Tagged: Social Movements

Structural Crisis in the World-System: Where Do We Go from Here? by Immanuel Wallerstein

I have written repeatedly on the structural crisis in the world-system, most recently in New Left Review in 2010.2 So, I shall just summarize my position, without arguing it in detail. I shall state my position as a set of premises. Not everyone agrees with these premises, which are my picture of where we are at the present time. On the basis of this picture, I propose to speak to the question, where do we go from here?

Premise No. 1 is that all systems—from the astronomical universe to the smallest physical phenomena, and including of course historical social systems—have lives. They come into existence at some point, which needs to be explained. They have “normal” lives, the rules of which need to be explicated. The functioning of their normal lives tends, over time, to move them far from equilibrium, at which point they enter a structural crisis, and in due course cease to exist. The functioning of their normal lives has to be analyzed in terms of cyclical rhythms and secular trends. The cyclical rhythms are sets of systemic fluctuations (upturns and downturns), in which the system regularly returns to equilibrium. However, it is a moving equilibrium since, at the end of a downturn, the system never returns to exactly where it was at the beginning of the upturn. This is because secular trends (slow, long-term increases in some systemic characteristic) push the curve slowly upward, as measured by some percentage of that characteristic in the system.

Eventually, the secular trends move the system too near its asymptotes, and the system is unable to continue its normal, regular, slow upward push. Thereupon, it begins to fluctuate wildly and repeatedly, leading to a bifurcation—that is, to a chaotic situation in which a stable equilibrium cannot be maintained. In such a chaotic situation, there are two quite divergent possibilities of recreating order out of chaos, or a new stable system. This period we may call the structural crisis of the system, and there is a system-wide battle—for historical social systems, a political battle—over which of two alternative possible outcomes will be collectively “chosen.”

Premise No. 2 is the description of the most important characteristics of how the capitalist world-economy has operated as a historical social system. The driving underlying objective of capitalists in a capitalist system is the endless accumulation of capital, wherever and however this accumulation may be achieved. Since such accumulation requires the appropriation of surplus value, this drive precipitates the class struggle.

Serious capital accumulation is only possible when one firm or a small group of firms has a quasi-monopoly of world-economy-wide production. Possessing such a quasi-monopoly depends on the active support of one or more states. We call such quasi-monopolies leading industries, and they foster considerable forward and backward linkages. Over time, however, all such quasi-monopolies are self-liquidating, since new producers (attracted by the very high level of profit) are able, in one way or another, to enter the market and reduce the degree of monopoly. Increased competition reduces sales prices but also reduces the level of profit and therefore the possibility of significant capital accumulation. We can call the relation of monopolized to competitive productive activities a core-periphery relationship.

The existence of a quasi-monopoly permits the expansion of the world-economy in terms of growth and allows for trickle-down benefits to large sectors of the world-system’s populations. The exhaustion of the quasi-monopoly leads to a system-wide stagnation that reduces the interest of capitalists in accumulation through productive enterprises. Erstwhile leading industries shift location to zones with lower costs of production, sacrificing increased transactions costs for lowered production costs (notably wage costs). The countries to which the industries are relocated consider this relocation to constitute “development,” but they are essentially the recipients of cast-off, erstwhile core-like operations. Meanwhile, unemployment grows in the zones in which the industries are relocated, and former trickle-down advantages are reversed, or partially reversed.

This cyclical process is often called Kondratieff long waves, and has in the past tended to last an average of fifty to sixty years for the entire cycle.3 Such cycles have been occurring over the past five hundred years. One systemic consequence is a constant slow shift in the location of the zones that are most favored economically, without, however, changing the proportion of zones that are so favored.

A second major cyclical rhythm of the capitalist world-economy is that involving the interstate system. All states within the world-system are theoretically sovereign but actually highly constrained by the processes of the interstate system. Some states are, however, stronger than others, meaning that they have greater control over internal fragmentation and outside intrusion. No state, nonetheless, is wholly sovereign.

In a system of multiple states, there are rather long cycles in which one state manages to become for a relatively brief time the hegemonic power. To be a hegemonic power is to achieve a quasi-monopoly of geopolitical power, in which the state in question is able to impose its rules, its order, on the system as a whole, in ways that favor the maximization of accumulation of capital to enterprises located within its borders.

Achieving the position of being the hegemonic power is not easy, and has only been truly achieved three times in the five-hundred-year history of the modern world-system—the United Provinces in the mid-seventeenth century, the United Kingdom in the mid-nineteenth century, and the United States in the mid-twentieth century.4

True hegemony has lasted, on average, only twenty-five years. Like quasi-monopolies of leading industries, quasi-monopolies of geopolitical power are self-liquidating. Other states improve their economic, and then their political and cultural, positions and become less willing to accept the “leadership” of the erstwhile hegemonic power.

Premise No. 3 is a reading of what has happened in the modern world-system from 1945 to 2010. I divide this into two periods: 1945 to circa 1970; circa 1970-2010. Once again, I summarize what I have argued at length previously. The period 1945-circa 1970 was one of great economic expansion in the world-economy, indeed by far the most expansive Kondratieff A-period in the history of the capitalist world-economy. When the quasi-monopolies were breached, the world-system entered a Kondratieff B-downturn in which it still finds itself. Predictably, capitalists since the 1970s have shifted their focus from the production arena to the financial arena. The world-system then entered the most extensive continuous series of speculative bubbles in the history of the modern world-system, with the greatest level of multiple indebtednesses.

The period 1945 to circa 1970 was also the period of full U.S. hegemony in the world-system. Once the United States had made a deal with the only other militarily strong state, the Soviet Union (a deal rhetorically called “Yalta”), U.S. hegemony was essentially unchallenged. But then once the geopolitical quasi-monopoly was breached, the United States entered into a period of hegemonic decline, which has escalated from a slow decline into a precipitate one during the presidency of George W. Bush.5 U.S. hegemony was far more extensive and total than those of previous hegemonic powers, and its full decline promises to be the swiftest and most total.

