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This diary series is a slightly edited version of Contradictions of Capitalism, a book that I wrote in the early 90's which is still available now on Amazon. I have updated some parts of it to reflect the very important changes in the corporate economy since the mid-1990s with the appearance of a global economy rather than a national, which has important effects which much of the socialist movement has still not fully grasped.

Previous entries in this series can be found here:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:
Part Four:
Part Five:
Part Six:
Part Seven:
Part Eight:
Part Nine:
Part Ten:

ELEVEN: Capitalism and Hegemony

The point of view which we have examined so far, which focuses largely on the economic structures of capitalism and imperialism, is the point of view taken by most Leninists. Though the traditional Leninists may disagree on the conclusions to be reached through such an analysis, they accept the basic principle that the economic structures of a society determine the basic dynamics and development of that society.

This Leninist view of Marxian theory is however, incomplete, and cannot describe the capitalist mode of production as a whole. It is incapable of explaining or allowing us to understand the non-economic factors which are an important part of bourgeois reproduction. Leninist theory does not address the process under capitalism of reproducing and fulfilling the various non-economic human needs such as creativity, self-fulfillment and human relationships. When it does treat these things, it treats them as mere commodity relationships which are exploited by the capitalists in order to sell more products.

Leninists ignore the fact that the conflict between the worker and the capitalist is not merely economic, not merely a matter of haggling over wages, profits and surplus value. It is a social conflict as well, with the workers actively fighting for such non-economic goals as creativity, self-expression, enjoyment and decision-making ability.

Traditional Leninism, finally, ignores such non-economic forms of oppression as racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism and authoritarianism. Such very real forces, when they are examined at all, are treated by Leninists as simply a “sub-species” of the economic relationships between capitalists and workers.

These limitations in the Leninist outlook are caused by its tendency to view a social mode of production in strictly economic terms, as merely a method by which the necessaries of life are produced and distributed. But, in order to exist, any social mode of production must be capable of reproducing, not only the physical means of existence, but also all of the various social frameworks which make up human society. All modes of production must determine, not only how the needs of life are produced (economics) but also how different members of society relate to each other and to other societies (race, sexual roles, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc.) and the form of the power and authority structures which hold the social framework together (law, police, state, education, etc.). Taken together, all of these various social constructions make up the total mode of production, and determine how any society is able to relate to itself and to its surroundings—how it is able to reproduce its existence.

There is a tendency among critics of existing society to look at these social structures as if one of these social processes were “primary” and the rest were mere reflections of this. Radical feminists, for instance, view all of human history as a function of the relationships between genders, and thus use “sexism” as a lens through which to view human society. Anarchists see society in terms of power and control, and thus focus their views on the relationships of authority in human societies. African-American, Latino, Native American and other racial or national activists view society in terms of differing ethnic entities, and thus view human development in terms of racial and national relationships.

Traditional Leninists focus on the economic sphere, and view societal development as a function of the interactions of economic classes. Among most Marxists, this point of view is set out in the so-called “base-superstructure” paradigm, which asserts that economic relationships are the “base” from which society springs, and all other relationships (racial, sexual, national) are merely a “superstructure” which is built upon this base in order to preserve and protect it.

Each of these particular outlooks is incomplete and misleading. In a real functioning society of human beings, each of these “sub-systems” interpenetrates with the others, making the dividing lines between them hazy and indistinct. In South Africa, for instance, the social need to institutionalize the apartheid system of racism led to efforts to limit Blacks to certain jobs, to limit their educational opportunities and to limit the amount of income they control. In Northern Ireland, anti-Catholic religious bigotry served to defend nationalist interests brought about by a colonialist occupation.

Of course, the reverse of these relationships is also true, and Leninists may argue that these racial and national systems are deliberate frauds which are perpetrated by the capitalists in order to keep the workers divided and thus protect their profit-making activities. This argument, however, reduces the whole of human society to economics, an abstraction which does not occur in reality. In the real world, all of these social constructions interact to support, defend and reproduce the bourgeois mode of production as a whole, its totality of social relationships, and not merely capitalist profit-making. For instance, white capitalists in the Southern United States viciously and violently resisted efforts at desegregation and integration, despite the very limited impact this had on the economic sphere. No capitalist would lose money if Blacks were allowed to eat at a lunch counter or sit at the front of a bus, yet the capitalists resisted these efforts fiercely. By challenging the bourgeois structures of race and authority, the civil rights movement directly challenged the ability of the bourgeois mode of production to reproduce its social relationships, and thus posed a threat to the entire order.

