Understand these two key sentences from Karl Marx and you will understand the end of capitalism.
Of course, I am not trying to say you could possibly understand everything Marx had to say about the end of capitalism by studying only these two sentences. Sometimes it seems one could study Marx for a lifetime and barely scratch the surface. (Grundrisse, together with the three volumes of Capital are intimidating enough, and a project attempting to publish all of Marx and Engels’ works is expected to require over 120 volumes.)
But these two sentences provide a profound insight into how and why capitalism ends. They reveal that capitalism will end, not with a bang, but with a soft robotic whir (and, perhaps, a well-timed push).
The first sentence is found in The Communist Manifesto (1848). It defines the essential nature of capitalism and its impact on society:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.
Consider the first phrase of this sentence: The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production. Today this is a commonplace. It is touted as one of capitalism’s greatest strengths. The incessant compulsion to increase efficiency and productivity, to reduce input costs and maximize profits is celebrated as a virtue, the very engine of progress.
Acknowledging Marx’s original insight, Joseph Schumpeter added in 1942:
The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.
He called this process “Creative Destruction,” and declared it to be “the essential fact about capitalism.” He went on to say that once this is recognized one’s “outlook on capitalist practice and its social results changes considerably.”1
This association of creative destruction with its “social results” recalls the second and third phrases of Marx’s sentence: and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.
As both men explained, when capitalism revolutionizes the instruments of production there are social consequences. But Marx is not merely being poetic in distinguishing between two sets of social relations. He is revealing the inner mechanics of how changes in the means of production spread through society.
Technological revolutions first and foremost impact what Marx calls the “relations of production.” This set of relations involves the arrangements that members of a society must enter into in order to produce and procure the things they need to survive. Different ways of production give rise to different relations of production. The classic contrast here is between an agrarian feudal society and an industrial capitalist economy. Each will have distinct relations of production which serve their respective productive capabilities. It is evident then, that when quantitative developments in the means of production accumulate to the point of becoming a qualitative transformation, a revolution in the social relations of production is inevitable.
This natural and intimate connection between the means of production and the relations of production forms what Marx referred to as the mode of production. Or, put another way, a mode of production is comprised of two elements; the means of production and the relations of production. This distinction between the two elements within a mode of production will prove crucial in a moment.
Sitting atop this societal base is what what Marx calls the superstructure of society; the political, legal, religious, philosophical and cultural components of society. Here are what he means by the “whole relations of society.” This extension is affected incidentally. It responds to facilitate changes in the mode of production. Individual aspects respond or adapt in varying degrees, but overall everything is affected. Ultimately, a new social consciousness emerges, all arising (in our present iteration), from the inexorable logic of capitalist development.
The second sentence is found in Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. It further explains the dynamics of how this defining characteristic affects society:
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto.
Here we see why the distinction within a mode of production between the means of production and the relations of production is important. It is precisely in the conflict that arises between these two elements that revolutionary motive force is generated. It is not by “men understanding that the existence of classes is in contradiction to justice, equality, etc., not by the mere willingness to abolish these classes, but by virtue of certain new economic conditions” that revolution becomes a historical necessity.2
There is something more fundamental than public outcry for change — the transformed economic conditions which create widespread dissatisfaction. This is not a trite observation. It reveals that with or without grassroots democratic mobilization, with or without an effective counter-hegemonic project, with or without some revolutionary vanguard, change is coming. Something is going to give. This fact does not rely any campaign to rally the masses, or upon overthrowing the existing power structure. Change is coming because of the diremption occurring within the capitalist mode of production itself; the conflict between the newly revolutionized means of production and the suddenly outdated relations of production.
The question is not will things change, but how? In what direction?
Looking deeper into the nature of this conflict, Marx describes the old social relations, and in particular the old rights of property, as becoming “fetters” which hold back the new productive forces.
We already see this occurring today. Large capitalist interests, like Google or IBM, already understand the benefit of open-sourcing their technologies to accelerate innovation. Traditional patents and copyrights are foregone in a strategy to crowdsource development. This action may not be as magnanimous as it seems. As the technologies are developed (and presumably democratized and ambiguated) these companies may seek to disambiguate the results in an attempt to recapture the innovations and privatize the benefits. This will give rise to a counter-hegemonic struggle for antidisambiguation; the struggle to keep the benefits of the new technologies freely available to all, analogous to current efforts to keep the internet free and open to all.
So we see that although the process of revolutionizing the means of production will inevitably end up revolutionizing existing property relations and power structures (the relations of production) there must still be this struggle over what the new rules will be. The outcome will be determined, as Marx described, by the manner in which we “become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”
Reactionary forces will always fight to the death to preserve their hegemony. This is to be expected. Theirs will be the single strongest hand.
If the forces of progress (however they define themselves) are to prevail they are going to have to work together in common cause.
The natural capitalist development of our productive power is rapidly approaching the point where it is going to change our social contract. This is no time for complacency. There are no guarantees change will be for the better.
This rare opportunity for social progress may not be repeated. This may be the final dialectical inversion — the final time when quantitative progress in the means of production accumulates into a qualitative transformation of society. It is difficult to imagine another inversion after full automation, full digitization and full artificial intelligence becomes the norm. But that is a subject for another post.
Capitalism is creatively destroying itself. The conflict arising within our mode of production provides are rare opportunity for revolutionary action. Someone is going to write the new rules for how society will cope with these changes. What comes next depends on how we engage in the struggle.
1 Schumpeter, Joseph A. (2008) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Harper Perennial Modern Thought Edition. New York, NY.
2 Engels, Friedrich. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific