Present-day capitalism has changed the whole of economic reality. The old world regulated by laws and rigid rules where individual enterprises were able to make long term programmes, has changed into one where in order to survive companies must develop their flexibility and adaptability to a maximum degree. Revolution-ary structures, including anarchist ones, also used to be modelled along the idea of a rigid economic reality. Now, at a time when profound technological changes have put production in a state that is near to “chaos”, we are asking ourselves if these old revolutionary theories are still valid. I do not think we can say they are.
A look in passing at some of the old certainties
One thing that can be understood from the few not very elaborate analyses in circulation, is the different role that is being ascribed to the concept of “economic crisis” in the widest sense of the word.
Even in recent years there was still a lot being said in Marxist circles about an “objective coming of the crisis”, and various strategies and organisations were based on this conviction. Not only were they based on the possibility of reaching a revolutionary moment of truth with the class enemy, they even went into the de-tails, linking the strategic function of the revolutionary party and the “winning” choice of generalised armed struggle to the course of the “crisis” that was claimed to be objective.
We know that things are not like that. But the events leading up to the latter’s present faltering are not serious enough to merit discussion. They could be summed up as an about-turn in perspective following a few banal problems of ac-countancy. Things didn’t work out (but starting off on such a premise, how could they have done any better?) so they reached the conclusion that the objective mechanism had not “functioned” as it should have done. Others, converting to col-laborationism, ended up denying the mechanism altogether, revealing that the mental limitations of today are identical to those of the past, only those of yester-day were hidden by a mantle of slogans and prefabricated ideas.
The complexity of the problem of “crisis”
It is a known fact that Marxists also used to use this concept as a form of con-solation. At times, when conflict was at a low ebb and hearts were tepid, the de-terminist train kept chugging along. The crisis worked in the place of revolutionar-ies, eroding away the heart of the economic and social structure and preparing the field for the contradictions of the future. In this way the militant who had sacri-ficed everything to revolutionary hope did not see the ground move under his feet and continued to struggle, believing himself to have an ally hiding in the very na-ture of things.
At times when contradictions are greater and the level of the class struggle heightens as a consequence, determinism halts - or rather, being of little use, it is put behind the scenes. It is replaced with an opportunistic voluntarism capable (or hopeful) of bestriding the movement’s initiatives, its sudden outbreaks of destruc-tion and its creative, spontaneous organisations.
But apart from the questions of book-keeping that are still keeping the support-ers of revisioned power busy, the problem still exists in all its force.
In actual fact the course of the economic and social process in general is not homogenous, either in the minutiae of specific situations or in the situation as a whole. There are periods of economic shakedown, of constant levels of produc-tion, greater international equilibrium (both political and economic); these alter-nate with periods dominated by contradictions, where the whole system seems to be reaching a critical point.
Economists have often spoken of “cycles”, although they never agree as to how to identify them. It could be said that the chapter of cycles is one of the most amazing aspects of this ridiculous science.
Will it ever be possible for capitalists to put order in the economic set-up as a whole, or in the individual structures that comprise it? The answer is a definite “no”...
A double (and the same) error
But this does not mean that crises necessarily exist, so consequently we can simply wait calmly for events to take us to the revolutionary moment of their own accord.
On the contrary. Such “revolutionary” theory goes hand in hand with the capi-talist theory of “planning” (Long Range Planning).
The error was the same in both cases. It was thought that the economic (and social) formation was a composite whole held together by intrinsic, well-ordered, laws which a precise science (economics) and its chambermaid (sociology) studied and brought to light. This allowed revolutionaries on the one hand and the capital-ists on the other, to draw certain conclusions so that each could set out their long term strategies.
It is now understood that crises do not exist, not because the world is in perfect order, but because on the contrary it is in complete disorder. It is continually at the mercy of turbulence that can increase or decrease, but which cannot be considered as “crisis” in that it in no way corresponds to “anomalous” situations, but simply to the reality of the economic and social set-up. For the capitalists Long Range Planning became obsolete at the beginning of the Seventies. One could say that the parallel concept of “crisis” still exists for some revolutionaries. The time-lapse, as we can see, is considerable.
