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Refining the Concept of Decadence

Creato: 11 Maggio 2011 Ultima modifica: 03 Ottobre 2016
Scritto da Istituto Onorato Damen Visite: 3185
 

 

 

The document which follows is the result of a wide-ranging debate amongst all the organisations which adhere to the International Bureau. This common work is a measure of the increasing degree of homogeneity of the Bureau itself which is a fundamental premise for the us to reach the objective which we have set ourselves — the rebuilding of the revolutionary party on an international scale.


 

 

Introduction

 

Capitalism in its Historical Context

 

Every previous society has, at a certain point of its development, reached a period of decay which, over time, characterises it more and more, leading to the prevalence of a parasitic appropriation of wealth and a drive toward barbarism.

 

From this many get the idea that every decaying social formation goes through a process of biological ageing like that of living organisms which is ultimately destined to an inevitable end through its own internal contradictions. Or so it would appear to those who only look at the past in terms of some preconceived idea how the social conflict in a given society will end up. Past experience confirms instead only that every society has a historical character and is transitory in nature. There is no masterplan for history independent of the will of human beings and their actions. There is no final goal where humanity will inevitably end up. Historical materialism identifies the causes of the ascendance and decadence of every society in the particular contradictions of the existing relations of production.

 

In capitalist society in particular, the fundamental contradiction is the outcome of the process of accumulation of capital itself, which, basing itself on the exploitation of labour power, generates surplus value which is incessantly transformed into new capital thus, at the end of any reproductive cycle the capital invested has normally increased (enlarged reproduction). It follows from this that the mass of surplus value extorted must necessarily constantly grow, at least in proportion to the increased size of capital. That it is possible whether by employing more labour power in proportion to the increased size of the capital invested, or by increasing the exploitation of labour through the increase of the working day, and/or by reducing the necessary labour time, through the increase of the productivity of labour itself by means of new technology and new methods of organising work.

 

The Law of the Fall in the Average Rate of Profit

 

The powerful development of new techniques in the production of commodities in the last two centuries is a result of the fact that the enlarged reproduction of capital cannot avoid constantly increasing in the productivity of labour. It therefore cannot avoid constantly revolutionising the cycle of production through the introduction of ever more sophisticated technologies. At the same time, the reproduction of capital can only take place on an enlarged basis.

 

It follows from this, as Marx emphasised, that

 

With the accumulation of capital, therefore, the specifically capitalist mode of production develops, and, with the capitalist mode of production the accumulation of capital. These two economic factors bring about in the compound ratio of the impulses they give to each other, that change in the technical composition of capital by which the variable component becomes smaller and smaller as compared with the constant component.

 

Marx Capital Vol. 1 Chapter 25 — Penguin Classics edition p.776

 

The fundamental contradiction of the system is contained in this. Indeed, if on one side the technical modification of capital is at the same time the cause and the fundamental condition for the growth of the productivity of labour and therefore for accumulation of capital, on the other, the diminution, even if relative, of the variable capital (labour power), that is the only part of capital which creates surplus value, poses once again and accentuates the tendential fall in the average rate of profit.

 

As is well-known, Marx described the law of the tendency to fall of the average rate of profit in the Third Volume of Capital in terms of “the law as such” and what he calls “the counter-tendencies”: i.e. all the responses taken together that the system puts into force to contain it, and even, under certain conditions, to negate it. We are not interested here in deepening the study of the law but only to highlight the fact that periodically the counter-tendencies, given a certain degree of technological development and a certain average organic composition of existing capital, are insufficient to contain or prevent the fall in the average rate of profit. The process of accumulation then slows and when the over-accumulation of capital reaches unsustainable levels, it is halted and a devastating economic crisis is unleashed which is overcome only through the destruction of excess capital either through a halt, or a marked slowdown, in production, or through its physical destruction by means of war.

 

Furthermore, because the tendential fall in the average rate of profit accelerates the drive towards the concentration and centralisation of capital connected to the process of accumulation (see Marx Capital Volume Three, Chapter 15), it encourages the formation of ever bigger productive combinations on the one hand, on the other, free competition gives way to oligopoly and /or monopoly by which it is possible to raise the price of commodities above their real value and thus to realise alongside the profit also a increasing amount of extra-profit.

