This chapter interprets the rise of consumerism as the result of capital’s subsumption of consumption. Adapting Marx’s original distinction between capital’s formal and real subsumption of labor, this chapter shows how capitalism has, over time, not only commodified the means of subsistence, thus achieving capital’s formal subsumption of consumption; it has also used scientific research, advanced techniques, and cultural resources to reconstitute consumer preferences in ways that serve capital. The chapter traces this process to the dynamics of capitalist competition and the pursuit of profit, while also discussing its negative impact on human well-being and the ecological integrity of the planet. In this sense, this chapter represents a first step in the analysis of the destructive ways that capitalism uses the surplus it extracts from workers.
Following the discussion, in Chapters 3 and 4, of the negative effects of capitalism’s consumerist culture, this chapter continues the analysis of capital’s destructive uses of the surplus. Introducing the term “forces of destruction,” it highlights the increasingly destructive employment of capitalism’s rapid scientific and technological advances. In particular, the chapter pays special attention to capitalism’s rapid development and regular deployment of increasingly lethal military technologies, as well as to the ways in which capital’s productive technologies contribute to a deepening ecological crisis. By advancing a critique of market-oriented strands of the environmental movement, the chapter also initiates this work’s analysis of “new social movements” as, in part, a reaction to capitalism’s increasing destructiveness. In this respect, this critique also forms part of a recurring theme in this work, namely that new social movements cannot pursue their objectives effectively without also challenging capital’s undemocratic control of the surplus. Last but not least, the chapter argues for the need to analyze social and historical development through a complex three-way interaction between capitalism’s (or any other class society’s, for that matter) forces of production, forces of destruction, and relations of production. In so doing, it also lays the ground for reformulating the contradiction underlying contemporary capitalism.
The book analyzes capitalism’s growing destructiveness and the cost–benefit contradiction it generates. Its new conception of the surplus, which recognizes not just capitalist businesses but also households and the public sector as sites of surplus production, links capitalism’s destructiveness to that system’s use of the surplus. Capital’s use of the surplus turns scientific knowledge and technique into forces of destruction, and the book illustrates this dynamic by making reference to the growth of a consumerist culture, to massive military spending, and to other technologies that fuel a deepening ecological crisis. This crisis, along with economic and public health crises as well as a crisis of political democracy, are also analyzed as being intimately linked to capitalism’s use of the surplus. It is capitalism’s undemocratic control of the surplus by capitalist elites, moreover, that ultimately leads to the cost–benefit contradiction of contemporary societies: the futility of our consumerist culture no longer translates productive development into correspondingly growing human well-being, while the simultaneous growth of capitalism’s forces of destruction increasingly endangers human beings and the planet. Thus, this contradiction creates the potential for an opposition to capitalism and its exploitative and destructive nature by a wide range of social movements, both “old” (such as the labor and socialist movements) and “new” (for example, the feminist, anti-racist, ecological, and peace movements). To address capitalism’s contradiction, a democratic classless society is required, but the book also analyzes how capitalism’s operation obstructs the formation of an anti-capitalist coalition fighting for such an alternative.
Rethinking the relationship between capitalism, communism, and democracy
The conclusion recapitulates the central themes of the book as well as the lessons that one can draw from the trajectory of capitalist development. It argues that, in view of the tensions between capitalism and democracy that chapter 7 discussed, further democratization requires the attainment of a democratic classless society consistent with the communist ideal. Noting the potential for an anti-capitalist alliance between “new social movements” and the “old left” that capitalism’s cost–benefit contradiction creates, the book’s conclusion also briefly reviews the obstacles to the formation of such an alliance. Informing this discussion are the historical lessons of the last century, namely the fact that the hope that capitalism can be humanized by democracy has faded as social democracy has retreated and neoliberal restructuring has followed the passing of capitalism’s post-war “golden age.” Facilitated by the end of the Cold War and the capitalist elites’ perceived need to make material concessions to working people, the neoliberal regression reminds us that an effective response to capitalism’s multidimensional crisis requires more than reforming the existing capitalist system. What is needed is a struggle for a democratic classless (as well as genderless and raceless) society conducive to human well-being and the ecological integrity of the planet.
This chapter explores how capital’s real subsumption of consumption, as well as its use of science and technology more generally, also undercuts democracy. It does so by paying special attention to the role the media play in this process. In particular, the chapter examines how the increasing dependence of the media on advertising skews their coverage to suit the sensibilities and interests of capitalist advertisers and of the affluent audiences these advertisers often target. This means that the dynamics of competition within an increasingly monopolistic capitalist system contributes in yet another way to the difficulty of perceiving the exploitative nature of capitalist society. In this respect, this chapter adds another dimension to classical Marxism’s account of the reasons that make exploitation in capitalist societies so hard to recognize. Finally, the chapter also discusses other ways that capital’s use of science and technology undercuts democracy. These include its adoption of technologies that confine large numbers of people to routine, repetitive jobs that do not encourage them to develop the skills and self-confidence necessary for effective political participation, as well as capital’s use of parts of the surplus to bankroll “scientific” research and lobbying campaigns designed to promote capitalist profit rather than our knowledge of the world.