There is one other element to put into the picture—the world-revolution of 1968, which occurred essentially between 1966 and 1970, and took place in all three major geopolitical zones of the world-system of the time: the pan-European world (the “West”), the Socialist bloc (the “East”), and the third world (the “South”).6

There were two common elements to these local political uprisings. The first was the condemnation not only of U.S. hegemony but also of Soviet “collusion” with the United States. The second was the rejection not only of dominant “centrist liberalism” but also of the fact that the traditional antisystemic movements (the “Old Left”) had essentially become avatars of centrist liberalism (as had mainstream conservative movements).7

While the actual uprisings of 1968 did not last very long, there were two main consequences in the political-ideological sphere. The first was that centrist liberalism ended its long reign (1848-1968) as the only legitimate ideological position, and both the radical left and the conservative right resumed their roles as autonomous ideological contestants in the world-system.

The second consequence, for the left, was the end of the legitimacy of the Old Left’s claim to be the prime national political actor on behalf of the left, to which all other movements had to subordinate themselves. The so-called forgotten peoples (women, ethnic/racial/religious “minorities,” “indigenous” nations, persons of non-heterosexual sexual orientations), as well as those concerned with ecological or peace issues, asserted their right to be considered prime actors on an equal level with the historical subjects of the traditional antisystemic movements. They rejected definitively the claim of the traditional movements to control their political activities and were successful in their new demand for autonomy. After 1968, the Old Left movements acceded to their political claim to equal current status for their demands, in place of deferring these demands to a post-revolutionary future.

Politically, what happened in the twenty-five years succeeding 1968 is that the reinvigorated world right asserted itself more effectively than the more fragmented world left. The world right, led by the Reagan Republicans and the Thatcher Conservatives, transformed world discourse and political priorities.

The buzzword “globalization” replaced the previous buzzword “development.” The so-called Washington Consensus preached privatization of state productive enterprises, reduction of state expenditures, opening of the frontiers to uncontrolled entry of commodities and capital, and the orientation to production for export. The prime objectives were to reverse all the gains of the lower strata during the Kondratieff A-period. The world right sought to reduce all the major costs of production, to destroy the welfare state in all its versions, and to slow down the decline of U.S. power in the world-system.

Mrs. Thatcher coined the slogan, “There is no alternative” or TINA. To ensure that, in fact, there would be no alternative, the International Monetary Fund, backed by the U.S. Treasury, made as a condition of all financial assistance to countries with budgetary crises adherence to its strict neoliberal conditions.

These draconian tactics worked for about twenty years, bringing about the collapse of regimes led by the Old Left or the conversion of Old Left parties to adherence to the doctrine of the primacy of the market. But by the mid-1990s, there surfaced a significant degree of popular resistance to the Washington Consensus, whose three main moments were the neo-Zapatista uprising in Chiapas on January 1, 1994; the demonstrations at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, which scuttled the attempt to enact worldwide constraints on intellectual property rights; and the founding of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001.

The Asian debt crisis in 1997 and the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble in 2008 brought us to our current public discussion of the so-called financial crisis in the world-system, which is, in fact, nothing but the next-to-last bubble in the cascading series of debt crises since the 1970s.

Premise No. 4 is the description of what happens in a structural crisis, which the world-system is in at the present time, has been in at least since the 1970s, and shall continue to be in until probably circa 2050. The primary characteristic of a structural crisis is chaos. Chaos is not a situation of totally random happenings. It is a situation of rapid and constant fluctuations in all the parameters of the historical system. This includes not only the world-economy, the interstate system, and cultural-ideological currents, but also the availability of life resources, climatic conditions, and pandemics.

The constant and relatively rapid shifts in immediate conditions make even short-term calculations highly problematic—for the states, for enterprises, for social groups, and for households. The uncertainty makes producers very cautious about producing since it is far from certain that there are customers for their products. This is a vicious circle, since reduced production means reduced employment, which means fewer customers for producers. The uncertainty is compounded by the rapid shifts in currency exchange rates.

Market speculation is the best alternative for those who hold resources. But even speculation requires a level of short-term assurance that reduces risk to manageable proportions. As the degree of risk increases, speculation becomes more nearly a game of pure chance, in which there are occasional big winners and mainly big losers.

At the household level, the degree of uncertainty pushes popular opinion both to make demands for protection and protectionism and to search for scapegoats as well as true profiteers. Popular unrest determines the behavior of the political actors, pushing them into so-called extremist positions. The rise of extremism (“The center cannot hold”) pushes both national and world political situations toward gridlock.

There can be moments of respite for particular states or for the world-system as a whole, but these moments can also be rapidly undone. One of the elements undoing the respites are sharp rises in the costs of all the basic inputs both to production and daily life—energy, food, water, breathable air. In addition, the funds to prevent or at least reduce the damages of climate change and pandemics are insufficient.

Finally, the significant increase in the living standards of segments of the populations of the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and some others) actually compounds the problems of capital accumulation for capitalists by spreading out the surplus-value and thus reducing the amounts available for the thin upper crust of the world’s populations. The development of the so-called emerging economies actually compounds the strain on existing world resources and thereby also compounds the problem for these countries of effective demand, threatening their ability to maintain their economic growth of the last decade or two.

Davos versus Porto Alegre

All in all, it is not a pretty picture, and brings us to the political question, What can we do in this kind of situation? But first, who are the actors in the political battle? In a structural crisis, the only certainty is that the existing system—the capitalist world-economy—cannot survive. What is impossible to know is what the successor system will be. One can envisage the battle as one between two groups that I have labeled “the spirit of Davos” and “the spirit of Porto Alegre.”

The objective of the two groups is totally opposite. The proponents of “the spirit of Davos” want a different system—one that is “non-capitalist” but still retains three essential features of the present system: hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization. The proponents of “the spirit of Porto Alegre” want the kind of system that has never existed heretofore, one that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian. I call these two positions “spirits” because there are no central organizations on either side of this struggle, and indeed, the proponents inside each current are deeply divided as to their strategy.