 

First Forms of Parasitism

 

In this way, over time, huge industries and mass production developed. And alongside the direct appropriation of surplus value through exploitation of labour power the biggest capitals, in particular monopolistic capital also developed forms of parasitic appropriation which allowed them to appropriate amounts of surplus value extorted from other sectors or productive cycles, or from areas different from those where the surplus value originated. This is how the forms of parasitic appropriation of surplus value, intimately connected to the production of commodities, have, little by little, assumed an ever greater importance until they have become, as is happening today, the distinguishing feature of the capitalist system’s way of life.

 

Forms of appropriation are developing where in a growing part of capital the cycle of reproduction, instead of being represented by the general formula M — C — M1, is represented by that of M — M1. This is the mode of reproduction of finance capital which produces interest or any other form of financial revenue, without transforming itself into industrial capital. In other words this is the parasitic appropriation of wealth corresponding to the decadent phase of a social formation.

 

Thus Lenin was right to identify the export of capital from its place of origin towards those places where it was possible to obtain an advantageous return and in the development of forms of imperialist domination which derive from it, not as simply a policy of the bourgeoisie but the way of life — as we shall see below — of a capitalism which has reached the highest degree of its development.

 

Many, however, see the period of decadence as a phase in which there is no further possibility for the development of the productive forces. For them capitalism is inevitably destined to die and give birth to socialist society.

 

In reality, under the capitalist system, the development of forms of parasitic appropriation, in accelerating the process of accumulation on an enlarged basis widens the base of its starting point. From this, if on the one hand it leads to the accelerated drive towards over-accumulation, on the other it leads to the excessive growth of the necessity to intensify the exploitation of the proletariat and the need for extra-profit. For this reason, the introduction of ever more advanced technology into production and the expansion of the productive base never cease, but they radically alter the consequences of their impact on the entirety of social relations.

 

On the other hand, ascendance and decadence are the products of the very same contradictions so that it is absurd to think of them as two neatly separated phases and that the second period begins only when the first has ended.

 

The contradiction between “the development of the productive forces and existing social relations” is not therefore expressed in any mathematically determined quantitative and/or qualitative limit, one jot below which means the end of the system once and for all. And if we could fix the limits like this, today rather than talk of the decadence of the system we would only be talking about the indestructibility of the system. It, in itself has the possibility to systematically destroy, through crises and wars, what always accompanies them, excess capital in order to open new cycles of accumulation. Thus the precondition for the opening of these new cycles is the destruction of huge masses of capital. In the new cycle a technical composition of capital can be assembled in which the constant element ends up more swollen in relation to variable capital. More advanced technology can be introduced into the productive process increasing the productivity of labour without much difficulty so much that the fall in the rate of profit can, at least in the first phase, be arrested, when it has not been completely halted.

 

Economic Crises and Decadence

 

Although the origin of crises can be traced to the very same contradictions as the origins of decadence they are distinct from it. The overcoming of crises, like the opening of new cycles of accumulation, doesn’t turn back history or the system to its origins.

 

That is the new cycle doesn’t start off again from the steam engine, nor from the individual enterprise working in a regime of free competition. The degree of concentration, in relation to its new average organic composition, doesn’t decrease but increases in its turn, and later on even the monopolistic control of markets on the part of the largest capitals tends to extend it even further. This is no less than the fundamental precondition for the parasitic appropriation of surplus value. Thus taking on greater dimensions it must necessarily sharpen its forms and extend its tentacles of activity, as we shall see below, over the production and circulation of commodities in all the phases of the valorisation and circulation of capital.

 

But this being an activity which demands increasing quantities of surplus value by necessity means a greater degree of exploitation of labour power. It is here that the introduction of ever more advanced technology into production and the simultaneous extension of the productive base for the benefit of limited sectors of society even including some segments of the proletariat corresponds to a general worsening of the living and working conditions of the proletariat and similar social strata, i.e. the majority of society. In the same way the extension of monopoly and the relative limitation of competition and of imperialist conflict between, and within, certain areas doesn’t mean the end of imperialist rivalry in general, but its extension to every area of the planet, as well as its intensification.

 

Proof of this is the growing and total impoverishment of so many parts of the planet over the last century and in the first two world wars. And more recently the introduction of microelectronics and automation into the productive process and imperialist conflict which never stops and has no solution.

