• the87press

Marx After Growth #3 The History of Accumulation, Sean O'Brien

The History of Accumulation

In the previous lecture on what’s been called the ‘esoteric’ Marx, I explored a subterranean current of Marxian thought distinct from the ‘exoteric’ Marx of the workers’ movement. This ‘esoteric’ Marxism, sometimes called value-form theory, finds its roots in the abstract conceptual logic of Marx’s critique of political economy and its emphasis on the objective but non-empirical character of value, a ‘supra-natural property’ of the commodity that is ‘purely social’ (Marx 1990: 149) and exists only as a relation, and must therefore assume various forms of appearance as it passes through its cycle of valorisation: money, commodity, profit, and so on. Marx describes this ‘value-relation’ as a ‘phantom-like objectivity’ (128), an actually existing or ‘real abstraction’ that emerges in the act of exchange, which necessarily abstracts from the concrete characteristics of commodities in order to render them commensurable as values. So, the abstraction that emerges from exchange is a product not of human thought but one of human action.

Of course, talk of actually existing abstractions that can’t be empirically verified can get you labelled a fanatic, prone to flights of fancy, and not just by the positivists. As Alberto Toscano has argued, the denigration of ‘abstractionists’ is a tendency shared by figures as disparate as Edmund Burke and Bruno Latour, who both equate ‘critical negativity with religious zealotry’ (2015: 94). Perhaps this is why Marx’s value theory was largely neglected by Marxists. The theory of value as something ‘supra-natural’ that ‘transcends sensuous’ (163), as Marx puts it, distinguishes his own approach not only from that of classical political economy, but also from much of what has been called traditional, orthodox or worldview Marxism, which tends, like classical political economy, to treat capitalist categories like value, the commodity and money as natural and transhistorical forms. This ‘traditional Marxism’ tends to affirm the labour theory of value as a universal truth in human society, insisting that labour is the substance of value, that value—quite literally—is embodied in the commodity, and that the magnitude of value embodied in the commodity is determined by the amount of labour socially necessary for its production. Like classical political economy, traditional Marxism never asks ‘why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product’ (174).

As a result, traditional Marxism also misses how the ‘phantom-like objectivity’ of value constitutes a form of objective domination. Unlike ancient slave societies and medieval feudal societies, in which one group is ruled by another in a form of direct or personal domination and dependency, capitalist domination involves no personal relationship of domination or direct relationship of force. Legally and formally speaking, capitalists and labourers are free and equal, but in reality, both are bound by forms of objective constraint that are historically unique to capitalist society. As Michael Heinrich argues, ‘capitalism rests upon a systemic relationship of domination that produces constraints to which both workers and capitalists are subordinated’ (2012: 16). Capitalists are compelled to put the profit motive before other concerns if they wish to survive in the market, while workers, who own nothing but their labour power, are compelled to seek wage work in order to survive.

In other words, proletarians are forced by the given conditions of their existence to quite literally go searching for their own subordination in the form of waged work, since, as Michael Denning notes, ‘under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited’ (2010: 79). In this way, the capitalist mode of production constitutes a historically distinct society in which human beings are ‘ruled by abstractions’ (1993: 164), as Marx says, rather than by individuals or institutions. This is what Moishe Postone means to emphasise when he writes that ‘the abstract domination and the exploitation of labor characteristic of capitalism are grounded, ultimately, not in the appropriation of surplus by the nonlaboring classes, but in the form of labor in capitalism’ (1993: 161). Here, we might recall Norbert Trenkle’s description of abstract labour as a ‘merciless sovereign’ (2014: 10) that shapes the form of labour through violent historical processes.

Highlighting Marx’s own emphasis on the crucial and consistently overlooked importance of the form of value, Postone offers a succinct summation of the difference between traditional Marxism and Marx’s own method of form-analysis in terms of a distinction between ‘a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labour’ and ‘a critique of labour in capitalism’ (5). Postone associates critique ‘from the standpoint of labour’ with ‘class-centred’ (29) readings of Marx, which position the proletariat as subject of history. Arguing against such approaches, Postone emphasises Marx’s characterisation of capital as an ‘automatic subject’ and argues that class struggle is in fact ‘structurally intrinsic to capital’ (36). As you might imagine, this position has been met with fierce criticism from a number of corners, perhaps most notably from within the strand of Marxian theory associated with the German New Reading of Marx in a series of arguments advanced by Werner Bonefeld, to which I’ll return in the final lecture on the history of the class relation. For now, though, I want to emphasise how this argument in Marx unfolds at a high degree of abstraction.

