Workers' Liberty #2/2


FORUM


Decline of reality, or decline of theory?


In Workers' Liberty 63 I wrote an article ('New Forces and Passions') against the commonplace Marxist idea that capitalist development has been 'in decline' or 'reactionary' since about World War 1. Like it or not, capitalist development has generally been - and still is - advancing; socialists should not be waiting for the 'decline' to become sheer free-fall, but instead organising and promoting the working-class 'new forces and passions' which capitalist advance generates as its inescapable subversive counterpart. Instead of casting around for ways to 'stop' capitalist globalisation, our perspective should be (in the phrase of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri) for 'the multitude, in its will to be-against and its desire for liberation, [to] push through Empire to come out the other side'.

By Chris Reynolds

In Workers' Liberty 63 I wrote an article ('New Forces and Passions') against the commonplace Marxist idea that capitalist development has been 'in decline' or 'reactionary' since about World War 1. Like it or not, capitalist development has generally been - and still is - advancing; socialists should not be waiting for the 'decline' to become sheer free-fall, but instead organising and promoting the working-class 'new forces and passions' which capitalist advance generates as its inescapable subversive counterpart. Instead of casting around for ways to 'stop' capitalist globalisation, our perspective should be (in the phrase of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri) for 'the multitude, in its will to be-against and its desire for liberation, [to] push through Empire to come out the other side'.

My polemic has brought four replies - Paul Hampton in WL 64-5, Hillel Ticktin in WL66, and Bruce Robinson and Clive Bradley in WL 2/1.

Some of these writers suspect me of preaching a bland confidence in the capacity of capital to 'augment the raw materials for socialism in a linear manner', or even giving credence 'to the support of the bourgeoisie as a progressive force'. In fact, I borrowed the words of Rosa Luxemburg from 1915, about the 'brutal victory parade of capital... bear[ing] the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because [it] create[s] the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination', in order to make the point that I was no more recommending complaisance towards modern globo-capital than Luxemburg was cheering on the imperialism of the First World War. I wrote that: 'The thought here is certainly not... that things get better, evenly, steadily, bit by bit, all the time'. I described capitalist development today as 'saturated with violence, robbery and infamy... cruel, disgusting and crisis-ridden'.

I also tried to make clear that I would not choose 'progressive' as a summary descriptive term for capitalist development today. To do that, I wrote, would be 'incongruous or even politically false'.

In left-wing discourse for most of the 20th century, 'progressive' usually signified 'naive or venal enough to support Stalinist swindles'. The word does not come down to us with a sharp, clear meaning. Even in his time, Marx preferred the adjective 'revolutionary' when he wanted to refer to capital as a social force pushing forward rather than stagnating or falling backwards.

But the conventional view against which I was contending is that capitalist development was 'progressive' until about World War 1, and then has been 'reactionary' ever since. My argument was that capitalist development today is 'progressive' in broadly the same sense as the conventional view deems it to have been before World War 1. I did not wish to obscure or soften that point by burying it under a side-argument, however valid, about 'progressive' generally not being the best adjective to convey a Marxist view, either now or then.

The basic argument against me from Paul Hampton and Hillel Ticktin is that through monopolies, state enterprise and regulation, and so forth, capitalist economy diverges more and more from 'the law of value which is its fundamental law of motion'. And that divergence is the decline of capitalism.

Here I'm embarrassed. Over the years I have read dozens - no, hundreds - of books and articles asserting or assuming that the law of value is the basic defining law of capitalism. It still makes no sense to me, and possibly that's just my slow wits. For now, though, assume that we can formulate a proposition, the law of value, which encapsulates a theory of how a capitalist economic system works, and we establish that the divergences between capitalist reality and that theoretical model become greater and greater.

Why must we read this as showing that capitalist reality is increasingly not up to the mark, rather than as showing that the theoretical model is increasingly not up to the mark? Maybe the Hampton-Ticktin theory of capitalism is 'in decline', rather than us having to label the world around us as 'in decline' because it increasingly departs from the model in Paul's and Hillel's heads?