The proponents of the spirit of Davos are divided between those who proffer the iron fist, seeking to crush opponents at all levels, and those who wish to co-opt the proponents of transformation by fake signs of progress (such as “green capitalism” or “poverty reduction”).

There is division as well among the proponents of the spirit of Porto Alegre. There are those who want a strategy and a reconstructed world that is horizontal and decentralized in its organization, and insist on the rights of groups as well as of individuals as a permanent feature of a future world-system. And there are those who are seeking once again to create a new international that is vertical in its structure and homogenizing in its long-term objectives.

This is a confusing political picture, compounded by the fact that large parts of the political establishments and their reflections in the media, the punditry, and academia still insist on talking the language of a passing, momentary difficulty in an essentially equilibrated capitalist system. This creates a fog within which it is difficult to debate the real issues. Yet we must.

I think it is important to distinguish between short-term political action (the short term being the next three to five years at most) and medium-term action aimed at enabling the spirit of Porto Alegre to prevail in the battle for the new “order out of chaos” that will be collectively “chosen.”

In the short term, one consideration takes precedence over all others—to minimize the pain. The chaotic fluctuations wreak enormous pain on weaker states, weaker groups, weaker households in all parts of the world-system. The world’s governments, increasingly indebted, increasingly lacking financial resources, are constantly making choices of all kinds. The struggle to guarantee that the cuts in revenue allocation fall least on the weakest and most on the strongest is a constant battle. It is a battle that, in the short run, requires left forces always to choose the so-called lesser evil, however distasteful that is. Of course, one can always debate what the lesser evil in a given situation is, but there is never an alternative to that choice in the short term. Otherwise, one maximizes rather than minimizes the pain.

The medium-term option is the exact opposite. There is no halfway house between the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre. There are no compromises. Either we shall have a significantly better world-system (one that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian) or we shall have one that is at least as bad and, quite possibly, far worse. The strategy for this choice is to mobilize support everywhere at every moment in every way. I see a medley of tactics that might move us in the right direction.

The first is to place great emphasis on serious intellectual analysis—not in a discussion conducted merely by intellectuals, but throughout the populations of the world. It must be a discussion animated by a large openness of spirit among all those who are inspired, however they define it, by the spirit of Porto Alegre. This seems anodyne to recommend. But the fact is that we have never really had this in the past, and without it we cannot hope to proceed, much less to prevail.

A second tactic is to reject categorically the goal of economic growth and replace it with the goal of maximum decommodification—what the movements of indigenous nations in the Americas are calling buen vivir. This means not only resisting the increased drive to commodification of the last thirty years—of education, of health structures, of the body, of water and air—but decommodifying as well agricultural and industrial production. How this is done is not immediately obvious, and what it entails we shall only know by experimenting widely with it.

A third approach is an effort to create local and regional self-sufficiencies, especially in the basic elements of life such as food and shelter. The globalization we want is not a single totally integrated division of labor but an “alterglobalization” of multiple autonomies that interconnect in seeking to create a “universal universalism” composed of the multiple universalisms that exist. We must undermine the provincial claims of particular universalisms to impose themselves on the rest of us.8

A fourth derives immediately from the importance of the autonomies. We must struggle immediately to end the existence of foreign military bases, by anyone, anywhere, for any reason. The United States has the widest collection of bases, but it is not the only state to have such bases. Of course, the reduction of bases will also enable us to reduce the amount of the world’s resources we spend on military machines, equipment, and personnel, and permit the allocation of these resources for better uses.

A fifth tactic that goes along with local autonomies is the aggressive pursuit of ending the fundamental social inequalities of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexualities—and there are others. This is now a piety among the world left, but has it been a real priority for all of us? I do not think so.

And, of course, we cannot expect a better world-system circa 2050 if, in the interim, any of the three pending supercalamities occurs: irrevocable climate change, vast pandemics, and nuclear war.

Have I created a naive list of non-realizable tactics by the world left, the proponents of the spirit of Porto Alegre, for the next thirty to fifty years? I do not think so. The one encouraging feature about a systemic crisis is the degree to which it increases the viability of agency, of what we call “free will.” In a normally functioning historical system, even great social effort is limited in its effects because of the efficacy of the pressures to return to equilibrium. But when the system is far from equilibrium, every little input has great effect, and the totality of our inputs—made every nanosecond in every nanospace—can (can, not will) add up to enough to tilt the balance of the collective “choice” in the bifurcation.


↩ This essay is based on a talk given at the conference, “Global Crisis: Rethinking Economy and Society,” University of Chicago, December 3-5, 2010, Session on “Understanding the Crisis Historically.”
↩ Immanuel Wallerstein, “Structural Crises,” New Left Review, no. 62 (March-April 2010): 133-42. An earlier, more extensive discussion of this topic is to be found in Utopistics, or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century (New York: The New Press, 1998), esp. chapter 2.
↩ For a broader explanation of how Kondratieff cycles work, see the Prologue to the new edition of Volume III of The Modern World-System (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
↩ For a broader explication of how the hegemonic cycle works, see the Prologue to the new edition of Volume II of The Modern World-System (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
↩ See my “Precipitate Decline: The Advent of Multipolarity,” Harvard International Review (Spring 2007): 54-59.
↩ See my “1968, Revolution in the World-System: Theses and Queries,” Theory and Society, XVIII (July 4, 1989): 431-49; also with Giovanni Arrighi and Terence K. Hopkins, “1989, the Continuation of 1968,” Review, XV, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 221-42.
↩ On the explanation of the ways in which radicals and conservatives became avatars of centrist liberalism, see “Centrist Liberalism as Ideology,” chapter 1, The Modern World-System, IV: The Triumph of Centrist Liberalism, 1789-1914 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
↩ I have argued the case for this in European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power (New York: The New Press, 2006).

