III. The reality and the myth of contemporary capitalism

May 5, 2018

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2018-2019:
Fighting Trump and his fascist allies in practice and theory

I.     Donald Trump’s war show
II.   Spreading revolt opens new doors
III. The reality and the myth of contemporary capitalism
IV.  Marx, Lenin, Marxist-Humanism and the philosophy of revolution in permanence
V.    Organizational tasks

…Continued from II.   Spreading revolt opens new doors

III. The reality and the myth of contemporary capitalism

To fully grasp the revolutionary forces and the potential pathways to liberation, we must also grasp how they are embedded in the objective world economic situation. Not as a trap from which there is no escape, as the proponents of “There Is No Alternative to capitalism” would have us believe, or their Left ideological counterparts who believe advanced capitalism has destroyed the revolutionary subjectivity of the working class. No, we must grasp it as the social and material context that must be revolutionized in order to transcend alienation and create a new human society.


What is clear is, first, that imperialistic, militaristic, nuclear-armed state-capitalism is still the order of the day. All the globalization, privatization, austerity, and alleged attempts to cut government deficits cannot hide that fact.

Second, the world and national economies still revolve around production of surplus-value, which only comes from sweated labor in the production of commodities; value production did not cease to be the determinant just because most manufacturing relocated to low-wage countries like China. Labor did not cease to be exploited, alienated labor, and technology did not cease to generate unemployment, precarious employment and intensified exploitation.

As xenophobic nationalism, border walls and trade wars rise, they have punctured the illusion born of globalization that the nation-state is dead and has been replaced by the sovereignty of a transnational empire, and yet the theory based on the illusion persists. The illusion that state-capitalism ended with 1989-91 (except perhaps in China and North Korea) and was privatized out of existence by neoliberalism has also been punctured. And yet all too many theoreticians disarm themselves by dismissing the category of state-capitalism as irrelevant or wrong.

For decades, the working class has been declared dead as a revolutionary subject. More recently, the displacement of much of the labor of production to China and other low-wage countries led to illusions that some newer form of labor (such as “affective”) had totally displaced value-producing labor, or even replaced capitalist economic value with some other kind of “value.” This type of theory displaces the revolt of labor, especially in those low-wage countries where it has surged. While workers’ revolt is not limited to those who produce value in the capitalist sense, and while the construction of a new society depends on the self-activity of all and the breakdown of the division between workers and exploiters, the world economy still runs on extraction of value from sweated labor. N&L never stopped covering labor as Subject, but the illusion persists.


Workers across the nation take to the picket lines against McDonald’s to fight for $15 and against sexual harassment. Photo: Fight for $15.

The 50th anniversary of the momentous Memphis sanitation strike, in the course of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, was marked this year by Fight for $15 strikes, supported by Black Lives Matter in dozens of cities across the U.S. Among those who make less than a living wage, women predominate, and Black women are the backbone of this organizing. Most Black and Latinx workers make less than $15 an hour, while Black unemployment is double that of whites. Just as the 1968 sanitation strike was about respect, dignity, and being treated as a human being, the fight over wages today is important but not all there is to labor struggles. The question of “what kind of labor should a human being do?” is still on the agenda, and being raised with regard to new developments.

A new stage of automation is preparing to decimate jobs such as truck driving and work in retail stores and warehouses. Amazon’s patent for a wristband that tracks and nudges a worker’s hand starkly illustrates the mentality and the relationships driving capitalistic technological “progress.” “The robotic technology isn’t up to scratch yet, so until it is, they will use human robots,” said one Amazon warehouse worker. A temp worker at Amazon UK wrote:

“Don’t believe that the workers just sat and took it….In the beginning a lot of people had high expectations of working with Amazon, but after a few weeks they started to realize what working for Amazon really meant….Workers who in the beginning tried to run themselves into the ground trying to reach their targets, now having realized it didn’t make a difference in terms of getting a long term contract, stopped stressing about targets and deliberately worked slower than they could….The permanent staff already know that Amazon don’t care about the workers and the temps quickly learn it, and a lot of us start to do minor individual acts of resistance. That is all a good start, but if we want to change the way Amazon treats us we have to work and resist together!”[1]

Robots and computers can replace human beings in production, but only living labor creates value. So capitalism’s “progress” in automation tends to reduce surplus value in proportion to the whole social capital—that is, the rate of profit tends to fall. Even before this results in a new recession, which could be as deep as the last one a decade ago, it also encourages capitalists to speculate, to seek fictitious profits outside production, as in rising real estate and stock prices. Besides building toward a new debt crisis, real estate speculation is fostering displacement of poor and working people in places like the San Francisco Bay Area. Home prices, rents, evictions, and homelessness are climbing, and Black and poor people are being pushed out.


