Capitalism In Crisis or Without End: “What’s Left?” September 2017, MRR #412

This is the conclusion to my overlong analysis last column of the crisis of the Left and the crisis on the Right (Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410).

Our story so far:

Interregnums are instances of revolutionary class conflict, either regional and diffuse (Great Peasants’ War, 1524-25; English Glorious Revolution, 1688) or more consolidated and national (French 1789 Revolution, Russian 1917 Revolution, Spanish 1936-39 civil war). Related regional interregnums were strung together into a broad, territorial interregnum (religious conflicts/wars across continental Europe, 1517-1648), while associated national interregnums were linked into a global interregnum (WWI through WWII, 1914-1945).

The French 1789 Revolution gave rise to our modern Left-Right political landscape and modernity itself. The Right is both a revolt against the modern world and a reaction to the Left. In Europe, the moderate Right and reactionary Right were joined by a Fascist Right, while in the United States various radical and new Rights emerged. But in the face of international socialism and communism after WW2, an effort was made by Buckley and the National Review to define, unify, and defend an official conservative movement.

When the Left in the 1980s experienced a crisis due to the defeat of organized labor, the collapse of real existing socialist regimes, and the decline of Marxism, the Right underwent a corresponding crisis. More fractious than the Left due to its non-programmatic, non-rational nature, the Right exploded, particularly in patriot and populist terms. The secular, religious, and xenophobic Right can barely contain the proliferation of groups and ideologies, unlike the Left which neatly divides into antiauthoritarian, parliamentary, and Leninist types.

Because the Right is invariably a reaction to the Left, when things fell apart and the center on the Left could not hold, mere anarchy was loosed both on the Right and the Left. The crisis of the Left was matched by a crisis on the Right—with mindless proliferation, sectarian infighting, and growing Red/Brown crossover on the Right—which in turn marked the beginning of another global interregnum. But what is the cause of this crisis on Left and Right, and of the global interregnum? Is it the fabled Marxist final crisis of capitalism?

First, I need to backtrack.

I called myself paleo, more or less orthodox, and old school in my Marxism when it comes to class struggle, modes of production, and the origins of modernity. Yet I’m also hep, au currant, and with it when it comes to updating my Marxist political economy with a little world systems theory (Braudel, Wallerstein, Arrighi). Capitalism started to develop in embryonic form as a world system of exploitation and appropriation as early as 1450, and went through two cycles of capital accumulation (the Genoese and Dutch cycles) prior to the British cycle which acted as a context for the French 1789 Revolution and Europe’s industrial takeoff. So not only is it correct to call the English civil war (1642-51) a prequel to the bourgeois revolutions that ushered in the modern world, it’s clear that the Renaissance prefigured the Enlightenment, and that the modernity of Machiavelli and Hobbes presaged the modernity of Locke and Rousseau. The extensive trading networks, market relations, and commercial expansion of capitalism prior to 1750 did not possess capital’s “relentless and systematic development of the productive forces” that the industrialization of the British cycle initiated, as Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Woods noted. Whether we call the period from 1450 to 1750 pre-capitalism or proto-capitalism or market capitalism, we need to distinguish it from modern capitalism proper after 1750. Hence the use of the French 1789 Revolution as a convenient benchmark for the advent of modern industrial capitalism, modernity, and modern Left-Right politics.

The Marxist-influenced world systems school argues that each cycle of capital accumulation responsible for the rise of the current world economy is comprised of commercial, production, and financial phases. The commercial phase is characterized by making profit from trade and commerce—simple circulation and exchange. The production phase is distinguished by making profit from the whole process of industrialization—building factories to produce commodities, hiring workers, paying them less than what the commodities are sold for, and then valorizing the resultant surplus value into capital. The final financial phase is typified by making profit from investing in everything else that makes money—trade, commerce, manufacturing, factory production, services—which is just one step removed from simple exchange and circulation once again. What is most profitable in this three-phase cycle schema is the production phase because that’s where infrastructure is produced, the working class is reproduced, and capital is fully valorized. The commercial and financial phases are merely making money off of circulating money, and the financial phase in particular is seen as capitalism in decline.

