The way in which these two practices contain each other is that it has always been possible to use the one against the other: to use racism-sexism to prevent universalism from moving too far in the direction of egalitarianism; to use universalism to prevent racism-sexism from moving too far in the direction of a caste system that would inhibit the work force mobility so necessary for the capitalist accumulation process.
An individual or a group of individuals might of course decide at any time that they would like to invest capital with the objective of acquiring still more capital. But, before a certain moment in historical time, it had never been easy for such individuals to do this successfully.
The second reason why we haven't observed the growing gap is that our historical and social science analyses have concentrated on what has been happening within the 'middle classes' - that is, to that ten to fifteen percent of the population of the world-economy who consumed more surplus than they themselves produced. Within this sector there really has been a relatively dramatic flattening of the curve between the very top (less than one percent of the total population) and the truly 'middle' segments, or cadres (the rest of the ten to fifteen percent).
Truth as a cultural ideal has functioned as an opiate, perhaps the only serious opiate of the modern world. Karl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses. Raymond Aron retorted that Marxist ideas were in turn the opiate of the intellectuals. There is perspicacity in both these polemical thrusts. But is perspicacity truth? I wish to suggest that perhaps truth has been the real opiate, of both the masses and the intellectuals.
What distinguishes the historical social system we are calling historical capitalism is that in this historical system capital came to be used (invested) in a very special way. It came to be used with the primary objective or intent of self-expansion. In this system, past accumulations were 'capital' only to the extend they were used to accumulate more of the same.
The first and probably most fundamental aspect of this crisis is that we are now close to the commodification of everything. That is, historical capitalism is in crisis precisely because, in pursuing the endless accumulation of capital, it is beginning to approximate that state of being Adam Smith asserted was 'natural' to man but which has never historically existed. The 'propensity [of humanity] to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another' has entered into domains and zones previously untouched, and the pressure to expand commodification is relatively unchecked.
The basic question that the 'new science' raises for our balance sheet is the issue of what scientific questions have not been asked for 500 years, which scientific risks have not been pursued. It raises the question of who has decided what scientific risks were worth taking, and what have been the consequences in terms of the power structures of the world.
This is a steady, ceaseless process, impossible to contain as long as the economy driven by the endless accumulation of capital. The system may prolong its life by slowing down some of the activities which are wearing it out, but death always looms somewhere on the horizon.
As a matter of law the states recognized no constraints on their legislative scope other than those that were self-imposed. Even where particular state constitutions paid ideological lip service to constraints deriving from religious or natural law doctrines, they reserved to some constitutionally-defined body or person the right to interpret these doctrines.
It seems to me the only pertinent question is: cui bono? It is clear that the size of the privileged strata as a percentage of the whole has grown significantly under historical capitalism. And for these people, the world they know is better on the whole than any their earlier counterparts knew.
So much were employers of wage-labor unenthusiastic about proletarianization that, in addition to fostering the gender age division of labor, they also encouraged, in their employment patters and through their influence in the political arena, recognition of defined ethnic groups, seeking to link them to specific allocated roles in the labor-force, with different levels of real remuneration for their work. Ethnicity created a cultural crust which consolidated the patterns of semi-proletarian household structures.
To be sure, the use of force by one party in a market transaction in order to improve his price was no invention of capitalism. Unequal exchange is an ancient practice. What was remarkable about capitalism as a historical system was the way in which this unequal exchange could be hidden; indeed, hidden so well that it is only after five hundred years of the operation of this mechanism that even the avowed opponents of the system have begun to unveil it systematically.
If we return to the two faces of individualism - individualism as the spur of energy, initiative, and imagination; and individualism as the limitless struggle of all against all - it can be seen how the two practices emerge from and limit the extend of the disequilibrating impact of the contradiction involved in the geocultural agenda.
It is not surprising that liberals believed in progress. The idea of progress justified the entire transition from feudalism to capitalism. It legitimated the breaking of the remaining opposition to the commodification of everything, and it tended to wipe away all the negatives of capitalism on the grounds that the benefits outweighed, by far, the harm.
To those critics who see capitalism as a system of inegalitarian, oppressive structures, its defenders have vaunted its ability to recognize and encourage what they call individual merit and asserted not only the desirability but also the inevitability of differential reward, of earned privilege, so to speak.
