Capital’s final crisis?

In my article, “Contradictions in capital,” I identified 13 contradictions expressed in simple relations whose resolution had shaped the development of political economy since the emergence of commercial life. The first of these contradictions to emerge from traditional forms of life was the distinction between public and private spheres. I suggest that this oldest and deepest contradiction may prove to be the final contradiction for the capitalist mode of production.

The private sphere includes all those activities for which a person is free to participate according to their own will without regard to the custom and law of the wider community, even if a person’s will is guided by cultural and social norms. The public sphere is all those activities which are governed by law and custom and enforced by strangers.

I refer to this distinction as a ‘contradiction’ because the only way a human being can enjoy a good life and exercise their freedom is that they are so constituted that their aspirations are spontaneously aligned with the aspirations and laws of the community in which they live. The reality that human beings are not so constituted and yet demand freedom has been resolved by subjecting a limited range of activities to constraints of custom and law, while reserving a private domain of activities in which liberty may be enjoyed.

This distinction is not the same as that between a domestic sphere of activity in which activities affect only those included in the household, and a social sphere in which activities, whether or not governed by law and custom, have a significant impact on other activities. The capitalist enterprise is the archetype of such an activity, being a private enterprise acting outside the domestic sphere. The capitalist firm buys and sells goods and services on a contractual basis, within limits, but essentially without regard to the general will or the general good. What is essential to the capitalist mode of production is that capitalist firms own the means of production while strangers use those means under contractual arrangements, and what is produced is consumed by strangers. Thus Marx characterised capitalist property as social means of production, so the private sphere is seen to extend beyond the domestic sphere to include the social means and management of production.

The point is that every social formation demarcates the public and private spheres in the social superstructure, but activity in one sphere inevitably spills over into the other sphere to one extent or another. Thus, the line separating the private and public spheres is a perpetual site of conflict. The intrusion of activities belonging to one sphere into the other sphere manifests itself as a contradiction which may threaten the very existence of one or the other sphere. In such instances criminal law and civil regulation may be used to rectify the injustice or repositioned to accommodate the abuse.

Let’s look at some examples.

The Statute of Artificers enacted by Elizabeth I in 1563 formalised the seven years’ duration of apprenticeships and gave guild regulations the force of national legislation. ‘Betty’s Law’ was probably the first instance of laws regulating labour in the public interest, responding mainly to the impact of foreign trade and travel.

In the USA, the Sherman Act of 1890, was followed by the breaking up of Standard Oil into 34 separate companies, and the Clayton Act of 1914 and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914. Each of these acts marked a hitherto unimagined intrusion of the state into the affairs of big business, in response to a level of concentration of capital which threatened to sound the “knell of capitalist private property.”

To one degree or another, since antiquity, the state has recognised an obligation to defend women and children from the male head of the household, placing limits on the extent of abuse and exploitation which was tolerated within the domestic sphere. In 1918, the Fisher Act in the UK enforced compulsory education from 5-14 years, and compulsory part-time education for all 14 to 18-year-olds. Hitherto, education had been regarded as a strictly private responsibility of the family, usually provided by the churches, but the needs of industry and the community at large were not being met by the religious institutions.

In postwar London, the burning of coal in private homes and factories created smog which killed an estimated 12,000 Londoners. In 1956, the Clean Air Act was passed, banning the burning of coal within the city, either in industrial plants or in domestic hearths. This was probably the first environmental protection law in history, though statutes protecting waterways have a very ancient history.

Countless such measures have been enacted over the past millennium, without ever eradicating the distinction between public and private. Capitalism has long rested on a division between public and private spheres in which Marx focussed on the contradiction of private ownership of the social means of production. However, the contradiction is much wider than that. The instance of the 1956 Clean Air Act shows that even the domestic hearth had to be regulated in the interests of public health. The spectacle of one billionaire vaporising 300 tons of carbon for a private jaunt in space while nations are struggling to limit carbon emissions highlights the extent to which private individual activity can impinge on public welfare, and the present day need for the state to regulate the everyday movement of citizens to control the transmission of the covid19, shows that this potential reaches to every individual.

