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Szalai Erzsebet

Chapter 8. The Chances of the New Socialist Alternative

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1This is not the place to expound my thoughts about the possibilities and main principles of a socialism of the future in their totality. As I have written extensively about these elsewhere (Szalai, 2003a) I will only give a sketch of the issues I consider most important.


2In assessing the chances of a socialist alternative, the most important task is to map the existing or emergent organic processes that may prepare the overcoming of capitalism in the longer run. I am emphatically speaking about organic processes that come into being from within capitalism, and not about how any kind of socialist movement could grasp power. As was shown by Adamovsky, it is precisely this way of thinking that is the essence of a new leftism. According to Adamovsky, the Leninists and the social democrats had one thing in common—they believed that they had to acquire control over the state before they could begin to reform the society from above. In fact, as we have seen, there are some problems with this attitude. “For power is not located in the national states alone, but disseminated throughout society (including our minds). Moreover, it is not very much constrained by national boundaries. In other words, if we ‘storm the Winter Palace’ today, we would not ‘have the power’ as a result, but only a nice empty building.” Adamovsky also reminds us that when the great leftist movements of the past seized power, they became similar to the power structures they had struggled against. They “tended to reinforce the people’s passivity and/or authoritarian practices, instead of contributing to liberate and empower all of them equally. Power is not a ‘neutral’ tool that you simply use for any purpose (whether good of evil), but always an unfair and oppressive type of relationship” (Grubacic–Adamovsky, 2003).


3The most important processes pointing also towards the organic socialist alternative arising from capitalism feed on the general crisis of the capitalist system itself. This crisis began with the disruption, and deepened with the liquidation and self-destruction, of the rival Soviet empire. Together with the removal of every barrier to the logic of capital asserting itself, the corrective mechanisms of the system, which had been indispensable earlier, were also switched off. (The latter affects primarily the institutes of multiparty parliamentary democracies. While in the classical age of capitalism political pluralism and political rotation were perhaps the most important safeguards of bourgeois democracy, they are now becoming tools for manipulating public opinion as part of the drive to divide the forces opposed to global international big capital. Thus the competition of political parties linked to the greatly weakened national institutions can no longer be a competition of real alternatives.) But this means that the internal contradictions of capitalism are already breaking through the surface with elemental force. That is the essence of new capitalism.

4Seen from a broader historical perspective, the general crisis of capitalism began already with the struggle for the economic redistribution of the world by World War I. Subsequently, in response to fascism and then ‘existing socialism’, the corrective mechanisms restraining the logic of capital came into action, culminating in the birth of the West European welfare states. As far as the current crisis is concerned, we know that any counterpowers that have or may come into being at the periphery or semiperiphery of the world economy and thus are unable to produce an autonomous operational logic of their own—for example, the Islamic community—can only delay the victory of the logic of capital over the forces restraining it. For the same reason, they can only delay the intensification and breakthrough of the contradictions created by the logic of capital within itself and leading to its own crisis.

5The current crisis of capitalism and the internal contradictions embodied in this crisis have several symptoms. In what follows, I will list them in a rather sketchy fashion. At the same time, I will pay special attention to those elements that may point towards a new socialist alternative.


6Wallerstein (2000) indicates three trends within the logic of capital that restrict the general rule of the mobility of capitalism, i.e. the unlimited accumulation of capital: “the triple pressure is tending to make unfeasible the primary motor of the system and hence is creating a structural crisis.” The first trend is the real wage level as a percentage of production costs, calculated as an average throughout the world economy. “Obviously, the lower this is, the higher the profit level, and vice versa.” The level of real wages is determined by the power relations between employers and employees. The principal mechanism by which capitalists worldwide have been able to limit the political pressure of employees for increases in their real wages has been the relocation of certain sectors of production to other zones of the world economy where lower average wages prevailed. “Such a mode of conducting the class struggle is dependent on there always being new areas of the world-system into which to relocate, and this is dependent on the existence of a significant rural sector that is not yet engaged in the wage labor market. But the latter is precisely what has been diminishing as a secular trend. The deruralization of the world is on a fast upward curve. It has grown continuously over 500 years but most dramatically since 1945. It is quite possible to foresee that it will have largely disappeared in another 25 years. Once the whole world-system is deruralized, the only option for capitalists is to pursue the class struggles where they are presently located. And here the odds are against them.”

