Darko Suvin 2nd version 2-2-’15 11pp., 5,930 w.
–For Stan Robinson, in poor return–
Howbeit doubtless, Master More (to speak truly as my mind gives me) wheresoever possessions be private, where money bears all the stroke [has all the influence], it is hard and almost impossible that there the weal public may justly be governed, and prosperously flourish. Unless you think thus: that justice is there executed, where all things come into the hands of evil men; or that prosperity there flourishes, where all is divided among a few; …and the residue live miserably, wretchedly, and beggarly.
Thomas More, Utopia Book I, orig. 1516
Le choix que je suis [the choice that is me]
Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Être et le néant, 1943
What happened around and to me in the last 20 years or so propelled me towards two quasi-disciplinary perspectives, epistemological and political. I adopt the definition of epistemology as the theory of cognition (where psychology should meet philosophy) dealing with the possibilities and limits of human knowledge, the analysis of conceptual and other cognitive systems – including metaphors and figurations – and in particular the critique of language and other sign-systems, pioneered by the historical semantics of Raymond Williams and the work of modern semioticians. As to politics, I am comfortable with the Hellenic approach to it as “affairs of the community,” but in today’s global dynamics I would update this by insights into the class structure of people’s life together by a few masters such as Marx, Brecht, Benjamin, Bloch, and Jameson, from whom I took whatever I could and left aside what I could not.
Max Weber said that history teaches us the true meaning of what we have willed. And history is constituted by each of us but then also by all of us, and furthermore by forces institutionalized and solidified by some people or classes of people among us which operate in ways both very evident and very opaque. What is evident is their results: bombings, murders, hunger, unhappiness, the exponentially rising moral and material pollution. History permeates and constitutes us, it is the atheist equivalent of gods and metamorphosis of Destiny, it is a teacher of life and a delusive siren, past and present in feedback eating at future, a promise and a threat. It is not to be circumvented. But if its results at some point become unbearable, one stops and opposes, saying “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” There the effort to comprehend, as at least a first step towards doing something, inscribes itself. So: where are we? And how are we to find a way out?
- We Are within Catastrophic Capitalism
The present deep and unresolved economic crisis has only brought to the surface some permanent trends of capitalism, largely occulted in the foregoing decades. I shall suggest what I see as the mortal sins of capitalism.
1.1. The Capitalist Societal Formation Makes for Mass Collective Death
This mode of production and way of life is always centrally shaped by the irreconcilable conflict between the capitalist urge for profits and the working people’s need for a humanly decent life. The urge was somewhat curbed by the fear of revolt after the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression, which led to a modest but real “security floor” conceded to the middle and working classes, largely at the expense of the global “South” and of the natural environment. With the waning of any such fears, as of the mid-1970s capitalist corporations engaged in a large-scale offensive to depress wages per unit of production and boost profits from huge to monstrous. Using the slogans of free trade and globalization, the rich organized bundles of radical interventions by major States and the roof organizations of international capitalism to make themselves vastly richer, while multiplying the poor in their nations, eviscerating the middle class prosperity based on stable employment, and upping the income gap between rich and poor countries from 10:1 to 90:1. A large class of chronically poor was created, politically neutralized by creating fear of even poorer immigrants. The asset bubbles bursting venomously from 2008 on are the consequence of this class warfare from above (see Buffett in Stein, Farrell): masses of people in the North had not only to work much more and exhaust their savings but also to borrow against their homes and other investments – the total 2008 debt in the US has been estimated at $48 trillion. (Murphy, Turner, Bourdieu et al., Suvin “Immigration,” Magnus)
Facing the few thousand billionaires, possibly nearly 3,000 million struggle today to survive, failing fast, while more than half of them live in the most abject poverty, more or less quickly dying of hunger and attendant diseases (Pogge); the hundred million dead and several hundred million other casualties of warfare in the 20th Century seem puny in comparison (though their terror and suffering is not). It has been calculated that a 1% increase in US unemployment correlates with 37,000 deaths (650 of which homicides) and an increase of 4,000 inmates of mental hospitals, but the hidden psychic toll is surely greater. Economic “growth” benefits only the richest, at the expense of everybody else, especially the poor and the powerless in this generation and future ones. (Ayres, Rogers, Barnet and Cavanagh)
The purpose of capitalist economy, profit, has led to mass dying and unhappiness. For billions of people it means shorter and more painful lives, for everybody except maybe the upper 2-5% in the world disabling stress, gnawing want, and often utter despair (Hinkelammert). Technosciences could have finally made this planet habitable; when dominated and shaped by profit, they provide enormous quantities of shoddy commodities without regard to quality or duration of life. Upon this systematic and long-duration exploitation by capitalist power, aggravating factors are being added: the effect of the debt bubbles, the recent sharp increase of prices for foodstuffs in the world – the list could go on. In my work I have dealt mainly with migration and war, but I shall here speak only to the latter.
