Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Capital’s Historic Circle Is Closing

The Challenge to Secure Exit

István Mészáros

István Mészáros

In June 2017, István Mészáros sent me a copy of the present article for publication in Monthly Review. At the time, he asked if I would write an introduction, as well as give titles to its various sections, as I had for some of his previous essays. This piece was originally written as the closing section of Chapter One of his great work, Beyond Leviathan: Critique of the State—drafted but left unfinished upon his death on October 1, 2017.

Beyond Leviathan is divided into three parts, each of which was projected to be more than two hundred pages long and published as a separate volume. The three parts are entitled The Historic Challenge, The Harsh Reality, and The Necessary Alternative. Chapter One of Part One is entitled “From Relative to Absolute Limits: Historical Anachronism of the State,” and is in turn divided into five sections: (1) “Historical Constitution and Antagonistic Reality of the State”; (2) “Freedom Is Parasitic on Equality: Common Denominator of Antagonistic Political Formations and the Qualitative Determination of Disposable Time”; (3) “From Primitive Equality to Substantive Equality—via Slavery”; (4) “Capital’s Deepening Structural Crisis and the State”; and (5) “The Historic Circle Is Closing—The Challenge to Secure Exit.”

The third section of Chapter One was published in the September 2016 issue of MR, and the first section will appear as an article in a future issue. This article, the fifth and final section, is printed here for the first time. We are committed at MR and Monthly Review Press to ensuring that all of Beyond Leviathan will eventually be made available in a form as close as possible to Mészáros’s intentions. In the meantime, the parts he selected for prior publication should encourage critical thinking about what he called “the challenge and burden of [our] historical time.”

“Capital’s Historic Circle Is Closing” is a remarkably coherent statement, capable of standing on its own. Nevertheless, readers will no doubt benefit from a few words on the broad contours and conceptual framework of the larger critique of which this article is a part. Beyond Leviathan represents the endpoint of Mészáros’s analysis of “the structural crisis of capital,” whose main features he worked out in the early 1970s, as he was completing Marx’s Theory of Alienation. To address the issue of the state in a meaningful and dialectical way, it was necessary first to explore its material foundations. This was done in his monumental treatise Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition, published in 1995. That work focuses on the “capital system,” viewed as a form of “social metabolic reproduction,” of which capitalism, in Mészáros’s classification, is conceived as a specific historical form. Hence, simply overcoming capitalism, as in the Soviet Union, is not sufficient, since the entire capital system and its state must be challenged in their inner functioning and from within the core of the productive order. This requires the formation of a qualitatively different, communal system of social metabolic reproduction.

It is here that Beyond Leviathan is intended to complete Mészáros’s analysis. In his critique, the transition to socialism, which constitutes an absolute necessity of our time, requires the withering away of the state. But explaining what this means and how it is to be carried out demands the most thoroughgoing critique of the state ever developed. Indeed, no other political philosopher in the Marxist tradition since the classical period has attempted a more ambitious critique of the state, both at the level of theory and as a guide to revolutionary praxis in the transition to socialism. As Hugo Chávez said, Mészáros was “the pathfinder” of twenty-first century socialism.

John Bellamy Foster

The Structural Crisis of Capital and the State

We are now not very far from marking the centenary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address. In fact, by now more than five-sixths of the time is gone toward that memorable centenary. However, the changes accomplished in all these decades are very far from what were the solemnly declared and for a long time sincerely believed original hopeful expectations.

President Roosevelt entered his office in the period of what is customarily referred to as the Great World Economic Crisis, dated 1929–33. His First Inaugural Address was delivered on March 4, 1933, promising a radical change in the world economy, not as a limited conjunctural improvement lasting perhaps a few years, but as a deep-seated and permanent transformation. Major unhindered capital-expansion was thought to be the answer, to be helped along in a significant way by presidential candidate Roosevelt’s New Deal program in the United States, announced on July 2, 1932, and contributing, of course, to his overwhelmingly successful election.

Indeed, economic expansion appeared to work almost prodigiously in the United States from the second half of 1933 to the early months of 1937. However, in the second half of 1937 the U.S. economy started to relapse into a stagnant state and in 1938 the country experienced a deep recession. Understandably, however, the outbreak of the Second World War “rescued” the U.S. economy from its recession, carrying with it for the country a massive productive expansion and two decades of successful growth also after the end of the global war, in the period of postwar reconstruction all over Europe and in some other parts of the world.

President Roosevelt’s original design for a vigorous capitalist economy explicitly advocated the removal of “artificial” protective devices represented by the still existing British and French Empires. He made it absolutely clear already in his First Inaugural Address that he “shall spare no effort to restore world trade by international economic readjustment.” 1 And in the same spirit a few years later he made it quite clear that he advocated the right “to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”2 President Roosevelt made it also very clear during the Second World War that he was not only against the British continuing to rule India after the war but equally against the French retaining the territories of Indochina as well as their North African colonies.3

Thus Roosevelt genuinely believed that putting an end to the traditional empires would create the conditions for healthy economic development all over the world. And he projected American leadership as arising not from colonial/military domination, but by virtue of the principles inherent in the U.S. type of economic advancement, oriented by the claimed “freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.” Toward the peak of the country’s successful expansion under the New Deal he was even talking in heightened positive terms about the work of “destiny” in this way: “a better civilization than any we have known is in store for America and by our example, perhaps, for the world. Here destiny seems to have taken a long look.”4

However, in contrast to such expectations, postwar developments—by which time Roosevelt was dead—had brought with them not “freedom from monopolies at home or abroad” but the assertion of the new power relations of continued imperialism under American domination. Under such conditions the world economy was characterized by the prevalence of the most iniquitous differential rate of exploitation of the global labor force, with labor in the capitalistically much more advanced U.S. economy occupying a considerably better position in that respect.

