By Yanis Iqbal – April 21, 2021
The situation of the world is grim. Decades of neoliberalism—marked by the privatization of social life, deregulation of markets, increasing income inequality, labor flexploitation—has finally culminated in a politically regressive wave of right-wing resurgence. What we have now is “neoliberal fascism”—a new social formation in which the principles and practices of a fascist past and neoliberal present have merged, connecting the worst dimensions and excesses of neoliberal capitalism with the fascist ideals of ultra-nationalism and racial supremacy. Thus, in contradiction with the Right’s populist discourse, brutal processes of surplus-value extraction still occur; it is just that they have been politically re-packed through the use of archaic religio-cultural symbols to whip up mass hysteria against manufactured enemies.
The rise of the Right reflects the relations of forces in today’s world. With the technocratization of the state and party as mere appendages of neoliberal regulation, the scope for alternatives within electoral competition was drastically reduced. This led to an inter-party consensus on neoliberal orthodoxy. In this way, parties were reduced to different shades of the same economic policy with slightly varying promissory propagandas. Electoral competition, therefore, was exponentially abridged to signify a process through which people could choose different parties, all geared towards imposing austerity packages. Aijaz Ahmad calls this phenomenon the emergence of “mature liberal democracy in the neoliberal age” in which competing parties “function as mere factions in a managing committee of the bourgeoisie as a whole”.
In a context like this—characterized by a shift in the balance of forces within the state in favor of the bourgeoisie and the installation of “policies without politics”—many people on the Left are understandably pessimistic about the prospects for socialism. The primary question reverberating loudly through the terrain of struggle is this: what grounds do we have for continuing the hard labor of sustaining a revolutionary movement in highly adverse conditions? Insisting on the indispensable presence of hope is perceived as playing with fire. However, hope is what we need. Without hope, there is no possibility of sustained engagement in a revolutionary movement. Moreover, hope for a radical re-constitution of existing societal conditions is present in the very movements of capital. In other words, we need to discover the material determinations of hope in its present mode of existence as a hidden potentiality and turn it into actuality through conscious revolutionary action.
The origins of capitalism
A highly schematic look at the origins of capitalism helps us to ground hope in a material soil. The present system we have was not a result of the operation of quasi-supernatural forces. Rather, it was the outcome of a (continuing) conflict between the logic of capitalist accumulation and other logics stemming from the resistance of social forces that suffer the effects of such economic processes. The separation of the direct producer from the means of production, the consequent transformation of labor power into a commodity, and the concentration of the means of production in the hands of the buyer of labor power were the contingent results of concrete antagonisms and social struggles. The interpretation of capitalism as a social form composed of unstable conjunctions of domination and resistance is elaborated by Etienne Balibar in his preface to Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities.
In the preface, Balibar writes: “The capitalist division of labor has nothing to do with a complementarity of tasks, individuals and social groups: it leads rather… to the polarization of social formations into antagonistic classes whose interests are decreasingly ‘common’ ones. How is the unity (even the conflictual unity) of a society to be based on such a division? Perhaps we should then invert our interpretation of the Marxist thesis. Instead of representing the capitalist division of labor to ourselves as what founds or institutes human societies as relatively stable ‘collectivities’, should we not conceive this as what destroys them?… If this is so, the history of social formations would be not so much a history of non-commodity communities making the transition to market society or a society of generalized exchange (including the exchange of human labor-power)—the liberal or sociological representation which has been preserved in Marxism—as a history of the reactions of the complex of ‘non-economic’ social relations, which are the binding agent of a historical collectivity of individuals, to the de-structuring with which the expansion of the value form threatens them. It is these reactions which confer upon social history an aspect that is irreducible to the simple ‘logic’ of the extended reproduction of capital or even to a ‘strategic game’ among actors defined by the division of labor and the system of states.”
Insofar that class struggle has a primacy over classes, the structure of a mode of production is constituted by the antagonisms it contains, notably the systemic contradiction between the forces and relations of production, and the contradiction internal to the relations of production between exploiters and exploited i.e. social conflicts between classes generated by antagonistic relations of production. If we extrapolate from our understanding of capitalism’s origins as one unified not by the uniformity of its components, but through their contradiction, inconsistency, and incommensurability, we are given the following general statement about the motion of history: history is not the working out of some plan imprinted in the nature/essence of humans. It is the result of the struggles between different and opposed classes. These struggles are structurally conditioned, but history leaves their result open. There is no natural necessity which decides which class will be victorious.
