However, it moves: the 2008 crisis and the new dynamics of capitalism

Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Untitled 4, 1941.


Newly Released Book Preface.

The international economic crisis of September 2008 hit the heart of the financial system and represented a historic turning point. The most striking image of its trigger was the bankruptcy of the fourth largest investment bank in the United States, Lehman Brothers. Given its size, the consequences of its bankruptcy were not restricted to the sphere of finance, but affected the entire world economy.

However, both the scope of this inflection and the meaning of this crisis cannot be defined using only economic analysis, as the determinations of this transformation run through the various spheres of society, intertwining the economy with politics, geopolitical disputes and different forms of conflict between capital and work, as well as the cultural dimension in the most varied ways of feeling and thinking. It is in this sense that the study presented here is not restricted to the economic area, that is, it is not a systematic study of the economic determinations of the crisis, but focuses on the transformations that have been taking place in international capitalism since this and, especially , in the leaps in quality in its dynamics in the last decade, namely, the inflection of 2008 and aspects of its consolidation in 2016.

The first impact, in 2008, was undoubtedly the triggering moment of the “inflexible” sense in the international dynamics that we want to address throughout these pages. To offer a first dimension of this process, we begin by quoting a passage from The capital, by Karl Marx, more precisely from his third book, since, in the post-Lehman Brothers period, the following excerpt on the reasons for the crisis gained some notoriety among scholars of the work:

In a production system in which the entire network of connections of the reproduction process is based on credit, when credit ceases suddenly and only cash payments are accepted, there must obviously be a crisis, a violent demand for means of payment. At first glance, the crisis presents itself as a simple credit crisis and currency crisis. And, in fact, it is only a question of the convertibility of bills of exchange into money. But most of these letters represent real purchases and sales, the extent of which, which goes far beyond social needs, ends up underpinning the entire crisis.

At the same time, there is a huge mass of these letters that represent only fraudulent deals, which now come to light and burst like soap bubbles; in addition, there are speculations made with borrowed capital, but unsuccessful; and, finally, devalued, or even unsalable, commodity capitals, or capital flows that never materialize. This whole artificial system of forced expansion of the reproduction process cannot naturally be remedied by having one bank, for example the Bank of England, grant all speculators with their notes the capital they lack and buy up all the commodities they need. depreciated to their former nominal values. Furthermore, here everything appears distorted, because in this paper world the real price and its real factors are never manifested; what you see are just bars, metallic money, banknotes, bills of exchange and securities.

This outstanding conclusion on the crisis of capital was, in reality, an annotation of the manuscript that the German thinker was unable to publish while still alive and that it was up to Friedrich Engels, his great friend and co-founder of the foundations of historical materialism, to elaborate in the form of book. Many readers of the XNUMXst century found it shocking how current Marx's writings gained in light of the impacts of the current crisis. The so-called financial crisis, born in the heart of world capitalism, the “violent demand for means of payment”, meant the failure of powerful financial institutions, investment banks and insurance companies, clashes between capitals, colossal interventions by States, disputes between monopolies, clashes between countries, tensions and conflicts between classes. In the essence of the process was what is at the “base of every crisis”, but with the dimensions of hyper-financialization, which reached an unimaginable level for economists of the XNUMXth century or even the first half of the XNUMXth century.

The 2008 crisis could not happen differently: the very economic nature of every crisis, “the convertibility of bills of exchange into cash”, or of mortgage bonds at monthly interest, as in the crisis of subprime, implies an abrupt break in the capital reproduction scheme, which tends to suddenly reorganize its functioning. This means that, within the crisis, the violent shift from the redistribution of profit between capitals to the competition abrupt, cannibalistic and destructive of financial capital. For this reason, focusing on the dynamics of capital itself is crucial to understanding the unfolding of the crisis, since this typical internal development of capital shocks is one of the engines that releases the energy of the “bomb” that we see in the world of phenomena, that is, in the newspapers, in the media, on social networks, about the size of the crisis and the economic and social impacts.

At this point, we consider it important to point out a first methodological consideration: although, from the point of view of the exposition, the approach to the dynamics of capital can be done separately, it is necessary to start from the fact that, in the real movement, it is integrated and multidetermined by economic factors and extraeconomic. Furthermore, if we bear in mind that production and reproduction are determinant, it becomes fundamental to incorporate the idea that the set of other factors (political, social, ideological) also decisively influence the dynamics of capital. In this way, our challenge will be to connect what appears separate in reality, since “the whole”, Aristotle said, “is necessarily prior to the part”.

