Capitalism in Fundamentally Unethical

There have been a couple telling examples of the inherent unethical nature of capitalism that it seemed valuable to make not of here. The first is Canada’s participation in the renegotiation of NAFTA. Under globalized capitalism the maintenance of such trade agreements is of crucial import and the fact that you are dealing with a country currently carrying out genocide against migrants from the global south is less relevant than the need to maintain trade or the consequences of that trade to either the people living in the country in question or to the environment (as NAFTA serves as a serious barrier to Canada’s ability to produce effective climate legislation, even if the government was inclined to actually do anything about climate change, which it obviously is not).

The second example is from the recent revelation that the Canada pension fund has invested in US immigration detention firms in addition to other anti-social corporations such as ExxonMobil, Philip Morris, and the defense contractors General Dynamics and Raytheon. The defense provided by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board is extremely telling and sums up quite effectively why there cannot be a moral society under capitalism: “CPPIB’s objective is to seek a maximum rate of return without undue risk of loss. This singular goal means CPPIB does not screen out individual investments based on social, religious, economic or political criteria.”

The crucial dichotomy between capitalism and socialism is the difference between how they conceive economic relationships. For capitalism, economic relationships are essentially asocial. That is, they occur under the auspices of the market and can be studied and modeled independent of any consideration of morals or ethics. The effort to keep economics separate from the study of ethics has been an effective tool in enabling the growth of the extractive capitalism of globalized financialization under neoliberalism. The only imperative of governments in this view is to make sure that capital growth continues unabated. Though in in principle few deny the need for some financial and economic regulation, in practice there are little consequences to financial malfeasance as long as the perpetrator is wealthy enough and the victims not. Hence, the banks that caused the 2008 financial collapse were bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars and are now positioned to do it all over again (a courtesy not extended to their victims) or the Nazi profiteer IG Farben (which knowingly used concentration camp slave labour, participated in experiments on concentration camp victims, and produced Zyklon B, among other crimes. Though a number of IG Farben’s executives were convicted after the war, their sentences were comparatively light in consideration of the magnitude of their company’s crimes. For instance, Fritz ter Meer, who was involved in the planning of the Auschwitz satellite camp Monowitz – which was built specifically to provide IG Farben with slave labour – was sentenced to only seven years and after his release served as the supervisory board chairman of Bayer AG). While broken up after the Second World War, it is now larger than ever in the form of Bayer (which recently purchased Monsanto for $63 billion).

Socialism, on the other hand, is fundamentally the study of economics from an ethical point of view. That is, what Karl Marx was trying to understand was how capitalism affected workers. He wished to develop a theory that explained the exploitation of workers by employers and to make clear that this exploitation is a fundamental feature of capitalism. Thus, under the capitalist mode of production the worker will always be exploited and this exploitation increases over time. While history has demonstrated that the exploitation can be temporally tempered by labour organization, such attempts to limit the worst abuses of capitalism while keeping capitalism itself in place are doomed to fail in the long run, which we can clearly see with the ongoing collapse of postwar social democracy.

That Marx’s position was foremost a social and ethical one can be seen in his definition of value as “socially necessary labour time.” By defining value in this way he explicitly ties his theory to social relationships rather than to abstract mathematical concepts. Thus, commodity exchanges on the market cannot be understood without recognizing their human consequences. We cannot make any meaningful progress toward a just society unless we recognize, as Marx did, the need to begin our understanding of economics from the point of view of ethics. Thus, we continue to live in a world where people profit off of imprisoning children and refugees, genocide and warmongering, and the ongoing destruction of the environment. That the response to efforts to stop such egregious crimes are claims that meaningful action will negatively affect the economy is a perfect summation of the moral poverty and catastrophic limitations of capitalism.

The Black Hole of Democratic Socialism: The Decline and Fall of the Italian Communist Party, 1976-1991

Since 2016 the left has been increasingly seen ascendant for the first time since the 1960s or 70s. At the very least, the left has begun to play offense instead of defense for the first time in a long while. No longer marginal curiosities, it is now faced with the possibility of power. One question that has garnered online debate is that of what that path to power should look like, or, more precisely, what route is most likely to obtain the left’s goals? Unlike in previous eras, there is no real revolutionary left and all prominent participants in the debate accepts that the left should work with existing political parties and within the current system. Whereas once pragmatic incrementalism and cooperation with the center was once considered a betrayal of the left, now the reformist Democratic Socialists of America represents the furthest boundary of plausible radicalism.

