I’ll start by saying that this entry may be quite dense. The purpose of writing it is to explain and convey an understanding I’ve developed of how capitalism has adapted to survive over the years, a question I’ve been considering for a while now. I suppose you could call the ideas proposed here a theory, (if I was to name it, I’d call it the Theory of Three Ages), and that’s all it’ll be for the moment; any advancement of this idea will only follow a lot of research on my part.
But, given that this is me explaining my ideas so far, I’ll hopefully give you a good description of these three ages, and of how I believe exploitation has evolved over time. To do this, however, everyone needs to know what we’re dealing with, so I’ll start by asking you the following question:
What is capitalism?
It’s often seen as the embodiment of free trade and economic liberties as opposed to state control. Because of the challenge communism presented in the twentieth century, it would also be easy to cite capitalism as simply one of two political and economic currents in the world, and, after various failures in the communist countries, it’s far too often associated with freedom and harmony. Predictably, I’m going to tell you that this is wrong: it’s the single most sly, destructive, exploitive concept that has dominated the world throughout modern history.
So here’s a Marxist appraisal of our great nemesis.
The European Age
In terms of where it all began, capitalism arose roughly three centuries ago, taking its first breath in Italy. I wrote a more detailed entry on its origins a few months ago, but I’ll cover the basics here. The system that takes precedence over all inhabitable continents is a relatively recent one; it developed in Europe, perhaps the most socially advanced corner of the Earth at that point, out of the decaying feudal system that formerly retained supremacy. Yet unlike feudalism, capitalism existed to provide industrial (as opposed to agricultural) production, and with its rise, the focus of the economy was no longer upon the farms, but the factories.
The European countries soon grew in power and influence, and rose to colonise great swathes of Africa, America, Asia and Oceania, allowing them to exploit imperialistically. Imperialism has crept its way into history throughout mankind’s many different epochs, and it has always been a tendency of the strongest individuals to dominate the weak, yet this can be viewed as the rise of capitalist imperialism. The new European empires sought to utilise the people and the resources of the colonised nations for capitalistic purposes, and thus expanded their field of economic influence to the far corners of the Earth.
These powers were thus able to sustain dominance, by widening their field of exploitation beyond national limits, yet it couldn’t continue forever. You could perhaps think of this period as the climax of capitalism, at which point exploitation had advanced humanity greatly, yet had reached a critical level and was growing ever harder to maintain. Even after the establishment of a vast imperial network, the ruling elites of Britain, France or Germany were struggling to control those whose labour they relied upon. The system was, quite literally, falling apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
The American Age
Three significant changes took place in the world throughout the twentieth century. Firstly, the rise in power and influence of another giant, the United States, changed the international dynamic of the capitalist world. Secondly, economic changes allowed exploitation to take place to a less severe extent in the western countries, allowing many concessions to be made to the working population, and causing the working class to actually decline. Finally, the rise of Bolshevism threatened to end capitalism altogether.
These changes may not seem as though they’d benefit capitalism, but, with the economic system on the very verge of collapse, they perhaps managed to save it.
One reason why this happened was the fact that the western countries found a common enemy in Soviet Russia and, later, China, Eastern Europe, Cuba and communist Indochina; they were forced to unite against them. This can be seen most clearly in the Cold War, yet was also present prior to 1945. It demonstrates the development of a capitalist ideology, through the willingness of these nations to fight for motives like democracy and human rights (it is, in a Marxist sense, the tendency of capitalism to allow for greater political freedom) under the new guidance of the United States. It was then a question of whether or not the western proletariat would side with the communist world, or the world run by their employers, and this sense of ideological unity helped allow for the latter. Tales of failures, inefficiencies and abuses in the socialist countries helped strengthen this ideology, and helped keep the workers from revolting, temporarily keeping them occupied and holding capitalism in place for longer.
Yet whilst ideological control helped distract many, the economic contradictions in the capitalist system were still such that it could not continue, and immediate reorganisation of the economy was needed if it were to do so. Economic variation took place in the form of de-industrialisation, causing the working class to shrink in size, and the outsourcing of industry to other parts of the world. This gave rise to a new form of international domination, where brands and corporations, as opposed to armies and governments, became responsible for the unofficial and shadowy exploitation of the third world. Imperialism in the traditional sense, the official establishment of foreign authority in the region, was on the decline, again very much in tune with the tendency of capitalist society to progress in the direction of liberty and freedom, yet a new form of imperialism was developing. It was purely economic, and dodged the need for a military invasion and the controversy that such invasion causes, and yet it was more effective, and could allow the western proletariat to both decline and grow in affluence. They would thus lose their revolutionary character, and so capitalism was kept alive in the developed world.