 

It is interesting to note how many bourgeois economists, like a mirror image of the supporters of the impossibility of any further development of the productive forces under decadence, are equally mechanistic in their conviction of the unstoppable advance of scientific, technical and social progress under capitalism. They have greeted the appearance of the microprocessor as the instrument which they thought would reduce the working day (in a few years to two hours a day) and ultimately would abolish hunger, social degradation and slavery, leaving a scenario of growing well being, social fulfilment, and liberty, in its fullest sense.

 

Instead exactly the opposite has taken place. Despite the powerful development of the productivity of labour, which has enormously reduced necessary labour time, the length of the working day, which for almost the entire 20th century was decreasing, has started to get longer, and in very advanced Germany is now much greater than 40 hours a week. What has increased is either the growth of relative surplus value, or of absolute surplus value with an unprecedented devaluation of the value of labour power. By way of contrast, thanks to the extension and sharpening of the forms of appropriation of surplus value based on the widening of financial returns by means of production of fictitious capital (finance capital produced with other finance capital) in the last twenty years, the abyss between an ever narrower minority of the rich and ever greater majority of the poorest in our society has widened as never before in the history of modern capitalism.

 

It is the same with war. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, historians, economists and the whole bourgeois world in general maintained that the epoch of wars was now over and they predicted a peaceful future such as we have never seen before. Imperialist war has instead become “permanent” and as necessary and as functional as ever to the survival of the system.

 

This is because they did not take into account the fact that capitalism like other social formations which preceded it is an historical product. It has no way of overcoming its contradictions. Thus as it develops it worsens them, so that now more technological development means more exploitation, and a greater capacity to produce what is necessary to satisfy the needs of humanity means only the generalisation of hunger and poverty.

 

But the same can be said of those communists who don’t take into account the real nature of capitalism and sit by the riverbank waiting for its corpse to float by. As we have seen the decadence of capitalism does not mean, in fact, a more or less slow decline into extinction but the exacerbation of all its contradictions: the employment of machines which could free humanity from heavy toil alongside the ever more intense and ferocious exploitation of labour power; machines reproduce many of the functions of human beings but it is humanity which is more and more subordinated to the machine; the capacity to produce wealth increases as poverty becomes more general; the possibility for conflicts to be finally overcome as they become, in macabre fashion, more permanent.

 

The decadence of the system lies in these factors and not in a clearly anti-historical idea of some imaginary quantitative limit. Such a mechanically predetermined or predeterminable limit doesn’t exist so that without a revolutionary rupture, without the conscious intervention of the proletariat, the process of decadence is destined to generate only more and more barbarism. It could also come to halt without a social revolution but in this case it would be due to the destruction of the whole of society, “the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx — Engels The Communist Manifesto).

 

Decadence and Imperialism

 

Monopoly and Extra-profit

 

The earliest forms of capitalist decadence arose at the end of the Nineteenth Century. In this period capitalism generated the first real forms of decadence, on which Lenin concentrated in Imperialism — The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

 

The passage from an economy of free exchange in which each economic unit was subject to competition to a capitalism dominated by huge monopolistic groups is the first and most fundamental sign of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production. With the arrival of monopoly the mechanisms of capital accumulation were modified. Whilst in a system dominated by free competition any single capitalist can hope to obtain from his own investments a profit equal to the average available in the market. By asserting the weight of concentrated economic entities the profits realised by the great capitalist monopolies can be higher than the average rate. This difference is defined by Marx as extra-profit, derived from the revenue of the monopoly. Its dominant position in the market givess the capitalist monopoly the advantage of being able to sell its own commodities at a higher price than it would have been able to get had it not been in such a dominant economic position.

 

Monopoly is a socio-economic product which traces its own origins to free competition. In contrast to what bourgeois economists maintain monopoly isn’t the result of some throwback to the old feudal economy but is the logical outcome of the contradictions with which the capitalism system struggles in its free exchange period. The economic crisis brought about by the fall in the average rate of profit accelerates the drive towards the dominance of monopoly and of the forms of parasitic appropriation of surplus value typical of a society which has entered a period of decadence. It’s in this particular historic moment when bourgeois society, in order to sustain the process of accumulation, systematically adopts a mechanism of parasitic appropriation like revenue, that we can assert that such a social formation has entered its phase of decadence.

