Trends to Barbarism and Prospects for Socialism

Western societies and states are moving inexorably toward conditions resembling barbarism; structural changes are reversing decades of social welfare and subjecting labor, natural resources and the wealth of nations to raw exploitation, pillage and plunder, driving living standards downward and provoking unprecedented levels of discontent.

We will proceed by outlining the economic political and military processes driving this process of decay and decomposition and follow with an account of the mass popular responses to their own deteriorating conditions. The deep structural changes accompanying the rise of barbarism become the basis for considering the prospects for socialism in the 21st century.

The Rising Tide of Barbarism

In ancient society ‘barbarism’ and its carriers ‘the barbarians’ were envisioned as threats by outside invaders from outlying regions descending on Rome or Athens. In contemporary Western societies, the barbarians came from within, among the elite of society, intent on imposing a new order which destroys the social fabric and productive base of society, converting stable livelihoods into insecure deteriorating conditions of daily life.

The key to contemporary barbarism is found in the deep structures of the imperial state and economy. These include:

1. The ascendancy of a financial-speculative elite which has pillaged trillions of dollars from savers, investors, mortgage carriers, consumers and the state, siphoning enormous resources from the productive economy into the hands of a parasitic elite embedded in the state and paper economy.
2. The militaristic political elite overseeing a state of permanent warfare since the middle of the last century. Endless wars, cross border assassinations, state terror and the suspension of traditional constitutional guarantees have led to the concentration of dictatorial powers, arbitrary jailing, torture and the denial of habeas corpus.
3. In the midst of a deep economic recession and stagnation, high levels of state spending on economic and military empire building at the expense of the domestic economy and living standards, reflects the subordination of the local economy to the activities of the imperial state.
4. Corruption at the top in all aspects of state and business activity – from state procurement to privatization to subsidies for the super-rich – encourages the growth of international crime from top to bottom, the lumpenization of the capitalist class and a state where law and order have fallen into disrepute.
5. As a result of the high costs of empire building and the pillage by the financial oligarchy, the socio-economic burden has been placed directly on the shoulders of wage and salaried workers, pensioners and the self-employed resulting in long-term, large-scale downward mobility. With job losses and the disappearance of well paying jobs, home foreclosures skyrocket and the stable middle and working classes shrink and are forced to extend their hours of labor and years of work.
6. As imperial wars spread across the world targeting entire populations, via sustained bombings and clandestine terror operations, they generate opposing terrorist networks, which also target civilians in markets, transport and public spaces. The world resembles a Hobbesian world of ‘all against all’.
7. Rising ethno-religious extremism linked to militarism is found among Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, replacing international class solidarity with doctrines of racial supremacy and penetrating the deep structures of states and societies.
8. The demise of European and Asian welfare collectivism – in the ex USSR and China – has lifted the competitive pressures on Western capitalism and encouraged them to revoke all the welfare concessions conceded to labor in the post World War II period.
9. The demise of “Communism” and the integration of social democracy into the capitalist system have led to a severe weakening of the Left, which the sporadic protests of the social movements have failed to replace.
10. In the face of the current large scale assault on workers’ and middle class’ living standards, there are only sporadic protests at best and political impotence at worst.
11. Massive exploitation of labor in post-revolutionary capitalist societies, like China and Vietnam, includes the exclusion of hundreds of millions of migrant workers from elementary public educational and health services. The unprecedented pillage and seizure by domestic oligarchs and foreign multinationals of thousands of lucrative strategic public enterprises in Russia, the ex-Soviet republics, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Baltic countries was the greatest transfer of public to private wealth in the shortest time in all of history.

In summary, ‘barbarism’ has emerged as a defining reality, product of the ascendancy of a militarist and parasitic financial ruling class. The barbarians are here and now, present within the frontiers of Western societies and states. They are dominant and aggressively pursuing an agenda which is continually reducing living standards, transferring public wealth to their private coffers, pillaging public resources, savaging constitutional rights in their pursuit of imperial wars, segregating and persecuting millions of immigrant workers and promoting the disintegration and diminution of the stable working and middle class. More than at any time in recent history, the top 1% of the population controls an increasing share of national wealth and income.

Myths and Realities of Historical Capitalism

The sustained, large scale roll back of social rights and welfare provisions, wages, job security, pensions and salaries demonstrates the falsity of the idea of the linear progress of capitalism. The reversal, product of the heightened power of the capitalist class, demonstrates the validity of the Marxist proposition that class struggle is the motor force of history – at least, in so far, as the human condition is considered the centerpiece of history.

