Swan Song of the Ultraleft
May 30, 2022
In his recently published study, Aaron Benanav takes on the proponents of what he calls “the automation discourse.” The main thesis of this discourse is that capitalism is digging its own grave by making human labor obsolete on an ever-larger scale. Benanav focuses on a 2016 book by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams entitled Inventing the Future, which made the case for a universal basic income (UBI) as a means to accelerate this self-undermining employment trend towards a society beyond the capital-wage labor relation. Although Benanav agrees with the fundamental assumption of this discourse, that the main problem confronting society is that “there are simply too few jobs for too many people” and that the situation is only going to get worse, he rejects their explanation for why this is happening and the solutions they propose. Skeptical of the bleakest prophecies of “catastrophic unemployment and social breakdown,” Benanav foresees a more slow-motion, yet equally inexorable implosion of the job market, which he hopes might ignite new forms of anti-capitalist social struggle. Sympathetic reviewers have expressed an appreciation for the author’s attempt to articulate a systematic approach to the future of capitalism in order to frame strategic perspectives on the future of anti-capitalism. While the economic and political argument he is making will be called into question here, the text addresses many topics of considerable importance and so warrants an in-depth review.
Benanav’s account of the historical unfolding of this rising tide of unemployment, or, as he puts it, a “declining demand for labor,” was first proposed as a striking interpretation of Karl Marx’s Capital presented in Endnotes, a journal whose editorial collective understands itself as continuing the tradition of the so-called Ultra-Left. The journal is perhaps best known for the claim that Capital is above all “a history of unemployment” (Frederic Jameson) that is now, under what might be called “late capitalist” conditions, culminating in a global expansion of jobless and precarious surplus populations. Here, Benanav seeks to make apparent the utopian possibilities of societies supposedly locked in the vise-like grip of this employment crisis. The theme of precarity was a hallmark of the post-2008 Left scene, and Benanav’s study can be seen as a resumé of the economic ideology of this now dissolving formation. Every era of capitalism, we are often reminded in the pages of this journal, gives rise to its own forms of class struggle as well to distinctive theorizations of its central contradictions which express the fears and hopes of those who participated in its victories and defeats. And this is certainly true of the mini-period in which Endnotes came into being.
In this book, put together from two unrevised pieces he wrote for the New Left Review, Benanav’s conception of the capitalist logic leading to ever greater unemployment leans not as much on a reading of Marx’s Capital as on what I will argue is a questionable interpretation of Robert Brenner’s conception of a “long downturn.” The latter holds that the slowing down of growth rates of world’s most advanced economies from the 1970s to the present is the result of a persisting “crisis of overproduction.” Benanav has repurposed this theorization to argue that capitalism is experiencing a terminal structural decline in the availability of employment. I hope to show that the logic of his claim is defective, that it is contradicted by the evidence, and that the political conclusions he draws from it are utopian only in the pejorative sense of being remote from reality.
Benanav summarizes the argument of “the automation discourse” in four propositions:
1) Workers are already being displaced by ever more advanced machines, resulting in rising levels of technological unemployment.
2) This displacement is a sure sign that we are on the verge of achieving a largely automated society, in which nearly all work will be performed by self-moving machines and intelligent computers.
3) Although automation should entail humanity’s collective liberation from toil, we live in a society where most people must work in order to live, meaning this dream may well turn out to be a nightmare.
4) It follows that the only way to prevent a mass-unemployment catastrophe—like the one unfolding in the United States in 2020, although for very different reasons—is to institute a UBI, breaking the connection between the size of the incomes people earn and the amount of work they do.
In his critique of the automation discourse, Benanav advances four counterarguments:
1) The decline in the demand for labor of past decades was due not to unprecedented leaps in labor-saving innovation, but rather to a more modest technological progress unfolding against the headwinds of a “deepening economic stagnation” whose primary manifestation is deindustrialization. The onset of stagnation-cum-deindustrialization is the ultimate cause of a worsening employment crisis.
2) This chronic shortfall in the demand for labor has tended to manifest not as mass unemployment but rather as “persistent underemployment.”
3) Given this deepening stagnation, if UBI were to be introduced, it is much more likely that it would prop up a world of massive inequality and precarity of employment rather than be a means of breaking with it into a post-capitalist future.
4) “Social struggle from below” rather than the “administrative intervention from above” favored by proponents of the automation discourse, is the only means by which the utopian possibilities latent within capitalist society can be realized.
Finally, he proposes how we might create a world of plenty and flourishing even without the full or nearly-full automation of production and attempts to give us a rough idea of how such a society might be organized.
My arguments against his two economic claims, as well as the two political ones which he derives from them, go as follows.
1) Economics: Benanav fails to provide a structural explanation for his prediction that capitalism cannot surmount its current stagnation and the steady implosion of the job market it is supposedly causing. Brenner’s conception of a long downturn does not support this view, and he presents no alternative explanation to support these claims. The evidence he adduces for a generalized employment crisis puts the focus on manufacturing job loss and doesn’t establish any determinate trendline either for the expansion of service sector employment or for the “underemployment” endemic to it.
Even more seriously, the theoretical framework behind his forecast of an ever-declining availability of employment, or “demand for labor,” cannot account for the demographic and social factors determining the supply of labor, i.e. the number of people seeking work. Since unemployment is obviously a relation between the supply of labor and the demand for it, the bracketing of the former leaves his theorization and predictions indeterminate. Failure to even consider these factors arguably speaks to a more widespread ideological unwillingness of the contemporary Left to confront the political consequences of looming population decline in the advanced capitalist world as well as the scale of the immigration that could possibly counter it.
2) Politics: I will argue that the logic behind Benanav’s rejection of UBI is spurious and that his hoped-for alternative scenario of spontaneous uprisings of the precariat leading to a conquest of production is impossible given his own account of what is happening in the world of labor.
But my criticism will not be purely negative. The opposition he draws between “social struggles” and “administrative measures” leaves out the prospect of new forms of political class struggle which might no longer turn on direct, collective seizures of the means of production by the workers who operate them. The “road to power” (to put it in old fashioned terms) that is sketched here aims to help resolve a dual problem before which the contemporary Ultra-Left as well as all other remnant traditions of Marxism have floundered: How, realistically speaking, could class consciousness even reemerge on a mass scale in our atomized and enfeebled societies? And how is revolutionary change even conceivable if class agency from “the point of production” has become a nearly impossible prospect?
A. Technological Determinism
Benanav agrees with the proponents of the automation discourse that unemployment—or, rather, underemployment—is inexorably rising, but he argues that this is happening because of the slowdown of economic growth and not from the acceleration of automation. For all the hype around the contemporary advances in information technology, it is noteworthy that the latter has failed to raise rates of growth in manufacturing productivity which have remained sluggish for decades. He quotes a now-familiar quip from the economist Robert Solow: “We see the computer age everywhere, except in the productivity statistics.”
The most influential non-Marxist explanation for this slowdown is known as the “secular stagnation” thesis. The latter maintains that mature economies do not possess the technological growth possibilities that characterized the rise of the Western standard of living—i.e., the American and then a more broadly Western one—from the late 19th century to the early 1970s. The economic historian Robert Gordon spells out the difference between technological progress in the past (the second industrial revolution) and present (the third) very clearly.