As I mentioned in the opening lecture, Marx analyses the capitalist mode of production at what he describes as its ‘ideal average’ (1991: 970). While Marx is of course aware that capitalism only ever exists in concrete historical forms, his aim is to analyse ‘the internal organisation of the capitalist mode of production’ (970), in other words, the features which make it historically distinct. This is why Marx begins Capital with the systematic development of a series of categories and only turns to the historical account at the end of Volume 1, in the final section on so-called primitive accumulation and the emergence of the ‘free’ wage worker as a precondition for the establishment of the capital-labour relation. In the Grundrisse, Marx describes this mode of presentation as a ‘method of rising from the abstract to the concrete’ (1993: 101), and we’re going to follow suit here. That is to say, in this lecture I want to shift gears from an abstract analysis of capital at its ideal average to the concrete history of capital accumulation over the longue durée. Rather than oppose logic to history, however, our aim—like Marx’s own—will be to determine the extent to which the abstract categories of the critique of political economy illuminate the concrete history of capitalism.

There’s a diverse body of work that emerged in the wake of the capitalist restructuring of 1970s and aims to offer periodizing models that can help explain what happened in that pivotal moment and why. In what follows, I’ll lean primarily on the work of Giovanni Arrighi and Robert Brenner, and the debates the two have had over this very moment of transition, but it’s worth mentioning that they’re by no means the only Marxists who have offered frameworks for periodizing the transformations in global capital that mark the late twentieth century.

Michel Aglietta, for instance, also responded to the economic restructuring of the 1970s by attempting to construct a historical model of capital accumulation adequate to the emergence of new economic and social forms. Emphasizing the role institutions play in the regulation of the capitalist economy, Aglietta founds his theory of regulation on two interrelated formulations central to the French Regulation School: the regime of accumulation and the mode of regulation. A regime of accumulation is a historically bounded and relatively stable system comprising production, circulation, consumption and distribution, while a mode of regulation refers to the institutional networks of governance that provide supportive environments for a given regime of accumulation. Together they form a mode of development. When tensions between the regime of accumulation and the mode of regulation reach a critical point, a structural crisis ensues, and from the chaos and conflict of crisis a new mode of development emerges.

Marx’s categories of absolute and relative surplus value form the basis of the Regulation School’s periodizing model, which correspond in their theory to extensive and intensive regimes of accumulation understood, respectively, in terms of the domination of one over the other in a given phase of capitalist development. As Aglietta argues, ‘under the regime of extensive accumulation, where absolute surplus-value predominates, the length of the working day is the principal means of extracting surplus labour’ (2015: 130). For the Regulation School, the extensive regime of accumulation leads for most of the nineteenth century until the rise of Taylorist scientific management around World War I, under which investments in fixed capital increased productivity rates and cheapened consumer goods. Taylorism thus marks the advent of the intensive regime of accumulation, but remains unstable until the shift, following the Great Depression of the 1930s, from the competitive to the monopolistic mode of regulation. The combination of an intensive regime of accumulation and a monopolistic mode of regulation inaugurates a mode of development they call Fordism.

Aglietta and the periodizing models offered by the Regulation school have proven influential for a number of thinkers interested in the relationship between cycles of accumulation and cycles of struggle, and their periodizing frameworks—organised around the categories of absolute and relative surplus value—reflect those advanced by Theorié Communiste, which we’ll look at in lecture four. But it’s worth noting that, as Robert Brenner and Mark Glick argue, ‘where capitalist social-property relations are fully established, we can, all else being equal, expect to find: development on the basis of relative surplus-value’ (1991: 54). It’s on this point that Brenner and Glick reject the notion of an extensive regime of accumulation grounded in absolute surplus-value extraction, given that capitalist production tends to cheapen consumer goods through productivity increases from the outset, which suggests that it doesn’t really make sense to talk about a ‘period of formal subsumption’.

Brenner’s own account of the history of capitalist development and, in particular, of the agrarian origins of capitalism in England, caused widespread debate in the late 1970s. With the defeat of the English peasant revolts and the introduction of tenant farming in Great Britain in the 1400s, Brenner argues, feudal tribute was eliminated and the profit motive was established, sparking an explosion in agricultural productivity that paved the way for industrial development. This position is referred to commonly as the Brenner thesis, and the debate it triggered, which played out largely in the pages in Past & Present, laid the foundations for the school of Marxist historical analysis called Political Marxism. These days, however, Brenner is increasingly well known for his account of the transition from long boom to long downturn in the late twentieth century.

In The Economics of Global Turbulence, Brenner argues that ‘The evolution of the advanced capital economies since World War II naturally divides itself into two roughly equal parts, each about a quarter-century in length: a period of prosperity from the later 1940s to 1973 and an era of slowed growth and increasing economic turbulence from 1973 onwards, marked by deeper recessions and the return of devastating financial crises absent since the Great Depression’ (2006: xix). For Brenner, capitalist competition tends to produce global overcapacity, exerting downward pressure on prices and lowering returns on capital investments. As a result, profitability declines, which in turn places downward pressure on wages and triggers rising unemployment rates. In Brenner’s account, over-competition between the US, Germany and Japan reached a point of saturation in the early 1970s, leading to a protracted period of economic downturn. As Brenner notes, ‘average rates of growth of output, capital stock (investment), and real wages for the years 1973 to the present have been one-third to one-half of those for the years 1950-73, while the average unemployment rate has been more than double’ (4).

