Are we headed to another Great Depression … or something else

I have been reading this argument for why the CoViD-19 emergency will not lead to collapse of capitalist accumulation: “No, we’re not heading toward the next Great Depression.” I am constantly on the lookout for articles like this, because they offer a counter-argument to my own and thus challenge my own argument with a skeptical fresh opinion.

In this case, the writer, Cullen Roche, appears to think that the question of the outcome of this emergency hinges “on the outcomes of an exogenous virus” epidemic. I think he is making an error in this view, a typical error made by most bourgeois simpletons, but one that is all too often shared by many communists as well. Whether the capitalist mode of production collapses at this point has nothing at all to do with the pandemic.

The pandemic, as we stated from the outset, is only the trigger for the crisis.


But let’s read his argument.

Following his view that the course of the pandemic will determine the course of the crisis, Roche sees two likely scenarios for how this crisis will play out: “short and sharp” and “shorter and sharper”.

Scenario Number One, which Roche thinks could last about 24 months, is the “shorter and sharper” of the two. It assumes that social distancing works, herd immunity builds, treatments improve, warm weather helps and we stave off the virus long enough for a vaccine to be developed before the next flu season.

Scenario Number Two, which Roche thinks may last as long as 36 months, is the “short and sharp” version of the crisis. This scenario assumes the virus mutates and lingers through the summer, decimating the population much like the Spanish Flu did in 1918.

While scenario number two lasts perhaps as long as three years, in neither case, should it take the so-called economy as much time to recover from the effects of the pandemic as it took to recover from the 2008-09 financial crisis. In Roche’s opinion, there is no possibility that we will suffer through an interminable recovery like the one society experienced during the Great Depression.

Which is probably great news for speculators like Roche, since, in truth, there was no actual recovery from the Great Depression. Instead, the United States and its allies just destroyed most of their competitors within the world market at the cost of some 80 million dead. The last imperialist power standing, the United States, picked up all of the marbles because everyone else was devastated by war.

Continue reading “Are we headed to another Great Depression … or something else”

How the DSA is responding to the pandemic emergency – III

Continued from here

At one point, I said the DSA author’s People’s Recovery program was “a description of the United States (six months to a year from now) with unmitigated pandemic emergency measures?”

What do I mean by the term unmitigated pandemic emergency measures?

The short answer is that I am using an analogy with the response taken to the outbreak of the pandemic itself. To contain the pandemic itself the authorities have issued a number of stay-at-home orders. These orders confine citizens to their homes when not engaged in activities the state has deemed to be essential. The orders are meant to mitigate or slow the spread of the virus.

But the measures implemented by state and national governments to slow the spread of the virus themselves have an economic cost in that they displace millions of workers from their jobs and paralyze the process of capitalist accumulation world wide. The fascists hope (essentially) that this economic cost is transitory. They hope the accumulation process can be temporarily shut down and restarted much the same way a factory machine can be shut down at close of business one day and restarted when the business reopens the next.

But the economic cost is massive. As of today, in the United States, 33 million workers are known to have been separated from their jobs by these stay-at-home measures. (The actual number is probably closer to 50 million.) If these workers do not get rehired quickly, or if only a part of these workers get rehired, this will lead to a sudden violent alteration in the material conditions of the working class. The collapse of prices that have been so entertaining in the oil market will finally reach the market in labor power.

When I refer to unmitigated pandemic emergency measures, I am referring to what will happen if the state takes no steps to address the situation where 20 or 30 million workers remain unemployed once the stay-at-home measures are lifted and the so-called “economy is reopened”. Historical experience suggest, nation states will make little or no effort to help this massive population of unemployed workers, just as it made almost no effort in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the various countries in the so-called socialist bloc. Which means, tens of millions of workers in the United States, and billions worldwide, will be left without work or income and without any possibility of finding work or income.

The problem is not just the difficulty the virus itself poses for most types of social production — like working in offices, on production lines and in retail settings — nor is it the hesitation customers might have venturing out to restaurants, casinos and ball games again once the stay-at-home orders are lifted. These problems are real, of course, and they do complicate things. These are very real complications, but people are clever and we’ll figure out a way to work around them.

