Capitalist Change and Generational Shifts

By Wood, Ellen Meiksins | Monthly Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Capitalist Change and Generational Shifts


Wood, Ellen Meiksins, Monthly Review


Change and Continuity

Ask anyone what single event has most decisively shaped the culture of the left in the late 20th century, and they are almost certain to tell you that it was the "collapse of Communism." Yet look at any of the dominant intellectual currents on the left today and you will find that, even while they invoke that historic Gotterammerung, they situate the great cultural and political rupture of our era somewhere else, and earlier.

It has become commonplace among left intellectuals to say that approximately twenty-five years ago, in the early 1970s, we lived through an epochal shift, the birth of a new era, a major qualitative leap different from the constant changes in the process of capitalist development. These left intellectuals may be Marxist economists or postmodernist cultural theorists, and they may call the new era by different names - most commonly either the age of "globalization" or the period of "postmodernity," or sometimes both together. But basically the same "epochal shift" runs as a kind of leitmotif through a wide spectrum of intellectual currents.

The general outlines of the so-called new epoch as it is commonly described are familiar to everyone. Seen from the angle of "globalization," the first and most important feature of the epoch is obviously international capital - a global market, internationalized production, a shift of sovereignty away from the nation-state to international agencies of capital. If there is one long-term historical process that explains all this, it is perhaps technological change, the advent of the information age. These developments have been reinforced, but were not caused, by the collapse of Communism, which no longer stands in the way of capital's global reach.

From the vantage point of "postmodernity," we see parts of the same picture: here too there is, of course, the information age; and the global economy does figure in it, at least at the margins. But the emphasis here is on cultural, ideological, and psychological shifts: the dissolution of all the old certainties, the disintegration of all moral and political foundations, the fluidity of "identities," the "de-centered subject." Again, while the "collapse of Communism" may have accelerated the retreat from all "grand narratives" and "Enlightenment projects," that historic rupture did not usher in the postmodern epoch.

On the face of it, these sketches of our current epoch seem plausible enough. Major changes have occurred in the capitalist economy since the end of the postwar boom. There have, for example, been dramatic developments in the system of international finance, in the concentration of capital on an international plane, and at the same time, an intensification of competition. And there have certainly been political changes, as the long drawn-out downturn which brought the post-war "golden age" to an end - something different from, or at least more protracted than, the classic episodic crises of capitalism - has, among other things, for the time being eroded the labor movement. Certainly we have to understand these developments in terms of their own historical specificities, their own specific contradictions and dynamics - as we would any other specific moment in the history of an ever-changing capitalism. But much depends on the vantage point from which we observe these changes and how we interpret them. There is, in particular, a very great difference between interpreting these changes as an epochal rupture in the essential logic of capitalism, and, on the contrary, regarding them as the logic of capitalism universalizing itself and reaching maturity.

Just consider the conventional sketches of our current "postmodern" and "globalized" epoch against the background of some famous passages from the Communist Manifesto, much quoted in this anniversary year. Tomorrow's newspapers, hot off the press, could (with some minor stylistic and ideological tinkering) happily appropriate Marx's account of "globalization": "local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency" have given way to the "universal interdependence of nations"; the internationalization of capitalism "batters down all Chinese walls" and "creates a world after its own image"; and so on.

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