István Mészáros, The Structural Crisis of Capital. Monthly Review Press 2010.
Mainstream media is full of enthusiastic anticipation of the recovery of economic growth. There is little understanding that even this much waited-for "normality" is harmful both to the majority of humankind and the environment. However, the current crisis has revealed the economic system’s fraudulance to millions of people around the world. Whether this leads to anti-capitalist mass mobilizations anywhere in the world remains to be seen. According to István Mészáros, capitalism has reached a point where only a radical transformation of our societies can save us from eventual social collapse and environmental disaster.
The media is buzzing with demands for austerity measures as if the crisis had been caused by ordinary wage earners and pensioners. Mészáros writes in his new book how governments have declared that they are not responsible for the crisis because it is global. So they cannot be held responsible for the immense suffering they are imposing on people. But to let the economy drift uncontrollably — or in a way that serves the destructive nature of capital — creates serious dangers for people everywhere in the world. A healthy society cannot be built on a fraudulent economic system.
Mészáros writes: "However it is quite impossible to envisage a viable solution to our global crisis without assuming full responsibility for the ongoing developments, especially in a globally interconnected and necessarily interacting system. But of course the personifications of capital, following the imperatives of their system’s perverse logic, could not do that in the interest of society as a whole. Only the hegemonic alternative of labor as a comprehensively planned and, thereby, historically sustainable mode of societal reproduction is capable of responding to that urgent need under the conditions of our aggravating systemic crisis." (pp. 193-194)
Mainstream economic commentators have not been able to explain the background to this crisis. They haven’t explained the reasons for the huge flow of money into the financial sector. They have failed to see the meaning of a change in the way the system works. The accumulation of capital has run into deep trouble in the field of the productive economy, thus leading to the dizzying manipulations of the financial sector.
Mészáros’s conclusion is dramatic: “We have reached the historical limits of capital’s ability to control society.” (p. 171) Having reached this point in its crisis, capital is pushing for cutting wages and downsizing the labor force, a hopeless effort considering that it needs this force not only to produce things but also consume them in a sufficiently massive way to help to produce profits for capitalists.
The failure to understand this background manifests itself with a debate which rather hides the reality of the crisis than offers ways forward. The talk is about “tightening the belt”, “accepting the necessary changes”, “creating real jobs”, “injecting new investment funds” and “increasing productivity and competitiveness”. These platitudes hide the breach that has opened at this time of crisis. As the system has revealed its rottenness, radical opposition to it has become possible. However, Mészáros warns that this opening is not going to be there forever: “… the measures adopted to fill it, from the earliest steps onwards, have their own logic and cumulative impact on subsequent interventions.” (p. 113)
So what is called for is a radical mobilization of great masses of people. This is how Mészáros puts it: “… radical politics must transfer at the height of the crisis its aspirations — in the form of effective powers of decision-making at all levels and in all areas, including the economy — to the social body itself from which subsequent material and political demands would emanate. This is the only way in which radical politics could sustain its own line of strategy.” (p. 115)
A failure can carry a heavy price. Mészáros writes of nothing less than the possibility of the annihilation of humankind if in the next few decades we do not succeed in eradicating capital from our economic system. The economic decision-making has to be transferred to the associated producers. People have to take over the decision-making that will enable them to control their conditions of existence.
People attempting to self-organise into a more equal social order have as an adversary an aggressive system which has entered a structural crisis as the expansion of capital has dangerously narrow margins. This intensifying class struggle will be a wakeup call to the currently timid labor leadership. As Mészáros writes: “Once the road to undisturbed and sustainable capital-expansion is narrowed and ultimately blocked by the deepening structural crisis of the system, the principal motivating force for labor’s willing self-accomodation is bound to be weakened as the facts begin to sink in.” (p. 137)
This, of course, is beyond the understanding of most media-friendly commentators. The air is full of confident assumptions of a coming recovery. Economic growth is expected to resume soon. No matter that the kind of growth capital is capable of in its new crisis mode is not conducive to a sustainable economy. Rather, we are witnessing — in Mészáros’s words — “the irrational conversion of ever greater productive potentiality into destructive reality ”. (p.142) Yet, any production, any growth, however wasteful, is treated as a welcome sign of the system’s ultimate health.
We are indeed living in dangerous times. The current weakness of radical opposition in leading capitalist countries only deepens the dangers ahead. Yet, there is hope. Where capital’s grip on human kind is now being challenged is in Latin America. Mészáros writes: “Given the massive inertia generated by capital’s vested interests in the privileged capitalist countries and reformist labor’s consensual complicity in their self-serving development, a triggering social upheaval is much more likely to take place in Latin America than in the United States or Western Europe, with far-reaching implications for the rest of the world.” (pp. 131-132)
See my review of István Mészáros’s book The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time: Socialism in the Twenty-First Century.