Crises of Capitalism and Revolutionary Situation

Elif Çağlı

2 November 2003

The present crisis and blighted dreams

In accordance with the dialectics of the process of development, the periods of economic stability feed the self-confidence of capitalists and their ideologists on the one hand, while at the same time they serve as fermentation processes of the problems which would produce the disappointment of the forthcoming period. A concrete example can be given from the present crisis. During the boom period which preceded the last great economic crisis, bourgeois economists constantly proclaimed that capitalism entered a new epoch which would witness an uninterrupted growth. Two aspects of this period of ideological propaganda, which marked 1990s in particular, were especially highlighted, which made it different from previous ones. The first aspect was the collapse of the Soviet Union and other similar regimes. Bourgeois ideologists used this event as a means of brainwashing the masses about the supremacy and immortality of the capitalist system. The second one was the claim that, thanks to the technological inventions, capitalism created its own mechanisms to bring its crises under control.

Owing to the spread of inventions such as internet, computer and cell phones, economic growth continued from the beginning of 90s, particularly in the U.S.A. This was presented as an indication that the claims regarding capitalism’s relative stagnation since 70s proved false. This was followed by the claim that the nature of capitalist cycles was changed thanks to the new technological revolution. The Marxist analysis, which explains that capitalist booms are inevitably followed by crises, was denounced as outmoded. Supposedly, thanks to the application of the new technology, it would be quite possible to determine the demand in the market with great accuracy, to manage stocks, and thus to avoid the tendency of overproduction!

Other elements contributing to this bourgeois propaganda were the massive expansion of the world trade in this period and the accelerating integration of developing countries into capitalist system, both of which were summed up in one word: globalisation. It was alleged that capitalism, on its way to become precisely a world system, would create a magic change that would put an end to all contradictions inherited from the past. Globalisation propaganda, tailored to the capitalist interests, provided grounds for the misperception that revolutionary leaps in technology would strengthen capitalism, providing it with a magic potion. Despite all deepening historical contradictions and obsoleteness of the present economic system, worship of capitalism was reawakened, among the youth in particular, by the illusion that technology was able to solve all these contradictions.

Yet, technology on its own cannot determine the course of humanity. The ruling forces that control the technology and exploit it according to their interests are decisive. Under capitalism, technological advances have been, and can be, nothing else than the means of increasing the productivity of the working class, and thus minimizing the necessary labour time for production in order to maximize the surplus value, and consequently, the profit. Besides, as seen throughout the history of capitalism, even when new technologies bring huge amounts of profits at first, rates of profit would inevitably decline due to spread of technological revolution. Thus, the same conditions, which were once acting as a catalyst for the capitalist upswing, would now swing in the opposite direction and lead to a decline. Moreover, in the final analysis, the potential benefit which capitalism can obtain from technological innovations is relative in the course of history, no matter how striking new techniques might look.

The history of capitalism has seen periods of big advances when successive technological inventions were put into practice and brought about new, vibrant, and abundant markets. With the industrial revolution of 18th Century, use of simple single-engine machines was replaced by more complicated ones composed of several of them. This enabled the rise from manufacture to industrial production of fixed capital. In short, what makes a huge leap forward possible for capitalism is not just some technological innovations. In fact, it is, as seen in the case of industrial revolution, an age of historical innovations that bring about a revolution in the organisation of production.

It was alleged that new technologies of 1990s would start a similar period of leap forward. But in the end, this allegation turned out to be no more than an empty propaganda of the bourgeoisie. The periods of great advances which capitalism enjoyed in its early stages came thanks to a combination of factors: successive leaps forward experienced in various industries, spread of these advances to virgin areas of the world and creation of new markets on a large scale. Likewise, the technological revolutions of this period were capable of increasing the surplus value production substantially thanks to new labour-saving techniques which replaced old labour-intensive technologies. However, capitalism has long left behind its youth, during which it had such potential prospects. Today, even in case that new technical inventions take place and further reduce the necessary labour time for the production of goods, a fast and widespread implementation of these is incompatible with the essence of the capitalist mode of production.

