What are fetters on the productive forces?
(Link, December 11, 2021)
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.” (1)
This is Marx’s clearest statement on the development and decline of modes of production and forms the basis of the classic Marxist position taken by all Marxist groups today. It was however written in 1859, when capitalism was still in its ascendant phase and Marx was still primarily writing about how capitalism was developing. At that time he had obviously no experience of what capital in decline is like today and could only generalise from history, so it should not be surprising if his expectations for capital’s decline are not totally correct.
This text is not questioning Marx’s general analysis of historical materialism as he is completely correct to say that: “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.’’ (2) Being determines consciousness is an important point from which we understand that all elements of capitalism today are or form a totality of interrelationships that is society today. This is his understanding of historical materialism which I do not question in any way. However, recognising the totality does not mean we cannot distinguish and separate different elements of society in order to understand the processes of social development.
When Marx raises the issue of stages of development and the fetters on productive forces it seems to me that, in this regard, there are different interpretations that can be placed on this analysis. This is what I wish to discuss in this text and relate to our understanding of decadence.
The classic Marxist interpretation of this statement is that it means an economic conception of the change between an ascendant and a declining or decadent mode of production, that during the decadence of a mode of production the relations of production turn into a brake or a limitation on the economic development of the productive forces.
This is an economistic view of the process of decline in the sense that the vision of ascendancy and decadence is specifically one that can be characterised by the state of the economy. This is which is clearly acknowledged by Kamerling for example:
“The theory of decadence is the concretisation of historical materialist method in the analysis of the evolution of modes of production. (…) Marx, Engels and Pannekoek make it clear that a historical event as crucial as the transition of the capitalist mode of production from ascendancy to decadence cannot be explained by a phenomenon of the superstructure, but only in the context of the evolution of “the production and reproduction of real life”. The qualitative change in the conditions of world economy are caused by insoluble economic contradictions, by the increasingly sharpening antagonisms between the productive forces and the social relations of bourgeois society. In decadence these contradictions lead to continuously emerging economic crises, accompanied by political and social crises, including war, which take on a global character, expressing themselves on a world level.” (3) (my emphasis)
However, is this interpretation correct?
It clearly does apply when we compare one mode of production with its replacement mode of production. Each successive mode of production (i.e. tribal, slave, feudal and capitalist societies) demonstrates economic and social changes which enable some improvement in the forces of production over and above the previous system, that much is clear. This can certainly be interpreted to mean that the old mode of production acts as a historic fetter on the progress of human society.
What I do want to question is just how accurate this classic, economistic interpretation is when applied to the actual periods of decline of each mode of production i.e. before the new one has fully established itself. The specific experience of capitalism we have does, I think, poses questions for this interpretation.
The term ‘fetter’ is itself open to different interpretations when applied to the period of decline of any given mode of production. Is it a halt or a brake on the economy, is it a reduction in the size of the economy, is it a restriction against what is possible from the forces of production, is it an internal or external limit to production? Surely all of these are possible interpretations but the question is what happens in reality. Marx says the relations of production act as fetters but, again, what does this mean – is it about the impact of waged labour and classes, is it imperialism and the destruction of war, is it the nation state, is it competition, debt, inflation, non-capitalist markets or capitalist markets, etc.?
These questions pose the issue of how the concept of a fetter on production forces should be used in [the] discussion of the process of decline of a mode of production and, indeed, of whether Marx was entirely correct in this aspect. Perhaps, at this point of capitalism’s life, we should be more concerned with the destructiveness of the productive forces rather than complain they are being restricted!
At the start of the 21st century it is evident that despite periodic economic crises and, indeed, ongoing issues caused by the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, what has also been taking place is an ongoing and indeed accelerating level of accumulation. Unfortunately those that adhere to the aforementioned ‘classic Marxist interpretation’ only see economic decay and decline in their analysis of the capitalist economy in decadence. However, let’s be clear, economic growth is itself a feature of the capitalist economy and should not be ignored in assessing the conditions of decadence. Economic growth in decadence is a particular feature of capitalism!
Alongside the economic and social crises, what we have seen in this period since the start of the 20th century is an enormous overall increase in the productive capacity of capital which has been much greater than what was possible during the ascendant phase of capitalism. There has also been an enormous increase in population, something which Marx saw as a consequence of accumulation.
