The Structural Crisis of Capital and the Question of Agency

The Structural Crisis of Capital and the Question of Agency


1. Introduction

2. Where is Trade Unionism Going?

3. Capital’s Offensive against Public Provision and against the ‘Benefits Culture’

4. What to do with their Parliaments and National Assemblies?

5. The Destructive Reproduction of Capital, the Emergence of Opposition Movements and  the Role of ‘Socialist Pluralism’ in the Origination of Revolutionary Agency

6. Towards a Critique of Marx’s Conception of the Proletariat and a Re-Evaluation of the Workers’ Council

7. ‘The Historical Moment of Radical Politics’ : Some Implications for the Character of Revolutionary Agency

8. The Co-temporality of the Commencement of the Re-structuring of the ‘Social Metabolism’ and the Onset of Political Revolution

9. Notes

1. Introduction

At the beginning of The Uncontrollability and Destructiveness of Globalizing CapitalIstvan Meszaros writes

We live in an age of unprecedented historical crisis. Its severity can be gauged by the fact that we are not facing a more or less extensive cyclic crisis of capitalism as experienced in the past, but the deepening structural crisis of the capital system itself. As such this crisis affects — the first time ever in history — the whole of humankind, calling for quite fundamental changes to the way in which the social metabolism is controlled if humanity is to survive. [1]

Meszaros’s conception of capital’s structural crisis has been developed in  comprehensiveness and detail in his work Beyond Capital [2].

We are now living through the unfolding of an ‘unprecedented historical crisis’ the likes of which humanity has never experienced before. It is not of the nature of previous crises of the capital order which were cyclical, conjunctural and, in the particularity of their contradictions, displaceable. It is a crisis which was always implicit in the very nature of capital itself but only comes to its fullest explicit development, realisation and expression with ‘globalisation’, when the capital relation itself generates the global conditions for the unfolding of this structural crisis and when it becomes ‘ever-increasingly a system of destructive production’ [1]. The reproduction of capital under these global conditions takes on the most wasteful and destructive forms which imperil the natural basis and cultural conditions of human life on the planet. Without ‘fundamental changes’, the downward spiral trajectory towards ‘barbarism if we’re lucky’ will undoubtedly continue, posing the centrality of the question ‘socialism or barbarism’ as one which resolves itself into the survival or destruction of human life on the planet.

It is within this deepening structural crisis of the capital order that Meszaros raises the fundamental question of going beyond it in his ground-breaking work Beyond Capital. And it is within this crisis that we now need to address the most pressing and urgent question of our time: how can the proletariat move forward to revolution and go beyond the global capital order? What forms of agency – the organs of revolution – will be required in order to defeat the state power of capital and transcend the capital relation itself on a global scale?

There is much in Meszaros which can help us in this regard but there is also a need to develop this historically precedent question and conception of agency. The emergence and development of these organs of revolution would be pivotal in the overthrow of the state power of capital and in the subsequent course of the transition in which the capital relation is being eradicated from the ‘social metabolic process’. Meszaros’s profoundly important work needs to be studied and explored in depth in order to address a whole range of questions and problems concerning this period of transition. 

As far back as the early 1970’s he writes….

…no socialist strategy can hope to succeed unless its general principles of orientation are adequately translated into socio-historically specific, dynamic and flexible, instruments and institutions capable of restructuring the whole of society, in accordance with the constantly changing realities of world-situation.  [Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Merlin Press, 4th Edition (1975) p.287]

and on the next page…

It is, therefore, inconceivable to achieve this radical restructuring of society in one sweep, however broad and elemental it might be. One can realistically set out only from the available instruments and institutions which must be restructured en route, through manifold transitions and mediations. To pretend otherwise is nothing but dangerous, self-disarming “maximalism” which in reality turns out to be not only “minimalism” but, more often than not, also directly responsible for disarray and defeat [Ibid, p.288]

What we have presented here is a conception of institutions of transition which are not only ‘socio-historically specific’ and ‘dynamic and flexible’ but must not become ossified but liable to ‘restructuring en route’ according to the ‘changing realities of world-situation’. We set out from the ‘available instruments and institutions’ (the importance of this ‘setting out only from’ must be emphasised for perspectives and praxis at the current stage) and proceed, proteus-like, to develop the forms of transition according to the arising and disappearing demands and conditions of the ‘world-situation’.

The question of the operation of a single fixed ‘institution’ being capable of tackling the constantly changing demands arising out of the unfolding period of transition is raised here. The danger that such an institution could clamp the fetters on this process of transition needs to be addressed. The dangers of ‘institutionalisation’ coming more to the fore with such an organisation, thereby raising the possibility of the re-creation and re-trenchment of alienated structures, confronting the class as organisational expressions of the continued existence and dominance of capital. The dangers of ‘institutionalisation’ [Marx’s Theory of Alienation, p 286] imply the entrenchment of structures which stand in opposition to further development so that, for example, such structures – if posited as the institutions of transition – start to turn into their opposite. They become institutions of stasis. The bureaucratisation of the soviets in the Russian Revolution comes to mind. They became organs of state power exercised over the proletariat i.e. organs through which the party machine and state bureaucracy transmitted its power and dominance over the proletariat. Hence the importance to guard against this in the development of ‘institutions’ i.e. against the retrenchment of alienated structures which confront the producers as ‘hostile powers of their own making’.

Thus, implicitly, it must not be any given individual or ‘external’ (alienated) body or organisation which is in charge of the products of human labour but rather the ‘associated producers’ themselves. It is the associated and organised producers themselves who must make the ‘democratic decisions from below’ as to the distribution of their products according to the need to reproduce the conditions of production, to accumulate (technical development and innovation), transfer to a collective fund for public provision, workers education/training, private consumption, etc.

Once this process is alienated and taken out of the hands of the producers themselves and appropriated by an alien body/organisation then all the old ‘muck of ages’ has already started to re-establish itself. Those who appropriate and control the products of human labour and, included within this, the distribution of the surplus, invariably generate and consolidate power structures for self-serving interest and privilege which stand in hostile opposition to those whose labour has produced the surplus. Unless, of course, appropriation and control over distribution is by the associated producers themselves.

It is in this sense that Meszaros makes the important observation on the agency of revolution – in order to commence and continue with the whole process of the transcendence of the capital relation – fusing itself with the ‘social base’ i.e. to fuse the power of political decision making with the social base from which it has been alienated for so long [p.951, Beyond Capital].

In the Soviet system, this ‘power’ was alienated from ‘the social base’. The Soviet system was socialist in name only. Indeed, this order was, according to Meszaros, a ‘post-capitalist capital system’ so that capital maintained its pre-dominance as the fundamental determining parameter and ‘mode of control of the social metabolism’

This informs his conception that…

The real target of emancipatory transformation is the complete eradication of capital as a totalising mode of control from the social reproductive metabolism itself, and not simply the displacement of the capitalists as the historically specific ‘personifications of capital’  [p.369, Beyond Capital]

This process of the ‘complete eradication’ is

not conceivable without the painful enterprise of an all-embracing material restructuring of society’s productive and distributive intercourse . And the latter in its turn involves the practical establishment of the necessary forms of material mediation through which capital’s eradication from the social metabolic process becomes feasible in due course [Ibid 369]

However, such a ‘real target’ cannot be remotely considered to be fully realisable in the obstructing and violent presence of the state power of capital, whilst it remains firmly entrenched on the historical scene.

How does the proletariat proceed to a stage where the ‘material restructuring of society’s productive and distributive intercourse’ opens out onto an unobstructed historical horizon in the presence of the state power of global capital?

Given the necessary conditions and the formation of the required organs of revolution, it is feasible, indeed necessary, that the appropriation of capital’s powers and the commencement of this ‘re-structuring’ of the socio-economic metabolism could actually begin in the presence of the state power of capital. However, it is totally unfeasible that it could continue apace without the defeat and break up of this same state power.

The destruction of the state power of capital is a pre-condition for the emergence of this ‘unobstructed horizon’. But – to pose the fundamental historical problematic in which the proletariat now finds itself – the destructive and most devastating reproduction of capital continues apace as its crisis unfolds. The growth of opposition movements to the destructive manifestations of this crisis has already begun. However, they engage without a common ‘organisational framework’ which would multiply the power of their struggles and give them collectively a socialist character. In order to halt the havoc being wreaked by the crisis of the capital order, the implication is that the process of destruction of the state power of capital must start co-temporally with the appropriation of capital’s powers and the beginnings of restructuring whilst the ‘horizon’ is still ‘obstructed’ by the existence of this state power.

This is where the question of agency is absolutely fundamental. In these initial stages, the organs of revolution must, under such conditions, articulate themselves in their multiple functionality – socio-economic, political and other aspects.  But to ‘completely re-structure’ in the continued presence of the state power of capital is another, totally and qualitatively different, question altogether.

Thus, although it is absolutely vital to stress that…

The principal impediment for embarking on the realisation of the socialist project, and the strategic lever that must be firmly held in order to break the vicious circle of capital’s organic system, is not the repressive power of the state – which can be overthrown under favourable conditions – but the defensive or offensive posture of labour towards capital [Beyond Capital, 790],

…it is likewise crucial to stress that where we stand now, the primary pre-occupation and focus must be on the formation of the adequate forms of agency which can  co-temporally begin the process of appropriating capital’s powers in order to ‘re-structure’ and, at the same time, step onto the political road of overthrowing the capitalist state globally under those ‘favourable conditions’.

And yet what is asserted here by Meszaros [p.790, Beyond Capital] is surely one of the historically most vital lessons i.e. that postcapitalist societies emerged after breaking the power of the capitalist state but labour did not fully and completely break the power of capital. Rather, that power remained…

in a radically altered form in that the extraction of surplus-labour was regulated politically and not economically [913, Beyond Capital]

The continuing presence of this power provided the ground for the restoration of capital-ism in Russia, China, Eastern Europe, etc.

Accordingly, the most urgent and concrete tasks at hand are to address the question of those forms of ‘mediation’ (agency) through which the struggle to appropriate capital’s powers, restructure the socio-economic landscape and break the political power of capital will be conducted in the unfolding crisis.

In other words, on this immediate question of ‘agency’, how will the proletariat in its present global situation and changed occupational structure move to revolution, that is, initiate the historical process of the transcendence of the capital order?

2. Where is Trade Unionism Going?

The formation of the traditional political organisations of the proletariat took place under different conditions in a different epoch to those which are now emerging with capital’s unfolding structural crisis. In Britain we are referring to trade unionism and social democratic reformism. The trajectory of the Labour Party and the increasing prostration of official trade unionism to capital over the past quarter of a century has very definite roots in the transition to an epoch in which the capital order has no more room for compromise with labour because its own space for manoeuvre is rapidly diminishing as its structural crisis deepens. Capital demands absolute subservience and, if it does not get it, will adopt the necessary measures to enforce it.

These new relations correspond to the new epoch of capital’s structural crisis. It is an age which demands, at the same time, new forms of organisation of the proletariat which can take to the offensive against global capital and its state powers. Hence the urgency of the question of agency which needs to be addressed under emerging conditions which are qualitatively different from those of the past under which workers formed their organisations to fight for their class interests.

Up to the present, workers’ organisations – formed under defensive historical circumstances – have adopted a wholly inadequate, defensive posture in relation to capital’s structural crisis. These methods of struggle are anchored to the old conditions and cannot serve the proletariat in the emerging struggles. Trade unionism – if it continues in its presently defensive, bureaucratised organisational form – will sink into the quicksand of history under the weight of its own inertia.

Socialist strategy badly needs restructuring in accordance with the new conditions [Beyond Capital, p.673].