Filipino historian and political theorist Renato Constantino gave a striking example of this gruesome mode of exploitation, which in his country imposed the appallingly low wages of the differential rate:

Ford Philippines, Inc., established only in 1967, is now [four years later] 37th in the roster of the 1,000 biggest corporations in the Philippines. In 1971 it reported a return on equity of 121.32 percent, whereas its overall return on equity in 133 countries in the same year was only 11.8 percent. Aside from all the incentives extracted from the government, Ford’s high profits were mainly due to cheap labor. While the U.S. hourly rate for skilled labor in 1971 was almost $7.50, the rate for similar work in the Philippines was only $0.30.5

What is most significant in such matters, however, is that from the early 1970s onward we have been experiencing the capital system’s deepening structural crisis, instead of the originally projected unhindered expansion of the world economy to the benefit of all. The secondary antagonism of the capital system between the rival competing units for a long historical period contributed to expansion and, in its turn, was also greatly supported by continued expansion. That is why it could be idealized in the name of unqualified expansion, ignoring its nature and consequences. With the onset of capital’s structural or systemic crisis, however, things have changed not only for the worse but for much the worst.

Thus, despite the increasingly direct involvement of the capitalist state in the economy, even in the form of injecting in its rescue operations trillions of dollars into the bottomless hole of bankrupt capitalist enterprises, the problems multiplied. At the same time the neoliberal ideologues of capital hypocritically continued to glorify the insuperable virtues of the “free enterprise system” and even the fiction of “rolling back the boundaries of the state” when in reality we had a propensity to stagger from one crisis to another ever since the 1970s. In our time, however, in contrast to 1939, the potentiality of a global war cannot “rescue” the capital system from its deepening structural crisis, because of its suicidal danger. Thus the primary antagonism between capital and labor—representing also labor’s positive hegemonic alternative to the system’s modality of societal reproduction—cannot be ignored any longer.

Capital’s Closing Circle

With the structural crisis of the capital system as a whole, and by no means only of capitalism, the expansionary historic circle through which capital could dominate humanity for a very long time is perilously closing. That closure brings with it the danger of humanity’s total destruction in the interest of capital’s absurdly prolonged rule. I have repeatedly tried to highlight since the 1970s the fundamental differences between capitalism, historically limited to a few centuries, and the much more fundamental frame of reference of the capital system, focusing at the same time on the grave dangers manifest in now-unfolding historical developments.6 In this context, it will be necessary to stress the principal factors that clearly indicate the perilous character of capital as such, destructively resisting the necessary closure of its historic circle. As everyone knows, we are told all the time that “there is no alternative” to capital’s mode of reproducing the societal order. We must take a closer look at this claim. But before doing so, it is necessary to sum up as briefly as possible the defining characteristics of the capital system’s structural crisis.

The historical novelty of capital’s structural or systemic crisis, in contrast to its periodically recurrent conjunctural crises, is manifest under four main aspects: Its character is universal, rather than restricted to one particular sphere (e.g., financial or commercial) or affecting this or that branch of production, or applying to this rather than that type of labor, with its specific range of skills and degrees of productivity, etc.

Its scope is truly global, in the most threateningly literal sense of the term, rather than confined to a particular set of countries, as all major crises have been in the past.

Its time scale is extended, continuous—if you like permanent—rather than limited and cyclic, as all former crises of capital happened to be.

Its mode of unfolding might be called creeping—in contrast to the more spectacular and dramatic eruptions and collapses of the past—while adding the proviso that even the most vehement or violent convulsions cannot be excluded as far as the future is concerned: i.e., when the complex machinery now actively engaged in “crisis management” and in the more or less temporary “displacement” of the growing contradictions runs out of steam.7

With regard to these defining characteristics, it is particularly important to stress the fundamental difference between the capital system as a whole and the limited historical phase of capitalism integrated into the overall capital system. For it cannot be underlined enough, the capitalist private enterprise form of production, with its “personifications of capital” (in Marx’s words) as individual capitalists, can be overthrown, and had been, for instance through the Russian October Revolution in 1917, but not the capital system in its entirety. That must be totally eradicated through a fundamental restructuring process and replaced by a radically different socialist metabolic order. Likewise, the capitalist state can be overthrown, and had been, but not the state as such. The state as such must also be totally eradicated and replaced by a qualitatively different modality of truly autonomous overall control of societal decision-making by the people through the qualitative reconstitution of the social metabolism itself.

The disconcerting historical fact is that whatever can be overthrown can also be restored. Indeed, private capitalism and the capitalist state had been both overthrown and restored. Restored, for instance in the former Soviet Union, by Mikhail Gorbachev and his associates. And they did not have to restore the capital system itself because they had it already, with themselves as the dominant post-capitalist bureaucratic “personifications of capital” whose role was to enforce the politically regulated maximal extraction of surplus labor, in contrast to the primarily economic extraction of surplus labor as surplus value under capitalism. For the historically limited post-capitalist transformations of capitalism—like those undertaken in October 1917 and thereafter—are perfectly compatible with the continued rule of the capital system’s metabolic order, since no fundamental socialist restructuring is involved in the political overthrow of the capitalist state without the eradication of the hierarchically entrenched state structure itself.

