Capitalism’s violence, masses’ revolt show need for total view

From the new May-June 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2013-2014

Editor’s note: This special issue carries our Draft Perspectives Thesis, part of our preparation for the national gathering of News and Letters Committees. We publish it because our age is in such total crisis, facing a choice between absolute terror or absolute freedom, that a revolutionary organization can no longer allow any separation between theory and practice, philosophy and revolution, workers and intellectuals, “inside” and “outside.” Join us in discussing these Perspectives.

Capitalism’s violence, masses’ revolt show need for total view

The world today is riven between the creativity of masses in revolt and the violent degeneracy of counter-revolution, whose destructiveness even extends to the revived specter of nuclear war two decades after the collapse of the USSR. Such is the degeneracy of the globalized capitalist system, laden with destructive forces and sunk into structural crisis. The deep crisis is seen in the U.S. and abroad, economically, in unemployment and poverty, homelessness and hunger. It is seen politically, in new laws attacking workers and women, and new outbursts of racism. It is seen environmentally, with the advance of climate disruption and fake capitalistic solutions. It is seen in thought, as the lack of philosophy, of a total view, hampers the development of struggles from the U.S. to the revolutions of the Arab Spring facing counter-revolutions.

Contents:

The world today is riven between the creativity of masses in revolt and the violent degeneracy of counter-revolution, whose destructiveness even extends to the revived specter of nuclear war two decades after the collapse of the USSR. Such is the degeneracy of the globalized capitalist system, laden with destructive forces and sunk into structural crisis. The deep crisis is seen in the U.S. and abroad, economically, in unemployment and poverty, homelessness and hunger. It is seen politically, in new laws attacking workers and women, and new outbursts of racism. It is seen environmentally, with the advance of climate disruption and fake capitalistic solutions. It is seen in thought, as the lack of philosophy, of a total view, hampers the development of struggles from the U.S. to the revolutions of the Arab Spring facing counter-revolutions.

I. Capitalism’s many crises

A. Toward the nuclear brink

The bellicose acts of both the U.S. and North Korea confirm how ready both are to risk nuclear war. It may be true that neither side desires to plunge into such a nightmarish disaster. Yet each has repeatedly pushed closer to the brink. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un held missile and nuclear bomb tests, repudiated the Korean War’s 60-year-old armistice, and restarted a shuttered reactor to produce nuclear weapons fuel. He threatened to bomb South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and Guam. Secretary of State John Kerry declared, “North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power”; the U.S. expanded its annual joint military drills with South Korea, adding bombing runs by nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 warplanes.

The Korean Peninsula has been militarized since World War II ended. Europe and Asia were divided into spheres of influence of the two superpowers, Russia and the U.S. After the Korean War and the collapse of the USSR, the division of Korea persisted, with rising power China as North Korea’s remaining ally.

North and South Korea have two of the world’s largest standing armies. The North deploys approximately 700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery systems and 2,000 tanks close to the South, ready to strike. Its regime maintains not only its large military but its hold on power through its “military first” policy.

Jae-hyun Kim leads a protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 23, 2013, calling for the release of Bradley Manning.  Photo courtesy of Bradley Manning Support Network flickr.com/photos/savebradley

Jae-hyun Kim leads a protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 23, 2013, calling for the release of Bradley Manning. Photo courtesy of Bradley Manning Support Network flickr.com/photos/savebradley

The superpower U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea, with another 53,000 based in nearby Japan and 55,000 more in Hawaii and Guam. And this is before the U.S. has executed its “pivot to Asia” to confront China’s regional strength. At the same time, China is using nationalism to try to divert widespread internal discontent, revolt and strikes, and has its own imperialist designs to control supplies of strategic resources like oil and rare earths. China has acted ever more aggressively in territorial disputes with several other Asian nations over resource-rich uninhabited islands in the Pacific. Its naval vessels recently confronted ships from both The Philippines and Japan.

Long before North Korea built its first nuclear weapons, the U.S., Russia and China had intercontinental missiles aimed at each other. The recent events are a harsh reminder that the end of the Cold War did not end the nuclear threat to humanity. The fact is that nine countries are now nuclear-armed, with about 16,000 warheads in U.S. and Russian stockpiles.

