Category Archives: Neoliberalism

Open Letter to Amnesty International by a Former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience

Through this letter I express my unequivocal condemnation of Amnesty International with regards to the destabilizing role it has played in Nicaragua, my country of birth.

I open this letter quoting Donatella Rovera, who at the time this quote was made, had been one of Amnesty International’s field investigators for more than 20 years:

Conflict situations create highly politicized and polarized environments (…). Players and interested parties go to extraordinary lengths to manipulate or manufacture “evidence” for both internal and external consumption. A recent, though by no means the only, example is provided by the Syrian conflict in what is often referred to as the “YouTube war,” with a myriad techniques employed to manipulate video footage of incidents which occurred at other times in other places – including in other countries – and present them as “proof” of atrocities committed by one or the other parties to the conflict in Syria.

Ms. Rovera’s remarks, made in 2014, properly describe the situation of Nicaragua today, where even the preamble of the crisis was manipulated to generate rejection of the Nicaraguan government. Amnesty International’s maliciously titled report, Shoot to Kill: Nicaragua’s Strategy to Repress Protest, could be dismantled point by point, but doing so requires precious time that the Nicaraguan people don’t have, therefore I will concentrate on two main points:

(a) The report completely lacks neutrality; and,
(b) Amnesty International’s role is contributing to the chaos in which the nation finds itself.

The operating narrative, agreed-upon by the local opposition and the corporate western media, is as follows: That president Ortega sought to cut 5 percent from retirees’ monthly retirement checks, and that he was going to increase contributions, made by employees and employers, into the social security system. The reforms sparked protests, the response to which was a government-ordered genocide of peaceful protestors, more than 60, mostly students. A day or two after that, the Nicaraguan government would wait until nightfall to send its police force out in order to decimate the Nicaraguan population, night after night, city by city, in the process destroying its own public buildings and killing its own police force, to then culminate its murderous rampage with a Mothers’ Day massacre, and so on.

While the above narrative is not uniformly expressed by all anti-government actors, the unifying elements are that the government is committing genocide, and that the president and vice-president must go.

Amnesty International’s assertions are mostly based on either testimony by anti-government witnesses and victims, or the uncorroborated and highly manipulated information emitted by U.S.-financed anti-government media outlets, and non-profit organizations, collectively known as “civil society.”

The three main media organizations cited by the report: Confidencial, 100% Noticias, and La Prensa, are sworn enemies of the Ortega government; most of these opposition news media organizations, along with some, if not all, of the main non-profits cited by the report, are funded by the United States, through organizations like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which has been characterized by retired U.S. Congressman, Ron Paul, as:

… an organization that uses US tax money to actually subvert democracy, by showering funding on favored political parties or movements overseas. It underwrites color-coded ‘people’s revolutions’ overseas that look more like pages out of Lenin’s writings on stealing power than genuine indigenous democratic movements.

Amnesty’s report heavily relies on 100% Noticias, an anti-government news outlet that has aired manipulated and inflammatory material to generate hatred against the Nicaraguan government, including footage of peaceful protesters, unaware of the fact that the protesters were carrying pistols, rifles, and were shooting at police officers during incidents reported by the network as acts of police repression of opposition marches. On Mothers’ Day, 100% Noticias reported the purported shooting of unarmed protesters by police shooters, including an incident in which a young man’s brains were spilling out of his skull. The network followed the report with a photograph that Ms. Rovera would refer to as an incident “…which occurred at other times in other places.” The picture included in the report was quickly met on social media by links to past online articles depicting the same image.

One of the sources (footnote #77) cited to corroborate the alleged denial of medical care at state hospitals to patients injured at opposition events –one of the main accusations repeated and reaffirmed by Amnesty International- is a press conference published by La Prensa, in which the Chief of Surgery denies claims that he had been fired, or that hospital officials had denied care to protesters at the beginning of the conflict. “I repeat,” he is heard saying, “as the chief of surgery, I repeat [the] order: to take care of, I will be clear, to take care of the entire population that comes here, without investigating anything at all.” In other words, one of Amnesty International’s own sources contradicts one of its report’s main claims.

The above-mentioned examples of manipulated and manufactured evidence, to borrow the words of Amnesty’s own investigator, are just a small sample, but they capture the essence of this modality of U.S.-sponsored regime change. The report feeds on claims from those on one side of the conflict, and relies on deeply corrupted evidence; it ultimately helps create the mirage of a genocidal state, in turn generating more anti-government sentiment locally and abroad, and paving the way for ever more aggressive foreign intervention.

A different narrative

The original reforms to social security were not proposed by the Sandinista government, but by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and they were supported by an influential business group, known as COSEP. They included raising the retirement age from 60 to 65 and doubling the number of quotas necessary to get full social security from 750 to 1500. Among the impacted retirees, approximately 53,000, are the families of combatants who died in the armed conflict of the 1980s, from both the Sandinista army and the “Contras,” the mercenary army financed by the United States government in the 1980s, around the same time the NED was created, in part, to stop the spread of Sandinismo in Latin America.

The Nicaraguan government countered the IMF’s reforms by rejecting the cutting out of any retirees, with a proposed 5% cut to all retirement checks, an increase in all contributions to the social security system, and with fiscal reform that removed a tax-ceiling that protected Nicaragua’s biggest salaries from higher taxation. The business sector was furious, and together with nongovernmental organizations, organized the first marches, using the pretext of the reforms in the same manipulative way Amnesty International’s report explains them: “… the reform increased social security contributions by both employers and employees and imposed an additional 5% contribution on pensioners.”

The continuing narrative, repeated and validated by Amnesty International, is that the protesters are peaceful and the genocidal government is irrationally bent on committing atrocities in plain sight. Meanwhile, the number of dead among Sandinista supporters and police officers continues to rise. The report states that ballistic investigations suggest that those shooting at protesters are likely trained snipers, pointing to government involvement, but fails to mention that many of the victims are Sandinistas, regular citizens, and police officers. It also does not mention that the “peaceful protesters” have burned down and destroyed more than 60 public buildings, among them many City Halls, Sandinista houses, markets, artisan shops, radio stations, and more; nor does it mention that the protesters have established “tranques,” or roadblocks, in order to debilitate the economy as a tactic to oust the government. Such “tranques” have become extremely dangerous scenes where murder, robbery, kidnapping, and the rape of at least one child have taken place; a young pregnant woman whose ambulance wasn’t let through also died on May 17th. All of these crimes occur daily and are highly documented, but aren’t included in Amnesty International’s report.

While the organization is right to criticize the government’s belittling response to the initial protests, such response was not entirely untrue. According to the report, Vice-President Murillo said, among other things, that “…they [the protesters] had made up the reports of fatalities (…) as part of an anti-government strategy.” What Amnesty leaves out is that several of the reported dead students did turn up alive, one of them all the way in Spain, while others had not been killed at rallies, nor were they students or activists, including one who died from a scattered bullet, and another who died from a heart attack in his bed.

Amnesty’s report also leaves out that many of the students have deserted the movement, alleging that there are criminals entrenched at universities as well as at the various “tranques,” who are only interested in destabilizing the nation. Those criminals have created a state of sustained fear among the population, imposing “taxes” on those who want passage, persecuting those who refuse to be detained, kidnapping them, beating them, torturing them, and setting their cars on fire. In a common practice, they undress their victims, paint their naked bodies in public with the blue and white of the Nicaraguan flag, and then set them free, prompting them to run right before shooting them with homemade mortar weapons. All of this information, which did not make the report, is available in numerous videos and other sources.

Why Nicaragua?

The most basic review of the history between Nicaragua and the United States will show a clear rivalry. Beginning in the mid-1800s, Nicaragua has been resisting U.S. intervention into the country’s affairs, a resistance that continued through the 20th century, first with General August C. Sandino’s fight in the 1920s and 30s, and then with the Sandinistas, organized as the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which overthrew the U.S.-supported, 40-year Somoza family dictatorship in 1979. The FSLN, despite having gained power through armed struggle, called for elections shortly after its triumph in 1984, and eventually lost to yet another U.S.-supported coalition of right-wing political parties in 1990. The FSLN once again managed, aided by pacts made with the church and the opposition, to win the election of 2006, and has remained in power since.

In addition to Nicaragua’s close ties with Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, and especially China, with whom the country signed a contract to build a canal, the other main reason the United States is after the Sandinistas, is Nicaragua’s highly successful economic model, which represents an existential threat to the neoliberal economic order imposed by the U.S. and its allies.

Despite always being among the poorest nations in the American continent and the world, Nicaragua has managed, since Ortega returned to power in 2007, to cut poverty by three quarters. Prior to the protests in April, the country’s economy sustained a steady annual economic growth of about 5% for several years, and the country had the third fastest-growing economy in Latin America, and was one of the safest nations in the region.

The government’s infrastructural upgrades have facilitated trade among Nicaragua’s poorest citizens; they have created universal access to education: primary, secondary, and university; there are programs on land, housing, nutrition, and more; the healthcare system, while modest, is not only excellent, but accessible to everyone. Approximately 90% of the food consumed by Nicaraguans is produced in Nicaragua, and about 70% of jobs come from the grassroots economy –rather than from transnational corporations- including from small investors from the United States and Europe, who have moved to the country and are a driving force behind the tourism industry.

The audacity of success, of giving its poorest citizens a life with dignity, of being an example of sovereignty to wealthier, more powerful nations, all in direct contradiction to the neoliberal model and its emphasis on privatization and austerity, has once again placed Nicaragua in the crosshairs of U.S. intervention. Imagine the example to other nations -their economies already strangled by neoliberal policies- becoming aware of one of the poorest countries on earth being able to feed its people and grow its economy without throwing its poorest citizens under the iron boot of capitalism. The United States will never tolerate such a dangerous example.

In closing

The Nicaraguan government has deficiencies and contradictions to work on, like all governments, and as a Sandinista myself I would like to see the party transformed in various important ways, both internally and externally. I have refrained from writing of those deficiencies and contradictions, however, because the violent protests and ensuing chaos we have seen are not the result of the Nicaraguan government’s shortcomings, but rather, of its many successes; that inconvenient truth is the reason the United States and its allies, including Amnesty International, have chosen to “…create highly politicized and polarized environments (…). [And to] go to extraordinary lengths to manipulate or manufacture “evidence” for both internal and external consumption.”

At a time when even the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and the Vatican have called for peaceful and constitutional reforms as the only way out of the conflict, Amnesty International has continued to beseech the international community to not “abandon the Nicaraguan people.” Such biased stance, obscenely bloated on highly manipulated, distorted, and one-sided information, has made the terrible situation in Nicaragua even worse. The loss of Nicaraguan lives, including the blood of those ignored by Amnesty International, has been used to manufacture the “evidence” used in the organization’s report, which makes the organization complicit in what future foreign intervention might fall upon the Nicaraguan people. It is now up to the organization to correct that wrong, and to do so in a way that reflects a firm commitment first and foremost to the truth, wherever it might fall, and to neutrality, peace, democracy, and always, to the sovereignty of every nation on earth.

Sincerely,

Camilo E. Mejia

Dangerous Liaison: Corporate Agriculture and the Reductionist Mindset

Food and agriculture across the world is in crisis. Food is becoming denutrified and unhealthy and diets less diverse. There is a loss of biodiversity, which threatens food security, soils are being degraded, water sources polluted and depleted and smallholder farmers, so vital to global food production, are being squeezed off their land and out of farming.

A minority of the global population has access to so much food that it can afford to waste much of it, while food insecurity has become a fact of life for hundreds of millions. This crisis stems from food and agriculture being wedded to power structures that serve the interests of the powerful global agribusiness corporations.

Over the last 60 years, agriculture has become increasingly industrialised, globalised and tied to an international system of trade based on export-oriented mono-cropping, commodity production for the international market, indebtedness to international financial institutions (IMF/World Bank).

This has resulted in food surplus and food deficit areas, of which the latter have become dependent on (US) agricultural imports and strings-attached aid. Food deficits in the Global South mirror food surpluses in the North, based on a ‘stuffed and starved’ strategy.

Whether through IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programmes related to debt repayment as occurred in Africa (as a continent Africa has been transformed from a net exporter to a net importer of food), bilateral trade agreements like NAFTA and its impact on Mexico or, more generally, deregulated global trade rules, the outcome has been similar: the devastation of traditional, indigenous agriculture.

Integral to all of this has been the imposition of the ‘Green Revolution’. Farmers were encouraged to purchase hybrid seeds from corporations that were dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides to boost yields. They required loans to purchase these corporate inputs and governments borrowed to finance irrigation and dam building projects for what was a water-intensive model.

While the Green Revolution was sold to governments and farmers on the basis it would increase productivity and earnings and would be more efficient, we now have nations and farmers incorporated into a system of international capitalism based on dependency, deregulated and manipulated commodity markets, unfair subsidies and inherent food insecurity.

As part of a wider ‘development’ plan for the Global South, millions of farmers have been forced out of agriculture to become cheap factory labour (for outsourced units from the West) or, as is increasingly the case, unemployed or underemployed slum dwellers.

In India, under the banner of a bogus notion of ‘development’, farmers are being whipped into subservience on behalf of global capital: they find themselves steadily squeezed out of farming due to falling incomes, the impact of cheap imports and policies deliberately designed to run down smallholder agriculture for the benefit of global agribusiness corporations.

Aside from the geopolitical shift in favour of the Western nations resulting from the programmed destruction of traditional agriculture across the world, the Green Revolution has adversely impacted the nature of food, soil, human health and the environment.

Sold on the premise of increased yields, improved food security and better farm incomes, the benefits of the Green Revolution have been overstated. And the often stated ‘humanitarian’ intent and outcome (‘millions of lives saved’) has had more to do with PR and cold commercial interest.

However, even when the Green Revolution did increase yields (or similarly, if claims about GMO agriculture – the second coming of the Green Revolution – improving output is to be accepted at face value), Canadian environmentalist Jodi Koberinski says pertinent questions need to be asked: what has been the cost of any increased yield of commodities in terms of local food security and local caloric production, nutrition per acre, water tables, soil structure and new pests and disease pressures?

We may also ask what the effects on rural communities and economies have been; on birds, insects and biodiversity in general; on the climate as a result of new technologies, inputs or changes to farming practices; and what has been the effects of shifting towards globalised production chains, not least in terms of transportation and fossil fuel consumption.

Moreover, if the Green Revolution found farmers in the Global South increasingly at the mercy of a US-centric system of trade and agriculture, at home they were also having to fit in with development policies that pushed for urbanisation and had to cater to the needs of a distant and expanding urban population whose food requirements were different to local rural-based communities. In addition to a focus on export-oriented farming, crops were also being grown for the urban market, regardless of farmers’ needs or the dietary requirements of local rural markets.

Destroying indigenous systems

In an open letter written in 2006 to policy makers in India, farmer and campaigner Bhaskar Save offered answers to some of these questions. He argued that the actual reason for pushing the Green Revolution was the much narrower goal of increasing marketable surplus of a few relatively less perishable cereals to fuel the urban-industrial expansion favoured by the government and a few industries at the expense of a more diverse and nutrient-sufficient agriculture, which rural folk – who make up the bulk of India’s population – had long benefited from.

Before, Indian farmers had been largely self-sufficient and even produced surpluses, though generally smaller quantities of many more items. These, particularly perishables, were tougher to supply urban markets. And so, the nation’s farmers were steered to grow chemically cultivated monocultures of a few cash-crops like wheat, rice, or sugar, rather than their traditional polycultures that needed no purchased inputs.

Tall, indigenous varieties of grain provided more biomass, shaded the soil from the sun and protected against its erosion under heavy monsoon rains, but these were replaced with dwarf varieties, which led to more vigorous growth of weeds and were able to compete successfully with the new stunted crops for sunlight.

As a result, the farmer had to spend more labour and money in weeding, or spraying herbicides. Furthermore, straw growth with the dwarf grain crops fell and much less organic matter was locally available to recycle the fertility of the soil, leading to an artificial need for externally procured inputs. Inevitably, the farmers resorted to use more chemicals and soil degradation and erosion set in.

The exotic varieties, grown with chemical fertilisers, were more susceptible to ‘pests and diseases’, leading to yet more chemicals being poured. But the attacked insect species developed resistance and reproduced prolifically. Their predators – spiders, frogs, etc. – that fed on these insects and controlled their populations were exterminated. So were many beneficial species like the earthworms and bees.

Save noted that India, next to South America, receives the highest rainfall in the world. Where thick vegetation covers the ground, the soil is alive and porous and at least half of the rain is soaked and stored in the soil and sub-soil strata.

A good amount then percolates deeper to recharge aquifers or groundwater tables. The living soil and its underlying aquifers thus serve as gigantic, ready-made reservoirs. Half a century ago, most parts of India had enough fresh water all year round, long after the rains had stopped and gone. But clear the forests, and the capacity of the earth to soak the rain, drops drastically. Streams and wells run dry.

While the recharge of groundwater has greatly reduced, its extraction has been mounting. India is presently mining over 20 times more groundwater each day than it did in 1950. But most of India’s people – living on hand-drawn or hand-pumped water in villages and practising only rain-fed farming – continue to use the same amount of ground water per person, as they did generations ago.

More than 80% of India’s water consumption is for irrigation, with the largest share hogged by chemically cultivated cash crops. For example, one acre of chemically grown sugarcane requires as much water as would suffice 25 acres of jowar, bajra or maize. The sugar factories too consume huge quantities.

From cultivation to processing, each kilo of refined sugar needs two to three tonnes of water. Save argued this could be used to grow, by the traditional, organic way, about 150 to 200 kg of nutritious jowar or bajra (native millets).

If Bhaskar Save helped open people’s eyes to what has happened on the farm, to farmers and to ecology in India, a 2015 report by GRAIN provides an overview of how US agribusiness has hijacked an entire nation’s food and agriculture under the banner of ‘free trade’ to the detriment of the environment, health and farmers.

In 2012, Mexico’s National Institute for Public Health released the results of a national survey of food security and nutrition. Between 1988 and 2012, the proportion of overweight women between the ages of 20 and 49 increased from 25% to 35% and the number of obese women in this age group increased from 9% to 37%.

Some 29% of Mexican children between the ages of 5 and 11 were found to be overweight, as were 35% of youngsters between 11 and 19, while one in 10 school age children suffered from anemia. The Mexican Diabetes Federation says that more than 7% of the Mexican population has diabetes. Diabetes is now the third most common cause of death in Mexico, directly or indirectly.

The various free trade agreements that Mexico has signed over the past two decades have had a profound impact on the country’s food system and people’s health. After his mission to Mexico in 2012, the then Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, concluded that the trade policies in place favour greater reliance on heavily processed and refined foods with a long shelf life rather than on the consumption of fresh and more perishable foods, particularly fruit and vegetables.

He added that the overweight and obesity emergency that Mexico is facing could have been avoided, or largely mitigated, if the health concerns linked to shifting diets had been integrated into the design of those policies.

The North America Free Trade Agreement led to the direct investment in food processing and a change in the retail structure (notably the advent of supermarkets and convenience stores) as well as the emergence of global agribusiness and transnational food companies in Mexico.

The country has witnessed an explosive growth of chain supermarkets, discounters and convenience stores. Local small-scale vendors have been replaced by corporate retailers that offer the processed food companies greater opportunities for sales and profits. Oxxo (owned by Coca-cola subsidiary Femsa) tripled its stores to 3,500 between 1999 and 2004. It was scheduled to open its 14,000th store sometime during 2015.

In Mexico, the loss of food sovereignty has induced catastrophic changes in the nation’s diet and has had dire consequences for agricultural workers who lost their jobs and for the nation in general. Those who have benefited include US food and agribusiness interests, drug cartels and US banks and arms manufacturers.

More of the same: a bogus ‘solution’

Transnational agribusiness has lobbied for, directed and profited from the very policies that have caused much of the above. And what we now see is these corporations (and their supporters) espousing cynical and fake concern for the plight of the poor and hungry.

GMO patented seeds represent the final stranglehold of transnational agribusiness over the control of agriculture and food. The misrepresentation of the plight of the indigenous edible oils sector in India encapsulates the duplicity at work surrounding the GM project.

After trade rules and cheap imports conspired to destroy farmers and the jobs of people involved in local food processing activities for the benefit of global agribusiness, including commodity trading and food processor companies ADM and Cargill, there is now a campaign to force GM into India on the basis that Indian agriculture is unproductive and thus the country has to rely on imports. This conveniently ignores the fact that prior to neoliberal trade rules in the mid-1990s, India was almost self-sufficient in edible oils.

