The ICC has emphasised the covid-19 pandemic as a symptom of “the terminal phase of capitalist decadence” so this may be a good opportunity to take a closer look at some issues and problems with the ICC’s position that capitalism entered into a phase of “decomposition” in 1989, with the aim of deepening our understanding of capitalism’s decay in this period.
First, how do we explain the rise of China in the 1990s? At its 21st Congress the ICC recognised its difficulties in understanding this phenomenon. It now appears to have concluded that China’s growth is explained by the “unprecedented circumstances of the historical period of decomposition” (23rd Congress resolution on the international situation), although it has not yet published anything explaining how it has reached this conclusion.
This may appear to solve the problem of explaining China’s growth but it creates a new one for 'decomposition'; how are we to explain the fact that the terminal phase of decadence - “a phase where decomposition becomes a decisive, if not the decisive factor in social evolution” - has also seen some of the most spectacular growth in the history of capitalism? We clearly need a framework that is able to explain both phenomena.
The original Theses on Decomposition, which predated China’s rise, identify capitalism’s unique dynamism as a key factor in its decay, but do not explore the wider implications of this. 25 years later, in a section dealing with “difficulties in recognising the existence of decomposition”, an update to the ICC’s 22nd Congress concludes that decomposition is more attenuated in China and other Asian countries due to the fact that capitalism is the most dynamic mode of production in history; in other words, capitalism’s dynamism is an attenuating factor on decomposition. But you might as well say that capitalism itself is an attenuating factor on decomposition; it raises more questions than it answers.
It is capitalism’s dynamism - the extraordinary speed with which it transforms society and the accumulation of contradictions this produces – that accelerates the development of all its inherently destructive tendencies in its epoch of decay; it is capitalism’s dynamism that is therefore the starting point for understanding the decay of the superstructure of capitalist society in this period.
The way the ICC describes decomposition is that “capitalism is rotting on its feet” but a better image would be the slow-motion wreck of a high-speed train…
The ICC has admitted it was late in recognising the new opportunities for capitalist development opened up by the bankruptcy of the old autarchic model of the Stalinist countries and the collapse of the two-bloc system. Both these played a key role in facilitating China’s dramatic growth, which inevitably displays all the symptoms of decadent capitalism’s destructive tendencies: rural depopulation, overcrowding, appalling levels of pollution, sophisticated state surveillance, terror and repression, etc. It was also the collapse of the two-bloc system – fundamentally the result of the prolongation of capitalism’s historic crisis – that played a key role in the qualitative deepening and acceleration of the decay of the superstructure: “the dislocation of the social body, the rot of its political, economic, and ideological structures, etc.” (Theses).
Placing capitalism’s unique dynamism at the centre of our analysis makes it possible to explain both the rise of China and the qualitative deepening and acceleration of superstructural decay at all levels (‘decomposition’).
The ICC’s evidence that covid-19 is a manifestation of capitalist decomposition includes the concentration of millions of human beings in megalopolises and state repression in China- neither of which are symptoms of such decay - alongside others that certainly are; accelerated environmental degradation, increased lack of coordination of the policies of various countries, etc.
Of course China is not immune to the effects of superstructural decay, which is a global phenomenon. And there is a definite tendency for this decay itself to become a determinant on the economic base – something the ICT appears unwilling or unable to accept. But not everything in this period is a symptom of ‘decomposition’, and the difficulties of the ICC in integrating an analysis of capitalism’s capacity for growth into its understanding of decadence continues to weaken its analyses.
In another post I want to look at the ICC’s concept of a ‘social stalemate’ which underpins its position on decomposition.