The real problem is that capitalists hate paying wages and if they could figure out how to generate profits without paying a dime to workers they would do it in a heartbeat. And as Benanev and Clegg somewhat clumsily explain, this tendency, built into capitalism, toward eliminating living labor in production, now has become so pronounced that recent recoveries tend to be jobless:

“Today many speak of a ‘jobless recovery’, but if the ‘general law of capital accumulation’ applies then all capitalist recoveries are tendentially jobless. The tendency of “mature” industries to throw off labour, whilst facilitating expanded reproduction, also tends to consolidate a surplus population not fully absorbed by the subsequent expansion. This is due to the adaptability of labour-saving technology across lines, which mean that the manufacture of new products tends to make use of the most innovative production processes. Yet process innovations last forever, and they generalize across new and old capitals, while product innovations are inherently limited in their ability to generate a net expansion of output and employment. Here the problem is not merely that product innovations have to emerge at an accelerated rate to absorb the surplus thrown off by process innovations, it is that an acceleration of product innovation itself gives rise to an acceleration of process innovation.”

Benanev and Clegg actually downplay the extent of the problem of jobless recoveries. In reality, there have been no expansion of wage employment in the last 90 years since the Great Depression without a significant stimulus on the part of the state to generate growth.

Which is a pity, because a jobless recovery under normal condition of the last forty years is bad enough when unemployment is marginal, but a jobless recovery with 20-50 million already unemployed implies a staggering superabundance of workers as far as the eye can see, plunging wages, and scant social space for the sort of militancy most radicals assume would be necessary for a successful revolutionary strategy in the 21st century.


Which means the greatest single victim of the coronavirus pandemic may be the failed communist strategy of the 20th century. Most communists are willing to concede that we are not living in what they call “a revolutionary period”. But this pandemic means there will never be a so-called revolutionary period again. Folks need to get this through their thick skulls. It ain’t happening; an approach that relies in any way on an assumption that there will be a revolutionary period in the future is as obsolete as retail malls.

I don’t think this is difficult to understand. The past forty years of history prove that it was never realistic to think the working class would be radicalized as its economic conditions deteriorated. That’s why we had to be organize and prepared to assume power before conditions deteriorated. The whole point of the preparation period prior to the breakdown (or collapse) of production based on exchange value was to prepare for that event.

You couldn’t wait for a collapse to happen and then begin preparing. Once breakdown occurred, it was too late for communists to begin organizing. The conditions themselves made it highly unlikely that we would succeed. Breakdown meant massive unemployment. This implies sharp competition within the working class and sharply falling wages. It is pretty hard to maintain solidarity under those conditions. After breakdown occurred, all bets were off.

Essentially, that is where we are now with this pandemic: we have been thrown back to the middle of the Great Depression, but with no labor organizations, no communist parties and no hope for a revolutionary strategy based on the 20th century model!

How the DSA is responding to the pandemic emergency – II

Continued from here

Now, here’s a question: if you agree with the DSA on this basic analysis, why would you have anything to do with this group of losers?

Basically the DSA is saying that in six months to a year things will settle down and life will pretty much be the way it was before the pandemic. That means, in six months to a year the folks who run this shit will still be running this shit and people like the DSA will still be carrying their water. Why would you want to be a water carrier when you can be a player?

I’m just trying to figure out how these folks brains work.

The answer must hinge on the idea that as the economic position of the working class deteriorates, it will become radicalized. However, with the exception of Andrew Kliman, who has his own peculiar method of calculating such things, I know of no economist who argues that the economic position of the working class has been improving for the last forty years. Every other economist seems to agree the economic position of the working class has been declining the entire time.

Yet there is no evidence that the working class has been politically radicalized by this decline. Even if we leave aside electoral politics, historical evidence of labor militancy have almost vanished in the last 40 years. Strikes are almost non-existent today, labor union membership and organization has collapsed; and not just in the United States but across the world market.

It is possible that declining economic position of the working class has not led to their increasing militancy, because their declining economic position is itself a product of their declining militancy and organization. We are then forced to explain the common source of both the declining militancy and the declining economic position of the working class.

The most likely explanation regularly cited in the literature is a persistent superabundance of workers relative to the demand for labor power in the market. This superabundance would tend to undercut both the wages of the working class and the class solidarity necessary to support labor organization and unity of the working class.


But what does this mean about the present pandemic emergency?

Nothing fucking good, I can tell you that.

Even if we assume, for sake of argument, that the authors of the DSA People’s Recovery program are absolutely correct and the system overall survives, so that, in six months or so, wage slavery will basically be intact and functioning as before, the economic position of the working class will have deteriorated violently and traumatically.

