Star Trek’s ‘The Borg’ are a good metaphor for understanding some fundamental aspects of social relations under capitalism. This does not mean people are like drones, quite the reverse. Breakdowns in the metaphor occur because our limited existences created by the capitalist mode of production are distortions upon human nature rather than its total annulment. And people’s massive discomfort with this state of affairs means they seek liberation from the Borg Collective which doesn’t happen with the Trek drones unless they are temporarily disconnected from the Hive Mind. In reading this blog, you are temporarily disconnected from the Hive Mind (chiefly the opinion of authorities), and I will set out arguments through which you may come to achieve full humanity.
The Borg expand through assimilating humanoid life-forms in the galaxy and beyond, rather like the expansion of the world market gobbling everything up. In the assimilation process, your individuality is crushed and you are made to serve the Collective (society). The Borg are incredibly successful because they are efficient and constantly perfecting technology to further their programme of expanse. What the Borg fail to assimilate, they physically destroy. The Borg represent the ideal dream of how capitalism attempts to remould society, yet the ways in which the Borg are successful come at a terrible cost: the crushing of individuality and the end of the liberty of the individual.
In contrast, the humans in Star Trek are free, their internal conflicts are resolved usually through discussion rather than force. The Borg on the other hand suffer no internal conflict, they are already ‘as one.’ But how do the humans in Trek become free? Why do they volunteer to do things rather than nothing at all? Because labour has become life’s prime want.
Under capitalism, labour is coerced out of the individual, disguised as a ‘free exchange.’ Yet the worker quickly comes to understand the selling of their labour power was anything but free. They had nothing else to sell, nothing else to live from. In work, there is an obsession with ‘increasing productivity,’ work is experienced as uncreative doldrums, it is unrewarding, undertaken under tight supervision (including by CCTV), the products of labour are owned by someone else (the capitalist), there are poor bonds with other workers, and there is no rational set of ideas why we are all doing this in the first place. Work is reduced to the means to the end of survival in a dog-eat-dog world. It is not something desired by the individual, no-one goes to work looking forward to it and with a whistle in their heart.
Labour becomes life’s prime want by removing all these inhibitions to its unleashing. We shouldn’t have to ‘sell’ our capacity to work – means of production should be free to utilise by all. The obsession with being ‘productive’ needs to be cancelled out – how productive you are ought to depend on your own will. Rather than production seemingly for production’s own sake, the worker now chooses when and what to produce according to personal will, hence it becomes creative and rewarding, and there is no-one to take the product from you without your consent (e.g. as a part of consciously determined human relations). There is no supervision, except perhaps in an advisory capacity. The free worker now enjoys good quality bonds with his fellows, giving rise to coherent ideas why we do what we do.
With labour now as life’s prime want, capitalist society now looks shameful and embarrassing. It was Borg-like because it prioritised efficiency and productivity over individual liberty and choice. What’s worse the fake left-wing politicians of capitalist society must now feel incredibly embarrassed – all they did was to take capitalist slogans and suggest their programmes could do it better, as opposed to operating on the terrain of critique, thus developing a superior notion of human moral value.
Capitalism is Borg-like, but the individual worker even under this system is never quite like a drone. Rather in a society where all sides have accepted ‘there is no alternative to the Borg,’ the individual worker’s aspirations become expressed through religious or fetishistic forms. Thus 75% of Americans are still religious in the 21st century. 25% are also on some form of psychiatric medication or another. These aspects are not the main problem, they are symptoms of the problem, like flowers growing on the chains. They would be superseded with genuine humanised spirituality and a deeper sense of our social interconnections after we take action to remove the chains. By contrast, the Borg regarded in this way are a poor metaphor for the human condition under capitalism because they have no delusions. Ironically it seems it is the capacity to be delusional that is a big thing currently separating us from a race of advanced machines. It is better to be a human with delusions than a robot without them. Furthermore, unlike the Borg, we have strong interpersonal contacts such as a family life and enriching down-time. It is only when considered in the sphere of work which takes up most of our waking lives that the human condition under capitalism can be considered Borg-like. So, let’s widen the distinction between humanity and the Borg further in the interests of full liberation by changing the way we work. We shouldn’t have to live as a poor advertisement of ourselves.
Nb. Since writing this blog, my views have changed. A revised review of the book now appears at http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/reviews-and-culture/monsters-vs-zombies-review-of-phil-mullans-creative-destruction.html Nevertheless I have chosen not to delete this older version since it is still useful in stirring debate and more importantly, was a ‘stage’ in my theoretical development, albeit a negative one dominated by emotion and ‘clearing out.’ That isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Revolutions in practice often contain reactionary and untrue elements – even the widely acclaimed French Revolution saw many participants believing libels against Marie Antoinette that she was having sex with her sons. The challenge then is to overcome the first negativity with a more promising and reasoned ‘second negativity.’
Phil Mullan, business manager and chief economist at the magazine spiked-online is, by his own admission, ‘obsessed with economic growth.’ This goal, alongside others, is also precious to Marxism, and Mullan lifts some of Marx’s arguments to make his case that we are currently living through a ‘Long Depression’ that began with the economic downturn in the 1970s. He makes a convincing case that GDP in Western nations has shrunk in relation to the levels of the post-war boom. Consequently, rises in living standards, which Mullan the humanist cares about, are held back. Appearances of dynamism in things like the stock market are essentially parasitic upon the real, productive economy where value is created. If that is seizing up, then finance is just another bubble like the dot.com bubble waiting to burst. Another Crash like 2008 is imminent in the context of the persisting Long Depression. The escape from the protracted depression, says Mullan, lies in increasing productivity for which it is essential to demolish zombification trends.
This review is divided into three parts. Firstly, I look at Mullan’s take on Marxist crisis theory to preliminarily clarify the issues at stake. Secondly, I probe Mullan’s proposed solution of a new industrial revolution from within capitalism. Finally, I sketch an alternative model of economic growth that I hope salvages what I see as positive in the book, whilst criticising other aspects.
