Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 22, 2016

Anticapitalism can only be global in scope — the real purview of the “transition debate”

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

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In the course of writing about the Brenner thesis for the better part of 20 years, I have heard questions about the relevance of the debate to contemporary politics—including I should add from myself. When I found myself writing, for example, about the importance of the turnip in the agrarian economy of 17th century England, I could not help but wonder if I would be better off researching logging and ranching incursions into indigenous regions of the Amazon rainforest instead. As it happens, Alex Anievas and Kerim Nisancioglu, the authors of the monumentally important and deeply researched “How the West Came to Rule”, have demonstrated in their conclusion that the 17th century growth of capitalism worldwide and today’s struggles are related. Not only that, in making this point they also connect it with the need for a worldwide revolutionary party that both forsakes petty and sectarian self-interests but returns to the original vision of proletarian revolution as a global endeavor as this excerpt makes clear.

* * * *

The conquest, ecological ruin, slavery, state terrorism, patriarchal subjugation, racism, mass exploitation and immiseration upon which capitalism was kilt continue unabated today. The violent past explicated in this book was therefore not merely a historical contingency, external to the ‘pure’ operation of vital, or a phase of ‘incompleteness’ out of which capitalism has emerged or will emerge. Rather, these practices and processes are ‘constitutive’ in the sense that they remain crucial to capitalism’s ongoing reproduction as a historical social structure. This should remind us that capitalism is neither natural nor eternal: it has been historically constructed by annihilating or subsuming other non-capitalist — ways of life. But, moreover, these pointers should alert us to the possibility of ridding ourselves of a mode of production that continually reproduces such histories of violence, oppression and exploitation.

As such, we believe the arguments presented in this book raise a key issue that must be placed at the heart of any transformative emancipatory politics —the issue of political or societal multiplicity. Far from being a matter of purely of scholastic concern, this missing ‘international theory’ has a number of political implications. We would therefore argue that this issue is anything but an abstract one, since as we have argued, the interjection of the intersocietal is a permanent condition of the way in which states, communities, and individuals shape their lives politically. And indeed, political challenges to capitalism have often identified the ‘universality’ or ‘totality’ of capitalism as the basis on which it should be challenged and overcome. This serves as an important warning against any endeavour to build ‘socialism in one country’; anticapitalism can only be global in scope.

We agree with this, and an obvious implication of our calls for an inter-nationalist counter-history of capitalism is that an internationalist politics of anticapitalism is a necessity. However, the content of this internationalism is not self-evident, and requires working out — and, of course, not through theory alone but also through struggle. Insofar as ‘the international’ was central to the emergence and reproduction of capitalism, we should be critical of political positions that treat this internationality — the system of multiple nation-states as an empty vessel that simply needs to filled with communist or socialist content. Indeed, the very internationality of capitalism might well prove fundamentally antithetical to communist politics under certain circumstances. For if the ‘forgotten’ history of the social sciences — and, in particular, the discipline of International Relations — has been crucially implicated in confronting the dilemmas of social disorder and revolution wrought by the international spread of capitalist social relations and empire, the subaltern history of 20th century revolutionary politics has been imbricated with the constraints imposed by the ‘inter-stateness’ of capitalism on the potenties emancipatory projects for social transformation.

That capitalism emerged in conjunction with – and in fact perpetuates – a world divided into a multiplicity of interactive, heterogeneous states has held enormous significance for revolutionary politics. For in the process of attempting to build socialism by taking state power and harnessing it to this end, Marxist-inspired revolutions have all too often been transformed into their very negation. Rather than constructing the emancipated society of the future, in which the political state dissolves into a free association of self-governing producers, the trajectories of self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ societies witnessed the intensive perfection of the oppressive state apparatus they had originally sought to destroy. Hence, the creation and consolidation of revolutionary states ‘perhaps best dramatizes the ‘centrality of interstate relations and war’ to modern development.’

