Mario Gonzales

On the Necessity to Change the Course

Catastrophes related to massive man-made changes of the global weather pattern abound today – whether we think of Pakistan, Chad, Brazil, Bangla Desh, India, China, Poland, Canada, the U.S.,  the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Australia, or Central America. Both exceptionally arid periods (especially in the  Sahel zone and in central Spain, where desertification is progressing) and increasing occurrences of exceptional rainfall and devastating floods have been in the news again and again.

The thirst for maximum financial gain, the market, in short, the dynamics of globalized capitalism with its ‘productivist’ logic, a myopic penchant for what economists call ‘cost-benefit’ analysis, and a deep-seated disregard for costs that are not immediately ‘monetary’ (and therefore, affecting profits) have become a main cause of such catastrophic developments that condition our actual perception of ‘climate change.’

The present, largely globalized economic system has not only been for many decades a main cause of worldwide trends that we now refer to as ‘climate change’. It is a main cause of other ecologically disruptive effects and gravely disturbing social ills, as well. It is hardly possible any more to ignore the poisoning of oceans, soils and ground water (that is, the water we all drink). Or massive air pollution and acid rain hurting our forests everywhere but especially in North America, Europe and East Asia. Deep-sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, oil exploration in the Niger delta, in the rain forests of Ecuador and, recently, also  the polar regions of Siberia has been undertaken with the unscrupulous disrespect for ‘mother nature” worthy of 19th century industrial ‘robber barons.’ And then, of course, as if the deforestation in Amazonia, the Congo, and Indonesia wasn’t enough, we see reckless mining ventures eager for gold, coltan, and other ‘commodities’ that fetch high prices in the world market  poison the environment of local populations, from Peru and Canada or Australia to Chad and China. It is not only the lumber industry that is driven by the quest for “success in the market.” Such ravaging ventures are all alike, in this respect, as they seek maximum benefits for their shareholders. As for deforestation, which has such grave consequences for the global climate, it is more recently not only propelled by lumber companies. It  is also occurring as a consequence of irresponsible, market-driven expansion of cash crop production, especially for ethanol that is now “demanded” by  supposedly “ecologically conscious” economic agents in the so-called First World. We all know that ethanol production does not only take place in regions featuring tropic rain forests where forests are cleared to make room for farmers eager to harvest soy beans. It is not only ecologically insane. The conversion of increasingly more agriculturally used acreage to ethanol production has driven up the cooking oil price and the price of rice in S.E.Asia, amongst other items, thus forcing the poor to make do with one meal a day. A trend that is resulting in increasing malnutrition and starvation. But of course, hunger is an endemic problem in much of the so-called Third World, tied to latifundism, to unjust tenancy systems, high levels of land rent, indebtedness of peasants, unequal exchange (or lack of what some call ‘fair trade’), etc.  Today, we witness again globally increasing hunger, and this is apparently largely due to commodity speculation. 

The economic system has been called ‘productivist,’ which sounds positive. But it subordinates production to other than real human needs. The necessity to satisfy such basic longings as freedom from want (especially from lack of housing, food, clothing, immaterial culture, etc.) and  the quest for a healthy environment are disregarded. True democratic participation of all is rejected and seen as an obstacle. Maximum productivity and an enormous output of goods of often questionable quality or use (but nonetheless expected to be sold “in the market” at a profit) have appeared side by side with excessive destructiveness.

In the 20th century, alternative experiments and projects opposed to the irrationalities of blind market forces that have proved, again and again, to be largely unresponsive to our real needs have claimed to represent reason rather than blindness, foresight rather than myopic perspective, the humane and solidaire longings of all rather than the anti-humanistic and particular interests of the few.

We know that these experiments, for reasons that need to be discussed, have largely ended in failure.

What was “sold” to the population by propaganda as “real socialism” or even “communism” remained attached to productivist principles although the impact of the market was reduced in some respects. 

