Forum topic: Decadence of capitalism part XIII: rejection and regressions

16 posts / 0 new
Last post
Forum topic: Decadence of capitalism part XIII: rejection and regressions
Printer-friendly version

The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: Decadence of capitalism part XIII: rejection and regressions. The discussion was initiated by jk1921.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

There is a lot to comment on

There is a lot to comment on here in what is a very rich article:

Just a few general points to open with: The article seems to see "instransigence" as some kind of unquestionable virtue. Moreover, it seems to conflate "instransigence" with "coherence" in a few places. It then asks why it is so difficult for the younger generations to accept the theory of decadence, resorting to a kind of psychologistic explantation according to which people reject decadence, because they have a hard time accepting the possibility of the coming catastrophe. But did it occur to the author that part of the reason why decadence theory is such a tough sell today is precisely the "instransigence" of the theory that is cited as its virtue?

It has been said you know you are dealing with a pseudo-science when the basic assumptions of a theory are never updated to account for development. When every crisis is the final crisis of capitalism and yet captialism continues to go on--people stop listening to you after a while. I think the article needs an acknowledgement of the utter failure of Marxism of this score over the years--a failure that--it may be true--is overcompensated for by the revulsion towards theories of objective crisis today. But still, the problem is real and it is something that we must account for. Over and above this, I think it is the sense of "objective certainty" that comes along with the theory of decadence that the younger generation have trouble with today. It doesn't fit its style. Everything is open ended, open to contestation, questioned, undetermined, pregneant with multiple meanings, (insert favorite post-modern cliche), etc. Faced with a theory that predicts an inevitable final crisis (regardless of whatever empirical evidence to the contrary at any given moment) the only appropriate response for many in this generation--even for the sympathetic--is doubt.

On another level however, the article suffers from an even more serious flaw--something which is not the property of this article alone, but of the way the entire debate has been framed on all sides. This is that acceptance of decadence theory does not in and of itself necessitate accepting a theory of "final crisis," "collapse," "breakdown," etc. Thus, there is a lot of straw man denouncing straw man going on. It is possible to see captialism as "decadent," i.e. no longer preforming a progressive mission for the human species, and yet remain totally unconvinced that captialism will expire under its own dynamics. This was Pannekoek's position if I am not mistaken.

Moreover, it is even possible to see captialism as prone to reoccuring and deepening crises and still remain very skeptical that there is some kind of final crisis around the corner. One does not have to believe that captialism will become vibrant and rejuvenated to question the notion of a final crisis.

I think more than rejecting the theory of decadence--what we have is more and more people coming to believe that capitalism's ultimate crisis will in the end be ecological. The so-called "second contradiction of capitalism" will bring human civilization to its knees long before the internal dynamics of captial accumulation every will. It is even possible to find this view in the ICC. But it is one short jump from this idea to the conclusion that the real problem facing humanity is not captialism per se, but industrial civilization itself.

Lastly, I have been waiting for a clear enunication of the ICC's position on China's development. This article is as close as I have seen. In general I agree with the sense that China's development is a function of a broader crisis of the system--but this seems to fit poorly with statements elsewhere in the ICC's press, where it is possible to read about "China's take off."  The phrase "take off" has a very specific meaning in the economic history literature refering to the emergence of self-sustaining growth. Still, even in this article it is possible to read about the development of a proletariat in China. If that is indeed happening--it seems like that would raise more troubling questions about the theory decadence than this article is willing to admit. Clearly, this is a topic upon which we do not have a very firm grasp.