The second false assumption is that states based on ‘market economies’ require peace and the corollary that ‘markets’ trump militarism, is disproven by the fact that the premier market economy, the United States has been in a constant state of war since the early 1940’s, actively engaged in wars on four continents, to the present day, with new bigger and bloodier wars on the horizon. The cause and consequence of permanent warfare, is the growth of a monstrous ‘national security state’ which recognizes no national borders and absorbs the greater part of the national budget.

The third myth of ‘advanced’ mature capitalism is that it constantly revolutionizes production through innovation and technology. With the rise of the militarist – financial speculative elite, productive forces have been pillaged and ‘innovation’ is largely in the elaboration of financial instruments which exploit investors, strip assets and wipe out productive employment.

As the empire grows, the domestic economy diminishes, power is centralized in the executive, legislative powers are diminished and the citizenry is denied effective representation or even a veto via electoral processes.

Mass Responses to Rise of Barbarism

The rise of barbarism in our midst has provoked public revulsion against its principal practitioners. Surveys have repeatedly found

(1) Profound disgust and revulsion against all political parties.

(2) Huge majorities harbor profound distrust of the corporate and political elite.

(3) Majorities reject the concentration of corporate power and the abuse of that power, especially among bankers and financiers.

(4) There is widespread questioning of the democratic credentials of political leaders who act at the behest of the corporate elite and promote the repressive policies of the national security state.

(5) A large majority rejects the pillage of the state treasury to bail out banks and financial elite, while imposing regressive austerity programs on the working and middle class.

Prospects for Socialism

The capitalist offensive has certainly had a major impact on the objective and subjective conditions of the working and middle classes, increasing impoverishment and provoking a rising tide of personal discontent but not yet massive anti-capitalist movements or even dynamic organized resistance.

Major structural changes require a coming-to-terms with the current adverse circumstances and the identification of new agencies and modes of class struggle and transformation.

One key problem is the need to recreate a productive economy and to reconstruct a new industrial working class in the face of years of financial plunder and de-industrialization, not necessarily the ‘dirty’ industries of the past, but certainly new industries using and inventing clean energy sources.

Secondly, the highly indebted capitalist societies require a fundamental shift from high-cost militarism and empire building toward a kind of class-based austerity that impose sacrifice and structural reforms on the banking, financial and big retail commercial sectors, substituting local production for cheap consumer imports.

Thirdly, downsizing the financial and retail sector requires the upgrading of skills of the displaced workers and employees as well as shifts in the IT sector to accommodate the shifts in the economy. Paradigmatic shifts from the money wage to the social wage, in which free public education to the highest levels and universal health care and comprehensive pensions replace debt-financed consumerism. This can become the basis for strengthening class consciousness against individual consumerism.

The question is how do we move from weakened, fragmented labor and social movements in retreat or on the defensive, to a position capable of launching an anti-capitalist offensive?

Several subjective and objective factors are possibly working in this direction. First, there is the growing negativity of vast majorities to political incumbents and, in particular, to the financial and economic elites who are clearly identified as responsible for the decline in living standards. Secondly, there is the popular view, shared by millions, that the current austerity programs are clearly unjust – having the workers pay for the crises that the capitalist class brought forth. As yet these majorities are more “anti” status quo than “pro” transformation. The transition from private discontent to collective action is an open question as to who and how, but the opportunity exists.

Several objective factors could trigger a qualitative shift from passive angry discontent to a massive anti-capitalist movement. A “double dip” recession, the end of the present anemic recovery and the onset of a more profound and prolonged recession/depression, could further discredit current rulers and their economic backers.

Secondly, a period of unending and deepening austerity could discredit the current ruling class notion of “necessary pain for future gain” and open minds and move bodies to seek political solutions to achieve current gains by inflicting pain on the economic elites.

Unending and unwinnable imperial wars that bleed the economy, and working class could ultimately create a consciousness that the ruling class has “sacrificed the nation” for ‘no useful purpose’.

Likely, the combination of a new phase of the recession, perpetual austerity and mindless imperial wars can turn the current mass malaise and diffuse hostility against the economic and political elite toward socialist movements, parties and trade unions.