This tripartite model is problematic and weakest when it comes to the pre-industrial Genoese and Dutch cycles, and only comes into its own with the British and American cycles. What’s more, its best to take this theory as descriptive rather than prescriptive. The center for world capitalist market power shifted from Genoa, through the Netherlands and Britain, to the United States, where it is predicted to shift again, probably to Asia, since American-centered capitalism is financializing and thus in decline. But will that shift occur? Or are we in the End Time, the final crisis of capitalism?

This model works admirably well in describing what happened when American-based capitalism changed from production to finance, which can be pinned down roughly to 1973. The Keynesianism of the Kennedy/Johnson era transitioned to the neoliberalism of the Thatcher/Reagan era when the political and cultural unrest, growth in social programs and expansion of the welfare state, and strong organized labor and strong middle class of the 1960s gave way to the rollback of government regulations, the welfare state, the public realm, and unions of the 1980s. The neoliberal trend began when the rank-and-file labor rebellions and wildcat strikes of the 1970s were routed, then was formalized with the defeat of organized labor by Reagan’s breaking the PATCO unions and Thatcher’s trouncing the striking miners, and was finally enshrined with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Marxism appears to be bankrupt. This is, of course, the beginning of my crisis of the Left and on the Right, and my global interregnum. But why did it happen?

The short, Marxist answer is that the change from Keynesianism to neoliberalism, from affluence to austerity, from production to finance, is due to a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. If I had to choose between the lively polemics and exhortations of the 1848 Manuscripts, Communist Manifesto, and Critique of the Gotha Program versus the dry scientific analysis of Capital’s three volumes, I would choose the former every time. That’s because my mathematical chops are seriously lacking, even though I think there are insights to be had in Marxist economic statistics, formulas, and models. One such outstanding Marxist economist was Henryk Grossman whose work The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System attempted to formulate mathematical laws of capital accumulation, how it operates and why it falls short. The tendency for the rate of profit to fall (mainly due to the changing organic composition of capital) can be offset by capitalism’s creative destruction (state austerity, economic depression, war).

In the grand scheme of things then, when capitalist production became less and less profitable the economy transitioned to finance capitalism. Neoliberalism as the ideology of finance capitalism is all about deregulating and financializing the economy, rolling back the welfare state, crushing organized labor, and privatizing the public realm to reverse the falling rate of profit, and as such it’s a rightwing ideology of capitalist decline and crisis. Will this be capitalism’s final crisis as originally predicted by Marx himself, or simply the shift of capitalist power in a world economy to Asia as currently predicted by world systems theory? I can’t say, since I’m being descriptive and not prescriptive. But is capitalism-without-end really possible, or are we quickly reaching the planet’s carrying capacity for cancerous economic growth? That’s a question that will have to wait for a future column.

NOTE: Financial capitalism is a whole system, to include the state and most corporations, not merely the international banking system. This must be made clear in a time of Left/Right Red/Brown crossover politics. I’m particularly leery of talk about “international bankers” or that not-so-clever portmanteau “banksters” because it so easily slips into teleological conspiracy theory and “international jewish” idiocy.


Breathing Together: “What’s Left?” November 2015, MRR #390

With the outbreak of isms, like socialism, anarchism, imperialism or communism, sunspots start to multiply on the face of the golden orb. God refuses to enlighten the Reds! Scientists forecast an increase in sunspots due to the arrival of the beatniks and pacifists from certain countries such as Italy, France and Scandinavia!