7The second trend “disturbing to capitalists” is the cost of disposing of hazardous wastes. The solution of this problem is similar to relocation as a solution to wage costs. “It works as long as there are previously unutilized areas in which to dump waste.” But such areas are inevitably becoming more scarce, with the logical consequence that sooner or later all the costs will be “internalized.” This puts further pressure on the profits of the various companies.

8The third pressure on the profit rate is taxation. According to Wallerstein, there have been constantly growing demands from the public sphere, resulting in “steadily rising tax rates in virtually every country, with at most occasional, slight reductions. But of course, at a certain point, such redistributive taxation reaches levels where it interferes seriously with the possibility of accumulating capital.”

9In my view, the burdens on the profit rate are more complicated than Wallerstein sees them. To put it bluntly, I find the essential factors that disrupt the capitalist system from within somewhere else.

10As far as the conditions for keeping down the proportion of the real wage are concerned, these can be manipulated by the economic elites. One of the most important features of the present crisis is the growth of overproduction, which paradoxically hits the capitalists and at the same time gives them the opportunity to secure lasting and constantly increasing reserves of unemployed labor to be used for the purpose of holding those still employed at bay. This is possible because capacities not fully utilized or surplus products remaining in stock do less damage to the rate of profit than the possible increase of wage costs, on the one hand, and the reduction of the price of goods, on the other. This is the fundamental reason for the vigorous growth of inequalities all over the world and, as pointed out by Thurow (1996) among others, for the fact that more and more people and even countries become redundant and are not even regarded as subjects of exploitation.

11In the long run this process may truly undermine the position of the economic elites. (Ildikó Ékes [2003] calls attention to the growing role of the hidden and black economy in ensuring the purchasing power necessary in our age. “In that area, production is still capable of employing a large number of people, indeed a growing workforce, because tax evasion is spreading. Thus, for the time being, it absorbs at least part of the workforce squeezed out of the visible economy. This provides them with income, and purchasing power is created even for goods produced in the visible economy.”)

12The previous logic may be continued in relation to the admission of hazardous wastes. Areas divested of practically any kind of economic activity may, for a long time ahead, view this ‘enterprise’ as their only source of income. The practice of ‘externalising’ harmful wastes may not reach its limits until these wastes accumulate to such an extent and become so toxic that they can no longer be separated from the core countries and prevented from affecting them even across distant continents.

13Finally, as far as the strength of social pressure for constantly increasing taxes is concerned, my opinion again differs from Wallerstein’s. Currently the economic elite is able to fend off this pressure very successfully, as global capital is moved to and fro in the world economy practically without being taxed. Here a constraint may emerge, as it already is doing at the semiperipheries, in that the (deliberate) dismantling of the public sphere may sooner or later deprive capital of a properly trained, physically and mentally well-maintained workforce (Szalai, 2003c). Thus the devaluation of human capital may fundamentally undermine the ideology of the muchquoted knowledge society.


14To sum up: the real constraint on capital accumulation may be the worsening shortage of purchasing power, ecological crisis, and the erosion of human capital. However, some socio-political constraints may emerge even before a fatal collision with these. In that case three scenarios are possible. The first is the further strengthening and advance of fundamentalist movements, starting partly in the Third World (primarily the growing force of the militant wing of the Islamic movement), and partly in the cores (see the growth of xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe). The second is the open dictatorship of the global international economic elite (indicated by the entire current policy of the United States [primarily on the advice of ‘business circles’] and the Iraq war).

15It is of crucial importance that those two scenarios may even become two ‘subprocesses’, mutually reinforcing each other, of one and the same process (which they have indeed already become to some extent). In that case a war (or wars) threatening the very existence of humanity would be inevitable in the long run. Therefore the third scenario cannot be anything but the new socialist alternative. This would be the emergence of a society which at least limits the uninhibited assertion of the logic of capital and carries in itself such structural specificities and safeguards as may, in constant struggle for a balance, represent or produce a pluralism of liberty, equality, and fraternity.