On the specific critiques of the various groups in the milieu: I agree that the entire "formal vs. real domination of captial" debate is a real distraction. I don't think that  believing that captialism is always capable of renewing itself rules out the question of socialism or barbarism. See ecological crisis noted above, but also it is possble to imagine a "captialist barbarism" (some might think we are living in that now). It is curious to see the author use Harry Cleaver as a kind of ally against Aufheben. I think the article gives too short shrift to the idea that the current crisis is a product of financialization (It admits as much, but it seems unfair to slam the idea, but refuse to elaborate). What is needed is an explanation of how financialization flowed out of a previous crisis in the manufacturing economy, to show how captialism's crisis are path dependent and historically conditioned, to show that the crisis itself has a history. Perhaps this is for a future article.

the final crisis

I think that the idea that the decadence of capitalism will result in a final economic crisis where x=y+B and here, at this moment,  capitalism irretrevably breaks down is one that the ICC has argued against on many occasions. But I do think that some economic discussions that have taken place within the ICC, and the political milieu, have been extremely dense, incomprehensible (to me) and unsatisfactory.

If the ecological question was the only one then that alone is more than enough to clearly point to the inherent decay of this social system and its real danger to the continued existence of humanity. As jk says, this has been a question for the whole of civilisation - the period of "war of the rich against the poor" - but it takes on a qualitative development with the rise of capitalism. Marx makes this point in Capital and Engels develops it in various works - not least his ".... Transition of Ape to Man". I think that the ecological danger that capitalism poses to mankind and that it has to be a developing feature is a fundamental tenet of marxism.

But, as central and as important as it is, the ecological question is not the only one involved in demonstrating that capitalism is not only a fetter on mankind's development but a positive danger to it. The first world war took place in a period of relative economic health but revolutionaries were able to draw from this the "epoch of wars and revolution". The 30s crash and then world war II coming out of it confirmed the nature of the epoch. This has been further confirmed with the establishment of capitalist "Peace and Prosperity" post-1989 with the increase in generalised warfare and a new, highly destructive arms race that is developing as we write.

Dense economic arguments can be useful but they can also be dead-ends. For example Aufheben has an analysis that for the last 6 months we have been on the cusp of an economic recovery. They go into a great deal of detail to prove it. Where is it coming from? Russia and Brazil? Don't make me laugh. India and China? The US or possibly Europe? The major concern within the latter,  certainly of Britain and France, is a German dominated Europe, ie, of German imperialism. As the article says, the "rise" of China was unexpected but not seeing this doesn't at all call into question the idea of capitalism as a decadent social system. On the contrary, what's happened in China and what's happening in China, only confirms the fundamental inability of capital to find a safe and peaceful way out of its crisis.

It's not JUST the economy, stupid...

I hasten to add that the title is not targeting anybody, but I couldn't resist a humorous reference to Clinton.

I think jk1921 makes some valid points (and I agree with much of baboon's response), and I don't propose to deal with them in detail (it would take too long), but rather to respond with some points of my own.

1) It would be a BIG mistake (which we sometimes make, but less than others IMHO) to think that anything is determined by economics alone. For myself, I am convinced that the ecological issue is critical to an understanding of decadence - something we were insufficiently aware of in the past. In fact, you could make an argument that ecological catastrophe and economic/social decadence are inextricably linked (think of Easter Island, collapse of Mayan civilisation, collapse of agriculture in the Roman Empire...). When the ICC was founded, the disaster we saw confronting humanity was generalised warfare, and following 1989 we saw it not in a "final economic crisis" but in a more gradual collapse of society in which economic decline, social decomposition, and general military barbarism would little by little gain the upper hand.

2) I agree that the notion of a "final crisis" is debateable, both in itself and concretely in relation to the present situation (I won't say more about that here).

3) In relation to the "psychologistic explanation", it seems to me that jk1921's alternative (the young generation don't want to accept anything absolute), is actually equally "psychologistic". Personally I think the article's idea that people just don't want to, or find it very difficult to accept a coming catastrophe, is a perfectly valid proposition. There is another aspect though: the search by some people for a rock-hard "economic" explanation, supposedly grounded in impersonal mathematics, could also be seen as a search for "certainty" in an uncertain world, something which is akin to a religious world view in effect.

Anyway, that's my pennyworth for the moment - got to get back to work! 