The third industrial revolution (IR #3), associated with information and communication technology, began in 1960 and continues to this day. Like IR#2 it achieved revolutionary change, but in a narrower sphere of human activity. The domain of IR #2 covered virtually the entire span of human wants and needs, including food, clothing housing, transportation, entertainment, communication, information, health, medicine, and working conditions. In contrast, only a few of these dimensions, in particular entertainment, communications, and information, were revolutionized by IR #3. This single fact, the narrowness of the effects of IR #3, is enough to explain why growth in output per person and output per hour began to slow down after 1970.
It seems that there are two diametrically opposed accounts of what is happening to the capitalist system. By some measures, advanced capitalism is experiencing a slowdown of growth due to the exhaustion of technological possibilities, but by others, it seems to be undergoing an accelerated phase of creative destruction spearheaded by new technologies.
Accelerationism and secular stagnationism are opposed variants of technological determinism, which I will define as the view that the availability of technologies directly determines the actual level of economic growth and thus the future of capitalism. Marxists generally reject explanations of the long-term course of capitalist development that hinge on factors like technology or demography. These are treated as exogenous to the socio-economic laws of motion specific to the capitalist mode of production. Seeking to situate his own explanation for an employment crisis within this broadly Marxist approach, Benanav argues that there is simply no shortage of such available new technologies, just not the returns that would incentivize larger scales of investment in these technologies.
B. The Causes and Consequences of Stagnation cum Deindustrialization
The primary manifestation of this slowdown in rates of growth in the world’s most advanced economies has been, he argues, a precipitous deindustrialization. (Nota bene: 1) Deindustrialization does not refer to any reduction in the mass of manufactured use values produced, but only to the number of laborers needed to produce it. 2) “Manufacturing” here refers to an economic sector characterized by mass production with machines, not to the precursor of the factory system, which is what Marx meant by the term.) He provides some statistics for deindustrialization in the advanced economies whose gist will be familiar to most readers:
Manufacturing employed 22 percent of all workers in the United States in 1970, a share that declined to just 8 percent in 2017. Over the same period, manufacturing employment shares fell from 23 percent to 9 percent in France, and from 30 percent to 8 percent in the UK. Japan, Germany, and Italy experienced smaller but still-substantial declines: in Japan, from 25 percent to 15 percent; in Germany, from 29 percent to 17 percent; and in Italy, from 25 percent to 15 percent.
Although his statistics for developing economies are less conclusive, they suggest the onset of deindustrialization there too, and even in China. Whether or not these statistics confirm his thesis that the capitalist system as a whole is irreversibly deindustrializing, one might still wonder why deindustrialization in this sense is even a problem. After all, in pre-industrial societies, nearly ninety percent or more worked in agriculture, and technological progress over a century and a half reduced that to about two or three percent in the advanced economies. Manufacturing employment has declined because manufacturing became more productive through automation, just as happened with agricultural employment. Few think that de-agriculturalization spells trouble, so why does deindustrialization?
Benanav argues that what calls for explanation is not deindustrialization itself but rather the precipitous degree of global deindustrialization since the 1970s. The drop simply cannot be explained by this ordinary maturation process of rising productivity. Such steep declines in the size of the manufacturing labor force must be the result of stagnation in the growth of GDP over this period, he reasons.
He turns to Brenner’s account of a long downturn in the capitalist system since the 1970s to explain the scale and timing of global deindustrialization which he claims is responsible for an ever-worsening global employment crisis. “Following economist Robert Brenner, I argue that global waves of deindustrialization find their origins, not in runaway technical change (nor in the onset of technological stagnation—GB), but first and foremost in a worsening overcapacity in world markets for manufactured goods.” What justifies the focus on manufacturing as the key to explaining the state and future of the capitalist system? Benanav generally avoids Marxist terminology, but to readers more familiar with the latter than with more mainstream economics it might be helpful to put it in the following way: Capitalism’s historically unprecedented dynamic of development is the result of social relations which compel the producers of commodities to lower costs, ultimately reducible to quantities of social labor, under the remorseless pressure of competition. This dynamic is primarily concentrated in the “manufacturing sector,” but also in agriculture and mining, where human labor can be replaced by machines. This industrial revolutionary dynamic of development characterized by an immense expansion of real output is, moreover, subject to international competition to a degree that service sectors supplying local and domestic markets are not. On these premises, the Brenner account of a long downturn hinges on world market battles between the manufacturing sectors of the world’s leading capitalist economies the postwar dynamic of which culminated in a long, and still ongoing crisis of overproduction, price deflation, and profit rate decline. Benanav has modified this theorization to argue that this crisis is permanent and responsible for an unevenly unfolding, but nonetheless world-wide, process of deindustrialization. In the context of this slowdown in growth, the expansion of service sector employment has not been large enough to compensate for the manufacturing job loss, hence unemployment and also what is called “underemployment” has gone up.
This is the theorem Benanav advances to support his claim that capitalism’s demand for labor is declining: “The demand for labor is determined by the gap between productivity and output growth rates.” (Output, to be clear, does not refer to the physical output of manufactures but only to the “value added”—the sum of profit plus wage income—generated in the production of that mass of use values. At an aggregate level, output in value terms= GDP, so I will continue to use GDP instead of output.) The theorem says that if labor-saving productivity rises and GDP does but only to a smaller degree, the capitalist demand for labor generated by this increase in GDP diminishes in proportion to this increase of productivity. In the absence of this increase in productivity, the same amount of GDP growth would result in a directly proportionate rise in employment. Accordingly, if GDP growth and productivity growth were the same, there would be no net increase in employment. Conversely, if productivity growth exceeds GDP growth, the number of workers employed in the production of that increment of GDP would decline. If this is the theorem, what has happened in reality? “By the early years of the twenty-first century, productivity was rising at a much less rapid pace than it had during the postwar era, at 2.7 percent per year… However, slower productivity growth rates were now faster than their corresponding industrial output growth rates, at 0.9 percent.” The theorem suggests why contemporary capitalism might appear as if it were stuck in the grip of secular stagnation and, at the same time, in a phase of accelerated technological advance: “productivity growth in manufacturing has appeared rapid only because the yardstick of output growth, against which it is measured, has been shrinking.” Here he seems to be implying that with stagnation what modest increase in labor productivity there has been leads to significant job loss, as per the theorem, and that this shedding of labor leads to the appearance of an accelerated rise in productivity.
Since this theorem does not explain the economic mechanism linking the four variables of his analysis—a) productivity growth, b) income or GDP growth, c) manufacturing employment, and d) the availability of employment or “demand for labor” more generally—in what follows I will try to try to put together what I think might be his argument before proceeding to criticism.
The argument might be easier to follow when put in Marx’s clarifying terms. The reproduction of the capitalist system depends upon the dynamic of “relative surplus value.” In the optic of this concept, capitalist development unfolds as an ongoing reduction of “socially necessary labor time,” whether measured in hours or numbers of workers. The reason why this labor-saving dynamic doesn’t lead to an endless contraction of employment is because technological progress as a reduction of socially necessary labor is dependent upon the reinvestment of the surplus value this reduction frees up for investments requiring even greater expenditures of social labor. The tenuous stability of the capitalist system depends upon there being a rough equilibrium between these opposed tendencies.