In every sphere of bourgeois society, these “sub-structures” appear, and interpenetrate to reinforce and reproduce each other. In the workplace, an economic struggle takes place between capitalist and worker over wages and profits. At the same time, an authority struggle rages between employee and employer over decision-making within the workplace, while racial and gender struggles center around equal opportunity, equal pay and decision-making ability. In the universities and educational institutions of bourgeois society, these same struggles occur. Economically, the children of wealthy people receive better educations and are trained to assume roles of authority and leadership. Students from poorer families, on the other hand, receive “vocational training” to prepare them for a place in the capitalist’s factories and workplaces, and also learn to accept the authority and discipline of the boss. Women are trained for “girl’s” jobs and roles, and sexual and racial roles are strengthened and reinforced by education.

In the nuclear family, some are dependent on the wages and income received by others, and this economic relationship reinforces the authority the wage earner exercises over the rest. Women are assigned definite family roles to play, and men are expected to play quite different roles. Unwritten rules concerning friendships, playmates and marriages reinforce the “socially accepted” relationships between families of different ethnicity, religion or class.

The result of this interconnecting web of social structures is to insure that each and every segment of bourgeois society is conditioned, and required to reproduce the various social relationships which are vital to the preservation and reproduction of the total system. The economic role of wage earner reinforces the dependence of the family on the wage system, and thus reinforces the gender roles of “wife” and “husband”. At the same time, the authority of the man over the woman in the home conditions the woman to accept the boss’s authority in the workplace, and thus guarantees that the economic exploitation of women can continue. This in turn produces higher profits for the capitalist, and reinforces his position of authority over the wage earner.

We can thus see that, contrary to the assertions of the Leninists, the economic struggle per se is not the only conflict in the bourgeois system, and therefore is not the only struggle which can result in an awareness of oppression and the development of a revolutionary consciousness. Sexism, racism and national oppression can all lead to a revolutionary challenge to the system itself, by challenging the very social relationships through which that system reproduces itself. For example, racial consciousness produced revolutionary ideas among the Black liberation movements of the 1960’s and in the South African ANC, while most neo-colonial revolutionaries have been won to their position through awareness of national oppression rather than simple economic exploitation.

Leninists, by arguing that non-economic relationships such as sexism and racism are simply “reflections” of an underlying economic “base”, are ignoring the fact that capitalism didn’t invent any of these “isms”. All of them existed before capitalism was born, and, as recent experiences in the Soviet Union and other Leninist nations have shown, they do not automatically disappear in a non-capitalist economy.

The error of the traditional Leninists lies in the narrowness of their interpretation of the word “economic”. By “economic mode of production”, the Leninists usually mean simply that system which produces and distributes goods such as food, clothing, and shelter. Marx, however, asserted that, in order to survive, humans must constantly interact with their surroundings, and in order to do this, humans must organize themselves into a society which can carry out this process of interrelation. This society was termed by Marx a “mode of production”; not simply a mode of producing material goods for consumption, but also a mode of producing the ideas, attitudes and social relationships which allowed that human society to exist, expand and reproduce itself. In this sense, the term “mode of production” goes far beyond mere economic activity—it includes all of human society’s methods for interacting with itself and with its natural surroundings.

Towards the end of his life, Marx intended to write a series of books, detailing the structure of the total bourgeois “mode of production”, and intended to examine the roles of the state, the arts, law and esthetics in the reproduction of bourgeois society. Unfortunately for future Marxists, he lived long enough only to begin the first of this projected series, Capital, which dealt exclusively with capitalist economics. Marx never had the opportunity to examine the various non-economic aspects of the bourgeois mode of production.