The other major figure on whose work I’ll draw in this overview of the history of accumulation is Giovanni Arrighi, a sociologist and world-systems theorist whose theory of historical capitalism has also proved widely influential in recent years, in particular his magisterial book, The Long Twentieth Century, which was the result of nearly three decades of research.

Arrighi’s point of departure for his landmark study is the widespread observation that, since the 1970s, something has changed fundamentally in the structure of the capitalist world-system. He notes a series of shifts that have occurred:

⦁ Greater geographical mobility of capital (sometimes called globalisation, a term world-systems theorists don’t tend to use since in their account globalisation has been underway for centuries)

⦁ Shift from ‘Fordism’, with its regulated forms of production in the factory, to the ‘flexible’ forms of accumulation associated with ‘post-Fordism’ (cf. Aglietta)

⦁ The decline of the Keynesian social democratic promise and the postwar welfare state

⦁ The rise of the FIRE sector and the explosion of financial markets (which have claimed an ever greater share of GDP since 1970s)

Arrighi is concerned with all of these shifts but wants to broaden the scope and scale of the analysis to place these developments within the longer history of capital accumulation. ‘Once we stretch the space-time horizon of our observations and theoretical conjectures’, Arrighi writes, ‘tendencies that seemed novel and unpredictable begin to look familiar’ (2010: 4).”

In his structuralist account of late-twentieth-century developments in the capitalist world system, Arrighi adopts Fernand Braudel’s model of the longue durée, which Michael Ermarth characterizes as a model of historical time ‘not as it presents itself to the existential awareness of modern man, i.e., as the dramatic spectacle of surface events, but rather the deeper rhythms and structures hidden in layers underneath’ (1982: 89). Over the course of his research, Arrighi notices something interesting: in the history of capitalism, there are a series of cycles of accumulation or ‘long centuries’, each associated with a hegemonic centre, in which an era of material expansion reach a pinnacle, as competition exerts downward pressure on the rate of profit, at which point capital abandons commodity production and leaps into liquidity.

In Arrighi’s model of systemic cycles of accumulation and long centuries, each cycle is made up of three phases, and the transition from the first phase to the second constitutes an epoch of material expansion in which commodity production is central. The transition from the second to the third phase can be understood as a shift from production to circulation, where profit is sought through financial trading as capital becomes more mobile and flexible. As Arrighi writes, ‘In phases of material expansion, money capital ‘sets in motion’ an increasing mass of commodities (including commoditized labour-power and gifts of nature); and in phases of financial expansion an increasing mass of money capital ‘sets itself free’ from its commodity form, and accumulation proceeds through financial deals’ (6).

Arrighi develops this framework from a reinterpretation of Marx’s “general formula for capital,” or M-C-M', whereby monetary value congeals in the commodity-form only on the condition that it be realized at a profit. Here, M (or money) means liquidity and flexibility, while C (or commodity capital) means investments in industry and manufacture. Arrighi uses this expanded understanding of the formula to describe two epochs in a given cycle of accumulation:

⦁ First epoch: moment of material expansion, where capitalism moves from its mercantilist phase to its industrial phase. During this epoch, a new hegemon rises to dominance in the capitalist world-system


⦁ Second epoch: moment of financial expansion, where industrial production ceases to be sufficiently profitable and so profit is sought through financial transactions.


Following on from this model, Arrighi identifies four systemic cycles of accumulation (SCAs), each increasing in scope and intensity but contracting in duration: [Slide 19]

a Genoese cycle, from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries; a Dutch cycle, from the late sixteenth century through most of the eighteenth century; a British cycle, from the latter half of the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century; and a US cycle, which began in the late nineteenth century and has continued into the current phase of financial expansion. (2010: 6-7)

‘Long Centuries and Systemic Cycles of Accumulation’. [1]

Each systemic cycle of accumulation follows a ‘tripartite schema’, beginning with a phase of debt-financed mercantilism, followed by a phase of industrial expansion, and coming to a close with a phase of financialization, the last of which constitutes a period of hegemonic transfer characterized, in Arrighi’s words, by ‘systemic chaos’ and internecine conflict (31):

Mercantilism: where goods are bought on the cheap and sold at a higher price (as in the West Virginia Company or the East India Company). There’s no production taking place.

Industrialism: where wealth is generated through commodity production (on an increasing scale, as in the industrial revolution in Britain, or the post-war ‘golden age’ and booming economy of twentieth-century US consumer capitalism).

Financialization: where capital, having exhausted the profitability of manufacture, moves away from commodity production in favour of trading: i.e. making money off of money (e.g. through stock exchange activity, or through loans/debt).

