What kind of illness is capitalism?
Platypus Review 105 | April 2018
An abridged version of this article was presented at the 4th Platypus European Conference closing plenary panel discussion, “What is the Future of Socialism?,” with Boris Kagarlitsky (Institute of Globalization and Social Movements), Alex Demirovic (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation), Mark Osborne (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty; Momentum) and Hillel Ticktin (Critique journal), at Goldsmiths University in London on February 17, 2018.
The liquidation of [Marxist] theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth-content only by those who agree with [Friedrich] Schiller that “world history is the world tribunal.” What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth-content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.
—Adorno, Negative Dialectics (1966)
THE FUTURE OF SOCIALISM is the future of capitalism—the future of capitalism is the future of socialism.
Socialism is an illness of capitalism. Socialism is the prognosis of capitalism. In this respect, it is a certain diagnosis of capitalism. It is a symptom of capitalism. It is capitalism’s pathology. It recurs, returning and repeating. So long as there is capitalism there will be demands for socialism. But capitalism has changed throughout its history, and thus become conditioned by the demands for socialism. Their histories are inextricably connected and intertwined. This is still true today.
Society under capitalism in its concrete form will be conditioned by the need to realize capital. This means that society will be conditioned by the contradiction of capital. The future of socialism will be conditioned by that contradiction. This is an illness of self-contradiction of society in capitalism.
What kind of illness is capitalism?
Friedrich Nietzsche described the modern affliction of nihilism in capitalism—he didn’t use the term “capitalism” but described it—as an “illness, but the way pregnancy is an illness.”
Socialism is the pathology of capitalism—in terms of Marx and Engels’s Manifesto, “communism” is the “specter” —and capitalism is the pathology of socialism, always threatening its return. The question is the prognosis of socialism—the prognosis of capitalism.
Capitalism is an illness—a pathology—of potential. We suffer from the unrealized potential of capital.
Capitalism is an imbalance of production and appropriation. It is a problem of how society produces, and how society appropriates its own production. As such it is a problem of metabolism. This is often referred to, for instance by Keynesians, as a problem of overproduction—a problem of underconsumption. But it is more self-contradictory than that. It is more than a temporary market imbalance awaiting correction, either by the state or by the market itself. Turning over the issues of production and consumption, we find that capitalism is also a problem of an overconsumption of resources—Marx called it the wearing-out of both the worker and nature—and an underconsumption of value, for instance in an overabundance of money without outlet as capital investment. It is also, however, an underproduction of resources—a wastage of nature and labor—and an overproduction of value. It is, as Marx called it, a problem of surplus-value—of its production and consumption.
The pathology of capitalism is a metabolic disorder. As capitalism is usually addressed by contemporary commentators, it is not however a disorder of scarcity or of (over-)abundance, nor of hierarchy or of equality—for instance, a problem of leveling-down. But, rather, as a problem of what Marx called the “social metabolism,” it exhibits all of these symptoms, alternately and, indeed, simultaneously.
In the way that Nietzsche regarded capitalist modernity as an illness, but an illness the way pregnancy is an illness, it is not to be cured in the sense of something to be eliminated, but successfully gone through, to bring forth new life.
Is it a chronic or an acute condition? Capitalism is not well analogized to cancer because that would imply that it is a terminal condition. No. Rather than socialism waiting for capitalism to die, however, the question is whether socialism is merely a fever-dream of capitalism: one which chronically recurs, occasionally, but ultimately passes in time. Capitalism is not a terminal condition but rather is itself a form of life. A pathological form of life, to be sure, but, as Nietzsche—and Christianity itself—observed, life itself is a form of suffering. But what if capitalism is not merely a form of life—hence a form of suffering—but also a potential form of new life beyond itself? What if the recurrent symptom of socialism—the crisis of capitalism—is a pregnancy that we have failed to bring to term and has instead miscarried or been aborted? The goal, then, would be, not to eliminate the pregnancy of socialism in capitalism, not to try to cure the periodic crises of capitalism, but for capitalism to successfully give birth to socialism.
This would mean encouraging the health of capitalism in a certain sense. Perhaps humanity has proven too ill when undergoing capitalism to successfully give birth to socialism; but the pregnancy has been mistaken for an illness to be cured, rather than what it actually was, a symptom of potential new life in the process of emerging.
