3. Decadence in capitalism

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But how are we to go about defining decadence in capitalist society? Analogous symptoms do not allow us to diagnose the same illness for different individuals, unless the latter are of the same species or the same kind. Given the character of decadence in past societies, can we consider capitalism in the same light? Do the old symptoms and causes retain their validity when applied to capitalism?

On the level of material production, the subordination of the social system to the development of the productive forces is a law which remains valid under capitalism. As long as humanity lives under the 'reign of necessity', as long as it has not reached the stage of abundance which will permit it to eliminate problems of material subsistence or at least relegate them to a secondary place - a stage from which humanity is still a long way away - the first function of an economic system remains the development of the productive forces. What is more, in generalising the competitive market economy, capitalism (this system in which capital that does not develop is condemned to disappear or to pass into other hands), has made this necessity of development still more powerful.

It is thus certain that for capitalism, just as for feudalism and slavery, an insufficient development of the productive forces represents, in historical terms, a deadly impasse.

But if this condition came about could it, or must it, represent a phase of decadence as in other societies?

Capitalism remains first of all a society divided into classes; secondly, a society where men continue to live under the domination of their economic needs, and thus submit unconsciously to their social structures. We find in capitalism certain essential traits of past societies, and in particular those which make the appearance of a phase of decadence an inevitability. These characteristics can be summarised as follows: the lagging of collective consciousness behind reality, the dependence of the ruling class's power on the efficacity of productive relations, the weight and inertia of customs and habits deriving from the old society, the impossibility of attaining a new social form before the old one has proven its obsolescence, and before a new historical project has begun to germinate within society. Like the societies which precede it, capitalism thus can and must undergo a phase of decadence.

However, alongside these traits which are common to all societies based on exploitation, capitalism also has characteristics which radically distinguish it from slavery and feudalism. To begin with, the system which constitutes the negation and the supercession of capitalism is not itself a system of exploitation. Thus, the decadence of capitalism contains new specifics in relation to the other systems.

Socialism is the first system in history which does not grow up within the society which it is to supersede. Feudal economic relations were born within the Late Roman Empire in the great estates which become more or less independent from the central power; capitalism was born within the burghs and then the towns of feudal society. In both cases, the future ruling class progressively substituted itself for the former.

By contrast, the proletariat has no possibility of constructing a new society within capitalism. As an exploited class, the direct source of the ruling class's profit, it cannot push forward its own historical project without totally destroying the power of that class. In contrast with the past, the coexistence of the two systems is excluded. Since capitalism is the first system to have integrated the whole of world production into one circuit which incorporates the whole planet, socialism in one country is impossible. This means that the decadence of capitalism must be a decadence far clearer, far more violent than ever before.

Feudalism was able to survive in France even if under a monarchical form, until the eighteenth century, thanks to the prosperity of the bourgeoisie which allowed the partial satisfaction of economic needs which feudalism itself was no longer able to meet. This is not the case for capitalism which hurtles to its grave on its own. Its gravedigger is not a potentially useful competitor with which it can accommodate itself, however provisionally, but a mortal enemy engendered by centuries of oppression and with whom all compromise is impossible. All the consequences of capitalist decadence fall on society with a violence and directness that cannot be moderated. Thus, on the one hand this decadence has a more intense character than ever before, and on the other hand, it is much shorter: the greater evidence of its effects imply a much more abrupt period of reaction.

The proletariat

In contrast with other revolutionary classes in history the proletariat does not appear during the decadent phase of the previous system of production, but right at its beginning. When capitalist society reached its zenith, the proletariat was already fully developed as an economic class; when the system began to enter the period of its decline, its gravedigger was already at the height of its numerical strength. The end of capitalism will not be attained, as in the past, when the architect of its destruction is born and develops in the dung heap of the old world in decline.

Two other factors help to shorten the decadence of capitalism:

a - the lesser importance of ideological relations. Under the system of wage labour and capital there is no religious, political or personal relation to mediate the relations of exploitation (contrary to those which were produced under slavery and serfdom). A much more direct link between social life and economic life proper emerges. Therefore, a more rapid reaction occurs on the social level to the economic difficulties which characterise the period of decadence.

b - Finally and above all, living for competition alone (on a national and international scale), capitalism cannot exist without developing.

