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From new introduction to ‘High Tech, Low Pay’

Today’s capitalist crisis in light of Marxist theory

Published Aug 21, 2009 7:51 PM

Here is the third installment of excerpts from a new introduction to the ground-breaking work “High Tech, Low Pay.” The book, written by Sam Marcy during the early stages of capitalist restructuring and first published in 1986, has long been out of print and will soon be reissued. Fred Goldstein, who wrote this introduction, is author of “Low-Wage Capitalism: Colossus with Feet of Clay.” Parts one and two of the excerpts from Goldstein’s introduction can be read in the Aug. 13 and Aug. 20 issues of WW, available at www.workers.org.

Analyzing the present crisis

The meaning of the crisis and its ultimate direction are questions for the ruling class and for the working class, from diametrically opposed points of view. The bourgeoisie has no theoretical framework within which to begin to approach the question. Their system is anarchic. Even government intervention and some limited planning cannot eradicate the anarchy imposed on a system based on private profit.

The bosses operate in competition and in secrecy. Their economists can really only look backward over time at what has happened and hope to divine some pattern that can be used for the future. But they cannot, dare not, analyze the system; they can only describe its behavior in a pragmatic, strictly empirical fashion.

Marxists have a broad theoretical framework combined with powerful, scientific analytical tools at their disposal. These tools must be wielded on behalf of the struggle of the workers and therefore cannot be based upon wishful thinking or pure speculation.

The broad theoretical framework within which to analyze the present situation was laid out by Marx in 1857, in his Preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”:

“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. ... At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change in the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.”

This is Marx’s most general statement about the basis for the revolutionary transformation of society. In numerous places throughout his writings he applies this theory to the capitalist system. He describes how capitalism concentrates the proletariat into factories and workplaces, creating an increasingly complex division of labor in the productive process that involves more and varied types of labor from geographically diverse regions.

Marx showed how capitalism, by constantly revolutionizing the means of production under the internal compulsion of the system, socializes the productive forces—bringing workers everywhere into objective cooperation in the production of commodities. He scientifically demonstrated how this socialized production comes into conflict with private property, resulting in repetitive crises for the workers and, ultimately, for society in general.

The fundamental assertion implied by the paragraph quoted above is that sooner or later, capitalist property relations become a “fetter,” a brake on further development of the productive forces. Society cannot move forward any longer because of the stranglehold of private property. Revolution then ensues. The clash between socialized production and private ownership can only be resolved by socializing the ownership—that is, by bringing socialized ownership into harmony with socialized production and setting society on a new course of planned production for human need.

Marx was referring not just to the periodic crises and suffering brought about by capitalism. Nor does his point refer to capitalism holding back development that would be of great benefit to society—such as environmentally safe methods of production and green products. Nor is it a question of the enormous waste and gross inefficiency produced by capitalism. These are relative brakes on development.

Marx posits that at some point, capitalism inevitably becomes an absolute brake on the development of the productive forces, with a consequent crisis for the masses. Society is stymied by capitalist private property and cannot go on in the old way.

It is always helpful for clarity and educational purposes to discuss this fundamental premise put forward by Marx. It is the starting point of understanding Marxism. But it is only at rare historical moments that the discussion goes beyond making a general historical point and is raised in relation to imminent developments.

This question arose at the end of World War I when the economies of Europe had collapsed in the face of military devastation. There was revolutionary ferment in Germany, Hungary and other countries in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Capitalism seemed to be on the ropes. World War I had signified the beginning of the historic crisis of the capitalist system.

The development of imperialism soon resulted in the complete division of the globe among the imperialist powers, as described by Lenin in 1916 in his book “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” It meant that capitalism had outgrown the national state as a framework for development. Soon it came to pass that even imperialist expansion could not give capitalism sufficient room to grow by ordinary economic means. It had reached such an impasse that it could only resolve its contradictions through a devastating imperialist war.

The ruling classes in Europe survived these post-war revolutionary crises, only to soon be plunged into the Great Depression. It was during the world depression of the 1930s that the question of the absolute decline of capitalism was widely discussed in concrete terms pertaining to the immediate perspective of proletarian revolution.

For the entire decade, save for a brief period in the mid 1930s, capitalist society appeared to be in a downward spiral with no end in sight. Capitalism had reached a dead end. It seemed to fulfill Marx’s general prognosis that social revolution was on the agenda.

Capitalist property, private property in the means of production, the profit system itself, had become a “fetter” on the further development of the productive forces. Capitalism had brought about the socialization of the productive process on a world scale. Yet a small group of property owners, monopolists, owned and operated this global system for the narrow purposes of enriching themselves through exploitation and profit.

The Great Depression seemed to be the end of the line. Capitalism was unable to revive itself by economic means. In the mid thirties there was a slight upturn, but then world production continued to decline. Massive unemployment remained. The colonial countries staggered under the weight of the world depression, which struck them even more drastically than the imperialist countries.

In the present period it is once again helpful from a working-class point of view to revive this discussion in order to get an accurate estimate of the period, clarify a perspective and prepare for struggle.

To be continued.