First published on 1 February 2020.
Bernie Sanders says he’s a democratic socialist. In this post, I argue that he’s right. The reason’s simple: his kind of policy agenda, if implemented, could accidentally hasten the end of capitalism and its replacement by ‘democratic socialism’. So, how could capitalism end? To answer that, we first need to look at how it began.
In 1905, a sociologist named Max Weber wrote a book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, wherein he argued that Protestantism caused capitalism. In John Calvin’s theory of predestination, most of humanity was condemned to eternal damnation, while a select few were predestined by God to enjoy an eternity in heaven after death. This produced a lot of anxiety in Calvinists, who sought refuge in work as confirmation of their membership of the ‘elect’. To attain total certainty of their being chosen by God, they sought to develop an attitude of abstention and life-organisation which predisposed them to engage in the gruelling, capitalist enterprise of investing in, profiting from, and dutifully reinvesting the profits from the productive process. Calvinist Protestantism produced capitalism, right?
Not quite. The evidence suggests that capitalism does not depend on the existence on any particular set of ideas for it to endure. Instead, it depends on a set of material conditions. This is because forms of capitalism have existed in areas as diverse as Renaissance Italy and modern China without any evidence of Protestantism, and many so-called ‘Protestant’ ideas existed centuries before capitalism. The question is not ‘how did Calvin’s ideas influence capitalism?’, but ‘why did capitalism adopt Calvinist ideas in the first place?’. If Protestant ideas weren’t genuinely new, why did capitalism begin in the 16th, rather than the 9th, century?
Just to set things straight: the doctrine of ‘double predestination’ (most predestined to hell, some to heaven) existed long before Calvin was born. Gottschalk of Orbais was preaching about this back in the 9th century. The Calvinist spirit of inner-worldly devotion to capitalist work is therefore not to be sought in any particular ‘ism’ or set of ideas. Even if it could, why would anyone adopt Calvinism in the first place? After all, Gottschalk of Orbais was persecuted for his ideas before they could spread much. Why did Calvinist ideas find so much traction in sixteenth-century Europe? What changed to make way for Calvinism and capitalism?
One thing was material conditions. After the Black Death, one-third of the population of Europe was wiped off the face of the Earth. Just like that: friends, families, villages, communities – gone. But for the peasants who survived, the dark cloud had a silver lining. Fewer labourers meant higher wages. This incentivised capital-intensive investments in labour-saving industries like the finished cloth trade and, especially, the print industry. But the existing feudal institutions couldn’t contain embryonic mercantile and print capitalism, since the mobility of new mercantile companies was greater than that of the old guilds. The discovery of the Americas also flooded Europe with more liquid capital than feudalism could contain. The ‘relations of production’ (the feudal institutions and class structure) became the fetters of the developing ‘forces of production’ (such as the emerging print, industrial, and agricultural technologies). To continue developing, the productive forces demanded a revolution. A revolution in the productive relations. And boy, did a revolution take place.
By 1700, it was all too late. The Dutch were plying the waters of the world trading system, while English landlords had enclosed land from peasants and capitalist farmers were reinvesting their profits in a process which was supported by the newly-formed Bank of England. The seeds of the industrial revolution may have only borne fruit by 1800, but they were sown between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the forces of production began to bring about a transformation of feudal institutions into capitalist ones.
And Calvinism? Well, ‘ask Gottschalk of Orbais!’ is all I can say. Without the new print technologies, Protestant reformer Martin Luther would have gotten nowhere – and the same lesson applies to his radical Protestant comrade John Calvin. The Reformation also took place in just those parts of Europe where capitalist classes were beginning to emerge. The forces of production, in other words, were bringing about a change in their relations. Conditions were shaping institutions. Ideas followed.
So goes the story of the capitalist revolution. But what about the socialist one? If capitalism replaced feudalism thanks to the exhaustion of feudalism’s capacity to develop the forces of production such as printing and more intensive agricultural practices, then what does this suggest to us about the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism?