The myriad dilemmas arising from the ‘inter-stateness’ of capitalism, this international dimension inscribed in all forms of development, confronting any revolution was clearly recognised – if not properly addressed – by Lenin. As he commented to fellow Bolsheviks in March 1919, ‘We are living not merely in a state, but in a system of states, and it is inconceivable for the Soviet Republic to exist alongside the imperialist states for any length of time. One or the other must triumph in the end’. In the field of IR, the apparent fact that revolutionary states quickly adopted the methods of traditional diplomacy and great power politics has been viewed as a striking vindication of the ‘timeless’ wisdom of political realism – a conclusion we clearly reject. But while it would be hopelessly naïve, if not intellectually disingenuous, to subsume an explanation ill the multitude of forces behind any socialist revolution’s ‘degeneration’, revolutionaries travel at their peril without recognition of the socially transformational power of ‘power politics’. And this ‘international’ dimension of development has much broader implications to revolutionary politics more generally.

Take, for example, our argument that the multiple labour processes in different parts of the world were crucial to the formation and subsequent reproduction of capitalism. In the period of the Industrial Revolution, coerced forms of surplus extraction in the Americas and Asia enabled capitalists in Britain to increase rates of exploitation and subordinate labour to the mechanics of the factory. Here the combination of uneven forms of exploitation was constitutive of capitalism’s expanded reproduction, and the real subsumption of labour. In the contemporary period, the divesting machinations of capitalism have continued and expanded into a global system of geopolitical violent and integrated production processes which afford it coercive and disciplining capabilities with an unprecedented international reach. The fluidities of finance capital, ‘just-in-time’ production, and logistics have only sharpened this sociological multiplicity – the international – into a machine of tyranny. Today, as always, wage repression, deteriorating work conditions and anti-strike practices are actively determined by variegated labour processes in different societies across the globe. In these ways, unevenness and combination act as disciplining features that maintains the capital relation as the basis of social existence.

So when considering the challenge of political multiplicity, we must not only connsider the level of ‘many societies’, but also many oppressions, many powers, many struggles, many actors and so on. Historically, sociopolitical differences borne of ‘many oppressions’ or ‘many struggles’ have been understood as something for the Left – and in particular the Party – to negate and sublate into the unity and singularity of revolutionary thought and practice. In this tradition, the programme has been presented as the higher ideological/strategic unity, and the Party the organisational form, in which political differences are ironed out, unity among disparate parts realised, and a homogenous political perspective pursued. In turn, the perspectives constructed by the leadership of parties and organisations are presented as the historical prime mover – the royal road – which simply needs to be replicated everywhere for capitalism to be overthrown. This negation of political difference sought by programmatic organisations generates a form of political autocentrism, and ontological singularity, where any given party or programme is posited as the sole and sovereign author of historical change. In this programmatic approach, difference is something not to be articulated, but destroyed; something to be redirected onto the True Path – where it cannot be redirected – exiled as a ‘bourgeois deviation’.

Drawing on our preceding analysis, we would argue that any politics that takes a singular – historically and geographically specific – experience and generalises beyond its own spatiotemporal conditions and limitations, is inherently limited, problematic and potentially dangerous. It is so precisely because it imposes a false universality on the uneven, multiform social experiences of proletarians. Insofar as capitalism has been built on the subjugation and marginalisation of multiplicity – both historically and historiographically – any anticapitalist politics that reproduces this subjugation and marginalisation is not worthy of the name.



