For our May Reading Group we revisited our topic of ‘Theories of Crisis’.
We primarily looked at the book ‘Capitalism’s Endgame: The Catastrophe of Accumulation’ (available from Amazon either as Paperback or Kindle).
This is a recently published book examining aspects of the global slide towards deepening disasters and hardships. It locates those apparently existential threats firmly in the framework of Capitalism’s ‘decadence’ – a social order that has entered a phase where the problems caused by its continuation far outweighs any potential for advancing technology or methods of production. The choice between “Socialism or Barbarism” becomes increasingly stark.
Phil Sutton, one of the three authors, introduced the book with a particular focus on the first chapter, ‘Historical Materialism and Capitalism in Decline’. He has kindly provided his Speaker’s Notes that we reproduce below.
In the course of discussion, the participants discussed various features of the current phase in the crisis. We explored problems that were affecting the working class and also touched on the recent signs of resistance such as the ongoing UK Strike Wave and the resistance in France to the raising of the pension age.
Topics that we explored included –
Increasing pressures in the workplace –
We talked about the education sector in the US as an example. We noted how in-work pressures had increased while the real value of wages was falling. To take a specific example, teachers’ pay has fallen around 10% since 2008. Almost half of US teachers leave teaching within the first five years. Elsewhere, rising inflation was forcing workers to work additional hours, often for different employers, to allow them to cover the basic needs for themselves and their families. We also observed that while there had been a degree of deskilling in some sectors, the cuts in levels of technical education and training had contributed to the ‘skill gaps’ in the UK.
The role of debt –
We noted that according to “the Economist” total state debts now amounted to more than USD 60 trillion (60 followed by 12 zeros). Since the 2008-9 financial crisis this debt balloon had continued to inflate and appeared to be an embedded feature of the power of capital trying to maintain profitability while funds flowed away from investment in production to financial speculation. Inflation had also reappeared, both the hyperinflation variety such as in Lebanon (prices currently rising by 50% each month) and the less dramatic but vicious situation such as in the UK (food prices officially increasing by well over 15% per year). We talked about how many workers in the USA now had no savings. With the debt limit deal going on in the USA, it has become clear that this is a concerted campaign of class war to erode the savings and pay raises workers had gotten during the pandemic. Comrades thought that workers’ savings in the UK had also been evaporating. According to some statistics in 2023, almost a quarter (23%) of workers in the UK have no savings at all, rising from 20% in 2022. 50% of people in the UK have £1000 or less in savings. Around 27 million people in the UK (51%) would not be able to live off their savings for more than one month. A third (32%) of Generation X (born from early 60s to late 70s) have no savings at all, more than any other generation. Generation Z (born in the late 90s) had the biggest increase in the number of people with no savings, going from 12% in 2022 to 22% in 2023. We also noted that workers were being encouraged to enter into increasing debt arrangements both for necessities and ‘spectacular consumption’.
We talked about the lack of affordable rented housing in the USA and UK with an increase in homelessness and precarious housing situations including ‘sofa surfing’. In the UK, the traditional cultural aspiration towards home ownership was becoming less and less achievable. Coupled with the lack of accessible social housing, increasing numbers of young working class people had no option but to stay in parental homes or face street sleeping.
The recent Strike Wave –
Comrades agreed that there was evidence of the working class, for example in Western Europe, beginning to show a combativity that had not been seen for several decades. We felt that the phenomenon was partial, with only very limited instances of generalisation and was yet to achieve significant gain. Nevertheless, the participation of a new generation of workers often with no previous experience of conscious class struggle was a necessary and encouraging development.
*** Speaker’s presentation
Why the book? All 3 of who contributed to Capitalisms’ Endgame realised that old theories of capitalism’s decline did not stand up to reality and that despite our belief that capitalism was in crisis and decaying, it was still growing economically quite spectacularly. We wanted to be able to explain this. We are not a political group however just a discussion circle with similar views.
I was asked to explain the theoretical aspect of my chapter on historical materialism. This article was meant as theoretical grounding for the rest of the book and I wish to stress that the point of theory is, in the end, that it should explain what is happening at the moment in the real world.
The Materialist Conception of History is an analysis of societal development. It is not of or about individuals but aims to explain how society as a whole is organised and develops and how this affects people. To do this it is important to start by looking at the whole body to understand how individuals behave, not the other way round. You cannot explain an elephant by looking at a single skin cell, neither can you explain society by looking at individuals or true crime programmes or whatever. It only works by starting from the whole body. This means using a process of abstraction, of generalisation and simplification to identify the core elements of a complex reality. Another example would be to say that all businesses have a marketing dept and believe that this department enables capitalists to make a profit. This is the capitalists’ view – but we have to look deeper and ask how new value is created and marketing does not do this – labour is the only element that actually changes anything material in production or in business.
What Marx and Engels also recognised is that humanity as it exists at any given time, i.e. human behaviour, ideas, morals, ethics, beliefs, conflicts etc are also part of the material conditions that affect each new generation of humanity that emerges. So when we talk of material conditions we mean not just technology, science and the environment but we also include human society as it exists up to that point. Human social behaviour is a part of history and therefore a part of the material conditions that affect peoples’ behaviour in new generations. As Marx said, people make history but not in conditions they choose.
An important element is that how a society produces its subsistence, is the defining feature of how that society is organised. The three main forms of exploitative society are slave society which was based on use of slave labour, feudalism on serfdom and capitalism on wage slavery. Three different ways of producing subsistence which used workers and distributed the products of those workers in very different ways. They all use money and markets differently and generate a different form of surplus product that supports and makes the ruling class wealthy and keeps all working classes on subsistence.