These ‘defensively structured’ strategies continue to determine the ‘margins of action’ of the trade unionised proletariat which highly circumscribe its activity in the unfolding structural crisis. It is within the context of the evolving conditions of structural crisis that the trade union bureaucracy itself becomes increasingly articulated as a body which fundamentally opposes the historic interests of labour because that bureaucracy is tied to the continuation of the capitalist system, standing as an agency of capital in the class movement of the proletariat. However, trade unionism is one of the historically central ‘available instruments and institutions’ which Meszaros refers to. Thus, the necessity to embark on…

the socialist offensive under the conditions of its new historical actuality…..implies also the necessity to face up to the major challenge of being compelled to embark on such an offensive within the framework of the existing institutions of the working class, which happened to be defensively constituted, under very different historical conditions, in the past. Both going beyond capital and envisaging a socialist offensive are paradigm issues of a transition to socialism. [Beyond Capital, pp.937-38].

But ‘to embark on such an offensive within the framework of the existing institutions of the working class’ means the proletariat coming into collision with that ‘defensively constituted framework’. In concrete terms, it means, in trade unionism, a struggle to transform and de-bureaucratise it and return it to its members in a sort of ‘reclaim our unions’ movement. It means the whole structure, organisation and process of trade unionism being transformed to fight for the class interests of the proletariat and the overturning of its character as a proxy of capital in the proletarian movement.

Inevitably, the historic unfolding of capital’s structural crisis will be accompanied by a growing crisis of proletarian organisation. Indeed, it is already manifesting itself not only in the falling membership of trade unions (April 2014 = approx 6.2 million members) but also in the growing and widespread disenchantment of the proletariat with its traditional party; a party which it formed through the agency of its trade unions and co-operative organisations. This has flowed over into a generalised disaffection with the parliamentary political system of capital’s governance as a whole.

Trade unionism and social democracy served to defend gains made in social provision since the end of the last world war under conditions in which global capital had temporarily displaced its contradictions as it underwent a final period of global expansion prior to the onset of its structural crisis. They could operate, under such conditions, where concessions made by capital actually were not so much sacrificial but rather simultaneously served the purpose of augmenting capital’s valorisation process in this post-war period.

However, since the 1970’s, we have witnessed a steady intensification in the structural crisis of global capital. The trade union militancy in Britain in the 1970’s and 80’s can be traced as an active, though unconscious, response to this growing crisis as articulated in the defensive struggles against the attempts of the capitalist state to impose its consequences on the shoulders of labour. Thatcherism and the ‘mission’ of New Labour (Blairite Thatcherism) have developed this political course of capital in the process of privatisations, casualisations, anti-labour legislation, etc, because such actions correspond to the needs of capital as it struggles for breath in its structural crisis.

New Labour has, accordingly, openly shed any pretensions to be a ‘party of labour’ and the trade union bureaucracy has, on the whole, followed. The left-wing of the trade union bureaucracy has attempted but completely failed to establish more radical versions of the old social democracy. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party is the archetype, or prototype, in this regard but lately we have had other attempted configurations as well and more are and will be in the offing. From its inception, democratic discussion in Scargill’s group, openness and transparency were rapidly constricted and closed down. Anybody who failed to tow the party line was expelled. These also were Stalinistic political methods which served the needs of capital, however contradictory it may seem in a party (now diminished to a fanclub) led by one of the ‘heroes of organised labour’.

In relation to the rest of the trade union bureaucracy, we only have to witness how frictionless it has become for a trade union leader to readily make the profitable transition to the post of government minister, peerage or even a governor on the board of the Bank of England.

Indeed, the interests of the trade union bureaucracy are so closely interwoven with the continuation of the capital system that it will be impossible for organised labour to take to the offensive against capital and its state without simultaneously coming into direct conflict with this bureaucracy. Accordingly, in the struggles to come, the radical regeneration and de-bureaucratisation of trade unionism will be an absolute prerequisite for these unions to form part of the unfolding of such an offensive; part of the commencement of the process of ‘re-structuring en route’. Without it, they will become vestigial and begin to die away.

This structural crisis therefore brings in its wake a very deep and profound crisis for labour as regards the old defensive forms of organisation. They – the old ways of organising trade unionism – are fundamentally unfit for purpose in their present structure and organisation and this will become increasingly evident as capital’s crisis matures. The need to throw off the old defensive form and replace it with the offensive against capital will increasingly assert itself. This, of course, is no guarantee that the required historic metamorphosis will actually take place.

Even such a new ‘radicalised’ trade unionism would only be adequate within the context of the formation of a ‘broader front’ of the proletariat which will form the bulwark and provide the historical forces for the prosecution of such an offensive against global capital. Without this, and despite any aberrant and temporary ‘victories’ in strikes, etc, the historical trajectory for trade unionism will continue to be downwards towards vestigiality and a totally integrated corporatism in which the trade union bureaucracy acts more directly and uncompromisingly as capital’s police force in the proletariat. Of course, counter tendencies moving upwards from the struggles of the proletariat will assert themselves but, taken as a totality, the tendency will be increasingly towards a more pronounced prostration before the historical requirements of capital if the present structure and organisation of trade unionism remains in place.

The trade unions and social democratic parties established themselves…

in opposition to capitalism (not to capital as such) and in a fundamentally defensive way….. [Beyond Capital, pp.940-41].

In their origins and development, trade unionism and social democracy always took for granted – either explicitly or implicitly – the continuing existence of that which they sought to reform. They always accepted the notion that capitalism could be reformed, made more humane, but that capital itself – the cube root of capital-ism – had to remain the fundamental, controlling social relation of production.

This conception was the ideal articulation of the interests of the trade union bureaucracy in the age of its birth and subsequent development. It arose in a definite historical phase of development where the structural crisis of capital was in the future and the integration of the interests of the trade union and labour bureaucracy with those of the structures of imperialist capitalism was taking place. In Britain, this process of ‘integration’ has deep roots which reach downwards into the substratum of the history of British capitalism at a time when it still ‘ruled the waves’ and the first forms of organised labour to be established were the craft unions of the skilled ‘aristocracy’ of labour. (The so-called ‘craft idiocy’ of skilled labour vis-a-vis unskilled labour). The unionisation of unskilled labour arrived in the latter half of the nineteeth and early twentieth century.

The ideological legacies of this division between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ labour remain and are refracted within trade unionism itself despite the tendency towards ‘de-skilling’ (the proletarian as a superintendant of the production process based on a continuously increasing component of constant capital in this process) and the widespread levelling of wages and conditions.

The epoch where this labour bureaucracy could feed off the fruits of labour and imperialist exploitation is now rapidly passing through the hour glass of history. We are now entering an epoch where….

the increasing difficulty and ultimate impossibility of obtaining defensive gains – on the model of the past – through the existing defensive institutions (…..) and the objective pressure for radically restructuring the existing institutions of socialist struggle so as to be able to meet the new historical challenge on an organisational basis which proves itself adequate to the growing need for a strategic offensive [p.941, Beyond Capital]….

increasingly and imperatively assert themselves. Fundamentally…

What is at stake, then, is the constitution of an organisational framework capable not only of negating the ruling order but simultaneously also of exercising the vital positive functions of control, in the new form of self-activity and self-management, if the socialist forces are to break the vicious circle of capital’s social control and their own negative/defensive dependency on it [Ibid, p.941].

Labour’s growing crisis of organisation therefore arises out of the unfolding and intensifying structural crisis of global capital itself. For the proletariat, therefore, the emphasis must be on the perspective that the deepening of the structural crisis – where ‘even the bare maintenance of the acquired standard of living’ as well as defence of past gains and any attempts to acquire new ones – will necessitate major changes in strategy and organisation in ‘accordance with the historical actuality of the socialist offensive’ [p.941, Beyond Capital]. Indeed…

There will be no advance whatsoever until the working class movement, the socialist movement, is re-articulated in the form of becoming capable of offensive action, through its appropriate organisations and through this extra-parliamentary force [p.985]

The introduction of anti-labour legislation and its maintenance by New Labour demonstrates the necessity for such changes in strategy and organisation. And the continued prostration of the trade union bureaucracy to New Labour’s refusal to remove the anti-union laws from the statute book must mean that both this bureaucracy and New Labour must be thrown overboard and forced under.

For the moment, the question of whether or not the capital order will outlive trade unionism itself or the latter will engage that order in struggle for its transcendence has to be left in the balance. What is truly required is a ‘radical re-structuring of politics itself’ including trade unionism.

3. Capital’s Offensive against Public Provision and against the ‘Benefits Culture’

The gains made by the proletariat by means of defensive institutions (in Britain, the trade unions and Labour Party) were….

a necessary and positive constituent of the inner dynamic of capital’s self-expansion itself  [p.941, Beyond Capital]

and, to a certain extent, continue to provide an outlet for the realisation of value. Capital, in this regard, faces a dilemma as its structural crisis deepens. It must progressively withdraw the funding and continuation of social provision (health, education, housing, social services, etc). However, at the same time, if it runs these down it must, at the same time, necessarily constrict an arena in which it finds an important outlet for the realisation of value. The only way capital can seek to resolve this dilemma is through the transfer of all public provision and assets into the domain of capital exploitation so that all these services operate exclusively on a profit-only basis.

Attempts by the capitalist state to resolve this contradiction are potentially explosive and the class-conscious mandarins of capital are aware of this. It would fuel the drive of the proletariat towards re-constituting itself offensively in the form of new, more broad-based, organisations to open up the front against capital.

This process of capital seeking to resolve the current dilemmas it faces in the management of social provision is effectively under way. As the structural crisis deepens, it must move increasingly towards ‘public provision’ for profit. Just to take one well-known prefigurative example, in healthcare, the establishment of the ironically mis-named NICE, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. The fundamental purpose of this body is to look at healthcare and medication provision through ‘cost/benefit’ calculations and decide whether or not a dying person’s life is worth prolonging on the basis of such hideous formulae. The local PCTs (Primary Care Trusts) are also employing the same inhuman methods.

The undoubtable implication of these continuing developments would be, for example, in healthcare, that if the provision of a vital treatment or use of a specific medication could not yield a profit then it would not be made available and people would be left to die. In fact, in some cases this is already happening and people have actually been left to die because their case has come out on the wrong side of the ‘cost/benefit’ calculations. If, in education for example, the purchase of equipment for schools digs into the profits of the agency running them, then the schools would have to ‘make do’ and do without. This is the immovable logic of capital itself : hospitals and schools run on the basis of the most sacred principle of ‘production’ for profit.

No profit. No provision. No service.

As this article is being completed (July 2010), the incumbent Tory-Liberal Coalition government in Britain is now advocating the abolition of a whole plethora of state and sub-state organisations, including the PCTs. In order for the proletariat to ‘pick up the tab’ for the onslaught on public provision, they are seeking to bamboozle it with an utterly transparent notion of ‘the big society’ which simply means, in plainspeak, you must run the remnants of your public services yourselves with your own unpaid labour or you will lose them.

The depth of capital’s crisis could not be made any clearer. The inherent requirements of finance capital are hoovering up every last ounce of value and any available value in the whole system of welfare and public provision is being sucked unceremoniously into its gilded chamber. What is approaching very rapidly, unless capital can directly make profit out of it, is ‘provision’ and ‘welfare’ run by charitable endeavours, unpaid do-gooders and salvationists.

The transfer, en masse, of the public services into the clutches of capital is already pre-figured in, for example, the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) in which private capital not only owns many hospitals and healthcare centres but continues to reap a very fat interest from the ‘public purse’ for investing the capital to construct them. It is feasible that a situation may arise where conditions alter to such a degree that the requirements of capital are not being met and so, under such conditions, hospitals would be closed or sold off to land or property speculators, etc. Again what is operative here is the untransgressable logic of capital, what Hegel in his Logic might have referred to as its Begriff.

