The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory?
Introduction: The story so far
As our more patient and devoted readers will know, the subject of this article is the theory that capitalism is in decline. In the previous two issues, we traced out in detail the development of the theory of the decline of capitalism which has emerged amongst Marxists and revolutionaries over the last hundred years. In this, the final part the article, we shall bring our critical review up to date by examining the most recent version of the theory of decline, which has been put forward by Radical Chains. But before considering Radical Chains and their new version of the theory of the decline of capitalism, we should perhaps, for the benefit of our less patient and devoted readers, summarize the previous two parts of this article.
In Part 1, we saw how the theory of decline, and the conceptions of capitalist crisis and the transition to socialism or communism related to it, played a dominant role in revolutionary analysis of twentieth century capitalism. As we saw, the notion that capitalism is in some sense in decline originated in the classical Marxism developed by Engels and the Second International.
At the time of the revolutionary wave that ended World War I, the more radical Marxists identified the theory that capitalism was in decline as the objective basis for revolutionary politics. They took as their guiding principle the notion from Marx 'That at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production... From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution'. They argued that capitalism had entered this stage and this was expressed in its permanent crisis and clear objective movement towards breakdown and collapse.
In the wake of the defeat of the revolutionary wave following World War I, for those traditions which claimed to represent 'proper Marxism', against its betrayal - first by the reformist Social Democrats and then by Stalinism - the acceptance of the notion that capitalism was in decline became a tenet of faith.
For the left-communists, the notion that capitalism had entered its decadent phase with the outbreak of war in 1914 was vital since it allowed them to maintain an uncompromising revolutionary position while at the same time claiming to represent the continuation of the true orthodox Marxist tradition. For the left-communists, the reformist aspects of the politics of Marx, Engels and the Second International, which had led to support for trade unionism and for participation in parliamentary elections, could be justified on the grounds that capitalism was at that time in its ascendant phase. Now, following the outbreak of the World War I, capitalism had gone into decline and was no longer in a position to concede lasting reforms to the working class. Thus, for the left-communists, the only options in the era of capitalist decline were those of 'war or revolution!'
For the Trotskyists and other associated socialists, the increase of state intervention and planning, the growth of monopolies, the nationalization of major industries and the emergence of the welfare state all pointed to the decline of capitalism and the emergence of the necessity of socialism. As a consequence, for the Trots the task was to put forward 'transitional demands' - that is, apparently reformist demands that appear reasonable given the development of the productive forces but which contradict the prevailing capitalist relations of production.
So, despite the otherwise fundamental differences that divide left-communists from the Trots, and which often placed them in bitter opposition to each other, for both of these tendencies the concrete reality of capitalist development was explained in terms of an objective logic heading towards capitalist collapse and socialist revolution. The underlying objective reality of the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production reduced the problem of that revolution to organizing the vanguard or party to take advantage of the crisis that would surely come.
However, instead of ending in a revolutionary upsurge as most decline theorists predicted, World War II was followed by one of the most sustained booms in capitalist history. While the productive forces seemed to be growing faster than ever before, the working class in advanced capitalist countries seemed content with the rising living standards and welfare benefits of the post-war social democratic settlements. The picture of an inescapable capitalist crisis prompting a working class reaction now seemed irrelevant.
Then, when class struggle did eventually return on a major scale, it took on forms - wildcat strikes (often for issues other than wages), refusal of work, struggles within and outside the factory - which did not fit comfortably into the schema of the old workers' movement. Many of these struggles seemed marked not by a knee-jerk reaction to economic hardship caused by 'capitalism's decline', but by a struggle against alienation in all its forms caused by capital's continued growth, and by a more radical conception of what lay beyond capitalism than was offered by socialists.
It was in this context that the new currents we looked at in Part 2 of this article emerged. What currents like Socialism or Barbarism, the situationists and the autonomists shared was a rejection of the 'objectivism' of the old workers' movement. Rather than put their faith in an objective decline of the economy, they emphasized the other pole: the subject. It was these theoretical currents and not the old left theorists of decline that best expressed what was happening - the May '68 events in France, the Italian Hot Autumn of '69 and a general contestation that spread right across capitalist society. Though more diffuse than the 1917-23 period, these events were a revolutionary wave questioning capitalism across the world.
