The American socialist commentator James Petras recently reflected that the current period of capitalist development is comparable to a barbarian invasion, albeit one taking place from the inside.
Looting and pillaging of economic wealth, raw exploitation of available resources, rapid dismantlement of political institutions, brutal destruction of existing communities and of the social fabric. Those are some of the characteristics common to both the Germanic invasions which overrun the western Roman empire in the fourth and fifth centuries, and the neoliberal revolution which is gripping the world since the 1980s. Some of the defining features of the contemporary barbarian hordes, according to Petras, are:
- The ascendancy of a parasitic financial-speculative elite which has pillaged trillions of dollars from savers, investors, mortgage carriers, consumers and the state.
- Corruption at the top in all aspects of state and business activity – from state procurement to privatization to subsidies for the super-rich – and the establishment of an international network of organized corporate crime. This is particularly manifest in the merger of the corporate and political ruling classes, to the point where it becomes almost impossible to distinguish one from the other.
- The placement of the burden of the pillaging onto the shoulders of wage and salaried workers, pensioners and the self-employed, resulting in long-term, large-scale downward mobility.
- The massive exploitation of labor in post-revolutionary capitalist societies, like China and Vietnam – the contemporary equivalent of fourth-century populations being sold into slavery by their barbarian conquerors.
- In the United States, the surge of a militaristic political elite overseeing a state of permanent warfare and the building of a military economic empire at the expense of the domestic economy and basic social services.
And that’s why another socialist commentator, Alan Woods, recently asked this troubling question: if all of this is true, why is it that the forces of socialism in general, and Marxism in particular, still remain a tiny minority? As a trained dialectician, Woods provides a simple and rather convincing answer to his own question, which is that collective consciousness always lags behind an objective situation. The people are awakening, but belatedly, to their condition of exploited class, not unlike climate change which occurs several decades after carbon dioxide is released in the atmosphere. In other words, patience.
Another equally convincing response is to say that this is simply a matter of optics. Socialism remains a tiny minority force here at the center of the capitalist Empire – the US, Canada, Western Europe – but those forces of change are in full motion as we speak in other peripheral regions of the world, such as India’s eastern provinces with the Maoist insurgency, Latin America with its Bolivarian revolutions, or, increasingly now, China itself where factory workers and local communities are mounting increasingly effective movements of resistance against naked capitalism.
A friend of mine who describes himself as an orthodox Marxist and lives right here on the Drive in Vancouver (so I guess the forces of change are not that far away after all) offers another explanation. While he does not dismiss at all the other two – he is a strong believer in the rise of collective consciousness and has intimate knowledge of the various revolutionary movements taking place today in developing countries – he sees us (that would be you and me) as the primary obstacle to a more rapid surge of the forces of change in Canada and the industrialized world.
The problem that my friend sees in the North American middle class, including its self-righteous, self-proclaimed forward-thinking “environmentalist” fringe (ouch), is that this class is a primary benefactor of capitalism’s global imperial system. And so, objectively, we have no reason to give up the relative material comfort which we have gained through the barbarian horde’s looting and pillaging of the rest of the world. Sure, the elite class is obscenely richer than you and I, but the two if us are still so much better off than the rest of the world. And so, my friend claims, we are more likely to fight to protect the system than to bring it down. Did I write earlier that the only people still likely to support this barbarian state of affairs are those who personally benefit from the looting and pillaging? Well yes. My friend’s point exactly.
My bad-conscience-of-a-friend sees the middle class as subservient, fickle, unreliable and fundamentally conservative. And to support his claim, he likes to quote a famous passage from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto which I am reproducing here with great reluctance, as it inflicts a painful blow to my self-righteous, self-proclaimed forward-thinking environmentalist ego:
“The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance, they are revolutionary, they are only so in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.”
Dialectics is really a wonderful thing. It expresses in the very same instant, in a flash of pure clarity of the mind, both the contradiction and its resolution. My objective condition of being a prime benefactor of the barbarian loot is incompatible with my self-righteous claim of wanting to save the world from the barbarian hordes. I am a fraud to myself and to the people around me. (The contradiction.) But the unstoppable erosion of my relative well-being creates the objective conditions for my awakening. Today, I would rather fight to protect my relatively privileged position. But tomorrow, I will have less to protect, and even less so later on until I can no longer identify myself to the system. (The resolution of the contradiction.) A process which, in the Manifesto, Marx and Engels referred to as the gradual proletarianization of the middle class:
“The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.”
Since my objective sinking into the proletariat and the erosion of my family’s way of life are ineluctable, my subjective task should then be to welcome that change, as a necessary transition towards my positive acting upon the world. Of course, this resolution of mine is perfectly meaningless, self-serving, and slightly laughable as long as it is only considered individually. But as soon as such an awakening to one’s proletarianized condition occurs collectively, at a societal level, then everything changes and the forces in play become truly tectonic. Take Greece for example. If countries were people, Greece would fit exactly in Marx and Engels’ “lower strata of the middle class” categorization: a country which one generation ago managed to extract itself out of poverty and join – at least nominally – the exclusive club of rich countries, courtesy of the European Union. Today, a bankrupt country looking right down into the abyss. No question, I am a Greek.
Last month, the German daily Der Spiegel reported that the austerity measures imposed upon Greece by the financial-speculative elite had backfired big time. Yes, the Greek government has managed the extraordinarily exploit of reducing its budget deficit by 40% in one year. But the social and economic cost of the austerity measures is intolerable, translating in a collapse of the Greek consumer’s purchasing power, a very severe recession in 2010 which was supposed to be the year of the “recovery”, an overnight disappearance of the state’s tax base and therefore future revenue, and an unnatural unemployment rate of 70% in some cities and regions of that country.
Having reported on such a bleak situation, Der Spiegel could only conclude that there is “no way out” in Greece today and that “things are starting to simmer”. Well there is a way out of course, but not within the boundaries of the system under which Der Spiegel and other official media operate – namely a social revolution. It is fitting that the Greeks themselves invented the word barbarism which was used to identify foreign terms used in their language, and which literally means blah-blah. One of the reasons put forward for the 2008 banking collapse was the increasing complexity of the financial instruments used, to the point where only a few people were able to comprehend them. Societies are awakening to the contemporary barbarian hordes and their meaningless financial babble.
I strongly believe that the world’s middle classes will lead the assault (and in this I differ strongly with my Marxist friend) but not until they have undergone their necessary transformation and joined the ranks of the proletariat (so perhaps we agree on this more than we think). The next milestone which will signal that we are closer to a resolution of the contradiction than it appears, is when genuine socialist movements emerge and flourish in marxophobic Canada. Such structured organization will be necessary to avoid social upheaval from venting out aimlessly, or worse, tea-partying itself. How much longer? Well, I plan to see that happen in my lifetime.