This is an elementary lesson for the future. In fact the difference between the capital system and capitalism is vitally important to us not in relation to the past but in terms of the present and the future. For our grave problem is the danger presented to humanity’s survival not simply by this or that particular form of capital’s state formations known up to the present time but by any one of its conceivable varieties also in the future, as they are bound to arise if capital’s social metabolic order is not restructured in a historically viable socialist way. It must be also underlined that the idea of a “global coercive state,” no matter who champions it, borders on insanity.

Breaking the Bounds of Nature

To be sure, capital’s personifications of any color must resist at all cost the necessary closure of their system’s historic circle in the interest of prolonging its rule. For the globally perceptible social determinations pointing in the direction of that historic closure are both overwhelming and closely intertwined, so that against them the traditionally enforced adjustments and state correctives cannot work any longer.

Let us see the principal factors that indicate the necessary closure of the capital system’s historic circle, calling at the same time for a viable alternative.

Perhaps the most obvious—if extremely problematic—global accomplishment that cannot be denied in its all-destructive power even by capital’s worst apologists is the ability of the dominant states to annihilate humanity through a global military conflagration. Evidently, this problematical achievement through the now fully operational weapons of mass destruction did not exist in past ages. However, it appeared on our horizon with its menacing finality simultaneously with the closure of capital’s historic circle. As we know, in our time, the so-called “strategic thinkers” of the political/military domain do not hesitate to commend and actively “plan the unthinkable,” while some presidents and prime ministers decree that with their politically trustworthy “safe fingers,” they would not hesitate to push the nuclear button in the event of a global confrontation.

In this way the capital system’s ardent defenders put their fate into the safety and viability of the weapons of mass destruction—which include also chemical and biological weaponry—as well as into the groundlessly assumed remedy of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The alternative would be, of course, to positively overcome the causes of lethal antagonisms, which happen to be inseparable from the nature of the capital system itself, especially in the descending phase of its global development. But precisely because such systemic antagonism is inherent in capital’s social metabolic order, not reducible to its political/military superstructure, the measures traditionally enforced through extreme military violence by the rival states cannot be used under the conditions of potentially total destruction of humanity. That price would be far too high to pay even in terms of the most elementary requirements of rationality.

Advocating MAD as such a postulated automatic deterrence is a fundamentally irrational strategy. Its only “rationality” consists in promoting the massive vested interests of the “military-industrial complex,” in Eisenhower’s memorable phrase. The required and feasible alternative to MAD can only be the elaboration of a qualitatively different social metabolic order. A new order that is not overburdened with systemic antagonisms due to vested interests. The operation of such qualitatively different social metabolism is the only way to bring under control, and in due course fully eliminate, the now threatening weapons of mass destruction. By contrast, the radical incompatibility of attending to the causes of antagonism within the established economic and political order, in view of its insuperably antagonistic systemic determinations, signals the necessary closure of capital’s historic circle.

Another literally vital determination on the global scale concerns our planet’s limited material resources. Naturally, this is also a historical development, accomplished through the spread of the capitalistically ever more advanced mode of industrial production over the entire globe, with more than seven billion people, in contrast to the past as recent as even the period just before the Second World War. Today it is unavoidable to consider satisfying the needs of four immense capitalist economic complexes—the United States, Europe, China, and India—in contrast to a few decades earlier, when a handful of dominant capitalist countries could derive overwhelming benefits to themselves from the material resources and services of the “underdeveloped world,” treated as the presumed legitimate “hinterland” of their own expansion. As a result of these changes, now also the working classes of China and India have started to demand a less miserable share of their own products, to be used by themselves in comparison to the past.

Naturally, of this whole complex of problems, the apologists of capital only notice the greatly increased need for the planet’s limited material resources, and even that in a grossly distorted form, under the ideologically most revealing heading of “population explosion.” To be sure, no one should deny the increasing relevance of these factors, let alone the absolute legitimacy of the people’s need. But it is necessary to highlight also some social and economic determinations that inevitably call again for a fundamental structural change in our societal reproductive order. They indicate some heavily aggravating conditions regarding the mode of allocating and utilizing the resources available for the satisfaction of the needs of ever greater numbers who work with, and lay their claim on, our planet’s limited material resources as a result of capital’s economic conquest of the world.

It is enough to mention here two of the most important aggravating conditions: the perverse imperative of uncontrollable capital-expansion oriented toward exchange value, to the detriment of use value, creating scarcity also when without the imperative of endless capital-expansion there would be an alternative to the danger of ever-increasing scarcity; and the dominance of destructive production and concomitant waste, combined with the capital system’s self-mythology of “creative destruction,” also at the descending phase of capital’s systemic development.

In relation to both of these major aggravating determinations, the obvious practically feasible remedy would be a positively planned strategic intervention in the economy, in the interest of maximizing socially required use-value and at the same time attending to the strictest control of waste. But that kind of rationally planned economy—which is inconceivable without substantive equality as its social basis—is totally incompatible with the long-established modality of capitalist production.

Moreover, we have to add here to the general problem of increased need for the planet’s material resources—including the elementary requirement of water—the special difficulty arising for the demand for strategic material resources among the competing massive capitalist complexes. In the absence of a rationally planned allocation of such resources on a global scale, that can only lead to belligerent confrontations among the rival states, with potentially devastating consequences. By now for several centuries the capitalist productive system had very little concern about economy as economizing, in the original sense of that term. However, in the future the required societal reproduction is bound to be totally unthinkable without the conscious application of the orienting principles of a properly planned and responsibly economizing economy. Accordingly, also in that sense we notice here the necessary closure of the capital system’s historic circle.

