A crisis on the way
Capitalism is not on its last legs. Present world growth indexes are higher than any time since the 1960s. Our problem is not to deny capitalism is running, but to see where it's running, and what it's running from. Only one chapter of capital's social re-engineering has been written: the taming of the proles, of their radical fringe as well as of their reformist majority, but without a corresponding restructuring of the productive system and of the social life that goes with it. Undoing the proletarian community in the work place, in the street and, last but not least, in the Law and in collective imagination, was necessary and insufficient. Every major capitalist crisis achieves what Schumpeter called creative destruction. This time, it's more destructive than creative. It lacks a renewal of the
wage relationship, that will reset the place of labour in this society and give it meaning (a capitalist one, needless to say) in everybody's life. The return of growth goes together with turbulence: crisis in Asia, collapse in Latin America, e-economy crash... Trade is booming, production is up, without producing enough value and enough profit.
The destabilising tendencies we've described could keep going, if each of them was acting on its own. But they interplay, and combine into an intractable multilayer contradiction. Labour cost-cutting slows down mass consumption. Asian development damages Western technological superiority. Lower public spending increases social tensions. A fairer deal for labour would aggravate the lack of profit in the short term. The downturn of throwaway culture would go against mass production. Reindustrialising Western Europe and North America would stir up conflicts between bourgeois groups. Mastering the harmful effects of over-industrialisation on the environment (and therefore on the perpetuation of the whole system) implies drastic measures hardly acceptable by capitalism in its present state. Even if we rule out the (impossible) option of a world government, any serious agreement between the major powers, for instance to decrease global warming, is unlikely because of the tensions within these powers and between them. The countries which would be strong enough to impose a curb on resource and energy waste are the same, in Europe, in North and South America, and in Asia, which need to increase their industrial (and military) potential.
Of course, all these elements won't pile up to produce a "crash and clash" scenario, adding at the same time a collapse in share prices in London, German industry brought to a standstill, the explosion of US debt economy, queues at soup kitchens everywhere, a few ecological disasters, and to cap it all a couple of ungovernable Chinese provinces. More simply, we argue that today the components of the system no longer converge in a dynamic balance: they oppose each other, and the reproduction of the system might overheat and become unworkable.
A climatic or social breakdown is often enough to sound the return to reality: what seemed so strong because entrenched in steel and concrete, and so flexible because digitally-managed, is proved vulnerable overnight. The march to the Rumanian capital of thousands of miners (by no means communist) reminds us that so-called archaic sectors of labour can still make politicians shake in their boots. A huge power-cut switches off the fridges and computers of several million North Americans. A storm brings thousands of French homes back to pre-electricity times. When angry lorry drivers besiege petrol depots, the government takes war-like measures. A three week railway strike brings to a halt part of the French economy. Contrary to what we're told, not only labour (including work done on a computer) has not lost its disruptive potential, but its ability to block, to push forward or to transform society is greater than in 1848 or 1917.
If the crisis got what Marx called its "entry ticket" from a large social clash of the type envisaged in the previous paragraph, its scope and outcome would be quite different from a crisis that would originate in a stock market crash, for instance. Because it's at the heart of the system, labour would force it to take more central and far-reaching solutions which capital would be incapable of postponing.
A French economist recently argued that the 1930s crisis lies ahead of us. For what figures are worth, there were 40 million unemployed in the West in 2003, as against 30 million in the industrial countries in 1933. The 2003 statistic would be much higher with the 1933 criteria: jobless categories should include the student who is studying to delay his signing on at the employment agency, the trainee who is just an unpaid worker for a few months before getting the sack, the forcibly early retired, the temp worker who needs a full time job he can't get, not forgetting the invalid who's called an invalid because it's the only out-of-a-job category he fits in, as is often the case in Northern Europe. Between 1929 and 1933, US shares lost 80% of their value: in 2000-2003, the fall of the e-economy swept aside 50%. However, a future crisis will not be a milder or worse repetition of 1929. The mass of objectified labour, of what is commonly called the wealth of our societies, is incomparable with that of the 1930s: therefore the reality and the feeling of loss will be qualitatively different. In Germany,
1930, 5 million unemployed amounted to 30% of the working population, whereas they now would stand for only 10%, and Keynesian safety nets haven't all been torn to shreds. What matters is that the mass of "living" and "dead" capital to dispose of in order to restore a sufficient profit ratio will entail an unprecedented crisis...
...which guarantees no communist endeavours. All changes aren't revolutionary changes, and all crises aren't favourable to revolution. We can't hope for the crisis of capitalism (that is, of interlinked capital and labour) to solve the crisis that the communist movement has been through... for quite a while. No historical reality is radical in itself. Even less so when struggles, in spite of their resurgence, remain fragmented and contained. Argentinean insurgents had little impact on other Latin American proletarians, and about none elsewhere. The bourgeoisie can still act without restraint, and go along in the midst of aggravated contradictions, since nothing questions it. And it's because nothing has questioned it for a long time that it has become what it is now and keeps the initiative, even in a negative way.
Strictly speaking, capitalism does not exist, or simply as a useful mental abstraction. There only exist men and women selling their labour power to bourgeois with (ir)rational impulses that can precipitate disaster. After 1929 Black Thursday, despite plummeting share indexes, wise observers advised against selling, because panic would speed up a downward spiral detrimental to everybody. Still, dozens and then hundreds of thousands of shareholders decided to sell, causing a general drop in prices and their own ruin.
Globalisation has been a very partial remedy to a twofold crisis: a "classical" crisis of the conditions of value production and accumulation, caused by the end of a certain compromise between labour and capital; and a "civilisation" crisis, connected to the former, caused by the unbound industrialisation and mercantilisation which have given capitalism its impetus for two centuries, but which capitalism must now master to perpetuate itself. The conjugation of these aspects probably explains why the two main protagonists, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, are reluctant to take a plunge that involves so much. Hence the free-wheeling bourgeois led by the narrow interests of finance, and the proletarians' divided self-defence.
All pivotal periods produce a central group, which is statistically in a minority but socially acts as a driving force, among the proletarians (as among the bourgeois), and which the majority of the proletarians (and on the opposite side: of the bourgeois) can identify with. For example, in 1970, the unskilled "mass worker" versus the factory manager. Neither the casualised underdog nor the globalising financier now play the part of similar driving forces.
We have no desire nor talent to play the prophets of doom. Everything we've described has been going on for years. Taken separately, each single contradiction we've surveyed would not be enough to unsettle the whole system: it's the interaction that matters, and its cumulative effect. Classes don't play chess: they only sort out their contradictions under heat, and only after they've carried their experiences through. Our hypothesis is that we're nearing the point when quantitative build-up asks for qualitative change, when incompatible contradictions must be solved. No class deadlock has ever been unlocked peacefully. Owing to the general level of class struggle, it will then be truly "midnight in the century", and only later will communist revolution be able to exist as a historical question. More digging for the old mole...