However, in the 1970s, the post-war boom collapsed. Capitalist crisis returned with a vengeance. The turn by the new currents away from the mechanics of capitalist crisis which had been an advantage now became a weakness. The idea that capitalism was objectively in decline was back in favour and there was a renewal of the old crisis theory. At the same time, in the face of the crisis and rising unemployment, there was a retreat of the hopes and tendencies which the new currents had expressed. As the crisis progressed, the refusal of work, which the new currents had connected to, and which the old leftists could not comprehend, seemed to falter before the onslaught of monetarism and the mass re-imposition of work.
However, the various rehashings of the old theory of capitalist crisis and decline were all inadequate. The sects of the old left, which had missed the significance of much of the struggle that had been occurring, were now sure that the mechanics of capitalist decline had been doing its work. Capital would be forced now to attack working class living standards and the proper class struggle would begin. These groups could now say 'we understand the crisis: flock to our banner'. They believed that, faced with the collapse of the basis of reformism, the working class would turn to them. There was much debate about the nature of the crisis; conflicting versions were offered; but the expected shift of the working class towards socialism and revolution did not occur.
This, then, is the situation we find ourselves in. While the advances of the new currents - their focus on the self-activity of the proletariat, on the radicality of communism etc. - are essential references for us, we nevertheless need to grasp how the objective situation has changed. The restructuring that has accompanied crisis, and the subsequent retreat of working class, has made some of the heady dreams of the '68 wave seem less possible. To some extent there has been an immiseration of the imagination from which that wave took its inspiration. There is a need to rethink, to grasp the objective context in which class struggle is situated. The bourgeoisie and state do not seem able to make the same concessions to recuperate movements, so the class struggle often takes a more desperate form. In the face of a certain retreat of the subject - lack of offensive class struggle - there is a temptation to adopt some sort of decline theory. It is in this context that the ideas of the journal Radical Chains are important.
The Radical Chains synthesis
Despite all their faults and ambiguities, Radical Chains have perhaps more than any other existing group made a concerted attempt to rethink Marxism in the wake of the final collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of Stalinism. In doing so, they have sought to draw together the objectivism of the Trotskyist tradition with the more 'subjectivist' and class struggle oriented theories of autonomist Marxism. From the autonomists, Radical Chains have taken the idea that the working class is not a passive victim of capital but instead forces changes on capital. From the Trotskyist Hillel Ticktin, Radical Chains have taken the idea that one must relate such changes to the law of value, and its conflict with the emergent 'law of planning'.
In adopting the notion that the present epoch of capitalism is a transitional one, characterized by a conflict between an emergent 'law of planning' - which is identified with the emergence of communism - and a declining law of value, Radical Chains are inevitably led towards a theory of capitalist decline, albeit one which emphasizes class struggle. Indeed, as we shall see, the central argument of Radical Chains is that the growing power of the working class has forced capitalism to develop administrative forms which, while preventing and delaying the emergence of the 'law of planning' - and with this the move to communism - has undermined what Radical Chains see as capitalism's own essential regulating principle - the law of value. As such, Stalinism and social democracy are seen by Radical Chains as the principal political forms of the 'partial suspension of the law of value' which have served to delay the transition from capitalism to communism.
However, before we examine Radical Chains' theory of the 'partial suspension of the law of value' in more detail, it is necessary to look briefly at its origins in the work of Hillel Ticktin which has been a primary influence in the formation of this theory.
Ticktin and the fatal attraction of fundamentalism
Hillel Ticktin is the editor and principal theorist of the non-aligned Trotskyist journal Critique. What seems to make Ticktin and Critique attractive to Radical Chains is that his analysis is not tied to the needs of a particular Trotskyist sect but takes the high ground of an attempt to recover classical Marxism. As such, for Radical Chains, Ticktin provides a perceptive and sophisticated restatement of classical Marxism.
