Nicholas Kristof, in an end of the year column entitled “This Has Been The Best Year Ever,”. (New York Times, 28 December 2019) presents compelling, but ultimately deceptive evidence that:
“In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever.
The bad things that you fret about are true. But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.”
His numbers are solid —and should not be ignored. But the underlying forces behind the progress he identifies are, in the end, neither healthy or sustainable. Specifically, the progress Kristof identifies is the result, by and large, of 1) technological progress which allows us to exploit the resource base of our planet more effectively and 2) more extensive and intensive exploitation of the human population.
The most deceptive figure that he cites, because it seems to contradict claims of growing inequality, is the World Bank claim that the percentage of people living in extreme poverty (living on less than $2/day)dropped from 42% of the world’s population to just 10% of that population in 2015, using constant (2011) dollar measures.
This figure is not without political significance, to be sure. It is largely the result of the incorporation of a vastly larger percentage of the population into capitalist relations of production which employ them in industrial process of production which are more “productive” in the sense of creating greater value added, a small and in some cases increasing portion of which is shared with the workers in the form of higher wages. Forty years ago most of the people who have now moved out of “extreme poverty were either subsistence peasants or marginalized surplus population subsisting in the informal economy in the barrios and favelas of the old Third World. What the figure tells us is that the strict “Third Worldist” analysis of the global economy, set forth by theoreticians such as Samir Amin (Amin 1978/1980) turns out to be wrong. According to this analysis, capitalist development is either impossible in low wage countries because of the absence of an internal market for manufactured goods, or else does not lead to economic growth and higher wages. More importantly from a political perspective, the surplus produced by workers in the Third World is shared with workers in the imperial metropoles, resulting in wages which are higher than the value of their labor power, creating a privileged “labor aristocracy” which has no interest in anticapitalist revolution. On the contrary, since the defeat of the national liberation movements and the advent of the neoliberal regime in 1978-1989, we have witnessed rapid growth across much though not all of the Third World, and rising wages in its more “advanced” regions, such as China.
This does not, however, mean that either neoliberalism or capitalist development generally are good things. First of all, from an ecological and technological vantage point, the development which has taken place is based on Second Industrial Revolution technologies which have led to continued rising carbon emissions at a time when we need to cut them in half by 2030. Redeployment of industrial production to low wage countries has allowed the continued exploitation of destructive industrial technologies which more prosperous populations would no longer tolerate, instead of forcing the development of new technologies with a lower carbon footprint.
Second, the development which has taken place is based on the more extensive and intensive exploitation of human labor power. By extensive exploitation we mean the incorporation of ever larger sectors of the human population in the capitalist labor force (i.e. proletarianization). A much larger percentage of the population is being forced to sell its labor power in order to survive —and is then being told that they should be grateful for it. By intensive exploitation we mean that these workers are using more advanced technologies, and therefore producing a much higher surplus, so that the gap between the richest and everyone else continues to expand even as wages in the poorest countries grow and the most extreme poverty declines.
This is not to say that none of the gains are real. Viewed in a longue duree perspective, industrialization and capitalist development were adaptations to conditions in Europe in the late Middle Ages (low population and thus a perpetual labor shortage, creating an incentive to invest in labor saving devices coupled with a surplus population of landless aristocrats who for historically contingent, partly epidemiological and partly technological reasons, were able to conquer the planet and carry out the primitive accumulation of capital necessary to “jump-start” the process of industrialization). The result allowed Europe and, at least temporarily the planet, to support a much higher population than would otherwise have been possible. And not all of the resulting technological advances —such as those which have reduced child mortality— are bad.
The problem, rather, is that the optimistic neoliberal reading of the current situation is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both the sustainability of industrial technology and of the ends of human life. Industrial technology is defined by the dynamic of literally and figuratively combusting existing forms of organization, whether mineral or plant or animal (including organized human communities) in order to release energy and do work. Combustion has always been part of humanity’s adaptation to this planet, but industrial technology brings it to the fore. We have, for the past 200 years —or more, if we consider the “combustion” of human communities— been burning through what Buckminster Fuller called humanity’s “cosmic energy savings account.” It is not surprising that we have compromised the habitability of the planet.
People will, sometimes, appear to choose such combustion —even the combustion of their lives and of their communities— whether because those lives and communities have already been torn apart by the penetration of capitalist relations of production into the countryside and they simply have no other way to survive, or because they fall for the lure of a “better” high consumption life (and often through a complex combination of these two motives). European peasants did it in the nineteenth and twentieth century and peasants throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America are doing it now. But it is a choice that we make against our own humanity. First, vanishingly little of the surplus we create ends up in our own hands. This is true even where there are rising wages. But more importantly, we are not mere batteries, and cannot live as such. When we are forced to sell our labor power in order to survive we sell our autonomy and our sociality and our creative capacity. We sell our very humanity.
What is more, after selling our humanity for several generations, we forget what we are. We imagine that we really are just consumers and that a few bumps in the road notwithstanding, everything really is getting better. When this happens, resistance –and ultimately humanity– come to an end.
