic premise for the massive upswing of the economy in the period of 1948-73, which in turn led to increased living standards, at least for a sizable section of the population of the advanced capitalist countries. Thus, a dying man can, at times, experience a sudden access of energy, which appears to presage a complete recovery, but in reality is only the prelude to a new and fatal relapse.
Periods such as this are not only possible, but inevitable, even in an epoch of capitalist decline, if the existing social order is not overthrown. However, the massive fireworks display of economic growth, amounting to many trillions of dollars over a period of four decades, has in no way changed the nature of capitalism or obliterated the contradictions within it. The long period of economic upswing from 1948 to 1973 is over. Full employment, rising living standards and the welfare state are things of the past. In place of growth we now face economic stagnation, recession and a crisis of the productive forces.
The owners of capital are no longer interested in investing in productive activity. The late Akio Morita, who was chairman of Sony Corporation, repeatedly warned in the 1980s of the mortal danger to the capitalist system of the trend away from productive industry towards services. Since 1950, the USA has lost over half its manufacturing jobs, while three quarters of all jobs are oriented to the service sector. A similar trend exists in Britain, now relegated to a third rate capitalist power. In an article in the Director (February 1988), Morita stated:
“What I would like to suggest is that this trend, far from being the matured progression of a maturing economy and something to be encouraged, is destructive. For in the long run an economy that has lost its manufacturing base has lost its vital centre. A service-based economy has no engine to drive it. Thus, complacency about moving from manufacturing to a haven of hi-tech services, where workers sit at computers and exchange information all day, is entirely misplaced.
”This is because it is only manufacturing that creates something new, which takes raw materials and fashions them into products that are of more value than the raw materials they are made from. It would seem obvious that the service elements of an economy are subsidiary and dependent upon manufacturing.”
Instead of creating jobs and increasing the wealth of society, the big monopolies are dedicating huge resources to speculating in the money markets, organising predatory takeovers, and other kinds of parasitic activity. Morita pointed out that “Businessmen have become fascinated with the foreign exchange game. They have discovered it can bring quick returns without the need to invest in a productive enterprise. Even some industrial concerns have gone over to the FX Empire. The people who spend their lives hunched over a monitor displaying the latest exchange transactions live in a world all their own. They have no allegiances. They do not make any products. They do not create any new ideas. They trade US $200 billion each day in London, New York and Tokyo. That is a lot of poker chips, significantly more than the value of the actual goods bought and sold in a day . ”That is a lot of water to be sloshing around in the engine room,” Morita wrote.
Morita compared the situation of world capitalism to playing poker on a sinking ship, and concluded: “It is a heady game, full of excitement, but wins and losses at the poker table don't obscure the frightening fact that the ship is sinking and no one realises it.”
Since Morita wrote these lines, the situation has got worse. The gigantic world market in “derivatives” has now reached the staggering total of US$ 25 trillion and is completely out of control. This amounts to gambling on a colossal scale. It makes the South Sea Bubble look like a mere trifle. This shows the fundamental unsoundness of world capitalism, which could end up in a new 1929-style financial crash.
In 1848, Marx and Engels predicted that capitalism would develop as a world system. This has been borne out in almost laboratory fashion in the 20th century. The crushing domination of the world market is the most important fact of the epoch. We have a world economy, world politics, world diplomacy, world culture, world wars—there have been two of those in the past hundred years, and the second came close to extinguishing the light of human civilisation. Yet the globalisation of the economy does not mean a lessening of the problems, but, on the contrary, an enormous intensification of the contradictions.
In the last decade of the 20th century, despite all the wonders of modern science, two thirds of humanity lives on the border line of barbarism. Common diseases such as diarrhoea and measles kill seven million children a year. Yet this can be prevented by a cheap and simple vaccination. 500,000 women die each year from complications during pregnancy, and perhaps another 200,000 die from abortions. The ex-colonial countries spent only 4 per cent of their GDP on health—an average of $41 a head, compare with $1900 in the advanced capitalist countries.
According to United Nations reports, more than six billion people will inhabit the earth by the year 2,000. About half of them will be under the age of 20. Yet most suffer from unemployment, lack of basic education and health care, overcrowding and bad living conditions. An estimated 100 million children aged 6 to 11 are not in school. Two-thirds are girls. Incidentally, even in the USA, UNICEF estimates that 20 per cent of children live below the national poverty line. However, the situation in Third World countries has reached a horrific level. As many as a 100 million children live on the streets. In Brazil, this problem is being “solved” by a campaign by the police and murder squads to exterminate children for the crime of being poor. Similar atrocities are being carried out against homeless people in Colombia. Not long ago it was discovered that a large number of men, women and children living on the street had been murdered and their bodies sold to the University of Bogota for dissection by medical students. Such stories fill all civilised people with horror. But it is only the most extreme expression of the morality of a society that treats human beings as mere commodities.
One million children have been killed, four million seriously injured, and five million have become refugees or orphaned as a result of wars in the past decade. In many ex-colonial countries, we have the phenomenon of child labour, often amounting to slavery. The hypocritical protests in the Western media do not prevent the products of this labour from reaching Western markets and increasing the capital of “respectable” western companies. A typical example was the recently published case of a match factory where children, mostly girls, work a 6 day-60 hour-week, with toxic chemicals, for three dollars. A letter to The Economist of the 15th September 1993 pointed out that: “Parents do realise the value of education for the future of their children but often their poverty is so desperate that they cannot do without the wages of their labouring children.”
The main reason for the grinding poverty of the third world is the two-fold looting of the resources through the terms of trade, and the trillion dollars debt owed by the third world to the big western banks. Just to pay the interest on the debt, these countries have to export food needed by their own people and sacrifice the health and education of the people. According to UNICEF, debt repayments have caused incomes in the third world to fall by a quarter, health expenditure by 50 per cent and educational expenditure by 25 per cent. Despite the hypocritical outcry against the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, Brazilian economists have proved that this is mainly motivated by the need to raised cash for agricultural exports, such as beef, raised on reclaimed land. The financing for such export projects comes from the World Bank and other international financial organisations.
In a very literal sense of the word, humanity stands at the crossroads. On the one hand, all the potential exists to build a paradise in this world. On the other, the elements of barbarism threaten to engulf the entire planet. In addition to everything else, we have the threat to the environment. In their frantic search after profit, the big multinationals are destroying the planet. The tropical rain forest is being devastated at a rate of 29,000 square miles a year. That is an area the size of Scotland. People may speculate on what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But there is no doubt about what is the cause of the present catastrophe—the uncontrolled pursuit of profit and the anarchy of capitalist production.
Even scientists who have nothing in common with socialism have been driven to the conclusion (perfectly logical, if one thinks for a moment) that the only solution is some kind of world planned economy. However, this is not possible on the basis of capitalism. Forty-one nations formally endorsed the “World Conservation Strategy”. But, in the absence of a world socialist federation, this is mainly an exercise on paper. The interests of the big monopolies decide.
Yet there is no inevitability about this. All the dire predictions about the hopeless plight of humanity, starting with Malthus, have been shown to be false. The potential for human development is limitless. The capacity exists even now to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth. In Western Europe and the United States, agricultural productivity has reached such heights that farmers are paid not to produce food. Good land is taken out of commission. Wheat is thrown into the sea, or mixed with dye to make it inedible. There are mountains of beef, butter and powdered milk. Spanish olive trees are deliberately uprooted. And there are 450 million people in the world who are malnourished, or actually starving.
