The 1989-2020 capitalist expansion and the question of the productive forces

[Published in Communism #14, July 2021.]

The formidable capitalist expansion of 1989-2020

Capitalism has experienced a tremendous development during the period 1989-2020; the standard of living of the masses has greatly increased, and this at the global level. There are of course pockets, sometimes very large, which have relatively avoided this. Nevertheless, both imperialist capitalism and bureaucratic capitalism gained such momentum that they succeeded in stifling the revolution.

Many data clearly show how there was a capitalist expansion, each time very specific, with new or enlarged markets. The development of meat consumption is quite emblematic here. The consumption of meat in the world was 145.3 million tonnes in 1983, 323 million tonnes in 2017 (we are talking about more than sixty billion animals per year). It involves planetary transformation. 30% of the land surface is used for intensive cattle breeding. Dairy animals linked to milk and meat represent 20% of all animal biomass. Would capitalism have been capable of such a transformation at the level of the Biosphere, if it had not grown? Obviously not.

Concrete is in this respect emblematic, since concretisation is an essential phenomenon of capitalist expansion. 6 billion m³ of concrete are produced each year; in three years (from 2011 to 2013), China consumed as much concrete as the United States during the whole of the twentieth century.

We can put this in relation to sand, which goes into the composition of the concrete. The extraction of sand from the seabed, mines and lakes amounts to forty billion tons per year. The same goes for cement, another element of concrete. In the early 1990s, non-Western countries consumed 65% of the world’s cement, now it is 90%. The main producers of the world’s 4.6 billion tonnes of cement are China (57.5%), India, the United States, Iran, Brazil, Turkey.

We note the presence of India and Brazil, which we find also for steel. Humanity produces each year as much steel as during the decade 1945-1955. The main producers of the 1.8 billion tonnes of steel are China (almost 50%), India, Japan, the United States, South Korea, Russia, Turkey and Brazil. Similarly, if we take the world production of sugar cane, which was 448 million tonnes in 1961 and 1,907 million tonnes in 2018, we have Brazil in first place, having taken the place of India, now second.

Even if it is in a distorted or incomplete way in bureaucratic capitalist countries, capitalist expansion is general, systematic and aggressive, as evidenced by urban sprawl, which implies as a “model” the Western way of life.

Of course, it is absolutely impossible to generalize such a way of life, totally destructive for the planet: it would take several planets, serving only as resources, for this capitalist “utopia” to exist for the now 7.7 billion human beings (2.5 billion in 1950), who also now live mainly in an urban environment.

Anyway, without wanting to look too far, we just need to see that people in western countries use computers, smartphones and the internet, things that did not exist before the development of 1989-2020. Even in non-western countries there is a trend in this direction and black metal is listened to in Indonesia as in Bolivia, Instagram is used in Lagos as in Tehran.

The phenomenon of global migration, which has grown to immense proportions, illustrates this. There is a real wave of brain drain and of young men seeking to live in the capitalist El Dorado. Such a phenomenon would not exist if there was a real class struggle at the national level counterbalancing misery, if capitalism was dying. Migration is a direct expression of capitalist growth all over the world, but with a far too low growth locally “in comparison” to the Western countries.

Trotsky’s insane conception of the productive forces

The ultra-left has the following conception: the world has been frozen since the Russian revolution, which is part of the world revolution; it failed but the process is still ongoing. So the only thing possible is that everything is frozen while waiting for the final success of the world revolution.

This conception stems from a totally erroneous reading of the first general crisis of capitalism at the beginning of the 20th century. The Communist International has never spoken of a “final” crisis of capitalism, but of a “general” crisis, with therefore relative counter-tendencies.

And if indeed the productive forces have remained similar in Europe, it has always been stressed that this was not the case neither in Japan nor in the United States, and that capitalist restructuring was aimed at relaunching capitalism in Europe itself (especially in Germany). The Communist International has been perfectly dialectical and certainly not one-sided.

Leon Trotsky was totally one-sided and in no way dialectical. In April 1939, in “Marxism in Our Time”, he asserts completely erroneously that the productive forces have ceased to grow. Here’s how he presents this wacky design:

“The Decay of Capitalism

However expensive the control of the market has been to society, mankind up to a certain stage, approximately until the World War, grew, developed and enriched itself through partial and general crises.

The private ownership of the means of production continued to be in that epoch a comparatively progressive factor.