There has never been a singular left and that is perhaps truer now than ever. Certainly, there is no consensus as to what policy goals should be pursued. Indeed, it is questionable whether developing clear, implementable policy is even useful socialist praxis. Those who believe that it is have devoted much time and effort to a strategy of infiltrating the existing political system in order to apply pressure from the left (an approach often indistinguishable from crass entryism). The Democratic Socialist approach seeks to shift the needle to the left. The argument is that introducing clear policies to the public discourse will result in a corresponding shift in what is considered possible. That Medicare-for-All has been endorsed by probable Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination has been pointed to as evidence that this approach is working.

It is useful to remember, however, that the left has been ascendant before. Indeed, in real terms it weaker than it has ever been. When one leaves the enclaves of twitter and one finds, instead, decimated labor unions and an almost complete lack of institutional power. When something approaching a socialist does manage to achieve a victory, he is subjected to a three year long smear campaign calling him, amongst other libels, an anti-semite by a vicious centrist establishment that would rather Boris Johnson run the UK than a social democrat. Even the supposed bastions of Marxism, the universities, are in reality among the leading institutions of neoliberalism and have long been stripped of what radicalism they ever had in favor of reproducing the social hierarchies and the “human capital” demanded by capitalism. It is, therefore, crucial to understand how the left has failed in the past to wind up in its current condition. In this piece I will present the example of the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano, hereafter the PCI).

The PCI is useful for us to consider because in 1976 it appeared to be on the verge of real electoral success and looked to enter the Italian government for the first time. It was by far the most successful and militant Euro-Communist party and at its peak had over 2.6 million members. Moreover, the period between 1967 and 1976 was one of intense activity for the Italian left between the 68ers in the universities and a succession of strikes by Italy’s militant, and at the time still growing, trade unions. These actions had put the establishment under considerable pressure and had forced real changes to a conservative Italian society. The Italian example is appropriate and significant because despite having considerably greater advantages than the left enjoys today, the democratic socialist approach that it would pursue following the 1976 election would fail utterly and completely. The PCI was not able to translate its significant support or the momentum of the period of social radicalism between 1967 and 1976 into the social and economic transformation that it desired. The demise of the Italian Communist Party demonstrates the vacuity and lack of imagination or ambition at the heart of democratic socialism. It lacks the revolutionary characteristics necessary to compel real social change; instead, it cannot but be coopted by the right.

Enrico Berlinguer’s Grand Alliance

In the 1976 Italian election the PCI received a historic best share of the vote with about thirty-five percent—just three percent less than the total claimed by the Christian Democrats (DC) who had effectively ruled Italy since the first post-fascist election in 1948. When combined with the Socialist Party (PSI), the Italian left had managed forty-seven percent of the total vote. For the first time, then, it was presented with the tantalizing possibility of forming government and had the potential political power necessary to pursue real reforms to the Italian state. However, he PCI’s leader, Enrico Berlinguer, declined to make a common cause with the PSI against the DC in a moment when cracks had emerged in the DC’s hegemonic grip on Italian politics. Berlinguer had developed a strategy in 1973 of a “grand alliance” of the major Italian political parties and it was this approach that he continued to follow after the election. Rather than an alliance with the Socialists, he pursued a coalition with the DC. He did so because he believed that this was the only way for the Communists to gain access to the government. An alliance between the Communists and the Christian Democrats would signal the reasonableness of the PCI leadership and would minimize reactionary fears. He hoped to advertise his party—particularly to the Americans who were adamantly opposed to the PCI joining the government—that everything was within the bounds of normal politics. If he tempered the radicalism of his party and slowly infiltrated the government he believed that he could avoid the reactionary response typically received by governments that were perceived as a threat to the interests of capital and the United States.

Berlinguer’s fears were not unfounded. His 1973 strategy was an explicit response to the US-supported military coup that brought down the democratically elected left-leaning government of Salvador Allende and replaced it with the far right military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Whether Italy would have been at risk of a military response if the PCI and PSI had formed government cannot be known, but the United States made sure to express their opposition and at the bare minimum it could have expected the punitive economic sanctions taken against France after François Mitterrand was first elected president in 1981. Such sanctions would have compounded Italy’s ongoing economic crisis.