Capitalism has transformed the world immeasurably in terms of creating an abundance of material wealth. This process, however, has never been smooth. Capitalism is prone to economic downturns that occur roughly every ten years. So, growth occurs only in the form of ups and downs. Some downturns are deeper than others, sparking an economic crisis where the system has to destroy some of its own wealth before it can re-accumulate. This doesn’t mean capital literally burns its own commodities (although that sometimes happens.) What becomes important in a crisis isn’t a physical destruction as such, but the destruction of value, the social substance whose body is the physical commodity and itself represents a definite amount of abstract human labour in a congealed form. But why can’t value just grow and grow without periodic crises?
The mechanism for its growth is active (rather than idle) capital, i.e. capital engaged in the production process. When capitalists deploy their money in production in order to gain more, what they seek is the highest rate of profit measured in percentage terms. There’s no point in investing if all you get back is the same, so capitalists are motivated all the time by the possibility of expansion and take risks in order to get that. Capital within the production process takes the form of a ‘constant’ capital (plant and machinery etc.,) and ‘variable’ capital (the amount spent on wages and employee perks). Capital grows as a mass of value when it is able to extract a ‘surplus’ value from the worker. But the mass of value is unmotivating to capitalists compared to the rate of profit. The quantity of the surplus divided by the value embodied in the constant and variable components of capital gives us the rate of profit. In order to increase the rate of profit, capital needs to increase the surplus value in relation to the constant and variable components. There are a number of ways it can do this. It can, for example, cut wages or other employee perks, or intensify the labour process with speed-ups. However, these things are socially unpopular as well as limited in application. More commonly, and especially during a period of growth, a capitalist will technologically innovate in order to increase the productivity of labour. The consequence of this is that more is produced in the same amount of time yet the sale price of the commodity remains temporarily unchanged. So more value is harvested by the capitalist. But when rival capitalists catch up with the entrepreneur and deploy similar technology – and they have to or go bust – then the price of a singular one of those commodities falls as less labour-time is embodied in it. If you sell all of the new increased number of commodities, you only get back the same amount of value as was previously embodied in the lesser number. So, the new situation is that you have spent all this money on increasing technology (part of the constant capital) yet the total product is fetching the same. Therefore, constant capital has increased whilst the surplus value is back to where it was before. Thus, in the ratio of surplus value divided by the constant and variable capital now shows a larger measure in the denominator. The rate of profit has therefore fallen. If the rate of profit falls too much, then employees get laid off and constant capital also needs to be destroyed in one way or another (usually as a written off asset), and this is the economic crisis. Mullan puts it like this:
“The profit arising from the new value created by labour in the production process tends to decline relative to the rising amounts of capital invested in fixed assets and materials. This means that the profit rate measured over all capital deployed – in employing people as well as in fixed assets and other inputs – will also tend to decline. This tendency of the general rate of profit to fall follows as a direct consequence of the development of the social productivity of labour since this is dependent upon increasing amounts of capital investment.”
Given that any further development of the productivity of labour (i.e. producing more with less labour input) is reliant on a healthy rate of profit, if the rate of profit falls too much, then productivity also stagnates leading to a general economic malaise. This is what has happened since the 1970s. Mullan says the annual productivity growth rate in Britain is now down to 1.1%, all things considered. This is not exactly an economy that is unleashing the human potential.
Note, the Marxist explanation of crisis doesn’t mean that each and every crisis is attributable to these reasons. Crises can also occur owing to a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami. The theory is therefore just one possible explanation that stands in need of empirical verification. One’s suspicion’s get raised when conditions are favourable to capital accumulation such as a more muted level of class struggle. When the crisis still takes place in those conditions, it is probable it can be explained with this theory, though it still needs to be empirically proved.
The chapter on this profitability problem is the strongest part of the book. However, there is no place in the book where Mullan explains the distinction between value and use-value. This omission is important because a reader unfamiliar with Marxism may believe that the declining rate at which labour productivity advances implies a falling amount of value in the world. It doesn’t. If the amount of labour-time deployed in a society remains constant, then the amount of value produced in that society also remains constant regardless of whether the quantity of use-values is going up or down. The amount of value in the world is limited by the size of the working population and the length and intensity of the working day. Contrary to commonly held belief, despite mountains of cash reserves, capitalism doesn’t actually increase the amount of value in the world, except to the extent it has drawn more people into production, increased the length of the working day, and increased labour’s intensity. Other than those things which can only be increased to a certain point, labour under capitalism does not produce extra value owing to productivity increases. As Marx says, “The same labour, therefore, performed for the same length of time, always yields the same amount of value, independently of any variations in productivity.” And also: “Take a certain working population of, say, two million. Assume, furthermore, that the length and intensity of the average working day, the level of wages, and thereby the proportion between necessary and surplus labour, are given. In that case the aggregate labour of these two million, and their surplus labour expressed in surplus value, always produces the same magnitude of value.”
There are places in ‘Creative Destruction’ where Mullan seems to be unclear about this point. He says “world output per person was US$467 in the year 1 AD, falling slightly to US$453 1000 years later, and rising to only US$615 by 1700. That’s an average annual growth rate over 17 centuries of 0.02% – effectively zero for influencing people’s life experiences.” It needs to be clarified that the extra value produced per head in the advancing centuries is not because capitalism has some magical value-increasing spell. The value of output per head can only rise if labour becomes more intensive or the working day is lengthened. Indeed, it is these factors that explain the discrepancy between 1 AD and 1700 AD, with bigger leaps since then. Industrial society most definitely does increase labour intensity and lengthen the working day. No rise in the value of output is determined by productivity. Nevertheless, productivity growth does lead to an increase in the quantity of use-values available to society. That is not the same thing as value, but it does justify why productivity growth is important for increasing living standards. Productivity growth disperses the value of an hour of socially necessary labour-time over a greater number of use-values. The number of use-values has increased but each use-value is now the bodily form of a lesser quantity of value.
The Weak Must Perish!