What we have not seen is anything like the absolute halt or collapse in the forces of production that Luxemburg for example suggests. (4)
This raises 2 possibilities, either a) decadence has not actually started or alternatively b) that the concept of decadent capitalism needs rethinking.
C.Mcl. in his research material (5) produces a wealth of evidence of the growth of capitalism since the start of the 20th century and of various changes that indicate improved conditions. He appears to take the view that decadence has not yet started because economic growth cannot take place in decadence, decadence can only be economic collapse. Whilst he recognises that significant changes in capitalism took place in the 20th century, he does not (at least in the document referred to above) analyse these changes nor identify their meaning. This is a weakness of his analysis and all he is effectively saying is that because the various factors he identifies appear to represent beneficial improvements in society then capitalism must still be in its ascendancy. This is a view which is based on the classic interpretation we saw earlier, i.e., it is dependent on decadence purely as an economic phenomenon. So while it appears very much at odds with the analysis that there is decadence since 1914, it is in fact a viewpoint based on the same premise.
Lenin, Luxemburg, the 3rd International as well as contemporary organisations such as the ICT, the ICC and others have all recognised the changes at the start of the 20th century and striven to analyse them. The onset of capital’s imperialist phase, the start of a period of imperialist wars and working class revolution, the emergence of state capitalism which ended the domination of the private capitalists of the 19th century and introduced a new phase of economic and social control over the economy and classes in society, the increased exploitation of the working class, are all features which provide strong support for an analysis that a new phase of capitalism had indeed begun. This period marked the development of the mode of production when it completed its domination of the world market.
These conditions that emerged in the 20th century are too significant to ignore or discard. They indicate the capitalism has completed its initial phase of development and has had to reorganise itself for a period of intensification of exploitation and technological expansion. It has had to eliminate its natural or original organisation of production and facilitate the expansion of the forces of production through attempts by the state to generate greater ‘control’ over production and society generally.
This albeit brief review of the political social and economic changes that did take place at the start of the 20th century then indicates there is a clear basis for believing that decadence of capitalism did start at that period. We therefore need to look at the traditional view of decadence as an economic phenomenon and reconsider the premises here. This means also a reconsideration of what are considered the fetters on the productive forces.
First of all let us consider the decline of previous modes of production (and I stress this is in opposition to comparing the consecutive modes of production). We can identify that the decline was not just or even primarily a collapse caused by failures of the relations of production. Each period of decline is different but a common feature is that external influences are involved in bringing down modes of production. It can be seen that primitive communism or tribal societies were long lasting, stable production systems which did not come to [their] end because there was no hunting or harvesting possible but because sedentary tribes took possession of large, fixed parcels of land and developed agriculture that was more efficient. Slave societies organised in large empires and run by centralised emperors were then more effective in developing social systems and technology than the smaller tribal communities and not only were agricultural techniques more efficient but they were also able to develop significant building technologies and skills. The fully developed slave based production in Ancient Greece and Rome was able to also make advances in building and road-making skills, technologies such as hydraulics, heating and sewage systems, warfare and more academic skills such as mathematical, astronomy, philosophy and religion. The scale of these empires shows the effectiveness of their mode of production but they came to an end because of the inability of the slave mode of production to continually expand. The scale of the empires became too costly to defend and they were ravaged by external armies. The western Roman empire collapsed in face of this onslaught and the internal political strife it caused, and the eastern Byzantine empire had to adapt to Christianity and use more serf and paid labour. Feudal society developed out of the remnants of the Roman empires but feudal society came to end because the early capitalism showed itself far more productive and rewarding for the wealthy than feudal organisation was. The point here is that the end of the modes of production was impacted particularly by ‘external’ factors (6) i.e. new, more efficient production systems, external confrontations and internal political conflict.
This is not to suggest that these periods of decline did not demonstrate the effects of economic contradictions and crises but that key external factors can also be identified.
It must be noted here that I am proposing different factors within the whole network of interrelationships that is capitalism. I am reliant on the idea that we can identify (1) the core elements of capitalism, i.e. Marx’s model and the core contradictions that are generated, (2) the phenomena of capitalism that are generated by the operation of the core such as national economies, markets, international blocs etc. but which are not considered essential to Marx’s model and (3) ‘external’ factors which are elements that capital does not create and which exist independently but come into contact with capitalism and are drawn into relationships with it. Examples of the latter would be new modes of production being external to the old, the tribes that existed outside of the Roman Empire but entered into conflict with it, non-capitalist markets as suggested by Luxemburg, the Earth itself as an environment which exists as is but is used by all modes of production in different ways, and, dare I say it, Space.