According to Benanav, capital’s demand for labor has been slackening for decades, not due to the strengthening of the labor-saving tendency but rather to the weakening of the counter tendency of new job creation due to the onset of diminishing returns in value added. Or, to put it in the terms of the theorem, since productivity growth has been more rapid than GDP growth (the increase in profit and wage income or value added) the demand for labor has declined.
It should be noted that one consequence of this is that the automation discourse must be essentially correct on Benanav’s own assumptions: Under conditions of deepening stagnation—which he, after all, assumes are here to stay for as long as capitalism remains in place—automation will in fact lead to devastating job loss. “Yet even if automation is not itself the primary cause of a low demand for labor, it is still true that in a slow-growing economy technological change can give rise to massive job destruction: witness, for example, the US manufacturing sector’s rapid job shedding between 2000–2010.” But since Benanav, unlike the automationists, does not think that automation is going to advance at any predictable pace, he ends up having to concede that it is difficult to predict the time frame in which the declining employment trend he posits will unfold. “It is unclear whether these technological developments are ten or twenty years away, and they may not occur on any scale at all.” Here we must pause and look at the employment situation currently, and not wait on such an open-ended future.
The theorem says, if that productivity growth is higher than output growth, employment must be in decline, and yet it is a fact that unemployment rates are simply not going up and in fact have been trending downward for almost ten years in the world’s leading economies. In the US, they are now at historic lows. Benanav’s solution: what is going up is not classical unemployment (the trend line of which is unclear) but underemployment stemming from stagnation (the measurement of which is difficult.). “Under the pressure of decelerating economic growth, the mode in which labor underdemand expresses itself has shifted: from unemployment to a variety of forms of chronic underemployment, which are more difficult to measure.” This is evasive. While underemployment is certainly more difficult to measure than classical unemployment of full-time workers, arguably its extent could be approximated by considering the demand for labor not in terms of the number of full-time workers (alternately, a rate of unemployment for labor force so conceived) but rather in terms of the number of work hours demanded by employers. It seemed to me that Benanav understands his theorem as measuring unemployment in terms of numbers of workers on the assumption that their workday or week is fixed. For, if it were not fixed, changes in the overall demand for labor would result in different levels of employment at different hours. In other words, changes in the level of underemployment—the plague which he asserts is spreading remorselessly and which his whole theorization seeks to explain—simply falls outside of the bounds of this theorem.
C. Benanav vs. Brenner on the Future of Capitalism
Brenner follows Marx in conceiving of the rate of profit as the regulating variable of the capitalist system, in that it expresses the forces determining the level of investment and employment and, indirectly, the growth of productivity. What forces? So conceived, the profit rate is the result of a specifically capitalist mechanism of competition which governs the inter-relationship between the main variables of the economic order. By contrast, Benanav leaves out any mention of the profit-rate in his account of the future trendline of growth and employment. Controversies surrounding the nature and measurement of the profit rate form a thicket which he has decided to bypass. The problem is that he fails to provide any explanation of the mechanism driving the inexorable employment trendline he foresees.
While he identifies correlations between GDP stagnation, deindustrialization, and a supposedly ever-worsening employment crisis, he cannot explain the historical direction of their interaction. And, as his theorem does not explain the economic mechanism linking the four variables of his analysis—a) productivity growth, b) income or GDP growth, c) manufacturing employment and d) the availability of employment or “demand for labor” more generally—, in what follows I will try to more clearly restate what I think might be his argument before proceeding to criticism.
From the 1970s, the increasing pressure of international competition has led to lower returns on investment in manufacturing. Yet automation is still advancing in what remains of manufacturing precisely because competition continues to weed out all but the most efficient producers. But this labor-saving technological progress generates diminishing surpluses because of the pressure of too many competing for the same markets, ultimately diminishing increases in GDP growth. As a result, job loss in those manufacturing lines which are undergoing automation is not counteracted by the expansion of employment in other lines. The resulting decline in overall manufacturing employment contributes to keeping wage levels low, and this downward pressure on wages makes possible an expansion of low wage, informal employment in a service sector. But since the latter is inherently automation-resistant and largely shielded from international competition, deeper and more rapid declines in employment are forestalled, but underemployment remorselessly trends upward.
By leaving out any account of the structural causality of capitalist accumulation of the kind that Brenner competition-centered theorization provides, he fails to explain changes in the availability and composition of employment during the long downturn. This truncation of the theory results in a conception of capitalism which excludes any consideration of class struggle and state power.
1) Why would manufacturing automation and continued expansion of service sector employment continue to progress even to the degree they have if the returns from the investment that drives both have supposedly flatlined? In the Brenner account it is clear that capitalists still have the surpluses to invest and employ because they are taking a larger share of a slower growing income pie. Marx called such upwards redistributions of the capital-wage labor share the extraction of “absolute surplus value” whose primary manifestations are wage stagnation, precarity, and informalization, i.e., “persistent underemployment.” Benanav, I suspect, leaves out any consideration of this factor, as he does not like the implication that redistributive class struggles influence the main trendlines of capitalist development.
2) Lacking the possibility of a dynamic future, how far could the capitalist system go down the path of resorting to the extraction of absolute surplus value to reproduce itself? Since stagnation would take the form of a decline in the growth of total effective demand, why has accumulation based on such parlous conditions not simply bottomed out into a full-blown depression? Here Brenner offers an explanation that Benanav does not take up but is arguably an essential link in the causality of his account. The reason why depression has been avoided is that since the 1980s the leading states and their central banks periodically have taken measures that have had the effect of counteracting the shortfall in the growth of demand by the massive expansion of public, firm, and household debt. The expansion of debt is what has made it possible for the governments of the world’s leading economies to cut taxes and deregulate, which diverted accumulation down the alternative path of financialization. “As countries have deindustrialized, they have also seen a massive buildup of financialized capital, chasing returns to the ownership of relatively liquid assets rather than investing long-term in new fixed capital.” Benanav acknowledges the significance of all this in passing, regarding it as an epiphenomena of a real economy whose essential variables are productivity, income, and employment. His argument would be that changes in the balance of class forces, the expansion of debt, and financialization—in sum, “neo-liberalism”—unfolded in the spheres of distribution or circulation, but what is really decisive has all unfolded in the abode of production. More on this distinction of “distribution” and “production” later.
3) This brings us to a further question which Benanav’s Brenner-based account raises. Why has there been no rebound to higher growth levels after such a protracted slump, now in its fifth decade? After all, overproduction leading to price deflation and declining profit rates should eventually liquidate much of the inefficient, higher cost producers from the system, generating investment opportunities for the more efficient, lower cost firms which emerge from the long, drawn-out bloodbath. One implication of the Brenner account is that by warding off deeper slumps by means of debt expansion, financialization, and an upward redistribution of wealth, neoliberal states and central banks are, in effect, neutralizing the forces of creative destruction, i.e., the liquidation of higher cost, inefficient producers that might eventually create the conditions for the most efficient to start investing on larger scales. These counter-measures have prevented the system from sinking into a full-blown depression but contribute to the perpetuation of a long downturn in advanced economy growth rates. Benanav attempts to use Brenner’s analysis to posit the existence of a quasi-irreversible limit to capital accumulation manifesting itself in a tendency to greater and greater underemployment, but the long downturn account is not stagnationist in this sense. The only structural reason Benanav suggests for why the capitalist system is in the grip of a permanent stagnation and underemployment crisis is that the service sector is and will continue to be highly resistant to the automation that has revolutionized industrial and agricultural production. But it is precisely this technological conservatism of the service sector which would seem to ensure that if overall stagnation persists it will not lead to any bottoming out of the job market. The direction of development is not explained. He would have been on more solid ground had he based his argument on the secular stagnation thesis, though that would not provide a firm foundation for his projections of a system-wide, declining demand for labor either.
