A Few Questions on Capitalism and Crisis

David Harvey, Marxist geographer, argued that the financial crisis was actually a consolidation of class wealth and power (found here in the aptly titled paper “The Crisis and the Consolidation of Class Power”).

And if that’s the case – one could imagine the whole crisis being a “success” for a lot of neo-liberals.

A Few Questions:

Do you think those whose wealth or power increased see it as a success (as long as it makes them rich, regardless of the rest of the country/economy)? And, more importantly, do you think that some people recognize the necessity of crisis and actually egg it on? (they want governance that fails, the want a system that gives them room to maneuver, an opportunity to take risks that are always protected because they’re “too big to fail”?)

And moreover, for those of you out there who think crises are a good way to “crash” capitalism, clearing the path for utopia —
1) Aren’t you just providing the crises needed to consolidate class wealth?
2) What would make your crisis any different than the ones that have routinely happened, time and time again since the first primitive accumulation?


7 thoughts on “A Few Questions on Capitalism and Crisis

  1. Yes, true, capitalism renews itself through crisis — this is something that Marxists and neo-classicals can agree on. . . But a redistribution of wealth to the top is not the same thing as a return to dynamism or growth — as Harvey well knows. There’s no indication that the general stagnation and sluggishness of accumulation that has plagued capital for the last 35 years has been overcome. In other words, redistribution to the top does not, in and of itself, mean an increase in the rate of surplus-value extraction. And, in my view, only a truly massive crisis could solve the problems of overaccumulation that plague the system, a crisis that the state averts through bailouts and subsidies, and that would probably mean world war on a scale that is unlikely given the balance of forces. . .

    There’s a cyclical and a linear character to accumulation; I think there is a case to be made for a limit to capital that is not, itself, capable of being transcended through the destruction of capital.

    But I don’t know anyone that thinks that crisis itself is the sufficient conditon for the overcoming of capital, as if it will change on its own accord — if that happens, it will be *another* mode of production based upon class and the state, and probably worse.

    The argument from crisis is based upon the simple, and historically verifiable fact, that the class of capital is weakest during periods of crisis, the forces of proletarianization and immiseration are strongest and thus a revolutionary force is likely to have more support from people who, in normal times, are likely to go with the status quo. A crisis is simply an opportunity to strike when the iron is hot — it is not in and of itself the solution.

    Lastly, I’ll say that Harvey, who is an admirable reader of Marx and has contributed a great deal to our understanding of crisis, has a weak point in his crisis theory. He seems to think that the only real limits to capital are geographical, and that the standard problems of overaccumulation can be overcome through technical change. I think he’s wrong on this score.

  2. Thanks for the response – it’s very well outlined and considered.

    In addition, I think your account of “capitalism is its most vulnerable in crisis” is maybe the most convincing one I’ve heard. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s what the comparative theories of crisis in Endnotes is trying to describe as well?

    The question itself is somewhat dishonest on my part, because I tend to use D&G’s notion of the ‘capitalist axiomatic’ — which tends to incorporate the tendency for the falling rate of profit into a much more complicated framework of surplus value. The central premise, of course, is that capitalism immanently poses its own limits in order to confront them. Or said otherwise, it creates the conditions for its own crisis (like the phrase from TCI that’s been floating around ‘capitalism is crisis’). Therefore, capitalism de-flows, conjugates them in a way that produces more than the sum of their parts, and tries to capture the surplus of that flow by re-territorializing it. There’s always territorializes some that escapes and the potential for it to be re-directed, so it’s always at risk.

    I think the biggest point of differentiation between Harvey or even the Endnotes crowd and D&G is the idea of an ‘open system’ account of capital instead of a totality. If I remember your HM paper correctly, Jasper, you do an excellent job at explaining the ‘chemical reaction’ approach to the mode of production. Althusser’s later work (Philosophy of the Encounter) does an excellent job at explaining the “becoming-necessity” of the elements of the capitalist mode of production, therefore providing the basis for looking at capitalism as an assemblage or a dispositif (after all, Althusser was technically a philosopher of science). Once understood in this way, post-Newtonian physics can be brought in line with our formulations of capitalism. It’s non-linear, it’s a combination of parallel processes rather than a single series, elements transform or get replaced but the mode of production is able to enroll other elements through capture (intensive and extensive variation), the type of production is no longer limited to Fordist commodities (‘immaterial production’ as its called), etc etc.