James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books). Petras’ most recent books are The Politics of Empire: The Us, Israel and the Middle East (2014) and The Arab Revolt and the Imperialist Counterattack. He can be reached at: jpetras@binghamton.edu. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on July 30th, 2010 at 9:09am #

    The analysis is of American society and doesn’t entirely apply to the rest of the world. The European welfare state, for example, is still largely intact. However, the economic disaster caused by lost wars does indeed provoke revolutions. Thus, acceptance of the defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the concomitant end of US world domination, could easily create a “revolutionary situation” in the US. But I think Americans will turn more towards the Tea Party than towards the traditional left. First of all, because that is in the American tradition. People who believe that the Old Testament is meant to be interpreted literally are unlike to be interested in an atheistic ideology! Secondly, “socialist” is almost a dirty word in the US. Thirdly, Americans assimilate socialism to communism and the discrediting of communism has thus also discredited socialism in their eyes. Fourthly, if the articles I read on these websites are anything to go by, the American left seems to be largely composed of people over 60 who do little other than mouth empty slogans out of the 1930s. I can’t imagine young people being impressed by that and if revolution there is going to be, it will be a young people’s revolution. Here in Europe, the young are much more green than red. So I wouldn’t count on Americans “turning left”.

  2. Ron Horn said on July 30th, 2010 at 1:04pm #

    The only problem I have with this essay is that the author barely mentions the impact on capitalism that ecological limits will have on it. Working people of the world face a race against time as capitalism is the engine, if we are unable to stop it, that will drive humanity off the cliffs of environmental degradation, resource exhaustion, and climate change.

  3. Aaron Aarons said on July 31st, 2010 at 5:18am #

    The traditional left use of the terms “barbarians” and “barbarism”, as repeated here by Petras, is a tremendous distortion of human history and an insult to those who resisted previous empires, paticularly the mini-empire of the Atheinian slaveholders and the much larger one centered in Rome a few centuries later. The people who were labeled “barbarians” by the Greeks and Romans were the anti-imperialists of that day, or sometimes less murderous rival imperialists.

    If the issue facing us is “civilization or barbarism”, then let’s proudly proclaim that we have a lot more in common with the ancient “barbarians” than with those early “civilized” imperial predators who gave them that label. And lets recognize that, although U.S./Israeli-centered imperialism (probably followed closely by other branches of empire) is, like the Roman Empire, preparing the ground for its own destruction, the human species is going to need all the “barbarians” it can produce to actually bring about that destruction before that civilized monstrosity makes human and other life on this planet unsustainable.

  4. David Silver said on July 31st, 2010 at 7:20am #

    A serious anti-capitalist movement requires and independent
    national political movement/Party with a consciousness of the common enemy the ruling class of transnatkonals and banks which alone unites all of the issues of oppresskon and exploitation Whether it be Gree, Pink or Lavender.
    Dave

  5. Robertov said on July 31st, 2010 at 12:38pm #

    Most danger comes from the alliance between financial capitalism and communist state. The major sources of profits for American capitalist corporations are slaves in China, based in socialist Marxist Leninist state practices. 150 millions of chinese slaves produces in 365 days a reason of 40 $/day profit for 150x40x365 = 2 millions of millions of dollars. This quantity is important with respect to world GDP. Major capitalist strategy is connected now to communist Marxist Leninist organizations. This is the sad reality. Left wing political operators are another basket for capitalist eggs.
    Leftist theorist don’t explain the incapacity off Marxist based politics to organize society. Trotsky said that the problem is for “extending” revolution and left without explanation the hunger in revolutionary Rusia.
    Is incredible that marxist theory was based in theories from David Ricardo, the main capitalist in financing England, Ireland an East Indian government requirements in the Napoleonic wars.
    Now socialist dictatorships are promoted for big American financial capitalists and the left intellectuals are completely blind.

  6. Robertov said on July 31st, 2010 at 1:48pm #

    Nothing new. State and capitalism are perfect allies. England state represents capitalism in XIX century. American State is the capitalism-state reality now. Plus value or profit is obtained from periphery countries as prime mater or farmers. Now oil is one of main sources of profit, oil companies need state support, USA state support and also alliances with dictatorships in oil countries created for US and England for his interests. Historically BP, Shell comes from England crown, and Exxon, Chevron, etc. are structurally tied to American political power.
    Monopoly practices obtained from state domination permits high profits. In nineties American speculative capitalists bring to US practices that they made in other countries. For that, they create futures market for prime matters and to generate financial bubbles.
    With support of American state, big state supported capitalists explode American entrepreneurs with Wall Street traps.
    Capitalism is glue between State and Financial capitalists and exclude entrepreneurs. Marxism is based in theories from a financial capitalist David Ricardo, firmly tied to England capitalist state and exclude entrepreneurs.
    Marxists put entrepreneurs between capitalists and don’t permit a union between all human powers for advance in human liberation.