So far as I know, the only extended discussion of the term 'law of value' in the Marxist classics is Engels' supplementary note to volume 3 of Capital entitled Law of Value and Rate of Profit.1 Engels nowhere states a 'law' of the format that we are used to with, say, Newton's Laws of Motion, or the Laws of Thermodynamics. Instead, by 'law of value', he seems to mean the rule by which the value of commodities is determined by the social labour-time of their production, and the exchange of commodities is determined by their values.

That is no closer to being 'the law of motion' of the whole system than the proposition that water boils at 100C is to being 'the law of motion' of a steam engine.

Engels argues that in 'simple commodity production' - an economy of small producers, each owning their own (small) means of production - the rule operates more or less directly. 'Prices, on average, approach to within a negligible margin of values'. In capitalist production, however, the rule operates much more indirectly. Prices diverge systematically from being proportional to values, even apart from the discrepancies due to cheating, short-term variations of supply and demand, monopolies, and so on.

Engels quotes Marx: 'The whole difficulty arises from the fact that commodities are not exchanged simply as commodities, but as products of capital, which claim participation in the total amount of surplus-value proportional to their magnitude...' Thus, commodities produced by capitals with a high proportion of constant capital (equipment, buildings, raw materials, etc.) to variable capital (living labour) systematically have prices above those proportional to value, and commodities from capitals with more 'labour-intensive' production systematically have prices below proportionality, so that capitals receive surplus-value in proportion to their total size as capitals, not in proportion to the living labour they use.

On this account, actual prices moving further away from direct 'law of value' proportions - because some capitalist industries become highly automated, while there are always some remaining 'labour-intensive' - is a sign of capitalist advance, not decline. What would truly signal a catastrophic decline of capitalism would be a closer and more direct approximation to the 'law of value'!

For Paul Hampton, I think, what brands capitalism as knackered is not so much these divergences of price from value-proportions, due to differing compositions of capital, but others due to monopoly, state subsidies and so on. He could also mention sales taxes, I guess.

As Bruce Robinson indicates (WL 2/1), it is not certain that divergences of that sort are in fact increased in modern capitalism. In any case, if those divergences did increase, why would it signal 'decline'?

Paul also mentions 'the rise in unproductive labour... arms production... the growth of finance capital'. These are important tendencies, but they have nothing directly to do with how much prices diverge from value-proportions. The thought seems to be that the capitalist norm is an atomised ultra-free-market economy, all small enterprises, with their cash kept under the owners' mattresses and a minimal state, and any departure from that indicates 'decline'.

Hillel's notion, cited by Bruce, that nationalisation, planning, and large bureaucratic apparatuses of any sort are 'inherently anti-capitalist', is in the same line of thinking.

But doesn't that mean relabelling the whole development of capitalism out of small-scale commodity production - growing power of fixed capital, concentration and centralisation, development of credit, increased economic role of the state, etc. - as 'decline'? How does that help understanding?

To be sure, the advance of capitalism always has a sort of 'decline' built into it, in that it enlarges the contradictions and the scope for crises, and augments the subversive potential of the working class. But 'decline' built into advance is different from decline, full stop.

Hillel states that: 'Its [capitalism's] overthrow is not a voluntary process, but one conditioned on the internal decline of capital itself'. Paul is horrified that I imply that 'capitalism will go on and on, unless the working class intervenes (or the system destroys the planet)'. But, yes, the capitalists will 'go on and on' unless someone acts, 'voluntarily', to change things! History is human action, and unless their adversaries act the capitalists will have their way. There is no superhuman force - no person doing the same job in world history that Anne Robinson does in the TV quiz show - to tell capitalism, 'You are the weakest link. Goodbye', while the working class watch from our sofas.

When Trotsky, for example, wrote about the decline of capitalism in the 1930s, he had a much less abstruse idea of it than Paul and Hillel. 'Mankind's productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth... the proletariat grows neither numerically nor culturally'. Even in that sort of 'decline' Trotsky did not believe that capitalism would be overthrown without a 'voluntary process'. And the sort of decline-within-advance which is endemic to capitalist development certainly requires working-class action if it is to become a factor in stopping the capitalists 'going on and on'.

