4 June 2009 **** Front Page

World economy: Contradictions deepen

By Tapani Lausti

István Mészáros, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time: Socialism in the Twenty-First Century. Monthly Review Press 2008.

So Karl Marx is back. The international financial and economic crisis has sent a great number of people to bookshops to buy his most famous book Capital. Well, fine. Personally I would recommend István Mészáros's Beyond Capital (Merlin Press 1995) and this new book because he writes from the perspective of our own time. After all, Marx died in 1883 (the first volume of Capital was published in 1867). Mészáros's books are extremely useful guides to the workings of the capitalist reproductive system. One does not need to be a Marxist to gain a deeper understanding of capitalism from Mészáros's analyses. He offers a more profound critique of capitalism than most prominent writers who have access to mainstream media.

One of the recurring themes of Mészáros's new book is the utmost urgency of replacing the capital system because its destructive tendencies have arrived at an alarmingly dangerous phase. We are only a few uncontrollable crises away from total world chaos. Simultaneously the US's quest for total military domination of the world has extremely perilous implications for world peace. (Of course, the book was written before Barack Obama became the president, but it would be a miracle if he could turn US foreign policy around. Rather it seems that he is only polishing its facade.)

Opposition to this dangerous hegemonical aggression is alarmingly weak. This weakness echoes the political powerlessness before the relentless expansion drive of capital. Yet, capitalism's propagandists case is obviously flawed. They talk about "all-round global benefits" when the system in reality "was established as a set of most iniquitous power relations, working always to the advantage of the stronger and always producing the ruthless domination — if need be even the military subjugation — and exploitation of the weaker." (pp. 58-59)

Mészáros highlights the capital system's structural antagonisms which are the reason why the system is incapable of reform and also ultimately uncontrollable: "The historical failure of reformist social-democracy provides an eloquent testimony to the inability to reform the system; and the deepening structural crisis, with its dangers for the very survival of humanity, puts sharply into relief its uncontrollability." (p. 65)

All the talk of reforming capitalism, limiting its unpleasant aspects and giving more say to wage earners collide with the bare fact that capital is ultimately incapable of human considerations. The system is supposed to be the most effective system in history and yet it cannot use human labour in a rational way.

Mészáros uses growing unemployment as an example of how capital's structural limits make it unable to cope with the problem. He sees a contradiction in this: "For capital's productive system de facto creates 'superfluous time' in society as a whole, on an ever-increasing scale. Yet it cannot conceivably acknowlegde the de jure (i.e., the legitimacy) of such socially produced surplus-time as the potentially most creative disposable time we all have, which could be used in our society for the satisfaction of so much of the now cruelly denied human needs — from education and health service requirements to the elimination of famine and malnutrition all over the world." (p. 177)

To overcome this extremely inhuman and volatile system, immediate anti-capital demands can only be succesful if they are part of a strategic long-term perspective. According to Mészáros, we have to be aware of "the ultimate necessity of adopting the mode of controlling our social metabolic reproduction on the basis of disposable time."

He continues: "This is the objective to which our resources need to be dedicated if we care about the unemployment problem. Only a radical socialist mass movement can adopt the strategic alternative of regulating social metabolic reproduction — an absolute must for the future — on the basis of disposable time. For due to the insurmountable constraints and contradictions of the capital system, any attempt at introducing disposable time as the regulator of social and economic interchanges — which would have to mean putting at the disposal of individuals great amounts of free time, liberated through the reduction of work-time well beyond the limits of even a twenty-hour working week — would act as social dynamite, blowing the established reproductive order sky high. For capital is totally incompatible with free time autonomously and meaningfully utilized by freely associated social individuals." (p. 178)

Mészáros emphasises the difficulty of the task of going beyond capital: "Capital is not simply a set of economic mechanisms, as its nature is often conceptualized, but a multi-faceted and all-embracing mode of social metabolic reproduction, deeply affecting every single aspect of life, from the directly material and economic to the most mediated cultural relations. Consequently, structural change is feasible only by challenging the capital system in its entirety as a mode of social metabolic control, instead of introducing partial adjustments into its framework." (p. 185-186)

This may sound quite daunting, but, as noted above, Mészáros does not discount partial demands as long as people keep in mind the totality of the system that has to be overcome. And try this quote for encouragement: "However, the time of the oppressed and the exploited, with its vital dimension of the future, cannot be obliterated. It has its own logic of unfolding, as the irrepressible historical time of our age of make or break. Only the total destruction of humanity could put an end to it." (pp. 22-23)

And if we achieve a socialist society, what might it look like? Here is Mészáros's answer: "... we can only speak about socialism when the people are in control of their own activity and of the allocation of its fruits to their own ends. This means the self-activity and self-control of society by the 'associated producers,' as Marx had put it. Naturally, the 'associated producers' cannot control their activity and its objectives unless they also control the allocation of the socially produced surplus." (p. 74)

At the present there is no sign of a socialist mass movement. Trade unions are still oblivious to their necessary role in widening our horizons. But there are signs of a change approaching. New left-wing parties have emerged (see Is France on the verge of another May '68? by Andrew Hussey, New Statesman, 28 May 2009). There are also many kinds of attempts to overcome the current impasse, whether in the form of local currencies (see Local Currencies Really Can Buy Happiness by Matthew Cardinale, Inter Press Service, 30 May 2009) or various "transition movements" (see Beyond Westminster's bankrupted practices, a new idealism is emerging by Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian, 31 May 2009).

These campaigns are interesting and can show people the possibility of another kind of society. But Mészáros warns that without a clear compass showing the way, things could go astray and old hierarchies would emerge in new forms.

This is how Mészáros formulates his warning: "Exercising control only locally — embellished by the consolation prize of 'small is beautiful' and the like — is a contradiction in terms if the local decisions are subject to approval or rejection at a structurally entrenched, and thereby necessarily adversarial, higher level." (p. 256)

Trade unions would be the natural basis for a mass movement to start tackling the capital system in a radical and serious manner. Unfortunately trade unions in most countries are in a state of bureaucratic slumber. Hopefully unions will begin to realise that we might not have that much time. The crises are deepening and Mészáros forecasts that things will sooner or later head towards an explosion. This is the reason why we are witnessing a trend towards more authoritarian modes of rule in many countries. (p. 262)


See my review of Mészáros's book The Structural Crisis of Capital.

Visit the archive: István Mészáros, Social thinking, Work, Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Seabrook


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