Confusion about decadence theory

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Aug 10 2013 00:30
Confusion about decadence theory

I recently read the ICC's Decadence of Capitalism and have read a few other texts covering the subject as well. While I think I have the general gist of it, there's a few things I don't really get.

My understanding of decadence theory is that early in the 20th century, productive forces ran up against the limits imposed by capitalist social relations. Whereas capitalism had previously been a progressive force, allowing more and more people to have their material needs met, it now became a regressive force, in that capitalist social relations caused less material needs to be met than potentially could be through contemporary production. This is evidenced by the fact that, over the last century, countless militaristic confrontations between states have arisen over whose national capital will accumulate at a greater rate, and capital accumulation in general has been largely dependent on reconstruction markets and armaments and finance than on any real development of productive forces.

Much of my confusion comes to why exactly this decay of capitalism is dated to World War I and what exactly has brought it about. In Fields, Factories, and Workshops, Kropotkin shows how food production in the UK allows for everyone's basic food needs to be met, but bourgeois property relations prevent this from happening. Is this an example of capitalist decadence? If so, I'm confused because the book was written some years before the first World War.

Or does decadence refer to the same phenomenon that brought about imperialism; a lack of markets not dominated by rival national capitals? Whenever I read about decadence, I see imperialism mentioned as a sign of capitalism's decay. And because productive forces expand through increasing productivity and increasing the number of workers incorporated into production, it certainly seems to make sense that a lack of "open" markets would lead to the decadence of capitalism.

But this also leaves me confused because, although it exploded in World War I, imperialism was evident well over a decade before 1914.

In short, I'm wondering if anyone could clarify why the onset of capitalist decadence seems to typically be dated to 1914 specifically, and I would also much appreciate some clarification of decadence theory in general.

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Aug 10 2013 11:40

The First World War and the revolutionary wave which followed are significant for nearly all those in the 'pro-revolutionary' milieu but for a variety of reasons not all attached to theories of decadence. For my part I think more can be placed on an understanding of the historical shift from the 'formal to the real domination of capital' originating in Marx but given a broader application to the modern world by the later Cammatte or more currently and positively by Internationalist Perspectives ( see for instance this discussion: http://internationalist-perspective.org/IP/ip-archive/ip_44_genesis.html ) , though I prefer to see this as a continuing and incomplete tendency rather than a once and for all achieved worldwide condition circa 1914/21. You will find a lengthy critique of Decadence theory in the Aufheben archive here which however they had to admit subsequently was not entirely valid.

If you really want to get a grip of all this you will probably have to commitit to a good deal more reading on the subject although key proponents of their competing theories from the ICC, ICT, IP and others who sometimes post here might give it a go?

baboon
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Aug 11 2013 10:06

Tyrion,

I think that the point about 1914, and its global war, is a distinct marker. On the basis of the fundamental economic contradictions of capital, the question of socialism or barbarism was concretely posed in 1914 and responded to by the working class with a world-wide revolutionary wave of 1917.

World War I destroyed more of the productive forces of capitalism than it had since its birth and the drive towards imperialist war represents the historic impasse of capitalism which became and remains a fetter on the potential of humanity's productive forces. The first world war, long before the open expression of economic crisis in the 1930's, expressed the fact that, in the main, the world was carved up by the major imperialisms and that henceforth they could only fight each other for the finite spoils of a world market. War becomes the means by which each capitalist state tries to overcome its own problems at the expense of its rivals - the slogan of the Third Reich was "Export of Die".

The development of imperialist war, of imperialism, didn't happen from one day or one year to the next, ie, August 4th 1914. It was more and more expressing itself throughout the late 1800's with several serious flashpoints involving Britain, France, Germany, etc. These were all nascent expressions of a developing tendency of capitalism to destroy itself through the physical destruction of capital, generalised massacres and genocides and the vast sterilisation of production represented by militarism. All these factors returned in force with the victory of the counter-revolution and the second global holocaust. A third such global war, or even an intense "local" war given the means of destruction - which are not on the cards for the moment - carries with them the potential destruction of humanity.

