Reflections on late capitalism

Image: Shuaizhi Tian


The full realization of the potential of this new regime of accumulation based on financialization and the platformization of production requires a reconfiguration of the social and political

The prolonged crisis of neoliberal capitalism as a strategic change in the economic, political and ideological forms of the accumulation process has left a trail of global destruction: the worsening of inequalities, the spread of poverty, environmental disaster, war and the new arms race, the decline of democracies, insecurity and fear made politics in a time without politics as a strategic reason. A diffuse conformist presentism that digests and normalizes the ongoing process of regression and is diligently manufactured by the new formatting machines of common sense.

And yet, neoliberal capitalism can no longer hide its failure as an attempt to restore the declining profitability of capital since the late 70s. Their solutions, on the contrary, seem to create the conditions for a greater disaster. As Daniel Bensaïd pointed out, the present crisis is, moreover, “a crisis of solutions imagined to overcome past crises”1. It is therefore worth starting by placing neoliberal capitalism in the recent history of the evolution of the capitalist mode of production.

The “thirty golden years”

The defeat of Nazi fascism in World War II put an end to the “age of fascism”. And the post-World War II period, from the end of the 40s of the XNUMXth century in Europe, gave way to a new cycle of development and expansion of capitalism, the “glorious thirty”, driven by rapid accumulation, high profit rates, increase in product and high levels of investment both on a social level and in post-war technological innovations (the automobile, household appliances, the new chemical industries). An economic boom sustained by mass consumption, full employment and the promotion of research and technological innovation driven by the arms race in the context of the Cold War.

Post-war capitalism will thus create an unprecedented Social State based on three fundamental pillars.2 (a) social benefits and public services offered on a universal basis through progressive taxes; (b) full employment economic policy; (c) labor rights tending to alleviate power asymmetries between classes, with the set of these measures operating a reconfiguration and conditioning of market rules. It was the time of Keynesian economic policy, in a post-war context in which any desire for spontaneous reconstruction of capitalism was unthinkable. In reality, it had to rely, in the most economically advanced countries, on three types of factors:

(i) States and governments with relevant political capacity for intervention and regulation, particularly in controlling capital movements and the financial system in general; (ii) governance based on political and social consultation, marked by the return to the center of politics of parties and unions under the influence of Christian democracy and social democracy, but under strong pressure and influence from parties and unions that Enzo Traverso called the “ social democratic communism”.3 (iii) Massive North American external financing through the Marshall Plan of the OECE, to rebuild the main European economies left in the wreckage of the war and avoid the threat of social revolution and communism.

It is important to highlight that the “30 golden years” of capitalism were made possible and decisively conditioned by heavy but conjunctural historical circumstances, which it is worth mentioning:

(1) It took a world war to end the Great Depression that began in 1929, the extent of reconstruction After the war it was a decisive factor in boosting the main economies of Western Europe.

(2) The change in the relationship of forces: after the victory of the Red Army and the expansion of the USSR's sphere of influence in Europe with the consequent reinforcement of the CPs (especially France and Italy), the fear of communism and social revolution forced capitalism to important concessions in the field of economic and financial regulation, political democratization and the construction of the Social State. Paradoxically, the power of influence and fear of communism gave rise to the rebirth of social democratic reformism as the central manager of Keynesian capitalism.

(3) An economic recovery conceived within the framework of the Nation State, that is, in a context that enables the adoption of nationally independent economic, monetary and exchange rate policies.

(4) A availability in European colonial metropolises of capital accumulation reserves resulting from colonial exploitation that could be added to aid Marshall in financing the process of economic reconstruction of capitalism; (5) to exchange rate stabilization made possible by the Bretton Woods of 1944 where the new rules of the post-war economic and monetary system were established based on the dollar-gold standard, articulated with capital control on a national scale and with the autonomy of each State in defining its economic policy.

All these enabling circumstances of the “glorious 30”, rapid accumulation and high rates of profit in the post-war economic, social and political context would undergo a drastic change throughout the seventies of the last century.

