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Anselm Jappe

This time, all the commentators agree : the financial markets are not experiencing just a bit of transient turbulence. We really are in a crisis which is likely to prove the worst since World War II, or even 1929. But whose fault is it, and how do we find a way out ? The answers are almost always the same : the « real economy » is fundamentally sound, it is the unhealthy mechanisms of a financial sector that shed the unwelcome bonds of regulation which are now threatening the global economy. Thus the most facile as well as the most widely-held explanation pins all of the blame on the « greed » of a handful of speculators who played with other people´s money as if they were in a casino. But there is a long and dangerous tradition, when things are going badly, of reducing the mysteries of the capitalist economy to the actions of a conspiracy of evildoers. The worst possible outcome would be to once again designate as scapegoats the « top financiers », Jewish or otherwise, for public condemnation by the « honest folk » who work hard and save their pennies.

And it isn't that much more serious to contrast a predatory and insatiable « Anglo-Saxon » capitalism with a relatively benign and far more responsible « Continental » one. In recent weeks we have seen that they are indistinguishable in all but minor details. All those now calling for « more regulation » of the financial markets, from the association ATTAC to Sarkozy, see in the mad gyrations of the stock markets only an « excess », an outgrowth on an otherwise healthy body.

But what if financialisation, far from having ruined the real economy, in fact helped it to stretch its existence well beyond its use-by date ? If it had given a powerful shot of adrenaline to an otherwise dying body ? Why are we so certain that capitalism itself is exempt from the cycle of birth, growth and death ? Could it not contain intrinsic limits to its own development, ones which reside not solely in the existence of a declared enemy (the proletariat, the oppressed peoples) or in the exhaustion of natural resources ?

Citing Karl Marx has become fashionable again. But the German philosopher didn´t merely speak of class struggles, he also foresaw the possibility that the capitalist machine would one day grind to a halt all by itself, that its formidable dynamism would run out of steam. Why ? From the very start, the capitalist system of commodity production has harboured an internal contradiction, a veritable time bomb buried deep in its foundations. The only way to make capital fruitful (and thus to accumulate it) is by exploiting labour power. But the workers, to generate profit for their employer, must be equipped with the necessary tools, and today that means cutting-edge technologies. From this results a constant race - competition oblige - in the use of technologies. In each case, the first employer to make use of new technologies wins the race, because his workers produce more than those who don´t have these tools. But the system as a whole loses, because the technologies replace human labour. The value of each individual commodity thus contains ever-smaller shares of human labour - which nevertheless is the sole source of surplus value, and thus of profit. The development of technology reduces profits in their totality. Yet, for a century and a half, expansion of commodity production to the global scale was able to offset this tendency towards a reduction in the value of each commodity.

Since the 1970´s, however, this mechanism – which already was nothing more than a fuite en avant - has become jammed. Paradoxically, it is the productivity gains made possible by microelectronics which have thrust capitalism into crisis. Ever more gigantic investments were necessary in order to make the few remaining workers labour in accordance with the productivity standards of the world market. The real accumulation of capital threatened to come to a standstill. And it is at this moment that « fictitious capital », as Marx called it, takes flight. The abandonment of the dollar´s convertibility into gold in 1971 eliminated the last safety valve, the final anchoring in real accumulation. Credit is nothing other than an anticipation of hoped-for future gains. But when the production of value, and thus of surplus value, in the real economy stagnates (which has nothing to do with stagnation in the production of things - but capitalism revolves around the production of surplus value, not of products qua use values), it is only finance which permit the owners of capital to make those profits which have become impossible to obtain in the real economy. The rise of neoliberalism in the 1980's wasn´t a dirty ploy on the part of the greediest capitalists, a coup d'état carried out with the aid of corrupt politicians, as the « radical » left would like to believe (a left which now has to make up its mind : either move on to a critique of capitalism tout court, even if it no longer proclaims itself to be neoliberal, or participate in the emergence of a capitalism  incorporating some of the criticisms which have been levelled at its « excesses »). On the contrary, neoliberalism was the only possible way to prolong the capitalist system, whose foundations virtually no one - on the right or the left - seriously wanted to question. Thanks to credit, a large number of companies and individuals were able to maintain an illusion of prosperity for a fairly long time. But now even this crutch has been broken. And the widely-evoked « return to Keynesianism » will prove impossible, for the simple reason that governments no longer have enough « real » money at their disposal. For the moment, the « decision-makers » have pushed back the day of reckoning slightly by adding another zero behind the figures appearing on the screens, fantastic sums which no longer correspond to anything at all. The loans handed out recently in order to save the stock markets are ten times greater than the deficits which made the markets tremble a mere decade ago - while real production (let´s just say the GDP) has increased by around 20-30 %! « Economic growth » no longer had an autonomous basis, but was due to financial bubbles. Once these bubbles have burst, there won´t be a period of « stabilisation » after which everything can take off again.

Perhaps there won't be a « Black Friday » as in 1929, a « Judgement Day ». But there are good reasons to believe that we are witnessing the end of a long historical era in which productive activity and products did not serve to satisfy needs, but to feed the incessant cycle of labour which valorises capital and capital which employs labour. The commodity and labour, money and government regulation, competition and the market : behind the series of increasingly serious financial crises which have recurred over the past twenty years looms the crisis of all these categories - which, it is important to recall, have not always and everywhere formed a part of human existence. They have taken control of human life over the past few centuries, and they are capable of evolving into something else, which may prove better or possibly even worse. But that isn't the kind of decision taken at a G8 meeting...

December 2008.
Happy War

Miltary clown
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