Understanding the decomposition of capitalism
The recent article ‘Anti-terrorism: pretext for state terror’ in WR 296 was useful in that it brought together some thoughts I have had regarding the centrality of the revolutionary party in the struggle for a communist world. For me it is important to stress how the decomposition of bourgeoisie society combined with each national capitalism’s drive to increase its share of surplus value, not only in the UK but across the world, leads to measures which strengthen the repressive functions of the capitalist state.
So I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis when you argue: “In reality terrorism and anti-terrorism are a product of the development of capitalism, springing from the ever-increasing imperialist tensions that drive every state and would-be state into a war of each against all”.
This materialist explanation of the rise of terrorism is something that many leftists cannot understand. For many on the left terrorism is either an irrational response to intolerable living conditions, or it’s the work of a group of socially sick individuals who are being manipulated by ruthless gangsters. In fact as the ICC argues terrorism is one of many tools each of the national bourgeoisies uses in an attempt to maintain their supremacy or to challenge their rivals.
While it is reasonable to argue why the bourgeoisie uses the threat of terrorism to strengthen their hegemony over the subordinate classes, i.e. the working and middle classes, what it does not address is why is it at this present time that this ideology is so successful with so many members of the working class. I think that the reason lies in how capitalism is decomposing and the drawn-out nature of the decomposition. It seems to me that any idea that there is going to be a catastrophic collapse of capitalism similar to the 1930s is misleading. The bourgeoisie has learnt a lot of lessons since this event; also there is much more of a growth in the use of credit which can offset the decline in the rate of profit.
So while a catastrophic economic collapse may not occur what seems to me to be happening is that the inherent contradictions in capitalist society combined with a growing saturation in world markets leads to a gradual slowdown in economic growth in all countries leading to stagnation. Engels in an introduction to Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy argued “At least this was the case until recently. Since England’s monopoly of the world market is being more and more shattered by the participation of France, Germany and above all of America in world trade, a new form of equalization appears to be operating. The period of general prosperity preceding the crisis still fails to appear. If it should fail altogether then chronic stagnation would necessarily become the normal condition of modern industry, with only insignificant fluctuations”. It is this tendency towards stagnation of the forces of production that forces the bourgeoisie to make cut backs to the social wage i.e. cuts in welfare provision, health and education combined with raising the levels of exploitation.
While there have been struggles against this tendency namely the struggle against the CPE in France, many workers in Britain experience this erosion in a wholly negative way. Gone is the sense that no matter how inadequate the welfare state was it still gave a sense of security, that some provision would be provided to workers which would give support through hard times. That is until another job could be found. With the dismantling and erosion of bourgeoisie state support now what workers experience is increasing alienation which is leading to bouts of cynicism with bourgeoisie politics and frustration with working class reformism.
This is why many younger workers are currently turning away from voting. However the alienation that is being produced by decomposing capitalism does not mean that they are automatically turning to revolutionary politics. Rather the opposite is the case as the bourgeoisie scapegoats asylum seekers and immigrants. Not surprisingly reformist trade unions also contributes to this atmosphere when they launch nationalistic campaigns in an attempt to save workers’ jobs. This scapegoat is an old ploy of the bourgeoisie: in the early twentieth century it was Jews, in the 1960s it was black immigrants, now in the early twenty first century it is asylum seekers. This highlights that when workers feel weak then attempts to scapegoat are generally successful.
This brings me to my last point: that I believe that while this disillusion with parliamentary politics is to be welcomed it also emphasises the importance of being consistent in arguing for building an independent revolutionary party rooted in workers’ struggles and consistently arguing for workers’ councils and working class solidarity. The recent articles by the ICC regarding the CPE in France has been welcome alongside the recent pieces on how the reformist trade unions are now unable to deliver any meaningful reforms for workers.
We would like thank you for your very interesting letter. With the mounting campaign around the question of terrorism, especially the home grown variety, it is vital to be able to put forward a marxist analysis of this question. Your “wholehearted welcome” for the analysis unfolded in the article on anti-terrorism is thus most welcome. Not only do you agree, but you also seek to apply and critically assess the analysis.
We fully endorse this approach. As a communist organisation it is not a question of expecting those seeking to understand your positions to fall down on their knees and proclaim their full agreement. The central question for us is that our positions are understood. Thus, it is important that our contacts feel able to question, criticise and disagree with our positions. It is only through a process of clarification that a full understanding can be gained.
