Is it Reasonable to Believe in Revolution, Part 3/3

So suppose, based on part 2, that we find plausible the idea of a potentially-revolutionary conflict between forces for capitalism and forces for socialism, at some point in the next century or two. Why think that it will be actually-revolutionary, rather than one more unproductive bout of social disorder? Why think that it might win?

Sadly, I in fact can't dance.

The most famous answer to this question is Marx’s, and it incorporates two parts: a negative prediction, that capitalism will increasingly destroy itself, and a positive prediction, that the revolutionary proletariat will grow indefinitely in power. In this post I want to explain why I consider this latter prediction, or something similar to it, reasonable.

The Negative Prediction:

This, I think, primarily revolves around the idea of a falling tendency in the aggregate rate of profit, and an accompanying tendency for more frequent and more severe crises. I confess, I don’t feel entirely competent to evaluate this argument, and I’ve not got the impression that it’s conclusive. So I’m going to plead agnosticism on that score: maybe capitalism will get stronger, maybe it will get weaker.

The Positive Prediction:

What I do believe is that the capacity of people to challenge capitalism is likely to increase significantly, which is something that Marx also seems to believe. I can see roughly 6 reasons why he expected the proletariat to become increasingly powerful: two technological, two social, and two psychological.

  1. The technological means of organisation increase – communications, transport, and information processing make it easier and easier for large groups of people to coordinate their actions without coercing or manipulating each other.
  2. The total productive capacity of the world increases, rendering competitive struggle less necessary, and making free access to important goods more and more feasible.
  3. Proletarianisation – the number of people who belong to the working class, being paid wages to produce goods for the market, increases, and their conditions become increasingly homogenous even beyond this.
  4. The economic pressure towards organisation increase – working people find that defending their interests increasingly requires cooperating in larger and larger groups.
  5. Proletarian class consciousness increases, as people come to see the world in more accurate and productive ways, and conversely;
  6. Ideology and delusion decreases, with people rejecting or overcoming the politically-engineered ignorance that diverted them from sensible tasks like revolution.

How well do these predictions stand up?

1,2: Technological

Point 1, the increasing means of organisation, is very clearly borne out. The internet is the greatest example, and the potential of this for changing both economic and political organisation is illustrated already by things like Wikipedia or the role of twitter in the Iranian protests.

Point 2, though, is more uncertain. I don’t think technological progress has stopped or that it doesn’t still contribute to the potential for abundance. But it also seems that resource availablility, both of fuels and even of things like water, is going down due to historical human mismanagement. This means that for the foreseeable future, we may well face an overall contraction of how much stuff there is around. But that doesn’t entirely defeat the point, because this, unlike technology, isn’t a cumulatively increasing problem (indeed, the finite limits are exactly the point). If humanity gets through the next however-long-it-takes-to-firefight-global-warming, this trend will continue full force.

3,4: Social

Point 3 is another one that’s mixed. On the one hand, the number of people in the proletariat, as opposed to peasants or otherwise non-market-oriented producers, steadily increases, both by the movement of women into the workforce and by the spread of market organisation across the world. And wealth inequality, as far as I know, has had a fairly consistent upward trend, stalling for around thirty years in the mid-20th century.

On the other hand, there’s not been the same degree of visible homogenisation of conditions: instead it seems that intermediate or mixed class positions have spread and multiplied. The proletariat, it seems, has grown larger but not simpler.

Point 4 seems to me much stronger. Business was organised nationally before labour was, and is currently organised largely internationally. Effectively dealing with outsourcing, mass migration, and the unparalleled mobility of capital requires international organisation of labour; the same is even more true in the political sphere, with its international agreements, nefarious co-operation, and pointless conflicts between various states, armies, and corporations.

5,6: Psychological

These two are probably the hardest to evaluate. How do you tell whether people are, on the whole, becoming wiser or more foolish? What are the relevant variables to measure? After all, if you look around on a bad day people will always seem mind-numbingly stupid, while on a good day complacent assumptions of enlightenment will be equally easy.

I won’t suggest a full answer to that question. But I will suggest this: that by and large, on variables where we can be confident of a trend, it’s towards increasing understanding, while claims of decreasing understanding are generally anecdotal or impressionistic.

Some definite trends:

  • Natural-scientific knowledge increases cumulatively
  • Social-scientific knowledge increases cumulatively
  • Accessibility of scientific knowledge expands (both due to information technology and due to things like spreading literacy)
  • Average IQ, in most areas of the world, shows a measurable annual increase (the ‘Flynn effect’)
  • Life Expectancy increases (which may mean more time to accumulate experience)

Now, obviously these things aren’t the same as the kind of collective wisdom that would guide people in successfully improving society. To equate IQ or scientific data with ‘understanding’ would be absurd. But it seems similarly absurd to think that they have no connection at all: after all, the sort of scientific knowledge we’re considering isn’t just about how many species of beetle there are, it’s also about what makes people report feeling happy, what reasoning biases people are prone to, what causes emotional disturbances, etc.

And what have we lost? I’ve heard sometimes that modern Western people are more out of touch with their emotions than they were, say, 300 years ago. Are we? How would one test that? How could we possibly know?

Or else it’s suggested that nowadays we’re less spiritual, or less altruistic, or less moral. The easy answer is to ask what sort of spirituality it was that found expression in the Inquisition, bear-baiting, widow-burning, foot-binding, or whatever else. But the real answer is, if facile image-mongering can support both sides, what method could give a rigorous verdict. I don’t really know of any such method, and so it seems to me that the improvements listed above, though falling far short of completeness, have nothing significant to oppose them.

Conclusions

So overall, of the six predictions we listed, it seems that two can be definitely affirmed, two cautiously affirmed, and two are mixed, partly true and partly false as far as can be seen. Consequently, Marx’s prediction of a tendency for increasing power on the part of the proletariat seems to me to be a very reasonable thing to believe.

But I think that Marx’s prediction on this score is only a specific version of a simpler and more general point. What points 1 and 4 amount to is the claim that as time goes on, humanity’s capacity for organisation advances; what points 5 and 6 amount to is the claim that as time goes on, humanity’s capacity for understanding advances.

And what point 3 amounts to, in the context of the broader Marxist theory of class, is the claim that these capacities can be exercised by a cohesive group defined by a particular pattern of interests (and, perhaps more important, of non-interests).

But even without that theory of class, or that focus on the proletariat, the other points seem to indicate that if there is any set of widely-shared interests – if there is some action which would benefit the majority of people – then given time it is increasingly likely to occur, because people will be increasingly likely to identify their interests and organise to pursue them.

I’d estimate my belief in this more generic prediction of revolution as about 80%, I think, though perhaps putting numbers in here is just stupid. And my belief in the specification of it into something like the Marxist concept of class at maybe 60% – though my belief that this is the only possible or important way to specify it is very low (maybe 10%?). Hopefully the last few posts have given a rough impression of why I believe that and why I think such belief is reasonable.

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