The End of Equality

15. 3. 2017

Citizens of developed societies have always regarded themselves as the winners of globalization. But this is not true—the capitalist revolution is devouring its own children.

Perhaps in the nineteenth century there were texts more affirmatively speaking about capitalism than The Communist Manifesto, but not many of them appeared. As paradoxical as it sounds, The Manifesto is not only a frontal attack on capitalism, but also its great apology. Marx and Engels extensively and openly praised the ability of capitalism to destroy the old, feudal relations, melting everything that was solid. This point of view is quite clear if you remember the evident progressivism in Marx’s thinking—he sees capitalism as terrible, but still better than what went before: slavery and feudalism.

It is a pragmatic and technical superiority— Marx was aware that at a certain stage of its development capitalism was a factor positively transforming society through accelerating the pace of development of the means of production and through releasing the productive forces from feudal shackles. Marx, who avoids an ahistorical approach and considers socio-economic phenomena in their specific contexts, perceives capitalism in a perspective similar to that in which the French Revolution showed it (we must remember that Marx was born only three decades after this event and lived in an era which was defined, among other things, by the bourgeois revolution in France).

The triumphant and dramatic appearance of the bourgeoisie on the scene held equality on its banners and there was no hypocrisy in that. The third estate, celebrated by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes in his pamphlet from January 1789, called for a destruction of the traditional system of privileges in the stratified society. Equality was one of the sincere goals of the French Revolution, this political operator of maturing capitalism. Marx and Engels accept at face value the progressive consequences of the capitalist order, but they go beyond the dispute between liberalism and conservatism, in which this issue is usually framed. The authors of The Communist Manifesto are relentless critics of the modern social order, in which they are remindful of conservatives. But in contrast to conservatives they do not believe that the golden era has already passed. On the contrary, they regard previous historical epochs as more oppressive and unjust, so the destruction of the old society seems to be a step forward. This appreciation of the progressive force of capitalism resembles the position of the liberals. But unlike them, Marx and Engels do not want to recognize it as the last possible stage of development of human societies. Capitalism, although in many respects terrible, is better than everything that has gone before, but it also needs to be overcome in the name of a new, better order.

One of the problems with capitalism that haunts Marx and Engels is that progress achieved by this system (through destroying feudalism) comes at a very high price. Capitalist wealth is generated at an enormous social cost. More recently, researchers—mainly Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein—have shown that the birth of the colonial system and the dawn of capitalism are two names of the same phenomenon. Starting the engine of capitalist development required above all primitive accumulation, which always involved violence. Fencing and other expropriations of the common good, the tragic fate of urban proletariat during the Industrial Revolution, slavery on the plantations (it is no accident that Industrial Revolution in England begins in the textile industry, with raw materials delivered to English factories by slave-owning cotton plantations from both Americas and the Caribbean), colonial plunder and many other negative developments are the price which has to be paid to fulfill the conditions for capitalist growth.

Today it is easy to claim that the winners of this game, satiated citizens of rich societies in the global North, owe their wealth to frugality and hard work, but history shows that the roots of contemporary well-being reach back to things which were much darker and highly violent. This is one of the reasons that in the 20th century Marxism was to achieve such an incredible popularity among national independence activists from many parts of the world, as illustrated by such figures as Franz Fanon and Bhagat Singh. It was by no means the result of Soviet machinations and intrigues, but rather of the belief, widespread in the colonized countries, that colonial domination was a part of capitalist development and served this system. It is easy for the American patriots today to praise the American Dream and stress that in their country everyone has an open career path “from rags to riches,” but there would be no US success without extermination of the native population of North America, stealing their land, and gigantic profits once accumulated in the US economic system thanks to slave labor. We may try not to remember these events, which is made all the more simple by the fact that “money does not stink,” but it will not change the historical reality: American capitalism, just as every other one, is built not only on frugality and hard work, but also on violence and crime. The oppressors and victims are long dead, but the once accumulated wealth is persistently circulating in the veins of the US economy.

