"Capitalism's Endgame" - rethinking decadence theory

Capitalism's Endgame book cover

"Decadence theory" starts from the basic marxist principle that at some point in its life, any mode of production reaches a point where it can no longer assure human progress. For the Communist International, capitalism's entry into decadence, what the International called "the epoch of wars and revolutions" was marked by the the outbreak of war in 1914, and the October Revolution of 1917.
The theoretical foundations were laid by thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg and Paul Mattick, then further developed by various Left Communist groups in the 1970s. Nearly half a century on, as we face the existential threat of ecological disaster, it is time to rethink "decadence theory" and bring it up to date. That is what this new book "Capitalism's Endgame" proposes to do.

The idea that all social forms, all societies, must at some point enter into decay and give way to something new is baked in to the materialist conception of history first developed by Marx and Engels.
Historically, the outbreak of generalised imperialist war in 1914, then the trumpet-blast of the October Revolution seemed to usher in ‘a new epoch of wars and revolutions’ – to echo the words of the Third International.
Nearer to our own time, various ‘decadence theories’ were first elaborated in the 1970s by several groups that identified with the tradition of the Communist Left.
Those theories were all based on a fundamentally internal, economic explanation of capitalism's decadence: its decline and final crisis would find expression in, and be provoked by, increasing degrees of economic crisis; the social crisis would grow out of the economic crisis, or out of war brought on by economic crisis.
This analytical framework seemed to fit the circumstances of the 1970s: generalised economic crisis and sharpening imperialist rivalries in a world divided into two opposing blocs dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union.
Since then, the world has profoundly changed. The USSR has disappeared, crises have come and gone (the Asian Tigers and Dragons in the 1990s, the Lehman Brothers crisis in 2007, etc), yet the accumulation of capital has continued. Humanity is faced with a new existential threat which is the result not of economic crisis but on the contrary of the relentless expansion of production.
Capitalism’s evolution in its period of decline thus poses a real problem for the theoretical explanations proposed up to now by the Communist Left, whether they were based on Luxemburg’s theory of markets or on the perhaps more conventional theories based on the ‘falling rate of profit’ developed initially by Grossman and Mattick.
After all, if we look at the figures for world GDP since the beginning of the 20th century, we see a continuous upward progression in which crises like the 2007 banking crash appear as occasional blips, if at all. One might of course question the usefulness of such a measure inasmuch as catastrophic events such as world wars barely appear either; that said, the same holds true if we consider a more physical measurement such as primary energy consumption whose increase since the Second World War has been nothing short of vertiginous. Moreover, whatever the inadequacy of GDP as a measure there are physical facts on the ground: tens of thousands of kilometres of new highways and high-speed railways in China for example, not to mention the capital accumulation and concentration represented by the growing ranks of the world’s billionaires.
At the same time, a society that threatens in the short term the survival of the species – either through cataclysmic war, or more inevitably through climate change and general ecological disaster – can hardly be considered to be in rude health. Human society is not some abstract construct that exists in books: its function is to allow the existence and development of humanity as a species. A society that can no longer do that is ripe for the ‘dustbin of history’: in short, it is decadent. The word itself is perhaps not the best – ‘decline’, ‘obsolescence’, ‘descent’, or more bluntly ‘endgame’ and even ‘death agony’ suggest themselves as alternatives – but as Shakespeare put it: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, or in this case, as putrid.
Yet despite this development, no overall, general restatement of ‘decadence theory’ has been forthcoming.
This then was the problem we felt needed to be confronted: on the one hand, a capitalist economy which despite occasional crises continues to accumulate; on the other, the increasing devastation that this accumulation inflicts on the natural environment on which all life including our own depends. From the outset we have tried, if not to avoid any preconceptions (since pure empirical devotion to ‘the facts’ is an illusion), at least to keep an open mind and to follow wherever our research might lead.
The blinkered, economistic view which treats anything outside economic statistics as somehow unreal left us profoundly unsatisfied. Instead, we have preferred to go deeper (though doubtless inadequately) into a properly materialist historical view which integrates questions of the economy, social change, ecology, climate change, and population growth, into a broader overall framework. This in turn has led us to try to think more deeply about the meaning of expressions like ‘the productive forces’, what their ‘development’ would mean, and what might constitute a ‘fetter’ on that development.
These then are the themes discussed in Capitalism’s Endgame. We do not pretend to have touched on all the burning questions confronting humanity and the working class today, still less to have reached definitive conclusions. We do hope to have offered matter for reflection to all those who believe that capitalism if it is allowed to continue its planetary domination can only lead to the destruction of human civilisation, perhaps even of life itself.
The book is available here as a PDF, but for those who prefer to read on paper it is also available on Amazon