The PCI, thus, premised its actions on Berlinguer’s belief that the most important thing was to protect Italian democracy. If the PCI moved too quickly, it would upset the fragile political order and would assure a violent response from the right. In this view, Berlinguer drew upon the historical example of the anti-fascist alliance formed in the period of 1943-47 and, in particular, Palmiro Togliatti’s cautious refusal to back revolutionary action at the end of the Second World War. Togliatti had rejected demands for revolution by partisans who had spent much of the previous years engaged in militant opposition to fascism and as a result had the conceivable military organization with which to execute such a revolution. As Togliatti believed such a revolution would be quashed by the American military who were occupying Italy and that the Soviet Union was not in position to offer the Italian Communists any help, he preached the need for a more cautious, incremental approach.

By the mid-1970s the Euro-Communist parties, of which Italy’s was the largest, sought to separate themselves from the Soviet Union on the one hand and European social democracy on the other. Since the Hungarian revolution and the construction of the Berlin Wall, Soviet communism was associated with autocracy and authoritarianism while social democracy was merely reformist and had failed to pursue any real transformative policies. While the social democratic governments had attempted to soften the worst capitalist injustices, it did so from within the confines of capitalism. Berlinguer presented his leadership as offering a “third way,” one that was neither Soviet totalitarianism nor social democratic reformism—though he never clearly articulated what, exactly, differentiated his party from the social democrats or how the PCI would bring about a transition away from capitalism.

In pursuing his grand alliance with the Christian Democrats, Berlinguer alienated the socialists who had already taken a conciliatory approach to the DC and by 1976 had become accustomed to playing a key role in Italian politics. Moreover, in 1975 they had elected as their leader the ambitious Bettino Craxi who hailed from the party’s right flank. Craxi did not forget the snub. As a result an irreparable rift was formed between Italy’s left-wing parties and under Craxi the PSI would go its own way. In 1976 there might have been a possibility of a left-wing coalition against the DC, by 1979 there was no hope of this. Meanwhile, the grand alliance with the DC had come to nought. Berlinguer was unable to obtain meaningful representation for the PCI in the Italian government and the DC instead used the alliance to foment the break between the PCI and PSI. His efforts were further undone by the violence of Italian politics in the late-1970s and, in particular, the kidnapping and murder of the Christian Democrats’ leader Aldo Moro in May, 1978. Rather than initiating a transition to a new socialism, Berlinguer’s strategy benefitted the rise of neoliberalism that would begin under the prime ministership of Bettino Craxi in the 1980s.

While Togliatti’s cooperation with the center/center right in the aftermath of the Second World War was justified as a pragmatic necessity for a country not ready for revolution, by the mid-1970s Italy was crying out for radical action. If it was not the time, it was hard to see when it ever would be. Berlinguer may have sought to protect Italian democracy from the combined forces of the far right and a deepening economic crisis that he saw as a deliberate strategy intended to counter the mobilization of the students and trade unions on the left, but the outcome was instead the very permanent shift to the right that he had feared and sought to prevent. In chasing respectability Berlinguer emphasized the strong state and largely abandoned the reform of prisons and police or safeguarding the right to dissent. More damningly, instead of freeing Italy from clientalism the communists actively participated as soon as they were given an opportunity. Rather than being a force for change, they turned out to be the same as every other political party. In the 1979 election they would lose 1.5 million votes from their 1976 result.

The End of the Italian Communist Party

In 1987 Umberto Bossi, the leader of a regional party, the Lega Lombarda, was elected to the Italian senate and in 1991 a number of northern regional parties merged to form the racist, anti-European Lega Nord under Bossi’s leadership. Bossi’s movement was animated by the perceived failure of the Italian establishment to deal adequately with the mass migration to the north from southern Italy and the continued economic and social disparities between the northern and southern parts of the country and against the multiculturalism represented by the pro-European, cosmopolitan liberal politicians. While not exactly fascist, his party gave new voice to racist resentment that had long simmered under the surface of Italian politics. Two years after Bossi was elected to the senate the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the intellectual foundation upon which the PCI rested was broken.

In response to the end of Russian communism, Berlinguer’s successor Achille Occhetto announced that the PCI would change its name and abandon the communist moniker in recognition of its transition from doctrinaire socialism to democratic socialism over the previous two decades. At the XXth and final Congress of the Italian Communist Party in 1991 sixty-eight percent of the delegates voted in favor of the new name, Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) while a small faction of militants followed Armando Cossutta and Pietro Ingrao to form the Rifondazione Communista (RC). As historian of Italy Paul Ginsborg observed, “the PCI had been born a party intent on making socialist revolution, it gradually became, by one of those exquisite ironies of history, the champion of the very ‘burgeois’ democracy it had vowed to destroy” (Ginsborg, 2003, p. 161). In doing so it had brought about its own destruction.


