The End of the World, the End of Capitalism, and the Start of a New Radical Sociology

Leslie Sklair, London School of Economics, United Kingdom

Fredric Jameson once wrote that someone once wrote: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world, than to imagine the end of capitalism’. Whoever actually said it first to me it expresses a profound truth about the era of capitalist globalization. There has been a great deal written and said about the evils and dysfunctions of capitalism over the last few centuries, but relatively little written or said about what a non-capitalist world might look like. This is partly due to the peculiar problems of historical semantics—it is almost impossible to discuss socialism let alone communism today without being smothered by the actually existing or recently defunct so-called socialisms and communisms of the past. So, we have to begin again to think through global capitalism, social democracy, and the state forms they have created. My argument is that prospects for progressive change are best seen as a very long-term process of negating, avoiding, and eventually consigning all these to the dustbin of history.

In order to do this I argue that we must first specify exactly why capitalist globalization is bound to fail in its stated objective, namely to bring prosperity, happiness and peace to all humanity. The two fatal flaws of capitalism are the crises of class polarization (the rich get richer and more numerous, the very poor are always with us, and the middle is increasingly insecure) and of ecological unsustainability (an inevitable consequence of both capitalist and socialist dogmas of growth promoted relentlessly by the culture-ideology of consumerism). I have written at length elsewhere about how these crises can be directly attributed to the transnational capitalist class (consisting of corporate, political, professional, and consumerist fractions) and its dominant value system, the culture-ideology of consumerism (Sklair 2001, 2002). Here I simply want to point towards some of the key elements of a progressive non-capitalist transition. The first is size. Given that huge transnational corporations and huge corporate states, serviced by huge professional and huge consumer goods and services organizations increasingly dominate the lives of people everywhere, it seems obvious that smaller scale structures might work better and enable people to live happier and more fulfilling lives. This is not the fantasy of cellular localism that has attracted hippies and hermits throughout history—fortunately we live in the digital age which could facilitate almost unlimited efficient and interactive communication on a global scale. My vision of an alternative, radical, progressive globalization is based on networks of relatively small producer-consumer cooperatives (PCC) cooperating at a variety of levels to accomplish a variety of societal tasks, primarily to ensure a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet.

The the inspiration for this vision comes from Marx’s analysis of the social relations of production. Given the centrality of the distinctions between concrete labour and socially necessary labour, use value and exchange value, and the inversion of subject and object (reification through the fetishism of commodities stultifying human agency). It is clear that to emerge from the grip of capitalism all these conditions of social organization will have to be transcended. As is well-known Marx argues that species-being—the capacity for free, conscious, purposeful activity—is systematically subverted by the capitalist system. In his pioneering book on Marx’s concept of the socialist alternative to capitalism, Peter Hudis (2013) skilfully demonstrates that these ideas are not simply some juvenile fantasy of the ‘young Marx’ but well-worked out concepts that re-appear all through Marx’s life and works and provide a foundation for his alternative to capitalism. Economically, the socialist alternative to capitalism has to abolish socially necessary labour, exchange value, and the wage system, and restore concrete labour and use value to their true places at the centre of the quest for human freedom, the argument being that free men and women will not chose capitalism. The current reality, of course, is that it is not socialism but capitalism and its hegemonic culture-ideology of consumerism that has monopolised the idea of ‘freedom’. Hudis (2013: 179) quotes some interesting discussions of Marx’s guarded optimism about the possibility that in some forms of cooperatives ‘workers in association become their own capitalists’. While this is not an alternative to capitalism per se, it is a step in the right direction given that capitalism for Marx is itself ‘the transitional form for a socialist reorganisation of social relations’ (181). Hudis shows beyond doubt that Marx did, in various places, seriously discuss a host of practical problems that would have to be solved to move over time from capitalism to socialism. His sensible evaluation of the difficulties implied in the formula ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ and its variants, is a strong indication that Marx did not seek to provide the fine detail of postcapitalist alternatives. His project was to prepare the theoretical and practical foundations for the project.

