A review of The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century by Ben Reynolds, wherein our radical heroes come face to face with the rapidly approaching limits of their pathetic reformism.
Capitalism incessantly struggles to rid itself of wage labor even as it tries to increase the mass of profits. This has implications for any realistic set of predictions regarding the likely path of the mode of production in the next eight decades. Capital’s effort to rid itself of wage labor implies that the total mass of value diminishes over time; while the effort to increase the mass of profit implies that capital’s total employment of labor must increase over time. The paradoxical impact of capitalist commodity production is all too often lost on writers, who, limiting their analysis of the mode of production to the sphere of exchange, are divided into camps over the ultimate result of capitalist development. The division is best expressed in the controversy over whether improved methods of production necessarily results in technological unemployment.
Since the great crash of 2008, the radical Left has created something of a cottage industry predicting the future of the capitalist mode of production. The gist of this narrative is best summarized by a passage taken from a 2016 talk given by Wolfgang Streeck, who predicts a rather dystopian future, where wage slavery continues, even as civilization collapses:
“Under post-capitalism, private profit-making continues, even though in the shadow of uncertainty in an anomic society with decaying institutions, declining coherence, successive crises, and ongoing local and more-than-local conflicts and contestations. Mass cooperation with capital accumulation is driven by a culture of competitive consumption that, apart perhaps from large parts of Asia where it seems to be based in collective conformism, must be vigilantly protected against being subverted by post-materialist value change, if not by shrinking spending power. The life of individuals in the post-capitalist sauve qui peut interregnum follows the behavioural prescriptions of neoliberal doctrine ( Dardot and Laval, 2013 ), which means that it is bound to burn to the ground the foundations of a successful society and economy. Social life cannot be reduced to economic life, and economic life is not possible outside of a society. Proposition 12 of Etzioni’s Moral Dimension (1988, 257) applies: ‘The more people accept the neoclassical paradigm as a guide for their behaviour, the more their ability to sustain a market economy is undermined’. The future of capitalism is bleak.”
The future appears bleak indeed, considering that, when Streeck wrote those words in 2016, a Trump Presidency was held to be not just unlikely, but impossible — a hilarious farce fit only for late Saturday night live television. If at the beginning of the 20th century radical thinkers were filled with optimism over the imminent demise of wage slavery, today the very thought that wage slavery might end fills them with an unspeakable dread that weighs on their writings like a festering corpse. In truth, as Streeck’s argument suggests, there is no post-capitalism for the radical Left. What most radicals call post-capitalism might better be called post-politics or post-democracy: the state, having been stripped of its capacity to manage the production of surplus value, will leave us to the tender mercies of naked capitalism. If politics ever had a civilizing influence on capital, so the argument of our radical prognosticators warn, the velvet glove of democracy is as last century as that silly glove Michael Jackson wore on his right hand when Millennials were just kids.
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