Preservative struggles in the age of austerity


by Jeff Noonan

Despite six years of global economic crisis and austerity, and despite much talk, even amongst liberal economists, of the threats growing inequality poses to democratic forms of capitalism, there has been little effective political mobilization in favour of a socialist alternative. The failure of a global movement for socialism to emerge might seem especially perplexing when the economic crisis is understood as part of a deeper crisis of capitalist society that threatens the natural life-support system as well as the values—individual freedom, equality, social progress—that it has long appealed to for justification. It is true that struggles have erupted—Occupy in North America, large scale protests and movements against austerity in Europe, the Arab Spring in the Middle East—but none have posed the comprehensive challenge to capitalism as underlying cause of the effects (inequality, poverty, the legacy of colonialism) to which these movements responded. Nothing like a “revolutionary left” such as would have been recognizable to late nineteenth and early twentieth century Marxists has yet developed. This fact should tell socialists, especially in the Global North, something of political importance.

It should tell socialists that the very different working and living conditions, the changed cultural formations and self-understandings to which they have given rise, especially amongst the young, have broken, probably permanently, the political self-understanding of workers and oppressed groups and the old organizational forms of the revolutionary left. At the turn of the twentieth century work was organized in massive hierarchical factories connected to local supply chains owned by vertically structured corporations. Unions were politically and culturally vital organizations, there was an active left that formed part of the fabric of life (even for those workers who were not attracted by its politics). Workers lived in class-identified neighbourhoods in which leisure was bound up with work life, played out in union halls or ethnic community centres.

This complex intertwining of work and social life gave rise to a cohesive (but not seamless) working class identity. Today, the structure of work has changed significantly. There are still factories in the Global North, but fewer and fewer people work in large scale industrial enterprises. Supply chains are now global, individuals units of the same corporation are forced to compete with each other, political and economic identity is often formed on a plant by plant basis; the ideology of entrepreneurship has become more ubiquitous, young people are encouraged to and do think of their future as one they will have to invent for themselves; culture has become global and intensely local at the same time, and digital communications networks have created new forms of self and political identity. Hierarchical organization, and not capitalism per se, is often identified as the enemy of freedom and creativity.

On the one hand, the critique of hierarchy has promising emancipatory implications (briefly glimpsed during the Occupy movement). On the other hand, it can as easily be directed against the revolutionary left’s traditional form of democratic centralist organization. Suspicion runs high against the very idea of political power as necessary to advancing egalitarian and democratic values. Self-organization, withdrawal into self-contained local alternative economies, and lifestyle changes are far more attractive to young activists than the rhetoric of revolutionary discipline. The organizational structures, as well as the symbols and language of the old left, sound tired and fail to motivate people. John Holloway is not being dogmatically anti-Leninist when he urges people to “change the world without taking power.”[1] Rather he is attempting to draw the lessons of both the failures of the old left and the successes of what he sees as new practices of alternative-world building (as with the Zapatista’s, for example). Whatever weaknesses “horizontalism” might have, there can be little doubt it is a more attractive organizational structure to newly radicalizing activists than a hierarchical political party.


Nevertheless, if it is the case that the revolutionary left has reached its final chapter, it does not follow that class struggle will end. The texture and goals of working class struggle and the goals of the revolutionary left have never fully coincided, because while working class people have consistently struggled to protect and reclaim life time and space from capitalist attempts to commodify everything essential to life, they have often not identified their goals explicitly with socialism, or, if they have, socialism with the revolutionary overthrow of ruling class power. What they have fought for (and now to protect) is the institutionalization of the principle of democracy and public institutions. Underlying both sets of struggles, I will argue, is a radical alternative to the ruling money-value system of capitalism, a value system which is essentially socialist, whether it is called by that name or not. If struggles for a future systematic alternative society are not in the ascendant right now, it does not mean that struggles for a society governed by life-value standards are not on-going. To find them, however, we have to look to movements that, on first glance, seem to be about the past, about protecting gains that have already been won from the clutches of capitalist privatization.

This essay will examine these “preservative struggles,” arguing that they are an important link to the successful working class struggles of the past and a (potentially) important bridge to the future. I will situate the argument in the context of a contradiction in the history of the Marxist understanding of class struggle and the function of state and social institutions. On the one hand, struggles to control major social institutions that fall short of the revolutionary seizure of power have been dismissed as useless, on the basis of the claim that so long as there is class power, existing social institutions will always serve ruling class interests.

