Summary: This discussion of Peter Hudis’s Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism connects it to the struggles of African-Americans and workers in the U.S., especially since the economic crisis. Originally appeared in OpEdNews, – Editors
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“In capitalist history, invasion and class struggle are not opposites, as the official legend would have us believe, but one is the means and the expression of the other.”
— Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet
In a talk earlier this year, professor and Rosa Luxemburg scholar Peter Hudis asked the audience to recall a pronouncement uttered by that “great philosopher” Margaret Thatcher: “There is no alternative!” she had asserted. To what? To Capitalism! The T.I.N.A! Still your protest: Capitalism is it!
End of discussion! Fin!
I do not recall Thatcher’s pronouncement, but, here in the U.S., many of us witnessed the “muting” of dissent and the march of capitalism.
We had Reagan, Thatcher’s biggest partner in the globalization of capitalism; we had first-time enlistees to the American Dream and to the pursuit of wealth, by any means necessary; and, submerged within this grandiose narrative of democracy and freedom, the idea that there is No Alternative to Capitalism functioned in a way similar to Hemingway’s “iceberg theory.” Anything could be omitted and the “omitted part would strengthen the story.” Most Americans heard a calm lapping of water and not the gurgling of what was dying.
Those dying were still the scarred bodies of Vietnamese children, but they became increasingly invisible when the war ended. So Americans nodded occasionally at the efficiency of SWAT teams and the successful capture of indistinguishable Black faces identified by police and media banner-tags as THE CRIMINAL. Americans learned to identify the “welfare queens,” the delinquent youth, the gangs, the lazy and unemployed, the criminal in those no longer “victims” of economic and political oppression.
The Civil Rights era was history. Done! In the Black community, hard-won gains, most agreed, could be lost if the “low life” and the “militant” were not thrown overboard to be scooped up by the State for “incarceration.”
We lost a generation of young Black men to the battle against communism in the Vietnam War. On the home front, counter-intelligence programs neutralized and incarcerated men and women. We witnessed the disappearance of job opportunities and income for the majority of Black Americans. The under-education of generations of Black children, the commodification of “thug life,” and PR programs promoting “getting ahead” and “go with the flow” (no matter if the flow en-coffined desperate Black youths) left survivors clinging to the American Dream. They grasped at it, one over-priced electronic gadget, one high-interest credit card, one fancy limo, and yes, one pair of Nike sneakers, at a time — even if another “n_____r’s” or “dog’s” feet were in them. Only recently, Oprah charged racism when a Zurich boutique clerk failed to recognize Her! — the name brand, Oprah! the billionaire, Oprah!— and mistook her instead for a Black woman, in the wrong store, eying a 38,000 (in Francs) handbag.
Thoughts about our past, present, and future have shifted from a collective reflection on the on-going struggle for liberation to a reflection of ourselves as individuals “making it” within a delusional and violent model of existence in which we no longer value life–unless we can recognize it within, to use philosopher Max Haiven’s words, “capital’s paradigms of value.” (“Are Your Children Old Enough to Learn about May ’68?”) If, as Haiven correctly writes, ” “the rigidifications, reifications, and abstractions of social narratives” are intended to “ensure that the fabric of socially reproduced social division, hierarchy, and oppression” remains, and remains unchallengeable and “natural”– since such violence is the “necessary” component for capitalist “accumulation” — then we have done well as supporters and facilitators. But in a capitalist society, everything has a price tag!
As supporters and facilitators, our “successes” have come at the expense of our past, commemorated only on holidays and otherwise forgotten. Haiven’s observations about the “event” in May 1968 in France reminds me that the State’s absorption of the Civil Rights struggle in America, as just one example, had little to do with equality and freedom for all. Instead, the Struggle was deliberately held underwater, as it were, and drowned, even as the State’s narrative hailed it as a symbolic leap to freedom for the citizens in the U.S. “[A]ll past events,” Haiven writes, past acts of resistance against State oppression, were collected by the State and cataloged in the file labeled “done.” Thus, any further “doing” would only look outdated. According to the State’s narrative, we have gone beyond these events, moving forward as one democratic nation. In reality, writes Haiven, these “events” were “merely stages in the development of present-day free-market globalization.”
So we are here, having spent the latter half of the 20th Century living lives of “endless nows” (Haiven) without life rafts, because too many of us believed that the things that have made things of us, will ultimately free us.