1.2. Capitalism Needs War: I define war as a coherent sequence of conflicts, involving physical combats between large organized groups of people that include the armed forces of at least one state, with the aim of political and economic control over a given territory. Other aims may be securing advantages for coming conflicts (e.g. dominion over air, sea or oil resources), the destruction of commodities and people, and evading inner class tension. The ratio of military to civilian casualties in wars has during the 20th Century “progressed” from 8:1 to 1:8 (eight civilians killed for each combatant), and the fighters have diversified from regular armies into paramilitary groups, police forces, mercenaries, local warlords, and purely criminal gangs. The mass casualties have been mainly people marginal to “White” patriarchal capitalism: the poor, the uppity “middle” States, the “coloured,” women. (Kaldor, Mesnard, S. George)
War is more than a Hobbesian metaphor for bourgeois human relationships. It is securely based in antagonistic competition, the “essential locomotive force” of bourgeois economy and “generally the mode in which capital secures the victory of its mode of production” (Marx, Grundrisse). Continuous warfare has never ceased under capitalism. Capitalism came about in plunder wars, war financing set up its modern bureaucracy and central national banks, and there is no evidence it could climb out of economic depressions without huge military spending, a war mega-dividend. The political fall-out is the spread of military rule that subordinates the civil society to its barbarity even in times of official peace – as seen in spades today. (P. Anderson, Amin, Pannekoek, Virilio)
Weapons commodities are since World War 2 not only the source of greatest extra-profit but a system-pillar of capitalism. The yearly money value of the international armament trade oscillated in the last 30 years, according to the available faulty statistics, between US$20 and over 30 billion, and today it is more. The capitalist market systematically favours armaments commodities because of their uniquely high value-added price, their specially rapid rate of obsolescence and turnover, the monopoly or semi-monopoly position of their manufacturers, and the large-scale and secure financing of military research, production and massive cost overruns – all taken from public taxation of the middle classes. By the time of the First Gulf War, world spending for military purposes was nearly a trillion US$ annually or between 2 and 2.5 billion dollars daily, more than half of it attributable to the USA; and today it is way past this. This most profitable part of global trade is the strongest factor of both international violence and of colonization of life-worlds and eco-systems by commodity economy. The tens of millions of dead in the two World Wars brought about tens of trillions of profitable investments in the huge reconstructions of destroyed homes and industries and ongoing rearmament: a million dollars or more per dead body. No capitalism without increasingly destructive weapons and wars which might still destroy the world: the marvellous technoscientific progress means that one nuclear submarine can destroy the peoples of an entire continent, yet eight new US nuclear submarines have been made since the fall of the USSR. One quarter of the public monies which are expended on weapons commodities would eradicate poverty, homelessness, and illiteracy, as well as pay for the cleanup of all our major environmental pollution… (Baran-Sweezy, Kolko, Luxemburg, Marx Kapital, McMurtry, Suvin “Capitalism,” the Tofflers)
1.3. Some Other Capitalist Blights
There are further pressing threats, which I shall group as somatics and ecology, while recognizing that this neglects important areas, for one example the “knowledge economy”.
Somatics: I would call that a cluster of problems centring upon humanity’s vulnerable personal and collective bodies.Today, people have had their bodies (time, movement, faculties) literally stolen from them, by what Ursula Le Guin nicely called the “propertarians” and their turbocapitalist pursuit of profit (in lieu of life, liberty, and happiness) The feminist and gay movements have broached some problems (sex/gender orientation, birth/abortion, care/caress). A full discussion of both drugging and prostitution is still to be done, for like Marx’s relation of worker to exploited production each of these involves “the whole of human servitude” (“Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts”). Probably all I would want to speak about, from war and other overt violence to hunger and alienation, these mega-lesions of personal integrity, could be included here.
