Marx’s Crisis Theory as a Theory
Peter Bell and Harry Cleaver
Theories of crisis have always been intensely political. Different views of capitalist development and breakdown have always shaped, and been shaped by, political strategies. In the early and mid-1970s the onset of a crisis of Keynesian policy, and hence theory, brought on by an international cycle of working class struggle, led to a widespread preoccupation with "crisis theory" in both capitalist and anti-capitalist circles. While capitalist theorists struggled to find ways to restore control and accumulation, the Left gloated and said, once again, that it was all inevitable and dusted off a variety of old theories to prove it. This essay was written as the first chapter of a book intended as an intervention in the debates of those times.
Throughout the Keynesian period the regulations set in place during and after the Great Depression coupled with Keynesian policies, both national and international, had reduced the depth and shortened the length of business cycle downturns. As a result the subject of crisis was largely neglected in both mainstream macroeconomic theory and among Marxists. In a course on business cycle theory at Stanford in the late 1960s the basic message was essentially: "we have things thoroughly in hand, in the future we will only have recessional slowdowns in growth and no depressions in aggregate output." In the wake of the engineered downturn in 1970 and the subsequent "Great Recession" of 1974-75, it became obvious that this had been a pipe dream. The search for alternatives to Keynesian theory and policy was on. Among mainstream economists that search included the first serious re-consideration of neoliberal policies since Keynes. Among Marxists it meant a scramble to retrieve and revitalize a variety of theories of crisis that had flourished and competed in an earlier, pre-Keynesian period. So urgent was the capitalist preoccupation with finding new theoretical solutions to the crisis that economic journals and the business press both carried assessments of what the Marxists were saying, to see if any of it might be of use.
By the early and mid-1970s when all this was happening the anti-Vietnam war movement had born fruit, both good and bad. On the one hand, the U.S. was being forced out of Vietnam by a combination of Vietnamese valor and U.S. internal protest (final defeat and exit came in 1975). On the other, many militants were abandoning the New Left for one sect or another of the Old Left and the old sectarian theories and debates were re-emerging - picking up where they had left off years before. This was true with respect to "crisis theory" as it was with respect to other things. As a result the arguments of that period were largely repetitions of early debates that pitted, for example, underconsumptionist crisis theory against falling-rate-of-profit crisis theory. The political sects associated with various theories were not always predictable based on past experience, but there was considerable continuity and the "new" debates generally seemed like echos of the old ones.
There were a few new wrinkles, but not many. The Sraffians and some American Radicals offered a kind of neo-Ricardian "profit squeeze" crisis theory that was Marxian to the degree that it admitted class struggle over distribution but Ricardian in its neglect of class struggle in production. Other radical economists adopted strands of Marxist theory, usually drawn from the early writings, such as the "anarchy of production", or over-production.
The only really new, innovative rethinking of Marxian crisis theory at that time had occurred in Italy where the Italian New Left had had to take on the very powerful and theoretically sophisticated Communist Party of Italy (CPI). There the "extraparliamentary" Left ¾ that refused to play CPI’s game of seeking to share power via elections ¾ undertook extensive re-evaluations both of the state of the class struggle and of Marxian theory. In the course of those re-evaluations (that took several years and were spurred and inspired by a whole series of struggles) a number of Marxists (e.g., Romano Alquati, Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri) found ways to locate many of Marx’s theoretical concepts within the dynamics of class struggle in ways that had never been done before. Concepts like "technology" or the "organic composition of capital" that had often been treated as either neutral (by the CPI) or purely as a capitalist weapon were recast as denoting a variety of dimensions of the changing pattern of class struggle. At the same time, at least in part because of the CPI’s embrace of Keynesian "development," some of those same Marxists re-interpreted mainstream economic theory in class terms. They came to see that despite its "neutral", non-political language and the resultant policies the theory was very much a theory of the management of antagonistic class relations of struggle. Thus, for example, Keynes was seen not simply as having come up with a new method of exploitation but as having found a relatively progressive capitalist solution to the new power of the working class that emerged in the 1930s. These Marxists looked around and decided that Gramsci’s "Fordism" (a particular way of organizing and managing capitalist class relations) had come to Italy from America and the Keynesian policies embraced by the CPI were its institutionalization at the level of the "social factory." What Marxist theory provided, they saw, was the means to decode such policies and provide workers with the theoretical tools for dissecting every aspect of "the economy" in class terms. (A considerable body of this kind of work can be found referenced in the Texas Archives of Autonomist Marxism. A brief sketch can be found in the introduction to Reading Capital Politically (see below). A much more complete survey is now available in Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London: Pluto Press, 2002.)