At least one more problem must be forcefully underlined here: the ecological incompatibility of capital’s mode of social metabolic reproduction with the rationally sustainable demands of our time. This is clearly expressed today even in the way in which a new geological epoch is being named to indicate humanity’s extremely problematical—indeed most dangerous—impact on our planet. This new geological epoch is called the Anthropocene, corresponding to the time when some of the capital system’s ineradicable damages have been inflicted on our planet, more or less in the last hundred years, beginning with the residues of nuclear explosions and continuing to the present, in permanent plastic deposits in the oceans.

Naturally, capital’s ecological incompatibility with the demands of historically sustainable existence goes much further than a few uncontestable and no longer eradicable phenomena that mark a new geological epoch, even if their rate of increase might be reduced or stopped altogether. To the vast range of ecological damages we have to add, among others, not only chemical pollution and soil erosion, but also—what is frequently discussed at conferences on “global warming” — increasing acidity in our oceans, as well as the grave disruption of biodiversity and the irresponsible treatment of nuclear waste in the service of profit. Indeed the earlier mentioned aggravating condition of destructive production, in the interest of maintaining uncontrolled growth targets and mindless profitability, is closely connected with capital’s enmity to ecological sustainability. Thus also in this absolutely vital domain the painful evidence points to the closure of the capital system’s historic circle. An irreversible closure because the capital system, due to its innermost structural determinations, cannot remedy any of the identified dangerous developments, even if it tries to derive profit from them in some cases, like for instance the grotesquely propagandized “carbon tax” as the claimed solution to global warming.

What are the prospects for the future under these circumstances? That is a very difficult question. For in connection with all of the determinations identifiable in the closure of capital’s historic circle we find powerful vested interests inseparable from the mode of overall control characteristic of the Leviathan state. Rational appeal for change would be in this respect very naïve. Structurally entrenched overall decision-making powers tend to resort to adventurism when they cannot prevail in any other way. Historical evidence for countless centuries tends to confirm that way of responding to fundamental challenges by the rival states when the stakes increase.

The March of Folly

In relation to the Leviathan state’s unavoidable adventurism, it is relevant to distinguish between the unholy imperative of the state’s necessarily asserted commanding functions in dangerous situations and the role of implementing them by the commanding personnel itself. As mentioned before, in idealist philosophical accounts of historical development, exemplified by the most monumental of them conceived by G. W. F. Hegel, the commanding personnel of the state tends to assume a somewhat mysterious role, under the exalted name of the “World Historical Person”—like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Luther, and Napoleon, repeatedly praised by Hegel—as the instruments cunningly used for its own design and purposes by the “World Spirit” and hidden from the historical individuals concerned.

In his characterization of the paradoxically unhappy fate of such figures, we are told by Hegel that “they attained no calm enjoyment; their whole life was labor and trouble; their whole nature was naught else but their master-passion. When their object is attained they fall off like empty hulls from the kernel. They die early, like Alexander; they are murdered, like Caesar; transported to St. Helena, like Napoleon.”8

However, the question of why the World Historical Persons must suffer a rather unhappy fate in their different historic circumstances remains wrapped up in complete mystery. The assertion that they have fulfilled the World Spirit’s hidden design and therefore they can “fall off like empty hulls from the kernel” seems to be ubiquitously valid by definition, thanks to the very nature of the Hegelian explanatory design. The World Historical Persons cannot go wrong even when they go devastatingly wrong, because in doing so, even if their action brings disaster, they actually fulfill the World Spirit’s unobjectionable purpose. In this way even the most irresponsible deed pursued by them is responsible and even ideal, because it brings into existence the required World Historical phase of events and developments, together with their objective embodiments.

The particular institutional forms and instruments through which the World Historical Persons prevail or fail—in the case of the three individuals named in the last quote by Hegel, Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, acting within the particular institutional form of the antagonistic state through which they assert their own role—is not mentioned at all, let alone criticized by the great German philosopher, because they themselves are said to be the instruments. Indeed they are said to be the instruments not of a potentially objectionable particular state formation but of the World Spirit itself whose ultimate design is the institution of the ethically insuperable (and therefore absolutely unobjectionable) institution of the Germanic state. Such a state cannot be considered an instrument in its human sense. For it is said to be nothing less exalted than “the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.”9

The great problem in this respect is that in the really existing world the requirement of successful military action in the interest of the particular antagonistic state formation represented by its commanding personnel sooner or later induces them as decision makers—that is, as Hegel’s World Historical Persons—to undertake extreme risks and overreach their own power in dangerous adventures until a greater state power violently counters their efforts. Before that fateful clash, there seems to be no limit to their commanding power. They must presume to undertake even the most extreme risks, not because their “whole nature is naught else but their master-passion,” but because it is dictated by the objectively required state-imperative to succeed on behalf of the state, which they command, and outwit through their chosen extreme designs their adversary or enemy.

