Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Back to the Future? the Collapse of Ancient Roman Civilisation and the Future of Capitalism

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Back to the Future? the Collapse of Ancient Roman Civilisation and the Future of Capitalism

Article excerpt

Introduction

Back to the future? The question most obviously asks whether we are about to return to a consideration of the future. Less obviously it can be interpreted as asking whether we are facing away from the future, physically and mentally, being fixated on the present and past. In other words, is it the case that, most of the time at least, we do not look towards and think about the future beyond the immediate short-term? The question is inspired by Benjamin's use of a Klee painting to depict the angel of history - eyes staring, mouth open, wings spread, face turned toward the past, seeing instead of a chain of events, 'one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet' (Benjamin, 1992, p. 249; see also Callinicos, 1987, p. 178-182; Freeman-Moir, 1995, p.17-21). Although this angel would like to 'awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed' he cannot because the storm blowing from paradise 'has got caught in his wings with such violence that [he] can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress' (Benjamin, 1992, p. 249). But what if, as Benjamin recognises, this metaphor is fatally flawed? What if the storm is not blowing us in a progressive direction towards a democratic, egalitarian, environmentally sustainable and socialist future, but rather towards a catastrophic decline of human civilisation and some kind of hellish dystopia?

Classical Marxists such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky shared the view that the fall of capitalism was inevitable, but their concrete experience as revolutionaries led them to reject the idea that the victory of the proletariat and collective creation of socialism was inevitable. Capitalist crises, interimperialist rivalries, and war created circumstances that could culminate in proletarian revolution and the creation of socialism, but it could also create circumstances culminating in the collapse of civilisation and historical retrogression to barbarism. The choice that confronted the international proletariat in the historical long-term was 'either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or the victory of socialism, that is, the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism, against its methods, against war' (Luxemburg, 1970a, p. 269). In other words, the previous course of human history, and the recurring crises of global capitalism, suggest that the future will either be much better, involving the collective creation of a qualitatively superior society that is more egalitarian, democratic, and environmentally sustainable than capitalist society, or it will be much worse, involving the catastrophic collapse of capitalist civilisation, demographic decline, and the onset of a new dark age that could last for several centuries. To put it bluntly, 'catastrophe and progress are two sides of capitalist history' and it is unclear which will ultimately prevail (Freeman-Moir, 1995, p. 19).

This means that historical materialism is, as Callinicos (1995, p. 163) aptly puts it, 'a theory of historical trajectories' which holds that 'each historical crisis has more than one possible outcome, and the general course of history does not follow a predetermined linear path. The actual, contingent outcome of progress may be catastrophe, "the common ruin of the contending classes''.' From this perspective, 'the suffering consequent on the development of the productive forces is not denied or explained away; at best it may be redeemed when revolution allows the victims of progress, or their proletarian descendants, to take control of these forces' (Callinicos, 1995, p. 163).

My central argument is that we must look at the past in order to discover why we cannot afford to keep walking backwards into the future. …

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