Capitalism, Utopian and Scientific

In the old days of the historical Left—from the late 19th century to the mid-20th—the most-widely read piece of Marxist writing was probably Friedrich Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. In this short text, Engels sketched the history of capitalism and the development of socialist ideas and movements as part of that history. His main point, which provided the title, was that while early socialist thinkers saw their ideas—which typically moved from criticism of the present to detailed schemes for a future society—as discoveries “of this or that ingenious brain,” Marx had demonstrated that socialist thinking and movements alike were produced by the actual development of capitalism as a society riven by opposed class interests. Socialists no longer had “to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible” but to discover in the social conditions created by history “the means of ending the conflict” between the classes. “The Socialism of earlier days certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and therefore, could not get the mastery of them.”

A quarter-century after “really existing socialism” finally decided to turn itself into a gangster-state mode of capitalism, there is not much talk among those who now call themselves “progressives” about either scientific or utopian socialism. The utopian impulse remains active, however, in the form of schemes for the redesign of capitalism. A good case in point is presented by Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York, 2014). Much of the book is devoted to demonstrating, by way of a multitude of depressing case histories, the depth of the incompatibility of capitalism with the measures required to avert the catastrophes facing us as a result of the existing system of production and consumption. But, as Klein says herself, “By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know.” The rationale for the book lies, therefore, in its other aspect: the recounting of many stories of attempts to shift the tide of this battle in the direction of the planet, from efforts to block the construction of oil wells and pipelines to the drawing up of schemes for the reorganization of life to combine escape from dependence on fossil fuels with locality-centered economies, community control, a fairer distribution of social resources, and “good jobs.” She imagines the myriad local movements and organizations interested in such goals coalescing on national and eventually global levels, to the point of realizing the demand for global “climate justice”—the subsidization of poor nations by wealthy ones to ease the transition to a post-fossil-fueled economy.

Klein recognizes that the actually-existing capitalism, despite recognition within its ruling circles that the problem of climate change is real and acute, will block such a social makeover. Not only would such changes wipe out the trillions of dollars represented by energy-company assets in the ground, thus destroying their stock valuations (and so, though she neglects to point this out, simultaneously destroying the fortunes of the pension plans, financial institutions, and other investors holding these securities)—it would also, though again she does not explore this, render the capital investments of the world’s manufacturing corporations, in “a global economy created by, and fully reliant upon, the burning of fossil fuels,” useless and so valueless. In the face of this reality—which lies behind the tales of environmentalist defeat that fill her book—Klein insists on the realism and practicability—even, as she stresses, the economic feasibility—of the transition she envisages. By economic feasibility she means that the resources to move away from fossil fuels are there. All it would take is the destruction of global corporate power.

The measure of Klein’s utopianism can be seen in her failure to really square up to the consequences of this truth. She is unclear, in fact, whether the problem is “capitalism” or, as she more often expresses it, “unregulated capitalism” or even “free-market ideology.” If capitalism is unregulated simply because people have the wrong ideas, then the solution, however hard to accomplish, is easy to see: “A resurgent climate movement could [...] light a fire under the call to kick corporate money out of politics” and elect a “political class” ready to regulate corporations in the interest of the planet. It is not capitalism but “unfettered capitalism” that is the problem. As Klein explained in her previous book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), “It is eminently possible to have a market-based economy” that requires neither brutality nor “ideological purity,” and with “a large segment of the economy—like a national oil company [sic]—held in state hands. It’s equally possible to require corporations to pay decent wages, to respect the right of workers to form unions, and for governments to tax and redistribute wealth so that the sharp inequalities that mark the corporatist state are reduced [sic].”

Apart from the fact that capitalism is not really unregulated and markets are not free, as the Keynesian mixed economy to which Klein looks as a basis for climate justice has evolved into a system for the redistribution of public funds to corporate entities, what’s missing is an attempt to explain the dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits it places on political and social arrangements. Given that the essence of capitalism is the competitive struggle of firms to appropriate the social surplus generated by the production of commodities by wage-labor, we must ask whether small, locally-based companies paying “fair wages” can really compete successfully with high-tech, low-wage multinationals (even apart from their political clout). Why did Keynesianism, as recently as the Nixon years the dominant brand of modern economics, lose its luster as a set of ideas, however central the state remains to the management of capitalist affairs? What accounts for the decline of trade-unionism—which was no more popular among employers at its high point than it is now on its way to insignificance? Might not the growing irrelevance of political institutions, and the consequent loss of faith in “democracy” by the majority of voters, reflect not just the ideological success of “free market” thinkers but the actual process of the national and international concentration and centralization of capital, so that the state’s room for decision-making is curtailed? What limits might the continuing global depression, despite the much-announced recovery from the Great Recession of 2008, set to the ability of the state to manage the social and economic stresses produced by the economy? And, in any case, has not the entire history of capitalism, from its mercantilist origins through the role of authoritarian party-states in later-industrializing nations, demonstrated the long-term requirement of the subordination of the state to the needs of capital accumulation?

As her utopia is a capitalist one, Klein’s ideas of how it might be attained do not transcend developments well within the logic of this system. In casting about for historical precedents for a potential society-changing movement, all she can come up with are the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century, the social struggles in response to the depression of the 1930s that “created the conditions for the New Deal and programs like it across the industrial world,” and more recently, movements for “civil, women’s, and lesbian rights.” Apart from the historical dubiousness of some of this—the New Deal may have been in part a response to the threat of popular social movements, but, as with Hitler’s similarly ineffective make-work programs, popular aspirations for jobs and income were really satisfied only by the war, whose 70 million dead and massive destruction of lands and goods were the cost of the “good jobs” of the war and post-war periods. In regard to Klein’s other, more inspiring, examples, it’s as well to remember that capitalism itself created the idea of civil rights, however inconvenient they may be for one or another sectoral interest, and that the abolition of slavery, incompatible as a social system with a wage-labor-based economy, nonetheless required in the U.S., beyond an heroic abolitionist movement, four years of civil war, with hundreds of thousands of dead.

What’s most striking, however, in Klein’s list of “the most common precedents [...] to show that social movements really can be a disruptive historical force” is the absence of the major attempts at historical disruption made in the last hundred years—the German Revolution of 1919, the earliest phases of the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Revolution of 1936—not to mention short-term attempts at radical social transformation like the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Even a non-revolutionary but glorious calling-into-question of the basic nature of our society like the French university occupations and mass strike of 1968 goes unmentioned. All of these, while evidently failures (or else we wouldn’t be where we are right now) represented, at least intermittently, real attempts to fight capitalism as a social system, and with it the power of business entities to determine the fate of humanity. It would be hard to argue that revolution is on the horizon today—as Klein’s example shows, even the idea remains ungraspable by sincere critics of the contemporary order. But in contrast to the imaginary “realism” of community corporations, global taxes on profits, or climate justice—ideas hopelessly utopian in relation to the problem of climate change, though hardly as imaginative as the socialist utopias of the nineteenth century—the revolutionary overthrow of the social conditions for wage labor and the state remains (if hardly “scientific”) the most practical alternative to the looming catastrophe.


Paul Mattick

Paul Mattick can be contacted at