In the milieu from which this book came this pessimistic view is rarely challenged, for it supports the hope that underemployment might expand until a social breaking point is reached, much in the same way that the automation discourse foresees a breakdown through an expansion of unemployment. Both views extrapolate from current trends linearly into the future, and both would have been seen by Lenin and other politically oriented Marxists as a rather familiar kind of economism.
In what follows we shall see that Benanav fails to consider that the capital-wage labor social relation is predicated upon the peculiar characteristics of this commodity, labor power, whose supply is in no way determined by the capitalist demand for it. The implications of this elementary Marxist proposition are profound and compel us to turn our attention to the factors which determine the supply of labor, i.e., the number of human beings in our societies compelled to seek employment.
D. What Determines the Supply of Labor?
Up to now, we have laid out Benanav’s account of capitalism’s tendency to end up in a permanent crisis of employment. His account exclusively focuses on the capitalist demand for labor. But since unemployment presupposes a surplus in the supply of labor over the demand for it, one needs to ask how the supply of labor is determined. Benanav acknowledges the significance of this supply side of the equation but only in passing. “From 1980 to 2018, the world’s workforce, both waged and unwaged, grew by about 75 percent, adding more than 1.5 billion people to the world’s labor markets.”
What have been the main causes for this massive expansion of the supply of labor?
1) A “one-off” gigantic expansion from the incorporation of China, the formerly Communist East Bloc, and the nationalist Third World into the world market;
2) Accelerated entry of women into the labor force during the half century of the long downturn;
3) Mass immigration to some of the advanced economies, mainly the US; and
4) Demographic growth.
How have these variables shaped the size of the labor market, looking solely at the US case for now? During the decades of the long downturn, which is supposedly responsible for a massive crisis of employment, the US experienced a large expansion of the labor force in large part due to immigration. At 330 million, the US has 120 million more people than it did at the beginning of this downturn. By contrast, Japan’s and Germany’s entire populations over the same period remained the same at 125 and 80 million respectively. In other words, over these last decades, the US added as many people as there are in Japan, the second-largest advanced capitalist economy in the world. In fact, compared to its advanced capitalist competitors, much of the higher GDP growth in the US since the 1970s was due not to higher levels of productivity growth but rather to this increase in population (positive birth rates plus immigration). This would mean that the GDP growth that did take place resulted in diminishing per capita GDP growth. Although Benanav doesn’t consider the significance of this expansion of the labor force, this lower GDP per head growth would at least fit into his story of stagnation leading to an expansion of low wage, service sector underemployment as opposed to employment.
So why does he fail to mention it? The reason might be because, as he knows, demographic trends now point to the slowing growth and, in many cases, the shrinking of the supply of labor in all advanced economies. In other words, far from there being a problem of too many people seeking too few jobs, it seems very likely that the exact opposite problem is looming. Let us look at some contemporary evidence and some projections based on what recent developments from close to home are telling us.
The unemployment rate was 6.7 percent, with 10 million fewer people employed than before the pandemic. Expectations were that it could take years for the labor market to heal. . . Then, the economy experienced two historic surprises. First, demand for workers came soaring back at a velocity almost never before seen. And second, despite companies going all out to hire, millions of workers either retired early or stayed on the sidelines. . . These two forces collided to create the most unusual job market in living memory—and an economy afflicted not by too few jobs, but too few workers. . . Baby boomer retirements explain a large chunk of the missing workers. . . The pandemic exacerbated a demographic crunch long in the making. The population is growing more slowly than the economy, and productivity—how much workers can accomplish in any given time period, thanks to technology—isn’t increasing fast enough to make up the difference.
Compare what is currently going on to what Benanav predicted: “unemployment will continue to spike during downturns—as we are seeing happen once again, and on a truly massive scale, in the present COVID-19 recession. Then, in the course of the tepid boom periods that follow, this unemployment will slowly but surely resolve itself into higher levels of underemployment and rising inequality.” Clearly the impact of Covid, as well as the mass shutdowns with which governments all over the world responded to it, have led to severe drops in incomes and deeper insecurity among more vulnerable layers of the labor force, especially in countries lacking effective medical infrastructures. But in assessing the pandemic’s impact on the labor market, we see some sharply diverging outcomes.
In the US labor shortages are giving workers new bargaining power, reversing decades-long wage stagnation even for those at the bottom and even more so for those more highly educated office workers who have taken to doing their tasks remotely. With regard to the latter, greater flexibility of working hours is being demanded by workers who, all of a sudden, have exit options from their existing jobs. We often forget that the pre-industrial putting-out system where workers did piece work at home was a great inconvenience for manufacturers who eventually pushed for the greater regularity of labor supply provided by the factory system. Over the last several decades, the flexibilization of employment has been the means by which capitalists have extracted more labor from workers at lower compensation but may now quite conceivably become a means for certain sections of the labor force to secure better terms.
Obviously, when the next world economic meltdown comes (and we are due for one), there will be a large spike in unemployment all around the world. But the post-2008 experience has been a painful reminder that the capitalist system is very resilient, confronts no consequential opposition, and so only experiences market corrections and not the hoped-for systemic crises.
Regardless of how this all unfolds, if we wanted to forecast the future of employment, we would obviously have to know whether the supply of labor is shrinking faster or more slowly than the demand for it. Looking at the US alone, the prospect of a partial de-globalization of labor markets in the context of intensified US-China rivalry, the coming shrinkage of the working age population in advanced and soon even in developing economies, the onset of a decline in labor force participation rates after a long period of increase stemming from the increasing participation of women, and the tightening of controls on immigration are likely to give workers greater bargaining power than they have had in decades. In considering the rest of the world, we should expect highly divergent outcomes in labor markets based, in large part, on varying population trends and not a convergence of a universal decline in the demand for labor relative to the supply of it.
If the main problem confronting advanced capitalist economies is the shrinking of the labor force, this is a problem that can be solved by immigration from countries whose populations are still growing and whose economies cannot absorb them. It is obviously a highly fraught political question of how many immigrants will be let in to advanced economies to compensate for this shortfall. There are many on the Left who argue for open borders, but this does not seem to have been the Endnotes position. Instead, they say nothing at all on the subject. But without addressing the factors that determine the supply of labor, their account of the trendline in employment goes from being unclear to being completely indeterminate.
