Decline of capitalism. Discussion.

A summary on two levels, with reference to the past and the present, and a third section: Development of our positions. The probable characteristics of the decline of capitalism.   

This text is accompanied by another text with abundant explanations, data and critical theorisations on the subject, with links to books and other texts in which we have explored the issue in depth.

In this second text, the approaches that appear here in very synthesised or merely alluded to, are shown in more precise explanations.

A) A brief historical approach.

1. Historical materialism posited two great periods in the existence of capitalism, as in any civilisation: ascendancy and decadence.

Decadence constitutes a period in which a mode of production and its corresponding social relations, its structural basis, diminish the capacity and strength characteristic of the ascendant period of its historical journey. Thus the contradiction between productive forces and relations of production intensifies and unfolds historically in such a way that it becomes increasingly difficult for capitalism to achieve the levels of accumulation and social cohesion between the classes characteristic of its historically ascendant period; This necessarily engenders great catastrophic processes of devaluation on a scale greater than that of the upward period, together with a prodigality of consequences of capitalism which aggravate its difficulties on an international scale and generate enormous contradictory tensions in the system, thus favouring the worldwide development of class struggles and tensing the proletarian forces faced with the alternative of giving in or not giving in.

Therefore, this accumulation of accumulated tensions is conducive to social revolution, though not exclusively, since it is also clear that such a revolution can emerge before decadence if the necessary conditions are met. Which, up to now, has only prevailed in a limited and punctual manner, and as we know, without a victorious globalised outcome.

Various conclusions can be drawn from decadence: from reformist gradualists to voluntarist ultra-leftists, through to those that we… in fact we need, coherent with a rigorous historical and dialectical materialist conception, which we expose argued and critically.

2. The determination of its defining characteristics, and more importantly the assessment of where capitalism is in its historical journey, have been two aspects markedly present in the internationalist communist milieu.

3. The Great Crisis that began in 1873 caused Engels to hope that the crisis of overproduction would become chronic and thus accelerate the path to the decay of capitalism, even though periods of limited growth could manifest themselves. The conception took shape that capitalism, corroded by its own contradictions, was systematically impeding the growth of the productive forces and inducing its own manifestations of incapacity and disintegration. This position, further accentuated, found its way into the “Erfurt Socialist Programme” and was subsequently understood as essential in the centre and left of the Second International. Around it, there were debates on imperialism, monopolies and cartels, crises, the development of foreign trade, the limits of capitalism, etc. Decadence was seen as the terminal phase of an exhausted economic organism falling apart, and thus increasingly unable to further develop the productive forces.

4. Kautsky considered that after that crisis capitalism had generated new prosperity and then again entered into crisis, not precipitating decadence, but inaugurating the First World War in 1914. It did not act to modify the idea of decadent collapse and subsequently issued centrist criticisms. From such a position, the USPD drew reformist conclusions, the proletariat had to sustain an active policy through reforms in order to accelerate the passage to socialism.

In 1892 Kautsky stated in “The Socialist Programme”:

“Capitalist society is exhausted. Its dissolution is only a question of time. Irresistible economic evolution necessarily leads to the collapse of the capitalist mode of production. The constitution of a new society, destined to replace what exists, is no longer merely desirable, it has become inevitable”.

(Kautsky, K. “The Socialist Programme”. Apar. 6, Ch. IV, Constitution of the future society)

5. The socialist, then communist, left held decadentist positions from that war onwards, with three differentiated interpretations of imperialism and the collapse of capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Pannekoek theorised them in remarkable texts, whose critical study is necessary. Other theorisations also influenced radical sections of the proletarian movement, such as Henryk Grossmann’s “theory of collapse”, which gave rise to questionings and adherences that should also be studied in such an evaluative and critical approach. Today, we have a great deal of factual evidence at our disposal and we are able to carry out better tests. In our case, such research provides the basis for a broad and critical treatment of this issue, based on the following consideration: There is no historical evidence that capitalism has gone into decline.

6. The Communist International and its two most notorious lefts, the Italian and the German-Dutch, held decadentist approaches. From then on the consideration of whether or not the capitalist system is in decadence is important in the internationalist communist milieu.

7. During the 20th century and so far in the 21st century there have been other theorisations on the question of decadence, with collapsist and decadentist approaches also existing in petty-bourgeois leftist milieus.

8. In the internationalist communist milieu there are different positions: those who maintain the same as the CI did, those who have abandoned that and do not affirm anything about a possible future decadence, those who set other dates for the entry into decadence, and those who question that capitalism is in decadence, because we consider that this is fallacious and unconfirmed after a detailed analysis of the international capitalist system.

9. As far as this ongoing debate is concerned, there is a conception that capitalist decadence is not a framework to be sustained, as it is unnecessary (FC); another that places the beginning of this decadence at the beginning of the 20th century and questions the analyses that place it in 1914 (C.Mcl), and a third that conceives decadence as a future period to which capitalism must necessarily be heading.

The latter is our position, which considers that capitalism is approaching the zenith of its period of ascendancy, and in which we have delved into the characterisation of the conditions and characteristics of such a decadent period, as well as the implications for the class struggle and the international proletarian revolution.

B) The current debate. The terms in which it is posed and developed.

1. There is a need to clarify whether the crisis-war-reconstruction cycle is valid.

Such a cycle is not valid, it does not accord with the facts of the international development of capital. Evidently, the two world wars, the numerous regional or more localised wars, and the extraordinary level of militarism generated by capitalism, show that such a capitalist development cannot necessarily be harmonious and free of intense competition, abundant clashes and proliferation of wars.

On the contrary, the enormous development of capitalism itself so far shows that war must be of enormous catastrophic power when it acquires a global dimension and a powerful dissemination of terrorist warmongering in the struggles of the capitalist states and coalitions. However, war is not a sign of decadence, it has been present throughout the whole of capitalism, it increases in power as militarist technology is developed and it is necessary to understand today what tendencies are present, their potential and their dynamism, and above all why a third world war has not arisen when capital has generated notorious general economic crises. For our part necessary explanations are made. See:

“Conditions for a third world war. Origins of many confusions”.

2. Accurate approaches have to question whether capital would have gone into decline after   capitalist   chaos , and also criticising as wrong those who speculated that capital would not have a reserve army when carrying out such a process. There is such a reserve army, it is large and internationally spread; and the incorporation of these areas has taken place in a period of capital’s ascendancy, bringing in new lifeblood in a formidable process of proletarianisation and capitalisation.

We also consider decadentist theorisations centred on ecological degradation, fossil fuel depletion, or economic automation to be fallacious. Present trends and other realities do not allow us to claim that capitalism is sinking or on the verge of sinking. We know that capitalist reforms are also drivers of catastrophe, exploitation and bourgeois domination over the proletarian class, but capitalism still has the capacity to reform while maintaining its central core.

3. A theory of decadence is necessary. The mistakes of the past and the Marxist inadequacies and weaknesses do not make it possible to avoid such a necessary theory. It is also necessary to insist on the necessary existence of the periodic crises of capitalism, to specify the scientific communist explanation and to carry out a rigorous theorisation of the process of accumulation and crisis in the coming decadence.

4. The idea that decadence does not yet exist, but that it is bound to come under certain conditions, leads to the need to specify the strategic and tactical implications.

Revolution is gestated on the basis of dynamic contradictions in the process of class struggle. Therefore it should not be ruled out that these contradictions may come together before the entry into decadence, although at present it is clear that they have not yet come together and that we are far from it.

Now the conditions of capitalism are not favourable to “old-fashioned” revolutions. As Marx and Engels argued, the proletariat has to go through the painful school of mistakes, doubt, paralysing fear, relapse into old illusions and new experiences of struggle, in order to transform itself and reach a development of its consciousness and organisational capacity that will enable it to confront capital.

