See Part 1: Turning Point in U.S. History
Can Anti-Racist Movements Help Elicit an Alternative to Capitalism?
The people see the punishment, but it does not see the crime, and because it sees punishment where there is no crime, it will see no crime where there is punishment.—Karl Marx, “Debates on Thefts of Wood”
Given today’s events, we can expect a further growth of interest in socialism—indeed, it has been happening since the Great Recession of 2008. The combined impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the response to police killings has so highlighted the bankruptcy of capitalism that the quest for a socialist alternative is bound to reach new levels.
However, we have a problem: Socialism is largely understood today as the “fair” redistribution of surplus value and profit. This is to be expected, given today’s unparalleled levels of social and economic inequality. However, while calls for redistributing wealth can be helpful in mobilizing opposition to capitalism, they are inherently self-defeating since they leave untouched the social, class, and human relations that define the capitalist mode of production and reproduction. Redistributing surplus value assumes the continued existence of value production—a system based on augmenting wealth in monetary form as an end in itself. After all, one cannot redistribute what does not exist. Such a standpoint defines the new society by the principles of the old one. It is impossible to develop a viable alternative to capitalism on this basis.
To obtain perspective on this problem, let’s turn to history. Massive socialist movements emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, and a number of them came to power in the twentieth century. Virtually all of them defined capitalism as an anarchic market economy based on private property, and socialism as a planned economy based on nationalized or socialized property. This was quite understandable, since prior to the 1930s capitalism was a highly anarchic, unplanned, and competitive system.
But what happened when a new global stage of capitalism emerged in the 1930s—state-capitalism? It took the form of Stalinism in the USSR, Nazism in Germany, and FDR’s New Deal in the U.S. We know what happened when it came to Stalinism: those who defined the new society as a planned economy based on nationalized property embraced so-called “socialism” in the USSR (and later Mao’s China) even as democracy was negated in favor of a totalitarian single party state. Not all who supported such regimes were bad people: some were serious revolutionaries. But they suffered from a narrow understanding of capitalism and socialism which led them astray. However, we also have to pay attention to what happened to the “democratic socialists” who also believed that socialism is defined by social planning and socialized property. They too capitulated to the new stage of state-capitalism by endorsing FDR’s New Deal and the Keynesian welfare state whose aim was save capitalism. By no accident, many of these Social Democrats also ended up supporting U.S. imperialism.
By the end of twentieth century, when the bottom fell out from the Keynesian welfare state and “Soviet-type” societies, virtually all of them—democratic socialists and Stalinists alike—had capitulated to existing capitalist society. So extensive was this that the “death of Marxism” was proclaimed around the world (often by its former adherents).
A defective understanding of capitalism and socialism becomes deadly, especially when a turning point is reached with the rise of a new stage of capitalism.
What does this tell us? A defective understanding of capitalism and socialism becomes deadly, especially when a turning point is reached with the rise of a new stage of capitalism.
But what about the movements of the 1960s? They too were massive and spontaneous, and many in them embraced socialism by the 1970s. But did a conception of socialism arise that broke with the narrow Social Democratic and Marxist-Leninist idea that socialism equals nationalized property? Sadly, it did not. One part of the New Left gravitated back to Social Democracy, while another took the plunge into one or another form of “Marxist-Leninism” centered on building “a vanguard party to lead.” No fundamental rethinking of the meaning of socialism emerged from either one. That was true of even the most revolutionary dimensions of the 1960s. Few were more revolutionary than the Black Panthers, whose militancy and revolutionary propagation of mutual aid inspired an entire generation; yet while they initially embraced a series of independent radical perspectives, most of its members ended up embracing Maoism—just in time for Mao to betray the Black struggle by rolling out the red carpet for Nixon.
Unlike the 1930s, which gave us state-capitalism, or even the 1970s, when it slightly mutated into what many call neoliberalism, today we are not facing a new stage of capitalism. We are instead facing the decay of capitalism, which can no longer fulfil its mission of revolutionizing the means of production and providing a better life for masses of people. A decaying economic system spews forth a decaying political superstructure, personified in such despicable characters as Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Netanyahu, Orban, Erdogan, and Putin. All they have to offer is egotistical self-aggrandizement run amok.
These personifications of capital (Trump included) have however done us a big favor: they allow everyone to finally see what capitalism is really made of. There is no going back to the “third way” of the Blairs and Clintons who painted our exploitation in pretty colors. The only way is to move forward, by developing a new concept of socialism that is adequate for our life and times.
But there is no assurance we will get there, since today most people continue to define socialism as the redistribution of value—which is based on the old notion that capitalism is defined by market anarchy, and socialism by social planning. So, what we can we do to move the discussion of a genuine alternative to capitalism forward?
I wish to pursue this by exploring whether the anti-racist struggles and movement for Black lives provide a basis for reconceptualizing socialism beyond the limits of redistribution.