Such developments, in themselves, arise out of and are animated by the deepening of the structural crisis of capital which eyes, and must eye, every area for capture and expansion. The extension of capital’s domain is complemented by the progressive and most crippling increase in the intensity of its exploitation of acquired resources. Nothing is excluded. Nothing is sacred. The self-valorisation of capital is the highest, most sacred principle to which everything else is subservient and subordinate, including (especially!) human life and well-being. And in the course of the unfolding of its structural crisis, this principle must be multiplied many times over with its devastating impact on nature and the life of humanity.

Today, across the major capitalist countries, many millions are condemned to the prospect of indefinite unemployment. This structural unemployment is multiplied many times over in the so-called ‘underdeveloped’ regions of the globe. In India alone, more people are actually registered unemployed than are employed and this is only those who are registered jobless. Add to this many millions more who are unregistered, destitute, homeless, diseased without nourishment, healthcare or education and social services. The promised wonderland of capitalist globalisation is a distant mirage for these millions.

In the metropolitan capitalist countries this structural unemployment has given rise to the so-called ‘benefits culture’. As with social provision in general, the relationship which capital has with this ‘culture’ is charged with contradiction.

The established relationship between the state and the jobless has always been founded on the former’s capacity to fund the benefits system. The contradictions of this relation must intensify as the crisis of the capital system unfolds in which the fiscal crisis of the state will be a spur to axing benefits, to transfer revenue from the jobless and place it directly into the coffers of finance capital.

At the time of writing this article, this is precisely, amongst other actions, what capital is forcing onto the shoulders of the Greek proletariat.

Axing benefits is, moreover, a ‘cut’ for commercial capital like shops and utillities and, of course, for landlords. To defer cutting benefits would be to intensify the fiscal crisis of the capitalist state. The falling revenues resulting from capital’s crisis drives the capitalist state to pauperise the jobless regardless of non-payment of bills, rents, increase in criminality, etc. In the long term, as these measures against the unemployed work their way through the socio-economic landscape, it will make matters worse for the capital system. This is why, in the fight against cuts in social provision, the proletariat needs forms of organisation which can bring together the jobless and the employed. The trade unions, in their present structure and organisation, have completely abandoned the jobless and are not only utterly useless for this unificatory purpose but will be inadequate as a vehicle to fight for and articulate the interests of the proletariat in the oncoming collisions with capital and its state power.

Therefore, as the fiscal crisis of the state deepens there will be the most profound consequences for this so-called ‘benefits culture’. It is interesting to note here that both the English and French Revolutions were animated by, and emerged against the background of, a worsening fiscal crisis of the respective absolutist states.

Sweeping cuts in benefits and allowances is a direct relation between this permanently unemployed stratum and the state itself, raising the possibility of the growth of opposition movements where a subservient dependency on state handouts can be pushed to breaking point which explodes into open hostility and conflict. Because there exists no arbitrating and mediating regulatory mechanism whatsoever between this stratum and the state (as there is, for example, between organised labour and the state in the form of bureaucratised trade unionism), then any conflict would likely to be more untempered and directly charged with an open hostility.

Of course, this social stratum is not ‘structurally antagonistic’ in the sense that Marx identified in the proletariat of his time because in the 19th century the unemployed were a quantitatively-varying reservoir of potential labour power for when production and circulation picked up. However, it is the direct, immediate relationship between this stratum and the capitalist state which is so potentially explosive. If 2 or 3 generations have never known what is euphemistically referred to by the capitalist media as the ‘work culture’ (in contrast to the ‘benefits culture’ of course), its ways, disciplines, rules and relations being absolutely alien to them, then what sort of tensions and hostilities will be created if they are forced to work for their benefits or lose them? Surely, it will generate resistance. Without such resistance, slavery awaits.

Through what forms of organisation can this ‘benefits’ stratum participate, represent itself, conduct, initially, a struggle against the onslaught of the capitalist state which is surely on its way?

If this so-called ‘benefits culture’ is ‘beyond the pale’ as regards constituting an ‘industrial reserve army’ then where, historically, are they going? It is as if their backs are up against the brick wall of a historical cul-de-sac. They will have to move forward under fire or they will ultimately face the same fate as the Roman plebeian and die against that wall. The superfluity of this stratum for variable capital can only express itself in an increasing state-sponsored pauperisation and beggardom and this they must resist or they will perish. Such pauperisation, however, would undoubtedly have unpalatable consequences for the reproduction of capital.

This social layer – whose number previously would have constituted a quantitatively-varying part of the ‘industrial reserve army’ – has become congealed into a determinate social stratum which has indeed become parasitic.

It lives off the surplus which workers are producing globally. They are certainly superfluous for capital as direct sources of value. However, are they not necessary for capital as sources for the realisation of value? i.e. are they not an important component in the overall circulation of capital? They are not value-producing proletarians but they are value-realising despite their parasitism.

And yet does not the ‘privileged’ mode of life of the value-producing proletariat in the metropolitan capitalist countries who have ‘more to lose than their chains’ exhibit certain parasitic characteristics in that it is subsidised by the mass transfer of exchange-value from the labour of the proletarians of other parts of the globe? Without this most terrible exploitation, the mode of life of the employed proletariat in these major capitalist countries would be completely altered. A sort of unconscious complicity prevails.

Accordingly, if the state slashes benefits, it will also block off a source for the realisation of the value produced by employed workers which will only serve to deepen the crisis of the capital order by narrowing the ‘market space’ for the realisation of value. All this must become expressed politically. In so far as the ‘benefits culture’ is a mediating component in the realisation of value and thus in the circulation of capital, it must, by virtue of this, be drawn into it as a necessary part of this whole process. To throw a spanner into this mechanism is going to cause a lot of damage because effectively benefits constitute an indirect subsidy for capital from its state so that this benefits parasitism is partly serving to perpetuate the higher form of parasitism of the capital relation. A sort of dual parasitism prevails with the source of the surplus being the labour of the global proletariat just as the ruling patricians and sections of the plebeian class in ancient Rome lived off the proceeds of pillage, slavery and tribute. They are both living off this surplus and, although the fiscal position of the capitalist state may temporarily stabilise, capital’s crisis will worsen with cuts in benefits in the long run. The system of regular benefits/welfare payments constitutes a state subsidy for capital mediated by those directly receiving them and exchanging them for the necessities of survival. The value created by labour serves not only to maintain its own wage enslavement. It also maintains the mass unemployed and dependent others in a state of subservience as well as serving as the source of the revenues which keep the state power of capital in its rule over society. Hence, in its formal appropriation as a tax on profit (surplus value) and on wages (value created in necessary labour time), value – in this subsidised form in the benefits/welfare culture – maintains both capital and its state power in direct and alien opposition to the proletariat as a class.

At the moment, the capitalist state is tentatively holding on to a ‘bread and circuses’ approach to those living on benefits. As already mentioned, in ancient Rome, sections of the plebeian freemen were subsidised by the state out of the proceeds of slavery and tribute which flowed to Rome from foreign conquest and appropriation. The whole Roman state subsisted on these relations of servility until they started to disintegrate at the end of the second century with the breakdown of slavery which had to be replaced by the colonate; a ‘sharecropping’ forerunner of the feudal mode of production. The third century was one of social and political chaos. In a certain sense, the Roman plebeian was in a privileged position. But even within this class there were discrepancies of wealth and social status just as the patricians had such differences based on a system of ‘orders’. But as soon as slavery started to collapse and empire started to reach its limits, it was the poorest sections of the plebeians who were left to rot and perish. Destitute and starving, many had to put out labour services to the patroni of the massive semi-autonomous agricultural estates of the time and become bonded coloni.

Of course, no strict historical parallels can be drawn here but what is quite remarkable is the way in which we can see a certain replication in the pattern of the relations we see today. The proletariat of the major capitalist countries is in a privileged position vis-a-vis the workers of the rest of the globe and certainly have ‘more to lose than their chains’. A section of this proletariat is directly subsidised by the state out of the proceeds of the global exploitation of labour. But, like in Rome, there are gradations in the proletariat itself which makes some ‘more equal than others’ and which creates the most debilitating tensions within the class itself. For example, in some quarters, there is a real, tangible animosity directed at the unemployed from employed workers, etc, and this is whipped up and encouraged by the capitalist media. The general impression deliberately conveyed in the media is that the ‘benefits culture’ is a seething cesspit of shirkers, thieves, drug dealers, pimps, robbers, addicts, swindlers, etc, as opposed to the pristine respectability of the ‘contributing’ employed. In reality, this petty criminality is only a subsidiary aspect of the life of the structurally unemployed. Most are not part of it but rather survive in an almost fatalistic condition of poverty. Again, like the Roman plebeian of the empire period or the colonus of the agricultural estates of late antiquity.

As the structural crisis of capital deepens, this ‘benefits’ layer will increasingly face the prospect of pauperisation and beggardom. Sections may even move towards fascism. If it remains as it is, with its political inertia, under radically altering conditions, then utter degradation and slavery awaits it. We have witnessed how some of the migrant workers are being treated in Britain today and the degraded condition of workers in other parts of the globe. The position of these proletarians is a prefiguration of what awaits the ‘benefits culture’ if the proletariat cannot rise to the challenge and move onto the revolutionary road.

They already constitute a permanent, millstone-around-the-neck of capital and its state, surplus to its productive labour requirements. And yet they are a part of the process of the realisation of value and so, in a certain sense, necessary for capital. This contradiction faces the capitalist state. The so-called ‘safety net’ of the ‘benefits culture’ is being maintained for the present not out of any sense of humanistic charitable endeavour but rather because the state cannot risk the socio-economic and political consequences of removing it, not only for itself as the organising centre for the rule of capital but for capital itself, for the realisation of a part of its value in the circulation process.

As capital’s crisis deepens, how much longer can this last?

In a very recent election communique (9th April, 2010), Tory leader Cameron stated that if people continue to “cheat” the benefits system, they should be cut adrift from that system for at least 3 years. And how are they going to survive, without work, without support, if government actually acts on such barbaric soundbites? A punitive forced labour for the state handout? The sick and incapacitated are already being forced off sick benefits and onto the dole queue in order to make them ‘available’ for work. How long will it be before the state points the baton and barks : all must work for their handout or lose it? The 21st century workhouse and the charity of the soup kitchen awaits.

4. What to do with their Parliaments and National Assemblies?

According to an old conception, the Labour Party was created by the trade unions in order to ‘represent the interests of labour in parliament’.

Ultimately, of course, the historical interests of labour are not representable through institutions of the capitalist state. Elementary theoretical principles as well as the most cruel and bitter experience around the world is testimony to this ultimate unrepresentability. By implication, the transcendence of the state power of capital will mean, eventually, the dissolution of the parliaments and national assemblies of the capitalist order.

On the question of the future of parliamentarism, Meszaros writes..

Parliament, in particular, has been the target of many a justified criticism, and up to the present time there is no satisfactory socialist theory as to what to do with it beyond the conquest of power  [Beyond Capital, pp.678-79].

Is this question of ‘what to do with it beyond the conquest of power’ really a theoretical question? Or is it more of a strategic question?

Parliament is an institution of the capitalist state and, although it can be utilised by the proletariat in its struggle for socialism, would it not retain that character in conditions of crisis?

Parliament in England and later Britain was always historically associated with the bourgeoisie. First as a regally appointed chamber in which the nascent bourgeois class in the feudal order could make its representations to the crown and the crown could issue its directives to the ‘commons’; secondly as a organisation through which the revolutionary bourgeoisie could organise and conduct its struggle for supremacy against the crown and thirdly as a means of the ‘commons’ asserting that won supremacy over the crown in a ‘constitutional arrangement’.

