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Capitalism in decline

Symptoms of stasis

When Marx and Engels wrote of communism as a spectre haunting Europe, they knew that few wished to see themselves as the apparition. The opening rhetorical move of the Communist Manifesto was doubly provocative: the authors claimed a term then used as a negative (the contemporary equivalent would be to proudly proclaim oneself a terrorist), while simultaneously colonising a broader field of political economy. The spectre that haunted the theoretical understanding of capitalism was not just communism, but stagnation too – the absence of growth.

The unsustainability of capitalism was recognised from the very beginnings of ‘political economy’ in the nineteenth century. The Marginal Revolution a few decades later (which, tellingly, saw the quiet retirement of ‘political’ from the description of an economist’s object of study) brought with it further theorising on the limitations of continual growth. For the likes of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill, every ‘commercial society’ inevitably reaches its ‘natural limits’ once population growth exceeds productivity growth.

Marx, too, emerges from this tradition. But unlike Malthus and his ilk, for whom stasis results from an impossible contradiction between the accumulation of capital and the natural world’s ability to provide subsistence, Marx understands stasis as emerging from contradictions inherent in accumulation itself. As he puts it in the Grundrisse:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary.

It was his attention to those internal limits that allowed Marx to see the ways in which capitalist societies could be transcended. The imperative to reduce ‘necessary’ labour time (the average time required to produce a commodity) would, Marx theorised, lead to astonishing advances in productivity. We have witnessed this most fatefully in the world of agriculture, from the exploitation of colonial labour, to the Haber-Bosch process for creating artificial fertiliser, to the ‘green revolution’ that allowed for larger crop yields in developing countries. The limits to agricultural productivity conceptualised in early political economy were to be transcended again and again. Instead, Marx argued, it would be the inability to produce surplus-value, and so realise profits that would lead ‘revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes’.

It would not have been surprising if these ideas had ended with Marx. After all, he and his contemporaries were writing at a time when the overwhelming majority of the European population, let alone the rest of the world, consisted of peasants; it was only in recent decades the globe became majority urban. Until now, whatever stasis was once prophesied had not come to pass, postponed by further levies from the peasantry.

So it is with some surprise that the Global Financial Crisis reignited interest in capitalism’s limits. Gopal Balakrishnan’s exemplary 2009 essay ‘Speculations on the Stationary State’ marked an explicit return to the questions of the early political economists. And what is more surprising is the explosion of work in this field: Google Scholar, for example, lists 3,320 articles and papers on ‘secular stagnation’ since 2008. What accounts for this re-emergence?


In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides employed ‘stasis’ to describe the disputes between oligarchic and democratic forces (understood in antique terms), which were exacerbated by the ‘geopolitical’ conflict between Athens and Sparta. Stasis – Greek for ‘standing still’ – marked the conflict between different modes of rule.

All major Greek states in the period relied in one form or another on coerced and disenfranchised labour, and stasis – which retains elements of social conflict (between poorer citizens and wealthy ones, most obviously) – did not bring this into question. This was a war over the ways an already appropriated surplus was to be politically managed; it was a conflict over the ‘regime of accumulation’ (to use Michel Aglietta’s term), above all between ‘democratic’ Athens and ‘oligarchic’ Sparta. This stasis is highlighted in Thucydides’ remarkable description of the civil war in Corcyra (modern-day Corfu), where rival factions would appeal to the two major powers for help. Thucydides generalised the experience of all the Greek city-states in this period:

And so the cities began to be disturbed by revolutions, and those that fell into this state later, on hearing what had been done before, carried to still more extravagant lengths the invention of new devices, both by the extreme ingenuity of their attacks and the monstrousness of their revenges. The ordinary acceptation of words in their relation to things was changed as men thought fit. Reckless audacity came to be regarded as courageous loyalty to party, prudent hesitation as specious cowardice, moderation as a cloak for unmanly weakness, and to be clever in everything was to do naught in anything … Furthermore, the tie of blood was weaker than the tie of party, because the partisan was more ready to dare without demur; for such associations are not entered into for the public good in conformity with the prescribed laws, but for selfish aggrandisement contrary to the established laws. Their pledges to one another were confirmed not so much by divine law as by common transgression of the law … To get revenge on someone more valued than never to have suffered injury oneself … And in general it is easier for rogues to get themselves called clever than for the stupid to be reputed good, and they are ashamed of the one but glory in the other.

