Dostoevsky starts off The Brothers Karamazov with a pretty baller quote from the New Testament:
“Except a seed go forth and die, it abideth alone. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.”
I think this means: real sacrifice can make a major difference.
It reminds me of a quote from the first pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit:
“The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and one might say that the former is refuted by the latter. Likewise, through the fruit, the blossom itself may be declared to be a false existence of the plant, since the fruit emerges as the blossom’s truth as it comes to replace the blossom itself. These forms are not only distinguished from each other, but, as incompatible with each other, they also supplant each other. However, at the same time their fluid nature makes them into moments of an organic unity in which they are not only not in conflict with each other, but rather, one is equally as necessary as the other, and it is this equal necessity which alone constitutes the life of the whole.”
You can connect Hegelian dialectics here to something pretty obvious — the abortion debate. Some people say the fetus is a person, some say it isn’t. But I think Hegel would say that it’s a person and not a person at the same time, and that this contradiction drives its evolution or its “becoming.”
Hegel isn’t just connected to abortion, of course, nor just to the realm of abstract ideas. You can apply dialectics to anything — especially the material world, at which point dialectics becomes dialectical materialism. Everything is connected, everything is changing, and these changes are driven by contradiction. To believe this means connecting seemingly insignificant and minor happenstances — stubbing your toe, for instance — to entire socioeconomic systems.
The central contradiction to capitalism, that the work is social but the profit is private, is driving massive change everywhere on Earth. Capitalism, which exploded out of Europe in the last few centuries, is not only threatening the existence of the human species (via climate change, coronavirus, nuclear war, what have you) —but also its own existence as well.
When everything that can possibly make money is making as much money as it all possibly can — when you think to yourself that there’s no point in starting a business, since “if it makes money, a million other people are already doing it” — when the biggest capitalists defend their profits with acquisitions, armies of expensive lawyers, imperialistic wars, martial law inside the imperial core, and inconceivably vast injections of imaginary money from the Federal Reserve (combining that with gambling with imaginary capital like futures, zombie corporations drowning in debt, “shorts,” etc.) — those are all obvious signs of systematic crisis. The problem seems Malthusian.
But human civilization has actually been here before. Europe in the 14th century was experiencing all kinds of problems following centuries of relative peace, prosperity, and population growth. While our socioeconomic system is based on exchange, feudal Europe’s was based on self-sufficient agriculture. Today, almost nobody is a farmer; in 14th century Europe, almost everyone was. Today in the Global North, almost everyone lives in cities, where we exchange our labor for commodities using money; in 14th century Europe, almost everyone lived in scattered communities in the countryside, farming mostly for themselves, turning over their surplus to the lords, paying in kind or even by doing free (corvée) labor for the lord. Money was rarely used at the time; today it is almost exclusively used. Only feudal lords and merchants bought and sold commodities; today the global 99% must exchange its labor for money in order to survive.
During the Crisis of the 14th Century, all the land that could possibly be farmed was being farmed. Only the firstborn son was entitled to inherit the family land, leaving the other sons in the family destitute, for generation upon generation. Famines were almost constant; this had not been the case in prior centuries. Primitive banks and lenders in northern Europe — the Bardi and Peruzzi — were bankrupt. The Medieval Warm Period was over, to be replaced by the Little Ice Age, meaning years and years of near constant snow and rain. Struggling to find more land to keep the system going, Europeans were also engaging in imperialist wars of aggression in Spain (the Reconquest), Eastern Europe (the drang nach oosen or “drive to the east”), and the Holy Land (the Crusades).
But resistance was everywhere. On the ideological front, philosophers were beginning to question the church, which was itself divided (with popes in Rome and Avignon at the same time) and so corrupt that it had become a joke. At the same time, no prominent Christian I am aware of ever questioned Christianity itself — they simply believed that the cardinals and popes were “doing it wrong.” Reformers like John Wyclif in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia translated the Bible into vernacular languages for the first time, thereby prefiguring the Reformation which was to come 150 years later. Though these late medieval and early modern reformers appear to only be concerned with religious ideas, economics is at the heart of their ideology; they simply lacked the language to express their desire to end the financial exploitation of the Catholic church and the feudal socioeconomic order.
But resistance also took place in the material world. Serfs were fighting in countless ways the tax increases arbitrarily levied upon them by the feudal lords, who wasted their wealth on conspicuous consumption and petty wars of aggression (rather than reinvesting it in profitable enterprise, as good capitalists would have done). Peasant revolts could paralyze entire regions for years. And a new class — the burghers or bourgeoisie — was growing in power and influence in Europe’s major cities (particularly in London and the Netherlands) by implementing wage labor. Their power itself was linked to landless peasants (thrown off the commons by the enclosures on the part of the first profit-driven landlords) who drifted to the cities in search of sustenance, thus becoming the first members of the proletariat. Finally, in 1346, in the Battle of Crécy, English longbowmen showed that organization, professionalization, and superior technology could not just defeat but massacre huge numbers of noble and honorable French knights — the most aggressive defenders of feudalism. Early capitalism was firing shot after shot across the bow of the dying order.
