Why global capitalism is tipping towards collapse, and how we can act for a decent future
"Random events, those happenings that nobody could foresee, always have a huge impact on historical outcomes."
March 15, 2010 -- This is an excerpt from an essay that forms the entire contents of the March 2010 edition of UNITY, Socialist Worker New Zealand's quarterly Marxist journal for grassroots activists. Following editions of the journal will expand on the crises which are converging to tip global capitalism towards collapse. To subscribe to UNITY journal, email Len Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org. UNITY is posted to your letterbox four times a year. Price: $25 for NZ subscribers, NZ$40 offshore fastpost. This excerpt has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.
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By Grant Morgan
Part 1: History lessons
The fable behind the stereotype
Global capitalism tipping towards collapse? “C’mon”, goes the standard response, “don’t you know that’s been predicted for ages and it’s never happened?”
That standard response is reinforced by the mass media’s visual cliché of some crazed guy, usually wearing a monk’s cassock, preaching the Apocalyptic message: “Beware! The end is nigh!”
Behind this sneering stereotype lurk denials that global capitalism could suffer the same fate as all past civilisations.
Early capitalism grew amidst the slow-motion collapse of medieval Europe which, after lasting for a millennium, was being overwhelmed by market forces. Feudalism’s forerunner, the ancient slave-based epoch, lasted 4000 years until the Western Roman Empire fell quickly in 476 after several centuries of internal decay and border wars.
Before perishing, past civilisations spawned fables about their everlasting nature. Those fables gave popular legitimacy to societies divided by class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and religion.
The tradition of ages is continued by capitalism. According to its ideologues, “flexibility” is so embedded in capitalism that collapse becomes impossible. Yet such claims fly in the face of history. We need to do our own thinking so that our minds cannot be colonised by anyone’s fables.
Wild times of late feudalism
In the late Middle Ages, Europe’s land-based hierarchies were disintegrating under pressure from unstoppable market forces. Feudal society was collapsing before capitalism had solidified into a new type of civilisation.
The dieback of half Europe’s population from famines, pandemics and wars gave life to the independence of landed serfs from their feudal masters. A swing from subsistence agriculture to farming for profit led to the enclosure of peasant commons. The growth of urban populations disconnected from feudal land relations was nurtured by industrial production and invention. An expansion of trade, money, credit and markets, fueled by colonisation of the New World, saw the rise of a capitalist class increasingly conscious of its own “manifest destiny”. A scientific, educational and cultural Renaissance fed into the Great Schism within Christianity, eroding Papal hegemony. The rapid increase in the ranks of wage workers coincided with an explosion of popular uprisings across Europe and the rise of absolute monarchies, all diminishing feudalism’s nobility and church.
From these wild times grew new productive forces which gave birth to new social forces, collapsing late feudalism’s mode of production and hierarchy of privilege in the midst of chaos, wars and uprisings.
From our vantage point five centuries on, we know that medieval civilisation could never have survived these multiple crises as they converged into a perfect storm.
Near the end of the Middle Ages, however, hardly anyone was calling for the creation of a capitalist world. It just happened out of a volatile mix of economic revolution, social combustion and historical accident.
Complex and random
Today, our ability to interpret world trends is exponentially greater than in the Middle Ages. So is our need to do so, given the potential for catastrophes like sea level rises, global hunger and war without end.
Despite our ability and our need to do serious forecasting, we must avoid the trap of downplaying the unknowable effects of random events and dynamic complexity.
“Events buck trends”, says British historian Piers Brendon. “The past is a map, not a compass.” Still, he admits, “history is our only guide”.
Random events, those happenings that nobody could foresee, always have a huge impact on historical outcomes. Let’s be warned by a church in the Unites States, whose electronic billboard declared: “[Our] class on prophecy has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.”
Unstoppable forces leave large footprints whose direction we can see. Yet it is impossible to predict what historical outcomes might be produced by the infinite number of possible interactions of systemic crises and human actors and random events. This dynamic complexity would fool even a deterministic god.
Global capitalism is easily the most complex social system in history. This mega-complexity increases the likelihood of system failures, like the international financial implosion of 2008.
But there’s a flip side to complexity. It offers multiple layers of protection against a system failure leading onto system collapse. The financial implosion, therefore, sparked a multi-state mobilisation to ward off immediate world economic collapse.
Convergence of five existential crises
Even the in-depth defence offered by layers of complexity could not protect capitalism from a convergence of existential crises which overwhelm multiple fronts of the world system.
Such a perfect storm is now gathering force.
Jorge Benstein, a Marxist economist in Argentina, points to the historic intersection of economic, food, energy and other “visible crises” which could strike the world system at any time. He concludes: “We are facing the convergence of numerous crises which in reality is one global gigantic crisis with different faces, never seen before in history.”
