Capitalism can fool and intimidate the masses, but it cannot do the same with the environment, thus will find its demise in the climate emergency.
Jelena Vidojević is a political scientist and the co-founder of the New South Institute (https://nsi.org.za)
Radmila Nakarada is Professor of Peace Studies and founder of the Center for Peace Studies, University of Belgrade – Faculty of Political Science, Serbia. Prof Nakarada is the New South Institute Distinguished Fellow.
William I. Robinson is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Global and International Studies at the University of California. His books includeCan Capitalism Endure?,Global Civil War: CapitalismPost-Pandemic,The Global Police State,Global Capitalism andthe Crisis of Humanity,LatinAmerica and Global Capitalism,Promoting Polyarchy:Globalisation, USIntervention and Hegemony.
Q: The focus of a number of your latest books (Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, The Global Police State) is on the nature of a new epoch, global capitalism, its contradictions and ongoing crisis. “Our world is burning. We face a global crisis that is unprecedented in terms of its magnitude, its global reach, the extent of ecological degradation, and the scale of the means of violence.” This is how the book opens. It prepares the reader for the grim picture of the current state of the world and its inner workings that you paint. However, in spite of the magnitude, depth of the current crisis, has not capitalism up to now demonstrated that it posses an almost inexhaustible ability to survive crises, and come up with new mechanisms of self-preservation?
In addressing the current crisis, does not the dominating transnational capitalist class (TCC) have unprecedented forms and scope of power, enhanced ability to reincorporate, dominate, control, quench resistance, eliminate alternatives, and even resolve the problem of physical limits by perhaps expanding to new planets (Mars?), embarking on a new form of colonization in space?
A: You are correct that capitalism has proved to be more resilient and adaptable than its doomsday forecasters. But the current crisis is distinct on several counts. First, the planetary ecosystem can take no more stress. A collapse of the biosphere would make it very difficult if not impossible for our species and most others to survive. As is well known, the sixth mass extinction is already underway. Without a radical change in the current course of affairs, we are poised to see in the coming decades the collapse of agriculture, the flooding of coastal cities that are home to hundreds of millions of people, rising temperatures that make uninhabitable vast swaths of the tropical and semi-tropical belts that are home to billions of people, and the outbreak of new pathogens that may prove much more deadly than Covid-19. The ecological dimension of the crisis is nothing short of catastrophic. The scientists tell us we have very little time left to avert the this catastrophe. The question in this regard is, can capitalism survive a collapse of the biosphere? It cannot.
Second, capitalism must constantly expand outward both extensively and intensively. The history of the past 530 years is one of constant extensive enlargement. There are no new territories now to be incorporated into world capitalism. There has been an acceleration of the process of intensive expansion – that is, of commodifying new spheres of society, from public services and utilities, to culture, space exploration, and nature – through globalization and neoliberalism. There is certainly much more room for further commodification, but the more the system commodifies spheres of society that are essential for social reproduction the more the political and social dimensions of the general crisis become aggravated.
Third, it appears that the overaccumulation of capital – the problem of surplus capital – has never been greater. As I have previously discussed, the TCC and its agents in states and in academia are in incessant search for new outlets to invest overaccumulated capital. The expansion of fictitious capital and of financial speculation is simply unprecedented, as are levels of global debt. The relentless drive towards militarized accumulation and accumulation by repression also pushes us towards World War III, even if the Ukraine crisis is resolved before that conflagration expands beyond Russia and Ukraine. There must be a destruction of capital and we have already seen some of them in the first half of 2022, for example, with the collapse of cryptocurrency markets.
But the extent of social polarization and inequality worldwide defies our imagination. Any productive reactivation would have to involve a very significant redistribution of wealth downward to attenuate this polarization.
In sum, we appear to be arriving at the historic exhaustion of the conditions for capitalist renewal. Now, let me state that at the strictly structural level, a new round of capitalist expansion and prosperity may be possible through a global Keynesian-style program of transnational taxation, redistribution and regulation, along with the digital transformation of global circuits of accumulation, as I discussed in my two most recent books, Global Civil War: Capitalism Post-Pandemic, and Can Global Capitalism Endure? However, even putting aside the contradictions that would be internal to any new global regime of accumulation, such a new round of reactivation and expansion can only intensify many times over the stress on the planetary ecosystem.