Published in Monthly Review 2011, Volume 62, Issue 10 (March)
Retrieved 05/09/12 from http://monthlyreview.org/2011/03/01/structural-crisis-in-the-world-system

Structural Crisis Needs Structural Change by István Mészáros

István Mészáros

When stressing the need for a radical structural change it must be made clear right from the beginning that this is not a call for an unrealizable utopia. On the contrary, the primary defining characteristic of modern utopian theories was precisely the projection that their intended improvement in the conditions of the workers’ lives could be achieved well within the existing structural framework of the criticized societies. Thus Robert Owen of New Lanark, for instance, who had an ultimately untenable business partnership with the utilitarian liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham, attempted the general realization of his enlightened social and educational reforms in that spirit. He was asking for theimpossible. As we also know, the high-sounding “utilitarian” moral principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number” came to nothing since its Benthamite advocacy. The problem for us is that without a proper assessment of the nature of the economic and social crisis of our time—which by now cannot be denied by the defenders of the capitalist order even if they reject the need for a major change—the likelihood of success in this respect is negligible. The demise of the “Welfare State” even in the mere handful of the privileged countries where it has been once instituted offers a sobering lesson on this score.

Let me start by quoting a recent article by the editors of the authoritative daily newspaper of the international bourgeoisie, The Financial Times.

Talking about the dangerous financial crisis—acknowledged now by the editors themselves to be dangerous—they end their article with these words: “Both sides [the U.S. Democrats and the Republicans] are to blame for a vacuum of leadership and responsible deliberation. It is a serious failure of governance and more dangerous than Washington believes.”1 This is all that we get as editorial wisdom about the substantive issue of “sovereign indebtedness” and mounting budget deficits. What makes the Financial Times editorial even more vacuous than the “vacuum of leadership” deplored by the journal is the sonorous subtitle of this article:“Washington must stop posturing and start governing.” As if editorials like this could amount to more than posturing in the name of “governing”! For the grave issue at stake is the catastrophic indebtedness of the “power-house” of global capitalism, the United States of America, where the government’s debt alone (without adding corporate and private individual indebtedness) is counted already in well above 14 trillion dollars—flashed up in large illuminated numbers on the façade of a New York public building indicating the irresistible trend of rising debt.

The point I wish to stress is that the crisis we have to face is a profound and deepening structural crisis which needs the adoption of far-reaching structural remedies in order to achieve a sustainable solution. It must also be stressed that the structural crisis of our time did not originate in 2007, with the “bursting of the US housing bubble,” but at least four decades earlier. I spoke about it in such terms way back in 1967, well before the May 1968 explosion in France,2 and I wrote in 1971, in the Preface to the Third Edition of Marx’s Theory of Alienation, that the unfolding events and developments “dramatically underlined the intensification of the global structural crisis of capital.”

In this respect it is necessary to clarify the relevant differences between types or modalities of crisis. It is not a matter of indifference whether a crisis in the social sphere can be considered a periodic/conjunctural crisis, or something much more fundamental than that. For, obviously, the way of dealing with a fundamental structural crisis cannot be conceptualized in terms of the categories of periodic or conjunctural crises. The crucial difference between the two sharply contrasting types of crises is that the periodic or conjunctural crises unfold and are more or less successfully resolved within the established framework, whereas the fundamental crisis affects that framework itself in its entirety.

In general terms, this distinction is not simply a question of the apparent severity of the contrasting types of crises. For a periodic or conjunctural crisis can be dramatically severe—as the “Great World Economic Crisis of 1929–1933” happened to be—yet capable of a solution within the parameters of the given system. And in the same way, but in the opposite sense, the “non-explosive” character of a prolonged structural crisis, in contrast to the “great thunderstorms” (in Marx’s words) through which periodic conjunctural crises can discharge and resolve themselves, may lead to fundamentally misconceived strategies, as a result of the misinterpretation of the absence of “thunderstorms”; as if their absence was the overwhelming evidence for the indefinite stability of “organized capitalism” and of the “integration of the working class.”

It cannot be stressed enough that the crisis in our time is not intelligible without being referred to the broad overall social framework. This means that in order to clarify the nature of the persistent and deepening crisis all over the world today we must focus attention on the crisis of the capital system in its entirety. For the crisis of capital we are experiencing is an all-embracing structural crisis.

Let us see, summed up as briefly as possible, the defining characteristics of the structural crisis we are concerned with.

The historical novelty of today’s crisis is manifest under four main aspects:

  • its character is universal, rather than restricted to one particular sphere (e.g., financial, or commercial, or affecting this or that particular branch of production, or applying to this rather than that type of labor, with its specific range of skills and degrees of productivity, etc.);
  • its scope is truly global (in the most threateningly literal sense of the term), rather than confined to a particular set of countries (as all major crises have been in the past);
  • its time scale is extended, continuous—if you like: permanent—rather than limited andcyclic, as all former crises of capital happened to be;
  • its mode of unfolding might be called creeping—in contrast to the more spectacular and dramatic eruptions and collapses of the past—while adding the proviso that even the most vehement or violent convulsions cannot be excluded as far as the future is concerned: i.e., when the complex machinery now actively engaged in ‘crisis-management’ and in the more or less temporary ‘displacement’ of the growing contradictions runs out of steam.

[Here] it is necessary to make some general points about the criteria of a structural crisis, as well as about the forms in which its solution may be envisaged.

To put it in the simplest and most general terms, a structural crisis affects the totality of a social complex, in all its relations with its constituent parts or sub-complexes, as well as with other complexes to which it is linked. By contrast, a non-structural crisis affects only some parts of the complex in question, and thus no matter how severe it might be with regard to the affected parts, it cannot endanger the continued survival of the overall structure.

Accordingly, the displacement of contradictions is feasible only while the crisis is partial, relative and internally manageable by the system, requiring no more than shifts—even if major ones—within the relatively autonomous system itself. By the same token, a structural crisis calls into question the very existence of the overall complex concerned, postulating its transcendence and replacement by some alternative complex.

