[Marxism] (More) Thinking Out Loud

Ed George edgeorge at fastmail.fm
Sun Nov 4 12:24:18 MST 2007


Around two years ago, I wrote an article, 'Through What Stage Are We
Passing?', which was published, amongst other places, the journal _What
Next?_. [1] The general conclusions that I drew were these:

* First, that the global capitalist system had undergone four successive
long-wave cycles of (relative) development and (relative) stagnation, a
pattern of development that could be dated like this:


CYCLE         ASCENDING       DESCENDING
                PHASE           PHASE


I      1780/90 -- A -- 1810/17 -- B -- 1844/51

II     1844/51 -- A -- 1870/75 -- B -- 1890/96

III    1890/96 -- A -- 1914/20 -- B -- 1940/45

IV     1940/45 -- A -- 1967/73 -- B --    ?


* Second, that cycles II and IV in this pattern coincided with the
global political (state) hegemony exercised by a single state
(respectively Britain and the United States), while cycles I and III
were marked by an absence of such global state hegemony.

* And third, that once mass proletarian movements appear historically,
genuinely anti-systemic struggles, i.e. socialist revolutionary crises,
in the metropolis tended to be clustered in the 'B' (descending) phase
of cycle III, i.e., that the conditions for socialist revolution in the
heartlands of capital seem to include both generalised economic crisis
and a break in global state political hegemony.

Thus far, all this appears to me quite incontrovertible: it is an
observable fact that there _are_ long wave economic cycles; that
alternately they _have_ coincided with periods of global state
predominance (to avoid begging he question of what 'hegemony' in this
sense consists in [2]); and that socialist revolutionary crisis _have_
occurred in the most recent 'B' phase that took place in the context of
an absence of such predominance.

But I also sought in my article to try to answer _why_ all this had
occurred, and what it _meant_. Thus, I made the following tentative
suggestions:

* First, that, at the level of state political power, which is
necessarily under the regime of capitalist social relations a system of
many national states, it seemed as if the global capitalist mode of
production _needs_, so as to function with more stability, one of these
states to operate as a hegemon. This is a conclusion indicated, at the
level of the economic, by the less stable and more crisis-prone
ascendant phases of non-hegemonic cycles compared with hegemonic ones
(1780 to 1810 and 1890 to 1914 compared with 1848 to 1875 and 1945 to
1970), and at the level of the political by the fact that the
non-hegemonic cycles are punctuated by severe inter-metropolitan
political (including military) conflict and, of course, by oppositional
anti-systemic movements. Indeed, I even went as far to suggest that
inter-metropolitan conflict was not simply a consequence of an absence
of hegemony but also had the function of resolving that absence of
hegemony.

* Second, that, between themselves, periods of global state political
hegemony seemed to coincide with different modes of capital
accumulation: that British political hegemony, realised through
manufacturing dominance and naval policing of 'free' trade coincided
with and conformed to a mode of preclassical imperialist industrial
capitalist accumulation, and that United States hegemony, imposed
through the hegemony of the dollar (and subsequently the US military
machine) and US dominance within supranational state institutions,
including those set up under the auspices of Bretton Woods, coincided
with and conformed to globalised financial capitalist accumulation. This
is to say that that there is global state political hegemony, and how it
is carried out, is intimately connected to the nature of the predominant
mode of capitalist accumulation in a given period, and that the passage
from one mode goes accompanied by a change in the global hegemon, not
only in the sense of which state fulfils this role, but also in how it
fulfils it; as well as to suggest that periods in which there is no
global hegemon are periods in which the nature of capitalist
accumulation is changing from one mode to another.

* This in turn suggests the existence of a specific relation between
state and economy, a relation governed by how and to what degree the
operation of global political state hegemony in turn governs and
guarantees capital accumulation. Summarising, I wrote: '[T]his relation
between cycles of political hegemony and economic rhythms is not casual:
[...] capitalist relations need - and find, through force of necessity -
a stable institutional political framework in which to unfold
themselves, and this institutional stability is granted them through a
state system held in balance by a hegemonic state power. Each cycle of
state hegemony corresponds with a phase in the economic cycle. But, as
the modalities of capitalist accumulation evolve [...], the necessities
of the economic structure vis-à-vis the institutional framework change,
and the hegemon [and how it exercises its hegemony] acts as a break on
economic development, while new possible contenders for the role of
hegemon are pushed forward [...]. Finally, freed from the shackles of a
redundant hegemon, a new economic cycle begins - less spectacular, less
stable and more prone to crisis than the preceding one. Increasing
instability at the institutional level - manifested most clearly in wars
(the Napoleonic Wars and the two twentieth-century World Wars) -
supervenes to bring the cycle to a close. The political instability -
the wars - have the function of resolving the interregnum, and a new
cycle, now newly hegemonic, begins.'

