Discussion Contributions on the Question of Capitalism’s Decadence

Is Decadence an Economic Phenomenon?
(Link, May 17, 2021)

I think it is important at this time to be discussing issues relating to the concept of decadence with an openness and a willingness to question. So I am interested to read the various thought-provoking texts here. The development of capitalism in the recent period clearly raises question about the meaning of decadence and obsolescence and in particular the views of development in capitalism, i.e. the historic course, cycles of crisis, war and reconstruction, and the consequent theory of a final phase – decomposition. All of these now appear insufficient to explain actual development and, as C.Mcl. says, reflect an unwillingness to look at the empirical evidence.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I do seem to detect an ongoing ICC influence in the ideas of C.Mcl., FC and Aníbal in this thread in that there is a common ground in the acceptance of the economic nature of decadence. This approach is for me derived particularly from Luxemburg’s view that accumulation is dependant on non-capitalist markets and from this comes the idea that decadence is about the inability to expand and accumulate because of market limitations. It is primarily this approach that I wish to criticise.

For example, C.Mcl. criticises my use of the quote from Marx but I think he misunderstood my meaning:

«Finally, I agree with the passages of Grossman and Marx cited by Link … but they in no way demonstrate the ‘decadence in 1914’ since Grossman writes that “accumulation proceeds at an accelerated tempo” and that Marx writes “a large capital with a small rate of profit accumulates faster than a small capital with a large rate of profit”. “Accelerated tempo” and “accumulates faster”, if words have a meaning, it’s very different from “…a fetter on the growth of productive forces…”» (Reply by C.Mcl., Nov. 15 2020)

My point was that this is precisely what has happened to capitalism over the past three centuries and that we cannot or should not expect capitalism to show economic decline in decadence because it is a system that must always grow.

FC rejects any idea of decadence or a decline in the system because of nature of the proletarian revolution and because both capital and the working class continue to grow. I hope I am not misconstruing this viewpoint but it would appear to imply that capitalism has no internal contradictions and is simply an ongoing process. Whilst I can understand the criticism FC makes of a simplistic idea of capitalism as growth, peak and decline, this approach seems based on an interpretation of decadence as economic decline. This should not prevent us periodising the different phases of capitalism.

Aníbal rejects decadence, as yet, because of the continued growth of capital and suggests:

“(Decadence) … 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.” (Aníbal in ‘Decline and Senility of Capitalism with Marx, Engels and Communism, May 2020)

Aníbal however also quotes from Marx, Capital Vol. 3, Chapter 15:

Here the capitalist mode of production is beset with another contradiction. Its historical mission is unconstrained development in geometrical progression of the productivity of human labour. It goes back on its mission whenever, as here, it checks the development of productivity. It thus [only] demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived.”

I’ve highlighted what I see as an important statement in this quote and it is repeated elsewhere is this chapter which is basically about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the contradictions it engenders:

“The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move — these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means — unconditional development of the productive forces of society — comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.” (Marx, Capital Volume 3, Chapter 15)

These quotes identify a contradiction in capital, that growth is inevitable if the system remains functioning (or for the system to remain functioning) and not that a ‘marked decline’ should be expected.

I suggest therefore that the discussion of what is decadence and/or obsolescence should not simply be about economic growth and economic decline in the context of a mode of production that is always dynamic. Indeed decadence means different things in different modes of production.

Absolute decline of capitalism is not an option unless perhaps we are talking of total collapse and therefore barbarism itself? (However this is another issue which I think needs discussion. ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ has been a good catchphrase and whilst I can’t disagree with it, there is no analysis as to what barbarism actually is or how it comes about. Hence this is in my opinion another issue to discuss in context of the different views of capitalism’s ascendancy and decadence.)

The point made by Marx that is important is that the relations of production become a fetter on the forces of production. I suggest that the term ‘fetter’ is open to interpretation. It does not have to mean a decline or an absolute barrier and I would argue that it should be seen as a hindrance, i.e. something which stops the full potential of the productive forces being reached. Are not the vast amounts of waste production incurred in today’s society, let alone war itself and the general brutality of capitalism examples of fetters on the production forces (both technical and human)? Furthermore the economic perception of decadence must also imply a purely economic cause for the onset of decadence itself. Luxemburg does this in the sense that the restriction of non-capitalist markets means a restriction on accumulation. However, neither the falling rate of profit nor the markets theory can identify a specific numerical level of the factors that trigger decadence or even crises. This period of decline must come out of a conjunction of factors rather than a single cause.

So, on the basis that capitalism must always continue to accumulate and grow, then perhaps we should not see decadence as an issue of quantitative change, i.e. economic decline, but of qualitative change, i.e. the political and social changes demanded by the change in the economic environment.

As I said previously, I am inclining therefore to a preference for the term obsolete where it can no longer be seen as progressive for humanity and where political changes such as state capitalism, ideological control of the working class, attritional wars and economic issues such as imperialism, debt, increased exploitation, increased waste production, development of business theories play an increased role.

