Mészáros and the Emancipatory Transition: Beyond Capital in the Twenty-First Century


Part One

In his work Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014), Thomas Piketty contributes much to understanding the inequalities of income, inheritance, capital, and wealth generated by the capital system.

We are not likely to disagree with many of his insights based on his study of capital and wealth distribution.  Among these are the perceived threat of increasing inequalities caused by the capital system as well as the real shocks (to that system) caused by world wars; the growth of the propertied middle class in our time; the incapacity of political regimes to affect wealth distribution; the political secession of the largest fortunes (“[i]t seems . . . that Earth must be owned by Mars,” p. 465); the need for “confiscatory tax rates on incomes deemed to be indecent (and economically useless)” (p. 473); and the origin of the progressive income tax as a reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (p. 500).

Indeed, Piketty’s call for increasing taxes on capital and transparency in the books of corporations are 2 of the 9 demands that noted socialist economist Michael Lebowitz puts forward for us “around which to organize for human development while capital controls the existing government” (The Socialist Alternative, Monthly Review Press, 2010, pp. 164-165).

On the other hand, Piketty confines his search for solutions to working within the capital system.  Furthermore, as John Bellamy Foster and Michael D. Yates pointed out in their excellent critique of Piketty’s work (in the November 2014 issue of the Monthly Review magazine), Piketty “has no notion of capital as an exploitative social relationship” (p. 11), does not explicitly address “either the roots of [growing class inequality] or the question of growing class power” (p. 16), and does not take into account imperialism, class, race, gender, or global inequalities (pp. 20-21).  He does not address the question of inequality and power and therefore all of the useful insights only have value if they are taken beyond his work (p. 17).

It must also be pointed out that Foster and Yates correctly identify the roots of inequality in the private ownership and control of the means of production (and socially produced wealth).  This means “the great majority of the population is relegated to a position in which it has nothing to sell but its labor power: i.e., its capacity to work.  This sets up an extremely uneven power relationship . . . [where in the US] . . . four hundred people, the Forbes 400, own approximately as much wealth as the bottom half of the population, or something like 130 million adults . . . [and internationally] . . . the revenues of top 500 global corporations were [in 2008] equal to about 40 percent of world income. . .” (pp. 18-19).  This fracture between production and control affects all aspects of the system including production and consumption and production and circulation.

However, Piketty does offer us an important shared starting point to discuss steps toward the emancipatory transition when he says, “[P]rivate property and the market economy do not serve solely to ensure the domination of capital over those who have nothing to sell but their labor power.  They also play a useful role in coordinating the actions of millions of individuals, and it is not easy to do without them.  The human disasters caused by Soviet-style centralized planning illustrate this quite clearly” (pp. 531-532).

Part Two

Piketty’s critique of the Soviet Union’s central planning sets the table for the discussion of the emancipatory transition.  This is a meaningful starting point because it is now clear how limited the market economy and private property really are for “coordinating.”  We could likely agree that the market economy and private property did a better job “coordinating” the actions of millions of people than did the Soviet Union’s central plan.  The question remains: Does that mean we should be content with market economy and private property “coordination”?

And the answer is, of course not.  We can do better.  In fact, we have to do better or we will not survive.  It may be too late already.  For capital might succeed at coordinating the activity of millions (the 1%), but there are billions of people in the world.  And capital’s relations with nature are very problematical to say the least.

Capital has had its chance and has failed, especially over the last 100 years as we have lived under the nightmarish threats of capital-induced world wars, nuclear annihilation, and ecological ruin.  In addition, social antagonisms have overwhelmed capital’s coordinative capacity.  These antagonisms emerge at every level within the capital formation.  Capital has failed as a coordinator because it is too partialistic, too elitist, too exclusive, too narrow-minded.

The structural problem with capital is even worse than that, though.  No one — not even the personifications of capital (or the 1%, i.e., the top echelon of class societies) — really controls the system.  Rather it controls them.  This is why we will live in “the shadow of uncontrollability” (István Mészáros, in Part One of Beyond Capital, Monthly Review Press, 1995) as long as capital succeeds in imposing its alien and alienating separation of production and control over society at large.

This feature — uncontrollability resulting in limitless expansion beyond control — is unique in history and gave capital a powerful advantage in its reach beyond the feudal system.  As long as nature and alienated humanity could somehow absorb and withstand the negative destructive assaults of the system, capital could expand in its distorted ways.

However, when it reached the levels of violence and destruction demonstrated in the 20th century (world wars, ecological devastation, massive institutionalized wastefulness, etc.), capitalism could no longer maintain its unquestioned role as the primary mediator in the social metabolism.  Revolutions against capitalism occurred but were limited because they remained within the capital formation.