What will the historical effect be on parliamentarism with the the transfer of power to the organs of revolution? It will be the pronouncement of a death sentence on it as an obsolete and outmoded bourgeois institution. Whether such a transfer takes place through parliament itself (which would probably precipitate a massive political crisis and conflict between the state organs of the bourgeois class and the newly established organs of the proletariat; a dual power situation) or the parliamentary system itself had become so discredited and outmoded prior to this transfer by other means which, accordingly, would simply sweep it into the bin where it belongs, is neither here nor there.

When the time is judged to be right, the organised proletariat will know how to discard it as a necessary, transient act in the unfolding of an overall revolutionary strategy. This is where posing ‘what to do with it after the conquest of power’ as a theoretical question is itself a theoretical misarticulation of the matter. It is essentially a revolutionary strategic question and not a theoretical question.

The proletariat needs to develop organs of socialist offensive and revolution which rival the parliamentary system in its legislative, judicial and executive capacities and powers so that parliament itself can and must be abolished as soon as is politically feasible; it remains in existence only in so far as it is politically necessary and expedient. For example, we do not call for its abolition whilst we are using it to further the aims of socialism but once the pursuit of those aims have been irreversibly transferred to the organisations of transition and we are confident that it is no longer of any use then it effectively becomes politically and culturally vestigial; the parliamentary system becomes redundant and can be safely left behind.

In regard to the possibility of a lengthy ‘intermediary stage’ which retains at least some important features of the inherited parliamentary framework while the long-drawn-out process of radical restructuring is accomplished on the required comprehensive scale [Beyond Capital. p.679], this is debatable to say the least. What ‘important features of the inherited parliamentary framework’ would this ‘intermediary stage’ retain?

Surely one of the earliest casualties of the actualisation of the ‘socialist offensive’ and the ‘long-drawn-out process of radical restructuring’ would be (and would have to be) the whole bourgeois parliamentary system itself in the wake of the unfolding of the ‘necessary political restructuring’? Why would any of these ‘important features’ hang around in the course of the unfolding of the ‘process of radical restructuring’? Surely an important aspect of that very ‘process of re-structuring’ would be to put parliamentarism behind us as quickly as possible?

Meszaros also refers to a speech made by Marx in September 1872 in which he mentions the possibility of working people ‘achieving their goal by peaceful means’.

Of course, it would be pudding-headed and dogmatic to assert the absolute impossibility of a peaceful transition. However, nearly 140 years of experience of how the capitalist state proceeds in crises gravitates against Marx’s ‘aside’ not to mention the bloody history of the ascendancy and consolidation of the rule of the bourgeois class in England and elsewhere over a period of five centuries.

It would be folly in the extreme to proceed with the presupposition that the guardians of the capital order would cave in without a fight. To err on the side of caution is therefore to presuppose a stormy transition.

Standing on guard behind the apparent ‘quaintness, civility and eccentricity’ of English political custom, institutions and government lies the axeman and executioners. This so-called ‘civility’ is only a relatively recent phenomenon and even then only for ‘free born Englishmen’. A cursory inspection of English history will show that the executioners were always kept busy. The19th and the first half of the 20th century was, of course, a century of slavery under the brutal yoke of British colonialism for countless millions across the globe. Peace was not a word widely employed under such conditions, unless we include the peace of the grave.

Parliament is a form of political rule of capital – not the only one – which can be put aside if necessary and wheeled back out at the convenience of the capitalist state when the storm of a crisis passes. However, what we are experiencing today is a crisis in the whole traditional system of political governance of the bourgeois order, a crisis arising out of and mediated by the structural crisis of global capital. This starts to generate trends in the ruling class which see the parliamentary system as an obstacle which must be discarded rather than a traditional institution of rule which must be conserved.

We must expect storm after storm before we can even see dry land, never mind set foot on it. The capitalist state formations have to be globally pursued, run down and destroyed by all means available and necessary with an absolute determination if the social revolution to take humankind beyond capital is to succeed. And this is why any conceptions about ‘peaceful transitions’ need to be regarded with the highest possible degree of scepticism.

5. The Destructive Reproduction of Capital, the Emergence of Opposition Movements and the Role of ‘Socialist Pluralism’ in the Origination of Revolutionary Agency

The entry of capital into its period of structural crisis manifests itself, increasingly, as a crisis of its reproduction. It is a manifestation which expresses the implicit negation of the the very nature of capital itself. The historic necessity for the destructive reproduction of capital arises out of the ‘activation of capital’s absolute limits’. Meszaros writes…

Once upon a time the defenders of the capital system could praise with some justification its power of ‘productive destruction’ as inseparable from the positive dynamics of advancement. This way of seeing things was well in line with the constant extension of capital’s scale of operations, truly in the form of ‘productive destruction’. The successful encroachment of capital over everything that could be encroached upon – that is, before the system had to overreach itself in the way we have already seen – made the notion of ‘productive destruction’ tenable, even if progressively more problematic as the scale itself increased. For the destruction involved could be generously written off as a necessary part of the ‘costs of production’ and expanded reproduction, while the constant extension of capital’s scale of operations had brought with it the displacement of the system’s contradictions as an additional benefit. However, things have changed for much the worse with the consummation of capital’s historical ascendancy and the activation of the system’s absolute limits. For in the absence of further possibilities of encroachment on the required scale, the ‘destructive’ constituent of the overall ‘cost of production’ – to be met within progressively constraining limits – becomes more and more disproportionate and ultimately quite prohibitiveWe have historically moved from capital’s reproductive practices of ‘productive destruction’ to a stage where the predominant feature is increasingly and incurably that of destructive production.

It is not too difficult to see – even if the personifications of capital find it impossible to admit – that no system of social metabolic reproduction can indefinitely survive on this basis. (Beyond Capital, pp.186-187)

The increasingly rapacious destruction of nature’s creation is a direct manifestation of this crisis of reproduction as is the growing chronic structural unemployment now affecting many millions across the globe. It is inseparable from the ‘triumph of generalised waste-production’ and the ‘decreasing rate of utilisation’ which have become indispensable for the constant renewal of the value-realisation process and therefore for the continuation of the process of production of capital as a whole in the unfolding of its structural crisis. Nature and humanity are being sacrificed on the high altar of valorisation and capital accumulation.

Capitalist commodity production in the age of its structural crisis therefore becomes the time of the phenomenal waste and destruction of the natural and cultural conditions of human life. This age of the most terrible wastefulness and most barbaric forms of destruction now constitute a fundamental presupposition for the continuation of the capital order. At the same time, capital’s capacity to displace its growing and sharpening contradictions in this reproduction is becoming more limited, more constricted and making explosions and cataclysms more likely.

The historical paradox presents itself that only now are the conditions being created for socialism in the midst of the destruction of those natural and cultural conditions by the unfolding of capital’s structural crisis. This developing contradictory state of affairs stands in contrast to the expansion of capital in the 20th century.

A central contribution clarified in Not Without A Storm [3] is the conception that the 20th century did not generate the conditions necessary for the socialist revolution. Indeed, capital still had ‘room’ to displace its contradictions and enter a final period of expansion after the second world war. It was only with the emerging and maturing structural crisis of capital from the 1970’s onwards that the global conditions have started to mature for socialism. This conception underlies the different lessons of the defeats and losses of the proletariat in the course of the unfolding of the 20th century, an epoch which was more ‘imperialist wars’ than ‘socialist revolutions’. The so-called ‘workers’ states’, whose ideologues termed ‘really existing socialism’, have now become, or are caught in the process of becoming, capitalist and integrated into the jigsaw of capital’s global dominion. They are, for example in China, engaged in their own speeded-up process of ‘primitive accumulation’ stretching over years rather than the centuries of European capitalism, with the inevitably devastating effects on nature and culture.

Although the conditions are now more conducive to the establishment of socialism, this is profoundly tempered by the phase which the capital order has now entered. Capital’s destructive self-reproduction actually degrades the natural and cultural conditions necessary for socialism. Side by side with the development of the latest innovations in technique, capital destroys those conditions necessary for socialism. As its structural crisis unfolds, capital will find it increasingly more difficult to reproduce itself as its internal contradictions intensify, implying an even greater devastation of nature and culture. And this must inform and ‘change our ideas of how the workers’ movement orientates itself, its strategy, and tactics, its alliances’. [3]

All this has a brutalising effect on human beings in their relations with each other and with nature’s creation. It tends to generate a sort of social psychosis, a nihilistic hedonism in which human beings and nature are treated as disposable and dispensable utilities, suffocating every aspect of culture and human relationships and expressing itself in the most crass, brutalised and dehumanising forms.

Nature’s creation is being subjected to the most disturbing forms of torture, pillage and annihilation for profit. Personal gratification, often in the most narcissistic and voyeuristic forms, has become the pre-occupation of the age at the expense of anything and everything. In everyday life, there exists an undercurrent – which takes a multitude of forms – of brutality, intrinsic to which is regarding people as mere objects for use, mere objects of utility to serve certain ends. And this has invaded every aspect of human life and relationships as a reflex of this age of ‘destructive reproduction’. For humanity to transcend the age of capital must also mean, therefore, the overcoming of the dehumanising effects on people of the continuation of this age. We would be forgiven for thinking that the word ‘progress’ has no historical content whatsoever unless in that content we could discern the possibilities for a human life free of the domination, destruction, exploitation, brutalisation and despair which now characterise human relationships and humanity’s relation with the beauty of nature’s creation.

Marx wrote in his time that it is the development of capitalism itself which generates the material conditions necessary for socialism. This remains a positive aspect in its historical development. However, this aspect has become, with the onset of capital’s structural crisis, subsumed and subordinated to the ‘destructive reproduction’ of the capital order. The frenetic, uncontrolled drive for capital accumulation in the time of its structural crisis is destroying those conditions which are necessary for the creation of a socialist society but, at the same time, it generates opposition to this destruction. Already, this opposition is taking the form of various campaigns and movements across the globe. Some are conscious and others are not that opposition to this destruction is, implicitly, opposition to the age of the rule of global capital. Yet some still think it is possible to have a ‘greening’ of capitalism.

Inevitably, as this destruction and wastage unfolds, it must serve to intensify the opposition that already exists and open out into new movements against the manifestations of the capital order in crisis. Such movements oppose the destructive and wasteful manifestations of capital’s rule in crisis but this is qualitatively different from actually addressing the rule of capital itself. Analogically speaking, to tackle the symptoms of a chronic illness is not the same as tackling the root causes of the illness itself, out of which the genesis and operation of the symptomology tends to constantly arise, replicate and manifest.

Confronting the destructive consequences of capital’s rule is therefore not necessarily identical with confronting that rule itself. There is a real distinction here, a gap which needs to be bridged. And this is where the question of agency comes into its own as does the seminal importance of the concept of socialist pluralism developed in Beyond Capital. Essentially, the….

meaning of socialist pluralism – the active engagement in common action, without compromising but constantly renewing the socialist principles which inspire the overall concerns – arises precisely from the ability of the participating forces to combine into a coherent whole, with ultimately inescapable socialist implications, a great variety of demands and partial strategies which in and by themselves need not have anything specifically socialist about them at all [Beyond Capital, p.700].

Meszaros then makes the important point that

the most urgent demands of our times, directly corresponding to the vital needs of a great variety of social groups – (…..) – are, without one single exception such that, in principle, every genuine liberal could wholeheartedly embrace them. It is rather different, though, when we consider them not as single issues, in isolation, but jointly, as parts of the overall complex that constantly reproduces them as unrealised and systematically unrealisable demands [Ibid, p.700].