On the other hand, there is a more historically sophisticated argument which asserts that class struggle is not an all or nothing affair but an open-ended process that can make real gains even when revolution is not on the agenda. I will illustrate this contradiction in relation to the two key objects of preservative struggles today: the institutionalization of the principle of democracy and the underlying distributive principle of major public institutions (health care systems, education, etc.). Having set out the terrain of political struggle in the first two sections, I will uncover the life-value system in which these preservative struggles are grounded, demonstrating how it is the radical alternative to capitalism revolutionaries demand, but that its mode and pace of development differs from the all or nothing logic they insist upon. In conclusion, I will draw what I take to be the key political lesson for twenty-first century socialists. Struggles must begin from where people are willing to make a stand. In the global North, at this point in history, people are willing to make a stand to preserve the gains of previous class struggles. Turning preservative struggles into transformative struggles depends upon socialists learning to bring to light this life value system.


Class struggle and the function of social institutions

In The German Ideology, Marx argued that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”[2] The material power of the ruling class derives from its control over the universally required means of life; its ruling intellectual power is an extension from its control over life-resources down through the major institutions through which social life is organized and governed. Of all major social institutions, those that collectively comprise the state—legislatures, courts, the civil service, the armed forces—are the most important because all other social institutions are determined by the laws and policies put into effect by legitimate political power. If it is true that the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class, and that the ruling class rules in its own interests, then it follows that state institutions will be used to legitimate and enforce the particular interests of the ruling class as the universal social interest.

This conclusion is the one Marx draws: “Through the emancipation of private property from the community, the state has become a separate entity, independent and outside civil society; but it is nothing more than the form of organization which the bourgeoisie was compelled to adopt, both for external and internal purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interest.”[3] In other words, while the state has the appearance of being a set of neutral institutions amenable to use by any social force capable of garnering sufficient political support to translate its demands into legitimate law, the reality is that the state in capitalist society is necessarily subordinate to ruling class power and can never be used to fundamentally transform society.

In this account of state power, the class structure of capitalist society sets internal limits to the capacity of the working class and other oppressed groups to use official state power to reclaim the life resources that have been appropriated by the ruling class and redirect their use from means to the production of money-value to means of satisfying fundamental life-requirements. As evidence in support of this interpretation of state power, Marxists have pointed to the way in which political parties—even those social democratic parties which historically derive from working class struggles—tend to converge on policies which never threaten the dominant property relations and social values of capitalist society. While liberal political philosophers regularly trumpet pluralism as the hallmark of democratic systems, conformity to capitalist system-needs is their truth.


As Ralph Miliband famously argued in The State and Capitalist Society,

the assertion of … profound differences is a matter of great importance for the functioning and legitimation of the political system, since it suggests that electors, by voting for one or another of the main competing parties, are making a choice between fundamental and incompatible alternatives … In actual fact, however, this picture is in some crucial ways mystifying … For one of the most important aspects of the political life of advanced capitalism is precisely that the differences between those leaders … have very seldom been of the fundamental kind.[4]

There may be differences over how much of the social surplus to tax, or how to spend that money made available by taxation of capital, but the right of the capitalist class to appropriate most of that surplus as its own private property will never be challenged. Miliband’s de-mystification of liberal pluralism uncovers an important truth about the centripetal force that class power generates, forcing all parties towards the rhetorical middle while in reality ensuring the perpetuation of private control over universally needed resources. At the same time, it would be wrong to conclude that state institutions are nothing but instruments of ruling class power in a capitalist society, precisely because class struggle can affect the balance of political forces, and the balance of political forces can affect law and policy in socially important ways.

In contrast to the struggles of, for example, the bourgeoisie for political supremacy, (which was the struggle of a minority with another minority), the struggle of the working class is a struggle of the majority against a minority whose relative size vis-à-vis the global population is shrinking as its power and wealth grow. Marx and Engels appreciated the political significance of the majoritarian character of working class struggle already in 1847, before capitalist society had adopted majority-rule as the political basis of its legitimacy: “All previous movements were movements of minorities, in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority. The proletariat… cannot stir…without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung up in the air.”[5]

This proletarian movement was politically multi-dimensional, in the sense that that it did not aim only (or even for the most part) at the overthrow of class power but attacked class power on numerous, not always programmatically related fronts. If it had a unifying thread, it was for the democratization of social and political life, a set of demands which was by and large successful and which constitutes one of the great legacies of nineteenth century class struggle. “The working class was the most consistently pro-democratic force. The class had strong interests in effecting its inclusion and it was more insulated from the hegemony of dominant classes.”[6]


The reason that the working class was a consistent proponent of social and political democratization is obvious—if society legitimates itself by appeal to majority decisions, then, if the working class gains access to the institutions of political power and votes its own interest, then it can transform society from within, on the basis of legally binding decisions, forcing the ruling class to either accede, or rebel. Of course, it is always possible for the ruling class to rebel against democratization (as in fascist movements, for example), but the fact remains, that democratically exercised power in a democracy can (at least in principle) advance the life-interests of the majority of people.

