A great article by
Can one therefore imagine that capitalism is a caputalism bearing the Cain’s mark of collapse? And how can we envisage this end?
“The image I have of the end of capitalism — an end that I believe is already under way — is one of a social system in chronic disrepair” is how the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck put it two years ago. A permanent quasi-stagnation with at best mini-growth rates, explosive inequality, privatization of all and sundry, endemic corruption and plunder, where normal profit expectations get ever lower, a consequent moral collapse (capitalism is more and more linked to fraud, theft and dirty tricks), the West getting weaker and weaker, staggering along as it foments disintegration and crisis in trouble spots on its periphery.
The Nobel Prize winner for economics, Paul Krugman, like Larry Summers, paints a picture of “permanent slump.” Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary – truly no leftie – uses the phrase of “secular stagnation” as a self-evident truth – meaning that the long centuries of dynamic capitalist growth could come to an end.
The renowned economist Robert J Gordon has also investigated in a much-discussed paper whether – at least in the USA – “economic growth is over.” Growth rates took on dynamic pace in 1750, reached breakneck speed in the mid-20th century and have since gone down in successive periods. The great innovations that bring both productivity progress and growth – they may be history: “The growth of productivity … slowed markedly after 1970.” The third industrial revolution, with computerization and concomitant labour saving, also demonstrated its essential effects between 1960 and the late 1990s but has practically come to a standstill since the noughties. Despite superficial impressions, the past 15 years may have produced practically no more genuinely productive innovations. “Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labour productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.”
In his latest book The End of Normal, economist James K. Galbraith plays a similar tune and even goes one step further. The era of prosperity between 1850 and 1970 has anchored in the economist fraternity the unspoken certainty that constant growth is “normality” but stagnation and crisis “the exception.” Galbraith now suspects: “Whatever worked in times gone may well no longer work today.”
Even if Robert Gordon’s thesis about a declining dynamics in innovation is not entirely right it might well be the case that today’s innovations no longer serve the prosperous nature of capitalism as a whole but have rather ambivalent effects. Above all, one of their effects is that jobs are destroyed without new ones replacing them. The new digital technologies mainly serve the purpose of reducing costs and winning new markets at the cost of older firms. Here the current period is distinct from earlier phases of innovation: whereas, in earlier times, ‘creative destruction’ in the process of innovation got rid of old and often poor jobs (as in agriculture) but huge amounts of new and often better ones arose (as in the car industry), so now innovations bring higher joblessness for one part and, worse, more precarious jobs for the other part of the labour force. The cumulative income of the man on the street thereby comes under increasing pressure and heads irredeemably downwards.
My speculative interest in techno-fascism arises out of a shared sense of the possibility that capitalism may merely trundle on: low to zero growth rates, growing structural unemployment, declining living standards, increasing inequality and the erosion of social security. The reason I regard this possibility as dystopic, that is potentially leading to dystopian outcomes, relates to digital technology as the remaining locus of innovation within the economy and the possibility for social control which it portends.