A Critique of the Concept of Collapse (Grupo Barbaria)

The following is a translation of the transcript from the Grupo Barbaria’s intervention in the debate on the 17th of October, 2019 on capitalist collapse, the environmental catastrophe and the alternatives that the revolutionaries propose.

In recent months, with the appearance of Más País and the involvement in it by some familiar faces from the anarchist and ecologist scene in Madrid, a certain anecdote has often come to mind. It might seem a little extravagant to begin a discussion about the problems which we face as a species in the 21st century with a story from the 19th century, but only in appearances.

It happens that at the end of the 19th century a debate erupted inside of the german social-democratic party.

Edward Bernstein, one of its most important leaders,kicked it off by affirming that the revolution wasn’t really necessary and that the development of capital itself, thanks to its tendency to socialize production and from the thrust of the associations, athenaeums, unions and workers cooperatives, will cause it to fall like a ripened fruit. It was necessary then to advance the appropriate socialist reforms from State to accompany this objective process. It was a huge scandal in the SPD. Not because it wasn’t what its leadership had been doing for already a few decades, but for the way of explicitly laying bare the theoretical consequences of this very practice. At that moment, Ignaz Auer, the secretary of the party, wrote a letter to Berstein telling him: “My dear Eddy, nobody officially does what you say must be done, nobody says it, they simply do it”.

This anecdote came to mind for two reasons. The first, because it clearly demonstrates how what we do isn’t innocuous. It must be kept in mind that the SPD was a party that, wholeheartedly, professed putting an end to capitalism and for that reason [its militants were] were persecuted and incarcerated. Nevertheless, when our practice is ambiguous and is not clearly directed against capital and the State, sooner or later it will end up denying the necessity of revolution. And inversely: when the possibility and necessity of revolution is denied, it normally ends up leading to collaborating in one form or another with capital and the State. It’s just that some say it and act accordingly and others, often without knowing it, do it.

The second reason enters fully into the theme of the debate, and it has to do with the idea of collapse. Classical social-democracy, and not only Bernstein, thought that the economy was the infrastructure which determined the social totality. It also thought that the development of this economy would in itself conduct us to a better society, causing capitalism to fall like a ripened fruit. It was therefore logical that Bernstein would carry this conception to its logical conclusion, negating the necessity for revolution. But today it’s impossible to believe that the development of capitalism is leading us to a better world, and so a curious inversion is produced. What is done is to propound that the infrastructure that determines everything else is no longer the economy, but the petrol, the energetic resources, and when the oil runs out the entirety of capitalism will collapse. But in any case, the development of capitalism again returns to make the revolution unnecessary.

Well then, in order to understand why I now relate Más País with Bernstein and Bernstein with the collapse, I’ll have to explain things in reverse as I should have done. Firstly, the conclusions: the collapse isn’t going to happen. Capitalism cannot collapse, because despite what could be believed capital has no external limits, it doesn’t have barriers which impede its continued growth. That’s not to say that everything is going to run smoothly. On the contrary. As has been said repeatedly in debates like this one, capital is a logic of unlimited growth in a limited physical world. This implies that capital will continue to grow, let the cards fall as they may.

The capitalist catastrophe will continue expanding exponentially, with increasing brutality, until an international revolution is produced or our species becomes extinct. And to do so, it will obtain energy from wherever it must.

The problem with concepts like that of collapse is that they invert the terms. Instead of asking what type of social relations cause there to be a necessity for one kind of energy or another, they ask how the energy resources determine one type of social relations or the other. So, instead of comprehending that which is capitalism in its global logic in order to, from there, think about what role the depletion of oil will fulfill, what’s done is to reduce the social relations to merely physical questions: when the hydrocarbons are finished, capitalism will end.

In doing this, it’s impossible to comprehend what capitalism is. In this society, all production is governed by commodity exchange, and this produces a split: it doesn’t matter what is exchanged, the material doesn’t matter, only that this exchange allows money to be had in order to produce more commodities in order to produce more money. The abstract dominates the concrete. Value dominates the human being and their natural environment, it puts them at its service, let the cards fall as they may. We find ourselves before a machine of blind destruction, automated and impersonal.

Yet in all this there is a problem. And it’s that the only way to produce increasingly more value is to exploit human labor and, because of capitalist competition, in production there are increasingly more machines and less humans. This means that in order to now produce just the same same value that is produced by masses of workers on an assembly line, it’s necessary to produce many more commodities and therefore use much more raw material and energy, without this actually solving the problem. So then, in this machine of blind destruction that is capital,there is always more excess population and the voracious consumption of natural and energetic resources is always more necessary. To say it schematically: the less human labor is needed to produce commodities, the more commodities need to be produced and therefore the more energy which is needed to produce them and transport them to the market. I say energy and not petrol absolutely intentionally: in the logic of capital, everything is abstract. But the conclusion is simple: food for the machines and hunger for the human being. Perhaps bio-fuels would be the clearest example of this idea. And this voracious consumption of natural resources, this permanent expulsion from work and with that from human lives with access to the means of subsistence, this can not be interpreted in physical terms, as an external limit of capital: this is the automation catastrophe, increasingly more brutal, to which the logic of capitalism itself drives us. And while mercantile exchange and property continue to exist, this machine of destruction will continue to operate.