The cycle of neoliberal capitalism

Several factors converged and announced the crisis of the post-war accumulation model and the Keynesian management of capitalism:

(a) The unilateral end of the model Bretton Woods decided by President Nixon of the USA in 1971, ending the convertibility of the dollar into gold and opting for exchange rate devaluation to avoid a severe internal devaluation through austerity. The hegemonic position of the USA in the post-war period was diminished by the financial effects of expenditure on the Vietnam war and the impact of its defeat on the ground, by internal unrest, by the greater economic growth of Japan and the FRG. The breakdown of the system Bretton Woods thus introducing greater exchange rate instability at a global level, without calling into question the role of the dollar.

(B) The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 in a context of strengthening the weight of the Third World in the global system, they mark the end of the era of cheap oil that supported the prosperity of Fordist capitalism and post-war technological progress. The oil shock of 1973, increasing production and transport costs, “was the ignition of the recession”.4

(C) The rise of social contestation and anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist political agitation in the most developed countries, intersecting, in the course of the 1960s to the 1970s, with the peaks of national liberation movements in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The French May, “Prague Spring”, the struggle for civic rights and against the war in the USA joined the war of national liberation in Vietnam, the anti-colonialist struggle in Algeria, Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique or revolutionary Cuba , Allende's Chile and the Latin American guerrillas. A synchrony that led Ernest Mandel to formulate the “theory of three sectors” of the world revolution: anti-capitalist in the West, anti-Stalinist in the East, anti-imperialist in the South, three revolutionary sectors that seemed to converge in an unprecedented synchronic wave. In short, a global environment of political and social insubordination, contestation and demands that generated insecurity and threatened the income and accumulation process of the dominant classes worldwide.

(D) But the decisive factor for the strategic turnaround of capitalism, in general terms, will be the end of the ability to maintain the level of accumulation based until then on a high profitability of capital in the most developed economies. The model based on mass consumption, full employment, high investment in promoting scientific and technological research and supporting the Social State eroded profit rates and gave rise to a long wave of mediocre growth combined with inflation, which is what called stagflation. This collapsed the ideological discourse that Daniel Bensaïd characterized as “utopian capitalism”, based on the belief that it was possible to permanently harmonize the incentive to the propensity to consume (and the means of satisfying it) with an investment guaranteeing a rate of profit or a marginal efficiency of capital attractive to its holders.5

The reaction to this crisis in profit rates by the financial oligarchy and the political elites associated with it constituted a radical strategic shift in their model of growth, expansion and governance. Capitalism entered a new cycle from the 70s to the 80s of the 1979th century, the cycle of neoliberal capitalism, with political icons of the new right that promoted this simultaneously brutal and merciless change, the new British Prime Minister from 1980 onwards. , Margaret Thatcher, and the new US president elected in XNUMX, Ronald Reagan. The new globalization would devastatingly transform the face of the Earth.

A multifarious and global subversion

Neoliberalism historically means a multifarious and global subversion of the dominant post-war capitalist order itself, with the particularity of emerging from within capitalism itself and as a product of its inexorable logic of expansion and accumulation. By sweeping away “institutionally impure capitalism”, Keenesian compromises and all factors restricting the global opening of markets and the free movement of capital; by facing and seeking to subject the historical achievements of the world of work to the maximization of rates of surplus value; by betting on a technological revolution that ideologically platforms and formats institutions, social relations and emotions; by blindly accelerating the conditions of environmental catastrophe; By subverting the installed political-institutional order in a simultaneously chaotic and authoritarian sense, neoliberalism emerges as a true counter-revolution, where capitalism does not limit itself to deepening injustice, but emerges with unprecedented destructive potential in all domains of life.

On the economic and social level, neoliberal capitalism developed four main fronts of strategic attack from the 1980s onwards:

Firstly, financial liberalization and deregulation, the removal, in various forms, of all restrictions on the free movement and internationalization of capital, the search for new forms of expansion of fictitious capital, financial speculation, the increase in mass circulation of capital without connection to the production process as a way of compensating for the downward trend in the rate of profit. What results from financialization, that is, the consolidation and hegemonic affirmation of an accumulation process based on financial rents (from privatized natural monopolies, from new social sectors open to private capital, from public resources, from speculation, etc.…). The privatization of strategic sectors of the social economy and public sectors – health, education, social security – and their submission to the logic of rentier accumulation is the other decline of this strategy.