We have heard it said many times in the past weeks that people of color have been excluded from the social contract. But what does this mean? In capitalism wage labor takes the form of appearance of a contract. Workers agree to sell their labor power to capitalists, who agree to pay them a wage. Mutual recognition takes place insofar as each agrees to acknowledge (at least formally) the claims of the other. But recognition on the level of wage labor is limited and superficial, since the capitalists extend recognition to the workers only insofar as they provide them with surplus value, while the workers extend recognition to the capitalists only insofar as they continue to employ them. Recognition is therefore purely juridical—but it does take place.
But what happens when race enters the picture? To make contract with someone, you have to acknowledge, at least on some level, that they are a person. But what happens when whites “see” Blacks not as persons but as things? This is of course the essence of racism. When the person is Black there is no recognition even on the juridical level. Their personhood, their humanity, is not seen at all. This is what makes it so easy for racist police to kill with abandon.
Since humanity is comprised of social beings, and society is a product of the social contract, those outside the contract are viewed as not truly human. As Frantz Fanon argued, the very being of Blacks becomes problematic in a racialized society.This barrier to formal, juridical recognition is very painful. But there is a positive in this negative. Since victims of racism have weaker ties to juridical relations, their revolt has the potential to go beyond calls for a “fairer” distribution of the products of labor by questioning the dehumanized character of social life itself.
In a psychiatric paper that has recently become available, Fanon notes that since Blacks are excluded from the social contract they often refrain from cooperating with the police and other authorities. Cooperation depends on a contractual relation—which is absent for people of color. He writes, when “I confess as a citizen I validate the social contract.” But if society does not view you as a person you have no stake in the contract: “There can be no reintegration if there has been no integration.” Hence, anti-racist revolts challenge the very basis of existing society.
However, it is always possible to reduce the struggle for recognition to a plea for acceptance by the forces of existing society. Such pursuits are fruitless, since capitalism acknowledges people only insofar as they are embodiments of economic categories—insofar as they are viewed as things…which is the very basis of racism to begin with! We need a revolution precisely because our humanity cannot and will not be recognized in capitalism. But what kind of revolution? And what kind of socialism?
Surely not one that treats race and gender as secondary to class. All workers have ethnic, racial and gendered attributes. Advocates of a “class first” position tend to abstract from all this. Ironically, this is exactly how “the worker” appears from the standpoint of capital: as a mere bearer of labor power, the expenditure of undifferentiated labor in the abstract. Viewing people abstracted from the life-world of their lived experience may be adequate from the standpoint of capital, but it is completely inadequate for those trying to become free from capital’s dominance.
Likewise, a “revolution” limited either to a social-democratic program of income redistribution or a centralized state plan fails to address the real aim of the class struggle—the abolition of abstract or alienated labor, which to Marx, is the substance of value. In contrast, as Fanon put in in another paper, “Labor must be recovered as the humanization of man. Man, when he throws himself into work, fecundates nature, but he fecundates himself also.”
In sum, uprooting capitalism as well as racial and gendered oppression can only be achieved by multiple forces of liberation that seek not mere juridical acknowledgment of their suffering but a revolutionary transformation of the very fabric of human relations. I believe the objective conditions for achieving this are being generated today by the logic of capital.
Capitalism is internally driven to augment value by reducing the relative proportion of living labor to dead labor at the point of production. Relatively fewer workers become employed in productive labor (or labor that produces surplus value), while the number of unemployed and underemployed grows. However, the working class as a whole actually increases in size as fewer are employed at the point of production, since expanded reproduction depends not just on the production of surplus value on also its realization. A host of new occupations open up to ensure the latter (information technology, service work, etc.). Contrary to the claims made by some, the working class is larger today than ever before—over 3.5 billion people. A worker is defined as someone who does not own the means of production and does not play a supervisory role for those who do. However, because of the extremely high organic composition of capital that defines contemporary capitalism, today’s concentration and centralization of capital tends to produce not a compact and unified working class but rather a highly differentiated and variegated one employed in multiple arenas.
As living labor becomes detached from the direct process of production and becomes more precarious, workers’ connection to the contractual form of appearance of wage labor becomes increasingly tenuous. Workers entering the labor market today can expect to change jobs half a dozen times during their lives. As a result of their more precarious existence, workers tend to no longer obtain even the pretense of recognition from the personifications of capital, since they are increasingly displaced from having a direct connection to them. The struggle for recognition seems to hit a dead end…and yet every human being does want to be recognized. So, what then?
As capitalism deprives recognition to those who once received it on a minimal level, some become moved to identify with those to whom recognition has always been denied on any level. Battles over of race, gender, and sexuality increasingly serve as the catalyst for bringing a differentiated and dispersed working class onto the streets. We may be witnessing something like this today, with the possible emergence of a multiracial working-class movement.
The Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that life is fragile, precious, and short. It is above all finite. We have no choice but to manage as well we can our finite time. Let’s engage in pursuits, projects, and debates that develop an alternative to capitalism. That choice is one of life versus death.
 Frantz Fanon, “Conducts of Confession in North Africa (I),” in Alienation and Freedom (London: Bloomsbury 2018), p. 415.
Alienation and Freedom, p. 412.
 Fanon, “The Meeting Between Society and Psychiatry,” in Alienation and Freedom, p. 530.