In collusion with the Gates Foundation, corporate interests are also seeking to secure full spectrum dominance throughout much of Africa as well. Western seed, fertiliser and pesticide manufacturers and dealers and food processing companies are in the process of securing changes to legislation and are building up logistics and infrastructure to allow them to recast food and farming in their own images.

Today, governments continue to collude with big agribusiness corporations. These companies are being allowed to shape government policy by being granted a strategic role in trade negotiations and are increasingly framing the policy/knowledge agenda by funding and determining the nature of research carried out in public universities and institutes.

As Bhaskar Save wrote about India:

This country has more than 150 agricultural universities. But every year, each churns out several hundred ‘educated’ unemployables, trained only in misguiding farmers and spreading ecological degradation. In all the six years a student spends for an M.Sc. in agriculture, the only goal is short-term – and narrowly perceived – ‘productivity’. For this, the farmer is urged to do and buy a hundred things. But not a thought is spared to what a farmer must never do so that the land remains unharmed for future generations and other creatures. It is time our people and government wake up to the realisation that this industry-driven way of farming – promoted by our institutions – is inherently criminal and suicidal!

Save is referring to the 300,000-plus farmer suicides that have taken place in India over the past two decades due to economic distress resulting from debt, a shift to (GM)cash crops and economic ‘liberalisation’ (see this report about a peer-reviewed study, which directly links suicides to GM cotton).

The current global system of chemical-industrial agriculture, World Trade Organisation rules and bilateral trade agreements that agritech companies helped draw up are a major cause of food insecurity and environmental destruction. The system is not set up to ‘feed the world’ despite the proclamations of its supporters.

However, this model has become central to the dominant notion of ‘development’ in the Global South: unnecessary urbanisation, the commercialisation and emptying out of the countryside at the behest of the World Bank, the displacement of existing systems of food and agricultural production with one dominated by Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and the like and a one-dimensional pursuit of GDP growth as a measure of ‘progress’ with little concern for the costs and implications – mirroring the narrow, reductionist ‘output-yield’ paradigm of industrial agriculture itself.

Agroecology offers a genuine solution

Across the world, we are seeing farmers and communities pushing back and resisting the corporate takeover of seeds, soils, land, water and food. And we are also witnessing inspiring stories about the successes of agroecology.

Reflecting what Bhaskar Save achieved on his farm in Gujarat, agroecology combines sound ecological management, including minimising the use of toxic inputs, by using on-farm renewable resources and privileging natural solutions to manage pests and disease, with an approach that upholds and secures farmers’ livelihoods.

Agroecology is based on scientific research grounded in the natural sciences but marries this with farmer-generated knowledge and grassroots participation that challenges top-down approaches to research and policy making. However, it can also involve moving beyond the dynamics of the farm itself to become part of a wider agenda, which addresses the broader political and economic issues that impact farmers and agriculture (see this description of the various modes of thought that underpin agroecolgy).

Jodi Koberisnki’s nod to ‘systems thinking’ lends credence to agroecology, which recognises the potential of agriculture to properly address concerns about local food security and sovereignty as well as social, ecological and health issues. In this respect, agroecology is a refreshing point of departure from the reductionist approach to farming which emphasises securing maximum yield and corporate profit to the detriment of all else.

Wei Zhang – an economist focusing on ecosystem services, agriculture and the environment – says:

that ‘worldview’ is important to how you conceptualise issues and develop or choose tools to address those issues. Using systems thinking requires a shift in fundamental beliefs and assumptions that constitute our worldviews. These are the intellectual and moral foundations for the way we view and interpret reality, as well as our beliefs about the nature of knowledge and the processes of knowing. Systems thinking can help by changing the dominant mindset and by addressing resistance to more integrated approaches.

Agroecology requires that shift in fundamental beliefs.

A few years ago, the Oakland Institute released a report on 33 case studies which highlighted the success of agroecological agriculture across Africa in the face of climate change, hunger and poverty. The studies provide facts and figures on how agricultural transformation can yield immense economic, social, and food security benefits while ensuring climate justice and restoring soils and the environment.

The research highlights the multiple benefits of agroecology, including affordable and sustainable ways to boost agricultural yields while increasing farmers’ incomes, food security and crop resilience.

The report described how agroecology uses a wide variety of techniques and practices, including plant diversification, intercropping, the application of mulch, manure or compost for soil fertility, the natural management of pests and diseases, agroforestry and the construction of water management structures.

There are many other examples of successful agroecology and of farmers abandoning Green Revolution thought and practices to embrace it (see this report about El Salvador and this interview from South India).

In a recent interview appearing on the Farming Matters website, Million Belay sheds light on how agroecological agriculture is the best model of agriculture for Africa. Belay explains that one of the greatest agroecological initiatives started in 1995 in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, and continues today. It began with four villages and after good results, it was scaled up to 83 villages and finally to the whole Tigray Region. It was recommended to the Ministry of Agriculture to be scaled up at the national level. The project has now expanded to six regions of Ethiopia.

The fact that it was supported with research by the Ethiopian University at Mekele has proved to be critical in convincing decision makers that these practices work and are better for both the farmers and the land.

Bellay describes another agroecological practice that spread widely across East Africa – ‘push-pull’. This method manages pests through selective intercropping with important fodder species and wild grass relatives, in which pests are simultaneously repelled – or pushed – from the system by one or more plants and are attracted to – or pulled – toward ‘decoy’ plants, thereby protecting the crop from infestation. Push-pull has proved to be very effective at biologically controlling pest populations in fields, reducing significantly the need for pesticides, increasing production, especially for maize, increasing income to farmers, increasing fodder for animals and, due to that, increasing milk production, and improving soil fertility.

By 2015, the number of farmers using this practice increased to 95,000. One of the bedrocks of success is the incorporation of cutting edge science through the collaboration of the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) and the Rothamsted Research Station (UK) who have worked in East Africa for the last 15 years on an effective ecologically-based pest management solution for stem borers and striga.

But agroecology should not just be regarded as something for the Global South. Food First Executive Director Eric Holtz-Gimenez argues that it offers concrete, practical solutions to many of the world’s problems that move beyond (but which are linked to) agriculture. In doing so, it challenges – and offers alternatives to – prevailing moribund doctrinaire economics and the outright plunder of neoliberalism.

The scaling up of agroecology can tackle hunger, malnutrition, environmental degradation and climate change. By creating securely paid labour-intensive agricultural work, it can also address the interrelated links between labour offshoring by rich countries and the removal of rural populations elsewhere who end up in sweat shops to carry out the outsourced jobs.

Thick legitimacy

Various official reports have argued that to feed the hungry and secure food security in low income regions we need to support small farms and diverse, sustainable agroecological methods of farming and strengthen local food economies (see this report on the right to food and this (IAASTD) peer-reviewed report).

Olivier De Schutter says:

To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live, especially in unfavorable environments.

De Schutter indicates that small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods. Based on an extensive review of scientific literature, the study he was involved in calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest. The report calls on states to implement a fundamental shift towards agroecology.

The success stories of agroecology indicate what can be achieved when development is placed firmly in the hands of farmers themselves. The expansion of agroecological practices can generate a rapid, fair and inclusive development that can be sustained for future generations. This model entails policies and activities that come from the bottom-up and which the state can then invest in and facilitate.

A decentralised system of food production with access to local markets supported by proper roads, storage and other infrastructure must take priority ahead of exploitative international markets dominated and designed to serve the needs of global capital.

It has long been established that small farms are per area more productive than large-scale industrial farms and create a more resilient, diverse food system. If policy makers were to prioritise this sector and promote agroecology to the extent Green Revolution practices and technology have been pushed, many of the problems surrounding poverty, unemployment and urban migration could be solved.

However, the biggest challenge for upscaling agroecology lies in the push by big business for commercial agriculture and attempts to marginalise agroecology. Unfortunately, global agribusiness concerns have secured the status of ‘thick legitimacy’ based on an intricate web of processes successfully spun in the scientific, policy and political arenas. This allows its model to persist and appear normal and necessary. This perceived legitimacy derives from the lobbying, financial clout and political power of agribusiness conglomerates which set out to capture or shape government departments, public institutions, the agricultural research paradigm, international trade and the cultural narrative concerning food and agriculture.

Critics of this system are immediately attacked for being anti-science, for forwarding unrealistic alternatives, for endangering the lives of billions who would starve to death and for being driven by ideology and emotion. Strategically placed industry mouthpieces like Jon Entine, Owen Paterson and Henry Miller perpetuate such messages in the media and influential industry-backed bodies like the Science Media Centre feed journalists with agribusiness spin.

When some people hurl such accusations, it might not just simply be spin: it may be the case that some actually believe critics are guilty of such things. If that is so, it is a result of their failure to think along the lines Zhang outlines: they are limited by their own reductionist logic and worldview.

The worrying thing is that too many policy makers may also be blinded by such a view because so many governments are working hand-in-glove with the industry to promote its technology over the heads of the public. A network of scientific bodies and regulatory agencies that supposedly serve the public interest have been subverted by the presence of key figures with industry links, while the powerful industry lobby hold sway over bureaucrats and politicians.

The World Bank is pushing a corporate-led industrial model of agriculture via its ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ strategy and corporations are given free rein to write policies. Monsanto played a key part in drafting the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights to create seed monopolies and the global food processing industry had a leading role in shaping the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (see this). From Codex, the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture aimed at restructuring Indian agriculture to the currently on-hold US-EU trade deal (TTIP), the powerful agribusiness lobby has secured privileged access to policy makers to ensure its model of agriculture prevails.

The ultimate coup d’etat by the transnational agribusiness conglomerates is that government officials, scientists and journalists take as given that profit-driven Fortune 500 corporations have a legitimate claim to be custodians of natural assets. These corporations have convinced so many that they have the ultimate legitimacy to own and control what is essentially humanity’s common wealth. There is the premise that water, food, soil, land and agriculture should be handed over to powerful transnational corporations to milk for profit, under the pretence these entities are somehow serving the needs of humanity.

Corporations which promote industrial agriculture have embedded themselves deeply within the policy-making machinery on both national and international levels. From the overall narrative that industrial agriculture is necessary to feed the world to providing lavish research grants and the capture of important policy-making institutions, global agribusiness has secured a perceived thick legitimacy within policymakers’ mindsets and mainstream discourse.

It gets to the point whereby if you – as a key figure in a public body – believe that your institution and society’s main institutions and the influence of corporations on them are basically sound, then you are probably not going to challenge or question the overall status quo. Once you have indicated an allegiance to these institutions and corporate power, it is ‘irrational’ to oppose their policies, the very ones you are there to promote. And it becomes quite ‘natural’ to oppose any research findings, analyses or questions which question the system and by implication your role in it.

But how long can the ‘legitimacy’ of a system persist given that it merely produces bad food, creates food deficit regions globally,  destroys health, impoverishes small farms, leads to less diverse diets and less nutritious food, is less productive than small farms, creates water scarcity, destroys soil and fuels/benefits from World Bank/WTO policies that create dependency and debt.

The more that agroecology is seen to work, the more policy makers see the failings of the current system and the more they become open to holistic approaches to agriculture – as practitioners and supporters of agroecology create their own thick legitimacy –  the more willing officials might be to give space to a model that has great potential to help deal with some of the world’s most pressing problems. It has happened to a certain extent in Ethiopia, for example. That is hopeful.

Of course, global agribusiness nor the system of capitalism it helps to uphold and benefits from are not going to disappear overnight and politicians (even governments) who oppose or challenge private capital tend to be replaced or subverted.

Powerful agribusiness corporations can only operate as they do because of a framework designed to allow them to capture governments and regulatory bodies, to use the WTO and bilateral trade deals to lever global influence, to profit on the back of US militarism (Iraq) and destabilisations (Ukraine), to exert undue influence over science and politics and to rake in enormous profits.

The World Bank’s ongoing commitment to global agribusiness and a wholly corrupt and rigged model of globalisation is a further recipe for plunder. Whether it involves Monsanto, Cargill or the type of corporate power grab of African agriculture that Bill Gates is helping to spearhead, private capital will continue to ensure this happens while hiding behind platitudes about ‘free trade’ and ‘development’.

Brazil and Indonesia are subsidising private corporations to effectively destroy the environment through their practices.  Canada and the UK are working with the GMO biotech sector to facilitate its needs. And India is facilitating the destruction of its agrarian base according to World Bank directives for the benefit of the likes of Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill.

If myths about the necessity for perpetuating the stranglehold of capitalism go unchallenged and real alternatives are not supported by mass movements across continents, agroecology will remain on the periphery.

The Economist on Marx’s 200 years

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Marx has prompted The Economist to devote an article on Marx in its issue of May 5, 2018. Characteristically titled, “Reconsidering Marx. Second time farce. Two hundred years after his birth, Marx remains surprisingly relevant”!1 The article combines recognition that Marx was a genius with reactionary slandering that he was, after all, an evil genius and without him the world would certainly had been much better.

Naturally, one could not expect something different. Since the time Marx’s ideas gained recognition in the labor movement, the main concern of the apologists of capital has been to “refute” them as false, dogmatic and dangerous. Nor do, of course, The Economist’s journalists offer something new; they simply repeat the usual simplistic distortions and misunderstandings their predecessors have offered innumerable times in the past. However, their argument is nevertheless of a certain interest. On the one hand, the part of it in which they vilify Marx displays the rancor and hatred of the apologists of the ruling classes, who being unable to counter the great thinker, embrace all kinds of nonsense they come across to slander and debase him. On the other hand, when discussing Marx’s predictions, they openly confess their reactionary bourgeois fears regarding capitalism’s present deadlock and his vindication, at least in some important points. It is worthwhile, therefore, to take a look at both aspects; all the more because The Economist is not a minor journal but the semi-official voice of the markets and of the views of the liberal (and in our times neo-liberal) wing of the bourgeoisie.

Marx’s “failures”

“A good subtitle for a biography of Karl Marx”, The Economist’s gentlemen begin, “would be ‘a study in failure’… His ideas”, they continue, “were as much religious as scientific – you might even call them religion repackaged for a secular age. He was a late date prophet describing the march of God on Earth. The fall from grace is embodied in capitalism; man is redeemed as the proletariat rises up against its exploiters and creates a communist utopia” (p. 71, same in the following quotations).

The proofs are all very weighty:

Marx claimed that the point of philosophy was not to understand the world but to improve it. Yet his philosophy changed it largely for the worst: the 40% of humanity who lived under Marxist regimes for much of the 20th century endured famines, gulags and party dictatorships. Marx thought his new dialectical science would allow him to predict the future as well as understand the present. Yet he failed to anticipate two of the biggest developments of the 20th century –the rise of fascism and the welfare state– and wrongly believed communism would take root in the most advanced economies.

Whence, then, Marx’s influence, that makes even The Economist’s gentlemen confess that “for all his oversights, Marx remains a monumental figure” and that “interest in him is as lively as ever”? How do they explain the steadily increasing mass of publications, discussions and events about his work? How is it that in his 200 years even Jean-Claude Juncker, the in no way Marxist president of the EU, finds it necessary to visit Marx’s birthplace, Trier, and make a speech about the importance of his work? “Why”, as they themselves snobbishly ask, “does the world remain fixated on the ideas of a man who helped produce so much suffering?”

The answer, according to The Economist’s luminaries, will be found in the combination of genius with malice, which were Marx’s chief traits. His influence is due to the “sheer power of these ideas” and “the power of his personality”.

Marx was in many ways an awful human being. He spent his life sponging off Friedrich Engels. He was such an inveterate racist, including about his own group, the Jews, that even in the 1910s, when tolerance for such prejudices was higher, the editors of his letters felt obligated to censor them… Michael Bakunin described him as ‘ambitious and vain, quarrelsome, intolerant and absolute… vengeful at the point of madness’… But combine egomania with genius and you have a formidable power. He believed absolutely he was right; that he had discovered a key in history that had eluded earlier philosophers. He insisted on promoting his beliefs whatever obstacles fate (or the authorities) put in his way. His notion of happiness was ‘to fight.

The only conclusion to be drawn from all that is that if The Economist’s columnists lag far behind Marx with regard to genius, they certainly outweigh him vastly in egomania. In their attempt to prove their superiority –and the superiority of their beloved capitalism– to Marx’s predictions, they inevitably prove their inferiority, their inability to understand even Marx’s most basic positions, necessarily ending up to combine traces of truth with tons of falsehood and lies. Let us briefly bring out some points for their benefit.

First of all, there is nothing new in portraying Marx as a “religious” thinker and a “metaphysician”. This, in fact, was a beloved theme of all reactionaries of his time, who being unable to counter his theories and discoveries, resorted to such abuse and slander. For these of priests of capital and the “free markets”, of course, the “natural” was identical with capitalism, while everything going beyond it was anathematized as “religious” etc.

To limit ourselves to just one example, immediately after Marx’s death, Paul Boiteau, an official French economist, wrote in the conservative Journal des débats:

Karl Marx, who has just died, was in his lifetime one of the most listened prophets and theologians of the religion of social wrongs. He has had no difficulty in passing to the rank of its gods, and he will no doubt share in their fate, which is to disappear rather quickly into the void where socialism successively buried its divinities. But, for the moment, his memory receives the censers to which he was entitled, and, in both worlds, the meetings of the initiates declare that the Gospel of Marx must henceforth be the text par excellence of the preachings of international socialism.2

It would seem that The Economist’s folks have not advanced very far from Boiteau’s views. And, judging from the fact that everyone still knows Karl Marx while almost no one remembers Boiteau, it seems unlikely that they will get a better place in the hall of fame than he did.

Secondly, Marx never portrayed capitalism as a “fall from grace”, a hell that took the place of a previous earthly paradise, and the proletariat as the Messiah of our time. This was, in fact, the position of some Utopian communists of his time, whose primitivism he criticized. On the contrary, Marx acknowledged and stressed, at least after having laid the foundations of his theory, that capitalism represents a great advance in relation to feudalism, and that it substantially expanded the technological basis and horizons of human society. At the same time, however, he argued that by rapidly developing productive forces and socializing production, capitalism undermines its very foundation, makes unnecessary and anachronistic the exploitative relations on which it rests, and creates for the first time the possibility of a non-exploitative organization of the economy, based on the common ownership the means of production. The Economist’s journalists, lacking the courage to address the second point, blur and obscure the first, attributing to Marx things that are not part of his theory.

Thirdly, there is nothing in Marx’s works that contains even a trace of anti-Semitism or racism. Anti-Semites included, among others, Bakunin, whose slanderous criticism of Marx The Economist approvingly quotes, and Bruno Bauer, both of them Marx’s opponents. Bauer argued in particular that Jews would be unable to free themselves as long as they did not discard their religion and that until then they should be deprived of their political rights. Marx, answering him in his brochure on the Jewish question, which is frequently falsely presented by reactionaries as “anti-Semitic”, had rejected any idea of political, religious or other discrimination against the Jews. He countered that the partial liberation of the Jews was possible through their participation in the political struggles of the time, without presupposing any renunciation of their religion, and that their total liberation would take place when society was liberated from all kinds of slavery.

Marx’s perhaps only “anti-Jewish” comment appears in a letter he wrote to Engels, to which The Economist’s folks apparently allude, where he contemptuously labeled Lassalle a “Jewish nigger”.3 However, this letter was written under very special circumstances when Lassalle had stayed for some days at Marx’s home in London during 1862. Lassalle, as Marx mentions, besides his refusal to lend him an amount of money, had proposed him, as a means of getting rid of his financial problems, to hand over one of his daughters as a companion to a bourgeois family, and had unsettled his calmness and work. These things had enraged Marx and he wrote an aggressive letter to Engels, with all sorts of strong comments, which cannot be seen as an expression of his positions on racism or on any other matter. In order to seriously criticize Marx as a “racist”, one would have to point out some explicit or indirect support for racism in his works, which is impossible to do for him or any other serious Marxist.

Let us note by the way, as an example of how strongly prejudiced The Economist’s journalists, who imagine themselves “enlightened”, are, that even some neo-Nazis quote and comment more honestly Marx’s views on the Jews. In an article about Bruno Bauer posted on the National Vanguard, one of the key neo-Nazi websites in the United States, after speaking of Bauer as one of the forerunners of anti-Semitism, R. Pennington refers to Marx’s criticism of his views as a rejection of anti-Semitism: “Bauer’s anti-Semitism”, she writes, caused Marx a great deal of intellectual grief”; Marx’s critique was intended to “releasing the Jews from any intimidation by society or the state”.4 As an orthodox ultra-right, Pennington prefers, of course, to Bauer, honoring his anti-Semitism and condemning “Marxist obscurantism”, but at least she presents somewhat accurately Marx’s position.