Secondly, as Francisco Louçã analyzes, the expansion of new markets based on the new dominant techno-economic paradigm in this new cycle of capitalism, based on the use of microship and in the constellation of innovations associated with it: the internet and telecommunications, “network instruments that involve all social life”. This new paradigm, in reality the 4th Industrial Revolution, created conditions for the emergence of new oligopolistic companies (the largest multinationals ever) that control the computerization of economies and condition the phenomenon of platformization. In other words, the penetration of infrastructures, economic processes, governance and social relations through digital platforms, leading to the reorganization of cultural practices and imagination around them.

Perhaps, to specify the concept, platformization is a “new mode of domination based on mechanisms of exploitation of the surplus constituted by data on the behavior of human beings” (…), allowing the “use of intimate knowledge about emotions to format commercial or commercial strategies to condition the actions and even thoughts of the hive’s subjects”.6 In the era of neoliberal capitalism, the machines for manufacturing common sense are based on platformization. And this is a technology of submission unprecedented in the history of capitalism.

Thirdly, and as a result of the previous processes, the hegemonic affirmation of neoliberal capitalism implied a wave of destruction and relocation of productive forces, imposed either by business concentration or by the capital profitability criteria arising from the new techno-economic paradigm, pushing important sectors of traditional industry towards obsolescence and bankruptcy (just think of heavy metalworking and steel mills since the iron belt from the USA, to counterparts in Asturias and the Basque Country, in naval shipyards throughout Europe or in the textiles that still existed on the European periphery). This entailed massive unemployment of the workforce and the creation – in contrast to the previous cycle of full employment – ​​of an “industrial reserve army” functioning structurally as a permanent factor of wage containment and devaluation and deregulation and precariousness of labor relations. .

Fourthly, and as the fear of communism or social revolution faded (before and after 1989) and union and political mobilization and contestation receded, the financial oligarchy and the new right, remade from the scares and prudence of the past , unleashed a full-blown attack on the rights and historical achievements of the world of work, aiming not only to subject it to maximizing the extraction of surplus value as a central way of replacing profit rates, but also to discipline it, divide it and disorganize it.

In addition to the real devaluation of wages, the unpaid or underpaid increase in working hours, the facilitation of dismissals, the precariousness of labor relations, the urbanization and informality of contractual relationships, there is the emptying of collective bargaining and the siege of unions and trade unionists or growing restrictions on the right to strike, all of this greatly aggravated by the resort to over-exploitation of immigrant labor, whether in agriculture, industry or services. If this offensive did not manage to break workers' resistance (the large strike movement in France last year against raising the retirement age is an example of this), it had profound and lasting effects on workers' mobilization, unionization rates and capacity attraction and intervention of unions and other popular organizations. And this is the decisive battle of the present time.

The reconfiguration of the State

But it was not possible to implement the neoliberal strategy at the economic and social level without acting simultaneously on the ideological front – to legitimize and organize the consensus around the new order – and with regard to the reconfiguration of the State apparatus, making it capable of defining and application of “structural reforms” essential to the institutional viability of the rentier accumulation process.

The offensive in both domains – that of ideology and that of the reconfiguration of the State – intensified after the collapse of the USSR and the surrender of social democracy, which was transformed into the manager of neoliberal capitalism. As Enzo Traverso says, after 1989, “capitalism regained its original, much more savage face, rediscovered the élan of heroic times and began to dismantle the Welfare State practically everywhere. In most Western countries, social democracy accompanied or became an essential instrument of this transition to neoliberalism. And social democratic communism disappeared with classical social democracy.”.7

The subsequent demobilization, especially after 1989, paved the way for the imposition of the “single thought” on the “end of History” with the triumph of Western capitalism in the Cold War presented as an ineluctable There is no Alternative (TINA). The rest came in a torrent, amplified almost without contradiction by the vast network of apostles of the new order in the media, in universities, in public and private foundations, in State bodies, in employers' associations, etc. The reproducers of the new revisionism then invested, without excessive rigor or scruples, in the gross manipulation of memory and history to legitimize the reconfiguration of the present and the future, in support of the new world of unicorns, that is, of a worldview that promotes entrepreneurship and the individual and commercial pursuit of profit against any form of social solidarity or collective action.

To achieve hegemony, to organize social conformation with a commodifying and totalizing vision of social life and individual behavior, neoliberalism invested in the creation of powerful instruments of ideological formatting: in teaching, in the formation of elites, in the oligopolistic control of the media and , above all, in the power of the algorithm as a central element of social platformization, in the production and management of information and in the effectiveness of the new conformation technology – that is, in the creation through social networks of the environment of insecurity, fear, segmentation, polarization – and social dormancy where the common sense that feeds the new ghosts of authoritarianism was manufactured. Where the social and ideological terrain for the flourishing of the new extreme right is created.

But the conquest of ideological hegemony, the creation of “consensus” is only the preface to the coming to power and the reconfiguration of the State. In reality, it is essential for rentier accumulation to move from discourse to practice, that is, to act in terms of adapting political power to its new needs, what João Rodrigues called “institutional reconstruction of the capitalist order”.8 First of all, because there is an insurmountable contradiction between the rhythms, strategic priorities of neoliberal financialization and new forms of labor exploitation, on the one hand, and the subsistence of parliamentary democracies largely an expression of the victory of anti-fascism in World War II. In reality, the national states where they were reborn, as a result of the social pressure introduced by the massification of politics in the post-war period, were led, as we have seen, to adopt social policies and economic and exchange rate regulations that hinder the free movement of capital or the globalization of markets. The political right and interests in the era of neoliberalism, taking into account the strong negative weight of the memories of Nazi fascism, could not, as happened in the twenties and thirties of the last century with oligarchic liberalism, destroy these Keynesian democracies through subversive, militia violence. or military.

They prefer, under the cloak of formal respect, to gradually empty national states – where democracies were born – of the capacity and powers of monetary and exchange rate regulation and of defining investment and competition policy in favor of supranational organizations of unelected bureaucrats, truly uninspected by citizens, and in close connection with the interests of financial capital. These are the cases of the European Central Bank, the IMF or the World Bank. More than that: they removed from the national governments of the main capitalist states the power to direct the actions of national banks in accordance with the country's interests, placing this new “autonomy” of central banks, in the case of the European Union, under strict dependence from supranational banking organizations such as the European Central Bank. Naturally, we are faced with true “structures of constraint” on national governments and their economic policies, based on supranational rules and priorities not democratically approved, designed to empty the democratic sovereignty of States and impose the financialization and privatization strategy of neoliberal capitalism.

This dedemocratization is not restricted to economic and financial policies and institutions. It arises from structural factors inherent to the contradictions and difficulties that arose in the process of imposing the neoliberal strategy. The reality is that after more than four decades of implementation, and despite relevant advances in institutional changes, in the submission of work or in the creation of ideological formatting mechanisms, the crisis remains: the average profit rate since the mid-1970s To date – except in the cutting-edge sectors of new technologies – it has been smaller and more fluctuating than in the post-war period and, above all, accumulation remains deficient.

The process of accumulation based on the expansion of speculative capital, the extraction of rents from public resources and services and the super-exploitation of labor creates widespread social and institutional resistance and causes a climate of permanent instability. And this situation blocks the neoliberal strategy of restoring profit rates. Quoting a recent work “Social conflicts expand (…) to all forms of salary and employment (…). They all become fields of confrontation between the regime of financial accumulation and the rights or social habits that had become entrenched in the relations of forces built in the long period of full employment in developed economies, or in the multiplication of social movements in which the popular classes expressed themselves. ”.9

This long period of stagflation and growth with uncertain profit rates and insufficient accumulation is defined by authors such as Ernest Mandel as “late capitalism”. and it arises from the “mismatch between radical technological innovations (the digital or information and communication revolution) and the productive system, the institutional order and the social relations over which it has come to preside”.10 Precisely, the full realization of the potential of this new regime of accumulation based on the financialization and platformization of production requires a reconfiguration of the social and the political. The resolution of this long process of impasse and conflict calls for force, authoritarianism, the more or less progressive liquidation of democratic institutions and centers of political and social resistance.

