A General Discussion of Decadence Theory

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RedHughs
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Sep 17 2007 19:49
A General Discussion of Decadence Theory

Let's have a thread to discuss Decadence. (title taken from Mike)

There are two questions about decadence.
1) Is it a creditable concept?
2) Have we actually reached a point of decadence?

My answer to 1: I agree with recent ICC comments that decadence is a general concept implied by most historical/dialectical/materialist or whatever theories of communism (some/most taken from Marx). Without describing capitalism as good or bad, we can say that it develops the possibilities of both the productive system and the human society further for a period of time. There is a limit to how much it can development these possibilities. Once it is past this limit, it has reached the point of decadence.

My answer to 2: I would say that capitalist society is certainly still developing scientific possibilities and in some parts of the world raw material production is increasing substantially. At the same time, capitalist's development of human society has clearly fallen by the wayside. It is simply obvious that the terrain of struggle today is far different from the terrain of struggle during Marx's life. Notably, the uniformly reactionary quality of mass organizations needs explanation. Some theory of "late", "decadent" or "spectacular" capitalism seems crucial for this explanation.

Mike wrote:
Perhaps we should split this whole thing into 3 threads for clarity and so we can all talk about whatever we want without skipping each other's points. I'm fine with discussing decadence theory, but not in the middle of a debate on Luxemburg. We can leave this thread for a discussion of Goldner's text. A new one for the discussion of Luxemburg, and a third one for a general discussion of decadence theory.
mikus
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Sep 17 2007 21:25

"The fundamental mistake of philosophers is to think that the first question is: 'Is it true?' rather than 'What does it mean?' "

So I ask, what does "decadence" mean?

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Alf
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Sep 17 2007 23:56

It's not essential to use the term decadence. What is key is the understanding that capitalist social relations, once a 'form of development' for mankind's productive forces, at a certain point became 'fetters' on their further development.

This cannot be seen only in quantitative terms. During a mode of production's period of decline, there is not necessarily a complete halt in development; capitalism in particular cannot exist without 'growth'. But this growth also appears as decay (as for example in the monstrous swelling of the war economy). Capitalist social relations are not simply a fetter on further capitalist development, but above all on the 'all round development of the individual' for which capitalism itself has created the potential.

To take the specific case of military production. It certainly represents a huge sterilisation of capital and places a huge burden on the capitalist economy. But above all it represents a terrible waste of humanity's potential: the potential for using the productive forces developed by capital to free mankind from hunger and drudgery instead becomes, in the war economy, a source of deteriorating living standards and the incarnation of a threat to humanity's very survival.

bastarx
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Sep 18 2007 10:27

Do we really need to further develop the productive forces? Wasn't Bordiga talking about communism as disaccumulation way back when?

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Demogorgon303
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Sep 18 2007 11:12

Communism requires abundance, so yes we do. But the point is that capitalism accumulates regardless of whether it's necessary or not and, more to the point, does this in an unconscious manner driven by the law of value, etc. When this internal motor starts to play up, the shockwaves spread right through society: economic crises, war, etc.

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Sep 18 2007 11:40

"Do we really need to further develop the productive forces? Wasn't Bordiga talking about communism as disaccumulation way back when?"

Communist production is not accumulation, that's for sure. The aim is the development of mankind's creative powers - that is what the development of the productive forces means in a communist society, where all production is subordinated to human need. No doubt that will involve fantastic technological advances in some areas, but it will also require the 'restoration' of nature after centuries of abuse by capital.Both constitute the 'further development of the productive forces' in a communist society.

Randy
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Sep 18 2007 11:49

Even granting that the productive forces require further development, is not the nature of their development, at this point in history, at least as important as the quantitative measure? (I'm thinking climate change here.) I can readily picture a trajectory by which humanity (including workers) initially benefited by untrammeled industrialization, but no longer does.

