The founder of modern Communism Karl Marx(1818-1883) was wrong about many things and his followers even more so. Like many, I loathed the Communist regimes of the Soviet era, though I can tell North Korea from Sweden. But I like the modern Russia post-Soviet (and therefore knowing something of both Capitalism and Communism) joke: “Marx lied about Communism but he told the truth about Capitalism.”
Marx was one of Capitalism’s biggest fans: he thought it was a critical stage in economic development, in the accumulation of capital that was essential to progress. He thought capitalists were heroes moving history forward. He sought to understand Capitalism’s dynamics, to study it up close and personal via his friend and co-author Frederick Engels, a factory owner in Manchester, England in the seed bed of the Industrial Revolution. And he also saw factors, contradictions, inevitable conflicts in Capitalism’s nature that would bring about its eventual collapse and replacement by Socialism/Communism. He saw that capital would be concentrated into fewer and fewer hands and that the consumption needed to provide the customers for all the production would eventually wither and with it profits that sustained the system. He was pretty vague about what would replace it and this blank slate made it easy for the Lenins, Stalins, Pol Pots, and Maos of this world to do terrible things in his name. And so we should be very careful….
For decades we have been writing off this view of Marx that capitalism after creating massive wealth would slowly begin to concentrate that wealth in ever fewer hands. Looking at how well off working people were in the 1950s and 60s in the US and Europe, this idea of his seemed pretty lame at that time, seemed to have been totally disproved. Now we are not sure, as inequality is rising dramatically and we are not sure why. What is going on?
Marx was also pretty interesting on the subject of ideology: of how our economic interests in the economic groups we belong to, the classes of society, distorted how we see the world. The Getting Real stage of the conflict model behind this blog is an attempt to get past such ideological lenses. But it is hard, and indeed as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937 who died in jail in Fascist Italy) predicted, many groups in society don’t even see the world as it would suit their own or class interest, but as it suits the class interest of more dominant groups, who control the media and the dialogue about what is happening in society. They are like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving to come early. Like in a group of apes, some apes will buddy up to the Alpha Male and play kiss ass knowing that it means they can join the domination game of others. We have whole groups of people who allow themselves to be dominated in return for dominating others. Strange that but quite pervasive.
Going back before Capitalism for a moment and over-simplifying no doubt. The Feudal system in Western Europe grew out of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of local military chiefs who were prepared to offer defense and security in chaotic times to peasants in return for effectively owning the peasants and their land and letting the peasants have some of their food output. The peasants also had to provide soldiers for feudal armies when needed. Voluntary servitude or even slavery is often a response to anarchy. What undid this deal in the Middle Ages was the Bubonic Plague that dramatically shifted the balance of power between serfs and feudal lords, when the former became scarcer, when half the population died. The whole of modern life and the modern economy rose out of that accident, that radical re-balancing towards the peasant masses and then to the rise of urban civilizations that now contain more than half the world’s population.
But I think this Feudalism throws some interesting light on our present situation. We are moving perhaps to a time in say 30-40 years maybe sooner, when much of the work in our society will be done by automated robots which currently do a lot of manual labor for us, but are increasingly taking over white collar thinking jobs too. At some stage, many of us will become redundant; our mental and physical labor will no longer be needed as robots will do the work.
Who will then own the output of the robots? The robot’s owners presumably? A new fairly small class of Techno-feudalists who really won’t need most of us. The major shareholders in the businesses that own and control the robots. Though it is not clear who will buy the output of said robots? The new Techno-feudalists won’t even need many personal servants as on current trends of concentration of wealth, there won’t be many of them. Not even 1% of the population; more likely 0.1% or so. And they will just wish the rest of us would go away and make the planet less crowded, less polluted.
So I am raising here a future source of conflict and ask the question: are we the majority of the human race likely to accept our collective redundancy? Are we likely to take increasing inequality lying down? Are we collectively going to “go gentle into that good night”? And if not what conflict methods will we use, with what insights? We rightly in my view don’t have a lot of faith in Marxist solutions. They don’t seem to work, but then we haven’t yet fully experienced the alternative that seems to be emerging: Techno-feudalism: an economy that produces in the interests of the few, is owned by the few and has crumbs only for the many. Yet is riddled with contradictions given the question who is the customer for the robots’ output?
Does anyone have an alternative scenario? I am not a technological determinist. I assume their are multiple possible scenarios for the future, including using technology to radically de-centralize our economy and spread productive capacity not concentrate it. A small business utopia perhaps? I would however be interested to hear your thoughts. I am not wedded to this one and will probably not live long enough to see it play out. Many of my readers may not be so fortunate and find they are subject to the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”.
Karl would be interested to hear your thoughts too: and forgive him: he didn’t have spell check in his day and his cartoonist couldn’t spell: