The Project of Capital and the Project of the Proletariat in a time of World Crisis

3 October 2021 — Counter Currents

by

ABSTRACT

This is a response to the two sets of articles written by Sajai Jose on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and on the world’s and India’s hunger crisis. It is in two parts. In the first part it lays the historical background of the response of capital in the face of periodic crises it faces and people’s response to it. It uses the Marxist framework of Project of the Capital and Project of the Proletariat in dealing with this phenomenon. In Part II it specifically deals with the current Project of the Capital, viz. the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is a restructuring of capital with newer technologies. It links up the Pandemic and the world hunger crisis and famine with this restructuring of capital. Then it briefly maps the possible response of the proletariat across the world and in different regions of India to this crisis. Finally it poses: Future: Survival or end of life on earth.

Introduction

We are at a historic junction. On the one hand, there is a global emergency involving global warming, ecological degradation and resource depletion – of both renewable and non renewable resources. A large number of scientists have warned that we have a very short window – about a decade – to do something to save the world. On the other hand, capitalism has set its course on something called the fourth industrial revolution, which promises much, but as we will show below it will push the world further down the present road to collapse. So what should people do? That is the main burden of this essay.

PART I

The project of capital and the project of the proletariat in history

The terms ‘project of the capital’ and ‘project of the proletariat’ are analytical terms used in the Marxist tradition to understand social and political movements.  If some of you are uncomfortable with these technical terms, you can call it the ‘project of the ruling classes’ and the ‘project of the people or of the ruled classes’. Since people are not always conscious politically, the behavior of people need not correspond exactly with this divide.

The Marxist assumption is that class struggle is the principal motor of history (not the only one) and in the current capitalist society it is capital and labour that are the principal adversarial classes. We don’t use the term capitalist class because capitalism is a social system and it involves every one with its values of individualism, consumerism and instant gratification.

The project of capital

So what is ‘the project of capital’? In general, it is to always maximize profit. However, periodically, this project runs into crisis. Essentially, to maximize profit capital wants to pay less to labour and for raw materials (which also have a labour component). However labour is also a consumer of the capitalist product and its ability to buy is limited by its wages. So a periodic crisis of overproduction occurs which results in laying off labour. This further exacerbates the situation and after some time a general crisis occurs. This is, of course, a highly simplified version of the nature of capitalist crisis.

So the project of the capital changes with the crisis of capital. With each crisis capitalism restructures itself. In 1929, due to the Great Depression, Keynesianism or the ‘New Deal’ came into being in the West. It used state resources to create jobs and some sort of welfare state emerged. Of course, it was also influenced by the success of the Russian Revolution which had by then led to the creation of a full-fledged welfare state. The Second World War helped capital to gain in strength. Although the war also devastated capitalist countries and capitalism survived with the help of the state, partly through the creation of the welfare state. This period lasted from 1929 to 1979.

The project of the proletariat during this period saw a great many people’s movements. During this period, Soviet Union was not affected by the Depression. This effectively proved Marx right and socialist ideas gained in strength the world over. The trade union movement, for example, became strong all over the world and socialist and communist parties flourished.

After the War, several welfare ideas such as free health care and free schooling came up in the capitalist countries. In the Third World, independence movements gained in strength and several countries including India became free from the colonial yoke. China had a communist revolution. These changes eventually led to a period of ‘Cold War’ – wherein the capitalist countries, particularly the U.S., started demonizing communism among their own citizens so that they can wage wars anywhere in the world where they see a threat of communists coming to power. The military industry became the most important part of capitalist industry supported by the state. An arms race began and several countries got nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan and North Korea. The Cuban Revolution occurred in 1962, while the U.S. had a humiliating defeat in Vietnam in 1975. There was an attempt to bring the Third World countries together through the Non Aligned Movement and India played a leading role in it. In India the public sector flourished in this period and created the essential infrastructure for further industrialization of the country.

