Thursday, February 29, 2024

Capitalism and the Fallacy of Reform: Part Two

Continued from Part One

Like Bernstein, today’s labour and social democratic parties do not champion any meaningful alternative – in fact, they are complicit in the perpetuation of capitalism. As Bernstein’s contemporary, the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) contested:

“…people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal.” Consequently, their goal is “not the realisation of Socialism, but the reform of capitalism.”

This does not mean we should not fight for change within the system – indeed we cannot suspend ourselves nor exist outside of it – but we must acknowledge that meaningful change can only be attained by transcending the capitalist system. Once this has been achieved and socialism established, humanity must then work to continually improve socialism so that it fulfils its basic mission of meeting the needs of all. Here, and only here, is where socialism truly becomes evolutionary.

Socialists can take some comfort from the fact that, notwithstanding the futility of social democratic attempts to reform the system, capitalism is by no means an eternal fact, nor inherent to human nature. Closer examination reveals that it is more accurately understood as a phase in human development. Throughout history, economic systems have undergone significant transformations, and capitalism is just one stage in this ongoing progression.

In ancient societies, such as those of hunter-gatherers, communal living and resource-sharing were prevalent. The concept of private property and individual ownership was not a dominant feature of these societies. As human communities transitioned to settled agriculture, a shift toward more structured forms of social organisation occurred. However, these early agrarian societies did not operate on capitalist principles; instead, they were characterised by feudalistic structures and localised economies. For instance, Luxemburg demonstrated that primitive communism existed in several societies, ranging from the Germanic tribes, the Inca empire, Algeria, India, and Russia. Collective land ownership endured for many centuries and only ceased with the advent of imperialism and capitalist exploitation.

The emergence of capitalism can be traced back to the late medieval and early modern periods in Europe. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment played crucial roles in shaping the intellectual landscape that paved the way for capitalist ideas. During this time, the rise of trade, exploration, and technological advancements created an environment conducive to the development of a market-based economy.

The enclosure movement in England during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is a notable historical example. Land that was previously communally used for farming was enclosed and privatised, leading to the rise of individual landownership and the creation of a market for agricultural goods. This transition marked a departure from traditional agrarian practices and set the stage for the capitalist system.

The Industrial Revolution further accelerated the evolution toward capitalism. Technological innovations, such as the steam engine and mechanised production, revolutionised the way goods were produced and distributed. This shift from agrarian economies to industrialized ones resulted in the rise of factories, urbanisation, and a new class structure.

The advent of capitalism brought forth key principles, such as private ownership of the means of production, free-market competition, and profit motive. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was not without conflict, as evidenced by the social upheavals and labour movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. These movements sought to address the challenges posed by the industrialisation of society, including issues of worker exploitation and poor working conditions.

There is, therefore, hope that humanity can transcend capitalism. It requires a widespread global consciousness, an acceptance of the truth that the system we currently perpetuate is harsh and damaging to us all, and that reforming that system equates to nothing more than that perpetuation.

While capitalism has undoubtedly played a significant role in shaping modern economies, seeking to reform it or viewing it as a timeless characteristic of human nature disregards the system’s inclination to devour and oversimplifies the complexity of historical and cultural contexts. Indeed, to do so is short-sighted and demonstrates the dangers of forgetting the past. Human societies have demonstrated adaptability and a capacity for diverse economic systems throughout history, and while no thinking socialist can dispute the transformative impact of capitalism; the extent of technological advancement and human dominion over the environment, one would do well to remember that it does not symbolise the culmination of all conceivable endeavours to organise as a species. To rest on the laurels of capitalism is to commit the mistake of previous generations, specifically those who held up religion, imperialism, feudalism, and slavery as essential preconditions for civilisation. We must take what we have learned under capitalism and use it to build a better version of the world – one based on peace, justice, and equality. In short, a Socialist world.

John Elliston

Part One:

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