The following is a discussion document for the MDF Meeting on 24th Feb 2013. If you want further detail contacts: [email protected]
Along with recognition of society as divided into social and economic classes, the idea of periods of ascendance and decadence in each society is one of most important and most fundamental concepts of Marxism. Both are intrinsic to the approach taken by historical materialism and arises from a scientific approach to the analysis of social history.
So what does decadence mean and how does it affect us today?
“There have always been leaders and lead, rulers and ruled“!?!
We need to start by looking back in history and understanding the Marxist framework. This framework establishes that the development of society has followed successive stages which are identified by the economic relationships between classes at each stage. Each stage is a new and distinct form of class society. The political and social environment in each society is defined by its particular form of economic relationships between classes.
A society of scarcity where all members of relatively small tribes cooperate to survive. No private property. Ended with the emergence of large scale agriculture (cattle and land) which promoted private property and slavery
Agriculture develops to support large populations. Society of Slave owners and slaves. The workers themselves, their tools and their produce are all owned by the rulling class. Subsistence is provided to the workers. A political state emerges as does democracy – for members of the ruling class
Ended as slave empires expanded so much they became too wealthy and yet too costly to maintain themselves Roman empire broken up by wealthy robber barons who established manorial/aristocratic rights over specific regions and lead to feudalism
Established a ruling class comprising of inherited aristocratic or theocratic rights and ownership over the land, produce and people in their domain. All land, tools and produce owned by ruling class. Workers are serfs who are tied to the land/landowner. Their labour and its produce are owned by the ruling class who allow a portion to be retained by the serf for subsistence.
Feudal society came to an end as technology and skills developed to generate sufficient wealth for merchant class to grow and develop international trade and manufacturing systems
Established a commodity market economy based on wage labour and the accumulation of capital. It is a production system which is far more dynamic than previous societies and expands rapidly. Merchant class develops into an industrial class which owns means of large scale production and its produce. Workers are free socially and sell their labour to earn subsistence
In the decline of Capitalism, industry becomes so productive and expands rapidly to dominate the whole world. The greed and squabbling of ruling class now hinders social progress
These different class societies are stepping stones in social progress. Each one enables a certain social and economic development to take place but when that systems limits are reached, internal conflicts emerge as do new classes who represent the next phase of economic development. So each of these society has a period when it is new, fresh and dynamic – a period of ascendance – followed by a period when it is in decline because it has reached its limits and its internal contradictions fester – a period of decadence or decline.
Its as simply as that – or as complex.
“There have always been markets and money “!?!
Capitalism establishes a market based on commodity production. This is what enables capital accumulation to proceed independently of the need of the producers or the owners.. Perhaps not present in primitive communism, but in both slave society and feudal society there were markets selling surplus goods and money was used to represent values, to facilitate exchange and for accounting purposes. What is clear however is that both societies, the sale of surplus was a side issue as production was for self ie for individual members of the ruling class.
Marx’s concept of historical materialism establishes that the existing mode of production and the social relations of production in each society give rise to a the ideologies , class relationships culture and behaviour of people that dominate in that society. This means that leaders and the led exiting in each society as classes existed but they are different in each society and behaved and believed in different values. In feudal society for example allegiance to your king, duke lord of the manor was absolute. They set the law and had personal right to make decisions affecting those below. Individuals were not allowed to question this right. In capitalism this approach has disappeared and commodity manufacture and wage labour require and support a system of individuals’ rights and representative democracy.
Furthermore each successive society exhibits a more dynamic and progressive development of the productive forces above that achieved by the previous society. Slave society , feudal society and capitalism all grew within the previous society when the latter began to struggle to develop the production forces in a positive fashion and indeed started to became a barrier to further developments. New classes emerged that brought forth new economic structure and approaches and who came to dominate society and established a new class structure, a development that would remain positive for humanity for a period.