Arrighi illustrates how periods of material expansion reach a point of market saturation, as capitalist competition exerts downward pressure on the rate of profit, at which point finance capital comes to dominate the hegemonic power, manipulating policy in a scramble to restore profitability. For a time, financial expansion appears to signal renewed prosperity, but this is an illusion, concealing a crisis of over-accumulation. As Braudel puts it, ‘every capitalist development of this order seems, by reaching the stage of financial expansion, to have in some sense announced its maturity: it [is] a sign of autumn’ (1984: 246). Usually, autumn for a declining hegemon means spring for the next, although it remains unclear how this transition might ultimately unfold in present circumstances, and we’ll think more about this possibility in the second half of the lecture.

But I want to pause here and consider why 1973 has become such a key moment for Marxists interested in periodizing the postwar history of capital. As both Brenner and Arrighi have argued, the 1973 Recession marked the decisive moment at which an already sputtering global economy abruptly lurched into a process of large-scale restructuring. This shift signalled the beginning of the end for American hegemony and its organization of the capitalist world-system, ushering in a protracted period of economic stagnation and contraction in the West. In the wake of the 1973 oil shock, and the collapse of the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1973 following the Nixon Shock of 1971, the 1973 stock market crash made evident at an economic level what the Fall of Saigon in 1975 would subsequently demonstrate at the level of geopolitics: the postwar economic order was unravelling and the American century was in a profound state of crisis. After World War II, the leading capitalist economies enjoyed what Arrighi describes as ‘a worldwide virtuous circle of high profits, high investments and increasing productivity’ (2003: 11). But, as Brenner argues, between the years of 1965 and 1973, as output rates in Germany and Japan caught up with their US counterparts, what had been previously ‘a symbiosis, if a highly conflictual and unstable one, of leader and followers, of early and later developers, and of hegemon and hegemonized’ (2003: 15) became a zero-sum game of cutthroat competition. Global profit rates plummeted. The response of governments and industry leaders in the advanced capitalist countries to the steep fall in profitability across major sectors of the economy only exacerbated the crisis, plunging the global economy into extended decline. So what happened? Brenner and Arrighi both offer their own distinct accounts of this moment of transition.

Against ‘supply-side’ explanations, which tie falling profit rates after the postwar boom to wage inflexibility understood exogenously as ‘“vertical” (market and socio-political) power relations between capitalists and workers’, Brenner stresses the centrality of the ‘economic contradictions’ that ‘arise from the “horizontal” competition among firms that constitutes the capitalist system’s economic mainspring’ in bringing about the extended crisis of the long downturn (2006: 37). In Brenner’s account, capitalists are subject to competitive constraints that compel them to innovate, accumulate and move from line to line in search of the highest returns, but over time these same constraints tend to trap firms in stagnant lines, placing downward pressure on extant profit rates. His description of the transition from boom to downturn details a ‘historical pattern of uneven development and international competition’ (25), whereby the process by which German and Japanese manufacturing outputs caught up with productivity rates in the US first sustained and then undermined the postwar boom.[2] The transformation had dwelt within the conditions of the expansion itself: as Germany and Japan played catch-up with the US, higher-cost incumbent American firms found that their large-scale investments in fixed capital—which had previously afforded them a competitive advantage in the global economy—now prevented them from abandoning their increasingly unprofitable lines or scaling back on production without suffering catastrophic losses.[3] This crisis of what we might call capital density is what Brenner describes in terms of ‘over-capacity and over-production’ (9).

A crisis of capital density requires what economists term a ‘shake out’, but in the years following the 1973-1975 Recession, a ‘wide-ranging system of mutual support, ultimately guaranteed by the government, that protected core industrial and financial corporations from going out of business’, allowed higher-cost incumbent firms to avoid ‘purging superfluous, high-cost means of production by the standard capitalist methods of bankruptcy, downsizing, and layoffs’ (2003: 113). Commodity production continued apace, tightening the profitability squeeze. Brenner describes this state of affairs as a situation in which there is simultaneously ‘too much entry’ and ‘too little exit’ (26). Because an incumbent firm’s fixed capital

can be realized only in their established lines of production and would be lost were they to switch lines … they will have every reason to defend their markets and counterattack by speeding up the process of innovation through investment in additional fixed capital. The adoption of such a strategy on the part of the firms originally caught with the high costs will tend to provoke the original cost-reducing innovators to accelerate technical change themselves, further worsening the already existing over-capacity and over-production. (2006: 35)

Faced with a rapidly devaluating dollar, the US government executed a series of policy moves—the Volcker shock and the Reagan-Thatcher monetarist revolution of 1979-1981, the Plaza Accord of 1985, and the so-called reverse Plaza Accord of 1995—which would inflate the financial booms and bubbles of the 1990s and 2000s, deferring the shake out until the reckoning of 2008. So we can see how the persistence of stagnation follows from the manner in which businesses and governments responded to falling profitability between the years of 1965 and 1973, and then in the decades following the 1973-1975 Recession, worsening the dynamics that underwrite over-capacity and over-production and bringing about an extended squeeze on profitability.