I've seen an idea expressed that capitalism will be able to unite and take the economy forward by addressing the ecological disaster that is unfolding. This is pure ideology. Capitalism can't become rational and unify its national interests in order to confront the ecological disaster because that arises from the very conditions of competition that are innate to capitalism - it would no longer be capitalism and that's not going to happen. Some of the Wikileaks in 2009 showed how the melting of the ice caps and the opening of seaways, not a will to deal with the fundamental problem, but the possiblity of an armed free-for-all for access to shipping lanes and resources.

Look at the highest expression of bourgeois "internationalism": the United Nations, a den of corruption, spies and rivalries dominated by the biggest gangsters on the planet.

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Aug 11 2013 16:41

"second global holocaust" could you elaborate?

baboon
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Aug 11 2013 17:47

The second world war, sorry jonthom that wasn't clear.

An additional point if I may on one of the main differences of war in capitalism's period of growth and the full-blown imperialism that in part marks a significant point in its decay, opening up the possibility and necessity for revolution:

The wars of capitalism's ascendency were, in general and not in a linear fashion, progressive phenomena that cohered the nation state and released the productive forces to an unknown degree. Certainly capitalism during this time was "blood and iron", committing the most diabolical atrocities in its advance across the globe. But out of this came the only potential gravedigger of the system which is the international working class.

Wars in the time of capitalism's decay, the development of imperialism which national capitals are driven into in order to survive, are more irrational and more destructive. We can clearly see the difference between the first and second world wars in the destructive powers. The people of Iraq have had to suffer enormous ariel, artillery and naval bombardments with all sorts of developing weaponry. But it's not a matter of destructive bombingsand technical abilities, the war in Rwanda that killed millions, precipitated by France and joined in by the rest, and which is still continuting today, showed us that they will have us killing each other with knives and forks. In the last twenty years the very fragile national states of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and now Syria - constructed themselves by the major imperialisms - have been tipped into indescribable barbarism through the imperialist interests of the major powers. Instead of a coherence from war we see a breaking apart into warlordism, irrationality and chaos that is spreading ever further afield There are economic factors, oil, gas, raw materials, etc., but even from this point of view these wars are irrational. They are certainly irrational from the workers' point of view with their death and destruction locally, the cost of which is shouldered by the working class in the metropoles. The bourgeoisie tell us that the "War on Terror" is being won, according to Obama "al-Qaida is on the run". It, and its many and various franchises, has never been stronger and this fundamentalism has recieved a massive boost from the immperialist intereventions in the name of democracy (and that of Russian "socialism" in the case of Afghanistan).

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Aug 12 2013 06:35

These posts have been very informative. Thanks.

Baboon #5
‘There are economic factors, oil, gas, raw materials, etc., but even from this point of view these wars are irrational. They are certainly irrational from the workers' point of view with their death and destruction locally, the cost of which is shouldered by the working class in the metropoles.’

Could you explain in what sense the cost is shouldered by the working class in the metropolis?

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Aug 12 2013 15:55

My pleasure Auld-bod.

In all the major capitalist metropoles involved in current and recent wars there have been casulties among soliders who, economically conscripted, mainly come from the working class. The bourgeoisie think it an honour to "die for you country" but this is a direct and very real burden on the working class. In Britain, where some hundreds have been killed in the obscene Afghanistan (AfPak) war, thousands more have been seriously and severely injured and then some of these "heros" are paraded around streets and race-tracks like performing monkeys. For the most part the injured and traumatised are largely forgotten by the state and its army and left to rot. Witness the suicides, incarceration, homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction of the deliberately brutalised ex-soldiers. I'm sure that's the same in other parts of the world. That's just recently.

There's the Vietnam war where over 60,000 young men were killed fighting for US national interests and many more wounded and traumatised. The first and second world wars with their wholesale slaughter of the working class in uniform as well as the deliberate obliteration of workers' districts particularly undertaken by the democracies towards the end of WWII (in order to completely quell any prospect of a workers' uprising). One could add the destruction of culture and production destroyed by war.