No matter how attractive the technical inventions of the so-called new technological revolution may appear, capitalists are not concerned with this technical miracle side of the story. What they rather take into consideration is whether these inventions bring along new, highly profitable and widespread markets or not. And yet, for capitalists, the contradictions of capitalist system are as inescapable as natural laws. This system is bound to proceed on the basis of the contradiction between the limited purchasing power of the broad masses and the insatiable desire of capitalists to make profits and profit-driven investments. Despite all technological innovations, with many capitalists acting in the same direction with the same positive expectations, it is inevitable after a certain amount of time that profitability decreases, market becomes flooded with new products, and thus a crisis of overproduction occurs. Moreover, potential market opportunities created by new technology are, in fact, restricted by enormous inequalities within the world capitalist system. It is for this reason that the new technology has abundantly exposed the inner laws of capitalism, triggering a very serious crisis of overproduction in a relatively short span of time. Under profit-driven capitalist order, new technologies become a source of new problems, whereas they could have an enormous significance in the sense of fulfilling the needs of human society.

However, capitalism cannot continue without revolutionising its technical base on a constant basis. Mechanisation becomes mandatory for capitalists as they seek to increase productivity in order to reduce production costs. From a mere technical point of view, although it does not have absolute limits, this progress has a character which gradually becomes irreconcilable with the nature of the capitalist mode of production in the long run. Growing mechanisation of the production process means reduction of living labour against dead labour. Although this amounts to a progress in terms of the advance of the productive forces, in capitalist mechanism, it reduces profit rates by increasing the organic composition of capital. Moreover, the possibility of reducing the working hours to minimal levels by means of new technical inventions contradicts the essential feature of the process of surplus value production. Firstly, machines cannot produce surplus value, so that a form of capitalism in which workers are replaced by robots is unimaginable. Secondly, although it seems possible to increase surplus value production despite reduction in working hours, this has historical limitations. Since the purchasing power of the working class cannot be increased in proportion with the decrease in working hours, now the realisation of surplus value will become a problem on a much larger scale. Expansive valuation of capital depends not only on its ability to exploit larger amounts of living labour, but also on its ability to turn the surplus value which is appropriated in the production process into profit. This is precisely the reason why the advance of productive forces becomes more and more incompatible with the essence of the capitalist mode of production.

Today’s technological innovations have some potential for reviving the economy to some extent. However, there is a too senile capitalism on the stage of history, which has already entered the way which will lead it to much bigger obstacles and deeper crises. For instance, the advances made in 1990s in the field of information technology could not find a wide application area across the world simultaneously. Moreover, these innovations even failed to provide the ground for a general, long-term, consistent boom in the US economy, which enjoyed a brief recovery thanks to them. In fact, the economic boom seen in the last period has developed in such a way as to follow a very unstable path and acquire an inflated character thanks to stock market intrigues and credit mechanism.

All these realities have been reflected in concrete changes along with economic growth achieved on the basis of new technologies of 90s. For instance, in all capitalist countries, including the USA, the working class was made to work for longer hours, whereas shorter working hours were possible thanks to the innovations in the field of information technology. There was a massive attack carried out against the general level of wages and the vested rights of the working class, while the purchasing power of broad masses was reduced. The economic advance in the new fields of production turned into an overproduction crisis in a short span of time, since it failed to play a locomotive role for the other fields of economy and find sufficient markets across the world. The incapacity of the existing markets in terms of absorbing and spreading the new technologies reflected itself through a slowdown in growth of productivity despite the technical innovations. Thus, while on the one hand millions of people were suffering from hunger and thirst, large stocks of unsold variations or scraps were growing out of the products of the new technology on the other.

Unfolding as a systemic crisis and spreading across capitalist countries on the eve of the 21st century and in the first decade of the new millennium, the economic crisis also manifested itself through sharp declines in world trade. With the market opportunities shrinking, the exacerbated competition between imperialist powers forces them to act primarily in a self-protective manner. This is also the reason for protectionist measures being on the rise again, although they are at variance with a globalised capitalism. But we must underline that these are temporary developments. The interests of capitalists require an immediate way out of the stagnation of world trade. The primary goal of each imperialist power is not isolation, but on the contrary, a buoyant world trade and the largest possible slice of it.

Competition which makes its way in a relatively steady and modest way in periods of capitalist rise takes on a different character as circumstances change. As in all previous periods of crisis that shook capitalism, at present the ever growing tension between imperialist powers is bringing forward new alignments and confrontations. This is reflected most strikingly in the growing conflicts between the USA and the EU. Thus, what marks the beginning of the 21st century is not a relative stability, but rather an utter instability in all areas. The balances peculiar to the boom period of capitalism in the wake of the Second World War, is now turned upside down as capitalist system has entered a chaotic period characterised by rocking crises, big upheavals.