Ecology: When our environment is poisoned, we die – of cancer, lung diseases, heart overload, and a thousand other preventable ills. It is being poisoned by capitalist industry and squandering, which has by now plundered the carbohydrate fossil fuels to proximate extinction, caused global warming (with consequences that might include tens of millions of “climate refugees” from low-lying areas such as Bangladesh and trillions in expenses to refurbish the world’s ports), and on and on. Mammalian life on this planet itself is now at risk: as Wells and Sartre foresaw, crabs and ants — and, no doubt, cockroaches — may inherit the Earth.
The nonsensical capitalist dogma of infinite growth, modelled on personal enrichment, collides with the elementary fact that any physical system of a finite Earth must itself also eventually become non-growing. There can and must be sustainable development in the sense of qualitative improvement but without quantitative growth beyond the point where the ecosystem can regenerate. (Daly-Cobb, Georgescu-Roegen, Greider) Production can only be optimized by raising the productivity of its scarcest element – today, natural resources. This is possible to achieve only if the real social costs of using air, water, soil, and labour are figured in (Kapp), while unproductive activities extraneous to use-values – most marketing and PR, useless innovations, artificial obsolescence, unceasing turnover of fashion trends – are rigorously taxed. Crucially, the total consumption of energy must be strongly, if reasonably, curbed. This means fighting both population growth in the South and per capita consumption in the richer countries and classes of the North. The only fair and efficient way to curb population growth is, of course, making the poor richer – and emancipating women.
Since a given amount of low entropy can be used by us only once, the economic process is entropic. Thus the importance of purpose, what something is done for, becomes overwhelming. Aristotle’s final cause and the old Roman query cui bono? (in whose interest?) are to be rehabilitated as against scientism’s narrow concentration on the efficient cause, how to manipulate matter. The economic process always generates irrevocable waste or pollution and forecloses some future options – as fuel after it has been burned. Since, however, labour and knowledge in the economic process allow life and all of its possibilities, we must become careful stewards, on constant lookout for minimizing entropy (Suvin “Introductory”). “The only possible freedom is that… the associated producers rationally regulate their metabolism with nature by spending the minimum of forces and in a way most conformable to human nature.” (Kapital III)
1.4. In sum: The ills of capitalism were for the last 40 years mainly hidden in slums of the North and the far-off South of the world. True, poets and thinkers whom existence had brought into contact with the exploited masses have always warned us, in the words of Aimé Césaire, that this is a decaying civilization which cannot cope either with the metropolitan or with the colonial dispossessed and exploited (the proletariat). These ills and dangers are now growing all-pervasive: nobody – not the middle class, already reduced to utter dependency, not the youth, reduced to precarious begging for crumbs, not even middle management and the great majority of scientists – will be spared. Capitalism has greatly furthered the destruction of all qualities, the capillary barbarization and alienation of all areas of daily life, including science and the arts; and quantitatively, a direct and indirect reduction of life-span or outright killing of millions through immiseration and wars (and attendant evitable illnesses). On the horizon are further dirty wars, with unchecked use of uranium and phosphorus weapons, possibly nuclear ones too, and a world war against China is not excluded. Quite certainly, an ecological collapse is a matter of a few decades, its symptoms are already present. These ills are not only horrendous, worse than anything even degenerate pseudo-communist loci brought about, but also systemic: they flow out of the central and all-consuming urge of capitalism for vampiric maximization of profit and cannot be reformed.
- A Radical Break Is Necessary : Marx and Beyond
2.1. Deconstruct and Reconstruct Karlchen
In my hypothesis we have to reread Marx. He held that “Truth includes not only the result but also the way…. [T]he true inquiry is the unfolded truth, whose scattered members are gathered up in the result.” (“Prussian Censorship”) Fruition encompasses also the – always provisional – fruits. Thus, his most useful insights today may be divided into propositions and methods.
