In his book Economics After Capitalism, Derek Wall, International Coordinator of the Green Party, looks at various anti-capitalist movements and theories, and argues that capitalism may be dominant, but it is far from inevitable. A genuine alternative to capitalism is needed and must be fought for.
In his article for the New Statesman, Owen Jones argues that Jeremy Corbyn’s key threat to the right is that he has shifted the ‘Overton Window’: the window that frames political discussion and is the milestone of what is politically acceptable, rational and deemed common sense.
Since Thatcher and Blair, this window has looked out onto a world where the free market, economic growth and the drive to ever greater profits are the so-called norms of our society. By featuring on primetime TV, on the radio and in mainstream newspapers, and by asking in his manifesto that we ‘judge our economy not by the presence of billionaires but by the absence of poverty’, Corbyn has called into question these norms and exposed the bourgeois ‘Overton Window’ for what it really is: an arbitrary and fundamentally fragile glass pane that can be broken.
In a capitalist society, ideas such as private ownership are presented as natural and inevitable; but Marx saw through this:
“From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)
It is a part of capitalism’s self-preservation that through its various tentacles such as the media, bourgeois politics and educational institutions, it perpetuates and normalises ideas essential to its base such as the coveting of private property. In his book Economics After Capitalism, Derek Wall, International Coordinator of the Green Party, looks at various anti-capitalist movements and argues that capitalism may be dominant, but it is far from inevitable. A genuine alternative to capitalism is needed and must be fought for.
Wall provides a sweeping analysis of the positions of reformists George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz who, despite being examples of the self-made capitalist and chief beneficiaries of free market capitalism, recognise the inherently unstable nature of the market and see market economics as providing a façade to hide imperialism’s and global Capital’s demands for power. Drawing on Keynesian ideas, they argue that the international bodies set up by the Bretton Woods Conference, namely the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, apply policies in line with the Washington Consensus (which champions fiscal austerity, privatisation and market liberalisation) in a rigid, arrogant and top-down way that can breed discontent from below.
Wall adeptly shows how Soros and Stiglitz, by advocating a more managed form of capitalism and taxes on capital flows (the Tobin Tax), are simply suturing a wound to prevent it from rupturing; in their campaign for a more palatable form of capitalism, such figures ‘act as a vaccine against the virus of anti-capitalist protest’. Instead of putting an end to capitalism and its system of competition and exploitation, these Keynesian economists merely want to save capitalism from itself by ridding the profit economy of its worst excesses.
Localism vs globalisation
The Greens, Wall argues, go further than Soros and Stiglitz, and are unusual among the anti-capitalists in that they oppose the idea of economic growth, which they see as cheapening human existence. If economic pursuit is the end in itself, rather than the means by which we can attain human happiness, then human potential, capability, desires and wants are all subordinate to the accumulation of wealth at the hands of a concentrated few. Further, Green campaigners are right to be sceptical of those who advocate ‘free’ trade as bringing technological developments from more affluent and advanced economies to poorer nations. Wall exposes the gross fallacy of this idea:
WTO rules on patents are aimed at preventing poorer countries from copying products from Europe and North America, and as a result actually prevent technology transfer. Most notoriously, patent controls, relaxed only after huge international protest, were used to prevent South Africa developing cheap versions of the anti-AIDS/HIV drugs it needed.
Green MP Caroline Lucas both opposes neo-liberal globalisation and the institutions, such as the WTO, that implement its perverse agenda and argues that such opposition is not enough: a coherent economic alternative must be outlined. However, as Wall notes, Lucas and the Greens posit localisation as the alternative and put it at the forefront of their political agenda. Localisation is their antidote to globalisation, it involves, among other things, the introduction of local currencies and the development of local economies so that a community or nation produces everything it is capable of producing and long-distance trade is paired back. Such a vision is problematic for various reasons. Firstly, it seeks to achieve reform within a capitalist system, without recognising that globalisation or trade on a global scale by multinational corporations is an inherent facet of capitalism and a part of its logical development – the capitalist system seeks to patch over its contradictions through expanding to new markets, finding ever cheaper labour and cheaper sources of raw materials through such expansion. Localisation deals with the surface, not the root, of the problem. Secondly, localisation paves the way for nationalism and protectionism, which, as Wall points out, encourages parochialism. Wall cites The Communist Manifesto as containing passages which endorse the revolutionary effect of capitalism in uprooting traditional local economies:
“The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country… National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible… The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all… nations into civilisation.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)
Based on certain ideas Marx expressed, Wall notes how some Marxist theoreticians see Marx as pro-globalisation, as stressing the growth for global markets as a precondition for socialism. For instance, Rosa Luxemburg, who developed Marx’s views of imperialism, saw the collapse of capitalism as intrinsic to its global expansion: capitalism expands to sell to new markets as a result of a lack of demand at home, to gain access to cheap raw material and to have a reserve army of labour to drive down wages and maximise profit. Luxemburg believed capitalism would reach crisis point when it no longer had any new markets to which it could sell. But Luxemburg’s critics argue that she does not take into consideration capitalism’s alternative modes of expansion and its flexibility; for example, capitalism’s overproduction can be temporarily overcome – and the surplus in society temporarily absorbed – via investment, credit creation, and state consumption. However, although Luxemburg recognised the potential value of globalisation in its destructive effects of capitalism, this places her in no more of a pro-globalisation camp than it does Marx himself.
