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What did capitalism do for us?

This article is over 17 years, 5 months old
Neil Davidson, winner of last year’s Isaac Deutscher memorial prize, explains how the capitalist system was both progressive and destructive
Issue 1912

THE QUESTION of what we owe to the capitalist system is important. In the anti-capitalist movement there is a tendency to argue that capitalism is simply a system of exploitation and oppression, and that nothing good has ever come out of it.

I want to go back to Marx and Engels, and argue that socialism was impossible before capitalism.

Their Communist Manifesto gives a positive account of capitalism: “The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie.

“The East Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.”

In Capital, written 20 years later, Marx writes, “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production…

“The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother country and were there turned into capital.”

The second quote is much more negative. That isn’t because Marx and Engels changed their minds.

It is because capitalism is simultaneously dynamic and destructive. It is both the best thing that has ever happened to the human race, and the worst.

I want to look at four things that are produced by capitalism, but which could be turned against it.

One is the development of the forces of production, the second is the development of the working class, the third is the development of a global culture and the fourth is the Enlightenment.

Without the development of the forces of production nothing else would be possible. The forces of production include two things. Firstly, the means of production. This is not just technology, but also the ability of humans to work and the techniques used. Secondly, the labour process, which is how human beings put the means of production to work.

The forces of production exist within different societies. Under capitalism the forces of production have developed much more rapidly than in any previous form of society. This has produced real benefits.

In 1700, 1600 and 1500, people in England lived an average of 37 years. Now it’s about 80 years. That’s because of our ability to feed and clothe ourselves, and so on.

This is true even in the Third World. From 1939 to 1970 average life expectancy went from 32 years, which it had been since the time of the Roman Empire, to 49 years.

A system can still develop the forces of production even after it has ceased to be progressive.

Capitalism stopped being progressive when socialism became possible, at some point in the final decades of the 19th century, or the first decades of the 20th century.

But the development of the forces of production still means something to us. Until the mid-1960s my family lived in two rooms with an outside toilet.

My mum had to use a mangle to dry our clothes.

All four of us slept in the same room, until we moved to a fabulous council house outside Aberdeen. It had a garden front and back, a fridge, a washing machine.

Those things freed people like my mother to work full time but they also contributed to her health and happiness.

It’s not true that we support every form of capitalist technology. Socialists would have nothing to do with nuclear power. But other technologies, like tractors, are needed by millions of people in the Third World.

The second thing that capitalism has given us is the working class. The working class is a product of the development of the forces of production in the late 18th and early 19th century. The working class is a class without property. Workers do have belongings—fridges, mowers and so on—but these aren’t forces of production.

Contrast that with the bourgeoisie who, even while they were still oppressed under feudalism, had their own property and exploited the working class. Their coming to power simply replaced one form of exploitation with another.

The working class has to behave collectively because it is organised collectively. The great demand of peasant struggles is to divide up the land between them. But workers can’t divide up a factory or office.

These have to be operated collectively.

The working class is the most significant class in the world numerically. They have grown from 1.6 billion in 1970 to 2.8 billion in 2000. Most of that growth has been in the Third World, but in the top industrial countries the working class grew from 307 million to 401 million.

That’s if you define workers as the people who have to sell their ability to work and who have no direct control over their work.

There is still the problem of class consciousness, of people’s awareness of themselves as a class and of how they can fight back.

This brings us to the question of global working class culture. This is not about Rupert Murdoch and the homogenisation of everyone under the crushing weight of Fox TV, although that is one aspect.

Because workers are linked to the same system, they see they have a common identity.

Different doesn’t always mean good. The capitalist state might oppress people who are different, but capitalism itself has no problem with difference.

Difference means a niche market—for example, selling things to the gay community.

There are no truly homogeneous national cultures. However, you do get homogeneous class culture. Benjamin Franklin was the US ambassador to absolutist France after the American Revolution.

He would dress in the revolutionary, bourgeois style, wearing clothes and speaking in a manner that was instantly recognisable to the French bourgeoisie.

Around the same time there was an attempted uprising in New York State by a mixture of slaves, Irish indentured labourers and captured Spanish sailors, in which the notions of black and white were used to identify class positions.

There were white Irish people standing up in bars saying, “We have to kill all the white people,” meaning the rich people.

That kind of class culture cuts across national culture.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin explained, “Each nation contains a workers’ culture as well as a bourgeois culture. We take from each national culture only its democratic and socialist elements.

“We take them only, and absolutely, in opposition to the bourgeois and nationalist culture of each country.” When Lenin talked about proletarian culture he was wasn’t thinking of an early equivalent of EastEnders, he was thinking of things like trade union libraries.

The final thing capitalism has given us is the Enlightenment—the ideas that came, in particular, from 18th century France and Scotland. Enlightenment thinkers argued that the world could be explained rationally, without recourse to god or superstition.

They said that people have the same capabilities which they can develop—if they are not restricted by the church or absolutist state.

Many of the writings of the Enlightenment were directed very specifically against feudalism. The Enlightenment economist Adam Smith wrote, “No progress in society can be made until the nobles are rightly crushed.”

There is a problem with the rationality of the Enlightenment. When George Bush refuses to sign the Kyoto treaty and allows global warming to grow until the waves come crashing down on Los Angeles, that is irrational from the point of view of even the capitalists.

But it is rational from the point of view of individual capitalists chasing short-term profits. They don’t think of the world as a whole, but simply of achieving their immediate ends.

Working class rationality is about seeing the world as a whole. We should adopt this side of Enlightenment rationality.

Each of the things I’ve discussed is shot through with contradictions.

Marx gave a speech in which he explained this well: “There is one grand fact characteristic of the 19th century. On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected.

“On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire.

“In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary: machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it.

“The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.

“Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance.

“We know that to work well the newfangled forces of society, they only want to be mastered by newfangled men—and such are the working men. They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself.

“In the signs that bewilder the middle class, we recognise our brave friend, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer—the Revolution.”

Neil Davidson’s prize-winning book, Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746, is available from Bookmarks (£19.99). Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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