This leads us to consider that the best conditions for a proletarian revolution to emerge and unfold internationally are those of a deepening of decadence, generating significant tensions in crisp reiteration, in such a way as to configure a world situation in which the proletariat has to realise with strong massiveness, practical intelligence and theoretical lucidity its revolutionary movement; or else the danger of catastrophe for the two great classes in conflict is evident, in an environment degraded by the accumulation of numerous consequences of capitalism, social struggles and crises, wars and marked and complex environmental degradation.

We know that the future process cannot be specified in advance in all its details and characteristics, that there can be surprises and that energies and capacities can be awakened in certain    segments of the proletarian class in particular places. This cannot be ruled out, but it is certainly not the best condition for an international victory and therefore we must be consistent: push the struggle as far as possible but do not invite or applaud ill-prepared and scattered confrontations. In short, do not compromise with the suicide of such sectors if such a situation should arise.

5. Faced with a hypothetical revolutionary process prior to that decadent period, internationalist communists must critically assess its conditions if they intend to bring about the greatest possible confrontation with capitalism, and not an action that is composed of    immature and dispersed movements, which we know are easily defeated head-on or channelled towards their loss of energy and exhaustion, with the negative consequences that this usually brings for the proletariat, entrenched for many years to come.

It is not a matter of accumulating reforms and waiting, nor of bringing about an acceleration of capitalist development, both economically and politically; nor of course of participating in a world war in favour of a supposedly “less bad” or “favourable” bourgeois side for the future. It is about promoting extreme lucidity in the face of the power and capabilities of capital. It is about avoiding mistakes we know from the past. Mistakes that have been very costly in various fields.

6. In short, the experiences of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 make it advisable to be cautious and avoid launching into revolutionary processes which do not find adequate conditions and which, when defeated by the counter-revolution, engender a marked weakening in the proletarian milieu; and dispersion, confusion and various opportunisms in the communist milieu. An enemy such as the forces of capital   proletarian class that forms its force with much greater massiveness and lucidity than in those years.

7. Also the experience of the USSR demands to keep in mind that the substitutionist voluntarism (synthesized in “the dictatorship of the proletariat is the dictatorship of the communist party”) expression of a bad deformed approach on the relations Communist Party-Workers Councils, facilitates the passage of the communist vanguard to positions of management of capitalism, degrading communist theory and praxis, and thus forcing those who reject this substitutionism to confront such forces, once revolutionary communist, and in such conditions, as was the case with the Russian Bolshevik party, vectors of capitalist dissemination.

It is therefore necessary to know how to retreat when conditions do not permit the realisation of the communist programme, its measures and its orientations. That is why the KAPDist call to the RCP(b) to get out of government and state control was just, which, as we know, Bolshevism did not heed, thus marking its fatal passage to the anti-proletarian, pro-capitalist and imperialist forces.

8. It is not true that socialism is formed in capitalism as a definite system that contrasts and competes with capitalism and little by little gangrenates it until it imposes itself.  It is not the same process that happened in feudalism with the historical and economic ascent of capitalist relations.  

Capitalism does generate a certain material base that socialism needs, that propitiates abundance and not a society of scarcity.

We do not accept the Leninist scheme, which comes from a fallacious and distorted social-democratic inheritance-base. It is mystifying to affirm, like Leninism and Kautskyist ideology, that it is possible to control and direct state capitalism, the “prelude to socialism”. 

C) Development of our positions.

The likely characteristics of the decline of capitalism.

