It is not pointless to specify, in order to help us understand our times, through which process the development of capitalism has resulted in a planetary crisis which is the crisis of the economy in its totalitarian functioning.
What has dominated, since the beginning of the 19th century, the combination of individual and collective behaviour, has been the need to produce. Organizing production through intellectual work and manual labour required a managerial method, an authoritarian mentality, if not despotic. These were the times of the military conquest of the markets. The industrialized countries unscrupulously plundered the resources of the new colonies.
When the proletariat began to coordinate its claims, it suffered, in spite of its libertarian spontaneity, the autocratic influence that the pre-eminence of the productive sector exerted on customs. Trade unions and workers’ parties gave themselves a bureaucratic structure that would have ended up hindering the hard-working masses under the pretext of emancipating them.
The red power is established all the more easily because it manages to snatch from the exploiting class portions of the benefits, translated into wage increases, improvements in working time (the day of eight hours, paid holidays), social benefits, (unemployment benefit, mutual).
The 1920s and 1930s pushed the centralization of production to its supreme stage. The passage of private capitalism to state capitalism took place brutally in Italy, Germany and Russia, where the dictatorship of a single party – Fascist, Nazi, Stalinist – imposed the statealization of the means of production.
In countries where the liberal tradition has safeguarded a formal democracy, the monopolistic concentration that attributes a masterly vocation to the state is carried out in a slower, sly and less violent way.
It is in the United States that for the first time a new economic orientation is manifested, devoted to a development that will significantly transform mentalities and customs: the incitement to consumption, in fact, becomes stronger than the need to produce.
From 1945 onwards, the Marshall Plan, which was officially intended to help war-torn Europe, opened the way for the consumer society, identified as a welfare society.
The obligation to produce at any price gave way to a company decorated with the ornaments of seduction, under which a new priority imperative was hidden: consumption. To consume anything, but to consume.
A surprising evolution is then witnessed: supermarket hedonism and self-service democracy, spreading the illusion of pleasures and free choice, succeed in undermining – in a safer way than the anarchists of the past would have hoped – the sacrosanct patriarchal, authoritarian, military and religious values that an economy dominated by the imperatives of production had privileged.
Today we can better measure how much the colonization of the working masses, through the pressing incitement to consume happiness according to their tastes, has slowed down the tightening of the economy on the overseas colonies and favoured the success of the decolonization struggles.
If the freedom of trade and its indispensable expansion contributed to the end of most dictatorial regimes and to the collapse of the communist citadel, they very quickly revealed the limits of consumable wealth.
Frustrated by a happiness that did not properly coincide with the inflation of useless gadgets and adulterated products, since 1968, consumers have become aware of the new alienation of which they were the object.
Working for a wage that is invested in the purchase of goods of a random value, suggests less the state of bliss than the unpleasant impression of being manipulated according to the needs of the market. Those who suffered the workshop and office during the day only left to enter the factories less coercive but more untrue than the consumable.
The priority sectors were thus sacrificed for the benefit of the service sector, which sells its bureaucratic complexity in the form of aid and portrayals. Quality agriculture has been crushed by the lobbies of the agri-food sector, which overproduces surrogates for cereals, meat and vegetables.
The art of living has been buried under the greyness, boredom and criminality of cement that ensures the entry of business groups. A mutation sets in motion before our very eyes. Neo-capitalism is preparing to profitably rebuild what the old man has ruined.
Adapted from Avviso Agli Studenti (1995), by Raoul Vaneigem. Translated from the Italian. Published under a Creative Commons license.