The Spectre of Barbarism and its Alternative

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Faced with the rising threat of capitalist barbarism, socialists need a clear vision for the struggle

by Michael A. Lebowitz

Thesis One. The capitalist economic crisis is not over.

Although the immediate financial crisis appears to have been resolved, all of the underlying factors (which are the result of the overaccumulation to which capitalism is prone and which made fictitious capital so vulnerable) are still present.

The incredible trade imbalance of the U.S. economy has not been addressed; the unprecedented deficit of the U.S. federal budget is rising; the over-extension of consumer credit hangs over the economy; unemployment is rising and thus consumer confidence and spending is not likely to return to previous heights; and, the general picture is one in which the U.S. economy, the dominant economy in the world, will continue to lose hegemony. When commentators stress signs of recovery, it is essential to remember that this pattern differs not at all from that of 1929 to 1933 — in other words, the period between the stock market crash and the bank failures — a period before much of the depression of the 1930s.

At best, although capitalism itself may recover, the prospect is one of a significant geographical restructuring of capital on an international basis, which will require a painful adjustment for the U.S. economy — one which involves acceptance of continued stagnation or decline of incomes for the mass of people.

Thesis Two. The resource/food/water/climate/environment crisis is deepening.

All these elements are connected.

There is a food crisis which reflects, among other things, drought as the result of climate change and the diversion of food for the production of biofuels. Despite the ability to produce sufficient food at this time for the world, unequal distribution has meant starvation for many and has been reflected in food riots over the price of staple products like rice.

There is a process of land grab occurring in which countries such as China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia are in the process of leasing land in Africa, Pakistan, and the Philippines among other places for the purpose of securing food (especially grain) and fuels. For example, Daewoo of South Korea took a 99 year lease on 3,000,000 acres of land in Madagascar (half of all arable land in the country) for the purpose of producing corn and palm oil. Similarly, Pakistan offered a half million hectares of land and promised Gulf investors that if they signed up it would hire a security force of 100,000 to protect the assets.

A significant aspect of these contracts which secure arable land for foreign investors is that it is a way of dealing with the impending crisis of water shortage. And, this problem is becoming increasingly serious with the melting of glaciers for example in Tibet and the Andes— which will affect the availability of water not only for consumption and agriculture but also for hydroelectric power.

This problem, the problem of over-expansion of economic activity in relation to existing resources under capitalism, will only get worse as India and China in particular attempt to emulate the consumption standards of the developed North.

Thesis Three. The current internal political correlation of forces in the United States and other advanced capitalist countries is not favourable to the advance of progressive forces.

Here we can simply note the recent rightwing victories in elections in Germany, Italy and France, in the European Union, as well as the current prospect of a smashing defeat of the Labour government in England.

Of course, it is stretching matters to think of these defeats for social democracy as defeats of progressive forces; however, what is evident is the failure of the left, of trade union organizations and social movements to make significant gains in this time of capitalist crisis.

To this, it is important to add the very successful mobilization of forces in the United States against healthcare reform. What is striking is the composition of that mass opposition: the so-called “tea party” movement has been attacking not only Obama, not only big government and socialism but also Wall Street and corporations — and so many of those who have marched describe themselves as working class.

There is no comparable mobilization of the working class from the left in the United States.

Thesis Four. In the context of resource shortages, the struggle to control resource supplies will become intense.

That struggle is not likely to take the form of market and financial domination; rather, force will decide. This is one aspect of the spectre of barbarism.

Thesis Five. In the absence of strong political movements on the left, the response in the United States in particular and in other advanced capitalist countries is likely to be one best analyzed by psychologists.

For example, in the United States (where it is a matter of faith that ‘this is the greatest country in the world’), the reaction to the changing world capitalist economy will be a tendency toward protectionism, xenophobia (manifested in particular against Muslims), quick military solutions, racism and attacks upon immigrants who are seen as stealing good jobs.

In short, the likely response will be the search for scapegoats — those responsible for stealing the birthrights of true Americans. As we can see already in Europe (for example, in the fascist attacks upon the Roma people in Hungary), this is another aspect of the spectre of barbarism.

Thesis Six. The old concepts of socialism, the characteristics of socialism of the 20th century, will never challenge the mass psychology which prevails in advanced capitalist countries.

If there is anything clear in the reaction of masses in developed capitalist countries to the initial appearance of this crisis within capitalism, it is that the concept of a big state, of verticalism, of interference by distant entities (not only big government but also big companies) is precisely what people do not want. For them, that is the enemy.