I emphasise that I am not suggesting that capitalism does not integrate these into relationships with itself. After all, accepting that capital must keep growing, it must be recognised that everything must be drawn into relationships with it. Hence today science has identified the threat to human life from asteroids, clearly an external factor that always existed, but one which science is now preparing for. Capitalism now enters into a relationship with this factor, which has economic political social and military implications.
During the past century we have certainly seen ongoing economic crises and the impact of economic contradictions in the system and we have not seen anything like the absolute halt nor a collapse in the forces of production that Luxemburg suggests. (7) Alongside the economic and social crises, what we have seen in this period since the start of the 20th century is an enormous overall increase in the productive capacity of capital, much greater than what was possible during the ascendant phase, and an enormous increase in population, something which Marx in fact saw as a consequence of accumulation.
Within capitalism there are 2 main theories of economic crises. The Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TROPF) (8) is one but no-one argues that a specific rate of profit caused the capitalism to go into decline. In fact, as can be seen in the next quote from Marx, the FROP is a theory that actually recognises the ongoing growth of capitalism. Luxemburg blamed the decline of capital on a lack of non-capitalist markets but did not suggest that it was caused by a specific percentage of non-capitalist markets which leads to a primarily economic view of decadence, i.e. of an economy where accumulation is reducing and ending in collapse. Whilst it is clear that both the FROP and Luxemburg’s markets theory are rooted in economic considerations, the FROP theory itself entertains a wider understanding of processes within capitalism, i.e. counter-tendencies, whereas Luxemburg’s framework leads to a primarily economic vision of decadence as a collapsing economy.
Marx also identified the tendency to overproduction as a feature or cause of economic crisis but did not at all suggest a limit in the size of commodities markets, in fact he suggested market size would increase along with ongoing accumulation but recognised that there could never be an equilibrium between them.
It is abundantly evident that we must reject Luxemburg’s analysis of accumulation as capital has expanded significantly during the past century, as C.Mcl. identifies and just as Marx forecasted.
However, Luxemburg can be considered to be in some part correct because in looking at non-capitalist markets she was actually identifying external factors that had an influence on the development of capital. In looking at external markets what she was actually looking at was the existence of an external environment that supported or facilitated the early growth of capital in its ascendant period. Unfortunately all she saw was that the lack of external non-capitalist markets would halt capital growth which as suggested is just not what has happened.
On the other hand, if we are to understand this period as a period of decline we then have to explain the growth demonstrated in the statistics produced by C.Mcl. Actually this explanation is not hard to come by in Marx’s writings:
“We have shown how the same causes that bring about a tendency for the general rate of profit to fall necessitate an accelerated accumulation of capital and, consequently, an increase in the absolute magnitude, or total mass, of the surplus-labour (surplus-value, profit) appropriated by it. Just as everything appears reversed in competition, and thus in the consciousness of the agents of competition, so also this law, this inner and necessary connection between two seeming contradictions. It is evident that within the proportions indicated above a capitalist disposing of a large capital will receive a larger mass of profit than a small capitalist making seemingly high profits.” (9)
This is a major point because not only does it indicate “an accelerated accumulation of capital” is always present in capitalism, but also that it generates an increased population and, finally, the recognition that a small mass of capital can make a high profit rate whereas a large mass of capital will make a low rate of profit but a larger mass of profit. Does this not provide a very accurate description of how capital has grown during its ascendant and decadent phases?
What this means is that growth and accumulation are not incompatible with decadence. Whatever phase of capitalism we are in, capitalism always continues to generate an increased rate of growth in the economy (aside from specific crises that is). This is what the bourgeoisie’s own statistics on world GDP show and, even if we as Marxists do not accept the exact figures of capital growth, the trends are obvious.
Later on, in the same chapter as the previous quote, Marx talks of the “unconditional development of the productive forces” and the problems it causes. This quote summarises the issue:
”The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers.” (10)
We should therefore recognise economic growth and increasing accumulation as a permanent feature of capitalism and in particular of its decadence, and not ground an understanding of decadence on the halt or reduction of economic growth. We should recognise that this ongoing growth of accumulation is part of the material conditions and part of the economic contradictions of capital.