But now the blind control by the law of value refuses to render further service. Human progress is stuck in a blind alley.

Notwithstanding the latest triumphs of technical thought, the material productive forces are no longer growing.

The clearest and most faultless symptom of the decline is the world stagnation of the building industry, in consequence of the stoppage of new investments in the basic branches of economy.

Capitalists are simply no longer able to believe in the future of their own system.

Construction stimulated by the government means a rise in taxation and the contraction of the “untrammelled” national income, especially since the main part of the new government construction is directly designed for war purposes.

The marasmus has acquired a particularly malignant and degrading character in the most ancient sphere of human activity, the one most closely connected with the basic vital needs of man – in agriculture.

No longer satisfied with the obstacles which private ownership in its most reactionary form, that of small land holdings, places before the development of agriculture, capitalist governments see themselves not infrequently called upon to limit production artificially with the aid of statutory and administrative measures which would have frightened artisans in the guilds at the time of their decline.

It will be recorded in history that the government of the most powerful capitalist country granted premiums to farmers for cutting down on their planting, i.e., for artificially diminishing the already falling national income.

The results are self-evident: despite grandiose productive possibilities, secured by experience and science, agrarian economy does not emerge from a putrescent crisis, while the number of the hungry, the preponderant majority of mankind, continues to increase faster than the population of our planet.

Conservatives consider it sensible politics to defend a social order which has descended to such destructive madness and they condemn the socialist fight against such madness as destructive Utopianism.”

Leon Trotsky had nothing understood of restructuration and imperialist war as a “way out” of the capitalist crisis.

The question of the situation between 1945-1975: the two Maoisms

This essential truth must be said and repeated. In the 1960s, when opposition to revisionism arose in Western countries, there was a complete split between two Maoisms. The first, who defines himself as Maoist, has a critique of everyday life, it notes that capitalism is expanding in the 1950s and 1960s, that there is a new way of life. It is thus sometimes linked to or stemming from the hippie movement, like the Weather Underground in the United States, the Red Army Fraction in Germany, or it is in any case extremely attentive to the same questions as the hippies, like the Red Brigades in Italy. Likewise, the French UJCML and the Gauche Prolétarienne raised the question of culture.

In any case, there has been a great deal of attention to the unions, as they were integrated into expanding capitalism; there was a fundamental reflection on the growing weight of subjectivity in the imperialist metropolises.

There was none of this in the second “Maoism”, the false Maoism, carried by people calling themselves “Marxist-Leninists” and imagining themselves living in the 1930s.

The horizon of these false anti-rebels revisionists never went beyond revolutionary syndicalism, they understood nothing of the social transformations underway, due to a cosmopolitan reading.

The “Maoist Communist Party” currently existing in Italy comes directly from a small “ML” group of the 1960s and 1970s: it maintained the “revolutionary trade unionist” course through an era marked by dozens of armed organizations and thousands of political prisoners …

The first Maoism, the only truly authentic one, failed in its assertion, yet it represents the historical heritage of the Communists in the imperialist metropolises.

The “MLs”, even disguised as “Maoists”, continued to exist, more or less painfully, imagining that the world had not changed since 1930, and by anyway understand it like in a caricature…

2020 and the second general crisis of capitalism

The opening of the second general crisis of capitalism, through the intermediary of COVID-19, complicates matters even more, since it is necessary not only to understand the meaning of the capitalist expansion of 1945-1975, but also that of 1989-2020.

In fact, the second one was directly enabled by the collapse of Soviet social-imperialism and the integration of capitalist China into the world market. The crisis of the 1970s was thus postponed. Capitalism then experienced a new expansion, a new impetus, which runs up against the wall of reality.

If the first general crisis of capitalism was powerfully marked by the contradiction between manual labor and intellectual labor, the second crisis of capitalism has as its main aspect the contradiction between town and country.

There are basically only two points of view: the erroneous one imagining that capitalism has become imperialist at the beginning of the 21st century and that it has been “frozen”.

Since it has “maintained itself”, one must then fall into the ideology of imagining that capitalism is “organized”. This was what the Social Democrats said in the 1920s-1930s, this is what the revisionists said in the 1960s-1980s with the theory of “state monopoly capitalism”.

And there is the authentic communist point of view, which seeks to understand the tendencies and counter-tendencies of capitalism, in its historical dialectic.