In other words, official society can be upended by democratic means, provided those means are adequately supported by an extra-parliamentary movement. Engels himself makes the case for the importance of political rights as an organizing basis and plateau of achievement from which new movements against class power can develop:

We seek the abolition of Classes. What is the means of achieving it? The political domination of the proletariat. … revolution is the supreme act of politics; whoever wants it, also wants the means, political action, which prepares for it … The political freedoms, the right of assembly and the freedom of the press, these are our weapons—should we fold our arms and abstain if they seek to take them away from us? It is said that every political act implies a recognition of the status quo. But when the status quo gives us means of protesting against it, then to make use of these means is not to recognise the status quo.[7]

Revolution in this sense is not a cataclysmic singularity brought about by force of will of professional revolutionaries, but a long term political process which can and must make use of the democratic victories won earlier to advance a more deeply and democratic social agenda.

If it is the case, as Engels argues, that democratic victories create the political space to challenge the status quo, then it follows that the status quo is not static but a dynamic result of class struggle. In other words, the fact that control over the material conditions of social life confers control over major social institutions does not set any pre-established limits to how far working class and anti-oppression social movements can transform ruling class control in a democratic socialist direction. State institutions are not absolutely fixed in their functions, as a narrow reading of Marx’s arguments in The German Ideology might suggest, but are responsive to successful class struggles. Holloway and Picciotto are correct to argue that the function of state institutions in any concrete historical context cannot be logically inferred from generic premises about the structure of capitalist society, because the key “pre-requisite for understanding the state” is to root that understanding in “the form and content of the class struggle.”[8]

The point is not that electing one or another mainstream party can topple class rule, but rather that any space for democratic organizing is a potential space for contesting class and money-value rule. If workers and oppressed groups are motivated to struggle within the given institutional structures to change the values that determine the priorities and functions of those institutions, but not to attempt the immediate overthrow of the ruling class (as they are doing everywhere in the Global North today) then the historically concrete practice of socialists must be to discover and reveal to those in struggle the universal anti-capitalist implications of these battles to preserve the democratic spaces already won. The principle of democracy and the practice of public institutions: democratic socialist spaces in undemocratic capitalist society


An unsympathetic critic might object at this point that I am doing nothing more than attempting to rehabilitate long-discredited reformist electoralism. Joshua Moufawad-Paul makes a recent passionate case for this counter-argument: “To treat elections as a viable space of struggle now, decades following the ascendency of a discourse that professed the capitalist end of history, is a grand act of cynicism. This cynicism is one that is already aware that it is not viable to assume that communism can be voted into existence: we know that elections do not matter.”[9] Moufawad-Paul is correct if he intends to argue that elections do not matter on their own and to the extent that they are contested only by liberals, conservatives, and social democrats. If, however, his argument equates electoralism with democratic struggle within the existing institutional spaces and concludes that those struggles can never significantly expand those democratic spaces against the ruling class interest, then he is guilty of conflating two distinct political practices and his conclusion does not follow.

Electoralism is but one—weak—form of the democratic principle. The democratric principle, as David Beetham points out, is a general principle of governance of collective institutions and not essentially connected with elections at all. Any “system of collective decision-making can be said to be democratic to the extent that it is subject to control by all members of the relevant association, or all those under its authority, considered as equals.”[10] Three aspects of Beetham’s understanding of the democratic principle are worth noting in this context. First, it highlights effective participation and not mere representation of interests as essential to democracy. Second, democratic practices range across all collective enterprises and are not limited to the political institutions of state power. Third, democracy is inconsistent with class rule, since class rule is based upon inequality of access to universally required life-resources. It thus follows that any successful struggle that in anyway institutionalises this principle is a victory over class rule. A victory over class rule does not mean that class rule is completely overcome, but only that it is weakened in that dimension of its exercise lost to democratic forces.


It is with these considerations in mind that the value of elections must be considered. A blanket principle that “elections do not matter” fails to take into account differences in electoral systems (they can matter a great deal more in jurisdictions in which there is proportional representation than in ‘first past the post’ systems in which the number of seats taken by each party does not reflect the percentage of the popular vote they gained). It also fails to take into account differences in what can be at stake between the competing parties (there may sometimes be cause to vote for a social democratic party when the only other alternative is a virulent anti-worker agenda, even if the social democratic party will do nothing to advance the struggle for socialism). If the alternative is Syrizia or Golden Dawn in Greece, then it is clear that elections do matter, even if Syrizia on its own will not be able to resolve the economic crisis still harming the majority of Greek citizens. If the alternative is the Venezuelan Socialist Party or its right-wing opponents, then it is clear that elections do matter, for while the development of “twenty-first century socialism” in Venezuela has been halting, it would be halted altogether and gains rolled completely back were the socialists defeated.

Venezuela is an instructive example for another reason. The enduring strength of the movement is rooted in the fact that it continues to win election after election, undermining the attempts of domestic and foreign critics to portray it as undemocratic. The political power of the moral force derived from continual electoral success should not be underestimated. Marta Harnecker draws the appropriate conclusion:

Faced with the evident failure of neoliberalism as it was being applied, there emerged the following dilemma: either the neoliberal capitalist model is re-built, or advances are made in constructing an alternative project motivated by a humanist and solidarity-based logic … it was Chavez who had the audacity to take this second path and I believe President Maduro is trying to continue his legacy. Other leaders such as Evo Morales and Rafael Correa later followed him. All of them are conscious of the fact that the objective economic and cultural conditions, and the existing correlation of forces at a global and national level, obliges them to co-exist for a long time with capitalist forms of production … they have to do it [build an alternative] on the basis of an inherited state apparatus whose characteristics are functional to the capitalist system, but are not suitable for advancing towards socialism. Nevertheless, practice has demonstrated, contrary to theoretical dogmatism of some sectors of the radical left, that if revolutionary cadres run this apparatus, it can be used as an instrument in the process of building the new society.[11]

It is anachronistic to see the struggle across Latin America in terms of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Leninist dichotomy of reform or revolution: it is an on-going experiment whose goal is to work out a new model of revolution that combines respect for political competition with the use of democratic power to re-appropriate universally required life-resources from the ruling class. To the extent that the re-appropriating drive is successful, to that extent is the material foundation of the new society secured. The problem of securing the material foundation of a new society through collective, democratic control over universally required life-resources brings me to the second subject of this section, the role and value of public institutions.


In liberal social history, the development of public institutions is typically attributed to the development and institutionalization of social rights.[12] However, it is rare, if not non-existent, for actual rights to access major public institutions like health care facilities and practices, drug plans, public pensions, post-secondary education, public libraries and other cultural institutions to be enshrined in constitutions as legally actionable rights. In any event, it is clear that if we compare the earliest days of capitalism to the nineteen sixties (the high point of social spending on public institutions) the key difference is not legal-constitutional, but political. There is no explaining the increased taxation of capital in the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries without making reference to class struggle, both domestic, trade-unions based, and international (the Russian Revolution).[13]

It would be too shallow a view, however, to simply brush off public funding for public institutions as “concessions” meant to dampen class struggle. They were indeed concessions, but, as such, they were proof of successful class struggles and the partial institutionalization of a needs-grounded social morality materially and morally opposed to the ruling money value system of capitalism.[14] The distributive principle of the money-value of social morality is: to each according to her ability to pay for whatever they want, and regardless of the implications for the natural life support system or other people. The principle of the needs-ground of social morality is: to each according to his or her real life requirements, in amounts sufficient for all-round life-capacity development, limited only by the carrying capacity of the environment and the co-equal needs of others.

The money-value ground of social morality legitimates labour and consumer markets as the institutions responsible for the allocation of resources and the distribution of commodities. The needs-ground of social morality, by contrast, legitimates democratic public institutions as primarily responsible for allocation and distribution of the goods required for sustainable life and development. While the institutionalization of the needs-ground of social morality in public institutions was never complete, always in tension with far more powerful market forces, often clumsy and bureaucratic, the vehemence with which those institutions have been attacked under the neoliberal phase of capitalist restructuring indicates that they are not regarded by capitalists as mere reforms, they are seen, and attacked for being, imperfect expressions of a democratic socialist value system.


That working people and oppressed groups were able, over the course of a century of struggle in the Global North, to re-appropriate collectively produced wealth and force governments to invest it in public institutions that satisfied unmet life-requirements was therefore a tremendous victory. Against the idealism of capitalist consumer demand, which recognizes no distinction between wants for the most useless luxuries and vital necessities without which life cannot persist, struggles for public funding of public institutions proceeded from the material recognitions of the reality of harms unmet needs cause. More than just asserting the reality of needs as against the relativism of selfish desire, these struggles affirmed a view of the human good as free life-capacity realization. Unlike liberal interpretations of positive freedom, this life-value conception of the human freedom does not reduce it to the private acts of each individual in abstraction and in opposition to every other individual. Rather, it understands human beings as socially self-conscious agents who care about each other and the future, who mutually enable each other’s capacities for self-expression and enjoyment, and who all together commit themselves to sustainable patterns of interaction and creativity. As McMurtry argues, the vocation of each individual is to do what s/he can that is of life-value to others and of life-interest to self. For none to shirk the duty of giving back in to what enables the humanity of each is the obligation in return for these rights—the human ordering of social justice. These are the true bases of self-respect and freedom.[15]

If a society, a) uses collectively produced wealth to, b) satisfy people’s real-life-requirements, for the sake of c), enabling each person to realise his or her human capacities in life valuable ways, which are, d) sustainable over an open-ended future for humanity and life on the planet, then that society is in any meaningful politically and morally valuable sense of the term, free in the sense envisioned in the democratic traditions of socialism. My point is not that even at the high point of public funding for public institutions were these four conditions ever comprehensively and universally met but rather that there were no absolute structural barriers to struggles in support of their institutionalization. Furthermore, they were in fact partially institutionalized.