The same contrast may be expressed in terms of the limits any particular social complex happens to have in its immediacy, at any given time, as compared to those beyond which it cannot conceivably go. Thus, a structural crisis is not concerned with the immediatelimits but with the ultimate limits of a global structure….3

Thus, in a fairly obvious sense, nothing could be more serious than the structural crisis of capital’s mode of social metabolic reproduction which defines the ultimate limits of the established order. But even though profoundly serious in its all-important general parameters, on the face of it the structural crisis may not appear to be of such a deciding importance when compared to the dramatic vicissitudes of a major conjunctural crisis. For the “thunderstorms” through which the conjunctural crises discharge themselves are rather paradoxical in the sense that in their mode of unfolding they not only discharge (and impose)but also resolve themselves, to the degree to which that is feasible under the circumstances. This they can do precisely because of their partial character which does not call into question the ultimate limits of the established global structure. At the same time, however (and for the same reason), they can only “resolve” the underlying deep-seated structural problems—which necessarily reassert themselves again and again in the form of the specific conjunctural crises—in a strictly partial and temporally also most limited way. Until, that is, the next conjunctural crisis appears on society’s horizon.

By contrast, in view of the inescapably complex and prolonged nature of the structural crisis, unfolding in historical time in an epochal and not episodic/instantaneous sense, it is the cumulative interrelationship of the whole that decides the issue, even under the false appearance of “normality.” This is because in the structural crisis everything is at stake, involving the all-embracing ultimate limits of the given order of which there cannot possibly be a “symbolic/paradigmatic” particular instance. Without understanding the overall systemic connections and implications of the particular events and developments we lose sight of the really significant changes and of the corresponding levers of potential strategic intervention to positively affect them, in the interest of the necessary systemic transformation. Our social responsibility therefore calls for an uncompromising critical awareness of the emerging cumulative interrelationship, instead of looking for comforting reassurances in the world of illusory normality until the house collapses over our head.

It is necessary to underline here that for nearly three decades after the Second World War the successful economic expansion in the dominant capitalist countries generated the illusion even among some major intellectuals of the left that the historic phase of “crisis capitalism” had been overcome, leaving its place to what they called “advanced organized capitalism.” I want to illustrate this problem by quoting some passages from the work of one of the greatest militant intellectuals of the twentieth century, Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom, as you may well know from my book on Sartre, I have the highest regard. However, the fact is that the adoption of the notion that by overcoming “crisis capitalism” the established order turned itself into “advanced capitalism” created some major dilemmas for Sartre. This is all the more significant because no one can deny Sartre’s fully committed search for a viable emancipatory solution and his great personal integrity. In relation to our problem we have to recall that in the important interview given to the Italian Manifesto group—after outlining his conception of the insuperably negative implications of his own explanatory category of the unavoidably detrimental institutionalization of what he called the “fused group” in his Critique of Dialectical Reason—he had to come to the painful conclusion that “While I recognize the need of an organization, I must confess that I don’t see how the problems which confront any stabilized structure could be resolved.”4

Here the difficulty is that the terms of Sartre’s social analysis are set up in such a way that the various factors and correlations that in reality belong together, constituting different facets of fundamentally the same societal complex, are depicted by him in the form of most problematical dichotomies and oppositions, generating thereby insoluble dilemmas and an unavoidable defeat for the emancipatory social forces. This is clearly shown by the exchange between the Manifesto group and Sartre:

Manifesto: On what precise bases can one prepare a revolutionary alternative?

Sartre: I repeat, more on the basis of ‘alienation’ than on ‘needs.’ In short on the reconstruction of the individual and of freedom—the need for which is so pressing that even the most refined techniques of integration cannot afford to discount it.5

Thus Sartre in this way, in his strategic assessment of how to overcome the oppressive character of capitalist reality, sets up a totally untenable opposition between the workers’ “alienation” and their allegedly satisfied “needs,” thereby making it all the more difficult to envisage a practically feasible positive outcome. And here the problem is not simply that he grants far too much credibility to the fashionable but extremely superficial sociological explanation of the so-called “refined techniques of integration” in relation to the workers. Unfortunately it is much more serious than that.

Indeed the really disturbing problem at stake is the evaluation of the viability of “advanced capitalism” itself and the associated postulate of working class “integration” which Sartre happens to share at the time to a large extent with Herbert Marcuse. For in actuality the truth of the matter is that in contrast to the undoubtedly feasible integration of some particular workers into the capitalist order, the class of labor—the structural antagonist of capital,representing the only historically sustainable hegemonic alternative to the capital system—cannot be integrated into capital’s alienating and exploitative framework of societal reproduction. What makes that impossible is the underlying structural antagonism between capital and labor, emanating with insurmountable necessity from the class reality of antagonistic domination and subordination.

In this discourse even the minimal plausibility of the Marcuse/Sartre type of false alternative between continuing alienation and “satisfied need” is “established” on the basis of the derailing compartmentalization of capital’s suicidally untenable globally entrenched structural interdeterminations upon which in fact the elementary systemic viability of capital’s one and only ruling societal metabolic order is necessarily premised. Thus it is extremely problematical to separate “advanced capitalism” from the so-called “marginal zones” and from the “third world.” As if the reproductive order of the postulated “advanced capitalism” could sustain itself for any length of time, let alone indefinitely in the future, without the ongoing exploitation of the misconceived “marginal zones” and the imperialistically dominated “third world”!