The Hegelian World Historical Person nearest to our own time, Napoleon, was undoubtedly an outstanding historic figure. Winston Churchill characterized him as “the greatest man of action born in Europe since Julius Caesar.”10 In truth he was much more than that. He was a great military leader and commander as well as an organizational genius, with his own vision of the state. Napoleon was victorious in fifty-eight of the sixty-five immense military confrontations he fought, often against far superior forces. Even his English military rival, who in the end defeated him at Waterloo thanks to much more powerful military units on his side, “when asked who was the greatest captain of the age, the Duke of Wellington himself replied: ‘In this age, in past ages, in any age: Napoleon.’”11 Moreover, the Code Napoléon, instituted in France in 1804, represented a great advance over its rivals in being the most consistent in eliminating the feudal remnants in the domain of the Law. And yet Napoleon undertook the disastrous Russian adventure in 1812 and was responsible for the almost complete annihilation of his own army. Moreover, he even tried to restore slavery in the French colonies in Latin America as a way of securing military victory, although such an absurdly retrograde social design was undoubtedly contrary to his own conception of political Enlightenment.

Thousands of years earlier, Alexander the Great seemed to be always invincible. However, even he undertook some extreme risks that almost destroyed his army. This happened when he had chosen to follow a route with his vast army through the Makran Desert, although there were alternatives to it, and had to suffer nearly catastrophic losses. In the end,

After sixty days in the desert, the survivors…had seen thousands die around them, perhaps half their fellow-soldiers and almost all the camp-followers. If 40,000 people had followed Alexander into the desert, only 15,000 may have survived to see Kirman. All such figures are guesses, but there is no mistaking the men’s condition. Not even the sum total of all the army’s suffering in Asia, it was agreed, deserved to be compared with the hardships in Makran.”12

And this is not the whole story. For in the course of actual historical development to our own time, some conditions have radically changed in this respect, and by no means for the better. Alexander the Great and Napoleon almost annihilated their own armies through their chosen actions that made them overreach adventurously the power presumed by them. But they could do nothing worse than that. Today the situation is incommensurably worse. For irrespective of which side of the social confrontation the commanding personnel might represent—a progressive or a fatefully retrograde one—their overreaching themselves is capable of destroying humankind altogether, and potentially even the conditions of life on this planet in its entirety.

This is far from being a hypothetical danger. In 1962–63, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev installed in Cuba his country’s advanced ballistic missiles, capable of raining nuclear warheads on the nearby United States. He was inspired for this action by the fateful misconception that by doing so he might be able to protect Cuba itself, which was tangibly threatened by the United States also after the Bay of Pigs invasion. The consequence of Khrushchev’s action, however, was that the entire world was placed in the immediate vicinity of a potential nuclear devastation until those ballistic missiles were withdrawn from Cuba and shipped back to the Soviet Union. Needless to say, no one can exclude today the recurrence, in some form, of a similar potential self-extermination of humankind as a result of adventurous decision-making. It stands to reason that no one should ever have that power. Nevertheless, the fact is that some do. And that kind of danger is bound to persist for as long as the Leviathan state in any one of its conceivable forms survives.

Substantive Equality and a New Social Metabolic Order

As we have seen, eighty years ago President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was promising the world “a better civilization than any we have known”—in conjunction with a projected unhindered economic development everywhere and the end of imperialism—because “destiny seems to have taken a long look.”13 In reality, however, a few months after President Roosevelt died, shortly after his well-deserved fourth election to the American Presidency, his former Vice President and automatic successor, Harry Truman, unleashed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki the atomic weapons of mass destruction, causing the instant death of 130,000 people, mostly civilians. At the same time, contrary to the earlier prognosticated hopeful expectations, countless millions of people all over the world were condemned to remain tied to their earlier conditions of utter misery. Also, imperialism could continue in the same old civilization, as before, even if under new relations of international power, with the United States as its dominant economic, political, and military force.

However, the replacement of one dominant imperialist power by another, redefining thereby the international relation of forces among the former imperialist countries, does not mean that historical development as a whole can be brought to a halt in epochal terms, with regard to the social metabolism of reproduction in general, in total subordination to the newly dominant state.14 That kind of absurd political reductionism is proper only to some reactionary pseudo-theoretical Empire-fantasy. In the really existing world every mode of social metabolic reproduction has its historical limits objectively defined in comprehensive epochal terms. It is in that fundamental epochal sense that the historic circle of the capital system as a whole is perilously closing in our own time. And that closure has far-reaching objective implications for every state, irrespective of its size or its more or less dominant position in the international order, including all known and feasible varieties of the post-capitalist capital system.

Politicians at the top of the established state tend to repeat their view that “there is no alternative.” Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev did so in unison, until they had to find out that, after all, there had to be an alternative to both of them.15 To some extent this assertion of “no alternative” happens to be true, even if not in the way the high-ranking politicians presume, on the basis of their institutionally defined (and confined) position. The changes in this respect under the circumstances of the necessary closure of capital’s historic circle are seminally important.

The primary function of the institutionally articulated political/military form of societal control has been for many centuries the protection and enhancement of the established social metabolic order of which it is an integral—both constitutive and self-constitutive—part. This is why the periodic attempts made in the past radically to alter that metabolic order had to assume from the start the form of some kind of “revolutionary overthrow” of the established political/regulatory framework itself. For they had to try to “open the gates,” so to speak, to a radical change in the social and material class relations themselves, from slave revolts and peasant uprisings to the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions.

However, the consolidation of their initial gains proved to be in general very limited. This had to be the case because the inertia of the inherited structural determinations—of which the institutionalized political form itself was an integral part, given its own self-constitutive hierarchical structural embeddedness—militated against lasting success. This is why historical development shows the well-known tendency of such revolutionary attempts to turn instead into some form of change in personnel only, reproducing the structural determinations of domination and subordination even when there is a significant shift, for instance, from the feudal to the bourgeois state order.