By early next century, the Pacific Rim countries will probably account for half of world output. The world economy will have come into its own. For centuries, Europeans have regarded themselves as the centre of the globe. Objectively speaking, this has no more basis than the idea of Ptolemy that the earth stood at the centre of the universe. Already in the 1920s Trotsky predicted that the centre of gravity of world history would pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The next stage of human history will see the multi-millioned masses of Asia realise their full potential, as part of a Socialist World Federation.
The scourge of unemployment
Work is our main life's activity. From the earliest age, we prepare for it. Our schooling is geared to it. We spend all our active life involved in it. Work is the basis upon which society rests. Without it, there would be no food, no clothing, no shelter, no schools, no culture, no art and no science. In a very real sense, work is life. To deny a person the right to work is not just to deny him or her the right to a minimum standard of living. It is to deprive a person of human dignity, to cut them off from civilised society, to render their lives futile and meaningless. Unemployment is a crime against humanity. The creation of a kind of under-class in the inner cities of the United States and other countries is a condemnation of modern society. The following quotations reveal the fears of the most conscious strategists of capital about the tendency towards social disintegration in the West:
“The concentration of growing populations of disgruntled and impoverished people in cities dependent upon vulnerable infrastructure is fraught with dangers. Not the least of these is a strong likelihood that the social solidarity that underlies the welfare state will be broken apart in the years to come. The steadily escalating costs of supporting dependent populations will try the patience of the more successful in an economic downturn…But that is the problem for the next century.”
“The welfare state has made failure pay in evolutionary terms. Underclass women give birth to 60 per cent more children than middle-class women—black or white. But even this statistic underestimates the impact on the population. Underclass women not only have more children, they also give birth at a younger age, leading to a geometric rise in the underclass population over time.”
Rees-Mogg, who comforts himself with the delusion that “Marxism is dead”, gives voice to the politics of open reaction, which vividly recalls the pronouncements of Victorian Malthusians a hundred years ago:
“They [the poor] are abetted in the wasting of their lives by the perverse incentives of entitlement programmes that impose effective tax rates of 100 per cent or more on those who shun welfare to take a job. In many cases, the total value of food stamps, rent subsidies, welfare payments, income supplements, and free medical care and other services exceeds the after-tax income that can be earned in unskilled work. And welfare entitlements, by definition, can be realised with little or no daily effort. You don't have to rise in the morning and rush through a crowd of commuters to secure your livelihood… Lax law enforcement also makes illiteracy, idleness, and illegitimacy more attractive. Children who can make one hundred dollars per hour as thieves or drug dealers are less likely to be impressed with the rigours of learning to read or keeping a minimum-wage job that may pay off in a better life only in the future.”43
On the other side of the Atlantic, the same feeling of foreboding is spreading among the strategists of capital. The well-known American author and economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, unlike Rees-Mogg, is a liberal in politics, but has come to similar conclusions. In his latest book The Culture of Contentment, he issues a stark warning of explosive social conflict arising out of class divisions in American society:
“Yet the possibility of an underclass revolt, deeply disturbing to contentment, exists and grows stronger. There have been outbreaks in the past, notably the major inner city riots in the latter 1960s, and there are several factors that might lead to a repetition.
“In particular, it has been made clear, tranquillity has depended on the comparison with previous discomfort. With time, that comparison fades, and also with time the past promise of escape from relative privation—of upward movement—diminishes. This especially could be the consequence of a slowing or shrinking economy and even more of a prolonged recession or depression. The successive waves of workers who served the Detroit auto factories and body shops—the refugees from the adjacent farmlands of Michigan and Ontario and later the poor whites from Appalachia—went up and on. Many of those who came from the South to replace them are now stalled in endemic unemployment. No one should be surprised if this should, someday, breed a violent reaction. It has always been one of the high tenets of comfort that the uncomfortable accept peacefully, even gladly, their fate. Such a belief today may be suddenly and surprisingly disproved.” 44
“The world is not a collection of isolated individuals; all are somehow connected one with another.” (Aristotle)
“No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, no. xvii.)
Human beings became human by separating themselves from their purely animal, that is to say, unconscious, nature. Even the most complex animals cannot match the accomplishments of humankind, which enable it to survive and prosper in the most varied conditions and climates, under the sea, in the skies, and even in space. Human beings have so far raised themselves above their “natural”, that is, zoological state, that they have mastered their environment to an unparalleled degree. Yet, paradoxically, humans are still controlled by blind forces beyond their control. The so-called market economy is based upon the premise that people do not control their lives and destinies, but are puppets in the hands of invisible forces, which, like the capricious and insatiable gods of old, rule everything with neither rhyme nor reason. These gods have their high priests, who dedicate their lives to their service. They inhabit the banks and stock exchanges, with their elaborate rituals, and make fat profits out of it. But when the gods get angry, the priests panic, like a herd of frightened beasts, and just as unconscious.
The ancient Romans described a slave as “a tool with a voice” ( instrumentum vocale). Nowadays, many workers might feel that this description could equally apply to them. We are supposed to live in a post-modern, post-industrial, post-Fordist world. But, as far as the conditions of working people are concerned, what has changed? Everywhere, the gains of the past are under attack. In the West living standards, for the majority of people, are being squeezed. The welfare state is being undermined, and full employment is a thing of the past.
In all countries, society is afflicted with a deep sense of malaise. This starts on the top and percolates down to every level. The feeling of insecurity bred by permanent mass unemployment has spread to sections of the workforce who previously believed themselves immune—teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servants, factory managers—nobody is safe. The savings of the middle class, the value of their houses, are likewise threatened by the uncontrolled movements of the money markets and the stock exchange. The lives of billions of human beings are at the mercy of blind forces, which operate with a caprice that makes the gods of old seem rational by comparison.
Decades ago, it was confidently predicted that the forward march of science and technology would solve all the problems of humanity. In the future, men and women would no longer be concerned with the class struggle, but with the problem of leisure. These predictions were not at all unreasonable. From a strictly scientific point of view, there is no reason why we should not be in a position to bring about a general reduction in the hours of labour, while simultaneously increasing output and living standards, on the basis of the improved productivity gained from the application of new technology. But the real situation is very different.
Marx explained long ago that, under capitalism, the introduction of machinery, far from reducing the working day, tends to lengthen it. In all the main capitalist countries, we see a merciless pressure on workers to work longer hours for less pay. In its issue of October 24, 1994, Time reported a sharp up-turn in the American economy, with booming profits: “But workers complain that for them expansion spells exhaustion. Throughout American industry, companies are using overtime to wring the most out of the US labour force: the factory workweek currently is averaging a near record 42 hours, including 4.6 hours of overtime. 'Americans', observes Audrey Freedman, a labour economist and member of Time's board, 'are the workingest people in the world.' The big-three automakers have pushed this trend to an extreme. Their workers are putting in an average of 10 hours overtime a week and labouring an average of six eight-hour Saturdays a year.”
The same article quotes numerous examples of both blue-collar and white-collar workers from many different industries, who complain of chronic overwork:
“'I'm doing the work of three people,' says Joseph Kelterborn, 44, who works for the Nynex telephone company in New York City. His department, which installs and maintains fiber-optic networks, has been reduced from 27 people to 20 in recent years, in part by combining what were once three separate positions—switchman, powerman and tester—into his job of carrier switchman. As a result, says Kelterborn, he often works up to four extra hours a day and one weekend in three. 'By the time I get home,' he complains, 'all I have time for is a shower, dinner and a little sleep; then it's time to turn around and do it all over again'.”
