Socialism or Extinction?

15 min read

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on August 13, 2018, on a previous incarnation of this site. From time to time we will be pulling pieces from the archives and republishing them here.

While the necessity of socialism is far from evident to most people at present, the unstable and crisis-ridden character of capitalism is practically unavoidable. We socialists make our appeal to the masses on the basis of their hopes and aspirations as well as their misery and anger, but by and large, people hope not for a radical transformation of our social world but to do better within the world we have, or at least to keep the world as it is stable and secure. Why should they want more?

Yet radical transformation is occurring whether we like it or not. Capitalism is a continuous process of radical transformation which society cannot consciously direct. It is the ever-present threat or reality of upheaval, of change beyond our control. It is distinguished from all previous forms of society by the “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” Capitalism is not a stable system but an ongoing crisis we are failing to resolve, and which instead constantly renews itself, haunting every appearance of stability and certainty.

Can this continuous revolution be sustained indefinitely? Is capitalism a sustainable dynamic of social life? Some assert to the contrary that the ecological destruction wrought by capitalist industry and society is undermining the conditions not only of capitalist production, but of life itself, and hence that the ecological crisis will be terminal.

The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it

When engaging the masses, we must of course be capable of answering the questions “why socialism?” and “why the socialist party?” In doing so, should we emphasize the threat posed by climate change, and then insist upon the impossibility of this crisis being resolved under capitalism? Is capitalism “unsustainable” in a way that socialism will have to be “sustainable”? Does the threat of ecological crisis provide a warrant for socialist politics that had previously been lacking, or at least, a fruitful issue for agitation?

The Democratic Party has, since 2008, held out the prospect of a “Green New Deal,” through which the ecological crisis would be stemmed by means of substantial government investment in an economy-wide shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources, which would include job retraining for displaced or otherwise unemployed workers, enabling them to take advantage of new employment opportunities in the green energy sector.

Despite eight years of a Democratic presidency, the first two of which were accompanied by strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the government never took any such radical measures. Subsequently, Trump won over the same rust belt voters Obama had wooed with the prospect of “green jobs,” this time through the promise of a renaissance of domestic industry, including coal production. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has all but abandoned the “Green New Deal,” now upheld by its most noteworthy left tail, the Green Party.

The ongoing ecological crisis is no more a political enigma than the economic crises that periodically wreak havoc upon capitalist society. The very invocation of Roosevelt’s New Deal should remind us of the extraordinary measures the state is clearly capable of enacting to preserve social order in the midst of catastrophe.

In 1917, confronting a very different but by no means incomparable kind of catastrophe, Lenin reflected on whether the “methods and measures of control” necessary to stabilize society are “extremely complex, difficult, untried and even unknown?” His answer was that:

If our state really wanted to exercise control in a business like and earnest fashion, if its institutions had not condemned themselves to ‘complete inactivity’ by their servility to the capitalists, all the state would have to do would be to draw freely on the rich store of control measures which are already known and have been used in the past…We shall see that all a government would have had to do, if its name of revolutionary-democratic government were not merely a joke, would have been to decree, in the very first week of its existence, the adoption of the principal measures of control, to provide for strict and severe punishment to be meted out to capitalists who fraudulently evaded control, and to call upon the population itself to exercise supervision over the capitalists and see to it that they scrupulously observed the regulations on control.

Likewise, the multifarious crisis society presently faces is by no means beyond the reach of political redress. The policy measures necessary to contain and ultimately resolve this crisis are well understood, so much so that the Democrats for a time dangled them from a string over the heads of the masses in a cynical ploy for electoral support.

Would it require a socialist party taking state power to finally introduce such measures? Will the cynicism and short-sightedness of the ruling class lead humanity to extinction if socialist revolution is delayed much longer? Perhaps, but the servility and fraudulence of the capitalist class and their political representatives should not be confused with the profoundly revolutionary dynamics of capitalist accumulation, of capital itself.

