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The “nightmare scenario” of capitalist collapse

September 9, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


The nightmare scenario typically presented by bourgeois thinkers to the possibility of the collapse of capitalism can pretty much be summed up in six words:

“Buy guns, gold and beans! Now!”

In this view, the passing of capitalism is equated with the complete breakdown of civilization and a regression to some primitive state. Without market forces and the centralized control of the fascist state, we are warned, society must splinter into roving gangs of murderous, zombie-like, scavengers.

The reason for this apocalyptic vision of our future is that since the bourgeois mind sees capitalist relations as the eternal and universal form of human society, its end is coincident with the end of civilization itself. In this sense, there is this indecipherable dead space akin to the actual dead space we each must encounter eventually at the end of our own life.

This view of the demise of capitalism is, on the one hand, a fiction of an ahistorical world view; on the other hand, it is also a view that actually describes the reality of society after capitalism. From the standpoint of the law of value, the world does actually come to an end — i.e., the laws of capitalist society no longer hold, and the worldview conditioned by these laws ceases to have any relevancy. Labor becomes unnecessary, the products of labor no longer have values or prices, money itself is obsolete and the state has withered away. So when we try to conceptualize what such a world looks like, employing concepts of capitalist categories, we must fail; It is not unlike trying to peer into a black hole, or the moments before the universe was born.

The critique Kurz made of 20th Century Marxism in the first section of his essay is that it is equally incapable of conceptualizing society after commodity production no longer exists. Insofar as the Marxism of the fordist era can imagine a society free of capitalist relations at all, it only imagines it in the form where categories of the old society reappear under the tutelage of the Proletarian Dictatorship. This view, Kurz argued in section 2, is based on a vulgar application of Marx’s schema of the relation between the forces of production and the relations of production. Marx’s schema is described by Kurz this way:

“once a system is historically established, one cannot go back: it must go through, so to speak, its life cycle, until it becomes exhausted and reaches its internal limits. These limits are reached when the development of the productive forces arrives at a point where the latter become incompatible with the relations of production. The petrified shell of the objectivized social forms then breaks apart violently with catastrophic eruptions, which must take place so that transformed and superior forms of sociability, compatible with the new productive forces, can be realized.”

Kurz criticizes the Marxist vulgarization of Marx’s schema on two grounds. First, the vulgar model is a deterministic sequence of development held by Marxists in place of what actually was a contingent process. Kurz argued, the rise of capitalism was actually contingent process that only later assumed the form of a process independent of human will:

“The direction taken by the process of development is decided in social confrontations. Concerning which, one can say that, in the late Middle Ages, after the plague, it was not absolutely certain or even determined that capitalism’s “time had come”. In that era, completely different directions of development were still possible, which might not necessarily have led to capitalism…”

Second, and far more important to our present circumstance, Kurx argued the Marxist understanding of this schema was limited by the historical moment in which it arose. Kurz argued, Marxism was only able to recognize the process as far as it reflected the internal history of commodity; the old Marxism could only pose the question of transition in a truncated form: not as a question of what comes after commodity production in general, but what comes after wage slavery as a specific form of commodity production, or even as specific relations of production within wage slavery.

Which is to say, this Marxism understood Marx’s argument not as the replacement of capitalism by communism, but only in a form where successive expression of commodity relations replaced one another as the internal motor of capitalist development, or, at best, as the succession of bourgeois rule by the rule of the proletariat. Kurz uses, as an example, the winning of universal suffrage by the working class. In this way,

“socialism took possession of the legacy of liberalism … in which each and every moment of emancipation from the respective previous situation represented a new stage of repression and prohibition.”

Kurz’s argument suggests the old Marxism, which subordinated all other concerns to the objective of seizing state power, was historically necessary for its time, because the absolute crisis of capitalism had not yet arrived. This variant of Marxism was never more than a theoretical expression of relative crisis of commodity production. Even if wage slavery could have been overthrown by the turn of the 20th Century, for instance, society would still be dominated by the law of value and commodity production, as was the case in the Soviet revolution.

Kurz calls the 20th Century Marxist understanding of Marx’s schema the “weak” form coincident with the internal development of commodity production. In this weak form, capitalism is not superseded — the outdated forms of particular moments of fetishism are replaced by newer forms. For instance, in place of commodity money prices, we get central planning or Keynesian fiscal and monetary policy.

However at the end of capitalism shelf life Marx’s schema is posed in a completely different way, not as the replacement of one form of fetishism with another, but all forms of fetishism by communism. Kurz argued that the discrediting and collapse of state socialism (and even neoliberalism) was a symptom not of a victory of Western capitalism but the telltale sign of an approaching absolute crisis of capitalism. Says Kurz, the collapse of the Soviet Union prefigures a crisis: “…in whose end all the historically-evolved chains of the value form are broken…”

Driving this absolute crisis, Kurz explained, is the techonological progress of the digital revolution, which progress must lead to a transformation that carries society beyond capitalism. At the core of this revolution is the rising organic composition of capital that now,

“…requires a greater amount of capital than the old Fordist productive forces, but without their ‘labor armies’. The costs are concentrated above all in the complexity of the microchips’ conditions of production, which today even obliges international corporations to enter “strategic alliances” for the development of the next generation of technology.”

