Discussion Contributions on the Question of Capitalism’s Decadence

Development of our positions: The likely characteristics of the decadence of capitalism

In the following exposition the authors continue from their previous contribution‘Decline and Senility of Capitalism with Marx, Engels and Communism’ (Also in: ‘A Free Retriever’s Digest’ Vol.5 #1, January – March 2021, p. 20 ff.) at the hand of extracts from two of their recent publications.

Excerpts of our book ‘Where we are in the history of capitalism. Towards the decline of capitalism, but not yet in it’ (1)

…“Decadence is not the emergence and accumulation of major catastrophic effects, which capitalist civilization 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”.

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

…“In relation to these grand devaluating processes we are talking about, we repeat that it is not a permanent crisis. For us, as for Marx: “These contradictions, of course, lead to explosions, crises, in which momentary suspension of all labour and annihilation of a great part of the capital violently lead it back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide.” (2)

The development of decadence expresses and favors a tendency for crises to periodically intensify and increase, for the necessity of heavier and intenser devaluating “earthquakes” than before, for more destructive and disintegrating tensions and forces to appear, for greater efforts to reach previous levels of investment, production and profit, and for more detrimental consequences of capitalism against the proletarian class.”

In this way, the narrowing of the essential basis for the creation of surplus value, the variable capital (or labor on the social scale of the proletariat) generates difficulties in letting the [size of the] working class grow at its former habitual paces. At the same time the necessity to intensify the latter’s exploitation and domination increases, which exacerbates the material and objective determinants of the class struggle. Very importantly, during this period, the deterioration of capacities of social assistance, of reforms and re-conducting is developing, while high levels and forms of unemployment and of precariousness and insecurity increasingly penetrate the social existence of the proletarians and those in the process of proletarianization. This increasingly tends to create the conditions for the development of proletarian rebellion, bringing about a point of no return, if one wants to ensure the survival of large components of the proletarian class, and the great historical revenge of the dominated and exploited class as well, in which the movement of capital and the experiences of its own movements have favored that its relations, institutions, forms of socialization, ideologies, mystifying subterfuges… its class civilization, become detestable.”

…“In decadence, the accumulation of capital, the extended reproduction, is not suppressed, since without it there is no capitalism. What is most characteristic is that its strength declines in terms of historical development, in a long 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 a constant decline from the economic level reached in the apogee, nor does it mean an absolute, progressive decline of the two essential classes.

These simplistic conceptions clash with Marx’s method and approaches… and with the evolutionary evidence of the capitalist system itself. Particularly significant is that the rate of accumulation slows down, diminishes in intensity, but can still show both upwards and downwards fluctuations. Such movements have to be understood in a broader, historic dynamism of tendencies that show a growing inability to achieve their traditional outcomes and objectives. Another specific sign is the tendency to limit the dynamic of valorization, 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 wide and deep, robust and acute crises, which are increasing rapidly; and periods of economic development of production and trade, which are weak and shallow between these crises, limited in time and scope, in a complex battle between tendencies and counter-tendencies. 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 its entry into decadence that we will be able to affirm that this is the case and when it has occurred.

Now we can investigate and discuss about where we are, whether or not we are entering decadence or are on its verge, whether or not this period already has elements to suppose it, etc. Today we can already see symptoms of the aforementioned degradation of the proletariat in precariousness and other forms of “casualization of labor” and generation of insecurity and degradation of the conditions of the proletarian class. There are also some symptoms of social proletarianization, 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 the absolute foreclosure of development, but a development that is contradictorily limited and restrained, hindered in its movement. The system, then, does not stagnate, but cannot develop its full potential. Marx adds that a social-historical period of revolution then begins, [that] the class struggle intensifies. There is no “purely economic” collapse, let alone a “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”. (3)

Marx affirms that the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall at a certain point comes into antagonistic conflict with this development and must be overcome constantly through crises. (4) To take such a position is different from assuming 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 from an overabundance of capital, an accumulation of capital, he is speaking of a permanent effect and this is wrong. As against this, the transitory over-abundance of capital, over-production and crises are something different. Permanent crises do not exist.” (5)