Finally, the neoliberal assault on the principle and practice of public, non-commodified provision of life-necessities has worsened the lives of workers and oppressed people in all ways that really count—security of access to life-necessities, real opportunities for meaningful work, time for self-development, cultural exploration, and free interpersonal interaction. Struggles to preserve these institutions are thus not mere rear-guard actions in support of a dying bureaucratic welfare state. To call them preservative does not mean that they cannot also transform the institutions. The object of the struggle is the principle of non-market, non-commodified provision of shared life-requirements. There may be better forms of delivering these goods than large, often alienating, hierarchical systems (community clinics rather than hospitals, peoples’ schools rather than universities).[16] The goal is to supply the good to all who need it because they need that good, and not to protect entrenched structures of power and privilege in public institutions as they stand, because the institutions are marked by the forms of domination typical of capitalist society. The struggles are, at the deepest level, struggles to preserve the freedom of human life from domination by the ruling class interests and labour and commodity markets.


We know that people threatened by austerity are willing to resist its assaults on their life-conditions. More importantly, although it is never reported in the popular press, resistance has delivered victories, as for example, in Spain, where a determined fifteen month fight that ended last year succeeded in preventing the privatization of six public hospitals in Madrid.[17] Or one could also cite the 2012 Quebec student strike, where a strike against tuition fee increases sparked a month’s-long broader social militancy against austerity and for public provision of life-goods as a matter of fundamental social principle.[18] That which people often do not realize, when they are motivated by immediate threats to access to fundamental life-requirements like health care, is the actual opposition they are offering to the dominant institutions and value system of capitalism. There may be some self-conscious revolutionaries or anti-capitalists in the ranks of protestors, but many may have no explicit interest in politics beyond the immediate struggle. One key to building a new left, I suggest, is to find arguments convincing to those who are concerned to preserve unpaid access to life-goods that what they are essentially defending is a socialist alternative to the dominant institutions and value system of capitalism.

Arguments that prove unconvincing are the arguments typical of vanguard parties of old: if you want real reform, you have to become a revolutionary. We have already noted that vast cultural changes in the Global North have made the sort of hierarchical structures typical of vanguard parties objects of suspicion and/or derision. It is time, therefore, for a new set of arguments that starts from where people are willing to struggle and aims to work with the existing logic of struggle to help it evolve into new forms of democratic mass movement capable of contesting for power, not through armed violence, but a variety of formal and informal democratic means—new party formations that can win elections, new local movements that can build and fund alternative institutions, reclamation of unused spaces for life-productive projects and goals, occupations, struggles to control the boards of public institutions, and any/many other practices yet to be invented.

Alan Sears states the organizational problem clearly: “the challenge for anti-capitalist organizing in the age of austerity is to seek models that locate it as an element within a broader process of building the infrastructure of dissent rather than the decisive moment.”[19] Preservative struggles might be the space in which to find this location. As I have argued above, they will likely continue to erupt in the face of austerity-driven attacks on the principle of democracy and public institutions. They are rooted in a life-value system that is at odds with the money-value system that governs allocative and distributive decisions in capitalism. In the next section I want to deepen the political defence of the value of preservative struggles by focussing attention on the “life-capital” they draw upon, try to preserve, and further develop.


Life-capital and preservative struggles

History is not only, as Marx argued, the history of class struggle, and it is not only the history of ruptures between one form of society and another. These struggles and these ruptures must play out against an underlying continuity of natural life-support systems upon which all human beings, regardless of class position or concrete identity, depend. Human life is not simply a function of evolution, respiration, reproduction, and metabolism. As Chris Hedges reminds us, life must be consciously cared for and preserved if it is to survive and develop. Care for life has both private and public dimensions. Capitalism, Hedges rightly charges, attacks the public dimension of caring for life which earlier forms of civilization put at the centre of their social orders. Hence Hedges concludes that “only a pre-modern ethic can save us as we enter an era of economic uncertainty and embrace the catastrophe of climate change … there will have to be a recovery of reverence for the sacred, the bedrock of pre-modern society, so we can see each other and the earth not as objects to exploit, but as living beings to be preserved and protected.”[20] Hedges is correct to see the money-value system of global capitalism as destructive of life, but his prescription for change—the recovery of a pre-modern ethic—misses the real challenge of the present, which is to find a way to value life and life-support systems without the need to resort to the myths of the sacred that too many people will find anachronistic and unconvincing.

