Are vast, centralized corporations like Amazon and Walmart paving the road to socialism?

Capital continues to become concentrated in less and less places. Maybe this will, someday, make socialism more attainable and likely.

Christian Patterson
2020-02-18
Underground Mall

A signature feature of Marxist thought is that history goes in phases of economic development. Slave societies transitioned to feudal societies, which transitioned to capitalist societies. If you’ve read this blog before, you’ve heard this all a million times.

Feudalism transitioned to capitalism, facilitated by historical necessity. Capitalism is a more efficient form to distribute material – at least for most industries, excluding agriculture. Under feudalism, lords and vassals seized the fruits of the labor from the workers, and that was the primary function of economic distribution then.

A system that works like Feudalism becomes harder and harder to maintain, for several factors. For one, the means of production became more technologically advanced. Previously, peasants controlled their own means of production because they were simple tools. The vassals didn’t care about seizing plows, flails, and rakes, because those were easy to come by. Vassals owned the land which was much more valuable. Once you start making tractors, sprinkler systems, conveyor belts etc, the means of production themselves start becoming huge investments.

Another factor is that, as farming became more efficient, and there became an increasing amount of urban jobs, more and more people moved to cities. Cities are much harder to organize along feudal distribution lines. Feudalism functions best with agrarian societies. In the cities, it’s easier to organize the workers along the lines of wage labor.

By the time the Russian and Chinese revolutions happened, both of those societies were still, in many ways, feudal. From an orthodox Marxist view, Russia and China didn’t reach the material conditions necessary to transcend capitalism, they barely had the material conditions to transcend feudalism.

This type of historical contextualization is always lost when capitalist-sympathizers portray the USSR or communist China. They don’t acknowledge that the USSR went from a backwards, feudal hellhole to a worldwide superpower in, like, 30 years.

And while I must give the USSR credit where credits due, we can now look back and see, maybe Eastern Europe wasn’t materially, historically primed to institute socialism in the long run.

But this begs the question: how will we know when the time is right for a second socialist revolutionary phase in world history?

How will we know the material conditions of capitalism have reached the point where it becomes historically imperative that socialism is instituted?

Unfortunately, Marx doesn’t answer this question in any specific terms. And that’s probably for the best, because there’s no one road to a new economic system: the French transitioned to capitalism much differently than England, and the same is true for Germany, Italy, etc.

There could be an innumerable amount of ways that capitalism transitions to socialism. To speak esoterically, the stars could align in multiple different ways.

What we know is that Marx thought capitalism was inherently built upon contradictions, which is true. The most basic contradiction comes from the fact that the dominant class, the capitalist class, is motivated to obtain more profit. The working class, the proletariat, is motivated to obtain higher wages. Higher wages means lower profit and vice versa. Capitalism is loaded with contradictions like this, and pile further contradictory systems to reify this contradiction.

So the idea is, once the tension between these contradictions increase, there will be a break. The contradictions will not hold.

However, capitalism has more resilience and fail safes built in than one might assume. If you were to visualize a capitalist economy, it would look like little clusters that signify companies, connected by a bunch of webs.

The reason capitalism can “save” itself on the brink of collapse is that web will perpetually reproduce itself if part of the web breaks or is removed. Capitalism operates as a network of disparate elements, but the disparate elements buttress the other elements by webbing themselves together.

Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski wrote a great book called The People’s Republic of Walmart. In it, they argue that many of the largest capitalist institutions function externally capitalistically, competing with other companies in the market. But internally, these same companies operate in a non-market style way. They operate in a well-oiled, planned, distributive way.

In other words, companies like Amazon and WalMart, internally function similar to centralized, planned economy like the USSR’s, but operating under a capitalist framework.

Think back to the web metaphor I used earlier. Capitalism functions as a web of little nodes connected. The web signifies the market, and the nodes signify centralization within a company.

In People’s Republic of Walmart, Phillips and Rozworski argue that, even though we conceptualize capitalism as a web, if you pull out and look at it from a distance, the nodes are actually the core of the economy, and the web is loosely stringing them together.

If you took Amazon out of the economic web, there’s nothing, literally nothing, to replace it. There’s Walmart, Target, etc, but the gap that would put in the US and world economy would cause chaos. And it would take years for a different company to build up the infrastructure Amazon has.

So how does the first part, about the history of economic distribution, have to do with the second part, about the centralization and power of capital?

What the USSR and Communist China has shown us is, their governments weren’t capable of maintaining socialism, for whatever reason. China is still hanging in there, but both made major concessions to capital. But they were working with what they had at their point in history.

This leads me to the conclusion that history has yet to develop the material conditions that can facilitate a revolution to socialism that can withstand the creep of capitalist apparatuses.

But maybe we’re getting close.

The key to the Russian Revolution was modest and small: they seized railway stations, at a time when working class unrest was at an all-time high. Of course, that’s reductive, but controlling train stations was the first, material, revolutionary domino that enabled the rest to fall.

Now think back to the web and node image. Under early capitalist, Fordist, even late capitalist and neoliberal modes of capital, the webs of capitalism are highly capable of replacing nodes and repairing the web.

But now that these nodes continue to be concentrated – capital begins being concentrated into bigger and bigger piles in less and less places – the capitalist apparatus depends more and more on internal organization, and less on the external market forces.

The bigger the nodes get, the more they function internally like a centralized, distributive economy.

In other words, to summarize, maybe a company like Amazon is big enough that if it was seized by workers, that could be the domino to fall that most effectively moves us towards socialism.

I think if one of the largest, major companies in the US was suddenly controlled by a worker’s council, rather than a capitalist and bourgeoisie apparatus, this would do more to instigate a revolution than having an openly socialist president. And the more capital begins being concentrated into less and less hands, then the more likely one simple seizure could change the world.

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