(non)Sense & sensibility By William Bowles

9 September 2004

My folks cut their left-wing political teeth so-to-speak in the 1930s – the anti-fascist movement, the Spanish Civil War, the unemployed struggles and of course, defence of the Soviet Union was the stuff of their lives. I say of course because in the 1930s, much like today in some respects, the world was polarised. The majority of the Left viewed the Soviet Union as the only defence against the rise of Fascism with the Western powers quite rightly seen at best as appeasers of Fascism and at worst in direct collusion because of Fascism’s openly voiced objective of destroying socialism and socialist ideas.

Hindsight of course provides us with a view that reveals the complexity of the issues that was not available to my folks or their generation, not that this negates either their convictions or the essential rightness of their struggle, far from it. But with hindsight, we can see that the Soviet Union was far more concerned with its own survival than ‘world revolution’ and was prepared to do whatever it considered necessary to survive including selling out its allies, a sellout that my folks generation either refused to acknowledge out of solidarity or viewed as the lies and propaganda of the capitalists. Understandable when viewed from their time and place given that from the day the Bolsheviks took power, the Western powers were determined to crush it and the example it set, especially to the captive peoples of the colonies.

Underpinning the events of the 1930s was the crisis of the capitalist economy one response of which was the rise of fascism and the other Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, itself a response to the challenge of socialism as well as the crisis of capitalism. Ultimately however, general war was the only solution that capitalism could come up with in order to ‘solve’ the problem of over-accumulation. It was also hoped that the ‘problem’ of socialism could be expunged at the same time. The decisive moment being the Spanish Civil War and Germany’s support of Franco. Had the Western powers decided to intervene and support the Republican government, it’s conceivable that there would have been no WWII.

Above all else, hatred and fear of the Soviet Union motivated and determined the policies of the leading Western powers. It was after all the idea that there was a workable alternative to capitalism that they feared most and it is this that hasn’t changed one iota since then. It explains why the propaganda offensive against any country that dares challenge the West is demonised by the state and the media. How else can one explain why a repressive dictatorship like Saudi Arabia for example has been spared the ire of the West and countries like Venezuela have become the target of coup attempts and a massive propaganda campaign?

It’s the idea – so effectively transmitted through every available means – that it’s only capitalism that is concerned with the ‘rights of the individual’. Socialism on the other hand, would submerge the individual for the ‘greater good’. Images of vast assemblies of people all wearing the same clothes, marching in lockstep to the tune of the Party; the lack of choice; the overt control of ideas that were seen as threatening the state; in a word, uniformity.

The capitalist world on the other hand, offers an endless vista of ‘opportunity’, no guarantees of course. If one ‘failed’ it was because, well that’s the way things are. Not everyone can be a millionaire, most are bound to their found condition because of some intrinsic failing that can be explained by ‘human nature’. There are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The fact that most are ‘losers’ is an unfortunate reality of life.

The capitalist propaganda vision of endless expansion and accumulation of wealth (power) and material possessions is of course a powerful incentive to those who have neither much power (control) over their lives nor the wealth to realise their dreams. Acquisition becomes not only an end in itself but a replacement for social relations and meaning in life that capitalism denies exist even as it spouts off about ‘family values’ that capitalism has been busy destroying.

Ultimately this vision is an illusion if for no other reason than that it depends on an endless bounty of natural resources that can be transformed into consumer products that people can be convinced not only of buying but of manufacturing. Once incorporated into a system of endless production and the debt that goes along with it, the ‘ties that bind’ have proved to be extremely difficult to break.

The parallels with the addiction to drugs is no coincidence, the difference being that consumerism is a socially sanctioned addiction and cocaine isn’t (of course we also have alcohol, tobacco, uppers and downers and the entire pharmocopoeia of the drugs industry all sanctioned addictions). So central is the reality of the addiction of consumerism that the future of capitalism is utterly dependent on its preservation – at any cost including full scale war and chaos.