It is necessary to quote here the relevant passage in which these problems are spelled out by Sartre. The revealing Manifesto interview passage in question reads as follows:

Advanced capitalism, in relation to its awareness of its own condition, and despite the enormous disparities in the distribution of income, manages to satisfy the elementary needs of the majority of the working class—there remains of course the marginal zones, 15 percent of workers in the United States, the blacks and the immigrants; there remain the elderly; there remains, on the global scale, the third world. But capitalism satisfies certain primary needs, and also satisfies certain needs which it has artificially created: for instance the need of a car. It is this situation which has caused me to revise my ‘theory of needs,’ since these needs are no longer, in a situation of advanced capitalism, in systematic opposition to the system. On the contrary, they partly become, under the control of that system, an instrument of integration of the proletariat into certain processes engendered and directed by profit. The worker exhausts himself in producing a car and in earning enough to buy one; this acquisition gives him the impression of having satisfied a ‘need.’ The system which exploits him provides him simultaneously with a goal and with the possibility of reaching it. The consciousness of the intolerable character of the system must therefore no longer be sought in the impossibility of satisfying elementary needs but, above all else, in the consciousness of alienation—in other words, in the fact that this life is not worth living and has no meaning, that this mechanism is a deceptive mechanism, that these needs are artificially created, that they are false, that they are exhausting and only serve profit. But to unite the class on this basis is even more difficult.6

If we accept at face value this characterization of the “advanced capitalist” order, in that case the task of producing emancipatory consciousness is not only “more difficult” but quiteimpossible. But the dubious ground on which we can reach such a prioristic imperatival and pessimistic/self-defeating conclusion—prescribing from the height of the intellectual’s “new theory of needs” the abandonment by the workers of their “acquisitive artificial needs,” instantiated by the motor car, and their replacement by the thoroughly abstract postulate which posits for them that “this life is not worth living and has no meaning” (a noble but rather abstract imperatival postulate effectively contradicted in reality by the tangible need of the members of the working class for securing the conditions of their economically sustainable existence)—is both the acceptance of a set of totally untenable assertions and the equally untenable omission of some vital determining features of the actually existing capital system in its historically irreversible structural crisis.

For a start, to talk about “advanced capitalism”—when the capital system as a mode of social metabolic reproduction finds itself in its descending phase of historical development, and therefore is only capitalistically advanced but in no other sense at all, thereby capable of sustaining itself only in an ever more destructive and therefore ultimately also self-destructive way—is extremely problematical. Another assertion: the characterization of theoverwhelming majority of humankind—in the category of poverty, including the “blacks and the immigrants,” the “elderly,” and, “on the global scale, the third world”as belonging to the “marginal zones” (in affinity with Marcuse’s “outsiders”), is no less untenable. For in reality it is the “advanced capitalist world” that constitutes the long term totally unsustainable privileged margin of the overall system, with its ruthless “elementary need-denial” to the greater part of the world, and not what is described by Sartre in his Manifesto interview as the “marginal zones.” Even with regard to the United States of America the margin of poverty is greatly underrated, at merely 15 percent. Besides, the characterization of the workers’ motor cars as nothing more than purely “artificial needs” which “only serve profit” could not be more one-sided. For, in contrast to many intellectuals, not even the relatively well-off particular workers, let alone the members of the class of labor as a whole, have the luxury of finding their place of work next door to their bedroom.

At the same time, on the side of the astonishing omissions, some of the gravest structural contradictions and failures are missing from Sartre’s depiction of “advanced capitalism,” virtually emptying the whole concept of meaning. In this sense one of the most important substantive needs without which no society—past, present, or future—could survive, is the need for work. Both for the productively active individuals—embracing all of them in a fully emancipated social order—and for society in general in its historically sustainable relationship to nature. The necessary failure to solve this fundamental structural problem, affecting allcategories of work not only in the “third world” but even in the most privileged countries of “advanced capitalism,” with its perilously rising unemployment, constitutes one of theabsolute limits of the capital system in its entirety. Another grave problem which underscores the present and future historical unviability of capital is the calamitous shift toward theparasitic sectors of the economy—like the crisis-producing adventurist speculation which plagues (as a matter of objective necessity, often misrepresented as systemically irrelevantpersonal failure) the financial sector and the institutionalized/legally buttressed fraudulenceclosely associated with it—in contradistinction to the productive branches of socioeconomic life required for the satisfaction of genuine human need. This is a shift that stands in menacingly sharp contrast to the ascending phase of capital’s historic development, when the prodigious systemic expansionary dynamism (including the industrial revolution) was overwhelmingly due to socially viable and further enhanceable productive achievements. We have to add to all this the massively wasteful economic burdens imposed on society in an authoritarian way by the state and the military/industrial complex—with the permanent arms industry and the corresponding wars—as an integral part of the perverse “economic growth” of “advanced organized capitalism.” And to mention just one more of the catastrophic implications of “advanced” capital’s systemic development, we must bear in mind the prohibitively wasteful global ecological encroachment of our no longer tenable mode of social metabolic reproduction on the finite planetary world,7 with its rapacious exploitation of the non-renewable material resources and the increasingly more dangerous destruction of nature. Saying this is not “being wise after the event.” I wrote in the same period when Sartre gave his Manifesto interview that:

Another basic contradiction of the capitalist system of control is that it cannot separate “advance” from destruction, nor “progress” from waste—however catastrophic the results. The more it unlocks the powers of productivity, the more it must unleash the powers of destruction; and the more it extends the volume of production, the more it must bury everything under mountains of suffocating waste. The concept of economy is radically incompatible with the “economy” of capital production which, of necessity, adds insult to injury by first using up with rapacious wastefulness the limited resources of our planet, and then further aggravates the outcome by polluting and poisoning the human environment with its mass-produced waste and effluence.8

Thus the problematical assertions and the seminally important omissions of Sartre’s characterization of “advanced capitalism” greatly weaken the power of negation of his emancipatory discourse. His dichotomous principle which repeatedly asserts the “irreducibility of the cultural order to the natural order” is always on the look out for finding solutions in terms of the “cultural order,” at the level of the individuals’ consciousness, through the committed intellectual’s “work of consciousness upon consciousness.” He appeals to the idea that the required solution lies in increasing the “consciousness of alienation”—that is, in terms of his “cultural order”—while at the same time discarding the viability of grounding the revolutionary strategy on need belonging to the “natural order.” Material need which is said to be already satisfied for the majority of the workers and which in any case constitutes a “deceptive and false mechanism” and an “instrument of integration of the proletariat.”