As Marx pointed out, increased use of machinery under capitalism means longer hours of toil for those who still have a job. Since the recovery from the previous recession began in March 1991, the US economy has created almost six million new jobs, but in such a way that leaves it two million jobs short. If US companies had hired workers at the same rate as in past expansions, the increase in jobs would have been eight million or more.
The Time article adds:
“There is much evidence, in fact, that the US is developing something of a two-tiered society. While corporate profits and executive salaries are rising rapidly, real wages (that is, discounted for inflation) are not growing at all. Indeed, the government has reported that last year real median household income in the US fell by $312, while a million more people slipped into poverty; those officially defined as poor were 15.1 per cent of the US population vs. 14.8 per cent in 1992. Those were astonishing developments for the fourth year of a business recovery that is steadily gaining strength.”
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels pointed out that;
“owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of the machinery, etc.” 45
In one of Charles Chaplin's most famous films Modern Times, we have a graphic picture of life on the assembly line of a big plant in the 1930s. The mindless drudgery of an endless repetition of the same monotonous tasks indeed changes a human being into an appendage of the machine, a “tool with a voice”. Despite all the fancy talk about “participation”, conditions in most factories remain much the same. Indeed, the pressure on workers has been steadily stepped up in recent years. The little things that made life a bit more bearable are being ruthlessly whittled away. In Britain, where the strength of the unions achieved notable advances in the past, the lunch-hour has largely passed into history. Chancellor Kohl informs the German workers that they must begin to work weekends. It is the same picture everywhere.
Instead of new technology improving the lot of the worker in industry, it has been used to worsen the conditions of the white-collar worker. In most banks, hospitals and large offices, the position of the employees is more and more similar to that which exists in big factories. The same insecurity, the same relentless pressure on the nervous system, the same stress, leading to medical problems, depression, the break-up of marriages.
In recent years scientists have returned to the idea of a “man-machine”, in relation to the field of robotics and the question of artificial intelligence. It has even penetrated the popular imagination, as witnessed by a spate of films of the Terminator type, where human beings are pitted against ingeniously constructed automata. This latter phenomenon tells us quite a lot about the psychology of the present period, characterised by the general dehumanising of society, mixed with a sensation that human beings are not in charge of their own destiny, and fear of uncontrollable forces that dominate people's lives. By contrast, the attempt to create artificial intelligence represents a further advance of the science of robotics, which, in a genuinely rational society, opens up a truly marvellous vista of human advancement.
The substitution of human toil by advanced machinery is the key to the greatest cultural revolution in history, on the basis of a generalised reduction in the hours of work. Nevertheless, there can be no question of ever exactly reproducing human thought in a machine, although specific operations can be done more efficiently by them. This is not for any mystical reasons, or because of an “immortal soul” which allegedly makes us a unique product of Creation, but because of the nature of thought itself, which cannot be separated from all the other bodily activities of human beings, beginning with labour.
Marx and alienation
Even for those fortunate enough to have a job, nine times out of ten, work is meaningless drudgery. The hours of labour are not thought of as part of one's life. They are nothing to do with you as a human being. The product of your labour belongs to someone else, for whom you are just a “factor of production”. Life begins the moment you step outside the workplace, and ceases the moment you re-enter it. This phenomenon was well explained by Marx in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:
“What, then, constitutes the alienation of labour?
“First, the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague.
“External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else's, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him—that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity—so is the worker's activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.” 46
Thus, for the great majority, life is mainly taken up in an activity which has very little meaning for the individual; at best, it is tolerable; at worse, a living torment. Even those who take a job like teaching children or nursing sick people are finding that the satisfaction they get is being taken away, as the laws of the market-place force their way into the classroom and the hospital ward.
The feeling that society has reached an impasse is not confined to the “lower orders”. In the ruling class also there is an increasing feeling of malaise and pessimism with regard to the future. One looks in vain for the great ideas of the past, the confidence, the optimism. The constant bragging about the supposed wonders of the “free market economy” have an increasingly empty ring about them, as people begin to take stock of the real situation—the millions of unemployed, the attacks on living standards, the fabulous fortunes made through speculation, greed, and corruption.
It is ironical that the defenders of the existing order accuse Marxism of “materialism”, when the bourgeois themselves practise the most gross and vulgar kind of materialism, in the dictionary, not the philosophical, sense of the word. The mindless pursuit of wealth, the elevation of greed as the dominant principle of all things, is at the centre of their whole culture. It is their real religion. In the past, they took care to conceal this from view as much as possible, hiding behind a screen of hypocritical moralising about duty, patriotism, honest toil, and all the rest. Now it is all out in the open. In every country, we see an unprecedented epidemic of corruption, swindling, lying, cheating, theft—not the petty theft of ordinary criminals, but looting on a massive scale, perpetrated by businessmen, politicians, police chiefs and judges. And why not? Is it not our duty to get rich?
The creed of monetarism elevates egotism and greed to a principle. Grab as much as you can, however you can, and may the devil take the hindmost! This is the distilled essence of capitalism. The law of the jungle, translated into the language of voodoo economics. At least it has the merit of simplicity. It says bluntly and clearly what the capitalist system is all about.
Yet what an empty philosophy! What a miserable conception of human life! Though they do not know it, the lords of the planet are themselves mere slaves, blind servants of forces they do not control. They have no more real command of the system than ants in an anthill. The point is that they are quite satisfied with this state of affairs, which gives them position, power and wealth. And they grimly resist all attempts to carry out a radical change in society.
If there is a single thread running through human history, it is the struggle of men and women to gain control over their lives, to become free in the true sense of the word. All the advances of science and technique, all that humans have learned about nature and ourselves, means that the potential now exists to gain full mastery over the conditions in which we live. Yet, in the last decade of the 20th century, the world seems to be in the grip of a strange madness. Human beings feel even less in control of their destinies than before. The economy, the environment, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat—all seems to be under threat. Gone is the old sense of security. Gone is the feeling that history represents an uninterrupted march towards something better than the present.
Under these circumstances, sections of society look for a way out in such things as drugs and alcohol. When society is no longer rational, men and women turn to the irrational for solace. Religion is, as Marx said, an opium, and its effects are no less harmful than other drugs. We have seen how religious and mystical ideas have penetrated even the world of science. This is a reflection of the nature of the period through which we are passing.
“Seek to strengthen your moral commitments and religious faith. Reread the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ecclesiastes. A Bible is not a bad teacher of history and a guide to survival in hard times.” (Rees-Mogg)
“Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed. Whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodgepodges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing immutable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.” (Trotsky)
“Marxism denies morality!” How often have we heard expressions of this type, which merely reveal ignorance of the ABCs of Marxism. True, Marxism denies the existence of a supra-historical morality. But it does not require much effort to show that the moral codes that have regulated human conduct have varied substantially from one historical period to another. At one time, it was not considered immoral to eat prisoners of war. Later on, cannibalism was regarded with abhorrence, but prisoners of war could be turned into slaves. Even the great Aristotle was prepared to justify slavery, on the grounds that slaves did not possess souls and therefore were not fully human (the same argument was used in relation to women). Still later, it was considered morally wrong for one person to own another as a piece of property, but perfectly acceptable for feudal lords to have serfs who were chained to the land and entirely subject to the master, to the point of giving up his bride to the lord on her wedding night.
