“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again” (— The Who)
The recent presidential election in the US has left many people around the world confused if not anxious. Yet worrying about Donald Trump This and Donald Trump That misses the point — and gives the Left altogether too much credit.
The Trump victory is symptomatic that the capitalist class has lost its revolutionary cachet. It rose to power having seduced its creature, the working class, to help it seize power in revolutions all over the world, most typically those in mid-19th century Europe. To accomplish this feat, it made a radical switch in the Romantic era, from fulminating against the menace of letting the working class govern – excoriated as ‘a great beast’ (The People) by Alexander Hamilton – to making common cause with its own class enemies, on the promise of indefinite rewards once the bourgeois middle class took power.
Overall, this new policy tended to work like a charm, though it was not without its problems. For one thing, it inadvertently legitimized long-standing grievances and demands of ‘power to the people’ that traced their roots back to the French Revolution of 1789 – in much the same way as the US would later legitimize the emerging Islamist movement of the 1970s by intervening in Afghanistan.
But the corporate revolution that set in following World War I caused the capitalist class to think better of its earlier flirtation with the forces of democracy and revolution. Increasingly conservative, many capitalists began thinking instead in terms of consolidating their power, a trend which the war had accelerated. Liberal capitalism was morphing into something more cohesive, a richer, denser plutocracy whose most pressing need was to thwart efforts to modify capitalism’s power structure in favour of the working class.
The ultimate expression of this trend today bears the ungainly names of ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘neo-conservatism.’ Its adepts brandish a massive array of carrot-and-stick policies aimed at controlling or confounding the working class through vast networks of deception, disinformation and – where these fail – naked force. But fussing over the details of class struggle can lead to its own peculiar myopia. Today’s all-powerful Right is actually a very shaky and dysfunctional bandwagon; its factions will in all likelihood begin falling out before too long. And borrowing from Marx’s observation in The 18th Brumaire, it is not hard to imagine a follow-up pendulum swing back in the other direction, as neo-New-Dealers farcically attempt a comeback, hoping to recover what they can from the preceding wreckage.
So what does this portend, exactly? Historically, politically and economically, the working class has always been the material force underwriting the legitimacy of capitalism. In the works, under the leadership of the oil billionaires, is nothing less than Capital’s gratuitous renunciation of any acknowledgement that it ever depended on the working class – especially for political support. Our Betters no longer need us to move and shake the world, either at times of crisis or in the hurly-burly of business. We are being handed our walking papers as a class. History is over. The hubris of Capital has grown so huge the master class now figures that the bad old days of needing our help every so often are, well, history. This naturally reinforces a tendency to regress to the earlier open antagonism toward any hint of a threat to profits. And we are in fact already there.
Some of this might even seem convincingly gloomy, as the capitalist class has shown no bashfulness about converting the enormous gobs of surplus value we have given them over the past two centuries into a 1984-style totalitarian control that makes the Nazis look like stuffy Victorians. Leftists continue to build careers around posturing before the monstrous injustices, the sheer wickedness, of the capitalist class; if your head is stuck inside their box, Marx’s rhetorical portrait of the challenges faced by a proletarian revolution might well induce a suffocating pessimism.
But in reality, no one can win the class war: capitalists cannot have everything their way any more than those whom they exploit. The capitalist class can only use the class struggle to its advantage, and every so often the working class manages to score a few upper-cuts of its own. The real question is the limits to which this struggle can be pushed. At the end of the day, however, it is not anyone’s wish-dreams that make the world go round. It is what humans find in the natural world and pass on to future generations that governs the fortunes of economic classes.
We are about to find out just where these limits lie. Capital has been testing them all along (with virtually everyone’s benediction), and now it must prove that ‘dominating’ nature really can be pulled off with impunity. Science is telling us some very alarming things to the contrary. And if we are to take those reports seriously, it is clear that climate change is going to tear the guts out of Capital’s average rate of profit, as the cost of responding to ‘natural’ disasters goes through the roof. However Capital may respond, the skyrocketing cost will overwhelm the fragile defences of the profit economy; the best we can hope for will be an anaemic and erratic global economy struggling endlessly to get back out of the red.
From an ant’s perspective, this decay might appear to be different from the fate of all other empires, but the variation is only one of degree.
Politically, all of this is guaranteed to test the working class’s loyalty and its willingness to continue pocketing the insults of Capital. So if the capitalist class is now moving triumphantly to inaugurate a neo-liberal/neo-conservative dispensation, cramming its hateful counter-reforms down the throat of an unwilling majority, it is a cinch that the capitalists are naïvely setting themselves up as a pack of unloved élitists wearing Scrooge costumes – just as Mother Nature, looming over them, prepares to whack the daylights out of their profit system.
For such a fatuous forgetfulness to set in at any juncture would entail serious consequences: for it to set in now, as unprecedented systemic stresses generated by climate change start rolling down the pike, will surely prove a fatal error. In forgetting where it came from, the capitalist class courts the loss of critical support at a critical moment and looks down the same road as the destitute Absolute Monarchy that once ruled France before 1789, until an angry and frustrated middle class finally lopped off its head.
The difference is that this time, the anti-capitalist revolution will not be headed by minorities bent on carving out a new status quo for themselves. Strictly speaking, it will not be headed by anyone at all. To the capitalist class it will appear like a frightening pandemic of madness, as the whole world seriously discusses ending the rule of Capital forever. But the only way to ‘fix’ capitalism is to abolish both wages and capital, and once that gate has been opened, the road back becomes irretrievably closed. All functions of leadership collapse into the cold, hard logic of common survival, whose articulation is at the disposal of every thinking person. That is what will make it world history’s one and only socialist revolution.
World Socialist Party (US)