Past Marxists used the metaphor of “revolution as the midwife of history,” and they used this very precisely. Socialist revolution would make socialism possible, but would not bring forth socialism ready-made. An infant—moreover one that is not yet born—is not a mature form of life.
These are the stakes of properly recognizing capitalism for what it is—the potential for socialism. If we mistake capitalism for an illness to be eliminated, then we undergo its pathology periodically, but fail to bring forth the new life that capitalism is constantly generating from within itself. The point then would be, not to avoid capitalism, not to avoid the pregnancy of socialism, but to allow capitalism to give birth to socialism. Bourgeois ideology denies that there is a new form of life beyond itself—that there is socialism beyond capitalism—and so seeks to terminate the pregnancy, to cure the ailment of capitalism, to eliminate the potential that is mistaken for a disease, whether that’s understood as infection by a foreign body, or a metabolic imbalance to be restored. But capitalism is not a malignant tumor but an embryo. The recurrent miscarriage of socialism, however, makes capitalism appear as a tumor, more or less benign, so long as it passes—or is extracted or otherwise extirpated.
As a cancer, capitalism appears as various kinds of cancer cells running rampant at the expense of the social body: whether of underclass criminals, voracious middle classes, plutocratic capitalists, or wild “populist” (or even “fascist”) masses, all of whom must be tamped down if not eliminated entirely in order to restore the balanced health of the system. But capitalism does not want to be healthy in the sense of return to homeostasis, but wants to overcome itself—wants to give birth to socialism. Will we allow it?
For this would mean supporting the pregnancy—seeing the symptoms through to their completion, and not trying to stop or cut them short.
What is the prognosis of socialism?
Socialism is continuous with the “rights of human beings and citizens,” according to the principles of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” that “all men are created equal,” with “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Socialism seeks to realize the bourgeois principle of the “free association of producers,” in which each is provided “according to his need” while contributing “according to his ability.” The question is how capitalism makes this both possible and impossible, and what it would take to overcome its impossibility while realizing its possibility.
Moishe Postone, in his 2006 essay on “Theorizing the Contemporary World: Brenner, Arrighi, Harvey”—a companion-piece to his other well-known essay from 2006, “History and Helplessness”—grasped this contradiction of our time as that between islands of incipient post-proletarian life surrounded by seas of superfluous humanity—postmodernist post-humanism and religious fundamentalist defense of human dignity, in a world simultaneously of both post-proletarian cities of abundance and sub-proletarian slums of scarcity.
Peter Frase, in an early foundational article for the Democratic Socialists of America’s Jacobin magazine in 2011, wrote of the “Four Possible Futures”—this was later expanded into the 2016 book subtitled “Life after Capitalism”—on the supposed “inevitable end” of capitalism in four potential outcomes: either in the “communism of abundance and egalitarianism;” the “rentism of hierarchy and abundance;” the “socialism of egalitarianism and scarcity;” or the “exterminism of hierarchy and scarcity.” The future was supposed to lie between two axes of contradiction: egalitarianism vs. hierarchy; and scarcity vs. abundance.
Unlike Postone—who, like Slavoj Žižek around the same moment, grasped the simultaneous existence of postmodernism and fundamentalism as two sides of the same coin of late capitalism—Frase neglects the dialectical proposition that all four of his “possible futures” will come true—indeed, that all four are already the case in capitalism. They are not merely in the process of coming true, but have been the actual condition of capitalism throughout its history, ever since its inception in the Industrial Revolution. There has been the coexistence of hierarchy and egalitarianism and of scarcity and abundance, and each has been the precondition for its—dialectical—opposite.
One could say that this has been the case since the early emergence of bourgeois society itself—that capitalist contradiction was always the case—or, indeed, since the beginning of civilization itself. One could say that this has been the condition of “class society as a whole,” the condition of the existence of a “social surplus” throughout history.