With Ticktin, the Second International's central notion, which opposed socialism as the conscious planning of society to the anarchy of the market of capitalism, is given a 'scientific' formulation in terms of the opposition between the 'law of planning' and the 'law of value'. Ticktin then seeks to 'scientifically' explain the laws of motion of the current transitional epoch of capitalism's decline in terms of the decline of capitalism's defining regulatory principle - the 'law of value' - and the incipient rise of the 'law of planning' which he sees as heralding the necessary emergence of socialism.
Like the leading theorists of classical Marxism, Ticktin sees the decline of capitalism in terms of the development of monopolies, increased state intervention in the economy and the consequent decline of the free market and laissez faire capitalism. As production becomes increasingly socialized on an ever greater scale, the allocation of social labour can no longer operate simply through the blind forces of the market. Increasingly, capital and the state have to plan and consciously regulate production. Yet the full development of conscious planning contradicts the private appropriation inherent in capitalist social relations. Planning is confined to individual states and capitals and thus serves to intensify the competition between these capitals and states so that the gains of rational planning end up exploding into the social irrationality of wars and conflict. Only with the triumph of socialism on a world scale, when production and the allocation of labour will be consciously planned in the interests of society as whole, will the contradiction between the material forces of production be reconciled with the social relations of production and the 'law of planning' emerge as the principal form of social regulation.
However, unlike the leading theorists of classical Marxism, Ticktin places particular emphasis on the increasing autonomy of finance capital as a symptom of capitalism's decline. Classical Marxism, following the seminal work of Hilferding's Finance Capital , had seen the integration of banking capital with monopolized industrial capital as the hallmark of the final stage of capitalism which heralded the rise of rational planning and the decline of the anarchy of the market. In contrast, for Ticktin late capitalism is typified by the growing autonomy of financial capital. Ticktin sees twentieth century capitalism as a contradiction between the forms of socialization that cannot be held back and the parasitic decadent form of finance capital. Finance capital is seen as having a parasitic relation to the socialized productive forces. It manages to stop the socialization getting out of hand and thus imposes the rule of abstract labour. However, finance capital is ultimately dependent on its host - production - which has an inevitable movement towards socialization.
By defining the increasing autonomy of finance capital as symptom of capitalism's decadence, Ticktin is able to accommodate the rise of global finance capital of the past twenty-five years within the classical Marxist theory of decline. To this extent, Ticktin provides a vital contribution to the development of the classical theory of decline.
But it could be objected that the increasing autonomy of finance capital is simply the means through which capital comes to restructure itself. In this view, the rise of global finance capital in the last twenty-five years has been the principal means through which capital has sought to outflank the entrenched working classes in the old industrialized economies by relocating production in new geographical areas and in new industries.
So while the increasing autonomy of finance capital may indeed herald the decline of capital accumulation in some areas, it only does so to the extent that it heralds the acceleration of capital accumulation in others. >From this perspective, the notion that the autonomy of finance capital is a symptom of capitalism's decline appears as particularly Anglo-centric. Indeed, in this light, Ticktin's notion of the parasitic and decadent character of finance capital seems remarkably similar to the perspective of those advocates of British industry who have long lamented the 'short termism' of the City as the cause of Britain's relative industrial decline. While such arguments may be true, by adopting them Ticktin could be accused of projecting specific causes of Britain's relative decline on to capitalism as a whole. While footloose finance capital may cause old industrialized economies to decline, it may at one and the same time be the means through which new areas of capital accumulation may arise.
This Anglo-centrism that we find in Ticktin's work can be seen to be carried over into the theory put forward by Radical Chains. But for many this would be the least of the criticisms advanced against Radical Chains' attempt to use the work of Ticktin. Ticktin is an unreconstructed Trotskyist. As such, he defends Trotsky's insistence on advancing the productive forces against the working class, which led to the militarization of labour, the crushing of the worker and sailors' uprising at Kronstadt and his loyal opposition to Stalin. But Radical Chains resolutely oppose Ticktin's Trotskyist politics. They insist they can separate Ticktin's good Marxism from his politics.
We shall argue that they can't make this separation: that in adopting Ticktin's theory of decline as their starting point they implicitly adopt his politics. But before we advance this argument we must consider Radical Chains' theory of decline in a little more detail.