The complexity of the 2008 cleavage lies precisely in this tension: the combination of classic elements of the economic crisis, which made The capital of Karl Marx becoming, in a way, more current than ever, complemented by the fact that these elements take place in a “non-classical” historical chessboard, that is, in an international scenario arising from a long period of relative stability of capital, understood in economic, political and even social terms. In other words, the economic consequences of the current crisis will connect with the set of subjective factors (political and ideological) in a very different way from the 1929 crisis, for example, and this is one of the keys to understanding the process that began in 2008.

Although today there is no doubt that it was a crisis of historical dimensions, revealing the connection between the economic contradictions (which led to the crisis) and the set of political and social factors at the international level is revealed to be one of the great challenges of the last decade. Furthermore, this connection should not be seen only from the point of view of future development, but also through a look that looks to the past. The legacies of the neoliberal decades decisively marked the 2008 crisis in its objective (especially economic) but also subjective aspects. The latter can be summarized in the observation that the working class arrived politically and organizationally unprepared to impose substantial resistance to “capital solutions”, a fact that has been attested since the beginning of the crisis, particularly in the period of the austerity plans. In other words, Marx's maxim on The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, according to which “the tradition of all past generations is like a nightmare that squeezes the brains of the living”.

From this comes a second methodological consideration that also refers to the heart of this book and the way it was thought: the fact that we aim to investigate the connection between economic and extraeconomic factors is far from giving us an understanding of studying the totality understood as an infinite and inexhaustible set of determinations. In fact, from the point of view of totality, we can approach the most different ways of being and their phenomena, from the simplest and most immediate (with easy-to-observe determinations) to those with a multidetermined dimension in the most distinct areas, being able to exemplify such a methodological path, either through the study of large processes historical facts, enigmas and interpretations of literary works, or through reflection on the laws of quantum physics today, to name a few possibilities. However, in this way of thinking about research, an approach that Marx takes in a passage from floorplans seems of fundamental importance to us: so that the investigator does not deviate from this dialectical path of totality in an indefinite search for information, which would result in an ineffective path in the inexhaustible sea of ​​history, it is crucial to distinguish the predominant moments within the set of possible determinations to be investigated; otherwise, even a specific science would be unfeasible, nothing more than a runaway navigation in the inexhaustible sea of ​​reality.

Finally, these considerations led to a last aspect to support our study of the dynamics of international capitalism after the economic crisis of 2008: bearing in mind that, at the turn of the XNUMXth century to the XNUMXth century, one of the most valuable contributions to the study of the metamorphoses of capital, as we enter the era of financial capital. Such a study had in the book the financial capital, by Rudolf Hilferding, a fundamental economic basis, but it was in the work of Lenin, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, which reached the high point of reflection, a small work that managed to concatenate economic, geopolitical and political aspects to face the problem of understanding the dynamics we were entering, then, in international capitalism. The concentration and export of capital, the formation of monopolies and monopoly associations and the sharing of the world between powers are some of the economic elements that shaped the sense of the change in the epoch of the capitalist mode of production, moving from a capitalism in which free competition for a capitalism in which financial capital and monopolies predominate, defined in terms, already classic today, as an imperialist epoch. Without dwelling too long on this explanation, we start from the fact that the theoretical basis that will serve this book is in Marx's elaborations on the forms of capital, present in Book III of The capital, and the subsequent transformations, in particular the expansion and predominance of “finance capital” (financial capital) in the new phase of capitalism at the turn of the XNUMXth century, called the “imperialist epoch” by Lenin. With that in mind, in studying the current crisis and its development, we seek to investigate four fundamental factors: the dynamics of capital; the effects of the crisis on the world of work; the direct and indirect conflicts between capital and work – starting with workers, but also in mass movements, social movements and political phenomena –; and, finally, the crisis of ideas from the previous period and the ideas that (re)emerge from the crisis. In short, our objects are, in this way, capital, work, conflicts, ideas.

If with this we can have a methodological basis from which to think about the global structure of the reflection on the international dynamics of capitalism, the concrete content could only come from the historical study of the 2008 crisis and its effects. Analyzing the crisis process in its development implies starting from a current phenomenon, in addition to being highly dynamic and fluid. This means that there is an objective component, an internal process of the crisis, but also the constant intervention of the subjects (governments, banks and monopolies on the one hand and, on the other, the subjective action of the working class in its different forms), which makes it difficult to greatly apprehending the development of the crisis into fixed categories. Such a view is reaffirmed with a consideration made by Engels when economically examining a large historical period, when he writes the preface to the book Class struggles in France, in which Marx seeks to understand an important turn in the international dynamics of capitalism with the Spring of the Peoples in 1848, in view of French history.