“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” Those are the words of a former military general and former president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. put it this way: “An individual has not started living until he [or she] can rise above the narrow confines of his [or her] individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Damage has been done. We see now the fullness of the iceberg, in the “decks” above and those below, and we can see the overflow of water from below, spreading to encompass whatever racial, political, social class you hail from. The water reeks of the smell of death.
Capitalism is no more the “natural” order for sustaining life than are our damaged relations with other human beings. What is “natural” in the “social reproduction of social division, hierarchy, and oppression” and the accumulation of material resources, land, and wealth for the “1%”? What is “natural” in acquiescing to an economic system that demands that human beings practice self-censorship and remain silent when others are labeled “terrorists” and “criminals”? Historically, segregation was “natural.” It was “natural” for whites to insist that Blacks remain “marginal” and accept their “place” in society. Segregation was the law. The majority of the North American public refused to consider an alternative. Any alternative to segregation was seen as a nightmare that could only be stayed by the romantic notion of a free and democratic nation.
Does True Marxism Offer an Alternative?
We can begin considering an alternative to capitalism by giving ourselves permission to engage in that omitted but historically on-going conversation on Marxism.
Many Americans will continue to dismiss any discussion of Marxism outright, conjuring up flash images of governments that have distorted Marxist thought or the ideas of socialism and communism in practice. To these skeptics, let me mention remarks delivered on the subject by the economist Richard D. Wolff on September 14, 2013. (See http://rdwolff.com .) Wolff offers an excellent analogy by which to judge how objectively we may be appraising the society in which we live:
Wolff asks us to imagine that, in a family next door, one child thinks his family is just great but a second child thinks differently. If you wanted to understand this family, would you speak only to the first child, Wolff asks, the one who has a rosy view of the family, and dismiss the other child as neurotic? In order to draw your own conclusions, it would seem best to speak with both children. Yes?
Given that we know the problems many Americans face with our current capitalist economic system, is it more reasonable to continue simply to roll with its downturns, crises, and reforms, then endure more downturns, crises, and reforms–or to consider at least reading about and discussing an historical alternative to this madness?
“Capitalism,” Wolff explains, produces people who, like the second child in that hypothetical family, “think about capitalism in different ways.”
Karl Marx Thought Differently about Capitalism
What did the thinker Marx offer as an alternative to capitalism? Did he offer in his critique of capitalism a vision of a post-capitalist society? Peter Hudis, Professor of Humanities and Philosophy, pursues this line of questioning in Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Haymarket Books, 2013).
Hudis’s interpretation of Marx is different from any I have encountered for some time. In his book, he performs the necessary work of analyzing the whole of Marx’s oeuvre, uncovering for us a vision of society that is democratic and free. As Hudis makes clear, you will be hard-pressed to find in his book the Karl Marx you expect to find, based on other studies of his work. Other studies, however, have offered only partial analyses of Marx’s oeuvre, which have made it difficult “to discern whether he has a distinctive concept of a new society that addresses the realities of the twenty-first century.” As Hudis shows in his own book, there is in fact a “coherent and vital concept of a new society” to be found in Marx, from his early works of the 1840s to his final writings.
From its inception, as Hudis makes clear, “the idea of socialism and communism” was not introduced to workers “from the outside” by “radical intellectuals like Marx.” As a young man in the 1840s, Marx himself studied the “economic literature” available to him, including the works of “Smith, Ricardo, Say,” and others. But he was also an activist, engaging directly with groups whose members were “exclusively working-class, though most were artisans and not industrial workers.”
What is essential for us to understand, Hudis argues, is what is central to Marx’s definition of capitalism: “the production of value and surplus value.” This focus on value-production suggests that Marx, the activist-thinker, envisioned an economic system beyond capitalism. The question he posed was, How do we go beyond value-production? This question had never before been thought through and, according to Hudis, is crucial to Marx’s thought, as are his projected contours of a post-capitalist future. “Marx’s dialectical method cannot be fully grasped or appreciated,” Hudis writes, apart from the specific vision of the future that grounded his critique of capital and capitalism.”
As Hudis shows, Marx asked himself, What becomes of the human being in this production of value? His answer is that, in a modern capitalist society, you get “social relations in capitalism, wherein human relations take on the form of relations between things.” In what is the “peculiar feature of capitalism,” Marx discovered, “All social relations become governed by the drive to augment value, irrespective of humanity’s actual needs and capacities.” Furthermore, as Hudis writes, Marx recognizes that value production is not “a transhistorical feature of human existence but rather…a specific characteristic of capitalist society.”