Yes, you are right LL--the

Yes, you are right LL--the alternative I posed is also psychologistic. I think it is probably a little bit of both explanations. But this poses the more general question of the validity of psychologistic explanations in political debate. Personally, it seems more defensible when it is used in broad social analysis, but when it is used in the context of a political debate with comrades--it becomes more than a little problematic and can lead to a great deal of frustration, anger and distrust. This isn't the issue here though.

MH, could you post a link to

MH, could you post a link to the Libcom discussion you mention?

JK raises an important

JK raises an important question about the rise of China, and we have not really answered it. We have accepted that as an organisation we avoid this question for many years because it did appear to contradict our analysis of decadence which is that there could not be the emergence of new major capitalist powers in decadence. This is what lead us to produce the articles on the emergence of China that were in the International Review. China does pose real questions for an analysis of decadence based on Luxemburg's analysis: where did the extra-capitalist markets come from to realize the necessary surplus-value for the tremendous  accumulation of capital that has been taking place in China, but also India, Brazil, especially when world capitalism had entered a new and prolonged economics crisis in the 1960s?

I disagree with Baboon's criticism of the "dense" nature of the discussion on the economic crisis within the Communist Left. We are faced with trying to analysis the deepest and most profound economic crisis in the history of capitalism, also the historic unfolding of decadence. These are difficult questions and place great demands upon all revolutionary organisations. If we cannot provide the necessary depth of analysis which will allow the  working class to understand the forces at work we are not fulfilling one of our most important roles. Would the comrade call Capital "dense?.

The recent discussions on the economic question within the ICC over the question of the post war boom is complicated and necessarily  so because it is a period of history that would appear to profundly contradict our analysis of decadence. Up until recently the ICC has taken a fairly straight forwards position on this period that it was the product of the post war reconstruction. A nice and simple explanation which does not causes too many question. However, once we realized this contradicted the  idea of war being irrational we were faced with havng to provide an analysis that could explain the boom  (well what appeared to be so in the West) without  recouse to the idea of the cdestruction of the war being the basis of the  boom. Logically with an analysis based on Luxemburg the destruction of the war does not provide extra-capitalist markets which can realise the surplus value  needed for accumulation. as the discussion published in the International Review makes clear this is not a question that can be answered with nice straight forwards formulas such as crisis-war-reconstruction- crisis. If as Marxists we cannot explain the historical development of decadence why should those interested in a revolutionary alternative to capitalism take this central idea seriously?  This is a profoundly serious challenge to the ICC and other revolutionary organisations.

It is the same with the  present acceleration of the economic crisis, unless we can provide a profound and convincing analysis of the unfolding of this process why should we be taken seriously?

JK is right to rise the central role of the proletariat in the question of the historical destiny of capitalism.If it cannot assert itself the contradictions of capitalism will be given free reign to continue their process of tearingcapitalist society apart. Barbarism is already undermining the foundations of the ability of the proletariat to assert itself in important regions of the world: the proletariat in Syria are being engulfed in a terrible civil war and that in the rest of the region is faced with  civil war or a catacysmic imperialist war over Iran. The idea of the  final crisis diverts us away  from the terrible destruction of social relations that are taking place now.The greatest danger to the proletariat is being crushed by the weight of decomposition and its own inability to pose its alternative. We saw this with the social movements of last year which in the  Middle East, due to the inability of the proletariat to play an independent role, have seen the proletariat drawn into civil war or having the democratic chains around their necks tightened.Whilst in Western Europe the proletariat has been faced with extremely  serious difficulties in being able to respond to historically unprecedented attacks on its working and living conditions, difficulties which the ruling class fully understands and manipulates in order to drive home ever deeper attacks both at the economic and ideological level. These difficulties reinforces the proletariat's lack of self-confidence and class identity.

The crisis of capitalism for us, as Lone Londoners, explains is not simply an economic question but one of  the social dynamic of capitalist relations. At present this crisis is taking on historically unprecedented levels of acceleration, destructiveness and profundity: involvinng every aspect of society. As revolutionaries we have to be able to provide a framework/method for understanding this, which is not easy, but this discussion is certainly  helping to clarify what are the central questions.