16Before assessing the chances of these three scenarios, a brief survey of the technological and structural changes of the market during the past decades, together with their influence on the world of labor and the related changes in the nature of ownership relations, is called for.

17According to Pine (1993), fundamental technological changes have taken place in the world during the past decades, modifying the behavior of the market actors. The adoption of information technology by the economy is not characterized by long-term commitments of investment, but by rapid change. Consequently, production based on information technology does not tolerate any lasting commitment, or at least radically reduces its terrain. The production units are loosely linked in changing networks that may easily disintegrate.

18On the other hand, the majority of those employed in current information technologies are completely out of touch with the physical processes. A decreasing proportion of labor is directly linked to material processes, and its larger part is used in the intellectual preparation of production, services surrounding production, and contacts with consumers. This kind of work is easy to outsource; it is eminently suited for transferring the employees to tele-work only loosely linked to the company, as opposed to the traditional kinds of work on the production line. The industrial revolution in its time concentrated workers in noisy and smelly large factories, taking them away from their homes and sharply separating working hours from leisure. Now the exact opposite of that historical process is in progress.

19According to Katalin Szabó (2003), tele-work is only one variant of socalled conditional employment. (Some further variants are labor on loan, part-time employment, etc.) Employees belonging to this circle have two things in common: the temporary, uncertain nature of their employment, and the loose linkage to the company that employs them. “This form of course continuously questions the status of the workforce involved. The ground under their feet is constantly shaking; their work and services are set in a context of continuous competition. This, in itself is nothing new, for the constant changes of production and working conditions are corollaries of the market economy. The uncertainty of jobs and unemployment are the basic structural characteristics of this economic system.” But the degree and extent of the uncertainty, compared to the middle third of the 20th century, represents a surprising novelty.

20It is an important finding of Szabó that the close and logical connection between the technological and production trends and the changes experienced in the world of labor is not a new phenomenon. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, when the system of factories emerged in the wake of capital concentration, the workforce also had to be concentrated. When capital standardized production by breaking it up into simple phases and organizing it along the production line, labor was also standardized. When a high degree of specific capital, that is, equipment used exclusively for one particular production process in the giant factories, became characteristic, the commitment of the workforce was also upgraded and, given that practice could be acquired only in long years spent on a specific process, the workforce also became more or less ‘fixed in concrete.’

21Today, as always ever since its birth, capitalism is trying to force its employees into a production and technological system that is efficient from its own point of view. Szabó writes: “If production is globalized, the workforce must also become ‘employable without boundaries.’ If production is flexible, working conditions cannot be fixed for years, much less for decades. If production is variable, or modular, the workforce must also become modular, and be ready for the most diverse kinds of employment, with a diversity of competencies in its portfolio.”

22The revolutionary changes outlined above, which may be called revolutionary, have some very important societal consequences—but these may develop in a very different, indeed opposite, direction.

23According to Castells (2002), the basic consequence of networking is the emergence of a dual world in which everybody increasingly becomes individualized and follows his or her personal inclinations and interests, while the communities also gain in strength as everybody seeks personalities similar to his or her own in order to establish a network and build sociable, cultural, or business communities with them. In fact Castells’ vision is nothing but a move towards a new socialist alternative, but the processes outlined may take this direction only where some very clearly defined conditions exist or come into existence.

24Currently it seems as if processes running counter to real individualization and to the strengthening of communities are taking place. We are witnessing a weakening of macro- and microcommunities as a result of excessive individualization, on the one hand, and a growing uncertainty of status, on the other, which endanger the boundaries of the ego, individuality itself. Without real communities, as mentioned above, identity as the basic prerequisite of individuality cannot develop or withers away. (Some consumption sociologists engaged in the apology of new capitalism welcome that as a positive development. In their view, the disintegration of our identity into roles played at various points of the ‘network’ is in reality a liberation from our own tyranny over ourselves and from the tyranny of society over us. We can no longer be ‘conscripted’ by any authority, because we do not even exist in reality. The real struggle for freedom is the elimination of the ego, an escape into, and hiding behind, roles offered by the ‘network’ and the related consumer society.) Therefore, we may speak about atomization, the disintegration of societies, rather than real individualization. The enlarged choice of consumer goods and the message of the media under the rule of the economic elites create merely the semblance of the latter. Estrangement becomes total as the previous standards are reduced to ashes.