Don’t worry: I’m not going to give you another history lesson. Because socialism, as I define it, needs to constitute a successive stage to capitalism. It’s not a competitor with capitalism – it’s the successor to capitalism. This is why I think the Soviet Union wasn’t really socialist – but not for the reasons people like to give. People like to say that the Soviet Union was undemocratic, and therefore not properly socialist. I agree. But why was it undemocratic? Why did the revolution fail and absolutism triumph? The answer doesn’t lie in a poor reading of Marxist ideology, which the Soviets were well versed in. It lies in the political economy.
Think about it: what kind of economies were China and Russia before the Maoist and Stalinist revolutions? Early-capitalist at best, and late-feudal at worst. This means they failed because they did not exhaust the productive forces of capitalism, and thus prematurely cut off the capitalist process before it had finished. To quote Marx: ‘No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed‘. China and Russia are the exceptions that prove the rule. They tried to jump to socialism before they had completed capitalism. And they therefore failed. And look: where are they now? Oh, capitalism. That’s where they are.
So, strangely, the conditions for socialism are better in China and Russia today than they ever were under ‘socialist’ governments (one of which nominally exists in China, which has ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, translatable as: capitalism). But I’m not so sure about China, because it’s GDP per capita is still pretty low. It’s clearly not exhausted the technological capabilities of the capitalist mode of production. Some are optimistic, since the state invests a lot in AI and stuff like that. But so long as wages are so low that companies can continue to rely on factory lines of workers over fully automated production lines, China will continue to rely on capitalism to develop its forces of production.
America’s different. Automation is already looming and threatening to take away low-skilled jobs. But it’s not ready yet. Unemployment is really low, and people seem more scared of Chinese workers taking their jobs than they are of robots robbing them of their livelihoods. Techno-optimism isn’t quite as in vogue in 2019 as it was in, say, 2017 – but technology is still seen as the solution to problems as diverse as climate change and election hacking.
To the techno-optimists, I say, good luck! As left-wingers, we want your technology. Because we’ve seen how social orders rise and fall. We’ve seen from the capitalist revolution how the forces of production under feudalism needed to fully develop before capitalism could take hold. And we’ve seen how socialism fails when left-wing governments try to put the cart before the horse. We don’t want that. We want to develop the forces of production so much that the relations of production become their fetters and a revolution in the relations becomes necessary. We want technology to become so developed that capitalism can no longer contain it and socialism becomes necessary. And here’s how we’re going to get it. With left-wing governments.
Firstly, left-wing governments can incentivise capital-intensive investments. This would hasten the end of capitalism by encouraging the full development of the forces of production. By raising the minimum wage to ‘fifteen bucks an hour’ (don’t you just love how he says that?), Bernie is not being anti-investment. He’s being pro-investment. Just as higher wages between 1350 and 1450 stimulated higher investments in new technologies (Gutenberg developed his printing system in 1439), higher wages in America today would promote investments in labour-saving and capital-intensive technologies. Economists have been predicting higher wages for a while. But if you’re a democratic socialist (like me), you don’t like waiting as the planet burns and inequality rises. What do we want? Social justice. When do we want it? ASAP.
Secondly, left-wing governments can free up capital for productive investments. By reducing the cost of prescription drugs by 50% and moving from a Medicaid to a Medicare-for-All system, Bernie will not only help working people stay alive and live healthy lives affordably (the traditional, quite legitimate, and above all moral left-wing justification for these policies). He’ll also hasten the end of capitalism by encouraging investment in more productive areas of the economy than healthcare. America spends so much of its GDP on health and defence that, considering how innovative its business culture is, it could develop its forces of production so much more if it just slashed these budgets a bit. But not through austerity – through NHS-style programmes, instead, which cost far less than private health schemes do. And through taxing carbon, subsidising renewables, and investing in those areas of the economy where there is so much opportunity for technological development. Nuclear weapons isn’t one of them. Efficient, renewable energy is.