>From these tentative suggestions I drew a number of more or less
speculative conclusions.

* First, in relation to where we are now. We have to, I speculated,
either just at the end of the B-phase of the fourth long-wave capitalist
cycle or just at the beginning of the A-phase of the fifth one; i.e. we
were just coming out of, or just had come out of, a period of protracted
economic slump, but a political period, despite this, which, because of
the continued existence of a global hegemon, the United States, had been
one in which, if past tendencies were anything to go by, would not (as
it did not) see the manifestation of either socialist revolutionary
crises or severe inter-metropolitan political (including military)
conflict.

* Second, and however, that if we indeed were either entering or just
about to enter a new long-wave cycle, then it would indeed be one,
because of being one in which there would be no single global hegemon,
but a competition between possible contenders for global hegemony, in
which increasing inter-metropolitan political conflict would manifest
itself, especially in its B-phase, and in which, in its B-phase, the
creation of those conditions which have historically proved themselves
to be the most propitious for socialist revolutionary crises in the
heartlands of capital would be seen. It would also, again if past
experiences are anything to go by, be a cycle which, in its B-phase,
would show a propensity for the possibility of world (i.e.
inter-imperialist) war.

My intentions in writing the article were obviously not reducible to
simple innocent curiosity. Having been in and around revolutionary
socialist organisation for about 25 years, the fact that socialist
revolutions have been entirely absent from the north American and west
European theatres for around 60 years has increasingly seemed to me to
be a fact whose existence we have spent insufficient time trying to
understand and explain.

Second, given the poverty of positive experiences that the revolutionary
left has displayed over those 25 years - and if _we_ are _the_ Marxists
then we really should be getting more something out of all this however
'unfavourable' the 'objective conditions' might be than we are - might
there not, I thought, be a connection between how revolutionary
organisations understood, or misunderstood, the general features of the
political period they were in their almost total failure to build
successful, thriving revolutionary socialist organisations? I was
reminded of the comment that Jurrian Bendian once attributed to Lenin,
to the effect that the fundamental thing in revolutionary politics was
not to be right, but to be right _at the right time_. And if you look at
Joaquín Bustelo's writings over the years on the 'party question', both
in the positive sense in the case of Marx and Engles' own political
practice, and in the negative sense in the case of what went wrong with
the SWP (US), you can see clearly that not only is there not a 'party
model' in Marxism, but that what revolutionaries do, in the sense of
what type of organisation they build (if they build one at all) and what
it does is entirely dependent on a judgement of what the features of the
given situation they are operating in are and how those features will or
may change over time. It had frequently struck me that a lot of the
errors of revolutionary organisations could either be put down to, or
were related to, misjudgements of the character of the period they were
in and the prospects of moving towards revolutionary developments
consequent on this. [2]

It was this line of thinking that led me to write the original article;
it also led me to the conclusion that to move forward on this (if I was
right fundamentally important matter) I was going to have to read,
systematically, cover-to-cover, Marx's _Capital_, which I am also doing.
[3]

Nevertheless, in lieu of me completing this, further thinking leads me
to want to offer the following remarks as a complement to the original
article, to clarify some of its points in some areas, and to indicate
further lines of research towards deepening it in others. So, in the
spirit of thinking out loud, I would say this:

* What do the long-wave cycles of expansion and slump consist of? Given
their repeated and regular nature, I find it untenable to consider them
as contingent processes, or processes provoked by no more than
contingencies (though we must recognise that contingency can and does
play a role in a whole range of social processes by triggering or
catalysing already incipient trends and developments; and although a
contingency is a contingency what is contingent and what is not is not
itself not - necessarily - contingent). After four such cycles, we are
obliged, prima facie at least, to consider them as somehow intrinsic to
the capitalist system and structurally determined by it. Thus, although
their existence is demonstrated by a whole raft of economic indicators,
and recognised by a whole range of divergent economic opinion, for a
Marxist, at root they must be, i.e. cannot be anything other than,
cycles of more, or less, rapid accumulation of capital: in other words,
the A-phase of each cycle has to be a period in which the accumulation
of capital proceeds relatively uninhibitedly, while during the B-phases
the accumulation of capital encounters increasing obstacles to its
progression.