A look at capitalism not anchored in an ahistorical search for its essence, but rather perceiving it as a specific historical phenomenon, forces us to relativize its progressive potential. Yes, capitalism held a great egalitarian promise of destroying the old system of privileges. In 1788 access to virtually all major positions in the French state and to all positions in the French society was reserved for a narrow group of aristocrats, and what was even worse, it was sometimes hereditary. In 1790 these functions and positions were already open to anyone who could demonstrate appropriate talents and entrepreneurship. Initially, this opening was purely theoretical and we have still not seen a complete elimination of such hereditary factors influencing the trajectories of individuals as cultural capital, but it has to be admitted, as Marx and Engels do, that the bourgeoisie effectively destroyed old inequalities, establishing a new society which was free of them. In fact, this process can be observed even today in those parts of the world were modernity is evolving in a slightly different way than in Western Europe and were the mediaeval period was put to its grave much later, as it was for example in Poland. In these regions feudalism ended as late as in the middle of the 20th century. Józef Obrębski’s ethnographic research in Polesie in the 1930s shows that the feudal order persisted there in an almost undisturbed form. We must remember that on the territory of the First Republic serfdom only vanished in the second half of the 19th century. It is no coincidence that in Poland we have a lot of various privileges and special status groups, which testifies to our historical closeness to the ancien regime: the highest number of closed professions in Europe, extreme nepotism, numerous professional groups with special privileges (miners, teachers, etc.), and even the highest percentage of disability pensioners. Some of these groups can organize themselves efficiently and defend their privileged position. But as the discussion about the privatization of coalmines in early 2015 showed, capitalism is destroying the system of privileges with relentless consistency and force. These privileges cannot be successfully combined with free-market economy, because privileges are costly, so they must mean—as economists put it—an economic handicap.

While capitalism, historically speaking, had a progressive and emancipatory potential (let us also recall the change in the position of women, enforced at least to the same extent by the struggle of the feminists as by the material necessity of drawing women into the labor market) and while it is still demonstrating this potential in these places were the laws of the market are confronted with the residues of the old order, it is an ahistorical illusion to believe that it will always exhibit this potential, thinking that freedom, equality and progress are somehow inscribed in the essence of capitalism. During the century and a half which has passed since the writing of The Communist Manifesto, capitalism has been in many aspects transformed from the main force building the productive capacities of society into a major obstacle on the way to further progress. In order to survive, capitalism always needs some kind of external space from which it can draw everything it needs to function (cheap labor, resources gathered during primary accumulation, natural resources, etc.) and where it can dump the negative consequences of its functioning (inhuman labor conditions in the sewing plants of Cambodia, poisoning the environment in the Niger river delta, the price paid by Argentina and Greece for the asymmetrical distribution of risk in the global financial system, etc.).

The basic problem is that capitalism not only uses, but also transforms the areas with which it comes in contact, thereby eliminating this external space. Delocalized factories dragged behind them labor struggles, pushing up the cost of labor on the peripheries and forcing the system into further reconfiguration. It could go on forever, if there always were something outside which capitalism could overpower and use. But our globe has a limited surface—due to the shrinking of rural areas the reservoir of cheap labor, which under capitalism—regardless of time and place—was traditionally provided by poor migrants from the countryside to the cities, is slowly exhausting itself. Climate change also indicates that the patience of our planet, for centuries of capitalist development treated as a bottomless thrash can, is at its end. To make matters worse, due to the emergence of an integrated, global labor market inhabitants of the developed countries of the North (the capitalist core ) more and more often have to compete for jobs with workers from the poor South (the peripheries). And because of differences not only in the costs of living, but also in habits and aspirations, the former are always doomed to some kind of failure in this competition: losing their job or acceptance of deteriorating working conditions (or both). The same process is behind the fact that while the rich elites of societies in the center, participating in the global turbo-capitalism, are accumulating unbelievable fortunes at an accelerating pace (never before the top 1% has been making such big money and never before the ranks of billionaires have been growing so fast), the remaining members of developed societies are nostalgically recalling the golden era of the welfare state and high earnings.

