Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Seventh Installment

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom

Seventh Installment


“This is the permanent tension that lies at the heart of a capitalist democracy and is exacerbated in times of crisis. In order to ensure the survival of the richest, it is democracy that has to be heavily regulated rather than capitalism.”
― Tariq Ali,
The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad

This week we will dive into an examination of capitalism and the hegemony of its neoliberal version currently in place. Of necessity, this will have some challenges due to the nature of the material. At the same time, it is important to “push the envelope” a little by patiently working through what this is all about.

Capitalism and Freedom: The Commodification of Politics

As we near the end of the first twenty years of the twenty-first century it is clear that the human species is in crisis in nearly every sphere of existence. Ecological disaster looms and is ignored by those who are politically and economically powerful. Entire regions of the world are in social, economic and cultural collapse. We need look no further than the Middle East to see this in its most glaring forms, but Northern, Western, and Sub-Saharan Africa are likewise in dire straits, whether trapped in civil war or major health crisis like the recent Ebola epidemics. Various societies have become morally ossified and millions of people live in poverty, despair and chaos.

At the same time the ‘advanced’ economies of Europe and North America rumble and stumble from one moral, social and economic pathological situation to another, showing the weakness and innate contradictions that create a reality best described as the endless crisis. Meanwhile, living in a separate reality, the one-percent relish their lavish and hedonistic existence as proof that the neoliberal policies they are based on (and rely on) is the only ‘truth’ of humanity. This perspective creates an ideology where they believe they are humanities’ “highest expression “. We could go on with more examples and manifestations, but the point is made – global capitalism has brought us to the brink of existential disaster on several fronts.

So, to begin, let’s discuss capitalism. What is capitalism? Here is one concise definition:

Capitalism is defined as a system wherein all of the means of production (physical capital) are privately owned and run by the capitalist class for a profit, while most other people are workers who work for a salary or wage (and who do not own the capital or the product). [1]

The social reality of “capital,” that is a stock of goods or wealth, has been in existence longer than “capitalism.” In earlier economic systems, such as those characterized by slavery or feudalism, mercantilism, renting of land, lending of money, and even small-scale manufacturing where labor was paid a wage existed. However, these activities were not the major or dominant form of economic activity. Most historians date the beginning of capitalism as we talk about it from the 16th century with the evolution of merchants and craftsmen in workshops in the rise of cities[2]. Many of these forms of activity came when the Moors conquered parts of Europe and stemmed from policies based on Islam[3].

Capitalism, in the first place, establishes private property as the basis of the means of production of all of society. Private property existed prior to capitalism, but as exactly that, something private. In a capitalist mode of production all the core and basic social needs are fulfilled by a relationship with property that is controlled by a class which is a minority of the population, who dictate how resources will be appropriated and how these social needs will be produced and distributed. This leads to the another feature of capitalism, which is that, in order to obtain their wants and needs, the vast majority of the populace, who no longer share in the communal ownership of resources, must now sell their labor power in exchange for wages in order to purchase these wants and needs, that is, they must “go to market” to sell their labor and purchase the satisfaction of their needs.  People are now “free” from feudal, tribal and slave relationships, but they are literally disengaged from the ability to satisfy their needs, except by selling their labor-power in a labor market. In other words, their ability to satisfy their wants and needs is now dependent on their selling their time and energy as a commodity in order to gain wages to buy their needs, which are also commodities. At the same time, capital, as both an economic category and a social relation, has an inherent drive to amass itself for both wealth and power, that is, capital demands its accumulation in order to further its systemic and social control.

The drive for accumulation of capital becomes a multifaceted feature of capitalism, with the further and further reduction of all aspects of life into commodities for consumption and the corresponding accumulation of wealth (and power) into the hands of fewer and fewer members of society. The creation of this economic elite transforms into a political elite that then controls, through various historical permutations, the state, but even more importantly the accumulated social wealth, in all its various aspects (cultural, intellectual, philosophical, educational, etc.) of the overall society. At the same time, the insatiable need for the expansion of capitalist markets and spheres of influence drives it out of these local, regional and national boundaries to attempt to impose its social characteristics on all the world. Nationalism, imperialism and colonialism are all co-created in this expansionistic quest to sell (and produce) commodities everywhere, because the expansion of capital both creates an expansion of its markets and a continuing amassing of wealth in the new nations and territories which it conquers.

All these cultural and social aspects serve one ultimate purpose in capitalist economies, whether considered on a local, national, regional, or global scale. Capital has an incessant and unending drive to concentrate and amass greater and greater amounts of wealth and power in the control of fewer and fewer hands. The accumulation of capital takes place in various ways, from the primitive accumulation to the ‘accumulation by dispossession’ brilliantly elaborated by Harvey.[4] Colonialism and imperialism, as well as modern globalization, are all expressions of this unrelenting aspect of capital. The expropriation of these distant lands was also an expropriation of its inhabitants.  Capitalist ideology contains an inherently insidious view of nature and natural resources.  It views them as free for the taking. Minerals, forests, land, water, spaces, territories, indeed, entire continents, were viewed as being free for the taking. Peoples and populations who inhabited these spaces were viewed as either “primitive,” that is, animal like, or “exotic,” that is, romanticized.  Either way, they were fair game to be subjugated (if not simply annihilated) to the needs of the expanding culturally, economically, technologically, and politically more powerful colonial power, in order to be brought into its “empire.” That this was done with brutality, savagery and inhuman force was covered by various ideological rationalizations, from Christian missionary zeal to claims of ‘modernization’ for ‘backward’ nations and peoples. How this has all played out is the history of the last four-hundred and fifty years. Along the way, various characterizations of “self” and “other” have been socially constructed to differentiate the “us” from “them” and justify all manner of (in)human conduct, environmental destruction, cultural annihilation, social policy and political activity.

Next week we will take on neoliberalism and the devastating impact that the implementation of it has had on the world’s economy, politics, environment and human dignity.

[1]Zimbalist, Sherman and Brown, Andrew, Howard J. and Stuart (October 1988). Comparing Economic Systems: A Political-Economic Approach. Harcourt College Pub. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-0-15-512403-5...

[2] Wallerstein, I. (2011). Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press.

[3] Koehler, Benedikt. Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism (Lexington Books, 2014).

[4] Harvey, D. (2010). A companion to Marx’s Capital. London, UK. Verso. pp. 302-313

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