This is the perspective of Alain Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” for example. Badiou has mobilized a rather literal reading of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, and a straightforward, if rather naïve, interpretation of communism or socialism from Babeuf’s “conspiracy of equals” onwards—indeed perhaps all the way back from Jesus and His Apostles onwards. “Communism”—in Peter Frase’s terms, “egalitarian abundance”—is the “land of milk and honey,” where the “last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
Capitalism, understood undialectically, then, is, by contrast, the exterminism of rentism, the inhumanity of exploitation, in which scarcity and hierarchy rule through elite appropriation of the surplus. But this has been true since the dawn of civilization, since the beginning—in terms of Engels’s clever footnote to the Manifesto’s assertion that “history is the history of class struggle”—of “recorded history.”
So what is different with capitalism? What has changed is the form of the social surplus: “capital.” To say, as Marxists did, that, as the possibility for socialism, capitalism is the potential “end of prehistory” is to say that all of history is the history of capital: the history of civilization has been the development of the social surplus, until it has finally taken the form of capital.
Ancient civilizations were based on a specific kind of social surplus, however. The surplus of grain beyond subsistence produced by peasant agriculture allowed for activity other than farming. Peasants could tighten their belts to feed the priests rather than lose the Word of God, and so that some knights could protect them from the heathen. But for us to return to the religious basis of civilization would also mean embracing values quite foreign to the bourgeois ethos of work, such as that “the sick are blessed,” with the divine truth of the vanity of life, whereas we rightly consider sickness to be a curse—at the very least the curse of unemployability in society.
So what is the social surplus of capital? According to Marx, capital is the surplus of labor. It is also, however, the source of possibilities for employment in production: the source of social investment. Does this make it the source of hierarchy or of equality, of scarcity or of abundance, of post-humanism or of ontological—fundamental—humanity? It is the source of all these different apparently opposed values. It is their common condition. It is society itself, albeit in “alienated” form. As such, it is also the source of society’s possible change.
Socialism aims at the realization of the potential of society. But it will be achieved—or not—on the basis of capitalism, under conditions of capital. The social surplus of capital is the source of potential societal change, of new forms of production—manifold new forms of human activity, in relation to others, to Nature, and to ourselves. Changes in capital are changes in our social relations. Capital is a social relation.
Capital is the source of endless new forms of social scarcity and new forms of social abundance—of new forms of social expropriation and of social production—as well as of new forms of social hierarchy and of new forms of social equality. Capital is the source of all such changes in society over the course of the last two centuries, since the Industrial Revolution.
Hillary Clinton, in an interview during her failed campaign for President of the U.S., said that what keeps her “awake at night” is the problem of figuring out policy that will encourage the investment of capital to produce jobs. Indeed, this is precisely what motivated Trump’s—successful—campaign for President as well. Interestingly, it is unclear whether this is what properly motivated Bernie Sanders as an alternative to Clinton, or if this now motivates Jeremy Corbyn as the head of the U.K. Labour Party. In the case of Corbyn and Sanders, it seems that they have been motivated less by the problem of capital and labor than by a more nebulous concern for “social justice”—regardless of the latter’s real possibilities in capitalism. In the U.K., for example, Theresa May’s “Red Toryism”—by prioritizing the circumstance of the “British worker,” like Trump’s stated priority for the “American worker”—is actually more realistic, even if it presently has a rather limited organized political base. Corbyn, as a veteran New Leftist “social justice warrior,” is actually closer to the criteria of neoliberal politics than May, whose shifting Conservative Party is not (yet) able to support her agenda. By contrast, it is a solidly neoliberal Blairite Labour Party that Corbyn leads. But Brexit, and the crisis of the EU that it expressed, is changing the landscape. May is still, however, leading the way. As is, of course, Trump.
In this sense, the issue of socialism was closer to the actual concerns of Clinton and Trump than to Sanders. Sanders offered to his followers the Obama Presidency that never was, of a “new New Deal” that is never going to be. By contrast, both Clinton and Trump were prepared to move on from the 2008 economic crisis: How to make good of the crisis of neoliberalism, now a decade old? For every crisis is an opportunity for capitalism. This is what must be the concern of politics.
This is the ageless question of capitalism: How is society going to make use of its crisis of overproduction, its surplus in capital—its surplus of labor? How are the social possibilities of capital going to be realized? What is the actual potential for society in capitalism?