I believe it could be useful to look at the changed conditions of the economy—at least at the macro-economic level—in order to try to understand the profound changes that are taking place in revolutionary analyses that saw “crises” as a bor-derline concept in order to permit a more adequate use of the instruments of rup-ture.
It is also beyond doubt that much anarchist analysis is also based on slow un-derstanding, undeserved transfers and involuntary gifts. For a long time it was thought that the economic analyses supplied by the Marxist church could be used by simply dropping a few of the premises, and the conclusion. This has caused enough problems already. It would be well to look for a solution.
I do not believe that it is possible to use Marxist ideas in any way at all—except to purge them of their dialectically-determinist premises. This systematically ends up transforming them into indigestible banalities.
Towards a cohabitation with disorder
The need to conform to productivity forecasts based on a presumed economic order or economic laws, made the situation of the capitalist firms (which constitute the main element of what we call “capital”) very risky. In this way, any variation from the forecasts was considered to be something spurious due to unexpected situations. In this way the durable, constant nature of occurances that were claimed to be exceptional escaped them. Changes in the levels of demand, oligopolist com-petition, corporate defence of markets, price levels, changes, costs, occupational norms, environmental conditioning: all this could no longer be considered to be “elements of disturbance” that contradicted the “certainties” of the only theory authorised to interpret reality.
Capital therefore found itself faced with surprises at a strategic level. It faced continual modifications in its forecasts, making it increasingly difficult to adjust to economic reality.
So suspicion that economic behaviour as a whole might be “irrational” began to spread.
State intervention, especially at the end of the Seventies, was undoubtedly one aspect of a possible equilibrium, but that in itself was not enough. Also because State intervention, aimed at reducing the negative aspects of “capitalist competi-tion”, turned out to concentrate too much on the institutional need for social con-trol. Basically the State is an economic enterprise that tends to reduce the whole economic (and social) reality to the production of one product: social peace.
Capital, seeing its reflection in the deforming mirror of the Eastern European countries, is well aware that the road to regeneration that passes through State capitalism is an even worse evil. The latter guarantees the persistence of power, but distorts the classical aspects of capitalism too much, domesticating it within the restricted confines of an institutional need for control.
Basically then, thinking about it, the whole phase of setting up the “State” as a corrective variable, which came to an end in strictly economic terms in the early Eighties, also aimed to have itself supported (at least as far as the advanced capi-talist countries are concerned) by the greatest technological innovation in history; the electronic one. This in fact was the indispensable element for living with the monster. The solution lay in reaching the maximum flexibility in the shortest pos-sible time.
The theoretical effort
Economists have been busy. Faced with the dangers of remaining closed within the schema of “crisis”, they set to work. First of all they criticised the neoclassical theory of business enterprise, then the managerial one. They tried to research fur-ther into “uniformity” so as to put an end to the uncertainties caused by the great multiplicity of phenomena.
Then a critique of “crisis” as the passive acceptance of an anomalous situation which could be overcome, was formulated. The whole of the Seventies was char-acterised by economic research aimed at criticising, in the “negative” sense, the unreliability of forecasts based on the economic theories of the past (both neoclas-sical and managerial, it makes no difference).
Finally, at the beginning of the Eighties, “instablity” and the relative complex-ity of phenomena came to be recognised as intrinsic to the economic set-up, and the idea of the presence of contrasting forces which could be put in order was dis-carded for good.
Economists now talk clearly of “non-regulability”. A given situation - in the short or very short term – only becomes comprehensible for the firm if economic reality is seen as a whole. In other words, is seen to be devoid of any centre or any innate capacity to put order in various forces that act on the basis of decisions that are not always “rational”.