Thus an interesting dynamic fell into place, where the capitalist world, led by the United States, relied upon the undeveloped regions for economic purposes, and the communist world, led by the Soviet Union, wished to bring an end to such western domination. This gave way to third-world Marxism, a tendency in communist thought influenced largely by Mao’s teachings, which retains popularity today. It may also be no coincidence that, outside the communist bloc, all the new revolutions occurred in undeveloped areas of the planet.
The International Age
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the communist empire fragmented and the majority of socialist states gave way to a shifting political climate, allowing capitalism to expand across Eurasia, consuming Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. This led to further changes in the international dynamic, and paved the way for a future in which America may not be the leading capitalist power. As some of the still-officially-communist countries resorted to capitalism, the rise of China presented a further challenge to the United States.
At the same time, the third world, which the capitalist world had become increasingly reliant upon, was developing at an astonishing rate. India, Brazil and Indonesia, whilst locked in the depths of poverty, all have the potential to become superpowers, which suggests that soon our imperial ventures in these parts of the world may no longer be tolerated. If this is to be the case, and even if not (as no format of capitalism can continue indefinitely) the capitalist world shall do what it has done for decades, and scour the Earth for pockets of resources and workers to exploit. New pockets of exploitation have already opened up, in countries like Russia, the perfect example of economic polarisation, and more will likely appear as further geopolitical changes take place.
This, it seems, is the kind of capitalism we’ve adopted. In the European Age, exploitation took place within the confines of individual countries, with certain countries exercising capitalistic rule over others. In the American Age, the division between the exploited and the exploiters began to take on national characteristics, yet now, in the age of international economics, such divisions exceed these boundaries and exist irrespective of states and countries.
Revolution, whenever and wherever it occurs, must take place on an international level to compete with this system. While famously sparse on the practicalities of revolution, Karl Marx did remark that, whilst the differences between nations and nationalities are vanishing in capitalistic society, ‘the supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster’.
Today, as capitalism grows increasingly globalised, this couldn’t be more relevant.
The image depicting the Statue of Liberty was provided by Giorgio Martini from Wikimedia Commons, and was licenced under the following (though a newer licence is available): https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en
The image depicting the Shanghai skyline was provided by J. Patrick Fischer from Wikimedia Commons, and was licenced under the following: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en
HI Max – a very interesting piece! I would agree that we are now in an international age of capitalism in which the wealth and power of corporations can dwarf and challenge that of nation states, thus rendering capitalism ever harder to control. In this context I am particularly interested in your conclusion that revolution must be international to succeed, which I think raises some interesting questions about the role of the state. In the short term it is often governments who have the best chance of standing up to corporate power, especially if they act together and for that reason it seems right to try to strengthen the power of governments vis a vis corporations or at least demand of governments that they do not hand more power over to corporations through eg the Investor-State Dispute Settlements system in TTIP. But stronger national governments would arguably make revolution on an international level harder to achieve, rather than easier.
In part this goes back to the extent to which one believes that anything progressive can be achieved through the state within the capitalist system. I am more optimistic about this than you (remembering your blog about Corbyn) – looking at countries such as those of Scandinavia that are undoubtedly capitalist but in which there is a very different contract between the state, the working class and the capitalist class which generates much better outcomes for society, makes me believe that there are real gains to be achieved through government policy while still confined by the capitalist system. But another way of looking at the same thing is that I do not see the opportunities for revolution, whether national or international, at the moment, so see the best route to progressive change as working to reform the system we have. Perhaps you see more opportunities for revolution than I do currently; I would be very interested to see a future blog on that if that is the case!
Keep up the fight! All best, Janet (friend of Helen’s)
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I really like your ideas and agree that governmental control/intervention does have some benefits to offer in the way of curbing international exploitation, but, as I believe revolution is the ultimate solution, I’d be very cautious to settle for less, as actions like state intervention are forms of compromise; this may make them counter-productive to the organisation of a revolutionary struggle. I’ll try and post a future entry covering these ideas!
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This was so interesting to read, thanks Max!
How many of these emerging giants may yet go on to exert (cultural) imperialist tendencies themselves? What might the fourth age look like?
