Theses on Secular Crisis in Capitalism: The Insurpassability of Class Antagonisms(*)

Thesis 1: We are in the midst of secular crisis.

We are writing and talking about crisis today, as we have been doing for the last two decades, because we have been participating in a global crisis of capitalism which can be dated from at least the late 1960s. In terms of duration, depth and scope, this crisis ranks with that of the 1930s -which is understood to have lasted from before the crash of 1929 through World War II to the onset of the postwar era of Pax Americana via the Marshall Plan in Western Europe, the restructuring of Japan and the initiation of the Cold War. We are writing and talking about secular crisis because neither the cyclical business downturns nor the upturns, nor a whole series of capitalist counter-measures (local and international), have resolved the underlying problems of the system in such a way as to lay the basis for a renewal of stable accumulation. Thus, secular crisis means the continuing threat to the existence of capitalism posed by antagonistic forces and trends which are inherent in its social structure and which persist through short term fluctuations and major restructurings.

Thesis 2: Secular crisis is crisis of the class relation.

The basic antagonistic forces which are inherent in the social structure of capitalism, which endure through the ups and downs of fluctuations and restructurings, which have been repeatedly internalized without ever losing their power of resurgence, are the negativity and creativity of the working class. The working class persistently threatens the survival of capitalism both because of its struggles against various aspects of the capitalist form of society and because it tends to drive beyond that social form through its own inventiveness. As opposed to all bourgeois ideologies of social contract, pluralism and democracy, Marxism has shown that working class anatagonism derives from capitalism being a social order based on domination, i.e., on the imposition of set of social rules through which, tendentially, all of life is organized. Class antagonism is thus insurpassable by capitalism within its own order because that antagonism is inseparable from the domination which defines the system.

Thesis 3: The class relation is the struggle over work.

Capitalist rules impose the generalized subordination of human life to work. Whereas all previous class societies have involved the extraction of surplus labor, only in capitalism have all human activities been reshaped as work, as commodity producing labor processes. Those processes produce either use-values which can be sold and on which a profit can be realized or they produce and reproduce human life itself as labor power. Antagonism, resistance and opposition accompany this imposition because this way of organizing human life dramatically restricts and confines its development. People struggle both against their reduction to "mere worker" and for the elaboration of new ways of being that escape capitalist limits.(1)

Thesis 4: The working class (waged and unwaged) struggles against work.

While "capital" can be thought of as monolithic in the sense that differences and conflicts among capitalists are secondary to the rules of the game from the point of view of the exploited, the "working class" is monolithic only as a class in-itself, i.e., as formed by capital through the universal imposition of work. The working class only appears as a class for itself — as a unified self-acting force — through its negativity which is rooted in the commonality of its opposition to the domination of capital, i.e., in its struggles to cease being defined as either a working class or as any kind of one-dimensional class. The struggle against the imposition of work has been central to the history of the making of the working class, from the initial resistance to the original imposition of work in the period of primitive accumulation through the long centuries of resisting and avoiding the expansion of work time (longer, harder hours) to the more recent aggressive struggles to reduce work time and liberate more open-ended time for self-determined activity.(2) Given the capitalist efforts to reinternalize time liberated from the official working day (week, etc) by shaping it for the reproduction of life as labor power — and thus reshaping all of life as one comprehensive social factory, the struggle over time has become universal. Working class struggles today, therefore, must be understood as including not only those of wage workers but also those of all who do not receive a wage but who are trained and conditioned to do the work of reproducing the working class itself, e.g, housewives, students, peasants, the "unemployed", and so on.(3)

Thesis 5: The working class struggles for an irreducible multiplicity of alternative ways of being.

When looked at positively, in terms of their struggles for their own interests (beyond mere resistance to the imposition of work), the interests of this complex "working class" are multiple in the sense of not being universally shared. The interests of one group are not exactly the same as those of another even if the realization of those of the one would facilitate the realization of those of the others.(4) Thus there is a problematic relationship between the notion of a working class for-itself and the multiplicity of interests for which different groups of people struggle. "The" working class which struggles against capital, and whose antagonism threatens capital's survival, is actually a multiplicity moving in a variety of directions made up of equally diverse processes of self-valorization or self-constitution.

Thesis 6: Capitalist internalization of working class antagonism is the dialectic.

Therefore, the problem that capital faces in managing the antagonism of the working class is that of managing not only a shared (though not necessarily allied or even complementary) resistance but also diverse processes of self-constitution repeatedly escaping its rules and precipitating crisis. Capital accumulation requires that capitalist command (thesis) internalize the hostile self-activities of the working class (antithesis) and convert them into contradictions (synthesis) capable of providing dynamism to what is basically a lifeless set of rules/constraints. Thus the "logic" (or "laws")(5) of capital is, like all logics, a set of rules — in this case the set which capital is able to impose on a resisting and self-acting human society. In other words, the dialectical logic of class struggle involves the co-optation and domestication of mutagenic activity into metamorphosis.(6) All the so-called immanent barriers within capital turn out to be rooted in and moments of the class relations of struggle

. The number of such barriers is the number of moments (or sites) of the class relation.(7) The development of these conflicts are "dialectical" only in so far as capital is able to internalize its opposition, to achieve the conversion of antagonism into contradiction.