The question, then, is what could, or what does, inhibit the
accumulation of capital? Again, considering the accumulation of capital
as 'investment', bourgeois economics is capable of giving a whole range
of explanations as to why it might not proceed in one period as it has
in another; but, for a Marxist, there really is only one factor which
inhibits, structurally, intrinsically and uncontingently, the
accumulation of capital, and that is the rate of profit. (I say that for
a Marxist this is the only possible explanation, which is not to say
that it is automatically right. Leaving aside for the moment Marxists
who would say that this is not the only possible explanation, to say
that it _is_ the only possible explanation is simply to appeal to
theoretical consistency. Once this latter has been established, the
empirical validity of the theory _also_ has to be demonstrated. It may
turn out to be wrong: in which case it would not be tenable to consider
ourselves Marxists. But we are, for the time being, Marxists, and, as
such, I do think it is incumbent on us to test _our_ theories as correct
(or not) before we automatically dismiss other ones.)

The more I think about this the more convinced I am that these cycles
are cycles of the rate of profit, such that one should be able to map
and date them in simple function of the rate of profit: such that,
should it turn out not to be possible to do this, then either how we
calculate the rate of profit is wrong, or Marxism is.

On this, we should note that calculating the rate of profit is not as
straightforward or uncontroversial a task as it might at first appear to
be. Marx is explicit that the rate of profit is surplus-value divided by
the sum of variable and constant capital; but capitalist firms, and
capitalist states do not keep statistics that match these concepts
exactly. In addition to this, maintaining this definition of the rate of
profit requires fidelity to Marx's labour theory of value; the leading
and most public theoretician to (correctly) emphasise the centrality of
movements in the rate of profit in economic history, Robert Brenner, is
also the one who (incorrectly) holds that the labour theory of value,
although not in itself wrong, is irrelevant in this matter.

Furthermore, we should note that most extant calculations of the
movement of the rate of profit base themselves on calculations for the
rate of profit in either a single country (the US) or of a small number
of countries lumped together (the US, Germany and Japan in Brenner's
case). This strikes me as completely inadequate: while one would
intuitively expect it to be true that movement of the rate of profit in
the leading 'capitalist country' (or using the statistics produced by
that country's state for its 'own' economy) might indicate something
general about the overall (i.e.) capitalist economy in periods of global
state political hegemony (although one should really be bound to
demonstrate empirically that this is the case), it should be equally
intuitively obvious that this would be increasingly not the case in
inverse function to the actual operation of such hegemony. A calculation
of the rate of profit needs to a global one: global in the sense of a
theoretical recognition of the necessity as well as in that of a
consequent practical effort to approximate to this goal. In any case, my
intuition tells me that the notion of 'national capitalist economies' is
untenable; the consequences of this - not only in relation to this
problem but also in relation to others, such as the nature of
imperialist exploitation, both political and economic - need to be
thought through.

* The great potential flaw in my argument here is that, given the past
historical pattern, the fourth long-wave cycle, and specifically its
B-phase, has been uncharacteristically, exceptionally, long: if we can
expect each phase of each cycle to last around 20 to 30 years, then the
fifth cycle should have begun somewhere between 10 and 20 years ago.
That it didn't is one of the principal motivations (as I understand it)
of Brenner's recent work, insofar as he is trying to explain why we have
had this protracted period of slump without a catastrophic crash at the
end of it. And insofar as Brenner (and, interestingly enough, people
like Chris Harman of the SWP) projects that a crash is, because the
slump has been 'artificially' prolonged (in Brenner's case through what
he calles 'bubbleconomics'), increasingly immanent, this thesis has a
distinct 'catastrophist' tinge to it. [4]

But is it really the case that the fifth cycle hasn't started? Remember
that the historical analogue for the fifth cycle's A-phase is not 1844
to 1875 or 1945 to 1973 but 1890 to 1914, the period of 'belle epoque'
and the construction of the modern imperialist system. One of my central
theses here is that fluid capital accumulation needs a hegemonic state
power to guarantee the stability of the whole system, and the absence of
one, or the existence of a declining one, will act as a break on
relatively unhindered capital accumulation, with all the negative
economic and political consequences - sluggish growth, tendency towards
crisis, political conflicts between bourgeois states - that this
implies.

And it is the case that the Brenner-Harman camp enjoys no monopoly on
what the present state of movement of the rate of profit really is. On
the website of the British state Permanent Revolution (sic) group there
are a series of highly interesting articles by one 'Bill Jeffries'
precisely disputing this outlook. [5] According to Jeffries - and I am
not saying he is right, simply that he presents a plausible argument
(and bearing my comments above about to calculate the real rate of
profit), profit rates have been in the general ascendant since the early
1990s. Jeffries' explanation - and I do no more here than mention it,
without commenting on its possible merits or demerits - is that the
restoration of capitalism in the former 'peoples democracies' in the
1990s, especially in the USSR and China, significantly lowered the
organic composition of capital _on a world scale_, and, through the
labour theory of value theory of the rate of profit, consequently
provoked a significant rise in the rate of profit _on a world scale_, a
consequence we (i.e. the capitalist system we live in) is still
experiencing today. [7] As I say, he might be right, he might be wrong,
but given all that I have said here, he needs to be taken seriously.

If the general thrust of this latter line of thinking is right then the
conclusions are obvious: rather than facing an imminent economic crash,
we are 10 to 15 years into the A-phase of the fifth capitalist long-wave
cycle. Rather than being on the point of a short term economic crash, we
are heading, in the medium term, towards period whose closest historical
analogue is 1914-1945, and we can expect to get there within the next 15
to 20 years. If, as I say, one's judgement of the period one is in has a
determining impact on what one does as a socialist revolutionary, then
if I am thinking in the right direction, even if partially, bears
thinking about. 



* * * *


[1] Which can be read here:
<http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Back/Wnext30/Whatstage.html>.
The discussion I shared with the late Mark Jones, which sparked this
overall train of thought of mine can be read here:
<http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/2002w30/msg00079.htm>,
here:
<http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/2002w30/msg00108.htm>,
and here:
<http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/2002w30/msg00113.htm>.

[2] Here is one definition that I found (literally yesterday) in a paper
by Alan Freeman: '[I]n a hegemonic expansion, the expansion of the
leading nation is a condition for the expansion of the other advanced
nations. In an unstable expansion, the expansion of the leading nation
is an obstacle to the expansion of the other nations.'
<http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/2591/01/MPRA_paper_2591.pdf>.

[3] More longstanding list members may remember me advertising my
reading notes for volume 1 here a year or so ago. They are still
available, for the price of an offlist email. For the record, I am now
half way through volume 2, and I am preparing a glossary of volume 1. I
will make the latter, and my reading notes for the former, publicly
available when they are done.

[4] And maybe it is irrelevant, but if you think that you are on the
verge of catastrophe you may draw conclusions that you otherwise
wouldn't. I've never been in favour of the Respect project, not for the
usual sectarian reasons offered by the British state left, but because I
don't think that the radicalisation on the streets that the SWP
projected was ever really there. If it _had_ been, what the SWP did in
setting up Respect would have been _exactly_ what one should have done.
But the truth is that the project - again - rested on a misestimation of
the period. Once it didn't work, naturally, the options are, one, admit
you were wrong and rethink, or, two, blame everybody else. Thee really
sad thing about the current Respect split is that _everyone_ has taken
the latter course, not the former.

[5] Which is in no way to align myself with this group (a split from the
British state Workers Power group and its satellite 'international'):
the rest of their site is uninteresting to say the least. Nevertheless,
it is interesting that one of the principal issues in the split was
whether or not we were on the brink of the final breakdown of the
capitalist system. Having rejected this view, let us hope that the PR
group, who include almost all the original founders of Workers Power
from the 1970s, engage in the necessary root-and-branch thinking that
they should now be considering.

[6] Generally here: <
http://www.permanentrevolution.net/?view=category&cat=46>, but
especially: <http://www.permanentrevolution.net/?view=entry&entry=1267>
and <http://www.permanentrevolution.net/?view=entry&entry=1083>.


[7] See: <http://www.permanentrevolution.net/?view=entry&entry=1551>.


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