Nowadays, all these things are regarded as barbarous and immoral, but the institution of wage-labour, where a human being sells himself piecemeal to an employer, who uses his labour-power as he pleases, is never called into question. This is, after all, free labour. Unlike the serf and the slave, the worker and employer arrive at an agreement of their own free will. Nobody obliges the worker to work for a particular boss. If he does not like it, he may leave and seek employment elsewhere. Moreover, in a free market economy, the law is the same for everyone. The French writer Anatole France wrote about the “majestic egalitarianism of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
In modern society, in place of the old open forms of exploitation, we have disguised, hypocritical exploitation, in which the real relation between men and women is translated into a relation between things—little bits of paper which give their owners the power of life and death; which can make what is ugly beautiful; what is weak, strong; what is stupid, intelligent; what is old, young.
Trotsky wrote that money relations have sunk so deep into people's minds that we refer to a man as being “worth” so many million dollars. It is a measure of the degree of alienation that exists in present-day society that such expressions are taken for granted. Nor is anyone surprised when, during, a monetary crisis, the television talks about the currency as if it were a person recovering from an illness (“The pound/dollar/Deutschmark was a little stronger today…”). Human beings are regarded as things, while objects, especially money, are regarded with superstitious awe, recalling the religious attitudes of savages to their totems and fetishes. The reason for this fetishism of commodities was explained by Marx in the first volume of Capital.
The search for an absolute morality proves to be completely futile. Here again, the immutable laws of logic can offer us no help. Formal logic basis itself on a fixed antithesis between truth and falsehood. An idea is either right or wrong. Yet truth, as the German poet Lessing pointed out, is not like a stamped coin that is issued ready from the mint and can be used under all circumstances. What is true at one time and under one set of circumstances becomes false in another. The same is the case with concepts like “good” and “evil”. What is “good” and praiseworthy in one society is abhorrent in another. Moreover, even within a given society, the concept of what is good and bad frequently changes, according to circumstances, and to the interests of a particular class.
If we exclude incest, which appears to have been taboo in virtually all societies, there are very few moral injunctions that can be shown to have been eternal and absolute. “Thou shalt not steal” does not make much sense in a society not based on private property. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” only has meaning for a male-dominated society, where men wished to be sure that private property was handed down to their own sons. “Thou shalt not kill” has always been surrounded by so many qualifications that it immediately becomes transformed into something quite different, or even its opposite; for example, thou shalt not kill, except in self-defence; or, thou shalt not kill, unless it is somebody from another tribe/nation/religion, and so on.
In every war, the armies of the nation are blessed by the priests as they go out to slaughter the armies of other nations. The absolute moral injunction not to kill suddenly turns out to be relative to other considerations, which, on closer examination, are found to be related to the economic, territorial, political, or strategic interests of the states involved in the fighting. The hypocrisy of all this was well expressed in a little verse by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns On Thanksgiving For a National Victory:
“Ye hypocrites! are these your pranks?
To murder men, and give God thanks?
Desist for shame! Proceed no further:
God won't accept your thanks for Murther.”
War is a fact of life (and death). There have been many wars throughout human history. The fact may be deplored, but not denied. Moreover, all the most important issues between nations have ultimately been settled by war. Pacifism has never been a fashionable doctrine with governments, except as the small change of diplomacy, the exclusive aim of which is to deceive everyone concerning the real intentions of the government it represents. Lying is the stock-in-trade of diplomats. It is what they are paid for. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” simply does not come into it. An army commander who did not do everything in his power to deceive the enemy about his intentions would be considered a fool or worse. Here, however, a lie becomes something praiseworthy— a military ruse. A general who told the truth about his plans to the enemy would be shot as a traitor. A worker who revealed details of a strike to the employer would be regarded in the same way by his or her workmates.
From these few examples, it is clear that morality is not a supra-historical abstraction, but a something that has evolved historically, and undergone considerable changes. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church condemned usury as a deadly sin. Nowadays, the Vatican has a bank of its own, and raises very large sums of money by lending at interest. In other words, morality has a class basis. It reflects the values, interests and outlook of the dominant social class. Of course, it cannot succeed in maintaining the necessary degree of social cohesion if it is not accepted by the great majority of citizens. Hence, it must appear to consist of absolute and unquestionable truths, the violation of which must bring the whole social edifice crashing down.
There are few sights more repulsive than the sight of well-to-do ladies and gentlemen lecturing the public on the need for morality, religion, family planning and thrift. The same individuals, whose selfish greed is manifested every day in huge salary increases for boardroom directors, lecture workers on the need for sacrifice. The same speculators, who do not hesitate to plunge the currency of their own country into chaos in order to increase their already swollen bank balances, lecture us on the need for patriotic values. The same banks, multinationals and governments that have been responsible for the merciless squeezing of millions in Africa, Asia and Latin America throw up their hands in horror whenever the workers and peasants take up arms to fight for their rights. They lecture the world on the need for peace. But the stocks of murderous weaponry upon which they continue to lavish fabulous sums show that their pacifism is also quite relative. Violence is only a crime when it is resorted to by the poor and oppressed. The whole of history shows that the ruling class will always defend its power and privileges by the most brutal means, if necessary.
Family, Order, Private Property and Religion have always been inscribed on the banners of conservative defenders of the status quo. Yet of these supposedly inviolate institutions, only one, private property, is of real interest to the ruling class. Religion is, as Rees-Mogg bluntly points out, a necessary weapon to keep the poor in order. Most of the upper class do not believe a word of it, and go to Church, much the same as they go to the opera, in order to show off the latest fashion. Their understanding of theology is as scanty as their appreciation of Wagner's Ring cycle. In their private life, the bourgeois show scant consideration for the “eternal laws of morality”. The epidemic of scandals, which have rocked the political establishment in Italy, France, Spain, Britain, Belgium, Japan and the United States, is just the tip of the iceberg. Yet they prate endlessly on about “eternal moral truths” and are surprised when they are greeted with a resounding guffaw.
Does this mean that morality does not exist? Or that Marxists do not have a morality? Far from it. Morality exists, and plays a necessary role in society. Every society has an ethical code, which serves as a powerful bond, to the degree that it is recognised and respected by the great majority. Ultimately, existing morality and the legal code which seeks to put it into practice is backed by the full force of the state, reflecting the interests of the ruling class or caste, although it does so in a disguised way. While the existing socioeconomic order carries society forward, the values, ideas and outlook of the ruling stratum are accepted without question by the great majority. The class basis of morality was explained by Trotsky:
“The ruling class forces its end upon society and habituates it into considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality. It pursues the idea of the 'greatest possible happiness' not for the majority but for a small and ever-diminishing minority. Such a regime could not have endured for even a week through force alone. It needs the cement of morality.” 47
Those few individuals who dare to question it are branded as heretics and persecuted. They are regarded as “immoral” people—not because they do not possess a moral standpoint, but because they do not conform to the existing morality. Socrates was declared to be a harmful influence on the Athenian youth, before being made to drink hemlock. The early Christians were accused of all manner of immoral acts by the slave state that persecuted them mercilessly before it decided it would be better to recognise the new faith, in order to corrupt the leaders of the Church. Martin Luther was denounced as an evil man, when he opened up an attack on the corruption of the mediaeval Church.
The crime of Marxists is to point out that capitalist society has entered into conflict with the needs of social development; that it has become an intolerable obstacle to human progress; that it is shot through with contradictions; that it is economically, politically, culturally and morally bankrupt; and that the further survival of this sick system puts the future of the planet in grave danger. From the standpoint of those who own and control the wealth of society, these ideas are “bad”. From the standpoint of what is needed to find a way out of the impasse, they are correct, necessary, and good.