….it is the condition of their realisation that ultimately decides the issue, (defining them in their plurality as conjointly socialist demands) and not their character considered separately. Consequently, what is at stake is not the elusive ‘politicisation’ of these separate concerns through which they might in the end fulfil a direct political function in a socialist strategy, but the effectiveness of asserting and sustaining such largely self-motivating ‘non-socialist’ demands on the broadest possible front [pp.700-01].

And this ties in with his assertion later on that

what is at stake, then, is the constitution of an organisational framework capable not only of negating the ruling order but simultaneously also of exercising the vital positive functions of control, in the new form of self-activity and self-management, if the socialist forces are to break the vicious forces of capital’s social control and their own negative/defensive dependency on it.

[p.941, Beyond Capital, Part Four, section IV. Radical Politics and Transition to Socialism: Reflections on Marx’s Centenary]

Here we have a theoretical framework on which to base and develop our conceptions in regard to the question of agency and the emergence of the abovesaid opposition movements to the destruction and havoc being wreaked by capital in its unfolding crisis.

It is precisely within this activity in common of ‘constantly renewing socialist principles’ and through the ‘ability of the participating forces to combine into a coherent whole……a great variety of demands and partial strategies’ that the real steps forward will be made on the formation of revolutionary agency. To ‘define them in their plurality as conjointly socialist demands’ by ‘asserting and sustaining’ them ‘on the broadest possible front’ is the start of ‘the constitution of an organisational framework capable not only of negating the ruling order…etc.’ Herein lies the linkage between those movements now emerging to oppose the effects of capital’s crisis and the beginnings of the organs of political and social revolution, of revolutionary agency.

The form of revolutionary agency that may emerge from the coalescence of the different struggles, organisations and campaigns against the destructive manifestations of capital’s crisis would undoubtedly bring together a greater diversity of workers into a single ‘organisational framework’. It would be more open, transparent and democratic than previous forms of agency and would operate to bring together ‘white’ and ‘blue collar’, manual and professional, men and women, industrial and service sector worker, trade unionised and non-trade unionised worker, local and migrant worker, young and old, employed and jobless, etc. Initially, it would probably constitute itself as an umbrella-type organisation, a sort of ‘social union’ fighting against the devastating effects of capital’s crisis on the natural and cultural conditions of human life and articulating the need to defend and preserve these conditions for the future society. It would, therefore, be a continuation of previous activity but now at a qualitatively higher level involving mutual support and development.

In its pluralistic composition and activity, it would reflect both the immediate partial interests of its component parts and the long term aims and objectives (‘reconciliation of immediate interest and long term aim’) of the proletariat in its historic struggle to break the political power of capital and to go beyond capital itself.

We could, perhaps, envisage the seeds (embryonic elements) of the formation of such coalition bodies through the creation of alliances between different organisations, campaigns and groups. There would be mutual support for the separate demands of each component of the coalition whilst, at the same time, pressing ahead on discussions and agreement on overarching demands to which all components of the alliance could subscribe. It may only start with a few groups/campaigns but as the benefits of this mutual support alliance were realised by each of the components working together as a whole, then it would possibly attract new groups and individuals to join. A steady growth may see the transition from a mere alliance or coalition of a few groupings towards a larger, umbrella-type organisation and then later, conditions permitting, towards a more-embracing, wider, ‘organisational framework’ against capital.

Allliances could be provisional at first but the advantage afforded to each member component by such a mutual support system of organisation could attract more groups and individuals into a larger, more permanent cohesive totality. Each campaign would maintain its autonomy of action whilst, at the same time, receiving support from, and working to support, other component members and the growth of the ‘union’ as a whole.

The structures and procedures of the organisation would be based on, and decided through, a system of open and transparent democracy, election, recall, accountability and dismissability.

The ‘advantages’ and ‘benefits’ gained for all its members by the emergence and ‘evolution’ of this type of organisation would be socially ‘selected’, facilitating its consolidation and further development. Herein the separate ‘liberal’ demands would become ‘conjointly socialist demands’ and later capable of challenging the capital system. The emergence and the sustainability of the momentum of such a movement  presupposes a deepening and intensification of the unfolding structural crisis of capital i.e. the historical ground and conditions would have to be such that its conflicts and antagonisms would be the ‘motor’ or ‘engine’ for the birth and continuous propagation and development of such a movement. It is unlikely that an ‘ebb and flow’ situation where the capital order alternates between periods of ‘recession’ and stabilisation would constitute the ground necessary for such a movement. Only the unfolding of a ‘full-blown’ crisis in its successively interconnected and uninterruptedly worsening phases would constitute the ground for the birth and growth of such a ‘union’.

Without confronting the destructive consequences of the rule of global capital prior to the conquest of power by the proletariat there can be no emergence of an ‘organisational framework’ for revolution. Nevertheless, such confrontation taken in itself will be insufficient in the long run, however vital and indispensable the ‘negativity’ of this process of confrontation, in its diverse forms, is in generating the conditions necessary for the formation of the required revolutionary agency.

This ‘pluralistic’ process of confrontation has, in the form of various campaigns and movements, already begun and will inevitably intensify. The overriding consideration here is not ‘pluralism’ per se but rather how this ‘pluralism’ of the historical movement of the proletariat against capital can be articulated –  i.e. posited in its negativity – into a coherent form of organisation which can form the basis for revolution. The conception to inform how we engage is not simply pluralism per se but socialist pluralism.

To employ a musical analogy, there is ‘pluralism’ in an orchestra. Here woodwind, there brass, this side percussion, this place for strings, etc. And, of course, without this ‘pluralism’ there is no orchestral music. However, if each section follows its own score and does not play from a common sheet and, moreover, if the orchestra is without conduction, co-ordination and musical direction what results is not music but cacophony.  Without the origination and development of an intrinsic, non-sectarian, organic element or historical force arising within the relations between these ‘pluralities’, which co-ordinates and constitutes the ‘pluralities’ into a fighting socialist unity of revolution, what will result is not revolution but ‘disarray and defeat’.

This ‘organic element’ cannot be ‘parachuted’ into or imposed on the ‘pluralities’ from ‘without’ but must necessarily arise and crystallise out within the movement of the relations between these ‘pluralities’ so as to constitute an ‘organisational framework’ on the solid ground of the whole movement. In regard to this, the sect seeks to substitute its programme for the movement as a whole rather than merging with that movement to enrich it. Marx himself spoke of the ‘socialist sectarianism’ of his time and recommended that it integrated itself with the class movement as a whole rather than trying to preach to it from its various pulpits.

Thus, this ‘negativity’ of ‘radical pluralistic’ confrontation, without bringing together this pluralism into a coherent positive ‘organisational framework’ for revolution, is one which will recurrently dissipate and disperse in the whirlpool of global capital’s crisis no matter how often it rises to confront the effects of this crisis.

Without taking on board this fundamental consideration of a coherent organisational framework, the concept of ‘pluralism’ gets us no further up the road towards the required agency. The fragmentary character of the emerging movements against the devastating results of capital’s reproduction must be overcome if the aims of these movements are to be fully realised. Capital functions as a unitary global socio-economic and political power over the proletariat. To truly challenge its rule is to challenge this unitary power itself.

For example, factory occupations, struggles to oppose environmental destruction, formation of anti-capitalist and anti-militarist ‘networking’ through the internet, trade unions strikes against cuts in public provision, etc, are all movements opposing the effects of capital’s structural crisis on the natural and cultural conditions necessary for the future society. These are ways of trying to preserve and develop these conditions and they constitute the nascent material for the formation of revolutionary agency. However, in their separation and fragmentation from each other – regardless of how militant and radical they may be – they cannot challenge the global unitary power of capital. The different capitals compete against each other globally but they all constitute themselves as a singular power when it comes to their common interest. They are, unlike the proletariat, acutely conscious of the substantiality of common interest and rush to each other’s defence in times of crisis when the capital order is truly threatened. It is only when these movements opposing the manifestations of capital’s crisis come into relation with each other within an ‘organisational framework’ that they then have the potential to challenge this unitary global power of the capital order. And it is only within this context that…

the elementary condition of success of the socialist project is its inherent pluralism. It sets out from the acknowledgement of the existing differences and inequalities; not to preserve them (which is a necessary concomitant of all fictitious and arbitrarily enforced ‘unity’) but to supersede them in the only viable form: by securing the active involvement of all those concerned” [Beyond Capital, p.699].

This is….

impossible without the elaboration of specific strategies and ‘mediations’, arising from the particular determinations of changing needs and circumstances, which represent the greatest challenge to contemporary Marxist theory [Ibid, p.699].

These ‘most urgent demands of our times’ and the forces behind them can no longer be ‘incorporated into capital’s objective dynamics of self-expansion’. They must and will motivate the struggles ‘for the foreseeable future’.

The notion of the creation of ‘a genuinely pluralist framework of common action’ [p.702] indicates the direction in which we have to move, to actively engage for the purpose of establishing the necessary form of revolutionary agency in the unfolding of the ‘socialist offensive’.

Moreover, it is paramount to note that the historically defensive conditions of the past meant that Marxists had a tendency to focus ‘on the general principles of the socialist alternative’. Under the changed conditions which are becoming increasingly offensive this ‘declaration of faith… in the abstract…. is completely out of place’ [pp.702-03]. The need to integrate the…

totality of social demands, from the most immediate ‘non-socialist’ everyday concerns to those openly questioning capital’s social order as such, into a theoretically coherent as well as instrumentally/organisationally viable strategic alternative [Beyond Capital, p.703]

now comes into view on the historical horizon as a most urgent task.

Thus, the real issue is how to set firmly an overall direction to follow while fully acknowledging the constraining circumstances and the power of immediacy opposed to ideal shortcuts [p.703]

6. Towards a Critique of Marx’s Conception of the Proletariat and a Re-Evaluation of the Workers’ Council

We are not, at the moment, pre-occupied with the conception that…

the social form which defines itself through the (….) ‘expropriation of the  expropriators’ (….) could not be considered a truly self-sustaining form, because of the contradictions arising from its continued dependency on the negated object [Beyond Capital, p.371].

We take it as given, on grounds of dialectics alone, that the further resolution of these ‘contradictions arising from its continued dependency on the negated object’ will lead on towards more ‘truly self-sustaining forms’.

However, what is not taken as given is the form of agency through which the proletariat will conduct the struggle for the destruction of the political power of global capital. Indeed, for the time present, all conceptions and deliberations on the form of agency should be taken provisionally so as not to fall into the trap of speculation and positivism. The provisionality of all conceptions on this question of agency must be tested and re-tested against the developing situation of capital’s structural crisis and the response of the proletariat to it. Only when the totality of the conditions necessary for its formation have emerged or, at least, are in the process of formation, will a more definitive conception be possible.

Historically, it may be argued that the most advanced form of agency which the proletariat has actually created under conditions of crisis is the workers’ council. Meszaros refers to Lukacs’s analysis of workers’ councils as examples of institutions which…

in the situation after the dictatorship ought to overcome the bourgeois separation of legislative, executive and judiciary


in the struggle for power it is called upon to end the spatio-temporal fragmentation of the proletariat, and also to bring together economics and politics in the true unity of proletarian activity, and in this way to help reconcile the dialectical opposition of immediate interests and ultimate aim.

[p.287, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, quote taken from Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein, ed. cit., p.93. Berlin, 1923. Quotation translated by G.H.R. Parkinson].

Note the phrase ‘in the situation after the dictatorship’. Is it not the work of this ‘dictatorship’ to ‘overcome this bourgeois separation…’? How is it overcome only ‘after the dictatorship’? So what is the purpose of this ‘dictatorship’? Is not the passing of the ‘dictatorship’ indicative that this ‘bourgeois separation’ has effectively been ‘overcome’?

We shall leave readers to grapple with the paradox of this puzzle. The author of this article would welcome any enlightenment or correspondence on this matter.