Just because war is

Just because war is irrational doesn't mean that the destruction it causes doesn't allow for a reconstruction period afterwards, does it?

Dense economic discussions can be difficult (and boring - sometimes rather academic) to follow but the one on lib com - available via Alf's link - was more interesting than usual. This was largely because of the contributions of S Artesian: what a pity someone like him isn't connected to left communism. But maybe he is?

Just because the ICC cant provide "a profound and convincing analysis" of something - or of everything - doesn't mean it can't or won't be taken seriously as an outpost of proletarian consciousness. After all it's only a human organization, trying to do it's best, trying to improve, and not some god-given authority always wise, always correct and always having to be infallible in it's pronouncements. Occasionally it may even need the maturity to say "well, we don't now about this yet, but we're working on it....". If and when the class starts to fight back in a more self-organized and conscious manner, many questions incapable of answers now may be solved or even disappear.

I don't think the idea of "the final crisis" diverts anyone's attention from the social horrors which now surround us, in fact I
would say it's the other way round. The horrors blind most of us to the fact that the system is dying on it's feet, so that
decomposition may prevent us from seeing what our alternative is in the face of unrelenting economic austerity.

ernie says, finally: "At present this crisis is taking on historically unprecedented levels of acceleration, destructiveness and profundity: involvinng every aspect of society. As revolutionaries we have to be able to provide a framework/method for understanding this..." Agree with all of this, except I though the ICC and others were already providing a framework for understanding it, and that the method was marxism, and dialectical materialism. But, in addition, as revolutionaries perhaps it's time as well to start considering tbe problems facing the constiitution of tbe party. Time could be running out.

questions of the economy and other things

No, I don't think that Capital is dense. Complex, bears any number of readings, some parts I don''t understand, but not dense in the sense of impenetrable, incomprehensibe. It's not a dry economic treatise but a fighting tool of the class struggle based on the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. And more than this, it takes on a whole social span from prehistory to the dangers of pollution and the destruction of the environment that comes in the wake of capitalism.

I thought that the Aufheben article referred to above was dense, ie, incomprehensibe in my opinion. Particularly re-reading it and seeing in it that we are not just approaching the recovery but we are well into it. I tried to answer this on libcom as best I could because I thought it important to try put a marxist perspective in front of this anarchist milieu. As MH and Fred above say, S. Artesian made a much better job on the thread.

I agree that the ICC's formulation "crisis, war, reconstruction" presented as a cycle was in contradiction with its analysis of decadence. In fact it is in contradiction with any analysis of the decadence of capitalism whatever economic elements you want to emphasise. Whether "Luxemburgist" or not, you can't have an economic system that exists in perpetuity if it's in terminal decay. So that had to be changed.

What I did find "dense" - and said so at the time - was the discussion in the ICC around the post-war question. I suspect that I wasn't the only one that found it so. Of course discussing the economy is important and essential for revolutionaries - that's a given here surely? But I tend to agree with some of the elements of Fred above - the idea of looking for an economic golden key that will open every door, provide every answer to every question that some mythical worker is going to pose. It's the same with the question of imperialism; it's not necessary to lay out every possibility and answer every question in advance. It would have been impossible to foresee the details of Libya and Syria for example 3 or 4 years ago. What's important is to have the main lines of the overall analysis.

Which brings me on to the question of China. I don't see in any way, shape or form how this contradicts the idea of a decadent economic system (Aufheben thinks that it does). I agree that the ICC has tended to underestimate the ability of the bourgeoisie to ride with the punches and overestimated certain developments of the crisis and the class struggle. But it will never predict everything with absolute certainty and on the thread that refers to the ICT I was pleasantly surprised to see their comrades saying words to the effect that "this is our opinion on workers' organisation, but the last word will be with the workers", ie, we don't and can't know everything. Every i can't be dotted, every t can't be crossed in advance and if the ICC was a bit late on China's development then it had the overall analysis to cope with it. For me, and I believe the ICC's analysis, the "rise" of China is a striking confirmation of the decadence of capitalism.

