Postcapitalism (part 2)

May 4, 2016

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Paul Mason’s perspective on the current plight of capitalism develops from his understanding of the crises that have occurred periodically in the history of capitalism. The current crisis resembles past crises in many respects, but differs from them in ways that are crucial to his central argument. The current crisis has taken shape more slowly and been resisted more successfully for a time, but will ultimately result in a more profound transformation.

Long cycles of capitalism

The historical part of the book focuses on the “long cycles” of capitalism first described by Nikolai Kondratieff. He discovered a roughly fifty-year cycle of economic activity, divided about evenly between an upswing and a downswing. He described the upswing as a period of technological innovation and high investment, followed by a period of slower growth or contraction, usually ending with a depression. Mason uses these dates for the first four long cycles:

  1. 1790 to 1848
  2. 1848 to mid-1890s
  3. 1890s to 1945
  4. Late 1940s to 2008

Each cycle has its key industries where innovation and growth are centered, such as the steam-powered factory in cycle 1, railroads and machine-made machinery in cycle 2, mass production and electrical engineering in cycle 3, and mass consumer goods like automobiles in cycle 4.

In the late 1990s, a fifth cycle began, “driven by network technology, mobile communications, a truly global marketplace and information goods.” But instead of transforming production, it has stalled out, while the previous cycle has hung on longer than normally expected. Mason’s theory of cycles tries to explain why.

A theory of cycles

In very brief form, Mason’s theory says this: During the upswing of a long cycle, capital that has built up in the financial system flows into new technologies and markets, “fueling a golden age of above-average growth with few recessions.” Because the economic pie is expanding so rapidly, achieving social peace by giving everyone a piece of it is easier. Workers who are displaced by labor-saving improvements can usually find employment in expanding industries.

At some point, the upswing peaks out. “When the golden age stalls, it is often because euphoria has produced sectoral over-investment, or inflation, or a hubristic war led by the dominant powers.” There are limits to how much capital can be invested productively in the same technologies and industries. As for “hubristic wars” I assume he means that nations foolishly squander their wealth trying to grab too large a share of the world’s markets and raw materials. I will add that although military spending can stimulate the economy in times of recession, wars have had devastating effects on many healthy economies, with the impact of World War I on Europe the prime example. “War is good for the economy” is not a very safe bet.

When  dominant industries stop expanding and profits stop rising, employers become more resistant to wage demands, and they may also try to reorganize production to replace skilled workers with lower-skilled workers and machines. Worker resistance increases as displaced workers have fewer alternatives. If profits continue to fall, “capital retreats from the productive sector and into the finance system, so that crises assume a more overtly financial form.” I take that to mean that capital that is not invested productively can only finance debt and inflate the value of stocks and other assets beyond their earnings value. Financial panics and depressions occur when the debtors default and the asset bubbles burst.

Mason thinks that traditional descriptions of long cycles focus too exclusively on waves of technological innovation (not to say those are not important), and not enough on falling profits, class conflict, and the intervention of the state. In the first three historic cycles, businesses tried but ultimately failed to maintain profits by squeezing the workers. When economic conditions and social unrest got out of hand, the state acted to facilitate the transition to the next cycle.

In each long cycle, the attack on wages and working conditions at the start of the downswing is one of the clearest features of the pattern. It sparks the class warfare of the 1830s, the unionization drives of the 1880s and 90s, the social strife of the 1920s. The outcome is critical: if the working class resists the attack, the system is forced into a more fundamental mutation, allowing a new paradigm to emerge….The history of long cycles shows that only when capital fails to drive down wages and when new business models are swamped by poor conditions is the state forced to act: to formalize new systems, reward new technologies, provide capital and protection for innovators.

The issue of falling profits deserves additional attention, but I’ll save that for when I discuss Mason’s theory of value in the next post.

The prolonged fourth cycle

Something different happened during the downswing of the fourth cycle, beginning in the 1970s. As in previous cycles, the growth in productivity slowed. The initial responses were inflationary rather than deflationary. Businesses kept giving in to the wage demands of highly organized workers, and government social spending also increased, although both wages and benefits were eroded by rising consumer prices. As wages went up faster than productivity, profits were squeezed. Business then launched a very successful attack on workers and government, blaming both of them for inflation. Globalization enabled corporations to eliminate high-wage, unionized manufacturing jobs in the developed countries, while finding new sources of revenue in the developing countries.

All this meant that profits could be maintained without transitioning beyond fourth-cycle capitalism. There was a twenty-five-year surge of productivity in the developing world, between 1981 and 2006. But in the developed countries, productivity growth continued to fall, and yet profits remained high because of stagnating wages. Inequality rose to Gilded Age levels, but until recently popular resistance has not been strong enough to force serious systemic change.

So we have been living in a strange time, suspended between an old system that no longer works for enough people and a new one that can’t quite get going. “Alongside higher profits, the overall rate of investment after the 1970s is low.” There is something odd about an economy in which capitalists make so much money while investing so little in the economic progress of their own countries. But another major transition cannot be put off forever.

A fifth cycle?

Twenty-five years ago, I taught a course on Social Change using Daniel Chirot’s Social Change in the Modern Era as a text. Chirot used long-cycle theory as a framework, and he said this about the fifth cycle he saw emerging at the time:

We can expect that the present fifth industrial cycle will gain ground, transform economies and societies, make life ever more materially comfortable, and then come to some sort of end in a half-century or so. Then, a new crisis will come, and a sixth as yet quite unknowable, industrial cycle will begin.

I gave a lecture which began, according to my notes, “Chirot may be right, but I want to raise the possibility that we are coming to the end of an era, not just a transition between cycles.” I based that suggestion on several far-sighted books of the 1980s, such as Christopher Chase-Dunn’s Global Formation: Structures of the World Economy, and James Robertson’s Future Work: Jobs, Self-Employment and Leisure after the Industrial Age.

Mason’s position is basically the same. The new cycle that has begun without yet coming to fruition represents a more fundamental threat to capitalism. That would explain why resistance is so strong, and why capitalists would prefer to export existing forms of production to other countries rather than improve upon them at home.