The Political Need for a Conception of Decadence

At this early stage in the discussion of decadence, I want to make some tentative comments. I think that it is the concept, based in Marx, of a transition from the formal to the real domination of capital, provided we expand it from the immediate point of production, or even the economic realm as a whole, to all domains of social being, that can grasp the trajectory of capital over the past 150 years. It is on the basis of that concept that we can understand the operation of the law of value, and its invasion and conquest of the virtual totality of social existence. And it is on the basis of that concept that the phenomenon of crisis (including economic crisis), state capitalism, reification (in all its forms), and the construction of a subject appropriate to the perpetuation of value production, can be theoretically explained. Moreover, that vision of a process (still continuing) of transition from formal to real domination permits us to free ourselves from the dead-end of “orthodox” Marxism, with its mechanistic and deterministic vision of base/superstructure – a vision that shaped the Second International, the Communist International, Trotskyism (quite apart from the politics of these movements), and even – in large part -- the communist left, both Dutch/German and Italian.

However, does that mean that the concept of the decadence of capitalism is no longer needed or that it is even an obstacle to a theoretical grasp of the historical trajectory of the capitalist mode of production? Here I have serious doubts, and I am in broad agreement with the need for a concept of decadence. What the concept of the transition from formal to real domination lacks is a compelling political vision, a clear perspective on the necessity for revolution, for communism, now. Perhaps, and I say this without providing the needed theoretical elaboration, it lacks an ethical imperative (not in the sense of a transcendental, a-historical, truth, law, or moral code, but in the sense of a decision or will to action, guided by a clear goal or vision of communism). It is quite possible on the basis of an analysis of the trajectory of capitalism based on the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital, to conclude that the capitalist mode of production is still historically “progressive,” that it assures the development of the productive forces, that the necessity of communism is for the future, etc. That is not a conclusion that any of us would draw, but it is compatible with such an analysis of the trajectory of capital. However theoretically or (I hesitate to use this term) “scientifically” compelling the analysis of the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital may be (and I believe that in our articles we have made a powerful case for just that), I think that it is insufficient, on its own, for a revolutionary politics. What is needed, and what Marxism has always provided, is the kind of political vision found in Rosa Luxemburg’s stirring and frightening image of “socialism or barbarism,” which is no mere rhetorical device, but a theory no less grounded in the trajectory of capital than the transition from formal to real domination. Here is how Maximilien Rubel, at the end of a long life as a militant expressed the dilemma that the human species today faced: “either survival through the realization of the ‘communist idea’ or perishing because we have not put an end to the yoke of capital and the state.” (Guerre et Paix Nucléaires, p. 153) Quite apart from the specific analysis that led to that conclusion, the vision of the necessity of communism seems to me to be essential to a revolutionary politics. And that entails a theory such as decadence, barbarism, social retrogression, decline of civilization, etc. I agree that there are problems with the concept of “decadence,” the historical freight or baggage with which it is burdened (not least of all its link to the decline of ancient slave societies and a halt or slackening in the growth of the productive forces). Similarly, “social retrogression,” can imply a return to an earlier social formation or historical stage, and “barbarism” entails visions of mass murder (which is an accurate depiction of the trajectory of capital), but also images of earlier social formations based on hunting or gathering; not to mention its links to a vision of the cultural superiority of the “West.” That said, and recognizing the need to clearly explain what we mean, and how we are using a given term, I still believe that our political vision requires – in addition to an elaboration of the meaning of the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital – a concept of decadence, decline, retrogression, or barbarism, as the reality of social being in this epoch. And beyond that, a clear link between the two concepts.

Mac Intosh

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