To be sure, Sartre is deeply concerned with the challenge of addressing the issue of how to increase “the consciousness of the intolerable character of the system.” But, as a matter of unavoidable consideration, the leverage itself indicated as the vital condition of success—the power of the “consciousness of alienation” stressed by Sartre—would itself badly need some objective underpinning. Otherwise, the idea (even setting aside the indicated leverage’s weakness of self-referential circularity) that it somehow “can prevail over against the intolerable character of the system” is bound to be dismissed as a noble but ineffectivecultural advocacy. That this is problematic even in Sartre’s own terms of reference is indicated by his rather pessimistic words wherein he shows that the need is to defeat the materially and culturally destructive and structurally entrenched reality of “this miserable ensemble which is our planet,” with its “horrible, ugly, bad determinations, without hope.”

Accordingly, the primary question concerns the—demonstrability or not—of the objectively intolerable character of the system itself. For if the demonstrable intolerability of the system is missing in substantive terms, as proclaimed by the notion of “advanced capitalism’s” ability to satisfy material needs except in the “marginal zones,” then the “long and patient labor in the construction of consciousness” advocated by Sartre remains well-nigh impossible.9 It is that objective grounding that needs to be (and in actuality can be) established in its own comprehensive terms of reference, requiring the radical demystification of the increasing destructiveness of “advanced capitalism.” The “consciousness of the intolerable character of the system” can only be built on that objective grounding—which includes the suffering caused by “advanced” capital’s failure to satisfy even the elementary need for food not only in “marginal zones” but for countless millions, as clearly evidenced by food riots in many countries—so as to be able to overcome the postulated dichotomy between the cultural order and the natural order.

In its ascending phase the capital system was successfully asserting its productive accomplishments on the basis of its internal expansionary dynamism—still without the imperative of a monopolistic/imperialist drive of the capitalistically most advanced countries for militarily secured world domination. Yet, through the historically irreversible circumstance of entering the productively descending phase, the capital system had become inseparable from an ever-intensifying need for the militaristic/monopolistic extension and overstretch of its structural framework, tending in due course on the internal productive plane toward the establishment and the criminally wasteful operation of a “permanent arms industry,” together with the wars necessarily associated with it.

In fact well before the outbreak of the First World War Rosa Luxemburg clearly identified the nature of this fateful monopolistic/imperialist development on the destructively productive plane by writing in her book on The Accumulation of Capital about the role of massive militarist production that: “Capital itself ultimately controls this automatic and rhythmic movement of militarist production through the legislature and a press whose function is to mould so-called ‘public opinion.’ That is why this particular province of capitalist accumulation at first seems capable of infinite expansion.”10

In another respect, the increasingly wasteful utilization of energy and vital material strategic resources carried with it not only the ever more destructive articulation of capital’s self-assertive structural determinations on the (by legislatively manipulated “public opinion” never even questioned, let alone properly regulated) military plane but also with regard to the increasingly destructive encroachment of capital-expansion on nature. Ironically but by no means surprisingly, this turn of regressive historical development of the capital system as such also carried with it some bitterly negative consequences for the international organization of labor.

Indeed, this new articulation of the capital system in the last third of the nineteenth century, with its monopolistic imperialist phase inseparable from its fully extended global ascendancy, opened up a new modality of (most antagonistic and ultimately untenable) expansionary dynamism at the overwhelming benefit of a mere handful of privileged imperialist countries, postponing thereby the “moment of truth” that goes with the system’s irrepressible structural crisis in our own time. This type of monopolistic imperialist development inevitably gave a major boost to the possibility of militaristic capital-expansion and accumulation, no matter how great a price had to be paid in due course for the ever-intensifying destructiveness of the new expansionary dynamism. Indeed, the militarily underpinned monopolistic dynamism had to assume the form of even two devastating global wars, as well as the total annihilation of humankind implicit in a potential Third World War, in addition to the ongoing perilous destruction of nature that became evident in the second half of the twentieth century.

In our time we are experiencing the deepening structural crisis of the capital system. Its destructiveness is visible everywhere, and it shows no signs of diminishing. With regard to the future it is crucial how we conceptualize the nature of the crisis in order to envisage its solution. For the same reason it is also necessary to re-examine some of the major solutions projected in the past. Here it is not possible to do more than to mention, with stenographic brevity, the contrasting approaches which have been offered, indicating at the same time what happened to them in actuality.

First, we have to remember that it was to his merit that liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill considered how problematical endless capitalist growth might be, suggesting as the solution of this problem the “stationary state of the economy.” Naturally, such a “stationary state” under the capital system could be nothing more than wishful thinking, because it is totally incompatible with the imperative of capital-expansion and accumulation. Even today, when so much destructiveness is caused by unqualified growth and the most wasteful allocation of our vital energy and strategic material resources, the mythology of growth is constantly reasserted, coupled with the wishful projection of “reducing our carbon imprint” by the year 2050, while in reality moving in the opposite direction. Thus the reality of liberalism turned out to be the aggressive destructiveness of neoliberalism.

Similar fate affected the social democratic perspective. Marx clearly formulated his warnings about this danger in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, but they were totally ignored. Here, too, the contradiction between the promised Bernsteinian “evolutionary socialism” and its realization everywhere turned out to be striking. Not only in virtue of the capitulation of social-democratic parties and governments to the lure of imperialist wars but also through the transformation of social democracy in general—including British “New Labour”—into more or less open versions of neo-liberalism, abandoning not only the “road of evolutionary socialism” but even the once promised implementation of significant social reform.

Moreover, a much propagandized solution to the gruesome inequalities of the capital system was the promised worldwide diffusion of the “Welfare State” after the Second World War. However, the prosaic reality of this claimed historic achievement turned out to be not only the utter failure to institute the Welfare State in any part of the so-called “Third World,” but the ongoing liquidation of the relative achievements of the postwar Welfare State—in the field of social security, health care, and education—even in the handful of privileged capitalist countries where they were once instituted.