We reproduce part of a book published by us:

“We maintain that capitalism, in the development of its period of maturity, at present shows contradictory tendencies and expressions which indicate that it is approaching its apogee, but has not yet reached it. How long this process will take, of course, we cannot say. The development capacities of the characteristic and key elements of the capitalist force are at times slowing down, its inherent consequences are accumulating, generating enormous problems and suffering, there are numerous tensions, the debt continues to inflate, etc.; but such tendencies have not yet placed it at the beginning of its historical and social decadence, towards its irreversible suppression; for there are forces and conditions that, through new crises and devaluing catastrophes, will allow the potentialities it possesses, which are not exhausted, to emerge. We will probably see this in a few years’ time, given that the prodromes of an economic crisis are already in the making. There are also possibilities for the emergence of new emerging poles and the contradictory development of existing ones, which compensate for the shortcomings of the older poles. This is significant and important. 

For capitalism, the difficulties in its process of extended reproduction do not yet mark a tendency of historical and economic regression, but of advancing maturation with increasing difficulties, evidently towards its apogee and the beginning of its decadent period. Capitalist relations have not yet become an insurmountable barrier to the development of productive forces, wage labour and capital. The essential figures and trends we are setting out are there, eloquent. We will show some significant ones below.

In the decadent period, the relationship between its “have” and “must”, between its dynamism of growth as a system developing the productive forces amid periods and expressions of devaluations, and the historically cumulative increase in the general lassitude of this dynamism and its inability to do so as before, is definitively and irreversibly altered.

In this way, such periods of quantitative and qualitative devaluation will increase, not only generating brutal tensions and contradictions, tending to concentrate more and more the two essential poles of society and their confrontations, and to centralise the commanding power of capital; but also replacing its general growth capacities and causing more negative than positive elements to appear from the point of view of the generation of its key elements, more economic and social degradation than the creation of surplus value and social consensus.

As Marx foresaw in the Grundrisse:

“In sharp contradictions, crises, convulsions, the growing inadequacy of the productive development of society to its hitherto prevailing relations of production is expressed”.

… “Decadence is not the emergence and accumulation of major catastrophic effects, which capitalist civilisation has generated since its inception.      
It is the inability to maintain the pace of international growth and a marked decline over time. It is senescence, a phase of life where death is near. And for this death the proletarian revolution is necessary”.     

… “today it is appropriate to show how such tensions and evidence of limitation are not merely characteristic of an intermediate period of maturation, but bring us historically closer to its peak and the beginning of its period of decline. The contradictory and partly limiting forces that have been observed today, especially after the crisis that began at the end of 2007, are for us indications of this, but not of the onset of decadence, nor necessarily a “historical warning” that it is imminent. In Marxist communism, capitalism was often seen to be on the verge of death… and yet this “vision” was subsequently proven to be a mistake, with negative political and action implications.     

… “In relation to these great devaluing processes we are talking about, we repeat that it is not a permanent crisis. For us, as for Marx:

“These contradictions result in outbursts, crises, in which the momentary annulment of all labour and the destruction of a large part of capital bring it violently back to the point at which it is in a position to fully employ its productive forces without committing suicide”.

(Marx, K. “Fundamental Elements for the Critique of Political Economy. (Grundrisse) 1857-1859” (volume 2), Mexico, Siglo XXI, 2002, pp. 283-284).

The development of decadence expresses and favours a tendency for crises to periodically intensify and increase, for the need for greater devaluing “earthquakes” to become more marked and more intense than before, for greater destructive and disintegrating tensions and forces to appear, for greater efforts to reach previous levels of investment, production and profit, and for greater harmful consequences of capitalism against the proletarian class.

In such a way, the narrowing of the essential basis for the creation of surplus value, the variable capital or labour on the social scale of the proletariat, generates difficulties in making the working class itself grow at its former habitual rates; at the same time as the need to put pressure on its exploitation and domination increases, exacerbating the material and objective determinants of the class struggle…. and, very importantly, developing in such a period the process of deterioration of its welfarist, reformist and reconducting capacities… while high levels and forms of unemployment and forms of precariousness and insecurity are penetrating deeper and deeper into proletarian social existence and proletarianisation. Therefore tending intensively to create conditions for the development of proletarian rebellion to generate a moment when there is no turning back if survival is to be assured for large components of the proletarian class, as well as the great historical revenge of the dominated and exploited class in which the movement of capital and the experiences of its own movements have favoured the detestation of its relations, institutions, forms of socialisation, ideologies, mystifying subterfuges… its class civilisation”.           