However, my vision of the socialist alternative to capitalism obviously involves abandoning some of the central tenets of so-called ‘scientific Marxist-Leninism’, notably the seizure of the bourgeois state by a revolutionary party, the idea of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, and the various communist theories of economic growth. These were attractive ideas in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but a dismal historical record of implementation forces those who believe that capitalism has no future to think again about what might replace it. Distinguishing generic from capitalist and alternative globalizations allows us to see the emancipatory potential of the digital revolution (the technological basis of generic globalization) that provides simultaneously the most powerful tool of capitalist exploitation and the means of changing the system. The transnational capitalist class, to put it bluntly, systematically subverts the emancipatory potential of generic globalization. For example, architects and urbanists with computers already have the capacity to create sustainable, affordable, and decent housing for all—even now to ‘print’ them via 3-D printers. It is the capitalist market not lack of design talent or resources that prevents them from being readily available and affordable for all. The digital revolution could also contribute to eradicate racism, Orientalism, sexism, and related forms of prejudice and discrimination—it already does so to some extent—though it also does the opposite. This is a project of many generations, a project that begins with damaged parents and communities acquiring the insights and incentives to nurture children through new forms of upbringing and learning. New generations will be less damaged, these children in their turn nurture their own children to be a little less damaged, and on and on. The design of communities all the way from small settlements to large cities could play an important part in this process. Transformations in housing, transport, nutrition, and other necessities of a decent life would free up space for everything that the capitalist market squeezes out or whose pleasures it compromises. The culture-ideology of consumerism has socialized populations all over the world to crave all the material rewards that capitalist consumerism flaunts. Better, more love-based empathetic parenting could help children to grow up as people who value other life goals and social structures to achieve them. Recent research in neuroscience suggests that this is quite possible (Gerhardt 2015).

It is important to locate the sources of change in this direction in our present reality rather than in some utopian future. Our present reality is capitalist globalization. How, then, could PCCs be organized to release the emancipatory potential of generic globalization in a non-capitalist world? The simple and encouraging answer is that they would work, in the early stages of transformation at least, much as millions of small scale cooperative groups work at present in enclaves all over the world. The essays in the symposium ### , for example, document inspiring stories of progressive activism and consciousness-raising but, unsurprisingly, they are all very problematic. Sharryn Kasmir shows that Mondragón – once the greatest hope of the cooperative movement – seems to be inevitably compromised within the framework of a global capitalist system. In her case study of the Uralungal Labour Contract Cooperative Society in Kerela, Michelle Williams reveals the necessary conditions of genuine workers’ control, but her conclusions suggest that as it continues to compete in the capitalist/statist/corrupt market, its future is not secure. In the interview with Paul Singer the evolution of the Solidarity Economy in Brazil focuses on the crucial task of bringing people out of poverty, encouraging results but an enormous task, and it is unclear how the society as whole could be changed. Julián Rebón’s analysis of worker-run factories in Argentina provokes the question of why a capitalist state would make it easy for them to prosper or even survive, as does Theodoros Rakopoulos’ research on anti-middleman markets in Greece, where leftist ‘seizure’ of the state by Syriza appears to be inhibiting rather than supporting the movement. What all of these initiatives have in common is that none of them indicates a way out of capitalist exploitation or ecological unsustainability, and none of them really problematizes the role of the state—whether leftist, rightist or centrist, and how it works with the capitalist consumerist market. My conclusion is that all states end up being hierarchical, and that only in small-scale communities locally or globally linked via the internet like PCCs, can we avoid this inevitable slippery slope. Hudis (2013: 183-7) presents convincing evidence that the experience of the Paris Commune persuaded Marx that the State form is by its very nature ‘despotic’.

Gramsci, in the Prison Notebooks, said that in periods of crisis the old is dying and the new cannot be born. While Gramsci drew attention to the morbid symptoms of such a situation (in 1930) our crisis is different, and I want to draw attention to more hopeful symptoms (waiting to be born) of our present crisis of capitalist hegemony. The viability of movements and initiatives that try to avoid competition with the market and escape from the hierarchic state rests on many untested assumptions. The first assumption is that those who at present do the essential day to day tasks that keep our civilization going would continue to do their jobs in a PCC in preference to large corporations and their local affiliates. A simple example might be food security in a non-capitalist world. This would involve a multitude of like-minded people in PCCs communicating across the globe with each other for the common good. What would they eat? How would they learn? What would they do for healthcare? Who would provide the power to run the computers? How would they be safe? Again, this would depend on a multitude of people who now work in the private or public sectors, directly or indirectly, establishing PCCs in their local communities producing food, organizing transport, setting up places of learning and transmission of skills, providing healthcare, running power systems, and so on. The internet already makes it possible to communicate fairly easily with anyone, anywhere, who is connected. PCCs already do this all over the world on a small scale but such initiatives struggle within capitalist markets. Community Supported Agriculture schemes in various parts of the world represent a first step on a long and difficult road to self-sufficiency in this sphere. Neoliberal ideologues argue that there is no alternative to capitalist globalization. If we refuse to believe them and start creating alternatives and these alternatives prove to be successful in their own terms then the logic of the market can be refuted, undermined, or simply ignored.

