A Message from John Bellamy Foster
Capitalism in our time is frequently celebrated as a system of creative destruction, a concept coined by the great conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter. In an argument that was derived in part from Karl Marx, Schumpeter, in his 1942 Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, argued that the essence of capitalism was not competition but innovation, or creative destruction. His explicit intent was to defend the rise of monopoly capital, against figures such as his then closefriend and Harvard colleague the Marxist economist Paul Sweezy, who had written The Theory of Capitalist Development that same year, and who was later to become editor of Monthly Review. In Schumpeter’s apologetic argument, the growth of monopolies, or the concentration of capital, represented unquestionable progress. This was later to emerge as the system’s justification for what Samir Amin, the leading critic of imperialism in our time, was to call the emerging capitalism of generalized monopolies.
Today usage of the term creative destruction has so expanded that it is now presented as emblematic of capitalism as a whole, justifying the spreading destruction associated with its rule, portraying this as a form of creation, in an almost evangelical religious sense. Yet, today we are witnessing the spread of global monopoly-capital’s tremendous destructive force, absorbing everything around it, not as a creative movement, but as the obliteration of the very conditions of social and ecological existence on a planetary level. With the relentless accumulation of capital as an end in itself, we are seeing the emergence of a universal turmoil, as critical thresholds in the environment and the very bases of human culture are crossed. The twenty-first century is marked by the advent of a world chaos that is polarizing existence, threatening the destruction of the planet as a place of human habitation, leading to a new struggle for global hegemony and the increased likelihood of world war, and depriving future generations of the hope derived from possibility. The main use of the extraordinary new technology of the Internet is the surveillance of the population for the purposes of marketing and the expansion of the sales effort, to the point that education itself is being privatized and databases are being kept on schoolchildren.
It is impossible in these circumstances that even formal claims to democracy within the terms of the present system can survive, and indeed liberal democracy is everywhere in peril, itself a casualty of a creative destruction that has subordinated the state to the power of concentrated capital. Neoliberalism is now paired with neofascism, as the powers that be in the United States and elsewhere have sought to mobilize a reactionary lower-middle class as a rearguard force designed to repress an increasingly marginalized population, backing up a militarized police force. COVID-19, which has spread like a plague, primarily in those regions of the world most firmly under the domain of capital, and which emanated from global agribusiness’s destruction of ecologies and species habitats, has become an excuse for further centralization of capital and further concentration of power. The media has become ever more complicit in this destruction, demolishing journalism, and reducing news to strings of twitter posts.
Yet, the empire cannot hold. It will either lead to ruin or to revolution. Human resistance to the system of creative destruction is growing irrepressibly everywhere on the planet, not least of all in the United States, which this year saw the biggest mass demonstrations in its history, in the protests over the killing of George Floyd. Revolution today is about rebuilding on new foundations in the wreckage. It is far removed from anything that can be called destruction. Rather it is directed at revolutionary reconstruction, the building of a sustainable world based in substantive equality and rooted in human community. In this sense it is the dialectical heir of the old dream of progress, this time based on the recognition that the world either pursues an upward path of sustainable human development, or it will sink into the abyss prepared for it by institutionalized greed and monopolistic competition. This is the meaning of the existential crisis of our time.
Since you are reading this letter this analysis will not altogether surprise you. As readers of Monthly Review, you already know that the world is at a turning point, and that the future of humanity in this century and the centuries to come depends on what we do now. In the first issue of Monthly Review Albert Einstein wrote that “Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.” This remains the goal of Monthly Review today, to provide clarity in the long, frequently interrupted, and yet ever more urgent, process of the transition from capitalism to socialism, defined today as a society of substantive equality and ecological sustainability. But in pursuing this goal in our imperiled age we need your help.
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John Bellamy Foster