Whilst capitalism is crisis-prone, this doesn’t mean it collapses of its own accord. It has counter-acting tendencies that automatically activate when production is breaking down. Through these counter-acting tendencies, the system destroys some of its value through, for example, writing off assets, and is then able to regrow. One way of conceptualising the crisis was captured in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. There, the animals build a windmill, only for it to be burnt down the next day. Then they rebuild it and once again it is destroyed, and so on. The process of the accumulation of capital is much like this – it grows up to a certain point, then self-destructs, only to inflate again later, etc. Each post-recovery peak is slightly lower than the previous peak. It doesn’t exactly correspond therefore to a society in which the economy is genuinely progressing. Although the mass of use-values rises, in value terms the system is just jumping up and down on the same spot.
There are other counter-acting tendencies in capitalism such as intensifying or extending the working day that effectively increase the surplus in relation to capital investment, or slashing the wage bill which decreases variable capital. It is worth noting that with more women in the workforce now, a family unit conceived as a single entity now works for longer than in the 19th century. Back then, workers scored a victory with the 10 hours’ bill, but now in Britain a woman and her husband will often be found working 14 hours a day in total, excluding any overtime. Of course, gender equality is an important achievement of the Women’s Liberation movement, my point is only significant for noting that capital has effectively increased the length of the working day.
A counter-acting tendency that Mullan finds particularly appealing is that of ‘creative destruction.’ This is when the unprofitable companies go bankrupt and their assets are sold off cheaply (devaluing the constant capital) to a more profitable company who then is able to keep production going, or even elevate it to a higher technological level. The process of creative destruction is a healing, purifying mechanism for capital. By destroying some of the constant component of capital that has overaccumulated, a new round of production is able to get going. So ‘creative destruction’ is what it says: both destructive and creative.
However, Mullan’s originality as an author on the crisis consists here: he argues that the ‘normal’ processes of creative destruction are being held back by the state. Mullan argues the state is giving too many subsidies to unprofitable companies to keep them afloat, when really it should let them die. The state is propping up a zombie form of capitalism, says Mullan. If instead the unprofitable companies are left to die, then the state could invest its money on driving forward newer production at a higher technological level. Note, Mullan doesn’t think the job can be left to capitalists because they are too concerned with short-term profit whereas the high-tech stuff is risky and costly. In the absence of other collectivities in society then, Mullan wants the state to take a commanding role in rejuvenating the economy and he thinks this will create real progress. He has conceded this will mean the state borrowing a few extra trillion to fund this progress.
His ideas for progress involve employing the youth (who have suffered higher rates of unemployment since the 2008 Crash) in tasks such as building new aircraft made out of the new compound graphene which is lighter than the current metals. Furthermore, he wants more investment in driverless cars, quantum technology for, among other things, faster computers, and virtual reality. Production in these areas will create ‘decent jobs’, he believes. He says people who don’t want to go down this route of a high-tech state capitalism have a ‘loss of belief in progress.’ Whilst he recognises he holds a minority view, he thinks strong leaders will emerge that promote these ideas and ensure they have democratic approval.
Sadly, Mullan’s optimism is delusional. Firstly, the level of destruction he is proposing is so high, people are unlikely to go for it. “There are no pain-free routes out of the Long Depression. The processes of creative destruction will mean economic ruin, adding to areas already severely affected by deindustrialisation.”  Yay, economic ruin! To be fair, Mullan believes such ruin will just be a short-term part of the transition to a high-tech state capitalist society and also the people affected will receive welfare benefits as they learn the new skills required to become a quantum computing scientist. So, we are invited to sing ‘Kum-by-ya’ as millions get laid off.
The second criticism concerns Mullan’s notion of ‘decent jobs.’ Is there such a thing? Even if the fellow designing a quantum circuit board experiences this as rewarding because he is deploying a high level of skill, the production of enough quantum computers for the world requires hundreds of thousands more low-paid assemblers on the factory line. They are unlikely to feel particularly rewarded.
The third criticism is that Mullan is only tinkering around with one particular counter-acting tendency, that of ‘creative destruction.’ With the fundamental social relations of capitalism remaining intact, the new high tech state capitalism will still be crisis-prone. Indeed, with such a high level of constant capital, when its Crash comes, it will be incredibly severe, making 2008 look like a tea party. What’s worse is that if the employer is the state, all hell could break loose. No matter how much representative democracy you have, you will find the state qua capitalist-in-recession is going to be quite vicious in attacking variable capital when the crisis breaks. Note Mullan is recommending his model for all the Western economies. So, you have North American, European, Japanese and Australasian state capitalisms all crashing down. I’m sorry, but this is just a recipe for war. Mullan, who argues the Manhattan project to develop the atom bomb pushed science forward, will surely come to regret the recommendations he has made here.
It’s probably best for the time being that we stick with zombie capitalism, until such a point arises that revolutionary humanist theory has gripped the masses such that they are well-equipped to change the world in the interests of human liberation. Even though living standards may only be rising at 1.1% under zombie capitalism, this is little different to what it was in 1860 (a period Mullan thinks was ‘dynamic’ and ‘enlightened’). For the time being, we should stick with it rather than go down the Mullanite route of playing with fire. Ultimately, we need a radically different alternative, so it is to that I now turn.
Changing The Mode of Production
Mullan’s explanation for why he now backs capitalism (albeit rejuvenated), makes about as much sense as a chocolate teapot. He says:
“There are still some on the radical left who argue for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This had meaning when the working class existed as a political force. But the working class’s demise brought that era of possibilities to an end. The question remains of how the existing system of production can be organised, or transformed, or transcended in such a way as to advance the best interests of humanity. Once we have escaped the Long Depression, the resulting phase of economic expansion would not be forever. Economic growth would at some time hit limits, just as the post-war boom did. Working out how to overcome the limitations of a profit-driven economy is not today’s priority.”