The long drawn-out crisis of capitalism is having a most negative effect on morality and culture. Everywhere, the symptoms of social disintegration are palpable. The bourgeois family is breaking down, but, in the absence of anything to put in its place, this is leading to a nightmare of poverty and degradation for millions of needy families. The decaying inner cities of the United States and Europe, with their huge pools of unemployment and deprivation, are a spawning-ground for drug abuse, crime, and every kind of nightmare.
In capitalist society, people are regarded as dispensable commodities. Goods which cannot be sold lie idle until they rot. Why should human beings be any different? Only it is not so simple with people. They cannot be allowed to starve to death in large numbers, for fear of the social consequences. So, in the ultimate contradiction of capitalism, the bourgeois is obliged to feed the unemployed, instead of being fed by them. A truly insane situation, where men and women wish to work, to add to the wealth of society, and are prevented from doing so by the “laws of the market”.
This is an inhuman society, where people are subordinated to things. Is it any wonder that some of these people behave in an inhuman manner? Every day the tabloid press is full of horror stories about the terrible abuses committed against the weakest, most defenceless sections of the community—women, children, old people. This is an accurate barometer of the moral state of society. The law sometimes punishes these offences, although in general crimes against (big) property are more energetically pursued by the police than crimes against the person. But in any case, the profound social roots of crimes are outside the powers of courts and police. Unemployment breeds crimes of all sorts. But there are other, more subtle factors.
The culture of egotism, greed and indifference to the sufferings of others has flourished, particularly since de 1980s, when it was given the stamp of approval by Thatcher and Reagan, and has undoubtedly played a role, though it is not so easy to quantify. This is the real face of capitalism, more accurately of monopoly and finance capital—ruthless, crude, grasping and cruel. This is capitalism in its period of senile decay, attempting to recover the vigour of its youth. It is parasitic capitalism, with a marked preference for the fleshpots of financial and monetary speculation, instead of the production of real wealth. It prefers “services” to industry. It closes factories like matchboxes, ruthlessly destroying whole communities and industries, and recommends miners and steelworkers to find work in hamburger bars. It is the 20th century equivalent of “Let them eat cake”.
Quite apart from the monstrous social and economic consequences of this doctrine, it spreads a deadly moral poison through the fabric of society. People with no prospect of even finding a job are confronted with the spectacle of the “consumer society”, where getting and spending money are presented as the only worthwhile activity in life. The role models of this society are the pushy parvenus, the get-rich-quick mob, prepared to go to any lengths to “get on”. This is the true face of “free enterprise”, of monetarist reaction—it is the face of an unprincipled adventurer, a crook and a swindler, a shallow ignoramus, a bully in an expensive suit, the personification of greed and selfishness. These are the people who applaud the closure of schools and hospitals, the cutting of pensions and other “unprofitable” items of expenditure, while they make fortunes by lifting a phone, without ever producing anything of use for the benefit of society.
It is often asserted that people “naturally” act according to their interests. This is then interpreted in a narrow way, as personal egotism. Such an interpretation suits the defenders of the present socioeconomic system, in which greed and the pursuit of self-interest are held up as great moral principles, equivalent to the exercise of “personal freedom”. If this had been the case, human society could never have developed. The word “interest” itself comes from the Latin “inter-esse” which means “to take part in”. The whole basis of the intellectual and moral evolution of the child is the movement away from “egotism” and towards a greater sense of the needs and requirements of others. Human society is based on the necessity of social production, co-operation and communication.
It is the impasse of capitalism which threatens to push human culture back to a childish level, in the worst sense of the word—the childishness of senile decay. An atomised, self-centred society without a vision, without a morality, without a philosophy, without a soul, a society “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Every social system imagines itself to be the last word in historical development. All previous history was supposed to be only a preparation for this particular mode of production, and all the legal property forms, moral code, religion and philosophy that accompany it. Yet any system of society only exists to the degree that it shows it is capable of satisfying the needs of the population, and giving people hope for the future. The moment it fails to do this, it enters into an irreversible process of decline, not only economically, but morally, culturally, and in every respect. Such a society is dead, even though its defenders will never admit it.
At the beginning of the new milenium, there is a palpable and all-pervasive feeling of weariness and exhaustion in capitalist society. It is as if a whole way of life has become old and decrepit. This is not just what writers refer to as the mal du siecle. It is a vague realisation that the “market economy” has reached its limits. Yet, though a given form of society has outlived itself, this does not mean that the development of humankind is similarly limited. Not only has history not ended—it has not even begun. If we envisage history as a calendar in which 1st January represents the origin of the earth and 31st December represents the present day, taking a round figure of 5,000 million years as the age of the earth, each second will represent about 167 years, each minute 10,000 years. The Lower Cambrian would then begin on 18 November. Man would appear at about 11.50 P.M. on 31st December. The whole of recorded human history would fall within the final forty seconds before midnight.
Ilya Prigogine has wisely remarked that “Scientific understanding of the world around us is just beginning.” Human civilisation, which seems to us to be very old, is actually very young. In fact, real civilisation, in the sense of a society where humans consciously control their own lives, and are able to live a truly human existence, as opposed to the animal struggle for survival, has not yet commenced. What is true is that a particular form of society has become old and exhausted. It clings to life, though it has no longer anything to offer. Pessimism about the future, mingled with superstition and unfounded hopes for salvation, are entirely characteristic of such a period.
In 1972, the Club of Rome published a gloomy report entitled The Limits of Growth, which predicted that the world's supply of fossil fuels would run out in a few decades. This provoked panic, soaring oil prices and a frantic search for alternative sources of energy. More than twenty years later, there is no shortage of oil or gas, and few now bother to look for alternatives. This shortsightedness is a characteristic of capitalism, which is motivated by the search for short-term profits. Everyone knows that sooner or later the supply of fossil fuels will dry up. A long-term plan is absolutely necessary to find a cheap, clean alternative.
Nature provides a literally limitless supply of potential energy—the sun, the wind, the sea, and, above all, matter itself, which contains vast quantities of untapped energy. Nuclear fusion (unlike nuclear fission) provides a potential for limitless amounts of cheap, clean energy. But the development of alternative fuels is not in the interests of the big oil monopolies. Here again, private ownership of the means of production acts as a gigantic barrier in the path of human development. The future of the planet comes a poor second to the cause of the enrichment of a few.
The solution to the pressing problems of the world can only be found in a socioeconomic system which is under the conscious control of people. The problem is not that there is an inherent limit to development. The problem is an out-dated and anarchic system of production which squanders lives and resources, destroys the environment, and prevents the potential of science and technology being developed to the full. “There is no necessary connection between great science and great business opportunities,” one commentator wrote recently, “the general theory of relativity has yet to be turned into a money-spinner.” ( The Economist, 25th February 1995.)
Yet even at the present time, the possibilities implicit in technology are breathtaking. Technological innovations open the door to a genuine cultural revolution. Interactive television is already a feasible proposition. The possibility of actively participating in the elaboration of television programmes has tremendous potential, far more than merely deciding what programmes you want to watch. It opens the door to democratic participation in the running of society and the economy in a way that could only have been dreamed of in the past.
The birth of capitalism was characterised by the breakdown of the old parochial relations, and the birth of the nation states. Now the growth of the productive forces, science and technique, have made the nation state itself redundant. As Marx predicted, even the biggest nation state is compelled to participate on the world market. The old national one-sidedness has become impossible.
