Workers' Liberty #68


The epoch of decline

Chris Reynolds [WL63] has launched a worthwhile discussion on both the European Union and the nature of modern capitalism. I cannot, however, agree with his conclusion that capitalism remains progressive (his word) and hence there is no decline of capitalism.

By Hillel Ticktin.

The major term that he employs is progressive, a term much used by Stalinism and Stalinist parties. He points this out but does not draw the obvious conclusion that it has become so misused that it might be better dropped, at least until a redefinition can gain general acceptance.

Chris Reynolds quotes Lenin arguing that capitalism's progressiveness is given by its development of the productive forces and by its socialisation of labour. In fact, however, the crucial meaning to 'progressive' in his use of the term seems to be the one of development of the productive forces and/or the standard of living. It is interesting that he does not pursue the argument on socialisation to its natural end. If he had done so, he would have realised that capitalism cannot exist without socialising production. Even in its craziest days, under the influence of finance capital, its stress on small companies and the marketisation of the public sector did not impede big capital becoming bigger and the economy becoming more integrated. The fact that capital is conscious of its own interests and hence tries to impede the effects of socialisation, to the point of deindustrialisation, is also clear. As long as capital accumulates, however, it must socialise labour, but that does not stop it trying to take measures to counteract the increasing socialisation of labour.

The point is twofold. In the first instance, capital in its decline does attempt to reduce the socialisation of labour. In the second place, it is in the nature of the development of the forces of production that labour must be socialised and this cannot be changed, except through disaccumulation, i.e. capital ceasing to be capital. In other words, only in capitalism ceasing to be capitalism can the process of the socialisation of labour be stopped. This interpretation is basic to Marxism because it is Marx's view that the fundamental contradiction of capitalism lies in the relationship between the increasing socialisation of labour and the ever fewer magnates of capital. The contradiction only ends with the demise of capitalism.

Capital will continue to accumulate until capitalism ceases. Its overthrow is not a voluntary process, but one conditioned on the internal decline of capital itself, which is different from success indicators based on nominal growth. In principle, the socialisation of production might proceed to the point where production was so integrated and prices so arbitrary that the system is nothing but a hollowed-out shell of capitalism, waiting for its overthrow. In that period, productivity will continue to rise and the standard of living might do the same if the working class is sufficiently strong

Hence, capitalism must always be progressive, in the simple sense of an increasing level of socialisation, if we only look at the general direction of capital. On the other hand, to the degree to which capital introduces measures to counteract the effects of the growth of the productive forces or socialisation of labour, or reduce the rate of growth of either, it is reactionary. In reality, it acts in this way all the time. It rearranges management, production, firms, the public sector the better to control them. In so doing, it retards but does not stop development. It retards the use of automation until it returns a high rate of profit. It shifts production towards useless sectors like the military, which have the advantage that they can be used to discipline and not socialise the workforce. Where severely threatened it accepts and uses divisions in the workforce, like racism, nationalism, and sexism, which also reduce the effects of socialisation.

The underlying question is the nature of modern capitalism. Can it raise the standard of living, can it develop the productive forces? Clearly it can. No one can argue against that point. Even in the depths of the Great Depression of the thirties, the productive forces were being advanced, even if the standard of living was not. No serious Marxist has ever argued that the decline of the system involves a systematic and permanent decrease in the growth statistics of the economy. That may be Bakuninist or primitive Marxism but it is not serious.

Paul Hampton [WL64-5] has outlined quite succinctly my own general viewpoint. I will not repeat it.

The fact is that the period from 1940-73 is quite exceptional in the history of capitalism. If we look at capitalism until 1940, we find that growth is relatively low. Indeed total growth of the standard of living in the UK from 1800 to 1940 is a fraction of that growth between 1940-1973. In parallel, we can also point to the fact that the full franchise only dates from 1928 in the UK. The idea that democracy in the UK dates back to Magna Carta is a ruling class myth, which is utterly risible.

What conclusions can we draw from these facts? Chris Reynolds concludes that capitalism is not in decline but is 'progressive'. I argue the contrary, that capitalism is in decline and that the word progressive has only limited meaning because I look at the fundamental nature of capitalism. which is to accumulate, through the production of surplus value. What happens to the standard of living or to the GNP is a secondary product, dependent on the nature of class forces. Clearly where the working class has won a victory or threatens to overthrow the system, the ruling class will concede or repress or both. They have tried all possibilities. After the 2nd World War they took the decision to go for growth, so abandon the reserve army of labour, permit or encourage rising real wages, and develop the public sector in order to raise that standard of living etc. These measures are inherently conflictual with the nature of capitalism, which is why the capitalist class has been trying to remove or reduce them in the period since 1973.

