The critique of capitalism: the writings of Ellen Meiksins Wood in review

Submitted by Anon on 15 October, 2005 - 2:00 Author: Janet Burstall and Tony Brown

The lesson that we may be obliged to draw from our current economic and political condition is that a humane, ‘social’, truly democratic and equitable capitalism is more unrealistically utopian than socialism” concludes Ellen Wood in Democracy against capitalism (p. 293).

And if capitalism cannot be reformed to achieve this kind of society, then we need a critique of capitalism, which, Wood begins her book by explaining, is the principal project of Marxism.

So, why, given the dire state of the world, is the Marxist critique of capitalism not more influential, widely supported, authoritative?

Wood’s book, written in the wake of two critically important events, takes up this question. The dramatic and unexpected collapse of the command economies of Eastern Europe and the triumph of the “New World Order” after the Gulf War brought to an end the Cold War, which had been a constant feature of international and national politics for the past half century.

For many on the left the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union removed a set of certainties which had included a belief that alternative, socialist societies actually existed and that their existence maintained, an albeit fragile, peace. Pessimism grew with the belief that the prospects of radical social, political and economic change had come to an end and that capitalism was triumphant. Some abandoned politics, others accommodated to what they saw as “new times”. A number used their positions in the universities to teach pessimism to new generations of students under the guise of radical theories such as post-marxism, the politics of identity, postmodernism and poststructuralism.

Others drew different political conclusions from the death of Stalinism. Rather than bringing an end to cold war certainties it opened up the opportunity of reconceiving what socialism might be, of renewing the link between socialism and democracy which had been eliminated in the repressive regimes of Eastern Europe.

Early in 1992 Ellen Meiksins Wood was asked for her assessment of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She replied that it would take some time to repair the damage to socialism caused by Stalinism but concluded that we should be relieved that the albatross had been removed from our collective neck.

“In fact, maybe the principal lesson we ought to be learning from the collapse of Communism is that, while capitalism has proved itself capable of functioning without democracy, socialism cannot. Socialism is, by definition, a democratic organisation of society at every level from the workplace to the state.”

“If we conceive of socialism as, in its very foundation, an organisation of material life based on freely associated direct producers, then that understanding of the socialist project conditions everything else.” (Workers Liberty 16, March 1992). This conception of the centrality of democracy to socialism underpins her book.

Democracy against capitalism is a continuation of her earlier work The retreat from class, for which she is best known among socialists. There she challenged the idea, which had been evolving since the 1970s, that the working class was no longer the crucial element in the struggle against capitalism. She examined the writings of “post-Marxists” such as Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Paul Hirst, Barry Hindess and Gareth Stedman Jones as well as writers such as Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis.

Wood takes the reader on a wide-ranging tour of modern Marxist philosophy and its current radical critics. She asks us to consider what causes human society to be the way it is, or more specifically to consider what are its fundamental determinants. Class relations, she argues, have taken very different forms over time and place, and underlie the vast differences in social relations in general. A recurring theme of the book is that capitalism is a historically specific system of social organisation, unlike all previous systems. She argues that the market as a driving force is specific to capitalism.

One of the features differentiating capitalism and previous systems of production and accumulation is the separation of economy and politics. Under feudalism, for instance, the lord owned the land, appropriated the surplus and held political power — any struggle tended to challenge the authority of the feudal lord. In contrast, the connection between economics and politics is deliberately obscured as capitalism has developed two separate realms of power which previously were one and the same. As a result capitalist proprietors appear as separate from the state and politics, or as Karl Polanyi in his writings on the “great transformation” described it as the “disembedding of the ‘economy’ from society”.

So the economy appears as an autonomously functioning entity operating under a set of “laws” determined by the market which is most efficient if left unhindered and unconstrained by politics or the state.

Wood lays the groundwork for a discussion of the history of democracy, and her case for applying the political concepts of democracy to the economic sphere of production. She is also placing capitalism in a historical context, which helps the reader to conceive that capitalism is not a permanent state of affairs.

She is particularly critical of the base-superstructure metaphor and the mechanical way in which it has been employed by twentieth century Marxism. She prefers E P Thompson’s metaphor for relations of production as a field of force. Here relations of production are the fundamental feature of capitalism — not technology, forces of production or even capitalist ownership.

Capitalism is the relations of production by which capital appropriates the surplus of production — and these relations of production are not confined to the sphere of work, they are incorporated in law, in the state, in other aspects of society. To narrowly define an economic base for capitalism is to be unable to understand it fully.

Capitalist class relations force people to sell their labour power, exchanging it as a commodity or to be condemned to social exclusion or poverty. It is this social relation which is fundamental to capitalism and which despite changes in the economy, production systems, international trade, politics or culture remains at the core of capitalism today.

She sees class relations as a “structured process”, as against various stratification theories, which are in effect accepted by some Marxists. This geological layered approach understands people occupy fixed positions, and enjoy gradations of privilege. This obscures the fundamental relations of domination. The “structured process” for Thompson and Wood, means having a way of understanding changes in class relations, including how the working class can develop from being a class in itself to being a class for itself. It recognises that socialism is the act of working class self-emancipation, not of some superior intellectuals decreeing or implementing socialism from above.

