“The Structural Crisis of Capital,” by István Mézáros, 2010
Mézáros is a former comrade of Georg Lukacs, who left Hungary in 1956 and is now a professor of philosophy and Marxism at the University of Sussex in the UK. Like many European Marxists, he was schooled in Marxism in the universities, not just in the streets. This is a collection of essays (and interviews) written from the 1970s to the present, which give a flavor of his thinking and his most famous book - “Beyond Capital” – a book copiously studied by Hugo Chavez.
The main point that Mézáros makes is that capital (not just capitalism) has been in a long ‘creeping’ structural crisis since the late 1960s / early 1970s. This is not to be confused with any ‘long boom’ or ‘long wave,’ a theory he negates. He seems to identify the end of the ‘profitable conjuncture’ after World War II with the events of May-June 1968 in France; the end of Bretton Woods under Nixon, which turned the U.S, away from the gold standard in the early 70s; and paying for the war in Vietnam. He calls it, following George McGovern, the development of “credit card capitalism.’ Mézáros closely parallels the thesis of Baran and Sweezy that capital abandoned insufficient profits from production activities, and responded to the crisis by switching over to a more profitable emphasis on finance capital. Capital intentionally ‘de-industrialized’ Europe and the United States to accomplish this.
From his analysis, the present seems unlike the period prior to World War II, when boom/busts were the normal capitalist cycle. The final seizure of world monopoly power by the U.S. after the war issued in a different situation. Boom/busts were then exported to the subjugated nations of the world instead of being primarily located in the imperial centers. Of course, this is still going on. In addition, the stabilizing role of the non-market USSR and eastern Europe ended in 1989. These were areas in which capital did not yet directly control their economies, and hence did not suffer from instability. Because capital has intimately spread across nearly every part of the globe now, including the former non-capitalist areas, exporting busts to other countries is becoming much more dangerous. Because capital is now exporting the bust to ITSELF. As a result, capital has even less insulation from a crisis. In fact, if it was not for the only partly-capitalist Chinese economy, it is transparent that the present capital crisis would be much deeper.
Drawing from this perspective, Mézáros sees that the global character of this structural crisis reflects a terminal phase of capital. It is terminal because it is no longer confined to one or several nations, and it is terminal because of the massive scale of debt, unpredictability and environmental dead-ends involved. Essentially the debt is unpayable. No amount of Krugmanesque left-Keynesianism or trade-union bargaining or shop-steward grievances can change what is happening to the system as a whole. As a result, he sees a growing opportunity for the working class and revolutionaries to take advantage of this systemic weakness. In that sense, Mézáros is a hugely optimistic thinker.
Instead of describing the variegated essays as a whole, I am going to bullet-point some of his specific thoughts.
1. Mézáros praises Marcuse for identifying how labor had been integrated into capital’s structure. But he thinks Marcuse’s conclusion – that capital was now ‘managed’ and that welfare capitalism was ‘permanent,’ and that hence the working class was no longer the revolutionary class – was mistaken. As he wryly notes, exporting manual labor to other countries does not remove the working class from history. He cites Marx, who even in the 1800s pointed out the growing proletarianization of every phase of white-collar and service industry work - much of which still exists in the advance capital countries. This proletarianization continues today.
2. Mézáros has an essay on the “Bolivarian Revolution” – praising Chavez and Morales, and indicating the absolutely central role of ‘substantive equality’ in the socialist project. This equality was first articulated by Enlightenment thinkers like Jean Jacque Rousseau, and later made specific to Latin America by Simon Rodriquez, Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar and now Chavez. He feels the project of uniting all of Latin America against U.S. domination is becoming more and more possible.
3. Mézáros believes the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ over any length of time was and is absolutely untenable, and has been proven so by history. He quotes Lenin to the effect that even in Russia it was a ‘holding action.’ Capital continues to exert pressure on any post-capitalist society and will restore capitalism there, barring world-wide revolutions. Mézáros distinguishes between ‘overthrowing the capitalists’ and actually ending capital’s power, which demands something more - a ‘permanent revolution,’ according to Mézáros
4. Capital is unable to plan, and only makes a feeble attempt after the fact of a great crisis or collapse – he slyly calls it ‘planning post festum.’ Hence instability is endemic, and unknown ‘crises’ – black swans as the market now calls them – can crush the existing economic and social relations in a heartbeat. Capital can never take ‘responsibility’ because even capital does not understand how their own system works. For instance, none of the heads of government or banks issued a mea culpa after the most recent collapse. Mézáros feels planning is central to the socialist project, but it must be planning resulting from the democratic control of the process by the associated producers – not from above, nor through fake, partial planning.
5. The present capitalist crisis involved the ‘nationalization’ of the debts of the banking system to the tune of trillions of dollars, to be paid for by the tax-payer and the working class. The purpose is then to return the banks to private profitability – something the British government did after WWII. This is not true nationalization, of course, but shows that capital cannot rescue itself, but needs its government to extort money out of the population to do so. Mézáros believes that at some point the U.S. will declare bankruptcy. The sovereign debt crisis wracking the E.U. may well be a prelude to this. The debt will never be repaid due to its uncontrollable size.
6. Mézáros thinks that a ‘radicalization of the still primarily reformist trade union movement’ in every country is the answer to the crisis of capital, as ‘the goods’ can no longer be delivered in the way they were after WWII. In a way, it means going back to the beginning.
7. The collapse of the French and Italian Communist Parties, the British Labour Party and others were all part of the capital crisis, as reformism no longer had ground to stand on.
8. Capital is undermining their own systems of social control, by making more blatant their control of educational institutions, cultural entities, political parties and religious organizations. The ‘advanced’ capitalist societies are ‘tolerant’ only to a certain point, but ‘not beyond the point where protest starts to become effective and turns into a genuine social challenge to the perpetuation of the society of repressive tolerance.’
9. Mézáros believes the socialist movement has to become less defensive, and more aggressive in promoting a positive socialist vision of the future – as Marx called socialism humanity’s ‘positive self-consciousness.’ Substantive equality (not mere legal equality), dispositive time (not spent slaving), liberty from want and calamity, solidarity, cooperation and responsibility – all values of a socialist project, need to be promoted in the face of de-humanized profiteering. Like Chavez, Mézáros feels there is little time in which to respond to the social, economic and environmental crises at hand. This cannot happen by ‘regulation’ or by tinkering with some economic category, as is the favorite hobby-horse of Krugman and other liberals, but through a re-politicization of politics by the masses of people.
10. According to Mézáros, world wars, those most efficient generators of production and outlets for capital formation, have become impossible. Small wars will multiply, but a large war is simply unaffordable. Even the 'small' wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have pushed the U.S. towards insolvency.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 1/16/2011