Re ‘The Fourth Age’: how long before corporations (and not governments) become the de facto nation state, performing administrative functions at home and abroad? Walmart and McDonalds number 4 million employees between them & are growing at an alarming rate – McD’s workforce has been increasing by 20,000 employees each and every year for the past decade. In ‘hostile’ environments (i.e. where some or all of the local population are not sympathetic to their aims) it is customary for western contractors to recruit their own ‘private security’ (armies in all but name) rather than rely upon the local government for protection. Of course this is no different to the behaviour of, say, the British East India Company 150-200 years ago, but the global reach of corporations today is vastly greater.
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I’ve thought about that – when the day will come that corporations take over the roles of governments. I think that if it happens, it’ll happen sooner than most would imagine
Real food for thought, thanks!
Firstly I’d just like to say how delighted we all are that you are home! So very well done to you.
Secondly, what an amazing, stimulating and thought provoking blog, which I read on Sunday evening while Jonny cooked the Sunday dinner (so also thanking the Suffragette movement!). Though said rather glibly having seen the new film last week at City Screen, where the Suffragettes were taken home to their husbands to be punished, I genuinely thank them for the difference that they made to our society. On an international theme, it was also very sobering to see in the credits how slowly women’s voting rights and equality had been adopted worldwide.
Anyway, back to Marxism, communism, a more equal society and the ending of exploitation. I confess that my knowledge is lacking on the difference between Marx, Communism, Lenin and Trotsky, so my thoughts are on creating a kinder and more equal society and how that is to be achieved internationally. I’m agreeing with the big picture and principle, but I think that my interest is in the how? How can we all ‘do the steps’ to make it happen? So I guess my question to you Max is how do you think it can be achieved in a practical sense? How can we operationalise the sentiment and what does an international revolution really look like from your perspective? I fear leaving it to the large international corporations (the tobacco industry, energy companies etc. have failed to inspire me thus far)
I too am not a believer in religion, I tend to like to stick with the facts, logic and scientific evidence, but have always had an interest in spirituality and those around us who seem to possess what I could only term “inner peace”. I would therefore like to share with you the other thing that inspired me last week, which was an international mindfulness summit, which was free to join online. Each day for October there is an international speaker talking about such diverse subjects as mindfulness and technology, mindfulness and pain, mindful leadership and the corporate world, mindfulness and compassion (for self and others). There has been much discussion about how reaching a critical mass of people internationally who are mindful in their approach to self and others in everyday life could create an international revolution towards a fairer and kinder world. I was left asking myself after I read your most recent blog, why when we were colonising and exploiting India in our imperial past, weren’t we also learning some of the important lessons that may have come out of the practice of meditation? So let us stop ruminating about the failures of the past, be that union movements, terrorist activities or wrongs that are impossible to correct, let’s not get hung up with catastrophizing about the possible future events. My advice to self and therefore others would be to live in the present by being present in what we do, noticing the people and things around us and doing our personal best to be kind to ourselves and kind to others. Though this may sound like the thoughts of a muesli eating, hessian wearing luvvy, from my knowledge so far the scientific evidence seems to stack up. Happy to send the links if you are interested in knowing more (better than day time TV!!)
Somebody said to me last week ‘It is like knowing that there is always a blue sky, it’s just sometimes it feels very cloudy or might even be raining, but above the cloud and the rain the blue sky is always there (remembering being in an aeroplane)’. I’m wishing you many, many blue sky days and as I write this I am looking at an amazing blue sky and autumn colours of the trees in the square. Hoping you can see them from your front room too!!
Very Best Wishes
Fiona (No.27) Just to say this represents my thoughts / views and not the views of No. 27!!
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Thank you so much for the wise words – I think it’s definitely important to live in the present and appreciate each day. I have a great views of the autumnal square from my temporary bedroom in the front room, and am also hoping for many blue sky days, both literally and metaphorically. On the topic of world revolution, I think it may take many years or decades, but I believe that as the contradictions of capitalism grow increasingly unbearable (as resources grow scarce, workers grow ever less tolerant of economic exploitation etc.) revolution will replace it with communism, a sustainable system centred on justice and equality. This revolution may begin in one nation advance from there, or it may consist of many smaller revolutions, but I think that we can predict international change of a revolutionary nature as a result of our economic system and the injustice it perpetuates. On that topic, speaking of the Suffragettes, did you know that Sylvia Pankhurst was a dedicated communist who communicated with Lenin?
Great to hear from you
Food for thought Max.