But of course, here it’s not a matter of getting into an overly theoretical discussion about if it will be collapse or capitalist catastrophe. It’s important, but it’s not the place either. What’s important is not to make the jump too soon, and to know that before the aforementioned arrives we will go -and we’re already doing so – through an increase of imperialist tensions for the hoarding of mineral and energetic resources, the necessity of which is always more decisive. Meanwhile, the social catastrophe which we are experiencing with an increasingly higher intensity will continue to produce social revolts, of growing intensity and radicality, with collective lessons and with the creation of forms of community essential for the continuation of the collective memory. That’s to say: we’re en route to an increasingly more polarized world, socially and militarily, in which class positions, internationalism and the radical wager on a different world, without concessions, return to being essential in order to revert the situation.

What has come to be called eco-fascism really is nothing more than this deepening of the crisis of capital and its management by the the State. Obviously, the term eco-fascism presents two serious problems: firstly, it appears to pronounce that fascism was not capitalist. And completely to the contrary: fascism was a historical movement of capitalist modernization, it was the industry, the fatherland, the capitalist technology made flesh and State. Which, albeit said in passing, wasn’t even very different in its fundamental phenomena from russian capitalism or from the keynesianism of Roosevelt. On the other hand, it would appear to differentiate between a good capitalism, that which we have lived with until now, and a truly catastrophic capitalism, which is what is coming upon us. As if capitalism were not a permanent catastrophe, a systematic and repeated apocalypse for the majority of the planet, for centuries!

In any case, and as we have said, the fundamental problem with the idea of collapse is that it negates the necessity of the revolution. If capitalism is going to shit on its own and there’s not much to do, then there’s only two alternatives left: substractionism or the State. The journal Salamandra is going to open up an interesting debate about substractionism in its next issue, in which we also participate. If it were needed to summarize it, I would use the title of an article which was written at a different time: Returning to the countryside while the world falls apart. To escape from capital, to retake communitarian relations while the collapse arrives. This is a respectable perspective, which from my point of view is a part of a radical impulse coming from a neeed to reject the existing relations, already experiencing relations which attempt to anticipate anarchic communism. To put it simply, substractionism is the expression of a depleted social system. Nevertheless, there’s not much need for reflection in order to realize that it’s impossible to escape from capital: that our survival depends on the commodity, in a lesser or greater part, it’s not negotiable. On the other hand, on the majority of the planet the development of urbanization and of agro-industry has annulled the difference between city and country, at the same time that life in the rural sphere can be even more harmful, at least to the health, as urban life. Capitalism is totalitarian, and it forgives no one.

Since in any case the perspective of substraction is inevitably minoritarian and stems from a defeat – it’s not possible to transform this world, so I’m going to try to transform my particular microcosm-, logically whoever wants to think in terms of social majorities ends up flirting with the idea of state management. It’s not a matter, nor much less, of equating substraction to institutional participation: the first comes from a vital radicality in search of realization, the second implies not only managing and reproducing the misery of capital, but controlling the police, killing, causing the disappearance of, and torturing when it is protested against. And nevertheless, we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t see a line of continuity: if the revolution isn’t possible and the world is going to shit, all that’s left is to escape for the minority or to do whatever good can be done through the State for the majority. In summary: the concept of collapse brings you to political impotency, to an anticipated defeat. And in the face of this defeat, emerges what we call social-democracy of the catastrophe: meaning, if the world is going to shit, let’s at least manage it democratically through the State.

The proposal to manage the capitalist catastrophe through the state is not only criminal, but it’s also absurd. Living proof of this is that the famous Green New Deal can be summed up in the creation of green financial bubbles through the impressions of a printer in the Central Bank. The proposal to go to the countryside while the world falls apart is not only insufficient, it’s throwing in the towel before the end of the fight in the face of the crisis which we are presented as a species: extinction or international revolution. And the thing is that, as we have said earlier, we’re entering a period of true imperialist and class polarization. Indeed, the escalation of social struggles which we’re experiencing already, just to speak of this year, from France to Hong Kong, from Ecuador to Iraq, and it’s not wild to affirm that we’re seeing the beginning of a cycle of struggles which open up the possibility of a new revolutionary period. In this process of social polarization, the only way that we have to not be defeated is to maintain clarity: the capitalist catastrophe will continue as long as the struggle is not assumed against every form of State, against every nation, against property and the commodity, at the global level. Everything else is “every man for himself”.