As long as the conditions for investment and profit remain, the system will adapt. Which is why we need a revolution
Arguably the single most important mistake the revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s made was to overlook the resilience of capitalism. The idea – catastrophism, as it is often called – that the system was going to crumble under the pressure of its own contradictions, that the bourgeoisie produces its own “gravediggers” (as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto) has been disproved. When the rate of profit started showing signs of decline in the first half of the 70s, the redistributive policies implemented after the second world war were terminated and the neoliberal revolution was launched.
This resilience of capitalism has little to do with the dominant classes being particularly clever or far-sighted. In fact, they can keep on making mistakes – yet capitalism still thrives. Why?
Capitalism has created a world of great complexity since its birth. Yet at its core, it is based on a set of simple mechanisms that can easily adapt to adversity. This is a kind of “generative grammar” in Noam Chomsky’s sense: a finite set of rules can generate an infinity of outcomes.
The context today is very different from that of the 60s and 70s. The global left, however, is in danger of committing the same error of underestimating capitalism all over again. Catastrophism, this time, takes the form of investing faith in a new object: climate change, and more generally the ecological crisis.
There is a worryingly widespread belief in leftwing circles that capitalism will not survive the environmental crisis. The system, so the story goes, has reached its absolute limits: without natural resources – oil among them – it can’t function, and these resources are fast depleting; the growing number of ecological disasters will increase the cost of maintaining infrastructures to unsustainable levels; and the impact of a changing climate on food prices will induce riots that will make societies ungovernable.
The beauty of catastrophism, today as in the past, is that if the system is to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, the weakness of the left ceases to be a problem. The end of capitalism takes the form of suicide rather than murder. So the absence of a murderer – that is, an organised revolutionary movement – doesn’t really matter any more.
But the left would be better off learning from its past mistakes. Capitalism might well be capable not only of adapting to climate change but of profiting from it. One hears that the capitalist system is confronted with a double crisis: an economic one that started in 2008, and an ecological one, rendering the situation doubly perilous. But one crisis can sometimes serve to solve another.
Capitalism is responding to the challenge of the ecological crisis with two of its favourite weapons: financialisation and militarisation. In times of crisis, for instance, markets will require simultaneously that wages be cut and that people keep …read more