The neo-liberal turn

By 1979, capital had regained strength and wanted more freedom for itself and less control by the state. So the Reagan-Thatcher consensus or privatization (what is now referred to as the neo-liberalism) gained currency in the West. In England, Thatcherism represented a systematic and decisive rejection and reversal of the post-war consensus, whereby the major political parties largely agreed on the central themes of Keynesianism, the welfare state, nationalised industry and close regulation of the British economy. In its place, Thatcherism attempted to promote low inflation, a smaller state and free markets through tight control of the money supply, privatisation and constraints on the labour movement. In the U.S., a similar shift came about through ‘Reaganomics.’ Around the same time, China also became a ‘capitalist roader,’ a term once used by Chinese revolutionaries to describe those who bend to capitalist pressure.

Neo-liberalism came to India in 1991, where it was presented as a package of “economic reforms” for ‘Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation.’ It ended the ‘permit quota raj,’ allowed foreign companies to import, invest and set up their enterprises in India, and ushered in an era of new wealth for the rich and the middle classes at a tremendous cost to ecology. Mining was freely allowed and mineral export – particularly iron ore – earned a lot of money. India also boosted exports in meat, cotton and many other products. The Green Revolution was cranked up further and irrigation was increased through bore wells to increase agricultural production, leading to a serious decline in the water table all over the country. People’s movements and trade unions were impacted severely as the state opposed them with draconian laws. A section of the middle class became indifferent to the plight of the masses as articulated by various people’s movements.

Towards the end of this period, particularly in the 21st century, capitalism became outright criminal in its actions. In its particularly toxic form of crony capitalism, it swung state policy and invented many shady banking and financial instruments to defraud the public of its hard-earned wealth. Many stock market bubbles built up, reminiscent of the 1929 depression. Finally the bubble burst in 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the USA. This is called the 2008 meltdown.

The current crisis of capitalism

So what led to this crisis? The immediate explanation was that the contradictions within capitalism had led to a crisis, as in the past. However, this time it is a lot more than that. For the first time in the history of mankind, we will no longer keep on increasing our wealth. This is the cumulative result of exploiting the planet’s resources for our need at the cost of all other living beings and the earth itself. This exploitation kept on increasing continuously. It gathered speed in the last 200 years with the industrial revolution. It gained further speed in the 20th century, and after the Second World War it accelerated even further. The first warning of its ecological consequences came with the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. The Club of Rome’s report, ‘Limits to Growth’ in 1971 was a pioneering and systematic critique of the ideology of development and growth, warning that it was unsustainable and harmful to humankind and to nature.

In the 21st century, data about global warming, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and its relation to global warming has become common knowledge. Also the role of fossil fuels (petrol and coal) as the main contributor to these emissions is now widely understood. Then came the meetings of the world governments, the Kyoto Protocol, The Copenhagen Declaration, and more recently the Paris Agreement, on limiting the damage. Simultaneously, the United Nations brought together a group of world renowned scientists in the form of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce regular scientific reports on the situation.

At first the scientists were cautious and gave warnings in milder terms. But as extreme weather began to hit people in many countries, and the trends began to grow alarming, this year the scientists have given a very serious warning. This has resulted in a movement for urgent climate action and in some countries climate action groups have declared it as Global Climate Emergency. Unsurprisingly, it began in England, the country where the Industrial Revolution started. But there are several nations that are true pioneers – Costa Rica, Ecuador and Cuba for e.g. have taken far deeper and wider actions specifically with respect to climate change and generally on the converging crises.

So what exactly is the Global Emergency? It has several aspects – Global Warming, Resource Depletion, Ecological Degradation and Growing Inequality and Social Unrest. We will discuss them below one by one, as well as their relation to each other.

Global Warming

This has received maximum coverage in the media due to the recent IPCC report which has drawn every one’s attention to the gravity of the situation. ‘If we are to stay below 1.5 °C global warming, emissions have to peak no later than 2020.’ We have already defaulted on it. ‘Emissions must also be cut by half by 2030, and to net zero by 2040. We need an immediate emergency response by policymakers, businesses and civil society, aimed at an unprecedented transformation of all sectors of society. It’s time to act!’

The levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the main driver of climate change, have hit a new record high, the UN said, warning that the time to act was running out.  “Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth,” says the report for 2017, which puts the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere at 405.5 parts per million (ppm). That is up from 403.3 ppm in 2016 and 400.1 ppm in 2015. The safe levels are considered to be a maximum of 350, ideally less (Hansen)!

“The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”

And the emissions have been still rising in the last two years!

Resource Depletion

Human society uses natural resources for its survival and reproduction. Other living beings depend mainly on plant resources which are known as renewable resources. The non-renewable resources are minerals, such as gold, silver, copper, iron, coal, petroleum and many other metals. They are non-renewable because their quantity is fixed and the more we use it the less there is left to use. For industrial societies petroleum and coal are the basic sources of energy and their depletion effectively spells the end of such societies.

Now, there is a law of extraction of these non-renewable resources. It was first discovered in the case of oil by M. King Hubbert and is called, ‘Peak Oil’. It says that when half the resources are extracted (taken out) then the production itself will start falling. That is, the peak of production occurs when half the oil is taken out. It applies to a particular well, to a region, to a country and to the whole world.

Today, it has been found that it applies to all minerals and scientists have calculated (here and here) the peak year for almost all the important minerals. And, hold your breath; the overwhelming majority of them will peak before 2030, starting with oil! The data is almost accurate and might differ only by a few percentage points, but the fact remains that the life of industrial society is numbered and the end will occur in a decade or a little more. The collapse of industrial society will be a ‘never before’ event because that will be the end of ever increasing wealth that human society has seen in the last few thousand years.

In the short term, even the renewable resources cannot help us because human society has used them at a rate higher than the rate of their natural reproduction. That is, we have cut more trees than the number of new ones that are growing; we have used more water than is being replenished naturally, and so on. Water tables all over the world are falling. It will take decades for these resources to get back the status of ‘renewable.’ In fact we have been mining them in the same way that we have mined the non-renewable resources.

Ecological Degradation

Ecology means the relationships between plants, animals, people, and their environment, and the balance between these relationships. In the last two hundred years, and more specifically in the last 50 years, humans have over-exploited the environment and poisoned the air, water and soil. Global warming is one of the more visible results. However, water scarcity is also a huge problem that mankind is facing. Many species are endangered and some have become extinct. Sea levels rising, forests vanishing, ice melting, water bodies drying up and land getting converted into deserts – all of this is happening at various places on earth. We are facing the very extinction of life on earth unless we take corrective measures rightaway.

Growing Inequality and Social Unrest

As industrial society collapses and energy resources get depleted, we may very well be entering an era of utter chaos. Many parts of the world and our own country are facing these problems. Untimely rain or lack of it is causing havoc. Lack of drinking water is making villagers leave their homes and sometimes even their country. In this crisis the powerful people are cornering as much wealth as they can before a total collapse occurs, thus worsening the problem. The number of billionaires has increased significantly in this decade, and especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. The governments by and large are on the side of the rich and the poor have nowhere to go. Chaos is prevailing in many parts of the world. Hunger, suicide and crimes have increased. In some places mass protests are taking place. The world is in turmoil.

PART II

The current project of capital: The Fourth Industrial Revolution

As we have said above, with every crisis capital tries to restructure itself. Many old industries collapse and new ones with newer technology replace them. The latest avatar of capitalism calls itself the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This time it has not happened in one big capitalist country. It is transnational and is being promoted at the highest levels of the global capitalist elite. Leading the charge is the World Economic Forum (WEF), a club of the world’s richest businessmen and investors. The WEF, based in Switzerland, is an international NGO, founded in 1971 by the economist Klaus Schwab. Mostly funded by its 1,000 member companies as well as public subsidies, it views its own mission as “improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas.”

The Forum dogmatically argues that a globalised world should be governed by a self-selected coalition of multinational corporations, governments and civil society organizations (CSOs), which it expresses through its initiatives like the “Great Reset” and the “Global Redesign”.

But, what exactly is the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’? The following is taken from an article by Sajai Jose, titled ‘When the Fourth Industrial Revolution Comes Knocking.’