The public and private spheres tend to be mediated by projects which impinge on strangers. A project is an activity which is regulated by a shared motive (or motif), the individual actions of which are voluntary, collaborative acts of autonomous actors. For example, the guild regulations were quasi-laws of the guilds, formerly not enforced by the state; however, the guilds claimed governance over practice of the trade irrespective of whether those practising the trade were guild members. Another example would be the various racist and sexist projects which have shaped the lives of the targets without any legal basis by exercising private right in a systematic even if uncoordinated way.

Any project is potentially a public project. For example, there is nothing intrinsic to the delivery of parcels and messages which determines it to be a private or a public enterprise. There is no compulsion to participate in a project - it is down to the project to make its activity attractive to potential participants.

Sometimes the decisive assault on the public-private boundary comes from the private sphere when laws are subject to widespread disrespect, such as when parents withhold their children from public education or vaccination programs, or people routinely ignore traffic regulations, not to mention all kinds of corruption and criminal activity which continues unpunished. (I do not include civil disobedience under this heading as acts of civil disobedience are intended as political acts in defiance of law and custom). The outstanding present day instance is the oligopoly of social media, internet searching and computer operating systems, projects which have profound social impact as side-effects of advertising media, but generally escape efforts at public regulation. This is, however, a feature of all capitalist projects.

The environmental crisis is bringing this contradiction to a head. Private activity is routinely undermining the natural conditions for human life. The stability of the entire biosphere is threatened with collapse.

Each intrusion of state regulation or systemic practices into private right is met with outrage from one quarter while being egged on by other quarters. And the movement is not always irreversible. The early railways were private ventures; generally in the mid-20th century railways were nationalised, and then under the neo-liberal regime, they were sold back into the private sector. There is no natural place for the line between public and private to be drawn. Whenever it is redrawn, it will always be a matter of fierce dispute, and this is witnessed by the widespread social unrest generated by necessary public efforts to contain the spread of covid19.

Nor does the principle of freedom provide us with a norm for the location of the division between public and private spheres. “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby,” wrote Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Program. Aristotle had perhaps the last word first, paraphrased as: the good life is spent seeking the good life for all, but this is possible only by being part of a good polis. Even Adam Smith agreed when he posited that the invisible hand of the market would guide individual self-seeking so as to promote the general good. But it is self-evident that the market fails to achieve this end. The People’s Republic of China is an exemplar of the opposite conception in its ambitious social engineering and severe restriction of private right for the mass of the population. In China, the limitation of private right goes way beyond what is required to main public safety.

Nor does the criterion of class interest provide a reliable pointer to where the boundary between private and public must be drawn. I mean by this that the positioning of the public-private boundary is not a direct manifestation of the interests of capital accumulation. Undoubtedly, assaults on the boundary line express a class point of view under the broader definition of class. For example, the passing of the Marriage Equality Act in Australia and like measures in other countries expressed the view of the rising class of knowledge workers who for several decades have been winning ground from traditionalists in the progress of social liberalism. But it would be difficult to argue that any significant economic issue was posed for capital or for the conditions of labour in any sector. Likewise the ongoing struggle in the US over a women’s right to choose abortion has no significant impact on capital accumulation. It is not just about class interests. Even the humble labourer desires a space to call his or her own.

The Nature-imposed need to end the use of fossil fuels self-evidently impacts on the interests of petroleum and coal industry owners, and inevitably on the sensibilities and interests of those who presently working in those industries. But even the American Petroleum Institute claims that fossil fuel extraction accounts for only 8% of economic activity in the USA (and that is most likely a generous estimate). The interest of capital as a whole is unambiguously for the early termination of fossil fuels, just as y2k proved a boon for the computer industry, IT workers themselves and industry generally which used the opportunity to upgrade its computer infrastructure. It is could be argued even that the raising of the minimum hourly wage and/or its enforcement, would benefit some capitalists (those already paying decent wages and those selling consumer goods) and threaten only those capitalists paying poor wages, at least in the short term.

The issues are: (1) what is the source of the resistance to the expansion of the public sphere at the expense of private right necessitated by the environmental crisis, and (2) what are the likely outcomes of limitation of the private sphere on the power of capital?

(1) The first fact before us is that the political systems in all countries have failed to even generate promises of the necessary reductions and abatements of carbon emissions. Despite there being no compelling evidence that the required reductions in emissions is an economic problem for either capital or labour taken as a whole, making such commitments is not an election-winning program. It seems that ‘public opinion’ can be successfully mobilised by fossil fuel interests. Although public opinion is formed within the domestic sphere, it is both expressed in the political institutions, and produced largely through the private media - the press itself, the advertising industry and political interests. The jury has been nobbled. And this time it is not just the fate of the workers which is at stake, but the fate of humanity. The ability to manage public opinion has protected the tiny minority of billionaires for more than a century. It seems that a sectional interest can mobilise public opinion in its favour if it has significant resources at its disposal, even while it is a minority interest even within the capitalist class.

