Since the collapse of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union, many on the left seem to have swallowed the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. Debate has been limited to what can (or rather cannot) be achieved within its confines. Here is a powerful book with the opposite message: What must be abolished is not only classical capitalist society but the reign of capital as such. Indeed, the Soviet example proves it is not enough to “expropriate the expropriators” if you do not uproot the domination of labor on which the rule of capital rests. An alternative exists, or more precisely, can be forged, provided it is radical and fundamental.
Istvan Meszaros is especially suited for such global analysis. A young assistant to Georg Lukacs, he left his native Hungary for England after the Soviet invasion and thus had no illusions about neo-Stalinism. Yet, unlike many emigrants from Eastern Europe, he was not so dazzled by Western wealth as to forget his principles. From his new vantage in the chair of philosophy at Sussex University, he examined the world through critical Marxist spectacles, producing such valuable studies as Marx’s Theory of Alienation and The Power of Ideology. But Beyond Capital is undoubtedly his magnum opus. Its ambition can be measured by the treble significance of the title. To get rid of capital, one must destroy its very foundations, not merely the superstructure. But we must also move beyond Das Kapital–first, because Marx never completed his project, leaving unwritten crucial chapters on the state and world trade, and second, in the century since Marx’s death, capital has shown both an unsuspected adaptability and a dangerous capacity to survive in spite of the fact that its ascending stage is over.
To develop his argument Meszaros must define the nature of capital’s rule, or what he aptly calls its metabolism. Based on the domination of capital over alienated labor, on the predominance of exchange over use value, it is driven forward by the imperative of expansion, but also rests on a hierarchical division of labor. In short, it is a system with its own logic and coherence; removing a part is not enough. The Russian revolutionaries eliminated big property owners, yet failed to attack the hierarchical structure by transferring power to working people, to the “associated producers.” After a time, the old mechanism for extracting surplus through essentially economic means was replaced by one relying mainly on political power, leaving workers in many respects more dominated than ever. That is why, when their experiment finally faltered, Russian rulers found it easy to climb on the bandwagon taking them back to the more classical rule of capital. Yet the emphasis on the system’s inner coherence and interdependence also explains why Western European efforts to change it gradually from within were sure to fail: The reforms in no way interfered with its metabolism. Thus, the analysis explains both the collapse of neo-Stalinism and the bankruptcy of social democracy.
Meszaros stresses the part played by the state, because its greatly increased role since Marx’s time accounts in large part for the capacity of capitalism to absorb oppositions and put off contradictions. Current stories about the vanishing of the state are fairy tales. It may no longer be the Keynesian instrument it once was for stimulating production or providing welfare, but it is still very much a pillar of the capitalist system, which would collapse overnight if it were withdrawn. The international dimension–globalization–is even more important. Meszaros quotes an interesting passage in which Marx wonders whether a socialist revolution in Western -. Europe would “not be necessarily crushed in this little corner of the world, since on a much larger terrain the development of bourgeois society is still in the ascendant”; Meszaros suggests that the revolution’s European failure was due essentially to this scope for capitalism to spread. Today, having conquered the entire planet, it may be at the end of its tether.