The world in which we live is riven by a contradiction between the latent law of planning and the law of value. Within the transitional epoch as a whole these correspond to the needs of the proletariat and those of capital, which remain the polarities of class relationships across the earth.
This quote from Radical Chains' Statement of Intent succinctly summarizes both their acceptance and their transformation of Ticktin's problematic of capitalist decline. Radical Chains' theory, like Ticktin's, is based on the idea of the conflict between two different organizational principles. It is not enough for the proletariat to be an 'agent of struggle'; it must be 'the bearer of a new organizational principle that, in its inescapable antagonism to value, must make capital a socially explosive and eventually doomed system.'
But Radical Chains are not Ticktin. Radical Chains accept the idea that the proper working of the law of value has given way to distorted forms of its functioning. However, there is a very significant shift in Radical Chains from conceiving of the law of value purely in terms of the relations between capitals to seeing it in terms of the capital/labour relation. The crucial object of the law of value is not products, but the working class. Thus while for Ticktin it is phenomena like monopoly pricing and governmental interference in the economy that undermine the law of value, for Radical Chains it is the recognition and administration of needs outside the wage - welfare, public health and housing, etc. This is an important shift because it allows Radical Chains to bring in the class struggle.
Central to Radical Chains' theory is the interplay between the state and the law of value. Their combination creates regimes of need, which is to say ways in which the working class is controlled. If the orthodox decline theory has a schema based on laissez faire free markets as capitalism's maturity and monopoly capitalism its decline, Radical Chains offer a similar schema based on the application of the law of value to labour-power. Capital's maturity was when the working class was brought fully under the law of value; capital's decline is the period when that full subordination was partially suspended by administrative forms.
Full Law of Value
For Radical Chains, the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act was the 'programmatic high point' of capitalism because it marked the establishment of labour-power as a commodity. In the previous Poor Law, the subsistence needs of the working class were met through a combination of wages from employers and a range of forms of parish relief. The New Poor Law unified the wage, by terminating these forms of local welfare. In their place it offered a sharp choice between subsistence through wage labour or the workhouse. The workhouse was made as unpleasant as possible to make it an effective non-choice. Thus the workingclass was in a position of absolute poverty. Its needs were totally subordinate to money, to the imperative to exchange labour-power for the wage. Thus its existence was totally dependent on accumulation. This, Radical Chains argue, was the proper existence of the working class within capitalism.
For Radical Chains, only when the subjective existence of the working proletariat corresponds to this state of absolute poverty is capitalism in proper correspondence with the pristine objectivity of the law of value. Once there is a change in this relation, capital goes into decline.
The 'Partial Suspension of the Law of Value'
This full subordination of working class existence to money prompted the working class to see its interests as completely opposed to those of capital and, as a result, to develop forms of collectivity which threatened to destroy capital. The threat is based on the fact that the working class, though atomized by the law of value in exchange, is collectivized by its situation in production. The law of value tries to impose abstract labour, but the working class can draw on its power as particular concrete labour. Radical Chains' idea of proletarian self-formation expressing the law of planning is bound to its existence as a socialized productive force. In response to the full workings of the law of value, the working class developed its own alternative, pushing towards a society organized by planning for needs.
The bourgeoisie recognized the inevitable and intervened with 'administrative substitutes for planning'. One aspect to the Partial Suspension of the Law of Value is that the bourgeoisie accepted forms of representation of the working class. Responsible unions and working class parties were encouraged. At the same time, there was the abandonment of the rigours of the Poor Law. Radical Chains trace the eventual post World War II social democratic settlement to processes begun by far-sighted members of the bourgeoisie long before. From the late nineteenth century, haphazard forms of poor relief began to supplement the Poor Law. The 1906-12 Liberal government systematized this move to administered welfare.
Such reforms amounted to a fundamental modification of the law of value: the relaxation of the conditions of absolute poverty. The wage was divided with one part remaining tied to work while the other became administered by the state. There was a move to what Radical Chains call the 'formal recognition of need': that is, the working class can get needs met through forms of administration. Bureaucratic procedures, forms, tests and so on enter the life of the working class.