But some of us don’t want to live in either zombie capitalism, nor the 1950s. Mullan’s problem here is premised upon a misinterpretation of what the best bits of the Enlightenment were. He assumes its message of ‘progress’ dictates we stick with capitalism. In actual fact, many different traditions emerged from the Enlightenment which is unsurprising if you realise that the most dominant theme in the Enlightenment (as a diffuse body of philosophy) was that we have freewill and can choose our fate. Mullan’s commitment to capitalism is therefore a choice. It is not the case ‘there is no alternative,’ it all depends on what system we think has the most going for it. The truth-value of the ideas is therefore the most important thing, not the status of contemporary working class politics. If we focus instead on truth, and circulate those ideas, who knows what it might animate in the future? Indeed, ideas often have a ‘trickle down’ effect. The positive moments of the 20th century, although rarely ‘orthodox-Marxist’, were influenced by his raising of the stakes. Mini-socialism, e.g. the British Labour Party or social democracy in Europe, would not have happened without the effect of Marx trickling-down. The task then is for intellectuals to constantly seek truth, and refresh and renew truths discovered historically. Therefore, the contemporary status of working class politics is logically irrelevant to whether or not we decide to pursue Marxist ideas and attempt to circulate them. Mullanism is also unlikely to be implemented directly, but tragically a trickled-down Mullanism might pervade in the short-term, i.e. more Trumpism – a pro-capitalism that has disregarded the humanist bits in Mullan’s book. We have a mammoth responsibility to the future and therefore it is necessary to have the best ideas possible so that even if they are not directly implemented, at least some progress could occur in their trickled-down form. For these reasons, the rest of this section is dedicated to a Marxist alternative to the arguments put forward by Mullan. The reader is invited to decide at the end which vision he or she prefers.
Zombie capitalism really represents capitalism on its last legs. This doesn’t mean that one day it will spontaneously collapse – as Mullan notes, the system is highly resilient. What it does mean however, is that its failure to durably increase living standards for all, its failure to turn the increasing social productivity of labour into a shortening of the working day, its failure to make labour rewarding and creative rather than burdensome and monotonous, its failure to overcome brutalised and alienated social relations, its failure to overcome its crisis-prone nature, the persistence of famine and war, and the general sense that human beings are not in control of their own affairs – yeah, it seems capitalism is a pretty messed-up system. Mullan’s attempts to reform the beast, even if they worked on their own terms, wouldn’t solve many of these problems, but as I have argued, they wouldn’t work even on their own terms – high-tech state capitalism would end up being even worse than its zombie form. So, what we need is a different mode of production. Before we can work out how to get there, we need to probe a little deeper into the fundamental basis of capitalism. If we analyse that, then we can work out how to change the whole thing.
Various Marxist categories deployed in this review – e.g. capital, constant capital, variable capital, surplus value, wages, use-value and value – have as their basis commodities. Commodities are the basic unit of wealth in a capitalist society. Capitalism specifically is about the production of commodities. Any attempt to change capitalism into something else must therefore tackle what is specific to commodity production. Revolutions that have failed to change commodity production into something else have themselves always eventually failed.
The commodity has a dual character – the use-value side, which is the way in which it satisfies a concrete need, and its value side, i.e. how much it is worth, which can be expressed in terms of money or indeed any other commodity. Hence it is possible to say an apple is worth the same as a pencil, or each are worth 20 pence. Value is a representation of how much socially necessary human labour has gone into the production of the commodity, as an amount of time. Capital (privately accumulated mass of value), is the most dialectically developed commodity, but the fact it is also on its last legs, demands from us we understand both it, and the simple commodity.
As a privately accumulated mass of value, capital is therefore an appropriation of the labour-time of others. The nature of capitalism and all the attendant problems follow from this private appropriation of the labour of society. The problems are based therefore, not on personal character traits, but the very fact that persons are not in conscious control of their affairs. Even the capitalist isn’t free because he has to work under certain economic laws in order to survive as a capitalist. The private appropriation of labour has lowered the status of all human beings.
Hence value, from which capital springs, has to be regarded as an estranged form. It is a social substance that has become a threat to our very wellbeing. Thus, we need to get rid of it and turn the product of labour into just an article of use that is stripped of the value form.
To get rid of commodity production therefore requires that the first task is simultaneously to seize back the appropriated value that has been taken from us, and also, in order to prevent new value being taken from us, stop labour existing in the form of labour-power, i.e. as a commodity. Labour-power is a unique commodity because it is incorporated into a human being who is conscious. Thus, it is the only commodity that hypothetically can commence the chain reaction of getting rid of all commodities. To refuse point blank to sell your labour-power is therefore key, but it cannot be done alone. Workers of the world must unite as a giant collective and initiate a worldwide general strike at the same time as expropriating the expropriators, taking back what is rightfully ours. One of the slogans of the revolution is therefore “I AM A MAN, not a commodity.” This slogan immediately raises the dignity of the individual which is, as we shall see, the ultimate key to undo all commodity production. But this is only the first step.
Expropriating the expropriators certainly makes everyone a little more wealthy, but more importantly some of what the capitalists had expropriated from us exists in the form of constant capital. Therefore the collective taking back also involves taking the means of production into social ownership. The post-revolutionary society is now at the start of the lower phase of communism and can start to work towards the task of undoing commodity production. Labour has already self-emancipated in the sense that the commodity labour-power no longer exists. Furthermore, it has got rid of capital in all its forms.
That now permits the communist mode of production to begin to take shape. The working population now produces directly for society and individuals are compensated according to how many hours of labour they have put in. This constitutes an assault on the capitalistic law of value, and therefore an assault on commodity production. Whereas under capitalism the wage represents the value of the goods needed to reproduce you as a worker, i.e. chiefly your ability to regenerate yourself in order to resell your labour power the next day, the new compensation is a moral standard, i.e. a fair share in the social bounty. Value isn’t being measured but the amount of what you do is.
