On the nature of systemic transitions without ‘conscious vanguard forces’

Kevin Carson wrote an intriguing comment on this thought-provoking essay. He writes that

“the equation of “socialism” to external constraints on the market –or the US Army!–is obvious nonsense. But the discussion of post-capitalist productive relations emerging within capitalism spontaneously, and not as the result of some highly visible political revolution, reminds me a lot of Bauwens’ views on P2P as an emerging mode of production that will eventually coalesce and replace capitalism the dominant social formation.”

Excerpted from James Livingston:

“When we think about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, we take the long view?–?we scan the four centuries from 1400 to 1800, looking for signs of fundamental but incremental change. To be sure, we assume that the great bourgeois revolutions of the seventeeth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were both symptoms and causes of this transition; in that sense, we proceed in our thinking as if capitalism were created by social movements, political activism, ideological extremism. Still, we know these early modern movements can’t be compared to the communist parties that created state socialism in twentieth-century Russia, China, and Cuba, because in these more recent instances, self-conscious revolutionaries organized workers and peasants to overthrow capitalism and create socialism.

In the mid seventeeth century, John Milton, John Lilburn, and Gerrard Winstanley clearly understood that they were overthrowing something, but they didn’t know they were creating the conditions of capitalism; neither did Thomas Paine a century later, as he made his way from the American to the French Revolution, from Common Sense to The Rights of Man. Not even Maximilien Robespierre, the mastermind of the Terror, was prophet enough to see this improbable future. And when Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimke, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln set out to overthrow slavery, they didn’t know they were making “The Last Capitalist Revolution,” as Barrington Moore, Jr called it in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966).

In short, capitalism was the unintended consequence of bourgeois revolutions, whereas socialism has been the avowed purpose, or at least a crucial component, of every revolution since 1911. This difference has become so important that when we think about the transition from capitalism to socialism, we take the short view: we look for ideological extremes, social movements, vanguard parties, self-conscious revolutionaries, radical dissenters, armed struggles, extra-legal methods, political convulsions?–?as if the coming of socialism requires the abolition of capitalism by cataclysm, by insurgent, militant mass movements dedicated to that purpose. As a result, we keep asking Werner Sombart’s leading question, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” And we keep answering defensively, on our way to an apology.

Look at it this way. We don’t measure the transition from feudalism to capitalism only by assessing the social origins and political-economic effects of bourgeois revolutions?–?we’d have to be daft to do so. Instead we ask when, how, where, and why social relations were transformed, over many years, so that a new mode of production and new modes of consciousness, emerged to challenge (if not supplant) the old. Or rather, in keeping with what Raymond Williams, Antonio Gramsci, and Stuart Hall have taught us, we ask when capitalism became the hegemonic mode in a mongrel social formation that contained fragments of a residual feudalism and harbingers of a precocious socialism. We don’t think that capitalism was created overnight by revolutionary parties?–?Independents, Jacobins, Federalists, or Republicans?–?because we know from reading Marx that, as a mode of production, it reaches beyond the scope of any state power or legislative act. We know from reading Smith and Hegel that the development of capitalism means the articulation and expansion of civil society against the (absolutist) state.

Why, then, would we look for evidence of socialism only where a state seized by radicals of the Left inaugurates a dictatorship of the proletariat? Or, to lower the rhetorical volume and evidentiary stakes, why would we expect to find socialism only where avowed socialists or labor parties contend for state power? We should instead assume that socialism, like capitalism, is a cross-class cultural construction, to which even the bourgeoisie has already made significant contributions?–?just as the proletariat has long made significant contributions to the cross-class construction we know as capitalism. What follows?

We typically assume that socialism is the exclusive property of “the” working class, despite the simple fact that there has never been a socialist movement or system based on this one stratum. Why do we deny the historical evidence? We also typically assume that socialism requires the seizure or overthrow of the state, as in a Bolshevik “war of maneuver,” rather than a cultural revolution, as in the “war of position” Gramsci proposed as an alternative to the Leninist template. Why do we think that socialism is, in this sense, the economic effect of political actions?

We typically assume that socialism is something signified by state command of civil society, rather than the other way around. Why? Why do we assume, in other words, that markets and socialism don’t mix, that private enterprise and public goods?–?commutative and distributive justice?–?are always at odds? And why do we think, accordingly, that socialism must repudiate liberalism and its attendant, modern individualism, rather than think, with Eduard Bernstein and Sidney Hook, that socialism is their rightful heir?

Let’s uproot our assumptions, in keeping with our radical calling. Let’s look for the evidence of socialism in the same places we’ve always looked for the evidence of capitalism: in changing social relations of production as well as legislative acts and political actions, in the marketplace of ideas as well as porkbellies, in everyday life and popular culture as well as learned assessments of the American Dream, in uncoordinated efforts to free the distribution of information and music?–?the basic industries of a postindustrial society?–?from the “business model” quotes of the newspapers and record companies as well as social movements animated by anticapitalist ideas. By now we’re accustomed to studies of the “culture of capitalism,” or the culture of the market, which of course aren’t the same thing?–?you can’t have capitalism without markets, but you can have markets without capitalism?–?so let’s get used to studying the culture of socialism in the market.

While we’re at it, let’s stop assuming that socialism is by its very nature democratic or progressive, and realize, accordingly, that sometimes we’ll find it where we don’t want to, in strange, unlikely, and regressive places?–?for example, in the teaching of the Catholic Church on economic justice, or in neoconservative tracts sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, or in the All-Volunteer Army.”

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