It is true that no society in the past could continue without ensuring in one way or another a certain development of the productive forces. But in the past this development was never truly an intrinsic feature of the existing relations of production. The profits and privileges of the members of the ruling classes did not directly depend on their capacity to ensure their own economic expansion. The profit which they extracted from the labour of serfs or slaves was dedicated to their personal consumption and to luxury. It is only incidentally that it served to develop production. When these systems began to come up against their economic contradictions, there had to be a slowing down of growth and even stagnation because otherwise the ruling classes would immediately have been weakened and poverty-stricken, and the economic life of society would have been paralysed.

Under capitalism, if the growing accumulation of capital cannot be ensured, the whole process of extracting profit and then the whole production process itself, finds itself blocked. This is one of the essential traits of the capitalist system.

Now the principal characteristic of the decadence of a system is the growing impossibility for society to develop economically without abandoning the existing relations of production. Therefore it is difficult to conceive of a long period of decadence for capitalism and it is clear that the decadence of a society is an historical phenomenon, the causes and principal manifestations of which can be fixed precisely. The decadent period of capitalist society reveals an analogous nature to the decadent stages of preceding societies, but for various reasons, capitalist decadence seems to have to be shorter and more intense than the period of decadence was for other systems. Having said this, it is necessary now to confront this analysis with the reality of capitalism.

The theory of decadence and  contemporary capitalism

It could be said that we should have begun this study at this point. For a variety of reasons, nothing could be less true. The concept of the decadence of capitalism could only really have been of interest to revolutionaries confronted with the beginning of the period startlingly landmarked by the outbreak of World War I. Indeed, the split between the 2nd and 3rd Internationals during World War I took place in the context of a debate concerning the end of the ascendant period of capitalism and its entry into the period of 'war and revolution'. However, since then throughout more than fifty years of triumphant counter-revolution, and precisely because of the counter-revolution, revolutionary theory has lacked the breadth and depth of insight which would have been necessary to understand the transformations world reality has undergone.

Today, at the end of this ideological tunnel, it is unfortunately too often the case that the different currents claiming to be part of the revolutionary proletarian movement are still divided between those who have an excessive relish for 'new implications' or a 'new reality' (marxism has been superseded) and those who maintain a religious attachment to old texts and ideas in reaction to the former tendency (cf. the 'Bordigists' of the International Communist Party with their cry of 'nothing new under the sun'; their 'invariability' of the revolutionary programme since 1848). Between these two poles but falling simultaneously into both currents, we find the Trotskyists sticking to the last letter of Trotsky's 'Transitional Programme' yet ready to follow every new faddish theory, (self-management, neo-capitalism, third worldism), as soon as it becomes clear that such theories can help win a few recruits. The result of this is that the concept of 'decadence', of which Marx only gave a rough outline, still remains an idea too hazy and surrounded by confusion for us to have avoided going over its definition at the outset of this study.

The superstructure

It may seem illogical to begin this 'confrontation with reality' by analysing the superstructure of capitalism (ideology, politics, social conflict), and not the economy, the first being in the final analysis a mere product of the latter. However, we will use this method in order to make our argument easier to follow. Indeed, while it is in general easy to recognise in modern capitalism the superstructural manifestations of a decadent epoch (every modern moralist feels obliged to talk from time to time of the 'crisis of civilisation', etc.), we rarely find a clear and lucid analysis of the underlying economic process. Consequently, the majority of explanations of our 'crisis of civilisation' do not go beyond idealist empiricism. By examining initially the 'superstructure', not only do we make the study simpler to understand by beginning with the most simple aspects; but, in order to solve the economic problem later we can enlarge an important argument here, thereby achieving the coherence vital to any scientific enquiry.

The ideological sphere

We cannot enter fully into a study of the links between the dominant ideology and the life of capitalism in the last decades here. We can simply establish the extent of decomposition of the dominant ideology.

It is hard to specify what constitutes capitalist ideology as such: firstly, because it has absorbed elements of the ideological heritage common to class societies for thousands of years. Secondly, under such a blindly mechanical system, the dependence of social relations vis-a-vis the means of production is such that ideology as a means of preserving these relations has not played such a central role as in the past, even if it remains extremely important. One can nevertheless, affirm that 'the work ethic', 'the glorification of social progress', 'confidence in and respect for institutions' or 'faith in the capitalist future' constitute the foundations of the dominant ideology. All these values have been violently eroded over the last fifty years as a result of the atrocities of capitalist life. It is more and more difficult to sing the praises and to glorify the values of a society which in fifty years has seen 100 million people killed as a result of wars whose uselessness has become more and more obvious; a society which shows itself to be incapable of allowing two men out of three to obtain the most elementary means of subsistence; a society in which the two greatest economic powers spend on arms alone the equivalent of the income of one third of humanity; a society in which in the most privileged areas of the planet, the price of the right not to die of hunger is a monstrous dehumanisation of daily life.

