Seeds of the new society

Within the symptoms of decline, Hillel Ticktin argues, there are anticipations of the future

Today we are experiencing a decline within the decline, as it were. In a sense capitalism has been in decline ever since it came into existence. For example, Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 poem, 'The deserted village', contains the following lines:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay.

That could have been written today. In the 18th century people were hardly writing as though capitalism was about to mature.

It is usually said that in the period of transition from feudalism to capitalism there were spontaneous movements within the old form. Nothing is planned, but the bourgeoisie comes into existence because of the developments in the mode of production. This allows value to take form and the class struggle to move on. The rising capitalist class does not understand the process: it simply happens.

Of course, this is not possible in the period of the decline of capitalism, because the movement for socialism cannot be entirely spontaneous.

 There has to be an understanding of the change, which implies that there has to be a political party, expressing the consciousness of the working class, which actively intervenes in that change.

The other problem is that socialism can only come into existence on a world scale - it must be international and arrive "all at once". Capitalism is a world system, and bits of it cannot be removed. This was proven by events in the USSR - precisely this was tried, and failed. Either they had capitalism in total or they had nothing. However, it was to be expected that there will be abortive forms in the transition from capitalism in decline to socialism.

Capitalism came into existence as a world system over hundreds of years and its emergence was gradual. This cannot be the case with socialism. Capitalism itself is now an integrated world system and must be overthrown by an integrated world system.


It is sometimes argued that new forms cannot come into existence until the new society is born - a vicious circle. It is true that socialism cannot come into existence within capitalism but, as the old forms begin to die, anticipations of the new forms do appear, on which those new forms can be built - that is evident. The period of the decline of capitalism is not only marked by a decline in the law of value and the increasing difficulty in mediation: it is also marked by the formation of institutions which a future socialist society will be able to use - the seeds of the new.

Just as the various underdeveloped forms of capital came into existence in the period of the decline of feudalism, so the distorted visions of a future socialist society have been brought into existence today. Socialism cannot be conjured up out of nothing: it has to be created out of the existing society and its conditions.

Within the decline of capitalism there is a decline of all the old categories and a movement towards the new. In other words, pseudo-socialist and proto-socialist forms come into being. They are not socialist, but they do come into conflict with capitalism, while simultaneously propping it up. The fundamental categories of capitalism change and value itself is increasingly replaced by organisation and management, provoking demands for control from below.

So the very conception of organisation from below exists within capitalism. It is even demanded, to an extent, by the development of capitalism itself. Just as Marx pointed out, government intervention, monopoly cartels, nationalisation and implicit agreements are crucial within the declining market. Behind value, of course, is abstract labour, and so behind the decline in value is the decline in abstract labour.

The fundamental aspect of a communist or socialist society (I make no distinction between the two) is that for the first time a society is planned by the associated producers themselves. For the first time humanity becomes conscious of itself and is able to take its future directly into its own hands. This becomes possible when mankind is no longer struggling with itself, but is able to act in the interests of everyone - both as individuals and as a collective.

The potentiality for abundance comes into existence within capitalism. Without such a potentiality there would be very great difficulty in ever going over to socialism, because there can be no scarcity in a socialist society. As Trotsky put it, the old class then returns: as soon as there is a queue, there is a policeman. We know there is potential abundance today - without the many different forms of waste endemic to capitalism, production would be much higher and that abundance would be clear. There is an enormous gap between the actual and the potential - the most obvious being the gap between human talent and the opportunity to utilise it. If we consider a society in which human talent was fully employed to its highest level, then of course the standard of living would be enormously higher.

So the potentiality today is undoubtedly there and no Marxist would argue anything else. This is obvious if one looks at the degree of automation. It has been said that Marx and Engels were wrong to argue for socialism in 1848, as the forces of production and standards of living were much lower. However, I think the potentiality was already there in 1848. Since then the gap between reality and potentiality has been growing, which is, of course, a feature of decline. Forces do actually exist for a very high standard of living. There are whole areas of the world which could use automation, but do not because it simply does not pay. One could say the same of many aspects of society.