The financial cost of all this is paid for out of workers' wages as the latter have to shoulder the burden of ever-increasing militarisation. I found it a common adage amongst workers complaining about the cost of living that they (the ruling class) "can always find money for war".

Just an additional note on the UN (above): I'd say that their most notable recent achievement "on the ground" has been the introduction of a highly contagious strain of cholera to the long-suffering people of Haiti.

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Aug 12 2013 16:30

Back to the OP, some good questions. FYI, at libcom.org we are not subscribers of decadence theory, which I basically view as yet another incarnation of millenarianism. As already mentioned, Aufheben's analysis and critique of decadence theory is very good:
http://libcom.org/aufheben/decadence

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Aug 12 2013 17:19

Perhaps too much emphasis is placed both on the term 'decadence' with all it's varied interpretations and attempts to determin a specific point in capitalism's history where somehow everything changed in terms of the potential or otherwise for revolutionary change. This however is not to deny the significant material changes that capitalism has gone through or the usefulness of a theoretical framework which uses a form of 'periodisation' to understand those changes, though again it seems abundantly clear to me that a simple two period classification before and after 1914-21 or similar is quite inadequate. Periodisations are only useful it seems looking back of course rather than looking forward and helps us perhaps to understand what isn't possible or should be avoided rather than providing any guarantees as to what will happen or how we should act.

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Aug 12 2013 18:01

The ICC's views were extensively criticised on here some years ago e.g.; http://libcom.org/forums/thought/can-capitalism-grant-meaningful-reforms...

or; http://libcom.org/forums/thought/decadence-theory-26032006

Lurch
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Aug 12 2013 19:46

Steven wrote:

Quote:
“As already mentioned, Aufheben's analysis and critique of decadence theory is very good:”

That is, if you ignore Aufheben’s own, honest, introduction which quite plainly says they blew it and could not provide a coherent counter to the theory. (See the introduction and footnotes to which Steven has linked).

Ret Marut wrote:

Quote:
“The ICC's views were extensively criticised on here some years ago e.g....”

The ICC’s views are constantly, “extensively” being criticised on Libcom and elsewhere. However the point, as Aufherben was once mature enough to acknowledge, is that the Marxist notion concerning society and social production going through ‘progressive’ and ‘regressive’ moments, or periods of ascendency and decadence, is in no way dependent on the explanations of this or that specific organisation, however well or ill they espouse the concept. Badmouthing this or that group really isn't going to raise the level of this debate.

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Aug 12 2013 19:49

Sorry: that should be Red Marriott, not Ret Marut. My bad.

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Aug 12 2013 20:18

Lurch; I referred to some old debates by describing their content accurately, that's not "badmouthing" - if you're intolerant/over-sensitive of that, tough; it's a simple fact, as anyone who follows the links will see. As to the quality of the criticism, readers of those old threads will make their own minds up.

But the ICC's presence here has reduced so much since those days that it's certainly not true to say that "The ICC’s views are constantly, “extensively” being criticised on Libcom" nowadays (or probably anywhere else). (Though the most prominent recent Libcom criticism is that of Devrim, an ex-member.) And no, the ICC is not the sole possessor of a decadence theory; but this thread begins with the OP's reference to an ICC text and baboon has expressed that theory (or his interpretation) at length in 3 posts here, so it's hardly irrelevant for me to refer to critical discussion of that theory elsewhere. And reacting to such references as you have 'won't raise the level of any debate', but nor will it suppress views you don't like.

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Aug 12 2013 23:12

Steven wrote: "at libcom.org we are not subscribers of decadence theory",

I don't understand this. Does 'libcom.org' have a platform which excludes 'decadence theory'?

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Aug 13 2013 10:12

Tyrion could certainly benefit from a read of the older discussion threads that Red has linked above since it might save going over a lot of old ground - such discussions rarely lead to any big shifts in opinion for the main participants but can be useful for others in getting a more balanced understanding of the issues.