Marx, they tell us further, failed to predict fascism and the welfare state. In the same way, one could say Darwin failed to predict (in 1871!) the discovery of DNA or that The Economist failed to predict, not 50 years, but not even 50 days beforehand, the outbreak of the global economic crisis in 2007. To blame Marx for things it was clearly impossible for him to predict, and for the analogue of which they would never blame, let us say, Darwin or themselves, isn’t that a manifestation of egomania and rancor?

Of course, Marx did not explicitly predict the above developments, but he identified the trends that made them possible. In many of his writings on the revolutions of 1848, in his criticisms of vulgar bourgeois political economy and in his analyses of the Commune, he showed and documented the bourgeoisie’s turn towards reaction, one of the ultimate consequences of which was fascism. In his The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he also referred to the development of reactionary petty bourgeois movements; i.e., peasants’ movements “who, in stupefied seclusion… want to see themselves and their small holdings saved”,5 thereby turning against the proletariat; a trend whose exacerbation in the imperialist era contributed decisively in the development of fascism. On the other hand, in his analysis of Malthus’s views in Theories of Surplus Value, Marx extensively referred to the bourgeoisie’s attempts to increase the intermediate strata between itself and the proletariat as a safety valve for its regime, considering that “this is the course taken by bourgeois society”.6 So here, too, he revealed the socio-economic basis of the developments that led to the so-called “welfare state”; i.e., the strengthening of the intermediate strata, which is possible within capitalism, as long as it does not radically contradict the falling tendency of the rate of profit.

Let’s turn now to The Economist’s main claim that Marx’s bad influence helped produce most of the 20th century’s misery, which could otherwise have been avoided. Putting the issue in this way is, of course, foolish; the true question to be asked and answered is: which tendencies in the 20th century have had positive results, those emerging from capitalism and contributing to its perpetuation, or the revolutionary tendencies that, finding their foundation in Marx, were promoting the overthrow of the capitalist system?

Capitalism was exclusively responsible for the first great war of the 20th century, the world imperialist war of 1914-18, with its more than ten million victims. Imperialist intervention was largely responsible for millions of victims in the initially almost bloodless Russian Revolution of 1917. The great crisis of 1929 and fascism were both children of capitalism, as was the case with World War II, an effort of the most reactionary wing of capital to eliminate the achievements of the Russian Revolution. It is true that the course of the USSR was marked, especially in Stalin’s years, by the negative phenomena The Economist points out; i.e., the 1932-33 famine, gulags, massive cleansing, terror and oppression, as was also the case in China during the Great Leap Forward. However, these phenomena have been explained by Marxists as a degeneration process, the result of the backwardness of the countries where the revolution first took place and of the rise of Stalinist bureaucracy, which did not promote but betrayed world revolution both in the USSR –its first victims there being the leaders of October– and abroad. In addition, they were not the only ones and did not characterize the whole experience of the USSR. During the 1920s and early ’30s there took place in the USSR a vast cultural revolution, whose achievements were undermined by Stalinism but nevertheless partly survived and developed in the later phases of the regime. The Soviet people took up the main burden of the anti-fascist struggle, which objectively was a continuation of October’s progressive legacy, while after 1956 the most odious aspects of Stalinist oppression were put aside.

The imperialist plunder of the Third World, interventions, establishment of dictatorships and the condemnation of entire peoples in starvation, continued on the contrary throughout the 20th century, before and after World War II. The concessions of the ruling classes in the capitalist centers after 1945 were prompted chiefly by their fear of the post-war ascend of communism and anti-fascist movements. Where it not for the USSR, who would have stopped Nazism and force these concessions to the ruling classes? Moreover, while the existence of the USSR checked the aggression of imperialism, after its dissolution its real tendencies have again been manifested openly and unimpeded, producing their true devastating effects. It took just 15 years to take world-wide inequality to unprecedented heights, start many local wars, exacerbate the great powers’ competition to a point threatening a hot conflict, trigger the global economic crisis of 2007, and revive fascism and far-right nationalism worldwide. Even the few positive elements of the latest period, such as the great capitalist development of China, are closely linked to the positive heritage of the 20th century’s revolutions. In China, the fact that a great popular revolution lasting two decades eroded feudalism and imperialist dependence, allowed capitalism to develop without internal and external obstacles and benefit a comparatively significant part of the population; in India, on the contrary, where there was no revolution, but only a bourgeois renovation from above, the growth of the last decades was much weaker and a much larger part of the population is stuck in extreme poverty. Capitalism prevailed in its competition with the USSR due to its higher level of development of the productive forces and the devastating effects of Stalinism, but experience shows that this did not allow capitalism to overcome its contradictions.

The Economist’s journalists make every effort to reject not only Marx himself, but the whole Communist movement and its eminent theorists after his death:

After Marx’s death in 1883 his followers –particularly Engels– worked hard to turn his theories into a closed system. The pursuit of purity involved vicious factional fights as the ‘real’ Marxists drove out renegades, revisionists and heretics. It eventually led to the monstrosity of Marxism-Leninism with its pretentions of infallibility (‘scientific socialism’), its delight in obfuscation (‘dialectical materialism’) and its cult of personality (those giant statues of Marx and Lenin).

Here again, the negative experiences of Stalinism, dogmatism and the necrosis of Marxism, are exploited to discard as nonsense the whole development of Marxism after Marx. However, Marxism in that period had important representatives such as Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, Luxemburg, Kautsky, Mehring and, after Lenin’s death, Trotsky, Bukharin, Gramsci and Lukacs, who cannot be put aside so easily. These Marxists analyzed developments after Marx’s death, guided the October Revolution and developed Marxism further. That this development involved a clearing of Marxism from alien influences was not something special to Engels or Lenin: Marx had also fought fiercely against the pseudo-socialists of his time, such as Proudhon and the “true socialists”, and Marxists after Lenin, especially Trotsky and Lukacs, explained Stalinist dogmatism as an alien influence and distortion of Marxism.

Paradoxically, and while one would expect that after all these tirades, everything about Marx has been dismissed, The Economist’s gentlemen conclude their reference to his “failures” with a reservation that would seem to distinguish something fertile in his thought. But as it immediately becomes clear, they consider “fertile” only what they themselves want to read or think they can find in Marx.

The collapse of this petrified orthodoxy has revealed that Marx was a much more interesting man than his interpreters have implied. His grand certainties were a response to grand doubts. His sweeping theories were the results of endless reversals. Toward the end of his life he questioned many of his central convictions. He worried that he might have been wrong about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. He puzzled over the fact that, far from immiserating the poor, Victorian England was providing them with growing prosperity. (ibid, p. 71-72).

Here The Economist’s gentlemen remarkably agree with the representatives of the so-called “New reading of Marx”, that is, representatives of professorial academic wisdom who falsify Marx, such as Michael Heinrich. Marx, of course, rethought and improved his assumptions constantly, but contrary to the claims of these scholars, there is no evidence that he had revised his analysis of the falling tendency of the rate of profit, or that Engels distorted his positions. Moreover, the entire evolution of capitalism in the 20th century has confirmed this fundamental to its historical fortunes law discovered by Marx. The main transformations and models of capitalism, Fordism, Keynesianism, neoliberalism, were, in fact, just ways of reacting to the downward rate of profit, and the fact that the bourgeoisie is forced to replace them after profitability crises proves that they can counteract it only temporarily and that their potential is always exhausted.

Engels was perhaps not as deep as Marx, and he occasionally made some mistakes. But to dismiss Engels for Heinrich’s sake means to read Marx in a systemic way, to make Engels’s mistakes an alibi in order to accept a total mistake. Marx’s concerns at the end of his life had to do with a better conceptualization of the complexity of capitalism’s tendencies, and hence of the revolutionary process, not with their general direction.

Marx’s successes and further “failures”

This brings us to Marx’s successes, some of which are so obvious, that even The Economist’s columnists cannot but recognize them, although still charging him with some other failures.

“The chief reason for the continuing interest in Marx, however”, we read further, “is that his ideas are more relevant than they have been for decades. The post-war consensus that shifted power from capital to labour and produced a ‘great compression’ in living standards is fading. Globalisation and the rise of a virtual economy are producing a version of capitalism that once more seems to be out of control. The backwards flow of power from labour to capital is finally beginning to produce a popular –and often populist– reaction. No wonder the most successful economics book of recent years, Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, echoes the title of Marx’s most important work and his preoccupation with inequality” (p. 72, same in the following).

So, if inequality has once again become a central issue, to the extent that 1% of the world’s population owns over 50% of the world’s wealth, and 3.7 billion of the poorest account for just 2.7%7, how can “dogmatic” and “fanatical” Marx be confirmed after so many “reforms” and “advances” made by the ruling classes? Let’s see what The Economist’s gentlemen have to say about this as things become more interesting now.

Marx argued that capitalism is in essence a system of rent-seeking: rather than creating wealth from nothing, as they like to imagine, capitalists are in the business of expropriating the wealth of others. Marx was wrong about capitalism in the raw: great entrepreneurs do amass fortunes by dreaming up new products or new ways of organising production. But he had a point about capitalism in its bureaucratic form. A depressing number of today’s bosses are corporate bureaucrats rather than wealth-creators, who use convenient formulae to make sure their salaries go ever upwards. They work hand in glove with a growing crowd of other rent-seekers, such as management consultants… professional board members… and retired politicians…

By reading such passages, one gets convinced that The Economist’s “liberals” will never understand even Marx’s simplest positions, not due to lack of knowledge, but because they do not want to understand them, since this goes contrary to their class interests. Marx never defined capitalism as a rent-seeking system. This was also a feature of feudalism which knew various kinds of rent. The distinctive feature of capitalism, according to Marx, is expansion, the development of production for production’s sake, the accumulation of capital. And what capitalists accumulate is surplus value, the unpaid labor of the workers, which they usurp. Ideas could never create stocks and capitals; and it is absurd to base economic analysis on the difference between the good ideas of capitalists and the bad ideas of managers, etc. Moreover, if it was just a matter of good or bad ideas, one could perhaps solve many problems and save capitalism by imposing a negative rent for some obviously bad ideas of the capitalists and their ilk, such as weapons of mass destruction. The Economist’s gentlemen, distorting Marx in that way, shift the problem from the structure of capitalism to the behavior of the one or other of its agents, bureaucrats, managers, and so on. Yet, while rent is, of course, important –and Lenin, Hobson and others showed how rentiers multiply in the imperialist era with capitalism’s increasing parasitism– according to Marx, it is production and not distribution that defines the essence of capitalism, as of every other economic system.

However, just after that we find two better passages. One is about globalization, which, it is acknowledged, Marx had already foreseen:

Capitalism, Marx maintained, is by its nature a global system: ‘It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere’. That is as true today as it was in the Victorian era. The two most striking developments of the past 30 years are the progressive dismantling of barriers to the free movement of the factors of production—goods, capital and to some extent people—and the rise of the emerging world. Global firms plant their flags wherever it is most convenient… The World Economic Forum’s annual jamboree in Davos, Switzerland, might well be retitled ‘Marx was right’.

So Marx did predict something correctly after all. And it seems that he did not only predict this, but also something else too, the tendency of capitalism to create monopolies and, along with the accumulation of wealth on the one side, to produce an army of unemployed and occasionally employed in the other:

“He thought”, we read further, “capitalism had a tendency towards monopoly, as successful capitalists drive their weaker rivals out of business in a prelude to extracting monopoly rents. Again this seems to be a reasonable description of the commercial world that is being shaped by globalisation and the internet. The world’s biggest companies are not only getting bigger in absolute terms but are also turning huge numbers of smaller companies into mere appendages. New-economy behemoths are exercising a market dominance not seen since America’s robber barons. Facebook and Google suck up two-thirds of America’s online ad revenues. Amazon controls more than 40% of the country’s booming online-shopping market. In some countries Google processes over 90% of web searches. Not only is the medium the message but the platform is also the market.

In Marx’s view capitalism yielded an army of casual labourers who existed from one job to the other. During the long post-war boom this seemed like a nonsense. Far from having nothing to lose but their chains, the workers of the world—at least the rich world—had secure jobs, houses in the suburbs and a cornucopia of possessions… Yet once again Marx’s argument is gaining urgency. The gig economy is assembling a reserve force of atomised labourers who wait to be summoned, via electronic foremen, to deliver people’s food, clean their houses or act as their chauffeurs. In Britain house prices are so high that people under 45 have little hope of buying them. Most American workers say they have just a few hundred dollars in the bank. Marx’s proletariat is being reborn as the precariat.

The analysis perhaps is not flawless, but we may assume without much danger of error that had Marx read it, he would have rated The Economist’s analysts at least with a 5 (full marks being 10). Unfortunately, is not so with the immediately following argument, for which he would definitely make them repeat the same class:

Still, the rehabilitation ought not to go too far. Marx’s errors far outnumbered his insights. His insistence that capitalism drives workers’ living standards to subsistence level is absurd. The genius of capitalism is that it relentlessly reduces the price of regular consumer items: today’s workers have easy access to goods once considered the luxuries of monarchs… Marx’s vision of a post-capitalist future is both banal and dangerous: banal because it presents a picture of people essentially loafing about (hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, raising cattle in the evening and criticising after dinner); dangerous because it provides a licence for the self-anointed vanguard to impose its vision on the masses.

It is tragic indeed to encounter such expositions of Marx’s views.

First of all, Marx never claimed that “capitalism drives workers’ living standards to subsistence level”. This was, in fact, Lassalle’s position, expressed in his famous “Iron Law of Wages”, which states precisely this thing. Marx criticized Lassalle’s law, showing that the workers, with their organization and struggles, could improve their position, and that there is a difference, historically defined in each country, between the wage corresponding to subsistence level and the real average wage.8

Secondly, it is funny to imply that a thinker of Marx’s level had not noticed and pointed out the ability of capitalism to limit the prices of consumer goods through technological progress, productivity gains, etc. In fact, Marx was the first economist to recognize and explain this possibility, as well as the historical movement of wages at the various stages of capitalism, with his distinction between absolute and relative surplus value. Let us explain this distinction, for the benefit of The Economist’s columnists.

Absolute surplus value, according to Marx, is the type of capitalist accumulation that dominated the early stages of capitalism, in the so-called period of primitive accumulation of capital. During that period, accumulation was promoted by increasing the working day – for example, the worker was forced to work 12 instead of 10 hours daily, his salary remaining the same. This means an increase in exploitation: if, for example, in the initial 10 hours, 6 hours correspond to the reproduction of the labor force and 4 hours to unpaid labor (i.e., production of surplus value), the final 12 will include 6 unpaid hours. Absolute surplus value goes hand in hand with absolute impoverishment, as pay per hour of work decreases. The brutal expropriation of the rural population and its relocation to the cities under wretched conditions, the deadly work of children and women, etc., were some of the misfortunes of this phase, described in novels by Dickens, Gorky and others.

However, when the development of capitalism, and hence its technological base, reaches a relatively high point –what Marx calls “the real subordination of labor to capital”– absolute surplus value is replaced by relative surplus value. The distinctive feature of the latter is that accumulation is now promoted not by the increase of the working day but by the limitation of the part of the working day devoted to the replacement of the worker’s labor power. In the previous example, if the time for the reproduction of labor power (the necessary labor) is reduced to 2 hours from 6, then even with a reduction of the working day from 10 to 8 hours, the worker will produce more surplus value than before, offering 6 hours of surplus labor instead of 4. Relative surplus value corresponds to relative impoverishment because the salary per hour of work increases. In addition, it is a constituent part of Marx’s analysis that the price of labor power in the latter case will correspond to a larger number of goods, since by the development of specialization, etc., the needs of the worker also grow. Of course, the great limitation of necessary labor is made possible because, due to technological progress, an hour of work in developed capitalism produces a much larger mass of commodities than what it produced in its earlier stages. The total value of these goods remains roughly the same, but the value per unit is drastically reduced.

In Marx’s time relative surplus value had progressed only in Britain, yet this did not prevent him from recognizing it as the main form for developed capitalism and assess its impact on the workers’ living standard. In an excerpt in Capital he sums it up quite clearly:

Under the conditions of accumulation… which conditions are those most favorable to the laborers, their relation of dependence upon capital takes on a form endurable or, as Eden says: ‘easy and liberal’. Instead of becoming more intensive with the growth of capital, this relation of dependence only becomes more extensive, i.e., the sphere of capital’s exploitation and rule merely extends with its own dimensions and the number of its subjects. A larger part of their own surplus-product, always increasing and continually transformed into additional capital, comes back to them in the shape of means of payment, so that they can extend the circle of their enjoyments; can make some additions to their consumption-fund of clothes, furniture, etc., and can lay by small reserve-funds of money.9

Of course, as Marx explains at various points, this improvement has certain limits defined by the needs of capitalist accumulation, and tends to take place in periods of economic growth, while in recessions wages are being pressed. But this is a far cry from presenting him as an advocate of the view that no improvement in the lot of the workers is possible under capitalism.

Marx’s position that in the post-capitalist society people will be able to hunt in the morning and go fishing in the evening was a poetic image of the many sided, cultivated man who will replace the disintegrated, individualistic human existence to which capitalism gives rise. Marx insisted that labor itself will always be “the realm of necessity”, but shorter working hours when everyone will work will give all members of society enough free time for a variety of other activities. It was Marx’s deep conviction that in the future society even The Economist’s journalists will find some better things to do than to exhort capitalism and abuse Marx.

For the time being, of course, no such thing is in sight, so they continue listing some more of Marx’s “failures”. “The World Bank”, we are told, “calculates that the number of people in ‘extreme poverty’ has declined from 1.85bn in 1970 to 767m in 2013, a figure that puts the regrettable stagnation of living standards for Western workers in perspective”. Marx, evidently, failed to anticipate that momentous progress too…

Here again it is a case of progresses existing in the apologists’ heads rather than in reality. Extreme poverty is defined at making less than 1.90$ per day, so that it would hardly look like a great advance to half the number of those caught in it. Moreover, the very definition of extreme poverty by the World Bank is under severe criticism, while if one puts aside China, the picture in the rest of the world is hardly encouraging.

In fact The Economist’s gentlemen are very close to repeating arguments regarding general welfare, which their predecessors advanced in Marx’s time. “Delightful is it thus to see”, one of them went, “under Free Trade, all classes flourishing; their energies are called forth by hope of reward; all improve their productions, and all and each are benefited” (The Economist, 2/1/1853). To which Marx replied by pointing to the numerous cases of starvation in this “generally beneficial” social order10. One has just to look at the thousands of peasants in India who commit suicide due to starvation –according to official estimates, more than 12,000 yearly after 201311 – to see that The Economist’s present attempt to paint a similar worldwide tranquility is not a bit better.

There follows Marx’s worst “mistake”:

Marx’s greatest failure, however, was that he underestimated the power of reform—the ability of people to solve the evident problems of capitalism through rational discussion and compromise. He believed history was a chariot thundering to a predetermined end and that the best that the charioteers can do is hang on. Liberal reformers, including his near contemporary William Gladstone, have repeatedly proved him wrong. They have not only saved capitalism from itself by introducing far-reaching reforms but have done so through the power of persuasion. The ‘superstructure’ has triumphed over the ‘base’, ‘parliamentary cretinism’ over the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

So, what do The Economist’s geniuses tell us? To what does their wisdom end up?

They tell us that Marx was right in verifying those laws and trends of capitalism that bring them and their ilk to the foreground –globalization, monopolization, etc.– but that they, the “superstructure”, the various “think tanks” of capital, with their special astuteness and wisdom, succeeded in changing the action of these laws, making them produce different results than those predicted by Marx. Isn’t that a form of egomania?

We have already seen that Marx recognized the possibilities of reforming capitalism, ultimately based on relative surplus value. He himself refers to them in the Preface to the 1st edition of Capital, pointing out that “present society is not a solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing”.12 Marx, however, showed at the same time the limits of these possibilities. To clarify this last, vital point, let us listen first to The Economist’s gentlemen final confessions:

The great theme of history in the advanced world since Marx’s death has been reform rather than revolution. Enlightened politicians extended the franchise so working-class people had a stake in the political system. They renewed the regulatory system so that great economic concentrations were broken up or regulated. They reformed economic management so economic cycles could be smoothed and panics contained… Today’s great question is whether those achievements can be repeated. The backlash against capitalism is mounting – if more often in the form of populist anger than of proletarian solidarity. So far liberal reformers are proving sadly inferior to their predecessors in terms of both their grasp of the crisis and their ability to generate solutions. They should use the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth to reacquaint themselves with the great man – not only to understand the serious faults that he brilliantly identified in the system, but to remind themselves of the disaster that awaits if they fail to confront them.

