Graph: Michael Roberts

Graph: Michael Roberts


The piece below is extracted from a discussion on the Marxmail list where there has been some recent debate between upholders of Marx’s crisis theory and ‘Marxist’ opponents of Marx’s crisis theory; the piece below deals with crisis theory and the NZ working class, so we’re posting it up on Redline. 

by Philip Ferguson

Roberts (following Marx and LTRPF)* shows that crisis is inherent in capitalism, the system simply can’t escape it and therefore the possibility of overthrowing capitalism can’t be avoided either.  That possibility is always present, whether it is really, really weak (as at present) or strong (1930s Depression, period at the end of the post-WW2 boom as well).

I’m not arguing, of course, that immiseration causes revolution – frequently it results in demoralisation and passivity.  But improvements in workers’ general conditions leading to rising expectations which are then blocked by a slump certainly can help radicalise workers’ thinking.

In New Zealand we had a long period of workers’ passivity, from the start of the 1950s until the end of the 1960s.  The two key factors in this passivity were the defeat of the left of the labour movement in a massive industrial battle that went on for most of the first half of 1951 on the one hand and the long postwar boom on the other hand.  Conservativism was also sustained ideologically by the Cold War.

Workers’ expectations rose considerably during the boom.  Then, suddenly, in 1968 there was a nil general wage order.  Rising expectations met the impact of the falling rate of profit and the result was a renewal of class struggle.

This went on until the fourth Labour government (1984-1990) which confused, demoralised and largely crushed the working class.  The class, however, had one more fight in it.  This was against the National Party government’s Employment Contracts Act of 1991.  The biggest working class mobilisations in NZ history took place, the union bureaucrats took fright and put the brakes on, preventing a general strike.  The class was smashed and hasn’t recovered.  We’ve now had 24 years of working class passivity, with only an occasional scrap – the scraps which our side has won have produced big enough victories to inspire renewed resistance across wider sectors of the class while the scraps that have been lost have reinforced the general aura of pessimism in the class.

These days falling rates of profit don’t have much political resonance, in terms of working class opposition to capitalism, because the class has been pushed back so far and is relatively atomised, certainly in terms of consciousness.

*Law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  For a short explanation, see here.  (Mike) Roberts is a leading exponent of Marx’s crisis theory today and prominent writer on the world economy and the economies of key capitalist countries.  We frequently run material by him.  He blogs here.

  1. Simon says:

    Practical revolutionary opposition to capitalism ended a long time ago. The left died and merged with the right in what Baudrillard called the transpolitical.

    Marxists economists critique capitalism from within political economy itself because they can’t see beyond the system of value to a more primitive conception of human relations ie Symbolic Exchange.