Edit: Alf posted while i was composing my post (and fixing my daughter's breakfast). Hence my redundancy.

baboon
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Sep 18 2007 15:18

I agree with Alf that "decadence" is just a name that doesn't do justice to the concept. "What does it mean?" Mikus: it means that the economic system has reached a point where it can no longer effectively and progressively expand and is forced to turn on itself and self-cannibalise. This doesn't mean that at a particular point everything stops dead and goes backwards. Nor is just a question of adding up numbers and equating them to a conclusion. Such formalistic approaches are caricatures of analysis. If you want a general, overall picture of capitalism's decadence then look at the first world war and the development of imperialism for a useful and concrete tool to use in order to explain its development throughout the 20th and into the 21st C. The rise and fall of economic systems has been a constant question for Marx and marxism and decadence was a key question for revolutionaries in the revolutionary wave.

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Oct 17 2007 22:10

Reading back over this thread, I realise that I never acknowledged the importance of Red's post, where he clearly takes a position in favour of:

- the general notion of decadence
- the view that capitalism has reached the point of decadence

The next questions would be:
- at what point did this turning point take place
- and what point has the decline now reached

As you know, for us the question of decadence was resolved long ago ; it was crystal clear to Lenin, Luxemburg,Trotsky, Bukharin, and probably to the best of the anarchists, to the communist left from the 20s to the 40s. Among those who call themselves marxists or revolutionaries, it was really only put into question during the '30 Glorious years' after the second world war, by the likes of Cardan, who admittedly still casts a long shadow.

The central question for us is not so much 'when did capitalism become decadent?', but whether or not we have now entered the final phases of this decadence; and one further question posed by that is whether or not this period of decline has now gone on so long and has so ravaged the proletariat that it is no longer capable of making the revolution.

lem
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Oct 18 2007 03:00

an interesting way of looking at this mght be:
if anti-state-socialization is possible;
then surely it follows that there is a historical narrative.

now i've typed that out i don't know what i mean but maybe someone else will. probably something about violence etc..

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Joseph Kay
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Oct 18 2007 07:22

lem, are you a schizo version of the pomo generator?

lem
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Oct 18 2007 08:12

laugh out loud a weird thing about posting on the internet is i laugh at all the things i say. they seem really weird. but it's not like i can think of anything sane to say, so it's either pomo-schizo or nothing.

and then i read back what i write and it seems to make complete logical sense.

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Joseph Kay
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Oct 18 2007 09:27
lem wrote:
a schizo-pomo-generator in a bad way?

in a pomo-generator way, value judgements are all yours

capricorn
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Oct 18 2007 16:22

I think capitalism could be said to be decadent as a civilisation, but not in the economic sense of no longer being able to expand production (for that production would have to be shrinking, which it clearly isn't -- otherwise global warming might not a problem). We could well be living in the equivalent of the last days of the Roman Empire. It certainly seems like it. The trouble is that, as this could last for another century or so, we (who are around today) might never know.

yoshomon
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Oct 18 2007 16:46

Camatte's arguments against the decadence of capitalism in WANDERING OF HUMANITY are interesting.

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OliverTwister
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Oct 18 2007 17:18

All of camatte's arguments are interesting.

mikus
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Oct 18 2007 18:28

I still don't see how one can support a general theory of decadence without having a specific economic theory to back it up.

I know one can do it, as the ICC has pointed out, but that seems to me something like the equivalent of, say, believing in evolution even if there were no evidence to support it. I.e. one can do it, but there is no reason to.

Mike

RedHughs
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Oct 18 2007 22:36
Quote:
I know one can do it, as the ICC has pointed out, but that seems to me something like the equivalent of, say, believing in evolution even if there were no evidence to support it. I.e. one can do it, but there is no reason to.

Mikus, you are equating economic theory with supporting evidence.

Actually, if the ICC doesn't have specific complete economic theory supporting decadence but still looks to immediate practical events which support the general idea of decadence, it is more like believing evolution without a theory of DNA supporting it - which is what Darwin did. It worth noting that an understanding of DNA was a crucial part of having evolution a solid, demonstrated theory (if animal characteristics were transfered in a different way, alternative theories like Laneous' inherence of acquired characteristics would be credible). But evolutionary theory still appeared and was plausible quite a while before the discovery of DNA.