One of the gravest charges levelled against dissidents by the bureaucratic political and economic ‘elites’ that commanded the Communist Parties was “making people equal.” These people abhorred what the common people often came to desire: egalitarianism. The put their trust in incentives, in ‘economic stimuli’ just as the advocates of capitalist social relationsships put their trust in them. And just as is the case in the West today (and has been all along), it was not only economic equality that was rejected. Factual (rather than verbally, i.e. ideologically asserted) political equality was seen as undesirable, too. After all the political and the economic side of society cannot be truly separated. To command or control or heavily influence the economy implies political power. This is as true in the openly capitalist West as it was true in openly state capitalist ‘real socialism.’  There it was customary that directors of large economic trusts (so-called ‘combines’ that would include several fields of economic activity, a pattern pioneered incidentally by U.S. trusts in the late 19th century) would earn 20, 30 or even 40 times the wage of an average worker. This is perhaps ‘peanuts’ compared with the salaries and bonus payments of the top management of profitable corporations in the West today where payments one thousand times the average salary of a worker living in the same country have been ascertained. But is certainly shows that these bureaucatric leaders of Communist Parties and state-controlled industry in the now defunct ‘socialist’ East desired eveything except communism, as practiced by Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth and his early disciples (the ‘original’ christian communist communities), later on Hussites in Central Europe,  Levellers in England, Shakers etc. and, even today, Hutterers in the U.S. Or dreamed of, by utopians like Charles Fourier. And envisioned, as a society of free and equal men, by Marx who pointedly rejected dogmatism, exclaiming, Je ne suis Marxist (“I’m not a Marxist,” meaning that he was not somebody who was keen to enshrine the empirical scientific knowledge regarding the reality and contradictions of 19th century Capitalism that he was able to study, as an immutable ‘system of knowledge’).

Bureaucratic decision-making processes by power-monopolizing political, administrative and technocratic ‘elites’ helped silence the voice of the people, in the defunct system that was in place in Eastern Europe. It is true that the masses (urban workers, landless peasants, soldiers) had been actively involved in the revolution that overthrew the Czarist system. Just as the American revolution of 1776 was in danger of being defeated by the British and their Hessian mercenaries, just as the French revolution of 1789 was immediately attacked by the armies of despotic European monarchs, the young revolution found itself assailed by internal and external foes (among them Germany, Britain, France, Japan, and in covert fashion, the U.S.). Leaders who had experienced the terror of Czarist oppression were hardly inclined to be soft-handed. The upbringing of children typical at the time was in itself sufficient to produce authoritarian characters, in Russia as much as in  the rest of the world. The photos of the corpses of landless Ukrainian laborers hanging from trees, with a cardboard poster featuring the word “Communist” visibly displayed across their breast, let some of our contemporaries recall massacres in Jeju (Korea) in 1948, in Indonesia in 1965, in Chile under Pinochet. Red terror like the reign of terror in the young French republic was initially, to a large extent, a reaction, and a sympton of fear: the fear of being defeated and killed, quite mercilessly, by the victors. Authoritarianism was not only a socio-psychologically engrained feature of many human beings in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century; it was also a political response of a revolutionary leadership to a desperate situation of political and economic chaos, and military encirclement. 

In the long run, the characteristic considerations that informed the policies of the new leadership in Russia (a country known  as Soviet Russia though the soviets or democratic workers’ councils were either disempowered very early on, or never attained a decisive political say in the course of the country’s development) were tied to goals most of which are typical of every ‘power elite.’ To strengthen and safeguard the state, and to lean on a bureaucracy no less ‘modern’ than that of Imperial Germany, or Britain, or the U.S. (societies that Max Weber’s studies of growing bureaucratic tendencies tell us a lot about) was seen as a priority. There certainly existed the necessity to defend the new state  (which, true enough, abolished private property of industry, big commerce, banks, and the transport sector, and soon also of farming). 

But taking overall control while factually diempowering the many (as whose steward the party and its leadership claimed to function) helped pave the way for a statist, in fact state-capitalist regime of accumulation. 

It contributed to setting goals that in many respects were not much different from those pursued under Western capitalism. Productivist orientations triumphed. The lives and the dignity of real human people were sacrificed to an overriding goal: not maximization of profit harvested by the few (as in  the West); but rapid modernization and expansion of the industrial as well as the mining sector, and secondly the industrialization of agriculture. Basically, the American model was to be followed; America was to be “overtaken:” and if American industry and farming disregarded the ecology, the poor cousins in Russia, eager to achieve fast growth (which they did achieve) disregarded the health of workers and the ‘health of mother nature’ even more. The state truly turned into the modern Leviathan: But, as we know, it did so, in other, often kindred ways, in the West, where capitalism mutated into its modern form. A form that also implied a vaster and vaster role of the state in the economy, albeit for the good of the happy few, the superrich oligarchy of bankers, industrialists, major shareholders.

