Can Capitalism grant meaningful reforms today? Is Decadence

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afraser
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Jul 13 2006 02:45
Can Capitalism grant meaningful reforms today? Is Decadence

Can Capitalism grant meaningful reforms today? Is Decadence Theory valuable?

What can we know? How should we act? In what may we hope?

It is suggested that capitalism can no longer grant meaningful reforms, that it has entered a decadent phase. Apparently obscure, that issue is in reality of the utmost importance to the conduct of socialists. If it holds true, socialists should restrict themselves to propaganda and intervention at the critical phase of the most radical popular struggles only. If false, socialists should involve themselves also in the full panoply of reformist and leftist activities: trade unions, electoral political parties, residents associations.

The centrality of this issue cannot be over exaggerated. The Platform being debated currently (and since the 1920s) is the correct organisational structure where meaningful reforms are possible; but, in the contrary situation where reforms are not possible, Voline's anarchism- without-hyphens propagandising organisation is instead the correct way to operate.

Settling this issue then will settle much more about the socialist project.

So, is capitalism decadent? Can capitalism grant meaningful reforms today?

1. Empirical Evidence

Economics is an observational science, like astronomy, and observed behaviour in the past is not a sure predictor of future behaviour. But it does provide an indicator, a presumption for future behaviour that any contrary theory would find the burden of proof placed against it.

And the past behaviour of capitalism is clear: economically it has grown continuously, and fairly steadily, and so far shows no sign of altering that behaviour. It is true that the future could be very different, that capitalism could collapse tomorrow, but history has shown no sign of that happening yet, so proponents of that idea can start to sound like those announcing that "the end of the world is nigh": they may be right, but since the world hasn't ended yet, the ordinary public are going to retain a healthy degree of scepticism.

Yes, there are periodic crises (=recessions), yes the system displays short and long Kondratieff cycles. But the long (or even medium) term trend is unmistakable. From 1913, or from 1973, or from any other date, long term it has only one direction. See http://www.historicalstatistics.org/ for evidence, from just about every country there is.

2. Theory

If the facts don't fit the theory - change the facts!

Marx said that the decline of capitalism was inevitable. He only said that the once, and Marx said a lot of stuff, some of it just for effect. The artist formerly known as Redtwister - Marxist of Marxists - thinks Marx was talking shit at that point. But - that we know already, what can you do?

All that theory is based on the Labour Theory of Value - the idea that equilibrium prices are determined by socially necessary labour time, that the rate of profit will fall.

Nice idea, but in fact, the most simple analysis shows that socially necessary labour time and equilibrium prices are unrelated, that the rate of profit has no tendency to fall, that capitalism is (unfortunately) perfectly stable.

And so falls the position of the International Communist Current, and also of the Enternasyonalist Komünist Sol, god bless 'em. Still, while it lasted....

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Devrim
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Jul 13 2006 05:57
afraser wrote:
And so falls the position of the International Communist Current, and also of the Enternasyonalist Komünist Sol, god bless 'em. Still, while it lasted....

Actually, Andrew we don't hold to 'decadence theory'. We do say that meaningful reforms are impossible though. I will leave the ICC to argue the economics with you.

Devrim

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Jul 13 2006 08:21
Devrim wrote:
We do say that meaningful reforms are impossible though.

must... resist... emotive... responses... angry

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Jul 13 2006 08:30

No time to make a complete rebuttal to this, but there are some quick points I want to make.

afraser wrote:
If it holds true, socialists should restrict themselves to propaganda and intervention at the critical phase of the most radical popular struggles only.

The ICC has never said this. In fact, the only part of the communist left I can think might hold this position would be the councillists. The Italian Left militated throughout World War II (at great personal risk) - a period that they saw as one of profound and complete defeat for the working class. It's true that the impact of revolutionary organisations varies enormously from period to period. But the need for reflection, theoretical strengthening and to intervene on that basis of those reflections is a permanent requirement in all periods. It's not a question of to intervene or not - it's a question of which struggles really serve the interests of the working class and which don't.

