A short essay contesting the notion that the current economic crisis is the result of "greed" or irresponsible speculation by evil bankers or investment firms, asserting instead that it is an effect of a generalized crisis of value production caused by the falling rate of profit--an immanent law of capitalist production--and further maintaining that, rather than precipitating the crisis, the massive expansion of fictitious capital over the last 30 years was the only way its onset could be delayed until now.
Who Is To Blame? – Anselm Jappe
This time, all the commentators agree: what is now taking place is not a simple temporary adjustment of the financial markets. We are facing a crisis that is deemed to be the worst since the Second World War, or since 1929. But whose fault is it, and how can it be overcome? The answer is almost always the same: the “real economy” is healthy; the world economy is endangered by the insane mechanisms of a financial system that is totally out of control. The most facile answer, but also the most widespread, attributes all responsibility for this to the “greed” of a clique of speculators who have been gambling with everyone’s money as if they were in a casino. However, this artifice of reducing the arcana of the capitalist economy, when the latter is not functioning properly, to the schemes of an evil conspiracy, has a long and dangerous history. The search for scapegoats, for “Jewish bankers” or other culprits, to serve as targets for the indignation of the “honest folk” composed of workers and small savers, would be the worst possible solution.
To contrast a “bad”, predatory and unbridled “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism with a “good”, more responsible “continental” capitalism, is not a serious proposition either. During the last few weeks we have seen that they are distinguishable only by minor details. All who demand—from ATTAC to Sarkozy—“more regulation” of the financial markets perceive the madness of the stock markets as merely an “excess”, or a tumor on an otherwise healthy body.
But what if financialization, far from having ruined the real economy, has helped it to survive past its expiration date? What if it has breathed some life into a moribund body? Why are we so sure that capitalism is exempt from the cycle of birth, growth and death? May it not contain intrinsic limits to its development, limits that do not reside solely in the existence of a declared enemy (the proletariat, oppressed peoples), or in the exhaustion of natural resources?
These days it has once again become fashionable to quote Karl Marx. But the German philosopher did not speak only about the class struggle. He also foresaw the eventuality that some day the capitalist machine would stop running on its own, through the exhaustion of its dynamic. Why? Capitalist commodity production contains, from its very inception, an internal contradiction, a veritable time bomb built into its very structure. Capital can only be made fruitful, and thus be accumulated, by the exploitation of labor power. The worker, however, in order to generate a profit for his employer, must be equipped with the necessary tools, and today this means cutting-edge technologies. This results in a permanent race—compelled by competition—to use the newest technologies. At each step, the first employer to adopt the newest technologies wins, because his workers produce more than those who do not use these new tools. But the system as a whole loses because technology is progressively replacing human labor. The value of each commodity consequently contains a constantly diminishing portion of human labor—which is, however, the only source of surplus value, and therefore of profit. The development of technology reduces the profit of the system as a whole. During the last century and a half, however, the expansion of commodity production on a global scale was capable of compensating for this tendency of the value of each commodity to fall.
Since the 1970s, this mechanism—which was nothing but a flight forward—has stalled. Paradoxically, it was the increase in productivity derived from the use of microelectronics that plunged capitalism into crisis. In order to make the labor of the few remaining workers conform to the standards of productivity of the world market, ever more gigantic investments were necessary. The real accumulation of capital threatened to come to a halt. This was the moment when “fictitious capital”, as Marx called it, came to the fore. The suspension of the dollar’s convertibility to gold in 1971 eliminated the last failsafe, the last connection between finance and real accumulation. Credit is nothing but an anticipation of expected future profits. But when the production of value, and therefore of surplus value, stagnated in the real economy (which has nothing to do with stagnation with regard to the production of things: capitalism functions on the basis of surplus value production and not on that of products with use value), the only thing that henceforth allowed the owners of capital to obtain the profits that were impossible to obtain in the real economy, was finance. The rise of neo-liberalism after 1980 was not a sinister maneuver on the part of the most greedy capitalists, nor was it a coup d’état staged with the help of a few complacent politicians, as some on the “radical” left would have us believe (who must now decide: either graduate to a straightforward critique of capitalism, even if the latter does not proclaim its adherence to neo-liberalism; or participate in the management of an emerging form of capitalism that would include some of the critiques directed against its “excesses”). To the contrary, neo-liberalism was the only possible way to extend the life of the capitalist system just a little longer, a system whose fundamentals were never seriously questioned by anyone, on either the right or the left. Numerous businesses and individuals could preserve an illusion of prosperity for a little longer thanks to credit. Now this crutch is broken, too. The return to Keynesianism, however, which has been suggested to some degree from all sides, will be utterly impossible: there is no longer enough “real” money in the hands of the States. For the moment, “those in charge” have managed to postpone the Mene, Tekel, Peres of their system by adding another zero to the whimsical numbers written on their screens, to which nothing corresponds. The loans recently conceded to save the Stock Markets are ten times larger than the losses that made the markets tremble ten years ago—real production, however (GDP, let’s say) has increased by approximately 20-30%! This “economic growth” has no real basis of its own, but was caused by the financial bubbles. But when these bubbles burst, there will be no “soft landing” after which everything can begin all over again.
Maybe there will not be a “Black Tuesday” like there was in 1929, or a “Judgment Day”. But there are good reasons to believe that we are experiencing the end of a long historical epoch. The epoch in which productive activity and products are not used to satisfy needs, but to feed the incessant cycle of labor that valorizes capital and capital that employs labor. Commodity and labor, money and government regulation, competition and market: after the financial crises that have repeatedly struck over the last twenty years with increasing intensity, there looms the crisis of all these categories. Categories which, it is always good to recall, have not always and everywhere formed part of human existence. These categories took possession of human life during the last few centuries, and could evolve into something different: something better or something worse. Whatever the outcome, it is not the type of decision that can be made at a meeting of the G-8. . . .
Original text published in 2011.
Spanish translation by Carlos Lagos.
Translated from the Spanish translation posted on the website, “Comunización. Materiales para una concepción integral del movimiento comunista”, at: