Modern capitalism, the current and penultimate stage of class society under which we all live, is not an evolutionary aberration, failed experiment, or disastrous blunder. Humanity is not derailed and the world is not going horribly wrong. Actually, a close examination of the past and present indicates that the human trajectory is exactly on course, albeit on a very bumpy road.
In fact, events are converging so appropriately and on schedule, it seems at times as if unseen hands were conducting a Wagnerian opera.
Class society refers to any culture in which material wealth is shared unequally. In class society, some members have more wealth, power, and privileges than the rest. Most forms of class society are associated with the existence of a vigilant oligarchy that exercises authority over a toiling majority who produce the wealth through their daily labor.
Capitalism is a five hundred-year-old system of economic organization in which private wealth is concentrated in currency – as opposed to land, slaves, food stores, or tulips. Currency- AKA investment capital – has the huge advantage of being easily converted into new and useful technologies, enterprises, and products.
All forms of class society require first and foremost a surplus of wealth that is above and beyond the basic needs of society to sustain itself. This “surplus value” was made possible by the Agrarian Revolution that first occurred in a few locations approximately 7-10 millennia ago.
It was those initial quantities of excess barley or cattle that the greediest and most talented – the priests and warriors – grabbed and kept for themselves that instituted the beginning of class society and class divisions.
Life in the Stone Age: “Primitive Communism”
These hierarchical divisions, which are still with us today, were necessary 7,000 years ago in order to discipline the toilers and keep them fragmented, competing, insecure, and producing wealth. Reading a book like The Forest People by Clive Turnbull will impress upon the reader how near-impossible it is to get forager-hunters to knuckle down to a farmer’s life, because of their stubborn tendency to work just enough to satisfy immediate needs and no more!
Our prehistoric ancestors would typically set out in the morning and spend some hours securing a variety of food, which each person would haul back to the village. This food would then be divided up equally among all members of the community, supplying them with a feast of super-nutrition. Bipedal posture and the opposable thumb permitted this sharing of food, which soon led to the enlargement of brain size, and gradually facilitated the development of anatomically modern humans.
For more than 100,000 years, these ancestors were completely devoted to the welfare of their clans, because the clan-community supplied them with nutrition, defense, love, and everything else needed for human life. For this reason, one could conceivably label them “community-ists.” In the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels termed this egalitarian Stone Age existence primitive communism.
The trouble with this kind of life is that technology – accumulated knowledge – remained at a very primitive level. While daily life was free of bosses and coercion, it was also precarious. Life expectancy reached a mere forty years of age. Populations were constantly haunted by the threat of starvation, disease, injury, and attacks from wild animals. Cultural and intellectual development was largely stagnant within conservative societies that were highly resistant to change.
And then along came the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry, and suddenly there was a surplus of food-wealth and a corresponding explosion of technological and cultural opportunities.
The development of class society
The course of natural evolution generally moves from simple to complex and with it, increasingly higher levels of organization and understanding. The human species, like other life forms, is continually evolving from simple to complex, from ignorance to understanding, both technologically and socially. Humans alone have the neural capacity to consciously influence this forward movement. That is why our development is so much faster than that of other animals.
The history of class society is also a story of simple to complex. Surplus wealth gave humans, especially the ruling classes, the leisure and resources needed to develop higher and higher forms of organization.
In Western Eurasia, primitive farming and pastoralist societies gave way to the classical slave societies of Persia, Greece, and Rome, in which cheap labor was obtained and organized on a grand scale through extreme forms of patriarchy/hierarchy as well as continual war and enslavement of the conquered.
However, an economy that is based on slavery eventually reaches a deadend. When wars of conquest slow down, as they inevitably do, the production of wealth begins to wane. Slaves, lacking education and ambition, have no stake in the improvement of society, and thus rarely create anything new and better. (For a fascinating analysis of slave society, check out Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism by Perry Anderson.)
Greco-Roman civilization declined, giving way to centuries of barbarian invasions and extreme insecurity. This situation eventually led to the development of feudalism in the West.
Under the new feudal order, the major producers of wealth enjoyed legal rights not shared by slaves: the right to a home – serfs stay with the land on which they were born; the right to family life – serfs cannot be sold away; the right to enjoy leisure time; and the right to be protected against arbitrary civil or military violence.
Under feudalism, the toilers were motivated and enabled to develop labor-saving technology because they directly benefited from it. This advance of farming technology created huge surpluses of food and a subsequent population explosion in Europe and elsewhere.
Wealth was counted in land ownership, since serfs farming the land were the only creators of excess food, clothing, and other items. The ruling classes were those aristocratic families that owned the land, obtained through organized violence and arranged marriages.
However, during the 14th and 15th centuries, this economic system began to stink like three-day-old fish. Serious problems developed: aristocrats began craving items not obtainable locally, and ambitious and unhappy serfs gradually escaped to free cities where they had the chance to improve their material and cultural lives.