Furthermore because they produce differently they generate different attitudes and different social organisations in each society. Each society is comprised of a specific set of relations of production and a related level of productive forces. The latter is the physical existence of the working class, technology, science, raw materials and means of production whereas the former refers to the role and the relationships between classes. It has become common over the past century to see the relations of production as the primary influence on the development of society but I disagree. Whilst we use these relations to name each society they cannot be the root cause of change, otherwise all we would have to do to make changes is have a good idea! This seems to me to be a form of idealism however. It is the development of the productive forces that calls forth the need to change the relations of production not the other way round.
One view which I believe is a very important bit of periodisation is that no class society has been permanent. Every mode of production has a process of rise and fall. Firstly where it brings along new technologies and systems followed by a phase when they become obsolete, when better ways of producing come to the fore and the old mode of production declines. This process of rise and fall is quite common in society and it can be applied to products and industries too. An example would be the industries that communicate written text. We could start this with books, then see the postal industry, then pony express, telegraph, telegrams, fax machines, and today email – each one a technological development of previous systems which either eliminates or changes previous methods of production.
So what is specific about capitalism?
Capitalism is different to previous societies in that it puts money and markets at the centre of the system. Capitalists paying workers subsistence wages but they own all the raw materials and components as well as the finished products, so can extract surplus value from the produce and continually re-invest it in new technologies and extra capital ie they accumulate capital. Competition forces this to happen as a continuous process – if they don’t develop/grow capitalist firms get left behind and frequently go bust. This makes capitalism a very dynamic system which keeps expanding and improving the means of production and thus continuously changing society in general. This explains why the 19th century was a period of major social, scientific and technical innovation – this just was not possible in previous societies where change was too slow.
Accumulation is for me the core process at work in capitalism and means the productive forces must accumulate to keep functioning – this is its strength and perhaps its most important weakness too. Accumulation of capital means that there must a be continual innovation of the productive forces ie science, technology, manufacturing and not least the working class itself.
‘Capitalism’s Endgame’ is based on the assumption that capitalism is in decline but this is different to previous societies in that it hasn’t generated a new ruling class representing a new mode of production. It dominates the world with its dynamism but this dynamism has now become destructive.
In its period of decline it appears that capitalism keeps producing ever larger quantities of goods and wealth for its ruling class and an increasing population. This reflects increased economic wealth of the system, but it also leads to lowering of wc living standards, increasing poverty and increased numbers of unemployed and refugees. This ongoing expansion of the production forces is creating problems for society however – not just overpopulation. It is evident today that capital generates ongoing wars and crises which the ruling class are less and less able to solve. The result is the right wing populism that we see today with Trump, Johnson and many others – the growth of irrational ideas that solve nothing but aim to appeal to the lowest common denominator of opinion.
Furthermore what is clear is that the wc are made to suffer for capitalism’s problems as they become relatively poorer compared to the enormous wealth that capitalism is building up. As a result of this what we are seeing nowadays is that capitalism is growing, the ruling class gets richer and the working class gets poorer.
So although the productive forces keep on growing, I would argue as Marx did that the relations of production have outlived their usefulness and now act as fetters limiting the development and quality of society today. How do we identify these fetters?
Firstly the core contradictions. The exploitation of the working class forms the basis for continual class conflict. The falling rate of profits means capitalists struggle to maintain profit but stimulates competition and the continual revolutionising of production and products. The overproduction of capital continually reinforces the antagonism between production and the markets. The profit motive itself distorts production and instead of satisfying humanity’s needs, satisfies only the capitalists need for money.
Secondly the phenomena of capitalism such as the nation state, state capitalism, nationalism, wars etc. Forces that enabled the establishment of capitalism in the 19th century are now major fetters on the free development of the productive forces and cause many social, political and economic problems. Firstly the period up to WW2 was a phase of wars and revolutions and economic crisis. The nation states grew stronger, developing policies of economic protectionism and building an integrated system of stronger social control, not just police and army but also industrial management, welfare systems and ideological control. Wars of attrition now dominate and national boundaries have become a limiting factor in today’s economy because firms must become ever larger and globalised eg telephone, communications, cars, aircraft, oil, gas, agriculture and so on.
During the 80s and 90s we have seen the transformation of industry and social life through by the use of digital technologies – computers, communications systems, satellites, phones, social media all facilitated globalisation and greater efficiency in the economy. This however causes more contradictions in that the scale of production and distribution is so large that small events (such as a boat stuck in the Suez Canal, shortage of microprocessor supply) can disrupt these processes. This period has also seen the growth of household debt and the expansion of the non-productive financial industry which basically means more debt.
Nationalism is becoming evermore problematic in that it acts against globalisation but also prevents support for the poorer parts of the world who need to develop their economies as well as fight health problems and environmental damage.
Thirdly there are what I have called external contradictions. From the 1950s we can identify a period called variously post war reconstruction, the ‘great acceleration’ and, by eco scientists, the ‘anthropocene’ period. In other words a period of substantial growth in the productive forces whose destructiveness has become more apparent and is causing a substantial increase in environmental deterioration – all caused by the actions of humanity!
So the expansion of the productive forces is itself a destructive threat to the future of humanity and of the earth itself. The environment is utilised by humanity but is either being depleted and not replaced or polluted. Ultimately it is absolutely correct that a finite world cannot support infinite growth.
Human society now needs completely remodelling but the profit motive cannot do this. Only a communist society can do that.
Capitalism has created a working class that is international and, because it has no economic power to defend, it cannot create a new class society. On the contrary, it can only create a society that is based on equality and community. On this basis we would judge the time to be ripe for a working class revolution and the creation of a new society that does away with the social and financial inequalities of capitalism. Nothing is guaranteed however!!