So indeed, the outcome of modern development (or ‘modernization’), in several major or ‘structural’ respects, was similar, for both ‘systems’. 

Summing up, it is possible to say that in the context of the new ‘socialist’ experiments such modernization had meant:

- that industrial expansion and thus accumulation of capital fixe (represented by plants, machinery, the cost of innovation) received top priority;

- that the needs and lives of people were subordinated to accumulation, just as they were subordinated to accumulation in outright capitalist countries;(*)

- that the human and ecological ‘costs’ of accumulation were ignored, just as they have been and still are largely ignored in modern capitalist societies;(**) 

In view of all this it seems to be quite justified indeed if today people ask whether the experiments that were meant to lead to socialism or even communism  did not turn, after several phases of error and terror, into no more than merely a second form (or variety) of modern state capitalism, with traits in many ways similar to what president Eisenhower had called the “military-industrial complex” so typical of the U.S. even nowadays.

At the same time, the pseudo-democratic form  (referred to as “people’s democracy”) scarcely hid the openly monopolistic rule of the ‘few.’ This was causing in the end even more rejection than the veiled form of factual rule by the few we observe in present-day Western democracies with their big bureaucracies and dominating ‘elites’ whose legitimacy is said to be guaranteed by elections. Albeit elections that almost always leave ‘the people’, that is to say, the vast majority of the factually disempowered electorate as well as most of those who (frequently because of disillusionment) abstain from voting, in a state of permanent frustration. People know that, today, their voice is still ignored and many begin to sense that almost every expression of their needs is subject to manipulation and falsification,

It is ridiculous, of course, that the repressive, anti-democratic form of state-capitalism that evolved in, above all, Eastern Europe and China is labeled communist by both its ideological defenders and its capitalist attackers in the West. As has been pointed out, the third watchword of the French revolution of 1789, égalité, was taken seriously at best in the initial stages of the Russian revolution. As for China, we have too little information to say for sure when this lofty ideal was abandoned. And thus an orientation or goal which also implies compensatory justice and respect for equal socio-economic rights, thus the right to factual participation of all in social, economic, and thus political decision-making processes that concern their daily lives.

Perhaps there never existed any free and egalitarian societies in modern times. 

And if we think of ‘communist’ societies, we get an inkling that what was descibed as communist was no more than “a perversion of an old human dream,” as the U.S. film-maker Robert Kramer once dryly noted.

Perhaps, in a rudimentary, “undeveloped” or anticipative form, some pre-modern societies let us recognize elements of deliberative democracy and of what can be described, in a certain sense, as a solidaire economy.
Some critics, such as Frederick Engels, have discovered such seminal or anticipated ‘communism’ or communalism  in certain, by now vanished, Native American social structures.(***)  Other researchers have taken a clue from Engels’ hypothesis and tended to discover free and equal forms of living together (including a freed, non-repressive sexuality) in  certain other pre-modern social structures; for instance in Polynesia.

It was not by chance, perhaps, that in the mid-1860s, a governor of Colorado, advocating genocidal campaigns against Native Americans (then referred to as “Indians”), spoke of these “Indians” as “Communists.”

Today, in the Americas South of the Rio Grande, many Native American communities defend the ejidio, that is to say, common, shared or communal ownership of land. They instinctively fear that replacing joint ownership by private property titles is a first step that will usher in a dynamics that will  leave most of them without any possession of land, in the end. And in fact, in Mexico, the central government (leaning on a big bureaucratic apparatus) listens to experts who argue that small landholdings are “not viable” and that the market “demands” what it brings about anyhow: a process of concentration of land ownership, and big, “industrialized” farming. Privately owned, by modern wealthy farmers, by farm management corporations, and by hedgefunds that rent vast farms to modern tenants. It is a perfect scenario for BAYER as a maker of pesticides and for MONSANTO as a producer of genetically manipulated seeds. In many ways, the outcome will be as anti-ecological as the vast Russian sovchoz and kholchoz farms in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan have been (and it will imply, of course, for the required work-force, just as alienated conditions).