Max – diverting slightly, I would like to know your thoughts on the topic and place of ruralism (especially in relation to community and values) versus the urban elite – within the process of capitalist evolution, and what may succeed it. Perhaps a topic for another blog?
This is my second attempt at replying to your latest blog entry – the first one seemed to disappear into the ether but being technically challenged as I am it may be that I’m not looking for it in the right place! So forgive the repetition if it turns up 😳
Your informative essay on Capitalism’s Evolutionary Phases is another erudite piece of writing, complex and packed with detail. It is as you say ‘dense’ – too dense for me, or rather I’m too dense for it….
I accept the proposition that capitalism is unsustainable – the ever increasing rate of consumption which follows from capitalism, in the context of a planet with finite resources (and particularly a finite supply of oil which fuels the capitalist machine), as you say cannot continue indefinitely. A form of change is inevitable. What I find tricky is what should replace it, or how it should change…is true equality possible? Is it desirable?
On that topic, I have found a TED talk (I am a great fan of TED talks) you might enjoy called ‘Capitalism Hits the Fan’ by Prof Richard Wolff. As in my previous reply, sorry I don’t know how to do links yet…
Keep up the good work with your blog – it is most inspiring. All in the Withyman household send their love xxxxx
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I enjoyed your blog and you are so right that, for many people capitalism does not deliver freedom nor harmony.
A question to consider , therefore, is why do so many people just put up with it? Why no mass revolutionary uprising as Marx expected ?
Perhaps we can look to the Middle East for clues to answer this – it seems the Arab Spring type uprisings in Egypt and Syria were cruelly suppressed by those whose interests are vested in the status quo. But what makes the difference between a mass protest which fails and one that works?
UK protests did overturn the poll tax . Miners’ strikes failed to change energy policy.
To use a parochial example, I often wonder why so called consumer power and so called market competition fails to deliver for customers – we all hate call centres and long for the days when it was at least possible to speak to informed people who didn’t read from scripts – but we have accepted this change.
Tonight I am going to a talk by Arnie Graf who coached Barak Obama on how to support community activists trying to bring about change and is an expert on community campaigns.
I shall report back.
I send my very best wishes
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Hi Max – Thank you for broadening my knowledge on Capitalism. Great writing!
You write so brilliantly. And put across your ideas so beautifully. But I still disagree with you. Capitalism, for all its many many faults, is here to stay. There will be no massive revolution. Nope. This is because capitalism fits with human nature. We humans are extraordinary and capable of the tremendous BUT are inherently selfish, not equal, lazy, looking out for ourselves… we like fun, stuff, comfort, beauty, home, nice things (bet even cavemen had massive cave envy) and we are ultimately driven by this deep down … Socialism obviously a far far nobler, kinder, fairer, better system but we humans are too shabby and greedy to live like that. What I hope for the future is that we humans can increasingly globally join together .. communicate… and temper the shabbiness . grow up. Behave. Share. But as usual, until we are forced to change (I.e. really start to run out of resources, polar caps melt) we probably won’t.
Karl Marx disagrees! I understand why you might take that view, but it contradicts the Marxist belief that mankind isn’t selfish or greedy by nature; these, as societal tendencies, are learned characteristics during human society’s evolution. In early history, our civilisations were based on collective ownership and equality (an example would be the early Christian communes). Marx called this Primitive Communism. The selfishness that has defined our economic and political systems since only came about as a result of stronger individuals dominating weaker ones, capitalism being the most advanced format of such domination. I believe that man is now intelligent enough to realise the goal of a socialist society once again. This goal obviously clashes with the interests of the exploitive classes, which is why revolution is necessary. It may be the case that this revolution only occurs when the ice caps melt or we run out of crude oil reserves (times when change must be forced), but equality shall still be the endgame, which isn’t impossible; it’s a return to our original state of being.
Well I disagree with Karl Marx!
Us humans ARE by nature selfish and greedy.
