On Decadence: Elements for a Response to Critiques

The primary task of revolutionaries is to seek to understand the world in which they live, and, therefore, the framework and the perspective in which the proletariat develops its consciousness and activity as a class.

Among the different “takes” on the world within the revolutionary political milieu, is the one that divides the evolution of the capitalist mode of production (CMP) into a phase of ascendance and a phase of decadence. One of the groups which defends such a position, and which has based its very political coherence on that theoretical basis, is the ICC. Within IP, that theory, like so many other fundamental theoretical issues, has been subject to question, and the issue is now open. That is to say, if our group now rejects the old conception of decadence as it had been defined by Bilan and then by the ICC – a halt or slackening in the development of the productive forces – we are now in the midst of a thoroughgoing debate, and therefore do not yet have a fully worked out or generally accepted position. The position presented in this article is conceived more as a contribution to that debate, rather than as a synthesis of the position of our group.

Putting together the critiques that have been made, or questions that have been raised, over the past few years, we can indicate the general points that need to be addressed according to the following axes:

Progressiveness and/or Periodization

The CMP, like every historical system, is a living, global social relation, which has undergone an evolution and profound social transformations in the course of its history. Among those transformations, the passage from a capitalism that relies almost exclusively on human labor to a system that relies on the employment of machines and the most advanced technology must be stressed. That profound mutation of capitalism can be grasped as the passage from the formal domination of capital (in which surplus-value is extracted from that part of the working day that is unpaid by capital, the period when exploitation is intensified by a lengthening of the working day) to the real domination of capital (characterized by the growing recourse to the machine and to technology). The massive utilization of technology increases, in an exponential way, the productivity of labor, and, consequently, also increases the volume of production of commodities, that is to say, the quantity of use-values.

A first contradiction appears with this massive recourse to technology: the growing tension, then the contradiction, between use-value and exchange-value, which do not grow in a harmonious way. A first gap occurs thanks to the formidable increase of productivity: There, where the manual laborer had time to make his product, the mechanization of the labor process, and the organization of labor on a gigantic scale, considerably increase the speed and the volume of production. Moreover, under the pressure of competition, producers tend to produce ever more cheaply, utilizing ever more modern techniques, and, therefore, producing a value below the average market value. More and more products are produced, productivity ceaselessly increases, and exchange-value shrinks.

That leads to another extremely important phenomenon: the necessity to destroy value in a massive way. We know that capitalism rhymes with scarcity: according to the law of supply and demand, the more rare a product is, the more expensive it will be, and, therefore, the more profit it will provide its producer. Over-production can only mean an abundance of goods that would benefit the whole of humanity. That entails the destruction of surplus foodstuffs, the massive destruction brought about by war, but also by the exclusion of “surplus” workers, entailing chronic – not periodic – unemployment and job insecurity. All that is still the “soft” description of conditions in the most industrialized countries, because in the poorest zones of the globe, not only are populations subject to the conditions just described, but, as a result of unequal competition, they increasingly face the absolute impoverishment that the world economic crisis inflicts on the worst off regions, with its cortege of famine, sickness, and social tension.

The increase of productivity explains the contradictory conditions of existence of the proletariat, inasmuch as it has more material comforts than in the past, disposes of more material objects and has access to technology and its utilization through education, while at the same time it is exploitation is greater than ever! The quality of life cannot be determined by the single measure of access to material goods, but is constituted by a totality of factors that correspond to general human needs. For example, in a world where the increase of productivity of the developed countries could feed the poorest populations on the planet, three quarters of humanity is on the brink of starvation. And in those zones where there is access to health-care, education, and material comforts, workers whose incomes afford them such access are increasingly stressed, more and more anxiety-ridden, and suffering from a loss of any meaningful social bonds. If modern science has made possible a potential improvement in the conditions of life, it has not responded to our specifically human and psychic needs.

This phenomenon of massive devalorization, which continuously grows in amplitude, means that at a given moment in the history of the CMP it has become a necessary and general feature of the functioning of the world economic system. From that moment on, the development of the productive forces can only take place on the condition of a massive destruction -- of the environment, of the very conditions of existence of humanity, of the number of those employed, of value.

It is here that the see saw character of society becomes apparent: on the one hand, there is an unprecedented development of productivity, of production, of technological advance, and, on the other hand, a parallel development of destructiveness at all levels of life. It’s a matter, then, of an inversion of the global perspective of the trajectory of society. For me, decadence is characterized by an, apparently contradictory, double movement: development on one side and destruction on the other. Therefore, decadence has an economic basis: it’s the deepening of the real domination of capital, but it concerns the global perspective and general functioning of society. Decadence entails a global, and qualitative change, that results from a increasing economic transformation. The perspective of development becomes synonymous with death for the human species, and therefore has profound implications for the life of humankind as well as for the perspective that the CMP henceforth represents. To speak of ascendance and decadence certainly does not mean the intrusion of moral categories into the analysis of society, but rather serves to designate different modes of the accumulation of capital. However, focusing exclusively on the strictly economic aspects of social existence means failing to see how the economy serves as the material base for the transformation of the whole of society. It would be to fail to grasp the CMP as a global social relation in which the proletariat constitutes a fundamental contradiction.