Mike, I wonder what you think of the point that, as revolutionaries rather than mere scientists, we must perforce look for the most credible explanation for the social totality rather than only looking at theories which are established with absolute scientific certainty?

Best,

Red

mikus
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Oct 19 2007 00:17

The whole point of decadence theory, as explained by the ICC'ers, is that it shows the necessity of the rise and fall of the capitalist mode of production. I.e. that there are no other possibilities. Naturally, necessity cannot be observed. So it there is no way to support decadence theory in this sense without having a theory to show that capitalism is decadent.

Now let's say you take a different route, and define decadence not as necessary-fucked-up-ness (for lack of a better phrase), but simply as fucked-up-ness. And imagine that this fucked-up-ness is clearly defined, something like "20,000,000 proletarians dead because of such and such and such and such = fucked-up-ness = decadence" (but also let us remember that decadence is not even close to this level of clarity, but remains something like a debate between two movie-goers about whether or not the movie they just saw "sucked"). And let's also say that "decadence" in this sense has been observed. But then you have no evidence that "decadence" in this sense is necessary. Simply observing it would not be sufficient, because even if it were observed, it would be entirely possible that this supposed "decadence" could disappear tomorrow or the next day or perhaps 10 years from now or perhaps 100 years from now. In order to prove necessity one must show how on the basis of other known truths, there are certain necessary outcomes.

For example, if Rosa Luxemburg's economic theory were correct, then I think there would be a legitimate case that "decadence theory" (in both the sense of capitalism being more and more fucked up and this being necessary) were correct as well, because if her theory were correct it would be impossible that capitalism could continue to accumulate without outside markets. But I think it was shown fairly well on that thread (and has been shown a million times in a variety of different places over nearly 100 years) that her theory isn't correct. So a decadence theory loses its plausibility. There are, of course, several other possible explanations of crises but known of them, as far as I know, have any implications of capitalism being unable to continue past a certain point. (I am aware, however, that Grossman sometimes put things in these terms but I don't think his own theory implied as much as he himself seems to have thought.)

RedHughs wrote:
I wonder what you think of the point that, as revolutionaries rather than mere scientists, we must perforce look for the most credible explanation for the social totality rather than only looking at theories which are established with absolute scientific certainty?

I don't know what you are saying here. Are you saying that scientists don't look for the most credible explanations for things, but only make theories "which are established with absolute scientific certainty" (which apparently are more certain than just most-plausible-explanations)? If so, then I think you are mischaracterizing scientific practice. I think what you are describing as a specific characteristic of a "revolutionary" approach is actually how normal science works. And I think it's fine.

I also don't understand what you mean by this:

RedHughs wrote:
Mikus, you are equating economic theory with supporting evidence.

Are you trying to say that economic theory cannot be supporting evidence?

Mike

RedHughs
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Oct 19 2007 01:38
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I don't know what you are saying here. Are you saying that scientists don't look for the most credible explanations for things, but only make theories "which are established with absolute scientific certainty" (which apparently are more certain than just most-plausible-explanations)? If so, then I think you are mischaracterizing scientific practice.

Scientists, in the most naive characterization, make hypotheses which may not yet be verified but which must be subject to falsifiability and reproducibility. They then establish or falsify these hypotheses through repeated experiment. Most human activity involves making hypotheses that are not subject to easy reproducibility (and falsifiability isn't much without reproducibility). If someone proceeds on the basis of either theories are not subject to reproducibility or according theories which not yet been verified or falsified at the moment, then one is acting outside the bounds of traditional science. Such action is generally necessary given the limits of human activity - one generally cannot establish beforehand whether a given insurrection will fail or succeed before the fact, for example.

Quote:
Are you trying to say that economic theory cannot be supporting evidence?

Yes, I am. Theory and evidence are different things, at least until you have achieved a dialectical fusion that is beyond me. You may have perfectly consistent theory of life in the fourth dimension but until you have concrete evidence of this, its consistency is only interesting in an aesthetic sense.

Sorry for the detour into methodology but I think it is crucial if we are talking about the meaning of revolutionary theory.