The emergence of the modern capitalist state alters the form but not the substance of the class determinations of structural domination and subordination. Under the conditions of the ascending phase of capital’s social metabolic order, materially productive developments can dynamically proceed toward their all-conquering global completion. However, the descending phase carries with it some grave negative changes that prove irreversible from capital’s social ground, accelerating the closure of capital’s historic circle on our planet with its inevitably limited resources. In the material domain such changes bring the consequences of wasteful destructive production, due to the unalterable systemic imperative of endless capital-expansion, with its ultimately catastrophic impact on nature. At the same time on the political/military plane they result in monopolistic imperialist military destructiveness, with the danger of humanity’s total self-annihilation. And capital’s Leviathan state can only impose total destructiveness on humanity through its weapons of mass destruction—which it continues to “modernize” and multiply—but not prevent it. Thus the total eradication of the Leviathan state is a vital necessity in our time, in the spirit envisaged by Marx for weighty reasons. That is the course that needs to be followed after the long destructive deviation suffered by humanity since the last decades of the nineteenth century under the conditions of monopolistic imperialism.

This is where we can see the paradoxical truth of “there is no alternative” repeatedly stated by some leading politicians, as confined to the political domain. Certainly there is no alternative in the sense envisaged by them, because it is impossible to elaborate the much needed societal reproductive alternative in and through the political/military framework of state-determinations. By the inherent nature of the fundamental issues at stake, the historically sustainable alternative can only be a radically different social metabolic order. For the requirements of sustainability imply a societal reproductive order with its consciously articulated—autonomously planned and exercised—mode of overall decision-making, in place of the authoritarian usurpation of power in all of its historically known varieties by the hierarchically entrenched and superimposed antagonistic Leviathan state. Without instituting—uncompromisingly in the form of substantive equality—and also safeguarding such order against the restoration of the material and political vested interests of the long class-exploitative past, it is impossible to secure exit from capital’s historic circle.

So much must be rectified even in the world of ideas before an order of substantive equality can be secured. Let us confine our attention in that respect to the crucially important dimension of societal restructuring that directly involves the problem of substantive equality. For even one of the greatest idealist philosophers of all history, Hegel, could dismiss the demand for equality, in favor of veiled vested interests, with words like these: “Men are made unequal by nature, where inequality is in its element, and in civil society the right of particularity is so far from annulling this natural inequality that it produces out of mind and raises it to an inequality of skill and resources [wealth], and even to one of moral and intellectual attainment. To oppose to this right a demand for equality is a folly of the Understanding which takes as real and rational its abstract equality and its ‘ought-to-be.’”16

In reality, the opposite is true of everything Hegel asserts about nature’s inequality in relation to human beings. Difference is certainly in great evidence in nature, but turning nature’s difference into human inequality is revealingly arbitrary, when social institutions are responsible for it. But the unjustifiable Hegelian ideological legitimation of historically established societal inequality in the name of nature itself arises because some social forces in the course of the French revolutionary turmoil were forcefully struggling over it. That is what Hegel had to reject, with a categorical claim, in the name of the absolute validity of his philosophical categories.

In contrast to the specific antagonisms of the French Revolution, a century and a half earlier, at the time when Thomas Hobbes was writing his Leviathan, the demand for substantive equality could not appear with its powerful social challenge on the historical agenda. In the Hobbesian philosophical conception, there was no need to assume a retrograde position toward equality and enlist nature in its pretended favor. On the contrary, Hobbes, for his own specific philosophical reasons, could make absolutely clear his view on nature’s full consonance with human equality:

Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body and mind; as that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himselfe any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe.

And as to the faculties of the mind, (setting aside the arts grounded upon words, and especially that skill of proceeding upon generall, and infallible rules, called Science; which very few have, and but in few things; as being not a native faculty, born with us; nor attained, (as Prudence,) while we look after somewhat els,) I find yet a greater equality amongst men, than that of strength. For Prudence, is but Experience; which equall time, equally bestowed on all men, in those things they equally apply themselves unto.17

We shall see in the chapters dedicated to Hobbes and Hegel why, in their theories of the state, they adopted such diametrically opposite views.* What is necessary to stress in the present context is that the pressing demand for the establishment of substantive equality that first appeared as a historic imperative of social reality during the French Revolution, and was violently defeated in its aftermath, can never be removed from our own historical agenda. For the elaboration and effective societal reproductive operation of the required—fundamentally different—social metabolic order is unsustainable without it. That is the key defining characteristic of the socialist metabolic order. Our success or failure to secure a sustainable exit from capital’s dangerously closing historic circle depends on it.

Exiting Capital’s Closing Circle

Despite the undeniable dangers on our horizon, is it possible to secure that exit from the capital system’s necessarily closing historic circle? That is a painfully difficult but unavoidable question. At the present stage of history, even with the “principle of hope” on our side, this vital question can receive only a conditional and tentative answer.

Toward the end of the Second World War, reflecting on the harrowing vicissitudes of the war years, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a great one-act play, translated into English under the title No Exit. He wanted to convey in it the feeling of absolutely paralyzing powerlessness that seemed to dominate people under the conditions of ostensibly uncontrollable war.

