Sometimes contrition is the better part of valour. A decade or so ago there was an exchange in the pages of Workers’ Liberty magazine on the decline of capitalism. The AWL has recently reprinted these in as pamphlet, “Capitalism in our times”. At the time Martin Thomas argued that capitalism was still progressive, in the sense that Lenin and others understood it – because it still develops the productive forces and socialises labour. I argued, following Hillel Ticktin, that it was better to characterise the epoch as one of the decline of capitalism. In retrospect, I think I was wrong.
1) Ticktin and I argued that the scope of the law of value had contracted. We pointed to phenomena such as statised, non-market sectors, as well as whole states, where the law of value was not the dominant economic regulator. There were such tendencies after world war one, but since 1989 – and especially since the debate the opposite has been true. Capital has sought to expand into new and previously non-market areas and has begun to entrench capitalist social relations in vast areas of social life.
* There has been a geographical, spatial extension of value relations into Eastern Europe and Russia to China, Vietnam and in some respects even to Cuba. Capitalist social relations have developed further in Iran and Iraq, as well as in India, Thailand and Latin America.
* There has been an internal extension of the market into whole spheres of the economy such as health, education and other areas previously regarded as “public goods”.
*The commodification of social life has been matched by efforts to commodify nature and the natural environment – notably the through the commodification of the atmosphere in climate politics, though emissions trading and other market mechanisms.
These processes and not finished, not linear, and highly uneven. But it is vital to register their scope and effects.
(The developments of monopoly and finance capital, as pointed out by Martin and Bruce Robinson during the debate, do not support the thesis of decline either.)
2) Everyone in the debate a decade ago accepted that the productive forces had developed substantially since 1945. It might have been rational in the 1930s to suggest capitalism was moribund, stagnating, or on the brink of collapse. At the turn of the millennium, such a description would only be an abuse of language. At the time Ticktin argued that 1950-73 period (the “golden age boom”) had been exceptional. The period after that had seen much lower growth, and even decline in Africa, Latin America and into the 1990s, stagnation in Japan.
The data provided by Angus Maddison soon after the turn of century suggests that while the first two decades of neoliberalism (1980-2000), global growth was slower than during the golden age, it was still significantly greater than in early periods of capitalism, including the first wave of globalisation between 1870 and 1914. Data for the last ten years suggests a “platinum” period of global growth, especially spurred by China, which receded only in 2008.
Similarly, the growth of technology and communications – including the internet, mobile phones and the rest of the information revolution have had substantial effects on productivity and global trade. More importantly from our point of view, the size of the working class has increased globally. Getting on for a majority of the world’s direct producers are now waged workers. Those that are not are often subject to market imperatives, or in the process of being sucked into subordination to capital. The Chinese working class is now at least 300 million strong, with over 100 million workers in manufacturing.
None of these developments suggest “decline”. In spite of the economic downturn in the last two years, the prognosis points towards a renewal of global capital accumulation, despite the slowdown in some places.
3) The third aspect of Martin’s argument, though not contested much at the time, was the implications for the labour movement. Martin argued that the perspective of capitalist decline made some sense when the labour movement was forceful and militant, with high levels of organisation reflected in trade unions and crucially, among revolutionary socialists, as it was in the early 1920s. It perhaps made some sense in the 1970s.
Clearly the last decade has been a period of stagnation and decline in most labour movements across the globe. Even the most militant union movements in the early years of neoliberalism, in South Africa, Brazil and in South Korea, have been markedly less assertive in recent years. Trade unions in the old capitalist heartlands, with few exceptions, are weaker both absolutely and relatively than they were a decade ago. Social Democratic parties have largely been hegemonised by neoliberal ideas. The revolutionary left is politically and ideologically less coherent than previously, and organisationally smaller.
Martin argued that a lengthy period of renovating and re building the labour movement – as the Second International had to be built – lay ahead. That was true in 2000. It is more true today.
Many of the objective pre-requisites for socialism – the size and social power of the working class, the absolute volume of social surplus generated that could meet social needs, the development of technology, the global interdependence of peoples, etc – are even greater than they were a decade ago. However many of the subjective elements necessary to achieve socialism – the class consciousness of workers, the level of organisation and militancy, the clarity of ideas on the ideological front and the organisation of Marxists – are in many respects weaker than they were.
This is not a reason for pessimism. We start with reality, with today’s conditions, in order to change the world. There is much to be optimistic about, but it is more important than ever to gather working class socialists together around rational, coherent, Marxist politics.
The characterisation of capitalism as in decline is a relic, a fossil from a valid effort by the Comintern to get to grips with the post world war one world. It has long had little useful operative value. We should bury the dead.