Alongside the destruction of millions of relatively well-paid jobs in the major industries of the west and the increasing impoverishment of the working class, the Chinese state plucked tens of millions of youth from the peasantry and exploited them to the hilt with great gains in productivity and accumulated massive amounts of capital. And after a few short years, with an even greater impoverishment of the working class in the major metropoles, the Chinese "miracle" is shown for what it is - another capitalist disaster another, short-lived "boom". The ecological disaster wreaked by the Chinese (and Indian) "miracles" is almost unmeasurable and part of a real factor of decomposition the importance of which to the working class LL underlines above. There's an estimate that the growth rates of this miracle would be halved if pollution was taken into account but that could well be an underestimate. And the growth rate of China and India is now falling off rapidly with housing bubbles, mounting debts, imperialist factors and obscure banking crises - and, not least, the intensification of class struggle in both these countries. Regarding Brazil, this is at least the second time in the last decades that it has been hailed as an economic miracle whereas, overall, the country is an economic shit-hole. And Russia, well. All examples of capitalism's infernal decay and its role as a fetter on the productive forces. When the shock waves of 2008 first hit Chinese shores, twenty million Chinese workers immediately lost their jobs. What's the perspective now?

I think that it is necessary for revolutionaries to be permanently engaged with questions of economics but permanently trying to find an economic  formula to prove the decadence of capitalism can ignore the other factors mentioned in "Rejections and Regressions" in IR 149: the social, political and military aspects of capitalism's decay. On the face of it, there are plenty of elements of working class youth that can see that there is no future in capitalism.  

I agree with Fred that the

I agree with Fred that the fact that WW2 created the conditions for the post-war boom does not mean the war was "rational." Of course, the criteria for what makes something "rational" are open to debate. Was it rational for the German bourgeoisie to rally around Hitler in order to finish off the working class in the 30s? Perhaps, but could they not forsee the future catastrophe for the national capital that putting him in charge would certainly bring? But, then it was the destruction of the war which allowed Germany to modernize its industrial infrastructure, allowing it to renenter the global market as a comeptitor to the US by the end of the 60s. We can go around in circles all day about the "rationality" of a given historical event.

I generally support Baboon's analysis of the "rise of China." However, the one thing that continues to give me some pause is the idea that there is something like a "national proletariat" in formation in China that until now hasn't really existed to the same extent. If this is the case--and I am not convinced it is--this seems like something that should only happen in ascendance--the qualitative social-historical transformation of the most populous country on earth.

On the questions of economics vs. other factors: I suppose it is debateable whether the ecological crisis really is something happening "external" to captialism or not. Still, this does seem to be something taking place on a different level than the long predicted collapse or breakdown due to contradictions in the system of acculumation itself. But wasn't this a main reason why Luxemburg's theories have been rejected by many Marxists, as her explanation for captialism's crisis is seen as coming from something external to the system: the exhaustion of extra-captialist markets?

It is not a question of a golden key

The point of the discussion on the causes of the post-war boom and questions such as the rise of China is not the search for the golden key that will allow us to answer all the questions around these developments, but to discuss and investigate whether the analysis we have of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism are called into question by these developmen, or do they confirm our analysis or do we have to deepen our analysis? This concern to clarify these question has lead to a fruitful but difficult disucssion in the ICC, and we want to open this discussion up to those who are interested in our posiitons and to other groups that defend internationalist positions.

The question of the "boom" is not abstract but has been raised by people who are interested in our analysis but think that the post-war period poses questions about decadence. Our efforts to answer these questions through developing the internal discussion has allowed a much deeper understanding of nature of the post war period but unfortunately we have not had many contributions to the discussion from outside the ICC or from other groups.