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Aug 13 2013 10:38
Alf wrote:
Steven wrote: "at libcom.org we are not subscribers of decadence theory",

I don't understand this. Does 'libcom.org' have a platform which excludes 'decadence theory'?

no. The closest thing we have is our basic principles of revolutionary organisation:
http://libcom.org/library/basic-principles-revolutionary-organisation

and agreement on our collective writings (http://libcom.org/tags/libcom.org)

but none of us individually subscribe to decadence theory, and I think we would probably oppose any new members being decadence "enthusiasts"

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Aug 13 2013 11:13

Oppose on what grounds?

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Aug 13 2013 12:58
Alf wrote:
Oppose on what grounds?

on the grounds that we disagree with it and think it is counter-productive and wrong.

It would probably be the same, say, for someone who was a Christian. While we aren't opposed to religion necessarily, we wouldn't want a Christian in the admin collective. (N.b. I'm speaking here in a personal capacity, having discussed this with the others and TBH we probably wouldn't discuss it unless it was a practical necessity, i.e. a Christian or decadence theorist wanted to join the admin collective)

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Aug 13 2013 15:42

So if, for the sake of argument, Jan Appel, Paul Mattick (the elder) or Gregori Maximoff wanted to join your collective, you'd refuse entry?

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Aug 15 2013 20:59
baboon wrote:
War becomes the means by which each capitalist state tries to overcome its own problems at the expense of its rivals (...) a developing tendency of capitalism to destroy itself through the physical destruction of capital, generalised massacres and genocides and the vast sterilisation of production represented by militarism.

The expansion of capitalism in the Americas involved genocidal war on native people's, the expansion of slavery, at different times the expansion of the slave trade globally and domestically, the creation of a particularly brutal slave-based form of capitalism in the Caribbean and the southern United States (maybe elsewhere in the Americas too but I dunno anything about that history), and after the U.S. civil war the creation of a range of forms of unfree labor and oppression in the attempt to try to recreate the slave-based forms of capitalism. So I don't get the 'capitalism was progressive until 1914' argument. Progressive for whom? I'm not convinced capitalism was ever progressive as a whole and I don't see why "was it progressive or not, and when" is an illuminating question. I mean, I guess some noncapitalist people's lives did improve during capitalism, but that's true of most periods of time in capitalism. I don't see why that should be the defining characteristic of an epoch, though, as opposed to making extermination and violence the defining characteristic. (None of this is to reject periodization either, it's just to reject one form of periodizing the history of capitalism.)

Spikymike wrote:
a lengthy critique of Decadence theory in the Aufheben archive here which however they had to admit subsequently was not entirely valid.

Where was this admitting-not-entirely valid thing? I haven't seen that.

Alf wrote:
So if, for the sake of argument, Jan Appel, Paul Mattick (the elder) or Gregori Maximoff wanted to join your collective, you'd refuse entry?

I respectfully request that those three comrades be allowed to join the libcom collective despite their commitment to a version of decadence theory. I would also like to nominate Karl Marx and Otto Ruhle for membership.

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Aug 13 2013 18:36

Nate - see the Aufheben link and my comment there. I think they admit that their attempt at a critique became bogged down by being used a means to a more expansive objective and was not as effective as they would have wished because it did not take on board other marxist influenced periodisation approaches within the ultra-left including some emanating from their own ranks. The faults in the ICC's particular approach to periodisation which they have continued to extend as only they can, have brought the whole periodisation approach (whatever it's limitations) into some disrepute in my opinion, unfortunate especially when you consider that most pro-revolutionary tendencies, other than the most idealist of anarchists, equally regard the First World War and it's revolutionary aftermath as particularly significant in their analysis not withstanding the existence of other subsequent significant historical turning points.

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Aug 13 2013 19:28

Well, Nate, if you are going to allow Karl Marx into the collective (and of course I agree that Ruhle should also be allowed in despite his arguing in 1931 that state capitalism was a universal response by capital to its insoluble crisis) you are going to have to get used to him banging on about how he was right to insist against much opposition in the movement that, in relation to feudalism, capitalism did represent a necessary advance,

Spikymike:
We referred to the Aufheben self-critique in the last article in the new series on decadence (see quote below - can't get the italics to work for the middle para). I wonder whether it is this series that Tyrion has been reading, or the old decadence pamphlet written in the early 70s. Contrary to some opinions, our thinking has not remained static since then so I would recommend looking at the new series as well as the old text. You can find it here:
http://en.internationalism.org/series/779

the only one missing is the last one

http://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/201206/4981/decadence..., from which the quote below is taken.

there's a short postscript
http://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/201302/6460/postscrip...