Where does this leave our theorem, which supposedly proves that if productivity rises faster than output (GDP) unemployment must go up? Obviously, if the reduction in GDP growth stems from a decline in the size of the labor force (and the population decline which will soon beset many advanced economies will reduce the absolute level and not just the rate of growth of GDP), then the resulting decline in the demand for labor is counteracted by a decline in the supply. Under these conditions the theorem tells us little about the actual level of unemployment and nothing at all about the class struggles over the distribution of national income—i.e., the capital vs. wage share, or “the rate of exploitation” to put it in Marx’s language.
While Marx himself regarded the growth of the labor force as a necessary condition for the expanded reproduction of the capitalist system, he never addressed the impact of mass immigration of that era on the shaping of the world capitalist system. His focus on the demographic dimension of labor force expansion took the form of a scathing critique of Malthus who had argued that population growth had a tendency to outstrip available employment, ensuring that there would always be fewer jobs than people. From this grim demographic postulate there followed a supposed iron law which stipulated that wages could never rise above a subsistence minimum. The reader can consult the writings of Marx and Engels to see what short work they made of this once widely accepted Malthusian fallacy. But to give the devil his due, the social relations of capitalism as Marx understood them do accomplish, in a sense, what Malthus thought nature did, i.e., they ensure that unemployment, the excess of the supply of labor power over the demand for it, always remains high enough to the keep the wages from rising above the level that would make it difficult for capitalists to appropriate a surplus over their costs. In any event, Marxists after Marx showed no interest in these demographic questions, except when confronted, as in the 1970s, with fantastical neo-Malthusian scenarios of global overpopulation. The future may continue to hold unpleasant surprises for them, for though the reverse problem—the onset of population stagnation and decline in advanced capitalist societies—has long been recognized as a looming danger, Marxists are entirely ill-equipped to address the onset of this momentous inversion of the population trendline.
In any event, different birth rates and immigration policies will no doubt generate very different long-term outcomes in employment as in other spheres, even between more highly economically developed societies. It is certainly conceivable that, even in deteriorating stationary state economies, the decline in the supply of labor might be slower than the decline in the demand for labor which, as Keynes pointed out, ultimately depends on the capitalist appetite for longer-term investment. But I lay it out to show how such extrapolations of employment trends—whether accelerationist or stagnationist—are at best hazardous because they leave out crucial demographic, political, and geopolitical variables that determine the supply of labor, and thus the prospects for capitalist expansion.
A. The Demise of Reform and Revolution
Benanav begins the more political, second half of his book with a critique of left-Keynesian proposals for breaking with capitalism via radical reforms. Here the focus briefly expands to take a swipe at another current on the Left, the neo-social democracy of the Jacobin/DSA milieu, before wheeling back to the automation discourse. What is the significance of left-Keynesianism for his argument? “Examining the reasons for the failure of the radical Keynesian projects of the past shows why similar plans will hardly fare better today.” Why were these projects destined to fail? Here Benanav speculates,
Only movements that presented a truly existential threat to asset owners’ wealth would be able to bring capital to heel. Yet if those social movements were powerful enough to force capital to submit to a public-investment-driven economy, why would they not demand more? Such movements would not willingly allow for power’s further concentration in the hands of the state (instead, they would demand a devolution of power to democratic organs of the people themselves).
Radical Keynesian attempts to break with capitalism by strengthening the state’s macro-economic control over investment and employment, he maintains, never got off the ground because capitalists, as long as they control the means of production, have always been able to bring a halt to moves in this direction by stopping production and firing workers en masse. How does this experience of the failure of left-Keynesianism relate to the contemporary prospects for a UBI? “As we will see, automation theorists’ UBI proposals suffer from a similar failure to reckon with the weapons capital wields, above all in an era of economic slowdowns. Capital disinvestment neuters all worker-empowering policies as soon as they are born.”
Benanav’s polemic against UBI is two-pronged: One is that a UBI would prop up the capital-wage labor relation if it were set too low, but the other is that if it were somehow possible that it could be raised to a level that would actually threaten the capital-wage labor relation, it would become superfluous for the same reason that radical left-Keynsianism would be under similar conditions.
This seems to be the equivalent of saying that if the power of workers rose to such a point where it could challenge the domination of capital, then workers would no longer have to demand higher wages because they would at that point be in a position to abolish the wage system, and, therefore, the demand for higher wages can be dropped now even though they are currently nowhere near that powerful.
Whatever one thinks of the logic of that claim, his argument gets more convoluted when he tries to ground his political reasoning not just in the general logic of the class struggle but in the terms of his theorization of a deepening stagnation and resulting employment crisis. Benanav asserts that an ostensibly anti-capitalist UBI would only be effective if capitalist automation were causing or threatening to cause massive job loss: “For UBI to serve as the basis of a left-wing vision of exit from capitalism, the automation theorists’ analysis would need to be correct: today’s low labor demand would have to originate in rapidly rising productivity levels, associated with a fast pace of economic change.” We might ask why. After all many people, self-described anti-capitalists among them, call for a UBI without subscribing to the notion that automation is accelerating towards a “job apocalypse.” Benanav reasons as follows: if a UBI were implemented under conditions of stagnation then “the main issue society would confront would be one of reorganizing distribution, not production, with rising economic inequality rectified by distributing more and more income as UBI payments.” Here Benanav resorts to a widespread misinterpretation of the distinction that Marx made between production and distribution. Space does not permit a deeper consideration of this distinction but suffice it to say that one of the main thrusts of Marx’s critique of political economy in both Grundrisse and Theories of Surplus Value was that Ricardo and his epigones had completely failed to grasp the “dialectical” relation of production and distribution under social relations which introduce a very fundamental distribution into the production process between owners of the means of production and owners of mere labor power, a separation at the heart of capitalism’s relations of production. Marx had no doubt that the most consequential class struggles would seek to alter a society’s constitutive distribution of the means of production and regarded the question of the organization and management of production in the narrower sense as entirely secondary to that.
At one point, Benanav seems to suggest that he would prefer that the class struggle not move to this highest point. “But if, as I have argued, contemporary under demand for labor is the result of global overcapacity and depressed investment—driving down rates of economic growth—then such a distributional struggle would quickly become a zero-sum conflict between labor and capital [emphasis added] blocking, or at least dramatically slowing, progress toward a freer future.” And from an anti-capitalist perspective what would be the problem with that? Benanav has probably read somewhere in Brenner that zero-sum conflicts take place when there is little or no economic growth, forcing everyone to fight over a fixed pie. But if we are already in a condition of “deepening stagnation” how could a zero-sum conflict be avoided, and why would it block or slow progress towards a “freer future”? Isn’t a zero-sum class struggle the most radical of all, posing the question of who rules?
But then Benanav draws back and acknowledges that, of course, the zero-sum class struggle is in fact precisely what is needed to exit capitalism: “Only a conquest of production, which finally succeeds in wresting the power to control investment decisions away from capitalists, hence rendering the capital strike inoperative, can clear the way for us to advance toward a post-scarcity future.”
In this second, political half of this work, Benanav makes it clear that his main grievance with the automation discourse is not so much its economic but rather “its tendency to underrate existing social struggles.” But the scenario he invokes of social struggle leading to the conquest of the means of production is simply impossible on his own terms. For how could an atomized multitude of the underemployed and informalized precariat ever seize hold of the totality of social production? Benanav is aware that the situation, as he portrays it, seems desperately unpromising. “To despair of the emancipatory potential of today’s social struggles is not unreasonable. It would take a massive and persistent mobilization to turn the tide of a truculent neoliberalism, yet the only movement with the size and strength to undertake this task—the historic labor movement—has been thoroughly defeated.”