Thesis 7: To study crisis is to study class struggle.

The study of secular crisis, therefore, must be the study of the threats posed, ruptures achieved and transformations wrought by this constantly changing constellation of antagonistic and self-constituting forces.(8) The processes of capital accumulation, understood as those of the accumulation of the class relations of capital, encompass all of this — including the repeatedly present threat of total rupture and mutation whose staving off is the necessary condition of the continuation of those processes.(9) Simultaneously, the study of secular crisis must be the study of the struggles for liberation from the constraints of capitalism as a social system.

Thesis 8: Traditional Marxist crisis theory must be demystified.

By implication traditional Marxist approaches to the issue of secular crisis need to be explicitly resituated within the fundamental class forces at work at the heart of the system. For example, it is common in many Marxist theories of secular crisis (or of more cyclical crisis for that matter) to treat class struggle as one force among others driving (overdetermining) the development of the system toward crisis. They fail to see that if the self-activity of the working class (both negative and positive) is the fundamental force opposing capital's set of rules/constraints on social life, then avoiding fetishism means that the other, supposedly distinct, forces can and must be rethought as particular moments or aspects of the class conflict.

Thesis 9: Competition is not separate from, but a form of, the class relation.

One common, and supposedly parallel, force which is thought to drive capital into crisis is "competition" among subunits of capital, e.g., firms, national blocks. For example, it has often been argued that the long term tendency within capital for the organic composition of capital and productivity to rise is driven by "both class conflict and by inter-capitalist competition".(10) "Inter-capitalist competition" however, must be reinterpreted in terms of the class struggle by recognizing that the most fundamental determinant of "who wins" the competitive battle is determined by who has the most control over the relevant sector of the working class. Price competition is won by lowering costs, i.e., by lowering wages or by getting workers to work harder or better or to accept the introduction of productivity raising technology. Competition through product differentiation is won by being able to solicit the greatest imagination and creativity from workers. Competition through war is won by being able to mobilize the greatest effort (in all its forms from hard work in war factories to creativity and willingness to sacrifice on the battlefield) from workers. "Competition" has become a prominent slogan of domination in this period of international capitalist restructuring — one used to pit workers against workers. We need to defetishize its meaning by showing how it is merely a particular way of organizing the class struggle. Within the context of Marxist crisis theory we need to do the same and relocate competition within the class struggle rather than outside it.(11)

Thesis 10: Marxist theoretical categories are those of the class struggle.

To demystify familiar theories of crisis, we must reinterpret their theoretical building blocks: concepts of value, abstract labor, exchange value, value of labor power, surplus value, rates of exploitation and profit, the organic composition of capital, and capital accumulation.(12) Value must be rethought as a concept for talking about the work capital imposes to organize society (against which workers elaborate a diversity of incomensurate "values"); abstract labor — the substance of value — as the universal role of all kinds of labor as capitalist command (against which workers struggle by refusing and transforming work) ; exchange value as the reference form of the imposition of work (against which workers struggle through rigidifying or bypassing it ); the value of labor power as the cost to capital of reproducing people as workers (against which workers pit the wage for self-valorization); surplus value as the imposition of enough work to finance more work in the next period (which workers undermine by demanding that work be subordinated to the meeting of their needs); the rate of exploitation and the rate of profit as measures of the subordination of work to the needs of capital for more work (whose fall measures workers power); the organic composition of capital as the technical conditions of the imposition of work (around which workers recompose their own power); and capital accumulation as the expanded reproduction of the class struggle in all of its aspects.

Thesis 11: "Underconsumptionism" results from trying to impose work.

One of the oldest and most persistent theories of crisis, which can be found in Marx as well as in Malthus, Hobson, Keynes, or Sweezy, is "underconsumptionism".(13) In each case, including that of Marx, underconsumptionism is derived from the contradiction between the capitalist tendency to maximize production, sales and profits while minimizing costs, expecially wages. Capitalists want to produce for as large a market as possible but hold down wages and thus, blindly, limit the size of the market — directly for the means of subsistence, indirectly for the means of production. However, in class terms, the wage is not merely cost to capital but power for the working class, and not merely power to buy the means of subsistence but power to struggle against capitalist work and for its own needs. The tendency to underconsumptionism therefore appears as the consequence of the contradiction between the need to deprive workers (the club) in order to force them to work (the content of value) and the need for markets to absorb the commodities they produce (the form of value). In the 20th Century, of course, Ford and then Keynes recognized that wage was market as well as cost and sought to overcome the old contradiction by using rising wages (the carrot) to obtain the same result (more work) within a growing market. Nevertheless, rising wages (and the rising working class power it financed) had to be limited to the growth of productivity, so the old contradiction persisted within a more dynamic context. After workers ruptured this solution, capital (business and the crisis-state) returned to a generalized attack on all forms of working class income ressusitating older forms of the underconsumptionist contradiction.(14)

Thesis 12: The "tendency of the rate of profit to fall" is about the growing difficulties of putting people to work.