On the question of China, I think that many within the revolutionary milieu were puzzled by the rise of China and what is signified. For us the question was how to explain it within the framework of an analysis based on Luxemburg's positons, which said that decadence was due to the saturation of the world market. Clearly the availability of a huge potential workforce in the country side in China and India was extremely  important, and underlined the integral relationship between capitalism and other strata. For me however, as a comrade with  minority view, did these non-capitalist strata have the necessary economic means to finance the realization of that part of surplus value used for futher accumulation?

A brief reply to JK point about criticism of Luxemburg. Rosa does  not place the main contradiction as being external to capital, rather it is at the very core of capitalist relations ie the drive to produce without consideration for the market. I will leave a more detailed reply to a comrade who can better defend the organisation's position on this question.

I agree with JK that the ecological crisis can only be seen as being within capitalism, but I do not think that was what Baboon was trying to say. I think the comrade was saying we cannot look at "purely" economic questions to understand decadence. The full depth and profundity of decadence can only be fully comprehend by understanding the unfolding of the fundamental economic contradictions at the base of decadence as they radiate throughout society. The most important contribution Luxemburg to the workers movement at the level of economics was insist that imperialism was the direct product of the process of capitalist accumulation.

The understanding of this complex nexus of dynamics is at the root of answer those who call into question decadence

Ernie says: "The full depth

Ernie says: "The full depth and profundity of decadence can only be fully comprehend by understanding the unfolding of the fundamental economic contradictions at the base of decadence as they radiate throughout society.". Well, I think that let's me out. I'm not sure I even understand the sentence. However, like the working class youths baboon mentions, I can see there's no future for capitalism, or for any of us unless we get rid of it before it gets rid of us, and that society is in a condition of advanced decay. I don't think you need to fully understand "the unfolding of the fundamental..." etc even assuming anyone ever will or can, in order to get this.

And as to The Golden Key, the theory of theories, which will explain everything. This might be the nirvana longed for by theoretical theoreticians, but most of us have stopped looking. It's like Dr. Casaubon in George Eliot's 'Middlemarch'. He spent his life searching for the Key to all Mythologies but died without finding it, and missed out on everything else in the process. And if people persist in theorizing decadence into something huge and overpowering - a complex nexus of dynamics as Ernie puts it - then where will that take us, and will it advance the revolution in any way?

For the ICC the conception of

For the ICC the conception of the decadence of the capitalism is at the root of our understanding of the whole period since the beginning of the 20th century. So you could say it is a "golden Key" that does help to unlock the unfolding of capitalist society and thus the class struggle since then. Without the concpet of decadence we would not be able to explain the role of the war economy, the class struggle, the need for the world revolution, the changed nature of the trade unions, parliament, the party, national liberations, the needs of the class struggle.For us decadence is capitalism in decline. Without a comprehensive analysis of this period one is left with  condemnation of various aspects of one process.

Unfortunately this idea is not accepted amongst many of those who defend internationalism, and the need of an autonomous class struggle so it is important that we are able to defend this conception with the necessary theoretical rigor. We cannot simply expect people to accept what appears obvious to us. This is the reason for the series of articles in the International Review recently.

Good point from Ernie about

Good point from Ernie about decadence   being the golden key in relation to the break down of capitalism and the needs of the class struggle. I was indeed making the point that, while capitalism's break-down comes the insoluble contradictions inherent in the system from its birth,  that decadence was a wider phenomenon than a strict economic interpretation.

As many expressions have shown these last few years, there is a general rejection from youth of the established political parties and the trade unions, there is also a more or less clear conception that capitaism has no future, yet we see the "political" element, as expressed on libcom for example, drawn to reinforce trade unionism, as well as a complete denial of the capitalism's decay.

Golden Key?

If decadence is the Golden Key to understanding contemporary reality, then is economics the key to understanding decadence? (Even if decadence cannot be reduced to purely economic factors).

On Baboon's last point: how then do we understand this rejection of the idea that captialism is in decay, just as the system experiences its worsrt crisis in a generation? What is going on? Why do so many struggle so hard against this idea?