The book’s second section begins with a historical overview of the concept of democracy and citizenship from ancient through to modern times. In discussing current popular ideas of “civil society”, (which she calls the “cult of civil society”) and the politics of identity, she suggests that both concepts operate primarily in the political sphere. They accept, perhaps unwittingly, capitalist social relations, and the separation of economics and politics as givens.

Wood examines the first ideas and realities of democracy in Ancient Greece. Despite its limitations it provided equal civic status and participation to all its citizens and generated opposition from elitist philosophers who did not like the rule of the demos (people). She traces the misappropriation of the ideas of Greek democracy by the founding fathers of American democracy, and the way in which they limited democracy to allow and conceal the emergence of a capitalist ruling class, immune from accountability to the people. Thus emerged modern capitalist democracy based on an understanding of a public political sphere which respected and protected private property in the means of production.

And yet modern capitalist democracy has been able to concede an extension of citizenship on a broader scale than any previous social order. Capitalism has found, after it was forced by struggle to concede, that civic participation of the propertyless, of women, blacks and indigenous peoples, homosexuals, 18 year olds, has not threatened its continued existence. Indeed many proponents of extending democratic rights argue that recognising a greater diversity of citizenship rights will strengthen capitalism’s efficiency while making it hardier and more representative.

So we live with the grotesque juxtaposition of formal, legal and political equality — liberal democracy — against the most extensive inequality and poverty. It is commonplace in the industrialised economies to find massive differences in income and property (where managerial salaries are more than 100 times the average pay of employees) that would be considered intolerable were they applied to political rights such as voting, or to civil rights such as equal access to the law.

Some current expressions of political radicalism see civil society or identity politics as the means to emancipation under capitalism without challenging social relations. Civil society is conceived of as the place of freedom from the state, a space for a wide range of emancipatory aspirations. Its advocates see the state, not class relations, as the chief obstacle to democracy.

Wood sees no inherent structural impediment in capitalism to changes in response to identity politics, although she sees capitalism as resistant to them. She contends that capitalism is capable of tolerating difference and could survive without the oppression of women, racial minorities or homosexuals. What it cannot tolerate, or survive, is working class liberation.
Her central criticism of the politics of identity and civil society, is that they place issues of difference and democracy at the centre of their conception of social change, thereby “surrender(ing) to capitalism and its ideological mystifications.” (p 263) If it is class relations that constitute capitalism then class relations are what must be overthrown to rid ourselves of capitalism.

“We should not confuse respect for the plurality of human experience and social struggles with a complete dissolution of historical causality, where there is nothing but diversity, difference and contingency, no unifying structure, no logic of process, no capitalism, and therefore no universal project of human emancipation.” (p 263)
Her observation that political life in capitalism is subordinate to the power of capital is not new. What Wood is adding is an exploration of democracy including its original form in ancient Greece. She is making a case that a program for emancipation needs to both challenge capitalist social relations and replace them with a genuine democracy as the driving mechanism of the economy.

The very idea of a unifying democracy or a program of human emancipation is dismissed by various postmodern and post-Marxist writers, most of whom can be found in publicly funded universities. Wood links their ideological development with the economic downturn following the post war boom. The vast expansion of post-secondary education in the 1970s also meant new job opportunities for graduates as university teachers. They rose on the wave of ideological struggle and cultural revolution which rested on the long post-war economic boom. What many failed to understand was that boom would soon turn to a series of crashes beginning in 1973/4. Wood argues that many of this generation felt the boom’s end as the end of normality and so the cyclical decline since the 1970s has had a special, cataclysmic meaning for them.

Disillusioned by their expectations of revolutionary change they have turned their backs on what they see as old-fashioned economic issues or class struggle (Wood labels them “world weary pessimists”) instead being attracted by cultural practice and ideology. “Productive activity has finally been displaced by ‘discourse’ as the constitutive practice of social life, the material reconstruction of society has been replaced by the intellectual deconstruction of texts, and the terrain of left politics has been purposefully enclosed within the walls of the academy, while historical causality has been completely dissolved in postmodern fragmentation, ‘difference’ and contingency.” (Chronology 1995, p 45)

Today’s “post” academics have progressed from 1960s students to junior staff and are now senior academics. The paradox is that their intellectual activity, which celebrates “popular culture” has become increasingly exclusionary. Academic discourse has become more inaccessible, available to only a small minority of the initiated.

