A mode of production enters a phase of historical decadence when the relations of production that characterize it cease to be forms of development of the productive forces and become obstacles to the free development of those same forces. Consequently, development and economic growth are dissociated.
The bases of capitalism’s decadence
From the very Manifesto of 1848 the communist movement was aware that the expansive tendency of capitalism would reach an objective limit and that by that time the working class would already be an almost universal social and productive force.
The development of big industry undermines under the feet of the bourgeoisie the basis on which it produces and appropriates what is produced. The bourgeoisie produces, above all, its own gravediggers. Its collapse and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.
But what were the objective limits of the progressive development of capitalism? To discover this, Marx began a long investigation, which remained largely unfinished, but which revealed the essential under the ideological veil of bourgeois economic theory: “Capital”. His first discovery is that capitalism is a mercantile system, centered on the production of commodities. Not every product is a commodity, the commodity is produced not to be consumed but to be sold, it therefore presupposes private property. There are however various mercantile economies different from capitalism. What defines capitalism is a new social relationship: the capital-labor relationship.
Labor, labor power in fact, in capitalism is just another commodity. A commodity that has a market price, the wage. And that has a unique property: it generates the increase in value of products with respect to the cost of their components, including labor (whose cost is the salary). It is this increase in value (the surplus value), which when realized (the commodity is sold at a price higher than that of its components added together) produces profits… profits that accumulate in a new form: capital. Capital that in turn will have to be “made profitable” by applying it (investing it) to new cycles of production that generate new surplus value and therefore profits by increasing capital once again.
Marx then studies how the evolution dynamics of capital are in the assumption of an ideal 100% capitalist economy where there is a single capitalist and production is sold out in its entirety (the market is cleared). This makes it possible to unmask the origin of the growth of value in unpaid labor without having to enter into the analysis of the capital market and how profits are distributed among capitalists. In the model in the first book of “Capital”, surplus value and profit are equal because there is only one firm. This reduction also allows him to isolate the most important tendencies, among them the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as a result of the increase in the mass of manufactured products and the relative weight of dead labor (capital invested in machines, buildings, etc.) over living labor (labor performed by people bought by the capitalist). All this is very important because it explains how and why in its own internal logic capitalism pushes, brings humanity closer to abundance, developing its productive capacities and the knowledge among the tremors and miseries typical of a system that in each cycle tends to pauperize more and more workers until reaching the absurdity of capitalist overproduction in times of crisis.
But this does not deny that Marx is fully aware that between crisis and crisis there is something else and that this something else is related precisely to the non-capitalist sector of the world market economy: all those independent peasants who do not exploit workers, the artisans, etc. who produce commodities without producing surplus value. The productive sectors that had been in the majority until the arrival of capitalism and which capitalism parasitizes.
Why does it parasitize them? Because since surplus value is unpaid work, by definition workers cannot pay for the whole of production. Giving them credit to do so only leaves the problem for later. For the bourgeoisie itself to “consume” the total surplus value produced would make capital accumulation impossible. Moving the surpluses from some more capitalized sectors to others could not be done either, except at the cost of destroying capital.
Due to the “restricted bases” of the capitalist sector there can only be “overproduction”, that is, wages are not enough to buy everything produced… capitalism needs to expand from the first moment. Firstly towards its non-capitalist domestic markets. Secondly to the outside. This was the material driving force behind the global expansion of capitalism.