I take it that some of Marx’s fundamental propositions, often doubted in the Welfare State interval of the metropolitan North but today vindicated, are:
–that human societies are divided into classes based on a relationship towards and in production of life and goods, of which the two antagonistic poles are those who buy and exploit labour power (capitalists) and those who sell it (let us call them again proletarians, instead of confining this term to industrial workers); and that the “absolute general law of capitalist accumulation [is]: accumulation of wealth is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality” (Kapital);
–that the unceasing alienation of creative power in capitalism subjects proletarians to impoverishment. In the last generation or so the world proletariat has almost doubled, working under conditions of ever grosser exploitation and increasingly of political oppression (Harvey), so that Marx’s thesis of the absolute immiseration of the proletariat as compared to 500 or 200 years ago has turned out to be correct for 90% or more of the working people in the world; and there is no doubt of the huge relative immiseration in comparison to the dominant classes and nations.
–that this immiseration, and the attendant hollowing out of all qualitative social functions and values, means that for all its technological advances capitalism as a social formation leads to a radical historical change, beneficent (as Marx mainly believed) or maleficent, leading to civilizational collapse.
Of methods, I shall single out: the radical critique and the social shaping of all understanding. Marx’s stance of critique indicates the limits of a practice (Balibar), it is the equivalent in epistemology to Epicure’s systematic deviation of atoms from universal straight paths. Therefore it is also a radical and permanent labour of reassessment, of self-critique. What I call “social shaping” means that practical relationships between active agents enable and shape all understanding, refusing the division between looking subject and looked‑at object. If there is a human “essence”, it consists of a full set of people’s social relationships. Thus no theory or method can be properly understood without understanding the practice of social groups to which it, in however roundabout ways, corresponds.
In sum: As opposed to production of exchange-values for profit, a vampiric dispossession of labour and its vitality, the production of use-values is a beneficent metamorphosis of life into more life. Humanized production or creativity replaces death with life: the central Marxian argument is as “simple” as this.
What then remains of Marx? Many things: the notion of social relations and modes of production; the notion of classes; the notion of unquenchable contradiction based on capital’s expropriation of labour; the notion of the necessity of a radical break between human relationships in class society and those in a new society rid of irreconcilably antagonistic classes, necessary for the naked survival of our species & planet. Centrally: the realization that the figure of Destiny is in capitalism Political Economy. Fortune is swallowed into the Stock-market, Necessity rides on the profit‑bringing and profit‑enforcing bombers and missiles. Hell is the sweatshops of China and Montreal, the cubicles of solitary rooms.
2.2. The Commons and Communism
However, it has been clear for almost half a century to everybody truly on the Left (excluding its main political parties) that we need to graft upon Marx new branches after the failure of ”State socialism.” Marx himself was unable to emerge fully into his own novelty, leaving us to recognize where it was that he was going. Further, much of importance has changed since Marx‘s insights. I cannot provide anything like a full list, but to begin with: there are no guarantees that this break will happen; there is no sanctified history – much less nature or epistemology – in which a Saviour (e.g. the proletariat) will appear to do the above. All depends on historical contingencies and the will-cum-intelligence to use given power relations as leverage. The negative experiences of degeneration after Lenin’s, Tito’s or Mao’s revolutions, as well as their initial huge achievements, shall be present in my proposals. I also accept the positive side of “western” Marxism, its disjunction of long-term theory from politics legitimating a State.
We have now to focus on humanity’s “commons”. They are, first and foremost, the right to survive by minimizing unnecessary lesion of our bodies, unnecessary rise of entropy and destruction of our life-world, and unnecessary barriers to free displacement and learning on this globe. Now capitalism jettisons humanity in all its senses: civilized relations, interests of people, even their bodies. Our immiseration is not simply economical, it seamlessly extends from wars through hunger and evitable illnesses to political disempowerment in relation to power and metaphysical disempowerment in relation to the universe. Thus, our answers have to be a defence of commons against enclosures, always a source of pauperization. They could reassign meaning to “communism” as radical humanism, on condition that communism return to its political roots as radically self-managing democracy. Communism is what keeps the commons for the people.