The real basis of reverence for life does not lie in pre-modern mythologies, but in an underlying life-value ground that crosses historical eras and underlies all forms of life.[21] The underlying life-value ground takes different forms of expression, and can often be conceived in partial and contradictory ways. Most often this problem manifests itself as contradictory forms of universality—a ruling group’s system–interest in the exploitation of subaltern groups is projected as in the actual life-interest of those groups. Nevertheless, these contradictory expressions must not blind critics to the actual, concrete universality of a life-ground of value: people must access that which they need to survive, think, and act and those resources from which those needs are satisfied is the universal foundation of value everywhere, and at all times. The life-ground is concretely universalised when human labour—physical, intellectual, and artistic—is utilised to produce the material and symbolic goods human life actually requires if it is to develop and flourish.

While individual items of this labour—a loaf of bread, a sweater, a university class—are used up or come to a conclusion—the general production of these life goods goes on, accumulates knowledge that can be passed on, conserves resources for a sustainable future, and seeks protection from the ruling institutions (not classes) of society. That which this labour produces is what McMurtry has recently named “life-capital.” In contrast to money-capital, which accumulates through the exploitation of labour and natural resources at unsustainable rates of use, life-capital accumulates through conscious decisions to ensure the on-going, open-ended production and availability of all that good and meaningful human life requires. As McMurtry explains,

Collective life capital does not exist in public or expert meaning. Any common life interest or agency at all is excluded unless it promotes profits. The implications are fatal but unseen. Collective provision of the universal human life necessities that have evolved by long social organization and human evolution are blinkered out of the ruling value mechanism. It sees only mechanical ‘growth’ by commodity sales and profits. Everything that makes a society civilised or liveable is blinkered out – common water and sewage systems for all, free movement pathways and life spaces without cost to use, public libraries with unpriced books and films, non-profit healthcare and disease-prevention by public institutions, public income security from disemployment, old age and disability, life-protective laws including sufficient minimum wages and environmental regulations, primary to higher education without multiplying debts, and family housing, food and means of life assistance for children without parental money.[22]

The problem with capitalism is not that its ethic is “modern” in contrast to “pre-modern,” “profane” in contrast to sacred, but that its ethic is life-destructive.


The good life for human beings does not conform to some cosmically pre-determined pattern, as pre-modern, organic cultures tended to believe. That is not to say that where those cultures still exist they should be dismissed as oppressive and violently disrupted and forced to conform to modern norms of individuality. On the contrary, as Hedges rightly notes, there is much to learn about caring and solidarity from traditional cultures. At the same time, giving free scope to the exercise of individuals’ minds in the determination of their life-vocation is an advance for human freedom. But it is an advance only to the extent that the capacity for reflection and choice is supported by life-requirement satisfying institutions—the life-ground across cultures that takes the form of kinship solidarity in traditional societies and public institutions in modern societies, to the extent that there is any recognition of life-value within them. The individual is not an atomic self-maximising desire machine but rather a socially self-conscious member of natural fields of life-support and social fields of life-development. Ensuring the former is sustainable and the latter life-requirement satisfying is the fundamental material basis of freedom worth having, and ensuring that each life is free in this sense—that each chooses the capacities they will develop to create meaning in their own life and add life-capital to the common store—is the deepest ethical foundation of a socialist movement worth participating in.

Simply exchanging one ruling class for another without transforming the value foundation of collective life and the vocations of individual life will lead to the same problems being repeated. To that extent Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen are correct to argue that “the old concept of revolution, … the mostly sudden, violent overthrow of state power and of social relations,” have been failures, and that the “changes required … can be started by every woman and every man here and now. But they do need a different perspective, a different vision.”[23] The different vision must take us beyond the exploitative, alienating, oppressive, and life-destructive practices of capitalism and imperialism, but not, as some might still imagine, in one fell swoop.

The old model of revolution saw the sorts of preservative struggles I am defending here as either obstacles to decisive revolutionary action or doomed to failure as capitalist crisis regularly wiped out the gains of earlier class struggles. But this argument misses the crucial point spectacularly. If people are willing to fight on the ground of preservation, then they can (as the Spanish example cited above shows) protect past gains. And if, through political education, people learn that what they are protecting is not this or that particular institution, but a concrete instantiation of a life-value system radically at odds with the capitalist money-value system, then those struggles—if not revolutionary—are elements of a long-term revolution in the moral and material foundations of human society. Those struggles themselves are forms of non-alienated labour—creative human intellectual-creative practice in the service of life-valuable ends—that revolutionaries have typically seen as possible only in a socialist future.

Demonstrating that the values in the name of which revolutions have historically been (unsuccessfully) undertaken are already imperfectly expressed and realized in public institutions, in the principle of democracy, and in the non-alienated labour of political struggle, is far better proof than any abstract theoretical argument that another world is possible, for actuality is the best proof of possibility. To conclude, I want to suggest that preservative struggles are the mediation between successful class struggles of the past and the political confidence necessary to demand the re-appropriation of life-resources currently controlled by the ruling class that a new left will require if it is to emerge and consolidate itself as a real democratic force for change.