Understanding capitalist society
As in the origins of capitalism, the workings of a capitalist society are also deeply cut by the friction and tensions of class struggle. Following the schema developed by Karl Marx in his book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, we can say that a capitalist society is made up of the economic “base” and the ideological “superstructure.” It needs to be emphasized that the base-superstructure metaphor is only a heuristic device; the division of capitalist society into these two segments is only present at the analytical level. In reality, base and superstructure are inseparably intertwined; one can’t be conceptualized without the other. Can capitalism’s predatory mechanisms of exploitation survive in the absence of specific ideological codes that make human subjects accept that exploitation as being in the “nature of things”? The answer is in the negative.
The inextricable intertwinement of base and superstructure was also stressed by Marx through the conceptualization of the economy as an essentially social and historical entity, the unity of the social relations of production and the productive forces, rather than that of the technological conditions of material production. Thus, in Capital, Volume I, Marx shows how the technological development of the productive forces, rather than providing the motor for the growth of capitalism was a result of the emergence of capitalist social relations of production. The inter-imbricatedness of base and superstructure means that capitalist society is a complex totality comprising various relatively autonomous yet interrelated structural instances. The economy (which is ultimately determinant) exercises its effects indirectly, by determining the specific efficacy of other instances.
Insofar that the political and ideological instances are relatively autonomous from the economy, the formative influence exercised by the functional requirements of reproduction is neither simple nor unilateral; it is mediated by the complex, uneven and contradictory logic of the class struggle. Therefore, what we define as “structures”, namely relations that tend to be reproduced, materialized and interiorized, are also internally contradictory because of the effectivity of class antagonism and antagonistic social relations. In other words, the state and various politico-ideological apparatuses used for the reproduction of capitalism are “fields” (to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term) of conflicts. In a field, agents and institutions constantly struggle, according to the regularities constitutive of this space. Those who dominate in a given field are in a position to make it function to their advantage, but they must always contend with the resistance and contentions of the dominated.
From what we have discussed so far, it is evident that a capitalist society is a social formation of conflicting, differential, and multilayered forces constantly in flux. Furthermore, the structure of society is immanent within that uneven balance of forces, rather than transcendent on them. There are no guarantees about any practice or variation in the formation. Changes in social formations over time develop unevenly through these forces, the movements of all the combined practices and articulations of practices. Rather than a transcendent or mechanical structure imposed upon individuals and groups, the social structure in this case is tightly contained within the practices individuals and groups enact. The structure emerges. There is thus no teleogy or supervening subject in history. This view of immanent change is opposed to an understanding of capitalist society as an “expressive totality”, which involves treating the different aspects of social life as expressions of some core or basic principle. The effect is reductionism: these different aspects possess no life and movement of their own, but merely exist as indices of their underlying essence.
Marx was in favor of an immanentist theory of change. In Vol. 3 of Capital, Marx wrote: “[in] the division of… social labour and the reciprocal complementarity or metabolism of its products, subjugation to and insertion into the social mechanism, is left to the accidental and reciprocally countervailing motives of the individual capitalist producers. Since these confront one another only as commodity owners, each trying to sell his commodity as dear as possible (and seeming to be governed only by caprice even in the regulation of production), the inner law operates only by way of their competition, their reciprocal pressure on one another, which is how divergences are mutually counterbalanced. It is only as an inner law, a blind natural force vis-à-vis the individual agents, that the law of value operates here and that the social balance of production is asserted in the midst of accidental fluctuations.” Here, we can observe that structural patterns emerge not because of external regulation or command but as the result of the operation of an inner law – an immanent process. General trends, historical tendencies and regularities are not solid, law-like phenomena; they are constituted and reproduced by the daily activities of human beings. Capitalism perpetuates its existence not due to self-sustaining structures but due to the contradictory unity of myriad class-rooted practices performed by living individuals.
Our discussion of the origins of capitalism and nature of capitalist society should make it clear that (1) capitalism is a historically specific totality, a result of class struggle; (2) a capitalist society is a structured whole consisting of the economic base and other quasi-autonomous yet interrelated levels, with the interaction between these elements generating the matrix of the social formation. The interaction is made possible by acting individuals who reproduce structures through recursive social practices. Both these conclusions are situated in a common problematic: they emphasize the fact that history is ultimately made by individuals.
The material determinations of hope derive from this fundamental fact. Since individuals create their own history, structures can’t be considered as unsurpassable obstacles. Structures are themselves the result of social practices. To overcome structures, critical consciousness needs to be combined with revolutionary action; the glue binding them together is hope. In the current conjuncture, hope needs to be reclaimed so that the struggle to achieve socialism can be revitalized. Once this is done, the political praxis of the Left will gain the ability to appropriately problematize our structural conditionedness and pierce through the open-ended nature of history.
Featured image: Monument to Karl Marx in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Ekaterina Bykova/Shutterstock.com)