The thesis that the historic workers’ movement (unions, parties, internationals) is over has been effectively argued by the Endnotes collective. Although the protest movements that emerged after the financial crisis offer a glimmer of hope, he concedes they are unlikely to assume the form and proportions of the older movement which was grounded in the organizations and esprit de corp of the industrial working class. What then are the prospects of this struggle given the destruction of the workers’ movement under conditions of deindustrialization, “persistent under-employment” and “deepening stagnation”? “Vast discontinuities separate our era from theirs. Those labor movements arose during a long period of industrialization, whereas we live in the postindustrial doldrums: ours will be a struggle over the consequences of industrialization’s end.” The editors of Endnotes have concluded that with the end of the workers’ movement class politics are being superseded by intersectional anti-capitalism (“gender, race, class, and other misfortunes”). While the older form of class politics necessarily took the form of workers exerting their collective power from the point of production, the newer form of anti-capitalist struggle confronts the problem that the precariat has no comparably strategic foothold in the system of production. How could one get around this seemingly insuperable obstacle?
Here Benanav, like many in his milieu, seems to fall back on a very expansive, Negrian idea of labor and production, or “reproduction” as a more general creative activity which we all contribute to, and which forms the common basis of episodic anti-capitalist uprisings. Though the “post-workers movement” Marxist formations which took shape around and in the aftermath of Occupy tended to look down on Hardt and Negri’s earlier and highly influential Empire, the latter arguably laid out the ideological script of this new anti-capitalist activism, of which Endnotes and like formations are arguably just derivatives. Instead of any idea of communism, we have what is called “anti-capitalism.”
If what Benanav has in mind by anti-capitalist social struggles from below is the ultra-left sector of the protest scene which emerged around and in the aftermath of Occupy, or even just the more specific actions of the scene to which Endnotes belongs, it might seem reasonable to “despair of the emancipatory potential of today’s social struggles.” Of course, the failure was not limited to this sector. More generally, this whole round of protests and demonstrations failed to result in any reforms, let alone come close to threatening the system itself. Historically, the Left is all too familiar with defeat so one wouldn’t want to make too much of this disappointing outcome. That said, it does seem highly unlikely that this generation of intersectional progressives could ever pose much of a challenge to the rule of capital. This is a milieu whose movements are subject to very short-term cycles: euphoric upsurges followed soon after by wild, self-destructive implosions with no organizational staying power. Some sobering words from 2012 on Occupy and Arab Spring from Alexander Cockburn—a self-described old leftist—seem to ring especially true a decade later.
Everything the leftists predicted came true; just as everything hard-eyed analysts predicted about the likely but unwelcome course of ecstatic populism in Tahrir Square also came true. I do think it’s incumbent on those veteran radicals who wrote hundreds of articles more for proclaiming a religious conversion to give a proper account of themselves, otherwise, it will all happen all over again.
For the sake of argument, we can accept Benavav’s more benevolent and hopeful portrayal of this new generation of activists. Let us try to imagine the obstacles through which such movements would have to pass. If such politically unmediated protest movements could ever break out of their now familiar short-term cycle of upsurge and implosion and were somehow (there’s no harm in imagining) able to expand to proportions where they were poised to wrest control of the means of production from the capitalist class, this would presumably have to happen nearly all at once, across a large part of the capitalist system as a whole and would have to encounter little effective resistance. Only then would the problem of conquering power and defending the gains of the revolution against armed enemies not arise. Even to state the case is to refute it.
Gramsci aptly characterized the conjunction of economism and spontaneism which underlies such fantasies of collective agency. “This view was a form of iron economic determinism, with the aggravating factor that it was conceived of as operating with lightning speed in time and in space. It was thus out and out historical mysticism, the awaiting of a sort of miraculous illumination.” Unlike many on the ultra-left scene, Benanav is probably aware of the impossibility of this entire scenario, and so the book as with most of his contributions to Endnotes ends on a melancholy note.
Visions of a social struggle purified of all adulterating political mediation have a long history and express a justified contempt for what Lenin called “parliamentary cretinism.” In another era, George Sorel sought to imagine a revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society that would not depend on the seizure of power by a Jacobin-style party, but would rather take the form of a General Strike, a Napoleonic battle in which the enemy would be defeated in a single blow. Sorel conceived of this prospect of pure, apolitical form of working-class agency as a “social myth.” It is a characteristic of our own time that such once compelling collective fantasies have lost their mobilizing power, erased from the consciousness of workers the world around. No wonder it’s become so hard to speak about revolutionary change without sounding like a fantasist.
Are there, then, any forms of struggle against the rule of capital by which radical reforms and perhaps even revolutions might once again become conceivable? The single important contribution of the contemporary ultra-left to the renewal of Marxist political thought in this period was its insistence that the epoch of the workers movement is over. Many on the Left beholden to older social-democratic and Leninist traditions vehemently rejected this claim, but the case is clear. I believe the following piece of evidence is compelling: even before the collapse of European “state socialism,” at the peak of post-war class struggles—France in ’68 and Italy in ’69 —workers exhibited no tendency whatsoever to form councils, which had previously been conceived as the spontaneously arising organ of the proletarian seizure of the means of production and the nucleus of a new social order by would be revolutionaries—anarcho-communists and Leninists alike. Those who are interested in the rebirth of a workers movement should reflect on the historical significance of this apparent eclipse of the council form.
B. A Way Forward
It is all well and good to criticize others but since everyone on the Left recognizes the situation is bleak, perhaps the best we can hope for are seemingly “impossible,” even “messianic” events. In that case, it would be unhelpful to dwell on the logical and empirical defects of the claims of today’s intersectional anti-capitalists.
I would argue that the contemporary emergence of a conception of class and class struggle which perhaps provides reasons for some optimism. This conception might be called Pikettyan. Class, in this sense, would be a straightforwardly political category, even a fiscal one like in ancient times, with numerical designations of the rich—the top 1 or 10%—and corresponding statistical conceptions of the working class or people. This conception of class has the obvious advantage that it is highly congruent with the ordinary experience of social inequality in advanced and developing capitalist countries. It could be thought of as the political form of appearance of an underlying structural causality of capitalism which is not transparently representable in such terms. Moreover, class struggle in the simplified, more abstract, and classical form of rich vs poor would not hinge on the seizure of the industrial means of production by those who operate them. Of course, the decisive line of social fissure, where the line is drawn in this numerical continuum cannot be determined in advance but there are probably some structural coefficients common to all class societies—the one percent, the ten percent, the thirty percent pitted against the rest. Intuitively, it makes sense that the class struggles of the future will take this form, even though the evidence for this is certainly inconclusive.
Vast protest movements-of course, necessarily far larger and more organized than we have so far seen since 2008—could implement radical measures on the condition of breaking through into the political sphere: UBI, taxation, public ownership, and, of course, the drastic reduction of defense spending and bringing an end to murderous imperialist interventions in countries.