Of course, the narrow horizons of the perspectives of both Clinton and Trump and of May for realizing the potentials of capitalism are less appealing than the apparent idealism of Corbyn and Sanders. But, realistically, it must be admitted that the best possible outcome—with the least disruption and danger—for U.S. and thus global capitalism at present would have been realized by a Clinton Presidency. If Trump’s election appears to be a scary nightmare, a cruise into the unknown with a more or less lunatic at the helm, then, by contrast, a Sanders Presidency was merely a pipe-dream, a safe armchair exercise in idealism. Today, the stock market gambles that, whatever Trump’s gaffes, the Republican Party remains in charge. The captain, however wild-eyed, cannot actually make the ship perform other than its abilities. The question is whether one trusts a CEO trying to build the company by changing it, or one trusts the shareholders who don’t want to risk its profitability. Trump is not a safe bet. But he does express the irrepressible impulse to change. The only question is how.
So the question of the future of socialism is one of potential changes in capitalism. The question is how capitalism has already been changing—and will continue to change.
What seems clear is that capitalism, at least as it has been going on for the past generation of neoliberalism, will not continue exactly the same as it has thus far. There has been a crisis and there will be a change. Brexit and the fall of David Cameron as well as Trump’s victory and Hillary’s defeat—the successful challenge by Sanders and the rise of Corbyn alongside May’s Premiership—cannot all be chalked up to the mere accidental mistakes of history.
In the face of historical change, continuity must be reckoned with—precisely as the basis for this change. How is neoliberal capitalism changing out of its crisis?
Neoliberalism is old and so is at least in need of renewal. The blush has gone off the rose. Its heroic days are long behind us. Obama rallied it to a certain extent, but Hillary was unable to do so again. The Republicans might be stuck in vintage 1980s Reaganism, but Trump is dragging them out of it. In the face of Trump, the question has been posed: But aren’t we all good neoliberals? Not only Nancy Pelosi has said that, all respect to Bernie, we need not try to become socialists but remain capitalists. The mainstream Republican contender Marco Rubio said the same about Trump, while Ted Cruz retired to fight another day, against what he indicatively called Trump’s “socialism.” But the Tea Party is over. Now, the specter of “fascism” in the crisis of neoliberalism—which, we must remember, regards any and all possible alternatives to itself as more or less fascist—is actually the specter of socialism.
But what does the actual hope for socialism look like today? Does it inevitably appear as nationalism, only with a difference of style? Must the cosmopolitanism of capitalism take either the form of unmediated globalization (which has never in fact existed) or rather inter-nationalism, relations between nations? These apparent alternatives in themselves show the waning of neoliberal optimism—the decline of Clinton’s “global village.” We are now living—by contrast with the first Clinton era of the 1990s—in the era of neoliberal pessimism, in which all optimism seems reckless and frightening by comparison: Hillary’s retort that “America is great already!” raised against Trump’s “Make America Great Again!” Trump was critical of, and quite pessimistic about, existing conditions, but optimistic against Hillary’s political pessimism—to which Hillary and Obama could only say that things aren’t so bad as to justify (either Sanders or) Trump.
Were the Millennials by contrast too optimistic to accept Hillary’s sober pragmatism—or were they so pessimistic as to eschew all caution of Realpolitik and embrace Sanders and Corbyn? Have they clung, after the election of Trump, now, to the shreds of lip-service to their concerns, as the best that they could hope for? Does Sanders—like Corbyn in the U.K.—merely say, better than Hillary or Obama, what they want to hear? By comparison, Hillary and Trump have been a salutary dose of reality—which is bitterly resented. Obama was the “change we can believe in”—meaning: very little if any. Clinton as the continuation of Obama was the sobriety of low-growth “realism.” Now Trump is the reality of change—whether we like it or not. But it is in the name of the optimism for growth: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
The problem of capitalism—the problem that motivates the demand for socialism—is that of managing and realizing the possibilities of a global workforce. This is in fact the reality of all politics, everywhere. All countries depend on international and, indeed, global trade, including the circulation of workers and their wages. Even the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea depends not only on goods in trade but on remittances from its workers abroad. This issue of the global workforce is the source of the problem of migration—the migration of workers. For instance, wars are waged with the problem of refugees foremost in mind. Political crisis seeks alleviation in either benign ways such as the “brain drain” of the emigrating middle-class, or malignantly in ethnic cleansing—in either case the exodus of restive surplus populations that cannot be integrated. International aid as well as military intervention is calculated in effects on migration: how to prevent a refugee crisis? The U.S. has paid countries such as Egypt and Pakistan to subsidize their unemployed through bloated militaries. What is to be done with all those seeking work? Where will they find a job? It is a global problem.