Well, well, truth must be admitted after all! What we see during the last two decades is the decline of the liberal elites, their constant shift to intensified reaction, their failure to find any viable way out of the crisis and the deadlocks of capitalism, their –as The Economist itself aptly puts it– sad inferiority to the circumstances. However, their failure inexorably raises a relentless question that The Economist’s gentlemen fail to raise: Is this a chance, subjective failure or error of the leading circles of capital? Or does its cause lie in something more profound; i.e., that there exists no longer such a reformist way?

Can capitalism reform itself anew?

So, can capitalism reform itself anew, as it has done in the past, or is its present, self-destructive course definitive?

This question emerges from all modern developments and we can give at least some credit to The Economist’s journalists for posing it openly and sharply as a “life and death” question for capitalism. Yet it cannot be posed in a Shakespearean, “to be or not to be” philosophical way, as they pose it. It must be examined in relation to the whole of social experience, the directions of bourgeois governments and organizations, etc. And any such discussion will inexorably force answering it in the negative. A few concrete questions will clarify that.

If there is a real possibility of a new New Deal today, why do we nowhere see a significant portion of the ruling classes expressing and supporting it? In the 1930s there was a Roosevelt, after World War II there were representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie such as De Gaulle and the Kennedy brothers. Where is their current analogue? Why does the “liberal” wing, whose voice The Economist is, can only oppose Trump with a Hillary Clinton; i.e., something just a trifle better? Why do the few progressive representatives of the bourgeoisie like Sanders prove completely incapable of proposing any positive reform program and are forced, confusing others and themselves, to talk about “socialism”?

All these are sure indications that an internal reform of capitalism which would provide a real economic revival is no longer possible. We will understand why it is so by returning to Marx’s analysis of relative surplus value. The development of mature capitalism, as Marx has shown particularly in his Results of the Direct Production Process, consists essentially in generalizing relative surplus value, through its successive expansion to the various branches of economy. This was done in previous stages with the technological intensification of industry, agriculture and the state sector, services, etc. And the reason capitalism could at those stages have some able representatives was that there were still non-intensified sectors of the economy, whose reshaping, as well as the overall reshaping of the system based on this process, required certain abilities.

The distinctive feature of globalization, on the contrary, is that, at least in the developed countries, there is no longer a non-intensified economic sector. The service and public sectors, the last remaining ones, were intensified in the neoliberal era, this being its essential content. Things like “green economy” are aspirins, while the generalized automation futurists like Mason are dreaming of is inconceivable under capitalism as it would decisively hit the rate of profit. The very fact that capital is now forced to resort to absolute surplus value, increasing again the length of the working day in order to support the rate of profit (and thereby reviving again absolute impoverishment!), is a further proof of the exhaustion of its reformist margins. So at capitalist metropolises at least, there remains nothing else, nothing new to be done; there is no new model of accumulation and consequently no possibility of a new cycle. This makes globalization the last phase, the last moment of the imperialist era and capitalism in general, during which the capitalist system will necessarily leave the historical scene.

All this does not imply, of course, a complete impossibility of reforms, but any such possibilities refer to measures, changes, etc., which fulfill possibilities of the current stage, not of a hypothetical, non-existent future stage. Or to put it otherwise: there is no chance of capitalism presenting something radically new, a modern “New Deal”, but only –and this at a theoretical level– of normalizing and prolonging a bit globalization, by softening for some time its worst conflicts.

Two such possibilities are basically at hand. Relative surplus value has already exhausted its potential in the capitalist centers and is now fulfilling it in Asia and Latin America. But there is a continent where it has not yet been expanded; i.e., Africa. Africa’s participation in globalization could provide a growth momentum when China recedes, opening a further round. Of course, in order to bring this about, that participation should be on comparatively equal terms, not like that of Yemen, which picks up globalization’s bombs, but roughly that of China. Secondly, the North-South gap in the European Union suggests a similar, albeit proportionally smaller, possibility of capitalist progress for the European South, but this also presupposes a change in the EU structure towards true convergence.

Historical experience so far proves that the weakened liberal leaders of capitalism cannot implement these changes or even aid them. Obstacles on their way are more than obvious. Africa is already the field of competition between China and the West, and the great powers are not interested in its development, but in enhancing each one’s sphere of influence and plundering at the expense of the rest. In addition, American imperialism’s policies of past decades, interventions around the world, etc., have strengthened the worst, most adventurous forces in its protectorates, the consequence being that change stumbles not only on the directions of imperialism itself, but also on local cliques, “compradorial” segments, etc. Africa’s current growth rate of about 4% reflects these barriers, being extremely low for a continent with a population of 1.3 billion and less than one-third of US GDP.

It would be erroneous to imagine that when China’s momentum fades, capital will flow in Africa and start a new swift rise there. Firstly, China’s potential as capitalism’s steam engine has already been half-halted. Yet Africa’s development has not gained momentum, but has receded during the last years, from 5.5% in 2012 to 2.7 in 2016, and an anemic recovery in 201713 In the second place, China’s huge capitalist progress was made possible by the fact that the revolution had created a viable social order, a skillful and educated working class, etc. Only traces of these will be found in Africa, which is moreover divided in a multitude of small, unsustainable states, with extreme poverty increasing strongly during the last decades. In practice, moving these barriers aside will require at least some Chavez type revolutions in Africa, like those of Latin America during the last two decades. A key condition for a steady development in that continent will be that the leading circles of imperialism support these processes, yet wherever they have happened so far, either in Africa itself in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, or in Latin America recently, imperialism has constantly tried to stifle them.

On the other hand, the European Union, the only intensive global integration process, remains, as Mr. Juncker acknowledged in his recent Marx speech, extremely fragile. “The European Union”, he said, “is not a flawed, but an unstable construction. Unstable also because Europe’s social dimension until today remains the poor relation of the European integration. We have to change this”14 But of what change can one speak of, when, in a construct that its own leaders confess its instability, all the pressures of the crisis are directed to its weakest joints? It is not clear that the next crisis, which even according to them, is probably a short time away, will break it into pieces? And what will the consequences be then? Under the present circumstances, these can only be chaos, a fascist takeover of power in at least some European countries and war conflicts.

Of course, Trump’s election in the United States, the developing commercial wars and the existence of anachronistic regimes, such as Syria, Iran, and so on, belonging to Russian sphere of influence, obstruct economic progress even more at a world level. Add to this the whole parasitic raff of globalization, which in not limited to bureaucrats and politicians as The Economist would have it, but also includes all kinds of market speculators, lobbyists, mafias, etc, who loot world economy –movies like Gavras’s “Le Capital” and Hickenlooper’s “Casino Jack” depict their range– and you will see why it is utopian to expect something different from the ruling elites.

One last point that deserves some comment in The Economist’s arguments is their hints that Marx’s revolutionary forecast has been refuted in the capitalist centers. While Marx “believed communism would take hold in the most advanced economies… The only countries where Marx’s ideas took hold were backward autocracies such as Russia and China”. And even today, in period of severe crisis, opposition to capitalism appears “more often in the form of populist anger than of proletarian solidarity” (p. 71, 72).

These arguments are not new, yet there is a grain of truth in them, which has also been adequately dealt by Marxists. After Marx’s death, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky recognized the bourgeoisie’s ability to create a “working class aristocracy”, by sharing a small part of the booty of colonial exploitation, a fact allowing it to stabilize its hold in the capitalist centers. On the other hand, the obvious reason recent opposition to capitalism has so far been manifested chiefly by the rise of (often far-right) populism is that the crisis hit first the petty bourgeoisie, who tend to seek to restore their previous position at the expense of the working class15 All that, however, belongs to the kind of complications and difficulties with which Marx struggled in the last phase of his life, when he clearly envisaged some of them (e.g., the possibility of a revolution in Russia) and in no way counters his central claims. Doesn’t the fact of “the regrettable stagnation of living standards for Western workers” (p. 72), to which The Economist reluctantly refers, prove indeed that the main stabilizing factor in the capitalist centers belongs to the past?

Let us sum up in a graphic way. Capitalism is a Titanic that, due to the very materials and contradictions ingrained in its frame, is doomed to break up and sink. It is composed, of course, of several levels, each one of them having its own watertight parts which delay for a while flooding from incoming water. In the previous stages or levels, there was a difficult way out of Titanic to the new ship of socialism, but there were also higher levels to which one could move when the previous ones were flooded. The peculiarity of the current level is that there no more exists a level above. There is only a possibility of delaying the flooding of the current level either by increasing its space (a relatively equal participation of Africa in globalization) or by absorbing some of the pressures on the walls by channeling them to their strongest points (allocating part of the burdens of the EU crisis to Germany, France, etc.). We do not see any of these possibilities being realized today; on the contrary, the policies pursued are in the exactly opposite direction.

We have already explained why this is so and why a realization of the progressive possibilities of the current stage by the ruling classes is extremely unlikely, if not impossible. Moreover, if they were to be implemented, this should have been prepared during the past decades; e.g., by instituting a United Nations program to combat poverty in Africa and elsewhere, such as that proposed in the 1960s by the Kennedy brothers (who were murdered incidentally by their own class), rather than conducting military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. If, however, The Economist’s gentlemen are of another opinion and consider such a program possible, nothing prevents them from becoming its preachers, even if a little late.

In conclusion

Marx in his time never held The Economist in any high esteem. He called it, the “optimist conjurer of all things menacing the tranquil minds of the mercantile community”.16

The Economist’s article on Marx’s 200 years confirms his judgment. It is a mirror of the illusions of the condemned classes concerning their “eternity” and of their gaudy front, from which “superstitions and prejudices emerge like frogs”.17 How could Marx be a great thinker and a racist egomaniac at the same time? If he was a racist, why has he been an anathema for all reactionaries? Questions like these The Economist’s gentlemen are unable even to pose; prejudice blocks them from surfacing in their minds. And in this way, they unwittingly offer the best proof that Marx was right both in his opinion about The Economist, which has not advanced far since then, and in his overall predictions about capitalism’s fate.

However, The Economist’s journalists are wrong when they say that the practical implication of these predictions is to “hang on the chariot of history”. Such passivity was alien to Marx; on the contrary, he stressed that history presents active possibilities, the content of which, according to his famous statement, lies in “shortening the birth pangs”. It is on the contrary the “free market” apologists who hang on it and never prepare anything.

From this point of view; e.g., a capitalist development in Africa similar to that of China cannot be indifferent to Marxists as it would limit the sufferings of the next capitalist crisis and help realize the transition to socialism under better conditions. But herein lies the problem, that all such possibilities are hampered by the bourgeoisie itself, by the oligarchies of the developed countries. As Trotsky points out:

In the conditions of capitalist decline, backward countries are unable to attain that level which the old centers of capitalism have attained. Having themselves arrived in a blind alley, the more civilized nations block the road to those finding themselves in a process of civilizing themselves.18

Despite The Economist’s reformist optimism, all realities of our time cry in chorus that the necessary progressive reforms, even those in principle theoretically possible within capitalism, can only be fulfilled in a revolutionary way. And their fulfillment is only conceivable as a step, a starting point in the process of transition to socialism.

  1. See Readers of the World Read Karl Marx, The Economist, May 3, 2018. In the electronic edition the title is different, “Rulers of the world: read Karl Marx!” Roughly one year ago The Economist had published a similar item on Marx, expressing its “scorn” regarding John McDonnell’s praise of him but also admitting that Marx “becomes more relevant by the day”. The Economist, 11/5/2017.
  2. P. Boiteau, “Mort le Karl Marx”, Journal des débats, 25/3/1883.
  3. See K. Marx – F. Engels. Collected Works, Progress Publishers, vol. 41, p. 388-391.
  4. R. Pennington, “Bruno Bauer: Young Hegelian”. That article had appeared first at Instauration, an ultra-right periodical, in 1976. Of course, Pennington goes on to invent an antithesis between Marx and Engels, by presenting the latter as an anti-Semite. This is a lie, Engels had written an article against anti-Semitism, exposing it as an ultra-reactionary current: “anti-Semitism”, he said, “serves… reactionary ends under a purportedly socialist cloak; it is a degenerate form of feudal socialism and we can have nothing to do with that” (F. Engels, “On anti-Semitism”.

    The myth of Marx’s “anti-Semitism” is ably refuted by R. Fine in “Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Anti-Semitism”.  Unfortunately Fine, in his otherwise excellent article, attributes wrongly the above quoted phrase of Engels to Marx.

  5. K. Marx, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, in K. Marx – F. Engels, Selected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1977, vol. 1, p. 479-480.
  6. K. Marx, Theories of Surplus value, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1975, vol. 3, p. 63.
  7. See “World wealth increases, inequality rises“, Kathimerini, 15/11/2017.
  8. In a well-known passage in Capital, in the part on labor power, Marx emphasizes this point; see K. Marx, Capital, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1977, vol. 1, p. 168.
  9. K. Marx, ibid, p. 579.
  10. K. Marx, Dispatches for the New York Tribune. Selected Journalism of Karl Marx, Penguin Books, London 2007, p. 111-113.
  11. Dhananjay Mahapatra, “Over 12,000 farmer suicides per year, Centre tells Supreme Court”.
  12. K. Marx, ibid, p. 21.
  13. See “Economy of Africa”.
  14. See “EU president Juncker defends Karl Marx’s legacy”. Regarding predictions of a new crisis by EU and IMF officials see  “Juncker’s article on Europe in ‘Ta Nea”, C. Lagarde. “A new crisis is possible”,  and Lagarde. “The Eurozone must be ready for the next crisis”, .
  15. This, let us remark by the way, means that it will be necessary to overcome great difficulties in turning social protest to the left, which implies, among other things, a confrontation with neo-Stalinist, nationalist and other pseudo-socialist currents and the unification of the nowadays scattered revolutionary and oppositionist groups that do not share the above errors. But this requires time so that the ruling classes’ tendency to avoid any progressive reform, partly explained by their usual fear of opening up the appetite of the movement and triggering revolutionary developments, is not right presently.
  16. Κarl Marx. “Revolution in China and in Europe”, New York Daily Tribune, June 14th, 1853.
  17. Α. Arnellos, A Game of Chess, Tipothito Editions, Athens 2002, p. 77.
  18. L. Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, Allagi Editions, Athens 1988, p. 15.

The Economist on Marx’s 200 years

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Marx has prompted The Economist to devote an article on Marx in its issue of May 5, 2018. Characteristically titled, “Reconsidering Marx. Second time farce. Two hundred years after his birth, Marx remains surprisingly relevant”!1 The article combines recognition that Marx was a genius with reactionary slandering that he was, after all, an evil genius and without him the world would certainly had been much better.

Naturally, one could not expect something different. Since the time Marx’s ideas gained recognition in the labor movement, the main concern of the apologists of capital has been to “refute” them as false, dogmatic and dangerous. Nor do, of course, The Economist’s journalists offer something new; they simply repeat the usual simplistic distortions and misunderstandings their predecessors have offered innumerable times in the past. However, their argument is nevertheless of a certain interest. On the one hand, the part of it in which they vilify Marx displays the rancor and hatred of the apologists of the ruling classes, who being unable to counter the great thinker, embrace all kinds of nonsense they come across to slander and debase him. On the other hand, when discussing Marx’s predictions, they openly confess their reactionary bourgeois fears regarding capitalism’s present deadlock and his vindication, at least in some important points. It is worthwhile, therefore, to take a look at both aspects; all the more because The Economist is not a minor journal but the semi-official voice of the markets and of the views of the liberal (and in our times neo-liberal) wing of the bourgeoisie.

Marx’s “failures”

“A good subtitle for a biography of Karl Marx”, The Economist’s gentlemen begin, “would be ‘a study in failure’… His ideas”, they continue, “were as much religious as scientific – you might even call them religion repackaged for a secular age. He was a late date prophet describing the march of God on Earth. The fall from grace is embodied in capitalism; man is redeemed as the proletariat rises up against its exploiters and creates a communist utopia” (p. 71, same in the following quotations).

The proofs are all very weighty:

Marx claimed that the point of philosophy was not to understand the world but to improve it. Yet his philosophy changed it largely for the worst: the 40% of humanity who lived under Marxist regimes for much of the 20th century endured famines, gulags and party dictatorships. Marx thought his new dialectical science would allow him to predict the future as well as understand the present. Yet he failed to anticipate two of the biggest developments of the 20th century –the rise of fascism and the welfare state– and wrongly believed communism would take root in the most advanced economies.

Whence, then, Marx’s influence, that makes even The Economist’s gentlemen confess that “for all his oversights, Marx remains a monumental figure” and that “interest in him is as lively as ever”? How do they explain the steadily increasing mass of publications, discussions and events about his work? How is it that in his 200 years even Jean-Claude Juncker, the in no way Marxist president of the EU, finds it necessary to visit Marx’s birthplace, Trier, and make a speech about the importance of his work? “Why”, as they themselves snobbishly ask, “does the world remain fixated on the ideas of a man who helped produce so much suffering?”

The answer, according to The Economist’s luminaries, will be found in the combination of genius with malice, which were Marx’s chief traits. His influence is due to the “sheer power of these ideas” and “the power of his personality”.

Marx was in many ways an awful human being. He spent his life sponging off Friedrich Engels. He was such an inveterate racist, including about his own group, the Jews, that even in the 1910s, when tolerance for such prejudices was higher, the editors of his letters felt obligated to censor them… Michael Bakunin described him as ‘ambitious and vain, quarrelsome, intolerant and absolute… vengeful at the point of madness’… But combine egomania with genius and you have a formidable power. He believed absolutely he was right; that he had discovered a key in history that had eluded earlier philosophers. He insisted on promoting his beliefs whatever obstacles fate (or the authorities) put in his way. His notion of happiness was ‘to fight.

The only conclusion to be drawn from all that is that if The Economist’s columnists lag far behind Marx with regard to genius, they certainly outweigh him vastly in egomania. In their attempt to prove their superiority –and the superiority of their beloved capitalism– to Marx’s predictions, they inevitably prove their inferiority, their inability to understand even Marx’s most basic positions, necessarily ending up to combine traces of truth with tons of falsehood and lies. Let us briefly bring out some points for their benefit.

First of all, there is nothing new in portraying Marx as a “religious” thinker and a “metaphysician”. This, in fact, was a beloved theme of all reactionaries of his time, who being unable to counter his theories and discoveries, resorted to such abuse and slander. For these of priests of capital and the “free markets”, of course, the “natural” was identical with capitalism, while everything going beyond it was anathematized as “religious” etc.

To limit ourselves to just one example, immediately after Marx’s death, Paul Boiteau, an official French economist, wrote in the conservative Journal des débats:

Karl Marx, who has just died, was in his lifetime one of the most listened prophets and theologians of the religion of social wrongs. He has had no difficulty in passing to the rank of its gods, and he will no doubt share in their fate, which is to disappear rather quickly into the void where socialism successively buried its divinities. But, for the moment, his memory receives the censers to which he was entitled, and, in both worlds, the meetings of the initiates declare that the Gospel of Marx must henceforth be the text par excellence of the preachings of international socialism.2

It would seem that The Economist’s folks have not advanced very far from Boiteau’s views. And, judging from the fact that everyone still knows Karl Marx while almost no one remembers Boiteau, it seems unlikely that they will get a better place in the hall of fame than he did.

Secondly, Marx never portrayed capitalism as a “fall from grace”, a hell that took the place of a previous earthly paradise, and the proletariat as the Messiah of our time. This was, in fact, the position of some Utopian communists of his time, whose primitivism he criticized. On the contrary, Marx acknowledged and stressed, at least after having laid the foundations of his theory, that capitalism represents a great advance in relation to feudalism, and that it substantially expanded the technological basis and horizons of human society. At the same time, however, he argued that by rapidly developing productive forces and socializing production, capitalism undermines its very foundation, makes unnecessary and anachronistic the exploitative relations on which it rests, and creates for the first time the possibility of a non-exploitative organization of the economy, based on the common ownership the means of production. The Economist’s journalists, lacking the courage to address the second point, blur and obscure the first, attributing to Marx things that are not part of his theory.