Against theories of underconsumptionism, many Marxists have hurled the tendencies of the organic composition of capital to rise and of the rate of profit to fall as more fundamental causes of crisis.(15) We can also reinterpret this approach in terms of the way that capital's attempts to accumulate the working class involves a growing conflict between the need to impose work and the introduction of machines in order to do so. With the rise in the organic composition of capital understood as occuring only with a capitalist reorganization of technology that raises productivity and imposes "more work", we can recognize that this always involves a change in the power relations between capital and the working class.(16) Because the fundamental change involved in such reorganization of technology is the substitution of embodied dead labor (whether in the form of machines or information) for living labor, this tendentially undermines capital's ability to organize its society through the imposition of work. Thus the key issue is not what is happening with the monetary rate of profit but the growing amount of dead labor that has to be used to impose a given amount of living labor. Tendentially, as Marx argued in the Grundrisse in the Fragment on Machines, the problem of imposing work — and thus of maintaining control — becomes more and more acute and the amount of at least potentially free or "disposable" time rises with unemployment, i.e., wagelessness.(17)

Thesis 13: The "exhaustion" of a mode of regulation measures the efficacy of the refusal of work.

In the 1970s structuralist Marxism was resurrected as regulation theory by the injection of a dose of Gramsci and a drop of autonomist Marxism. The Althusserian structures rose from the grave in the form of the concepts of a regime of accumulation and of a mode of regulation which had to lurch along in a complementary manner to stay intact. Desynchronization (e.g., the crisis of Fordism), of course, could be cured by little restructuring (e.g., post-Fordism). The regulation theorists sought to use a revitalized orthodoxy to confront the crisis of the Keynesian era but wound up as observers of a crisis whose commentaries would bury the drama of the class struggle in a deluge of structuralist jargon. But we can rethink the concept of a regime of accumulation as a particular manner of organizing the class struggle, and that of a mode of regulation in terms of capitalist strategies and tactics for managing it. From this point of view, the exhaustion of a mode of regulation reappears as a collapse in the ability of capital to sustain a particular form of the imposition of work in the face of the self-activity of the working class. The drama of so-called post-Fordism can be seen as the struggle between a rapidly evolving, highly socialized working class subject and capital's desperate and brutal efforts to find new ways of dominating it.(18)

Thesis 14: Crisis for capital is the freedom of revolutionary subjectivity.

As the struggle, or struggles, of the working class repeatedly escape the logic of capital, the threat is revolution, i.e., mutation, the liberation of alternative, self-determined social "logics" outside and beyond that of capital in a way that destroys the dialectic.(19) As Marxists our role in the crisis, including our analysis and discussion of the theory of secular crisis, should contribute to the deepening of crisis rather than its resolution. As opposed to the work of bourgeois theorists, we should neither be helping to figure out how to "solve" the crisis by restoring accumulation nor simply seeking to develop a better "scientific" understanding. Instead, our work should be elaborated from within and as a contribution to the forces which have precipitated the crisis, which resist capitalist attempts to overcome it, and which tend to drive through it to the transcendence not merely of crisis but of capitalism as a whole. What we really need to do, is not merely to recognize the antagonistic subject s driving the "secular crisis" but to explore the "logics" of these emergent and diverse subjectivities. Such exploration can help us go beyond the appreciation of how they rupture capital to that of articulating and strengthening their development.

Thesis 15: The path to revolution lies through the circulation of struggle.

All of the above adds up not only to a systematic rethinking of well-known Marxist theories of secular crisis, but also to a very untraditional recasting of the politics of working class struggle. In the place of attempts to organize the homogenization of workers' struggles through institutions such as trade unions or political parties which push a unified vision of the future (socialism) against capitalist domination, we should substitute the politics of alliance for the replacement of capitalism by a diversity of social projects. A politics of alliance against capital to be conducted not only to accelerate the circulation of struggle from sector to sector of the class, but to do so in such a manner as to build a post-capitalist politics of difference without antagonism. It has been the circulation of struggle which has thrown capitalist command into crisis; it is only through the circulation of struggle that the divisions which continue to weaken us can be overcome. Such circulation, however, is not a matter of propagating anti-capitalist ideology but involves the fabrication and utilization of material connections and communications that destroy isolation and permit people to struggle in complementary ways — both against the constraints which limit them and for the alternatives they construct, separately and together.

Austin, Texas
May 1993