By the election of 1992 the writing was on the wall for the remnants of the traditional Italian political parties. The PDS and RC received only 16.6 and 5.6 percent of the vote respectively. Combined, their share of the vote was less than the PCI had received in any election since the 1940s. The ex-communists were not the only ones on the decline, the DC found itself with less than thirty percent of the vote for the first time in its history. The Lega Nord, meanwhile, increased its support from 0.5 percent to 8.7 percent. Two years later the Lega Nord and Umberto Bossi would be instrumental in the election of Silvio Berlusconi.

None of the traditional parties were able to recover their previous status. The PSI has been the most electorally successful and formed a number of governing coalitions; however, its increasing embrace of the political center undermined it in much the same way that the same impulses resulted in the collapse of the French Socialist Party under François Hollande. The neoliberalism of the 1990s was not able to address the economic and racial tensions that would be exacerbated by the European Union and its commitment to failed, punitive German economics that is characterized primarily on the extreme opposition to public debt. In 1994 Berlusconi seemed an anomaly. In 2018 the centrist government led by Matteo Renzi was defeated by an anti-establishment party founded by a comedian. After three months of negotiation a coalition between M5S and the Lega Nord led by the far right nativist Matteo Salvini (who had pushed Bossi out of the League a few years earlier).

None of these developments were inevitable; instead, they were the unforeseen consequences of pragmatic compromises by the left. It is impossible to know what the outcome would have been had Berlinguer pursued a radical left strategy when presented with the opportunity in 1976, but the historical evidence strongly suggests that ‘temporary’ coalitions with the center-right in the name of pragmatism or realism only serves to undermine the moral authority from which the left draws its credibility and strength. The center is a black hole into which the left must not willfully fall yet again.

Perry Anderson. The New Old World. London: Verso Books, 2009.

Paul Ginsborg. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Paul Ginsborg. Italy and Its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State, 1980-2001. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Frederic Spotts and Theodor Wieser. Italy: A Difficult Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

There’s No Such Thing as Absolute Free Speech

The American Civil Liberties Union has once again thrust itself into controversy. This time the furor was caused by its plan to defend white supremacist and failed author Milo Yiannopoulos over the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s refusal to allow ads for his book be displayed on public transit. The ACLU has a long history of defending Nazi free speech and the case is consistent with their general purview. Indeed, it’s actually rather tame as far as the ACLU goes. Nonetheless, coming as it does at a time when fascism and white supremacy is more visible than has been the case since at least the 1960s, the ACLU appears highly misguided to many on the left.

The debate has tended to be framed as one side arguing we shouldn’t defend Nazi speech because it is hate speech and does real harm and the other side arguing in support of an ideal of absolute free speech. Glenn Greenwald, for example, takes this line in his discussion of the controversy. He summarizes the absolute free speech position in this way:

If you’re someone who cares about the free speech attacks on radical leftists, Muslims, and other marginalized groups, and tries to defend those rights in court, then you’re going to be genuinely afraid of allowing anti-free speech precedents to become entrenched that will then be used against you when it’s time to defend free speech rights. The ACLU is not defending white supremacist groups but instead is defending a principle.

Essentially, then, we must defend them because in doing so we also defend our own right to speech.

Unfortunately, I find the ACLU and Greenwald’s position on this issue to be hopelessly naïve at best and completely out of touch with the actual reality in which we live. Greenwald goes on to say:

It’s always those whose views are deemed most odious by the mainstream that are the initial targets of censorship efforts; it’s very rare that the state tries to censor the views held by the mainstream. If you allow those initial censorship efforts to succeed because of your distaste for those being targeted, then you lose the ability to defend the rights of those you like because the censorship principle has been enshrined.

There are two assumptions supporting this argument and, unfortunately, neither is true. The first is that fascism and white nationalism is marginal and politically irrelevant, which clearly does not correspond to reality. The fact is, the state does not discriminate equally against the right and the left. Under capitalism power will always favour the far right over even modest leftism because the far right does not undermine capital. The second problem with Greenwald’s argument is that it depends on the right to act in good faith. Unfortunately, in the real world the right does not care about protecting free speech or democratic values if doing so interferes with advancing right wing political objectives.