There are now two sides to capital - the law of value and administration. This Partial Suspension of the Law of Value represents national deals with the working class. The global proletariat is divided into national sections which have varying degrees of defence from the law of value. This acts to stop the proletariat's global unification as a revolutionary class, but it also acts as a limit on the effectiveness of the law of value which must act globally.
Crisis of the Partial Suspension of the Law of Value
Within the forms of the Partial Suspension of the Law of Value, the working class struggles. It uses the existence of full employment and welfare to increase both sides of the divided wage. Administration proves a much less effective way of keeping the working class in check than the pure workings of the market. Radical Chains see the forms of struggle that the new currents connected to as evidence of the working class breaking out of its containment. The last twenty years or so are seen by Radical Chains as a crisis of the forms of prevention of communism to which capital has responded by trying to reunify the wage and reassert the law of value. Radical Chains do not see much point in looking at the different struggles; the point is to locate them within a grand theoretical perspective!
The attraction of Radical Chains' theory is that the concrete developments of the twentieth century are explained by a combination of subjective and objective factors. Revolutionary theory has a tendency to see the subjective aspect - working class struggle - appearing in revolutionary periods and disappearing without trace at other times. Radical Chains conceptualize the subjective as contained within the forms of the prevention of communism - Stalinism and social democracy - but continuing to struggle and finally exploding them. This analysis seems to have a revolutionary edge, for Radical Chains use the theory to criticize the left's tendency to become complicit with these forms of the prevention of communism. However, there is an ambiguity here because Radical Chains hinge their account on the idea of an underlying process - the breakdown of the essence of capitalism before the essence of communism - planning. This, as we shall argue, is exactly the framework that leads to the left's complicity with capital.
However, before moving to the fundamental conceptual problems that Radical Chains inherit from Ticktin we should point out some problems with their historical account of the rise and fall of capitalism.
In the Blink of an Eye
Radical Chains are right to see the New Poor Law as expressing bourgeois dreams of a working class totally subordinated to capital. They imagine that this period of proper domination beginning in 1834 and lasting till the beginnings of the Partial Suspension of the Law of Value with the movement towards haphazard forms of poor relief in the 1880s, the mature period of capitalism, lasts around fifty years.
But there is a difference between intent and reality. The New Poor Law while enacted in 1834 was resisted by the working class and the parishes so that it was not until the 1870s that it became properly enforced. So virtually as soon as it was enforced the New Poor Law began to be undermined. From this it would seem that the high point of capitalism becomes reduced to little more than a decade or two. From an historical perspective in which feudalism lasted for more than a several centuries, capitalism's maturity is over in the blink of an eye.
Against this notion that capitalism matured for a mere twenty years in the later part of the nineteenth century and has ever since been in decline, it can of course be countered that the world has become far more capitalist during the course of the twentieth century than it has ever been. This view would seem to become substantiated once we grasp the development of capitalism not in terms of the decline of the law of value, but in terms of the shift from the formal to the real subsumption of labour to capital and the concomitant shift in emphasis from the production of absolute surplus-value to the production of relative surplus-value.
Formal and Real Domination
In the period dominated by the production of absolute surplus-value, the imperative of the control of labour is simply to create sufficient hardship to force the proletarians through the factory gates. However, once relative surplus-value becomes predominant, a more sophisticated role is required. The capital/labour relation had to be reconstructed. The reduction in necessary labour required the mass production of consumption goods. A constant demand for those goods then became essential to capital. As a result, the working class became an important source not only of labour but also of demand. At the same time, the continual revolutionizing of the means of production required a more educated workforce and a more regulated reserve army of the unemployed.
Of course Radical Chains are right that these changes are also being forced on capital by the threat of proletarian self-organization. But the idea that they thereby represent capital's decline is not justified. It is only with these new ways of administering the class that relative surplus-value can be effectively pursued. The phenomena of Taylorism and Fordism indicate that capitalism in the twentieth century - the pursuit of relative surplus-value - still had a lot of life in it. Indeed, the post-war boom in which capitalism grew massively based on full employment and the linking of rising working class living standards and higher productivity is perhaps the period when working class needs and accumulation were at their most integrated.
