“The Death of Social Democracy in the Age of Global Monopoly-Finance Capital”: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster

Tassos Tsakiroglou: How urgent do you consider the necessity to develop an understanding of the interconnections between the deepening impasse of the capitalist economy and the rapidly accelerating ecological threat?

John Bellamy Foster: The urgency of understanding the interconnections between the economic impassse and the ecological emergency derives from the combined threats they pose to the material conditions of the world’s population and to humanity’s long-term survival.  On the surface they may appear to represent discrete, even diametrically opposed, problems.  Their real interconnection is apparent only when we penetrate to the level of production and come to see them as rooted in the very process of capital accumulation.  Today there is no exit from the economic and the ecological crises that beset us that does not require exiting capitalism itself.

You make a distinction between the present “epochal crisis” and “ordinary developmental crises.”  What’s exactly the difference?

Periodic economic crises of the kind associated with the business cycle are an inherent feature of the capital accumulation process.  Monopoly capitalism is also subject to a tendency to stagnation or long-term slowdowns in the trend rate of growth.  Slow growth is now the norm in mature captitalism — partly counteracted by the financialization of the economy, which of course carries its own inherent dangers.  Together these phenomena encompass what we can call economic or “developmental” crises.

But we can also talk about the emergence at certain transitional periods of human history of the phenomenon of “epochal crisis” in the sense of a structural crisis of an entire mode of production, where the system comes up against its own abolute limits: internal and external.  Such an epochal crisis is visible in the undermining of all material conditions: economic and ecological.  Today the planetary environmental emergency is so immense that the scientific consensus tells us that the long-term survival of humanity is in question; while at the same time we are confronted with economic stagnation and financialization.  Together these conditions represent the crisis of an entire epoch of human history.

During the crisis, dominant media and communication industry play a decisive role in maintaining the social order, in  justifying the austerity programs and in defaming struggles of political resistance.  Is there any alternative?

Aside from the pervasive ideological reality of capitalism whereby the class which owns the means of material production also generally owns the means of mental production (i.e. communications) — as Marx and Engels put it in The German Ideology — there are media problems that are specific to our time.  Both the traditional mass media and professional journalism are being rapidly dismantled by the Internet, which is itself becoming monopolized at the speed of light.  This means, as Robert McChesney argues in the forthcoming February issue of Monthly Review, we must: (1) view the new Internet monopolies as forms of monopoly capital and oppose their very basis of existence; and (2) treat journalism as a public good that needs public subsidies if a democratic climate is to be ensured.  And this would be only the beginning of a media revolt.  As argued in the July-August 2013 issue of Monthly Review the left vitally needs to revive its larger critique of the cultural apparatus that briefly arose in the early 1960s (rooted in the earlier ideas of Bertolt Brecht) but was later forgotten.

Here in Greece we have a wave of revelations about corruption concerning  millions of euros coming from briberies from military supplies.  One of the ex ministers is already in jail.  What’s the social cost of military spending?

The social cost of the capitalist military is as great as the cost of the capitalist mode of production itself: the inequality, exploitation, waste, destruction, pervasive corruption, and class surveillance of our societies — the lost human lives and creativity.  The military is used to keep the imperialist world economy intact — to stave off change, and to ensure repression.  Opposition to militarism and imperialism is therefore the first requirement of a global resistance movement.

Where does the current crisis of capitalism leave social democracy, given the dominance of neoliberalism and the destruction of the Welfare State?

Neoliberalism stands for the death of social democracy in the age of global monopoly-finance capital.  Social democracy was supposed to be “capitalism with a human face.”  Very little room remains in the system for even the pretense of this.  The danger of the left focusing its critque on neoliberalism rather than capitalism iself is that this often conceals a naïve wish to restore social democracy rather than recognizing present realities and the fact that any forward movement requires genuine socialism as its object.  That doesn’t mean that we should stop fighting for reforms but nowadays they have to be connected to strategies for fundamental social transformation.  There is no middle ground or Third Way.

You have said that “[i]n the context of the present structural crisis there is strong evidence of an emerging revival of Marxist analysis.”  How do you expain this?

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that “an anti-Marxist argument is only the apparent rejuvenation of a pre-Marxist idea.”  What he meant was that it was impossible to trancend historical materialism in any forward-moving struggle, since it stood for the revolutionary human movement of the oppressed themselves.  The revival of Marxian analysis is an inevitable product of the return of history: of the collective struggle not just to understand the world but to changeit.

John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review and professor of sociology at the University of Oregon.  His latest book, written with Robert W. McChesney, is The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Creates Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).  A new edition of his book The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism will be published in April 2014.  Tassos Tsakiroglou is political editor of the Athens-based Journal of Editors (Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών/Εfimerida ton Syntakton).  Follow Tsakiroglou on Twitter @ttsakir.  The original interview in Greek may be read at <www.efsyn.gr/?p=165468>.