Capitalism in the XNUMXst century

Jo Spence, The Greatest Product of Capitalism, 1979.


Author introduction to newly released book

Capitalism in the XNUMXst century was born to wave a flag: attention, attention, there is great turbulence ahead, as the ship of capitalism has gone out of control by itself, definitively. Now there are truly many of us and we are on the same journey, we therefore need to come together to change the course of history. Therefore, I chose the expression “Occasion through catastrophic events” as the subtitle of the book.[1]

The social system in which we live, as we know, exists and persists in historical time through the continuous transformation of the conditions of production, but also of the institutions and apparatuses that support it and that shape people's behavior, such as school, the media, etc.

Furthermore, in its troubled course, it transforms culture, individual personality, and thus civilization as a whole. When thinking about the existence of human society since ancient times, it appears – and this is not new – that the movement of historical change brought about by this mode of human organization has never been so fast, so innovative and so turbulent. Its dynamism involves progressions, crises and even regressions. He never appears calm.

This is today a current and widespread understanding of the mode of production in which we currently live; As we know, there were others such as feudalism and slavery. Marx and Engels already in the middle of the XNUMXth century presented an understanding of it, at once visionary and concentric, that became unforgettable. It is from the mode of production that the entire structure of society is articulated.

writing the Communist Manifesto, in the mid-XNUMXth century, said that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without incessantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, therefore, the relations of production and, thus, all social relations”. In other words, they located in the logic of the productive process – that is, in the logic of capital accumulation – the source of a totally new dynamism in the course of the millennial history of man on the face of the Earth.

As we know, this brilliant pamphlet contains a striking and decisive understanding of the development of the commodity production system. It can be seen that it contains an internal dynamic that increases labor productivity through new technologies and new forms of organization of the production process, which increases the mass of goods produced and which, as a result, requires the continuous expansion of markets. .

As stated there – and this is the point that is important to highlight here – modern industry, based on increasingly complex, diversified and powerful machines, requires the progressive integration of national markets and the world market. Trade in goods, in turn, requires the development of land and sea transport, communications and, consequently, information flows.

In addition to trade between countries, first, modern industrial plants spread to peripheral nations, but also, later, international production chains that interconnected the world through intersectoral input/output relations. In the language of dynamic systems, this entire process can be characterized by the logic of positive feedback: roughly speaking, the market expands production, production requires the expansion of the national and global market, which, in turn, requires the development of production .

Marx and Engels presented this movement in the The Manifest, which came to be called the process of globalization or globalization, as conquering, disruptive and even heroic. The perspective adopted in this remarkable writing is that of young revolutionaries. When they explored the future in the middle of the XNUMXth century, it seemed open to great transformations: “Everything that was solid and stable crumbles into thin air, everything that was sacred is profaned and men are finally forced to face their future without illusions. social position and their relationships with other men. Driven by the need for ever new markets, the bourgeoisie invades the entire globe. It needs to settle everywhere, explore everywhere, create links everywhere.”

In this book, we intend to revisit this process, but now from the perspective of the beginning of the XNUMXst century, when the horizon no longer seems progressive, auspicious and radiant and appears, on the contrary, very cloudy and complicated. More than a century and a half have passed since that promising moment, but now everything has been transfigured: the past seems tumultuous, tense and even tragic and the future appears narrow, perhaps closed – in any case, adverse.

This writing, now from the point of view of a calamitous XNUMXst century, seemed to many critics as if the two young philosophers were excessively enthusiastic about the logic of progress. Therefore, based on the dynamism of production, it seems to suggest that civilization will blossom in all its dimensions. Therefore, this economic centralism was characterized by many critics as narrow and productivist.

However, more recent studies of the work of the philosopher of praxis as a whole, such as that of Kohei Saito in the Karl Marx's Ecosocialism, showed that “along the way, he consciously abandoned his optimistic assessment of capitalism’s emancipatory potential.” In any case, I quote here a crucial thesis by Walter Benjamin about the sad “angel” called progress. He wants to do good, he strives to provide for humanity, but he leaves a trail of destruction behind him.

There is a painting by Paul Klee called New angel. It represents an angel who seems to want to move away from something he is staring at. His eyes are wide open, his mouth is dilated, his wings are open. The angel in the story must have this aspect. His face is directed towards the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe, which tirelessly piles ruin upon ruin and scatters it at our feet. He would like to stop to wake the dead and gather the fragments. But a storm blows from paradise and clings to his wings so tightly that he can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly drives him into the future, to which he turns his back, while the pile of ruins grows into the sky. This storm is what we call progress.

Under the inclement sun of this assessment – ​​behold, it desertifies and burns – and under the fleeting shadow of a democratic ecosocialism, which is only possible, the purpose of this writing is to present three theses about the historical becoming of the system based on the capital relationship, that is, between capital and wage labor.

The first of them says that the globalization process was subject not only to expansive movements, but also underwent very significant reversals; The main one occurred in the middle of the XNUMXth century – a period marked at the beginning and end by world wars and which was classified as a first catastrophic era.