For the other end of the spectrum, the 50 to 85 percent of the world's population who are not the recipients of privilege, the world they know is almost certainly worse than any their earlier counterparts knew. It is likely they are worse off materially, despite the technological changes. In substantive as opposed to formal terms, they are more, not less, subject to arbitrary constraints, since the central mechanisms are more pervasive and more efficient. And they bear the brunt of the various kinds of psychic malaise, as well as of the destructiveness of civil wars.
Are there still other possibilities? Of course there are. What is important to recognize is that all three historical options are really there, and the choice will depend on our collective world behavior over the next fifty years. Whichever option is chosen, it will not be the end of history, but in a real sense its beginning. The human social world is still very young in cosmological time. In 2050 or 2100, when we look back at capitalist civilization, what will we think?
The mark of the modern world is the imagination of its profiteers and the counter-assertiveness of the oppressed. Exploitation and the refusal to accept exploitation as either inevitable or just constitute the continuing antinomy of the modern era, joined together in a dialectic which has far from reached its climax in the twentieth century.
It is, let me say, at the very least by no means self-evident that there is more liberty, equality, and fraternity in the world today than there was one thousand years ago. One might arguably suggest that the opposite is true. I seek to paint no idyll of the worlds before historical capitalism. They were worlds of little liberty, little equality, and little fraternity. The only question is whether historical capitalism represented progress in these regards, or regression.
We seem to be in the midst of a process of cascading bifurcations that may last some 50 more years. We can be sure some new historical order will emerge. We cannot be sure what that order will be. Concretely, we may symbolize the first bifurcation as the effect of the world revolution of 1968 which continued up to and including the so-called collapse of the communisms in 1989, the social bifurcation.
Wars between states and people seem to have existed under all historical systems for as long as we have some recorded evidence. War is quite clearly not a phenomenon particular to the modern world-system. On the other hand, once again the technological achievements of capitalist civilization serve as much ill as good. One bomb in Hiroshima killed more people than whole wars in pre-modern times. Alexander the Great in his whole sweep of the Middle East could not compare in destructiveness to the impact of the Gulf War on Iraq and Kuwait.
On the one hand, there has been a remarkable expansion of the total production and productivity of food production, and on the other hand an extraordinarily skewed distribution system, substituting medium-run threats for short-term threats for the majority of the world's population, particularly the 50 to 80 percent at the bottom.
But even in the absence of direct interference by those who had the power to interfere, the process was usually aborted by the non-availability of one of more elements of the process - the accumulated stock in a money form, the labor-power to be utilized by the producer, the network of distributors, the consumers who were purchasers. One or more elements were missing because, in previous historical social systems, one or more of these elements was not commodified or was insufficiently commodified.
One by one, these governments came undone, and were forced into IMF tutelage (and national illegitimacy) by the careening oil prices, the debt imbroglio, and falling terms of trade. The last of these governments to fall were the Communist regimes of eastern Europe, which have now gone the way of other Third World countries. The second in the cascade of bifurcations is thus symbolized by 1989.
What can be done? Well, the governments of the world can undertake what amounts to a vast clean-up campaign and a vast campaign of organic renewal. The problem is the cost of an effective operation, which is enormous, and thus must be paid by someone via some form of taxes.
Production for sale in a market in which the object is to realize the maximum profit is the essential feature of a capitalist world-economy. In such a system production is constantly expanded as long as further production is profitable, and men constantly innovate new ways of producing things that will expand the profit margin.
What is different in capitalist civilization has been two things. First, the process of meritocracy has been proclaimed as an official virtue instead of being merely a de facto reality. The culture has been different. And secondly, the percentage of the world's population for whom such ascent was possible has gone up. But even though it has grown up, meritocratic ascent remains very much the attribute of a minority.
Scientific culture created a framework within which individual mobility was possible without threatening hierarchical work-force allocation. On the contrary, meritocracy reinforced hierarchy. Finally, meritocracy as an operation and scientific culture as an ideology created veils that hindered perception of the underlying operations of historical capitalism.
Communism is Utopia, that is nowhere. It is the avatar of all our religious eschatologies: the coming of the Messiah, the second coming of Christ, nirvana. It is not a historical prospect, but a current mythology. Socialism, by contrast, is a realizable historical system which may one day be instituted in the world.