Nonetheless, the workers’ council in this conception taken from Lukacs’s influential work is seen as a sort of ‘one size fits all’ or a ‘swiss army knife’ of an institution in which it is not only central in organising and prosecuting ‘the struggle for power’ but, it seems, is adaptable and sustainable enough to take us beyond capital. Meszaros contradicts this conception by asserting the need for ‘institutions which must be restructured en route, through manifold transitions and mediations’ such that, for example…

the social form which defines itself through the (….) ‘expropriation of the  expropriators’ (….) could not be considered a truly self-sustaining form, because of the contradictions arising from its continued dependency on the negated object [Beyond Capital, p.371].

With Meszaros, therefore, the workers’ council together with all the ‘party trimmings’could not be considered a ‘truly self-sustaining form, etc’. There is a clear break here with the Lukacs of History and Class Consciousness. This discrepancy can be largely explained, of course, by the qualitatively different historical conditions within which Lukacs and Meszaros have developed their conceptions, times of cyclical crisis of displaceable contradictions and times of structural crisis in which the contradictions are becoming hemmed in, tending towards unresolvability and steadily intensifying, these root features characterising the different epochs and conceptions respectively.

However, making allowance for this, in his critique of Lukacs in Beyond Capital, Meszaros looks at Lukacs’s ‘changing evaluation of the workers’ councils’ [see Beyond Capital, section 9.2, p.371 ff]. and writes that he later dismissed…

the idea of self-management through the collective agency of Workers’ Councils (….), without attempting to put anything historically concrete and institutionally safeguarded in the place of the criticised material complexes….

and fell into….

an idealist substitute for the necessary and feasible organs of participatory social control [Beyond Capital, p.375].

Accordingly, Lukacs himself, by falling into ‘an idealist substitute’, contradicts his earlier conception in History and Class Consciousness that workers’ councils were essentially fit for the previously ascribed purpose.

It would be too hasty to completely dismiss workers’ councils. However, the axiomatic belief within the sectarian left that workers’ councils would always be the necessary organs of proletarian revolution now needs to be seriously questioned. The formation of such bodies needs to be grasped historically just as we have re-appraised the ‘vanguard party’ within its historical context. (On this question of vanguardism, see Beyond Capital, p. 675 ff.)

The workers council was a recurring product at different times and places (a political leitmotif) of the period of conjunctural, cyclical crises of the capital order. It was the most advanced form of organisation taken by the proletariat in struggle prior to the onset of the structural crisis of capital when the contradictions of the capital order were still displaceable. With the onset of capital’s structural crisis and the altered character of the global conditions and of the proletariat itself, we need to ask questions about the adequacy of this form of organisation. This is not to state categorically that the unfolding of the structural stage of capital’s crisis will not produce workers’ councils. This may well happen. However, we need to raise the question of the ‘adequacy’ of the workers’ council as the predominant mode of revolutionary agency in the epoch of capital’s structural crisis.

We have consider how the changed global conditions – and especially the changes which have taken place in the character of the proletariat over the last half century – will inform the character of the new types of organisations and the agency of revolution for the ‘socialist offensive’. Indeed, bearing in mind the altered global conditions, it may well be that the ‘historical time’ of the workers’ council has now passed.

This is where a critique of Marx’s conception of the proletariat may well bear fruit. On pages 978-986 of Beyond Capital is a transcript of an interview which Meszaros gave to ‘Marxism Today’ in April 1992. The last question in the interview raises the problem of how the differential rate of exploitation across the globe can serve as an impediment to the development of proletarian internationalism. Meszaros acknowledges this problem but also says that this is where…

a critique of Marx has to be indicated, because the working class is fragmented, is divided, and there are so many contradictions (p.986 Beyond Capital).

But if a critique of Marx is indicated here in relation to our conception of the proletariat, then what are the implications for the development of conceptions of revolutionary agency? A more comprehensive evaluation of workers’ councils – putting them into their historical context – might possibly arise out of a critique of Marx’s conception of the proletariat which is over 150 years old.

For if there have been historically significant changes in the structure/nature of the proletariat itself since Marx developed his conception – as manifest in its current global situation and changed occupational structure – then does this not indicate a thorough re-appraisal of those organisations through which the class has traditionally conducted its struggles, be they defensive or offensive, trade union or workers’ council?

Such a critique may not necessarily indicate their total supersedence but rather a supersedence of their present form, for example, the currently bureaucratised form of trade unionism. Likewise, the critique of the workers’ council may indicate a transcendence into a qualitatively higher form which incorporates its most relevant sides for the altered conditions but leaves behind more outmoded, redundant aspects associated with its operation under older conditions i.e. a comprehensive critique relative to the change in historical conditions since Marx elaborated his conception of the proletariat. The resulting conception would inform our perspectives and orientation in the current global situation. Surely this is very important theoretical work waiting to be done.

A significant component of the contemporary proletariat in the metropolitan capitalist countries is made up of unproductive ‘service sector’ workers and the structurally unemployed subsisting on state benefits. (Unproductive in Marx’s sense, for example, in part one of his Theories of Surplus Value*) As well as the millions who work in the ‘service sector’, there are those ‘middle-class’ workers like medics, clerical staff, engineers, teachers, etc, who are now proletarianised i.e. they can only survive by selling their capacity to labour (if they are fortunate enough to find employment) whether this is simple, unskilled labour or more complex, compounded, skilled and highly technicalised labour. It is true that many workers hold pensions, have shares and savings, own their own homes and some even have second homes but all these are the outcome of their labours and rest upon continued employment. Besides the precariousness of their property and savings, etc, with the anarchy of the market and crisis, the termination of employment brings the prospect of liquidation of any assets to the fore simply in order to maintain their current living standards. A worker – retired or not – with a pension, his own home and car and a slim portfolio of savings and shares does not a finance capitalist make.

The conception developed by Marx was largely of a proletariat of productive labour. But if we look at the proletariat globally then what sort of picture do we get in relation to the balance of productive and unproductive workers?

Moreover, what is the relationship between the ‘metropolitan’ proletariat and their ‘third world’ brothers and sisters? It seems that the distinction between productive and unproductive labour roughly corresponds to this separation.

Globally there exists an increasing polarisation of unproductive and productive labour between the metropolitan and other regions of the globe respectively.  The mass transfer of value from these ‘other regions’ arises out of the most brutal forms of superexploitation of wage labour and serves to propagate those ‘consumerist service industries’ in the metropolitan capitalist countries which corresponds approximately to a division between the production of value, in one part, and its realisation, in another part of the globe.

This transfer of value to the metropolitan capitalist countries ‘cushions’, to a certain degree, employed and unemployed workers in these countries. The unfolding of the structural crisis of global capital will tend to remove this ‘cushion’ with the increasing tendency towards the downward equalisation of the rate of exploitation of labour. In other words, the rate of exploitation of workers in the major capitalist countries will tend to increase towards that of workers in the ‘superexploited regions’. And if, under the changing global conditions of the reproduction of capital, they are not employable (i.e. not exploitable), then, increasingly, the pauperisation of the many millions we see in these ‘other regions’ awaits the proletariat in the major capitalist areas : de te fabula narratur.

Thus, not only is the class divided in each country but it is divided up globally by capital and this will need to inform how we are going to establish organisations which serve to unite the class in the coming struggles. The unemployed can be used by capital against the employed and vice versa just as their media whip up and encourage hostility between workers from different regions of the globe.

The character and occupational composition of the global proletariat has altered to such a degree over the last half century that it now warrants a critique of Marx’s conception of it which is over 150 years old. This is necessary in order to inform and concretise the elaboration of the conception of revolutionary agency. Marx’s conception of the proletariat therefore needs to be ‘brought forward’ for this vital purpose. [4]

So the elaboration of a critique of Marx’s conception must also incorporate the ‘globalisation’ of the proletariat itself. In his day, of course, not only was the proletariat concentrated in the newly industrialised or industrialising regions but it was essentially productive in nature. Capital was still ‘in its little corner’ but increasingly spreading itself across the globe. Now we have a qualitatively different situation where global capital and an occupationally and socially more complex proletariat increasingly confront each other as the structural crisis of the capital order unfolds.

*Theories of Surplus Value, Part 1, Chapter IV, Theories of Productive and Unproductive Labour, pp152-305, Lawrence & Wishart/Progress Publishers, 1969.

*Capital, Volume 1. Appendix : Results of the Immediate Process of Production, Productive and Unproductive Labour, pp 1038-1052. Penguin Books, 1976 (Introduction by Ernest Mandel)

7. ‘The Historical Moment of Radical Politics’ : Some Implications for the Character of Revolutionary Agency

On pages 948-951 of Beyond Capital are two subsections entitled Alternatives to the dominant ‘economic imperatives’ and The Historical moment of radical politics which raise some important questions regarding the relationship between ‘radical politics’ and the ‘social body’ ‘at the height of the crisis’. What is also implicitly raised here is the question of what form of proletarian organisation can best take advantage of this ‘historical moment’.

Let us start with the first subsection in which Meszaros writes….

Times of major economic crisis always open up a sizeable breach in the established order which no longer succeeds in delivering the goods that served as its unquestioned justification. Such breaches may be enlarged, in the service of social restructuring, or indeed filled in for shorter or longer duration, in the interest of capital’s continued survival, depending on the general historical circumstances and on the relation of forces in the political and social arena………only a radical political initiative can move into the breach [p.949].

Because the crisis presents itself to society as a crisis of economy, the proletariat intially seeks answers in economic measures, ‘leaving their social causes intact’.

The outcome is a defining of economic solutions by the proletariat in terms of the social parameters of the capital order, so that the ‘restructuring potential of revolutionary politics’ is buried under ‘narrowly defined economic tasks’ within the established framework and parameters of the capital system. This system can, by such measures, be unwittingly stabilised.

In the next section on the historical moment of radical politics (p.950 ff), he writes that this…

‘moment’ of radical politics is strictly limited by the nature of the crises in question and the temporal determinations of their unfolding [p.950]

Moreover, unless the appropriate measures are adopted – (and does this not imply the existence of the ‘appropriate’ form of agency?) – then the ‘measures adopted to fill it’ can serve to stabilise the capital order rather than undermine it. The dead weight of the capital order, its socio-economic structures, institutions and traditions tend to retrench themselves out of their temporary instability once the crisis has passed.

Accordingly, it is not simply the role of any future revolutionary agency to stick to ‘limited economic targets’ but rather it must initiate a struggle to actually begin the process of re-structuring the socio-economic metabolism so that the measures adopted actually start to make inroads into the social infrastructure of capital and into the capital relation itself even in the obstructing presence of the state power of that relation, as it casts its menacing shadow over the organised proletariat itself. For example, if, under such conditions, the proletariat merely seeks to improve its wages and employment terms or repeal anti-labour legislation etc, after years of denudation of those conditions, rather than fighting to completely alter the actual social relations within which the denudation of those wages and terms has actually taken place, then its actions serve to re-trench those relations rather than negate them. Given favourable conditions, capital can readily make a tactical retreat on the economic front in the full knowledge that the overall social parameters of its existence are preserved. If ‘agency’ sticks within the parameters of the old exploitative framework rather than attempting to dissolve that framework and establish relations which point beyond capital, then ‘radical politics rapidly invites its own negation – shortening rather than prolonging the favourable ‘moment’ of intervention’ so that any economic gains or concessions made do not necessarily serve to prolong the ‘historical moment of radical politics’. Rather they tend to serve to relieve the ‘most pressing crisis symptoms’ and therefore serve to reinforce the old conditions (the ‘old reproductive mechanism shaken by the crisis’). The ‘first sign of ‘recovery’ serves to facilitate – ‘sustain and enforce’ – the retrenchment of the old conditions by means of inertia, political reaction and the re-positing of the ‘line of least resistance’. The ensuing ‘claimed ‘recovery’ itself’ is used as ideological justification for a return to the old ways ‘in harmony with the dominant institutional framework’. [p.950, Beyond Capital]

Such ‘economic’ measures are therefore effectively dictated by the ruling order in crisis. These would be measures through which ‘agency’ is essentially defining its aims merely in relation to and in terms of the dominant, prevailing socio-economic order in crisis. Whereas the initiation of a struggle to radically alter the social relations in the workplace, for example, is struggling to go beyond it, i.e. beyond the prevailing socio-economic order, in those aims, i.e. they are measures adopted and actualised by the organised proletariat as the beginnings of a historical process to point beyond the age of capital, measures which will generate the most tenacious resistance from its state power.