Popular concern about the ecological crisis is precisely the means by which capitalism will overcome it. Discontent motivated by chaos and destruction will motivate new forms of social activity to mitigate it. The threshold of chaos and destruction necessary to motivate such innovation is not necessarily set by democratic political deliberation, although it could be, even without a socialist revolution. Or, it may instead abate until the chaos begins to significantly impede profitable industry, allowing new competitors to pose a significant challenge. In either case, it will mean finding a new way forward for capital accumulation, and the social world it drags along behind it. For this very reason, oil and coal companies have been investing substantially in renewable energy technology for over a decade. They know that this will be a future growth sector, even if the social and/or political catalyst for that market takeoff has yet to arrive.

Capital will not significantly pivot away from fossil fuel and toward renewable energy until the damage wrought by climate change reaches some critical threshold. What it will mean to cross that threshold in terms of ecological and human costs is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it will only be crossed too late, and a runaway catastrophic dynamic will utterly destroy any prospect of recovery and reorientation for capitalist society, or even for human life in general.

Yet capital encompasses the combined power of humanity’s intellectual, practical, and technological capacities. The notion that this combined power will prove incapable of surmounting this crisis is hence a perverse kind of wishful thinking. If capitalism is in principle incapable of addressing this crisis, then how could a socialist revolution do better? Such a revolution could only emerge in and through capitalism, through a long and difficult project of organizing a mass political movement within capitalist society, which if successful would then be tasked with taking over the social power presently embodied in “capital.” It would mean, at least initially, doing what capitalism itself is in principle capable of doing, but doing it consciously and concertedly, based on the democratic will of the immense majority. If capitalism is in principle incapable of overcoming the ecological threat of climate change, then so is socialism.

That leaves aside the question of whether capitalism, left to its own devices, will transform itself in a manner that can avert the threat of ecological catastrophe before it is too late. Yet as things get worse and worse for more and more people, capitalist production in its current configuration will grow more and more difficult, while the opportunities for profit-making through a shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources will become more and more attractive. The capitalist class may have long ago proven their incompetence as administrators of a democratic society, but they have over the same period demonstrated their competency at profit-seeking. The worse things get, the more profitable a capitalist “solution” to the ecological crisis will become.

Barbarism or Extinction?

So rather than raising the slogan of “Socialism or Extinction,” we should perhaps retain Rosa Luxemburg’s older formulation of “Socialism or Barbarism.” While an apocalyptic outcome for the ecological crisis is not outside the realm of possibility, it is neither the only possible outcome, nor is it necessarily the most likely.

Socialists have long assumed that capitalism represented a terminal crisis of civilization that would culminate in a new dark age, but this assumption obscures the bleaker truth that capitalism itself is the “dark age” from which we must emerge. It is not the case that socialism is not necessary because capitalism will inevitably self-destruct, and hence because something must then come to replace it. Such a utopian conception of socialism lost credibility over the course of the 19th century, while the political conception of socialism championed by Marx and Engels gained traction.

According to the latter, capitalism inevitably self-destructs, but only to reconstitute itself, always rising again more gigantic than ever. The question then is not what kind of society to build after capitalism collapses, but how to take political control over the capitalist system to interrupt this vicious cycle of continual crisis and recovery, to transform capitalism by means of its own revolutionary dynamics to the point that it overcomes its inner self-destructive tendency?

Capitalism very well may survive the ecological crisis, but only at the cost of inflicting upon civilization “depopulation, desolation, degeneration,” reducing civilization to “a great cemetery,” as Luxemburg observed of World War I. Yet as Luxemburg knew, this collapse of civilization was not the end, but only a new and more hideous beginning:

In the prosaic atmosphere of pale day there sounds a different chorus – the hoarse cries of the vulture and the hyenas of the battlefield. Ten thousand tarpaulins guaranteed up to regulations! A hundred thousand kilos of bacon, cocoa powder, coffee-substitute – c.o.d, immediate delivery! Hand grenades, lathes, cartridge pouches, marriage bureaus for widows of the fallen, leather belts, jobbers for war orders – serious offers only! The cannon fodder loaded onto trains in August and September is moldering in the killing fields of Belgium, the Vosges, and Masurian Lakes where the profits are springing up like weeds. It’s a question of getting the harvest into the barn quickly. Across the ocean stretch thousands of greedy hands to snatch it up. Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries, deserts; populations are beggared; churches, horse stalls…There are food riots in Venice, in Lisbon, Moscow, Singapore. There is plague in Russia, and misery and despair everywhere…Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.