In reality, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Cold War were crucial to the development of modern capitalism and these are both forms which are in capitalism but also beyond it.

The point is that there are special laws influencing the law of value, depending on the stage of capitalism. As a result, no simple generalisation across stages makes any sense. The Marxist method of abstraction insists on discovering the crucial source of change in each instance and avoids simplistic models or generalisations.

The decline of capitalism must involve a decline in the operation of the law of value. both in extent and in itself. The latter refers to the increasing replacement of labour by machinery, which is leading logically to the point where value is abolished. That has not happened, as yet, but the process of automation is obvious. As a result, prices come to be arbitrary, dependent on the degree of control over the market, rather than value. The growth of 'monopoly' is an expression of this fundamental tendency. At the present time, we might expect that the lack of alignment of value and price might be partially restored in a depression. The fact, however is that there is such a serious divergence for long periods of time that it threatens the system itself in a serious downturn.

The forces of production, and the market, have gone beyond the nation state. We would expect, therefore, national barriers to fall. Today, indeed, the bourgeoisie has turned against nationalism. The EU is part of this inevitable process. The fact that the bourgeoisie is internationalist does not mean that socialists should join up with the bourgeoisie. Indeed, workers today relate much more to their own individual location, because that is where they work, than the bourgeoisie, which can transfer its capital to another country at any given moment. New federations are neither to be supported nor to be opposed. If you have a train, it must have track. We are neither for nor against the track. On the other hand, we must be against the socio-economic system and its practical effect in laws of the new federation. I am suggesting that we are neither for nor against the EU but we are against the Maastricht treaty for example.

Chris Reynolds' line leads logically to the support of the bourgeoisie as a progressive force because they are inherently internationalist, and antiracist, and against all laws preventing the free flow of labour. That is the inherent nature of capital because capital is itself congealed abstract labour and abstract labour requires a fully flexible workforce. The fact that actually existing capitalism is nationalist, sexist and racist does not alter the overall tendency.

Why do workers today relate to their own locality, accept racism, sexism, nationalism etc? Stalinism and social democracy, which are part of capitalist decline, have a heavy burden to bear here, as well as the historic legacy of imperialism. These distorted forms are as much part of the concessions made after the October Revolution as the direct material advantages obtained by the proletariat. But what do we conclude from this? If we follow Chris Reynolds we should start a purified bourgeois party as a first stage towards a socialist revolution.

The only possible answer is that the period of particular bourgeois concessions, which led to these distorted working class forms, is over and it is over because Stalinism is finished.

Trotsky spoke of a transitional period, which opened up because of the betrayal of social democracy. In other words, we live under capitalism today because of that betrayal and it is a special type of capitalism.

There are three aspects of decline. The first reflects the political decline of the bourgeoisie in that it was overthrown in 1917 and the whole epoch now reflects that overthrow. The second reflects the fact that value itself is more restricted or decadent, as in finance capital. This aspect is discussed in more detail by Paul Hampton in your columns and still more detail in my Critique articles. The third refers to the increasing difference between actual and potential production, which Chris Reynolds constantly cites, when the comparison is made with socialism, but the theoretical importance of which he does not seem to see.

Capitalism in the imperial countries has clearly expanded very rapidly in the post war period but the situation in the rest of the world is much more problematic. Growth rates do not give a correct picture of the real situation of the workers and peasantry in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In many countries and in many parts of countries, the standard of living remains elemental at a time when the real surplus in the United States, and elsewhere is sufficiently high to fundamentally alter their state.

The twentieth century has been a century of unprecedented barbarism, precisely due to the death throes of a capitalism, which will not die. Today we witness, more than ever, untold wealth standing opposed to untold misery. Millions die of curable or preventable diseases, while the ruling class of the United States wastes 250 billions on arms production. Above all, the gap between what could be accomplished with the talents of the whole population and what is accomplished is wider than ever. Thus even at the simplest empirical level, one might have thought that decline was obvious.

* Hillel Ticktin is Editor of Critique and Professor of Marxist Studies in The Centre for the Study of Socialist Theory and Movements, Glasgow University.

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