Nevertheless, there is still the problem that the products of emancipated labour still represent abstract human labour, i.e. they have economic value. The new products of labour aren’t strictly speaking commodities, but it would still be possible in the mind to think “1 apple = 1 pencil.” Really for value to disappear completely, such a thing needs to seem absurd, just as ancient religions seem absurd to the skeptic today. The persistence of value in the mind is a hangover from capitalism that will fade when the new society is metaphorically sober. Some logical steps will help the sobering up process occur. When you collect what you need with your labour certificate that says how much you are entitled to, you are not making a trade. You are not exchanging a commodity (money) for goods in a supermarket. You are simply collecting (or ordering via the internet or virtual reality) your goods. Thus, the products of labour are no longer strictly commodities, although they still bear value as a hangover. But what happens if some individuals start accumulating things in one way or another? – they would be amassing value which could become a threat to individuals within the collective. The problem wouldn’t exist if these objects were just use-values, but remember they still bear value. We didn’t just go through the risky business of emancipating ourselves from wage-slavery just to have someone re-accumulate value and thereby possibly seek to employ us. The new society therefore develops a constitution containing several features. The two that are pertinent here are ‘1: No individual is to sell their labour to anyone else. 2: While we have this problem whereby the products of labour still bear value, no member of the commune is to exchange their goods for anyone else’s. You can give the products to someone else (e.g., a child), but you are not allowed to make a trade. Our commune’s exchanges with other communes will only take place under strict control of participatory democracy.’ This policy enactment to be agreed by the communal participatory democracy should be sufficient to buy us enough time whereby the value embodied in the product of labour has finally withered away. But more developments that spontaneously arise from the new society ensure its victory in finally ridding the products of labour of value in order to complete the broader human liberation.
The equalization of different concrete labours represented in the fact that now 1 hour of brain surgery = 1 hour of smart phone assembly in a factory, in relation to the quantity of products you get back, raises the level of dignity of all labours. Far from being an underpaid oppressed creature, spending some time assembling the smart phones, (and rotating who does that), makes the experience far more pleasurable and rewarding. You are now an equally valued member of society. Knowing you are doing something vital and precious to the collective society, it follows the happy individual is likely to show more initiative and creativity. Meanwhile the dignity of the brain surgery has not decreased. If they save a child’s life, they will likely receive gifts from many members of society. Furthermore, training for skilled labour is compensated with a generous student package. So, they are still rewarded and prized by society without that desire impinging on the new fairness.
Meanwhile, the urge to technologically innovate also gets a boost in relation to the sluggish rate of technological progress under capitalism. The latter mainly only innovates when a company wants to gain the market edge. And when it isn’t profitable to do so, innovation slows. But under communism the thirst for new tech knows no bounds. Communism innovates on the basis of two motivations: i) because it is inherently rewarding work ii) to develop the productivity of labour that allows for even more creativity to be enjoyed by workers and a shortened working day.
As the lower phase of communism develops and happier people with more rewarding work, more products to enjoy, and tech that has become beneficial, human solidarity jumps light years. It develops to such a high point that eventually it becomes possible for society to successfully jump into the higher phase of communism. Herein, labour time ceases to be the measure by which you get your goods. People now put into society what they can, and take out what they need. For an analogy, it is like a family in a capitalist society. Unless it is dysfunctional and requires a written rota, family chores are usually shared nowadays without ‘exchange’ needing to take place or a sense of ‘what do I get out of it.’ You just do the cooking, someone else does the washing up, someone does the cleaning. Under the higher phase of communism, humanity becomes one giant family. But note, it is impossible to jump from capitalism straight to this phase. We are so used to putting a price on everything that takes place, human relations are too estranged and you cannot expect the milk of human kindness to be substantial enough, even after a revolution, to accomplish the goal. But this Marxist road-map shows the logical steps needed – revolution then reasoned evolution towards the good society.
You can buy ‘Creative Destruction: How to Start an Economic Renaissance’here.
 Mullan, P. (2017) “Creative Destruction: How to Start an Economic Renaissance” (Policy Press), p.124
Communism is not about forcing a false equality on people dominated by the kind of centralised state that existed in places such as the USSR. Those regimes never escaped capitalism. The main problem with capitalism is that it strips work – our life activity – of its creativity and potentially rewarding character. It traps the individual into a mundane monotonous rut where work is experienced as degrading, rhythmic, and exploitative. Producers are reduced to the level of appendages to machines without powers of thought or a myriad of talents to be cultivated and developed for their own betterment, or the enrichment of society.
Clearly however, the impetus of market relations has transformed the world for the better in material terms. In pre-capitalist societies, work often shares some of the aforementioned characteristics. One is a ‘carpenter’, a ‘baker’, a ‘butcher’, or whatever, as many surnames that are derived from professions attest. A fixed role in life was often defining to the individual, as it remains under capitalism. But the massive expansion of productive powers that has taken place under capitalism through the development of among other things, machinery, provides a potential basis for radical social transformation and the total liberation of the individual.
It is often difficult to see how our globalized economy *could* be stripped of the degrading character of work so that we have our cake and eat it – i.e., to combine high standards of living with a liberated workforce. But it’s not impossible. The trick is to understand that commodity production is not the same thing as production-for-others.
Commodity production is production exclusively for a market and your product is owned and sold by capitalists and their chain of command. You do not know where your product is going, who it will be used by, or see any satisfaction in that relation. You simply produce blindly, and worse still, your managers will seek to get the maximum out of you in return for a wage that makes the whole process highly coercive. The level of the wage is itself determined by what you need to reproduce your existence for the next working week, at a rate acceptable to society. It does not reflect how much you produce or how much effort was expended. The class relation concealed behind the wage – i.e., that you work for the capitalist class, means the surplus product is appropriated by them. This surplus value has held steady – bearing in mind ups and downs – at around a third of the total you have produced. It is as if for every meal you cook, a burglar invades your house and takes a third.
The problem of the lacklustre relation of specifically commodity production to human liberation however, would also hold even if there was no capitalist class and all producers were small businessmen or women. The same drudgery and tedium of being fixed in a role would persist, only you now pay yourself rather than are technically exploited. Besides, such a society is impossible to conceive, since in order to grow, a small businessman or woman would need to deploy their capital in employing others, hence class relations would emanate from this. So how does society escape the rut whilst maintaining (or even improving) the physical standard of living that high-tech capitalism has provided?