If Brenner details the economic and political mechanisms by which the postwar US industrial economy swung dramatically from boom to crisis and got stuck there, dragging the whole thing down with it, Arrighi situates the long downturn in world-historical perspective, tying declining profit rates and the collapse of Bretton Woods to the mounting costs of the Vietnam War, and shifting focus from the crisis of manufacture in the advanced capitalist countries to the financialization of the capitalist world-system. Arrighi argues that ‘the crisis of profitability that marked the transition from the long boom to the long downturn, as well as the great stagflation of the 1970s, were themselves deeply affected by the parallel crisis of American hegemony which ensued from the escalation of the Vietnam war and the eventual US defeat’ (2003: 41).

The escalation of the war in Vietnam and the rising costs of the conflict both politically and economically were decisive in both the breakdown of the gold standard and the subsequent financialization of the global economy. Arrighi notes that financialization occurs

whenever returns to capital invested in trade and production fall below a certain threshold and inter-capitalist competition becomes a zero- or negative-sum game. Under these conditions—precisely those which, according to Brenner, have characterized the long downturn—the risks and uncertainties involved in reinvesting incoming cash flows into trade and production are high, and it makes good business sense to use them to increase the liquidity of assets as a defensive or offensive weapon in the escalating competitive struggle. (50)

And in the post-1973 period, to be sure, staggering profits have been generated in the US financial sector, while profit rates in manufacture have suffered a dramatic decline.[4] In this way, Arrighi highlights how deindustrialization and financialization are two sides of the same coin.

Crucially for Arrighi, this declension in industrial growth and the subsequent explosion of finance that together characterize the post-1973 US economy are part of a recurrent pattern spanning the longue durée of capital accumulation, marking the collapse of the Italian, Dutch and British financial empires in previous ‘long centuries’, giving rise to a fleeting period of restored profitability for the waning hegemon. As Arrighi argues,

this upturn can be traced to a response to system-wide intensifications of competition that has characterized world capitalism from its earliest, pre-industrial beginnings right up to the present. This response consists of a system-wide tendency, centred on the leading capitalist economy of the epoch, towards the ‘financialization’ of processes of capital accumulation. Integral to the transformation of inter-capitalist competition from a positive- into a negative-sum game, this tendency has also acted as a key mechanism for restoring profitability, at least temporarily, in the declining but still hegemonic centres of world capitalism. From this standpoint we can detect resemblances, not just between the great depression of 1873-96 and the long downturn of 1973-93, but also between the Edwardian belle époque and the US economic revival and great euphoria of the 1990s. (26)

As I mentioned earlier, Arrighi turns to Fernand Braudel’s theory of the ‘long century’ to model what he calls ‘systemic cycles of accumulation’. He identifies four cycles, each tied geopolitically to a global hegemon, and each divided into three phases held in sway, in turn, by the logics of mercantile, industrial, and financial capital. Each cycle’s movement through these three phases follows a seasonal logic of transition: from the blossoming of spring, through the flowering of summer and into the decay of autumn, with a brief and final moment of financial flourishing before the sun goes down for good on a global hegemon.

Pinpointing 1973 as the signal crisis of the US cycle of accumulation, Arrighi recasts Brenner’s account of the boom and bubble of the 1990s—during which time the US economy enjoyed a sudden surge in growth—in world-historical perspective, arguing that the financialization of the capitalist world-system in the post-1973 period repeats ‘the tendency for uneven development, in Brenner’s sense, to generate a long boom, followed by a long period of intensifying competition, reduced profitability and comparative stagnation; itself followed by an upturn of profitability, based on a financial expansion centred on the epoch’s leading economy’ (27). In Arrighi’s model, this financial bubble cannot rescue an ailing hegemon, which at the end of each cycle must inevitably give way to its successor. For Arrighi, as for Braudel, financialization is ‘a sign of autumn’. What distinguishes the present moment of American decline, as a number of critics have argued, is that there appears to be no new cycle of accumulation on the horizon, no ascending hegemon that might inaugurate a renewed expansion of the capitalist economy on a global scale. A series of candidates have vied for the position—first Japan in the 1980s before the collapse of the Japanese asset price bubble in 1991 and the subsequent long-term stagnation of the Japanese economy, and then the emerging economies of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in a sort of multi-nodal hegemony—only to stumble under the weight of global overcapacity and a high organic composition of capital.[5]

In recent years, of course, while other emerging economies have faltered, the Chinese economy has surged ahead, and now seems the most auspicious contender for a long twenty-first century, as Arrighi himself suggested in the postscript to the second edition of The Long Twentieth Century. ‘Since opening up to foreign trade and investment and implementing free-market reforms in 1979, China has been among the world’s fastest-growing economies, with real annual GDP growth averaging 9.5% through 2018’.[6] It’s also crucial to note that, in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, the Chinese economy has transformed from an export powerhouse to a domestic consumer market, while trade patterns have shifted from a consumer goods model tied to the advanced capitalist countries to Capital goods exported to emerging economies. Meanwhile, the Chinese continue to make strides in their international aspirations under the Belt and Road initiative, a development strategy that seeks to establish a transcontinental single market with China at its centre.