Second, decadence does not mean the capitalism does not continue to grow. It means that the economy has developed to a point where the social relationships of capitalism and the nature of the means of production no longer fit neatly together. Whereas capitalism once constituted an accelerant to economic development, today the opposite is the case. One example of these contradictions is an economy integrated on an international scale but fragmented into competing national capitals. Every capital has a tendency to want to secure all the resources it needs for its own security but the global nature of the economy means, in practice, this increasingly means trying to secure the entire planet. This is one of the drivers behind imperialism and we can see this logic being played out in the US' stance in the "War on Terror". Paradoxically, in order to secure their imperialist interests, states are compelled to invest more in "defence", which puts further pressure on the economy, which increases the need for "security" and so on.

It is because of phenonema such as the above (and that is far from the only one), that capitalism now constitutes a drag on the development of the economy, not to mention the impact on the superstructural level of society which I don't have time to go into here.

Finally, decadence (or at least the ICC interpretation on it) does not suggest capitalism will "collapse tomorrow". This view was current in the early 20th century but history has shown this is not the case. The bourgeoisie has shown it is more than capable of shoring up its system well enough to prevent outright catastrophe even if it cannot stop the crisis altogether. The other effluvia of decadence (war, environment, social decomposition, etc) will wipe out this society long before any purely economic collapse takes place.

The points that afraser has raised are important, though. They attack a conception of decadence that did exist at one point in the Workers Movement. The theory of "the crash", Trotsky conception that the "period of wars and revolutions" meant a complete halt to the development of the productive forces, etc. Ironically, he's repeating criticisms that the ICC has made of these itself. Unfortunately, what he has not managed to do is to engage with what the ICC says about the decadence of capitalism.

No doubt, the ICC itself will be able to respond in more depth. My quick reply has already become a monster!

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the button
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Jul 13 2006 08:37
JDMF wrote:
Devrim wrote:
We do say that meaningful reforms are impossible though.

must... resist... emotive... responses... angry

But -- is Dev really saying that "meaningful reforms are impossible, because if it's a reform it can't be meaningful"? wink

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Jul 13 2006 08:42

One last point, (promise!). If capitalism is not decadent, why should we get rid of it?

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Jul 13 2006 08:48

Hi

Quote:
One last point, (promise!). If capitalism is not decadent, why should we get rid of it?

It’s really boring and it pays very poorly.

Love

LR

Mike Harman
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Jul 13 2006 09:07
Demogorgon303 wrote:
One last point, (promise!). If capitalism is not decadent, why should we get rid of it?

So efforts to get rid of it before it entered it's decadent phase (c.1914-1926 for sake of argument) were mistaken, should've let it continue it's progressive phase uninterrupted instead?

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Jul 13 2006 10:05

Yo afraser.

Apart the problem with your interpretation of marx revol points out - which has come up before, there is a big problem with the very start of your post:

afraser wrote:
If it holds true, socialists should restrict themselves to propaganda and intervention at the critical phase of the most radical popular struggles only. If false, socialists should involve themselves also in the full panoply of reformist and leftist activities: trade unions, electoral political parties, residents associations.

This second bit is a non-sequitur. If "reformist and leftist activities" do not advance the interests of the working class, or actually help win reforms then socialists should never do them.

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Jul 13 2006 10:40
Demogorgon303 wrote:
One example of these contradictions is an economy integrated on an international scale but fragmented into competing national capitals. Every capital has a tendency to want to secure all the resources it needs for its own security but the global nature of the economy means, in practice, this increasingly means trying to secure the entire planet. This is one of the drivers behind imperialism and we can see this logic being played out in the US' stance in the "War on Terror". Paradoxically, in order to secure their imperialist interests, states are compelled to invest more in "defence", which puts further pressure on the economy, which increases the need for "security" and so on.

I don't believe I got an answer to a similar question before so while you're feeling chatty...

If you take an internationalist position then surely you would require all national capitalisms to be decadent in order to have a revolution. In which case while in some places we may be in a period of decadence, in others they are quite obviously not.