Thus, a full study of Marxian “economics” must inevitably lead to a study of racism, nationalism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, ageism, authoritarianism, and all of the other methods by which bourgeois society protects and propagates itself. Contrary to the assertions of the Leninists, these various “isms” are not merely “secondary contradictions” which influence and complicate the economic “primary contradiction”. Rather, these various social relationships are absolutely vital to the structure and reproduction of bourgeois society, as much as (at times even more so than) the economic relationships. Bourgeois capitalism is thus a dragon with many heads—a hydra. Cut off one head and another grows in its place. To kill the beast, all of its heads must be attacked and killed at once. The tactics of the Leninists are entirely unsuited for this task. By focusing on the economic struggle between workers and capitalists, traditional Leninists limit their actions to labor unions, worker’s parties, strikes, etc., and pay attention to other struggles—anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc. —only insofar as they provide advantages to the workers in their economic struggles.

From this point of view, the struggle against sexism is only important because it allows Leninists to point out that women are “super-exploited” or “doubly-exploited” as workers. To struggle against sexism itself is, in the traditional view, a distraction from the “real fight”, that between labor and capital. The Leninists, in effect, try to utilize the other struggles in an effort to “distract” some of the hydra’s heads, while they go about the business of killing what they perceive to be the “primary” one.

If the capitalist beast is to be killed, however, it must be attacked simultaneously on all fronts by a concerted, multi-faceted revolutionary organization. All of the various social dissident movements—feminists, anarchists, anti-racists, gay activists, socialists—must grow together to form a movement with complementary goals.

This process is aided by the fact that each of these movements in the course of its struggles finds that it is facing the same enemy as the others. Socialists find that those who benefit most from the capitalist system are those who own capital, and that capital-owners tend to be white males in positions of authority. Feminists find that the men who benefit most from sexism tend to be white property owners in positions of authority. Anarchists find that those who wield the most power and authority tend to be white male capital-owners, and anti-racists find that the most privileged whites are those who are male, wealthy and in positions of authority.

Thus, although each head of the capitalist hydra appears to be separate and independent, in reality they are all different faces of the same beast. To be defeated, bourgeois society must be attacked at all of its supporting structures. Failure to do this has been a major reason why radical movements have failed to produce any real revolutionary challenges to the existing social order. In the 1910’s and 1930’s, economic struggles on the part of the labor unions produced conditions that were at the least insurrectionary, but there were no complementary anti-racist, anti-sexist or anti-authoritarian components, and capitalism was able to isolate and overcome the threat. In the 1960’s, radical feminist, anarchist, anti-racist and gay liberation movements were born, but they failed to coordinate their actions and were not supported by a militant workers’ movement. Once again, capitalism was able to survive the challenge (though not without some battle damage).

The success of the bourgeoisie’s power, then, is not simply that it controls the use of capital and thus controls the economy. One must be forced to ask why the workers accept and work within these obviously lopsided and exploitative economic conditions. Nobody holds a gun to the workers’ heads and forces them to work for the capitalists. Except in the most rare and extreme circumstances, naked force and repression are hardly used at all by the monopolists. If the bourgeois mode of production is a dictatorship, it certainly appears to be a benevolent one.

The study of these non-economic social relationships explains how the capitalist system is able to maintain itself without resorting to physical coercion. The non-economic social relationships, between man and woman, between white and non-white, between boss and servant, between straight and gay—all serve to condition people to accept the bourgeois order of things as a natural, inevitable and inescapable part of reality. Every citizen of a capitalist country is born into a family unit, in which some members of the family are dependent on the income received by others. If one is to fulfill one’s family role, one must of necessity participate in the capitalist wage system. Entry in the wage system is in turn conditioned by education, which is itself subjected to the limits of income, race and sexual roles.

In other words, the social relationships of the bourgeois order, taken as a whole, form a vast net of complex interactions which reinforce and reproduce each other, and serve to define, protect and propagate the physical, social and ideological conditions of bourgeois society. Bourgeois society thus produces a social, ideological and physical hegemony, a framework within which it can reproduce the conditions necessary for its own existence while at the same time excluding the necessary preconditions for a challenge to itself. No one forces the workers to labor in the factory, but the social and cultural hegemony of capitalism makes participation in the wage system a practical necessity. One must have a wage job in order to obtain one’s necessaries of life, in order to play a family role, in order to participate in the educational system, and in order to perform a myriad of other social relationships.

In order to overthrow this array of hegemonic relationships, revolutionaries must attack each of these economic and non-economic structures and undermine them. More importantly, they must work to build an entirely new set of social relationships which can provide an alternative social reality, a new mode of production. In other words, revolutionaries can only win if they succeed in undermining bourgeois hegemony and in forming a new hegemony of their own.