As for the pre-modern native American tribal societies in North America that Engels and Marx were interested in, is it possible to say that they showed certain traits that are worth reflecting on today?

In a ‘communist’ Native American tribal society, personal property existed of course,  just as it exists in our society today and existed in so-called socialist societies in Eastern Europe.

The procurement of the necessities of survival of the “nation” (or tribe, as Western sociologists sometimes prefer to say) was a solidaire affair, undertaken by all. If this presupposes obviously a common or ‘collective’ effort, even though on a level appropriate to a pre-industrial society, the same is true in the 19th, 20th and early 21st century: The production and distribution system of the Capitalist West can function only as a collective, social effort. The same was obviouly true of the now defunct state-capitalist East.

Can anyone seriously doubt the “social” or “collective” character of production today? I don’t think so. Production in the West today is rarely small-scale production by skilled individuals producing what they or they relatives and neighbors, or the townspeople immediately need. It is production for anonymous markets. And on average, mid-sized, large as well as very large work-forces (numbering, in the case of certain corporations, more than a hundred thousand persons) are employed. Many if not, in indirect fashion, all activities of such work-forces of individual corporations are interrelated and interdependent. In other words, human economic activities are characterized by a common trait: they forge social bonds between those active and, in many respects, make isolated, particular (or “private”) actions, on the whole, very unlikely.(****)

This interdepencence and interrelationship is significant; it constitutes the social character of  production. In other words, production in the West today is no isolated, individual act even if, from a myopic point of view, it can be experienced as such an act because the work I do is done very concretely, by me: I sweat, I get tired, I have to concentrate and avoid mistakes, etc. Still, to give an example,  my work is tied by visible or invisible ties to what the fellow worker further up or down the assembly line does; and we depend on parts and components that fellow workers in another plant have produced.  Thus, as actice persons, we participate in what is a common or social or joint undertaking. And this, due to increased market integration and increasing specialization processes,  in an increasing degree. 

But nonetheless, a striking contradiction exists. There are all of these work processes that we, as factually cooperating persons, are involved in, in society at large. And we are involved in them whether we know it or not, as if they were common or shared projects. But nonetheless we, and with us, the work processes mentioned that we are jointly engaged in, are just as factually subjected to private control of the few. That  is to say, a joint, social, cooperative  undertaking is nevertheless subjected to the power and control of a very limited number of owners, managers, major shareholders. And, to a certain degree, also to the direct or indirect control exercised by political and administrative ‘elites’ that are more or less in close contact with big business and usually quite ready to respond to most of the ‘wishes’ and the so-called ‘necessities’ big business chooses to dictate, “because there is no alternative.” 

In  other words, the rationality of the undertaking, the goal, and the intended outcome of the joint or shared, or cooperative and collective undertaken are not in free and participative ways determined by all those actively involved in the undertaking, but by those who use  property titles or political office as a legitimatory weapon that enables them to exclude and silence the vast majority of the people. No effective deliberation, no effective participation in decisions that would significantly affect a privately owned system of socially carried out production is allowed. No such deliberation involving us, the people, and no decision-making process that we would participate in freely and equally and effectively is foreseen, even if only in this way irrational, ecologically and humanly harmful, profit-driven and thus market-driven tendencies could be corrected.

In other words, we who are in fact those citizens who, with respect to their joint activities as economically active persons, do the decisive work, find ourselves excluded from a real say in matters that decisively affect the life we live, both inside the ‘enterprise’ or ‘company’ and outside it, both as working people and as ‘familiy people,’ as so-called consumers etc.

It is clear that in those societies that were once described as the “socialist”  East, such exclusion – though rhetorically and ideologically overcome by the new ‘socialist’ form of property (of the factories, mines, etc., in short, the means of production) – persisted as well. The old strata in control in the West – owners, top management, and upper echelons of a bureaucratic state apparatus at the service of the existing social order – had simply been replaced by new ‘elites’: political leaders, high-ranking public administrators, and directors of state-owned ventures. In theory, the new elites had the ‘good of all’ at heart. In practice, the defense and might of the state, as well as their power were tantamount, and the goal to preserve what they equated with the survival and advance of the revolution demanded, in their view, a ‘productivist’ orientation. Above all, permanent expansion, innovation and modernization of those branches of industry that allowed the ‘new state’ to avoid falling behind in the arms race. Real people, their concrete lives, their happiness hardly counted. But do they count in the race for profit that capitalist companies and above all, trans-national corporations, engage in today?