As I write this, I can see the smiles of those who would like to believe it but find it unbelievable. One hundred years ago suggestions that human organs could be successfully transplanted, that we would be able to witness events unfolding live in any part of the world, that we could walk on the moon, that intercontinental travel could be achieved within hours and visual communication almost instantaneously, would also have been dismissed as unbelievable. As the rallying call of the World Social Forum has it: ‘Another world is possible’. Obviously, this is a project of many generations and one which sociology as a discipline should at least be researching, given that it is happening in small ways all over the world. But, with very few exceptions sociology is silent on such matters—even to raise them incurs the uncomfortable threat of professional ridicule from the Weberian value-free gatekeepers. It is not surprising that graduate schools and funding bodies are generally reluctant to support research along non-capitalist lines and that younger scholars generally avoid such topics. The irony is that there is, of course, a large volume of research that is critical of many facets of capitalist society but practically none of it calls capitalism itself into question or raises issues around socialist society—I prefer this formulation to the more popular post-capitalist society, which usually boils down to reformed capitalism rather than the necessity of the transcendence of capitalism—even a thinker as advanced and progressive as E.O. Wright more or less comes to this conclusion in his widely acclaimed book on real utopias (2010).

The time is ripe for a new radical progressive sociology to begin to face up to this challenge of theory and research on non-capitalist society. This would involve challenging the dogma of ever-increasing growth, the mainstay of capitalist globalization, social democracy, and orthodox Marxism. This is already being discussed through the idea of convivial degrowth (D’Alisa et al. 2014). It would certainly mean that the richer would become less rich and the poorer would become richer in material possessions though all would benefit in non-material riches, eventually. The culture-ideology of consumerism would be replaced by a culture-ideology of human rights and responsibilities prime among which would be a serious commitment to a decent, sustainable standard of living for all. But for this process to start, all the existing socialist critiques of capitalism must abandon the hope that progressive alternatives can thrive by challenging the market. Only by ignoring the market can we escape the inevitable catastrophic consequences of capitalist globalization. Admittedly this does sound totally unrealistic, but only if we fail to acknowledge the Achilles heel of global consumerist capitalism: it is based on consumer sovereignty, and consumers cannot be forced to consume junk food and drink, junk culture, junk addictions. The power of capitalist marketing, advertising, and the ideological corporate-state apparatuses is formidable, but in the last resort if parents can be brought to full awareness of how the market damages them and their children, there is still hope for the planet and all those who live on it. This is already happening, and many major consumer goods corporations are increasingly under attack for a wide variety of corporate malpractices. A prime site of struggle in this context is the field of CSR, so-called corporate social responsibility.

In his book Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow (2006) David Goodway quotes Colin Ward: ‘a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism … [non-violent anarchism] far from being a speculative vision of a future society … is a description of a mode of human organization, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society’. Goodway continues: ‘Acceptance of this central insight is not only extraordinarily liberating intellectually but has strictly realistic and practical consequences’, as Ward says: ‘anarchism is already partially in existence … humans are naturally cooperative … current societies and institutions, however capitalist and individualist, would completely fall apart without the integrating powers, even if unvalued, of mutual aid and federation’ (all from p.316). Put like this, these proposals will certainly alarm many people, and I join with those who see the importance of detoxifying and rethinking anarchist and socialist theory and practice and learning the lessons of crimes committed in their names. The alternative to failing to imagine the end of capitalism is to muddle along trying to ‘reform’ capitalist globalization in a socialist direction—the easy option. However difficult it is to start to imagine the end of capitalism and the hierarchic state, and the necessity of degrowth, the longer we leave it the more difficult it will be to bring it about.

D’Alisa, G. et al. (2014) Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era. (New York: Routledge).
Gerhardt, S. (2015) Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. New York: Routledge.
Harrison. R. ed. (2013) People over Capital: The co-operative alternative to capitalism. (Oxford: New Internationalist)
Hudis, P. (2013) Marx’s Concept of The Alternative to Capitalism. (Chicago: Haymarket).
Sklair, L. (2001)The transnational capitalist class (Oxford: Blackwell)
—(2002) Globalization: Capitalism and its alternatives (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Wright, E.O. (2010) Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso.

Global Express, United Kingdom

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