[Graphic: Stephanie McMillan]

Preservative struggles and the future

In a recent article examining the latest challenges faced by the European revolutionary left, Panagiotis Sotiris argues against the sufficiency of what I have called here ‘preservative struggles.’ “A contemporary version of the transition program,” he argues

cannot be reduced to simple calls for redistribution and defence of public services. It has to be a more profound search for a different road for societies, including a different social and economic paradigm, based upon new forms of democratic public ownership, self-management, new networks of distribution, and different social priorities. It is not going to be an ‘easy road.’ It would require a struggling society actually changing values, priorities, narratives. It would also require a new ethics of collective participation and responsibility, of struggle and commitment to change.[24]

Sotiris might be correct in the abstract to point to the need for the formulation of systematic alternatives to capitalism in terms of a transitional program, but what he fails to see is that there is no audience for such abstract formulations, and no evidence that anyone on the far left has the stature and credibility to help build an audience. What is to be done in this case has to conform to the contours of the political spaces in which people have proven themselves willing to fight—to preserve public goods and protect the democratic principle. Pushing the struggle forward into more decisive challenges to capitalist class structure and other forms of unjust power and deprivation that dominate the lives of oppressed groups involves, as a first step, not writing a transition program no one is likely to read, but uncovering, in constructive dialogue with those already present in struggle, the alternative value system that actually underlies preservative struggles—the life-value ground that is the true basis of Sotiris’ “ethics of collective participation and responsibility.”

It is also the basis which, once recognised, allows the socialist left to learn from the past without being hostage to it. As Sears argues, “the anti-capitalist left needs to avoid nostalgia, being haunted by the ghost of class struggle past as if work, life, and politics had not substantially changed. At the same time, this left must avoid amnesia, being seduced by the ghost of class struggle future to the point of forgetting or erasing the legacy of past mobilizations.”[25]

What is the legacy of past mobilizations? Re-approrpiation of universally required life-resources, institutionalization of life-grounded principles of distribution, life-coherent limits on the exploitation of natural environments, and the realization across various institutions of the democratic principle. It goes without saying that this legacy is mixed up with failure, with successful capitalist resistance, with ossified forms of bureaucratic management, and with lingering scars of racism, sexism, and homophobia marring the surface achievements.


However, none of these problems and limitations can be overcome by the formulation of theoretically coherent transitional programs that resonate with few beyond the authors and their supporters. The goal of such programs is sound—the fundamental transformation of capitalist society into a democratic, socialist, life-economy whose governing value is the freeing of human intelligence, creativity, and the capacity for mutualistic interaction and relationship from service to the life-destructive production of money-value. Yet, the last forty-five years of struggle, from the last wave of system-wide uprisings in the Global North to the present seems to teach the lesson that the language, the modes of theorizing, the forms of organization, and the temporal structure of revolution have changed. The left must learn to move gradually and over the long term, or risk complete stasis, followed by even further regression, and possible disappearance altogether in favour of completely de-centralized, ‘horizontalist’ movements that have not proven capable of successfully challenging power in the centres of global capitalism.

The attempt to re-ground movements for a systematic alternative to global capitalism in life-value foundations is not to forsake the heritage of the revolutionary left. It is to preserve the essential value that always underlay its critique of capitalism and its counter-vision but what was often not understood or foregrounded by revolutionaries, fixated as they tended to be on the question of class power and not on value systems. That value was, as Marx himself put it, non-alienated labour understood as “life-engendering life,” activity which creates the conditions in which other people can not only survive, but freely develop their capacities in life-engendering ways.[26] Does the labour of nurses, doctors, educators, sanitation workers, home builders, artists, mothers, fathers, and farmers engender life? Of course it does. What should this fact tell us: that that which makes human life good is not awaiting us in a socialist future that has to be built from the razed ground of capitalism. Good human lives are lives that are meaningful, and meaningful lives are full of activities and relationships in which we feel valued by others because we produce and relate to them in ways that are life-valuable to them.


What is the main threat to this goodness? Money-capital, the labour and commodity markets that produce it, that subordinate people’s life-requirements to the system-need to always make more of it, and the appropriating class always struggling to control as much of it as possible. The deep opposition is between the value of life as expressed in good human relationships and vocations and the institutions and principles that protect and enable them, and the value of money, a non-living system need that gains power by separating people from the resources that they need to survive, develop, and flourish as socially self-conscious creative individuals. If the problem is the usurpation of the life-ground by money, then the solution must involve: a) preserving that degree of life time and space that has not yet been colonized by money-value driven markets, and b) re-appropriation, steadily, over time, as objective and subjective political conditions permit, life-support systems from their destructive subordination to those markets. The point at which the project is complete is clear—the struggle is over once all universally required life-resources are under democratic control and utilised in sustainable, life-coherent ways.[27] The time frame over which the project unfolds must remain uncertain.