Only the U.S. has intentionally used atomic weapons against civilian targets. Such weapons are one part of the world’s overwhelmingly largest armed forces. Despite recent budget cuts, the U.S. still spends more on its military than the ten next biggest militaries combined.

The fact that some in South Korea now call for construction of their own nuclear weapons illustrates the lie inherent in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It calls for nuclear-armed nations to pursue disarmament, but in reality acts as a framework for proliferation. The show of weapons reduction really amounts to arsenal modernization. This is in keeping with an international order in which not only do nations compete with one another, but a group of industrialized countries continuously appropriates natural resources and unpaid labor from the majority of the world’s population.

The civilian nuclear energy industry was created to provide a “peaceful” cover for the nuclear-industrial complex. The civilian industry enables proliferation to continue. In the wake of Fukushima’s meltdowns, the people of Japan are the latest victims of the “peaceful” side of the complex.

Not only in Korea but in South Asia the specter of “limited nuclear war” has been raised, as if it is a realistic or sane prospect. In January the Indian government warned Kashmir residents to prepare for nuclear attack at a time of sporadic fighting between the Indian and Pakistani armies in Kashmir.

Brinkmanship cannot be dismissed as mere show. Going over the brink can happen easily where so many weapons, both conventional and nuclear, are in position, whether in Korea, Kashmir, or the Middle East. Even more so where conflict has an objective basis in competition over resources like oil, trade routes, and territory, in the context of the global competition between the U.S., Europe and China, exacerbated by the global structural economic crisis. At the same time, one of the rulers’ main weapons against revolt by the masses is militarism, which ratchets up the risk of war.

B. Europe’s economic crisis and revolt

Capitalism’s utter moribund degeneracy is seen not only in threats to humanity’s future from nuclear weapons and climate change, but also in the continuing economic crisis. High unemployment and homelessness persist in the U.S. and Europe, and the world food crisis continues. The UN estimates that 10.3 million people could suffer food shortages in the Sahel region of Africa this year. One in six people in the U.S.–46 million, including one in four children–do not get enough food.

Europe is again in recession. Unemployment there has soared since the financial crisis, reaching 48.7 million in February. In Greece the unemployment rate hit a new high of 27.2% in January, triple that of four years ago. Youth unemployment was 59.3%. It is nearly as bad in Spain, where youths held mass protests across Spain against high unemployment and poor working conditions. They even protested near its embassies in other countries, calling attention to the large number of youth forced to go abroad to find work.

A whole series of European countries has taken bailout loans in return for imposing harsh austerity measures: slashing social spending, pensions and labor rights, firing government workers and cutting minimum wages. From Ireland to Greece, Spain to Portugal, each of these countries has experienced sustained revolt against austerity. In Italy a government cannot be formed, with no party ready to take responsibility for the austerity program after the people overwhelmingly rejected it. In Bulgaria protests and blockades toppled the government in February. In Portugal mass demonstrations on March 2 declared that the government does not represent the people and raised the slogans of the 1974 Portuguese Revolution.

Cyprus is the latest example, where last year the “Communist” then-president worked out a bank bailout deal. Leaked documents from the European Commission forecast that, under austerity, the Cyprus economy will shrink 8.9% this year and 3.9% more next year. The country is likely to plunge into depression with no foreseeable end. Large, angry protests forced the government to back down on its plan to seize 10% from everyone’s bank accounts. Bank employees held a brief strike to protest likely pension and job cuts.

Slovenia may be the next country forced into a bailout. After the government started imposing austerity–at about the same time that evidence of official corruption began to surface last year–protests have spread across the country.

While discontent and revolt continue to be widespread in Europe, leaders of parties and unions have held back their full development by working to channel the opposition into narrow electoral politics and one-day strikes and protests.

C. Automation, joblessness in U.S.

Although the U.S. has not slipped back into recession, unemployment remains high. Poverty has skyrocketed, with 19 million at less than half of the official poverty line. Also, 70% of the 3.5 million jobs that have been created since June 2009 are low-paying, while half of the 7.6 million jobs lost during the year and a half before that were mid-range, paying $38,000 to $68,000.