If the dominant factor in our economic moment is perpetual stagnation, might not this Thucydidean stasis be the defining feature of our post-GFC moment in politics?

The seeds of stasis were planted in the 1970s, when a number of political and economic shifts led to the decline of ‘programmatism’ as the dominant horizon of class struggle. Coined by the French group Théorie Communiste, programmatism describes the long-accepted notion that communism would be brought about through a revolutionary ‘program’ centred on the affirmation of proletarian identity. This framework made it possible for seemingly contradictory modes and tactics to coexist within a broader unity of a single revolutionary imagination. But the period in which a programmatic theory of class struggle made sense – a period centred on the (male) manual worker – was brought to a sudden end with the crisis of capital felt across the 1970s and the vast social changes that accompanied it (rising unemployment, a decrease in state regulation, the emergence of the feminist and anti-racist movements and so on).

Théorie Communiste note three significant features that mark the period described by programmatism. First, as they suggest in their essay ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, the ‘fundamental elements of a future social organisation’ are conceived of not as rupture and division, but as the programmatic expansion of the already existing. Thus, the questions of revolution, subjectivity and community are witnessed and affirmed in the proletariat already labouring and existing.

Second, programmatism is the practical horizon of political action, whereby the ‘rising strength of the [working] class’, and the generalisation of mass political involvement, ‘is positively conceived of as a stepping-stone toward revolution and communism’. That rising strength is seen in, for instance, union growth and parliamentary representation, and in relatively peaceful mass demonstrations or strikes; in these arenas we can see the image of programmatism.

Finally, programmatism emerges as the defining condition of revolutionary politics because it is ‘intrinsically linked to the contradiction between the proletariat and capital as it is constituted by the formal subsumption of labour under capital’. In other words, programmatism emerges as a response to – or, perhaps more correctly, as an articulation of – the inherent contradictions – above all, the reliance on labour for the production of profit, and the drive to reduce labour costs to a minimum – underlying capitalist production. We might further suggest that programmatism is a representational regime governing the imagination of those within the contradiction. It is what a limit looks like.

Programmatism constituted an ambience of action and thought within which ostensibly divergent revolutionary traditions found common forms of articulation, such that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalised self-management, or a “society of associated producers”’ all appeared structured by this imaginal framework.

With this broader understanding, the term programmatism can be expanded yet further, to cover any totalising vision of social change. What programmatism finally designates, then, is both the limits of revolutionary imagination and representation and the concrete outcomes of social transformation that emerged in response to the crisis of the 1970s – a crisis occasioned by the same conjuncture of capitalism and society that produced the October Revolution and its antagonists. It is this complex of factors – underlying structural conditions, revolutionary challenges of a consistent and delimited type and the intellectual and social transformations occasioned by this structure coming into terminal crisis – that mark out this period as a distinct epoch.

An epoch such as this combines periods of successful growth and political stability with moments of crisis and rupture (above all, fascism and state communism) that, while horrific, are inherent to this broader epoch. What separates our period is the extent to which our current moment of stasis lacks both a coherent model of accumulation to appeal to and a figure around which a political regime could be structured.


The end of the epoch of programmatism can be marked by any number of signposts, and the important ones – mass movements for gender equality and decolonisation, the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the OPEC oil crisis – indicate the ways in which this collapse was both an economic and political one. Since then, nothing has emerged to take its place, other than a series of semi-successful attempts to corral its results, most notably the liberalisation of global trade pursued since the 1980s.

By some measures, this new period has been a good one for human liberty: broadly speaking, gender and racial oppression has been reduced, formal colonialism has retreated and global poverty has declined, at least in absolute terms. But the former two are a direct result of the political struggles that marked the end of the epoch of programmatism, and the latter is largely a product of China’s spectacular growth. This shows that there is no formula for liberation, just as there is no formula for growth – as the GFC spectacularly demonstrated.