The solution that economic theory came up with to answer this problem was simple. Capitalist enterprise can only face such a situation if it develops flexibility to a maximum degree. It is not a question of a “new” situation, but of a “new” way of seeing things. The firm must be flexible in its decision-making, in the organisa-tion of production, and in its capacity to adapt to change in general.
So firms are decentralising, production is no longer a rigid process, anomaly has become the rule. Chaos is placed in the reassuring canon of “economic law”.
In fact, chaos has remained just that. What has changed are the ways of looking at it. The capitalist is learning to bestride the monster. He has always had few scruples and a certain pirate-style brand of courage. Even more so today. There are no priests of the economy left to console him. If he wants to survive, he must do so in the short term. Robbery and violence are becoming the arms of the short and medium term more and more. The great planning projects - which were often ech-oed by blarney in the social field - have been cast aside for good.
The economic theory of the past has come to a sticky end. The neoclassical model which theorised rational economic calculations that clashed and found their natural equilibrium in the market, have been discarded. The same for the manage-rial theory based exclusively on the firm’s stability and planning capacity.
These remnants of the past have been discarded in favour of the concept of pro-ceeding by “trial and error”, now completely taken over by cybernetics. Naturally these attempts are only possible when the firm has become highly flexible and is able to exercise sufficient control. Not control of the end product. These theories also discarded the idea of “limited rationality” that characterised the managerial theories of the Seventies.
The new situation clearly presented the problem of how the firm should act in the face of its incapacity to control external variables and even a number of inter-nal ones. The “political” components of the firm, the technostructure as defined by the “left wing” American economists of the Seventies, became elements of uncer-tainty. At the level of macro-analysis, the State in particular and its influence on the economy lose the determination of the preceding hypothesis. At the level of microanalysis, individual firms lose their capacity for strategic planning.
The new reality is therefore characterised by the introduction of instability into the firm itself. This means the end of stable relations between firms, changes in State regulatory functions (more accent on maintaining consensus), and an end to fixed procedures inside the firm, where the traditionalist capitalist concept of ac-cumulation and quantitative growth in production is disappearing.
The new methods are based essentially on speed of decision-making and the considerable possibilities for changting production factors. In this way the mana-gerial aspect of the firm is changing considerably. The science of economic deci-sion-making is disappearing forever, replaced by a practice (or if we prefer, an art) of empirical, eclectic decisions skilfully and impudently aimed at instant profit.
Economists are elaborating the contingency theory, a theory of the circum-stances that tie the firm to the unique external situation. They cannot be submitted to economic calculations based on laws, but only to observations in the very short term based on empirical considerations, the fruit of (recent) experiences that are also free from any theories based on long-term laws.
Neo-capitalism’s dreams have crumbled forever, and with them the big factory set-up, which has seen its day. It becomes clear that analysis based on a rigid con-cept of organisation prevents one from seeing economic reality as it is, and would subsequently prevent adequate productive action.
In order to understand the changes that are taking place it is necessary to turn our attention to a few essential points in the old economic analyses. For example, the productive cycle of the finished product; the curve of cost-reduction related to the single processes leading up to it; concentration (both of single companies and oligopalist sectoral groups); the firm’s dimension: the idea that the small firm rep-resents the backward part of the economy; the function of state investment; the existence of advanced investment nuclei at the technological level capable of in-fluencing the economy of a whole area: these are some of the classical points of the traditional view. These are all disappearing gradually. The conclusion is there-fore that it is impossible to make a general theory, only approximations in order to limit the damage of contrast between external reality and the firm.
The “new” enterprise is emerging from this unique melting pot
This enterprise is no longer centralised and does not serve as a point of refer-ence to polarise with external functions and interests. At one time research, manu-facturing, distribution, State demand (which was forced into constant growth), the search for raw materials, the spread of property-owning, growth in political power, etc, were all elements of planning based on the “central” positivism of the factory.
The factory no longer moves in the direction of continual expansion, nor does it consider itself to be one compact unit. It continues to develop, but in a different way.