Police Chief [played by Pierre Dux]
Z, directed by Costa-Gavras

I was into the Thor Heyerdahl/Kon-Tiki saga when I was as a kid in the 1950s and early 1960s. For those interested, Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer with an Indiana Jones flair who, as a sailor, fought the Nazi occupation of Norway during the second World War. After the war, with a background in science—ethnography, biology, and geography—and as a proponent of cultural diffusionism to account for the spread of human civilizations, Heyerdahl famously built a large raft out of balsa reeds from Peru’s Lake Titicaca and sailed it from the western coast of South America to the French Polynesian island atoll of Raroia in 1947. His idea behind the Kon-Tiki raft and expedition was to demonstrate that ancient peoples could have made long, arduous sea voyages, using the primitive technologies of their day and creating contacts between diverse, widely separated cultures. The subject of a number of documentary books and films as well as re-creations, not to mention a variety of fictionalized depictions, Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki experiment did demonstrate one thing quite clearly:

Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it was done.

There is little support in the scientific community for Heyerdahl’s theory that cultural ideas let alone trade goods, let alone people, made the journey from pre-Columbian South America to Polynesia. Anthropologists in particular are dubious about the notion that ancestors of the Incas colonized the Polynesian islands. His various projects were exciting, spectacular, and attention-grabbing, which tended to confuse the issue between what could have happened, and what did happen. It’s a variant of the false scenario fallacy, and its common.

Right-wing videographer and “journalist” James O’Keefe made a name for himself by selectively editing videos he secretly filmed in order to supposedly demonstrate that certain public individuals and organizations were knowingly promoting falsehoods, if not engaged in out-and-out fraud and crime. More recently, O’Keefe is involved in a cottage industry that tries to prove that various bad things can happen, without demonstrating that said bad things actually did happen. So, he demonstrates that voter fraud is quite easy to commit, or that someone dressed as Osama bin Laden can easily sneak across the US/Mexico border, without actually proving that rampant voter fraud or al-Qaeda infiltration have ever occurred. Critics of left-wing film maker Michael Moore have accused him of doing much the same thing with films like Fahrenheit 9/11, in which selective editing, humorous juxtaposition, and bald inference are used to suggest that the Bush Jr administration knew more than they were letting on about the lead-up, commission, and aftermath of the 9/11 Twin Tower terrorist attacks.

Showing that something can be done, without proving that it was actually done, is the stock-in-trade of conspiracy theorists everywhere. Take the Apollo moon landings. It’s quite easy to lay out how such lunar expeditions and landings could have been faked, without really confirming that the landings were actually falsified. Again, harking back to my youth in the 1960s, I spent way too much time worrying about who assassinated JFK—all the theories from the KGB and the Cubans to the Mafia and the CIA—without coming to any sound conclusions as to who actually did the deed. I’m certain that there’s more to the Kennedy assassination then what has been revealed, although I’m also certain I’ll never ever know the whole truth. There are left-wing and right-wing conspiracy theories, but by and large conspiracy theories transcend left-right political categories in pursuing their flights of paranoia. In addition, conspiracy theories often prove interchangeable with regard to their underlying structure and raison d’être, with that infamous international conspiracy for world domination trope easily substituting any number of key conspirators, from the Jews to the Freemasons, the Illuminati, Bolshevik communism, international bankers, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the international bourgeoisie, alien reptilian overlords, etc, etc, etc.

Historian David Hackett Wallace once identified an informal historical fallacy he called the furtive fallacy, which “is the erroneous idea that facts of special significance are dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious. It begins with the premise the reality is a sordid, secret thing; and that history happens on the back stairs a little after midnight, or else in a smoke-filled room, or a perfumed boudoir, or an executive penthouse or somewhere in the inner sanctum of the Vatican, or the Kremlin, or the Reich Chancellery, or the Pentagon. […] In an extreme form, the furtive fallacy is not merely an intellectual error but a mental illness which is commonly called paranoia.” (Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought) The idea that certain historical events or facts are necessarily sinister, and part of some secret conspiracy, is contested by former MRR columnist and ex-shitworker Jeff Bale who argued that historians frequently underestimate the influence in politics of secret societies, vanguard parties, intelligence agencies, underground cabals, etc. due to the very nature and organizational methods of such clandestine groupings. Thus, groups like the P-2 Masonic Lodge and al-Qaeda on the right and Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and the guerrilla VietMinh on the left actually did engage in conspiracies to one degree or another.