Capital has passed the absolute limits of nature.  Carbon levels in the atmosphere are at 400-plus ppm, although the maximum recognized as acceptable is 350 ppm.  Alienated humanity is becoming conscious of its own complicity in this and other crimes against nature and itself and is searching for alternatives to the capital system.

To solve these problems, our collective search must go to the heart of the capital system where the fracture of production and control occurs.  This fracture or separation must be healed.  This revolution means each of us taking control of our lives and lending a hand to the development of structures and institutions which build substantive equality, substantive democracy, self-management, community control and worker control at all levels of society and in the world.

How do we get there?

Part Three

István Mészáros is called “the pathfinder of 21 Century Socialism.”  He is the great Marxian philosopher of our time.  He always retains the long view or the epochal view of the struggle against capital without giving up revolutionary commitment.  He remains steady in the face of temporary setbacks, keeping focused on the goal of a better world.  His outlook is comprehensive in the tradition of Spinoza and Marx, in the sense of providing the oppressed and exploited with the intellectual resources necessary to throw off the chains.  Mészáros is the foremost contributor to showing us the way to the viable alternative beyond the destructive capital system.

Practice, of course, will produce clear features of the steps in the emancipatory transition.  Right now, however, we can see features of the transition.  To at once transcendent the inversions of capital domination and build the viable alternative to it, we need clear goals, clear targets, and proper tools.

Mészáros provides us with a way to begin the theoretical and practical advance in these matters and key steps through the thicket of bourgeois obstacles toward the emancipatory transition.

I. Goals: Features of the Positive Alternative:

The positive alternative . . . is provided by the orienting principles of the socialist communal . . . production and consumption system.  Quality-oriented regulation of the labor process by the associated producers . . . ; the institution of socialist accountancy and genuine planning from below . . . ; mediating the members of society through the planned exchange of activities . . . ; motivating the individual producers through a self-determined system of material and moral incentives . . . ; making meaningful and actually possible the voluntary assumption of responsibility . . . : these are the main operative principles of the socialist alternative.  The need for their implementation arises not from abstract theoretical considerations but from the deepening structural crisis of the global capital system.  (Beyond Capital, Preface, 1996, pp. xxv-xxvi)  [Note: each of these is compared to the respective features of the descending capital system.]

II. Target: Our target must be abolition of capital and its division of labor, not just capitalism.  To stay focused on this target over the long term and to advance the socialist movement into a “socialist offensive against capital” we must move to “the new form of self-activity and self-management” (Beyond Capital, p. 941).  Obviously, this means changing our political and social conditions from top to bottom and vertically as well as horizontally.  The movement of radical restructuring is primarily political/social and economic.  Changing the political/social relations will result in economic changes becoming possible.

III. The Proper Tool for transforming the entire system is Marxian philosophy.  Why?  Because, as Mészáros says, it “offers a framework for radical criticism aimed at a fundamental restructuring of society in its entirety” (Power of Ideology, first edition, NYU Press, 1989, p. 238).

IV. The Proper Tool to demystify capital’s usurpation.  We must recognize that class society is “soaked in ideology” and that ideological struggle is one of the ways that the various classes fight it out.  Ideology can be positive and emancipatory or negative and reactionary (as well as forms between these opposites).  Socialist ideology is vital to the emancipatory transition (Power of Ideology, p. 392).

This effort will require attention to a process of de-alienation and the emergence of emancipatory forms of self-mediation as individuals involved move steadily toward a larger critical mass in the world through structures and institutions that facilitate self-mediation by the social individuals.  As Mészáros says,

[I[deals themselves, even if they are genuinely socialist, are not enough on their own.  Vitally important though they are for determining the general orientation of social efforts, they require for their practical realization the objective power of specific institutions of self-realization.  The type of institution which is capable of fulfilling this task is one that functions on the basis of the reciprocal self-determination of the individuals involved. . . .  (Marx’s Theory of Alienation, 5th edition, Merlin Press, 2005, pp. 287-288)

What does “reciprocal self-determination” look like?  First, it is the opposite of the hierarchical capital formation which results in “the radical alienation of control from individuals” under capital domination.  Rather it focuses on the restitution of lost powers.  For example, our discussions and activities can be structured in a substantively equal way so that we can get beyond the egoism of capital’s hierarchical social relations in order to function as equals.  That is not very complicated as long as everyone does their best to prepare for and do the work required.  Also, conversely, no one person should take on the “expert” role and lord it over others.

This “reciprocal self-determination” can be exercised in all of our social relations in small steps and large steps.  This is the foundational change necessary to take more steps in the emancipatory transition.

To change the entire ensemble of social/political/economic relations, and not get trapped in partial microcosms, egalitarian structures and self-managing institutions need to retain an outward global focus during the emancipatory transition.

Irv Kurki is a working-class philosopher and coordinator of essential discussions.  The above is the text of a talk that Kurki gave at the Democracy Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 16 May 2015.