Production-for-others need not mean production for the market with all the negative consequences that entails. In a communally organised economy, the local community agrees through participatory democracy what needs to be done and the conversant individual decides to do it. This idea is not as far-fetched as might first appear to those whose only experience is within the confines of the market. Tribal societies that were once the dominant arrangement used this method all the time. With varying degrees of conscious control, they would sit around the campfire of an evening and work these things out. You didn’t have production for production’s sake, i.e. a brutalising state of affairs where the individual has no say and therefore experiences his or her life activity as alien to him or herself. Rather, production just took place to meet the needs of others. The length of the working day in these situations was usually far shorter since the surplus product was enjoyed by the collective rather than privately expropriated. And work was rewarding because you knew why you were doing it, knew who it was for, and had strong bonds with these people. Nevertheless, this is not to glorify tribal societies. There were usually hierarchies and technology levels were so low that lifespans were shorter and ridden with physical maladies.
But to extract what was positive about tribal societies and square that with our high-tech physically decent standards of living today, is a real possibility now that has become more immanent with the development of communication technologies. Thanks to things like the internet and smart phones, it would now be possible to have an economy that is consciously planned by those doing the work in direct accordance with the needs of society as agreed by local participatory democracy. The compensation for your time expended at work would be something like a certificate that guarantees you access to society’s bounty. Not every certificate would be equal at this point. In order to incentivise highly skilled work such as brain surgery or work that continues to be dull such as shovelling faeces, the quantity of goods you can get would be greater. You could be writing articles one week for a lower level of reward than someone who is shovelling faeces, yet alternate those roles or do something entirely different the next week according to the agreements reached by the participatory democracy. The faeces-shoveller of course would be able to acquire his Ferrari quicker. So, at this lower phase of communism, individuals are not yet equal in material terms, though they are equal in terms of political power. Moreover, it is worth noting that in this scenario, society is now totally incentivised to increase its technological level. In order that it doesn’t have to devote too many resources for both the highly skilled work or the dull work, society becomes obliged to develop smart robotics and other machinery that can annul the drudge. Insodoing, the new society is adopting a new economic law concerning an ever-increasing amount of liberation of the worker, freeing him or her to develop their creative powers and basically live the life of Riley. The capitalist law of value has essentially collapsed, providing the ground for the evolution of a post-money system. This is an entirely different mode of production to capitalism, and a vastly superior one at that. The starting point for the new society in relation to its emergence from capitalism, is the demand that the means of production become socially rather than privately owned.
The idea of ‘estranged labour’ simply refers to the character of work undertaken for someone else, under the pressure of coercion or force, and especially when the product of labour is acquired by your enemy. Labour under such conditions has to take on an ‘estranged’ character because it is not something pleasurable or creative, it is endured as a chore. With estranged labour, work is just a ‘means to an end’ – physical survival and reproduction of the next generation of labourers, and it is only after the working day is finished that the worker perceives his life begins, yes for those few hours of watching TV then falling asleep. This is our lives.
Estranged labour has been justified by the ruling class under capitalism in a number of ways. They’re never honest about it. The true motive for their imposition of estranged labour on the rest of the population is just to expand capital, the ruling classes’ own alien boss. If this was made transparent to everyone it is doubtful how long the system could last. However, they conjure myths about what you are working for, some idea of the ‘greater good’. In the past this has been ‘for Empire!’ or ‘for the Nation!’ Today, the justification is that we work for the ‘environment!’ Sadly, the only challenges to this symptom of estranged labour comes from people who just want to substitute one excuse for another – their new excuse is we should work for ‘Growth Growth Growth!’ To tackle estranged labour requires a far bolder critique, one which would situate necessary labour in terms of what people need, and reduce necessary labour time to the bare minimum for satisfaction of needs as technology develops (it’s already developed quite a bit, as I’m sure you’re aware!)
So firstly, the justification for estranged labour in terms of the ‘environment!’ Today we are told we are on the verge of environmental apocalypse (a lie), and that people must work to produce wealth that can be used to mitigate climate disasters, stem overpopulation (apparently Africans by virtue of their poverty reproduce too much), to fund expensive green energy projects that would be considered non-cost effective in more rational times, and in other ways to ‘preserve nature’. This lie for why we produce is bolstered by publicly funded ‘science’ that is open to question, and also structurally reinforced by rules on recycling your waste and monitoring your energy usage, as well as the fact we are bombarded with environmentalist messages all the time in the media. All of this is loosely banded together under the banner of ‘sustainable development’. There are critics of this, but as I shall argue later, they are even worse.
This situation, where the ostensible aim of production is for nature, is similar to ancient societies that thought they were working for the gods. As Karl Marx wrote of this:
“To be sure, in the earliest times the principal production (for example, the building of temples, etc., in Egypt, India and Mexico) appears to be in the service of the gods, and the product belongs to the gods. However, the gods on their own were never the lords of labor. No more was nature.” (‘Estranged Labour’, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844)
The gods, since they don’t exist, were never really the driving force for these labours, it was man’s own activity itself, just existing in an alienated form. And this alienated form emanated from the fact that you had divisions in society, e.g. with the Pharaoh on top doling out orders. When man isn’t free, you get a society of estranged labour. Society sustains this set up through the conjuring of myths. Today, with production for nature, the same thing is occurring. The great chasm between the capitalist with immense power at his disposal versus the atomised worker creates a new estranged labour and is sustained by the conjuring of the myth your work benefits ‘the planet’.
Hard environmentalists have criticised this situation because they think we are producing too much and still raping Goddess Gaia. But because no-one wants to regress to the stone age, their ideas aren’t taken seriously. A far more significant critique of sustainable development is that it is not progressive enough, with ‘progress’ here defined as mankind dominating nature even more, producing more. This attack on sustainable development that comes from both right and left political quarters holds that deifying nature comes at the expense of expanding the market and stifles growth. There is nothing humanist about this critique and do not be deceived by the occasions in which human needs are sometimes employed in the discourse to disguise the truth. The fact is you will still be suffering from estranged labour (because you work for the alien power capital), it is just that the justification for your hard work replaces ‘nature’ with ‘growth for growth’s sake’.