Quote from last article in series: 'Decadence of capitalism, rejection and regressions':

In World Revolution n°168 (October 93)[31] we published an initial response to Aufheben’s articles on decadence. The central argument in the article is that, in attacking the theory of decadence, Aufheben are rejecting Marx’s entire approach to history. In particular, by raising the charge of “objectivism”, they ignore the critical breakthrough made by marxism in rejecting both vulgar materialist and idealist methodologies, and thus in overcoming the dichotomy between the objective and the subjective, between freedom and necessity.

[i]Interestingly, not only did Aufheben’s original articles on decadence recognise the inadequacy of the autonomists’ explanation of the crisis: in a highly critical introduction to the series that accompanies the online version of the series on libcom.org,(http://libcom.org/aufheben/decadence) they admit that they had failed to grasp precisely this relationship between the objective and the subjective factors in a number of marxist thinkers (including Rosa Luxemburg, who certainly defended the notion of capitalist decline) and accepted that our criticisms of them on this key point had been quite valid. Indeed, they realised after the publication of the third article that the whole series had gone off the rails and for this reason had been abandoned. This self-critique is not particularly well known, while the original series continues to be referenced as a final smack down for decadence theory.

Such self-examination can only be welcome, but we are not convinced that its results have been especially positive. The most obvious indication being that, precisely at a time where the economic impasse facing this system seems more and more obvious, the most recent editions of Aufheben show that the group has been engaging in a mountain of labour to produce a very disappointing molehill: for them, the “debt crisis” which broke out in 2007 is not in the least an expression of an underlying problem in the accumulation process but arises essentially from the errors of the financial sector. What’s more it could quite easily lead to a new and extended “upswing” like the one that supposedly preceded it in the 90s and 2000s] We have not got the space to go further into this article here, but this is beginning to look like anti-decadentism reaching the final phase of its decline. [/i]

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Aug 13 2013 19:41

Thanks Spiky. I'll look for your comment there and will reply there if I have anything to say on that stuff

Alf,

Alf wrote:
if you are going to allow Karl Marx into the collective (and of course I agree that Ruhle should also be allowed in despite his arguing in 1931 that state capitalism was a universal response by capital to its insoluble crisis) you are going to have to get used to him banging on about how he was right to insist against much opposition in the movement that, in relation to feudalism, capitalism did represent a necessary advance

I realize Comrade Marx and Comrade Ruhle once voiced such points but they have recently been much less vocal on these matters, so I think the libcom collective could safely include them today without much threat of serious internal strife. To be clear though to my knowledge neither of these comrades has accepted their nomination to libcom collective membership; further discussion on the matter should probably be suspended until they have made their wishes known.

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Aug 13 2013 20:13
Alf wrote:
So if, for the sake of argument, Jan Appel, Paul Mattick (the elder) or Gregori Maximoff wanted to join your collective, you'd refuse entry?

Albert Meltzer is the only deceased member allowed in our collective.

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Aug 13 2013 20:35
Alf wrote:
I wonder whether it is this series that Tyrion has been reading, or the old decadence pamphlet written in the early 70s.

I was referring to the old pamphlet, though I've read parts of the newer series as well.

Lurch
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Aug 13 2013 20:45

Tyrion:

Your calls for clarification about decadence theory have largely fallen on deaf ears (I exempt the posts of Baboon and Nate here, because they’ve actually attempted to answer some of your questions – one from an adherent of the theory; one from an opponent.). Instead, you’ve been welcomed into the maelstrom of inter-organisation antagonism, otherwise known as sectarianism, in which actual discussion of the issue at hand is subsumed into pointless point-scoring for or against this or that individual or organisastion.