Back to the future?
Early humans were closely bound to nature. This bond was gradually broken with the development of urban life, and the division between town and country, which has reached monstrous proportions under capitalism. The rupture between human beings and nature has created an unnatural world of alienation. A further manifestation of this is the complete divorce between mental and manual labour, that unwholesome social apartheid which separates the modern priest-caste of knowledge from the “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. It is not just the alienation of humans from nature. It is the alienation of humanity from itself. To break out of the condition of utter dependence on nature, to rise above the merely animal nature, to acquire consciousness—these are what define us as human. But this gain is also a loss, and one that is felt ever more keenly as time goes on. The process has gone so far that it has turned into its opposite. As cities become ever vaster, more overcrowded, more polluted, a nightmare is in the making. In the next few decades, Shanghai alone will have more inhabitants than Great Britain, on present trends. Bad housing, crime, drugs, and a general process of dehumanisation faces millions of people on the eve of the 21st century.
The suffocating one-sided, artificial nature of this “civilisation” becomes increasingly oppressive, even for those who do not suffer the worst conditions. The yearning for a simpler form of life, where men and women could live more natural lives, free from the intolerable pressures of competition and conflict expresses itself in a trend among a layer of young people to “drop out” of society, in an attempt to re-discover a lost paradise. There is a misunderstanding here. In the first place, the life of primitive people was not as idyllic as some imagine. The “noble savage” was always a fiction of Romantic writers, with very little in common with reality. Our early ancestors were close to nature, only because they were the slaves of nature.
However, there is another side to this. These “primitive” people lived quite happily without rent, interest and profit. Women were not regarded as private property, but occupied a highly respected position in the community. Money was unknown. So was the state, with its monstrous bureaucracy, and special bodies of armed men, soldiers, policemen, prison warders and judges. In primitive tribal communism, there was no state in the sense of an apparatus of coercion, but the elders had the respect of all, and their word was law. Later, the tribal chieftain ruled through the voluntary respect of the community. Coercion was not necessary, because all shared a common interest. This was the basis for a deep social bond of co-operation and unity. No modern ruler could ever know the respect enjoyed by the heads of the old gens, underwritten by a sense of mutual identity and duty, which was “codified” in oral tradition as tribal lore, known to all and universally accepted. This respect must have been similar to the feelings of a child for its parents.
In our supposedly enlightened age, many people, including those who like to think themselves educated, find it unthinkable that men and women could ever have got along without such necessary phenomena as money, policemen, prisons, armies, merchants, tax-collectors, judges and archbishops. And if they did manage to do so, it can only be explained in terms of the fact that, being “primitive”, they had not yet come to realise the blessings that such institutions bestow upon humanity. Even some anthropologists, who do not have this mentality, are not immune from introducing into early human society entirely alien concepts, like prostitution, derived from the “civilised” world where everything is for sale, including people.
Anyone who has seen films of the life of tribes still living in stone-age conditions in the Amazon cannot fail to be impressed by their naturalness and spontaneity, resembling that of children, before it is crushed out of them by the rat-race of life under capitalism. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (18:3) In the process of growing up, something important is lost, never to be regained. It is the Fall from innocence, which in the book of Genesis is identified with men and women gaining knowledge. Modern society can no more go back to primitive tribal communism than a grown man or woman can become a child again.
It is considered unnatural and unhealthy for an adult to wish to go back to childhood. The word “childish” is used as an insult, a synonym for incongruous ignorance. In any case, it is a futile wish, because it is impossible. But alongside ignorance, the child also displays other qualities—a spontaneous gaiety and naturalness, which is foreign to most adults. The same is true of “primitive” peoples, before the advent of class society, and the one-sided and stultifying division of labour twisted human nature inside out. What modern artist would be capable of producing paintings of such breathtaking immediacy and natural beauty as the work of the cave-artists of Lascaux and Altamira?
It is not a question of going back, but going forward. Not a return to primitive tribal communism, but forward to the future socialist world commonwealth. The negation of the negation brings us back to the starting-point of human development, but only in appearance. The socialism of the future will base itself on all the marvellous discoveries of the past, and place them at the disposal of humanity. To use the language of Hegel, it is a case of the “universal, filled with the wealth of the particular.”
“A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish,” writes Marx. “But does he not find joy in the child's naïveté, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. [It] is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return.” 48
Socialism and aesthetics
In present day society, architecture is the poor relation of the arts. People are accustomed to living in ugly surroundings, in bad housing, in congested cities, surrounded by noise and pollution. At weekends, some of them go to art galleries, where, for a few hours, they can gaze upon paintings hanging on walls—islands of beauty in a sea of monotonous ugliness. Thus beauty is boxed off from life, an unattainable dream, a fiction, as remote from reality as the furthest galaxy from the earth. So remote has art become from life that many people regard it as a useless irrelevance. Hostility towards art, which is seen as the privileged preserve of the middle class, is a further consequence of the extreme division between mental and manual labour. Barbaric conditions breed barbaric attitudes.
It was not always so. In earlier human societies, music, epic poetry and fine speaking were the common property of all men and women. The monopoly of culture by a small minority is the product of class society, which deprives the great majority, not only of property, but of the right to a free development of their minds and personalities. Yet, if we delve a little beneath the surface, we find a great desire to learn, to experience new ideas, to seek broader horizons. The thirst of the masses for culture, deeply repressed under “normal” conditions, comes to the surface in any revolution.
The Russian Revolution of 1917, that allegedly barbarous act, was in fact the starting-point for a great upsurge in culture, poetry, art and music. This cannot be expunged because the blossom was later crushed under the jackboot of Stalinist reaction. In the Spanish revolution of 1931-37, there was a similar artistic renaissance—the poetry of Lorca, Machado, Alberti, and above all, Miguel Hernandez was inspired by the struggle, and in turn was listened to with rapt attention by audiences of millions who had never before had access to the marvellous world of art and culture.
In a revolution, ordinary men and women begin to see themselves as human beings, capable of controlling their own destinies, not mere “tools with voices”. With true humanity comes dignity, a sense of self-respect and its necessary companion, respect for others. The waiters put up notices in the restaurants of Barcelona in 1936 saying: “Just because a man has to work here, it does not mean you have to insult him by offering a tip.” This is the birth of culture—real human culture, which is part of life itself. The same phenomenon, in embryo, can be seen in every strike, where men and women reveal qualities they never dreamed they possessed. Of course, if the movement does not lead to a complete transformation of society, the dead weight of habit and routine once more predominates. Material conditions determine consciousness. But a socialist society based on a high level of technology and culture would completely transform the outlook of people.
It is often alleged by logicians and mathematicians that the kind of perfect symmetries that they admire possess an intrinsic aesthetic value. Some even go so far as to claim that the most important thing about equations is not whether they tell us anything about reality, but whether they are aesthetically pleasing. Whereas no-one will deny that symmetry can be beautiful, there is symmetry and symmetry. The harmonious buildings of classical Athens are considered by many to be one of the high points of the history of architecture. There is certainly a most satisfying symmetry here, and one that recalls the linear relations of Euclidean geometry. The importance of architecture in the Athens of Pericles is a graphic expression of the public-spirited outlook of Athenian democracy (based, of course on the labour of the slaves, who were totally excluded from it). The great buildings of the Acropolis and the Agora were, without exception, public buildings, not private residences. In our own day and age, such splendours are extremely rare. The low priority given to architecture in comparison to other arts is no accident.