As with Thucydides’ definition of stasis, the current period is marked by negativity. This is observable on a number of levels: at the economic, in addition to the persistent stagnation, is the active shedding of wage labour globally (the share of the industrial workforce in China, for example, is already declining); at the social, hostility or passive disinterest to most independent organs of civil society – churches, unions, clubs of all sorts; at the political, a general indifference to and rejection of politics, usefully called ‘anti-politics’. It is this latter shift that has made the most immediate impact in our period, and it appears that this will remain the case in the short term.

Understanding this recent rejection is an urgent intellectual task for the left. There are, broadly speaking, two explanations being offered for the ascendancy of ‘anti-politics’. On the one hand, you have what might be called the ‘structural’ account, exemplified by Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphrys, for whom anti-politics is the product of a fundamental antagonism between civil society and the state under capitalism (an antagonism offset for much of the twentieth century by what I and others have called programmatism and what they refer to as ‘mass politics’). In their theorising, the focus is on the consequences in the political sphere itself, where increasingly anti-political sentiment has made itself felt (see the election of Donald Trump). On the other hand, you have what might be termed the ‘historical’ account emerging from the far left (see Théorie Communiste). Here, anti-politics is seen as the product of the historical development of contradictions in capitalist accumulation. The focus is not on the political sphere proper, but on the repertoire of proletarian responses instead.

What is central to both explanations is a rejection of the leftist narrative of ‘neoliberalism’ as the major threat in contemporary times, as well as a willingness to see the manoeuvres routinely grouped under this term as contingent attempts to increase profitability and to position these manoeuvres within a broader frame of decomposition. To these manoeuvres are added desperate attempts to restore political authority – in Australia, the increasingly deranged focus on border security is a saliently brutal example – and finally new repertoires of contestation, such a blockages and the occupation of public space typically lacking connection to the organisations and sites of past struggle.

Indeed, Australia is in many ways a privileged place from which to view this decomposition. Excepting perhaps Israel, no state has been so strongly marked since its foundation by the programmatic workers’ movement. Nowhere else can a party connected to that movement plausibly claim to be a ‘natural’ party of government. Our history since Federation is, in some sense, a history of this epoch – and of its end. Furthermore, Australia, tethered pathetically to China, has not experienced the kind of economic crisis that exacerbated the crisis of political representation in countries with an otherwise similar form of democracy. We have, then, laboratory conditions for understanding the present moment. Even lacking the punctual crisis of financial meltdown, Australia has witnessed persistent stagnation in productivity and jobs growth, declining rates of unionisation and growing disaffection with the political sphere. The broader crisis of the global order is reproduced in antipodean miniature, just as surely as the battles between Athens and Sparta reappeared in the stasis of Corcyra.


Stasis marks a period when the formula for rule (or hegemony, if you like) is fundamentally uncertain, even as partisans of one form or another become more convinced of their chosen regime’s applicability; it is the political and social correlate to the stationary economy. What this means for professional politicians is doubly problematic. On the one hand, the arrangements they continue to operate under (and which constitute their professional training and intellectual habitus) are relics of a previous regime, as useful as an understanding of royal protocol would be for an American politician. On the other, no new party has emerged under which a new formula for rule could be concocted. The successes of this past year have been overwhelmingly rejectionist ones – expressions of hostility to a political realm incapable of effectively responding to changes in society.

The fear for politicians in the short term is that rejectionism will continue (to the extent that it persists, we should worry about the ways in which it will strengthen the right). In the long term, their fear should be more acute, and ours, perhaps surprisingly, rather less. For what marked the stability of electoral politics for parts of the twentieth century – universally taken as normative rather than exceptional – cannot return. What politics will eventually have to confront is not a competitor from within, relying on rejectionism, but a negation from without, and the abolition of the present state of things.


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Rory is a junior research fellow at Ormond College, University of Melbourne.

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