Wall remarks that the ‘pro-globalisation strand of Marx’s thought is often ignored by Marxists’ and claims that ‘it would be difficult to sell socialist newspapers to demonstrators with banner headlines of “Defend the WTO – forward to Socialism”’, which is specious and deliberately misleading. Marx may have recognised the progressive side to globalisation – the way it can develop the world market and thus create the economic basis for a truly international society, tearing down national borders and facilitating the communication and collective action of workers across the globe – but the WTO, as Wall himself knows, represents an altogether different neo-liberal agenda.
It is not that Marxists ignore the seeds of international revolution and world socialism planted within globalisation and choose to bury them beneath their own slogans of mass-appeal; rather, Wall both overstates the case and deliberately conflates a recognition of globalisation’s progressive side with direct support for capitalist globalisation and the institutions that push the interests of global Capital and imperialism, such as the WTO, the World Bank, or the UN. Marxists oppose these imperialist institutions, which are merely tools designed to increase the profits of the giant multinationals; and at the same time we call for our own internationalism: the international revolutionary struggle of the working class for a globally planned economy and the establishment of a World Socialist Federation.
Autonomism and post-modernism
Wall is at his best when he takes the useful strands of various anti-capitalist movements and demonstrates their value, whilst also highlighting their limitations. Such is the case with his analysis of autonomism, a modern strand of anarchism, which stresses that the working class should resist capitalism independently or autonomously from political parties and trade unions. Autonomism advocates spontaneous and local forms of resistance against capitalist power structures, and in this respect, shares ideas with post-modernism. Automatists place politics over economics and, Wall asserts, see capitalism as driven by the need to control the working class: ‘thus autonomism is a form of “subjective” rather than “objective” Marxism’.
The limitations of this subjective way of thinking are clear: it views capitalism in negative terms, as a reaction to, and driven by the need to repress, the threat of working class control. It does not recognise how capitalism builds and develops according to its own logic and in line with the laws of wealth accumulation, which relies on the exploitation of the working class, but is not driven by it. To see the exploitation of the working class as purely what drives capitalism is to divorce the capitalist system from its material basis; it is a ruthlessly “efficient” system and one in which the drive to decrease costs and increase profits overrides questions of morality.
The progressive strands of autonomism and postmodernism are this: they look at a micro-level at how power structures are used to keep the individual in place, to maintain discipline. If Marx gave many examples of how the labourer becomes a worker when they are separated from their means of production and from their ability to be economically independent (as they are then forced to rely solely on the selling of their labour power to the capitalists), autonomists develop Marx’s ideas on forms of exploitation to show how the newly created labourer is explicitly controlled by being placed in disciplining institutions such as factories, schools, prisons, asylums.
These obvious methods are eventually replaced by subtler forms of control – as Wall notes, ‘when workers take on their role willingly because they see no alternative to waged work. Social norms…keep them at work; they need to earn money for their families to consume, and fear of unemployment is used to maintain discipline with a lighter touch’. This echoes Foucault’s theory of biopower – where power operates in the minutiae of every day existence, and self-surveillance is coordinated by the disciplinary state. Both autonomists and postmodernists, then, develop anti-capitalist strands in that they show at a surface level how mechanisms of power facilitate capitalism’s flow.
But as Marx pointed out long ago in Capital, it is ultimately the economic force of competition, the market and the “invisible hand” that keeps the worker in his place and maintains the Capital-Wage Labour social relation. And the capitalist state, meanwhile – the “armed bodies of men in defence of private property”; the police, army, courts – arises as a means by which to oppress and suppress the exploited majority in the interests of a tiny elite minority of exploiters. In this respect, we see again the limitations of autonomism and post-modernism, which concentrate on the subjective, the individual, and the micro-level, instead of understanding the laws and logic of the system – understanding the world in order to fundamentally change it.
Wall places the commons at the heart of his agenda for an alternative to the capitalist system, and for this he draws on the ideas of Marx and Elinor Ostrom. Like Marx and Ostrom, Wall thinks beyond the commodity and re-institutes use over exchange value: ‘once we reject accumulation as the goal of society, we can make goods to last longer, make them easier to repair, and build a social, sharing economy, where we can have more access to what we need with less resource use’.
Wall’s emphasis on the commons as a viable and desirable alternative to the current system is convincing; the problem is how to achieve it. So-called “Communist” societies in the past – i.e. the ex-Stalinist countries – have led to a strengthening of the state, rather than creating a commons. Meanwhile, Wall asserts that the dichotomy between the state and the free market is a false one: Marx saw how the bourgeois state is the market’s henchman, ready to carry out violence and pass laws to create optimum market conditions. The earliest capitalists relied on the state for their “primitive accumulation”, just as the modern day bankers and bosses rely on the state to bail them out in times of crisis.
It is the re-institution of the state over the commons that Wall suggests we should be weary of – that is, we must not have as our goal simply a top-down, state-led, bureaucratically controlled economy; rather we should fight for a democratically run, publically owned, and rationally planned economy. He emphasises in the concluding pages what we must avoid: the failed alternative of the reformist strategy, and the failed alternative of the dogmatist, who would have us think that no change is possible until everything changes.
Wall’s advocacy of the commons – which works through democratic control, common ownership, and shared access; where resources are conserved through allocation systems by users and do not depend on constant growth – is praise-worthy. However, the book does not ultimately go far enough. It is an appraisal of past and current developments against capitalism and, in its final pages, a synthesis of socialist ideas. This makes it more an informative and interesting read for the neophyte, rather than a rousing one for the more advanced layers of the left.
Nevertheless, with workers and youth everywhere searching for answers and being drawn into political activity – as can be seen with Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership – it is clear that an explanation of the revolutionary alternatives to capitalism is needed now more than ever. And it is the revolutionary ideas of Marxism that provide such a tool for understanding the capitalist system and organising to overthrow it.