Is the idea behind Paul's and Hillel's argument that capitalism has a system of self-regulation proper to it - the free market - and that if it moves away from that then it becomes increasingly unable to manage? If so they are wrong. Markets do have some self-regulating mechanisms, but the notion that a comprehensive free market provides an ideal system of regulation for capitalism is an ideological myth concocted by late 19th century bourgeois economists in their attempts to do down socialism. Actually, even capitalism - let alone a better system - requires, and has developed, large measures of non-market regulation.

I agree with pretty much everything Bruce Robinson writes, including about the destructive tendencies in capitalism today. But I do not see how his conclusion follows: that our overall assessment of capitalist development today must be indeterminate, neither advance nor decline.

Is the industrial development visible in several ex-colonial countries today a real capitalist development (accompanied by great horrors and crises within itself, and vast pauperisation on its edges), or is it just a 'fake' industrialisation, as some radicals say? Does capitalist globalisation represent an advance in global communications and interlinking (together with all sorts of villainies), or is it just a matter of the USA going out to plunder the rest of the world because normal capitalist profit-making has hit a dead end? Is there a real expansion of the productive forces outside national limits involved in the European Union, or is it just a political gambit by the German ruling class to control workers across Europe?

We can answer yes - the industrial development is real; we have to aim to push through capitalist globalisation rather than stop or reverse it; and so on - without becoming apologists in any way for the IMF, the European Commission, or the capitalists of countries like South Korea. To give an indeterminate answer - 'don't know', or 'a bit of one and a bit of the other' - is unhelpful. In fact I suspect Bruce would answer yes to all those questions. Isn't there a common underlying question that he should also answer yes to?

Clive Bradley has a different objection, centred on a question I mention in passing in the article.

'What', I wrote, 'about Lenin's insistence, in his wartime writings, that his revolutionary anti-war position was based on identifying the current period as 'the epoch of the reactionary, obsolete bourgeoisie' whereas a different attitude was correct in 'the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie'? (Socialism and War. I think Hal Draper gives the right answer to this question in... his book War and revolution: Lenin and the myth of revolutionary defeatism. Despite myths promoted by opportunists in World War 1 and taken for good coin by Lenin, the basic approach of Marx and Engels on wars in their time was the same as the internationalists' in World War 1)'.

Clive is bothered that my argument might suggest that 'advanced capitalism is not necessarily imperialist'. Almost all ruling classes are 'imperialist' in the general sense of seeking to expand their power, privilege and revenues. The advanced capitalist ruling classes are 'imperialist' in that sense. We can identify the mechanisms - IMF plans, trade agreements between unequal economic powers, demands from big investors on host countries, extortionate interest payments, the role of the dollar as world currency, royalties from high technologies, and so on - through which they pursue their specific sort of imperialism, and a horrible business it is too.

But if the word 'imperialist' is taken in the narrower sense of the imperialism of great rival colonial empires, dominant in 1916 when Lenin wrote Imperialism, then in fact advanced capitalism is not necessarily imperialist. In recent decades the big capitalist ruling classes have concluded - partly under the impact of repeated colonial revolts - that market and para-market mechanisms provide a much cheaper, more reliable, and less risky way for them to profiteer world-wide than military conquest and colonial rule over weaker nations.

The problem with making the proposition 'advanced capitalism is necessarily imperialist' into an axiom - and then, effectively, redefining 'imperialism' as 'whatever advanced capitalist states do' - is that we end up with a politics which combats advanced capitalism not so much because it is capitalist as because it is advanced. The more advanced, the worse! In the original article I tried to spell out the destructive implications of this stance for socialist politics.

1. Many writers hold that this text is yet another example of bad old Engels bowdlerising Marx's ideas. However, as far as I know Marx never discussed the term 'law of value' in any extended way, least of all in any text he readied for publication.


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