Indeed, from this perspective, the New Poor Law was more of a transitional form in the development of capitalism. On the one hand it was in keeping with the draconian legislation that capital required in its long period of emergence. On the other hand it created a national system to control labour. The multitude of boards that it set up are the direct forerunners of the administrative bodies that came to replace it.
So, rather than a massive break, there is a great deal of continuity between the sorts of institutions created by the 1834 Act and those bureaucratic structures that were set up later. The forms of systematic national management of labour that were created by the New Poor Law simply to discipline the working class were the material basis for new relations of representation, administration and intervention.
We can see, then, that the New Poor Law was introduced to fulfil the needs of a period of the production of absolute surplus-value. What is more, though it was enacted in 1834, it was only in the 1870s that its provisions totally replaced earlier systems of relief. By this time, capital was shifting to its period in which the production of relative surplus-value came to predominate, and this required a new way of relating to labour.
The underlying problem of Radical Chains' historical analysis is that they take the laissez faire stage of capitalism at its own word. Its word is an individualist ideology which was immediately undermined by the growth of collective forms. The idea of a perfect regime of needs under the law of value is a myth. The law of value and capital have always been constrained, first by forms of landed property and of community which preceded it, and then by the class struggle growing up within it. Capital is forced to relate to the working class by other means than the wage, and the state is its necessary way of doing this. The Poor Law expressed one strategy for controlling the working class: administration expresses a different one. Once we see the law of value as always constrained, then the idea of its partial suspension loses its resonance.
The fetishism of planning
Given that Radical Chains seek to emphasize the relation of struggle between the working class and capital, it may seem strange that they do not consider the shift from the formal to real subsumption of labour to capital. Yet such a consideration would not only undermine their commitment to a theory of decline but also run counter to the conceptual framework that they have drawn from classical Marxism through Ticktin. To examine this more closely we must return briefly once more to the origins of classical Marxism's theory of decline.
As we have already noted, the notion of an objectively determined decline of capitalism is rooted in the orthodox interpretation of the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy where Marx states that 'At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production... From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution'. For the classical Marxist at the turn of the century, it seemed clear that the social relations of private appropriation and the market were becoming fetters on the increasingly socialized forces of production. The driving force towards revolution was therefore conceptualized as the contradiction between the productive forces' need for socialist planning and the anarchy of the market and private appropriation.
Of course, implicit in all this is the idea that socialism only becomes justified once it becomes historically necessary to further develop the forces of production on a more rational and planned basis. Once capitalism has exhausted its potential of developing the forces of production on the basis of the law of value, socialism must step in to take over the baton of economic development. From this perspective, socialism appears as little more than the planned development of the forces of production.
However, viewing history in terms of the contradiction between the development of the forces of production and existing social relations, where each form of society is seen to be replaced by a succeeding one which can allow a further development of the forces of production, is to take the view point of capital. By articulating this view, Marx sought to turn the perspective of capital against itself. Marx sought to show that, like preceding societies, capitalism will repeatedly impose limits on the development of the forces of production and therefore open up the possibility for capitalism's own supersession on its own terms.
>From the point of view of capital, history is nothing more than the development of the productive forces; it is only with capitalism that production fully realizes itself as an alien force that can appear abstracted from human needs and desires. Communism must not only involve the abolition of classes but also the abolition of the forces of production as a separate power.
By seeing socialism principally as the rationally planned development of the forces of production - and opposing this to the anarchy of the market of capitalism - classical Marxists ended up adopting the perspective of capital. It was this perspective that allowed the Bolsheviks to take up the tasks of a surrogate bourgeoisie once they had seized power in Russia, since it committed them to the development of the forces of production at all costs. The logic of this perspective was perhaps developed most of all by Trotsky who, through his support for the introduction of Taylorism, one-man management, the militarization of labour and the crushing of the rebellion at Kronstadt, consistently demonstrated his commitment to develop the forces of production over and against the needs of the working class.