When Lenin resuscitated the term of Marx and Thomas More as name for his party amid the most murderous First World War, he did so as a gesture of mental hygiene, to wash off the dirt accumulated on the once useful name of a social democracy that had abetted and aided that war. Many glories were associated with his reborn term during the struggle against war, exploitation, and especially against fascism. Yet also horrors: the ossifications of a hierarchic Party in power which didn’t know how to interact with a polycentric civil society, the blood and cruelty of Stalinism, and finally the betrayal of a rising new class of exploiters. As of somewhere in the 1950s, communism ceased to be admissible to polite society for the “western” Left, that much preferred the unclear term of socialism – which anyway led to fewer reprisals. I know because I participated in that. But after the 1990s there is no Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or its dwarfish satellites, to differentiate oneself from, and the socialist politicians are indistinguishable from the anti-socialist ones. And our plight is as bad as in the First World War. Re-enter the spectre of communism (Badiou).
How can we begin making sense of the term Communism? First of all, by unpacking it. The chthonic roots of communism are, no doubt, in the cry of suffering and of indignation that accompanies class society as its dark twin, in the deepest desires for the reversal and subversion of such an “inverted world” of injustice. In that sense it is as immortal as that society; when repressed, it flows as a subterranean Karst river. However, the plant itself begins to appear and be analyzable only when the cry is organized. Articulated communism can be a locus, an orientation for a movement, and a horizon. Each of these somehow implies and needs the other two: a consubstantial trinity, each of whose members may yet be approached and used independently for some purposes.
Communism as horizon is the future Earthly Paradise of a classless society, a society where oppositions will not be dealt with antagonistically, through murder and hunger: not by pistol but by pencil, as Brecht says in the nearest approximation to it he allowed himself to pen, the Prologue to the Caucasian Chalk Circle. As all horizons, it is orienting, often inspiring, and always unattainable, for it moves with the viewer and pursuer oriented toward it. As long as there is such a pursuer, the horizon cannot be extinguished.
Communism as locus is any real society proposing to be largely or even asymptotically utopian or non-antagonistic (harmonious, as the Chinese “Communist” Party hypocrites today say) – that is, radically reducing exploitation and ignorance, developing equality of rights and opportunities or justice for all. It could be, as all classical socialists and communists believed, a first absolutely necessary step towards a disalienated life of people in a community. However, this holds IF (and only if) it, a/ was not stifled by poverty and aggression, and b/ did not pretend to be the oxymoron of a finally reached horizon, an illusion that also necessarily grows into a religion and a lie. This locus existed in partial and always endangered ways in the first years after the Soviet, the Yugoslav, the Chinese, and probably the Vietnamese Revolutions; I believe it still exists, in most threatened and stifled ways, in Cuba. Yet as a rule it soon became a façade for class struggles between a new oligarchy developing inside the elite Party bureaucracy, and the working people: in the USSR after ca. 10 years, Yugoslavia and China ca. 15 years. Since the imperfect attempts of Trotsky and Mao to “fire on the headquarters” failed, the communist locus was finally destroyed by a combination of outside capitalist pressure and inner hollowing out or corruption.
Today, we still might have (if we keep the faith) the orientation, a vector leading from our quite dystopian and catastrophic locus of capitalist barbarism towards the utopian horizon. Orientation means, etymologically, turning toward the Orient of the rising Sun, the source of light and warmth, indeed of all life. This orientation is today our minimum requirement, without which all talk of communism should cease. But for a proper collective orientation, that is, a movement with this orientation, we need a cultural revolution for the Einsteinian, cybernetic, electronic age. Anarchism, noble as it is in many ways in people like Kropotkin, and with which we should practice fraternal solidarity in its radical refusal of any oppression, will get us nowhere: as we have seen in these last dozen years from Seattle and Genova on.
This orientation means the self-preservation of humanity and its ecology, to be reached through radical self-determination on all levels, by means of peace and disalienated labour. To be or not to be, that is the question. But that depends on a fusion of communism and radical democracy.
Allow me then, reaching for the end, to minimally unpack this term too, to which almost universal lip-service is today paid. The crucial question seems to me how is democracy institutionalized, that is, permitted to operate. The genus democracy, “rule by the people,” has three main species: representative democracy, associational democracy, and direct democracy.
Representative democracy is the species favoured by the bourgeoisie – when it does not prefer absolutism or direct dictatorship – and therefore the most frequent one. In it, people are (or the people is) supposed to rule through representatives, typically elected within territorial districts. It allows alternative teams for and variants of capitalist exploitation of labour to spell each other without radical change, yet with some input from people on secondary but sometimes important modalities. The change of teams administering the State allows for some welcome relief in “kicking the rascals out.” However, when it allows for major private financing of electoral campaigns in a two-party system, capitalist interests will practically own the parliament.