What could possibly begin to alter this unnatural and deadly foundation of human relations? Actually, the answer has deep roots in Western thought!
To appreciate Marx’s vision of a post-capitalist society, Hudis writes that we must first understand his critique of “theoretical” analysis, particularly the philosophy of Hegel. It is in Marx’s critique of Hegelian philosophy that we are able to grasp the “philosophical underpinnings of [Marx’s own] critique of political economy as well as the economic ramifications.” In Hegel’s work, Hudis argues, Marx confronts an inversion of the order of things as they should naturally exist. Hegel renders the state “the active agent,” which, in turn, makes of “civil society” the “passive object.” In Hegel’s narrative, as Marx sees it, human beings are no longer “the real” subjects of their lives. Rather, the civil society in which they are embodied has become an “abstract object” separated (or “alienated”) from “its communal essence.”
As Hudis points out, Marx could not resist noting that inversion (“Verkehrtheit” in German) is “closely identified” with the German word for madness, “Verrucktheit.”
How do you reform madness? How do you negotiate with it? Do you amend it here or there by a designed reordering of the “real” subject, only to see it reduced in the end to an abstraction? To even engage or continue to engage in the tweaking of such an enterprise, as Marx revealed, is ultimately futile for all of us.
The alternative to madness is to understand what Marx understood in his day. As Hudis explains it: We must put an end to capitalism itself, and it must be done by ending “the estrangement in the very activity of labouring.”
Hudis writes that, with this initial understanding of where Marx has arrived, “we have reached the conceptual pivot of what Marx sees as the alternative to capitalism.”
It is in the activity of laboring that we are all branded and chained, and enslaved, physically and mentally, to the unnatural monstrosity that is capitalism. It is precisely in this estrangement from human community that we are not free, no matter what the slogans and grandiose narratives proclaim. No wonder we are drowning in this madness!
But we can save ourselves in the very activity of laboring!
In contrast to the actual practices of capitalist societies and of totalitarian governments claiming to represent Marx’s idea of freedom, both of which justify the repression of citizens in grandiose narratives, Marx’s critique of capitalism, Hudis writes, as well as his “delineation of its alternative,” are “rooted in a particular conception of freedom.” For Marx, Hudis explains, “[f]ree development…is not possible if human activity and its products take on the form of an autonomous power and prescribe the parameters in which individuals can express their natural and acquired talents and abilities.”
It’s Time Now To Demand True Freedom!
Marx’s Concept of The Alternative to Capitalism is a significant work for individuals and grassroots organizations, those who recognize in this historical moment an opportunity to seize Change and not merely T-shirts and banners with the word “Change.” It is an important work for those who have had enough of the way things are; who are seriously interested in, or currently engaged in, various campaigns, from Stop and Frisk and Single-Payer, to corporate land grabs, education and prison activism; and who want to re-direct (or in some cases, resurrect) their labor and creative energies to achieving an end to the savagery of capitalism. That must be the goal for all of us who are unwilling to remain vulnerable to the silencing blows of the police matraque (baton) and the latest high-tech weapons of mass destruction.
Our time is now! It is now, because Marx’s writings are generating interest and discussions around the globe. It is now, because people throughout the world are waking up to Hope–and not the Hope offered in political slogans. Around the world, people find their backs against the wall. (In this, we are a collective!) As Hudis notes, “[T]he phenomenon of capitalist globalization…the emergence of a global-justice movement…[and] the worldwide financial and economic crisis that began in 2008” have drawn new interest in Marx’s work.
Today’s global crisis of economic inequality has not only revealed the deep fault-lines that prevent capitalism from supplying the most basic human needs for hundreds of millions of people worldwide; it has also made it clear that the system has little to offer humanity except years and indeed decades of economic austerity, reduction in public services, and eroding living conditions.
What can a system such as capitalism offer us, when, as Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism asks, it has “clearly exhausted its historical initiative and raison d’etre” and its future for humanity can only offer “social and natural conditions” that are “bound to become worse than those afflicting us today”?
Freedom is the only option!
When you pick up Marx’s Concept of The Alternative to Capitalism and start reading, you’ll know you have to get to work. But then, isn’t that the reason you are here, and why you are human?
Dr. Lenore Daniels is a columnist and Editorial Board Member, Black Commentator Magazine