Marx continues: “And what a contradiction it would be if, the more man subjugated nature by his labor [whilst simultaneously deifying her] and the more miracles of the gods were rendered superfluous by the miracles of industry, the more man were to renounce the joy of production and the enjoyment of the product to please these powers.”
Here we have a clear indictment against the 21st century. Through estranged labour, we do not enjoy work in the slightest because it is not undertaken as part of a communal project, furthermore we cannot fully enjoy the products of labour. Witness today’s frenzies for calorie counting all foodstuffs, paying a penance to Gaia through recycling as if we have to apologise for consuming the products of our own labour, and the whole hoohar that we must reduce our carbon footprint – i.e. consume less, in an age where we have achieved a great plenty of goods to consume. From estranged labour flows estranged consumption – at no stage of life do we actually fully enjoy any of it.
There is a solution to all this which doesn’t fit the environmentalist critique (produce less) or the bourgeois-deviant critique (produce more). We need to change the social relations of production so that we all become equal partners in the production process. With equality, we can freely associate as autonomous beings, uncoercively producing as and when necessary (which doesn’t mean producing more), developing technology to make our lot even easier, and fully, sensuously enjoy what we produce with no estranged-based guilt trips.
This blog looks at two cherished Enlightenment ideals – progress, and free speech – and shows why the narrow understanding of these and poor justification for these ideals as perpetuated by the old Enlightenment thinkers (e.g. Bacon and JS Mill) and new Enlightenment thinkers grouped around the radical bourgeois-deviant website spiked-online is not just wrong, but potentially dangerous to society.
In the origins of the Enlightenment, old and new, the conception of ‘progress’ only entails that progress occurs when mankind increases his domination of nature. There is no mention of human progress, no discussion of how such progress benefits mankind, it is taken as given. In fact, as has occurred, the drive for progress has been a mixed blessing for mankind. Life expectancy, living standards, and efficiency in many spheres increase with progress, but it also extracts a heavy penalty in terms of making work more monotonous and dulling to the senses to the extent that workers become mere appendages of the machine. It is not that the aspiration to dominate nature is wrong, not at all, the problem is that this progress occurs within the context of exploitative and alienated social relations, those relations of the market.
Progress is really a drive to extract more surplus value from the worker, and therefore impoverishes him in relation to the alien power that is dominating him – capital. Progress never shortens the working day, indeed it sometimes extends it in the case of white collar workers who now have smartphones and therefore do extra work on the train to work and at home. The worker’s resistance to that is met brutally with coercion both in the factory and outside. This concept of progress is therefore narrow, what we want is a society where increasing the domination over nature is truly of benefit to mankind straightforwardly, and that cannot happen until the social relations that underpin the capitalist mode of production are entirely changed. It is only when labour is emancipated from capital, when people associate freely with one another in production, that progress can be experienced as a good thing, and therefore that mankind’s material progress at last exists in tandem with his human progress.
Tragically spiked-online that emerged out of an ex-Marxist publication, only defends the narrow definition of progress, not this Marxist version, so are making a bad problem worse. For example, in an article entitled “Britain’s Runway Fiasco: The New Fear of Progress”, Blair Spowart begins by articulating his Enlightenment view of progress, says we need loads more airports, loads more roads, more trains, more everything, before concluding “Right now, much of Asia is living in the future – let’s join them.” What Spowart neglects to mention is that China, I assume he is thinking primarily of China, is a One-Party state totalitarian police state. No doubt Spowart doesn’t like those aspects of Chinese society, but what he cannot see from his narrow idea of progress is that the form of the state is necessitated by that mode of production. If you have the hyper capitalist exploitation that drives “the future”, you have alienated labour, and you just have to have a highly repressive state regime. The two go hand in hand. You can’t have market growth without direct repression because workers rebel too much. So it’s no good spiked-online saying they believe in “liberty” and “progress” – they have to choose one or the other. I hope they choose the former, and reconceptualise progress in terms of what it does for liberty, not that it is in-itself unproblematically good.
This is spiked’s most famed demand, and it is a good one. “Free speech, no ifs or buts.” But rather than justify it in the narrow terms of JS Mill, it is far better to justify it in terms of majority interest. The principle of majority interest clarifies when free speech is necessary to uphold and when censorship is justified. Yes, I said it, sometimes censorship is justified. The principle of majority interest is not the same woolly idea of “public interest” that is bandied about by Lord Justice Leveson in his demands to restrict press freedom, it is the opposite of that. Public interest as defined by a committee or a judge is not the real interest of the public who are now being denied the choice to read or see what they want ‘in their own interest’. The idea of ‘majority interest’ by contrast, is exercised by the majority themselves. It is something they vote on. Thus in 1985, print workers at The Sun censored the front page that was due to go out. It depicted striking miners’ leader Arthur Scargill with his arm raised, with the headline “Sieg Heil.” This was a debased attempt by the bourgeois press to portray Scargill as a fascist, when really he was just a state-socialist. The workers decided not to allow that to go to print, and the next morning, that issue of The Sun had a blank front page. This was a case of the majority interest prevailing although it was an act of censorship.
Another example would be the publications suppressed by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. They banned some bourgeois publications and banned some rival Socialist groups from publishing because to allow that would be to allow counter-revolutionary forces to organise against an already vulnerable fledgling worker’s state. This censorship was justified because it was in the majority interest. This wasn’t dreamt up by the likes of Leveson, we know this was what the majority wanted because they voted on it.
By contrast to these examples of justified censorship, it is usually necessary to fight for free speech under capitalism because it is a weapon of ours against the ruling class. This Marxist view of the importance of free speech is different to the Enlightenment idea that tries to justify it in relation to some abstract principle because we are talking about what humans need in the here and now to help them have better lives. Thus all the student union bans in relation to speech are unjustified because they harm the majority. At university, the majority need to be open to all ideas to expand their minds and hopefully contribute to the future. And all the government laws against speech crime need to be repealed because they express a desire to cripple worker’s development as people.
