Necessity of Social Control

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  • Book: István Mészáros. The Necessity of Social Control. Monthly Review Press,



"Mészáros is the author of magisterial works like Beyond Capital and Social Structures of Forms of Consciousness, but his work can seem daunting to those unacquainted with his thought. Here, for the first time, is a concise and accessible overview of Mészáros’s ideas, designed by the author himself and covering the broad scope of his work, from the shortcomings of bourgeois economics to the degeneration of the capital system to the transition to socialism." (


  1. The Necessity of Social Control
  2. Marxism Today
  3. Causality, Time and Forms of Mediation
  4. The Activation of Capital’s Absolute Limits
  5. The Meaning of Black Mondays (and Wednesdays)
  6. The Potentially Deadliest Phase of Imperialism
  7. The Challenge of Sustainable Development and the Culture of Substantive Equality
  8. Another World is Possible and Necessary
  9. Alternative to Parliamentarism
  10. Reflections on the New International
  11. Structural Crisis Needs Structural Change
  12. The Mountain We Must Conquer: Reflections on the State

Subsections of the chapter on the state:

  • Introduction
  • The End of Liberal–Democratic Politics
  • The “Withering Away” of the State?
  • The Wishful Limitations of State Power
  • The Assertion of Might-as-Right
  • Eternalizing Assumptions of Liberal State Theory
  • Hegel’s Unintended Swan-Song and the Nation State
  • Capital’s Social Metabolic Order and the Failing State


Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster:

"The centrality of the human-social relation to nature, and the fact that it is mediated by an alienated form of labor that generates the pollution inherent in social-environmental life under capital, is graphically illustrated in Meszaros’s Marx’s Theory of Alienation, winner of the 1971 Isaac Deutscher Prize. In his Deutscher Prize lecture of that same year, Meszaros presented his emergent understanding of “the structural crisis of capital” as well as a powerful ecological critique that anticipated (but on far more radical foundations) the Limits to Growth argument unveiled by the Club of Rome in 1972.13 He criticized the advocates of capitalist development for their shortsighted promotion of the US model of “high mass consumption,” pointing out that this approach was oblivious to natural limits, not to mention absurd given the inner dynamics of an economic system that generated wealth through the immiseration of most of humanity. He stressed that this pattern could not be replicated throughout the world without causing immense environmental degradation and exhausting “the ecological resources of our planet.”14

The ecological and social challenges that confront us are often minimized as the logic of capital goes unquestioned and various reforms are put forward (such as improving energy efficiency via market incentives) under the assumption that the system can be tamed to accommodate human needs and environmental concerns. Such positions fail to acknowledge that the structural determinations of capital will inevitably grind onwards, threatening to undermine the conditions of life, unless systematic change is pursued to eradicate the capital relation entirely. It is here that Meszaros presents a scathing critique of capital and its persistently destructive proclivities – all the while focusing on the necessity of a new social order.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has referred to Meszaros as the “Pathfinder of Socialism,” emphasizing the importance of Beyond Capital for proposing a theory of transition.15 While Meszaros’s work is firmly rooted in Marx’s critical method, it stands on its own as absolutely original and foundational. In Beyond Capital (as well as his other books), he establishes the basis for envisioning a future beyond the system of capital, a critique beyond Marx’s Capital, and a radical analysis for the twenty-first century. He conceives of the capital system as a “social metabolic order” that permeates all aspects of society and that activates “absolute limits,” making this the most dangerous period of human history. He highlights the failure of post-capitalist societies to eradicate capital in its totality. He illuminates the forces that are deepening the structural crisis of capital and the necessity of social control for a genuine socialist transition. He articulates how both an ecologically sustainable social order and substantive equality are essential for human development. Without both of these components the survival of the human species remains threatened – whether from world war or from ecological collapse.

Meszaros presents capital as a historically specific system of “social metabolic reproduction.” Environmental concerns are not an isolated issue. Instead they are intimately tied to the social metabolic order, which requires confronting the question of social control. The capital system, however, as Meszaros points out, is innately “uncontrollable.” As a social metabolic system characterized by competition and monopoly, it is driven constantly to accumulate capital, which concentrates social, economic, and political power. It imposes a particular form of rationality and interchange between human beings and nature, whereby all relationships are assessed in terms of “productive viability” to facilitate expansion of the system.16 The logic of capital is superimposed on everything, be it health care, education, manufacturing, or the environment. Exchange value becomes the universal measure, as capitalists attempt to maximize profit. Capital is incapable of “self sufficiency”; it must constantly be renewed, pushing outwards, revolutionizing its relations of production, devouring more labor to capture surplus value, freely appropriating nature and subsuming the world to the accumulation process.

