Friday, 17 April 2009

Quote of the day (?)

Courtesy of Karl Kautsky:
... if in former days men worked with the intention of building for eternity with all the devotedness that flows from such a consciousness, so to-day one works for the fleeting effect of a moment with all the frivolity of this consciousness. So that the creation of to-day is within a short time not simply unfashionable but also useless. (1)
Why is this quote interesting? Kautsky was a rather dry writer, lacking Marx's flair and fury, and a lot of his pondering on the conflict between social evolution versus social revolution seems niave - especially as he didn't really believe in the latter, though he did come out in favour of it - in theory - in The Social Revolution.

In particular, of course, he was subsumed by events - he wrote the above in 1902, and everything between Capital and 1917 tends to get forgotten about.

But that quotation seems to me entirely modern, and describes the phenomenum of late capitalism perfectly. We live at a time when disposability is still regarded as a virtue. Things don't need to be built to last, or fixed when they break. They are relaced. Usually, they aren't designed to last, because - hey - you'll want something newer and better in a couple of years anyway. Remember Personal CD players? Personal stereos? Cassettes and vinyl? The life span of each new innovation is shorter than that which preceded it. Vinyl held sway for decades. CDs are already looking shekey, and their half-brother, the DVD, having just seen of VHS a few years back, is now challenged by Blu Ray.

Why? Because capitalism relies on change. Simply providing the same commodity is a sure way to business failure. Markets saturate, and there aren't enough people on the planet to keep selling the same line of products . So the market has to be re-invented, shaken up. New products replace the old, and the consumer is beguiled into buying what he already has, essentially. And this happens faster and faster. The cycle is not constant - it is accelaerating, as Kautsky pointed out.

The uncomfortable truth that is obvious immediately following, that the resources to produce the commodities are equally finite, is usually ignored. Frivilous is too polite a term for this suicidal urge to develop and consume, to thrive as conspicuously and as ferociously as possible.

This fecklessness moves beyond the consumption, to the level of social consciousness. Of course, we all know we need to reign in our consumption and, particularly, our greenhouse gas emmissions. But do we? Democracy, unfortunately, has the effect of limiting forward thinking to three or four years at a time. Can we even get organised to plant the trees today that will be a vital part of our carbon sink in two decades time? It seems unlikely.

So why? The ability to manufacture commodities and create - albeit based on slave labour in trannical despotisms - a high standard of living in the west has brought with it a continual need to consume and reconsume. Partly, it is because our continual consumption is essential to keeping the economic wheels turning. We have to buy so the capitalists can make money. Commodities have to be produced in ever new and fascinating forms to entice us into buying. But there is another level, I think - the frenzy of consumption is replacing something that has been lost, the sense of purpose or eternity that Kautsky used as his comparison - "in former days men worked with the intention of building for eternity with all the devotedness that flows from such a consciousness." That consciousness derived from a specific social situation, and religion was used to cover over the cracks and contradictions in it. We lost that religious or spiritual impluse - no money in it, basically - and haven't found anything to replace it with other than the hording of bright and shiny objects. The one with most toys when they die wins. It's a rotten way of looking at the world - as rotten as doing what you're told because of the terror of Hellfire, but it is the one that has been in vogue of late.

It is the attitude which cartwheeled us into the current financial crisis. The rush to get wealthy, the heady thrill of the bubbles still bursting around us was a result of the feverish obssession of late capitalism with the continually new. As Kautsky remarked a few lines before the quote I opened this piece with:
The idea of the old, of the past, ceases to be equivalent to the tested, to the honorable, to the inviolable. It becomes synonymous with the imperfect and the outgrown. (2)
It was, until a few months ago, fashionable to smirk at the old ideas of restraint, caution, thrift and sustainability. Now people - the same people who were smirking hardest a few months ago - have discovered a new rhetoric and are claiming we live in a post-capitalist, post consumerist society, where the good times can no longer roll.

It remains to be seen if this is a genuine change of heart, or merely another example of how ideas, like everything else in the marketplace of late capitalism, rapidly become unfashionable.
1 - The quotation is drawn from Kautsky's 1902 essay, The Social Revoultionhttp://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1902/socrev/index.htm), specifically the chapter '' (http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1902/socrev/pt1-1.htm#s4). Available through the good graces of marxists.org.
2 - ibid.

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