At the end of 2020, it should be obvious to anyone with a functioning brain that something is not right in the world — to put it mildly. Indeed, anyone even slightly familiar with the facts will be aware that something is very wrong with the world we live in and the way things are going.
For one thing, there is so much to be done, and yet so many of people are jobless. The world produces so much wealth, but the more we produce the poorer we ourselves become. One person owns more wealth than half the world population. Vast resources are squandered on war and misadventure.
For even a tiny fraction of the money spent annually on the instruments of war we could eradicate world hunger and end extreme poverty. There may have been a time when people lived in poverty and miserable deprivation out of necessity, because there was no other way — but this is not it.
We live in a time when humans have the technology to send unmanned probes to Mars and land people on the moon. We have unleashed the powers of science, and surely we have the capacity and basic resources to ensure that Earthlings have food, water, medicine and decent shelter.
But those who control the world’s resources are looking elsewhere.
Most people intuitively know that the world is changing, that it must change. Because the society is sick. Our home planet — the only inhabitable place in the known universe — is in danger of over-exploitation, of overheating. The question is: in which direction will the change be? Secondly, who or what will bring about the needed change to rescue society from the threat of extinction?
What social force has the capacity to transform society? This is the question that matters. It is not enough to have a goal without the means to achieve it.
Where to from here?
To the first and fundamental question: what is the alternative to capitalism? A survey of the entire history of human thought and the evolution of political philosophy will show that humans have only ever thought of one alternative to class society: a classless society.
Embedded in this idea are the seeds of rebellion though, contained in the underlying necessity of transition — of going beyond the old society. The negation of class-divided society would be the exit point from prehistory, thereby ushering in the beginning of the full emancipation of humanity.
But what power on Earth can overcome the resilience and tenacity of capital? It was Marx who first properly answered this question of which social agency (historical force) has the potential to overcome the universal power of capital.
A simple but beautiful idea
Despite all the meandering complexities of the method by which he arrives at his conclusion, at the very heart of Marx’s theory of history is a very simple and beautiful proposition. It is the idea that the workers who produce capital can free themselves from its control if they stand together.
This basic idea that the workers must control capital rather than be controlled by it is encapsulated in the motto of the First International, ‘Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.’ For this heretical idea Marx was and is of course still widely hated and feared by the ruling classes.
This simple — to many people, unthinkable — proposition that the worker might one day be free from the owners of capital has confounded and largely shaped the course of the 20th century.
Yet the theory of a classless society, like the class struggle itself, remains unresolved, always requiring further proof, further testing in the laboratory of history where revolutions are made in the unceasing contest for power between the two irreconcilable classes.
And despite so many attempts to suppress it, the idea that humans might one day free themselves from the clutches and control of capital over our lives keeps rising to the surface with every generation that encounters it.
Question of class
The theory that humanity can and must evolve to a classless form of society, relies not only on the irrationality and wastefulness inherent in the system and on the assumption of the rationality of man, but also on the fact that for most of human history we lived in societies that were in essence communal and classless, what Marx and Engels called “primitive communism”.
Their theory was partly confirmed by the work of Lewis Morgan in the 1850s on the pre-colonial Native American societies, such as the Iroquois.
In Africa, the onset of colonialism also violently severed the communal relations of the people to the land, as in America, but even after 140 years the trauma of colonial genocide and alienation has not entirely eradicated the deep-rooted communal cultures in which Africans were steeped for millennia, and which formed the substratum of our pre-colonial cultures.
The notion of communal living is deep-rooted
Seen in this light, Africa — as the ‘cradle of human civilization’ — provided the foundation for the earliest forms of communal life. Socialism thus derives its roots from indigenous ethos and culture, and is certainly not foreign to Africa.
If the aim of colonialism was to impose capitalist relations by removing the natives from the land, depriving them of the means of independent living, thus forcing the people into factories or mines and a state of dependency, then how can one oppose colonialism but welcome the system it imposed?
Modern capitalism in Africa is a product of colonial imposition. The particular form that it takes in different countries is determined by the specific obstacles that capital encountered in the course of establishing its hegemonic rule. But historically, there is no denying that capitalism here derives its foundation from the imposition of foreign colonial laws.
Capitalism is alien
At the same time, as noted above, it can and has been fairly argued that Africa is the original and indigenous home of socialism.
Capitalist relations and private ownership of the means of life, such as the land, are alien to Africa and are a product of foreign laws and strictures. The question is whether and how it will be possible — not just theoretically but practically — to transcend the more primitive forms of existence and the unequal relations imposed by colonialism and its offspring, capitalism.
A liberated society would not be wholly unrecognizable to us but will likely have some family resemblance to the pre-colonial societies and communal relations that we derive from — with the added benefit of advanced technology and sciences that the pre-colonial societies simply did not have.
The idea of human emancipation must be restored to its proper place in all our endeavours as a means to free the creative potential (the productive powers) of humanity from the limits imposed by capital, to which all human activity had been subordinated for over three hundred years.
Although we would have to unlearn some of the old ways, I believe the process of emancipation would not require us to add new qualities to the human but rather to strip away the colonial and capital restrictions, to remove the chains that have long suppressed the natural attributes of the worker.
By removing the fetters of capitalist control that have subordinated all of human activity to capital’s drive to constantly accumulate more of itself — even if it risks destroying the natural foundations of human civilization –, humanity would rise to a more free — and hence happier — state of being, mediated and protected by communal relations, rather than at the mercy and terror of a system that prioritizes the private accumulation of wealth and the concentration of economic power in the hands of the few.
For capital to be itself it must constantly expand. Therefore, all countries and companies aim for perpetual growth. But the Earth does not have unlimited resources to sustain the false ideal of infinite capitalist growth.
This is the fundamental contradiction between the imperative of capital to create more of itself by turning the living world into dead capital, and the natural limits of the environment.
Capitalism over three centuries has laid the natural world to waste and threatens to end human civilization as we know it by rendering conditions on the planet unlivable. That prospect itself should raise alarm bells and set us on course to prepare for the necessary transition away from capitalism.
All indications are that humanity must respond with urgency to the danger inherent in the current path we are on and collectively overcome the old system or else embrace extinction. The options are stark: socialism or extinction. That is basically what it comes down to.