It isn’t just a matter of jobs being moved to China and India. Automation is taking its toll, and it isn’t finished. Capitalist figures from former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers to Silicon Valley businessman Martin Ford warn that advancing automation is likely to result in 50% to 75% unemployment. Ford adds:

“It must be acknowledged that this idea is quite similar to the predictions that were made by Karl Marx in the mid to late 1800s. Marx predicted that capitalism would suffer from a relentless ‘accumulation of capital,’ resulting in massive unemployment….If the arguments in [my] book prove correct, then we may be in the somewhat uncomfortable position of conceding that Marx was, at least in some ways, perceptive about the challenges the capitalist system would eventually encounter.” [1]

Foxconn in China–manufacturer of choice for companies like Apple and Amazon–deployed more than 10,000 robots last year, with a simultaneous hiring freeze, and has announced plans to deploy one million robots by 2014. Foxconn chairman Terry Gou famously declared about the company’s 1.5 million-strong workforce, “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.” [2]

At the same time, ideologues are presenting automation as a solution to unemployment. “Robots have the potential to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.,” according to a March 2013 report to the Congressional Robotics Caucus. Some manufacturing has indeed been brought back to the U.S. However, the high level of automation implemented to compete with China and other low-wage countries reduces the number of jobs involved to a handful.

The broad and continuing impact of automation portends long-term high unemployment, decimation of better-paying jobs, downward pressure on wages, and impoverishment of the masses.

The latest trend in fragmenting and alienating workers is microtasking. Companies break down tasks that are not yet fully automated, posting small subtasks on web marketplaces where piece-workers anywhere in the world sign up to perform one for a few cents. The main marketplace is amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk. [3] Working from home and sometimes not knowing who has hired them, quick workers may make $1.50 an hour with no benefits or protections. Mechanical Turk handles over 500,000 workers in 100 countries, about 70% of them women, isolated from each other and from their employers, performing little bits of tasks on invisible assembly lines.

Under capitalist relations, technological advances have the perverse effects of alienating and fragmenting work and throwing people out of jobs. This results from the dialectical inversion Marx pointed out: in capitalist production, it is not the worker who employs the instruments of labor, but the instruments of labor that employ the worker; dead labor dominates living labor.

Since the financial crisis hit in 2008, the capitalist press has had to keep admitting the cogency of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, from Business Week to Forbes to Time.[4] Still repeating their ritual denunciations of Marx and still trying to save capitalism from itself, though, they cannot allow themselves to grasp what Marx designated the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation–the accumulation of capital at one pole, with wealth for a minority, and of misery, unemployment and revolt at the opposite pole. Its operation is seen in the army of the unemployed and in the fall in the rate of profit. The fact that there is no prospect of any more than a weak recovery on the horizon is precisely because of capitalism’s degeneracy brought on by its absolute general law. But the inevitable revolt does not automatically develop into social revolution that topples capitalism and creates the foundation for a new social order.

Notes for Part I:

1. Martin Ford, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (W. Sheridan, 2009), p. 237.

2. “Report: Foxconn Boss Compares His Workforce to Animals,” by Damon Poeter, PC Magazine, Jan. 19, 2012.

3. “Dawn of the Digital Sweatshop,” by Ellen Cushing, Aug. 1, 2012, East Bay Expresshttp://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/dawn-of-the-digital-sweatshop/Content?oid=3301022.

4. See “Marx to Market,” by Peter Coy, Business Week, Sept. 14, 2011; “Karl Marx Explains the Problem with the Apple, Google No Poaching Conspiracy Allegations,” by Tim Worstall, on forbes.com, April 6, 2013; “Marx’s Revenge: How Class Struggle Is Shaping the World,” Time, March 25, 2013, which held, “Marx’s biting critique of capitalism—that the system is inherently unjust and self-destructive—cannot be so easily dismissed….the workers of the world may just unite. Marx may yet have his revenge.”

(Part II will be posted next.)

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