What the proletariat actually does with these appropriated powers is absolutely critical for what unfolds subsequently: reaction or the opening out of the horizon of revolution.

The only way the revolutionary agency can maintain its influence ‘beyond the peak of the crisis’ and speed the momentum of initiated changes is by relentlessly pressing ahead with further measures (by ‘turning ‘fleeting time’ into enduring space by means of restructuring the powers and institutions of decision-making’ [p.951, Beyond Capital]) which, however minor or major they may be, must point beyond capital and not serve to re-trench it.

If they point beyond capital, they serve to augment, to accelerate and perpetuate the whole revolutionary dynamic which has, thereby, already commenced in the face of opposition from the capitalist state. The skirmishes and collisions between the capitalist state and the young organs of revolution then must inevitably start to turn into, take on the direct, immediate form and expression of a struggle for power, a life and death struggle in which the capitalist state fights to defend the old conditions and the organised proletariat to transcend them and establish conditions for the transcendence of the age of capital proper by breaking its state power.

At all costs, what is fundamental is not to ‘revitalise capital’ but to point beyond it by means of a complete radical re-structuring of powers and decision-making to initiate and sustain such improvements’. And herein lies the essential character of the relationship between the revolutionary agency (‘radical politics’), on the one hand, and the proletariat (the ‘social body’) as a whole, on the other. Thus, to succeed in its aims, ‘radical politics’ must “transfer at the height of the crisis its aspirations – in the form of effective powers of decision-making at all levels and in all areas, including the economy – to the social body itself from which subsequent material and political demands would emanate. This is the only way in which radical politics could sustain its own line of strategy, instead of militating against it’ [p.951, Beyond Capital]

It is, accordingly, a question of establishing a form of agency which will not simply define its objectives and adopt ‘narrow economic’ measures within the terms and parameters of the capital order but rather in terms which challenge and point beyond that order rather than patching or shoring it up.

The actual duration of the ‘historical moment’ depends on the nature of the crisis itself, whether it is cyclical or structural, on the degree of its severity for the capital order, whether it is a stage in the unfolding crisis, whether or not the whole crisis is reaching its highest point of development, whether the eruption of its contradictions can be temporarily ameliorated by the state, etc.

So a ‘moment’ could be literally days or it could, possibly, stretch out into weeks or even months depending on the character of the crisis. Bearing in mind that here we are referring to the unfolding of a structural crisis of the capital relation, we cannot exclude the possibility that this ‘historical moment of radical politics’ will not be ‘fleeting’ at all but could be more like the unfolding of a long drawn out, continuously deepening, determinate crisis-process in which different stages and phases of this crisis-process pass into higher ones with the emergence of qualitatively new, higher ‘temporal determinations’, material relations and characteristics as the crisis worsens. In other words, a whole new determinate stage opens up and unfolds which is characterised by phenomena and struggles which were previously unthinkable in the earlier phases of the maturation of capital’s structural crisis.

A simple analogy might the start of a forest fire. Initially the fire might develop and spread relatively slowly and, to a certain extent, is containable by the authorities. But a sudden marked shift in conditions, for example very hot weather accompanied by high winds, would very rapidly transform the situation to the point where the fire becomes uncontrollable, a firestorm. This latter stage becomes a determinately and qualitatively diffferent stage of development of the fire compared to the initial containable phase.

This is a consideration of fundamental importance because it impacts on the emergence and evolution of the character of the agency of revolution itself. The revolutionary agency would be unsustainable if it were simply a loose, merely ‘interfacial’, confederation of different organisations and campaigns, etc, without a coherently established and functioning ‘organisational framework’ which constitutes a unification through participation of its various components. Under the weight of such conditions of crisis, a loose, informal federation would be more likely to disintegrate whereas the overarching, determinate organisation of some kind of established ‘union’, as long as it is adapatable and able to be re-structured ‘en route’, would be more likely to maintain its cohesion as it moves into the ‘breach’. In other words, there must be a real, determinate, substantial organisational and participatory coherence of the ‘pluralities’ and not simply a formal conferentiality in which the ‘pluralities’ merely ‘interface’ rather than organically integrating whilst maintaining their distinction within the established organisational and participatory coherence. It is only in this political coherence that objectives which point beyond the age of capital can be developed, refined and fought for against the political power of capital itself.

The ‘historical moment’ therefore needs to be contextualised not in terms of and within the historically experienced parameters and conditions of past, conjunctural crises with their displaceable contradictions but rather in terms of an all-embracing, unfolding structural crisis of the capital relation in which the contradictions are tending towards undisplaceability, intensifying and playing themselves out in a seemingly unending series of crises, social explosions and cataclysmic events. We know that the dead weight of the capital order re-asserted itself and re-captured its equilibrium after the cyclical crises of the past but we are no longer speaking of such crises.

So when Meszaros writes that…

As history amply testifies, at the first sign of ‘recovery’, politics is pushed back into its traditional role of helping to sustain and enforce the given socio-economic determinations. [Beyond Capital, p.950]

….we have to note circumspectly that  ‘as history testifies’, it is a testament of past conjunctural crises, not of the developing structural one. In past crises, ‘radical politics….accelerated its own demise….by defining its own scope in terms of limited economic targets… etc’  dictated by the capital order in crisis. This order re-trenched itself ‘at the first sign of recovery’ with the aid of ‘politics… its traditional role’.

But previous crises were not structural. ‘Recovery’ would have a different connotation within this ‘structuralised’ context as would the response of ‘politics in its traditional role’ even if those ‘politics’ still had the legs to come to the rescue. We cannot discount the possibility that the political landscape coming into being may be unrecognisable compared to what it is now and that ‘politics in its traditional role’ may have effectively disappeared under the impact of unfolding events.

The maturation of a structural crisis must give rise to a qualitatively new situation between the contending classes which surpasses the character of the determinations and relations which emerged under the conditions of the old, displaceable conjunctural crises. Thus, in relation to the deepening of capital’s structural crisis, it may be that the ‘testimony of history’, in regard to the application of the lessons of the historical experience of conjunctural crises to the situation of the unfolding structural crisis, would need to be employed with due care and qualification. This ‘testimony’ may well turn out to be as useful for this purpose as employing copper wiring for computers which have been designed to receive fibre optics.

Another very important observation for this whole question of agency concerns the relation between ‘radical politics’ and the ‘social body’. We read that…

to succeed in its original aim, radical politics must transfer at the height of the crisis its aspirations – in the form of effective powers of decision-making at all levels and in all areas, including the economy – to the social body itself from which subsequent material and political demands would emanate. This is the only way in which radical politics could sustain its own line of strategy, instead of militating against it [p.951, Beyond Capital].

Here – as I see it – there is a need for a more concrete clarification of terms. What is actually meant by the terms ‘radical politics’ and ‘social body’?

It seems to me that some of the terms themselves in Beyond Capital in this section are not concretely characterised enough and are too generalised so as to render them open to an interpretation in which misunderstanding and confusion becomes possible. ‘Radical politics’ and ‘social body’ are, I suggest respectfully, examples of two such terms.

Since ‘radical politics’ does not mean a small vanguardist cabal of left sectarians, in this contribution the term ‘radical politics’ is taken to mean the agency of revolution itself whose relationship with the ‘social body’ is taken to be its relationship with the proletariat as whole in its various productive and non-productive activities.

Implicitly, the actual transfer takes place through the activity of the agency of revolution which also implies an organic relationship between this agency and the proletariat as a whole. Without this organic relationship there can be no transfer and this remains a fundamental part of the whole question of agency to be addressed. The development of the conception of agency must therefore grapple with the very concrete nature of this ‘organic relationship’

The ‘radical restructuring of politics itself’ (p.951) is therefore understood here to mean the establishment of the historically necessary form of revolutionary agency to commence the process of appropriating capital’s powers and to begin to re-structure and re-organise the entire socio-economic landscape in favour of socialism. This ‘mass-oriented’, ‘radical restructuring of politics’ – grounded in and arising out of the maturing of capital’s structural crisis – is therefore a historical prerequisite to this appropriation and re-organisation. The agency of revolution arising in the process of this ‘radical restructuring’ – to begin and continue with the whole process of the transcendence of the capital relation – must fuse itself with the proletariat as a whole in the closest organic relationship ‘from which subsequent material and political demands would emanate’. In other words, it must ‘fuse the power of political decision-making with the social base from which it has been alienated for so long’. In the Soviet system, this ‘power of political decision making’ remained ‘alienated from the social base’. Without such a transfer of political power to ‘the sphere of mass self-activity’, defeat becomes, according to Meszaros, a ‘self-imposed certainty’. This transfer therefore becomes a necessary condition for breaking the resistance and power of the state power of capital to these actions and negating it in the ensuing struggles.   

8. The Co-temporality of the Commencement of the Re-structuring of the ‘Social Metabolism’ and the Onset of Political Revolution

The continuation of the unfolding of the structural crisis of capital can only mean a historically unprecedented degree of destruction of the natural and cultural conditions of human existence itself. Increasingly, as each day passes, we witness on a global scale the horrendous effects on nature and humanity of profit-driven activities and capital’s crisis. The wholesale destruction of natural habitats and their species for profit, the deaths of thousands of human beings every day from malnutrition in a world glutted with food (according to UN figures, as a statistical average, one person dies every 3 seconds from malnutrition or a related condition), millions are condemned to an unfulfilling and mentally crippling existence in their daily lives, the growing and intensifying exploitation of the young, etc, are just a few of the broad categorisations which the development of capital’s global crisis is creating and perpetuating. The crisis is not simply economic or a crisis of the capital relation itself. It affects and is animating every single aspect of human life on the planet. Truly, a historical global storm of unprecedented, and previously unthought of, proportions is starting to gather.

This crisis is starting to give birth to an age of uncontrolled and unattenuated barbarism, of social fragmentation and alienation, wars and mass destruction on a global scale. This is the driving logic (its begriff) of the global trajectory of capital order. This developing process of mass destruction of man and nature can only be ended with the wholesale uprooting of the capital relation on a global scale and its historical negation as the fundamentally determining relation of the socio-economic metabolism. To replace a society founded on the capital relation with one founded on the identification, cultivation and refinement of human needs.

It is the deepening effects of this structural crisis of the capital system on their lives which motivates and drives the proletariat towards revolution, pushing it onwards under fire. If they try to ‘go on in the old way’ they will become increasingly subject to the more profound, more brutal and barbaric effects of this deepening crisis, being destroyed in all aspects by these effects and tending to become as a class of paupers, beggars, low-wage slaves and vagabonds – like the oppressed, downtrodden classes towards the latter end of the Roman period, of the colonate of late empire. This, of course, would not resolve the question for capital. Rather, it would intensify the whole crisis. What would arise subsequent to this is anybody’s guesswork but catastrophic and horrific are words too mild to employ.