From what you’ve posted, I think you’ve grasped the essence of decadence theory (which applies to all previous class societies and not just to capitalism). No doubt, as others have argued, you could read a lot more, follow all the links suggested, and absorb in one fell swoop decades of concentrated argumentation. Good luck.

Or perhaps others will actually attempt to answer, here and now, some of the issues you’ve raised. I’m going to give that method a try. Please bear with me

Tyrion wrote about his understanding of what decadence theory says:

Quote:
“Whereas capitalism had previously been a progressive force, allowing more and more people to have their material needs met, it now became a regressive force, in that capitalist social relations caused less material needs to be met than potentially could be through contemporary production.

In essence, yes. But I wouldn’t use quite the terminology you’ve employed. Marx indeed lauded the productive power of capitalist social relations in their ascendant epoch:

Quote:
“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

(Communist Manifesto)

Nonetheless, Marx was also well aware that this ‘bounty’ was still the product of class society, of the exploitation of man by man, and insisted that capital was born “dripping blood and gore from every pore.” Capitalism, in his view, was only progressive insofar as it wiped pout older, archaic modes of production, tended to unify the planet’s productive capacity (no more stone age production here, slavery there, feudalism elsewhere... etc) and laid the basis for the potential abolition of scarcity and the potential for abundance, the bedrock of a communal society.

So here, in response to Nate (and many other comrades) we can see it’s not and has never been a question of a ‘nice’ capitalism (in ascendance) and a ‘nasty’ capitalism (in decadence) but of a dynamic which sees the spread of capitalist social relations as a bloody but inevitable and therefore necessary step towards a higher form of organised human society which does away with scarcity and the exploitation of man by man.

And how do we know when the capitalist mode of production ceases, in balance, and despite all the horrors, to be a ‘progressive’ moment in mankind’s liberation, but on the contrary transforms itself into a barrier? When, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg in the ‘Anti-Critique’ it begins to “cannibalise” itself: when, instead of spreading the horror of its exploitation to the four corners of the globe, it begins to turn in on itself and destroy the productive apparatus (of which the working class itself is the most precocious) in the heartlands of capital. That dynamic was concretised in (exemplified by) the First World War...

You say:”Much of my confusion comes to why exactly this decay of capitalism is dated to World War I and what exactly has brought it about”. I think the trauma that was (and remains) The First World War (please think about those words) has been addressed to a limited extent. I want to examine certain aspects of the question “what exactly has brought it about”?

The short answer is that there is no agreement on this question. Marxists (and anarchists) disagreed at the turn of the century, and at the outbreak of WW1, and ever since about what was (and remains) the inner logic of expanded reproduction that drives the specificities of imperialism in its capitalist form.

For the Marxists, there was a certain agreement that the imperialism of Rome and slave society in general was different from Feudal expansion and outright capitalist imperialism. More: it was agreed that the early expansion of capital overseas (at the same time as national consolidation) was in turn to be differentiated from the frenzied competition of established nation states for colonies, trade routes and strategic positions that characterised the late 19th century (largely after Marx’s death). This ‘imperialism, final stage of capitalism’ as Lenin dubbed it, was a qualitatively different (and far more dangerous) beast than the centuries old imperial expansion that preceded it. But what were the drivers? The falling rate of profit? The relative saturation of markets? The growing scramble of militarised capital for the remainder of the globe? This debate continues today.

This contribution too will be continued....

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Aug 14 2013 13:05

1914 is when the gold standard ended, the decline of money (capitalism's holy of holies). Inflation is usually mentioned as illustration of decadence. There is a similar position among liberals (critics of economic nationalism);

Ayn Rand wrote:
Let those who are actually concerned with peace observe that capitalism gave mankind the longest period of peace in history—a period during which there were no wars involving the entire civilized world—from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

It must be remembered that the political systems of the nineteenth century were not pure capitalism, but mixed economies. The element of freedom, however, was dominant; it was as close to a century of capitalism as mankind has come. But the element of statism kept growing throughout the nineteenth century, and by the time it blasted the world in 1914, the governments involved were dominated by statist policies.