Now, let me state that the time frame we are talking about here is not years but decades. Reform of a more radical nature may prolong the life of the system for decades. I simply cannot imagine capitalism surviving into the twenty-second century. The system must expand constantly. The type of statis we would need to avert a collapse of the biosphere is not an option for capitalism. It is not a policy option for its agents. At some point in the coming decades the self-expansion of capitalism must cease in order for us to survive. There is of course the nightmare scenario of a global police state or globalized fortress in which the elite and a narrow stratum of professionals, technocrats, and high-skilled workers flourish behind the ironclad walls of the global police state, with a tight control over flows of labor and resources from the mass of humanity. The global refugee crisis is a sign that this fortress world is already upon us.
Finally, I realize that these apocalyptic scenarios are politically disarming, and that nothing is inevitable. There is contingency, there is the global revolt, the future is not predetermined because we make it as we go along. Class struggle is heating up worldwide. The contradictions of the system are explosive yet we must remember that much of what our rulers do – in particular, extending the global police state throughout global society – is in response to mass resistance among restive populations that cannot be contained. Let me make clear: I am not predicting the end of capitalism anytime soon. While that is a possibility, as I have just discussed, I am predicting that the crisis will continue to intensify as we move towards a point in which we either overthrow global capitalism or we all perish. Spoiler alert: in my new book, Can Global Capitalism Endure?, my conclusion is that it absolutely cannot beyond the current century. The question is, can we overthrow it before it takes humanity (and many other life forms) down with it?
Q: If the current crisis has an apocalyptic potential, taking into consideration particularly the ecological degradation and the means of violence at the disposal of the powerful transnational capitalist class, should we nevertheless consider whether it is not only the result of inherent contradictions of global capitalism, but reflects the pathology of human species, i.e. the contradictions of human nature? A. Koestler (Janus: A Summing up, 1978), for instance in discussing the long line of violence in human history, states that homo sapiens may be an aberrant biological species, and an evolutionary mistake (p.5, p.18.), afflicted by an endemic disorder, lack of coordination between emotion and intellect, faith and reason and therefore prone to self-destructive violence. Do you consider this question on the human nature to be superfluous? Does everything begin and end with capitalism?
A: These are two radically distinct questions (is human nature superfluous? And does everything begin and end with capitalism?). With regard to human nature, we know full well that much of what authors such as Koestler and evolutionary biologists attribute to some unalterable human nature is in fact human behavior under particular historical conditions. There are been societies in history that have never known warfare, for instance. If a certain behavior is “human nature” then it cannot be altered and therefore there cannot be an exception. Rather, what we learn from history is that human beings along with all other life forms have a drive to survive (and even at that, we humans have traded instinct for culture in this drive, so that we are the only species that can and does take our own lives intentionally, or chose consciously not to procreate). It is the particular historical and material/social conditions that shape how we set out to survive. Some societies have been based on broad and largely peaceful cooperation and others on large-scale and sustained violence. The key turning point in our species existence over the past 200, 000 years, in my view, and in the view of historical materialism, is not capitalism but the rise of surpluses and with them, of class society and the state. So any writer who looks at today’s reality, or the reality of class society, as something fixed that reveals an intrinsic “human nature” is confusing behavior within a particular set of social conditions with a mythical “natural” behavior.
Q: Besides brutal inequality, repression and militarization are the consequences of this emerging “neoilliberalism” (Reijer Hendrikse), paving the way to a global police state1. “Global economy is itself based more and more on the development and deployment of these systems of warfare, social control and repression simply as a means of making profit and accumulating capital, and as the only way to sustain global inequalities. As war and state-sponsored violence become increasingly privatized, the interests of broad array of capitalist groups shift the political, social and ideological limits towards generating and sustaining social conflict.” This analysis of the militarized accumulation is particularly dramatic and distressing because its forcefully depicts the logic and structures that lead to the conclusion that there is no way out of perpetual war. In this fusion of state and corporate power, together with the military, security, media power what is the merit of the concept of Human security? If we use Althusser’s famous distinction between an economic system that works primarily through repression or a system that works mainly by ideology, are you proposing that present day capitalism works primarily today through violence rather than primarily through ideological) subjection?
A: Apart from overthrowing the system itself, there is a way out of perpetual warfare, or at least a way to reduce the centrality of militarized accumulation to global capitalism. This would involve some sort of a productive reactivation to the global economy, possibly induced by the application of the new digital technologies across the global economy, along with a radical policy reorientation towards a global neo-Keynesianism that involves a major dose of wealth and income redistribution. But let me be clear: this should not be the project of a global socialist left. Our project should be the overthrow of global capitalism.