Thirdly, there is nothing in Marx’s works that contains even a trace of anti-Semitism or racism. Anti-Semites included, among others, Bakunin, whose slanderous criticism of Marx The Economist approvingly quotes, and Bruno Bauer, both of them Marx’s opponents. Bauer argued in particular that Jews would be unable to free themselves as long as they did not discard their religion and that until then they should be deprived of their political rights. Marx, answering him in his brochure on the Jewish question, which is frequently falsely presented by reactionaries as “anti-Semitic”, had rejected any idea of political, religious or other discrimination against the Jews. He countered that the partial liberation of the Jews was possible through their participation in the political struggles of the time, without presupposing any renunciation of their religion, and that their total liberation would take place when society was liberated from all kinds of slavery.

Marx’s perhaps only “anti-Jewish” comment appears in a letter he wrote to Engels, to which The Economist’s folks apparently allude, where he contemptuously labeled Lassalle a “Jewish nigger”.3 However, this letter was written under very special circumstances when Lassalle had stayed for some days at Marx’s home in London during 1862. Lassalle, as Marx mentions, besides his refusal to lend him an amount of money, had proposed him, as a means of getting rid of his financial problems, to hand over one of his daughters as a companion to a bourgeois family, and had unsettled his calmness and work. These things had enraged Marx and he wrote an aggressive letter to Engels, with all sorts of strong comments, which cannot be seen as an expression of his positions on racism or on any other matter. In order to seriously criticize Marx as a “racist”, one would have to point out some explicit or indirect support for racism in his works, which is impossible to do for him or any other serious Marxist.

Let us note by the way, as an example of how strongly prejudiced The Economist’s journalists, who imagine themselves “enlightened”, are, that even some neo-Nazis quote and comment more honestly Marx’s views on the Jews. In an article about Bruno Bauer posted on the National Vanguard, one of the key neo-Nazi websites in the United States, after speaking of Bauer as one of the forerunners of anti-Semitism, R. Pennington refers to Marx’s criticism of his views as a rejection of anti-Semitism: “Bauer’s anti-Semitism”, she writes, caused Marx a great deal of intellectual grief”; Marx’s critique was intended to “releasing the Jews from any intimidation by society or the state”.4 As an orthodox ultra-right, Pennington prefers, of course, to Bauer, honoring his anti-Semitism and condemning “Marxist obscurantism”, but at least she presents somewhat accurately Marx’s position.

Marx, they tell us further, failed to predict fascism and the welfare state. In the same way, one could say Darwin failed to predict (in 1871!) the discovery of DNA or that The Economist failed to predict, not 50 years, but not even 50 days beforehand, the outbreak of the global economic crisis in 2007. To blame Marx for things it was clearly impossible for him to predict, and for the analogue of which they would never blame, let us say, Darwin or themselves, isn’t that a manifestation of egomania and rancor?

Of course, Marx did not explicitly predict the above developments, but he identified the trends that made them possible. In many of his writings on the revolutions of 1848, in his criticisms of vulgar bourgeois political economy and in his analyses of the Commune, he showed and documented the bourgeoisie’s turn towards reaction, one of the ultimate consequences of which was fascism. In his The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he also referred to the development of reactionary petty bourgeois movements; i.e., peasants’ movements “who, in stupefied seclusion… want to see themselves and their small holdings saved”,5 thereby turning against the proletariat; a trend whose exacerbation in the imperialist era contributed decisively in the development of fascism. On the other hand, in his analysis of Malthus’s views in Theories of Surplus Value, Marx extensively referred to the bourgeoisie’s attempts to increase the intermediate strata between itself and the proletariat as a safety valve for its regime, considering that “this is the course taken by bourgeois society”.6 So here, too, he revealed the socio-economic basis of the developments that led to the so-called “welfare state”; i.e., the strengthening of the intermediate strata, which is possible within capitalism, as long as it does not radically contradict the falling tendency of the rate of profit.

Let’s turn now to The Economist’s main claim that Marx’s bad influence helped produce most of the 20th century’s misery, which could otherwise have been avoided. Putting the issue in this way is, of course, foolish; the true question to be asked and answered is: which tendencies in the 20th century have had positive results, those emerging from capitalism and contributing to its perpetuation, or the revolutionary tendencies that, finding their foundation in Marx, were promoting the overthrow of the capitalist system?

Capitalism was exclusively responsible for the first great war of the 20th century, the world imperialist war of 1914-18, with its more than ten million victims. Imperialist intervention was largely responsible for millions of victims in the initially almost bloodless Russian Revolution of 1917. The great crisis of 1929 and fascism were both children of capitalism, as was the case with World War II, an effort of the most reactionary wing of capital to eliminate the achievements of the Russian Revolution. It is true that the course of the USSR was marked, especially in Stalin’s years, by the negative phenomena The Economist points out; i.e., the 1932-33 famine, gulags, massive cleansing, terror and oppression, as was also the case in China during the Great Leap Forward. However, these phenomena have been explained by Marxists as a degeneration process, the result of the backwardness of the countries where the revolution first took place and of the rise of Stalinist bureaucracy, which did not promote but betrayed world revolution both in the USSR –its first victims there being the leaders of October– and abroad. In addition, they were not the only ones and did not characterize the whole experience of the USSR. During the 1920s and early ’30s there took place in the USSR a vast cultural revolution, whose achievements were undermined by Stalinism but nevertheless partly survived and developed in the later phases of the regime. The Soviet people took up the main burden of the anti-fascist struggle, which objectively was a continuation of October’s progressive legacy, while after 1956 the most odious aspects of Stalinist oppression were put aside.

The imperialist plunder of the Third World, interventions, establishment of dictatorships and the condemnation of entire peoples in starvation, continued on the contrary throughout the 20th century, before and after World War II. The concessions of the ruling classes in the capitalist centers after 1945 were prompted chiefly by their fear of the post-war ascend of communism and anti-fascist movements. Where it not for the USSR, who would have stopped Nazism and force these concessions to the ruling classes? Moreover, while the existence of the USSR checked the aggression of imperialism, after its dissolution its real tendencies have again been manifested openly and unimpeded, producing their true devastating effects. It took just 15 years to take world-wide inequality to unprecedented heights, start many local wars, exacerbate the great powers’ competition to a point threatening a hot conflict, trigger the global economic crisis of 2007, and revive fascism and far-right nationalism worldwide. Even the few positive elements of the latest period, such as the great capitalist development of China, are closely linked to the positive heritage of the 20th century’s revolutions. In China, the fact that a great popular revolution lasting two decades eroded feudalism and imperialist dependence, allowed capitalism to develop without internal and external obstacles and benefit a comparatively significant part of the population; in India, on the contrary, where there was no revolution, but only a bourgeois renovation from above, the growth of the last decades was much weaker and a much larger part of the population is stuck in extreme poverty. Capitalism prevailed in its competition with the USSR due to its higher level of development of the productive forces and the devastating effects of Stalinism, but experience shows that this did not allow capitalism to overcome its contradictions.

The Economist’s journalists make every effort to reject not only Marx himself, but the whole Communist movement and its eminent theorists after his death:

After Marx’s death in 1883 his followers –particularly Engels– worked hard to turn his theories into a closed system. The pursuit of purity involved vicious factional fights as the ‘real’ Marxists drove out renegades, revisionists and heretics. It eventually led to the monstrosity of Marxism-Leninism with its pretentions of infallibility (‘scientific socialism’), its delight in obfuscation (‘dialectical materialism’) and its cult of personality (those giant statues of Marx and Lenin).

Here again, the negative experiences of Stalinism, dogmatism and the necrosis of Marxism, are exploited to discard as nonsense the whole development of Marxism after Marx. However, Marxism in that period had important representatives such as Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, Luxemburg, Kautsky, Mehring and, after Lenin’s death, Trotsky, Bukharin, Gramsci and Lukacs, who cannot be put aside so easily. These Marxists analyzed developments after Marx’s death, guided the October Revolution and developed Marxism further. That this development involved a clearing of Marxism from alien influences was not something special to Engels or Lenin: Marx had also fought fiercely against the pseudo-socialists of his time, such as Proudhon and the “true socialists”, and Marxists after Lenin, especially Trotsky and Lukacs, explained Stalinist dogmatism as an alien influence and distortion of Marxism.

Paradoxically, and while one would expect that after all these tirades, everything about Marx has been dismissed, The Economist’s gentlemen conclude their reference to his “failures” with a reservation that would seem to distinguish something fertile in his thought. But as it immediately becomes clear, they consider “fertile” only what they themselves want to read or think they can find in Marx.

The collapse of this petrified orthodoxy has revealed that Marx was a much more interesting man than his interpreters have implied. His grand certainties were a response to grand doubts. His sweeping theories were the results of endless reversals. Toward the end of his life he questioned many of his central convictions. He worried that he might have been wrong about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. He puzzled over the fact that, far from immiserating the poor, Victorian England was providing them with growing prosperity. (ibid, p. 71-72).

Here The Economist’s gentlemen remarkably agree with the representatives of the so-called “New reading of Marx”, that is, representatives of professorial academic wisdom who falsify Marx, such as Michael Heinrich. Marx, of course, rethought and improved his assumptions constantly, but contrary to the claims of these scholars, there is no evidence that he had revised his analysis of the falling tendency of the rate of profit, or that Engels distorted his positions. Moreover, the entire evolution of capitalism in the 20th century has confirmed this fundamental to its historical fortunes law discovered by Marx. The main transformations and models of capitalism, Fordism, Keynesianism, neoliberalism, were, in fact, just ways of reacting to the downward rate of profit, and the fact that the bourgeoisie is forced to replace them after profitability crises proves that they can counteract it only temporarily and that their potential is always exhausted.

Engels was perhaps not as deep as Marx, and he occasionally made some mistakes. But to dismiss Engels for Heinrich’s sake means to read Marx in a systemic way, to make Engels’s mistakes an alibi in order to accept a total mistake. Marx’s concerns at the end of his life had to do with a better conceptualization of the complexity of capitalism’s tendencies, and hence of the revolutionary process, not with their general direction.

Marx’s successes and further “failures”

This brings us to Marx’s successes, some of which are so obvious, that even The Economist’s columnists cannot but recognize them, although still charging him with some other failures.

“The chief reason for the continuing interest in Marx, however”, we read further, “is that his ideas are more relevant than they have been for decades. The post-war consensus that shifted power from capital to labour and produced a ‘great compression’ in living standards is fading. Globalisation and the rise of a virtual economy are producing a version of capitalism that once more seems to be out of control. The backwards flow of power from labour to capital is finally beginning to produce a popular –and often populist– reaction. No wonder the most successful economics book of recent years, Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, echoes the title of Marx’s most important work and his preoccupation with inequality” (p. 72, same in the following).

So, if inequality has once again become a central issue, to the extent that 1% of the world’s population owns over 50% of the world’s wealth, and 3.7 billion of the poorest account for just 2.7%7, how can “dogmatic” and “fanatical” Marx be confirmed after so many “reforms” and “advances” made by the ruling classes? Let’s see what The Economist’s gentlemen have to say about this as things become more interesting now.

Marx argued that capitalism is in essence a system of rent-seeking: rather than creating wealth from nothing, as they like to imagine, capitalists are in the business of expropriating the wealth of others. Marx was wrong about capitalism in the raw: great entrepreneurs do amass fortunes by dreaming up new products or new ways of organising production. But he had a point about capitalism in its bureaucratic form. A depressing number of today’s bosses are corporate bureaucrats rather than wealth-creators, who use convenient formulae to make sure their salaries go ever upwards. They work hand in glove with a growing crowd of other rent-seekers, such as management consultants… professional board members… and retired politicians…

By reading such passages, one gets convinced that The Economist’s “liberals” will never understand even Marx’s simplest positions, not due to lack of knowledge, but because they do not want to understand them, since this goes contrary to their class interests. Marx never defined capitalism as a rent-seeking system. This was also a feature of feudalism which knew various kinds of rent. The distinctive feature of capitalism, according to Marx, is expansion, the development of production for production’s sake, the accumulation of capital. And what capitalists accumulate is surplus value, the unpaid labor of the workers, which they usurp. Ideas could never create stocks and capitals; and it is absurd to base economic analysis on the difference between the good ideas of capitalists and the bad ideas of managers, etc. Moreover, if it was just a matter of good or bad ideas, one could perhaps solve many problems and save capitalism by imposing a negative rent for some obviously bad ideas of the capitalists and their ilk, such as weapons of mass destruction. The Economist’s gentlemen, distorting Marx in that way, shift the problem from the structure of capitalism to the behavior of the one or other of its agents, bureaucrats, managers, and so on. Yet, while rent is, of course, important –and Lenin, Hobson and others showed how rentiers multiply in the imperialist era with capitalism’s increasing parasitism– according to Marx, it is production and not distribution that defines the essence of capitalism, as of every other economic system.

However, just after that we find two better passages. One is about globalization, which, it is acknowledged, Marx had already foreseen:

Capitalism, Marx maintained, is by its nature a global system: ‘It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere’. That is as true today as it was in the Victorian era. The two most striking developments of the past 30 years are the progressive dismantling of barriers to the free movement of the factors of production—goods, capital and to some extent people—and the rise of the emerging world. Global firms plant their flags wherever it is most convenient… The World Economic Forum’s annual jamboree in Davos, Switzerland, might well be retitled ‘Marx was right’.

So Marx did predict something correctly after all. And it seems that he did not only predict this, but also something else too, the tendency of capitalism to create monopolies and, along with the accumulation of wealth on the one side, to produce an army of unemployed and occasionally employed in the other:

“He thought”, we read further, “capitalism had a tendency towards monopoly, as successful capitalists drive their weaker rivals out of business in a prelude to extracting monopoly rents. Again this seems to be a reasonable description of the commercial world that is being shaped by globalisation and the internet. The world’s biggest companies are not only getting bigger in absolute terms but are also turning huge numbers of smaller companies into mere appendages. New-economy behemoths are exercising a market dominance not seen since America’s robber barons. Facebook and Google suck up two-thirds of America’s online ad revenues. Amazon controls more than 40% of the country’s booming online-shopping market. In some countries Google processes over 90% of web searches. Not only is the medium the message but the platform is also the market.

In Marx’s view capitalism yielded an army of casual labourers who existed from one job to the other. During the long post-war boom this seemed like a nonsense. Far from having nothing to lose but their chains, the workers of the world—at least the rich world—had secure jobs, houses in the suburbs and a cornucopia of possessions… Yet once again Marx’s argument is gaining urgency. The gig economy is assembling a reserve force of atomised labourers who wait to be summoned, via electronic foremen, to deliver people’s food, clean their houses or act as their chauffeurs. In Britain house prices are so high that people under 45 have little hope of buying them. Most American workers say they have just a few hundred dollars in the bank. Marx’s proletariat is being reborn as the precariat.

The analysis perhaps is not flawless, but we may assume without much danger of error that had Marx read it, he would have rated The Economist’s analysts at least with a 5 (full marks being 10). Unfortunately, is not so with the immediately following argument, for which he would definitely make them repeat the same class:

Still, the rehabilitation ought not to go too far. Marx’s errors far outnumbered his insights. His insistence that capitalism drives workers’ living standards to subsistence level is absurd. The genius of capitalism is that it relentlessly reduces the price of regular consumer items: today’s workers have easy access to goods once considered the luxuries of monarchs… Marx’s vision of a post-capitalist future is both banal and dangerous: banal because it presents a picture of people essentially loafing about (hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, raising cattle in the evening and criticising after dinner); dangerous because it provides a licence for the self-anointed vanguard to impose its vision on the masses.

It is tragic indeed to encounter such expositions of Marx’s views.

First of all, Marx never claimed that “capitalism drives workers’ living standards to subsistence level”. This was, in fact, Lassalle’s position, expressed in his famous “Iron Law of Wages”, which states precisely this thing. Marx criticized Lassalle’s law, showing that the workers, with their organization and struggles, could improve their position, and that there is a difference, historically defined in each country, between the wage corresponding to subsistence level and the real average wage.8

Secondly, it is funny to imply that a thinker of Marx’s level had not noticed and pointed out the ability of capitalism to limit the prices of consumer goods through technological progress, productivity gains, etc. In fact, Marx was the first economist to recognize and explain this possibility, as well as the historical movement of wages at the various stages of capitalism, with his distinction between absolute and relative surplus value. Let us explain this distinction, for the benefit of The Economist’s columnists.

Absolute surplus value, according to Marx, is the type of capitalist accumulation that dominated the early stages of capitalism, in the so-called period of primitive accumulation of capital. During that period, accumulation was promoted by increasing the working day – for example, the worker was forced to work 12 instead of 10 hours daily, his salary remaining the same. This means an increase in exploitation: if, for example, in the initial 10 hours, 6 hours correspond to the reproduction of the labor force and 4 hours to unpaid labor (i.e., production of surplus value), the final 12 will include 6 unpaid hours. Absolute surplus value goes hand in hand with absolute impoverishment, as pay per hour of work decreases. The brutal expropriation of the rural population and its relocation to the cities under wretched conditions, the deadly work of children and women, etc., were some of the misfortunes of this phase, described in novels by Dickens, Gorky and others.

However, when the development of capitalism, and hence its technological base, reaches a relatively high point –what Marx calls “the real subordination of labor to capital”– absolute surplus value is replaced by relative surplus value. The distinctive feature of the latter is that accumulation is now promoted not by the increase of the working day but by the limitation of the part of the working day devoted to the replacement of the worker’s labor power. In the previous example, if the time for the reproduction of labor power (the necessary labor) is reduced to 2 hours from 6, then even with a reduction of the working day from 10 to 8 hours, the worker will produce more surplus value than before, offering 6 hours of surplus labor instead of 4. Relative surplus value corresponds to relative impoverishment because the salary per hour of work increases. In addition, it is a constituent part of Marx’s analysis that the price of labor power in the latter case will correspond to a larger number of goods, since by the development of specialization, etc., the needs of the worker also grow. Of course, the great limitation of necessary labor is made possible because, due to technological progress, an hour of work in developed capitalism produces a much larger mass of commodities than what it produced in its earlier stages. The total value of these goods remains roughly the same, but the value per unit is drastically reduced.

In Marx’s time relative surplus value had progressed only in Britain, yet this did not prevent him from recognizing it as the main form for developed capitalism and assess its impact on the workers’ living standard. In an excerpt in Capital he sums it up quite clearly:

Under the conditions of accumulation… which conditions are those most favorable to the laborers, their relation of dependence upon capital takes on a form endurable or, as Eden says: ‘easy and liberal’. Instead of becoming more intensive with the growth of capital, this relation of dependence only becomes more extensive, i.e., the sphere of capital’s exploitation and rule merely extends with its own dimensions and the number of its subjects. A larger part of their own surplus-product, always increasing and continually transformed into additional capital, comes back to them in the shape of means of payment, so that they can extend the circle of their enjoyments; can make some additions to their consumption-fund of clothes, furniture, etc., and can lay by small reserve-funds of money.9

Of course, as Marx explains at various points, this improvement has certain limits defined by the needs of capitalist accumulation, and tends to take place in periods of economic growth, while in recessions wages are being pressed. But this is a far cry from presenting him as an advocate of the view that no improvement in the lot of the workers is possible under capitalism.

Marx’s position that in the post-capitalist society people will be able to hunt in the morning and go fishing in the evening was a poetic image of the many sided, cultivated man who will replace the disintegrated, individualistic human existence to which capitalism gives rise. Marx insisted that labor itself will always be “the realm of necessity”, but shorter working hours when everyone will work will give all members of society enough free time for a variety of other activities. It was Marx’s deep conviction that in the future society even The Economist’s journalists will find some better things to do than to exhort capitalism and abuse Marx.

For the time being, of course, no such thing is in sight, so they continue listing some more of Marx’s “failures”. “The World Bank”, we are told, “calculates that the number of people in ‘extreme poverty’ has declined from 1.85bn in 1970 to 767m in 2013, a figure that puts the regrettable stagnation of living standards for Western workers in perspective”. Marx, evidently, failed to anticipate that momentous progress too…

Here again it is a case of progresses existing in the apologists’ heads rather than in reality. Extreme poverty is defined at making less than 1.90$ per day, so that it would hardly look like a great advance to half the number of those caught in it. Moreover, the very definition of extreme poverty by the World Bank is under severe criticism, while if one puts aside China, the picture in the rest of the world is hardly encouraging.

In fact The Economist’s gentlemen are very close to repeating arguments regarding general welfare, which their predecessors advanced in Marx’s time. “Delightful is it thus to see”, one of them went, “under Free Trade, all classes flourishing; their energies are called forth by hope of reward; all improve their productions, and all and each are benefited” (The Economist, 2/1/1853). To which Marx replied by pointing to the numerous cases of starvation in this “generally beneficial” social order10. One has just to look at the thousands of peasants in India who commit suicide due to starvation –according to official estimates, more than 12,000 yearly after 201311 – to see that The Economist’s present attempt to paint a similar worldwide tranquility is not a bit better.