In the name of “utility”, which is a polite synonym for stinginess, people are forced to live in uniform high-rise concrete boxes, devoid of all artistic merit or human warmth. These monstrosities are designed by architects, inspired by strictly geometrical principles, who nevertheless prefer to live in quaint 15th century cottages in the countryside, far away from the urban nightmares they have helped to create. Yet human beings do not generally like living in boxes. And nature knows of symmetries very far removed from straight lines and simple circles.
It is the other side of the coin of the mechanised idiocy of the production line, where human beings, in the words of Marx, are treated as mere appendages of the machines. Why, then, should they not live, herded together on big estates in concrete boxes, which are built on similarly sound “industrial” principles? The same arid reductionism, the same empty formalism, the same linear approach has characterised architecture most of this century. Here the alienation of late capitalist society expresses itself in the soulless treatment of people's most basic need, for a clean, attractive, and genuinely human environment to live in. When life itself is stripped of all humanity, when it is made unnatural in a thousand different ways, how can we be surprised if some of the products of our so-called civilisation behave in an unnatural and inhuman way?
Here too, we are witnessing a revolt against soulless conformism and rigidity. The high-rise blocks and skyscrapers, aptly described by an English writer as the “topless towers of idiocy”, are rapidly falling into disfavour. And no wonder. They are a monument to alienation on a massive scale, a progressive slide into dehumanised conditions of life, which breeds all kinds of monstrosities. The German physicist Gert Eilenberger, asked the question:
“Why is it that the silhouette of a storm-bent leafless tree against an evening sky in winter is perceived as beautiful, but the corresponding silhouette of any multi-purpose university building is not, in spite of all efforts of the architect? The answer seems to me, even if somewhat speculative, to follow from the new insights into dynamical systems. Our feeling for beauty is inspired by the harmonious arrangement of order and disorder as it occurs in natural objects—in clouds, trees, mountain ranges, or snow crystals. The shapes of all these are dynamical processes jelled into physical forms, and particular combinations of order and disorder are typical for them.”
As James Gleick correctly observes, “Simple shapes are inhuman. They fail to resonate with the way nature organises itself or with the way human perception sees the world.” 49
Long ago Karl Marx pointed to the harmful consequences of the extreme division between town and countryside. It is not a question of “going back to nature”, in the utopian sense advocated by certain ecologists, who dream of escaping from the ugliness of the present by retreating into the alleged charms of a non-existent rural paradise in a mythical past. There is no going back. It is not a question of denying technology, but of fighting against the abuse of technology in the cause of private gain, which destroys the environment and creates a hell, where an earthly paradise ought to exist. That is the central task facing humanity in the last decade of the 20th century.
'Thinkers' and 'doers'
“Nec manus, nisi intellectus, sibi permissus, multum valent.” (Neither hand nor intellect left each to itself is worth much—Francis Bacon.)
The total divorce between theory and practice in present day society has become harmful in the extreme. The increasingly fantastic character of many of the “theories” put in circulation by certain cosmologists and theoretical physicists is undoubtedly a consequence of this fact. Freed from the constraints of having to furnish any concrete proof of their theories, and relying ever more on complicated equations and arcane interpretations of relativity theory, the results of this wholly speculative thinking are increasingly bizarre.
It is time to re-examine the whole system of education, and the class system of society upon which it rests. It is time to re-consider the validity of dividing humanity into the “thinkers” and “doers”, not from the standpoint of some abstract moral justice, but simply because it has now become a hindrance to the development of culture and society. The future development of humanity cannot be based on the old rigid divisions. New complex technology demands an educated workforce capable of a creative approach to work. That can never be achieved in a society split down the middle by class apartheid. In a very perceptive passage, Margaret Donaldson points out the unsatisfactory situation that exists in universities today:
“Consider the engineering departments of our universities. They teach mathematics and physics and so they should. But they do not teach people to make things. You can emerge as a graduate in mechanical engineering without ever having used a lathe or a milling-machine. These things are considered suitable only for the technicians. And for most of them, on the other hand, mathematics and physics beyond an elementary level are quite simply out of reach.”
The English philosopher and educationalist Alfred North Whitehead was deeply concerned at this situation, and, in his article Technical Education and its Relation to Science and Literature, wrote that “in teaching you come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies,” and added: “It is a moot point whether the human hand created the human brain, or the brain created the hand. Certainly the connection is intimate and reciprocal.”
Donaldson correctly points out that, while abstract thought (she calls it “disembodied thinking”) calls for the ability to step back from life, it yields its greatest results when linked to doing. The whole history of the Renaissance is proof of this assertion. True, the field of modern science is infinitely more vast and complicated than at that time, but does this really mean that it is impossible for scientists to learn from different disciplines? Rather than being a result of the increasing complexity of the subject, is the present state of intellectual apartheid not a product of the way present society is structured, and the attitudes, prejudices, and material interests which flow from it, and seek at all costs to preserve it?
Reactionaries try to justify the present state of affairs by the now obligatory references to genetic determinism: if some of “us” are clever, and have good jobs and large salaries, that is because we were born under a lucky star (read “with the right genes”—it comes out about the same). The fact that the rest of humankind are not so fortunate must be because there is something wrong with their genes. Answering this rubbish, Donaldson writes:
“Are only a few of us able to learn to move beyond the bounds of human sense and function successfully there? I doubt it. While it may make some sense to postulate that we each possess some genetically determined 'intellectual potential', in which case individuals will surely differ in this respect as in others, there is no reason to suppose that most of us—or any of us for that matter—manage to come close to realising what we are capable of. And it is not even certain that it makes a great deal of sense to think in terms of upper limits at all. For, as Jerome Bruner points out, there are tools of the mind as well as tools of the hand—and in either case the development of a powerful new tool brings with it the possibility of leaving old limitations behind. In a similar vein, David Olson says: 'Intelligence is not something we have that is immutable; it is something we cultivate by operating with a technology, or something we create by inventing new technology'.” 50
The great Soviet educationalist Vygotsky did not believe that the teacher should operate a rigid control over exactly what the child learns. Like Piaget, he considered activity by the children as central to education. Instead of chaining children to desks, where they mechanically go through the motions of learning things which are meaningless to them, Vygotsky stressed the need for genuine intellectual development. This, however, cannot be considered in a social vacuum. In a genuinely socialist society, education would be linked with creative practical activity from the beginning, thus breaking down the stultifying barrier between mental and manual labour. In many ways, Vygotsky was ahead of his time. His educational methods showed great imagination, for example, in allowing the children to learn from each other:
“Vygotsky advocated using a more advanced child to help a less advanced child. For a long time this was used as a basis of egalitarian Marxist education in the Soviet Union. The socialist rationale was one of all children working for the general good rather than the capitalist one of each child trying to get out of school as much benefit as he can without putting anything back into it. The brighter child is helping society by helping the less able one, since the latter will (it is hoped) be more of an asset to society as a literate than as an illiterate adult. Vygotsky argued that this act is not necessarily one of self-sacrifice on the part of the more advanced child. By explaining and helping the other child, he may well gain a greater explicit understanding of his own learning, on metacognitive lines. And, by teaching a topic, he consolidates his own learning.” (Sutherland) 51
A democratic socialist society would abolish the difference between mental and manual labour through the general increase in the cultural level of society. This is closely linked to a reduction in the working day as a consequence of a rational plan of production. Education will be transformed by combining learning with creative activity and play. The development of all kinds of new techniques will be used to the full. V. R. (virtual reality) devices, which are at present little more than novelties, have tremendous potential, not only for production and design, but for education. This will make lessons come to life, stimulating the imagination and creativity of children, not just to experience history and geography, but to learn mechanical engineering, or how to paint and play musical instruments. Freedom from the humiliating struggle for the necessities of life, access to culture and the time to develop oneself as a human being, these are the bases upon which human society can realise its full potential.