This conclusion will be attacked as conservative and reactionary by those who remain haunted, as Sears noted, by the ghost of class struggle past. Some, like Moufawad- Paul, believe that “revolutionary science” and armed class struggle is the only road to success (even though he cannot point to any successes, and admits that recent and existing struggles that he cites as examples, Sendero Luminoso in Peru and the Maoist takeover of Nepal, have been failures).[28] In the Global North, any attempt to replicate these movements or adapt their tactics would be doomed, not only because of the strength of the state, but because such tactics have no historical roots in the cultures they seek to transform, and must remain Church-basement curiosities in consequence. We either transform our societies through democratic, militant but peaceful movements, or there will be no movement. The trend-line in the Global North is clear: people are not motivated by the revolutionary rhetoric that emerged in the period of industrial capitalism.

As I noted in Part One, Marx and Engels never stood apart from where working people chose to stand and fight. Today it is clear where people are choosing to stand and fight—to protect the principle of democracy (against its institutionalised sham of practice) and the principle of life-requirement satisfaction embodied (imperfectly) in public institutions. They are willing to stand up to protect spaces not yet reduced to objects of exploitation of capitalist money-value, and express their need for meaningful, life-serving work. In other words, they are willing to oppose themselves to what they see are the life-destructive effects of capitalism, but they do not see that this opposition requires donning a red star. So the left must choose between a political practice that is preservative, gradual, but revolutionary in terms of the values that underlie it (i.e., the real substance of socialism as a progressive alternative to capitalism) or the symbols of a past generation of revolutionaries—the idealism of revolutionary hope ungrounded from any historical materialist assessment of the real state of class struggle.


End notes:

[1] John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, (London: Pluto Press), 2005.

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 1975, p.67.

[3] Ibid., p. 99.

[4] Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, (London: Quartet), 1973, p. 64.

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 1987, p. 44.

[6] Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens, Capitalist Development and Democracy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1992, p.8.

[7] August H. Nimtz Jr., Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough, (Albany: SUNY Press), 200, p. 225.

[8] John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, eds., State and Capital: A Marxist Debate. (London: Edward Arnold), 1978, p.30.

[9] Joshua Moufawad-Paul, The Communist Necessity, (Montreal: Kersplebedeb Publishing), 2014, pp. 124-5.

[10] David Beetham, Democracy and Human Rights, (London: Polity Press), 1999, pp. 4-5.

[11] Marta Harnecker, “New paths require a New Culture on the Left,” The Bullet No. 1026, August 26th, 2014. (Accessed, September 20th, 2014).

[12] See, for example, T.H. Marshall, Sociology at the Crossroads and Other Essays, (London: Heinemann), 1964.

[13] As the best mainstream economists will acknowledge. See for example Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press), 2014, p. 500.

[14] For a complete discussion of the needs-based social morality that underlies socialism, see Jeff Noonan, Democratic Society and Human Needs, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2006.


[15] John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights: Life Value, the Civil Commons and Social Justice,” Studies in Social Justice Volume 5, Issue 1, 2011, p. 35.

[16] Thanks to Josephine Watson who, drawing on her work as a critic of existing pubic health care systems in Canada, pointed out to me, in private conversation, the limitations of existing public institutions and the need to develop struggles for better forms of public provision.

[17] Esther Vivas, “Spain: Popular Resistance Delivers Results,” The Bullet, No. 934, February 7th, 2014. [Accessed, October 2nd, 2014].

[18] Matthew Brett and Rushdia Mehreen, “Just the Beginning: Beyond the Québec Student Strike,” The Bullet, No. 711, October 10, 2012, (Accessed, September 4th, 2014).

[19] Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future, (Halifax: Fernwood Books), 2014, p. 100.

[20] Chris Hedges, “The Power of Imagination,” Truthdig. (Accessed, August 9th, 2014).

[21] For a complete discussion of the life-ground, see John McMurtry, Value Wars, (Toronto: Garamond), 1998.

[22] John McMurtry, “Winning the War of the World,” Keynote Lecture, Zeitgeist Conference March 15th, 2014, University of Toronto, p.10.

[23] Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies, The Subsistence Perspective, (London: Zed Books), 1999, p. 22.

[24] Panagiotis Sotiris, “How Can We Change the World, If We Can’t Change Ourselves? The Challenges Facing the Anti-Capitalist Left in Europe,” The Bullet, No. 1056, November 16th, 2014. (Accessed, Nov. 16th, 2014).

[25] Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future, p. 113.

[26] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, (New York: International Publishers), 1975, p. 276.

[27] On the principle of life-coherence that underlies this claim, see John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights,” p. 14.

[28] Moufawad-Paul, The Communist Necessity, p. 147.


[Thank you indeed Jeff for this piece and your continued support. On another note, Dec. 4th is the third anniversary of Philosophers for Change and we give full thanks to all contributors for their support and commitment. And thank you to all readers for your interest.]

The writer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012. More of his work can be found at his website:

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