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Jul 13 2006 10:52

Hi Jef

The problem is that this poses the question wrongly. Individual nation states cannot be "decadent" any more than any individual capitalist enterprise can be. Both capitalism firms and nation-states exist as discrete units within a wider capitalist economy, composed of all those individual actors.

Asking which nations are decadent is kind of like asking which neurons in the brain are conscious. Decadence is a quality which appears as the product of the collective activity of all the units that compose capitalism as a whole. The conditions which cause or constitute decadence - such as a saturated world market - appear at the level of the whole. Every capital contributes to the world market to a greater or lesser extent. When the market is saturated, every capital big and small, confronts the same reality. Also, every nation-state confronts the efforts of all the others to undermine its imperialist positon.

Does that answer your question Jef?

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Jul 13 2006 10:55

Well you've answered a different question, but you did at least say why.

I understand what you mean, but as capital is, in some places, capable of offering meaningful reforms then how can we be in a period of decadence?

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Jul 13 2006 11:22

Left Communists refer to meaningful, permanent reforms. Best example is the working day. This fell steadily throughout the 19th century from 18 to 12 then to 8 hours. Since then it's hovered, on average, round the 8-9 hour mark. In fact, since the 80s it has begun to go up again.

What meaningful reforms are you refering to and in what places?

Btw, I edited my previous message slightly.

MalFunction
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Jul 13 2006 11:24

I susepct a lot depends on how you define "meaningful".

capitalist states may well have the ability to enact meaningful social reforms, but they cannot reform the economic system itself. capitalism left to its own devices evolves under its own logic (and that includes the class struggle.)

as for the limits to capitalism - so far it has depended on the availability of exploitable people and resources. still plenty of the former but the latter, in some cases, are finite.

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Jul 13 2006 11:48

What is a 'meaningful reform' - a definition we need before we can consider whether such things are possible. And at what geographic level are we talking of before it becomes meaningful?

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Jul 13 2006 11:51
MalFunction wrote:
capitalist states may well have the ability to enact meaningful social reforms, but they cannot reform the economic system itself

This sounds like your trying to restrict the definition of 'meaningful reforms' to the abolition of capitalism!

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Jul 13 2006 11:57

Abd to have a go at answering my own question

Meaningful reform seems pretty straight forward English. A reform that has meaning - something whose impact can be felt on your life (or more correctly in this case on the lives of a large section of the working class).

Economically this would seem to be anything that improves the health, nutrition, leisure, housing of many/ most workers.

Socially it might include the introduction of divorce, abolition of bans on gay sex, abolition of apartheid, marrage bars etc.

At least at the level of nations and regions these sort of reforms are quite frequent.

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jef costello
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Jul 13 2006 12:20
Demogorgon303 wrote:
Left Communists refer to meaningful, permanent reforms. Best example is the working day. This fell steadily throughout the 19th century from 18 to 12 then to 8 hours. Since then it's hovered, on average, round the 8-9 hour mark.

I think I'm starting to understand what you mean.

Quote:
What meaningful reforms are you refering to and in what places?

That was an ICC phrase they used to describe the entry into decadence so I can't really define it.

I'd have to disagree with you, permanent reforms are never possible, everything is always up for negotiation. They will always try to undo any meaningful reforms. Also reducing the working day increases productivity apparently (or at least it did in textile mills) so it is perhaps not such a victory.

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Jul 13 2006 12:35
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I'd have to disagree with you, permanent reforms are never possible, everything is always up for negotiation. They will always try to undo any meaningful reforms. Also reducing the working day increases productivity apparently (or at least it did in textile mills) so it is perhaps not such a victory.

Well, permanent is perhaps the wrong word. How about "long-term"? You're quite right about productivity, btw. But that's the interesting thing - it benefited both sides to some extent, however much the bourgeoisie whinged about it at the time. The decline in the working day was a clear victory, though - in its early phases capitalism was literally working the proletariat to death. This is characteristic of the period of capitalism's growth - the system could accommodate the demands of both bourgeoisie and proletariat, to some extent, even if the latter had to fight tooth and nail for them.

