‘Are we nearly there yet?’ – For 168 years that has been the plaintive call from the little revolutionaries in the back of the socialist car as it meanders across the bewilderingly varied landscape of capitalism on its way to its glorious destination, which at times has seemed almost more distant than it did at the start of the journey. That is in spite of its ‘inevitability’, in Karl Marx’s ‘scientific’ view, as the ‘internal contradictions’ of capitalism worked to progressively destroy it from within.
There were glimpses of that along the way, but they always turned out to be mirages. Marx himself thought he espied it in Britain as early as 1848; but then capitalism recovered, in Victorian Britain’s so-called ‘golden years’. (They weren’t golden for everyone.) The ‘Great’ Depression of the 1870s-on inspired much revolutionary activity, but little came of it. Lenin blamed imperialism, which had delayed the inevitable ‘crisis of capitalism’ by off-loading its surplus products. Later, two world wars – themselves the product of imperialism – had the same effect. The first one appeared to ignite the fuse at last, in Russia in 1917; but that turned out to be premature. As Engels had been telling the Bolsheviks for years before, Russia wasn’t anything like ‘advanced’ enough along the capitalist road to create the proper ‘scientific’ conditions for socialism to emerge. What did emerge, therefore, was premature; which is why, perhaps, it could only be kept alive in a totalitarian incubator. Then revolution in the West appeared to be coming nearer again during the second, and far ‘Greater’, depression of the 1930s; only to be confronted by fascism – the other common reaction to economic deprivation – and then diverted by the Second World War, which cured under-consumption and soaked up the unemployed.
After that, the West played clever. The new tactic was to tame capitalism, making its impact just bearable enough to make it not worth rebelling against. Capitalists generally went along with that, because it gave them security, at least, if not the full range of ‘opportunity’ that unrestrained capitalism promised. The welfare state and economic regulation were the two main means to that end. When I was a young man in the Labour party, and studying political philosophy (as part of my History degree), I went along with most other democratic socialists in assuming that this had proved Marx wrong. Capitalism didn’t need to implode. Clever politicking could see it through the crises which, left to itself, would have inevitably destroyed it. (This is Keynes, of course.) That was a comfort, for none of us democratic socialists wanted to forgo all the benefits of economic competition, which were undeniable, least of all our consumer durables; or to risk going through what Russia and her satellites were going through just then, in order to rid ourselves of capitalism’s less salubrious – indeed, quite monstrous – aspects.
The Great Reaction of the late 1970s-onwards, of course, brought an end to that. Welfare and regulation were chipped away, leaving capitalism far redder in tooth and claw to roam the land again. After Thatcher, Blair and then Cameron built on that. (Blair had no idea.) The reasons for this counter-revolution are unclear. I’m personally reluctant to credit Reagan and Thatcher with any vital agency, still less the narrow-minded ideologues who gave them intellectual credibility. They were all riding a wave. That wave appears to be a ‘natural’ one, a historical imperative; a tendency in other words which is inherent in the capitalist system itself, especially when it is globalised, subjecting welfare states to ‘unfair’ competition from cheap overseas labour, tax havens, and the like. That seems – in the teeth of my young man’s optimism – to bear Marx’s predictions about capitalism out. That wasn’t a bad prediction, for 1848. It had just taken longer than he had hoped.
So far, then, so very Marxist. And so promising, surely, for the children in the back of the car, who may, if their grasp on grown-up theory is sound, espy their promised land ahead of them yet again. (Incidentally, Marx couldn’t tell us what that promised land would look like, exactly. We wouldn’t know until we got there. That’s part of his theory too – ‘base and superstructure’.) The question is, is capitalism now finally at the stage where it is about to collapse, to be supplanted by something?
The signs – for socialists – are mildly encouraging. The 2008 crash (which is still reverberating), and the quite obvious flimsiness of Britain’s and other European countries’ de-industrialised and finance-dependent economies; Occupy, Pickety, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, all those Continental ‘far left’ parties, anti-government (of all kinds) movements; the junior doctors’ strikes; protests over unemployment, the housing crisis and tax avoidance; the world-wide movement against ‘climate change’, which is essentially a protest against capitalist exploitation of the earth; even the Liverpool FC supporters’ rebellion against seat price hikes: all these may be straws in a much more violent coming wind. English professional football, incidentally, is a very good exemplar of what happens when international capitalists reduce a ‘people’s game’ to a market product. In this sense it could be said that the Liverpool fans’ protest is part of a wider anti-capitalist rebellion.
On the other hand, of course, there is the rise of right-wing movements, from nativist to quasi-fascist, which one should also expect at a time of economic crisis, especially if one knows one’s history, and which can attract, in a ‘false consciousness’ kind of way, much of the discontent that a failing capitalism is bound to provoke. Donald Trump seems to be the scariest of the Führer figures that this has thrown up, though his American brand of fascism might be more soft-ball and apple-pie; the amusing Farage probably less so. It should not be assumed, by the way, that the followers of either of these demagogues are necessarily as right-wing as they. Trump and UKIP both address working- and middle-class concerns that could equally be milked by a more convincing – and leftish – Left. Indeed, recent local by-election results in England may bear this out, with Ukippers apparently deserting in droves to Corbyn’s Labour Party. Is the same conceivable in the USA – Trumpers switching to Bernie? Probably not.
We need to remember, too, that the global market, and its political agents, still exert great power, and are prepared to exert it unscrupulously. One small British example is the way the Tories are almost blatantly gerrymandering the electoral system – already ludicrously undemocratic: where else would a party representing only 25% of the electorate be given an absolute majority of seats in the legislature? and that’s without taking account of party funding, and the influence of the ‘right-wing press’ – by disenfranchising over a million mainly Labour voters, and various other subterfuges. And they’re not finished yet. They have billions of dollars – literally – behind them; and the powerful incentive of their own greed.
So, sit back, kids, and play with your consumerist toys – the Barbie doll, the iPad, and all the rest. We may have some way to go yet.