Included among these are a number of feminist writers who benefited from the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s. “If the women’s movement has remained as the sixties’ most consistently activist legacy, it is especially ironic that it has also produced some of the most inaccessible and exclusionary discourses in today’s academy.” (Chronology 1995, p 39)

She is inclined to dismiss “the conditions of postmodernity” as not so much a historical condition corresponding to a period of capitalism — indeed she refutes the periodising of modernity and postmodernity as being historically flawed — but as a psychological condition corresponding to a period in the biography of the Western left intelligentsia”. (Modernity, 1997)

Such writers believe that the “new social movements” have replaced the working class as the touchstone of radicalism. In their retreat from class as a tool of analysis they have gone in for “pretension and obscurity”. In her view radical Western intellectuals “have gone a long way beyond the healthy and fruitful attention to the ideological and cultural dimensions of human experience” as a result of their disappointments in failed Stalinist projects and the absence of a revolutionary working class. (Democracy, p. 10)

What unites many of these writers is their disillusion with what they saw as revolutionary socialism in either China, Cambodia, Vietnam or Yugoslavia. They saw the leaders of these regimes as leaders of some variety of world socialist revolution. But as they belatedly recognised that these were brutal totalitarian regimes they abandoned their youthful sense of outrage at capitalism and replaced it with their very own detente, now placing hope in environmental, gender, race or identity politics or even in some cases accepting outright the market as the best or only possible way after all of organising society.

The bridge for the new reformists between their former seemingly radical politics and their present politics was the Eurocommunism of the French, Italian, Greek and Spanish Communist Parties. Wood identifies Louis Althusser and the Greek/French writer Nicos Poulantzas as the “forerunners” of the present retreat. Their arguments for the (relative) autonomy of ideology created the ideological environment for a more virulent anti-marxism.

“The intellectual history of the (stunningly rapid) transition from the structuralist Marxism of the sixties and seventies, through the brief moment of ‘post-Marxism’, to the current fashions of ‘postmodernism’ has in large part been the story of a disappointed determinism... Western Marxism has been deeply influenced by the default of revolutionary consciousness within the working class and by the resulting dissociation of intellectual practice from any political movement. This seems to have encouraged people not only to seek political programmes less reliant on the working class but also to look for theories of social transformation freed from the constraints and disappointments of history...” (Democracy p 9-10)

Post-Marxist ideas infected other more notable journals of the left such as New Left Review. In “A chronology of the new left and its successors” Wood traces the origins of the journal’s establishment before drawing a balance sheet on her involvement as an editor in the 1980s. The article is in effect her resignation statement from the NLR and it highlights some of the problems of current leftist politics in the industrialised countries.

The increasing concentration on abstract political theory and cultural criticism crowded out and eventually replaced an analysis of issues relevant to working class struggle. For instance, Wood recounts that between 1984-1988 the period which included the printers’ dispute against Murdoch at Wapping and the landmark British Miners Strike, NLR printed 184 articles. Of those only “one minor piece on the miners’ strike, an anecdotal, experiential account of the strike as it affected one community” was printed. “There has been nothing more on this event or about any other industrial dispute in Britain or elsewhere, whether empirical, experiential, or analytical. Only one or two articles have appeared concerning anything remotely resembling the issues of immediate concern to workers: one on the labour process debate, and another on Swedish wage-earner funds.”

Since Democracy Wood has further developed a number of the ideas and themes she raised in her book. She has focussed on what are becoming a new set of orthodoxies — globalisation, the market and technological development, modernity and postmodernity, — contrasting them with the realities of capitalism at the end of the twentieth century and the enduring features of capitalism — class, exploitation, accumulation and expansion.

In this period when the left is fragmented and disillusioned political clarity is essential in revitalising an organised opposition to capitalism based in the working class. Wood’s now substantial body of work is a major contribution to that project. The task she has set herself is to rethink historical materialism not just because it is important in its own right but because capitalism has achieved a global political and economic dominance that is even more extensive than that of the early part of this century. She is talking about the “universalisation of capitalism itself”, its social relations, its laws of motions, its contradictions — the logic of commodification, accumulation, and profit-maximisation penetrating every aspect of our lives”. (Modernity 1997) This is something all together different to what is meant by the vague term “globalisation”.

The power of its ruling classes and the market are increasingly unregulated, and is accompanied by a rapid rise in inequality both within the advanced economies and between nations. For instance in the USA, the wealthiest nation on earth, over thirty five million people, 40% of them children, today live in what has been defined as “absolute poverty” (Peterson, W. Silent Depression, 1994 )

It is not that resistance to capitalism does not exist, it clearly does. There are many examples of working class opposition to capitalism such as in Korea and France, of popular and local oppositions on environmental grounds, or in campaigns against the winding back of the welfare state and in support of indigenous rights.

Many of these movements are not socialist, even not yet fundamentally anti-capitalist. It is not surprising that there are those who will latch on to expressions of resistance and even elevate those campaigns to a status beyond that which they deserve. But that will in the end not assist in the task of building a socialist alternative. One of the vital missing ingredients which could help to unite these movements is a broad program for universal human emancipation which recognises the working class — in all its diversity — as fundamental to that goal.

Ellen Wood is issuing a challenge to think through the changes that have occurred within the left and within capitalism as a precursor to building that alternative.

Renewing and revitalising historical materialism, keeping alive hope and critique in these difficult times is an essential educative role in preparing new generations of workers, students and socialists opposed to the cruelties and despair of capitalism. The critique of capitalism — the principal project of Marxism — can erode the hegemony of the ideology of the market, and enable us to conceive of alternatives.