Karl Marx published the first volume of Capital one hundred and fifty years ago. The writing of Capital was aimed at uncovering the operational laws of capitalism, as well as providing a theoretical weapon for the working class in its historical struggle for freedom and equality against the bourgeoisie. We have to remember that the main motivation behind this Herculean theoretical effort was not limited only to a realistic depiction of the conditions of the working class under capitalist accumulation, but to unearth the intrinsic elements of these iron laws in their sheer brutality.
If we are to read Capital once again hundred and fifty years after its publication, we ought to distinguish between Marx’s efforts to understand the logic of capital in its abstract form and his efforts concerning the realization of this logic in terms of class struggle. In other words, if we were to interpret Marx’s writings in a deterministic and mechanical fashion, we would not be able to understand the dynamics of the evolving “new international division of labor” between different countries, different geographies, and the new forms of capital and working classes.
Marta Harnecker, in her analysis of the Latin American experiences in The Bullet, takes this stance further. In Harnecker’s assessment, the devastation that had been inflicted by the neoliberal policies in Latin America is comparable to the days of terror and frustration in the Soviet Russia just at the brink of the imperialist war, i.e. WWI, 1913-1917. The collective imperialist assault on the indigenous economies of Latin America was indeed made possible via the neoliberal orthodoxy of the agencies of the Washington Consensus—the World Bank, the IMF, and then the WTO.
Conservative neoliberal policies that aimed at privatization, “flexibilization” of labor markets, and dissolution of the welfare state by commercializing public services like education, health, and social infrastructure had led in those countries to the collapse of the middle-income classes, increased poverty, increased inequality of the income distribution, deepened social fragmentation, and opened them up to brutal exploitation of national and global capital. The sheer, icy exploitation that Marx had investigated through his three volumes of Capital was vehement all through Latin America and elsewhere neoliberalism was dominant.
These Latin American countries had also been the venues of indigenous uprisings against neoliberal repression. Left populist movements in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia gained popular support and brought their candidates to power one by one, beginning the turn of the century. What was critically distinguishing in many of these movements, however, was the fact that these uprisings often consisted of massive horizontal organizational structures, rather than being led by the industrial workers and /or their disciplined parties. Composed of university students, local indigenous peoples, peasantry and even clergy, this wide populist coalition had nevertheless succeeded in gearing its focus on a clear mandate: “End neoliberalism!” and “Another world is possible!”
A very important characteristic of this uprising was that the traditional industrial working class had a relatively weak leadership role cast for its organized cadres. “Class-based” claims were replaced by more general, and wide-ranging “national” and “local” demands. The core common ground of all these “objective” demands of the “masses” was their “urgency.” Neoliberalism had to be confronted and fought back, immediately.
A thorough analysis of the causes of the relatively weak role played by the traditional industrial working class organizations within the anti-neoliberal insurgence is clearly beyond the scope of this note. Yet, one can immediately point to the initial assault on the working class’ political parties, trade unions, and mass organizations, by neoliberal hegemons directly suppressing their rights via anti-democratic and even outright fascist tactics. Both the national and international capital centers were aware that the potential threat against neoliberal policies would first and foremost come from the organized working-class movements. Thus, they had taken early precautions to weaken these structures through anti-democratic forms of intervention against labor rights by way of privatizations and direct advances against trade unionism.
Aside from this, it has also to be noted that as capitalism unfolded towards the 21st century, a new international division of labor was also shaping the laws of accumulation and its institutions across the globe. As the underdeveloped, peripheral economies of the global South were brought into “emerging market” status one by one, these were abruptly turned into sweatshops together with marginalized conditions of work hosting fragmented, unorganized, and informal laboring masses. The fragmented and heterogeneous character of “wage labor” was the direct outcome of 21st century capitalism, ultimately because capital itself was fragmented and heterogeneous (in the wide variety forms of off-shore ventures, sub-contracting, etc.).
In addition to these developments, we should also underline a particular new opportunity provided by the neoliberal project to the working masses: the expansion of the consumption basket. As the services of the welfare state were being dismantled and poverty had deepened, laborers embraced a new opportunity as global consumers. Household credit instruments, private debt instruments, and all similar forms of this “buy now, pay later” world, had created an imaginarium for the workers wherein they could realize patterns of consumption beyond their dreams, as well as a pacifying way of “assimilation to the system”. This hyper-consumption opportunity was clearly a direct consequence of financialization of capitalism, and served for conditioning of the working class to harmonize its hopes of the future with the capitalist system.
We need to read Capital yet again; however, without falling into ready-made solutions covering standardized answers to standardized questions, and not by falling into the seductive traps of dogmas and easy narratives. We ought to read it for the purpose of understanding its inherent revolutionary dialectic both to understand and change the world…
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