This viewpoint was taken up by International Perspectives (IP) in a series of articles discussing capitalist decadence during the 1990s, from which came the following:
“There is, however, in my opinion, an integral link between the permanent crisis of capitalism and the development of the productive forces. Rather than blocking or fettering their continued development, the relation between the two is such that the forces of production developed within the period of decadence become not only increasingly powerful and potent, but that they become increasingly dangerous, increasingly deadly, increasingly murderous, and this not just ‘incidentally’ or ‘accidentally’, but because capital in permanent crisis increasingly requires forces of destruction rather than forces of production in order to sustain itself.” (11)
This perspective adds an important contribution, i.e. that growth of capitalism is itself dangerous and a threat to humanity as well as capitalism itself, which IP develops further:
“The defining feature of capitalist decadence in this view, then, is neither a halting nor a deceleration in the development of the productive forces; it is, rather, the increasingly destructive tendency of the productive forces developed by capital, and not just because these become increasingly powerful… The underlying assumption here is that – at least at a certain stage in the historical development of technology – different courses of development of the productive forces are possible. This idea is entirely foreign to traditional or orthodox Marxism, with its productivist (and usually economic determinist) basis. For such Marxism, the productive forces developed by capitalism, decadent or otherwise, are neutral (between capitalist and communist deployment of them) because there is only one possible course or trajectory of their development, and thus any development of them at all, whether brought about by capitalism or not, is historically progressive.” (12)
What we have to be fearful of therefore is not just an economic collapse (although I hardly need say this would not be that good) but the continued growth of capital. Even at the end of 2021, after the peak of the impact of the Corona-virus pandemic has apparently passed, in Europe at least, the bourgeoisie is proudly arguing that after all periods of economic downturn there is always a period of when the growth of capital is at its highest. This upturn is simply a product of a system of “accelerating accumulation” and says nothing positive about the abilities of the bourgeoisie to resolve the core economic contradictions.
It is the very scale of capitalism today that threatens humanity and the natural world that we live in. It is the fact that capital produces for profit not for human need that leads its growth to become a destructive tendency.
To return to the concept raised by Marx of the fetters on productive forces, we can agree that this applies in all interpretations to the contrast between an old and an incoming mode of production where the old mode of production was effectively acting as a fetter on the development of human society.
However in terms of what the material conditions are within a declining capitalism, we should realise that a fetter on productive forces means there is a falling rate of profit, overproduction and a distortion of the forces of production due to capital’s aim of production for profit and accumulation. There is also today a confrontation between the growth and scale of capitalism, the way it produces and, what I am suggesting is a fetter external to capitalism, the finite natural world in which we exist. The growth of capitalism poses the threat of the destruction of humanity and the natural world. We therefore need to see production as destructive and not suggest that it is not being allowed to develop enough.
Yes, we can see economic fetters, but what is more and more clear today is that the key issue is that there is an ecological crisis which is a direct product of the ongoing growth and accumulation that capital is achieving. This is the fetter on the future communist development of production forces.
The task for communism will not be the further development of the production forces which are today bloated by the need for profit, but the redirection and restructuring of the production forces to satisfy the needs of humanity as well as an approach to solving this ecological crisis. This may well mean initially the reduction of the levels of production that capital has reached.
Link, December 11, 2021.
Proofreading: H.C. Final editing: December 12, 2021.
Minor language corrections, December 17, 2021.
1 Marx,1859, Preface to the Critique of Political Economy.
3 Kamerling, 2021, Topic: Growth as Decay Contribution No 4 (ICC online forum)
4 In the ‘Anti-Critique’, 1916, Luxemburg states: “Capital accumulation progresses and expands at the expense of non-capitalist strata and countries, squeezing them out at an ever faster rate. The general tendency and final result of this process is the exclusive world rule of capitalist production. Once this is reached, Marx’s model becomes valid: accumulation, i.e. further expansion of capital, becomes impossible. Capitalism comes to a dead end, it cannot function any more as the historical vehicle for the unfolding of the productive forces, it reaches its objective economic limit.”
5 C.Mcl., 2020: Has Capitalism entered its Decadent since 1914?.
6 External factors in the sense that they are external to the core relations of production in society.
7 See Footnote. 4
8 See Marx, 1883, Capital,Volume 3, for example: Chapters 2 and 13.
9 Marx, 1883, Capital Volume 3, Chapter 13.
11 ER, 2005, “For a Non-productivist Understanding of Capitalist Decadence” (IP no.44).
1 thought on “Discussion Contributions on the Question of Capitalism’s Decadence”
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.