“The origin of the term itself can be traced back to a 2013 initiative by the German government known as ‘Industrie 4.0’. It was a strategic policy bid to harness the rapid convergence of digital technologies, manufacturing processes, logistics and human systems to build ‘smart factories’ or ‘cyber-physical production systems,’ with the stated purpose of preserving Germany’s global manufacturing dominance well into the 21st century.

However, this factory-centric understanding of new technologies obscure their true significance, says Schwab, who describes this shift as an Industrial Revolution in its own right. According to this view, the First Industrial Revolution, starting from the 1750s, used steam power to mechanise production; the Second advanced this by using electric power to scale up production in the beginning of the 20th century; while the Third deployed electronics and IT to automate production. Now, he says, a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the information revolution that has been occurring since the last century.

Schwab describes it as being “characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” However, unlike previous industrial revolutions, it is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. “The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent,” writes Schwab, and it is leading to “a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

Schwab identifies a set of emerging technologies that are driving this change, including Artificial Intelligence, robotics, Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.

Since this technological shift in production is “disrupting almost every industry in every country,” it also entails a paradigm shift in terms of logistics, trade and exchange, which Schwab calls ‘Globalisation 4.0’. It refers to new frameworks for international cooperation that he says are needed to manage and adapt to the unprecedented pace and breadth of technological change unleashed by Industry 4.0. Announcing the theme of the WEF’s 2019 meeting as “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a New Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, Schwab declared, “Ready or not, a new world is upon us.”

On 10 October 2016, the WEF announced the opening of its new Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. In October 2018, the World Economic Forum (WEF) opened its ‘Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in India’ to work in collaboration with the Government of India. Part of a network of such centres being set up across the world, it is located in Navi Mumbai, and was unveiled by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The WEF has offices in New York, Tokyo and Beijing.

WEF has roped in the UN for its project. It engages with national governments by asking them to promote public-private initiatives. It tries to use the world’s scientific and engineering knowledge to promote its agenda. China will play a major role in this shift because of its manufacturing capacities and its control over rare earths. In 2017, the WEF conclave in Davos attracted considerable attention when, for the first time, a head of state from the People’s Republic of China was present at the alpine resort.1

The pandemic

The current pandemic is a trigger for the launch of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has been on the cards since the 2008 meltdown. The medical-industrial complex has earned billions of dollars in a short span of two years, making a killing from selling protective gear, medicines, vaccines etc. The lockdown has also killed a lot of the present industries, paving the way for newer Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. Working from home has increased the sale of smart phones and computers enormously. Millions of school children are using smart phones for online learning. E-commerce and home deliveries have come of age. People are buying furniture, refrigerators and even cars online! Meanwhile, millions of people have lost jobs and hunger is looming on the horizon.

The hunger crisis

While climate change is the mega crisis facing humanity, in the present moment, it is the growing hunger crisis triggered by the lockdowns that is the most immediate challenge.

Normally capital prefers malnutrition. It gives the reserve army of the workers who are available at low wages. This has a tendency to lower the entire wage structure of the working class and, of course, contributes to the profits of the capitalist enterprises.

Famine deaths reduce the number of total workers and increase the wages of the remaining workers. This is not normally desirable. However in times of a crisis, capital tries to restructure itself with new technology and fewer workers at a higher wage. Enterprises with older technology collapse.

This has resulted in the present crisis of hunger, malnutrition and famine. This time the famine would be of ‘Biblical scale’ – the numbers will be in millions.2

Malnutrition, famine and restructuring of capital

Malnutrition and famine are closely related. During a famine those people die who are already suffering from malnutrition. If food is available then malnutrition can be addressed and people need not die. In today’s world there is enough food available. It was so even during the 1943 Bengal famine when a very large number of people died. So why do people die in a famine? It is because they are unable to pay for food.