The recourse to gigantic works of ideology by the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, etc...(phenomena which can be compared with the cults of divinisation of the emperors of decadent Rome and of the monarchs of late feudalism); the crisis of the Church; the difficulties of capitalism in abandoning methods of teaching which have for a long time been ill-adapted to its technical needs; as well as the crisis of the university, the main centre of the ruling ideology (cf. 'Le mouvement etudiant' and 'Critique' in Revolution Internationale, old Series, no 3), all these are acute expressions of the first symptom of decadence: the decomposition of ideology.

This decomposition has over the last twelve years or more appeared in a spectacular fashion among youth. The present generation's disgust of the modern world, which results in various attempts to take flight in a kind of 'marginalism' or attitude of confrontation, has been dealt with thousands of times by the newspapers and media. This 'leap forward' has actually come rather late, (more than fifty years after 1914 and the revolutionary waves of 1917-23). And one reason for this is the constant time-lag between ideological forms and the evolution of socio-economic reality. It was necessary to await the arrival of a generation which has not lived through World War 2 or suffered the violent blows of the counter-revolution which followed the 1917-23 revolutionary wave. Also, this late development can be explained by the economic stability which the system enjoyed as a result of reconstruction after World War 2. The first signs of weakness were not felt until a few years ago, in particular among the young, the first social layer to be affected by problems of employment.

Philosophically, there is less and less room for ideas of making society more 'harmonious'. Intellectuals today either see themselves as revolutionaries or are disillusioned, pessimistic and indifferent. Obscurantism and mysticism have again become fashionable (cf. Revolution Internationale, old Series, no 6).

In the sphere of art, decadence has manifested itself in a particularly violent way, and it would take a long time to discuss the evolution of art faced with a world that has become an aberration. As in other periods of decadence, art, if it does not stagnate in an eternal repetition of past forms, seeks to take up a stance against the existing order, or is very often the expression of a cry of horror.

When the world of ideas undergoes such upheavals it is the sign that something is breaking down at the level of material production.

The social sphere

With the decline of capitalism, conflicts increase between factions of the ruling class. Although the exacerbation of competition between capitals within one nation is at times mitigated by concentration (which may reach the point at which the state takes control of the whole productive process), competition at the level of the world market has increased to a point of insanity:

  1914-18:  20 million dead   1939-45:  50 million dead.

Since World War 2, through the medium of national liberation wars, the war between different capitalist blocs has never stopped and has brought with it millions more deaths, sacrifices on the altar of world domination. Today the capitalists are unable to extract enough profit to be able to divide up the world on a co-operative basis. The decadence of previous societies led to the devastation of whole countries; today, the whole planet is threatened with destruction.

Development of struggles of the exploited class

In the nineteenth century the struggles of the working class generally were of a reformist nature, that is to say they sought to ameliorate the condition of the class within the system (the Paris Commune, in that it was dramatically revolutionary, was more an 'accident of history' than a sign of the times). During the course of these struggles, the proletariat acted essentially, and almost solely, as an exploited class. With the outbreak of World War I these conflicts underwent a radical transformation both in their extent and their content. The movement which developed was no longer confined to a few factories or to one town. The whole of Europe was set alight by the most powerful proletarian movement of all time. Its content was no longer the reform of the system but its radical overthrow. The Russian fraction of the world proletariat managed to destroy the apparatus of the bourgeois state and momentarily seize power for itself.

After three years of the war, capitalism had clearly proven its historic inability to continue to assure the progress of humanity. Simultaneously the proletariat transformed its struggle from one of an exploited class into a revolutionary struggle which for the first time in history, and on a world scale, represented the candidature of an exploited class for the leadership of humanity. Since that time, everything has had to change on the 'social' terrain of capitalism.