Best,

Red

mikus
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Oct 19 2007 06:04
RedHughs wrote:
Quote:
I don't know what you are saying here. Are you saying that scientists don't look for the most credible explanations for things, but only make theories "which are established with absolute scientific certainty" (which apparently are more certain than just most-plausible-explanations)? If so, then I think you are mischaracterizing scientific practice.

Scientists, in the most naive characterization, make hypotheses which may not yet be verified but which must be subject to falsifiability and reproducibility. They then establish or falsify these hypotheses through repeated experiment. Most human activity involves making hypotheses that are not subject to easy reproducibility (and falsifiability isn't much without reproducibility). If someone proceeds on the basis of either theories are not subject to reproducibility or according theories which not yet been verified or falsified at the moment, then one is acting outside the bounds of traditional science. Such action is generally necessary given the limits of human activity - one generally cannot establish beforehand whether a given insurrection will fail or succeed before the fact, for example.

I don't entirely agree with your characterization of scientific practice, but for the purposes of the present discussion I think it's close enough. What I'm not clear on is why it's relevant to the discussion. It's not like the theory of decadence is anything like the question of whether or not an insurrection will succeed or fail while the insurrection is occurring. Even granting that you are correct on that point, I don't think it's related to the present discussion, since the present discussion is whether or not the theory is correct. (I should also point out that you didn't respond to any of my specific criticisms of decadence theory, so I'm not exactly sure what you think is salvagable from it.)

I should also point out that some sciences, such as astronomy, do not allow for repetition and experiment. I'm not saying this is exactly the same situation as that of social science, but it does mean that the issue is not so cut-and-dry as the anti-social-science types frequently make it out to be. I don't think this issue is anywhere near adequately resolved, for what it is worth.

RedHughs wrote:
Quote:
Are you trying to say that economic theory cannot be supporting evidence?

Yes, I am. Theory and evidence are different things, at least until you have achieved a dialectical fusion that is beyond me. You may have perfectly consistent theory of life in the fourth dimension but until you have concrete evidence of this, its consistency is only interesting in an aesthetic sense.

I don't really disagree, for what it's worth, but I think we're giving words different meanings here. When I refer to "economic theory" I'm not referring to a self-enclosed theory which is internally consistent, but one which is verified (or, rather, most-verified and unfalsified) by the facts. With that in mind I don't think we are really saying different things here.

Mike

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Oct 19 2007 06:11
mikus wrote:
The whole point of decadence theory, as explained by the ICC'ers, is that it shows the necessity of the rise and fall of the capitalist mode of production. I.e. that there are no other possibilities.

I think that they do see other possibilities. I will leave them to explain it themselves though.

Devrim

mikus
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Oct 19 2007 06:40
Devrim wrote:
mikus wrote:
The whole point of decadence theory, as explained by the ICC'ers, is that it shows the necessity of the rise and fall of the capitalist mode of production. I.e. that there are no other possibilities.

I think that they do see other possibilities. I will leave them to explain it themselves though.

Devrim

Compare this to:

Demogorgon303 on pg. 3 of the fictitious capital thread -

Quote:
The position of Marxism is that these societies rise and fall because of their internal contradictions and limitations.

Or Alf, pg. 4of the same thread --

Quote:
'Decadence theory' - yes it is the theory of the unavoidable collapse of capitalism, it's inability to finally and totally dominate the world.

Or baboon earlier on this thread:

Quote:
[decadence] means that the economic system has reached a point where it can no longer effectively and progressively expand and is forced to turn on itself and self-cannibalise.

I'm not saying that the ICC denies that there are various ways that these things can happen, but they do seem to deny that it is possible that capitalism will keep going for some time. Remember how much they disliked me on the fictitious capital thread when I said that I agreed that capitalism's death is inevitable, given that the sun would eventually burn out.