Despite this remarkable trajectory, however, there are a number of significant problems undermining the prospects for a Chinese long twenty-first century. For one, the rate of GDP growth has slowed considerably from more than fourteen percent in the early 1990s to just over six percent in 2019. Then there’s enormous amount of sunk capital tied up in large-scale infrastructure projects, not to mention a growing mountain of national debt, a swelling real estate bubble, the ongoing trade war with the US, and the looming coronavirus recession, to say nothing of climate change. But perhaps the most damning indicator of Chinese economic prospects is the country’s rapid transition from farm to factory to services, a definitively low-growth sector that has ballooned to absorb huge numbers of internal migrants leaving the Chinese countryside for the urban centres as agricultural employment has declined and the industrial sector butts up against its limits to absorb new labour inputs. This developmental trajectory mirrors that of the advanced capitalist countries, but in a much more condensed timeframe, as industrialisation for late starters tends to be more capital-intensive from the start.

And it’s this connection between growth and capital density that brings us back to the question of value, a category largely absent in the work of both Brenner and Arrighi. In their focus on inter-capitalist competition, the analyses offered by Brenner and Arrighi—as illuminating as they are in tracing the contours of the post-World War II period—operate at the level of price, and therefore cannot account for the extent to which the current conjuncture is defined by a crisis of value.[7] ‘Competition executes the inner laws of capital’, Marx writes, ‘but it does not invent them. It realizes them’ (1990: 752).[8] Here, Marx suggests we can discern in the motion of inter-capitalist competition a trace of the operations of capital’s secular tendencies. But the underlying process driving this motion—what Marx calls valorization—remains in the final instance obscured.

Threading Brenner, Arrighi, and Marx’s value-theoretical account of crisis, Joshua Clover has outlined an ‘arc of accumulation’, ‘rising from commerce with the Industrial Revolution and descending into finance with widespread deindustrialization, with no reversal in view’ (2016: 20-21). Whereas Arrighi and Brenner focus on inter-capitalist competition at the level of price, as Clover reminds us, ‘for Marx’s value analysis, the movements of profits are surface phenomena corresponding to an underlying shift in the balance of constant to variable capital’ (134), or what we discussed in the first lecture in terms of what Marx calls a rising organic composition of capital. So, to sum up that argument about the shape of capitalist development from the first lecture, and to gesture ahead to the final lecture in which we’ll discuss the relationship between cycles of accumulation and cycles of struggle, I want to conclude by considering what the end of growth might mean for the possibility of an anti-capitalist politics today.

Marx’s critique of value offers three distinct moments of insight into the logical and historical trajectory of capital accumulation. First, the capitalist form of value, as an actually existing abstraction, ‘form-determines’ the labour process and its reproduction.[9] Next, in its drive to self-expansion, capital constantly reorganizes the labour process to boost productivity. Finally, through this rationalization of the labour process, capital erodes the very source of value, expelling increasing numbers of workers from the production process and thereby slipping inexorably into crisis. When capital reaches this level of density, the affirmation of labour—the traditional Marxist project of its liberation and socialization—becomes increasingly difficult. Labour struggles to represent an opposition to capital or to be the agent of its overcoming in an era of deindustrialization, not simply because it is always already an alienated form of human activity, but because it no longer occupies a structural position within the class relation from which to assert itself as an antagonist.

This is the autumnal logic of seasonal torpor for a labour movement in terminal decline. Brenner and Arrighi disagree about the extent to which labour militancy brought about the long downturn, but how do they view the consequences of the downturn for anti-capitalist struggle? Arrighi argues that a wave of labour action between 1968-73 and a subsequent pay explosion play a key role in bringing on the long downturn, and that this in turn accounts for the waning of the workers movement in the late twentieth century:

by the end of the long post-war boom, the leverage of labour in core regions was sufficient to make any attempt to roll it back through a serious deflation far too risky, in social and political terms. An inflationary strategy, in contrast, promised to outflank workers’ power far more effectively than international factor mobility could. It was, indeed, the great stagnation-cum-inflation of the 1970s—“stagflation” as it was called at the time—and its effects on inter-capitalist competition and labour-capital relations, that effectively wore down workers’ power in the core, opening the way for its collapse under the impact of the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution. (2003: 38)

Brenner, as we noted above, explicitly rejects the wage-squeeze thesis in which labour militancy plays a key part in triggering the long downturn, arguing that capital can always look elsewhere for cheap labour. Yet he does write that, ‘by the middle of the 1990s, US corporations had significantly improved their condition compared to a decade previously largely by means of extended and brutal processes of rationalization and redistribution’, arguing that ‘manufacturers had, over a decade and a half, engaged in wave after wave of shakeout, scrapping masses of outdated and redundant plant and equipment and ejecting tens of thousands of employees, achieving in the process substantial improvements in productiveness’, and that ‘they had hugely amplified their profits at the expense of workers by means of a decade-long freeze on the growth of real wages’ (2003: 89-92).

Brenner and Arrighi thus agree that the long downturn has had a devastating impact on the lives of working people, undermining their ability to effectively organize to better their working conditions or contest the power of capital, giving way to a new era of rising inequality that a number of economists and historians have dubbed the Second Gilded Age. In Arrighi’s view, as we’ve seen, there’s a fundamental similarity between the era of American decline and the downturn that marked the decline of British hegemony at the end of the nineteenth century, a repetition confirmed for Arrighi by the financial flourishes of both periods (20). Noting the role of the US Fed in generating the massive asset price bubbles of the late twentieth century, which he argues was as part of a ‘an accelerating shift to the right in the polity as a whole’, Brenner too describes the present moment of widespread inequality as a ‘New Gilded Age’ (2009: 23). What distinguishes the two positions is the emphasis each theorist places on either politics or economics in their accounts of post-1973 downturn. In his take on the collapse of labour militancy, Arrighi stresses the importance of the neoliberal turn in the Raegan-Thatcher era, while Brenner’s account of the long downturn highlights the economic basis of political defeat, even if he also argues elsewhere that ‘working people have been ravaged by capitalism in its neoliberal form’ (2017).

For Brenner, there is an important political dimension to the long downturn, and monetary policy plays a crucial role in giving lower-productivity firms the ability to hang on, but his detailed analysis of the advanced capitalist countries in the post-1973 period clearly spells out the death of the historical workers’ movement in economic terms. Nevertheless, and despite their differences, both Arrighi and Brenner ultimately liken the current downturn to the era of British decline. During the transition from British to US hegemony, however, the industrial proletariat was expanding in size and increasing in concentration—a process of mass integration and expansion that would accelerate in the twentieth century—whereas in the post-1973 period the proletariat has been defined by expulsion and fragmentation. As Aaron Benanav argues, ‘Since 1973, rising precarity has been associated not only with the decline of the welfare state, but also with a slowdown in capital accumulation, a rise in unemployment, and a decline in the availability of industrial jobs, all of which mark off the present from the Gilded Age past’ (2015). This distinction will prove crucial in our next discussion on political possibility in the post-1973 period, and so we’ll return to this question about the consequences of downturn for a twenty-first century anti-capitalist politics in the final lecture.


[1] Arrighi explains his diagram of SCAs as follows: ‘These constructs all consist of three distinct segments or periods: (1) a first period of financial expansion (stretching from Sn-1 to Tn-1), in the course of which the new regime of accumulation develops within the old, its development being an integral aspect of the full expansion and contradictions of the latter; (2) a period of consolidation and further development of the new regime of accumulation (stretching from Tn-1 to Sn), in the course of which its leading agencies promote, monitor, and profit from the material expansion of the entire world-economy; (3) a second period of financial expansion (from Sn to Tn), in the course of which the contradictions of the fully developed regime of accumulation create the space for, and are deepened by, the emergence of competing and alternative regimes, one of which will eventually (that is, at time Tn) become the new dominant regime’ (219-20).

[2] It should be noted that, as Arrighi writes, ‘Brenner’s use of the expression “uneven development” echoes Trotsky’s and Lenin’s but differs radically from the more common contemporary deployment designating the tendency of capitalist development to polarize and diversify geographical space’ (2003: 8, fn. 9).

[3] Brenner writes, ‘Under these conditions, the line can be said to be characterized by over-capacity or over-production because—or in the sense that—there is insufficient demand to allow the higher-cost firms to maintain their former rates of profit; they have been obliged to cease using some of their means of production and can make use of the rest only by lowering their price and thus their profitability. There is over-capacity and over-production, with respect to the existing profit rate’ (2006: 28).

[4] Arrighi writes, ‘Confronted with heightened international competition (especially in trade-intensive sectors like manufacturing), higher-cost incumbent firms responded to falling returns by diverting a growing proportion of their incoming cash flows from investment in fixed capital and commodities to liquidity and accumulation through financial channels’ (2003: 49). For an account of the growing share of GDP that finance comes to occupy in the late twentieth century, see Greta R. Krippner, ‘The Financialization of the American Economy’, Socio-Economic Review 3 (2005): 173-208.

