Decadence and open crises in capitalism in the twentieth century are phenomena which are linked together but distinct; not identical but interdependent.
Our object here is not to study these moments of crisis (for example, 1929 or 1938); it is not to ascertain whether capitalism now is beginning to undergo these types of crisis. We shall address ourselves to the task of showing that capitalism has been in a state of senility, of decadence, since 1914 and that the magnificent 'rates of growth' of which it boasts, especially since World War 2, in fact merely hide the agony of a system which is less and less able to create the conditions for its own reproduction.
The concept of decadence
But what exactly is the meaning of this state of decline or decadence?
In the first part of this article (Revolution Internationale, Old Series, no 5) we attempted a definition of this phenomenon, its causes and its manifestations, as it occurred in past societies, particularly at the end of Roman slave society and west European feudalism.
We can briefly summarise the general idea which came out of this study in the following way.
Contrary to those who would like to hold an evolutionist view of history which presents progress in human society as a continual, uninterrupted, always ascendant process, no past society disappeared at the time of its zenith. It is only after a more or less long period of decline that the pre-capitalist societies gave way to new forms of social organisation.
The zenith of a society constitutes its limit. It corresponds in effect to that period wherein men are best able to obtain the maximum development of their material wealth given the existing level of technology, and the presence of certain social relationships. It is this degree of development which marks a certain stopping point. It cannot be superseded without the utilisation of new techniques of labour, without abandoning the hitherto prevalent relations of production and consequently without the overthrow of the social order founded on these relations. It is this zenith which makes the advent of the new society an objective necessity.
If the course of history were a harmonious process of constant evolution, then social upheavals would have taken place following these moments of apogee. But history is the history of class struggle. The material necessity of a social upheaval develops in accordance with the development of productive forces, as an objective process independent of the will of men. However, the upheaval itself is the work of men and more precisely that of a social class. Its effective realisation consequently depends on objective and subjective conditions which determine the will and also the possibility for action by this class.
Now, these conditions do not exist at the zenith of a social system. Following their apogee, before disappearing, all past societies have undergone a long period of crisis and convulsion. The old structures decompose; new forces attempt to assert themselves. This period of disintegration and of gestation, this era of barbarism, this 'era of social revolution', is what constitutes the decadent phase of a society.
The causes of decadence
What are the factors which, while they do not appear at the moment of apogee, make decadence an irreversible necessity?
A totality of social relations which have linked men together for centuries cannot be transcended in a day. Man never abandons a tool which has served him in the past until it has proven unable to serve him any longer. A social form cannot prove its 'uselessness', its historic obsolescence, except through the misery and barbarism which its maintenance provokes. Years of famine, plague, war, and anarchy were necessary before men were forced to begin to abandon slavery and feudalism. Only such events, engendered by the decadence of a society, can bring to an end centuries of customs, ideas and traditions. Collective consciousness always lags behind the objective reality which lies before it.
Parallel to these elements, there are two objective factors which are necessary for the realisation of the advent of the new society, also lacking at the time of society's zenith: on the one hand, the weakening of the power of the ruling class, and on the other hand, the appearance of a new historical project and of social forces capable of realising it.
The power of the ruling class and its attachment to its privileges are powerful factors in the conservation of a social system. But the power of this class has its roots in the efficiency of the system which it dominates. The existence of classes is the result of a certain necessary division of labour in a given moment of the development of the techniques of production. The strength of their power resides in the first place in the unique and indispensable relations of production existing under their rule. The zenith of an economic system is also the most stable period in the power of the ruling class. Consequently, the downfall of that power can only take place with the downfall of the relations of production, in the course of the system's decadent phase. All the attempts to artificially maintain this power by the state and political totalitarianism, (attempts which, as we shall see, have always been undertaken and which are significant symptoms of decline), are in fact the result of the decomposition of this power.
Finally, a man never definitely abandons a tool which has been indispensable to him before finding another tool to replace it. In order that a mode of production be abandoned (when it is this mode which has hitherto provided the means of subsistence for a society), it is necessary that there emerge within the old society the forces indispensable for the establishment of new relations of production. In past societies the class bearing the new order did not exist (or existed only in embryonic form), as long as the society had not yet entered into its decadent phase. (The great feudal properties did not really develop in Ancient Rome except under the Late Empire; similarly under feudalism the bourgeoisie did not come into its own until the beginning of the fourteenth century.)
These three principal elements brought about by the decline of a system are certainly not the only ones which explain the causes of decadence in Roman and feudal society. They do, however, enable us to understand the inevitability of a period of decadence for past societies. It remains for us to see whether these same reasons exist under capitalism. But first, it is necessary to recall the principal manifestation of periods of decadence.
The manifestations of decadence
All these manifestations can be observed in the state of generalised crisis affecting the whole structure of social life.
1) At the economic level: (the infrastructure of a society).
Production increasingly comes into conflict with constraints which are none other than the social relations of production themselves. The rhythm of the development of the productive forces slows down, sometimes even stops altogether. Society undergoes economic crises the gravity and extent of which grow larger each time.
2) At the level of the superstructure:
Since in all societies, including the present one, material subsistence is the foremost social question, in the last instance it is always the relations of production which have determined the form and content of different social structures. When these relations are undermined, they must progressively involve in their downfall the whole edifice which is based upon them. When such a state of crisis develops at the economic level, all other areas of social life are necessarily affected.
It is here that we must look for the real roots of the famous 'crisis of civilisation'. The idealist vision of history loses itself in studies of 'the decline of moral standards', of the destructive or beneficial influence of this or that philosophy or religion; in short, it seeks in the domain of ideas, of contemporary modes of thought, the reasons for these crises. Without denying the important influence of ideas in the course of events, it is, nevertheless, certain that, as Marx said:
“One does not judge an individual by the idea he has of himself. One does not judge an epoch of revolution according to the consciousness which it had of itself. This consciousness is explained rather by the contradictions of material life, by the conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production". (Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).
3) In the domain of ideology
The preservation of the system becomes a painful absurdity and gives less and less rationality to the ideology which justifies it. Ideology decomposes, the old moral values run down, artistic creativity stagnates or functions in opposition to the status quo, there is a development of obscurantism and philosophical pessimism.
4) In the domain of social relations
Decadence is manifested by:
a - The development of conflicts between the different factions of the ruling class. The conditions for extracting profit; and even its quantity, become more and more difficult to maintain; those property owners who want to assure their subsistence must do so at the expense of other members or fractions of their class, thereby abandoning all possibility of co-operation.
b - The development of struggles between antagonistic classes: the struggles of the exploited class which undergoes more and more misery because exploitation is pushed to the extreme by the exploiting class; the struggle of the class which is the bearer of the new society, (in past societies, this class has always been distinct from the exploited class), and which comes up against the forces of the old order.
5) In the political domain
Faced with this state of crisis, in which the ruling class is unable to ensure its political power in the same way as before, the apparatus of order, the State, the ultimate crystallisation of the interests of the old society, tends to become strengthened and to extend its jurisdiction to all areas of social life.
In the first part of this article we showed how these characteristics appeared at the end of Roman slave society and during the decline of feudalism. We showed how the totality of these phenomena constitutes an unequivocal manifestation of the decadence of a society.