“To the extent that the labour process is solely a process between man and nature, its simple elements remain common to all social forms of development. But each specific historical form of this process further develops its material foundations and social forms. Whenever a certain stage of maturity has been reached, the specific historical form is discarded and makes way for a higher one. The moment of arrival of such a crisis is disclosed by the depth and breadth attained by the contradictions and antagonism between the distribution relations and thus the specific historical form of their corresponding production relations, on the one hand, and the productive forces, the production powers and the development of their agencies, on the other hand. A conflict then ensues between the material development of production and its social form”
Capital Vol 3 Chapter LI
So Marx did not use the term decadence but he clearly outlined for each mode of production a period of progressiveness followed by a period of internal conflict and hence decline. He also clearly indicated that capitalism could create no new class to develop the productive forces further. The conflict remains between the bourgeoisie and the working class and the outlook remains barbarism or socialism.
So what is decadence under Capitalism?
Decadence is the period when the social relations of production come into conflict with the productive forces.
The Social Relations of Production are the class structure and the political and economic relations within and between the classes; the economic and political structures of capitalism, wage labour and the extraction of surplus value, capital accumulation, commodity production for the commodity market; hence all economic contradictions of the system
The Productive Forces are the working class itself, the bourgeoisie, the level of development of technology and manufacturing achieved the system, the physical scale of manufacture of the system
The conflict between the 2 does not prevent expansion and development taking place. In many senses this conflict always exists and drives class society forward but at a certain point the social relations of society became a barrier and a hindrance to free development, they cause political conflicts and economic crisis because they do not work in harmony with the sheer physical size and structure of society. In capitalism the nation state and exploitation of the working class hold back social and economic development leading to wars and a great need to manage the production and distribution processes in capitalist society.
What causes decadence?
It is not a straightforward process to determine specific causes once the general framework of ascendance and decadence is accepted and each mode of production has specific factors involved. Decadence is a political concept of growth and decline of a social system and it suggests that that mode of production has simply outgrown itself. In the end the causes and onset of decadence are not convincingly identified by the crisis theories that have emerged. Its consequences are to be seen and understood in actual events. It ameliorates or exacerbates the crises in the system. However neither of the 2 main crisis theories that try to explain decadence appear to be able to do this with any certainty. Capitalism is either too complex or too capable of ‘reinventing’ itself and it is still even now unclear just where decadence leads.
The tendency for the rate of profit to fall theory does not aim to present a specific value of the Rate of Profit which defines when the relations of production become an absolute hindrance to the productive forces. Indeed the FROP cannot be measured quantitatively (effectively) and its level changes continuously anyway. Its consequences and its counter tendencies are to be seen in society both before and during decadence however and its value appear to lie in its uses to make judgements about progress of crises.
Luxemburg’s theory of the need for extra capitalist markets to enable capital accumulation does raise the issue of how capitalism grows during ascendancy and perhaps provides an understanding of the capacity to of the system to expand. But the theory loses clarity when applied to decadence itself and fails to explain how the remnants of pre-capitalist markets enable capital accumulation to proceed in this period
There is general agreement however that the period of the high point of capitalism coincides with the completion of a world market and the exacerbation of imperialist conflict between nation states and perhaps this is simply how we should perceived the onset of decadence - The achievement of a world dominated by capitalist relations and imperialist conflict between national bourgeoisies and perhaps then crisis theory should be using this a framework to explain events rather than trying to explain decadence itself.