This viewpoint requires a comparison with an analysis of ascendancy too. This was the period of the formation of capitalist domination through the creation of national and then the world market, the creation of nation states and the domination of private capital. I had occasion to read Chapter 25 of Capital Volume 1 recently and was interested to see Marx’s description of the despotism of private capitalists and the deteriorated conditions of the working class in the mid 19th Century compared to the increasing growth of capitalism and of the increasing wealth of capitalists. This seems to be where he gets the idea of the increasing pauperisation of the masses and reflects a view of the decline of capitalism in that the situation at that time.

The growth of world GDP in this period was actually quite slow too, as was the population growth. What was happening therefore during ascendancy was not a major explosion of growth – although it was clearly the start of a higher rate of growth over and above slave and feudal societies. What was occurring during this period were major qualitative changes in manufacturing and in political and social systems that supported the emerging capitalism. It was a slow process of taking political control away from feudal systems and introducing mass production based on markets and monetary economies to replace self subsistence and production for self.

By this I mean the introduction of not only wage slavery and capital but also capital investments, joint stock companies, increasing technological developments, social change, parliament, nation state, nationalism, technical standards, scientific research, materials development, energy supplies, communications and transport industries, mass production, factories, industrial towns, international trade, colonialism, private industry and despotic management and so on.

It is my view therefore that the changes that took place at the start of the 20th Century were about the completion of capitalism’s historic tasks of creating the world market and the domination of the capitalism class. I note that C.Mcl. accepts this was a period of significant change but I have not seen an analysis of this nor of what period we have seen during the 20th Century and would be interested to hear this.

There are significant economic and political changes that take place from the start of the 20th Century. In this period, we have seen state capitalism come to dominate the economy, ideological domination over the working class, mature imperialism, world and regional wars, immigration back to core nations, massive increasing in debt, banks and financial services industries, waste production, population explosions, Third World’ poverty. All of which continually disrupt social existence and generate variously, populism due to lack of solutions for managing society, increased measures to appease the working class and keep it placid alongside outright dictatorship and ever more rapid social changes.

It seems to me appropriate therefore to use terms such as decadence and obsolescence for this period. The initial period from WW1 to the end of WW2, which correspond very much to ideas of war and revolution and catastrophe. Since then capitalism has restructured and the ruling class (after the wave of struggle in the 1960s-1980s) has now regained relatively more control over its system – bearing in mind though the context of both the changes and the problems I mentioned above.

I also note that Aníbal analyses the recent century as a period of mature capitalism and I can understand the meaning of this but mature and obsolescence can surely go hand in hand. I find it absurd now that we could have believed that a small capitalism could grow faster than the large capitalism we have now.

Aníbal suggests that decadence is still to come but I assume this is specifically on the issue that capitalism is still growing – although I am interested to hear more detail (or be referred to an appropriate text). Aníbal for example presents this forecast for a decadence to come:

“Decadence means meagre and ailing development, the exhaustion of the vitality of capitalism. It is there that the social and economic reorganization on a communist basis, on “work, knowledge and associated enjoyment” will appear as a broadly felt, ever more imperative and urgent, need. As a result of a historical necessity and of an economic determinism expressed in the contradictions of the world capitalist system. And therefore it will be expressed in a decline of the capacity of the States and the forces of capital to contain the class struggle, and in an incentive to the constitution of the proletariat as an independent class, and therefore as a party opposed to all defenders of value and merchandise. This situation begins, fluctuates, and develops in such a way that it shows (tendentially and in reality) not to be a passing phenomenon. It is not simply a hard crisis lasting years. Nor is it a chronic crisis, because there are elements of development after the collapses, and a certain level of accumulation, but slowed down, fluctuating downwards, with enormous difficulty to reverse the process. It is at this time that the relations of production constitute a most powerful barrier to the development of the productive forces. The number of wage-earners stops growing historically and, in the same way as with the accumulation of capital, there are cyclical fluctuations, but the process continues downwards. The system is more concentrated in terms of wealth, political power and capacity for repressive, mixed and antisocial action, but it cannot create a growing network of proletarians, improve certain conditions of life, allow vital standards that, although deteriorated, affect important detachments of workers. Likewise, technification will make it difficult for millions and millions of workers to find an easy way out of the international labor market.” (Aníbal in ‘Decline and Senility of Capitalism with Marx, Engels and Communism)

It’s a long quote because I wasn’t quite sure how to summarise it and I particularly want to pose the question of where do these predictions come from? I can see no basis for them.

There appear to be many political analyses today that suggest that change is afoot but it is clearly a complex period with little clarity of direction and it seems to me that too often revolutionaries have been wrong in their predictions as to how capitalism will develop (including as I say Marx) and of working class revolution. Such forecasts worry me.

In the end, a reappraisal of capitalism’s phases of development is constructive and necessary to understanding what is going on today and in my view we should recognise the weaknesses of a purely economic theory of decadence and investigate what acts as a ‘fetter on the forces of production’ in terms of political and social terms as well.

Link, May 17, 2021

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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