The ascendant phase of the CMP is not characterized by less exploitation or by a greater well being compared to its decadent phase. Nonetheless, the perspective of ascendance was that of hope for a real development of the life of the human species (the fight against sickness, scientific breakthroughs, etc.) to which there corresponded the development of humanist ideologies. There was also the belief that the proletariat could be integrated into society, through – among other things – parliamentarism, the creation of representative bodies, and working class pressure. It was for that reason that the proletariat did not make the perspective of a change in the system the basis of its confrontations with the bourgeoisie. Ascendance and decadence are, therefore, the reflection of different modes of the accumulation of capital, but above all, of a different perspective for the working class. The phase of decadence entails the reversal of that perspective: the horizon has become uncertain, fraught with insecurity, hopelessness and death for the human species. Everywhere, there is instability, loss of political coherence, loss of social meaning, an exclusively short-term vision, unprecedented waste, the development of unproductive sectors, and the spread of wars.

The link between real domination and decadence is found there: in that reversal of perspectives, in that qualitative change provoked by the economic transformation of the system. For me, it is not a question of a continuous transformation of the system, but of a qualitative change resulting from that increasing economic transformation, one that has implications for domains much larger than just the economic. That qualitative change affects all aspects of human life, and, indeed, becomes a threat to it. Decadence is not an ideological concept, as some might think, but is rather the materialist expression for the transformation of both the objective and subjective conditions in which the working class evolves, develops its own activity, and its own consciousness.

Different Perspectives according to the Period Or a Uniformly Destructive System ?

For some comrades, the CMP must be seen in a uniform way, as a system that is destructive in its essence, and has known no modifications other than the passage from formal to real domination. For those comrades, one of the consequences of this is that, from the end of the nineteenth-century, the “conditions for revolution” have been ripe – a point to which I shall return.

That way of seeing the system does not take into consideration the formidable potential that the development of the productive forces under ascendant capitalism contained. For the first time in the history of humanity, that development represented the potential for the elimination of scarcity. It was the development of science and technology that made possible the important discoveries in the domain of health-care and the eradication of serious diseases. Potentially, then, certain tendencies borne by capitalism prepared the way for a better perspective for humanity. In that phase the system itself needed labor-power in a better state of health and education. The lure of he passage to real domination is that it was synonymous with new forms of exploitation compatible with a reduction in the working day and with access to less onerous material conditions than those prevailing in the nineteenth-century. In a certain sense, worker’s struggle dovetailed with the needs of the system. Nevertheless, let’s not fall into the trap of appearances: the exploitation of the working class has always been ferocious, whatever the specific form that exploitation has taken. Moreover, there is no “pure” science, no “untainted” technology: all the advances, the research, the discoveries, have taken place within the straitjacket of capitalist interests. Moreover, so-called purity would increasingly become an outdated dream with the pre-eminence of the real domination of capital, the penetration of the law of value into all aspects of life, surely including science, medicine, and research. The development of science in this phase of capitalism also entails the abandonment of the systematic recourse to religion or to magical beliefs to explain the functioning of the world, and thereby to a significant de-mystification of human thought. Finally, that same period is also characterized by the development of revolutionary theory.

When real domination becomes the dominant mode of the functioning of the capitalist system, massive devalorization gives the system its feature of generalized massive destruction. Inasmuch as no domain of social life can now escape the law of value, a part of the proletariat becomes chronically unnecessary for the needs of capital, and the global perspective is reversed in a fundamental way: where ascendant capital could provide certain improvements in the lives of its working class, the phase in which the necessity for massive devalorization predominates can only be the bearer of a perspective that is largely destructive. The system has created the possibility for material comfort and the elimination of scarcity, AND the system artificially maintains scarcity and absolutely corrupts any possibility of a better real life.

Development of the Productive Forces and Decadence It is that reversal of perspectives, conditioned by the very way in which the capitalist system develops, that explains how there is no contradiction, but rather a link, between the development of the productive forces and decadence. We need to re-emphasize the fact that equating decadence with a halt or slackening in the development of the productive forces was a mistaken way of describing the functioning of the capitalist system. Capitalism absolutely must develop the productive forces, and it does so in an exponential way. But it is precisely that development that stimulates the intensification of its internal contradictions and the perspective of its own decadence.