But can you imagine a similar decline (nearly 45%) in the working day in the next 50 years? And for this to happen in the general context of rising living standards? I can't, even though the productive bases are clearly in place for such a development.

ernie
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Jul 13 2006 12:38

Hi

Afraser's setting up of this thread has to be welcomed, especially the very clear way in which he poses the question i.e., of reforms are possible this has a direct impact on political activity, whilst if they are not, there is another. And as he says, it is the question of decadence that is at the root of this question.

As Afraser correctly points out the question of decadence is at the core of the ICC's analysis. Obviously we cannot give an indepth reply here to the quesitons raised by Afraser, though we will seek to contribute to the discussion obviously. Seeing Afraser thinks that the disproving of the idea of decadence undermines our positions, we would ask the comrade to read the series of articles from our International review which seek to provide just the response he wants. Whilst fairly long they do provide a good outline of our analysis of this question. They will certainly help those interested to gain a better understanding of our position and will certainly avoid any false debates, we would thus encourgage comrade to read the followings in order to allow the discussion to develop as clearly as possible;

http://en.internationalism.org/ir/118_decadence_i.html

http://en.internationalism.org/ir/119_decadence_ii.html

http://en.internationalism.org/ir/120_decadence_iii.html

http://en.internationalism.org/ir/121_decadence

http://en.internationalism.org/ir/123_decadence

In this post we will not deal specially with the ecomic question, and it is necessary to understand that the question of decadence is not simply a matter of figures but of social dynamics.

The ascendent period of capitalism witnessed the spread of the world market, country after country came under the domination of capitalist economic relations, the whole framework of the forces and relations of production were revolutionised. This period saw the birth and development of the working class, the laying of the bases for the world wide revolution, for the possiblity of freeing the whole world from war, class, nations and starvation. This had not been a realistic possiblity before in any society. By the beginning of the 20th century all of conditions for the going beyond of capitalism were in place. Capitalism had created the world market, divided it up and the only way that the system could continue was through subjecting humanity to an epoch of wars, starvation and babrbarity.

Within the dynamic of the growth of capitalism, as Demogorgon303 correctly says, capitalism was able to offer real reforms; limiting working class, the factory acts, the ending of child labour, the prohabition of night work.

With the entry of capitalism into its decadent phase the conditions of the working class have seen no permant improvements, rather tens of millions have been slaughtered in wars, starved to death and subject of diseases that only cost a few pence to tread. As for working conditions the work rate has become evermore murderous. It is noticable in Afraser's analysis of decadance all of these factors are missing and he reduces it to a mater of whether there has been economic growth.

Decadance has seen two world wars, not a day of peace -over 100 million people dead in wars between 45 and the 1990's, humanity was directly threatend with total anihilation by nuclear war for over 40 years, whilst today it is faced with being sucked into a spiral of wars, economic and ecological disasters, there has been the growth of the monstrous state control of society with the state seeking to control every aspect of life both social and economic. In the ascendent period, there were war but these were limited in extent, and whilst there were certainly instances of the dilberate slaughter of specific ethnic groups, the native indians in the US, native austrialians etc there was no systematic plans for the destruction of whole advanced nations and even civilisation. As Marx said capitalism emerged dripping blood from every pour but in the process it developed the conditions for the foundations of communism. But since 1914 the existence of capitalism has been at the expense of the threat of the destruction of these conditions. In ascendency the state did not have a totalitarian control over society as it does today.

In this context, the figures for economic growth (and these are distorted and have to be very carefully analysed because of the growth of unproductive expenditure: military, state, advertising, etc) are placed into their true framework. How can we really talk about any real economic developemt when tens of millions are left to starve to death each years, millions more have their lives destroyed by war and in the main countries of capitalism, there is mass unemployment, increasing poverty and unheard of rates of exploitation, and workers live for less time than the rich. and the whole planet is faced with ecological disaster.

