The way in which capitalist society portrays itself, that which it holds to be true, repeatedly involves denying the workers as a class and their interests constantly and at all levels. That is why critique is necessary, understood as the demolition of the ideological apparatus with which the social order is justified, covered and reproduced through commonsensical concepts, practices and values which prevent us from thinking beyond it and therefore confronting the system.
What does Marxist critique consist of?
In this endeavor, Marxist critique is materialist and historical: it understands that the bases of the social order and the ideas it creates and reproduces do not come from the ideas themselves, but material interests. The different societies that have appeared over the last ten thousand years are not the result of the evolutions and revolutions of ideas, but systems articulating the totality of society from the most tangible thing in the world: producing the means for the existence of its members.
The various known civilizations and societies are expressions of different modes of production. And there is no menu from which one can choose one way or another to organize oneself in order to produce. Modes of production respond to different levels of development of productive capacities, capacities that include not only humans themselves and their number, but also their capacity to organize themselves socially, the knowledge of Nature in its broadest sense, and the intellectual and physical tools to transform it. In other words, they reflect a history.
When we criticize that history, what appears – and it was already evident even to the bourgeois historians of the French Revolution – is that history does not advance by the mere cumulative effect of small changes, ideas and knowledge. The hinges separating modes of production are great political revolutions, moments in which social evolution changes the legal foundations and power structures of society.
Where do the demands and changes arising in these revolutionary periods come from? From contradictions and conflicts already established and long incubated. There are no surprise revolutions. Each mode of production until now has generated contradictory interests within itself. And those interests do not exist in the abstract either, they are material interests that cluster in a particular way – with particular goals, values and relations – into concrete social groups: classes. It is the conflict between them, the class struggle, which is finally discovered by critics as the driving force of history.
However, this story falls short. It is not even faithful, more than partially, to Marx’s original critique. At least two more elements should be added.
The first is understanding that historical processes are complex phenomena. Not complicated, but complex. That is to say, they are non-linear transformation processes, in which the interactions and dependencies between the different parts are continuous and, in which under different forms and in different measures according to each specific time, that is to say, depending on the previous results, every part conditions all the others. In such systems, small changes may produce great divergences after a while and apparently very important events -the discovery of the steam engine or arriving from Europe to America before anyone else, for instance- may not produce remarkable global results or transform the established institutions. This does not mean that complex systems are unknowable or unpredictable. It means that it is necessary to know their characteristic rationales and principles in order to explain their transformation and act consciously on them. That logic of the complex, is what Hegelian philosophy bequeathed us under the name of dialectics and was, according to Engels’ expression, turned upside down by Marx to convert it into materialist dialectics, applicable in principle both to history and the social as well as to the knowledge of Nature.
And one more element: there is no question of stopping the critique when it reaches the level of social classes. Social classes and what they mean within the social order they belong to, must also be criticized. And there, dialectics plays a crucial role, because besides understanding their material root -why they exist as a social fact- and their historical root -what led them to exist and be as they are today- it also introduces the need to understand the totality of which they are a part and that which they are not yet in order to understand what their meaning is. That is, it introduces the future into the understanding of the present.
Revolutionary classes have a particular relationship with the future
The social structure of a mode of production based on class division is in itself a complex system. We always find a ruling and exploiting class that is the beneficiary of the dominant relations of production in that society. It organizes the work in order to appropriate a part of its fruits and maintain its own social order. For obvious reasons, there is always also an exploited working class, whose work is alienated, estranged, that is to say, made alien to itself because it is appropriated and regulated by others. And between one class and another there are a series of intermediate classes, with more or less defined interests of their own within the system. Until the establishment of capitalism, the revolutionary class of each society grew and settled in this intermediate set. They were, like the bourgeoisie itself until it took over the state, exploiting but oppressed classes, separated from the political power they needed and aspired to in order to transform society according to their own interests.
The situation of the revolutionary class in the pre-capitalist modes of production was necessarily contradictory. On the one hand they were exploiting classes, beneficiaries of the established regime. On the other, from a certain point onwards, the development of their own interests and the capacities associated with them began to be systematically constrained. This moment marks the entry into decadence of the old society, but it does not mean a sudden or complete break of the revolutionary class from the decadent society. To do so would be to renounce the very source of its power. On the contrary, it will fight to entrench itself in the old society and in doing so in its own way, according to its interests, it will irretrievably undermine it. They will have one foot in the past and another in the future. In the past inasmuch as the already decadent mode of production is still the basis of their power; in the future inasmuch as the survival of the old interests and political apparatuses denies their own interests by denying them as a legitimate ruling class.
The contradiction is resolved with advances and mergers. Colonists and notable barbarians will dress themselves in the rags of the Roman provincial aristocracy, will mingle with it and will make the last remnant of the Empire their own: the church. The bourgeoisie will seek to enter the nobility and to introduce itself into the apparatus of the already hypertrophied state of the Old Regime. The more they asserted their own place in the dying old world, the closer they came to being able to overthrow it. In their case, past and future did not contradict each other; they fed each other. The past defined both its meaning in the social order and the future that they were bound to impose. These are the advantages of being an exploiting class in the transition from one system of exploitation to another.
