Crisis and decadence


[Edit 03/03/2017 — I no longer agree with much of this post, particularly the prescriptions of the concluding paragraphs. Its genesis was an attempt to rescue conventional left-accelerationism when I still thought there was a need for it, but I’m leaving it up since in fact it serves as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the left-accelerationist project itself. The decadence/crisis distinction continues, however, to be necessary.]

The liberal-capitalist system is dying again. For the first time in seven decades, globalisation and liberalism have fallen into retreat. The sinking tide is uncovering states that are either hollow shells devoid of political and moral legitimacy, or vessels for new forms of revivalist authoritarianism. The emerging economies that were once scheduled to take on the burden of supporting world capitalism from an anaemic West have found the ground crumbling beneath them. Russia has formally abandoned the liberalising project, returning to the great-power politics of a previous age. Brazil has fallen into deep recession, ruled by a putschist, kleptocratic government that has busied itself mutilating what remains of the country’s economic prospects. China teeters on the brink as the return of protectionism threatens to plunge it into paralytic recession. The flow of investment to emerging markets has reversed. In wealth, if not in market size, the West has once again begun to pull away from the rest.

The titanic war-machines of populism and market-technocracy are grinding the Left to dust. The left-populist project has proven, so far, an abject failure, whether in government as in Greece, or outside of it as in Spain, Britain, and the United States. Now the barest defeat for fascism is counted as a cause for celebration, while the darkness closes in from every other side. The Internet has created a new fabric of political mobilisation, new forms of information technology acting as pylons for political mobilisation outside the decaying frame of the liberal political horizon. ‘Rotted by digital contagions, modernity is falling to bits.

Many of the attempts to diagnose this condition have been hindered by a refusal to engage with its material basis. Detached idealism and sweeping generalisations are the order of the day. It’s just individual people who’ve come up with cunning political strategies. It’s a ‘reaction to globalisation’. It’s ‘angry white men’. Progress will win out in the end: it’s inevitable. There are simply bumps along the way.

Most of these analyses are too insubstantial to merit a response in detail. The world didn’t ‘stop making sense’ in 2016: you had never made sense of the world to begin with. It’s not true that ‘nothing matters’: it’s just that the things you thought mattered, in reality, never did.

If we’re being charitable, we might allow that journalists and analysts writing on these lines have certainly not been provided much help by the mainstream of academic political science and theory, which has been equally blindsided by recent events and has become a cottage industry dedicated to the production of inventive declarations of despair and vague and unhelpful recommendations for revitalising political engagement at the level of the local (often via the kind of necessarily impotent political practice that Srnicek and Williams term ‘folk politics’, and that Nick Land more unkindly labelled ‘socialism in one Bantustan’).

Mysteriously gesturing towards Rawls and Habermas or—in the case of the more critically inclined—the more authentic Western Marxists does not constitute a legitimate avenue towards a political praxis.

If we’re to answer the question of why things are falling apart, we need to search for a failure in the fundamental processes undergirding capitalism as we understand it today. Those who have searched for this explanation—people like Wolfgang Streeck, Yanis Varoufakis, or Andrew Kliman, to name just a few—have tended to alight on the idea that the economic crisis of the 1970s never really ended. The advanced economies have been rescued from depression only by prolonged bubbles, in the financial industry during the era of high neoliberalism, in the form of credit prior to 2008, and through increasingly unconventional economic remedies in the last eight years. All the while, real productivity has plateaued. The side-effects are piling on top of each other, the remaining options are running out, and, in 2016, the entire edifice has at last begun to unravel.

After almost 50 years, however, to call this a ‘crisis’ seems a conceptual confusion. Crises are momentary. The annexation of Crimea was a crisis. It was a discrete disturbance in the international order that demanded a determinate political response. The continuing sequence of events in eastern Ukraine, by contrast, is no longer a crisis—it is a kind of self-perpetuating anomaly. As offensive as it may be, the Donbass People’s Republics continue to exist in a kind of unstable equilibrium, presumably not indefinitely sustainable, yet, as far as we can see, prolonging themselves on an indefinite horizon.

We can perform a similar conceptual separation for the world-system as a whole. In Marxian economic theory, an economic crisis offers an opportunity for capitalism to clear the board, to reset the variables that determine the successful extraction of surplus value. In general, it is sharp and explosive; the scramble for profit in the conditions of the decline of the rate of profit takes the form of a desperate investment in new technologies and methods of production. But though the rate of profit has fallen, this desperate effort to intensify production does not, despite it all, seem to be happening: the decline in the rate of profit cannot in itself be a sufficient explanation. This, in the end, is not a crisis: it is a condition. And it happens that an often overlooked and disparaged current in the history of political thought provides a precise designation for this condition, namely decadence.

‘Decadence’ is a term that has fallen into disrepute. It has often carried moralising, or, at worst, racial overtones. The image of a revitalised masculinity arising from the ruins of an effeminate, ‘decadent’ society is a common one in fascist thought. But this is only one inflection on the concept. Decadence, at root, describes a condition of social and economic stasis. If ‘catastrophe’ for a figure like Walter Benjamin meant the rubble piled up by the relentless progress of modernity, decadence is precisely where the clock stops.

Contemporary capitalism is adept at producing technological innovation on a small-scale and iterative basis. This has produced great rewards in the computer industry, where indeed the vast majority of manufacturing expansion has been concentrated, but cannot be sustained forever. As industry stagnates and the precise sciences struggle against falling government investment, we seem to have lost the capacity for the more fundamental kinds of technological advance that represent (following, if we like, Land and Bergson) the basic struggle of human society against the infinite surrounding entropy of the universe, the real and tangible arc of material and historical progress.

Quite apart from the lack of new markets available for expansion, from the more general stagnancy of contemporary production, at the crucial level of the technoeconomy this kind of consumerist iteration has proven itself incapable of opening new avenues to economic growth.

The critics of accelerationism ought to take note: The brakes have been applied to capitalism. Globalisation is faltering, markets are failing to grow. What has resulted is not, in the first instance, a revitalised socialism, but fascism.

The kind of policy that results from this observation will need a much longer space to detail. A brief prescription, however, would look like this: End the decadence, and bring on the crisis. What is needed is a concerted and intelligent attempt to reset the intensification and concentration of industrial production. This is not something that capitalism can accomplish on its own: capitalists don’t invest for the sake of investment, but on the expectation of profit. In the anaemia of contemporary capitalism, then, this reset can only take place under state direction (though not, of course, necessarily direct state planning—the examples of German and East Asian development are an apposite guide). Just as it has in the past, the state must equally take on the responsibility of pushing forward the horizons of technological development.

This will require a strong concentration of political power—as well it should, since decentralising projects have severely undermined the capacity of popular democracy—supported, in the sphere of commerce, by a temporary dose of protectionism to cultivate new sectors of industry. It will necessarily imply the rejection of certain liberal principles and the adoption of populist methods, undergirded by modern information technology. In the political sphere, this will enable the construction of a functional postliberal democracy, while in the economic sphere it will set the conditions for a higher stage of capitalist development.

This is only a very schematic overview. I will deal with individual aspects of it in future posts.