This is only a very brief outline of what we mean by decadence. There is a lot more to be said, explained and clarified and again we can only thank Afaser for raising the question, becasue as he says it is the central question for determining what revolutionary activity is.

nastyned
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Jul 13 2006 12:40

I think the whole decadence thing is just more nonsense from the ICC, but then they never do let reality get in the way of a good theory do they? I mean FFS, do they really think there have been no meaningful changes since 1914?

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Jul 13 2006 12:58
nastyned wrote:
I think the whole decadence thing is just more nonsense from the ICC, but then they never do let reality get in the way of a good theory do they? I mean FFS, do they really think there have been no meaningful changes since 1914?

One thing I found hilarious was the way they stated that 1940-1970 - a period of massive reforms - was just a momentary "blip"! Which even now is still 30 out of less than 90 years!

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Jul 13 2006 13:07

What reforms are you thinking of John?

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Jul 13 2006 13:19
Demogorgon303 wrote:
What reforms are you thinking of John?

The NHS, council housing, welfare state, etc.

Also of course the statement that reforms can no longer be permanent or long-term is also false. Reforms will always be reversed if the working class is not strong enough to defend them.

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Jul 13 2006 13:31

The NHS was created, in part, due to the humiliation of the British bourgeoisie in a whole series of wars when the wretched health of British soldiers was revealed. In the 2nd World War, images of strong, healthy German troops shepherding half-starved, shallow-chested British POWs from Dunkirk shocked the world. It was also seen as an attempt to "reward" the proletariat for its part in the War.

It was also the biggest con in history. Like the rest of the "welfare state", it was paid for through a gigantic increase in taxation on the working class, abandoned its "free at the point of use" within four years when the first prescription charges were introduced and has been progressively cut back as far as possible ever since.

In the 70s, a left-wing sociologist did a study on the Welfare State demonstrating how the whole edifice actually benefitted the middle and upper classes far more than the working class. I can't remember the blighter's name - I'll look it up when I get home.

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Jul 13 2006 13:32

So are you really saying there have been no significant reforms since 1914?

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Jul 13 2006 13:46

What ones are you thinking of, Joe? And, more importantly, how are they situated in the overall context that ernie set out in his post above?

Bear in mind the advances in the 19th century - 45% reduction in the working day, trade union reforms, elimination of child labour (children as young as 6 working eight to ten hour days), etc. - took place in a context of very limited wars and a general rise in living standards.

The 20th Century has been somewhat different.

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Jul 13 2006 13:53
Demogorgon303 wrote:
What ones are you thinking of, Joe?

I asked first!

To me it is self evident that my standard of living is way, way, way ahead of what my grandparents was in 1914 and to a lesser extent my parents in 1960. This observation can be repeated for quite a large percentage of the working population of the globe although there are significant exceptions. I've never bothered working out what reforms contributed to which parts - this seems like quite a lot of work.

You appear to be telling me that the world is flat and then demanding I prove it is round. The normal procedure would be the one making the outlandish claim has the role of proving the claim.

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Jul 13 2006 13:54

Hi

I bet he's got a way of showing that every reform is not meaningful.

By the way, those of us who grew up in the seventies stand a good chance of being worse off, in terms of spending power vs hours worked, than our parents.

Love

LR

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Jul 13 2006 13:58

Demogorgon of course the bourgoeisie are going to work their reforms in a way that actually benefits them. Where I live most people are able to attend college for free - amazing for the US, especially given that i live in the 'right wing' south - however this is paid for by the lottery, in other words the money is being given from mostly working clas folks to middle-class kids.

So, what you have to show, is that prior to 1914 german social democracy acted any differently.

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Jul 13 2006 14:09
Lazy Riser wrote:
By the way, those of us who grew up in the seventies stand a good chance of being worse off, in terms of spending power vs hours worked, than our parents.

What exactly is 'spending power' when your luxury items have moved from a B+W TV and a week in Butlins to a DVD + flat screen plus a forthnight on the costa del sol? Hours worked may have risen but I actually don't see how you can compare spending power because consumption has changed. A lot of what we consume now you couldn't buy even if you were Mrs Windsor in the 70's.