  7. Aaron Aarons said on August 1st, 2010 at 6:35am #

    I’m not sure how much of the apparent incoherence of what Robertov writes is due to the apparent fact that English is not his native language, but some of the things he writes are clear — and clearly wrong! In particular, the assertion that Chinese workers are ‘slaves’ is absurd. They are, indeed, exploited wage laborers, but they are also one of the more militant working classes on the planet. Probably one of the sources of that militancy is the 30 years around the third quarter of the last century when the idea that capitalists had a “right” to become rich at the expense of workers was recognized as being outrageous. China may or may not be rightly regarded as capitalist today, but certainly ideas of class struggle are still part of the culture, even within the pro-capitalist ‘Communist’ Party. Incidentally, China in 2009 ranked 92 out of 182 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. And that’s based just on mainland China, excluding the much wealthier regions of Hong Kong and Macao. Neoliberal, free-market South Africa ranked 129 and India, 134.

  8. Don Hawkins said on August 1st, 2010 at 6:45am #

    In particular, the assertion that Chinese workers are ’slaves’ is absurd.

    This very day in China about one third of the water is so polluted you can’t drink it and that is probably a low number. Any progress on slowing this pollution no not much, Herculean, enormous, kind of like a war effort and yes those words seem to denote action but action can also mean to slowdown. Will China do just that not so far of course here in the States the climate bill is now to set up a fund for off shore drilling safety not to bright

  9. Josie Michel-Bruening said on August 1st, 2010 at 8:06am #

    Thank you very much, dear James Petras, for this profound analyses of the capitalist society and respective perspectives.
    As you said: “As yet these majorities are more “anti” status quo than “pro” transformation. The transition from private discontent to collective action is an open question as to who and how, but the opportunity exists.”
    And I have to object to MichaelKenny when arguing: “The analysis is of American society and doesn’t entirely apply to the rest of the world. The European welfare state, for example, is still largely intact. …”
    In the opposite, since the Berlin wall is fallen, all concessions are fallen with this wall and circumstances in Europe have become equal to those in the US, according to the device “Capitalism has won”.
    I am able testifying because grown up in western Germany and having experienced the difference to our life before.
    However, I want to refer again to Petras when saying: “Endless wars, cross border assassinations, state terror and the suspension of traditional constitutional guarantees have led to the concentration of dictatorial powers, arbitrary jailing, torture and the denial of habeas corpus.
    3. In the midst of a deep economic recession and stagnation, high levels of state spending on economic and military empire building at the expense of the domestic economy and living standards, reflects …”
    And I want to refer to a current example within the context of terrorist attacks agaanst Cuba (3,478 dead and 2,099 invalid Cubans in 1999), and “arbitrary” jailing of the “Cuban Five”. One of them, Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, convicted to double lifetime, plus 15 years, imprisoned in the high-security prison in Victorville; CA, currently ill and in isolation confinement without medical treatment, while his last possible appeal has been filed, according to habeas corpus act. But he is not allowed to prepare this with his attorneys, one of them is Leonard Weinglass.
    For more information: http://www.freethefive.org .

  10. Robertov said on August 1st, 2010 at 6:03pm #

    Excuse me for bad English. To recognize Bondage in China is the fact that defines a position as revolutionary or as reactionary. In between is the main source of profits for the main capitalist’s factions in the world. Illegal migrants in China have status of no-person in China. This is reported for several UN labor organizations. But there is too much money pulling for hide this condition. Slaves form of fight are like fox-comm suicide related with Microsoft, Dell, Ipad and all the American establishment. Until 2004 they receive first pay after three months, and were promoted to abandon and lost his wages. Slave condition is reflected for illegal status. In press blackout what happen?

  11. mary said on August 5th, 2010 at 1:08am #

    Why are the populations of the US and the UK so tolerant of these blatant excesses, examples below?

    The UK coalition government is sweeping away our valued public services and the beloved National Health Service (free to all at the point of need) is being handed over to private health companies, many American. Some of them have even been funding the Conservatives prior to the election. I have just read that 600 job cuts have been announced at a large general hospital in a neighbouring county.

    1. As US unemployment climbs, house reposessions soar and the food kitchen queues grow, Michelle Obama and the youngest child fly across the Atlantic in Air Force 2 to a 5 star Ritz Carlton hotel in Marbella for a 4 day stay where 60 rooms have been booked

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1300240/Michelle-Obama-jets-Marbella-5-star-holiday-daughter-Sasha.html

    2. These bailed out bankers party in London in the week when HSBC, Lloyds, Barclays and Northern Rock announce huge rises in profits into
    £ billions.

    (dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1300490/Shameless-bankers-celebate-new-City-boom-bought-YOUR-money.html)