As a long committed Trotskyist, there are no problems for Ticktin in identifying socialism with planning. Indeed, in restating classical Marxism and developing the contradictions between planning and the anarchy of the market, Ticktin draws heavily on the work of Preobrazhensky who, alongside Trotsky, was the leading theoretician of the Left-Opposition in the 1920s. It was Preobrazhensky who first developed the distinction between the law of planning and the law of value as the two competing principles of economic regulation in the period of the transition from capitalism to socialism. It was on the basis of this distinction that Preobrazhensky developed the arguments of the Left-Opposition for the rapid development of heavy industry at the expense of the living standards of the working class and the peasantry. Arguments that were later to be put into practice, after the liquidation of the Left-Opposition, under Stalin.
For Radical Chains, adopting the notion that we are in the period of capitalist decline and the consequent transition to socialism, in which the principal contradiction is that between the law of value and the law of planning, is far more problematic. An important part of Radical Chains' project is their attempt to reject the traditional politics of the left, particularly that of Leninism. This is made clear in such articles as 'The hidden political economy of the left', where they resolutely stress importance of the self-activity of the working class and attack the Leninist notion of the passivity of the working class and its need for an externally imposed discipline. Yet this is undermined by their adherence to the 'good Marxism' of Ticktin.
As a result, we find that when pressed on the question of planning Radical Chains' position becomes both slippery and highly ambiguous. Their way of vindicating planning is virtually to identify it with self-emancipation. They ask us to make a revolution in the name of planning and insist that really that is fine because 'Planning is the social presence of the freely associating proletariat and, beyond that, the human form of existence.' But planning is planning. The free association of the proletariat is the free association of the proletariat. For all their efforts, by refusing to break with the framework set out by Ticktin, Radical Chains end up simply criticizing the left's idea of planning from the point of view of planning. For us, this classical leftist Marxism must not be revitalized but undermined. This means questioning its very framework.
For us, the market or law of value is not the essence of capital; its essence is rather the self-expansion of value: that is, of alienated labour. Capital is above all an organizing of alienated labour involving a combination of market aspects and planning aspects. Capitalism has always needed planning and it has always needed markets. The twentieth century has displayed a constant tension between capitalism's market and planning tendencies. What the left has done is identify with one pole of this process, that of planning. But our project is not simply equal to planning. Communism is the abolition of all capitalist social relations, both of the market and of the alien plan. Of course, some form of social planning is a necessary prerequisite for communism: but the point is not planning as such, as a separate and specialized activity, but planning at the service of the project of free creation of our lives. The focus would be on the production of ourselves, not things. Not the planning of work and development of the productive forces, but the planning of free activity at the service of the free creation of our own lives.
Radical Chains concluded
With Radical Chains we have the most recent and perhaps most sophisticated restatement of the classical Marxist theory of decline. Yet, for us, their attempt to unite such an objectivist Marxist theory with the more class struggle oriented theories which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s has failed, leaving them in a politically compromised position. With Radical Chains our odyssey is complete and we can draw to some kind of conclusion.
In Place of a Conclusion
Is capitalism in decline? Coming to terms with theories of capitalist decline has involved a coming to terms with Marxism. One of the essential aspects of Marx's critique of political economy was to show how the relations of capitalist society are not natural and eternal. Rather, he showed how capitalism was a transitory mode of production. Capital displays itself as transitory. Its negation is within it, and there is a movement to abolish it. However, the theory of decline is not for us. It focuses on decline as a period within capitalism and it identifies the process of going beyond capital with changes in the forms of capital rather than the struggle against them.
Decline cannot be seen as an objective period of capitalism, nor can the progressive aspect to capital be seen as an earlier period now passed. The progressive and decadent aspects of capital have always been united. Capitalism has always involved a decadent negative process of the commodification of life by value. It has also involved the creation of the universal class in opposition, rich in needs and with the ultimate need for a new way of life beyond capital.
The problem with Marxist orthodoxy is that it seeks capital's doom not in the collective forms of organization and struggle of the proletariat but in the forms of capitalist socialization. It imposes a linear evolutionary model on the shift from capitalism to communism. The revolutionary movement towards communism involves rupture; the theorization of the decline of capitalism misses this by identifying with aspects of capital. As Pannekoek pointed out, the real decline of capital is the self-emancipation of the working class.
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