But those calling for climate action are not calling for socialism, in fact the strongest voices advocating for climate action are all thoroughly pro-capitalist, generally people who are doing moderately well under present political economic arrangements. The threat to capital in pushing the public-private boundary is far from explicit.

The struggle to make regulation of domestic and industrial interaction with the environment and public health measures something that the population will at least vote for entails a shift in the level of tolerance of libertarianism generally. People don’t have a right to destroy the commons. There is a kind of Zone of Proximal Development: as the population comes to accept the erosion of private liberties in defence of public health measures against the spread of viruses, the elimination of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the protection of endangered species of flora and fauna and cessation of dumping domestic and industrial waste in the oceans, then the sensitivity to erosion of private liberties in defence of low paid and unemployed people, the production of socially destructive products and services and the spread of fake news will be reduced by a kind of flow over. If the fossil fuel industry is not allowed to pollute the atmosphere why should Facebook be allowed to pollute our social and cultural life?

If this speculation proves to be true, then there could also be a flow over to an erosion of social tolerance for a diversity: of ideas, lifestyles, sexual preferences, ethnic differences and so on, which have no negative impact on the biosphere but which would get caught up in a generalised move towards intolerance of libertarianism. This problem is illustrated by China. Guiding the move towards restriction of the private domain so as to avoid misconceptions which would endanger fruitful and emancipatory diversity is the essential role of progressivism in this situation. This danger is mitigated by the libertarianism which oozes from the pores of postmodern capitalism insofar as it is not restrained from destructive activity. Nonetheless, a type of green authoritarianism is a real danger in the period ahead. I say green authoritarianism because an authoritarianism which did not use its authority to prevent destruction of the conditions for human life would be doomed. Death-bed conversions remind us that necessity is indeed the mother of invention and the enemy of denial.

The implication for the period immediately ahead in Australia is that the Voices Of candidates should be supported as well as the Australian Greens. The Voices Of candidates are generally middle-class, progressive women whose true home would be the Liberal Party were it not for the corruption of the current Liberal leadership and their capture by fossil fuels interests. They would support less progressive tax regimes, for example, but the logic of their central agenda of genuine climate action, serious measures against corruption and moderation in social policy will, I believe, make it impossible for them to support anti-union, anti-social welfare and anti-public enterprise moves.

Socialists have for some time attached their wagons to the progressive and environmentalist project. I think this has been a response to a feeling that the Zeitgeist was leaving Socialism behind it. And socialists, notwithstanding their own identification as members of the workers’ movement, are nowadays by and large members of that same knowledge class whose interests are more transparently expressed in progressivism.

Perhaps this reflex has a valid content. Socialism rests on the proposition that private ownership of the social means of production (and communication) is a fetter on the forces of production. In the current juncture it is rational to fight ruthlessly against corruption, inequality, to support progressive projects of all kind. The contradiction of private ownership of the social means of production is a part of the problem of a private sphere that objectively needs to be drastically reined in.

The point is to join in the effort to break down resistance to those intrusions in the private sphere which are genuinely demanded by the environmental crises, and teaching and learning how to know what measures are really oppressive and what measures are socially necessary and therefore progressive. Fight against authoritarian overreach without advocating for libertarianism. Fight against political and economic corruption and participate in all efforts to increase the participation of the population in political life. Promote mutual aid projects wherever possible as opposed to state or retail welfare. The state should be facilitating mutual aid not substituting itself for mutual aid.

If the contradiction between public and private spheres unfolds in the way I think it must, socialists will find themselves part of a very broad alliance in which most participants continue to believe that there is room for private ownership of the social means of production and communication. But as the contradiction entailed in this becomes more and more manifest and obvious, that same broad alliance can continue to make despotic inroads into the rights of capital. If regulation of production and communication systems leaves business ‘owners’ only owners in the sense of receiving vast unearned profits, then Socialism will have justified itself.

Andy Blunden, 30th December 2021

Andy Blunden, 30th December 2021