It is important to understand this concept. The “new growth” is based exclu-sively on the relations the factory establishes with the outside world. Agreements and projects grow in tune with a common language and codes. Not only with other enterprises (limited by natural borders), but with the environment as a whole, ad-vanced technology and scientific research. This new system (with Japan leading way ahead of the US) is transforming itself from a closed system into a situation-system or, as it has been called, a “country system”. The situation system supplies technology, professionalism, services, the capacity to overcome and improve legal infrastructures, and material, social and ideological behaviour. In a word, it pro-duces a suitable environment. Not the objective one that the old firm related to by trying to reduce its need for order, but a re-elaborated environment that has been made to suit the new concept of the development of the enterprise.
When we talk of the “breaking up” of the factory, this concept should be borne in mind. It is not one particular situation that is “pulverised” so much as the situa-tion in its whole complexity. In the first place, this has become possible due the presence of electronics technology which has abolished the confines of space and time. Now working in real time, the modern firm no longer requires warehouses and rigid provision of parts. It no longer requires production units to be set up for long periods of time. It does not even need massive financial investment in order to bring about changes in production lines. Its flexibility is such that it is growing exponentially, especially since the key problem of manpower has been solved and the phantom of social struggle that accompanied it has disappeared.
The multinational as we knew it in the past has also changed. The great self-sufficient colossus no longer exists. There is no longer a centre capable of impos-ing its development on that of the State. The new multinational is linked to the en-vironment with which it interacts, trying to turn external conditions to its own profit. It no longer dominates the technological circuits or controls the market. No one firm, no matter how big, can control the development of technology and de-cide on its application (or not) today. The multinational is tending to become a collective supranational undertaking. It is transforming itself into a great complex of complementary firms linked by the conditions of production technology and the individually circumscribed capacity to exploit.
What we have described, even if only in outline, cannot fail to be of interest to revolutionaries.
If the “end” of crises means capitalism is surviving by adapting to economic reality seen as chaos, we cannot talk of programming, predictability and economic “laws”. We cannot talk of “crises”, meaning situations that will happen in our fa-vour.
We cannot even think of the class struggle as something that has alternate phases. Of course, the clash is not “constant” throughout time, i.e. within it there are moments of greater or lesser intensity, but rather it is a question of qualitative and quantitative changes that cannot be deterministically related to simple eco-nomic causes. A vast interweaving of social relations is the basis of the class struggle. No analysis can give us the sure road in order to measure expectation and legitimise behaviour. The time is always ripe for attack, even if the consequences can obviously be very different.
In this sense we need to think about the possibility of revolutionary organisa-tion capable of responding to the reality of the class clash as it stands today.
The organisational structure of the past - from party to federated group, from trade unionism to workers’ councils - corresponded more or less to an idea of eco-nomic reality that saw the capitalist enterprise as the centre, a concentration of power and capacity for exploitation. It was thought that an equally monolithic structure (union, party, federation) was the logical way to oppose it.
Not only has productive reality changed today, above all we have changed our way of looking at this reality. Even in the past, when we swore by eternal eco-nomic laws, the reality of production was in fact chaotic and systematically penal-ised us whenever we approached it the wrong way. Perhaps the concepts of “eco-nomic cycles” and “crises” should be seen in this light.
A different organisational structure is largely still to be thought out and brought about, but certainly does not need to be discovered afresh. This task is of primary importance in our opinion. Anyone attempting to resuscitate the corpses of past organisational processes (in the first place, obviously, the “revolutionary” party) should explain how they stand in the face of an economic (and social) reality that is becoming increasingly comprehensible in terms of indeterminism, certainly not through rigid economic laws. Every there is an attempt to explain things starting from a revolutionary proposal tied to images of the past (parties, federations, groups, syndicalism, etc), one realises how the basic conception of economic real-ity is still linked to an assumption of the existence of more or less rigid laws.
When these laws are taken for granted, or are timidly held between the lines, faith in the economic cycles of “crises” comes to the fore. And as we know, this faith, just like any other, turns out to be very comforting in times of hardship.