Could class struggle in this “Pikettyian” form have any revolutionary potential, if the kind of social protest that occasionally erupts even in some advanced capitalist countries became massive enough to break through into the political system? Such a rupture would seemingly entail a radical break with the unreformable parties of the center-left, though some of them might tilt left in response to upsurges from below. Such a breakthrough, however initially disruptive, would confront immense corrupting and pacifying pressures, but that is inevitable. But those not already committed to such a course, and, indeed, even those who would be wholly opposed to it could agree that a rupture with capitalism via this path is at least conceivable. By contrast, a seizure of the means of production by an acephalous precariat is simply impossible. For the capitalist state imposes a set of political forms on effective opposition to the order it upholds. This includes, to be clear, the political party. Recent experience underscores that there is no possibility of even attaining significant reforms from within the parties of the so-called center-left, which in the advanced capitalist countries are proving themselves to be, in certain respects, even more reactionary than their conservative opponents. Obviously, the electoral system should be treated like the pigsty that it is. In any event, as remote as the prospect of a party-led revolutionary rupture and establishment of new property relations now seems, all the alternatives now appear far more so. The measures I’m proposing go beyond Piketty’s reformist political conclusions, so he should in no way be held responsible for any excesses that might be committed in the attempt to execute this more ambitious project. Left-wing social democracy is more rational than ultra-leftism but, barring wholly unforeseeable contingencies, it has just as little chance of changing the world.
Beyond sheer conceivability, what are some of the advantages of thinking about the future of class struggle in the political form outlined here? First and foremost, it has the chance of succeeding because it does not depend upon strong footholds in the system of production—however broadly the latter is conceived. Other, quite effective criticisms of the politics of Endnotes have relied on the assumption that older forms of industrial working-class organization and agency can still be reactivated. The alternative sketched here does not assume this. Secondly, the breakthrough scenarios I am talking about are not reliant upon any particular longer-term economic forecast—accelerationist, stagnationist, or some combination of the two. The economic horizon is now uncertain enough that it would be unwise to hitch a political project to any too definite forecast.
Finally, it might free anti-capitalist struggles from the self-destructive dynamics of identitarian ideology to which the ultra-left, as well as today’s youthful social democracy, is in thrall, for all their misgivings and superior theoretical airs. Down the political path sketched here, a more abstract idea of the worker with no further markers of difference might arise and possibly become the mobilizing basis of a militant universalism, one which would cut across a cultural divide which has more and more workers and the less educated in general supporting parties of the Right. The Left is no longer anchored in a workers' movement worker but in a subaltern activist scene on the periphery of the liberal wing of the ruling class. The appeal of anti-immigrant politics to an atomized mass of native plebians will likely grow stronger as population decline necessitates much higher levels of immigration in so-called “affluent societies” which perceive themselves as having already taken in far too many aliens. Meanwhile, the subaltern Left will continue to loudly denounce this regression to the right of the so-called native worker. Speaking of France in the early 90s Jacques Rancière made a telling observation: “Objectively, we have no more immigrant people than we had twenty years ago. Subjectively, we have many more. The difference is this: twenty years ago, the ‘immigrant’ had a different name; they were workers or proletarians. In the meantime, this name has been lost as a political name.”
Benanav does not address this massive defection of uneducated workers to the Right unfolding in nearly every advanced capitalist society. This most striking manifestation of the end of the workers' movement does not register in this work. Instead, its author chooses to express concern—this is one of his arguments against UBI—that “a right wing UBI” might prop up un-progressive communities and forms of life “ensconced in moral worlds of faith and community values.” It is in this context that his utopianism slides into an advocacy for lifestyle changes: the solution to the problem of scarcity is not to produce more and better but rather to change people’s values. “For a post-scarcity society to come into being, a literal cornucopia is not required. It is only necessary that scarcity and its accompanying mentality be overcome [emphasis added], so people can live, as More said, ‘with a joyful and tranquil frame of mind, with no worries about making a living.’” One might wonder how many will respond to this call to leave behind the mentality of scarcity—entrenched as it is in the depths of social being—and change their wicked ways. In any event, this goal is at least conceivable for the owners of society would probably like nothing better than to ensure that workers the world around overcome their mentality of scarcity and live in such a blissful state of mind.
C. Scientific Socialism vs. the Utopian-Dystopian Ideology
Is the conquest of production he has in mind a utopian prospect latent to the deepening stagnation stage of capitalism that Benanav claims we are living in? Or, in the desperate circumstances he portrays, has the utopian been consigned to its more traditional status as a harmless discourse on what Machiavelli called “imaginary republics”? Though Thomas More and Étienne Cabet are mentioned as inspirations for our dark times, more anomalously Aristotle comes up as a utopian theorist of the true life freed from degrading toil:
we need to reorganize social life into two separate but interrelated spheres: a realm of necessity and a realm of freedom. The distinction between these two realms comes from ancient Greece, although for Aristotle, this distinction was one between persons. Slaves were condemned to the realm of necessity, while only citizens were allowed to enter the realm of freedom.
Aristotle’s distinction is invoked in this context as an alternative to the technological determinists but then it is conceded that he too recognized that the only way to get rid of servitude was through automation. “If every tool, when summoned, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it,” he said, “then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers, or of slaves for the lords.” With Aristotle we can assume that full automation is not coming any time soon. Benanav argues that realms of freedom can be established under conditions in which arduous work cannot be eliminated by automation but as a communizer—someone who denies the necessity of any transitional stages between capitalism and “full communism”—he shies from the problem of how the distribution of arduous and unpleasant tasks would be apportioned in the kind of society he has in mind. In all forms of society, if such tasks cannot be performed by machines or animals, they must be apportioned between human beings within the parameters of a socially constitutive distribution of the conditions of production—primitive communism, a caste or slave system, a capitalist free market order or a socialism in which each gets a share according to ones means. If we are to understand—and there’s no harm in speculating—that not even the fullest communism would seek to automate away all work, the general thesis of historical materialism still stands: As long as the domination of nature by human beings is incomplete, i.e. for as long as there is scarcity, there will be struggles between human beings over the distribution of work and its products.
What measures does Benanav propose to address the ever “deepening stagnation” of capitalism, implosion of employment, and presumably absolute immiseration which he predicts lies ahead? Before considering these, recall the following. He does not explain why we are in a terminal stage of capitalism. He rejects the secular stagnationist view and puts little weight on the growth-retarding impact of a technologically conservative service sector, while Brenner’s Long Downturn account does not support the view that capitalist development is slowing down for good. Since he does not end up providing an argument as to why capitalism on its own inner dynamic is coming to an end, we will have to speculate to get to the bottom of his claim. It may be that he is assuming that capitalism will end in an ecological apocalypse—that is, after all, a plausible and widely held view and not just on the Left. And, for the sake of argument, concede that such a catastrophe will come over the next few decades, as is often projected. What then is to be done? The form of social organization which Benanav foresees seems ill-equipped to handle such challenges: “The world would then be composed of overlapping partial plans, which interrelate necessary and free activities, rather than a single central plan…in the absence of market compulsions, it is more likely that the realm of necessity would change slowly.” It seems inconceivable that local committees slowly clearing and cultivating oases of freedom in the realm of necessity could do what he acknowledges needs to be done, i.e., “put a large portion of humanity’s collective resources and intelligence to work to mitigate or reverse climate change, and to make up for the centuries of inequity that followed colonization.”