Given the distorted accountancy of capital as a system, which sees exchange value but not use value, a “universal value-equation” dominates, “obliterating substantive incommensurability everywhere.” In other words, money serves as a universal medium of exchange, which extends commodity fetishism, erasing the social and natural processes – such as the time it takes for labor power to be reproduced or for trees to grow after being cut – whereby goods are produced for the market. Public wealth (the sum of use values, which includes natural wealth) is exploited and diminished for the sake of increasing private riches. Capital is predicated on constant growth, so it attempts to increase its turnover rate in order to accelerate accumulation. Given that exchange value is the exclusive focus, the social metabolic order of capital attempts to transcend whatever social or natural limits it confronts. As Meszaros puts it, “For the first time ever in history human beings have to confront a mode of social metabolic control which can and must constitute itself – in order to reach its fully developed form – as a global system, demolishing all obstacles that stand in the way,” regardless of “how devastating the consequences.”18 Its success is solely determined by the extent to which it can accumulate capital. Like Marx in the Grundrisse, Meszaros warns that capital recognizes barriers that can be surmounted but not boundaries in the sense of absolute limits. It therefore incorporates in its inner logic a tendency to overshoot all objective limits, including the conditions for life.19

Instead of the substantive equality necessary for universality in the social world, capitalism has produced inequality, unemployment, exploitation, human misery, war, and environmental degradation. The putative democracy offered to the world comes at the cost of disenfranchising the majority of the world’s population through alienating work environments, the ever-present threat of violence for participating in political opposition, and the undermining of subsistence production and the natural infrastructure.

Meszaros stresses that the reproduction of the capitalist system can only be secured through ever more destructive forms that further impoverish the world’s population. Increasingly, consumption and destruction are coupled within the social metabolic order of capital, as destructive forces and wastefulness, such as the military-industrial complex, are pushed to the forefront to sustain an economic system that cannot be integrated politically on the global plane. Global war, even at the expense of mutual destruction, remains a means to secure the dominant position within an international system of competition.20 Furthermore, the profit-driven system is incapable of effectively regulating the social metabolism between human society and nature, as capitalist production intensifies its demands on nature and the consequent ecological destruction – whose effects will outlast the transformation of the system.

In “The Necessity of Social Control,” Meszaros highlights the culminating and deepening crisis. He explains that humanity must overcome the fragmentation of society and find unity if it is to survive.

Here he focuses on the relation of ecological degradation to capital’s uncontrollable logic of waste and destruction:

- Another basic contradiction of the capitalist system of control is that it cannot separate “advance” from destruction, nor “progress” from waste – however catastrophic the results. The more it unlocks the powers of productivity, the more it must unleash the powers of destruction; and the more it extends the volume of production, the more it must bury everything under mountains of suffocating waste. The concept of economy is radically incompatible with the “economy” of capital production which, of necessity, adds insult to injury by first using up with rapacious wastefulness the limited resources of our planet, and then further aggravates the outcome by polluting and poisoning the human environment with its mass-produced waste and effluence. Ironically, though, again, the system breaks down at the point of its supreme power; for its maximum extension inevitably generates the vital need for restraint and conscious control with which capital production is structurally incompatible. Thus, the establishment of the new mode of social control is inseparable from the realization of the principles of a socialist economy which centre on a meaningful economy of productive activity: the pivotal point of a rich human fulfillment in a society emancipated from the alienated and reified institutions of control.

“The issue,” Meszaros makes clear, “is not whether or not we produce under some control, but under what kind of control; since our present state of affairs has been produced under the ‘iron-fisted control’ of capital which is envisaged, by our politicians, to remain the fundamental regulating force of our life also in the future.”22 Politics must be emancipated from the power of private capital, in order for people to gain social control over their productive lives – which includes the social metabolism with nature – and over human development. Social control is a necessary component of pursuing a transformation in the interchange with nature, vanquishing the reduction of this relationship to exchange value and alienation from nature. The dissemination of knowledge about ecosystems, the protection of the conditions of life, and the regulation of the interpenetration of nature and society are dependent on social control." (