 

Finance Capital and Parasitism

 

At the same time as the formation of huge monopoly concentrations the banks take on an increasingly important economic role. From simple institutions for holding savings the banks fulfil a function which is totally different from that of the past, intervening directly in the production of commodities. These great banking groups hold the reins of power, deciding to whom, and on what conditions, to lend money. The phenomena of concentration and centralisation of capital have found their ideal terrain in the banking institutions. It’s enough to hold about quarter of the shares of a bank to determine the choices not only of that particular bank but of all its subordinates. The function of finance capital, or rather banking capital, which under the form of money is invested in the world of production, takes on an extraordinary importance in this context. Banks and industrial monopolies represent very distinct and separate entities but there are very close relations amongst them. Industrial groups can be found at the head of the banks whilst, on the other hand, they can themselves be the direct expression of some banking institution. Excess finance capital though being largely invested in production represents an important measure for understanding how capitalism at the beginning of the last century obtained returns just like any other capital but without directly producing a single atom of surplus value. The parasitism of finance capital is one of the most significant phenomena of capitalist decadence.

 

The Export of Capital

 

With the establishment of big capitalist monopolies and the formation of huge masses of excess finance capital the phenomenon of the export of capital grows out of all proportion. The financial-economic monopoly concentrations of the imperialist powers invest their capital in periferal countries in order to realise a greater profit than that which would have been obtained in the country of origin. Above all at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the possibility of investing in countries where the average rate of profit was greater than that which could be obtained in France, Britain or Germany opened up. This super-profit was obtained because in these less advanced countries there was little capital invested, primary products were cheap and, above all the cost of labour power was very low. The consequence of the export of capital was the creation of a single world-wide market in which various large monopolistic groups fought to divide the planet, at first in economic terms, then on the military terrain. The possibility of obtaining higher profits by exporting capital to less developed countries created the imperialist competition which led to the First World War. Lenin correctly defined the First World War as imperialist in so far as its causes could be found in the contradictions of capitalism, and in the intensified search by the large monopolistic groups for new markets, to which capital could be exported.

 

The extra profits which resulted from monopoly and the export of capital led to an enormous increase in the profits of the imperialist countries. A part of these extra-profits were used by the bourgeoisie with the aim of dividing the working class of the advanced countries. Through increased wages a part of the class was materially detached from the proletariat in order to transform it into what Lenin called “the labour aristocracy”. This split on the economic level was reflected in ideological divisions allowing reformism to take root amongst the labour aristocracy.

 

The improvements of living conditions of a section of the working class of the advanced capitalist countries seems at first sight a contradiction to the phenomenon we have been describing. But the contradiction is only an apparent one. The assertion of the phenomenon of the decadence of bourgeois society can momentarily coexist with the improvement in the living standards of some sectors of the proletariat. We would fall into an idealistic vision of reality if we were to think that the outward manifestation of a phenomenon mechanically represented its consequences. In the first place the workers’ aristocracy is defined as such by the fact that the proletariat a whole has not improved its living standards, even in the most advanced countries. In the second place the offering of a few crumbs to some sectors of the working class has only been possible through the looting of whole continents. Decadence has produced on the one hand the so-called aristocracy of labour and at the other has completely reduced to hunger entire continents which, thanks to the internationalisation of the market, are part of the mechanism of the production of surplus value.

 

The Phenomena of Decadence in the Era of Globalisation

 

The forms of parasitic appropriation typical of a society in decadence, already obvious in the last century, have, in the last few decades evolved in way unimaginable in the time of Lenin. New parasitic forms of appropriation of surplus value have now been added to those which decadent capitalism displayed at the onset of its appearance. Whilst in Lenin’s time the large monopolistic groupings, though dominating the international economic scene were, in all cases surrounded by a series of small and medium sized enterprises which played a completely secondary role in the formation of the gross domestic product of any country. The level of concentration of capital in this period did not leave even a minimal amount of space for enterprises which were outside the control and management of the monopolies. The extra-profit which the monopolist can get from charging a higher price than in a free competitive market is no longer an isolated or minority phenomenon but has become the regulating function of the capitalist economy. On the other hand the tendency for the number of enterprises operating in the market to be reduced is dictated by the need to concentrate the means of production to lower cost and increase the mass of profits.

