All That is Solid (220/303)

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

The quote above represents a key passage of the first section of the Manifesto, one that emphasizes the fluidity of capitalist modernity (i.e. “bourgeois society”). This is what “all that is solid melts into air” means: with the destruction of the static hierarchy characterizing the feudal order, a dynamic and unstable world was created. While under feudalism those who were born peasants died peasants, with the rise of capitalism (and new political institutions) social relations undergo a profound change. To be sure, the nature of this change is contradictory. On one hand it makes room for what Napoleon once called “careers open to all talent”– i.e. an increase in social mobility. On the other hand, all of the stability of the vanquished feudal society vanish. “Precarity” is the order of the day.

Modernity will be the reign of the New. Because capitalism demands them novelty, innovation, and change will come to characterize social life to a degree never before experienced. The social experience of time itself will transform. The rhythms of life and work will accelerate.

Yet there are two darker aspects of this economic system. Even as capitalism expands productive capacity enormously and remakes the world with powerful new technologies it is prone to crisis. Perhaps even more disturbing in its earliest phases the capitalist mode of production requires bonded labor and colonies, setting millions upon millions of people into motion, often unwillingly, and drawing resources from half-way around the world.

Constantly burgeoning, its powers dwarfing those of all prior civilizations, the new order buckles sporadically. Recessions and depressions follow periods of unprecedented economic growth. Fortunes are made and lost. Whole sectors of the economy become redundant. Industries are plagued by over-production. In order to escape these crises the bourgeoisie must remake the economy, locate new markets, intensify the exploitation of old ones, adjust wages, and develop even newer technologies.

The certainties of the past no longer hold. Tradition itself is under attack. The institutions which governed social life become outmoded. All that is solid melts into air.