You say of the article that “What it does not address is why it is at the present time that this ideology is so successful with so many members of the working class. I think that the reason lies in how capitalism is decomposing and the drawn out nature of the decomposition”. The analysis of decomposition is essential to understanding not only this question but the general situation facing capitalism and humanity. It is certainly crucial for understanding the growth of the influence of the nihilistic ideology of terrorism, in all its forms. We would question the extent of the influence of this ideology within the working class, but not the importance of understanding the pernicious influence of this ideology. Nor would we disagree with your obvious concern about the wider impact of decomposition on the working class. The putrefaction of capitalism is exuding a noxious cloud of ideological poison.
Given this terrible danger for a proletariat faced with the rotting of capitalism on its feet, we think that it is necessary to be as clear as possible about the causes of the process of the decomposition of capitalism. In the letter you emphasis the role of the stagnation of the economy in the development of decomposition. This is certainly an important aspect. However, we think that there is an vital aspect that is not developed in your letter: the role of the class struggle.
The dragging out of the economic crisis is an essential aspect of decomposition. As you rightly show the prolonged nature of the crisis is tearing away at the very social fabric of capitalist society. The welfare state is being dismantled across Western Europe, mass unemployment is growing and the levels of exploitation suffered by workers are becoming ever more murderous. As you demonstrate this is leading to growing sense of insecurity in the working class and the ruling class is seeking to exploit this to stir up nationalist campaigns etc.
The development of the crisis is, however, not the cause of decomposition. The foundation of decomposition is the impasse between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It is important to fully understand this because otherwise one can blur and confuse the different phases in the development and decadence of capitalism, and give the impression that decomposition could be seen as something that has been an aspect of capitalism for some time. The very interesting quote from Engels could imply that decomposition was a phenomenon that began to arise at the end of the 19th century. Thus, we think it would help our discussions if we laid out our historical framework for the understanding of decomposition.
To this end, we hope that you will not mind if we use some extensive quotes from our Theses on the decomposition of capitalism.
Capitalism has been decadent since 1914, when the First World War brutally demonstrated that the capitalist system was no longer a progressive force for the development of humanity, but a social system that could only offer humanity a future of barbarity. From a system spreading capitalist relations across the globe, thus laying the basis for communism, it became a system whose very survival means destruction, chaos and even the obliteration of all civilisation. Since 1914 we have seen two world wars, and two economic crises; however, it is only since the 1980’s that we see the phase of decomposition developing. This is because it is only since the 1980’s that we have witnessed a period of impasse between the ruling class and proletariat.
The Theses underline that all class societies have gone through a dynamic of growth and decay and that this understanding of the phases of capitalism is vital to understanding decomposition:
“capitalism itself traverses different historic periods - birth, ascendancy, decadence - so each of these periods itself consists of several distinct phases. For example, capitalism’s ascendant period can be divided into the successive phases of the free market, shareholding, monopoly, financial capital, colonial conquest, and the establishment of the world market. In the same way, the decadent period also has its history: imperialism, world wars, state capitalism, permanent crisis, and today, decomposition. These are different and successive aspects of the life of capitalism, each one characteristic of a specific phase, although they may have pre-dated it, and/or continued to exist after it. For example, although wage labour existed already under feudalism, or even Asiatic despotism (just as slavery and serfdom survived under capitalism), it is only under capitalism that wage labour has reached a dominant position within society. Similarly, while imperialism existed during capitalism’s ascendant period, it is only in the decadent period that it became predominant within society and in international relations, to the point where revolutionaries of the period identified it with the decadence of capitalism itself.
The phase of capitalist society’s decomposition is thus not simply the chronological continuation of those characterised by state capitalism and the permanent crisis. To the extent that contradictions and expressions of decadent capitalism that mark its successive phases do not disappear with time, but continue and deepen, the phase of decomposition appears as the result of an accumulation of all the characteristics of a moribund system, completing the 75-year death agony of a historically condemned mode of production. Concretely, not only do the imperialist nature of all states, the threat of world war, the absorption of civil society by the state Moloch, and the permanent crisis of the capitalist economy all continue during the phase of decomposition, they reach a synthesis and an ultimate conclusion within it”. (Point 3 of the Theses).