The universal class
One of the variants of bourgeois ideology repeated ad nauseam tells us that the individual opinions of society’s members are those which, added in one way or another, end up shaping it. But the production of public opinion in bourgeois society is one more industry, dependent on capital and subordinated to it, as are the opinions it disseminates and legitimizes. In general, in any class society, the ruling class and its interests inspire, control, and produce the dominant ideas, values, and discourses… which the oppressed classes and the exploited class will inevitably make their own practically all the time. That is why the fashionable and common ideas at any given time among the classes that make up a society tell us rather little about what their historical role is going to be. We return to the starting point: material interests are what gives existence to the social classes. The question is how far they can lead a class like the proletariat which is, in the first place, the exploited class of capitalism.
Capitalism is the first mode of production in which the expropriation of the working class occurs by fundamentally economic means. It is not the armed exaction of the feudal lord and the use of violence by the state what directly expropriates a part of the product of the work of others. On the contrary, it is the apparently free and generalized exchange of commodities what allows the extraction of surplus value from the working class characteristic of this mode of production: the proletariat.
This fundamentally economic character, seemingly automatic, of exploitation under capitalism, leads to the total denial of the proletariat. The proletariat itself is defined as the opposite of everything which characterizes society: in a society defined by the generalized exchange of commodities, it has no other commodity to sell than its own labor power; in a society whose ruling class groups together and organizes society into national states, the proletariat will have a universal condition representing the dissolution of all nationalities.
Everything defining the human experience, everything that defines the human being under capitalism -mercantile freedom, equality before the state, fraternity in the nation- is alien to it. For the proletariat, mercantile freedom is wage slavery; equality before the state, denial as a political class; national fraternity is the obligation to sacrifice itself for national capital in crises and wars.
Under capitalism, every need is subordinated to the needs of capital and therefore universally denied to the proletariat. Let us remember for a second the trade unionist who tells us that we cannot demand what the company accounts cannot sustain without losses, the civil servant who tells us that medical treatments or pensions must be subordinated to fiscal goals, to the political leader who says that borders cannot be opened for migrants in search of work because there is no employment capacity or to the politician who says he will not authorize lockdowns in the face of the pandemic because the economy suffers. .. while the income of capital has been rising for sixty years, the hospitals of the ruling classes offer all existing treatments to those who can pay for them, borders have always been open to capital and its managers, and the bourgeoisie lives all over the world safely confined in its fortified neighborhoods.
It is from this total, universal denial of the first exploited class which is also a revolutionary class, that its main characteristic is born: it is a universal class, and not only because it exists worldwide but also because of the nature of the demands that appear in its struggles. Unlike the revolutionary classes of the past, it does not seek or fight for privileges of a new type, what it demands as a class are generic, universal human needs, valid for every human being. That is why its struggles raise, consciously or unconsciously, the need and the possibility of a world organized around the satisfaction of human needs, a new mode of production without exploitation: It cannot free itself without suppressing its own conditions of existence. It cannot suppress its own conditions of existence without suppressing all the inhuman conditions of existence in today’s society which are condensed into its situation.That is to say, it cannot end its exploitation without ending all exploitation.
The proletariat and the future
And so we reach an especially interesting aspect of the critique of the historical meaning of the proletariat. We have a class whose very existence is the system’s main contradiction and which the system denies in its entirety. It denies even its mere existence as a class. As the exploited class that it is, it has no possible place in the system, it cannot secure power in it or rely on it in order to create conditions to overcome it. In reality the proletariat, unlike the previous revolutionary classes, has only support, can only rely on… the future. Everything that is not an expression of the subjugation or exploitation it suffers only exists in relation to the future towards which its condition pushes it.
In fact, for the proletariat, its relation to the future is the only material measure of its present situation. The further it moves away from the future, the more atomized it becomes and the more distant it becomes politically. And since it cannot accumulate power within capitalist society – how could it accumulate power in a system organized for its exploitation – its relationship to the future cannot know any truces either: it either goes forward or it goes backward. Either it returns to the past and vanishes as a collective subject in society, or it advances and asserts itself as antagonistic to the existing order.
Let’s bring the historical focus closer to the concrete, to our current situation. The civilizational crisis of capitalism is evident and daily and it is clear that the main contradiction of the system is its own working class. As all social contradictions it can only be overcome… or keep developing until it completely engulfs the totality of which it is a part. The ruling class cannot overcome this contradiction on its own. It cannot dispense with the class it exploits. Only the proletariat itself, by emancipating itself and society from wage labor, can bring about its own dissolution.
We return again and again to the future. Everything which asserts the working class is based on the future, or what is the same, on its historical need. The development of its political organizations begins with communist morality, which, as Engels said, presents the future through the transformation of the present. The development and extension of class consciousness during mass struggles are other expressions of the future operating in the transformation of the present. And the forms of mass organization of the class are only understandable in their totality through the perspective of what they can become, their potential.
In short, we have a class whose struggle, even unconsciously, asserts the possibility and the necessity of the communist future. And which, being completely and universally denied, can only be understood in each moment and in history as a whole, in relation to that future made present by its struggle. In other words, the particular relationship of the proletariat with the future is permanent and constant… even during the darkest periods. For our class there is no longer any stable accommodation possible in present society. The future is everything.