There follows Marx’s worst “mistake”:

Marx’s greatest failure, however, was that he underestimated the power of reform—the ability of people to solve the evident problems of capitalism through rational discussion and compromise. He believed history was a chariot thundering to a predetermined end and that the best that the charioteers can do is hang on. Liberal reformers, including his near contemporary William Gladstone, have repeatedly proved him wrong. They have not only saved capitalism from itself by introducing far-reaching reforms but have done so through the power of persuasion. The ‘superstructure’ has triumphed over the ‘base’, ‘parliamentary cretinism’ over the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

So, what do The Economist’s geniuses tell us? To what does their wisdom end up?

They tell us that Marx was right in verifying those laws and trends of capitalism that bring them and their ilk to the foreground –globalization, monopolization, etc.– but that they, the “superstructure”, the various “think tanks” of capital, with their special astuteness and wisdom, succeeded in changing the action of these laws, making them produce different results than those predicted by Marx. Isn’t that a form of egomania?

We have already seen that Marx recognized the possibilities of reforming capitalism, ultimately based on relative surplus value. He himself refers to them in the Preface to the 1st edition of Capital, pointing out that “present society is not a solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing”.12 Marx, however, showed at the same time the limits of these possibilities. To clarify this last, vital point, let us listen first to The Economist’s gentlemen final confessions:

The great theme of history in the advanced world since Marx’s death has been reform rather than revolution. Enlightened politicians extended the franchise so working-class people had a stake in the political system. They renewed the regulatory system so that great economic concentrations were broken up or regulated. They reformed economic management so economic cycles could be smoothed and panics contained… Today’s great question is whether those achievements can be repeated. The backlash against capitalism is mounting – if more often in the form of populist anger than of proletarian solidarity. So far liberal reformers are proving sadly inferior to their predecessors in terms of both their grasp of the crisis and their ability to generate solutions. They should use the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth to reacquaint themselves with the great man – not only to understand the serious faults that he brilliantly identified in the system, but to remind themselves of the disaster that awaits if they fail to confront them.

Well, well, truth must be admitted after all! What we see during the last two decades is the decline of the liberal elites, their constant shift to intensified reaction, their failure to find any viable way out of the crisis and the deadlocks of capitalism, their –as The Economist itself aptly puts it– sad inferiority to the circumstances. However, their failure inexorably raises a relentless question that The Economist’s gentlemen fail to raise: Is this a chance, subjective failure or error of the leading circles of capital? Or does its cause lie in something more profound; i.e., that there exists no longer such a reformist way?

Can capitalism reform itself anew?

So, can capitalism reform itself anew, as it has done in the past, or is its present, self-destructive course definitive?

This question emerges from all modern developments and we can give at least some credit to The Economist’s journalists for posing it openly and sharply as a “life and death” question for capitalism. Yet it cannot be posed in a Shakespearean, “to be or not to be” philosophical way, as they pose it. It must be examined in relation to the whole of social experience, the directions of bourgeois governments and organizations, etc. And any such discussion will inexorably force answering it in the negative. A few concrete questions will clarify that.

If there is a real possibility of a new New Deal today, why do we nowhere see a significant portion of the ruling classes expressing and supporting it? In the 1930s there was a Roosevelt, after World War II there were representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie such as De Gaulle and the Kennedy brothers. Where is their current analogue? Why does the “liberal” wing, whose voice The Economist is, can only oppose Trump with a Hillary Clinton; i.e., something just a trifle better? Why do the few progressive representatives of the bourgeoisie like Sanders prove completely incapable of proposing any positive reform program and are forced, confusing others and themselves, to talk about “socialism”?

All these are sure indications that an internal reform of capitalism which would provide a real economic revival is no longer possible. We will understand why it is so by returning to Marx’s analysis of relative surplus value. The development of mature capitalism, as Marx has shown particularly in his Results of the Direct Production Process, consists essentially in generalizing relative surplus value, through its successive expansion to the various branches of economy. This was done in previous stages with the technological intensification of industry, agriculture and the state sector, services, etc. And the reason capitalism could at those stages have some able representatives was that there were still non-intensified sectors of the economy, whose reshaping, as well as the overall reshaping of the system based on this process, required certain abilities.

The distinctive feature of globalization, on the contrary, is that, at least in the developed countries, there is no longer a non-intensified economic sector. The service and public sectors, the last remaining ones, were intensified in the neoliberal era, this being its essential content. Things like “green economy” are aspirins, while the generalized automation futurists like Mason are dreaming of is inconceivable under capitalism as it would decisively hit the rate of profit. The very fact that capital is now forced to resort to absolute surplus value, increasing again the length of the working day in order to support the rate of profit (and thereby reviving again absolute impoverishment!), is a further proof of the exhaustion of its reformist margins. So at capitalist metropolises at least, there remains nothing else, nothing new to be done; there is no new model of accumulation and consequently no possibility of a new cycle. This makes globalization the last phase, the last moment of the imperialist era and capitalism in general, during which the capitalist system will necessarily leave the historical scene.

All this does not imply, of course, a complete impossibility of reforms, but any such possibilities refer to measures, changes, etc., which fulfill possibilities of the current stage, not of a hypothetical, non-existent future stage. Or to put it otherwise: there is no chance of capitalism presenting something radically new, a modern “New Deal”, but only –and this at a theoretical level– of normalizing and prolonging a bit globalization, by softening for some time its worst conflicts.

Two such possibilities are basically at hand. Relative surplus value has already exhausted its potential in the capitalist centers and is now fulfilling it in Asia and Latin America. But there is a continent where it has not yet been expanded; i.e., Africa. Africa’s participation in globalization could provide a growth momentum when China recedes, opening a further round. Of course, in order to bring this about, that participation should be on comparatively equal terms, not like that of Yemen, which picks up globalization’s bombs, but roughly that of China. Secondly, the North-South gap in the European Union suggests a similar, albeit proportionally smaller, possibility of capitalist progress for the European South, but this also presupposes a change in the EU structure towards true convergence.

Historical experience so far proves that the weakened liberal leaders of capitalism cannot implement these changes or even aid them. Obstacles on their way are more than obvious. Africa is already the field of competition between China and the West, and the great powers are not interested in its development, but in enhancing each one’s sphere of influence and plundering at the expense of the rest. In addition, American imperialism’s policies of past decades, interventions around the world, etc., have strengthened the worst, most adventurous forces in its protectorates, the consequence being that change stumbles not only on the directions of imperialism itself, but also on local cliques, “compradorial” segments, etc. Africa’s current growth rate of about 4% reflects these barriers, being extremely low for a continent with a population of 1.3 billion and less than one-third of US GDP.

It would be erroneous to imagine that when China’s momentum fades, capital will flow in Africa and start a new swift rise there. Firstly, China’s potential as capitalism’s steam engine has already been half-halted. Yet Africa’s development has not gained momentum, but has receded during the last years, from 5.5% in 2012 to 2.7 in 2016, and an anemic recovery in 201713 In the second place, China’s huge capitalist progress was made possible by the fact that the revolution had created a viable social order, a skillful and educated working class, etc. Only traces of these will be found in Africa, which is moreover divided in a multitude of small, unsustainable states, with extreme poverty increasing strongly during the last decades. In practice, moving these barriers aside will require at least some Chavez type revolutions in Africa, like those of Latin America during the last two decades. A key condition for a steady development in that continent will be that the leading circles of imperialism support these processes, yet wherever they have happened so far, either in Africa itself in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, or in Latin America recently, imperialism has constantly tried to stifle them.

On the other hand, the European Union, the only intensive global integration process, remains, as Mr. Juncker acknowledged in his recent Marx speech, extremely fragile. “The European Union”, he said, “is not a flawed, but an unstable construction. Unstable also because Europe’s social dimension until today remains the poor relation of the European integration. We have to change this”14 But of what change can one speak of, when, in a construct that its own leaders confess its instability, all the pressures of the crisis are directed to its weakest joints? It is not clear that the next crisis, which even according to them, is probably a short time away, will break it into pieces? And what will the consequences be then? Under the present circumstances, these can only be chaos, a fascist takeover of power in at least some European countries and war conflicts.

Of course, Trump’s election in the United States, the developing commercial wars and the existence of anachronistic regimes, such as Syria, Iran, and so on, belonging to Russian sphere of influence, obstruct economic progress even more at a world level. Add to this the whole parasitic raff of globalization, which in not limited to bureaucrats and politicians as The Economist would have it, but also includes all kinds of market speculators, lobbyists, mafias, etc, who loot world economy –movies like Gavras’s “Le Capital” and Hickenlooper’s “Casino Jack” depict their range– and you will see why it is utopian to expect something different from the ruling elites.

One last point that deserves some comment in The Economist’s arguments is their hints that Marx’s revolutionary forecast has been refuted in the capitalist centers. While Marx “believed communism would take hold in the most advanced economies… The only countries where Marx’s ideas took hold were backward autocracies such as Russia and China”. And even today, in period of severe crisis, opposition to capitalism appears “more often in the form of populist anger than of proletarian solidarity” (p. 71, 72).

These arguments are not new, yet there is a grain of truth in them, which has also been adequately dealt by Marxists. After Marx’s death, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky recognized the bourgeoisie’s ability to create a “working class aristocracy”, by sharing a small part of the booty of colonial exploitation, a fact allowing it to stabilize its hold in the capitalist centers. On the other hand, the obvious reason recent opposition to capitalism has so far been manifested chiefly by the rise of (often far-right) populism is that the crisis hit first the petty bourgeoisie, who tend to seek to restore their previous position at the expense of the working class15 All that, however, belongs to the kind of complications and difficulties with which Marx struggled in the last phase of his life, when he clearly envisaged some of them (e.g., the possibility of a revolution in Russia) and in no way counters his central claims. Doesn’t the fact of “the regrettable stagnation of living standards for Western workers” (p. 72), to which The Economist reluctantly refers, prove indeed that the main stabilizing factor in the capitalist centers belongs to the past?

Let us sum up in a graphic way. Capitalism is a Titanic that, due to the very materials and contradictions ingrained in its frame, is doomed to break up and sink. It is composed, of course, of several levels, each one of them having its own watertight parts which delay for a while flooding from incoming water. In the previous stages or levels, there was a difficult way out of Titanic to the new ship of socialism, but there were also higher levels to which one could move when the previous ones were flooded. The peculiarity of the current level is that there no more exists a level above. There is only a possibility of delaying the flooding of the current level either by increasing its space (a relatively equal participation of Africa in globalization) or by absorbing some of the pressures on the walls by channeling them to their strongest points (allocating part of the burdens of the EU crisis to Germany, France, etc.). We do not see any of these possibilities being realized today; on the contrary, the policies pursued are in the exactly opposite direction.

We have already explained why this is so and why a realization of the progressive possibilities of the current stage by the ruling classes is extremely unlikely, if not impossible. Moreover, if they were to be implemented, this should have been prepared during the past decades; e.g., by instituting a United Nations program to combat poverty in Africa and elsewhere, such as that proposed in the 1960s by the Kennedy brothers (who were murdered incidentally by their own class), rather than conducting military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. If, however, The Economist’s gentlemen are of another opinion and consider such a program possible, nothing prevents them from becoming its preachers, even if a little late.

In conclusion

Marx in his time never held The Economist in any high esteem. He called it, the “optimist conjurer of all things menacing the tranquil minds of the mercantile community”.16

The Economist’s article on Marx’s 200 years confirms his judgment. It is a mirror of the illusions of the condemned classes concerning their “eternity” and of their gaudy front, from which “superstitions and prejudices emerge like frogs”.17 How could Marx be a great thinker and a racist egomaniac at the same time? If he was a racist, why has he been an anathema for all reactionaries? Questions like these The Economist’s gentlemen are unable even to pose; prejudice blocks them from surfacing in their minds. And in this way, they unwittingly offer the best proof that Marx was right both in his opinion about The Economist, which has not advanced far since then, and in his overall predictions about capitalism’s fate.

However, The Economist’s journalists are wrong when they say that the practical implication of these predictions is to “hang on the chariot of history”. Such passivity was alien to Marx; on the contrary, he stressed that history presents active possibilities, the content of which, according to his famous statement, lies in “shortening the birth pangs”. It is on the contrary the “free market” apologists who hang on it and never prepare anything.

From this point of view; e.g., a capitalist development in Africa similar to that of China cannot be indifferent to Marxists as it would limit the sufferings of the next capitalist crisis and help realize the transition to socialism under better conditions. But herein lies the problem, that all such possibilities are hampered by the bourgeoisie itself, by the oligarchies of the developed countries. As Trotsky points out:

In the conditions of capitalist decline, backward countries are unable to attain that level which the old centers of capitalism have attained. Having themselves arrived in a blind alley, the more civilized nations block the road to those finding themselves in a process of civilizing themselves.18

Despite The Economist’s reformist optimism, all realities of our time cry in chorus that the necessary progressive reforms, even those in principle theoretically possible within capitalism, can only be fulfilled in a revolutionary way. And their fulfillment is only conceivable as a step, a starting point in the process of transition to socialism.

  1. See Readers of the World Read Karl Marx, The Economist, May 3, 2018. In the electronic edition the title is different, “Rulers of the world: read Karl Marx!” Roughly one year ago The Economist had published a similar item on Marx, expressing its “scorn” regarding John McDonnell’s praise of him but also admitting that Marx “becomes more relevant by the day”. The Economist, 11/5/2017.
  2. P. Boiteau, “Mort le Karl Marx”, Journal des débats, 25/3/1883.
  3. See K. Marx – F. Engels. Collected Works, Progress Publishers, vol. 41, p. 388-391.
  4. R. Pennington, “Bruno Bauer: Young Hegelian”. That article had appeared first at Instauration, an ultra-right periodical, in 1976. Of course, Pennington goes on to invent an antithesis between Marx and Engels, by presenting the latter as an anti-Semite. This is a lie, Engels had written an article against anti-Semitism, exposing it as an ultra-reactionary current: “anti-Semitism”, he said, “serves… reactionary ends under a purportedly socialist cloak; it is a degenerate form of feudal socialism and we can have nothing to do with that” (F. Engels, “On anti-Semitism”.

    The myth of Marx’s “anti-Semitism” is ably refuted by R. Fine in “Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Anti-Semitism”.  Unfortunately Fine, in his otherwise excellent article, attributes wrongly the above quoted phrase of Engels to Marx.

  5. K. Marx, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, in K. Marx – F. Engels, Selected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1977, vol. 1, p. 479-480.
  6. K. Marx, Theories of Surplus value, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1975, vol. 3, p. 63.
  7. See “World wealth increases, inequality rises“, Kathimerini, 15/11/2017.
  8. In a well-known passage in Capital, in the part on labor power, Marx emphasizes this point; see K. Marx, Capital, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1977, vol. 1, p. 168.
  9. K. Marx, ibid, p. 579.
  10. K. Marx, Dispatches for the New York Tribune. Selected Journalism of Karl Marx, Penguin Books, London 2007, p. 111-113.
  11. Dhananjay Mahapatra, “Over 12,000 farmer suicides per year, Centre tells Supreme Court”.
  12. K. Marx, ibid, p. 21.
  13. See “Economy of Africa”.
  14. See “EU president Juncker defends Karl Marx’s legacy”. Regarding predictions of a new crisis by EU and IMF officials see  “Juncker’s article on Europe in ‘Ta Nea”, C. Lagarde. “A new crisis is possible”,  and Lagarde. “The Eurozone must be ready for the next crisis”, .
  15. This, let us remark by the way, means that it will be necessary to overcome great difficulties in turning social protest to the left, which implies, among other things, a confrontation with neo-Stalinist, nationalist and other pseudo-socialist currents and the unification of the nowadays scattered revolutionary and oppositionist groups that do not share the above errors. But this requires time so that the ruling classes’ tendency to avoid any progressive reform, partly explained by their usual fear of opening up the appetite of the movement and triggering revolutionary developments, is not right presently.
  16. Κarl Marx. “Revolution in China and in Europe”, New York Daily Tribune, June 14th, 1853.
  17. Α. Arnellos, A Game of Chess, Tipothito Editions, Athens 2002, p. 77.
  18. L. Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, Allagi Editions, Athens 1988, p. 15.

Inequality Social Dysfunction and Misery

Year on year the economic divisions and sub-divisions in the world deepen, and the associated social ills increase: The rich, comfortable, and the very extremely rich keep getting richer, and the rest, well, whilst some may be raised up out of crippling poverty into relative poverty, the majority of people continue to live under a blanket of economic insecurity and largely remain where they are.

Straddling the global ladder of economic and social division sit the Multi-Billionaires (there are now 2,208 billionaires), 42 of whom (down from 61 in 2016), according to a recent report by Oxfam, own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity combined. Together with their lesser cohorts this coterie of Trillionaires sucked up “eighty-two percent of the wealth generated [in the world] last year…while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth.”

The defining challenge of our time

Income and wealth inequality is not simply a monetary issue, it is a complex social crisis that supports and strengthens notions of superiority and inferiority, and was described by President Barak Obama in 2013 as “the defining challenge of our time.”

Today’s obscene levels of inequality are the result of the Neo-Liberal economic system. This extreme form of capitalism took hold first in America and Britain in the early 1980s when Reagan and Thatcher ruled, workers’ rights were trampled on, ‘society’ was a dirty word and community responsibility was abandoned to selfishness and greed. With the aid of the World Bank and the IMF, Neoliberalism swiftly spread throughout the world, polluting life in every city, town and village with its divisive, cruel ideology. Commercialization and competition are key principles and have infiltrated every area of contemporary life; everything and everyone is seen as a commodity, and the size of ones bank account determines the level of health care, education and housing available, as well as one’s access to culture and freedom to travel.

Social injustice is inherent in the system, as is inequality, which is itself a major form of injustice. Inequality strengthens deep-seated social imbalances based on class and social standing, and in a world where everything is classified, commercialized and priced; i.e., attributed value, external wealth and position have become the common criteria for determining the internal worth of a human being. Comparison and imitation follow, individuality is perverted and fear fostered; fear of inadequacy, fear of failure, fear of not being loved, because not ‘deserving’ love, not being able to ‘afford’ love. Resentment, anger and self-loathing are fed, leading to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol addiction.

Happiness and inequality

The impact of financial inequality on the health and well being of society has been extensively studied by Richard Wilkinson; British co-author of Spirit Level, Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. In order to establish national levels of inequality Wilkinson and his team used a benchmark based on how much richer the top 20% is to the bottom 20%: Japan and Scandinavia (Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark) came out most equal, and now, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have moved towards this group. Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Britain, Portugal and USA were found to have the greatest levels of inequality, and by some margin. Recent data suggests that Russia, South Africa and Turkey should now be added to the most unequal pile. Germany, Spain and Switzerland sit somewhere in the middle.

Data relating to a range of social issues was examined: The most unequal countries were found to have lower life expectancy than more equal societies, higher infant mortality, many more homicides, larger prison populations (by 10-15 times), applied longer sentences; had higher teenage pregnancies, lower mathematic/literacy levels, more obesity, less social mobility, and, according to The World Value Survey, a great deal less trust. In more equal countries, like Sweden and Norway, around 65% of people trust others, whereas in unequal societies like America a mere 15% admitted to trusting their fellow citizens.

In all areas, countries with high levels of inequality did worse, in many cases much worse, than more equal nations. Mental health, for example, (figures from the World Health Organization): In Japan around 8% of the population suffers from some form of mental health issue, compared to 30% in America. Children are considerably healthier in more equal countries – based on UNICEF’s Index of Child Well-Being – and feel a good deal happier. Wilkinson concludes, “What we’re looking at is general social dysfunction related to inequality. It’s not just one or two things that go wrong, it’s most things.”

Look to Scandinavia

If one of the primary purposes of any socio-economic system is to create environments in which human beings can grow and live happily together, then the nations suffering under the shadow of inequality need to learn from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, which are not just the least unequal, they are also the happiest countries in the world. Throughout Scandinavia public services – education (which is probably the best in the world), health care and housing, are valued, and taxes levied in order to fund them properly; there are greater levels of social justice, this allows for trust to develop, and where there is trust relationships flower. The extremes of staggering wealth and stifling poverty don’t exist as they do in the more unequal parts of the world; social mobility is greater and the dream of betterment more realistic, as Richard Wilkinson says, “if Americans want to live the ‘American dream’ they should go and live in Denmark.”