Then, the next year, in 1347, because of Europe’s growing trade connections with India and China — itself facilitated by the Pax Mongolica — the plague hit. In a handful of years, around a third of Europe’s population was gone.
One of the many striking things about the plague was the inability of anyone at the time to understand its cause. We now know that the plague is caused by bacteria in fleas which prey on rats, but people at the time believed that it came from the air, the wind, or the arbitrary judgement of God. In contemporary descriptions of the plague, it almost seems to be a kind of roving spirit with its own wants and needs, leaping from town to town, city to city, region to region, like the Angel which took the lives of Egypt’s firstborn sons in the time of Moses. Not a single contemporary had any idea that it was caused by rats and fleas — since these would have been commonplace at the time. The cause was staring them all in the face, but they lacked the eyes to see it.
Over a century of war followed. Landlords continued the process of enclosing the commons. Women who resisted were labeled witches and burned at the stake on an inconceivable scale. The Age of (so-called) Discovery began less than a century after the 1347 plague, which itself repeatedly revisited Europe for centuries afterward.
All of this means that in a sense, the crisis of feudalism is actually still with us, but just in a more intense form. The seed has gone forth and died and brought much fruit; the bud and the blossom are equally necessary for one another and part of an organic unity. It can actually sometimes be difficult to disentangle feudalism from capitalism. Liberals, in defending capitalism, will occasionally argue that it is no different from feudalism; that humans have always been this awful regardless of material circumstances. Both capitalism and feudalism are separate ideas, but likewise depend upon one another, and are both predicated upon exploitation of a vast majority on the part of a tiny minority in the name of extracting a surplus. (Capitalists sometimes still deploy feudalism to further their own interests — in the rural Philippines, for instance, it’s used to disempower the peasantry and forces them to move abroad in order to send taxable remittances home.)
The difference between feudalism and capitalism is primarily of organization, development, the intensity of exploitation, the ideology of the elite, and the means by which they enforce that ideology. In feudal Europe, they mostly did so by force (although the church was also heavily involved); in the modern world, almost all ideological reinforcement takes place via cultural hegemony, meaning the domination of the media, schools, the workplace, and virtually all daily (and increasingly even nightly) life by the ruling class. Capitalists aim to accumulate capital to the exclusion of all else; for feudal lords, accumulation was secondary to spiritual and romantic pursuits — the construction of churches, winning the hearts of ladies, jousting, hunting, partying, etc. A lord would never sell you his castle, no matter how much money you offered; a capitalist would sell you his own mother if you offered a high enough price. The common business owner and the common feudal lord would despise one another, if they could confront each other today; caricatures of these two types are present in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s depiction of the Klingons and the Ferengi, who do indeed loathe each other.
During the Crisis of the 14th Century, some of the first capitalists — who were either late feudal landlords or burghers or both — found it increasingly difficult, for many of the reasons enumerated above, to continue extracting a surplus from the feudal 99%. Rather than extracting that surplus in kind or via corvée labor, they turned to wage labor in Europe and to slavery in the Americas. This enabled them to kick the can down the road. Rather than having to pay the piper — to answer for hoarding all the wealth of the world at the expense of the 99% — they were able to expand to new lands, build new markets, take advantage of stunning technological advances, and amass a hitherto inconceivable amount of wealth and power for themselves.
But now it seems that the crisis may finally be catching up with them. There are no more Americas to colonize. Peasants and workers across the planet have workers’ states to turn to for aid. China — nominally a socialist power — is rising, while Rojava and Boliva and Cuba and Vietnam and Venezuela and the Sandinistas and communists in the Philippines and India are all resisting capitalist power, as widespread and nearly constant riots consume formally placid nations in the Global North like the USA, France, and the UK. Climate change shows that the planet itself is tiring of capitalism, while coronavirus has utterly paralyzed the most rightwing countries on Earth — the USA, India, Brazil — for over a year. And just as 14th century Europeans were unable to see that rats and fleas were making them sick, so likewise do most people in the Global North seem incapable of understanding that rainforest clearance, industrial animal farming, mass air travel, and the profit motive itself are all the true roots of coronavirus. Our death and infection rate here in the USA is just as awful as it was last summer, but liberals seem incapable of understanding that masks, social distancing, and vaccines are only part of a successful approach to defeating the virus: without a public health care system, without enforced lockdowns and quarantines, and without providing necessities to all with no questions asked (as is the policy in Vietnam and China), the virus cannot be stopped, and horrifying vaccine-resistant mutations are inevitable.
Though the loss of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc was a major setback for the world’s workers, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and capitalism took centuries to move from the enclosures of England to the first stock market in Amsterdam to the near-global dominance it enjoys today. Capitalism came close to destroying itself entirely in the Great Depression, but was saved by fascism (much more successfully applied in the United States than in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany). It encountered the stagflation crisis in the 1970s, but was rescued by neoliberalism. Today, once again, its many minor crises have developed into a massive catastrophic multi-pronged crisis which is utterly bewildering to the world’s elites and their puppets in the intelligentsia. The Big Question now is — can capitalism save itself once more? Or will the ongoing Great Recession in the Global North — with its sleepwalking zombie economies — be its long and final death rattle, as it finally collapses into worker democracy, the blossom bursting forth from the bud?