Capitalist crisis?


Is capitalism entering a huge crisis or will it (as it often does) somehow muddle through, perhaps even strengthening itself in the process? Socialists are divided on the issue, says The Unrepentant Marxist Louis Proyect, referring to a debate between Robert Brenner and Sam Gindin (videos)

(As an aside, there’s a funny opening quote on the video from the moderator. “We on the left are famous for predicting crises… Marxists have predicted ten out of the last six crises.”)

Proyect himself is undecided on the debate.

I confess to being wishy-washy on the topic. Perhaps I became immunized to the kind of hard-core catastrophist analysis associated with the Marxist-Leninist vanguard parties after hearing leaders of the American SWP describe the late 1970s in cataclysmic terms. For nearly the past 30 years, they have been predicting a global depression in the 1929 style. There is a certain logic to this. If you are trying to hold together an isolated and shrinking sect, hope takes the form of such predictions. While the rest of American society has fond hopes of prosperity, the far reaches of the Marxist left goes to sleep at night fantasizing about Hoovervilles.

Marxist organizers might wish to consider that gleefully predicting that millions will lose homes and jobs might not be the best of all possible organizing ploys to attract people to their cause. Also, an economic calamity does not magically guarantee workers will stampede to the left, they could also go right – or do nothing.

Sam Gidlin: “I think the crisis is on the Left, not in capitalism.” He also says employees now have often internalized the values of neoliberalism. Tell a Google employee he’s being exploited and he’ll probably look at you like you’re a Martian. He *wants* to work 14 hour days.

This brings me to a point that Gindin made in his presentation. He said that the problem today is political more than anything else. He said that if you had told him in 1975 that the U.S. would undergo the loss of good trade union jobs and welfare state social legislation with so little protest over the next 30 years or so, he simply would have not believed it–and neither would have I.

Project thinks the only solution is to start a mass (emphasis on “mass”) leftwing party. Maybe we also need to take a tip from 4th Generation Warfare tactics, which posits that the winning side is the one that has the best story – and “whoopee we’re going to have a Depression” is not a contender story.


  1. The problem with predicting the demise of capitalism is its ambiguous meaning: capitalism describes economic interaction between people, and as such it will always be with us– and no “theory” can make it magically disappear; Capitalism (as a religion) on the other hand has some serious flaws.

  2. To a Marxist, capitalism is an economic system where the class that owns the means of production profits from the work of the class that doesn’t.

    But the definitions get so much blurrier today. An actor making $1 million a movie who doesn’t own the production company is technically working class according to Marxist theory. And does stock ownership mean you own the means of production and thus become ruling class? The class definitions are not nearly as clear as they were in Marx’s time.

  3. The trouble with a catastrophic economic crisis is that it falls on everyone, usually impacting the poor the worse.

    Proyect mentions in the article that his wife’s PhD was on such crises.

    “This year my wife completed a PhD dissertation on whether three financial crises (the most recent involved the LTCM debacle) supported the hypothesis that the U.S. was in decline. In general agreement with the Gindin perspective, she demonstrated how each crisis was exploited by the American bourgeoisie to further its own interests globally, even though the resolution always involved new contradictions and dangers.”

    Jon’s article is excellent. I don’t claim to understand it totally either. The gold standard always seemed odd to me, an agreement that a metal was the central store of value. Not sure if that is doable now, even if it were a good idea.

  4. “To a Marxist, capitalism is an economic system where the class that owns the means of production profits from the work of the class that doesn’t.”

    To a rural New Englander, and it holds in rural Utah as well, there are few corporations and fewer factories– and capitalism means something very different: a willing buyer and a willing seller engaging in commerce so that both can feed their families. I can’t say that there are no economic differences between people where I come from, but there is little “means of production” apart from each person’s labor. My friend the contractor started out as a carpenter; now he employs carpenters, some of whom will go on to become contactors. Are we all bourguoisie? All proletariat? Both, or neither?

    At the macro level, theories of how and why things work are important (and usually inadequate). But at the base, where individuals interact, it’s pretty irrelevant. Governments and corporations come and go, but people need to conduct commerce to survive. When Walmart has long crumbled and the American empire has fallen, I’ll still need to provide a service to a farmer in exchange for food that he/she produced with his/her own labor– an exchange between relative equals.

  5. Good point on the means of production and few factories where you are. In Marx’s day, it was all factories and few if any service sector jobs. So the terminology is archaic, especially in the States where most jobs are service oriented, not factories.

  6. It’s antiquated also in that it fails to recognize that you cannot eliminate commerce between individuals. The State is not the supreme relationship between people. Hence the thriving black market in most Marxist countries (Cuba still has one). Plus the State will eventually fail as all states do, leaving people to fend for themselves once again.

    Yet this antiquated theory/terminology is what the hard left presents us. Any wonder it doesn’t sell? Any economic approach that denies human nature is doomed to fail. (Witness the War on Drugs, in which self-described capitalists deny that capitalist theory applies.)

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