Humanity and the universe
“He said, 'What's the time? Leave Now for dogs and apes! Man has Forever'.” (Robert Browning, A Grammarian's Funeral.)
The achievements of the Soviet and American space programmes provided just an inkling of what would be possible. But the space programmes of the great powers were really a by-product of the arms race during the Cold War. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question of space travel no longer occupies the centre stage, although there is still the possibility of building a space station that will orbit the earth, making travel to the moon a lot easier. In the future world socialist commonwealth, space travel will cease to be the stuff of science fiction, and become a fact of life, as common as air travel is now. The exploration of the solar system, and later other galaxies, will provide the same kind of challenge and stimulus to humankind as that which came to Europe from the discovery of America.
The possibility of long distance space travel beyond the confines of our own solar system will not forever remain in the realms of science fiction. Let us not forget that only a hundred years ago, the idea of flying faster than the speed of sound seemed beyond the bounds of credibility, let alone travelling to the moon. The history of the human race in general, and that of the last 40 years in particular, shows that there is no problem so great that men and women cannot solve it, given time.
In about four billion years from now, our sun will begin to swell in size, as its helium core slowly shrinks. The planets near the sun will be subjected to unimaginable temperatures. Life on earth will become impossible, as the oceans boil away, and the atmosphere is destroyed. Yet the end of life in one small corner of the universe is not the end of the story. Even as our star dies, other stars will be born. Among the billions of galaxies in the visible universe, there are a vast quantity of suns and planets like our own where the conditions for life exist. Beyond doubt, many of these will be inhabited by advanced forms of life, including thinking beings like ourselves. Very few scientists now doubt this proposition, and fewer still since the complicated molecules needed to create living organisms have been found even in space itself.
At the end of The Dialectics of Nature, Engels expresses a vibrant optimism about the future of life:
“It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves, a cycle that certainly only completes its orbit in periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure, a cycle in which the time of highest development, the time of organic life and still more that of the life of beings conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into operation; a cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals chemical combination or dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes.
“But however often, and however relentlessly, this cycle is completed in time and space; however many millions of suns and earths may arise and pass away, however long it may last before, in one solar system and only on one planet, the conditions for organic life develop; however innumerable the organic beings, too, that have to arise and to pass away before animals with a brain capable of thought are developed from their midst, and for a short span of time find conditions suitable for life, only to be exterminated later without mercy—we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it.” 52
Now, however, we are entitled to go further than this. The staggering advances of science over the hundred years since Engels died mean that the death of the sun will not necessarily mean the death of the human race. The development of powerful spacecraft, capable of travelling at speeds which at present seem impossible, could prepare the ground for the ultimate adventure, involving emigration to other parts of the solar system, and, eventually, other galaxies. Even at one per cent of the speed of light—a clearly attainable goal—it would be possible to reach inhabitable planets in the course of a few hundred years.
If this seems a long time, we should remember that it took early humans millions of years to colonise the world, setting out from Africa. Moreover, the journey would probably take place in stages, establishing colonies and staging posts along the way, like the early Polynesian settlers who colonised the Pacific, island by island, over several centuries. The technological problems will be immense, but we will have at least three billion years to resolve them. If we consider that Homo sapiens has only been in existence for about 100,000 years, that civilisation has only existed for about 5,000 years of that, and that the pace of technological advance has tended to increase ever more rapidly, there is no reason whatever to draw pessimistic conclusions about the future of humanity—on one condition: that class rule, that atrocious relic of barbarism, is replaced by a system of co-operation and planning, which will unite all the resources of the globe in one common cause.
Engels described socialism as humanity's leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. For the first time, it will be possible for the majority of humankind to escape from the humiliating struggle for existence, and raise their sights to a higher level. The elimination of disease, illiteracy and homelessness in themselves important aims, will only be the starting point. By combining all the resources of the planet that are now being shamelessly squandered humankind can literally reach out to the stars.
Last, but not least, humans will at last become masters of themselves, their lives and their destinies, even their genetic make-up. The relations between men and women will be relations between free human beings, not slaves. Aristotle pointed out that man begins to philosophise when the needs of life are provided. That mighty thinker understood that the development of culture was closely linked to the material conditions of life. In a truly remarkable passage, he shows how men and women begin to philosophise, to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, only when they are freed from the need to struggle for the necessities of existence:
“This is shown by the actual course of events; for philosophy arose only when the necessities and the physical and mental comforts of life had been provided for. Clearly, therefore, Wisdom is desired for no advantage extrinsic to itself; for just as we call a man free who exists for himself and not in the interests of another, so philosophy alone of the sciences is free since it alone is pursued for its own sake.” 53
For the whole history of civilisation to the present day, culture has been a monopoly of a small minority. In a genuinely democratic socialist society, it would be possible to ensure a general reduction in the working day, and increased living standards for everyone on the basis of a tremendous upswing of production. Freed from the pressures of necessity, men and women can devote their lives to a full and all-round development of their personality, intellect and physique. Art, literature, music, science and philosophy will occupy a similar position as party politics at present.
On the basis of a rational democratically run planned economy, the colossal potential of science and technique could be placed at the disposal of humankind. In the last 100 years, improved diet and medical care have doubled the life expectancy in many industrialised countries. Further improvements in lifestyle could prolong active life still further. To live a fully active life for a hundred years would be commonplace. The proper use of genetic engineering could even permit scientists to counteract the ageing process and prolong life far beyond what was regarded as “man's natural span”. Trotsky explains that the possibilities for the future of humankind will be as limitless as the universe itself.
“The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the Socialist organisation of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub-soil. Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction? The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the dark laws of heredity and a blind sexual selection! Emancipated man will want to attain a greater equilibrium in the work of his organs and a more proportional developing and wearing out of his tissues, in order to reduce the fear of death to a rational reaction of the organism towards danger. There can be no doubt that man's extreme anatomical and physiological disharmony, that is, the extreme disproportion in the growth and wearing out of organ and tissues, give the life instinct the form of a pinched, morbid and hysterical fear of death, which darkens reason and which feeds the stupid and humiliating fantasies about life after death.
“Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.
“It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psychophysical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonised, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above the ridge new peaks will rise.” 54
43. Rees-Mogg, W. and Davidson, J. op. cit., pp. 294-5, 183 and 273.↩
44. Galbraith, J. The Culture of Contentment, pp. 170-1.↩
45. MESW, Vol. 1, pp. 114-5.↩
46. MECW, Vol. 3, p. 274.↩
47. Trotsky, L. Their Morals and Ours, p. 13.↩
48. Marx, K. Grundrisse, p. 111.↩
49. Quoted in Gleick, J. op. cit., pp. 116-7.↩
50. Donaldson, M. Children's Minds, pp. 83 and 85.↩
51. Sutherland, P. Cognitive Development Today: Piaget and his Critics, p. 45.↩
52. Engels, F.Dialectics of Nature, p. 54.↩
53. Aristotle, op. cit., p. 55.↩
54. Trotsky, L. Literature and Revolution, pp. 255-6.↩