Associational democracy is less present in the news but at least as important. In it various kinds of collective organizations – for ex. labour unions, co-operatives or business associations – directly engage in aspects of political decision-making: through involvement in government commissions, through various “corporatist” forms, through organizational representation on regulatory agencies, etc. But its contribution to democracy in the interest of (the) people depends on the internal democracy of the associations themselves.
In direct democracy, citizens are directly involved in the activities of political governing. One of its forms is a plebiscite or referendum, where citizens vote on various proposed laws or policies, and which has become a favourite tool for supplementing a failing representative or parliamentary democracy. But more important is significant popular empowerment when real decision-making authority and resources are given to popular councils of various sorts.
This last form is the revolutionary democratic idea of Councils, common or “organic” to all popular uprisings from time immemorial to the Soviets of Trotsky and Lenin – sadly emasculated after ca. 1921 – and on to Yugoslav self-management from 1941 on (where I met it), Hungary in 1956 or Argentina in the 1990s. Classically, it includes a binding mandate and the possibility of recall upon petition by a reasonable fraction of electors, thus diminishing considerably chances that the powerful and rich could corrupt Council members away from wishes of people.
To favour both associational and direct democracy as against a representative democracy that is the watchdog of capitalism – this is the first lesson that could be learned from the best tradition of the best moments of popular and democratic movements in the last 150 years. Self-management is even today our furthest horizon. And it should be built up internationally, to encompass planning from below in feedback with central decisions (including democratic control of large financial transactions), suggested in this little scheme:
|A/ Plan||B/ Market|
|1/ From Lower Classes Upward||COMMUNISM (Marxian)||EARLY CAPITALISM|
|2/ From Upper Classes Downward||WELFARE/WARFARE STATE||C19 CAPITALISM|
Who are prospective allies on the road to such a Council democracy? Potentially, all working people, plebeians or proletarians. But since they are largely brainwashed by material and moral misery, I would begin by asking first for allies in de-alienating them. Here too there could be many, it is a matter of understanding who they are and then building rainbows with them. Alas, science as an institution has been largely corrupted by Positivism, money, and hierarchical institutionalisation – though a precious few must be listened to. Out of my experience, I shall start by naming the arts of image and word, insofar as they are rooted in artisanal self-direction and therefore more difficult to corrupt. They are traditionally from bottom up, often open‑ended, often not only a merited pleasure and rest but also cognitive. I have written much on this and must ask the interested reader to look it up (in the books To Brecht, Lessons, Defined, Darko Suvin, and many essays, such as those on Brecht). But I shall briefly indicate the horizon by the example of narrative and poetry. They always imply a reader standing for a collective class audience, ideally his whole community (this is foregrounded in plays). In proportion to her creativity, the writer is one who doubts the reigning commonplace opinions, who swerves from them by infringing old usages and meanings and, implicitly or explicitly creating new ones. Poetic creation sutures conceptual thought to justification from recalled immediate sensual, bodily experiences and stances.
To give one pregnant example, Rimbaud was led to exasperation at having to reconcile his deep hatred of the bourgeoisie and existing society with the irrefragable fact of having to breathe and experience within it:
….industrialists, rulers, senates:
Die quick! Power, justice, history: down with you!
This is owed to us. Blood! Blood! Golden flame!
All to war, to vengeance, to terror…. Enough!
…I’m there, I’m still there. (“Qu’est-ce pour nous…,” 113; see Rancière 92-93)
The obverse of this dead end – between “enough” and “I’m still there” – is Thomas More’s great coinage of utopia: the radically different good place which is in our sensual experience not here, but must be understood as our indispensable orientation – today, on pain of extinction. What is not here, Ernst Bloch’s Yet Unknown, is almost always first adumbrated in fiction, most economically in verse. From many constituents of the good place, I shall here focus on freedom – Wordsworth’s “Dear Liberty” (Prelude l. 3) which translates the French revolutionary term of liberté chérie – that then enables security, creativity, order, and so on. The strategic insight here is that the method of great modern arts is freedom as possibility of things being otherwise.
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