(I was invited to write a short article for an Indian journal that will be translated into Hindi on the question of “Crisis of Capitalism and Challenges of Marxism”. This is what I wrote.)
The question of capitalist crisis is being posed in a manner for the core industrial nations in a way that has not been seen since the 1930s. While few would doubt the severity of the recession at its height, there has been a tendency to see capitalism as now being in the recovery phase of the business cycle. For example, the unemployment rate in the U.S. is now at 7.7 percent, the lowest in 4 years. Despite this uptick, most of Europe remains mired in Eurozone depths.
One of the key questions facing the left is the long-term viability of the capitalist system. If you base yourself on the theory that the system is governed by cycles of boom and bust, the logical conclusion one might draw is that our chances for an all-out confrontation disappeared with the easing of the unemployment picture. This coupled with the decline of the Occupy movement can give one the impression that the system has stabilized itself for the time being.
From within the capitalist ideology camp, there has been a distaff note of some significance. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who is as committed to “globalization” as his fellow N.Y. Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman, asked the $64,000 question recently: does technological advance lead to the creation of new jobs? This is the base assumption of Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”, a theory that can be described as a vulgarization of the capital accumulation cycle described in Volume Two of Marx’s Capital.
On December 9th 2012, Krugman directed his attention to the replacement of living labor by machinery in a column that he described as “an old-fashioned, almost Marxist sort of discussion”:
In a recent book, “Race Against the Machine,” M.I.T.’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that similar stories are playing out in many fields, including services like translation and legal research. What’s striking about their examples is that many of the jobs being displaced are high-skill and high-wage; the downside of technology isn’t limited to menial workers.
Still, can innovation and progress really hurt large numbers of workers, maybe even workers in general? I often encounter assertions that this can’t happen. But the truth is that it can, and serious economists have been aware of this possibility for almost two centuries.
Krugman posed an even deeper challenge to capitalist orthodoxy on the 27th of December in a column titled “Is Growth Over”. It referred to the research of an economist named Robert Gordon:
Recently, Robert Gordon of Northwestern University created a stir by arguing that economic growth is likely to slow sharply — indeed, that the age of growth that began in the 18th century may well be drawing to an end.
Mr. Gordon points out that long-term economic growth hasn’t been a steady process; it has been driven by several discrete “industrial revolutions,” each based on a particular set of technologies. The first industrial revolution, based largely on the steam engine, drove growth in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. The second, made possible, in large part, by the application of science to technologies such as electrification, internal combustion and chemical engineering, began circa 1870 and drove growth into the 1960s. The third, centered around information technology, defines our current era.
If this is true, then Marxism is presented by a set of circumstances that have never been seen before. When the Communist Manifesto was written, capitalism was revolutionizing the means of production everywhere.
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
But what if the “heavy artillery” has turned into a peashooter? What are the political consequences for a social system that cannot continue to expand the needs of a growing population, especially in the developing countries? Left Keynesian economist Joan Robinson once wrote, “…the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.” If working people cannot expect to be a wage slave, then what other options do they have except to confront the social system that they have made a compact with for centuries? For all of the tendencies to look at the Arab Spring as a movement against despotic regimes (and rightly so), the underlying failure of the capitalist system to provide the basic necessities of life was what fueled the revolt. When a street peddler set fire to himself in Tunisia, it was his way of saying that the system was not working for him. When a Greek pensioner took his life in front of the parliament building last year, he was making a similar statement.
With class lines being drawn more sharply than at any time since the 1930s, the Marxist left must rise to the occasion. Keeping in mind that the Latin American left led by Hugo Chavez has called for a 21st Century Socialism, we must consider what this means for revolutionaries in countries like the U.S., Germany, Britain or France. While the working class remains relatively quiescent in such countries (largely a function of the deindustrialization Krugman is concerned about), there is little doubt that struggles will continue even if they do not assume the same character they did in the 1930s. The Occupy movement was the first sign of that and we should be alert to future manifestations. The ruling class is prepared for us and we should be equally prepared for the monumental battles to come.