The principle of majority interest stems from a recognition of human history as that of a species striving to be free, yet constantly caught up in antagonistic social relations. The principle of majority interest is a way of uniting in theory when free speech works and when it hampers that overall process of liberation. Of course, when labour is fully self-emancipated, you can have total free speech forever more. But a realistic attempt to realise the Enlightenment ideal has to acknowledge there are occasions in the run up when sometimes censorship is the right thing to do. And that can only be justified with a Marxist view of history.
Economic progress is vital for the third world so that the human population can live longer lives than the current paltry life expectancy in mainland Africa of 46 in Sierra Leone up to 65 in Botswana. Economic progress would also deliver better services, better housing, better electricity supply, and better jobs, leading to a superior quality of life than the suffering and back-breaking conditions currently endured by Africans. However this ‘humanist’ case for economic progress is likely to fall on deaf ears in the West today. Humanism has been hunted down over the years by green ideology. Now, as the international outrage over Cecil the lion attests, all that seems to morally matter is individual members of wildlife. Therefore in this degraded ethical context, I will argue in this blog post for economic progress as a way of saving the lion population of Africa.
The reaction to the death of Cecil the lion makes economic matters in Africa worse than they were. This will have a deleterious effect on lion populations, something that is tragically ironic given how the international community has been so keen on advertising its moral credentials by chest-thumping over poor Cecil. As has been explained by scientists writing in the National Geographic magazine, myself on spiked, and in a radio debate here (available to listen to until late August 2015, and commences at 01:13:40), lion hunting generates millions and millions of dollars that is desperately needed in Africa, revenue which does go back into broader conservation projects and supports 88,000 human families. An EU and US ban on the import of trophies, coupled with pressure from charities and NGOs to place lions on the ‘endangered species list’, will effectively ban hunting, depriving Africa of this money. This will disincentivize Africans from having policies that lead to sustainable lion populations, including removing the motivation for communities to combat illegal poaching. Add to this, a dominant view in the West that African governance is corrupt and that there should be closer UN oversight (which is apparently morally pure), and we are inviting a scenario where there is no socio-economic compulsion to protect any lions, only ineffective coercion from on high. The way the international community has reacted to Cecil’s case is therefore really bad news for lions in general.
Since the 1980s, the lion population of Africa has roughly halved, with between 32,000 and 35,000 on the continent today. Although this doesn’t mean the lion, as a species, is ‘endangered’, the downward trend does need some explaining. Amid the hysteria over Cecil, greens claim the decline is all due to legal hunting. This claim does not stand up to objective scrutiny. A far more believable explanation is that lion populations have dwindled because of habitat loss and illegal poaching. It is the shrinking of the areas in which lions can breed and roam that is the main cause of the decline. Illegal poaching is also important, and African governments have taken steps to combat this. So what causes habitat loss?
Once again greens contribute very little to the debate over habitat loss. They argue it is ‘overpopulation’ (of humans) that causes habitat loss. However the term ‘overpopulation’ has no clear meaning. It is simply not clear what an ‘optimum’ population would be, given available land. Africa’s total population is just over 1bn, whereas China and India each exceed this, yet don’t seem to have the same problems with sustaining biodiversity. ‘Overpopulation’ is actually a morally loaded term that leads to draconian birth control policies. It has no scientific merit in explaining anything, and is essentially anti-human.
Another implausible green idea is that habitat loss is caused by climate change. Whilst it is true that certain weather phenomena can temporarily disrupt an ecosystem, the general climate trends are no more life-threatening than they ever have been. Even if some studies have shown temperature increases of 1 degree celsius since the 1980s, it is difficult to see how this would directly cause habitat loss for lions. In Australia, it is often as hot as Africa, and it is drier too, yet Australian wildlife habitats are thriving.
The real cause of habitat loss is poor agricultural technique. Lacking much industry, African countries rely on agriculture to sustain themselves. Whilst this doesn’t generate enough wealth to extend life expectancy or the standard of living, it would not inherently be a cause of habitat loss if modern technology was used in agriculture. Yet thanks to the ‘fairtrade’ scam that is promoted in the West as a form of ‘ethical consumerism’, African farmers are deprived of the latest technology, including use of GM crops, that would allow for increased agricultural output from the use of less land. Therefore the agricultural use of land has to expand to meet human needs, and this impinges on lion habitats. Furthermore, with the absence of reliable energy sources caused by the green belittling of power stations (‘we have to cut carbon emissions!’), some African countryside dwellers are forced to burn wood for fuel. Again, this impinges on lion habitats. So once again, green ideas have made a bad problem worse. The most immediate concern for economic progress in Africa then is that agriculture should become high-tech rather than low-tech, and that energy supply needs to be increased. Both these things will involve less hectoring from the green international community. These progressive humanist policies will also be of benefit to lions.
Removing the political fetters imposed on Africa by the green international community will firstly lead to increased agricultural output. What next? After the ball has started to roll, increased agricultural output will lead to an accumulation of capital rather than the meagre sustaining of an impoverished population. This increased capital will want to be invested, and expect to be rewarded. Naturally then, it would lead to an industrial revolution in Africa, as has been experienced in the countries of the Western world, China, and elsewhere. This economic progress will lift millions of people out of poverty, increase life expectancy, and the overall quality of life. Furthermore, being less reliant on the agricultural sector for economic sustenance, and with the moving of more people to cities that accompanies industrialisation, lion habitats would grow back. In addition, the newfound wealth would disincentivize illegal poaching. Therefore, in a few years, the lion population would return to 1980s levels, without ever having ignorantly to clamp down on permitted hunting. So if one cares about the plight of lions, it is far more effective to focus on improving the real world rather than be engulfed in a post-Cecil moral panic, demanding bans, and more crippling green policing.