But a radical reform would only come about my militant struggle from below in the same way that social democracy, the welfare state, and regulated mid-twentieth century capitalism came about thanks to socialist, communist and other mass struggles from below that led the ruling groups to shift direction. While I appreciate Althusser’s discussion of Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses, I do not feel he gave sufficient credit to Gramsci, who argued that under a more advanced capitalism and an entrenched civil society, the ruling groups rule through both consensual and coercive mechanisms of social control. But yes, absolutely, I see a shift underway worldwide towards more openly coercive mechanisms of social control and capitalist reproduction, or if you prefer, towards more salience of Repressive State Apparatuses.
This is abundantly clear.
I think a very significant Althusserian contribution to understanding the current global conjuncture is the concept of overdetermination. It seems to me that the politics that flows from political authority being spread across some 200 national states that are facing an acute crisis of legitimacy is leading us towards the overdetermination of the political, that is, the political overdetermining the economic at this time, if you will. I have written a bit about this in my two new books (mentioned above), but this needs to be explored further.
Q: In terms of concrete actors of resistance you basically note, the (global) working class and a developed organic web of global movements. The term working class is used in a various ways throughout the books, in a narrow, classical, and in a broader sense meaning all the victims of capital exploitation. However, you indicate that the working class is exposed to inner fragmentations and conflicts, and has not become “a class for itself”. As for the movements, a number of them which you noted as potentially forming a counter hegemonic block in the book Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (2014) (Arab Spring, World Social Forum, Occupy Wall Street, Pink Tide in LA, etc.) have more or less disappeared by the time the The Global Police State (2020) came out. At the same time you are, rightly, critical of the “domesticated UN” that signed a strategic partnership framework with World Economic Forum, “an organization that represents the interests of more than 1000 global corporations”. You point out that according to the Transnational Institute: “This public-private partnership will permanently associate the UN with transnational corporations […] This is a form of corporate capture […] The provisions of the strategic partnership effectively provide that corporate leaders will become ‘whisper advisors’ to the heads of UN system departments, using their private access to advocate market-based profit-making ‘solutions’ to global problems while undermining real solutions […]
Is the profound problem that on the whole, we still seem to be seeking effective counter-hegemonic global actors – classes, movements, institutions, and strategies?
A: The matter of the historic anti-capitalist subject has been broadly debated in recent decades. I do refer to the global working classes but more often than not, I refer to the “global working and popular classes” in references to all those social groups and classes who objectively stand in an antagonistic relationship with global capital. This would include, for instance, the small farmers and semi-proletarianized peasantry in India that have participated in recent years in mass strikes of the kind referred to by Rosa Luxemburg that have been some of the biggest labor mobilizations in world history. The inner core of the popular classes worldwide is definitely the global proletariat proper. We must recall that the conformation of an historical subject involves a collective class consciousness, a project of emancipation, and a political action capacity that includes revolutionary political organizations. There have been a series of factors in recent decades that have undermined the development of the historic subject. Among other things, these include, of course, the process of capitalist globalization and the collapse of the former Soviet bloc and Third World revolutions, the bankruptcy of the twentieth-century model of revolutionary struggle and transformation, the disaggregation, atomization, and dispersion of working classes through globalization and digital restructuring, and a debilitating post-modernism especially in the historic West, but beyond it as well – that has replaced class struggle with identity-based politics seeking non-discriminatory and equitable inclusion in global capitalism rather than the overthrow of global capitalism. A more advanced transnational capitalism has generated extreme forms of alienation and reification. Culturally, digitalization and new forms of commodification it facilitates have opened up vast new possibilities for consumerist fantasies, for seduction by capital – for conforming, sublimation, and hegemony. I am thinking here of the deleterious effects of social media and its ability to bring to new heights the “society of the spectacle.” Let us remember Lucács’ prescient observation a century ago: “If the proletariat finds the economic inhumanity to which it is subjected easier to understand than the political, and the political easier than the cultural, then all these separations point to the extent of the still unconquered power of capitalist forms of life in the proletariat itself.”
1 By global police state, you mean the “omnipresent systems of mass social control, repression and warfare to contain the real and potential rebellion of the global working class and surplus humanity.”
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