Andrew Levine writes at Counterpunch:
Not long ago, in what now seems a different universe, it was still possible to talk about “hope” and “change” without irony. And only a couple of decades before that, those words meant more than just holding reaction at bay.
Back when there was a flourishing left, “hope” and “change” were about moving the world forward – making the actual approach a rationally defensible ideal. For more than an entire century, Marxists were preeminent among the forces of forward-looking hope and change.
They disagreed about many things, sometimes bitterly. But all Marxists believed that socialism was capitalism’s future. Along with others, they agreed that private ownership of society’s principal means of production would somehow someday give way to social or collective ownership.
Along with Marxism itself, this conviction has fallen on hard times. The reasons why range from the empirical to the ridiculous to the tragic.
On the empirical side, as capitalism demonstrated its resilience so often and in so many ways, it became impossible to deny that whatever its ultimate fate may be, predictions of its imminent demise were, to say the least, exaggerated. They have not been refuted, but for all practical purposes they might as well have been.
On the ridiculous side, “post-modern” relativists, paragons of murky thinking and obscurantist writing, somehow managed to get across the idea that “master narratives” like the Marxist one, accounts of history’s structure and direction, are chimeras at best; that they cannot possibly be true because, to paraphrase Hamlet, there is neither true nor false “but seeming makes it so.”
This is self-refuting gibberish that can hardly withstand criticism, and there is reason to think that the post-modern moment is already on the wane. Unfortunately, though, the harm is done.
In any case, the decisive factor was Communism’s tragic demise and the historic defeat of the revolutions undertaken in its name.
It is still an open question how “Marxist” Communists were, especially towards the end. But the identification was so widely accepted for so long that the demise of Communism all but inevitably led to the near extinction of Marxism itself.
More importantly, the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, China and elsewhere, seemed to undo a conviction all Marxists, and many others, shared: that, leaving aside temporary setbacks and barring environmental catastrophes or victorious counter-revolutions, epochal transformations, like the one from capitalism to socialism, are irreversible.
All Marxists were sure that so long as its path is not disrupted by exogenous factors, history moves only one way – forward.
Yet, by the end of the 1980s, history seemed to have retrogressed definitively for reasons that were endogenous to the socialist economic system and the political superstructure that superintended it.
Because events confounded expectations, and because the widespread understanding was that Marxism itself, not just Communism, had failed, the Marxist purchase on hope and change came to seem patently untenable. This perception took other socialist tendencies, even social democracy, down with it – diminishing, though not quite annihilating, all of them.
The idea that there is, as it were, no hope for hope is hardly incontrovertible, and it is also far from clear what Marxism’s future may be. What is clear is that, despite today’s conventional wisdom, there is plainly something right-headed in Marx’s core idea: that as technological capacities grow, capitalist property relations become increasingly dysfunctional and, indeed, irrational.
At lower levels of development, private property and market arrangements are useful and perhaps necessary for developing productive capacities. This is what nearly everyone who identified with the Marxist tradition has believed at least since the time of The Communist Manifesto (1848). In the Marxist “master narrative,” developing productive capacities to a point where socialism becomes materially possible was capitalism’s historical mission.
Marxists also believed that, as this mission is progressively discharged, capitalist property relations increasingly “fetter” development, just as earlier forms of property relations fettered development in the past.
When this happens, if agents capable of transforming property relations develop in the interstices of the old economic structure, as will normally be the case, the fetters will be “revolutionized” away; replaced by property relations optimally suited for further development.
Even in today’s political universe, where the word “hope” sticks in the craw and where even cosmetic changes seem all but unattainable (except to gullible liberals at election time), it is hard to deny that something like this has to be right; property relations and levels of development must be broadly compatible.
The idea that capitalist property relations could survive in a world where productive capacities are massively developed is therefore, to say the least, wildly implausible.
For some time now, in “developed” countries, it has been at least arguable that everyone’s needs, along with most actual (as opposed to possible) wants, could be satisfied without imposing significant costs on others, if resources were distributed differently and/or if ownership rights — rights to benefit from and control productive resources — were socialized.
But even if this speculation is too optimistic, it is inconceivable that, as development proceeds, private ownership would remain indispensable. It is very nearly as certain that its indefinite continuation would lead to disabling irrationalities that no political regime can indefinitely withstand.
Read more here.