The Decline And Fall Of Voluntary Servitude

Back in the sixteenth century, Étienne de la Boétie wrote The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude,(1) in which he asked why people tolerate their political subjugation (1). His  answer was that those who impose it distribute privileges which the recipients prefer not to risk losing rather than revolt.

Nowadays, the crisis of capitalism is deeper than ever before:

 " The world is a minefield of bad debt waiting to detonate into a generalized dollar liquidity crisis. It's just a question of which landmine explodes first." (2)

Such changes in the conditions of capitalism lead the ruling class to cut back increasingly on the privileges which it grants. The "middle classes" find themselves gradually falling into the "precariat" (3), and consequently feel less and less inclined to vote for political parties that serve the interests of the ruling class.

The result is the emergence of unequivocally socialist would-be leaders; most notably for the time being, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. This process is as inexorable as the economic crisis itself, and will no doubt lead to the development of more coherent socialist movements, led by a younger generation.

De la Boétie thought that "voluntary servitude" could only be overcome through the agency of an avant-garde educating the masses. The absurdity of this proposal has been amply demonstrated ever since by the pathetic antics of actually existing avant-gardes .However, the impasse decried by de la Boétie is at last being overcome by the development of economic  circumstances.

Given the revolutionary possibilities that the crisis presents, it is useful to clarify the role of consciousness. Noam Chomsky holds that revolutionary consciousnes is inhibited by ruling class propaganda, but fails to explain why revolutionary propaganda is so unsuccessful. Against Chomsky's learning model of consciousness, Chris Knight (3) revives the dogma  that consciousness arises from activity, a counter-intuitive point of view to put it mildly. 

In fact, false conscioiusness occurs because everyone needs to adopt ego defences to cope with their oppression; "when you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow". The increasing delegitimation which marks present day capitalism, and the growing need to economise on spending on police and armies may be enough to finally defeat the "terrorism of everyday life".

As for the causes of the crisis of the economy, it can hardly be explained by the destruction of jobs by automation. New technology has always been developed in capitalism to raise labour productivity and "destroy jobs", but new jobs have always been created to replace those that have disappeared. The real cause is that much misunderstood phenomenon the declining rate of profit.

Adam Smith and David Ricardo wrongly explained the observable long term declining rate of profit  in terms of the fixed productivity of land.  Marx explained it by the raising rate of exploitation which reduced the proportion of investment on labour, the only true source of wealth in capitalism.  But Marx also saw contradictory tendencies, in that raising the rate of exploitation was precisely to raise the rate of profit. Subsequent Stalinist distortion of Marx's analysis fundamentally distorted what Marx said about the declining rate of profit.

A much better explanation of the declining rate of profit was offered by Keynes, who treated capitalist profit as a rent, and argued that the rate of profit declined as more capital accumulated, making it less scarce, so reducing its rent value.

Since the power of the ruling class in capitalism depends on profit, once profit arising from economic rent disappears, so will the power of the ruling class.  Then the transition to socialism will be finally possible. This might be facilitated by the election of redistributive socialist governments. The signal for the transition would be the frustration of reformist transitional demands by ruling class reaction. In the past, when capitalism has been stronger, this contradiction between reforming socialist demands and capitalist resistance has led to right wing repression, such as the Pinochet coup in Chile, but usually in subtler forms of derailment of the socialist project.

Socialist revolution is therefore inevitable, although the more that it is desired, so the more patience must be exercised. Preparing for the revolution is futile, since the flowering of creativity attendant upon the mass abandonment of ego defences will produce solutions beyond the imagination today.  In the meantime, we can do no better than enjoy life and pursue ameliorative politics as much as circumstances permit.  

"Zombie capitalism" has reached such a stage of decomposition that it is no longer able to sabotage the introduction of socialism in any country: that is why Corbyn might even become a truly successful prime minister, or at least why some future socialist government in the UK or elsewhere, whenever it comes, will not be destroyed by international capitalism, which has become too enfeebled to do so. However, the more likely outcome is that a failure by an ostensibly socialist government will be the signal for a  successful revolt of the masses. All previous attempts to establish socialism have failed, not because of theoretical or organisational mistakes, but purely because they were premature.

(1) Étienne de la Boétie, The Discourse On Voluntary Servitude

(2) James Rickards, The Road To Ruin, The Global Elites' Secret Plan for the Next Financial Crisis

(3) Guy Standing, The Precariat, The New Dangerous Class

(4) Chris Knight, Decoding Chomsky


Peter Wilkinson

Dec. 2018


Plus Michel's last card plus a graphic from January 10th 2019 - an excellent detourning of a lithograph of Edvard Munch's The Scream - now on exhibit at the  British Museum..... (I hasten to add Michel's appropriate re-use is not on exhibit)


                         Michels-Scream2    Michels-Scream3




                        Michel died in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, West London (near where he lived) on January 20th 2019