 

Expansion of Financial and Speculative Activity

 

Finance capital was defined by Lenin as banking capital in the form of money invested in the world of production. Lenin rightly emphasised how the development of parasitic forms of appropriation was inherent in the nature of finance capital. In this mechanism extended reproduction of capital was guaranteed by the operation of the formulae M — C — M1, though mediated by the action of the banks. In short, for a whole historical epoch, finance capital was employed in the world of production. Alongside such parasitic activity, step by step with it, also developed the classical productive activity, the only activity to furnish the vital lifeblood of the accumulation process, that is, the creation of surplus value.

 

In the last three decades financial activity experienced an obscene growth, so much so that finance capital, in its painful quest for self-valorisation, always tends to avoid the world of production. Huge masses of finance capital, unable to find adequate reward in productive activity due to the ever lower industrial rate of profit are invested in speculative and parasitic activities, without minimally interesting itself in the production of surplus value. The old dream of the capitalists to avoid dirtying his hands in the world of production but to valorise his own capital only and exclusively through financial speculation, has come true in the last few decades thanks to the expansion of stock exchange activities and the international capital markets. The formula M — C — M1 appears in simplified form as M — M1, completely leaping over the phase of commodity and, in short, surplus value production. Capital now claims its reward without having contributed to the production of a single drop of surplus value.

 

The country which more than any other has developed this mechanism of parasitic appropriation is the United States. To see this we would refer you to our previous works on financial revenue. Here we want to stress how the United States in the last few decades, thanks to the important role of the dollar in international markets, has succeeded in extorting surplus value from every corner of the planet. This mechanism allows it to be in the parasitic position of simply printing money obtained in exchange for the rest of the world’s goods and services. In this way it has become the most indebted country on the planet but at the same time one which imperialistically imposes on other countries the need to hand over revenue to sustain the US process of accumulation. If, in Lenin’s time imperialist domination was expressed through the export of finance capital, thanks to the mechanism of the parasitic appropriation of surplus value through the production of fictitious capital the USA is, in its time, the greatest imperialist power and the most indebted country in the world. If we had to bring Lenin’s analysis to today’s reality we should conclude that the USA is an imperialistically dominated country. It’s clear that this reality has to be studied in all its dynamic and it is the task of revolutionaries to grasp the changes in the way that capitalism appears and its decadent forms.

 

Lenin should not be read as scripture here but according to the principles of historical materialism. Decadence is a historical product which goes through continual changes, so the phenomena associated with decadence reveal themselves in different ways in relation to the changes in parasitic activities.

 

Decadence and the Class Struggle

 

Whilst the decadence of capital arises from the immanent laws of capital reproduction themselves, the forms which decadence takes are also dictated by other factors. Not least of these is the balance of forces between the contending classes of bourgeoisie and proletariat. After a first phase in which capitalism extorted more surplus value by lengthening the working day the working day was reduced until it reached, at least in the leading capitalist countries, the famous 8 hour day. Capitalism, as a response also to the increased combativity of the working class, was forced to reduce the working day. It thus developed the tendency to increase the extortion of surplus value through an increase in the productivity of labour. It has allowed the extortion of that part of surplus value which Marx called “relative” not by lengthening the working day but shortening the time of necessary labour to produce the value of labour power, or rather the wages received by workers. By increasing relative surplus value the capitalist increase their mass of profit but at the same time the proletariat historically achieves an increase in its free time and thus improves its living conditions.

 

By the beginning of the Twentieth Century as we explained above, capitalism had entered its period of “decay and parasitism” (Lenin) or, in short, its imperialist phase. The price for the proletariat was to be massacred in global wars as capitalist states fought for monopoly control of the planet. The economic function of the war we will deal with in the next section but one of the consequences of imperialist war in the Twentieth century was for the capitalist state in the advanced capitalist states to attempt to increase social solidarity by introducing the welfare state. At first this was done rather grudgingly and partially but by the end of the Second World War all the leading capitalist nations had established a welfare state which was portrayed as a victory for the proletariat even though they actually paid for it. The arrival of the welfare state also meant that the bribes in the form of higher wages to the skilled sector of the working class which had allowed Lenin to see them as an aristocracy of labour were now universal to the proletariat of the main centres of capitalism so that the term “aristocracy of labour” ceases to have the same analytical purpose.