And of course we cannot disregard the promise to realize the highest phase of socialism (by Stalin and others) through the overthrow and abolition of capitalism. For, tragically, seven decades after the October Revolution the reality turned out to be the restoration of capitalism in a regressive neoliberal form in the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The common denominator of all of these failed attempts—despite some of their major differences—is that they all tried to accomplish their objectives within the structural framework of the established social metabolic order. However, as painful historical experience teaches us, our problem is not simply “the overthrow of capitalism.” For even to the extent to which that objective can be accomplished, it is bound to be only a very unstable achievement, because whatever can be overthrown can be also restored. The real—and much more difficult—issue is the necessity of radical structural change.

The tangible meaning of such structural change is the complete eradication of capital itself from the social metabolic process. In other words, the eradication of capital from the metabolic process of societal reproduction.

Capital itself is an all-embracing mode of control; which means that it either controls everything or it implodes as a system of societal reproductive control. Consequently, capital as such cannot be controlled in some of its aspects while leaving the rest at its place. All attempted measures and modalities of “controlling” capital’s various functions on a lasting basis have failed in the past. In view of its structurally entrenched uncontrollability—which means that there is no conceivable leverage within the structural framework of the capital system itself through which the system itself could be brought under lasting control—capital must be completely eradicated. This is the central meaning of Marx’s lifework.

In our time the question of control—through the institution of structural change in response to our deepening structural crisis—is becoming urgent not only in the financial sector, due to the wasted trillions of dollars, but everywhere. The leading capitalist financial journals complain that “China is sitting on three trillion dollars of cash,” wishfully projecting again solutions through the “better use of that money.” But the sobering truth is that the total worsening indebtedness of capitalism amounts to ten times more than China’s “unused dollars.” Besides, even if the huge current indebtedness could be eliminated somehow, although no one can say how, the real question would remain: How was it generated in the first place, and how can be made sure that it is not generated again in the future? This is why the productive dimension of the system—namely the capital relation itself—is what must be fundamentally changed in order to overcome the structural crisis through the appropriate structural change.

The dramatic financial crisis which we experienced in the last three years is only one aspect of the capital system’s three-pronged destructiveness:

  1. in the military field, with capital’s interminable wars since the onset of monopolistic imperialism in the final decades of the nineteenth century, and its ever more devastating weapons of mass destruction in the last sixty years;
  2. the intensification through capital’s obvious destructive impact on ecology directly affecting and endangering by now the elementary natural foundation of human existence itself; and
  3. in the domain of material production an ever-increasing waste, due to the advancement of “destructive production” in place of the once eulogized “creative” or “productive destruction.”

These are the grave systemic problems of our structural crisis which can only be solved by a comprehensive structural change.

In conclusion, let me quote the last five lines of The Dialectic of Structure and History. They read as follows:

“Naturally, historical dialectic in the abstract cannot offer any guarantee for a positive outcome. To expect that would mean renouncing our role in developing social consciousness, which is integral to the historical dialectic. Radicalizing social consciousness in an emancipatory spirit is what we need for the future, and we need it more than ever before.”11


  1. ↩ “Breaking the US budget impasse,” The Financial Times, June 1, 2011, http://ft.com.
  2. ↩ See my 2009 Denate Socialista interview, republished as “The Tasks Ahead,” in The Structural Crisis of Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 173–202.
  3. ↩ This quotation is taken from Section 18.2.1 of Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 680–82.
  4. ↩ Sartre’s interview given to the Italian Manifesto group was published as “Masses, Spontaneity, Party” in Ralph Milliband and John Saville, eds., The Socialist Register, 1970 (London: Merlin Press, 1970), 245.
  5. ↩ Ibid., 242.
  6. ↩ Ibid., 238–39.
  7. ↩ The gravity of this problem can no longer be ignored. To realize its magnitude it is enough to quote a passage from an excellent book which offers a comprehensive account of the unfolding process of planetary destructiveness as a result of crossing some prohibitive thresholds and boundaries put into relief by environmental science: “these thresholds have in some cases already been crossed and in other cases will soon be crossed with the continuation of business as usual. Moreover, this can be attributed in each and every case to a primary cause: the current pattern of global socioeconomic development, that is, the capitalist mode of production and its expansionary tendencies. The whole problem can be called ‘the global ecological rift,’ referring to the overall break in the human relation to nature arising from an alienated system of capital accumulation without end. All of this suggests that the use of the term Anthropocene to describe a new geological epoch, displacing the Holocene, is both a description of a new burden falling on humanity and a recognition of an immense crisis—a potential terminal event in geological evolution that could destroy the world as we know it. On the one hand, there has been a great acceleration of the human impact on the planetary system since the Industrial Revolution, and particularly since 1945—to the point that biogeochemical cycles, the atmosphere, the ocean, and the earth system as a whole, can no longer be seen as largely impervious to the human economy. On the other hand, the current course on which the world is headed could be described not so much as the appearance of a stable new geological epoch (the Anthropocene), as an end-Holocene, or more ominously, end-Quarternary, terminal event, which is a way of referring to the mass extinctions that often separate geological eras. Planetary boundaries and tipping points, leading to the irreversible degradation of the conditions of life on Earth, may soon be reached, science tells us, with a continuation of today’s business as usual. The Anthropocene may be the shortest flicker in geological time, soon snuffed out.” John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 18–19.
  8. ↩ See my Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture, The Necessity of Social Control, delivered at the London School of Economics on January 26, 1971. Italics in the original. Reprinted in Beyond Capital, 872-97.
  9. ↩ Sartre, 239.
  10. ↩ Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge, 1963), 466.
  11. ↩ István Mészáros, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, vol. 2: The Dialectic of Structure and History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 483.

Published in Monthly Review, 

Retrieved 05/07/12 from: http://monthlyreview.org/2012/03/01/structural-crisis-needs-structural-change