The way to a freer, more democratic, more rational – and that means also, less ecologically destructive – social way of producing and consuming obviously implies very different orientations: Friendlier, kinder, less harsh, less competitive. And more participative, in ways that touch all aspects of society, including the economy and its impact on the ecology. 

We need a peaceful turn-about, finally. A solidaire, ecologically sane economy. A participative economy. A participative, much more democratic and inclusive democracy. New and friendly global economic cooperation: based on mutual help, on free and fair exchange that must replace competition, a quest for profit and for the conquest of markets. And ABOVE ALL we need, on a global scale, compensatory justice: and this means real actions, on the part of the so-called First World that will attempt to heal the wounds left by colonialism, neo-colonialism, and by all the economic and military (non-camouflaged as well as clandestine) forms of war that still persist today.

The necessity of change cannot be denied anymore, once we open our eyes.


(*)  Apparently, due to ‘emergencies’ and the ‘militarization of labor’ in the early phase, due to Stalin’s terror later on, the concrete form could be more brutal in Russia; on the other hand, there were also cases of idealistic sacrifice for a goal many people believed in. 

(**) In certain phases of accumulation during the time of the Russian experiment that lasted from 1918 to the early 1990s, the extent to which the human and ecological ‘costs’ of accumulation were ignored was even more enormous. In certain heavily industrialized regions, in many mining districts and areas characterized by strong dependence on oil exploration and production, it could attain and surpass the very tangible levels witnessed under 19th and early 20th century capitalism in the West. Or under capitalism in the ‘emerging’ industrial countries of the so-called Third World today.

(***) The concept of ‘primitive’ or primordial ‘communism’ is outlined in simple terms by Alexandra Kollontai: “Unter dem Urkommunismus  […] [war] das Privateigentum unbekannt [...]   Die Menschen ernaehrten sich von dem, was die Jagd und das Sammeln von wildwachsenden Kraeutern und Fruechten ihnen gaben. [...] [Im] Stadium der Jaeger und Sammler [...] existierten weder Abhaengigkeit der Frau vom Mann noch etwa unterschiedliche Rechte. [...] Der Stamm fasste Beschluesse und bestimmte. [...] Gleichheit und natuerliche Solidaritaet [...] [waren die] den Stamm zusammenhaltenden Kraefte. [...] Darum  [...] war es in der ersten Periode der oekonomischen Entwicklung der Menschheit unmoeglich, dass ein Stammesmitglied einem anderen untergeordnet oder von diesem einseitig abhaengig war.“ - Alexandra Kollontai, Die Situation der Frau in der gesellschaftlichen Entwicklung. Vierzehn Vorlesungen vor Arbeiterinnen und Baeuerinnen an der Sverdlov-Universitaet 1921. [Frankfurt] (Verlag Neue Kritik) 1975, p.15f.

(****) The contradiction between societal processes or activities and private, particular gain of the few derived from them was highlighted by Estes Kefauver. He pointed out that, “[i]n cases where a technology takes years to perfect, with the accretion of knowledge supplied by a multitude of research workers, the patent reward often goes to the perfector of the final stage of the discovery.” And “[w]here an important invention is the product of a number of minds working in different research laboratories, too often the reward […] goes to the individual or corporation most alert in  the acquisitive arts.” “Private privilege […] tends to dig in and broaden its base […]” - Estes Kefauver, In A Few Hands. Monopoly Power in America. Harmondsworth (Pelican) 1966, p.250.
What is here clarified with regard to the particular fields of scientific research and technological innovation, holds true with regard to the aggregate processes of production of goods, knowledge etc.: Collective effort, the contribution of all of society is at stake, but under our present conditions, the fruit of such effort is overwhelmingly placed “in a few hands” – those of big corporations active in industry, finance, commerce plus the property sector and of the members of a plutocratic stratum which function as important owners  or shareholders.





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