[5] Arrighi himself has argued that capital accumulation may very well eventually ‘reach a stage at which the crisis of overaccumulation cannot bring into existence an agency powerfulenough to reconstitute the system on larger and more comprehensive foundations,” and that “there are indeed signs that we may have entered such a stage’ (2010: 341). For a critique of the notion that industrial development in the BRICS is ushering in a new era of material growth that might pave the way for a renewed workerism and a revitalized party-form, see Joshua Clover and Aaron Benanav, ‘Can Dialectics Break BRICS?’ South Atlantic Quarterly 113, no. 4 (2014): 743-759.

[6] See the US Congressional Research Service report, ‘China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States’ available at https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL33534.html.

[7] For a critique of Brenner and Arrighi on these very grounds, see Moishe Postone, ‘Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey’, in Political Economy and Global Capitalism: The 21st Century, Present and Future, eds. Rob Albritton, Bob Jessop, and Richard Westra (London: Anthem Press, 2010), 7-24.

[8] See also Volume I of Capital, where Marx writes, ‘While it is not our intention here to consider the way in which the immanent laws of capitalist production manifest themselves in the external movements of individual capitals, assert themselves as the coercive laws of competition, and therefore enter into the consciousness of the individual capitalist as the motives which drive him forward, this much is clear: a scientific analysis of competition is possible only if we can grasp the inner nature of capital, just as the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies are intelligible only to someone who is acquainted with their real motions, which are not perceptible to the senses’ (1990: 433).

[9] The concept of ‘form-determination’ is taken from Marx’s writings on the capitalist value-form, and its capacity to shape or ‘determine’ the labour process and its products.

Works Cited

Aglietta, Michel. A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience. Trans. David Fernbach. London: Verso, 2015.

Arrighi, Giovanni. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times. London: Verso, 2010.

---. ‘The Social and Political Economy of Global Turbulence’. New Left Review 20 (2003): 5-71.

Benanav, Aaron. “Precarity Rising.” Viewpoint, June 15, 2015. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/06/15/precarity-rising/

Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. Vol. 3. The Perspective of the World. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Brenner, Robert, and Mark Glick. ‘The Regulation Approach: Theory and History’. New Left Review I.188 (1991): 45-119.

Brenner, Robert. The Boom and the Bubble: The US in the World Economy. London: Verso, 2003.

---. The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005. London: Verso, 2006.

---. “Introducing Catalyst.” Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy 1.1 (2017). https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no1/editorial-robert-brenner

---. “What Is Good for Goldman Sachs Is Good for America: The Origins of the Current Crisis.” Prologue of the Spanish edition of The Economics of Global Turbulence (La economía de la turbulencia global, trans. Juan Mari Madariaga [Madrid: Akal, 2009]). Available online in English-language typescript. http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/issr/cstch/papers/BrennerCrisisTodayOctober2009.pdf

Clover, Joshua, and Aaron Benanav. ‘Can Dialectics Break BRICS?’ South Atlantic Quarterly 113. 4 (2014): 743-759.

Clover, Joshua. Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings. London: Verso, 2016.

Denning, Michael. ‘Wageless Life’. New Left Review 66 (2010): 79-97.

Ermarth, Michael. Review of On History, by Fernand Braudel. The Business History Review 56.1 (1982): 89-92.

Heinrich, Michael. An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. Trans. Alexander Locascio. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012.

Krippner, Greta R. ‘The Financialization of the American Economy’, Socio-Economic Review 3 (2005): 173-208.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1990.

---. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3. Trans. David Fernbach. New York: Penguin, 1991.

---. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin, 1993.

Postone, Moishe. ‘Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey’. Political Economy and Global Capitalism: The 21st Century, Present and Future. Eds. Rob Albritton, Bob Jessop, and Richard Westra. London: Anthem Press, 2010. 7-24.

---. Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Toscano, Alberto, and Jeff Kinkle. Cartographies of the Absolute. London: Zero Books, 2015.

Trenkle, Norbert. ‘Value and Crisis: Basic Questions’. Marxism and the Critique of Value. Eds. Neil Larsen, Mathias Nilges, Josh Robinson, and Nicholas Brown. Chicago: MCM’, 2014. 1-15.


Sean O’Brien is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. His research has appeared in Cultural CritiqueDiscourseScience Fiction Studies, and Bloomsbury’s Companion to Marx, and is forthcoming in Crossings. He is co-editor of ‘Demos: We Have Never Been Democratic’, a special issue of the visual culture journal Public based on work developed during the 2015 Banff Research in Culture residency. His criticism has also appeared in a number of electronic journals and literary magazines, including GUTS MagazineThe Capilano ReviewVector, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Current projects include a collaborative book, Anti-Social Reproduction, and a monograph, Precarity and the Historicity of the Present: American Culture from Boom to Crisis.


This publication is in Copyright. Sean O'Brien, 2020.

The moral right of the author has been asserted. However, the Hythe is an open-access journal and we welcome the use of all materials on it for educational and creative workshop purposes.



  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Instagram Social Icon

©2018 by the87press