Capital is the social form of this surplus of labor—the social surplus of production. Capital is the way society tries to manage and realize the potential of that surplus. But the source of that surplus is no longer so much human activity—labor—as it is science and technology. The problem is that, politically, we have no way of marshaling this surplus other than through possibilities for labor—for instance, through managing nation-states as labor markets. The question is realizing the potential possibilities of the social surplus beyond the reproduction of an increasingly redundant laboring workforce. Will they be starved or exterminated? Or will they be freed?
The only alternatives capitalism offers is in freedom to work—not the worst form of freedom the world has ever known, but its possibilities in capitalism are increasingly narrow. The question is the freedom from work. How will this be realized? There has been mounting evidence of this problem ever since the Industrial Revolution: unemployment. Social Darwinism was not a program but a rationalization for the crisis of capitalism. It remains so today. Will humanity free itself from the confines of capital—the limits of labor?
Were Jacobin’s Peter Frase’s four possible alternative futures merely alternatives in rhetoric? Nearly no one claims to favor exterminism, scarcity, or inequality. The real future of capitalism does not actually belong to such expressions of pessimism. Fortunately, it will be appreciably better than our worst fears—even if, unfortunately, it will be much worse than our best desires. Capitalism for better or worse does indeed have a future, even if it will be different from what we are now used to. It will also be different from our dreams and nightmares.
Jacobin’s Frase seems to assume that not what he calls “communism” but “socialism”—the combination of egalitarianism and scarcity—is both more possible and more desirable: for Frase, abundance carries the danger, rather, of continued capitalist “rentism” and hierarchy. For Frase, among others, the future of social conflict seems to be posed over the terms of scarcity: equality vs. “extermination;” for instance, egalitarianism vs. racism.
Both Moishe Postone’s and Peter Frase’s antinomies—of postmodernism and fundamentalism, and of scarcity and egalitarianism (the latter combination as Frase’s formula for “socialism”)—are expressions of pessimism. They form the contemporary face of diminished hopes. But capitalism will not tarry over them. It will move on: it is already moving on.
What is the future of abundance, however with hierarchy—that of continued capitalism, that is, of “capital rents”—in society, and how does this potential task any future for socialism? Where will the demand for socialism be raised? And how is it to be realized?
We should not assume that capitalist production, however contradictory, is at an end. No. We are not at an end to forms of scarcity under conditions of abundance, or at an end to hierarchies conditioned by social equality.
Citizen Trump shows us this basic fact of life under continued capitalism.
As Walter Benjamin observed in conversation with Bertolt Brecht during the blackest hour of fascism at the midnight of the last century, we must begin not with the “good old days”—which were in fact never so good—but with the “bad new ones.” We must take the bad with the good; we must take the good with the bad.
We must try to make good on the reality of capitalism. As Benjamin put it, we must try to redeem its otherwise horrific sacrifices, which indeed are continuous with those of all of civilization. History—the demand for socialism—tasks us with its redemption.
The future of capitalism is the future of socialism—the future of socialism is the future of capitalism.
Perhaps capitalism is the illness of bourgeois society, and socialism is the potential new form of life beyond the pregnancy of capitalism. Bourgeois society does not always appear as capitalism, but does so only in crisis. We oscillate in our politics not between capitalism and socialism but between bourgeois ideology and anti-capitalism—nowadays usually of the cultural ethno-religious fundamentalist communitarian and identitarian type: forms of anti-bourgeois ideology. But socialism was never, for Marxism at least, simply anti-capitalism: it was never anti-bourgeois. It was the promise for freedom beyond that of bourgeois society. The crisis of capitalism was regarded by Marxism as the tasking of bourgeois society beyond itself by socialism. It was why Lenin called himself a Jacobin; and why Eugene Debs called the 4th of July a socialist holiday. Socialism was to be the realization of the potential of bourgeois society, which is otherwise constrained and distorted in capitalism. So long as we live in bourgeois society there will be the promise—and task—of socialism. |P
 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Seabury Press, 1973), 143–144.