Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Industrial Feudalism

It is many times argued, though admittedly less now during the global economic crisis, that global capitalism has improved life for everyone and has furthered freedom, democracy and human rights. As is often the case, it is of great value to investigate such doctrinal claims and, as is also often the case, when such an investigation is undertaken, it is soon found that reality is the direct opposite of the specific doctrinal dogma.

Let’s first examine the claim that global capitalism has improved everyone’s life for the better. Setting aside the factual basis of this claim, let’s assume it is true, is the fact that a specific system improves welfare an argument in its favor? As Noam Chomsky observes: “No…there were rising standards of living in slave societies. Slaves were better off in the early nineteenth century than the early eighteenth century. Is that an argument for slavery? It’s a terrible argument.”

The mere fact that life has improved within the confines of a capitalist system is not intrinsically an argument in favor of that system, just as the fact that life having improved within the institution of slavery was still not an argument in favor of slavery. Chomsky notes that the same argument would hold for Stalinism: economic conditions in the Soviet Union improved under Stalinism, but that's still not an argument in favor of Stalinism.

Having easily discarded the notion that capitalism is just simply because society has improved over the last several decades, let’s return to the initial presupposition: that capitalism is improving living standards for everyone. Has capitalism made life better for most people?
The populations of early Britain, Chile, Colombia, Haiti, Indonesia and various other nations which were forced – by dictators such as Pinochet and Suharto and capitalist "reform" enforcing organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization – to suffer under neoliberal economic policies – essentially “free-market” dogmas, although free-trade never entered into the picture in any meaningful sense - may have something to say about the effects of capitalism and neoliberal economic reform and their relation to the improvement of life.

Let’s take only the example of Colombia. Noam Chomsky writes of the populations resistance to the neoliberal capitalist reforms being forced upon the population against its will:

“In Colombia, however, the military armed and trained by the United States has not crushed domestic resistance, though it continues to produce its regular annual toll of atrocities. Each year, some 300,000 new refugees are driven from their homes, with a death toll of about 3,000 and many horrible massacres. The great majority of atrocities are attributed to paramilitary forces. These are closely linked to the military, as documented in considerable and shocking detail once again in February 2000 by Human Rights Watch, and in April 2000 by a UN study which reported that the Colombian security forces that are to be greatly strengthened by the Colombia Plan maintain an intimate relationship with death squads, organize paramilitary forces, and either participate in their massacres directly or, by failing to take action, have ‘undoubtedly enabled the paramilitary groups to achieve their exterminating objectives.’ In more muted terms, the State Department confirms the general picture in its annual human rights reports, again in the report covering 1999, which concludes that ‘security forces actively collaborated with members of paramilitary groups’ while ‘government forces continued to commit numerous, serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings, at a level that was roughly similar to that of 1998,’ when the report attributed about 80 percent of attributable atrocities to the military and paramilitaries. The picture is confirmed as well by the Colombian Office of UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson. Its director, a respected Swedish diplomat, assigns the responsibility for “the magnitude and complexity of the paramilitary phenomenon” to the Colombian government, hence indirectly to its US sponsor.”

Chomsky goes on to observe that “deplorable socioeconomic conditions persist, leaving much of the population in misery in a rich country with concentration of wealth and land-ownership that is high even by the shameful standards of Latin America generally. The situation became worse in the 1990s as a result of the ‘neoliberal reforms’ formalized in the 1991 constitution, which reduced still further “the effective participation of civil society” in policy formation by ‘reforms intended to enhance executive power and reduce the autonomy of the judicial and legislative branches, and by concentrating macroeconomic planning in the hands of a smaller circle of technocrats’—in effect, adjuncts of Washington. The ‘neoliberal reforms have also given rise to alarming levels of poverty and inequality; approximately 55 percent of Colombia’s population lives below the poverty level’ and ‘this situation has been aggravated by an acute crisis in agriculture, itself a result of the neoliberal program,’ as in Latin America generally.
Chomsky is quoting Arlene Tickner, general coordinator of the Center for International Studies at the University of the Andes, Bogota.

The illustrative example of Colombia generalizes around the world, everywhere such capitalist measures are implemented and enforced, predominately against the will of the population and with violence to quell any resistance by said population, poverty increases, democracy is subverted, freedoms are restricted, violent anti-union campaigns are fought and so on.