Abstract labour

Human society has been characterised by a constant struggle, on the one hand, to subdue nature and, on the other hand, to add social form to that subjugation of nature. Within capitalism this contradiction manifests itself in the form of the opposites of exchange value and use value, and, behind them, concrete labour and abstract labour. The social form of labour under capitalism is abstract labour. If value is in decline, then so is abstract labour - they are inseparable.

The category of abstract labour today has become a controversial concept. There are many different viewpoints. My understanding is that it is the quantitative form imposed on human labour-power: that is to say, the reduction of labour to a homogenous form. This permits the comparison in value terms between different labour-powers.

In other words, abstract labour is material and real (I am always surprised when people argue that it exists only in the mind or that it only comes into existence at the point of exchange). Abstract labour is therefore essential for understanding capital and value, because abstract labour is the basis of value. Abstract labour becomes a crucial concept in order to reduce labour to a purely quantitative value.

The worker becomes completely alienated from his product, species, existence as a human being and nature itself. Every worker is placed in the same position under capitalism, and therefore the concept of abstract labour is absolutely essential in the formation of the class. Quite evidently, if there is an atomised workforce, as in the USSR, there can be no abstract labour. For that reason it became very difficult to develop collectivity in the Soviet Union and explains why no working class was able to come into existence and why the system was not overthrown.

Abstract labour provides the basis for the alienation of the working class from value. So it follows that under socialism abstract labour will be abolished. There can be no possibility of subjecting the working class to a superior force which reduces labour to a quantitative form: ie, alienation. No aspect of value can exist under socialism.

From this point of view it becomes clear that no exact economic calculation can be possible under socialism at all. All that can be said is that a particular project will cost so many people's working hours. It would be impossible to work it out exactly and nobody would try to. There was a debate in the 1930s between the market fundamentalist, Ludwig von Mises, and Oscar Lange, who became the chief economist of the Stalinist regime in Poland. Von Mises said that calculation under socialism is impossible, which I think is correct. Lange argued that it was possible and produced a theory using pure maths and 'shadow prices'. But these were based on a 'shadow market' and if there is a market, 'shadow' or otherwise, then this must be based on abstract labour. That debate proved rather futile, but the so-called left was wrong and the right was correct from this point of view.

The whole tendency in modern society is towards the abolition of abstract labour. The law of value is becoming less and less applicable and abstract labour must therefore also be reduced. But the consequence of this affects the formation of the working class itself. If there are sectors where the law of value does not apply, then workers within them will not be employed at the same rate as workers in other parts of the economy. At one level this may seem unpalatable, because it acts against unity, but it does allow workers to experience their exploitation directly rather than through the mediation of value.


In these circumstances the demand for change takes different forms: rather than the demand for higher wages the demand for control comes to the fore. I am thinking particularly of the government sectors, such as health and education, where there is not much sense in just demanding higher wages. There are also calls for a reduction in stress and for greater control from below, in the face of a drive to institute the reverse. The right of managers to manage was first proclaimed under Thatcher, but has redoubled under Blair.

This is a very interesting slogan because it is the opposite of saying, 'Just leave things to the market.' The emphasis on management is one of authority, of a desire for direct control of those below. The fact is that capitalism is malfunctioning and it is no longer possible to argue for a 'better' capitalism, or one that is more dependent on the market.

If conditions are altered so as to favour the working class - with the introduction of the welfare state, for example - automatically capitalism begins to malfunction. It is disgusting that the Blair government is now attacking people on disability benefits and so on. But it is something that one should expect in conditions where the reserve army of labour is very limited - if it exists at all. Obviously, if workers have a high standard of living and are not worried about being sacked, they will demand control over their workplaces: they have done it before and will do it again. Logically they must be threatened with the loss of their jobs and left insecure. It is the only way capitalism can function in the long run: a kinder, gentler capitalism has never existed and can never exist.

In other words, the period 1939-73 was exceptional for specific historic reasons; but in general terms capitalism malfunctions if it makes social democratic concessions, and competition - an essential basis of capitalism - is limited. Marx actually said that it is competition that permits its laws to function. Competition is not a law itself, but without it the laws cannot function. Yet there is, as one would expect, increasing socialisation and integration of production, and with the growth of large firms, quite obviously, competition diminishes. Therefore the state must intervene, in order to decide the degree of competition and who the competitors are.

