The Grand Stagnation

It has been said that things are going very fast lately. Perhaps it can be said that, equally, there is a slowing-down effect, a stagnation. Things don’t seem to be going very well for the world economy lately, but I am nevertheless tempted to say that this one of the “happy” periods of capitalism. One of the reasons why is that a financial crisis does not necessarily weaken capitalism as a mode of production, it can indeed serve to strengthen it in the long-term. Not even individual capitalists seem to be particularly worse off – the number of millionaires just keep growing.

The primary reason I can say it is a happy period for capitalism, though, is through looking at history – and the emphasis on class struggle. World War Two is usually said to have had a knock-off effect on labour strengthening its position. But as James Heartfield writes in the article World War as Class War the war served to weaken it. The economical growth in the 50’s was tremendous, mostly due to the technological knock-off effects from the war. There was a lot of stagnation in the “social” field, though, with the glass roof ever-present and the Cold War environment hampering the development of commons.

The thing with how society worked in the West (the state capitalist USSR not deserving much of a mention) is the strong position labour nevertheless came to have, due to the craftskill of each individual worker and the general shortage of labour, giving great negotiation power. This was most visible in Sweden, which was the least effected by the privations of war. A high minimum wage and great security of the worker forced companies to constantly innovate. A turning point would perhaps be the wild strikes and general social upheaval of the ’68 revolutions.

The Oil Crisis, when the oil-producing countries of the Middle East used their oil as a political weapon could perhaps obfuscate matters here, since it happened in 1974, very close to ’68. I am not sure if they excacerbated the tendencies I shall elaborate upon next or not. The artifical oil shortage did push innovation in alternative energy sources, only for them to be mostly discarded once the crisis was over.

Anyway, this turmoil forced capital to renew itself, try to shake off the dependencies of the worker, or the strong unionized one of the West at least. Note that this way of looking at the developments of capitalism differs from how the worker is often painted as a passive subject of the reshaping of capital. Labour-saving technology was invested in – contrary to the trumpeting of technology as requiring more poly-technical skill – as part of the so-called “knowledge society” – these machines defanged the worker as it required less skill to use. Requiring less people overall to use made capital less vulnerable to labour shortage, and unemployment levels worsen the position of the working class overall.

After, and as this went on, capital also found another weapon in its struggle against labour. Letting production happen overseas, especially in Far East Asia, where labour standards are worse and the cost of production markedly lower, despite the distance. This pushed countries in the West to carry out the seemingly foolish action of disestablishing its own industrial base.

There’s a conundrum for capital here, of course, one which has been present in capitalism as a way of production from the very beginning, and which Karl Marx has written about in great detail. Overproduction. This way of breaking the position of labour through labour-saving technology and outsourcing has the obvious effect of pressing wages down, and thus leaving fewer to actually buy the products being produced. A  way to try to combat this has been the increased financialization of the economy. Simplified, the people in the West are the consumers which the global economy hinges on, and the way to try to keep their consumerism going has been through increasinly indebting these. The current crisis could be seen to be partly caused by this specific type of action. Heck, even the Eastern countries have fallen prey to this, as debt keeps increasing behind the bureaucratic walls of China.

Capitalism thus have the wheels burrowed in the mud again, and looks to be needing a push. Capitalism has the odd ability of being able to die, but to keep going as a zombie, but we need to dezombiefy it and ensure it’s actually living and… OK, I’m not sure where I’m going with these metaphors, but try to misunderstand me correctly. Commons can serve as an alternative to capitalism. Voluntary labour between free people on the basis of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” can compete directly with capitalism, mayhaps forcing it to reshape as it always has done. The thing is to try to keep pushing until it dies. And stays dead. “The shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite”, as Karl Marx put it.

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One Response to “The Grand Stagnation”

  1. kopandafoods Says:

    Great stuff! A truly pedagogical oversight, covering a lot of important issues. I think the autonomy and activity of the proletariat is a really important part of an overall commons strategy – thereby pushing companies to digg their own graves by the outsourcing and making-obsolete of waged labor.

    The end part on overproduction and debt also seems like a view of the crisis that deserves to be spread. Perhaps something for the upcoming manifesto?

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