If one were actually willing to do whatever it took to counteract this coming calamity, global planning in an emergency mobilization mode would seem to be the only solution. Over a somewhat longer time frame, the same goes for the inequalities of development that colonialism, etc. created around the world — near quasi-starvation, absolute immiseration on a massive scale in the world today. Here too planning on a gigantic scale would be needed. Benanav is not alone in taking a rather casual attitude regarding the measures which would need to be taken to resolve a crisis of planetary proportions. It might be said that those who reject large-scale, global planning do not take their own apocalypticism very seriously, in contrast to proponents of planning who do take the risk, if not the inevitability of this dire prospect quite seriously.
Although we can dream about other worlds, reading the pronouncements of Endnotes one can get the impression that the best one can hope for these days are massive upsurges of defiance, with protestors collectively shaking their fists at a dying world. In this melancholic discourse of the new ultra-left, some now very familiar (some might say tiresome) dystopian tropes abound.
Our present reality is better described by near-future science fiction dystopias than by standard economic analysis; ours is a hot planet, with micro-drones flying over the heads of the street hawkers and rickshaw pullers, where the rich live in guarded, climate-controlled communities while the rest of us while away our time in dead-end jobs, playing video games on smartphones. We need to slip out of this timeline and into another.
It is reasonable to ask whether this kind of apocalyptic jargon might be concealing some considerably positive trends in overall human welfare. Has the “deepening stagnation” of the last several decades resulted in an absolute or relative immiseration of the world’s worst-off? Benanav acknowledges that absolute immiseration has declined and doesn’t tell us why it won’t continue to do so. “The share of the world’s population suffering from the most extreme forms of poverty has declined over time, alongside the urbanization of the world’s population.”
Obviously, the gains have been exceedingly modest but there is no reason to think that in fifty years they couldn’t amount to a more considerable improvement. After all, as Benanav is aware, productivity growth is currently in line with the historic average of the capitalist system and is only low by comparison to the exceptionally high standard of the post-war decades. How does this translate into the trendline for the wealth of nations? Here it should be noted—as Benanav is no doubt aware—that measuring wealth by GDP misses a very large part of the increases in human welfare that have taken place since the late 19th century. This could very conceivably continue to take place as the most rudimentary infrastructures of health, education, transportation, etc. are introduced to that large part of humanity which lack them now. It is surely an open question as to whether capitalism could accomplish that. Marxists have long been aware that no critique of capitalism that rests upon an assumption of absolute immiseration is going to end up holding much water, but the contemporary discourse of precarity and surplus populations has arguably clouded the picture.
Somewhat offsetting the gloomy forecasts of the Left, we should consider an oft-ignored dimension of the world of labor—the arduousness and unpleasantness of toil. Robert Gordon sums up the basic longer-term trendline succinctly.
The unpleasantness (economists call this the “disutility”) of work declined sharply over the last fourteen decades. Though improvements in households made possible by consumer appliances have long been an important topic in the history of economic growth, there has been less attention to the declining unpleasantness of work as economic development changed the distribution of occupations and as labor-saving electric-powered and gasoline-powered machinery reduced the difficulty of particular work tasks.
Finally, what about the nearly universal, spiraling inequality of this period? I would argue that the history of the capitalist system strongly suggests that inequality cannot spiral upwards without end and that it is periodically compressed by economic crises and politically stabilizing measures. Extrapolating existing trends towards inequality, employment and precarity might not prepare us for new forms of capitalist development spurred by intensified strategic competition between the US, China, and other capitalist power centers, which would likely require higher levels of taxation on the rich, reregulation of markets and the deglobalization of production.
Over the history of capitalism, progress along certain lines has always been entwined with regression along others making it hazardous to assume any linear tendency towards stagnation or breakdown. But does this stabilizing dialectic rule out the kind of breakdown crises which all revolutionary traditions have always assumed were a necessary condition of the most radical act—the destruction of the existing form of the state and the social property relations it tenaciously upholds? Recent developments suggest perhaps that catastrophe might very well strike in another form, more in line with older predictions about the destiny of the capitalist system. What looks like a coming period of intensified great power conflict may once again open up possibilities for more Leninist outcomes, for perhaps only defeat in war might re-open the road to a politics of great transformations. The good news is that it is entirely conceivable that a new form of class politics (very faintly outlined here) of a new dialectic of reform and revolution will take shape in the coming decades.
A Brief Note on Robert Brenner’s Account of The Long Downturn
The Brenner account begins in a post-war era when the US enjoyed massive economic supremacy over rival capitalist states. The countries the US helped to rebuild after World War II (its former enemies, Japan and Germany) began to pursue an export-led path of economic development which resulted in growth rates which considerably outstripped those of the US. By the 1960s Japanese and German firms were beginning to make sizable incursions into the American market. Intensified international competition resulted in a downward pressure on prices, reducing profit rates (profit=price/cost) for the manufacturing sector in first the US but then also Japan and Germany. The capitalist system pits individual capitalist firms into competition with one another for market share. In what sense can it be said that national economies as collectives compete with one another? The reason why one can speak of whole national economies competing with one another is because typically the most advanced manufacturing production is clustered in integrated regional-national blocs whose fortunes tend to stand and fall more or less together.
Given this national interconnection of manufacturing sectors, how did the profit squeeze spread from the higher-cost manufacturing of the US to become a general crisis? According to mainstream conceptions of competition, higher-cost incumbent producers will exit product markets being encroached upon by lower-cost producers. If capitalist competition unfolded in this smoothly self-adjusting way, there would never be longer-term downturns. Brenner argued that the reason why crises of overproduction can be protracted is because incumbents can write off their already sunk long-term fixed investment costs and withstand competition from more efficient producers by settling in to take a profit over just their circulating costs. In this way, incumbents can stick it out, perpetuating the overproduction problem that brings down profit rates for both themselves as well as for the more efficient newcomers who are, in the meantime, compelled to make a profit over their entire fixed and circulating investment costs.
 Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future (Verso) 2016. I won’t address their argument here independently of Benanav’s critique, but suffice it to say that while I think it is wrong it is nonetheless admirably clear and coherent, more anyhow than the criticisms it received.
 The best profile of the politics of the journal can be found in Tim Barker’s “The Bleak Left,” N+1 28 (2017). https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-28/reviews/the-bleak-left/
 Frederic Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume 1, Verso 2011.
 Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence, Verso, 2006.
 Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Princeton 2016, p. 329.
 Alyssa Fowers and Andrew Van Dam. “The most unusual job market in modern American history, explained.” Washington Post. 29 December 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/12/29/job-market-2021/
 Alexander Cockburn. “Epitaph to a Dead Movement.” Creators Syndicate. 6 July 2012. https://www.creators.com/read/alexander-cockburn/07/12/epitaph-to-a-dead-movement
 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Eds. and trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. International Publishers, 1971. p. 233.
 Tim Barker, “The Bleak Left.”
 Jacques Rancière, "Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization" October 61 (Summer, 1992), 63.
 Gordon, p. 254.