Human history is an ‘open-ended’ process. Socialism is not the inevitable outcome of the development of capitalism. If that were the case, it would be the most pleasant of pleasant scenarios which would enable us all to sit back and wait for the appointed time of global capitalism’s collapse. And then in would trot the remains of the proletariat to simply re-organise everything on socialist foundations and, voila, the spectre of the rosy future would beckon us into its bosom.

In the present epoch capital has not only created the conditions for socialism but is also at the same time actively destroying those self-same conditions as a result of the playing out of its immanent nature. The situation has become somewhat ‘overripe’. Socialism is not handed to humanity on a plate as a historical guarantee, a sort of ‘back-up’, if the situation starts to ‘get bad’. It’s already ‘bad’ and socialism is nowhere to be seen either on or over the horizon.

And yet one thing is beyond uncertainty. Capital’s crisis tends historically towards worsening forms. From cyclical, conjunctural crises towards an all-embracing, global structural crisis and onwards towards the intensification of the latter. And, inevitably, with all the worsening and intensifying effects on the mode of life of the proletariat. It is the unfolding of this crisis-process which generates the conditions necessary for the emergence of organs of socialist revolution, for the revolutionary ‘agency’ of the proletariat. This is not to state that they will inevitably come into existence under such conditions. Rather, the emergence and development of these crisis conditions continuously augments only the possibility of their birth and growth  It is, accordingly, this same process which would mediate and animate the subsequent actions of this agency once it had emerged to go forward and to resolve the crisis by the commencement of the process of going beyond capital.

It is precisely because the unfolding of capital’s structural crisis fills every channel, every tributary and capillary of society, infusing itself and its effects into every aspect, without exception, of the life and relationships of society, that the formation of these organs(‘revolutionary agency’, ‘unions of society against capital’, ‘social unions against capital’) of political and social revolution becomes necessary to defend the natural and socio-cultural conditions of the future human society which capital’s crisis is destroying.

The very nature of this structural crisis of capital, the widening of its extensive and especially the deepening of its intensive character, on a global scale, therefore gives rise to the social need for such organisations which confront capital as society’s representative bodies par excellence, bringing these bodies into direct conflict with the capitalist state itself. Capital’s structural crisis constitutes the historic ground for their social necessity, for their sociogenesis. This defence of the natural and socio-cultural conditions of human life would, sooner or later, pass into an offensive process to appropriate the powers of capital in the midst of the latter’s crisis. These organs would commence this process because they could do no other as the crisis and its effects worsened. It is, therefore, this crisis which would animate the taking over of capital’s powers and the start, at the same time, of the restucturing of the socio-economic metabolism towards a socialist one beyond capital. This intensely political process would inevitably generate the most tenacious opposition from the state power of capital.

It is not that – in a concatenated fashion – crisis must give birth to these revolutionary organs and then the conquest of state power must occur prior to the re-structuring of the socio-economic metabolism. Rather it would have to be the initiation of a struggle, by these proletarian organs, in response to capital’s crisis, to appropriate and deploy its powers to begin to resolve the crisis by pointing beyond capital which would simultaneously bring on the conflict over who rules. And only when the state power of capital is defeated, would the vista truly open up for a complete, generalised, extensive and intensive restructuring of the socio-economic metabolism to go beyond capital.

Therefore, within the selfsame spatio-temporality, the revolutionary agency would not only begin to restructure the socio-economic landscape but also prepare politically to mobilise against the state power of capital which itself would be, under such conditions, actively preparing counter measures. The antagonisms created between the revolutionary agency and the state power of capital over who rules would serve to accelerate the dynamic towards revolution. In the course of the unfolding of such a dynamic, the historic tasks facing the revolutionary agency would arise and be addressed in practice. The quintessential tasks therefore facing the revolutionary agency would be the elimination of the political power of capital – beginning with its state power – and the commencement of the invasion into and liquidation of the capital relation itself and alteration of its associated infrastructure in order to start to go beyond capital towards communist human life.

The commencement of the process of appropriating the powers of capital and the re-structuring of the socio-economic landscape can only therefore, indeed must, commence in the violent and obstructing presence of the state power of the capital order and this implies a form of revolutionary agency which is capable of initiating such a struggle as well as conducting, at the same time, a most tenacious political struggle against the capitalist state itself.

Can it be any other way? Can the proletariat overthrow the state power of capital prior to the struggle to re-structure the social metabolism? On what material grounds would it thereby carry out such an overthrow? Otherwise how will the proletariat move to revolution in an age when the continued existence of the capital relation is destroying all the natural and cultural conditions necessary for the new society? There has to be actual material grounds for the political destruction of the state power of capital.

The activity of the revolutionary agency in the process of re-structuring and re-organisation would constitute the grounds for such an overthrow by actually making inroads into the capital relation and its social infrastructure which inevitably would start to shift the ground, shake the foundations, pull the rug, from under the feet of the capitalist state. It would start to lose its balance and feel itself starting to totter. It would have to respond. The revolutionary dynamic then would start to become established.

In other words, without the initiation of the struggle to make such changes, there could be no material ground established for the overthrow of the capitalist state itself. Thus, the struggle to ‘radically restructure’ the social metabolism and the struggle to overthrow the capitalist state are inseparable and must commence together i.e. the initiation of the struggle to go beyond capital is co-temporal with the political revolution to break the state power of the capital order, occurring within the same historic spatio-temporality.

Although it is necessary that the battle to ‘materially re-structure’ commences prior to the overthrow of the state power of capital, it is, at the same time, totally unfeasible that this re-structuring could be maintained and sustained so as to go totally beyond capital without that overthrow. Only when the capitalist state is well and truly vanquished and replaced with the transient state power of the proletariat, at least in a significant part of the globe, does the horizon completely open out for the unhindered and full consummation of this ‘material re-structuring’ beyond capital. The conquest of state power- the transfer of political power by the proletariat to the proletariat – therefore commences in the struggle to appropriate and re-structure the whole socio-economic ground (Who owns, organises, controls and runs this ground and determines its future development? Capital with its state or the proletariat with its agency of revolution?) on which that power is founded, disempowering capital of the ownership and control of society’s landscape.

Implicitly, what would arise is a dual power situation (whose character is not simply ‘political’ but also ‘socio-economic’) animated by the arrival of capital’s structural crisis at the point where the proletariat is actively forced to take such invasive measures against capital. It is at this critical point where the commencement of the transfer of capital’s powers becomes necessary in order to develop and consummate the initiated process of material re-structuring.

Consider a situation where the conflict between the proletariat and the state has reached such a point that there is effectively emerging such a duality of power. The structural crisis of capital has brought society to a pre-revolutionary stage. The depth of this crisis is animating the whole situation.The capitalist state still has all its structures intact and coherence of organisation, and is struggling by various means to hold on to its rule over society and yet the proletariat has coherently organised itself into mass socio-political bodies and is endeavouring, at the same time, to assert its rule over society and, as a result, employing various methods, coming into open conflict with the capitalist state.

It is at this point, whilst the capitalist state is still actually in existence and still functioning to hold on to power, that the proletariat is already, at the same time, fighting to point the way beyond capital by initiating socio-economic changes and using its organs of revolution to develop, sustain and defend these changes. So already, at this stage, the process of disempowering the capitalist state has already begun whilst the capitalist state is still in power.

For example, in the deepening crisis, hospitals, utilities and sections of the transport network may have been taken over by the work of the organised bodies of the proletariat. The state is resisting this and using strongarm tactics to try to re-impose its control. But already, the proletariat in these sectors has begun to re-organise the way things are done which differs fundamentally from the old way of management under the appointees of capital and the state. So, in a certain sense, we have here a point of departure of the ‘material re-structuring’ prior to the overthrow of capital’s state power. However, and this needs to be stressed, these intial beginnings to ‘materially restructure’ are tentative, conditional, and not built on solid foundations because the oppressive shadow of capital’s rule still looms over the proletariat in the form of its state. As soon as this tentative, highly conditional and insecure process of re-structuring commences in the presence of this state, the capitalist state must prepare to act with the totality of its forces because it feels the ground shifting and disappearing from under its feet. Control of this socio-economic ground is the foundation of its very existence. This is the point of do or die because the proletariat cannot go on and sustain its changes under fire. It must act or go under. And the state power of capital cannot re-establish its control and ‘order’ without continuing to resort to martial measures until it has achieved its objectives of crushing ‘rebellion’.

Herein, under such conditions, lies the absolutely fundamental importance of the unity and coherence of proletarian organisation. What does ‘pluralism’ actually mean under such conditions, without a unifying coherence and co-ordination of action, when the state is launching a full scale military assault against the proletariat fighting to lay down the conditions and foundations for the new society?

The above analysis, if it ‘holds water’, suggests that the agency of revolution must be both a mass movement for socio-cultural transformation which has become established as a determinate and coherent ‘organisational framework’ prior to the overthrow of the capitalist state whilst simultaneously being the active organ of political revolution capable of negating the state power of capital. It is not merely a political body like a party or ‘movement’ which defeats the capitalist state through the organisation of a military struggle and war. Rather it constitutes itself as a socio-cultural singularity in which socio-economic, political and other roles and functions would arise out of it as demanded according to the changing conditions and development of the struggle to put an end to the age of capital.

The alteration, adaptation or modification of the agency of revolution or even its complete replacement by qualitatively distinct, new forms of organisation (‘not dependent on the negated object’) which are more adequate for changes or transformations in conditions (‘re-structuring en route’) will be decided by ‘mass activity’ and prosecuted through the ‘agency’ of the masses according to the conditions prevailing at the time. The constant ‘self-criticism’ to which revolutions subject themselves must therefore necessarily involve this constant ‘re-structuring en route’ i.e. the criticism is not merely a ‘critical criticism’ but a revolutionary criticism which provides for, and actually organises, the real process of this material re-structuring en route. The capacity of the masses to proceed with these ongoing processes of organisational self-supersedence when the time comes to move on illustrates that it is they who are ‘in charge’ and not an aloof party machine or conservative, ossified state structures like bureaucratised soviets.

Needless to say, whatever form the agency of revolution may take, a worked conception of its historical tenure would be required in order to adequately gauge the historical moment when it can be safely superseded (left behind), without any threat of the restoration of the political power of capital.

However, even when the state is ‘overthrown’, the ‘power’ of capital remains just by its continued presence and by any remnants of the process of commodification in the social metabolism and this can generate reactionary and restorationist trends in its favour until social revolution eradicates capitalist commodity production completely from the social metabolism. Indeed, for the state to be in the final phase of ‘withering away’ (i.e. for society to finally dispense with the state once and for all) implies an advanced stage of development of the struggle against capitalist commodity production to the point even where that struggle itself is becoming rendered increasingly unnecessary and thereby redundant. After all, an emergent, stateless, global human society is the beginnings of a communist human life. The global capitalist epoch has been well and truly left behind as communist society starts to mediate its own development on its own self-created foundations. Thus, whilst capital retains political power in any significant part of the globe, there will be a need for defensive measures at least and this implies state organisation in one form or another, no matter how transient.

Shaun May   July 2010


[1] Meszaros, Istvan., The Uncontrollability and Destructiveness of Globalizing Capital in The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time. Socialism in the Twenty First Century. Monthly Review Press, 2008. p. 61

[2] Meszaros, Istvan., Beyond Capital. Merlin Press, 1995.

[3] For a more detailed analysis, see Slaughter, Cliff., Not Without A Storm : Towards A Communist Manifesto for the Age of Globalisation, Chapter 8, The Twentieth Century: A Hypothesis. Index Books, London, 2006. And also his book Bonfire of the Certainties : The Second Human Revolution (2013)

[4] On this question of the altered composition and character of the proletariat, see, for example, Hookes, David., The Information Proletariat in the Era of Globalisation. 


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