Can we somehow stop this process and save equality while remaining within capitalism? We can try. The world we live in has a spatial, but also a temporal dimension. You can colonize not only distant continents, but also external space in the temporal sense, that is the future. Debt, in recent decades systematically growing in virtually all economies of the global North, is an attempt at keeping capitalism alive through colonization of the future. Redistribution of income within societies was replaced with transfers from the future. So we are dealing with an attempt at halting the growth of inequalities through creating an illusion of wealth. It becomes possible thanks to a creative solution to one of the inner contradictions of capitalism: produce cheaply, sell dearly. Since wages are only a different name for internal demand, in order to decrease wages effectively and painlessly, you have to either find buyers other than producers or to perpetrate a miraculous multiplication of resources.

The first maneuver was carried out through delocalization of production—Henry Ford once believed that his factory worker should afford to buy a car he made, for in a sense he was producing it for himself and others like him, while in today’s capitalism a seamstress from Bangladesh may earn a monthly equivalent of the price of a T-shirt she makes, for everybody knows that she is not making these T-shirts for poor workers from the Third World. This solution is as smart as it is illusory, for it is remindful of the Baron Munchausen’s efforts at pulling himself up from a bog by his shoestrings. In the end someone has to buy these T-shirts if profit is to be made. But where does he get the money, if his job was liquidated and transferred to a cheaper country and the neoliberal attack on the welfare state is destroying social protections and mechanisms of redistribution of wealth? It is simple—let him borrow it!

This is the second trick of the capitalist magic, a true creation ex nihilo, because the future is something which does not yet exist. And what if he is unable to pay the loan back? Then—and this is the third component of the contemporary turbo-capitalist idea for the world—we will use public money to save the banks which recklessly granted risky loans to the penniless. So we not only abandoned the redistribution of wealth, bringing taxes down and allowing for privatization of profit in this way, but we are even socializing the losses of capitalists, collectively bearing the consequences of unwise investments. How long can you go on like that? This is a political rather than economic question. Political developments in Greece, Spain and other countries of Europe show that perhaps good weather for the rich is slowly ending.

For many decades opponents of Marxism accused the author of Das Kapital that he had made a mistake in one crucial issue—capitalism did not lead to growing social inequalities, but on the contrary, it allowed for the emergence of middle class based societies, thus implementing freedom in a much broader meaning than the liberal-capitalist one, which can virtually be reduced to equality under the law and equal opportunities as an expression of protest against class society. This argument is doubly wrong. First, capitalism can be meaningfully described and interpreted only as a world or system, rather than in a local or national perspective. Although within a narrow group of Western/developed/ central/northern societies social inequalities were indeed getting smaller, especially during the three decades after World War II, in the global scale are the recent centuries a period of growing inequalities.

This results not only from the fact that the West has made progress and other areas of the world have not. Historians and economists such as Mike Davis and Samir Amin have shown that before the advent of the era of colonialism and globalization people in many places of the world were better off then than today and the participation in the global capitalist economy does not mean a victory for everyone. And another very important matter—the growth and the standard of living in the countries of the center was to a large extent the result of labor and social struggles in many countries of the world. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt once brilliantly showed that Keynes did not only read Lenin and took a keen interest in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, but he also believed that his proposed reforms of capitalism were the only way to stop the march of communism in Western countries.

The specter of revolution (for most of the 20th century much more real than today) and the resistance of workers forced capital to some kind of concessions. Such was the condition of possibility and the main reason for the existence of welfare states in highly developed countries of the center. It wasn’t in the least degree an automatic effect of the functioning of capitalism. Once these conditions and possibilities ended, the social achievements started to be dismantled, which was followed by an evident growth of inequalities. Citizens of developed societies have always regarded themselves as the winners of globalization. But this is not true—the capitalist revolution is devouring its own children.

Jan Sowa

is a dialectical materialist social theorist and researcher. He holds a PhD in sociology and a habilitation in cultural studies. He is a member of the Committee on Cultural Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and he works as the curator for discursive programs and research at Biennale Warszawa. He edited and authored several books and published numerous articles in Poland and abroad.

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