Moreover, free speech is already incredibly circumscribed and there will always be functional limitations to speech whether these restrictions be social, economic or legal. The ACLU argument is concerned only with defending against legal restrictions and does nothing to address the far more significant economic barriers to speech. As a socialist, what is far more important than defending absolute free speech is to focus on capitalist power structures and recognize whose speech is most vulnerable. Instead of expending resources on defending Nazis we must continue to attack the power structures that enable fascism. The reality is that attacking capitalist power includes denying speech to fascists. When Greenwald writes, “this overflowing naïveté is what I’ve always found most confounding about the left-wing case against universal free speech: this belief that state authorities will exercise this power of censorship magnanimously and responsibly,” he essentially misses the point. The state is an instrument of capital and these fights are not happening in the context of state power. The leftist opposition to fascist speech has little to no expectation that state authorities will be on our side. Indeed, the capitalist state is irredeemably the enemy.

To summarize, absolute free speech is not possible in the real world, which means there will always be certain factors impinging on individual free speech. Often this is a good thing because it is part of the basic social norms on which day-to-day social interactions depend. However, speech is also limited according to more problematic factors such as economic means. For instance, a wealthy person has greater resources to make their views known and less personal risk in doing so. Thus, the more important concern is to undo economic barriers as part of the primary socialist objective: destroying capitalism and establishing a classless society. We have to acknowledge that a classless society does not inherently mean a society with absolute free speech. There will almost certainly continue to be some degree of social, and likely legal, restrictions on speech, just these restrictions will no longer be defined by the interests of capital. The argument that we must defend Nazi speech because otherwise our speech is at risk too is absurd because left-wing and minority speech is already deeply circumscribed. Moreover, the entire argument depends on the good faith of the right when in reality the right does not give the slightest shit about protecting the left’s right to free speech. Ultimately when you are expending limited resources defending Nazi speech you aren’t defending free speech, you’re just defending Nazis.

Joseph Stalin pinpoints the failure inherent in social democracy

The aim which the Americans are pursuing, arose out of the economic troubles, out of the economic crisis. The Americans want to rid themselves of the crisis on the basis of private capitalist activity, without changing the economic basis. They are trying to reduce to a minimum the ruin, the losses caused by the existing economic system. Here, however, as you know, in place of the old, destroyed economic basis, an entirely different, a new economic basis has been created. Even if the Americans you mention partly achieve their aim, i.e., reduce these losses to a minimum, they will not destroy the roots of the anarchy which is inherent in the existing capitalist system. They are preserving the economic system which must inevitably lead, and cannot but lead, to anarchy in production. Thus, at best, it will be a matter, not of the reorganisation of society, not of abolishing the old social system which gives rise to anarchy and crises, but of restricting certain of its excesses. Subjectively, perhaps, these Americans think they are reorganising society; objectively, however, they are preserving the present basis of society.

That is why, objectively, there will be no reorganisation of society.

Nor will there be planned economy. What is planned economy? What are some of its attributes? Planned economy tries to abolish unemployment. Let us suppose it is possible, while preserving the capitalist system, to reduce unemployment to a certain minimum.

But surely, no capitalist would ever agree to the complete abolition of unemployment, to the abolition of the reserve army of unemployed, the purpose of which is to bring pressure on the labour market, to ensure a supply of cheap labour. Here you have one of the rents in the “planned economy” of bourgeois society. Furthermore, planned economy presupposes increased output in those branches of industry which produce goods that the masses of the people need particularly. But you know that the expansion of production under capitalism takes place for entirely different motives, that capital flows into those branches of economy in which the rate of profit is highest. You will never compel a capitalist to incur loss to himself and agree to a lower rate of profit for the sake of satisfying the needs of the people. Without getting rid of the capitalists, without abolishing the principle of private property in the means of production, it is impossible to create planned economy.

From this interview between H.G. Wells and Stalin, which is also entertaining for Stalin’s disdain for Wells.

What Stalin recognized was that social democracy cannot succeed over the long-term because it does not reorganize the capitalist structures of power. While social democracy does a good job of providing moderate improvements to the material conditions of the working classes, it exist within capitalism and is therefore deeply limited in terms of what it can accomplish. Such material improvement does offer an empowerment of the marginalized groups that benefit most strongly from social democracy, but eventually the capitalist classes are able to re-assert their power, as seen by the abandonment of social democracy beginning in the 1970s in favour of neoliberalism. Another clear example can be seen in the collapse of chavismo upon the death of Hugo Chavez and the decline in the price of oil that Chavez had largely depended upon to fund his social programs. Chavismo failed not because it was socialist, but because it was not socialist enough. Though Chavez improved the conditions of the working class in Venezuela, he did not attempt to break the political power of the bourgeoisie.

Social democracy is but a temporary check on the destructive force of capitalism.