Just as, in domestic affairs, all the evils caused by statism and government controls were blamed on capitalism and the free market—so, in foreign affairs, all the evils of statist policies were blamed on and ascribed to capitalism. Such myths as “capitalistic imperialism,” “war-profiteering,” or the notion that capitalism has to win “markets” by military conquest are examples of the superficiality or the unscrupulousness of statist commentators and historians.

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 38

Criticism though should focus on how capitalism operates ideally in its health, and not how it "fails", because that would be merely judging capitalism on capitalist principles.

Also, if you look at economic cycles, in 1913 a downturn period begins. This is perhaps a way to relativise periodisation, but something can be said for the idea that there is a change in the nature of the economic cycles (more violent, more global, shorter in succession).

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Aug 15 2013 09:32

Lurch,

''applies to all previouis class societies'' - can this really be accurate in relation to say 'oriental despotism' as in China? Surely destroyed from the 'outside' rather than from it's internal decadence? Might apply in other situations?

Not intended to sidetrack the thrust of the rest of your argument so maybe deal with this seperately to your response to Tyrion.

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Aug 15 2013 10:21

The problem of oriental despotism is certainly complex. We looked at it in one of the earlier articles of the new series

http://en.internationalism.org/ir/2008/135/ascent-and-decline-of-societi...

The ‘Asiatic' mode of production

The term ‘Asiatic mode of production' is controversial. Engels unfortunately omits to include the concept in his seminal work on the rise of class society, Origins of the Family, even though Marx's work already contained numerous references to it. Later on, Engels' error was compounded by the Stalinists who virtually outlawed the concept altogether, advancing a very mechanistic and linear view of history as everywhere moving through phases of primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. This schema had distinct advantages for the Stalinist bureaucracy: on the one hand, long after the bourgeois revolution had passed from the agenda of world history, it enabled them to discern the rise of a progressive bourgeoisie in countries like India and China once they had been baptised ‘feudal'; and on the other, it allowed them to avoid embarrassing criticisms of their own form of state despotism, since in the concept of Asiatic despotism, the state, and not a class of individual property owners, directly ensures the exploitation of labour power: the parallels with Stalinist state capitalism are evident.

However, more serious researchers, such as Perry Anderson in an appendix to his book Lineages of the Absolutist State argues that Marx's characterisation of Indian and other contemporary societies as forms of a definite ‘Asiatic mode' was based on faulty information and that the concept has in any case been made so general as to lack any precise meaning.

Certainly, the epithet ‘Asiatic' is confusing in itself. To a greater or lesser extent, all the first forms of class society took on the forms analysed by Marx under this heading, whether in Sumeria, Egypt, India, China, or in more remote regions such as Central and South America, Africa and the Pacific. It is founded on the village community inherited from the epoch prior to the emergence of the state. The state power, often personified by a priestly caste, is based on the surplus product drawn from the village communities in the form of tribute, or, in the case of major construction projects (irrigation, temples, etc) of obligatory labour dues (the ‘corvee'). Slavery may exist but it is not the dominant form of labour. We would argue that while these societies displayed many significant differences, they are united at the level which is most crucial in the classification of an "antagonistic" mode of production: the social relations through which surplus labour is extracted from the exploited class

When we turn to examining the phenomenon of decadence in these social forms, there are, as with ‘primitive' societies, a number of specific characteristics, in that these societies seem to display an extraordinary stability and rarely if ever ‘evolved' into a new mode of production without being battered from the outside. It would however be a mistake to see Asiatic society as lacking in history. There is a vast difference between the first despotic forms that emerged in Hawaii or South America, which are much closer to their original tribal roots, and the gigantic empires that developed in India or China, which gave rise to extremely sophisticated cultural forms.

Nevertheless the underlying characteristic - the centrality of the village community - remains, and provides the key to the ‘unchanging' nature of these societies.