The development of the system, particularly in its phase of decadence, moreover habituates us to this coexistence of ever more intense contradictions: the production of value entails the necessity to destroy value; the extension of the limits of the world market brings about a rejuvenation of regional or even local capital entities; the harmonious circulation of goods and of capital in that gigantic market, with neither barriers nor frontiers heightens the inter-imperialist tensions between states.

Decadence and Breakdown

The deepening of the contradictions within the capitalist system does not mean that it will collapse on its own, leaving a vacant space for the proletariat to fill. A system can be undermined by its internal crisis, function with ever greater difficulty, develop increasingly aberrant practices, and yet not breakdown. We therefore oppose determinist or mechanistic visions of history that see a capitalist system proceeding to its ineluctable historical finish, and a proletariat waiting to pluck the fruits of such a development. In a sense, the “economistic” vision developed by the ICC (and by us in the past) led to such an ineluctable perspective: decadence being seen as an economic decline, it had to end in a final collapse.

The revolutionary process is not an economic process, but a global political process. And if a system is increasingly obstructed, that doesn’t mean that the political conditions necessarily exist for a class to extricate itself from the laws of motion of that system and to create another. One of the characteristics that we have emphasized in speaking about the class struggle is that the CMP is a mode of domination over the totality of society, and of its objective and subjective relations, the two being inextricably linked. Thus, it is the functioning of capital that provides the model for the very forms of subjectivity of individuals, and nothing, a priori, can guarantee that the deepening of the contradictions of the system will necessarily result in the revolutionary action of the proletariat. The living contradiction within the capitalist system, the working class is the potential representative of the survival of the human species. But for such a transformation to occur, it is necessary that the proletariat develop its own consciousness and its political action against the system.

The “Ripening” of the Conditions for Revolution

Even to speak of the “ripening” of the objective and subjective conditions for revolution is a mechanistic and reductionist way of seeing things. It corresponds well to that “economistic” vision of decadence as a linear and ineluctable process leading to a pre-determined end. The maturation of objective conditions would imply that the conditions for revolution would be so linked to the economic evolution of a system that a given level of crisis would mean the necessary action of the revolutionary class. The maturation of subjective conditions would entail a static vision of the political consciousness of the proletariat, which would no longer be understood as a living, contradictory, and contingent, process, but rather as the virtually mathematical agglomeration of a certain number of criteria that must come together for a revolution to occur.

We know that things happen in a much more complex way, and that the political consciousness of the revolutionary class develops through the daily practice of opposition to the ruling class. That political consciousness develops through a contradiction between the ways that capital induces modes of thought and subjectivity on the proletariat and the proletariat’s progressive autonomization with respect to those modes of subjectivity imposed by the reigning ideology. Similarly, we cannot just look at the impact of the evolution of the CMP on the consciousness and activity of the working class, but must be sensitive to the mutual impact of these two factors, both united and contradictory, on one another.

The Present Context for the Development of Class Consciousness and Struggle

In this phase of decadence, the class struggle has changed its objectives. It can no longer limit itself only to resistance to the conditions of exploitation, as it did in the ascendant phase of the capitalist system. It must now become a struggle of opposition to the system as a whole. This has other implications: it requires a much more global understanding; it is no longer constituted by a series of defeats (brief economic “victories” do not lead to real solutions), the organs of economic struggle have become outdated organizations that keep the struggle on the sterile terrain of negotiating the conditions of labor when the perspective of any kind of better life for workers necessitates a more fundamental opposition to capital. When IP spoke of a “new period” to characterize the social movements of 1995-96, it was not to indicate that we were at the outset of an “ascendant wave” of struggles (in the sense in which the ICC modeled the class struggle as a series of successive waves, each one beginning from the highest point reached by the earlier struggles). For us, it was a question of a series of struggles that would question the general perspective provided by capital. Even if that questioning was posed in very fluid terms, it was important to emphasize the new character of what we were seeing. On another level, the conditions change between the ascendant and decadent phases of capitalism with respect to the question of parliamentary or electoral struggle and of political parties whose objective is negotiations around the conditions of the working class within the capital/wage labor relation, and not in opposition to it. That kind of electoral struggle is obsolete, and worse it keeps the workers from grasping the necessities posed by the phase of capitalist decadence.

The class struggle manifests a profound antagonism, the fruit of a global social relation. That global social relation is, as Marx said, “a social relation between persons mediated by things. But not individual persons: it is a relation of worker to capitalist, of farmer to landowner, etc.” When one speaks of that global social relation, one speaks at the same time of a totality, but above all of a living system, one that undergoes transformations: it’s about the history of the CMP and of the profound transformations that mark its existence. If that totality is transformed, all its components are transformed too.

To speak of a periodization of the CMP implies the capacity to understand history as the evolution of living systems that correspond to evolving necessities, and which are replaced as the need arises, and under the pressure of the activity of humankind. But that also means that the conditions of existence so modified, in their turn change the conditions in which humans must develop their own activity and transform themselves.


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