 … “In such ways it is expressed that quantity becomes quality and quality generates new quantity of expressions… etc. Engels spoke of spiral development, and there are spirals of various kinds, non-rectilinear development, which is “transformation of quantity into quality”, “internal impulses of development caused by contradictions, by the clash of various forces and tendencies, which act on a given body, or within the limits of a given phenomenon or within a given society” (Engels, F. “Dialectics of Nature”). (Engels, F. “Dialectics of Nature”).

Much more is known about this today. Thus there is ample historical evidence that in a higher phase certain features and peculiarities of the lower phases are repeated, inserted in a qualitatively differentiated reality which has arisen by negating and surpassing in various ways the previous phase… etc. And the same can be assumed if one approaches the problem of the historical decadence of a society, of its “descending phase”, in Engels’ expression in the “Anti-Dhüring”.

In decadence, the accumulation of capital, the extended reproduction, is not abolished, since without it there is no capitalism. What is most characteristic is that its strength declines in terms of historical development, in a broad period of its senile history. But that does not imply that convulsions that recover certain levels of capacity and strength are absolutely excluded. Decadence, therefore, does not mean constant decline from the economic level reached in the heyday, nor does it mean the progressive absolute decline of the two essential classes.

These simplistic conceptions clash with Marx’s method and approach… and with the evolutionary evidence of the capitalist system itself. Specifically significant is that the rate of accumulation slows down, falls in intensity, but can still show fluctuations, both upwards and downwards. Such movements have to be understood in a broader, historically considered dynamism of trends that show a growing inability to achieve their traditional outcomes and objectives. Another specific sign is the tendency to limit the dynamic of valorisation, which fails to reabsorb and relaunch itself at higher rates than in the past, generating consequences that greatly exacerbate the class struggle. A combination of broad and deep, robust and acute crises, which are increasing rapidly; and periods of economic developments in production and trade, which are weak and light between these crises, limited in time and scope, in a complex battle between tendencies and countertendencies. A dynamic that the system can neither overcome nor reverse, which is not a conjunctural phenomenon but a combination of cycles that become permanent with these characteristic recessive dynamics.

As we can see, it will obviously be only after it has gone into decline that we will be able to state categorically that this is the case and when it has happened.

Now we can investigate and discuss where we are, whether or not we are entering or in the proximity of decadence, whether or not this period already has elements to assume it, etc. Today we can already see symptoms of the above-mentioned degradation of the proletariat in the precariousness and other forms of temporalisation and the generation of insecurity and degradation of the existential conditions of the proletarian class. There are also some symptoms of social proletarianisation, but there is still a long way to go at this level, the extent of which we do not know.

… “Obstacles to the development of the productive forces do not mean absolute closure of development, but development that is contradictorily limited and constrained, hindered, hindered in its movement. The system, then, does not stagnate, but cannot develop its full potential. Marx adds that a social-historical period of a revolutionary type then begins, the class struggle intensifies. There is no “purely economic” collapse, let alone “collapse of capitalism”. Marx argues that the belief in the existence of an absolute limit to capital through the problem of the rate of profit, as Ricardo did, was to approach the question “in a purely economic way, i.e. from the bourgeois point of view”. (Marx, K. “Capital”. Book III. )           

Marx states that the law of the decreasing tendency of the rate of profit “at a certain point is opposed with the greatest hostility to the very development of that productive force, so that it must constantly be overcome by means of crises”. “(“Capital. Book III. Ch. XV. Development of the contradictions of the law). To hold such a position is different from holding that the fall of the rate of profit is, in the long run, irreversible and leads to a final stage of stagnation. In “Theories of Surplus Value” Marx explains that it is a mistake to speak both of a permanent fall in the rate of profit and of a permanent crisis:

“When Adam Smith explains the fall in the rate of profit by an overabundance of capital, an accumulation of capital, he speaks of a permanent effect, and this is a mistake. In contrast, the transitory overabundance of capital, overproduction and crises are something different. Permanent crises do not exist.