In its terminal stage such as we see in the US or the UK, the insanity of uncontrolled production has reached the level whereby totally useless products flood onto the market in an endless stream essentially little different from their predecessors except in details. But what powers this fetish?

Trite though it may be, capitalism’s ‘ethic’ is expand or die, a process over which it has no control. Either it continually ‘innovates’ or the rate of profit falls to the point whereby continued production no longer satisfies the shareholders. The process that underpins this is actually quite simple: any given market for a specific product eventually gets saturated to the point whereby unless new markets can be found, consumers have to be persuaded to buy a ‘new’ product to replace their existing one (aside that is from replacing worn out products). The pressure therefore is to produce a continuous flow of ‘new’ products in the hope (often vain) that people will buy them. The entire process is essentially arbitrary in nature, for rarely are the ‘new’ products superior to the old, let alone whether we really need them or not.

Hence production has to be continuously ‘revolutionised’ by reinventing existing products (euphemistically referred to as ‘adding value’) or entirely ‘new’ products have to be produced. Production becomes a treadmill that dominates the entire economy – production solely for the sake of the shareholder and for no other reason than to maintain or increase, the rate of profit. Without the ‘incentive’ of profit, society will fall apart and our lives poorer for it.

The idea of socially useful production simply ceases to exist. In turn, as consumer society has spread and the complexity of production increased, ever greater quantities of energy and materials has led to demands on the natural environment that it simply cannot sustain.

The rationale for this madness is called ‘choice’. The greater the number of ‘choices’ we have, the more ‘free’ we are – to choose that is. But it’s a strange kind of ‘freedom’ that restricts it to selecting one kind of product over another. The freedom to choose a different economic mode of production for example, is immediately attacked, ridiculed, demonised and eventually destroyed should it ever come to pass.

Freedom to choose is limited to what kind of products to buy, beyond lies forbidden territory.

Supplies of something as basic as water are now under threat not because of increases in population but because of the insatiable demands of capitalist production. Should a farmer water her fields or the water be used to make carbonated sugar water? A choice denied to the farmer on the basis that the (former) farmer is better off pushing buttons on a machine that fills plastic bottles with Coca Cola.

In order to rationalise capitalist production, consumers have to be persuaded that firstly, there is no (viable) alternative to the capitalist mode of production and secondly that endless consumption is actually a good thing because it creates jobs (as opposed to creating more free time because fewer and fewer people are actually needed to produce the necessities of life).

Remember when we were told that machines would give us lots of free time? We were told that we would have to learn how use all the ‘free time’ available to us. Leisure became a problem (until of course even our ‘free time’ was commodified and we became passive consumers of our own ‘free time’).

The entire propaganda machine is geared to promoting this ideology, hence the fetish of an ever-expanding GDP (gross domestic product), competition between rival capitalist economies and of course attacking any ideas that question the fundamental capitalist ethic of production for production’s sake.

Under the banner of the ‘free market’ or ‘market economies’, the entire edifice rattles off into a future where energy, raw materials, land and of course people, are regarded as endless and expendable. Mountains of obsolete fridges, cars and all the other products that are designed to wear out fill our landscapes. Products the factories churn out that once they leave the factory the manufacturer assumes no further responsibility for, the public ends up paying for their removal. Technology will produce a solution we are told through recycling but even the idea of ‘recycling’ rationalises the idea of endless production rather than questioning the idea of unlimited production simply for the sake of the shareholder.

But what are the limits of production? Are there any at all or do we go on producing endlessly into the future? From the 78 to the vinyl to the CD; from VHS to DVD? Is the CD any better than a vinyl but most importantly, who decides and how important is it that we have endless innovation? Are our lives any better or more rewarding because we have endless ‘choice’ especially when we consider the costs, environmental, social and of course political?

Is it facile to say that Iraq was invaded and occupied simply to justify the capitalist mode of production? The answer is found in the public pronouncements of the Bush government where it is quite clear about what is at stake, namely the establishment of the “free market economy” in Iraq. By free market the US means of course, a market owned and controlled by US capitalism so it’s not free at all. All else is mere sophistry.

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