The first duty of government is to protect the people; this involves not only dealing with terrorism and the like, but requires the development of socio-economic policies that contribute to the creation of a healthy harmonious environment. By supporting extreme inequality (which has been shown to fuel a range of social issues) governments in the more unequal countries are totally failing in this fundamental duty. Politicians, who in many cases rely on big business and wealthy benefactors for their funding, are either blind to, or negligent of, the inherent faults of the current system, and the unhealthy, negative way of life it supports.

The case for fundamental change in the economic order, and a shift away from the destructive values it promotes is becoming irrefutable; however, change occurs only gradually and resistance is great. In the meantime, governments (particularly in the most unequal states) need to acknowledge the connection between the dysfunction and disease within society and their socio-economic methodology, which is literally making people ill, as well and poisoning the natural world. They need to invest properly in public services, address wage differences, ban bonuses, introduce progressive tax reform, and, unlike America and France which are taking retrograde steps by designing tax codes which will fuel inequality, look to the Scandinavian countries and learn from their example.

For too long socio-economic systems have been designed and maintained to cater to the desires and interests of a privileged few, while the majority live inhibited lives under the shadow of financial uncertainty. For harmonious societies to evolve this long-standing injustice needs to be addressed and a degree of balance found. This requires that those whose table is full to overflowing share some of their bounty, so that all may have enough, not excess, enough.

As a wise man has said, “The rich must give up what they want, so that the poor can have what they need.” What the rich and comfortable must give up is greed (another car, another house, more designer clothes, etc.), what the rest need is freedom from economic insecurity and the fear of destitution, freedom from exploitation and dependency; secure, comfortable, and well-designed accommodation, and access to good education, health care and culture. Such essential needs are the rights of all; when made manifest they go a long way towards establishing social justice, and where there is social justice, functional, compassionate communities do evolve, conflict is reduced and collective harmony is cultivated.

The Empire Strikes Back Leaving Indian Farmers in the Dirt

By 2050, if current policies continue, India could have numerous mega-cities with up to 30-40 million inhabitants and just two to three hundred million people (perhaps 15-20% of the population) left in an emptied-out countryside. Given current trends in the job market, it could mean tens of millions of city-based rural migrants without much work: victims of the ill thought out policies we currently see being pushed through.

In the book The Invention of Capitalism Michael Perelmen lays bare the iron fist which whipped the English peasantry into a workforce willing to accept factory wage labour. English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in dangerous factories being set up by a new class of industrial capitalists. A series of laws and measures served to force peasants off the land and deprive them of their productive means.

In India, what we are currently witnessing is a headlong rush to facilitate (foreign) capital and the running down of the existing system of agriculture. While India’s farmers suffer as the sector is deliberately being made financially non-viable for them, we see state-of-the-art airports, IT parks and highways being built to allow the corporate world to spread its tentacles everywhere to the point that every aspect of culture, infrastructure and economic activity is commodified for corporate profit.

GDP growth – the holy grail of ‘development’ which stems from an outmoded thinking and has done so much damage to the environment – has been fuelled on the back of cheap food and the subsequent impoverishment of farmers. The gap between their income and the rest of the population, including public sector workers, has widened enormously to the point where rural India consumes less calories than it did 40 years ago. Meanwhile, corporations receive massive handouts and interest-free loans but have failed to spur job creation; yet any proposed financial injections (or loan waivers) for agriculture (which would pale into insignificance compared to corporate subsidies/written off loans) are depicted as a drain on the economy.

Let them eat dirt

Although farmers continue to produce bumper harvests, they are being put out of business by underinvestment, the lack of a secure income and support prices, exposure to artificially cheap imports, neoliberal reforms, profiteering companies which supply seeds and proprietary inputs and the overall impacts of the corporate-backed Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture.

For all the talk of ‘helping’ farmers, the plan is to displace the existing system of livelihood-sustaining smallholder agriculture with one dominated from seed to plate by transnational agribusiness and retail concerns. To facilitate this, independent cultivators are being bankrupted, land is to be amalgamated to facilitate large-scale industrial cultivation and those farmers that are left will be absorbed into corporate supply chains and squeezed as they work on contracts, the terms of which will be dictated by large agribusiness and chain retailers.

Some like to call this adopting a market-based approach: a system in the ‘market-driven’ US that receives a taxpayer five-year farm bill subsidy of around $500 billion.

This is clearly a con-trick and not the way forward:

If government can be convinced or forced by the power of the global grassroots to reduce and eventually cut off these $500 billion in annual subsidies to industrial agriculture and Big Food, and instead encourage and reward family farmers and ranchers who improve soil health, biodiversity, animal health and food quality, we can simultaneously reduce global poverty, improve public health, and restore climate stability.

Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association

Well over 300,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1997 and millions more are experiencing economic distress. Over 6,000 are leaving the sector each day. And yet the corporate-controlled type of agriculture being imposed and/or envisaged only leads to degraded soil, less diverse and nutrient-deficient diets, polluted water, water shortages and poor health.

Although various high-level reports (as I outlined previously) have concluded that policies need to support more resilient, diverse, sustainable (smallholder) agroecological methods of farming and develop decentralised, locally-based food economies, the trend continues to move in the opposite direction towards industrial-scale agriculture and centralised chains for the benefit of Monsanto, Cargill, Bayer and other transnational players.

The plan is to shift hundreds of millions from the countryside and into the cities to serve as a cheap army of labour for offshored foreign companies, mirroring what China has become: a US colonial outpost for manufacturing that has boosted corporate profits at the expense of US jobs. In India, rural migrants are to become the new ‘serfs’ of the informal services and construction sectors or to be trained for low-level industrial jobs.

Even here, however, India might have missed the boat as jobless ‘growth’ seems to be on the horizon and the effects of automation and artificial intelligence are eradicating the need for human labour across many sectors.

If we look at the various western powers, to whom many of India’s top politicians look to for inspiration, their paths to economic prosperity occurred on the back of colonialism and imperialist intent. Do India’s politicians think this mindset has disappeared? The same mentality now lurks behind the neoliberal globalisation agenda hidden behind terms and policies like ‘foreign direct investment’, ‘ease of doing business’, making India ‘business friendly’ or ‘enabling the business of agriculture’.

Behind the World Bank/corporate-inspired rhetoric that is driving the overhaul of Indian agriculture is a brand of corporate imperialism which is turning out to be no less brutal for Indian farmers than early industrial capitalism was in England for its peasantry. The East India company might have gone, but today the bidding of elite interests (private capital) is being carried out by compliant politicians, the World Bank, the WTO and lop-sided, egregious back-room trade deals.

And all for a future of what – vast swathes of chemically-drenched monocrop fields containing genetically modified plants or soils rapidly turning into a chemical cocktail of proprietary biocides, dirt and dust?

Thanks to the model of agriculture being supported and advocated, India will edge nearer to having more drought vulnerable  regions, even more degraded soils (which is already a major problem) as well as spiralling rates of illness throughout the population due to bad diets, denutrified food, agrochemical poisoning and processed food laced with toxic ingredients.

Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and other transnational corporations will decide on what is to be eaten and how it is to be produced and processed. A corporate takeover spearheaded by companies whose character is clear for all to see:

The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture with agribusinesses like Monsanto, WalMart, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and ITC in its Board made efforts to turn the direction of agricultural research and policy in such a manner as to cater their demands for profit maximisation. Companies like Monsanto during the Vietnam War produced tonnes and tonnes of ‘Agent Orange’ unmindful of its consequences for Vietnamese people as it raked in super profits and that character remains.

Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could accelerate this process. A trade deal now being negotiated by 16 countries across Asia-Pacific, the RCEP would cover half the world’s population, including 420 million small family farms that produce 80 percent of the region’s food.

RCEP is expected to create powerful rights and lucrative business opportunities for food and agriculture corporations under the guise of boosting trade and investment. It could allow foreign corporations to buy up land, thereby driving up land prices, fuelling speculation and pushing small farmers out. If RCEP is adopted, it could intensify the great land grab that has been taking place in India. It could also lead to further corporate control over seeds.

The dairy trade could be opened up to unfair competition from subsidised imports under RCEP. According to RS Sodhi, managing director of the country’s largest milk cooperative, Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, the type of deals being pushed under the banner of ‘free trade’ will rob the vibrant domestic dairy industry and the millions of farmers that are connected to it from access to a growing market in India.

India’s dairy sector is mostly self-sufficient and employs about 100 million people, the majority of whom are women. The sector is a lifeline for small and marginal farmers, landless poor and a significant source of income for millions of families. Up until now they have been the backbone of India’s dairy sector. New Zealand’s dairy giant Fonterra (the world’s biggest dairy exporter) is looking to RCEP as a way in to India’s massive dairy market. RCEP would give the company important leverage to open up India’s protected market. Many fear that Indian dairy farmers will either have to work for Fonterra or go out of business.

In effect, RCEP would dovetail with existing trends that are facilitating the growth of chemical-intensive farming and corporate-controlled supply chains, whereby farmers can easily become enslaved or small farmers simply get by-passed by powerful corporations demanding industrial-scale production.

RCEP also demands the liberalisation of the retail sector and is attempting to facilitate the entry of foreign agroprocessing and retail giants, which could threaten the livelihoods of small retailers and street vendors. The entry of retail giants would be bad for farmers because they may eventually monopolise the whole food chain from procurement to distribution. In effect, farmers will be at the mercy of such large companies as they will have the power to set prices and will not be interested in buying small quantities from small producers.

Corporate concentration will deprive hundreds of millions of their livelihoods. RCEP is a recipe for undermining biodiverse food production, food sovereignty and food security for the mass of the population. It will also massive job losses in a country like India, which has no capacity for absorbing such losses into its workforce.

Current policies seek to tie agriculture to an environmentally destructive, moribund system of capitalism. RCEP would represent a further shift away from real, practical solutions to India’s agrarian crisis based on sustainable agriculture and which place the small farmer at the centre of the development paradigm. Once you begin to consolidate land, displace the small-scale farm and amalgamate land into larger parcels for industrial-scale agriculture, you implement a more inefficient model of agriculture and undermine food security.

In a future India, people might eventually ask, why did India let this happen when far-sighted and sustained policy initiatives based on self-sufficiency, food sovereignty, smallholder-based regenerative agriculture and agroecology could have been implemented?

They might also ask why was the countryside emptied out and more effort not put into developing rural infrastructure and investing in village-based industries and smallholder farmers?

And not least of all, they might ask why did policy makers buy into neoliberal dogma, the only role of which is to seek to justify a corporate takeover?

Ultimately, it is a case of asking does India want – does any country want – industrial-scale agriculture and all it entails: denutrified food, increasingly monolithic diets, the massive use of agrochemicals, food contaminated by hormones, steroids, antibiotics and a range of chemical additives, spiralling rates of ill health, degraded soil, contaminated and depleted water supplies and a cartel of seed, chemical and food processing companies that seek to secure control over the global food production and supply chain to provide people with low-grade but highly profitable food products.

Solutions to India’s agrarian crisis (and indeed the world’s) are available, not least the scaling up of agroecological approaches which would be a lynchpin of rural development. However, in India (as elsewhere) successive administrations have bowed to and continue to acquiesce to grip of global capitalism and have demonstrated an unflinching allegiance to corporate power. It is unlikely that either the Congress or BJP, wedded as they are to neoliberalism, will ever undertake initiatives for seriously developing agroecological alternatives:

But even if for argument’s sake… the present governance structure were to embrace agroecological alternatives, the problem of extreme inequality that results from the structural logic of capitalism… would require mitigation. Without tempering the ravages of the market, hunger will continue, as will the disempowerment of small producers. Indeed, an agroecological alternative would simply be co-opted by capitalist relations of production and distribution, with community-based initiatives becoming mere decentralised production points within a supply-chain logic that centralises power and profits in the hands of seed corporations.

Milind Wani

Charter Schools: Backpack Full of Cash

QUESTION: If a school is educating a child, whether it’s a private school or a charter school, doesn’t it deserve public dollars?

RESPONSE: Public and private mean the opposite of each other. Public and private are antonyms.

Public refers to the common good, everyone, the whole society. Public means inclusive and for all; non-rivalrous. Public also means not narrow or sectarian. Synonyms for public include: open and transparent. Private, on the other hand, refers to some, a few. Private means exclusive, not for everyone, not inclusive, not shared. Synonyms for private include: restrictive, secret, closed, not transparent.

Public and private are not synonymous in any way. Mixing them up produces conceptual confusion and harmful policies, practices, and arrangements all the time. There is a reason that public schools and private schools operate differently and have different profiles and features.

Charter by definition means contract. Charter schools are contract schools. Contract is the quintessential market category. Contracts make markets possible. Significantly, contract law is private law, which deals with relations between private citizens, whereas public law deals with relations between the state and individuals. These points cannot be overstated. It is because of these legal realities that charter schools are inherently privatized, marketized, corporatized arrangements. It is precisely why charter schools lack most of the public features of public schools and the public sphere. It is for this reason that a charter school cannot be something other than a charter school, regardless of whether it is if for-profit or nonprofit, “good” verses “bad,” operated by “mom-and-pop” or a corporation. There is a reason that charter schools are deregulated, deunionized, practice selective enrollment, have high teacher and student turnover rates, are plagued by corruption, lack accountability, and enrich a handful of individuals. If an individual with “good intentions” thinks they are going to make “their” charter school great and different from all the other rotten ones—think again. Such an idea is based on no thinking and no analysis. It is based on wishful thinking alone.

Public funds, assets, buildings, facilities, resources, and authority belong only to the public and no one else. They are produced by the public and must be controlled by the public at all times, not someone else. This is why the fate of public funds, assets, and buildings must be decided upon by the public alone and are to be used strictly for public purposes. Public funds for public schools must not go to private interests.

Private and sectarian interests have no claim to public funds, assets, and buildings. Public wealth must never be handed over to the private sector, let alone in the name of “efficiency,” “choice,” “competition,” “innovation,” “accountability,” or “results.” These buzzwords have provided cover for much of the neoliberal destruction that has unfolded over the past 40 years. Privatization in its many forms ultimately harms the economy and the national interest.

Neo-Liberal Academia and the Death of Education

Recent cases of personal information collecting for corporate interests highlight the urgency of revisiting the topic of higher education in its connection with the corporate sector and the government. We ought to reconsider at least some aspects of the complex web of the contemporary “education industry” and its social implications. Understanding how contemporary (Western) education works (or doesn’t work) can contribute to raising the awareness of the general population as to the scale of the problem, and making a change, no matter how small.

What’s the problem?

Why should one be concerned with the way the system of (higher) education works? Although the manifold issues related to the contemporary system of higher education in the West (primarily in the US) cannot be summarized in one word, one phrase does capture the most important problems: corporatization of universities.

This process is not new. It follows the more general tendency of applying “neo-liberal” policies, “business logic” and “market principles” to virtually all spheres of our private and public lives. Higher education—and, in particular, the humanities as the main focus of this essay—seem to be one of the latest victims of the all-penetrating (neo-liberal) capitalist ideology. The application of this ideology in academia has resulted in a couple of significant changes over the past decades, primarily in the US and the UK, but the rest of the world is catching up. These changes have diminished to quite a significant degree the very idea of education in the sphere of the humanities, its meaning and its purpose.

Higher costs

The costs of higher education have skyrocketed. According to some sources, the cost of acquiring a university education in the US has increased 1,120% over the last three decades, and even more if compared with the 1960s and 1970s. It is hard to find any relevant economic justification for this, and in reality, one can show that the rising costs of higher education have a very negative general economic and social implications. However, what makes no sense from the perspective of the economic interests of the general population or the society as a whole makes perfect sense if viewed from the perspective of class warfare.

The effects of the rising costs of higher education are very real—students are trapped by huge debts created by extensive borrowing in order to be able to pay for unattainably high tuition costs. In such a situation, they cannot afford to spend time on extracurricular activities or get engaged in social activism; in other words, they cannot afford to work against the system. Borrowing huge amounts (to pay for what should be free to them) teaches them an important lesson about the system in which they are supposed to live: one must be obedient, accept the rules of the game, get a degree and try to find a “good” job so that they can start paying back the loans. This ideological instrument turns out to be very effective—it helps the system to replicate and expand. It is not difficult to see a very conservative ideological framework behind this logic. It basically says “conform to the way the system works” (i.e. to the “markets” as a new version of secular gods), “don’t question, don’t try to change anything” (since that’s “unrealistic” or even socially “irresponsible” behavior). In continental Europe, where the institutions of higher education are still predominantly publicly funded, class and culture wars are fought differently (but that is a topic for another essay). Instead of individual’s intellectual capabilities, personal motivation and readiness to invest a lot of time and energy in learning, deep pockets and obedience become much more decisive factors of the overall study success.

The growth of the university administration

Higher costs are accompanied by the changing academic culture and the institutional functioning of universities. The role of the faculty and students in governing the university has declined to a remarkable degree. Faculty members are increasingly expected to be obedient executors of the policies designed by the university managers. The corporate-like university management (presidents, vice presidents, provosts, deans, vice deans, etc.) has grown significantly, both in size and in power. In many cases these managers come from very different worlds (e.g. the entertainment industry, politics, financial institutions, etc.) with little or no understanding of what education or university is all about. But they (supposedly) know what the “real world” looks like, and that seems to be sufficient qualification for the positions of the university bosses.

One of the results of this is that the faculty members are becoming administrators—instead of focusing primarily on (real) research and teaching, they are often overwhelmed with “assessment” forms, meaningless meetings and other corporate-like administrative duties that are often not only useless but actually directly counterproductive. Contemporary US academia resembles, in many ways, the late Soviet bureaucracy—an ever-increasing number of forms and procedures mask the lack of any real content.

Market-oriented “education”

The question that is usually asked when education is discussed is, “What do the markets need?” Today, education is understood as training for doing a particular “business.” Many “solutions” that are proposed to the problem of contemporary education fail precisely because they accept this very same “business metaphysics” as the ultimate horizon of meaning. New programs are designed and justified in front of university managers based on the “needs” of the “markets.” But we rarely pause to examine the logic behind this reasoning.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with training for particular jobs (unless, of course, that training is for the aggressive war industries, harmful financial speculations and the like). The problem is that this is precisely what education is not. Education should not be about our ability to fit into the existing, pre-given systems. Education should never be simply training. This is what made higher education, at the dawn of modernity, different from the medieval guilds, where one could obtain training, but without education. University education is about inquiring into the broader context and theoretical principles of things, it is about questioning the very framework of the system and the society as a whole. Doing something that “the markets” expect us to do, although necessary up to a point, is essentially a bizarre enterprise. Why should we do what “the markets” tell us? Who says that what they tell us is good, necessary or meaningful? Who says that this or that is a real problem that we need to “fix”? Maybe there are more pressing issues to address? Well, without (real) education, we will never know.

Asking simple questions like these is already enough to expose the highly ideological nature of today’s concepts of education and of the “real world.” Expert-oriented training (which also often suffers from its low quality, for the reasons listed below) is not what higher education—especially in the humanities—is all about. By limiting the scope of thinking, research and practical engagement, “the markets” (i.e. the leaders of the corporate sector) become the “agenda designers,” the “trendsetters,” those who determine the problem to be fixed and how to fix it (with somewhat predictable outcomes). To further ensure that problem-solving remains within this market-driven framework, one needs to call upon the “experts” and the obedient mainstream media to “explain” to the (already indoctrinated) general audience what the problem is and what the solutions are. This strategy effectively prevents alternatives views, issues and solutions from penetrating the (mainstream) public discourse.

The consumer-type of “education”

In neo-liberal academia, students are increasingly being treated as customers/consumers. The logic they are trained to absorb is that they “pay” for a certain “product” or “service.” Applied to higher education, that “product” is the diploma or certificate, not education or knowledge. Obtaining real education and knowledge is not the same, not even similar, to going to a supermarket or a restaurant where we are supposed to be “satisfied.” Education implies hard work, challenging situations, dissatisfaction, frustration, creativity, initiative, dedication and much more. The results of this consumer-centered “education” are the well-known phenomena such as grade inflation and low learning outcomes, accompanied by an increase in all possible services on campuses (sports halls, coffee shops, entertainment rooms, etc.), except those that have something to do with (real) education.