Thesis Seven. The concept of socialism for the 21st century, with its emphasis upon communal councils and workers councils, is the only way to make inroads on the working class of advanced capitalist countries at this point.

What people do respond to favourably is the idea of local decision-making and the ability to make the decisions that affect their lives — precisely because that option has been removed in advanced capitalist countries. Those are precisely the elements needed for the battle of ideas in order to struggle against barbarism.

Thesis Eight. At this time, only Venezuela offers the vision that can arm militants around the world in the battle of ideas in the struggle against barbarism.

For that reason, a special responsibility falls upon Venezuela. It not only must struggle against state domination and verticalism and for development of those protagonistic institutions which alone can transform people. This struggle is essential for the health of the Venezuelan revolution; however, the success of this struggle also is needed to provide an example internationally in order to defeat the spectre of barbarism.


Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of  Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century and  The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development.

‘The Spectre of Barbarism and its Alternative: Eight Theses’ was presented at a conference of Venezuelan intellectuals organized by Centro Internacional Miranda (CIM) in Caracas on ‘The New International Situation and Construction of Socialism in the 21st Century’ on 1 October 2009.

This article was published in the Socialist Project Bullet, along with another talk by Michael Lebowitz, The responsibility of revolutionary intellectuals in building socialism


  • Hi Andrew,
    I was saying that Venezuela, overall, doesn’t have anything like the ecological impact of Canada, overall. I wasn’t trying to say anything about the two countries’ respective oil industries in particular.

  • “in places like Venezuela, which (even with its oil industry) doesn’t have anything like the adverse ecological impact of a country like Canada”

    In strictly terms of ecological impact, it is not apparent to me why the production and processing of the non-conventional “heavy oil” of Venezuela’s tar sands is any less devastating than Canada’s tar sands.

  • Hi Toban,

    I read the last two theses very differently than you did.

    I take it that Lebowitz is saying that “the health of the Venezuelan revolution” depends on a successful struggle to promote “protagonistic institutions” (which is Venezuelan jargon for ‘participatory-democratic’ institutions), such as the “workers councils and community councils” mentioned in thesis 7, at the expense of “state domination and verticalism.”

    In that sense, according to these ‘theses,’ the Venezuelan revolution faces a struggle between “20th century socialist” elements (survivals of the social-democratic and stalinist models; see thesis 6) and “21st century socialist” elements (protaganistic horizontalism and community control).

    So, I don’t think the article is guilty of depicting Venezuela as some kind of ideal society. Rather, he depicts it as a place where the fate of ‘horizontalist,’ ‘protaganistic’ socialism — or ’21st century socialism’ — will be partly determined.

    From a 2009 review of a documentary on Venezuela, in Australia’s “Direct Action”:

    ‘Economist Michael Lebowitz, interviewed in the film, appears cautious in ascribing the revolutionary government that was born out of the mass insurrection that defeated the April 2002 coup as being consciously socialist. While acknowledging that “a revolutionary transition” is taking place in Venezuela, Lebowitz states, “It could go either way”. He adds that “I now question all of the histories of revolutionary processes I have ever read. There is no way it’s linear, there are a thousand things going on.” But at the centre of this revolutionary transformation are the communal councils, argues Lebowitz. Since 2006, some 30,000 communal councils have been created in Venezuela. Each communal council, representing between 200 and 400 families, decides what actions are to be carried out within that local community.’

    On the other hand, your point that he doesn’t address the oil industry is true. And yet, from a climate justice point of view, as you may agree, it is more important to stop the tar sands, say, than to stop oil production in places like Venezuela, which (even with its oil industry) doesn’t have anything like the adverse ecological impact of a country like Canada. Nevertheless, thinking long term, obviously it will have to be addressed. In this article, though, he’s focusing on ‘the spectre of barbarism,’ which is a different issue, at least in part.

  • Surely you don’t mean to suggest that Venezuela is some sort of perfect model society that everyone should aspire to imitate?

    To what extent is Venezuela an ideal, and to what extent is it a flawed model?

    I’m sure you know that the oil industry is an important part of the Venezuelan economy, for example. How is that compatible with an the rest of the “vision” that you’re after? More specifically: how does that aspect of Venezula fit with your point about “The resource/food/water/climate/environment crisis”, in particular?

    You must have reservations about that much.
    What else are you leaving out?

    You may be suggesting that there are problems with “state domination and verticalism” within Venezuela, but that much is not clear.

    I ask because I had appreciated the other theses a lot more, before reaching that last one.