In the realm of conspiracy, resolving the distinction between what can be done and what was done often muddles matters. (A related topic, the often violent rupture between how conspiracy theorists view reality, and reality itself, is beyond the scope of this column.) In particular, determining the perimeters of what was done is a sometimes a daunting task. Consider the Bolsheviks once again. The Bolshevik Party was a straight-up, clandestine vanguard party of professional revolutionaries, and so conspiracy was part of its MO. The Bolsheviks participated in the 1905 as well as the February 1917 Russian Revolutions, and actively, secretly organized the armed Red Guard putsch central to the October 1917 Revolution. It is even well documented that a member of the Bolshevik central committee, a number of high-ranking party members, and a fair percentage of the rank-and-file membership had been secretly agents of the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police, in a conspiracy within a conspiracy. But I am not convinced, from the historical evidence, that the Bolsheviks were inadvertent double agents of Czarism, or that they engineered the Russian Revolution from the get-go, or that they were pulling the strings to an international Communist conspiracy as far back as 1789. And to argue that the Bolsheviks were part of some worldwide Jewish conspiracy masterminded by the Elders of Zion is sheer lunacy.

Me, I tend to fall on the anti-conspiracy side of things whenever analyzing history or current events. Back in the day, when my friends and I were 60s New Leftie wannabe revolutionaries trying to figure out our politics but still barely scraping together the change for our next lid of bad weed, we joked that our checks from Moscow seemed interminably delayed in the mail. Indeed, the international Communist conspiracy has been a central hysterical trope on the right in one form or another, serviceable in all sorts of situations, gradations and permutations. Decades later, when I got to know some ex-Maoist types who’d been around the fractious New Communist Movement in the 70s, I learned that the joke for them was their checks from Beijing never seemed to arrive. Nowadays, the rightwing canard is that progressives and Leftists in this country are being funded, and hence controlled, by George Soros.

That’s Central Committee General Secretary Comrade Soros to you.

In a less flippant take, a common lefty conspiracy theory has it that the CIA imported heroin in the 1970s and that the FBI manufactured crack in the 1980s in order to specifically crush the Black Power/Black Liberation movements and to more generally suppress Black people in America. I don’t doubt that the proliferation of heroin and crack did, in fact, accomplish these things, but more as an afterthought rather than as a purposeful conspiracy. I think that the international drug trade is powered by a number of players with a variety of motives; everything from the good old-fashioned profit motive to drugs-for-arms type geopolitics, with plenty of opportunity and opportunism to go around.

And yes, there are conspiracies all the time in capitalism, everything from knowingly manufacturing and selling dangerous products to lobbyists secretly buying the votes of politicians. But by and large capitalists are pretty up-front about what they intend to do with their wealth and power. They organize quite openly in business associations and political parties, proudly found schools of economics and think tanks, and put forth their plans for running state and economy freely in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. When neoliberalism came to power in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the elections of Thatcher in England and Reagan in the United States were preceded by a neoliberal onslaught of propaganda and activism openly calling for, among other things, deregulating and financializing the economy, rolling back the welfare state, crushing organized labor, and privatizing the public realm. Neoliberalism proceeded to do just that with the election of the Republican president Reagan, coming to fruition under the Democratic president Clinton with the ratification of NAFTA and the abolition of welfare. There has been little hidden, or clandestine, or conspiratorial about the capitalist ruling class’s open class warfare against the rest of society carried out under neoliberalism.

Acknowledging the existence of a social class with common interests based on ownership of the economic means of production, even recognizing that the social class in question attempts to run things through owning most of society’s wealth and property, is not the same as tossing around dubious conspiracy theories. But I’ll leave the basic Marxism 101 for a future column. I’ll conclude with a quote from Zbigniew Brzeziński, that: “History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.”

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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