So, capitalism improving standards of living is not alone an argument in favor of capitalism and, furthermore, the presupposition that capitalism inculcates improved standards of living, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights is fallacious in the first place.

Apologists for corporate state-capitalism like to point out how modern corporations are trying to incorporate benefits and bonuses for their workers, as though this justified the existence of inorganic entities defined by corporate lawyers egregiously misusing the fourteenth amendment to define corporations as persons with the rights of such, but without the social responsibility of persons.

But the ultimate question is not one of simply improving already poor conditions, but of freedom, democracy and human rights.

It must go unnoticed by most people – especially the previously mentioned apologists – that corporations are in essence totalitarian. They are structured hierarchically with dictates flowing from the top on down and those on the bottom – labor – have essentially no input into the functioning and managing of the corporation: that is what totalitarianism is.

With some perverted form of representative democracy in the political arena, most people seem to fail to notice that within the realm of economic life, they are essentially voiceless and dominated by the interests of unaccountable tyrannies: corporations, conglomerates and so on, which just dominate the political and economic realm.

The problem of industrial feudalism is not only one of standards of living – which are violently denigrated within capitalist systems, even more so the “freer” the market is – but of freedom and democracy. Should people, the ordinary population, workers and so on have the ability to democratically run industry and the economy? Or should private, unaccountable tyrannies be allowed to continue to dominate in a totalitarian fashion?

Apologists would at this point argue that it is less efficient to allow democratic control over industry, therefore justifying corporate domination. To again quote Chomsky:

“So if you care about what is actually happening, the economy is moving towards totalitarian control, or mercantilistic control, and the claim is, as it has been since the late 19th Century, there is no alternative. And in a sense there isn’t, if the only alternative is markets, which are too destructive, so you have to have administration [a mixture of corporation and government control, with corporations having the advantage]. But then there’s the obvious question: why does the administration have to be totalitarian? You could say the same ting about governmental structures. In some respects they may be more efficient when they have totalitarian features, but that’s not an argument for them.”

A viable alternative would be the open and democratic administration of the economy by the workers and the population generally through workers’ councils, service collectives and community cooperatives. As John Dewey once phrased it: “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” It’s long overdue to cast some light on this shadow and do away with it's source once and for all.


melloncollie said...

Really great work, JDHURF. I like the point you and Chomsky made about how you can't argue that slavery is a good system just because later generations of slaves had better lives than previous ones.

Your whole essay here is erudite and concise. I agree that industrial feudalism is totalitarianism. As always, you make a good case for rule of the people by the people.

JDHURF said...

Thanks for the kind words melloncollie.

Econdemocracy said...

Your essay is excellent, but one comment I'd like to add re: "most people seem to fail to notice that within the realm of economic life, they are essentially voiceless" People usually reply that they do have choices,like where to shop, or that they can voice their views with their dollars. One pre-emptive rebuttal I wish you had included in your essay (I'm sure you're aware of it just wish you directly said it in this paragraph) is that such consumer choices are not only much weaker than the votes of concentrated money/power, but are deeply anti-democratic. Actual democracy is "one person, one vote" and not "one dollar, one vote" which lets a billionaire have not twice or three times or 10 times but thousands of times more say than you or I. (I hope you saw my previous post about our website economicdemocracy dott org, I don't see it posted yet) In solidarity.

JDHURF said...

Thank you for the kind words and the qualified response to the innate and fallacious concept of “market democracy” whereby consumers practice democracy by making consumer decisions. You correctly observe that this picture misses the fact that capital by definition creates vast inequality in the market place and thereby renders democracy therein obsolete.

Thanks for the link to your website, it looks fantastic, great site (I’ll add it to my links). I haven’t seen the other post you mentioned, something must have happened to it because there are no restrictions to posting here, it’s absolutely free and open, I don’t even have to review posts and accept them: a post simply appears the moment someone posts it, so I don’t know what happened to your other post.

Anonymous said...

Capitalism has "improved" plight of masses by replacing a clay soup bowl with plastic soup bowl, lather one lasts bit longer ,thus the "owner "
of this later capitalist invention is around bit longer to keep FEUDAL CAPITALISM ALIVE by financing it's rescue every 25+ years.
That event going on now before our own eyes (for those willing to admit).