In capitalism, society destroys itself only to rebuild itself from the ruins and rebuilds itself only to court destruction again. That is the “barbarism” in which we live: all the power of human cooperation, creativity, and intelligence serves only to fuel an endless cycle of mass human sacrifice.

If capitalism cannot be overcome, then perhaps extinction would be a mercy. Yet no committed socialist could accept such cold comfort for long, for it is precisely the magnitude of the catastrophe that capitalism is that should give us hope for a future beyond it. The combined powers of the human species are massive enough not only to wreak ever-escalating havoc and destruction upon its members, but to survive and thrive in spite of this.

If those powers could be harnessed consciously, through the organized and concerted action of the majority, there can be no doubt that the humanity will finally step beyond the hideous spectacle of millennia of barbarism. Capitalism is not unique for its barbarism: it is unique in pointing the way forward, beyond barbarism, toward socialism, through which humanity will finally step beyond the blood-soaked realm of natural necessity and become more than animals—at once the most vicious predators and most pathetic prey—realizing at long last what it means to be human.

Yet if an ecological catastrophe is unavoidable, and the extinction of humanity is indeed on the horizon, this does not seem to justify the long, hard work of winning the majority of society to the political leadership of a revolutionary socialist party. Rather, it seems to justify the necessity of pressing the present ruling class for political reforms of capitalism out of an appeal to our common humanity. Given the present state of the socialist movement, the slogan “Socialism or Extinction” seems to imply the inevitability of extinction, or else the reversion from a revolutionary to a reformist road to socialism.

Socialism contra “productivism”?

Relatedly, some socialists argue that capitalism must be overthrown because it is based on indefinite production and accumulation, whereas we live on a planet with limited natural resources. The current ecological crisis is supposedly a manifestation of our overly ambitious mode of life. Yet capitalism is not based on the accumulation of physical “resources,” but rather of value. Value is quantified human activity, i.e. labor-time. So long as the human species continues to exist, the potential for productive human activity is infinite, not finite.

While this activity is necessarily mediated through physical means, it is by no means bounded by the physical limits of this planet. That said, we have barely even begun to scratch the surface of the resources this planet can provide. The problem with capitalism is not that labor is too productive but that it is nowhere near productive enough. Or to put it otherwise, the problem is that the infinite potential of human activity is reduced to mere “labor.”

There will be no end to capitalism that restricts its creative capacity. This is a conservative reaction against capitalism, rather than an effort to continue the social revolution beyond the limits of capitalism. Nature is no limit on capital; capital is its own and only limit. Yet capital is nothing but human freedom alienated from itself, and thus, is nature alienated from itself. Capital is a limit on the freedom of humanity to realize the full potential of nature that must be shattered.

Capitalism is unable to fully develop the productive capacities of humanity and to fully exploit the potential of the natural resources at our disposal. Socialism will realize that unfulfilled potential, not recoil from it into an even more limited, and hence even less sustainable, form of life.

The immediate goal of the socialist movement was, historically, to organize the working class to win political power. On that basis, society would democratically superintend the production process, using the accumulated capital of society not simply as a means of accumulating more capital, but as a means of transforming the social relations of labor—both the relations of production directly, and the whole ensemble of relations resting upon them. The goal would be to qualitatively change the character of work from “labor”—”only a means of life”—to free activity that is desirable for its own sake—”life’s prime want,” as Marx put it in his Critique of the Gotha Program. As Marx described it:

the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis.

The full implications of this change would extend far beyond what we can presently predict, as it would unlock creative potentials in the human species and in our scientific and technological development that have never had the opportunity to manifest themselves.

Capitalism is undoubtedly the most productive organization of social activity we have yet developed, yet it also arbitrarily limits that productivity. This limit is not quantitative, but it calls into question the qualitative standard by which a quantifiable measure is applied to human activity at all. Capital may well be infinitely productive, but it is only productive of capital itself, that is, accumulated dead labor.