There are, then, limited forms of competition - but that reproduces the problems arising from no competition at all: the law of value will not operate in the same way, or may not operate at all. Monopolies are not governed by the market and will simply set prices as they see fit. What this means is that not only prices, but also costs within the system, become arbitrary. Many commodities are sold at an enormous price, compared to what they cost to produce - and that is only possible because of the level of competition, in spite of what is happening in China. Many firms are not actually run today in terms of the bottom line for each individual commodity - in this sense it is similar to the USSR.

There is a strong interconnection of monopoly with finance capital. A very obvious case of this was IBM (before it was divided). IBM was virtually a finance capitalist company through the nature of its world monopoly in hardware. The point is not that IBM had a simple monopoly, but that it got there through its ability to raise prices to the point where it extracted tribute from its customers, and this was possible because it sold only to businesses. A number of firms - including airlines, for example - bought IBM computers and then had to use IBM for software and repairs. The absence of competition left it free to rake in huge profits. In effect IBM was parasitic - extracting tribute, or super-surplus value.

Like any parasite, however, it was tempted to destroy its host and so its own position. It attempted to prevent cheap computers being developed over time. Only when the PC came along was its position undermined, and at that point its very nature as a parasite made it unable to compete. Any monopoly can extract more than its product is worth, but a firm which actually exacts tribute holds total or near-total control in relation to other firms. Another obvious example is that of the oil cartels: there is little or no competition between individual sellers.

An automatic consequence is the growth of a bureaucratic apparatus - once price is no longer determined by the market, it becomes a question of decision-making. The large apparatus is necessary to work out where the product should be sourced, etc - it is only partly a question of calculation. One would expect IBM to have become a bureaucratic entity, and it did. It had enormous surplus value which it used to finance a huge marketing business. It also had a $9 billion budget for research, but the research and marketing sectors did not gel together and new products were unable to get through to the sectors of the firm where they were needed. It was for the very reason that IBM existed in this monopoly form that it almost went under.

It is the increasing socialisation of production which produces this move away from use value and an apparatus that merges with finance capital. The firm is no longer interested in just the product: it is interested in those products that can generate huge, extra profit. It is not simply that it has become bureaucratic: it has become bureaucratic and finance capitalist.

What I am arguing is hardly new. Engels talked about the invading socialist society and its proto-socialist forms. Nationalisation, government intervention and control from below cause capitalism to malfunction, yet at the same time they demonstrate the potentiality of what could come into existence and could be used in the process of transition.

Workers as class

Despite this, it is quite clear that there can be no change of system unless the working class actually takes power and creates a new mode of production. Even though the working class can no longer be viewed as a single block of abstract labour - a situation that the ruling class uses to its advantage - it retains the capacity to see itself politically and struggle as a class. The working class has been held back as a class, but at the same time, to the extent that people are able to exert control within government sectors, these sectors begin to malfunction.

In sectors such as education and health, the state is increasingly demanding 'value for money'. In other words, it is trying to proletarianise the workers in those sectors. I would never have predicted that university lecturers would become workers, but that is what is happening. Increasingly they must be present between 9 and 5 and be able to account for their time. The authorities need to do this to regain control, which cannot be achieved through the operation of the law of value, although this has been tried. Consequently it has become a totally bureaucratic form which malfunctions within itself.


If forms change, but the system is not overthrown, then it begins to malfunction. This does not mean that it is in perpetual crisis, but it does mean that certain parts of it will begin to decay. This is evident in the power of bodies such as the mafia, drug lords and the growth of drug production and consumption. It is evident in the reduction of food production through common markets, even though people are starving. It is evident in the spread of diseases such as Aids, TB and malaria, which could be dealt with very quickly if sufficient resources were allocated to research and the provision of medical staff and free drugs. If only the sums invested in, for example, mobile phones were diverted to combating Aids, it could not only be controlled, but eliminated.

All this is a reflection of decay and actually follows a similar pattern to previous declines - think of the plague of 1348. Today, however, phenomena such as disease can be more widespread because of the ease of travel. In some cases we can say they have been made worse by capitalism in its decline. We could also mention the continual wars, the massacres that seem to have no end. We could also point to the stupidity of many of the doctrines now being expounded - think of 'intelligent design' and 'new age' theories.