Related to this is the broader issue of the impact of technological advancements and the broader cultural shift that has accompanied it. It has been evidenced now that when we read from our laptops, cellphones, tablets and other screens, we memorize and understand less than when we read from old-fashioned (paper) books. In addition, the sense that all information (mistaken for knowledge) is readily available to us diminishes careful reading, analysis and thinking about what we read. To paraphrase Baudrillard, more and more information seems to result in less and less knowledge and understanding. This is not an argument against technology; it is merely an argument about many of the side effects of the way we use it, with elements having a direct, detrimental impact on our reading and thinking culture, both vital for (good) education.

The culture of “safe spaces” and political correctness

This issue is intimately linked with the “consumer-centered” ideology. Since students are treated as customers, there is a tendency to keep them “safe” from anything that can potentially be “harmful” or cause “distress.” This means that students are exceedingly kept from exposure to different ways of thinking, different types of information and different values. This is literally killing education. When the consumerist logic is taken to its extreme, and applied to all spheres of our lives, it results in students being encouraged to advance the anti-intellectual discourse in which “I feel like…” is a sufficient argument against all the points of view, arguments and values that they “feel” they don’t like. More and more classrooms begin to resemble the one from the famous Modern Educayshun video. The culture of “trigger words” and politically-correct speech becomes the stage on which the play of education is staged. This spectacle is often called “progressive” and “liberal.” The true name for this is not progressive, left or liberal, but a sad, anti-intellectual performance of the late consumerist era. The paradox is that when many of these “liberal” or “leftist” circles (primarily in the US) advocate political correctness, “safe spaces” and other supposedly noble and progressive ethical postulates, they, in fact, advocate a secularized fundamentalist worldview (some of which is so brilliantly captured in Nikki Johnson-Huston’s essay “The Culture Of The Smug White Liberal”).

The persecution of professors is a part of these crusades launched against freedom of speech and freedom of thinking. It becomes not all-too-uncommon to find cases of tenured professors being fired for simply speaking their mind, for expressing views that are considered “problematic” or “unacceptable.” This brings to memory the darkest episodes of totalitarian systems.

The public discourse and, even more tragically, academia, are thus often hopelessly caught between religious-fundamentalist oppressiveness (called the “right”) and secularized fundamentalism, both very oppressive.

Consequences

Neo-liberal academia, in some of its features, seems as a return to the pre-modern types of training, when a student would enter a guild to penetrate a particular interest group, learn a skill and then conform to the market demands. This understanding of education is fundamentally different from the humanistic idea of education, with its stress on theory, analysis of principles, critical and free thinking (which means thinking without any pre-determined purpose or constraints).

Following the business/market logic as the ultimate criterion in education is harmful. The reality is that at this point the neo-liberal logic of global corporate capitalism (with its disregard for the ecological and humanitarian crises for instance) is driving the world toward its ultimate destruction. Designing university curricula to conform to this logic is therefore nothing short of contributing to the destruction of the world.

What’s the solution?

Contrary to the present tendencies, one can think of a different form and meaning of higher education. Its primary role should be to question everything, especially widely accepted views and values, everything that has become “normality.” Its role should never be to make people fit into existing models. A meaningful system of higher education should, in my view, offer three key elements:

(1) Systematic, in-depth knowledge of a particular field or discipline. This is supposed to make students future experts/professionals in their respective fields. This is what the “training” is about, and this is a necessary, yet, alone, insufficient element of good education.

(2) Critical thinking and social responsibility. We should educate students to question and change the existing ideological frameworks and social and political institutions every time they do not meaningfully contribute to the society, and especially when they become harmful. The goal of (serious) education should not be to prepare students to fit into the (corrupt) system; the goal should be to prepare them to change the system and the markets, to make them more humane and meaningful.

(3) Personal growth. This dimension of education, which once upon a time was considered vital, has almost completely disappeared from academia. Education and the growth of one’s knowledge should not be a “job” divorced from one’s personality, from who we are. Education should be about activating our individual creative potentials, it should be pleasurable, adventurous, it should make us better persons. It should allow us to reach who we can be, beyond the demands and limitations of the currently existing power structures.

We should not let capitalism make us forget who we are as human beings.

Crib Notes on Late Capitalism

Gordon Gekko, the fictitious corporate raider so memorably personified by Michael Douglas in Wall Street, lectured an assemblage of investors and flaccid board members with this eye-opening burst of insight:

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

Gekko cut to the core of capitalism. He unclothed its essence, he upvoted its pseudo-scientific rationale, and he recognized its dominion over America. We should know by now, all these years and a Great Recession later, that sociopathic late capitalism reduces all morality to a single ethic: increase profits. At any cost. By any means necessary. And always as at a faster pace with fewer hands involved in the assembly, one day to be as seamlessly automated as it is amoral. Even when a throng of angry workers rise up and startle the bourgeoisie from its dogmatic slumber, the subsequent concessions are often piecemeal and temporary. As soon as they are implemented, the animated masses slip back into their consumer coma, and a cadre of capitalist purists, furiously underlining quotes in their laissez faire bibles, begin a massively financed rollback. Without round-the-clock vigilance by a perpetually agitated electorate, the restoration of unchecked plunder seems inevitable. Today that process of unchecked plunder is in full swing. It feels like late capitalism, an exhausted time when the rhetorical salves that once hid the gruesome core of exploitation, have lost their power, revealed as empty platitudes. Late capitalism is perhaps an era unfettered by regulatory regimes or unified labor, in which manufacturing has fled abroad, financialization is pre-eminent, bureaucracies enable blame-shifting and abdication of responsibility at the highest levels, where personal finances are credit-fueled, debt deflation cannibalizes income, and there is no sacred ground that is not ripe for commodification. And crucially, an era in which brutal economic and military aggression has become normalized. Wars are no longer historically bookended epochs, but quotidian realities for millions that live in the crosshairs of imperial greed. A few notes on our present reality and the ways in which we cloak it behind comforting facades:

Acceptable Casualties: What are the consequences of that rollback? Brutal corporate raiding, to be sure, of the Gekko variety. And strip-mining private equity firms like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. And supercharged offshoring kingpins like General Electric. But also extrajudicial murder. Assassinations. Indefinite detention. Saturation bombing. Backing coup d’états birthed at midnight on a distant Maidan. Funding jihadi terrorists in faux uprisings in drought-stricken border towns. Green-lighting neo-Nazi fascists in jackboots with Bandera flags held aloft. Stationing a fleet of drones above the clouds over Yemen, their 24-hour buzz reminding powerless villagers below that their futures and funerals are separated by a hair’s breadth. Launching Tomahawk missiles and flying sorties to destroy legitimate government forces as al-Qaeda terrorists advance toward Tripoli. Enabling a longtime leader’s death by rape in a featureless dune outside of Sirte. Parading tanks and Humvees down the roads of Eastern Europe, shadowing the frontiers of Russia with the clustered muzzles of their long artillery. And, of course, rolling out all the domestic austerities that they pretend must be cut to pay for our protection. And don’t forget jerry-rigging pensions to implode thanks to naive derivative bets placed by deluded municipalities. All to make a quick buck, protect a currency regime, or pulverize resistance to western dominion over MENA energy resources. But that’s just at the national level. On the individual level, the profits system is protected and reinforced and expanded using torture, including simulated drowning and anal rape (Abu Ghraib), slaughtering villagers (Vietnam, Nicaragua), shameless genocide (see history of Native Americans), rampant slavery (see history of African Americans), sending armed terrorists into sovereign nations with the intention of total ruin (Syria, Libya, Nicaragua), and numberless other particularized forms of cruelty against men and women. One of our former arbiters of torture is now assuming command of the CIA, her suburban soccer mom pose pacifying the tired assemblage of corporate supplicants in Congress.

The Pall of Good Intentions: All of this to secure profits (variously euphemized as power, wealth, resources, influence, liquidity, reserve currency, etc.). Of course, these acceptable consequences are acceptable because they can be written off as bad judgment or mistakes. Lapses in foresight. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. As national mythologist Ken Burns’ sagacious narrator purred in The Vietnam War, “It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.” This rancid preface is enveloped in the amniotic afterbirth of every act of imperial violence, a postscript rationalization. One can imagine the wizened faces of imperial stormtroopers asking with incredulous naiveté, “What happened?” The Burns documentary is artfully presented, with a master’s touch, and dropped deep into the fog of war from which we can comfortably resolve, “…in war, there is no single truth.” Thus the resolution is no resolution at all. Judgment is judiciously reserved. What cannot be swept under the carpet or plausibly denied, can be amplified into total confusion, confounding even the most discerning observer. In the final analysis, there is no one to blame.

It’s the System! When ill-conceived choices don’t suffice, the blame can be offloaded onto the system itself. As automation in warfare improves, expect more of the moral blame to be shifted to technological malfunctions rather than human error. AI may play in war the same role bureaucracy plays in consumer capitalism, the abdication of responsibility. Remember the middle manager mantra: “Sorry, but that decision is above my pay grade.” This is the requisite assumption of bureaucratic capitalism and the reason why the abdication of responsibility and subterfuge of false historical narratives are so important to the capitalist system. It cannot be conceded that profitability is valued above human life. When such charges are leveled at imperial capital, blame for such inhumane values must be placed on the system, while individuals are set scot free. No major bankers were jailed for the bank-generated mortgage meltdown. No major government figures were jailed for their role in sanctioning torture and war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a consequence, a torturer now runs the CIA and banks have leveraged their derivative bets beyond 2008 levels. Obama launched the largest covert CIA operation since Afghanistan in Syria, ultimately generating the cauldron that displaced half the country and killed half a million. But his staunchest defenders will swiftly lift the accusations from their paladin’s slim shoulders, dust off his lapels, and deposit the blame squarely on the monolithic system itself. No one is powerful enough, therefore no one bears responsibility. Given the casuistry of capital, it any wonder then that the wages of capitalism are so often death?

Capital Fight, Capital Flight: Most of us don’t think of wars as capitalist wars. But what else are they? The United States has established bases inside of Syria’s predominantly oil-rich Kurdish region. That war itself began, conspicuously, not long after Bashar Al-Assad opted to back a gas line built with Russia and Iran over one involving Qatar and Turkey. Wars against Iraq and Libya were both conspicuously ramped up not long after those nations floated the idea of abandoning the US petro-dollar. And you know how temporary installations morph into permanent occupations. Baghdad’s Green Zone didn’t start out as a Bellagio-on-the-Tigris, but soon became a permanent encampment, even if it is now euphemistically named, “the international zone.” Military contractors still have a considerable presence there (surely cheered by the citizenry) and the American wrecking crew has whittled its official footprint to world’s largest ‘embassy’ cum occupation zone. Iraq, too, was a resource war, and yet is not generally grasped as a distinctively capitalist conflict. But the only apparent alternative to foreign exploitation in a rent-seeking system is capital flight.

Savagery as Security: The evidence of bloody exploitation is all around us, but most of it beyond our borders and across abyssal seas most of us have never crossed. Hence the worthlessness of this system of plunder for the majority is better grasped by people living outside the walls of our doctrinal system. People living in the 57 countries we’ve attempted to overthrow since WWII. People living in occupied territories, alongside the 800 military bases we’ve flung like a net across the planet. People living beneath the drone arsenals that float in the sky, or those in nations that suffered the 51,000 bombs President Obama let drop in the final two years of his presidency. These acts are all, suffice it to say, forms of aggression defined as defensive measures. Obama was thus the perfect avatar of imperial conquest, a man who neither seemed capable of anger or interested in expansion. Unlike snarling Dick Cheney and more akin to soothing Bill Clinton, Obama provided the necessary update on Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in 1984 and 1988, tweaking the persona from that of an impassioned African-American decidedly on the side of the working class to one of a cross-class unifier who healed divisions with a kind of amiable centrism. And so Obama and the Democratic Party merely inhabited the emptied husks of progressivism, while embodying in practice the regressive rollback of worker advances.

Domestic Digs: Evidence may be bloodier abroad, but the wages of capitalist globalization have also been coming home to roost for some time. The millions of middle class jobs exported abroad to line the coffers of rich shareholders and impoverish the sad ledgers of working men and women. If there is a definition of the word ‘sellout,’ it ought to sit astride the logos of companies like GE, Walmart, Nike, JP Morgan, Lockheed Martin, and Halliburton. Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide thanks to the ‘liberalization’ of markets, permitting western multinationals to savagely undercut subsistence farmers in nations like India, and deliberately drives them into urban slums to fortify the surplus army of cheap labor available to faceless capital. Now New York taxi drivers are killing themselves, unable to continue working 16 hour days for ever-declining wages while mobile sweatshops like Uber and Lyft lobby for deregulation, undercut the wages of the entire industry, and hire a multicultural new CEO with a kindly face who softly promises helpful innovation for all. Capitalists fear a falling rate of profit, but care nothing for the falling rate of wages. As Marxist geographer David Harvey said, capitalism will cannibalize the source of its own wealth–something no PR campaign can cure. Every revenue stream will be bled dry. Harvey also said capitalism’s current form, a viciously anti-state neoliberalism, is a conscious project of class restoration, a war on workers by elite shareholders looking to restore their class privilege, despite their role as a parasitic rentier class that induces debt deflation in the larger economy. If labor mis-attributes its travails to personal inadequacies, it likewise misses the fact that it is under attack. Labor is kept afloat through credit, with student, credit card, mortgage, and auto debts all swelling past the trillion-dollar threshold in the U.S. With that increase in debt come obvious corollaries: the one percent grabbed 95 percent of the overhyped recovery in America, while the overlapping global one percent will own two-thirds of all wealth by 2030.

Class Blinders: In practice, capitalism is primarily about the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor. That’s what Barack Obama signaled to elite constituencies when he campaigned for president, a willingness to either look the other way or facilitate exploitation. Even if he believed the lofty rhetoric he ventriloquized through his Ivy League education. Donald Trump may perhaps be a bit more aware that capitalism is red in tooth and claw. But like Gekko, he merely recites the tiresome credos of Social Darwinism, the naturalistic fallacy that conservatives and ambitious financiers never stop falling for. It may be the only method of rationalizing their success as the product of their intrinsic talents, rather than a stroke of fortune delivered by a confection of birth, breeding, temperament, and natural ambition. Marx was right when he proposed a materialist conception of history. Our circumstances do shape our consciousness. The rich have been taught to take credit for their successes and externalize responsibility for their failures. A tireless work ethic provides the moral backdrop to every Fortune 500 profile, but for every bankruptcy, regulation and taxation are reviled. On the flip side, the elite media never tires of conditioning the poor to do the reverse: self-indict for their failures and thank affirmative action and America for their successes. Read Adam Johnson on “perseverance porn,” the celebration of disenfranchised peasants who endure intolerable conditions. As such, too often the exploited blame themselves for their exploitation, and the exploiters blame the system for their failures (the system they rely upon in times of crises).

Money Never Sleeps: No matter, Gordon Gekko had it right. Greed is good–for the one percent. After all, they seem to be the only ones benefiting from institutionalized cupidity of imperial capitalism, for which all are blameless but from which only a handful may benefit. That its unchecked bacchanalia came to a juddering halt in Mesopotamia has bedeviled the plutocrats at the helm of the global capitalism. Their loyal serfs in the military-financial complex have demonstrated alarming judgment since the Syrian conflict began. The plutocrats surely fear their unipolar moment is being threatened by a poker-faced piker in the Kremlin and his infuriatingly refined ally in Damascus. The nervous frenzy in the western media only reflects the disturbed priorities of the corporate state. Perhaps the only question left appears to be whether Washington will make good on its implicit wish to use small nukes to salvage its hegemony, or strategize a more successful use of criminal sanctions, proxy forces and soft coups to redraw the balance of power to their liking. Either choice will entail not only decimation abroad but vacuuming more taxes from social need into metastasizing budgets that fuel military aggression and police a restive homeland. Peace and prosperity are not in the cards. As the infamous Margaret Thatcher said of capital’s creed: “There is no alternative.”

The Shame of Injustice

Poverty is the greatest cause of death and illness globally; it strangles the lives of billions of people, denying the expression of innate potential, condemning men, women and children to live stunted uncreative lives of interminable suffering and drudgery.

Whilst the numbers living in extreme poverty (the World Bank calculates this to be living on $1.90 a day) has decreased, over half of the world’s 7.5 billion population are somehow surviving on less than $5 a day (the cost of a designer coffee in developed countries). Hundreds of millions of others live in a condition of relative poverty or economic insecurity, anxiety and worry their constant companion. The majority of the World’s poorest people live in developing countries, India, Sub-Saharan Africa and rural China predominantly, but tens of millions are pushed into the shadows in industrialized nations.  America, for example, has an estimated 44 million people, or 13% of the population, living in ‘official’ poverty. Wherever the poor are found they live on the margins of society, are exploited and disregarded.

Walking hand-in-hand with poverty is the crime of extreme inequality. Obscene levels of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of trillionaires whilst the poor are forced to beg for the crumbs that fall from their burgeoning tables.

Poverty results from and is itself a form of injustice; so too is poor education, inadequate health care, homelessness and sub-standard accommodation. Like freedom, justice is a human right and within that triumph of common sense, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, is enshrined as such. But our world is dominated by attitudes and modes of living that deny justice and prohibit freedom. It is unjust that billions of people live in squalor; it is unjust that the quality of a child’s education is dependent upon the size of its parent’s bank account; it is unjust that access to health care in many countries is determined by one’s ability to pay for it. The collective shame of injustice must be cleansed from our world and trust inculcated.

Like many of our problems the key to creating a just society lies in the encouragement of sharing. In various areas of life, sharing is beginning to fashion the way things are done: data sharing within all forms of government and between agencies and allies is common practice, United Nations agencies readily share statistics and education tools, cooperate with aid organizations, as well as sharing research material relating to global issues – climate change, for example. The worldwide web allows sharing on an unprecedented scale and has given billions of people access to information and ideas in a way that was impossible in the pre-internet age.

Whilst sharing initiatives are increasingly common, it is yet to be adopted as the primary economic and social principle. However, the ‘sharing economy’ of which we hear so much these days is a hint of things to come. A leading example of this new movement is the groundbreaking ‘Sharing City’ project set up in 2012 in Seoul, South Korea. The scheme has four main objectives: Reduce the use of municipal resources, create new jobs, build communities and cut pollution. There are a range of initiatives taking place in the city, including sharing unused parking spaces, leasing empty rooms, exchanging children’s clothing, and even meals; sharing bookshelves and internet access and letting citizens use idle spaces in public or government-owned facilities. As a result of these schemes, Forbes reports that, “a different culture is emerging, thanks to the support of the government, that has been proactively engaged with the public by providing the city’s resources such as unused public spaces and related data to its citizens, and providing support to sharing economy business models.”

On the whole the businesses grouped together under the sharing economy banner are functioning within the traditional capitalist system. Despite this distortion, it shows that the concept of sharing is increasingly influencing thinking and beginning to permeate human affairs: this augurs well for the future.

Sharing engenders trust

Injustice must be eradicated from our world, and the principal means of doing this is through sharing. When one shares, trust is engendered, divisions are dismantled, unity is cultivated and justice beings to flower. Sharing is the most efficient way to meet collective need, it is the common-sense approach to many of our problems, social and environmental; it is an expression of love, which is the unifying force of nature.

Without universal justice, disharmony will continue and peace will remain a fantasy. Injustice poisons the social fabric, pollutes the collective atmosphere and creates fermenting resentment, which fuels conflict. It is fed by complacency, which is the principal vice of the privileged, the smug and the comfortable; they have little or no idea of the intense suffering that billions of people are living under, and, fearing that their position of influence and control may be wretched from them, they cling to all that they hold dear – power and wealth.

Everything that causes injustice must be uprooted, within the structures under which we live, but also, and perhaps more importantly, within the consciousness of the individual. The destructive nature of conditioned ideals that encourage injustice must be recognized and rejected, and ways of living based on justice and social responsibility cultivated. At the same time, and flowing from this shift in attitudes, which in many people is well under way, socio-economic structures rooted in sharing are desperately needed to deal with systemic injustice.

The injustice of inequality has reached abhorrent levels, not simply wealth and income inequality, but inequality of opportunity, inequality of access to health care and good quality education, housing and culture. Such inequalities feed injustice and stoke division, leading to conflict. They are inevitable under Neo-Liberalism, and unless we reject this outdated and unjust way of organizing the global economy, inequality will continue to grow year on year. The promise of social mobility as a means of addressing or reducing injustice is mere propaganda; within the current system there is virtually no such thing; if you’re born into poverty or relative poverty, the chances are you will remain there.

The answer to injustice and social division is not to be found buried in the crumbs of the comfortable, it lies in adopting radically new ideas; concepts of sharing that are woven into the fabric of human nature and need now to be applied in a pragmatic manner to solve the global problem of injustice.