25There is a great danger of this process spreading and leading to two others.

26On the one hand, the second scenario, the open dictatorship of the economic elite, may be realized. It may be accompanied by the open restriction of consumer ‘freedom,’ the renewal of Fordist traditions in employment and the open elimination of civic rights. Its ideology may be religious—as manifested by some trends in the United States—and its socio-psychological foundations may be the product of the elemental force of an atomizing society’s demand for community.

27On the other hand, that demand may make the first scenario a reality, triggering not only the advance of religious ideas and values, but also that of aggressive, authoritarian fundamentalisms, which would endanger the most basic values of enlightenment.

28The last possibility is an accelerating development towards the ultimate limits of capital accumulation, mentioned above, ending in collision with a disastrous lack of demand, ecological crisis, and the degradation of human capital.

29We are at a crossroads, and at present we still have a free choice. It would seem that the only positive ‘way out’ is the socialist alternative. Two interrelated factors point in this direction. One is the emergence and growth of the international alter-globalization movements and the motivation of young people participating in them. The other is the growing value of ‘knowledge goods’ and ‘emotional goods.’ The increasing diversity and complexity of knowledge and of the human relations accompanying networking may result in the degradation of ‘real,’ profound, knowledge and emotional relations, but it may equally well result in the opposite, in their actual enrichment and enhancement—particularly if there is a significant social demand for this.

30My hopes, in broad agreement with Ágnes and Gábor Kapitány (1995), lie in the latter process, which is already taking place in many separate instances. They are based on the fact that knowledge and emotions are ‘goods’ which in the long run cannot be appropriated, owned, or marketed without being worn down and destroyed, but which are enriched when they are shared. Therefore I hope that the growing prominence of the ‘goods’ of knowledge and emotion will limit and/or significantly modify the processes of appropriation and the operation of market mechanisms prevailing today. (According to Rifkin [2000], private ownership is weakening and new forms of ownership are gaining strength in the economy today. Some interesting ownership structures—neither private nor communal, but somewhere between the two—are emerging. In an increasing number of sectors in the economy of the core countries there is a new phenomenon that Rifkin calls ‘access’ ownership, because its ‘object’ is owned by none but can be used—or ‘accessed’—by anybody who observes the rules.)


31Two questions emerge in relation to what has just been said. The first question is whether those with the knowledge and emotion would be prepared in the long run to formulate and represent the interests and concerns of those who do not possess these ‘goods’ or possess them only in a limited degree, and whose ability to assert their interests is weak. In fact, there appears to be a tendency for the emergence of a ‘knowledge and emotional elite’ which continues to have the possibility to function on the basis of traditional values and principles, and which tries—and may, at least in the short run, be able—to monopolize the knowledge and emotional ‘goods.’ (This can be clearly observed in the structure of the present multinational companies: at the apex there is the highly qualified elite operating the traditional decision-making mechanisms [based on direct, face to face relations] and immediately below it, the mass of the “conditionally employed” kept in an exposed position [Szalavetz, 2003].)

32The second question is whether the organic processes outlined would be strong enough to fulfill those positive expectations, or whether the ‘ruling elites,’ in keeping with their customs, would transform the benefits of those processes into parts of the consumer culture offered by them.

33My answer is a complex one.

34The alter-globalist movements arise from within new capitalism as an attempted answer to its contradictions and crisis. Their main source is the ‘overproduction’ of young graduates and intellectuals in the core countries. Most of their members are young people who have not been absorbed by the labor market as a result of the general crisis of overproduction. (This is one of the reasons why the ‘system’ has extended the time spent by students at university. The long years of study are becoming less and less an investment for an adulthood spent at work, and more and more a way of life, an organic part of the consumer culture of the young.) However, increasing numbers of these young people do not want to be integrated; on the contrary, they show a growing aversion to the career paths and ‘adult’ ways of life offered by the new capitalist societies. They do not wish to turn their knowledge and human relations into market goods, and they resolutely demand values associated with community. It is these young people who constitute the most significant base of the international alter-globalization movements.