Eric Hobsbawn wrote in a age of extremes that the end of times was announced during this period, that is, between 1914 and 1945. The end of a considerable proportion of human reason did not seem very distant. There were times when it might have been expected that the god or gods whom pious men believed created the world and everything in it were sorry for having done so. Humanity survived. However, the great edifice of 1930th century civilization collapsed in the flames of two world wars and the depression of the XNUMXs.

The second thesis states that from the 80s onwards we have seen the decline of capitalism without there having been a decisive movement towards socialism. In fact, as we know, the two great revolutions of the 1917th century, the Russian one in 1949 and the Chinese one in XNUMX, returned, after a period that seemed revolutionary, to the form of social organization that they supposedly wanted to overcome.

Finally, the third thesis probes the future based on certain trends that are manifesting themselves after the 2008 crisis; with its epicenter in the United States, it spread throughout the world, showing once again that nothing lasts long in this social system. The main objective is to show that there are now strong reasons to think that humanity has entered a new era of catastrophe.

To support these three theses, four chapters follow. The first revisits a past that goes from the mid-XNUMXth century to the beginning of the XNUMXst century to show the waves of globalization and reversion.

The second brings arguments to support the thesis that capitalism is already in the twilight; the main one, shows a late characteristic of this mode of production, namely, the advanced socialization of capital through the hegemony of financial capital. Barriers are mentioned here that capital can no longer overcome even with State assistance:

Four contradictions underlie this structural crisis. They are: (i) There is a growing need for public goods in a system based on private property. Take, for example, the need to provide the SUS with more resources. Before him, the heralds of the financial system announce as misfortune, not the suffering of the needy population, but the lack of austerity.

(ii) There is an imperative need for coordination of the world order. Here we have a globalized economic system made up of nations that have conflicting interests. In this system, each nation just wants to pass the “hot potato” to the others. Take, for example: several international conferences have already been held to address the climate threat; in them, goals were established to reduce carbon emissions; however, these goals are not being met and will not be met because nations each act seeking their own interest, not the collective interest.

(iii) There is currently a growing appropriation of nature in the face of a limited carrying capacity on planet Earth. The logic of capital accumulation immanently requires the maximum exploitation of human and non-human nature. Under it, “sustainable development”, even if highly desirable, becomes just a deception: in fact, it is unsustainable. In fact, it is nothing more than naive self-deception or the deception of others who have good will.

(iv) The system is experiencing an overaccumulation crisis in which the destruction of capital has become politically unsustainable. The solution to economic crises in their immanent logic always requires the “moral” and “physical” destruction of part of the accumulated capital; Currently, capital ownership has been socialized through stock markets, bonds, funds, etc. The magnitude of the dismantling would be so great that the process is prevented through the creation of liquidity by governments and central banks. As a result, the amount of global debts does not decrease, but, on the contrary, grows more and more.

The third chapter tries to show the trends currently present in the evolution of the newly globalized mode of production and which allow us to affirm that a new catastrophic period is being born that puts the existence of humanity itself at risk. And this danger is decisive in the problem of global warming and ecological disasters:

Luiz Marques in his work Capitalism and environmental collapse (2015) warns of what he calls a great inversion: during almost the entire long history of human beings on the face of the planet, increased production increased the security and life prospects of populations, now this increase has started to act in the opposite direction as the risk of environmental collapse systematically increases. This type of disaster is nothing new in the history of civilization, but it has always happened locally. Now, however, it is a threat that affects humanity as a whole.

The fourth and final chapter seeks to show the civilizational impasse, which arises from the economic, but which also involves other dimensions such as, for example, those that occur in health, at school and in the family. The crisis today is therefore seen as a polycrisis. The ongoing collapse, especially due to climate events, today affects humanity as a whole. And she has a multidimensional character. Fractures are occurring and will worsen. And they will certainly create catastrophes, but also possibilities for revolt and change.

The genocide currently taking place in Palestine usurped by a racist and colonialist Israel, under the support of North American and European imperialism, both now in decline, is a sample of the way developed countries will treat their peripheries from now on. The world watches in amazement, but no decisive action has been taken to stop the genocide, but one that must be charged to Humanity's account.

Marx wrote in his greatest work, in the mid-XNUMXth century, that the real barrier to capitalist production is capital itself. In its development, immanently, it creates barriers, it overcomes these barriers only to create even more powerful barriers. This dynamic, however, changed during the XNUMXth century, as the State became necessary to overcome the barriers created by the accumulation process.

Now, in the XNUMXst century, a new modification has occurred; now, capital has already created barriers that it cannot and will no longer be able to overcome. As a result, overcoming this competitive and individualistic sociability has become an existential necessity for humanity, beyond the immediate interests of the working class. There are now truly many of us and we must hurry… History is now demanding a great molecular transformation. More of the same or deepening the same will not work.

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of From the logic of the critique of political economy (anti-capital fights).


Eleutério FS Prado. Capitalism in the XNUMXst century: decline through catastrophic events. São Paulo, CEFA Editorial, 2023, 114 pages.
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The launch in São Paulo will be on November 23rd, at 19pm at the FATEC-SP Amphitheater [Avenida Tiradentes, 615].


[1] The book was commissioned by Paulo Ghiraldelli. I owe the title to a suggestion by Ricardo Musse.

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