Today’s situation undermines some lasting myths. The illusion that the fall of Communism in 1989-91 was supposed to mark the end of history should have been shattered by the genocide in Bosnia. Two decades on, genocide is ongoing, narrow nationalism is resurgent worldwide, and wars both open and covert are raging. Fascism is on the march, from the U.S.—not only in the White House but in the surge of hate crimes and open rallies of misogynistic neo-Nazis and white supremacists—to a whole series of European countries, the Philippines, India and more, powered by demonization of immigrants, people of color, women, Trans people and Muslims.

China’s Xi Jinping is not just one more strongman. China aims for world power. It won’t replace U.S. imperialism overnight, but it has its sights on that.[2] As Trump is largely subcontracting Syria to Putin, he left the field open for Xi to make common cause with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, as exemplified by Kim’s trip to Beijing. In effect Trump has left strongmen he admires to carry out international policy. China’s rulers are not just seeking sources of energy and raw materials, as was done before, but aim at controlling country after country through the credit China has provided—which includes over $1 trillion of U.S. federal government debt.

Third, a new arms race encompasses not only U.S.-Russia and North Korea but India-Pakistan. Saudi Arabia stated that if Iran gets nukes it will too, while Israel already has them. The end of the Cold War may have obscured the specter of nuclear war but it is back with renewed vigor, joined by its apocalyptic twin, climate chaos.


Participants in “Science Not Silence” march in Washington, D.C. on April 22, 2017.  Photo: Riccardo Savi.

Puerto Rico is the new model for what climate change under capitalism holds in store: racist abandonment of the population, and decay of infrastructure for the masses while the rich and powerful ensure their own comfort. Already climate disruption is swelling the ranks of refugees, everywhere from Puerto Rico to South Sudan. Trump’s answer is to reverse the meager existing regulations of greenhouse gas emissions and unleash drilling for fossil fuels, whether in national parks or the Arctic Ocean. In truth, long before Trump ascended to the throne, capitalist competition on the world market undermined all attempts to establish adequate emission controls.

It is only some scientists and the movements around the environment and climate justice, not the dominant governments, that speak of the scientifically established need to keep whole categories of fuels off limits, including coal, tar sands oil, and fracked oil and gas—if human civilization is to survive global warming.

The U.S. bid to stay at the top of the global heap has reached a new level of U.S. oil supremacy. The boom from U.S. shale drilling will reach a record 12.1 million barrels a day, making it the world’s largest oil producer.[3] At the same time the Trump administration is rolling back protection for oil workers and the environment. His court appointments are designed to guarantee the permanent rollback of regulations on corporations while intensifying regulation of women’s bodies, as well as shoring up executive power, mass incarceration and militarism.

The oil boom has ramifications for world politics, not least making it harder to combat climate change, but it is still not enough from the imperialist point of view. Europe and Asia are moving away from U.S. “leadership.” The 15th anniversary of the Iraq invasion underscores how that war weakened U.S. power.

Economists and pundits are busy hailing the alleged strength of economic recovery with a bit of growth in employment and wages—for some—while disregarding the looming threats of Artificial Intelligence automation, war, and climate disruption, which is just beginning. The rate of profit remains low, as do the rate of productive capital investment and economic growth. Massive debt buildup portends the harshness of the next recession. The rulers have representatives that try to deny it, but they see it coming, along with the potential for revolt, which is why so much of what they do is for short-term gain and why they have so little will to resist fascism.

Capitalism’s never-ending crises flow from the law of value’s inexorable workings, and that law can only be broken by the exploited, the workers, overthrowing the dialectical inversion that is intrinsic to the law of value: object, dead labor (capital, especially in the form of machines), dominates the subject, living labor (the worker). That can only be righted through the self-activity of masses in motion establishing workers’ control of production.

The world’s suicidal path toward climate chaos is yet another proof, as if more were needed, that capitalism has become the biggest threat to humanity’s existence. Its latest response, however, is to attack knowledge itself, by defunding science, censoring education, erasing climate information from federal websites, banning terms like “global warming,” excluding selected science and scientists from Environmental Protection Agency decision-making, and ordering that climate change not be taken into account in infrastructure planning.

The degeneration of thought is seen not only in the suppression of science, and quite alarmingly in the march of fascism, but also in the Left, and nowhere more so than in the attitudes to Syria.


Syrian Americans and others Free Syria activists demonstrate in Chicago, Ill., on Feb. 25, 2018, in support of the struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Photo: Franklin Dmitryev for News & Letters.

Nothing illustrates the depth of humanity’s current crisis more starkly than the genocidal Bashar al-Assad regime’s “ethnic cleansing” of Eastern Ghouta, an area of working class suburbs of Damascus that had been a center of the Syrian Revolution since 2011. Thousands of people, mainly civilians, including hundreds of women and children, were killed and injured.