The imbalance between the massive quantities of non-surplus value producing constant capital necessary to set in motion a given quantity of surplus value-producing variable capital has assumed previously unimaginable proportions. In the past, Kurz states, massive quantities of capital were also employed — like, for instance, the US interstate highway system — but these massive projects set in motion equally massive numbers of workers, directly and indirectly. By contrast, with the digital revolution, these massive expenditures of constant capital set in motion a trivial expenditure of labor power. It makes the centralized model of old industry obsolete, archaic and inconvenient.

“Socialization does not lie in the vastness but, quite to the contrary, in the smallness of technology. The most developed potentials of computers, of robotics and communications media are mobilized on a small scale and no longer require any ‘labor armies’ or social centralization. Reproduction can return to a decentralized form, but not to the decentralized and comparatively isolated and dispersed forms of reproduction of agrarian society, which were only superficially linked by structures of domination; in higher stages of development, it would have to evolve towards a decentralized structure, linked in a network of communications.”

To give you an idea of how far commodity production has gone in transforming the conditions of its own existence since the Middle Ages, you have to look no further than the production of the Bible:

“To begin quite generally, a book today is a very different sort of thing from a book in the early church or middle ages. The production of a medieval book was an incredibly labor-intensive process, which made for a rather expensive volume. Book production involved the death of animals from whose hides the parchment would be made through a process of curing and scraping. It involved the creation of inks and pens. And it involved the careful copying of texts, often adorned with meaningful illustrations and iconography, all packaged in hand-wrought bindings. The Scriptures, therefore, were quite literally “scriptures”–that is, writings, copied by hand, rather than printed pages.

Compare this labor-intensive process with that required now to reproduce a complete copy of the NIV Bible today by clicking this link. If this sounds to you less like an historical materialist theoretical argument, and more like the pop critique of technology provided by Kurzweil that is understandable; Kurz argued that much of our worldview is conditioned by the increasing scale of production of the fordist era with its emphasis on bigness:

“In a way, the old Marxism of the workers movement could cite, in favor of its statist and centralist concept of transformation, the situation of the productive forces themselves: from the time of the steam engine and the railroad to the heyday of the Fordist industries, the aggregations of the technical-scientific potentials were only representable in fact, on a relatively large social scale. This was applied, literally, to the machines, buildings and technologies of energy supply. The individual was small compared to monstrous machinery. And “big” was synonymous with progress. From this fact also resulted, so to speak, a certain childish megalomania: businesses and nations competed to construct the largest turbine in the world, the world’s largest building, the largest oil tanker or the largest warship.”

Kurz argued the Marxism of the Fordist period assumed growth of employment would inevitably accompany the increasing scale of the capitalist production. And it mostly ignored the criticism of this rampant unregulated growth by the alternative movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which argued this growth was increasingly unproductive, wasteful and ecologically damaging. On the other hand, according to Kurz, the alternative movement began to argue for a return to a lower stage of historical development of the productive forces.

In contrast to both Fordist Marxism and the alternative movement, Kurz’s argued we must embrace the new technologies and link our future to them, precisely because this technical change made possible a new model of a completely decentralized organization of society.

“The analysis of the relation between the forces and the relations of production in the context of the age of microelectronics also makes it clear that there is no longer the need for a central fulcrum, with direct support in society as a whole, for the “strong” transformation.”

The technologies associated with the digital revolution, Kurz argued, no longer require the value form or the modern state. The argument that Kurz is making here is important, because he is trying to set the stage for an approach to transition that is very different than the model of folks like David Harvey,
in essay, Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition, where he argues

“The co-revolutionary theory earlier laid out would suggest that there is no way that an anti-capitalist social order can be constructed without seizing state power, radically transforming it and re-working the constitutional and institutional framework that currently supports private property, the market system and endless capital accumulation.”

In 1997, Kurz’s argument suggested the present crisis must lead to forms that were decidedly anti-statist and anti-economic; Harvey in 2010 is still preoccupied with the seizure of state power as the transit point to a post-capitalist alternative. Kurz assumed (in Harvey’s words) that “the market system and endless capital accumulation” is already drawing to its end; while Harvey still assumes this end can only be brought about by political means, i.e. as a decidedly political revolution where one class merely replaces another, but the commodity form itself, which condemns billions to a life of want and hunger, goes untouched.

Harvey’s silly 2010 essay is a perfect example of the view Kurz criticized in 1997 as characteristic of outdated thinking by Fordist Marxism. The really perverse thing about Harvey’s view is that he is still holding to it in the middle of a crisis that Kurz predicted and Harvey never saw coming, and still does not grasp. The result of this error by folks like Harvey is that even in the middle of this crisis, Fordist Marxism becomes ever more marginalized from the forces rising in the face of this crisis.

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