I was very interested when you wrote that ‘in early history our civilisations were based on collective ownership and equality’.. Really? Me, I’m struggling to think of anything much beyond hunter gatherers (that was a voluntary not compulsory set up though surely? ‘OK guys, I’ll go with Ugg here and bash an elk on the head, Arf.. you stay behind and help hack it up later and oh can you sort the fire? the rest of you.. look busy and guard the huts… ..then we’ll all eat. That ok ? Deal? Etc ) but helpfully you gave me a proper sensible example … ‘early Christian communes’ .. Ah I didn’t know about them. Right Ok I’ll go look that up. Couldn’t find much though. Where is your evidence for this? Bit of very v early church communal living in Jerusalem I can see .. hmm.. Though looks to me that a mutual sharing of possessions was simply best course of action to help get the early church going? Then they all the chaos left after a few months to spread the good word. Hardly a ‘civilisation’ and in fact as I casually googled away I was warned, together with the Thessalonians, by Paul that ‘if a man will not work, he shall not eat’ ‘earn the bread you eat’ 2 Thess 3:10. That’s not very socialist.
Then I remembered vaguely and at last found a story which sums up my views on Marx and his teachings and my fear that us humans ain’t up to it. You v probably already know this tale but just in case.
William Bradford was leader of a small band of separatists who founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. Times were harsh and half of the colony population died during the first nasty winter. Still, the pilgrims clung together and held their farmland communally. They divided their food, work and provisions fairly and evenly (yep all sounds good huh?) but before long, conflicts arose. Some of the lazier members started to take advantage of the harder working. The harder working members grew more and more resentful, frustrated and less and less productive… and everything fell apart. Bam. End of colony. Didn’t work. Never does.
Primitive communism? What does that mean? Tell me. But we are no longer primitive. Are you (and Marx) suggesting we somehow go back in time and collectively forget all that we now know? How can any sort of primitive lifestyle or in fact primitive anything be relevant now?
Capitalism adapts and changes and evolves and will survive. I think Marx overlooked capitalism’s ability to change and adapt.
So? Over to you. Am braced for a shredding (albeit elegantly written) by you …
I enjoyed reading this piece and I think it provides some interesting arguments about the implications of global capitalism on the position of the proletariat. On the subject of global revolution and how it can be achieved I think Gramsci’s concept ‘counter-hegemony’ could provide an interesting approach. The global nature of capitalism requires a higher degree of interconnections between separate cultures, so as to manage a global economy. I think that this works to develop a global culture of sorts, in which proletariat of different nations have greater means to interact than ever before and this leads to a greater degree of class consciousness; examples being the global justice movement and even the peer to peer nature of internet communications i,e, such as receiving news from independent journalists. The effects of this increasingly global culture is that it provides a more structured area in which the ideas of a counter-hegemony can grow and influence global civil society. If we view the relationship between the base and the super-structure as organistic than the global culture may provide the means for a global revolution, following the establishment of an international counter-hegemony. Ironically a counter-hegemonic global culture would be able to to utilize the institutional framework provided by advanced capitalism to bring about its ruin. I’d be interested to see your thoughts on whether a global revolution would take this form; or whether other measures would be necessary to overthrown capitalism.
That’s a really interesting idea. I hadn’t thought about that, but the internationalisation of capitalism would allow workers worldwide to develop an independent culture, so I agree that revolutionaries can use this to their advantage.
I realised only one of my last texts reached you while I was travelling. Apologies.
Down to business. Have I made a Faustian pact by choosing to work in SIngapore? There was quite a close call with communism in these parts, but it would appear Singaporeans put the communist “threat” on a par with British colonialism, Japanese occupation, racial and religious strife, and Indonesian aggression.
The Malay Communist Party (MCP) was a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist set up that only signed a peace agreement in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down and international communism was on the wane, but in all the time before that they failed to make inroads in Singapore as their ideology of constant class struggle, conflict and revolution sat ill with the increasing affluence of the natives and the nation building aspirations of (former left wing icon) Lee Kwan Yew.
I want to pick up on Yorkafka’s point above. It seems to me that the corporates hold sway here to an extent I could barely imagine. I seriously wonder if we are beyond the international phase already. Until a week or so ago, the region had choked under the haze caused by forest fires in Indonesia; fires started deliberately to make more efficient the production of palm oil. According to press here, Pepsi, Kraft and General Mills are among the big guys who use masses of Indonesian palm oil. Who should go to gaol? Bosses, fire-starters or me for buying a Pepsi? And I wouldn’t fall off my chair in amazement if I discovered some of the money made from palm oil production is safe in the Singapore banking system. It’s very complex, but one thing is clear: no internationally known CEO is being held to account for any of it. I think if Marx had been alive today, he’d be going for the jugular.
I completely agree- capitalism in the third world is just an extent of colonial imperialism, which along with proxy wars show the Russia, Europe and the US do still have control over third world countries, which is completely awful and needs to be looked at in further detail by the UN