They mean something specific by the decadence theory, although they haven't been clear on what that is.

mikus
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Oct 19 2007 06:44

I should add, I don't think disagree that capitalism will eventually fall. (I do disagree, however, that there is any necessity to its rise.) I think the ICC'ers are saying that there is something more specific about capitalism's fall which is necessary. I'm not sure what. But why else did they dislike it and declare that I'm not a real Marxist when I pointed out that capitalism can't survive once the sun burns out? Is there some kind of time limit for the end of capitalism beyond which one is no longer is a decadence theorist? If so, when is it?

When they say that capitalism must rise and fall, I don't think they mean those words literally.

Mike

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Oct 19 2007 13:03

I thought that Red's comparison with the evidence behind the theory of evolution was useful. The majority of the revolutionary movement were convinced in the period immediately after 1914 that a crucial turning point had been reached, "the epoch of the inner disintegration of capitalism, the epoch of the world proletarian revolution" as the CI put it in 1919. The 'evidence' was world war one and the international wave of revolution that it provoked. There were different understandings of the economic causes of this change, but they could hardly wait for this question to be solved before deciding that armed revolution was now on the agenda.

There are also comparisons to be drawn about necessity. The marxist view of history is not one of iron-bound necessity or predetermined linear progress. There have certainly been historical dead-ends in which societies simply collapsed and disappeared rather than giving rise to a new mode of production. But the same is true of the evolutionary process, where dominant species can be wiped out without directly giving rise to a more advanced form - the case of the dinosaurs being the most obvious one. This problem is even more acute when it comes to communism, where the factor of human consciousness becomes decisive: it can be described as a material necessity but that does not at all mean that it will automatically occur.

yoshomon
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Oct 19 2007 14:31

This chapter of Camatte's WANDERING OF HUMANITY (Decline of the Capitalist Mode of Production or Decline of Humanity?) is relavent: http://www.marxists.org/archive/camatte/wanhum/wanhum05.htm

capricorn
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Oct 19 2007 15:54
Quote:
I agree with Alf that "decadence" is just a name that doesn't do justice to the concept. "What does it mean?" Mikus: it means that the economic system has reached a point where it can no longer effectively and progressively expand and is forced to turn on itself and self-cannibalise.

What does this mean, baboon? Are you saying that capitalism is not and cannot expand production, ie cannot open new oil wells, mines, factories, etc and cannot turn out more products than it used to? If so, this would seem to fly in the face of all the evidence of what's happening in the world today.
And what precisely does "self-cannibalise" mean or involve?

jaycee
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Oct 19 2007 16:58

well it can develope productive capabilities to a certain extent, as is happening in China and India etc. However this is also partly down to the decline of industry in the developed countries and the shipping of them to areas of cheaper wages. But most importantly, this is no longer at all progressive, it is at a crucial point at human history where global warming is now an ergent crisis and capitalism is reverting back to almost victorain age production techniques.

I think that in itself is a telling sign that capitalsim is now a real threat to humanity and NEEDS to be overthrown.

capricorn
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Oct 19 2007 17:27
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where global warming is now an ergent crisis

But global warming is supposed to be caused by increasing industrial production. So it's evidence of expansion not contraction or stagnation!
I agree capitalism is a threat to the future of humanity and needs to go, but not because it can't expand production.

Mike Harman
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Oct 19 2007 17:33
capricorn wrote:
Quote:
where global warming is now an ergent crisis

But global warming is supposed to be caused by increasing industrial production. So it's evidence of expansion not contraction or stagnation!
I agree capitalism is a threat to the future of humanity and needs to go, but not because it can't expand production.

A lot of carbon emissions were during the age of coal as well, it's hardly as if environment damage started a few years ago.

capricorn
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Oct 19 2007 18:16
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A lot of carbon emissions were during the age of coal as well, it's hardly as if environment damage started a few years ago.

But the age of coal lasted until when?, the 1960s? In any event, well after 1914, the date from which many decadentists date the beginning of capitalism's supposed economic decadence. And of course it's still going on in China, India, Japan, the US and Australia. Why do you think the last two didn't sign the Kyoto Protocol?
Carbon dioxide emissions, after falling in the 40s and 50s, began rising again from the 1970s. This must have something to do with increased industrial production, surely.