16 March 2006


this is an interesting exchange -- Eric Hobsbawm is an old marxist historian, and Jacques Attali is a capitalist, banker, and major author...

Interactivist Info Exchange

Here, Attali describes how inequalities under capitalism are increasing. But this was not always the case. The statistics, as they stand, typically describe a middle class rising in the 1920s, collapsing with the Depression, and rising again after World War II until the decline of the 1970s.

In an article titled "What is left of socialism?" now available in an anthology titled My Correct Views on Everything, the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski suggests that Marx was wrong on this matter, and that the middle class was growing. So there's the other side of it for you.  The problem with all such generalizations is that they seem to regard all stages of capitalist development as being basically "the same," whereas capitalism is a much more complex creature than can be outlined in a simple debate about whether Marx was wrong or right.

The marxist (and Gramscian) scholar of international political economy, Kees van der Pijl, outlined four "regimes of accumulation," marking stages of capitalist development, in his book Transnational Classes and International Relations. They are:

  1. an "extensive accumulation" stage, from the Industrial Revolution well into the 19th century,

  2. an "intensive accumulation" factory stage, characteristic of the United States after the Civil War and before World War I,

  3. a "progressive accumulation" stage, wherein a significant consumer society was erected (with the help of Keynesian economics) alongside industries in cars, airlines, chemicals, electronics technology, and

  4. the current "virtual accumulation" stage, in which the hypertrophy of finance capital and neoliberal economics exists alongside the nanotechnology, communications, and biotechnology industries (55-57, 63).
(You can use the Amazon.com link to search inside the book for this stuff -- type "accumulation" into the search engine.)

Each stage of capitalist development corresponds to a particular technological development. This is appropriate, as capitalism changes form with technological change.

Returning to our first two authors, we can see that Jacques Attali's prognosis is that
We cannot imagine the barbarism that will happen, but it is obvious that it will. The only way to imagine a solution will be to organise, on a worldwide level, a compromise between the market and democracy.
Now, Attali is a capitalist, to be sure. So his pronouncements on "the market" and "democracy" can perhaps be forgiven for their vagueness -- in this stage of capitalist development, government is fast becoming a conduit for the operators of "the market," meaning market ideology as a tool of the transnational capitalist class. (Please read Leslie Sklair's The Transnational Capitalist Class if you don't know what that is.)

But "old Marxism," in the person of Hobsbawm, did not suggest anything any less cryptic. Hobsbawm says:
For instance, the Marxist prediction that a growing proletariat in the industrialised countries would overthrow capitalism didn't work, because the progress of capitalism eventually does without the working class, as it does without the peasantry.
It's difficult for me to see in what sense Hobsbawm means that the progress of capitalism eventually does without the working class. The working class is still here, isn't it?

A rigorous and specific historical materialism, on the other hand, would recognize that the stage 4) that van der Pijl recognized, the stage of neoliberalism, is creating conditions that will soon result in catastrophe for world civilization as a whole, through global warming, peak oil, debt crisis, and so on. If we wish to theorize capitalism as it is rather than scratching our heads and wondering why the "socialist" revolution didn't succeed, we must pay a far more careful attention to the material conditions of existence than we have paid so far. The ecological crisis is unprecedented in its historical dimensions because the growth of capitalist exploitation, both of nature and of labor, has reached unprecedented levels. The neoliberal stage of capitalism has thus planted the seeds of its own doom, and those seeds are growing rather quickly.  We can afford to be vague about Marx or historical materialism no longer.  New theories must therefore arise to confront a new situation.


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