Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing Part 3 Immiserization
Introduction see Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing
From Part 2: Marx's political realism. Marx and Engels's wholesale condemnation of all previous socialism as utopian fantasy is the fundamental innovation of their own work. It is the basis of their claim to be taken seriously, not merely by Hoffmanesque daydreamers, but by men of practical judgment and shrewd common sense. To fail to make this distinction, or to fail to stay on the right side of this distinction once it has been made, is to cease to be a Marxist and to fall back into mere Traumerei.
This demarcation line arose because Marx believed that he had grasped something that no previous utopian socialist had even suspected. He believed that he had shown that socialism was inevitable and that it would come about through certain ironclad laws of history, laws that Marx believed were revealed through the study of the very nature of capitalism. Socialism, in short, would not come about because a handful of daydreamers had wished for it, or because pious moralists had urged it, but because the unavoidable breakdown of the capitalist system would force the turn to socialism upon those societies that, prior to this breakdown, had been organized along capitalist lines.
Schematically the scenario went something like this:
The capitalists would begin to suffer from a falling rate of profit.
The workers would therefore be "immiserized"; they would become poorer as the capitalists struggled to keep their own heads above water.
The poverty of the workers would drive them to overthrow the capitalist system, their poverty, not their ideals.
What is interesting here is that, once you accept the initial premise about the falling rate of profit, the rest does indeed follow realistically. Now, this does not mean that it follows necessarily or according to an ironclad scientific law; but it certainly conveys what any reasonable person would take as the most probable outcome of a hypothetical failure of capitalism.
For Marx it is absolutely essential that revolutionary activities be justifiable on realistic premises. If they cannot be, then they are actions that cannot possibly have a real political objective, and therefore, their only value can be the private emotional or spiritual satisfaction of the people carrying out this pseudo-political action.
So in order for revolutionary activity to have a chance of succeeding, there is an unavoidable precondition: The workers must have become much poorer over time. Furthermore, there had to be not merely an increase of poverty, but a conviction on the part of the workers that their material circumstances would only get worse, and not better, and this would require genuine misery.
This is the immiserization thesis of Marx. And it is central to revolutionary Marxism, since if capitalism produces no widespread misery, then it also produces no fatal internal contradiction: If everyone is getting better off through capitalism, who will dream of struggling to overthrow it? Only genuine misery on the part of the workers would be sufficient to overturn the whole apparatus of the capitalist state, simply because, as Marx insisted, the capitalist class could not be realistically expected to relinquish control of the state apparatus and, with it, the monopoly of force. In this, Marx was absolutely correct.
No capitalist society has ever willingly liquidated itself, and it is utopian to think that any ever will. Therefore, in order to achieve the goal of socialism, nothing short of a complete revolution would do; and this means, in point of fact, a full-fledged civil war not just within one society, but across the globe. Without this catastrophic upheaval, capitalism would remain completely in control of the social order and all socialist schemes would be reduced to pipe dreams.
The immiserization thesis, therefore, is critical to Marx, for without it there would be no objective conditions in response to which workers might be driven to overthrow the capitalist system. If the workers were becoming better off with time, then why jump into an utterly untested and highly speculative economic scheme? Especially when even socialists themselves were bitterly divided over what such a scheme would be like in actual practice. Indeed, Marx never committed himself to offering a single suggestion about how socialism would actually function in the real world. Go to Part 4: Immiserization goes global.
- Introduction: The Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing
- The Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing
- Part 2: Marx's political realism
- Part 3: Immiserization
- Part 4: Immiserization goes global
- Part 5: America as "root cause"
- Part 6: 9-11 calling
- Part 7: The temptation of fantasy ideology
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