In a distorted manner some of these insights were taken up first in France, then in Britain and finally in the US by the "regulation" theorists. They took over the Italian New Left understanding of Fordism, for instance, and turned it into a periodization of capitalist management (or "regulation"). From a dynamic response to and pattern of class struggle the analysis was reduced to a style of domination. In their lingo "Fordism" would become more or less equivalent to "Keynesianism" and the post-Keynesian period would be seen as a "post-Fordist" one. What disappeared throughout most of their analysis was the omnipresent antagonistic class dynamics of the Italian theory from which they had drawn and, of course, the politics associated with them.
In the same period, however, some of those Italian reformulations of Marxist theory were imported undiluted and undistorted into those same countries by an entirely different set of actors. In France a variety of militants, including Yann Moulier-Boutang, read and translated many key Italian texts and drew on them to rethink their own situation. This led first to the journal Camarades and later to one named Babylone. In Britain the same thing happened through the work of John Merrington and Ed Emery whose translations were published as a series of Red Notes and included both theoretical texts and extensive accounts and documentation of the political contexts that had generated those texts. Eventually, that material circulated to the US, first through the movement of individuals exposed to it in Britain and then through the circulation of documents. The first results of that circulation were the appearance in the US of the Wages for Housework movement and then the journal Zerowork (1975, 1977). My own contributions to the elaboration of such theory began in 1978 with Reading Capital Politically ¾ a systematic re-reading of Chapter One of Volume One of Capital, in the light of the rest of Marx’s work, incorporating insights from Autonomist Marxist theory.
The unsettled theoretical debate about "crisis" in capitalism and how to theorize it led Peter Bell and myself to contemplate writing a book surveying, politically decoding and offering an alternative to the various strains of "Marxist crisis theory" that were then circulating and clashing. As a prelude to, or opening moment of, such a project we decided to undertake as systematic a study of Marx and Engels’ writings on crisis as we could manage, given the texts available to us. While we found many of the Italian innovations inspiring and useful, including moments of analysis of the specific crisis of Keynesianism, nowhere could we find any such systematic study by those theorists. So we undertook one. The result is the essay below that was originally published in Research in Political Economy in 1982. As it turned out, after undertaking this part of the study, largely my work, much of the analysis of other, more contemporary material was never written up in the form of chapters. However, samples of the kind of commentary those chapters would have contained can be found in Peter Bell, "Marxist Theory, Class Struggle and the Crisis of Capitalism," (1977), and Harry Cleaver, "Karl Marx: Economist or Revolutionary" (1986). We concluded that the then current debates were not only largely sterile but also, in relation to other projects that interested us (such as dealing with Reaganomics and the onset of the international debt crisis), not worth the time it would take to demonstrate the fact in detail. So the book was never completed.
A final note: in the light of the injunction in my book Reading Capital Politically that any reading of Capital should "eschew all detached interpretation and abstract theorizing in favor of grasping concepts only within that concrete totality of struggle whose determinations they designate", this essay comes up short. While it is certainly not "detached" what you will find here is mostly abstract and does not "grasp the concepts" within any "concrete totality of struggle." The reason for this abstraction lies in the intended purpose of the essay: a prelude to a critique of the debates around crisis theory that situated those debates within the contemporary history of class conflict and offered an alternative "political" reading designed to contribute to our struggles at that time. Therefore, this essay should be read today as merely a starting point for rethinking the concepts it discusses within the current "concrete totality of struggle" and by no means as a final statement on the subject.
Austin, Texas and Boston, Massachusetts