At first he thought to set the stage in a caved-in bomb shelter where the escape routes have been blocked. But then he realized that in a situation like that the force of solidarity among the people buried in that shelter could begin to operate, urging them to work together to find an exit. And that would undermine the meaning Sartre intended to convey in his play. Thus, thanks to a brilliant dramatic insight, he set his play in hell, from which there could be no escape. And this is how his intended message sounded from the mouth of one of the three fatefully trapped people:

Yes, now is the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I am in hell. I tell you, everything has been thought out beforehand. They knew I would stand at the fireplace stroking this piece of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. [He swings around abruptly.] What? Only two of you? I thought there were more. Many more. [Laughs.] So this is hell. I would never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There is no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is other people!18

That was the final summation, which stressed the irreconcilable antagonism among the three people whose mutually tormenting bad conscience defined their relationship of hell among themselves throughout their interchanges in the course of the play, giving its nightmarish meaning to the riveting Sartrean words: “Hell is other people!19 Those words referred in general to “other people,” wherever they might be, who have brought, and might also in the future bring, the war upon others and themselves, engaging uncontrollably in similar acts of hell and trapping others as well as themselves in hell by their own acts.

This vision was conceived by Sartre in his haunting play just months before Harry Truman ordered the instant destruction of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the name of democracy and freedom. For several decades thereafter Sartre continued to fight with passionate determination and courage against the very real danger of nuclear inferno being imposed upon the earth. In all those decades the tormenting words of warning about the acts of Hell brought into this world by people, the ubiquitous “other people,” could be always felt behind Sartre’s indefatigable protests, even when they were not directly uttered.

Unpunished state-determinations continue to be responsible also today for countless acts of hell, when unjustifiable justifications can be twisted around at will in endless self-legitimating contradictions. In many ways feudal reactionary Saudi Arabia can continue to bomb, unpunished, countless civilian targets in Yemen, even the hospitals clearly marked by the organization Médecins Sans Frontières, and the infernal destructive weaponry is supplied for such acts of hell by the leading “democratic states,” violating thereby their own international commitments. And when that is made clear in public, they can cynically retort that there is “insufficient evidence” that the Saudis use the weapons against civilian targets. The “democratic states” can do that unpunished because they are the judge and jury also over what should be considered, as defined by their own view, the “sufficient evidence.”

The same kind of self-legitimating self-contradiction can prevail over the infernal weapons of mass destruction in general. The military-industrial complex may be criticized on occasions, but its highly profitable products—for which the funds are supplied by the state from taxes imposed mostly on the working people—cannot be seriously challenged. The dominant states cannot consider abandoning such weapons. Once upon a time leading left-wing British politician of the Labour Party, Aneurin Bevan, declared that he “would not walk into the negotiating chamber naked”—that is, if the highly debated issue of British nuclear disarmament would be adopted as party policy—and therefore he was rejecting it as future foreign secretary. Bevan was betraying thereby the reactionary nature of his taking for granted the permanent discriminatory inequality of international power politics. And he could not be considered an exception in that respect. In their international agreements, the politicians of the dominant states agree to reduce their nuclear arsenal by a few hundred bombs and at the same time order the manufacture of thousands of them from their own military-industrial complex. Thus many thousands of such nuclear weapons are available for being unleashed on our planet, while as few as two hundred of them would be sufficient for the destruction of humanity altogether, according to the relevant scientific assessment.

It is perfectly true, of course, that some of the major states are less dominated by the vested interests of their own military-industrial complex than some others. But that is quite irrelevant in the present context. None of the dominant states are likely to give up on their own nuclear weapons not only in view of the now generally acknowledged role of such weapons of mass destruction in asserting military strength in the international power structure, but also because of their own likely fear of being more exposed through unilateral nuclear disarmament to nuclear destruction. Thus the now existing huge nuclear arsenals are likely to be with us in the foreseeable future. At the same time, as capital’s historic circle is getting nearer to its irreversible closure, the intensifying internal and international economic and social antagonisms are bound to carry with them increasing dangers. And since materially grounded globalization inexorably proceeds under the present circumstances, nation-based antagonistic political/military determinations can only aggravate the systemic antagonisms. The best one can hope for in that respect is that the dominant states do not engage in a fundamental direct confrontation, with its catastrophic consequences.

These challenges cannot be resolved within the paralyzing confines of the necessarily hierarchical and antagonistic framework of the political/military domain. For finding a solution, as mentioned before, a radical transformation of our modality of decision-making is required, affecting no less the elementary constitutive cells of our societal reproduction than the most comprehensive level of the global interdependencies. And the fundamental guiding principle of that kind of transformation can only be the universal adoption of the positive principle of productive work, on the basis of substantive equality, inseparable from the total eradication of the hierarchical and necessarily antagonistic state formations.

Nearly two centuries ago, Goethe depicted in his Faust with wonderful, subtle irony the final moments of his hero who was modeled by him in some way on the great historic figure of Paracelsus. In that final scene Goethe’s hero, blinded by Sorge (Anguish) because he refused to yield to her, mistakenly greets the noise of the Lemurs—who are in fact digging his grave—as the welcome noise of canal-digging, in realization of his great social project and self-fulfillment for which he is destined to lose his wager with Mephistopheles, the devil. These are Faust’s final words:

A swamp along the mountain’s flank
Makes all my previous gains contaminate;
My deeds, if I could drain this sink,
Would culminate as well as terminate:
To open to the millions living space,
Not danger-proof but free to run their race.
Green fields and fruitful; men and cattle hiving
Upon this newest earth at once and thriving.
Settled at once beneath this sheltering hill
Heaped by the masses’ brave and busy skill
With such a heavenly land behind this hedge,
The sea beyond may bluster to its edge
And, as it gnaws to swamp the work of masons,
To stop the gap one common impulse hastens.
Aye! Wedded to this concept like a wife,
I find this wisdom’s final form:
He only earns his freedom and his life
Who takes them every day by storm.
And so a man, beset by dangers here,
As child, man, old man, spends his manly year.
Oh to see such activity,
Treading free ground with people that are free!
Then could I bid the passing moment:
“Linger a while, thou art so fair!”
The traces of my earthly days can never
Sink in the aeons unaware.
And I, who feel ahead such heights of bliss,
At last I enjoy my highest moment—this.20

In Faust, Divine Providence rescues the hero from the clutches of the devil Mephistopheles. We cannot count on such solution in our references to the legitimately updated contemporary meaning of historic Paracelsus. The ground of Goethe’s understandable irony, depicting also the fateful mistake of Faust in his wishful self-fulfillment, noble and deserved as it is in favor of his hero, must be removed in the actually existing world.

