A Marxist Critique of “How to be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century”
By JAZIR MOHAMMED
This book is the last of the works of a highly esteemed social scientist, whose name I remember had appeared during my A-level sociology studies. In Erik Olin Wright’s final work written before he died of leukaemia nearly 3 years ago, this 150-page book largely provides a critique of capitalism and acts as a blueprint for a world beyond the current system. What is essentially a revised extension of his 2010 work "Envisioning Real Utopias", "How to be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century" seeks to provide concrete paths to a socialist society where newer social and economic relations are established that undermine the current relations, norms, and institutions that dominate under capitalism.
His manifesto for a post-capitalist society is based on a combination of 4 versions of anti-capitalisms that he conceptualises, which have been used in the past and still exist today. The versions being: dismantling capitalism (creating new institutions that undermine capitalist social relations), taming capitalism (policies and institutions that mitigate capitalism’s worst effects), resisting capitalism (activities and struggles that oppose the system such as strikes and protests etc.), and escaping capitalism (avoiding engagement and participation in the system such as voluntary work, workers co-operatives, etc.). These so-called 'strategic logics', where the first two are rooted in the state and the other two are rooted in civil society, when combined will gradually undermine the hegemonic status of capitalism. The author uses the analogy of an ecosystem to suggest that neither capitalist or socialist societies should be thought of as binaries, and instead societies in the past and today are a more fluid system of social relations that vary. Hence, the logic here is to build newer and emancipatory practices that will eventually dominate in this so-called ecosystem.
Whilst all these mechanisms may seem like a viable route for socialism, Wright lacks an account for coherently identifying the main social actors and the collective role they play against capitalism. Whilst he tries to address this in his last chapter, he merely suggests that such a transition would be initiated by a multitude of parties, social movements, co-operatives, non-profits, trade unions, etc. that are largely united by shared interests and values. The author does not concretely formalise the specifics on how such a loosely formed coalition of collective actors may come together, let alone strategise their route to socialism, since according to him it would largely depend on and differ based on the society. Hence, this suggests to me that there aren’t any viable ones to begin with. Such a poorly structured coalition of groups with incredibly varying motives and interests may seem unrealistic in the fight against capitalism. That’s why a more centralised party with a clear direction may seem like a more viable route, as it could effectively mobilise workers in the face of an inevitable revolution.
Wright later identifies the contradictions of the capitalist state and how they can be used in eroding capitalism. Because capitalism is inherently a crisis-prone and self-destructive system, the state, which serves in the interests of the ruling class, seeks to intervene in the market by largely increasing welfare and redistributing wealth in order to maintain social stability and conformity. According to Wright, whilst such steps may seem like they are there to protect capitalism, they are also inherently steps towards socialism. In the wake of the climate crisis and the crisis of automation which has led to deepening global inequality and unemployment, Wright predicts that states will inevitably resort to nationalising private assets and increasing social welfare provision, with UBI being a more prominent example he frequently mentions. Based on such reforms, the means of subsistence for workers would be increasingly less dependent on the market, hence there is greater scope for people to engage in activities that fall under 'resisting' and 'escaping' capitalism.
Based on this logic, with the ever-worsening climate crisis and the recent pandemic accelerating the need for states to improve material conditions, it seems that the trajectory that most states have pursued is a lot different to what Wright had predicted. Whilst in the UK the government had injected a large £330 billion bill to save the economy, most of it has gone to helping large business owners stay in the market (with a short-lived furlough system), and has boosted cronyism instead of seeking to nationalise assets or improving public welfare. Even the £20 boost to universal credit got cut and national insurance has been increased to pay for our increasing public costs. Similarly in the US, the Biden administration hasn’t ensured a $15 minimum wage for all workers, reneged on their promise to forgive student debt, let alone fully expand healthcare coverage or even prevent evictions. To me it seems that all of these initiatives taken by governments post Covid-19 are solely intended to lousily maintain a very basic level of social and economic stability instead of actually improving material conditions.
Maybe it’s too soon yet, but from what it seems, Wright’s predictions of how the capitalist state will change seem quite unfeasible at this point. This is why Rosa Luxembourg coined the term, “Socialism or Barbarism”. And if there is no action soon taken by a strong socialist party or an effective social movement, the trajectory we’ll be heading towards is one of chaos and destruction instead of what Wright predicted.
Image: How to be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century by Erik Olin Wright (Goodreads)