Yet increasing productivity is meaningless if it is not an increase in human freedom. The accumulation of capital, in and of itself, only increases the freedom of humanity to accumulate capital. In other words, it is a narrowly limited development of freedom, the freedom of society to exploit the labor of its members. Labor is unfree activity. It is the subordination of the freedom of an individual to the will of another. Capitalism reduces to the freedom to sell your freedom to someone else, the freedom to subordinate yourself, the freedom to forsake freely determining your own activity: the freedom to sell your labor as a commodity. Wage slavery.

“Growth” in capitalism does not manifest in the increasing freedom of working people to determine their own lives and their own activity, but only the increasing capacity of society to exploit the labor of its members, to accumulate the products of labor as capital, and thereby to prevent the laborers themselves from realizing the value of their labor as a means to their own ends.

A socialist society would not suffer from a lack of incentives to motivate productive activity. Socialism, rather, represents the only real incentive beyond mere survival, the only thing that makes life worth living: the possibility of freely exploring and developing one’s own individual capacities and interests as well as those of nature and society. Capitalism is nothing but the thwarted potential for such freedom.

Capitalism is positive to the extent that it points toward this possibility. Every incentive in capitalism implicitly promises this possibility. Everything good about capitalism is only good because it is potentially a means to this end. Capitalism is nothing but the endless amassing of potential for human freedom that is never realized. It is human freedom that cannot realize itself, and hence, remains alienated from itself. But this alienation can be overcome. The masses can be led to recognize the potential for freedom this society suppresses, and lay claim to it. This is what socialist revolution would accomplish.

Reforms and Revolution

Ecological damage wrought by capitalist production may very well prove a fruitful point for agitation. We can of course raise demands for reform to address this damage, even without pursuing said reforms through collaboration with the political defenders of capitalism. For that matter, the kind of comprehensive transformation of the production process that will be required to overcome the ecological threat posed by fossil fuel powered industry already points to the necessity of social control of the production process, and hence, the expropriation of the capitalist class. The capitalist state already embodies this necessity, however reluctantly and incoherently.

The demands we raise are not in and of themselves socialist and could be implemented under capitalism. The question of politics is not simply “what should be done?” but “who is going to do it?” and “to what end?” Our goal is not to seek certain reforms by any means necessary, but by organizing society into a revolutionary force capable of winning political power. The demands we raise indicate what we will do immediately upon coming to power, and hence specify concretely why the masses should support and join us. The capitalist state may implement such reforms, but it will only do so belatedly and half-heartedly, and the administration of such measures will be marred by the same incompetence and corruption that characterizes capitalist class rule more generally.

Before we are capable of winning state power, we can raise these demands by organizing people in society to assert their power, all the while pointing out the limitations of such power so long as it does not mobilize the vast majority of the population. There are many forms such organization can take: unions, cooperatives, mutual aid programs, electoral campaigns, and other forms of activism are all examples, and not the only examples. None of these modes of organizing can itself accomplish the society-wide changes that require political power. Yet they can—and must—be used to justify and increase the perceived necessity of the latter. We must seek to lead struggles in society and use whatever limited achievements they can yield as means of organizing and educating the masses to the point that they can take political power into their own hands.

As socialists, we should not be following the lead of the Democratic Party. We should be seeking to win the masses away from them, away from the Republicans, and away from apathy and detachment, for a vision of a total transformation of society. And we should get there by showing the people the power of refusing to settle for whatever pittance they can get, and instead demanding everything and nothing less. We should say: the Democratic Party will never give you everything you need, everything you deserve. And we, the Socialist Party, can’t give you everything you deserve either. Only you can claim it for yourselves, and you can only do that if the masses organize themselves and take control of society. The Socialist Party is here to lead that effort.

That goes as much for the demand that industry be conducted in an ecologically responsible manner as for any other. Capitalists will likely begin to take a modicum of responsibility if we put the fear of revolution in them, but even then, they will not do so adequately, and they will not do all that is necessary. Only the masses will be able to do so, and that’s why we must help them develop into an organized force capable of leading society forward, beyond the self-contradictory impasse that is capitalism. Only when we win over the vast majority of the population to our cause will the socialist movement be capable of taking political power and thereby taking responsibility for society as a whole, including the ecological implications of the production process on which they depend.