  1. I disagree a little bit. Capitalism might be bigger than even the USA. But if capitalism were destroyed in the USA something else could be put in its place in North America that could easily be independent of the rest of the world. Furthermore if capitalism were replaced in the USA the rest of the world could develope with out interference from those who would use the power of the USA to prevent the development of a different model of economics which would have greater appeal than the current world system.
    For example China is a huge country with enormous resources that should be able to implement a sustainable, humane, economic system with the resources that it has on hand. Unless the future effects of global warming sabotage the efforts. Furthermore there is no reason that world trade could not continue to provide what is surplus in some parts of the world to those parts of the world which has a shortage of that which is surplus in other areas.
    The Cuban government manages to provide for its population on its tiny little island which has a poulation density 3 times that of the United States. China’s population density is higher than Cubas. Yet the Chinese managed to feed themselves even before they began to modernize.
    It should be even easier now, effects of global warming aside. That should make it painfully obvious that North Americans should be able to easliy support themselves, primarily, with those resources that exist in North America today.
    It seems to me that the future situation will be quite different in Sub Saharan Africa. I have the impression that the slow reaction by the politicians of the USA, China and Australia to global warming has sentenced tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of Africans to death. Therefore I think that it is fair that not only must the USA build a fair, sustainable, society, for the most part, on the resources at hand. The leaders of the USA should be required to develope a plan that would allow for the orderly transfer of 4 to 6 million Sub Saharan Africans per year for 30 years starting in 2030, at the latest. If at that point it turns out that I was wrong about global warming and the leaders of Africa do not think that the plan is neccessary the plan would of course not have to be implemented. But preperations should be undertaken just in case. Maybe the climate will not be tragic by 2050 but what about 2100?
    If the world were to divide itself up by the borders that I drew up several years ago there would be little international friction. Yet I bet only two or three people in the world know how I divided up the world. If the people of the planet had any sense at all my handiwork would have been the primary topic of discussion around family dinner tables for years after that. Slowly even the most thick headed idiot would have come to agree what a work of genius that it was. To repeat the best part of the plan, it was to create an economic union of Japan, Korea, Russia, the five former central Asian Soviet Republics, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. If the Ukraine ever becomes part of NATO or the EC I will do everthing in my power to make sure that it gets thrown out. That is a promise that I can keep.
    I would also like to add that I think that a 2 child per family policy should be enforced world wide. One child per family should be encouraged, Two children per family should be allowed. The world should not hesitate or squirm at forcing women to have abortions after two children. The men who get a woman pregnant for a third time should be forcibly sterilized. Exceptions can be made when a child has died before having its own children. Children with major handicaps will also allow for a third child. Missing an arm or a leg does not count as a major handicap.
    The production of SUVs for private purposes should also be prohibited until the threat posed by global warming has ended. There will be a new special use for SUVs though. Any person who opposes efforts to achieve a birth rate lower than 2 children per family will have each of their arms and legs tied to a SUV which will then speed off in different directions.
    I am gald that I was able to lead this discussion. It might be the only thing that I ever get to lead.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — January 23, 2016 @ 6:46 pm

  2. A couple of weeks ago some stupid ass US general was epressing his thoughts to the US military by having his thoughts reprinted in the Stars and Stripes Newspaper. He was reported as saying that the US needs to maintain a nuclear deterent to defend the United States. How stupid can you get. Any one with a grade school education can understand that no nation or combination of nations have the capability to invade the USA. Only China and Russia have the potential to attack the US with nuclear weapons which they have absolutely zero motive to do unless the USA should attack them first. Yet I do agree with this general that the USA should continue to maintain at least a few nuclaer weapons.
    There is at least one other policy that needs to be observed world wide. That is a massive increase in the prices for coal and oil and natural gas to massively deter their consumption. I do not know anything about the price of coal so I will not comment about it. I will say that the price of a barrel of has to quickly be brought back to 100 dollars a barrel. But that price is in no way shape or form acceptable. The price has to be raised steadily up to 500 dollars a barrel. All exporting nations must be held to the same price. The United States must use its considerable intellegence gathing capabilty to make sure that no exporting nation is trying to undercut the price. If I were in charge I would announce the Kastens doctrine. If the US government catches any nation selling oil at less than the stipulated price the United States will nuke that countries capital city and its largest seaport. So for example if the Russians try to give the Moldovans a break and sell them oil for 75 dollars a barrel I will order a nuclear attack on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Or if Saudi Arabia were to try that I would nuke Riyadh and Bandar Abbas. For good measure I will probaly nuke the 3rd holiest Islamic site as well. That should teach the Saudis not to try to get anything over on me.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — January 23, 2016 @ 11:55 pm

  3. Really my comments about prohibiting the production of SUVs was stupid. I hope by now anyone who saw that would know that I was only joking. The implication that production of private automobilles could continue beyond a 5 year deadline was a joke that no doubt went over the head of most people. Yes we can produce cars for 5 more years. Smart cars, or cars even smaller than that. What I have in mind is those cars that were designed in India recently that have the motor underneath the front seats. Of course if cars are going to be prohibited then public transport better be free so that people feel that they have gained something for what they have given up. A trade for the better. It will take awhile to build the infrastructure for such a change. Cars can be prohibited first in Urbane then suburbane areas before finally being prohibited in Rural areas.
    I suspect that all this bother to make life on earth sustainable is to late though Remember though if humanity takes measures like this it could delay the onset of the zombie apocolypse by a decades. Isn’t that a good enough reason to do it?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — April 19, 2016 @ 7:02 pm

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