This is why both Third Worldists and acellerationists (Right and Left) are wrong. Third Worldists are wrong because even the most privileged “First World” worker, even one who is actually benefiting from surplus extracted from the Third World, has an interest in transcending capitalism. The deepest suffering imposed by capitalism is not impoverishment but rather the loss of autonomy, of community, and of creative control over our work. Accellerationsts are wrong because continuing along our present pathway at an ever faster pace, even if we someone escape climate apocalypse, will destroy our humanity and there will be nothing left except robots and consumers.
This is not, to be sure, to suggest that we can or should simply “aim the main blow” against capitalism and industrial technology. First, we are simply not ready. We need to develop new, hortic technologies that tap into the self-organizing dynamic of matter itself. Solar and wind are a start, and will hopefully get us past the current climate crisis, but there is a great deal more that needs to be done. We need a whole new way of producing that enhances rather than degrading the integrity of the ecosystem and the social fabric. We also need to develop new ways of organizing labor that do not require people to sell their labor power —something which historic socialism promised but did not even begin to deliver. On the contrary, nationalization and large scale collectivization of the means of production is simply another way to rapidly complete the process of proletarianization.
Second, the recent turn to the far right and especially the rise of the Dark Enlightenment which brings together Right Accelerationist and Ethnonationalist tendencies, threatens to effectively destroy the liberal and democratic rights for which humanity has struggled for thousands of years. We have an authentic common cause with much of the liberal bourgeoisie, an alliance which may even deepen if, as I have argued elsewhere, Capital continues to emerge as an autonomous intelligence independent of the historic bourgeoisie. And the willingness of the liberal bourgeoisie, acting through its political parties, to take serious action around climate change, to expand publically subsidized health care coverage, to support LGBTQ rights and to strengthen protections against sexual violence, and even to consider measures like a universal basic income represent not only significant extensions of liberal rights but also our best hope for averting climate apocalypse and beginning to gradually decommodify labor power. A popular front against the Dark Enlightenment, complemented by in-depth organizing and community building to create the material and spiritual conditions for transcending capitalism and industry, remains the correct strategy for the working classes worldwide.
This said, Kristof’s “reminder” that things are still getting better no matter how bad they seem represents an intervention within the popular front to secure the hegemony of the liberal bourgeoisie. It is, in effect, an apology for technocracy, for the idea that continued technological progress along current lines, coupled with intelligent social engineering will eventually resolve the planet’s problems —with no need to call into question the underlying structures of capitalism or the debased civilizational ideal it serves. This is one of the principal forms of hegemony of the liberal bourgeoisie within the aptly named Progressive Alliance, and it stands in the way of questioning the bourgeois outlook on the aims of human life by making all questions ultimately technical. Technocratic hegemony is also frequently mediated by the demand that initiatives be assessed by quantifiable measures.
The other principal form of liberal bourgeois hegemony is the ideal of meritocracy and the associated Protestant Ethic, according to which our wealth and social status reflect our usefulness to society and our usefulness to society our underlying character and spiritual state. The implication, of course, is that the bourgeoisie is, in fact, simply superior.
As long as people believe these lies, we will will never have any choice except that between liberal capitalism and authoritarian capitalism. But our task is a delicate one that requires the greatest political subtlety and maturity. For now, the electoral arena, at least above the level of congressional districts in key multicultural urban areas, belongs to the bourgeoisie and we must be willing to offer unrestricted support to the liberal bourgeoisie in upcoming general election cycles if we are to defeat Trump and his allies in Europe and Russia, Turkey and India and deal a setback to the powerful authoritarian tendencies at work in our society. This does not mean that we cannot press more radical policy initiatives where they actually have a chance —but then that would be in a Democratic Congress under a Democratic President —or, in Europe, under social democratic or social liberal governments –i.e. governments of the liberal bourgeoisie. And it is certainly worth working out detailed transitional policies which provide a credible and minimally disruptive pathways for unwinding or dependence on fossil fuels, the nexus between private insurance and health care and between higher education and meritocracy, while building broad mass support for a universal basic income and a shorter work week. And we must, above all, resist the liquidation of public liberal education in which the liberal bourgeoisie has been fully complicit in recent years. After generations of being forced to sell their labor power, the older popular, democratic, and religious traditions of the working classes which provided a language in which to articulate anticapitalist resistance have withered away. Increasingly, with out revolutionary theory there really can be no revolutionary movement.
But most of our work in challenging the liberal bourgeoisie for hegemony in the popular front will need to be at the base: building communities of meaning and value which restore to the people the aspiration for autonomous creativity and democratic solidarity, while identifying, cultivating, and mentoring leaders who can carry the struggle across generations. We must begin to restore the lost commons which allowed people to survive without selling themselves, and create sanctuaries in which their new found sense of meaning can be nurtured. This is the really hard work, as progress is slow and almost always impossible to measure.
It is good to know that the past 500 years are not a dead loss. But imagining that the underlying processes which led to these gains will resolve the challenges of the next steps in the human civilizational project is a fundamental mistake. Capitalism and industry are exhausting themselves and exhausting humanity. It is time for a new departure.