Our Everyday Crisis

Among leftists and fighters against the system, the predominant idea is usually that the current crisis is “their” crisis, a crisis of capital and capitalists, which has dramatic consequences for the world of labor.  It turns out to be very difficult to accept that we, too, are going through “our” crisis, a crisis of our methods of understanding the mode of domination and our strategies for potentially overcoming the crisis in an emancipatory way.

Based on a certain interpretation of Marx, we may conclude that we are facing a phenomenal crisis of overproduction, since capitalism has managed to produce mountains of goods that cannot be bought by the population, which can only be resolved by destruction of surplus goods and of millions of jobs that produce them.  This analysis highlights the laws of political economy, especially the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, as the center of gravity in the decline of capital accumulation.

Based on another interpretation of Marx, we may conclude that the current crisis must be due to insufficient subordination of labor to capital, which leads the latter to escape to other geographical spaces and seek new forms of accumulation, such as what David Harvey named “accumulation by dispossession,” which includes the supersizing of the financial system and an array of neoliberal recipes that has been applied under the influence of the Washington Consensus.  This interpretation highlights the role of class struggle, as much in the gestation as in the resolution of crises, considering it as the master key to the social order (and chaos).

The question is not whether to opt for one or the other interpretation.  Both traverse the work of Marx in a contradictory fashion.  Nevertheless, among economists, politicians, and activists, the first interpretation, which we may call positivist, predominates.  This positivist interpretation tends to prioritize the crisis as something essentially alien whose consequences we, the lower orders, pay.  Accumulated evidence before us, however, should lead us to work through Marx’s maxim that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”

In recent weeks, prominent US government officials and directors of multinationals have assured us that there are signs that the crisis has bottomed out and that it is on track to be overcome.  Stock markets are slowly recovering, consumption in some sectors shows signs of rebound, and certain sectors of production look like taking off again.  But bankruptcies are still coming, deficits are getting deeper, and, above all, unemployment rates continue to climb up.  For all that, a not insignificant segment of the higher orders is optimistic.  This fact alone is disturbing, since it reveals that what they mean by getting out of the crisis is very much different from what we at the grassroots want and aim for.

The current crisis is an excellent opportunity to intensify the subordination of labor, as the dominant class has been doing since the enormous crisis of Fordism and Taylorism in the sixties.

At this point, however painful it may be, we must recognize that, though it’s been more than a year since the beginning of the crisis, there have been no momentous reactions on the part of workers.  Though it is possible and desirable that such reactions will come in the future, there are no strong indications that suggest the current trend will change.  Without powerful uprisings and persistent movements, capital can sleep tranquilly and direct the crisis in such a way that would reinforce the central objective of the capitalist class: greater domestication of labor.

Here are two assessments.  On one hand, the long experience of trade unionism has not served to strengthen the workers’ desire to go beyond capitalism.  On the contrary, it has deepened the workers’ aspiration to integrate themselves into the system as advantageously as possible.  It is impossible not to feel that the problem is not of the kind that can be solved by changing the trade union leadership, since it is the “trade union form” itself that demonstrates its consistent limitations.  In this regard, the Latin American experience, where none of the most important struggles against neoliberalism has been led by the trade union movement as its main protagonist, may serve as our guide.  Workers have risen up under other identities (for instance, as members of communities, immigrants, the poor, and the unemployed), but the axis of their struggles has not revolved around workplaces where the bosses clearly have the upper hand.

The other assessment concerns the state and representative democracy.  The bulk of struggles waged by the Left focuses on making demands on the state or winning political spaces through participation in electoral processes, as the French revolutionary Left has been doing with great expectations to accumulate votes and public offices so that the struggle can continue under better circumstances.

Both the logic of trade unions and that of the state are inspired by the concept of accumulation of forces, a concept symmetrical to that of accumulation of capital.  The history of the struggles of the oppressed has shown great limitations of this concept for the purpose of opening a path toward emancipation. 

It is possible to give many more examples (the concept of organization, the role of the seizure of state power, the relation between the local and the global, transitions, etc.) that illustrate the point that the aforementioned crisis is not only “their” crisis but also ours, a crisis of the whole set of theses, social analyses, and political practices that has been forged since the French Revolution.

There is no roadmap for how to get out of this labyrinth, largely because, as we know, it is easier to get out of error than confusion.  The only certainty is that only a broad and multifaceted ensemble of uprisings, rebellions, and insurrections, on the global as well as local scale, can allow us to discover paths, necessarily new ones, to turn the crisis into a process of superseding capitalism.  We’ll have to rethink the rest, for, in times of systemic confusion, new forms of action must be created.

This original article “La crisis nuestra de cada día” was published by La Jornada on 8 May 2009.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).