Hence the capture of judicial power in Poland by PIS or in Hungary by Orban; the overtaking of parliament by decrees of the executive power, as in Macron's France regarding the retirement age; oligopolistic manipulation and the siege of freedom of expression and informative pluralism, as became evident with the war in Ukraine throughout the European Union; the attack on the right to demonstrate, evidenced by the attempt to ban demonstrations of solidarity with Palestine in France and Germany; restrictions on the right to strike and the right to demonstrate, the first announcement by Argentina's new far-right president; the growing attack on immigrants and their fundamental rights, expressed in recent European legislation and exacerbated by the governments of France, Meloni's Italy or Hungary, legally enshrining the xenophobic and racist theories of the “great invasion”; the calls for the regression of achievements such as the legalization of abortion or same-sex marriage, as voiced by Vox in Spain and by the extreme right in several European countries and beyond; the rules of the state of siege transformed into permanent rules of violation of freedoms and guarantees, as also happened in France with this icon of liberalism, President Emmanuel Macron.

In reality, the program of siege to political and social democracy and peace is underway across Europe and well beyond. And its political support, as happened in the period between the two wars of the 20th century, is the tendency for the inexorable alliance of a large part of the traditional right with the new extreme right to “open the way” and radicalize the attack on social resistance. and policies. In fact, it is not possible to understand the phenomenon of the emergence of the extreme right in this first quarter of the 21st century outside of its functional articulation with the crisis and impasses of neoliberal capitalism. A convergence between old rights and new rights that tends towards the advent of a new type of authoritarian, undemocratic and totalizing regimes. And that on the external plane announces new wars for the redivision of spheres of influence between old and new empires.

There are no final crises of capitalism

Effectively, neoliberal capitalism is a form of necropolitics that cannibalizes work, life and reason. Through its common sense manufacturing machines and platformization, it subjects life to the power of death. He left behind him, over 40 years, a merciless trail of social and environmental destruction, inequality and war. And yet, his solution to the systemic crisis has failed. As Daniel Bensaïd said, we are probably facing a “historic crisis of capitalist software”11 which prepares greater convulsions. But as the author reminds us, the crises of capitalism “are inevitable, but not insurmountable”.12 Francisco Louçã emphasizes this aspect, remembering the unique adaptability of capitalism: a kind of virus that invents new forms and generates its own conditions of reproduction, unlike all previous modes of production. In reality, Marx never spoke of a final crisis of capitalism. Capitalism does not disappear through self-bankruptcy. Nor does the transition from capitalism to socialism take the spontaneous form of an ineluctable and teleologically determined economic destiny.

As Enzo Traverso highlights, socialism is a product of human activity and not the result of a natural process, “implying a conscious historical construction guided by strategic political choices”. In other words, it presupposes an “act of human self-emancipation”, rooted in a project of social and political change.13 It results, in short, from a revolutionary action, from a conscious break with the temporality of capital, from politics reinstated as a strategic reason, as an “act of propitious circumstances and decision”.

It is true that although the principles are clear, their application is uncertain. It is like this with “unholy politics”, without god or “supreme saviors”. As Daniel Bensaïd suggests, the essential thing is to maintain the concept of emancipation, especially against the current of struggles. Maintain clarity and determination of alternatives that build the future of a fair life. Without this, “there is nothing but the drift of dead dogs following the watercourse”.14. And that, I am sure, is not our path.

*Fernando Rosas He is a historian and professor emeritus at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Founder of the Left Bloc. Author, among other books, of Salazar and fascism: Brief essay on comparative history (Ink from China Brazil) []

Originally published on the portal


1 Bensaïd, Daniel, “And After Keynes?” in D. Bensaïd and Michel Lowy, Sparks, Boitempo, 2017, p.180.

2 See Rodrigues, João, Neoliberalism is not a slogan, Tinta da China, 2022, p.71.

3 Traverso, Enzo, Revolution. Une cultural history. La Dècouverte, 2022, p. 439-440.

4 Louça, Francisco, The future is already what it never was. A theory of the present, Bertrand, 2021, p.156

5 Bensaïd, Daniel, ob.cit., p.196

6 Louçã, Francisco, ob.cit., p.171

7 Traverso, Enzo, ob.cit., p. 444

8 Rodrigues, João, ob.cit., p. 156

9 Louça, Francisco, ob.cit., p.161

10 Louça, Francisco, ob.cit., p.167

11 Bensaïd,Daniel, ob.cit., 191

12 Bensaid, Daniel. “Marx and the Crises”. In: Transform. The Global Crisis, nº 5, 2010, p. 160.

13 Traverso, Enzo, ob.cit., p.54

14 Bensaïd, Daniel, p.185.

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