Under the conditions depicted by Goethe, Faust/Paracelsus could not possibly achieve his historic dream. Goethe in his greatness supremely conveyed also that. Even in our time the earlier indicated question marks still remain. That is because historic achievement of the magnitude involved in positively oriented and truly autonomous human decision-making absolutely needs the enduring foundation of substantive equality. That is feasible only on condition of fully articulating the required radical mass movement in the spirit of globally extendable solidarity. Combined with substantive equality, that is the only basis on which the necessary critique of the Leviathan state can succeed in historically sustainable terms.


  1. All quotations by President Roosevelt’s speeches are taken from B. D. Zevin, ed., Nothing to Fear: The Selected Addresses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1932–1945 (London: Hodder and Staughton, 1947).
  2. “Annual Message to Congress,” Washington D.C., January 11, 1944.
  3. See Roosevelt’s Letter to Cordell Hall, January 24, 1944.
  4. Roosevelt, “Address on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty,” New York City, October 28, 1936.
  5. Renato Constantino, Neo-Colonial Identity and Counter-Consciousness (London: Merlin, 1978), 234. Naturally, this kind of absurdly high differential rate of exploitation—of twenty-five to one in the Philippines in the late 1960s and early 1970s—could not last forever. With the unfolding of the capital system’s structural crisis, since the early 1970s, the original differential rate had to be modified in the sense of becoming the downward equalization of the differential rate of exploitation, negatively affecting also the working classes in the capitalistically most advanced countries, including the United States.
  6. In this respect, see in particular my Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture, “The Necessity of Social Control,” delivered at the London School of Economic and Political Science on January 26, 1971; my article “Political Power and Dissent in Post-revolutionary Societies,” New Left Review 108 (1978): 3–21; my long study on “Il rinnovamento del Marxismo e l’attualità storica dell’offensiva socialista,” Problemi del Socialismo 23 (1982): 5–141; and my book Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), on which I worked for twenty-five years, first published in English in 1995. Naturally, Beyond Leviathan was conceived in the same period. However, its material foundation had to be spelled out first in Beyond Capital, in contrast to idealist theories which would concentrate one-sidedly on politics and the state. Nevertheless, the problems of the state in their materiality are clearly indicated in the works just mentioned, as well as in The Power of Ideology, first published in English in 1989. They also clarify the difference between the materiality of the state as such and the state’s “legal and political superstructure.” For it is a total misinterpretation of the Marxian position to consider the state itself only as a superstructure. Marx never had any doubt about the materiality—indeed the massive repressive materiality—of the state as such. The state has, of course, its superstructural dimension, legitimately characterized as the “legal and political superstructure.” But the state as such cannot be reduced simply to a superstructure.
  7. These four main points are quoted from my article on “Il rinnovamento del Marxismo.” I added there also the following lines for further clarification: “(1.) A structural crisis affects the totality of a social complex, in all its relations with its constituent parts and sub-complexes, as well as with other complexes to which it is linked. By contrast, a non-structural crisis affects only some parts of the complex in question, and thus no matter how severe it might be with regard to the affected parts, it cannot endanger the continued survival of the overall structure. (2.) Accordingly, the displacement of contradictions is feasible only while the crisis is partial, relative, and internally manageable by the system, requiring no more than shifts—even if major ones—within the relatively autonomous system itself. By the same token, a structural crisis calls into question the very existence of the overall complex concerned, postulating its transcendence and replacement by some alternative complex. (3.) The same contrast may be expressed in terms of the limits any particular social complex happens to have in its immediacy, at any given time, as compared to those beyond which it cannot conceivably go. Thus a structural crisis is not concerned with the immediate limits but with the ultimate limits of a global structure.”
  8. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (New York: Dover, 1956), 31.
  9. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 39.
  10. Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, vol. 3 (London: Cassell, 1956), ix.
  11. Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: Pillar of State (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 413. Quoted in Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great (London: Penguin, 2014), 809.
  12. Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great (London: Penguin, 1975), 398–99.
  13. See Page 3 above.
  14. See in this respect Paul Baran’s outstanding book The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957), in which he rightly pointed out that “The assertion of American supremacy in the ‘free’ world implies the reduction of Britain and France (not to speak of Belgium, Holland and Portugal) to the status of junior partners of American imperialism” (vii).
  15. See in this respect the epigraphs on page 281, opening part two of my book Beyond Capital.
  16. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952), 130.
  17. Hobbes, Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 86–87.
  18. From the final scene of No Exit.
  19. See in this respect my book The Work of Sartre (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).
  20. Goethe, Faust, part II, lines 11559–86, trans. Louis MacNeice and E. L. Stahl (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 287.
2017, Volume 69, Issue 07 (December 2017)
Comments are closed.