 

But the welfare state was also conditional. So long as the period of post-war accumulation was in its upward cycle, the so-called boom, then capitalists were prepared to tolerate the welfare state. They had little choice as the devaluation of capital and the shortage of labour caused by the Second World War meant that they had to accept the role of the state in redistributing surplus value in order to maintain the social peace between classes. However once the period of expansion of the third cycle of capitalist accumulation had come to an end (signalled by the devaluation of the US dollar) economic crisis forced the bourgeoisie everywhere to attack working class living standards. The crisis actually gave the capitalists a weapon to defeat the working class in that labour was now expendable so unemployment rose. The balance of power swung back towards the capitalist class. Once the great struggles of the 1970s and the 1980s had been lost the capitalist could once again extort more absolute surplus value by real wage cuts and longer working hours.

 

Added to this historical throwback to a longer working day is the tendency of capital to increase its profits by also extorting more relative surplus value. On the one hand we can see the frightening growth of the productivity of labour brought about by the continuing technological improvement in the productive apparatus, an improvement that potentially could lead to the reduction in labour time for workers. On the other the need to sustain the weak process of accumulation pushes capital to do the opposite and lengthen the working day. But lengthening the working day is only one of the many signs of decline in working class living standards throughout the world. Capitalism in its periods of crisis has of necessity to devalue the cost of labour power. As in the last few decades, the proletariat has suffered a violent an attack on its wage levels. The devaluation of wages has gone so far that it takes in the entire international working class; the possibility of moving production to the most disparate corners of the planet, where wage levels are very low, lets capital trigger a mechanism for devaluing labour power whose consequences can be seen by everyone.

 

And under the impact of the crisis what decadent capitalism conceded when it was faced with a rising proletariat, and when abundant extra-profits permitted it, it can now take away by dismantling the welfare state. All resources have to be directed to the accumulation process so the welfare state, though essential to capital in re-establishing social peace after the global imperialist wars, has to be dismantled as capital can longer guarantee it. This leads therefore to cuts in health, education, pensions, railways and public transport, in short, the state sector. We shouldn’t forget though that the welfare state isn’t a free gift from the bourgeoisie given that workers have to give up part of their wages to get these services but if these are not then forthcoming a real a true robbery of the working class has taken place. And this is happening in every advanced area of capitalism where the welfare state existed in the past.

 

Decadence and Permanent War

 

The phenomenon which, perhaps more than any other, characterises the period of decadence of bourgeois society, is the deep-seated need to resort to war to get out of the crisis. Though the wars of the last hundred years have had a variety of ideological justifications all trace their origins to the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. Every war is an imperialist war of capital, and as such is always fought against the proletariat. In the imperialist phase the first two cycles of accumulation both ended dramatically in world conflicts showing that capitalism in its decadent phase can only function if it is capable of destroying capita or excess productive forces and massacring millions of proletarians in the front line. In the perverse destructive mechanism of war capitalism has found a unique response to its own crises. The two world wars have therefore been the signs of both the end of one cycle of accumulation and the beginning of another; in the modus operandi of decadent capitalism wars have been dramatic intervals needed to overcome the crisis and relaunch the cycle of accumulation. The onward march of capitalist decadence has meant that wars are not just interludes in the life of capital but have become a permanent way of life of bourgeois society. Over the last four decades permanent war has been a constant reality of capitalism. The development of decadence has thus ensured that war has become a capitalist way of life. For a society like capitalism to continue reproducing itself it is daily forced to destroy commodities and human beings. Permanent war, which is functional to the great economic and financial oligarchies who hold power, makes the entire international proletariat pay through the nose both in terms of actual human life and in the decline of their living standards. The permanent imperialist wars of the last few decades are different in some respects from past combats, not in their class content but in the evidence they give of the intensification of the decadence of capitalist society.