This chapter explores the erosion of democracy as a result of capital’s undemocratic control of the surplus. Departing from the two different meanings of the term “democratization” in scholarly literature, the chapter explores the paradox of liberal democratic institutions spreading around the world even as the ability of ordinary citizens to have a say on the decisions affecting their lives declines. Adding to this book’s argument that, like the other crises facing humanity today, this predicament requires a classless, non-exploitative society that allows ordinary people to democratically control the surplus, this chapter questions the ideological understanding of communism as antithetical to democracy. Fueling this ideological understanding is the identification, in many people’s minds, of communism with the regimes that consolidated themselves in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Far from disproving the possibility of a democratic classless society, these regimes’ failure merely signified the inability of the new class order these regimes instituted to compete with the capitalist class order they sought to displace. In advancing a critique of the ideological equation of communism with dictatorship, the chapter shows that the many similarities between contemporary capitalism and the unappealing social model that prevailed in the Soviet Union render problematic the view of communism as the “other” of democracy. Rather than a threat to democracy, the struggle to achieve the communist ideal is the best chance humanity has to reverse the hollowing out of democracy that results from capital’s control over the surplus.
Building on previous chapters’ discussion of capital’s destructive uses of the surplus, this chapter reformulates the contradiction underlying contemporary capitalism’s operation. This reformulation does not assume that capitalism is becoming an insuperable obstacle to further productive development. Instead, it argues that capitalism’s continuing development of the forces of production runs parallel to an equally rapidly development of its forces of destruction. The thrust of that system’s cost–benefit contradiction then consists in the long-term tendency of the benefits from productive development to decline even as the threats from the simultaneous development of capitalism’s destructive forces escalate. This contradiction creates the potential for a broad anti-capitalist coalition between all the social groups and social movements fighting against both the various manifestations of capitalist destruction and the various forms of injustice that capitalism helps to reproduce. At the same time, however, the social, economic, and geographic divisions that capitalism’s operation imposes on the different segments of the world population obstruct this anti-capitalist convergence. Thus, this chapter does more than just analyze the conditions that make it possible to envisage a democratic classless society capable of overcoming the multidimensional crisis we face. It also illuminates some of the obstacles that an anti-capitalist movement would need to overcome in order to turn such an alternative society into a reality.
The introduction offers a sketch of the current conjuncture, while also providing an outline of the book’s argument. It begins with the contrast between the capitalist triumphalism that accompanied the end of the Cold War and the setbacks that capitalism has faced at the beginning of this century. The capitalist world’s main superpower, the United States, has faced a number of challenges, from the World Trade Center attacks to the military fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed it; but also economic challenges, as manifested by the rise of China and the global financial crisis of 2008. This latter crisis and the global coronavirus pandemic have also adversely impacted the rest of the capitalist world, notably Europe. At the same time, a deepening ecological crisis and a crisis of political democracy are also manifestations of capitalism’s increasingly destructive implications. After the brief overview of the current conjuncture, the introduction outlines how each of the book’s chapters adds to the analysis of capitalist destruction, to the cost–benefit contradiction that capitalism generates, and to the political implications of this contradiction and of its experience by diverse segments of the population for the formation of an anti-capitalist coalition fighting for a more humane, less destructive society.
Using Karl Marx’s analysis as its starting point, this chapter argues for the need to define the surplus in an inclusive way that takes into account the wealth and surplus production taking place not just in the capitalist workplace but also in the household and public sectors of the economy. Such a rethinking allows a fuller understanding of the interconnections between these different economic sectors and of the ways the capitalist economic system creates divisions within the producers’ ranks. In particular, a brief overview of some of the dynamics of neoliberal restructuring and austerity shows that labor market competition is not the only structural feature of the capitalist economic system that keeps producers divided. To understand the dynamics that keep producers divided, one has to pay at least as much attention to another structural feature of contemporary capitalist economies: the existence within them of distinct sites of wealth and surplus production.
This chapter explores the practical significance of the surplus. It begins by examining the questions of justice that class exploitation raises, and continues by addressing the relationship between surplus production and human freedom. Responding to the view of surplus as a society’s “index of freedom,” this chapter argues that only a classless, non-exploitative society could make use of the surplus at its disposal in a way consistent with human freedom. To do so, such a society would need to subject decisions regarding the size and use of the surplus to democratic deliberation. In making such democratic deliberation over the surplus central to the communist ideal, this chapter also begins a process of reconceptualizing communism that later chapters continue. Since democratic deliberation over the surplus – or over any other matter of public concern, for that matter – is inconceivable in the presence of racial and gender inequalities, however, this chapter also introduces a recurrent theme in this work, namely that abolishing class exploitation is not possible without also abolishing gender and racial oppression.