    The result is that the stakes are much different. I think thus far, not enough authors have written about how this transforms the terrain of political engagement. Of course there’s the dispute within Italian Marxism about this — the Tronti crisis theory (where you engage in statecraft in order to “institutionalize” proletarian gains within institutions) that Negri critiqued harshly. I think the Deleuzians have picked up the torch and ran with it. I guess even the French philosophers of science have made a really strong case (Serres, Prigione & Stengers, DeLanda to a degree). And most recently, I think the Tiqqun piece “Cybernetic Hypothesis” was pretty damn good. But unfortunately, I think there’s still too much talk about capitalism as an all-or-nothing system. You prepare for revolution, you amass your forces, and at the key moment there will be a great transformation into the next system. And even in dynamical systems theory it’s possible to have the type of transformation, I find it highly unlikely for it to be so ‘immediate’ or absolute (riding a feedback loop to a bifurcation point that pushes a stable state into a chaotic state where it has to find new self-organizing principles to stabilize with). But what is immediately clear, is that the strategy doesn’t look like the Bloshevik’s storming of the Winter Palace, Gramsci’s long march through the institutions, or any other sort of ‘seizing the reigns.’ Harvey is most definitely a Social Democrat, so his political strategies are crap. Endnotes are anti-authoritarian, but I think they still might envision a sort of “grand showdown”. I’m wonder what other groups other than Tiqqun and Hardt/Negri have really envisioned (more or less) ‘complete’ political theories of anti-capitalist transformation through diffuse networks, assemblages, and/or dispositifs.

    Or am I making a big to do about nothing?

  3. Yes, I’m familiar with D+G’s formulation from the fascinating “Apparatus of Capture” chapter. I’ve always kind of suspected that they take it from the Grundrisse, as it’s nearly a word for word match for certain passages there. Here, I’ll show you:

    “But all it[capital] confronts are its own limits (the periodic depreciation of existing capital); all it repels or displaces are its own limits (the formation of new capital, in new industries with a high profit rate). This is the history of oil and nuclear power. And it does both at once: capitalism confronts its own limits and simultaneously displaces them, setting them down farther along.”

    “By its nature, therefore, it posits a barrier to labour and value-creation, in contradiction to its tendency to expand them boundlessly. And in as much as it both posits a barrier specific to itself, and on the other side equally drives over and beyond every barrier, it is the living contradiction”

    But the emphasis of the two passages is, in fact, very different. Inasmuch as I understand it, I get the sense that for D+G crisis is, in fact, simply illusory, that crisis is simply the self-renewing activity of capitalism, and thus strictly cyclical — the contradictions are simply the way it moves forward, and this process of setting and displacing a limit could go on forever. (This is, certainly, the meaning of “the economy is crisis” in TCI, but I think the Invis. Committee is weak there). There is this sense in Marx as well, no doubt — his crisis theory is inconsistent, and there are probably about six different versions, but the point of the passage above is that this contradiction (the constant compression of socially necessary labor through technical change) will, eventually, be something that capital can’t overcome. There’s an account of cycles, in Marx, and then an account of a linear *tendency* toward an absolute crisis. You don’t get such a sense in the Apparatus of Capture chapter; you don’t even get a sense that the state-form, as such, can be overcome — there is just the production of becoming-minorities living in the shadow of the stateform from which they flee. In fact, it seems that becoming-minority *needs* the stateform. I find that chapter rather depressing as an account of the possibilities for overcoming capital — but so it must have seemed in the mid-70s. . .

    But believing that capitalism has a *direction* — in other words, that it’s a dynamic system undergoing irreversible processes of development is not the same as believing one can predict when and where it will collapse, or that it is *teleological*, as many have charged. Nor does it imply a “final showdown.” It’s a *tendency* — it says that crises and insurrections will become more likely over time, barring various kinds of countervailing factors, of which there are many . . . I don’t know if this is an open system, or not. I certainly think that there’s little possibility of gradual progressive change — there will be ruptures one way or another. But there have to be an endless number of scenarios, some more punctual than others. At least in my mind, it’s conceivable that there are revolutionary periods lasting decades, even centuries. Insurrections are the easy part — establishing social forms that can put an end to capital and the state once and for all is much more difficult, and nobody I know thinks this will be decided in a year, even if, against those who believe in a *transition* to communism, it is a process that can begin immediately, the instantiation of communism can begin immediately, on the first day of the uprising. . .

  4. I think I understand the moves you’re making, but as Michael Hardt notes in the beginning “Gilles Deleuze: An Apprenticeship in Philosphy” — Deleuze is an extremely selective appropriator. He partially reads a lot of people, but never takes them on whole. And rather than arguing with the points of those thinkers he doesn’t like, here merely leaves them on the cutting room floor. I think it’s only possible to understand D&G’s creative re-working of Marx in this way.

    Yes, D&G use the tendency of falling rate of profit to fall as the central motor of the capitalism axiomatic. But in fitting it into their extremely anti-Hegelian model of Nietzschean affirmation, they get rid of the all talk of contradictions. One funny phrase they use is “nobody has ever died of contradictions”. I’m not even sure if antagonism is a term they’d want to retain (I try to avoid it…). This makes it a little difficult, but rather than the TFRP to be merely an articulation of the contradictions found in the working out of the organic composition of labor (which would be that short-term profit is gained by substituting machines for workers, but it ultimately lowers the aggregate surplus value because there’s less living labor in the productive process) – it’s more “abstract”. But abstract in the sense that they accuse Chomskyan linguistics of not being abstract enough — the capitalist axiomatic is the _immanent_ production of surplus value, which happens no longer simply along commodity production but also surplus codes or any other surplus than can be created by conjugating flows (for instance, immaterial labor). This is also where they part ways with orthodox Marxists who see financial capital as ‘fictive’ in the sense that it doesn’t produce value (and why Christian Marazzi is absolutely necessary to read instead — even language can generate surplus value…).

    So yes – according to D&G capitalism can hypothetically go on “forever” as long as codes exist. Now, to be clear, the axiomatic is a set of mathematical principles, not codes (like the coding of the ‘savage’ or ‘despotic’ regimes of signs) and therefore doesn’t generate its own value, but actually generates value in creating unique permutations from previously made codes. In the long run, that means that capitalism decreases codes and might run out? Probably not if we take D&G metaphysics of multiplicity and chaosmosis seriously.

    Now, you bring up the “fetters” argument. As that argument goes, the capitalist mode of production will at some point become a fetter to the productive process. This isn’t necessarily contradictory, but it could be so. One example you bring up is the immiseration of the working class — their increasing need for socially-necessary good to engage in ‘simple reproduction’ ie: those things that are needed to show up to work and take part in the production process. I always found this to be one of the weaker parts of Marx’s argument — orthodox Marxists have had a hell of a time explaining the immiseration of the working class and anti-Marxists love trotting out the middle class as an example for why Marxism is wrong. Personally, I’m not sure I see class conflict’s “acceleration of the contradictions” as a particularly compelling site for revolution — time and time against unions seem to fight time, pay, and conditions disputes that are fought tooth and nail by the management, but don’t seem to turn into anything even close to a “fetter” on the productive process (though I guess this is a key fordism, post-fordism question I’m not particularly well prepared to answer).

    Also – I’m not really compelled by the ‘absolute crisis’ theory. There are definitely world systems Marxist who have been arguing that the global rate of profit has been falling since the 1970s. And while that might be the most persuasive reason for neo-liberalism (which is the one Harvey gives in the New Imperialism, I think) – I think it’s not only empirically unverifiable (I once chased down Dumenil and Levy’s critique of Brenner, which seemed pretty dubious) in any rigorous sense. And really, if we consider what Marx likely thought in the mid-1800s, he probably thought capitalism’s end was around the corner (1848 revolutions at first, then still probably in his lifetime). Have we really seen increasingly violent crises that spell the doom in the near, medium, or even long term (according to the ‘teleology’ you bring up) — I don’t think so.