The Theses then go on to describe the “...unprecedented element which in the last instance has determined decadent capitalism’s entry into a new phase of its own history: decomposition. The open crisis which developed at the end of the l960s, as a result of the end of the post-World War II reconstruction period, opened the way once again to the historic alternative: world war or generalised class confrontations leading to the proletarian revolution. Unlike the open crisis of the 1930’s, the present crisis has developed at a time when the working class is no longer weighed down by the counter-revolution. With its historic resurgence from 1968 onwards, the class has proven that the bourgeoisie did not have its hands free to unleash a Third World War. At the same time, although the proletariat has been strong enough to prevent this from happening, it is still unable to overthrow capitalism, since:
- the crisis is developing at a much slower rhythm than in the past;
- the development of its consciousness and of its political organisations has been set back by the break in organic continuity with the organisations of the past, itself a result of the depth and duration of the counter-revolution.
In this situation, where society’s two decisive - and antagonistic - classes confront each other without either being able to impose its own definitive response, history nonetheless does not just come to a stop. Still less for capitalism than for preceding social forms, is a ‘freeze’ or a ‘stagnation’ of social life possible. As a crisis-ridden capitalism’s contradictions can only get deeper, the bourgeoisie’s inability to offer the slightest perspective for society as a whole, and the proletariat’s inability, for the moment, openly to set forward its own can only lead to a situation of generalised decomposition. Capitalism is rotting on its feet.” (point 4).
This does not mean that the proletariat is ‘doomed’ but that it is faced with having to develop its struggles in unprecedentedly difficult circumstances. It’s a situation in which rotting capitalism could destroy the proletariat’s ability to put forward its own revolutionary perspective. Nevertheless, the proletariat has not been crushed and still holds the potential to develop its struggles. A potential clearly seen in the movement around the CPE in France, or the metal workers’ struggles in Vigo, Spain. A potential that we put forward in the Theses, when they were written in the early 1990’s:
“Understanding the serious threat that the historical phenomenon of decomposition poses for the working class and for the whole of humanity should not lead the class, and especially its revolutionary minorities, to adopt a fatalist attitude. Today, the historical perspective remains completely open. Despite the blow that the Eastern bloc’s collapse has dealt to proletarian consciousness, the class has not suffered any major defeats on the terrain of its struggle. In this sense, its combativity remains virtually intact. Moreover, and this is the element which in the final analysis will determine the outcome of the world situation, the inexorable aggravation of the capitalist crisis constitutes the essential stimulant for the class’ struggle and development of consciousness, the precondition for its ability to resist the poison distilled by the social rot. For while there is no basis for the unification of the class in the partial struggles against the effects of decomposition, nonetheless its struggle against the direct effects of the crisis constitutes the basis for the development of its class strength and unity. This is the case because:
- while the effects of decomposition (eg pollution, drugs, insecurity) hit the different strata of society in much the same way and form a fertile ground for aclassist campaigns and mystifications (ecology, anti-nuclear movements, anti-racist mobilisations, etc), the economic attacks (falling real wages, layoffs, increasing productivity, etc) resulting directly from the crisis hit the proletariat (ie the class that produces surplus value and confronts capitalism on this terrain) directly and specifically;
- unlike social decomposition which essentially effects the superstructure, the economic crisis directly attacks the foundations on which this superstructure rests; in this sense, it lays bare all the barbarity that is battening on society, thus allowing the proletariat to become aware of the need to change the system radically, rather than trying to improve certain aspects of it.
However, the economic crisis cannot by itself resolve all the problems that the proletariat must confront now and still more in the future. The working class will only be able to answer capital’s attacks blow for blow, and finally go onto the offensive and overthrow this barbaric system thanks to:
- an awareness of what is at stake in the present historical situation, and in particular of the mortal danger that social decomposition holds over humanity;
- its determination to continue, develop and unite its class combat;
- its ability to spring the many traps that the bourgeoisie, however decomposed itself, will not fail to set in its path.
Revolutionaries have the responsibility to take an active part in the development of this combat of the proletariat.” (Point 17)
Comrade, we hope that you do not feel that we have been trying to batter you with quotes; our aim has been to show that the fullest comprehension of the foundations of decomposition is essential for the development of our discussion of this vital question.
As part of this process we look forward to your reflections on this reply.