During the 20th century, capitalism was destabilised by occasional intersections of just two system-level social crises. Examples include the imperial and legitimacy crises flowing from both world wars, and the Great Depression’s profitability and legitimacy crises.
Today, for the first time since its birth 500 years ago, global capitalism is facing the convergence of five system-level crises embracing nature as well as society:
As these five crises converge into a perfect storm they will tip global capitalism towards collapse amidst international revolutions and counter-revolutions.
We cannot foresee what type of new civilisation(s) will result from the unpredictably complex interactions of human actors with economic, ecological and imperial shifts.
But a perfect storm overwhelmed late feudalism, and there seems no reason to expect that late capitalism’s fate will be any different. Given its global interconnectivity and the life-threatening scale of its problems, capitalism is likely to fall at speed compared to feudalism’s slow-motion collapse.
So let’s put the five existential crises of capitalism under the microscope...
[This essay was completed on March 5, 2010. By prior arrangement, a first draft was sent for peer review to these leftists (in alphabetical order): Don Archer, Bronwen Beechey, Potaua Biasiny-Tule, Cordelia Black, Elliott Blade, Janet Bogle, Peter Boyle, Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury, Grant Brookes, David Colyer, Gary Cranston, Peter de Waal, Tom Dowie, Bruce Dyer, Bryce Edwards, Roger Fowler, Vaughan Gunson, Bernie Hornfeck, Peter Hughes, Robyn Hughes, Nick Kelly, Daphne Lawless, Paul Maunder, Pat O’Dea, Dean Parker, Len Parker, Len Richards, Bill Rosenberg, Warwick Taylor, Chris Trotter and Maurice Ward. Grateful thanks for the helpful comments of reviewers who, of course, may not share some or many of the author’s viewpoints. Responsibility for the final version rests solely with the author.
[Author Grant Morgan has been a socialist campaigner in New Zealand for 35 years. A railworker from 1974 to 1987, he was a delegate and trustee for the National Union of Railway Workers. He joined the Communist Party of New Zealand in 1976, becoming general secretary in 1987 and, a year later, editor of the party’s paper. He initiated the de-Stalinisation of the CPNZ and, in 1994, the party’s evolution into Socialist Worker. From 1994 he was national secretary of Socialist Worker and an editor of its journal UNITY until retiring in February 2007. He was the central organiser of the broad left coalition Residents Action Movement from its birth in 2003 out of the rates revolt against corporate politicians until retiring as RAM chair in March 2009. In June 2009 he became international secretary of Socialist Worker, a post he holds today. Your feedback on this essay is invited. You can contact Grant at grantmorgan [at] paradise.net.nz.]
3. See Wikipedia’s page on Middle Ages, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Ages. Throughout this essay, readers are directed to Wikipedia pages for more information on topics and definitions. While Wikipedia needs to be used with care, it usually provides a balance of views on any subject, and possibly more important, serves as a pointer towards other sources.
4. See Wikipedia’s page on Western Roman Empire, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Roman_Empire.
5. Possibly the best detailed history of capitalism’s emergence from the late Middle Ages is Fernand Braudel’s three-volume magnum opus Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Harper & Row 1985. Also see Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, especially Part VIII, “The so-called primitive accumulation”.
6. See Wikipedia’s page on Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_of_the_Late_Middle_Ages. Also see Wikipedia’s page on Black Death, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death.
7. See Wikipedia’s page on Renaissance, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance.
8. See Wikipedia’s page on Western Schism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Schism_of_the_West. Also see Wikipedia’s page on East-West Schism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Schism.
9. See Wikipedia’s page on Popular revolt in late medieval Europe, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_revolts_in_late_medieval_Europe.
10. See Wikipedia’s page on perfect storm, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_storm.
11. See Wikipedia’s page on Piers Brendon, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers_Brendon.
12. Piers Brendon, “Like Rome Before the Fall? Not Yet”, February 25, 2010, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/25/opinion/25brendon.html?scp=1&sq=piers%20brendon&st=cse.
13. Photo of Zion Lutheran Church billboard on Fail Blog, http://failblog.org.
14. See Wikipedia’s page on financial crisis of 2007-2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis_of_2007%E2%80%932010.
15. Mainstream economists hold widely divergent views on the success of state stimulus and the extent of economic recovery. For example, see Brian Fallow, “How’s the economy? Depends who you ask”, New Zealand Herald, January 28, 2010.
16. See Wikipedia’s page on existential risk, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existential_risk.
17. Benstein cited by Pedro Fuentes, “Chavez’s Call to Form the Vth International and the World Situation”, January 10, 2010, PSOL website, http://internacionalpsol.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/chavez%E2%80%99s-call-to-form-the-vth-international-and-the-world-situation/.