    This is also why I don’t like the “decadence” stuff that many, most recently Endnotes, have taken from Lenin. The ICC’s stuff on it is interesting and informative, but shows why it can’t understand key developments in capital like immaterial labor. The productive process is not “more developed” or “more productive” in a linear sense — which is why the non-totality approach (ensemble and bord anterior in Althusser, assemblage in D&G, dispositif in Foucault and Lyotard, or moebius strip/bell jar in Agamben) is so important. The processes of capital are parallel circuits that work according to non-lineral systems dynamics. Its brilliant logic works according to transgression, its always overcoming its own frontiers. So while there are tendencies like the TRPF, there are counter-tendencies that set it on a million different paths. There’s a great quote from a Claire Fontaine interview that I like:

    “”AH Speaking of being two things at once, I wanted to bring up the question of anarchist politics and art’s relationship to the market. You work inside the market: you show in galleries, you sell art, you are inside the system… How do you respond to those who make the easy accusation that you’re complicit with capitalism? Is any artist not complicit with capitalism? What does “complicity” even mean, in art, today? Is art somehow a model for contemporary management?

    CF Inside, outside…these are things we don’t understand. Who says that? There is no such thing as a defined outside of capitalism anymore, and the inside is so full of holes that billions leak out of banks just because of some unauthorized trading by an anonymous broker. Maybe in our latitudes the idea of the outside was a childish illusion to begin with, fed by the two blocs that used to face each other during the Cold War. But there is a real impossibility of working outside a capitalist system. The idea of working against capitalism was born from the utopia that a different type of economy could exist, run by different laws, where the power wouldn’t produce oppression and repression. History has shown that socialist countries cannot make it without a world revolution. However, when those countries are convinced of this, they have already become dictatorships and/or ultracapitalistic countries. Our present situation is highly complex; many pockets of the third world exist inside “rich” countries, and these same rich countries happily practice the new form of colonialism that some people like to call globalization. Social classes have multiplied but everyone inside them is a lot more isolated and structurally competitive. Artists are a good example of this situation: they are self-employed because they are worker and boss in one body (as Godard always says). It is impossible for them to federate in a union or a cooperative, or if they do, it becomes immediately pathetic. For people who can’t identify with their own job or who identify with it too much (as an ideal), democratic forms of struggle are a very bad fit. Many artists we know have two or three jobs because they can’t or don’t want to make money through their art. So, saying, “I am an artist” means many different things. This dysfunction in professional identification is more and more common; that’s why it will probably be a desertion from within that will destroy capitalism. But we are not prophets. And by the way, we don’t know what “complicity” means in art today. We don’t even know what “art” is. It is many different worlds, many different people….””

    To address the becoming-minor stuff — your reading is backwards. To get the payoff, D&G have to argue that molecular/minor processes (auto-poetic in the Maturana/Varela sense) would already be generating surplus without capture. Capture (and also state striation) SLOWS DOWN, regulates and reigns in the otherwise too-speedy de-territorialization process. That means it’s always a second order move — first, the “surplus” is generated by de-territorialistion; second, state/capital re-territorializes part of it (‘captures the surplus’ in the circuit of production) and puts it back to use. That’s why capitalism is “vampiric”, and why D&G work so well with a Negrian analysis (the dynamic power of the working class!) though Negri takes it a bit too far.

    So that means, becoming-minor is an ongoing process that isn’t primarily oppositional, defined as a “breaking away” from the state. Becoming-minor is a refusal of already dynamic, self-organizing processes to be captured and put back to work. And if you read the nomadology plateau carefully or delve into some of the good secondary literature on it (Patton, Holland, Kerslake, to name a few), they are good on the point of nomads actually occupying smooth space — ‘traveling without moving’ (Kerslake is particularly attentive to tracing it to Toynbee, reconnecting it back to the Deleuzian notion of ‘incorporeal transformation’ that’s an important element of the early text Logic of Sense).