The revolutionary wave of 1917-23 was defeated and the Russian proletariat, isolated and alone, was strangled by the hands of some of its own leaders. But, despite the weight of the defeat and the confusion sown for decades by the Soviet experience, the 'proletarian menace', far from having disappeared remains a fact of life in capitalist society. Asserting itself in sporadic, isolated, proletarian uprisings, and through its day to day struggles, the working class represents a formidable presence throughout the last fifty years of history: all the states of the world have indeed become organs in defence of the workers, in other words, organs for ensuring the strict containment of the revolutionary class. The old forms of working class organisation, the unions, have become an essential element integrated within the state apparatus to assist in the containment of the revolutionary class.

And if the 'prosperity' which followed World War 2 has led some people to believe that 'the class struggle is over', the new elan of workers' struggles following 1968 throughout the world has forcefully reminded everyone of the continued existence of the revolutionary working class and  announced that mankind is on the brink of the most important revolutionary wave in history.

The political sphere

The strengthening of the state is one of the most striking manifestations of decadence in past societies. It is also one of the principal characteristics of capitalism since 1914. State capitalism, which is actually the most senile form of the system, but which the capitalists and bureaucrats the world over take pleasure in calling 'socialism', is simply the ultimate expression of this tendency.

The state played an important role in the early days of industrial capitalism at the time of the primitive accumulation of capital. This has led some pundits to assert that modern state capitalism, particularly in the underdeveloped countries, is the sign of a new development of world capitalism. However, the least amount of historical understanding enables one to see why the statism of our time has nothing in common with the timely interventions of the bourgeois state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In this century, statism is no longer a subsidiary aspect of the system but a continuous and irreversible process. Its basis is no longer rooted in the struggle against the hangovers of pre-capitalist, feudal relations but in capitalism's struggle against its own inner contradictions. The direct causes of the strengthening of the state in our epoch express all the difficulties which result from the definite inability of capitalist relations of production to adapt to the development of the productive forces. In effect, the state has attained the measure of its power today because it is the only capitalist institution capable of taking charge of companies in deficit; realising the economic centralisation and the 'rationalisation' which the intensification of international competition on a saturated market imposes on each nation; prosecution of wars and the preparation for wars, which has become the prime necessity for the survival of each nation; assuring the cohesion of social mechanisms which are constantly threatening to fall apart.

In short, the task for the state has become one of holding together by force (of which it has a monopoly) an edifice which of itself tends more and more towards collapse.

As to state capitalism in the underdeveloped countries, there is no possibility that this is a less senile form of the system than in the advanced countries. These countries are not 'young capitalisms', but the weakest sectors of world capital. Thus they feel the internal contradictions of world capitalism with greater violence, and thus they must more quickly and more energetically assume the statified form of the system.

The case of the Soviet Union does not contradict the decadent character of statified capitalism. Here, as elsewhere, we have the exhaustion of the limits imposed by capitalism, and the draconian measures which this calls forth on the part of each nation if it is to survive on the world market. This forms the basis for the strengthening of the state. Here, as elsewhere, the weakness or non-existence of private capital have been the principal accelerators of the process. The fact that these two principal factors are, in the case of Russia, the result of a situation engendered by the failure of a proletarian revolution does not in any way modify the essentials of the problem. These particularities only explain one thing: why the Soviet Union was the first country to concretise what has become a general tendency throughout the world.

Decomposition of ideology, of the dominant values; discord of social relations at all levels; antagonisms that reach the level of periodic paroxysms as much within the ruling class as between the ruling class and the exploited class; reinforcement of the apparatus of coercion, the state, and integration of the whole of social life under its direct control; we find in modern capitalism all the traits of the decomposition of a civilisation, all the characteristics of a system in decadence.

But what about the infrastructure, at the level of material production ? As we have shown, such phenomena of crisis have never appeared without being accompanied by economic decadence. From the marxist point of view, problems appearing in the superstructure of society are in the final analysis only signs of a crisis in material production.

From 1914 to 1939 the statistics, as we shall see, were very clear and few could deny that this was a period of stagnation. However, since the end of World War 2 the course of history would seem to have changed profoundly; the symptoms of a 'superstructural' decadence continued to develop but according to existing statistics capitalism has undergone an unprecedented phase of growth.

Has marxism perished in the barbarism of World War 2 ? Are we living under a 'neo-capitalism' ? Or are these manifestations of crisis merely warning signs of a decadence which is still a long way off ?