Thirdly, left-wing governments can provide capital for investments. Jeremy Corbyn has mooted ‘people’s quantitative easing’, and the next Labour manifesto is likely to include an ambitious green & infrastructural investment bank of some kind. If this is combined with investment in big tech, ‘there is nothing we cannot accomplish’ (another Bernie soundbite, for your delight and delectation).
Thus, left-wing governments can hasten the end of capitalism by incentivising, enabling, and providing capital for investments in the developing forces (i.e., technologies) of production. Why should we think, though, that technological development will herald the end of capitalism? Why does the end of feudalism have lessons for today? One answer is: ‘automation’.
Modern capitalism relies on an exploitative relationship between employer and employee, where the worker sells their labour power which the capitalist then buys in return for the worker’s undying devotion to their vocation (however temporary that vocation may be, mind you). But workers don’t naturally like work. In hunter-gatherer societies, people work for less than twenty hours a week. Today, people work for over forty hours a week. In developing countries, they work for over seventy. And just look at the misery that creates.
Automation changes that, because it makes lots of work redundant. Sure, this may take time, but it’s reasonable to presume that plenty of people will have a real difficulty finding good-paying jobs in the future. It’s also reasonable to presume they won’t like this situation much. And in an automated economy where productivity is sky-high, it’s reasonable to presume that the meagre benefits given out to unemployed and poor people today will be viewed with suspicion by people who lose out in the cut-throat capitalist game which universities such as mine adore. They call it ‘the meritocracy’.
(It’s not very persuasive. This is why Brexit voters were won over by the anti-expert tirades of Michael Gove, and why Trump voters were won over by the ultimate anti-expert: Donald Trump. The notion that you succeed in capitalism on the basis of merit alone is inherently unstable and unpersuasive. If liberals want to keep the what-I-call-the-basket-of-deplorables workers in check just as stable jobs are sucked down the drain of automated labour, they’re kidding themselves.)
So left-wing governments, by developing the productive forces to their maximal extent, will increase the demands for post-work policies – i.e., policies that give workers a meaningful choice between wage labour and, say, reading holy scriptures day (which is what half of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men already do thanks to Israel’s selective post-work policies for this community). This is why Andrew Yang’s universal basic income idea is gaining traction. Of course, it’s a joke: a thousand bucks a month is not a realistic alternative to wage labour. But if a real left-wing government led by Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders succeeded in doing what they say they want to do, they’ll make the demands for a truly universal basic living wage louder and louder.
Plus, they’ll develop technologies so much that monopoly capitalism becomes pretty darn inefficient. Breaking up Amazon and Google won’t cut it, because smaller monopolies such as WordPress’s one over the blogosphere are equally inefficient. Even capitalists admit that. Capitalism, in the long term, can’t cope with big tech. It distorts the market, produces social discontent, and infringes on our freedoms. Whether the state or the companies take the lead, there’s no way out of the economic and social contradictions of surveillance capitalism. Neither can fossil-fuel companies really cope with renewable energy. So for these new technologies in the energy and tech sectors to fully develop, capitalism needs to end. But, as with the last revolution in the economic infrastructure, it takes an awful lot of class solidarity and action to make the change.
We may be in luck. Already, opposition to capitalism is rapidly growing among the working class. But we need the professional class on board, too. As the contradiction between technology and economy deepens, the working class will soon be clamouring for three things. Democratic corporations (where workers own their companies), UBI (a real alternative to wage labour), and some form of communal ownership of the means of production (through the state, but also through democratically controlled enterprise). These policies can’t be implemented by new or old parties in the centre or on the Right. We need to take hold of the traditional parties of the Left in order to make the changes necessary for the full development of the productive forces and the ensuing revolution in the economic infrastructure. Then, capitalism will end. Thanks to tech. Thanks to the Left.
Workers of the world: feel the Bern.