Dynamic capitalism leads the way forward
Feudalism had become plodding and conservative, even obstructionist. In contrast, capitalism is powered by unbridled greed. The beauty of capitalism is that it depends on easily-convertible wealth, a mobile and voluntary labor force, and growth that is dynamic and unrelenting. Risk taking, development, and expansion are built into its genetic code.
Capitalism as a system of economic organization has evolved through three succeeding stages.
Under the structure of mercantile capitalism, money was invested in products in one region, which were then transported to another region and sold for a profit. That profit was reinvested into more products that were sold elsewhere for more profit, and so it went. Mercantile capitalism opened up the world by discovering trade routes and allowing for the exchange of ideas. It spurred the growth of artisanal workshops, commercial cities, and nation-states.
The increased demand for more and fancier things encouraged the expansion of workshops into factories and major industries. From the 17th century to the 19th century, industrial capitalism gradually replaced mercantile capitalism as the dominant mode of wealth production and accumulation in Europe, North America, and Japan.
The growth of industrial capitalism represented the revolutionary apex of capitalism. Scientific discoveries multiplied, novel and labor-saving inventions proliferated like mushrooms in a rainforest, and an industrial working class was created, one that was highly organized and conscious of its own power and potential.
From an evolutionary perspective, dynamic capitalism was the perfect expression of the Law of Exponential Change. The rate of change in the universe is speeding up and has been since the Big Bang 14.5 billion years ago. The further down the road, the bigger the changes. Just compare the mind-blowing technological and social changes that occurred during the 20th century to those of the 19th century. Change does not proceed at a linear rate any more than that the earth is flat, even though they both may seem so to the uninformed observer. (For more on this, read The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil.)
From the point of view of human needs, capitalism has already fulfilled its promise. According to the British aid agency Oxfam and others, capitalism has created sufficient wealth to end world poverty many times over. It has achieved the impossible dream of our Stone Age ancestors, by fashioning the technological potential to accomplish heavenly goals such as ending material scarcity and extending the human life span indefinitely.
However, potential is not the same as actuation. The brilliant success of capitalism has led us to the heights overlooking the Promised Land, but like Moses, it cannot take us to our destination. The oligarchy is incapable of sharing and distributing wealth and power to the majority, because selfish accumulation has ever been the motivating force of the ruling rich.
Superabundance has created the current Global Crisis of Overproduction, in which capitalists can no longer sell their stuff easily, but must face fierce competition and declining profits. Their desperation has given rise to the current and final stage of capitalism – finance capitalism.
In this phase, the oligarchy has become nothing more than high-stakes gamblers and injurious parasites, standing in the way of human progress at every turn. Like zombies lurching forward, the world’s billionaires and millionaires continue to compete for profits and aren’t even sure why anymore, except to hold on to their power over the rest of us.
And now for something completely different. . .
The last 7,000 years have constituted a period of social gestation. This pregnancy, like most human pregnancies, has been disfiguring, perplexing, damned uncomfortable, often painful, and potentially dangerous. If the mother and her supporters did not know that something new and wondrous was about to be born, they would likely be freaking out! And try as they might to prevent labor and birth, their misguided efforts would all end in frustration or disaster.
If one believes that one’s political and financial interests revolve around saving the capitalist system by reform or returning to the” good old days,” thereby strengthening imperialist Amerika, then one would have plenty of reasons to be gloomy, even panicky, about the current predicament. Time does not move backwards and Zombie Capitalism cannot be improved, reformed, or saved.
The good news is, the Big Picture melts away fear and panic every time.
This particular birth process seeks to end class society by first establishing majority control of the world. Of course, a seven-millennia pattern of thought and behavior does not go down easily, nor should it. The greatest growth involves pain. That truth is a simple reflection of the yin and yang of existence.
Majority control, if established successfully, will usher in the revolutionary concepts of political demo-cracy – rule of the people – and economic socialism – the final stage of class society. The actors of this transformation will be the world’s producers of wealth – the workers and farmers.
This baby will emerge at just the right time, because capitalist technology and culture (Thank you very much!) have conjured up thepreconditions and imperatives for major social change.
- Never before has there been such a highly educated working class, a condition essential for running the world.
- Modern communication and transportation technologies are uniting the international proletariat to an unprecedented degree.
- Never before in class society have women been so close to ending the patriarchy for good.
- Never before in world and US history have minorities come so far in securing equal rights.
- Photos of our earth from space offer proof that political borders are entirely imaginary.
- The ongoing destruction of small- and medium-sized businesses and the convergence of wealth into giant multi-national conglomerates will facilitate central planning for human needs by a democratically functioning proletariat.
- Everyone knows that with the press of a few buttons, the world could explode into nuclear dust.
- The prime directive of profit-taking is destroying at an exponential rate the biosphere upon which human, animal, and plant life depend.
- Jobs are fast disappearing while robotic engineering and artificial intelligence surge forward, promising to eliminate work – and income – as we know it.
- The Global Crisis of Overproduction and the Great Depression 2.0 are widening the gap between the haves and have-nots to an untenable degree, stirring up rebellion in every corner.
We only await the arrival of a revolutionary proletarian consciousness on a world scale, as we prepare to fight the Good Fight.