Since the aim of capital is not the satisfaction of needs but the production of profit, and since it only achieves this aim by virtue of methods that regulate the volume of production according to the scale of production, and not vice versa, there must constantly be a split between the restricted dimensions of consumption on a capitalist basis and production that constantly tends to overcome this barrier that is immanent to it. Moreover, capital is made up of commodities, and so overproduction of capital implies overproduction of commodities. Hence the curious phenomenon in which the same economists who deny the overproduction of goods admit the overproduction of capital. If it is said that within the diverse branches of production there is no general overproduction, but a disproportion, it does not mean but that, within capitalist production, the proportionality between the diverse branches of production is established as a constant process from a disproportionality, when the relation of global production is imposed here, as a blind law, to the agents of production, instead of being submitted to their collective control as a law of the production process captured by their associated intellect, and in that way dominated. Moreover, this requires that countries in which the capitalist mode of production is not developed must consume and produce to a degree commensurate with the countries of the capitalist mode of production. If it is said that overproduction is only relative, that is entirely correct; but it is the case that the whole capitalist mode of production is only a relative mode of production, the limits of which are not absolute, but which are so for capitalism depending on its basis. How else could demand for the same commodities that the mass of the people lacks be lacking, and how could it be possible to have to seek that demand abroad, in more distant markets, in order to pay the workers of one’s own country the average of the indispensable means of subsistence? Because only in this specific, capitalist context does the surplus product acquire a form in which its owner can only make it available for consumption as long as it is reconverted for him into capital. Finally, if it is said that, in the final analysis, capitalists only need to exchange their goods among themselves and eat them, the whole character of capitalist production is forgotten, and it is also forgotten that it is a question of the valorization of capital, and not of its consumption. In short, all the objections against the palpable manifestations of overproduction (manifestations which lack concern for such objections) point to the fact that the limits of capitalist production are not limitations on production in general, and therefore neither are they limitations on this specific mode of production, the capitalist one. But the contradiction of this capitalist mode of production consists precisely in its tendency towards the absolute development of the productive forces, which is permanently in conflict with the specific conditions of production within which capital moves, and which are the only conditions within which it can move.
Karl Marx. Chapter XV of book III of “Capital”, 1867.
As in all previous modes of production, there is a moment from which the relations of production…
From forms of development of the productive forces that they were, these relations turn into obstacles to these forces. Then an era of social revolution opens up.
Karl Marx. Preface to the “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, January 1859
Imperialism and decadence
Capitalism’s chronic lack of markets could only lead to such a limit. A moment that would be expressed “with winds of warlike catastrophe”.
The existence of non-capitalist purchasers of surplus value is a direct vital condition for capital and its accumulation. In this sense, such purchasers are the decisive element in the problem of capital accumulation. But in one way or another, in fact, the accumulation of capital as a historical process depends, in many aspects, on non-capitalist social layers and forms. (…) Capitalism needs, for its existence and development, to be surrounded by non-capitalist forms of production. (…) The second fundamental precondition, both for the acquisition of means of production and for the realization of surplus value, is the extension of the action of capitalism to societies with a natural economy. (…)
Imperialism is the political expression of the process of capital accumulation in its struggle to conquer the non-capitalist means that are not yet exhausted. Geographically, these means cover, even today, the widest territories of the Earth. But compared to the powerful mass of capital already accumulated in the old capitalist countries, which struggles to find markets for its surplus product, and possibilities of capitalization for its surplus value; compared to the speed with which territories belonging to pre-capitalist cultures are transformed into capitalist ones today, or in other words: compared to the high degree of the productive forces of capital, the field still seems small for the expansion of capital. This determines the international play of capital on the world stage. Given the great development and the increasingly violent concurrence of the capitalist countries to conquer non-capitalist territories, imperialism increases its aggressiveness against the non-capitalist world, sharpening the contradictions between the capitalist countries in struggle. But the more violently and energetically capitalism seeks the total collapse of non-capitalist civilizations, the more rapidly it will undermine the terrain of capital accumulation. Imperialism is both a historical method of prolonging the existence of capital and a sure means of objectively putting an end to its existence. This is not to say that this end should be happily achieved. Already the tendency of capitalist evolution towards it is manifesting itself with winds of catastrophe.
Rosa Luxemburg. “The Accumulation of Capital”, 1913.
The catastrophe came in the form of a world war that also ushered in the era of proletarian revolutions:
Capitalism is the first economic form with the capacity for worldwide development. It is a form that tends to spread throughout the whole of the Earth and to eliminate all other economic forms; it does not tolerate the coexistence of any other. But it is also the first that cannot exist alone, without other economic forms to feed on, and while it has the tendency to become a unique form, it fails because of the internal incapacity of its development. It is a living historical contradiction in itself. Its accumulation movement is the expression, the constant solution and, at the same time, marks the degree of the contradiction. At a certain point in evolution, this contradiction can only be resolved by the application of the principles of socialism; of that economic form which is, at the same time, by nature, a world form and a harmonious system, because it will not be directed to accumulation, but to the satisfaction of the vital needs of working humanity itself and to the expansion of all the productive forces of the planet.
Rosa Luxemburg. “The Accumulation of Capital”, 1913.