Dr. Binayak Sen has written extensively on the relation between malnutrition and famine. Here is what he says:

“People need to be conscious of what constitutes a famine and what can be done about it. The “sudden collapse into starvation” is only the final phase of a famine. Famine is not marked by the death of the victims. There is a number of social, economic and political signs that mark a famine which we fail to recognise. The World Health Organisation states that any community with 40 per cent of its population having a body mass index (BMI) less than 18.5 is in a state of famine. Child malnutrition is already a known fact with around 44 per cent of deaths under 5 years is due to malnutrition, but adult malnutrition is also widespread especially in the poorer sections of society. Anyone with BMI less than 18.5 is said to suffer from chronic energy deficiency or hunger. Data from the National Nutritional Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) states 37 per cent adults in the country have BMI of less than 18.5. This percentage goes higher among weaker sections. In some tribal regions, around 40 per cent of men and 49 per cent of women have BMI less than 18.5. By implication, it means large areas of India are famine affected. Not only there is a deficit in consumption of food grains but also that the deficit is increasing. This state of widespread ongoing famine coexists with an abundance of food with national granaries overflowing.3”

The project of the proletariat

The project of the proletariat is consciousness driven and requires a change of mindset from individualism of capitalist society to a collective consciousness. So, it is a difficult project.

However people do not wait for a party to lead them. They respond immediately to a crisis because they have to survive. So, immediately after the lockdown community kitchens came up everywhere in India, initially to help the millions of workers trudging back on foot or on bicycles. Later they continued to feed the unemployed and people who had caught Covid and had no one to cook or feed them. When they reached their villages many of the workers started community projects like restoring lakes to ensure water. Vikalp Sangam4 has documented hundreds of these projects all over the country.

For a more conscious project, different things will happen in different areas depending on its history of people’s mobilisation. In countries which are strong centres of capitalism the governments will make only cosmetic changes but any real change will be prevented from occurring. Typically these are the countries which have nuclear weapons and nuclear power. But there are also other countries; for example, Australia. In these countries local actions like Transition Town will be important.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are countries like Cuba and some countries in Latin America and smaller countries in Europe where people are conscious and have progressive governments.

In reality, halfway measures occur in those areas where capital is weak and the situation is desperate. Good leadership can make a lot of difference. In India, the North East States and Kerala might see some good activity. And may be some remote regions which are not rich in minerals, people may be left to fend for themselves and will survive. In rest of the country, only local initiatives offer any hope for achieving good results.5

Future: Survival or end of life on earth

The current project of the capital is doomed because of several reasons. As we have outlined above in the section on Global Emergency, the four factors: resource depletion, climate change, ecological degradation and people’s protests will not allow the project of the capital to succeed.

On the other hand, if the project of the proletariat does not make significant progress, then the crisis of ‘Global Emergency’ will also destroy a lot of life on Earth including humans. It will be a bleak scenario similar to the one depicted by the famed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosava in one of his short films that depict a post-nuclear world. We have a window of about ten years to act. So there is an urgent need for all of us to come together and work for the success of the ‘project of the proletariat.’

Notes and references

I am grateful to Sajai Jose, both for helping in the form and content of this article. The materials on both the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Great Reset, as well as on malnutrition and hunger have been heavily drawn from his recent articles on these subjects.

  1. Jose, Sajai. Three-part series on the Fourth Industrial revolution and the Great Reset on NewsClick.in 2021 https://www.newsclick.in/when-fourth-industrial-revolution-comes-knocking
  2. Jose, Sajai. Three-part series on the world’s and India’s hunger crisis on Countercurrents 2021 https://countercurrents.org/2021/08/covid-and-the-catastrophe-of-hunger-in-india-part-two/
  3. Sen, Binayak. Speech at Kovalam Literary Festival https://www.news18.com/news/india/india-is-venue-of-biggest-famine-says-binayak-sen-514918.html
  4. Vikalp Sangam. https://vikalpsangam.org/
  5. Vijayendra T. Kabira Khada Hai Bazaar Mein : A Call for Local Action in the Wake of Global Emergency:

https://www.scribd.com/document/425214162/KABIRA-KHADA-BAZAAR-MEIN-A-Call-for-Local-Action-in-the-Wake-of-Global-Emergency

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: t.vijayendra@gmail.com

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