 

Whilst the two previous imperialist conflicts allowed capitalism to open up a new cycle of accumulation leading to a period of growth of the entire world economy, the wars fought in the last few decades have had the distinctive consequence of enriching only a small part of the international bourgeoisie whilst at the same time destroying whole countries. We are faced with permanent wars which, compared with those of the past do not create the premises for a new period of economic development., through the rebuilding of destroyed productive apparatus, but which has as its sole effect the deaths of millions of proletarians and generalised destruction. The forgotten wars on the African continent, the conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia and the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the most obvious signs of what a society in its decadent phase can produce unless a proletarian revolutionary wave is capable of breaking its grip.

 

Decadence, Class Struggle and Revolution

 

Class conflict between bourgeois and proletariat is not exclusive to the decadent period of capitalist society. The achievement of socialism by the proletariat depends on the level of development and maturity of the class, not just on the onset of the period of the system’s decadence. The class struggle is determined by the permanent contradictions between capital and labour and the onslaughts of the proletariat in the Nineteenth century were not weak voluntaristic acts on the part of some sectors of the working class. The Paris Commune of 1871, just to quote the most striking proletarian assault, was an heroic, though immature, act of the French proletariat in which it attempted to conquer power. This happened a before capitalism entered its period of decadence. In order that the proletariat can make its revolution two basic conditions have to exist:

 

1.   the objective condition of an economic crisis which drives the class to mobilise on its own terrain.

 

2.   the presence of a revolutionary party which can politically and organisationally guide the proletariat toward the conquest of power.

 

Both these essential conditions can be found in the ascendant phase of the capitalist mode of production, just as it is true that, in the initial phase of capitalist decadence there were violent economic crises to which the proletariat responded with significant struggles but which, in the absence of an effective political guide were reabsorbed into the framework of the bourgeois order. In potential terms the proletariat can make its revolution without waiting for capitalism to run the full historic course to decadence. The proletariat hasn’t made the revolution not because the objective conditions to make it don’t exist but because it has not been able to express itself in a political party capable of guiding it to the conquest of power. This however isn’t just a problem of the past but also a pressing issue for the present.

 

Economic crises and decadence are dialectically linked but represent two concrete realities of capitalism today. The economic crisis appears when the accumulation mechanism is blocked and is accompanied by all the phenomena typical of the crisis (collapse of production, mass unemployment, wage cuts etc) These crisis have been a constant in capitalism and were around even before its decadent period. Economic crises therefore characterise the whole of capitalism’s historic existence. The decadence of capitalism obviously presupposes economic crises but these are expressed in all the phenomena we have attempted to identify in the present work (parasitism, search for extra-profits, the return of savage forms of exploitation of labour power, wars, etc.) Capitalism suffered crises before it entered its decadent phase but it has also experienced periods of economic development under decadence.

 

The success or failure of a revolutionary assault by the working class depends on the presence of the two factors mentioned above at the same time. Neither of these factors depends in any way on the historic period in which capitalism is in. So just as decadence cannot be identified with economic crises, at the same time the period of the decadence of capitalism doesn’t make it any easier to rebuild the class party. Historically therefore we have to unfortunately confirm the fact that the proletariat was more successful in expressing itself as a revolutionary subject in the early years of the Twentieth century, when the phenomena of decadence first fully showed themselves. Whilst in the last few decades in which decadence has become such a penetrating phenomenon, even through the ill-fated consequences of Stalinism, the proletariat has not succeeded in giving a real response to the problems posed by capitalism.

 

A decadent society can continue to exist for a very long time, the length of which cannot be determined a priori. In the past the Roman world in its period of decadence prolonged its slow agony for almost half a millennium. Only with the benefit of the historian’s hindsight can we state that the rise and fall of ancient Roman slave society was ended thanks to the assault of the barbarian invasions. The same measure cannot be applied to make projections of the time left for present bourgeois society. We are dramatically living through the decadence of capitalism, we can identify certain phenomena in which it can be seen but we obviously cannot foresee when this period will historically end. In the absence of an alternative capitalism could still carry on its mad course for centuries. The decadence of capitalism doesn’t mechanically lead to socialism. It is a methodological error to foresee the natural end of capitalism and the arrival of socialism without revolutionary action by the proletariat. Socialism isn’t the natural outcome of capitalist decadence but the fruit of the victorious struggle of the proletariat guided by its international, and internationalist, party.

 

IBRP

 

September 2005

 

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