Imperialist World War and Decadence
The indication that capitalism could no longer expand without cataclysmic consequences was an unprecedented phenomenon, an imperialist war that was also global because the expansion of the system was already global.
Frederick Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma: advance to socialism or regression to barbarism. What does “regression into barbarism” mean in the current stage of European civilization? We have read and quoted these words lightly, without being able to conceive of their terrible meaning. At this point it is enough to look around us to understand what regression to barbarism means in capitalist society. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the destruction of culture, sporadically if it is a modern war, forever if the period of world wars that has just begun can follow its cursed course to the last consequences. Thus we find ourselves today, as Engels prophesied a generation ago, faced with the terrible choice: either imperialism triumphs and causes the destruction of all culture and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, an immense cemetery; or socialism triumphs, that is, the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism, its methods, its wars. Such is the dilemma of universal history, its iron alternative, its balance shaking at the point of equilibrium, awaiting the decision of the proletariat. The future of culture and humanity depends on it. In this war, imperialism has triumphed. Its brutal and murderous sword has knocked the scales, with overwhelming brutality, into the depths of the abyss of shame and misery. If the proletariat learns from this war and in this war to strive, to shake off the yoke of the ruling classes, to become masters of its own destiny, this shame and misery will not have been in vain.
Rosa Luxemburg. The crisis of German social democracy, 1915.
Does decadence mean permanent crisis?
As we have seen, the tendency to crisis is present in the very logic of capital accumulation every time the markets outside the system become insufficient. Decadence therefore means that once the periods of reconstruction following the great, generalized imperialist wars are over, the tendency to crisis acts in a sustained and permanent way. But a tendency does not mean that accumulation ceases or that capital becomes self-depreciating, or even that, on a continuous basis, production decreases. What is transformed is the meaning of accumulation and its capacity to develop the main productive force of the system: the proletariat.
Contrary to what the majority of the revolutionary vanguard of today believes (and I understand by this only groups and people who speak of counter-revolution and state capitalism in Russia), not all development of the instruments of production is positive, no matter how much it shows upward indices of goods, engenders engineers and increases the number of workers. It is time to put an end to a materialism of such a naive nature, which is the source of theoretical clumsiness and proletarian defeats. To be progressive, the development of the means of production must be accompanied by an increase in the consumption of the working population, its culture and its freedom. The bourgeoisie itself has thus carried this out in a relatively straight line up to the moment of its decisive crisis.
G. Munis. Mao Tse-tung’s Ancient China, 1959
The result is, first of all, a permanent crisis as “civilization”, as a mode of production with progressive results.
A society or type of civilization is developing while the structural and superstructural factors contained in its original momentum are expanding and spreading, those that have constituted its reason for being, its historical need, its human justification. Because a type of civilization -that is to say a class- has never been formed and elevated to the rank of dominant but as a positive representation, even incomplete, of all classes, even of those that bear the worst fate. Its system must allow everyone to be better off materially, culturally and morally, and even to have more freedom in comparison with the previous situation. This content is the only thing that can be called social development.
We have seen it very clearly during the rise of capitalist society. More than any other civilization since the emergence of classes and the State, it has increased general culture, political freedom, nutritional possibilities and the production and reproduction of human life, not to mention the multitude of good consequences that these three factors have brought about. The greater mastery of nature characteristic of capitalist civilization, even though it was mainly by and for the bourgeoisie, had more or less repercussions on the poor and exploited classes.
The same cannot be said of today’s capitalism. Its domination of Nature, from physics and chemistry to genetics and psychoanalysis, continues to increase. But in general it is only worse for the great mass of poor classes. Metals are now being manufactured that are so resistant that they allow space shuttles to pass through the dense layers of the atmosphere, but from the pot to the car, the products on the market are of a poor quality calculated to force them to be renewed soon; we know how to make fabrics that last more than a lifetime, but the suit or stockings sold by tens or hundreds of millions are made to become rags soon; We know how to produce food of excellent quality and purity, but it has become unobtainable, a delicacy for tycoons, for the great mass, from simple bread, adulterated products, when not toxic, wrapped in plastic that modifies its chemical composition; we know how to select animal species for butchering and for the stable from the best supply, but the steak, the chicken, the pig, etc. contain the hormones with which the animals have been artificially fattened, while milk is an liquid impoverished of the most indispensable substances to the infantile nutrition; it is possible to construct residential buildings more resistant than a cathedral, but the house or the apartment of the ordinary man falls into ruin before he finishes his payments.