The regime and its Russian and Iranian sponsors used all manner of state terrorist weapons against civilians (including chlorine gas, napalm, thermite, and bunker busters) in a campaign that culminated in yet another chemical massacre of dozens of families sheltering with children in Douma. A prolonged battle for the town would have cost hundreds of regime casualties. The sight of dozens of children dying with foam in their mouths and blue flesh broke the population’s will to resist.

Thousands have been driven from their homes to tents or less in rural Idlib. The two girls, Noor and Alaa, and the boy Najem, who had been spokespersons for East Ghouta, as Bana Alabad had been in Aleppo, were able to escape. Some would like to discredit their testimony, but they were under the same threat of annihilation as the hundreds of children murdered and maimed in the bombing. In a year of youth resistance, it should be noted that the Syrian Revolution began with children writing anti-regime slogans on a wall in Daraa.

While Jaish al-Islam, the main armed group in Douma, fought bravely, they were criticized by Syrian revolutionaries for authoritarianism. Jaish al-Islam was guilty of attacks on rival rebels and civilian activists alike, and are the prime suspect in the disappearance of the Douma Four: human rights defenders Razan Zaitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi. Revolutionaries have demanded accountability.

Some commenters see a contradiction like this as representing the death of the Syrian Revolution; in fact, it is this struggle against the counter-revolution that arises from within the revolution itself that proves it is very much alive.


While Trump mobilized his allies in France and the UK to mount a minimalist and well-telegraphed attack in response to the Douma chemical massacre, a pro-Assad “anti-imperialist” Left mobilized its own dwindling support in opposition, helping Trump sell his lie that the attack was substantive.

Syrians and Iranians at a solidarity rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2018. Photo: Ann Eveleth.

Syrian revolutionary Yassin Al Haj Saleh nailed Trump’s hypocrisy: “The British-French-American strike is the gateway to rehabilitating this regime…those who will make sure of the regime’s better behavior in front of the West are their Russian and Iranian guardians. The ‘fascist moment’ of this world is still there and expanding.”

Those “Leftists” who made excuses for Assad and his allies represent the nadir of the retrogression that flows from the lack of philosophy. It is no accident that some of those who faced off in Charlottesville, ANSWER and white supremacists, found themselves side by side with those waving the flags of Assad and Putin. That part of the “Left” collaborates with fascists in coalitions like the pro-Assad Syria Solidarity Movement and in conferences that bring them together with the League of the South, the Texas Nationalist Movement, Serb fascists and Putinites, just as the Green Party’s Jill Stein hobnobbed with Trump flunky Michael Flynn at a Moscow RT (Russia Today) event in 2015.


More and more, this issue is being debated within anti-war circles, as it becomes clear that apologists for Assad, Putin and Iran represent counter-revolution and must be fought in order to establish a connection to Syrian revolutionaries and others struggling for justice around the world. However, it will not be enough to reject the politics of the apologists and even to organize separately. It is necessary also to challenge the pragmatic philosophy that underlies the broader Left who are willing to cooperate with the apologists in anti-Trump or “anti-war” actions but have done little in solidarity with the Syrian people’s revolution. This discussion is difficult, but it proves the movement is searching for a new orientation.

The poster makers proclaim: “Today, March 4, 2016, there were more than 100 protests all over Syria against Assad, he will never be part of future Syria. It feels great! #TheRevolutionContinues. Photo: Kafranbel Syrian Revolution

Syrian revolutionaries have made a category of this humanist solidarity, whether it is Saleh writing of the “Syrianisation” of the world or the grassroots activists of Kafranbel and Maarat al-Numan addressing their thoughts to all humanity.

In the aftermath of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe three decades ago, the broad Left’s lack of philosophy undermined its ability to resist retrogression, as seen most extremely in Bosnia, where our philosophical-political position stood out.[4] The way so much of the Left swallowed the fake news of the day, that is, the denials of ongoing genocide, foreshadows today’s political landscape, where feverish lies dominate large swaths of the Left, the same lies from the same sources that dominate the far right.

Continued in IV.  Marx, Lenin, Marxist-Humanism and the philosophy of revolution in permanence

[1] “‘Power Hour’ or Workers’ Power?! – Reports from Two Amazon Workers, Hemel Hempstead, Winter 2017/18.”

[2] See Editorial, “China: Xi Jinping’s Global Power Grab,” March-April 2018 N&L.

[3] See “U.S. Will Be the World’s Largest Oil Producer by 2023, Says IEA,” by Sarah Kent and Timothy Puko, Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2018.

[4] See Bosnia-Herzegovina: Achilles Heel of Western ‘Civilization’ (News & Letters, 1996).

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