"Those small and extremely ancient Indian communities, some of which have continued down to this day, are based on possession in common of the land, on the blending of agriculture and handicrafts, and on an unalterable division of labour, which serves, whenever a new community is started, as a plan and scheme ready cut and dried. Occupying areas of from 100 up to several thousand acres, each forms a compact whole producing all it requires. The chief part of the products is destined for direct use by the community itself, and does not take the form of a commodity. Hence, production here is independent of that division of labour brought about, in Indian society as a whole, by means of the exchange of commodities. It is the surplus alone that becomes a commodity; and a portion of even that, not until it has reached the hands of the State, into whose hands from time immemorial a certain quantity of these products has found its way in the shape of rent in kind.... The simplicity of the organisation for production in these self-sufficing communities that constantly reproduce themselves in the same form, and when accidentally destroyed, spring up again on the spot and with the same name-this simplicity supplies the key to the secret of the unchangeableness of Asiatic societies, an unchangeableness in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic States, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the economical elements of society remains untouched by the storm-clouds of the political sky". Capital, 1, Part IV, Chapter XIV

In this mode of production, the barriers to the development of commodity production were far stronger than in ancient Rome or feudalism, and this is certainly the reason why in regions where it dominated, capitalism appears not as an outgrowth of the old system but as a foreign invader. It is equally noticeable that the only ‘eastern' society which to some extent developed its own independent capitalism was Japan, where a feudal system was already in place.

Thus in this social form, the conflict between the relations of production and the evolution of the productive forces often appears as stagnation rather than decline, since while dynasties rose and fell, consuming themselves in incessant internal conflicts, and crushing society under the weight of vast, unproductive, ‘Pharaonic' state projects, still the fundamental social structure remained; and if new relations of production did not emerge, then strictly speaking periods of decline in this mode of production do not actually constitute epochs of social revolution. This is quite consistent with Marx's overall method, which does not posit a unilinear or predetermined path of evolution for all forms of society, and certainly envisages the possibility of societies reaching a dead-end from which no further evolution is possible. We should also recall that some of the more isolated expressions of this mode of production collapsed completely, often because they reached the limits to growth in a particular ecological milieu. This seems to have been the case with the Mayan culture, which destroyed its own agricultural base through excessive deforestation. In this case, there was even a deliberate ‘regression' on the part of a large part of the population, who abandoned the cities and returned to hunting and gathering, even though a memory of the old Mayan calendars and traditions was still assiduously preserved. Other cultures, such as the one on Easter Island, seem to have disappeared entirely, in all probability through irresolvable class conflict, violence and starvation.

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Nate
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Aug 15 2013 21:14
Spikymike wrote:
The faults in the ICC's particular approach to periodisation which they have continued to extend as only they can, have brought the whole periodisation approach (whatever it's limitations) into some disrepute in my opinion, unfortunate especially when you consider that most pro-revolutionary tendencies, other than the most idealist of anarchists, equally regard the First World War and it's revolutionary aftermath as particularly significant in their analysis not withstanding the existence of other subsequent significant historical turning points.

I'm certainly not against periodization as such. Capitalism has certainly changed over time in important ways, and certainly WWI was very important. To my mind though a lot depends on what facets of capitalist society we're looking at. So I'm not sure how much we actually gain in understanding by carving up the history of capitalism into single discrete periods/epochs with over-all assessments about the capitalist mode of production as such for those epochs. (And even if it does make sense to do so, that doesn't mean that the particular periodization involved in the theory of decadence makes sense.)

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Alf
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Aug 16 2013 10:10

Ascendance and decadence aren't the only periods in the history of capitalism, and we can identify distinct phases within each one: eg, within the ascendant epoch, the phase of primitive accumulation, the phase of manufacturing (which is what I think Marx meant by 'formal domination of capital') etc. Distinct phases of the balance of class forces can also be identified, eg the long period of counter-revolution which followed the defeat of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave.,But the concepts of ascendance and decadence give you an overall view of the trajectory of a social formation.For Marx what was most important of all was to identify whether a system (and in his day this mainly meant capitalism, although other modes of production still had a real existence then) had entered what he called its 'era of social revolution' because this would have profound consequences for the strategy and tactics of the movement for superseding it.