The radio and television, which are very powerful instruments of information and cultural education, are an inseparable complement to the above, deceiving and intoxicating billions of people on every continent, always supported by the daily press; In technical and university education centers, youth is channeled and shaped according to state-capitalist projects, while the quality of education is degraded year after year; psychoanalysis itself serves in factories, orientation establishments, advertising and police, to disgusting operations that lower the individual and collective mind.
There would be no point in listing all the aspects in which capitalism (more precisely, so that the reader does not exclude any country: society based on wage labor) is perverting daily life, corrupting what it itself created. However, we must complete the quick sketch above by pointing out two even more serious aspects. The first is the present condition of the working class, a slave of work and sleep, with no time for leisure in this age of automation, without any freedom in the factory, which is heavily disciplined and watched over by the triad of capital, trade unions and the state, which, moreover, subjects it to piecework, the most vile form of exploitation; Forced, in order to avoid misery, to subject women as well as their husbands to the whirlwind of this same exploitation; deprived of their jobs by the drudgery; always at the mercy of the dirigist program; increasingly dispossessed of what they produce and of the total amount of wealth usurped by capital. Never have the instruments of work and the products of her labor been so alien and oppressive to her. The very automobile in which many workers drive throws several more knots into the bonds that imprison them, miseries that have turned the whole society into a concentration camp that is daily plundered by its organizers, commerce and tax authorities.
The second and most categorical of the two aspects mentioned is political totalitarianism, simultaneously a police and a military one, which has been invading the whole world, including the countries in which bourgeois democracy survives, eating away at it. In itself, the increasingly overwhelming weight of armies; war and police production represents a degenerative factor of the first order in today’s civilization. It is not only a question of the total loss of income that their existence entails, much more than what is stipulated in the official budgets, which are already enormous; neither is it the wasted, parasitic, harmful or criminal work entrusted to tens of millions of people; the worst thing of all is the role that the war industries, the military activities and the police have acquired, without distinction of blocs Indeed, if the industrialization promoted by capitalism was never for consumption but through the sale of ‘goods’ and bourgeois enrichment, with the enormous volume of war production -not forgetting that of cheap goods-, let it become industrialization by industrialization, whose relationship with necessary consumption is increasingly tenuous and false. And for their part, police and armies embody the power for the power of an anonymous capital, surpassed by technology and human demands, which survives itself as a form of social organization. In ancient Egypt, there came a time when the cult of death consumed more than half of the population’s work. In fire capitalism, it is not a cult, but an industrial and physical practice of death that approaches the same balance and is already capable of murdering the entire human species in a few minutes.
G. Munis. The Impossibility of Capitalist Development, 1972
A crisis that is expressed in the tension towards turning the everyday life of decadent capitalism into war preparation, a malformed “growth” in times of prosperity and a monstrous development of the state, state capitalism, which addresses the growing structural difficulty of keeping organized society cohesive around a civilization that tends to decompose under the forces it has created.
It has been more than forty years since capitalism, having covered its progressive stage, contradicted mankind’s needs for economic and political freedom. Great imperialist slaughters, minor wars, military dictatorships, stalinists, fascists, diminution and corruption of freedom in the former countries of bourgeois democracy, accentuated exploitation of the proletariat, lengthening of the working day, reintroduction of piecework, monstrous growth of the state and private bureaucracy, of foremen, controllers and timekeepers in industry, of the police, the standing armies and war production, conversion of the trade unions into regulators of exploitation, all manifestations of the reactionary corruption of capitalism, whether one considers any country isolated or all together, the backward as well as the forward, Eastern and Western bloc as one. Capitalism is destroying civilization and degrading man. The most ostentatious sign of that degradation is that Moscow and Washington can annihilate the whole of humanity with a single gesture, while trying to make the world believe that the Russian armies are preferable to the Americans or the Americans to the Russians. The mere atomic threat would more than justify an uprising that would end at the same time as the nuclear bombs, with all the war apparatus and the economic system that needs them.
G. Munis. Appeal and exhortation to the new generation, 1966