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Capitalism a system of unplanned chaos

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Our leaders like us to think they know what they’re doing. But the system they serve cannot be tamed, explains Sophie Squire
Issue 2830
Power plant

For a quick profit, bosses are happy to fund fossil fuels and burn the planet. This is the logic of capitalism

Do those in power really have a plan?  In Britain the Tories and their friends in big business want us to think that they are firmly in control of the system. But with the Bank of England predicting a long recession, the climate crisis intensifying, and the Tories still in turmoil, many of us are left thinking—what is their plan?

Capitalism is simultaneously planned and chaotic. At the level of the individual firm, there is intense planning. Tesco, for ­example, moves over 2 billion cases of goods through its network each year. It has a dedicated train service bringing produce to its distribution network from Spain.  

It mobilised an extra 30,000 workers for Christmas last year. That’s not done by relying on “the market”. It requires meticulous research, liaison with a vast number of suppliers and constant attention to sales and stock levels.

More generally ­capitalists as a whole try to plan to ­maintain the conditions for them to prosper. They want governments that don’t tax them much and don’t hand out favours to trade unions. In order to accumulate they need roads and an educated workforce and cops and soldiers to protect the system.

But these elements of ­planning are undermined by the way capitalism works. It lurches from periods of relative stability to deep crises, boom and bust. Attempts to control or regulate it fail.  

In his book Zombie Capitalism, revolutionary socialist Chris Harman described the way Karl Marx wrote about capitalism. Harman said it is “Frankenstein’s monster that has escaped from human ­control; the vampire that saps the lifeblood of the living bodies it feeds off.” Competition between firms and nation states is inherent in capitalism.

Two firms that make the same product won’t coordinate to see how much of it they need to produce.  This leads to a system marred by waste and overproduction. So, over a third of food that’s produced worldwide is thrown out while millions starve. 

And 92 billion tonnes of the 100 billion garments produced by fast fashion every year end up in landfills. There are two big divides in capitalist society. One is between the workers and the ruling class, while the other is between the elements of the ruling class. 

Every tactic is used to try and beat out their rivals for the ­biggest slice of profits. No wonder Marx described the relationship that capitalists have with each other as a “band of warring brothers.” Capitalists work together against the power of workers, but also turn on each other. 

Marx described how at a time of crisis, “The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface, just as previously the identity of these interests operated in practice through competition.” The lack of an overall ­rationality of the system has disastrous effects. 

At first sight imperialist war, nuclear weapons and ­environmental destruction ought to be ruled out by those at the top of the system. It won’t help profits if half the world is rendered radioactive after a nuclear exchange. 

And there’s not much room for dividends and executive bonuses in a planet laid waste by climate change and species extinction. During the First World War the social democrat Karl Kautsky speculated that capitalism might be entering a new phase of “ultra-imperialism”. 

This would involve “the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capital.” Instead of falling out, big firms would always come to cooperative deals. For the Russian ­revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, in contrast, the war reflected a ­sharpening of competition which had grown over decisively into bloody inter-state competition.

Far from the future being one of agreements between giant corporations, it would either be one of fearful wars or socialist revolution. In the Lancet medical journal’s newest climate countdown report, it’s estimated that heat exposure led to 470 billion potential labour hours being lost in 2021. 

This translated to losses of around 0.72 percent in terms of global economic outcome. None of this is good news to the bosses. It seems contradictory that despite this solid evidence the bosses refuse to make even the most meagre of changes. But, again, capitalists are locked into a competitive system.  

It might contribute to undermining the system as a whole, but investments in environmentally-damaging methods are logical and make money for a particular firm. In addition, even if an individual boss, for example a CEO of a fossil fuel company, decided that they wanted to stop their corporation from extracting fossil fuels, it would make little difference.

Someone else would simply fill the gap to reap quick profits from fracking or digging. The bosses’ deadly pursuit of profit on a finite planet throws out any notion of sense.

The state plays a key role in seeking to mediate between different capitalist interests. It can coerce, for example, unwilling sections of capital into accepting taxation for a health service or a pension system that helps to keep the system as a whole afloat.

In times of crisis the state plays a major role—bailing out the banks in the 2008 crisis, providing vast funding to stabilise big business during the ­pandemic and ­providing years of cheap loans so that firms can survive. During the Second World War, the creation of the atomic bomb took more than 100,000 people across three countries to develop.

But the state can’t paper over all the divisions. Think how the clashes over Europe have bedevilled British bosses for decades. They were split over Brexit, and are spit now over how to revive their system. The mini-budget proposed in September by Liz Truss and former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng was celebrated by some bosses.  

They saw it as the dawning of a new age of freedom and low taxation. But it was met with panic from the financial sector, which much preferred ex-banker Rishi Sunak. Another example was when the boss of supermarket Iceland Richard Walker called for Universal Credit to rise by £20 a week. 

A boss of a major supermarket railing against austerity measures imposed by the government may seem strange. But it shows how the bosses appeal to the state to stabilise their profits. If austerity measures become so bad that they get in the way of ordinary people’s ability to spend, it could be a problem.  

We are reminded every day that the plans the ruling class make serve their interests alone, and not ours.  Under capitalism, planning is done with profit and the drive to beat rival capitalists in mind, rather than in the interest of ordinary people. 

The bosses have come up with complex methods of ­protecting their own wealth, seen now more than ever as their profit soars while our wages drop. Most workers will be keenly aware that their workplace isn’t running as smoothly as it could be—and they will know how to fix the problems. 

It makes sense to put the people who do the work and have the knowledge in charge. Everything, from our transport systems, to the streets we live on, healthcare systems and education, could be planned out better if they were run by ordinary people.  

That’s why, as socialists, we don’t just want to overthrow the old order. We want a completely different way of running society. Democratic planning would mean a world where production is based on human need, not on feeding the bosses’ greed. It would mean we can better deal with natural disasters, pandemics, poverty, and suffering.

 Of course, there may be arguments or disagreements about priorities or how to do things. In the end these will be tested out in practice rather than by deciding on what will make an individual richer or increase profits. And when decisions are made, those tasked with ­carrying them out would be directly accountable to everyone else rather than separated off as a privileged group. 

And far from being too complex to plan, technological advances make it easier to communicate and share information from around the world. But for this to happen, our side needs a plan on how to oust those currently in power. Working class people must take advantage of a ruling class that is rife with division to seize control for themselves.

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