    TO BE CLEAR — I think we are on largely the same page w/ politics. Despite our disagreements on D&G, or even bigger ones over ‘windows of opportunity’ or ‘revolutionary moments’ — I think we can confidently say that communism is already here, and is a part of every moment. In an interview with Negri (though it’s found in a lot of other places) Deleuze claims that “we think any society is defined not so much by its contradictions as by its lines of flight, it flees all over the place, and it’s very interesting to try and follow the lines of flight taking shape at some particular moment or other.” I think that is to say, there are a million of places where the system is leaking — and it’s the lines of flight that we should be looking to to find the most optimistic times for large-scale transformation. And those times might have an indirect relation to when the rate of profit is low, but it has more to do with when the Apparatus of Capture is working well.

    So hopefully together, I think we can cheer “long live the immanent becoming of communization!” Though I presume my system is much more process and contingency oriented…

  5. Yeah — I think you misunderstand what I take to be the tendency toward an absolute crisis. TRPF is only a part of it, a symptom really, and it’s not the same as the immiseration thesis (immiseration is also a symptom, and need not appear for the people who are lucky enough to have a job). The chief contradiction of capitalism is that it continuously reduces the amount of labor time that people need to reproduce themselves, to provide for their own needs (however defined). This happens even if the problem with organic composition of capital and the profit rate are corrected — and it gets worse, by logical necessity, with each turn of the cycle, making the subsequent upswings weaker, and furthermore, it leads to an absolute growth in surplus populations, and downward pressure on wages. One sees this today — in the megacities and slums of the south. Capital *wants* to employ these people, but their labor is simply not needed. In fact, there are surplus populations that don’t even make it to the city, cast out from the countryside, but remaining in the countryside. There are numerous arguments about why this tendency will manifest ever more strongly in the future — it’s not just a fetters. . . This is really different from Brenner’s claims (which are strictly conjunctural) and the argument with Dumenil/Levy. It also has nothing to do with decadence theory, which doesn’t come from Lenin (it’s usually traced to Luxemburg) and which I’m pretty sure the Endnotes folks reject. . .

    There are no new “codes” which can overcome this, though there is credit and finance capital, which is the chief way in which capital has managed this problem, projecting itself ever deeper into the future, 20 years, 30 years out. But there are limits to this projecting-forward, limits to credit, and when they come due, it’s going to be ugly.

    Look around you — look at what people in the US do for work. Do your really see a return to vitality for US economy? People largely work shitty jobs in the service industry, where all extra surplus-value usually comes from harrying and dominating workers, not from technological advancements. (And this is limited, there are limits to the human body). Where there is wealth in the US, it comes from speculation that’s tied to accumulation in the countries of the periphery, or it’s eating up past accumulation pensions, or eating into wages (by making housing more expensive). These are stopgaps. They won’t get far.

    Abstract labor and the value-form are not discursive, they can’t just be made up like fiat money, and the differences between productive and unproductive labor and fictive capital are quite real, insofar as the great majority of wealth can be tracked to the increasing production of goods and some services (like health care) for which “immaterial labor” is largely a secondary component, involved in the administration, circulation, and sale of those things. Think about what the vast majority of people on the planet sell their labor for, if you add it up, in terms of abstract labor. If capital can’t increase the productive forces which produce these things, there’s a problem. And, as there are fewer and fewer people who work in these sectors, there are fewer and fewer people from whom to wring extra surplus-value.

    All the evidence points to the fact that information tech has not substantially increased productivity in the wake of deindustrialization, and that the advanced capitalist countries largely live parasitically upon the industrialization in the countries of the periphery. But industrialization is a brief flash in the pan: most countries get about 10 years now. Germany and Japan and Europe, totally done; South Korea is done; Thailand, almost done; Mexico and Latin America got passed over; India will be done soon.

    (Here, I must admit I find Marazzi and most post-operaismo thought woefully confused. Marazzi is really just a version of behavioral economics of the sort you get with Robert Schiller and George Soros — in other words, bourgeois economics that sees everything from the side of consumption, and believes that people just sort of make value up with their beliefs).

    As you can see, for all my ultra-leftism and sympathy with various strains of anarchism, I’m kind of an old-school Marxist.

  6. The post above is super-sloppy. I hope you’ll be charitable with it, and mentally correct my typos and grammatical errors.



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