Marx argues in the ‘Grundrisse’ that the contradiction of capital discharges itself in great thunderstorms which increasingly threaten it as the foundation of society and of production itself. (6) A few pages further on, referring to the immanent limits to accumulation that derive from the nature of capital, he points out that they manifest themselves “in overproduction” and “general devaluation”, so that Capital, at the same time, [is] thereby faced with the task of launching its attempt anew from a higher level of the development of productive forces, with each time greater collapse as capital. Clear, therefore, that the higher the development of capital, the more it appears as barrier to production – hence also to consumption – besides the other contradictions which make it appear as [a] burdensome barrier to production and intercourse. (7) This is consistent with the position developed in Capital that crises generate dynamic forces allowing 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. More cannot be said with any certainty. We will be watching developments in the coming years as closely as we can.”

Excerpts from our text, ‘Communist critique of “catastrophist Marxism”. Against the denial of lucidity’ (8)

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

The correct revolutionary dichotomy is “communism or civilization.

This, necessarily capitalist, civilization 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 civilization, of its relations, structures and ideologies, a process of which the crises, which are not permanent, and the subsequent capitalist development are part.

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

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 civilization.

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 modality of civilization, an involuted variety of capitalism. Neither would the bourgeoisie 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. February 5, 2021

Source: Decadencia del capitalismo. Discusión. English: Decline of capitalism. Discussion at Left-wing Communism’, March 4, 2021.

Revised translation from Spanish by H.C, March 19, 2021, proofread by the author. Last edited: March 23, 2021.

This discussion is replicated in Spanish and French at the Inter-rev Forum: Tres textos sobre la cuestión de la decadencia del capitalismo. Un debate en curso.

1 See: Dónde nos encontramos en la historia del capitalismo. Hacia la decadencia del capitalismo, pero aún no en ella (Aníbal & materia, September 2018, Spanish). Pdf-edition: https://edicionesinterrev.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/dc3b3nde-nos-encontramos.pdf.

2 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Notebook VII – The Chapter on Capital; 3rd section [Capital as Fructiferous. Transformation of Surplus Value into Profit].

3 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III, Part III (The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall), Chapter 15: Exposition of the Internal Contradictions of the Law, III. Excess Capital And Excess Population.

4 Ibidem.

5 Karl Marx, Theories of surplus value, Part II [Chapter XVII]: Ricardo’s Theory of Accumulation and a Critique of it, [7. Absurd Denial of the Over-production of Commodities ….].

6 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Notebook IV – The Chapter on Capital, 2nd section; Capital as limit to production. Overproduction.

7 Ibidem.

1 thought on “Discussion Contributions on the Question of Capitalism’s Decadence”

  1. A first reply to Fredo
    We welcome the foregoing exposition of his point of view by Fredo, partly on our request, and the first English translation of Pannekoek’s 1916 article on “the economic necessity of imperialism”, by a joint effort, as contributions to the discussion on these pages apropos of C.Mcl.’s analysis and critiques of certain conceptions of capitalism’s decadence.
    In the first place, they clarify what is meant by the rather sibylline and defiant comments we initially received from Fredo, together with a historic text that, to our knowledge, has hitherto remained unknown to readers outside of the Dutch language area.
    Having said this, we think this contribution, in a way, “surpasses” any controversy about the precise criteria and characteristics of capitalism’s decadence, and thereby supersedes the question this discussion has departed from: whether the First World War (1914 – 1918) can and must be seen as its first and irreversible historic manifestation, as its author considers any “theory of decadence (…) not only contrary to reality but (..) also to the theoretical foundations of Marxism”.
    On our part, we think the comrade is profoundly mistaken in this respect and, as a consequence, takes a departure by himself from the “theoretical foundations of Marxism” he intends to defend. To substantiate this, our first reply consists in recalling these foundations by means of some extracts from the ‘Anti-Dühring’ that, in our opinion, quite explicitly show that the founders of ‘historical materialism’ indeed considered the course of any historical mode of production as characterized by an ascending and a descending branch (see Classics of Marxism – Famous Quotes and Extracts on this site). We think this provides at least one instance, and not a minor one, that “proves [the comrade] wrong”.
    Far from considering this primordial issue, or indeed Fredo’s other and very interesting considerations and objections, as being exhausted, we reflect on a more elaborate reply.
    Henry Cinnamon, May 2021.

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