(Marx, K. “Theories of surplus value”, Buenos Aires, Cartago 1975, t. 2, p. 426).

Marx argues in the “Grundrisse” that the contradiction of capital “is discharged in great squalls”, which are the modern crises “which increasingly threaten it as the basis of society and of production itself”. A few pages further on, referring to the immanent limits to accumulation which derive from the nature of capital, he points out that they manifest themselves “in overproduction” and “general devaluation”, so that “capital is simultaneously faced with the task of starting its attempt again from a higher level of development of the productive forces, etc., with an ever greater collapse as capital. It is clear, then, that the higher the development of capital, the more it will present itself as a barrier to production… regardless of all other contradictions…”. This is consistent with the position developed in “Capital” that crises generate dynamic forces which allow the rate of profit to rise again, and that therefore there can be no permanent crises. How much and for how long, and at what cost, would be the essential questions in relation to what we are dealing with.”

… “there are indications that we are approaching the apogee of capitalism. Therefore, it needs tremendous levels of devaluation to be able to relaunch itself, and this will generate tremendous crises and possible major wars, both commercial and military. The obstacles to them find enormous forces against them. At the military level, the so-called deterrent parity based on strategic nuclear armed power drives not only the continuation of the race for various strategic armaments and resources, but also significantly the formation of new imperialist alliances that break such parities. We will be watching developments as closely as we can in the coming years. More cannot be said with any certainty”.     

(“Where we are in the history of capitalism.                                                    Towards the decadence of capitalism, but not yet in it.” )

In another text we argue:

“The First World War, like the Second and the numerous more limited wars that have taken place and are taking place, have not destroyed civilisation, in this case its latest historical expression, capitalist. It is obvious that this civilisation is maintained, and therefore the set of conditions and effects that sustain it and interrelate in its reproduction.

The precise revolutionary dichotomy is “communism or civilisation”.

This civilisation, necessarily capitalist, generates multiple terrorist, catastrophic and degrading consequences, which have not annulled the capitalist capacity to accumulate on an international scale, to reproduce itself by expanding its scale of investment, business and command.

Capitalist devaluation and destruction have been and are part of a single process of expansion of capitalist mercantile civilisation, of its relations, structures and ideologies, a process of which the crises, which are not permanent, and the subsequent processes of capitalist development are part.

Only if in a future decadent phase of capitalism the catastrophic consequences were to become generalised at all levels and the proletariat were unable to carry out its world revolution and capital were unable to maintain its economic relations and domination, would the period of “ruin of both classes” that communism refers to open up.

The self-destruction of humanity is a possible consequence, but not the only or inevitable one. Let us look at several assumptions.

Obviously, if humanity were to self-destruct then one could speak of the annulment of civilisation.

If it were to generate a reactionary social and economic involution, with a part of the population remaining alive, historically we would be witnessing the development of a pre-capitalist form of civilisation, an involuted variety of capitalism. Neither the bourgeoisie would be able to maintain itself as a class nor the proletariat (both classes interrelate and need each other in capitalism), thus manifesting the so-called ruin of both classes referred to in the “Manifesto of the Communist Party” of 1848. Ruin which in this case would not mean the disappearance of humanity.

And if humanity is downsizing, shrinking and concentrating for various reasons in certain parts of the planet under the condition of a deep ecological crisis, the fall and disappearance of capitalism does not necessarily follow from this”.

Aníbal & materia. 5-02-2020

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