The superabundance of the working class relative to the demand for labor power may have increased as much as ten-fold or twenty-fold, shattering all possibility of labor militancy. Two, perhaps three times as many workers will be unemployed as belong to the unions associated with the AFL-CIO. While the system overall may survive as the authors argue, the economic position of the working class will be fundamentally impaired permanently.

And, to be clear, this is not a situation that is likely to be reversed by a new expansion of capitalist accumulation any more than the Great Depression was, because, like the Great Depression, what passes for a recovery will come on top of an already existing crisis of absolute overaccumulation of capital that is already clearly shown in the growing gluts in food production, the oil industry, auto production, etc..

It helps to remember that the absolute overproduction of capital in the 1930s was resolved only by the wholesale destruction of the productive forces during World War II.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that most nation states are going to attempt to stimulate their way out of this economic catastrophe. They have neither the inclination nor the means. And, as the OPEC dispute shows, it is unlikely they will achieve some sort of negotiated shut down of excess productive capacity.

This means, after a severe collapse of global economic activity of 30% to 40% or more in this emergency, we may see a modest bounce back of 5-15% in the first year, before things settle down in the 2% to 5% growth range for as far as the eye can see.

We are, therefore, looking at decades of 10-20% unemployment, if we are lucky. Such chronic superabundance of workers beyond any conceivable need for human labor power is hardly the suggestive of a new upsurge in working class militancy.

Continued here

How the DSA is responding to the pandemic emergency

I was listening to a speculator on one of the business channels this morning who described the stock market rally of recent weeks this way (paraphrasing):

The real economy is in dire shape, but we know this. The stock market is a discounting mechanism for this. It is looking beyond the present information into the future. In that future I see the UK stock market going to 7000 before it goes to 5000. (It is presently at around 6000.)

This made me think of the proposed People’s Recovery program of the Democratic Socialists of America that I read last night. It might help to look at the People’s Recovery program as a discounting mechanism and ask ourselves what members of the DSA are discounting.

Clearly, the authors of this document are discounting the present dire situation, which is only natural from their viewpoint. They are saying to the rest of us, essentially,

“No matter how the Trump administration and the other nation states screw things up, the system overall will survive.”

And, there is no doubt about it, the fascists have screwed things up. They have interrupted the capitalist accumulation process, they have shut down the global economy. Despite this massive fuck up, the authors of this program think in six months to a year or so wage slavery will basically be intact and functioning as before. The present pandemic emergency barely calls for any change in the DSA program at all.

So, everything listed in the proposed People’s Recovery program of the DSA is more or less the same as what the DSA demanded before the pandemic:

  • Medicare for All and total medical debt forgiveness.
  • A healthcare jobs program.
  • Workplace protections and a jobs guarantee.
  • A rent freeze and an eviction moratorium.
  • A homes guarantee.
  • Protections for all workers.
    • 30 days paid sick leave for each and every worker
    • hazard pay and benefits for all workers whose services will remain essential through the crisis
  • End the deadly Cuba blockade and drop all sanctions.
  • Close the border camps, end cash bail, abolish prison labor, and make inmate phone calls free.

The authors did add two demands, apparently:

  • Full staffing at the San Francisco Department of Public Health
  • Safe staffing at the San Francisco Unified School District

But even these two demand assume the continued existence of SFDPH and SFUSD in an otherwise unaltered state.


There are two things to say about the DSA authors’ view of what this pandemic emergency has wrought:

First, the DSA authors are not saying the situation isn’t dire at present. Instead, they are saying that no matter how dire it is, the system as a whole will survive. Which means, Trump may be reelected or be gone; Biden may replace him or fail to win the election. In any case, no fundamental change will occur in the mode of production. It will chug along as before and stumble from one crisis to another as before.

Second, the DSA authors are assuming generally deteriorating economic conditions for the working class — including long-term job losses, persistent homelessness, a large-scale medical emergency, constant threat of job-related medical hazards, rising threat of war and international tensions and growing antagonism against migrants. This deterioration of the economic position of the working class is not inconsistent with the continued survival of the system, but an expression of the continued survival of the system.

In fact, the DSA program should not be thought of as a program at all. It is actually a snapshot of the United States taken three months ago and projected six months to a year into the future. Preexisting trends with which we are already familiar will be exacerbated, of course, but, aside from this, nothing fundamental will change.

We could call the proposed DSA program a description of the United States with unmitigated pandemic emergency measures.

Continued here