To return to Marx’s framework for viewing an obsolete social system then, we have a framework that identifies that the national state, the world domination of capitalism, wage labour, commodity markets, the profit motive now work against ongoing free growth of manufacturing industry and the working class itself. This is not to say that no growth has been possible, clearly it has, but that the capacity for growth provided by what exists ie technology, the size of the working class and the productive machinery across the globe, is relative and much greater than has been achieved within capitalism
An issue for ongoing clarification is the course of decadence. With the onset of the imperialist phase, revolutionaries believed they had to argue for the short term collapse of capitalism to distinguish themselves from reformist to argued that capitalist could go on. However capitalism has gone on for a century and to the surprise of the current generations, the crises of the 60s did not become the final crisis either. The ICC’s current formulation of decomposition leading to the final crisis seems hollow and uncertain therefore. Socialism or Barbarism and War or Revolution seem self evident or sensible interpretations of reality but rather long term views in the current context. What has enabled capitalism to persevere rather than collapse during the last 50 years? The CWOs use of the FROP analysis sees an ongoing crisis and does not try to identify the final phase of collapse whereas the ICC is keen to put exaggerated labels to periods and phases of capitalism. Neither provide a clear model of capitalism development in this latter period. Perhaps we should not expect crisis theory to explain the collapse of capitalism in decadence but use them to focus on the explanations of ongoing crises. The causes of decadence appear to lie in the more general contractions in the system ie exchange value and use value, the economy vs social need, the need to accumulate and grow vs the consequences of that growth
Why is the concept of decadence so important?
Nevertheless, Decadence is the main defining characteristic of the current period of capitalism. If the concept of decadence is correct, it is the framework for our understanding of all events and ideas that emerge in the period, even if aspects of the current situation are yet clear to us
When capitalism was progressive because it was able to expand itself and wrestle domination of society from feudal structures as well as grow and strengthen productive forces on a scale previously unknown. The expansion of capital was a historically progressive development no matter how brutal or exploitative the system actually was. Reforms could and would benefit all in society (the ruling class, the working class and pre-capitalist classes) because the growth of productive forces improved the supply of all commodities eg food, clothes, housing to the whole of humanity over and above what it had been in previous societies.
When capitalism moves into decadence this development of the productive forces is declining relative to the human social and economic needs of society. The completion of the world market and the exacerbation of conflict between capitalist states vividly marks the change in period. The leads to greater conflicts caused by the social relations of production and brings the working class revolution onto the agenda
“Resolution on the Tactics of the CI” at its 4th Congress
“II. The period of the decline of capitalism. On the basis of its assessment of the world economic situation the Third Congress was able to declare with complete certainty that capitalism had fulfilled its mission of developing the productive forces and had reached a stage of irreconcilable contradiction with the requirements not only of modern historical development, but also of the most elementary conditions of human existence. This fundamental contradiction was reflected in the recent imperialist war, and further sharpened by the great damage the war inflicted on the conditions of production and distribution. Obsolete capitalism has reached the stage where the destruction that results from its unbridled power is crippling and ruining the economic achievements that have been built up by the proletariat, despite the fetters of capitalist slavery…What capitalism is passing through today is nothing other than its death throes”.
From the perspective of the bourgeoisie, the period leads to ever sharper conflict and disruptions because reforms are generally not able to improve the potential of capitalism, they are primarily there to retain control over the working class change and prevent the emergence of a new revolutionary class. Capitalism cannot improve in a historical sense as the possibility of the creation of a new more productive society, that possibility is politically and economically now in place.
From the perspective of the working class, it cannot achieve its full potential if it does not recognise the failure of the bourgeoisie to make qualitative improvements in society. Only within a political conflict with the ruling class can the working class learn what it can achieve and take control of society. Its long term objectives become its only objectives and all factions of the bourgeoisie must be seen as an enemy to its objectives.
So the concept of decadence is important to use because it demands a sharp demarcation between capitalist institutions and ideologies and those of the working class. For capitalism it has led to state capitalism as the means to manage a conflicted society and the greater and greater mystification of capitalist ideologies to present itself as normal and natural despite what it actually does. For the working class, reformism of the system is dead. The period dictates only revolution will as an objective because the working class holds no wealth within capitalism, it can have no institutions to protect itself - only a revolution itself can do that. The view of political minorities, workers councils and the rejection of reforms, nationalism, trade unionism are direct consequences of this viewpoint.