Engels comments: “In assessing events and series of events from current history, we will never be able to go back to the last economic cause. Even today, when the relevant specialized press provides material in abundance, it is still impossible, even in England, to follow day after day the pace of industry and commerce on the world market, as well as the changes that occur in production methods. , in such a way that a synthesis of these extremely intricate and constantly changing factors can be made at all times, not least because the main ones generally operate for a long time hidden before suddenly and violently rising to the surface. A clear panoramic view of the economic history of a given period will never be simultaneous”.

Engels, already in the XNUMXth century, warned against the vulgar view that it would be possible to make a complete simultaneous appreciation of a given historical-economic course, due to the difficulties of knowing the set of determinations for the analysis of global capitalism. At present, paradoxically, if the speed of information has reached, on the one hand, unimaginable levels for the time of the German thinker, on the other hand, the complexity of industrial, banking and financial economic structures makes it very difficult to analyze the crisis of capital – not to mention the complexity of socioeconomic structures in general, as well as political, cultural, etc., which increase this difficulty. In other words, although it is of the very essence of historical materialism to analyze phenomena in their transience, the study of crisis implies a dialectic radical, because it is, in general, a phenomenon of abrupt impact and international consequences in different spheres.

In this sense, it is quite difficult for the analysis of current living processes to clearly define – even more so since our theme is the analysis of a great international process such as the economic crisis and its effects on the capitalist dynamics as a whole – at what point are located leaps in quality, that is, where the inflection points that mark great dividing lines in history reside, knowing that, as an organic and dynamic totality, these “lines”, these inflections, have something analytical and epistemological, they are not just ontological. This is because, on a historical level, what we observe is a dynamic and relatively indivisible whole, and what we do is draw demarcations, that is, analyze the process in order to delineate some striking characteristics that may be part of an organic whole and that, at the same time, denote quality transformations.

Having made such considerations, what we sustain in this book can be summarized in the idea that the year 2008 marks a historical inflection, with “the beginning of the end” of the neoliberal and “globalizing” configuration of capital, as occurred in the 1990s and part of the 2000s. This process of transforming the dynamics of capitalism begins with the financial crash 2008, but it gradually implies metamorphoses in capital itself, in the world of work, in political and social conflicts and in ideological changes that mark the period of interregnum between 2008 and 2016. From then on, the determinants in the sense that we entered a new dynamic, or put in simpler terms, a new phase, with different features from the neoliberal of previous decades, but carrying the contradiction the impossibility of capital finding an international accumulation pattern that offers some stability and an economic mark to this new moment. Thus, the post-2016 period pointed to a more conflictual development, with more elements of economic nationalism, protectionism, technology race (the last expression being 5G technologies), a new framework expressed above all by the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and the geopolitical conflict – with a view to the so-called “trade war” – with China.

We seek here to address the changes after 2008 in their most structural foundations of transformation in the dynamics of capital and work, and not just in international political conformations in their conjunctural aspect, since there may be advances and setbacks in the influence of “globalizing” political forces and “neoliberalizing”, considering, for example, the importance of the US elections that took place in the last months of 2020, in which Joe Biden was elected president. Therefore, what is defended in this book is that the 2008 crisis meant an indeclinable transformation to a new dynamic of neoliberal capitalism of the 1990s and its forms of unstable equilibrium, beyond the ebbs and flows of current political trends in international imperialist capital. .

It remains to be said that the essential lines of this book were written from the study of the period between 2008 and 2018. Right after that period, it is worth highlighting 2019, in which a marked wave of class struggle took different countries, and 2020, when we were facing of a new crisis apparently bigger than the Great Recession that we are analyzing here, in the context of the covid-19 pandemic. Thus, this study sought to contribute to the understanding of the main trends prevailing on the board of international capitalism until then, analyzing the development of the economy, the new geopolitical configurations and the clashes of the class struggle. The importance of this is to understand the limits of capital stability beyond appearances. After all, even if capitalism has been reasserting its triumphalism on the surface of recent decades, it cannot prevent the crises that its contradictions periodically bring to the fore; said in other words (like those of Galileo Galilei), “nevertheless, it moves”.

* Yuri Tonelo is a postdoctoral researcher at USP. Aauthor, among other books, of The capitalist crisis and its forms (Iskra, 2016).


Yuri Tonelo. However, it moves: the 2008 crisis and the new dynamics of capitalism. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 288 pages.




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