Bourgeois hegemony can only be replaced by a socialist viewpoint; not merely socialist in the sense that the economic process must be controlled socially rather than by individual owners, but “socialist” in the sense that it is the conscious desire and activity of all members of human society and that it involves societal direction of all processes of production and propagation, including the economic, sexual, national and authoritarian spheres. The entire process of humanity’s interaction with itself and its natural surroundings must be consciously and willfully directed by the totality of that society. It must be social-ist.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quill, MrJayTee, enhydra lutris, WB Reeves

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Mon Mar 17, 2014 at 05:39:32 AM PDT

  •  this is an important section (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    raboof, MrJayTee

    How does capitalism defend itself? Despite the arm-waving of the "help help I'm being repressed!" crowd, the fact is that we are not a police state---activists and even revolutionaries get treated with kid gloves here compared to what happens to them in other parts of the world. (And yes, I have been beaten up by cops, tear-gassed, and arrested.) In a real repressive state, we wouldn't be getting our voting rights cut off--we'd be getting our heads cut off, and thousands of us would be turning up dead in roadside ditches, like in Chile or El Salvador or South Africa. Some leftists like to congratulate themselves on how "oppressed" we are by the "fascist police state", but the reality is that most of us have never SEEN a fascist police state, and would shit our pants if we did.

    The monopolists don't need to use force or coercion to make us do what they want us to do. They have manipulated the entire social structure so we HAVE to do what they want us to do, voluntarily, just to make a living. That is where their real power lies. They don't just control our society--they control our brains too. (And I'm not referring to the Fox-style propaganda, which only works if people already want to believe it.) In a very real sense, we ourselves, as a people, defend this society ourselves, by accepting all its rules and structures as a "given", as unchangeable unalterable parts of Mother Nature do fifferent than a mountain or a river--as part of "the way things are".  

    They are not.  All of human social structure is artificial.  We made all of it, and we can change any of it, any time we want.  It's not a god-given unalterable part of nature.

    THAT is the most revolutionary thought of all.

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Mon Mar 17, 2014 at 05:53:48 AM PDT

  •  I appreciate you putting these up, Lenny - (0+ / 0-)

    I'd been wading thru Da Kapital for some time, and have been wishing for a more, umm, precise (yet less exhaustive) treatment.

    I'll go read the middle 9 now....

    trying to stay alive 'til I reach 65!

    by chmood on Mon Mar 17, 2014 at 06:54:37 AM PDT

  •  Capitalism... (0+ / 0-)

    Whatever form of economics we end up creating must include limits on consumption, population and waste or we will build, buy and trash ourselves out of existence. I like to think ahead when reviewing various economic theories. Today we are 7 billion strong. In 100 years, that number may be 20 or 30 billion strong. If the plan is to make each and every one of them and their ancestors affluent in the sense we are today, the world will be a very, very bleak place. At some point, sustainability must become central to economic theory. We are still under the illusion of unlimited resources. Everything we think we know has been taught to us while we were filling up voids and gaps in the earth's carrying capacity. We fool ourselves into thinking that technology will solve every problem. While doing this, we have billions living under religious or patriarchal societies where women are treated as brood mares and the birth of the next child is a celebration rather than an increase in potential future exploitation of the earth.

    If Marx were alive today, I think this kind of problem would consume him. I cannot believe he ever dreamed of a world with so many consuming so much so unevenly.

    Do facts matter anymore?

    by Sinan on Mon Mar 17, 2014 at 09:23:22 AM PDT

    •  one good way to reduce population growth is (0+ / 0-)

      To raise the standard of living, allowing all of the current poor nations to undergo their demographic transition and allow them to reduce their rate of population growth (like the US has) or even reduce it negative growth (like Japan has).

      But you are right--current economic levels in the US are not sustainable. If we want to have a world where everyone can have a decent life, the that will necessarily mean that a small global minority of people (us, mostly) will see their standard of living go down, and a large majority (everyone else) will see their standard of living go up.

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Mon Mar 17, 2014 at 10:40:10 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks, Lenny. (0+ / 0-)
    If the capitalist beast is to be killed, however, it must be attacked simultaneously on all fronts by a concerted, multi-faceted revolutionary organization.
    Absolutely right on, my friend. I'm going to check out your other pieces, too.

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