Chris Harman

Zombie Capitalism

Part Four: The Runaway System

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The Runaway System and
the Future for Humanity

Anthony Giddens published a book with a strange title in 1999 at the high point of illusions in globalisation and the “new economic paradigm”. He was (and still is) Britain’s best know academic advocate of the “third way” that ditches old social democratic attempts to tame capitalism and was aptly described as “Tony Blair’s court sociologist”. [1] Yet the title was The Runaway World. It conveys the image of a bolting horse, which governments, social movements and individuals alike cannot stop but have to try to balance on precariously. The best they can do is to try to influence where it is taking them by spurring it on with investments in social capital on the one side and reining it in with cutbacks in welfare expenditures on the other. Yet the succession of crises and wars that have punctuated the last four decades show the futility of such efforts.

The runaway world is, in fact, the economic system as Marx described it, the Frankenstein’s monster that has escaped from human control; the vampire that saps the lifeblood of the living bodies it feeds off. Its self-expansion has indeed led it to encompass the whole globe, drawing all of humanity into its cycles of competing in order to accumulate and accumulating in order to compete.

Its expansion has been marked, as much in the 21st century as in the mid-19th century when Marx did his research for Capital, by fits and starts, by frenzied forward motion suddenly interrupted by deep crises. Running through the cycles of expansion and recession has been the other feature Marx pointed to: downward pressure on profitability causing capitalists to try to cut back on wages and welfare benefits at the same time as pressuring people to work harder, even though in doing so this cuts into the market for consumer goods produced by other capitalists. We have seen how these elements came together to produce the great slump of the inter-war years, renewed crisis in the mid-1970s, and the long drawn out Japanese crisis of the 1990s. We saw also how they produced the debt economy bubble culminating in the great crash of 2007–9. We will see this happen again repeatedly, in one form or other, in the decades ahead.

In some important ways, the system is even more chaotic than in Marx’s account. The very size of the units that make it up means that it has lost some of its old flexibility. The destruction of some capitals through periodic crises which once gave new life to those that remained now threatens to pull these down as well. Life support systems provided by the state may be able keep the system from complete collapse but cannot restore it to long-term vigour. At best they provide a feverish spell of brief exhilaration before yet another collapse. And the cost of providing the life support systems sooner or later stretches the resources of the state close to breaking point.

Modern states are creatures of the capitalist system, evolving to service the needs of the geographical clusters of capitals that constitute it. The more these clusters depend on their relations with the rest of the global system, the more they need the power of states to provide for their interests within it. Yet each state can only achieve this goal by pressurising other states, and in the process adding to the instability of the system as a whole. The measures national states take to aid the capitals based within them during a crisis necessarily infringe on the interests of capitals based in other states, increasing the instability still further. Their significance is not limited to a particular economic crisis. They provide a foretaste of what the rest of the 21st century is going to be like.

Capitalism is a restless system. Whether in boom or slump, in peace or war, in a great city or the remote countryside, it never stands still. Competitive accumulation remoulds everything it touches and then, when it has hardly finished, remoulds it all again. The very speed of change itself has enormous importance. It means that the relative economic weights of the different states within which the units of capital are based are continually in flux, just as the states have to try to intervene to protect their capitalists from the recurrent convulsions of the global system.

The problem is acute for the US, at the top of the global hierarchy. Its position had depended on its being the policeman for the whole system, offering general protection, Mafia style, to the other ruling classes, while using that position to privilege the position of US based capitals. Crises make those capitals need that privileged position more than ever. The failures in the “war on terror” meant that already in the mid-2000s other states felt more empowered to challenge such privilege, shown by China’s increased sway in Africa, Russia’s in parts of the former USSR, and the BRICS in global trade negotiations. Then came the crisis that began in 2007 with widespread predictions that it would dent US global hegemony even more just as many of its great corporations looked to that hegemony to help them out.

US imperialism might be temporarily chastened as it contemplated the way in which some of its recent adventures have rebounded to its disadvantage – just as the Vietnam War did. But it can not abandon its global position, even if defending it leads to further assertions of military might in other poorer countries, with devastating and destructive consequences. Increased troop deployments were meant to ensure the retreat from Iraq did not turn into rout in Afghanistan. Significantly, Barack Obama’s first budget increased, rather than decreased, military expenditure. And so did the budgets announced in the same month for Russia and China. The bloody road which led from Korea to Vietnam and from Vietnam to Iraq is not yet at an end.

But that is not all. The “new”, environmental, limits of capital will react back upon its old economic limits. Climate change, peak oil and global food shortages will add to the overall economic instability of the system expressed in the boom-bust cycle, the downward pressure on the rate of profit and the flows of capital from industry to industry and country to country. We had a glimpse of this in the first half of 2008. Rising food and energy prices produced an inflationary surge which added to government difficulties in dealing with the credit crunch at the same time as causing protests, riots and strikes in a score of countries. We can expect many more clashes within and between states as problems of food security and energy security lead to shifts in surplus value from some sections of capital to others and provoke popular outrage. And all the time climate change tipping points can suddenly impact unexpectedly on hundreds of millions of people’s lives, in much the same way that economic crises and wars do, but even more destructively.

The starkest recognition of the possible consequences came from the US Department of Defence, the Pentagon, at the time when the official position of the US government was still to refuse to recognise the reality of climate change. It warned of the danger of “food shortages due to decreases in net global agricultural production”, “decreased availability and quality of fresh water in key regions due to shifted precipitation patterns, causing more frequent floods and droughts”, and “disrupted access to energy supplies due to extensive sea ice and storminess”.

The outcome, as it saw it, would be an increased occurrence of resource wars and civil wars:

As global and local carrying capacities are reduced, tensions could mount around the world, leading to two fundamental strategies: defensive and offensive. Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves. Less fortunate nations, especially those with ancient enmities with their neighbours, may initiate struggles for access to food, clean water, or energy. Unlikely alliances could be formed as defence priorities shift and the goal is resources for survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honour ...

There would be “an increasingly disorderly and potentially violent world”. [2]

This will be disorder in a world in which eight of the biggest states possess nuclear weapons that are targeted at others, scores have “conventional weaponry” much more destructive and horrific than that of the Second World War, and proliferating civil nuclear energy can provide conventional weapons with deadly targets. The runaway system threatens more than devastating periodic slumps and horrific wars. It puts into question the very possibility of sustaining human life on Earth. The system of alienated labour is approaching its highest point of destructiveness. The question is whether those who produce that labour are capable of seizing control of its wealth and subjecting it to conscious control.

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1. By Alex Callinicos in the column he writes for Socialist Worker.

2. Details of the report first appeared in the Observer, 22 February 2004. The full report is available on [download].

Last updated on 05 April 2020