35Albrow (1997) describes these new movements—which he calls ‘globalist’ rather than ‘antiglobalist’—as follows: “Globalist movements derive their strength from the freely given commitment and surplus energy of ordinary people worldwide. They have no significant stock of capital in the form of equipment or money. What they have is human, or more precisely, cultural, capital. They gain from value commitments, knowledge, and information which are commanded neither by the state nor by employers nor by coercive religion, and which do not have to be devoted by individuals to domestic consumption.” Those ‘values’ include the representation of the cause of the poor peoples of the Third World, resistance to the growing general inequalities, environmental pollution and war, as well as seeking out and demonstrating the behavioral patterns of direct democracy.

36The alter-globalization movements are organized with the help of the most modern means of communication, which enables them to confront the ‘networks of capital’ with their own networks.

37It is highly significant that the movement has been spreading from the core countries. As we have seen, one of the most important lessons of ‘existing socialism’ was that only the behavioral patterns encountered in the core countries can become a truly attractive mobilizing force for the whole world. Therefore, so long as the ‘owners’ of knowledge and emotion in the core countries preserve their fundamental interest in the ‘saleability’ of their goods, there is hope that the movement will maintain a lasting solidarity with the exploited and excluded, be they in the core countries or on the peripheries and semiperipheries.

38According to Adamovsky, the new left, which is the leading force of the antiglobalization movements, decisively differs from the old left in that it “seems to be more interested in undermining power than in accumulating it” (italics mine, E. Sz.). Its aim is “to build and expand autonomy, that is, our capacity to live according to our own rules” (Grubacic–Adamovsky, 2003).

39But was this not the basic aim and ideology of the student revolts of 1968? We know that it was. And we can see that the majority of the leaders of the rebels of those days now occupy important positions at the control desks of new capitalism or have risen to be sulking postmodern professors.

40There is a chance to repeat history. At present, one of the prime organizational principles of the alter-globalization movements is consciously to avoid the creation of power centers, to operate decision-making mechanisms based on consensus and—last but not least—to keep clear of political parties. At the same time, efforts are also being made to direct the movement into the sphere of traditional politics and a hierarchical order (naturally, with the slogan of making alter-globalization activities more effective). By all previous experience, this could lead directly to the dismantling of the movement and its integration into the system of new capitalism.

41However, I think that this scenario may be avoided, because the ‘global situation’, the ‘situation’ of capitalism today, is fundamentally different from that in 1968. As I have attempted to show, in contrast to the late 1960s, after the fall of ‘existing socialism’ those forces that exerted both internal and external pressure on capitalism, but at the same time, acting as self-correcting mechanisms, helped to regenerate it—forces that would be capable of integrating in their self-movement the aims of the rebelling young generations’ desire for a fundamentally new and different society—are no longer present. For the sake of the survival of humanity, a global counterforce committed to the triple value system of liberty, equality, and fraternity must be marshaled against global capital, a task for which the alter-globalization movements are primarily predestined by their position and orientation.

42I am aware that, owing to the limits of my knowledge and foresight, I have said very little about the concrete system of ‘new socialism.’ However, I am sure that that system cannot be produced by any single act, or even a series of acts. If the new socialism is to come into existence, it will be the result of organic processes, in which the behavioral patterns of autonomy, communality, and solidarity presented by the alter-globalization movements will have far greater significance than their concrete political demands and actions.

43Perhaps there is still a possibility of avoiding a situation in which a universal tragedy would shock humanity into realizing the need for a new societal order.


44To me, those are the major issues of the future, or rather of the foreseeable medium term, which should be kept on the agenda by the left continuously and without fail. Considering the shorter term—that is, the next five or six years—we should focus our attention on the struggle of the two models of capitalism, the Anglo-Saxon neoliberal and the European welfare model. (In this context Howard [2002], Maull [2002], and Owen [2003] are worth reading.) We should do so all the more because the lasting defeat of the European welfare system in this struggle—or the abandonment of its achievements in competition with the neoliberal ‘logic’—would not only further strengthen inequalities and injustice (in the world, in our region, and in our own country) in the short run, but might also harm our long-term prospects and the cause of socialism.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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