[OPE-L] The ideology of capitalist decline and decadence

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Mon Mar 13 2006 - 15:47:16 EST

A few ideas - I suppose decadence could be interpreted as

- a moral/behavioural concept,
- as an historical assessment of the social decay of a type of civilisation
or mode of production (a la Jared Diamond or Joseph Tainter),
- or as a cultural assessment.

The theme of social decay and decadence is certainly an enduring concern and
a source of anxiety in bourgeois society, which is mobilised both for
leftwing and rightwing political agenda's, this is the point. I've tried to
provide some simple suggestions about the concept here:

An indication of how communists understood decadence in the 1930s can be
gleaned from Christopher Caudwell's "Studies in a Dying Culture" (some bits
of it here http://www.marxists.org/archive/caudwell/). Gyorgy Lukacs also
refers to it in several writings (e.g.
http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/destruction-reason/ch03.htm ).
It was a kind of "conception of the epoch" people had - not entirely
unreasonably, given two world wars, numerous smaller-scale wars, and great
social havoc. Maybe difficult to understand in retrospect, but at the time
it seemed very real.

The flavour of it is also captured on film, e.g. Bertoli Bertolucci's "1900"
or Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg", suggesting how economic dislocation
creates unscrupulous "human dust" with nothing left to lose, and leads to
depraved, perverse, licentious, brutal and cruel behaviour, of which
full-fledged fascism and the holocaust is the ultimate expression (these
days, God-loving Americans talk of "Islamofacism", a sort of Orwellian
newsspeak for a new bogey).

I would say "the war against terrorism" is really the perfect expression of
bourgeois decadence in the above senses - it is a deliberate, reactionary
attempt to stoke up fears and anxieties among the public about a largely
non-existent enemy, as a way of bolstering public morality and keeping
people in their place. It is true, terrorism is an undesirable and morally
repugnant act, but point is, the word is indiscriminately applied to any old
act of defiance (including self-defence) and there are vastly worse problems
in the world, so an obsessive focus on terrorism attests to very warped
moral priorities indeed. In the case of Israel/Palestine, the journalistic
portrayals become totally bizarre - if the IDF razes buildings, fires
rockets on cars or persecutes Palestinians, this is "self-defence" but if
Palestinians do it, it is "terrorism". So Hamas is a "terrorist"
organisation, but the Israeli state isn't. It's the same in Ireland - the
IRA are terrorists, but the Ulstermen aren't. What a load of codswallop.

Here in Holland, there is nowadays a mutation of meaning going on as regards
"radicalisation" - it comes to mean something sinister, something about
bomb-throwing terrorists, and special monitoring units are set up to patrol
signs of "radicalisation" (particularly of course Islamic radicalisation).
Radicalisation is no longer associated with a popular-democratic mass
movement. Whereas to be radical, simply means to go to the root of the
matter, and not be content with the superficialities of its symptoms.

The way I experienced the "crisis" in my own life was that, in my teens,
there was a sea-change in perceptions about where society was heading - in
the 1960s, there was this cultural optimism, things could only get better
and better, there was full employment and so on. After about 1973, this
began to change towards social pessimism, and in the late 1970s, just as I
got out of school, there was for the first time a great fear of
unemployment, even although the amount of unemployment was still relatively
small. I think the '68 generation had this perspective, of the red
revolution breaking out within about ten years. The 1980s seemed like an era
of economic crisis, there was a lot of fear of unemployment, and in a series
of strategic fights the working classes suffered big political defeats. By
contrast, the 1990s were often euphoric - stimulated by new information
technologies, sexual liberties and booming asset sales, it seemed like there
had never been so many possibilities for getting a good life and the goodies
of life. All that waned again, after the stock crashes and the collapse of
the new economy.

I'm left musing though, that the fear of crisis was much greater than the
actual crisis, and certainly that fear wasn't conducive to building a good
life. As they say in Dutch, a person suffers the most, from the suffering
that he is afraid he might suffer. In reality, the way the crisis manifested
itself, was through permanent restructuring and increased job mobility. I
have not worked in one workplace in my life, that wasn't restructuring or
about to restructure. It often seems like a pain in the ass, because the
more it changes, the more it stays the same, except that some professionals
get rich out of all the restructuring, rewording the same old thing. If
there was a "crisis", it was more in the nature of rapid social change which
broke up all kinds of traditional institutions, forms of association, social
fabrics etc. In the end, you've had so much change and uncertainty in your
life you maybe just want some peace and quiet. At least, I often feel that
way. But after a while I can't stand that either, maybe I'll write something
or do something etc.

Sociologically, I tend to think of societal crises as objectively comprising
four interlinked "moments" -

- an economic crisis (decline of economic growth and productive investment,
rising unemployment),
- a social crisis (intensified social competition for jobs, opportunities
and a "slice of the cake", including increased racism, the fracturing of the
old forms of association),
- a political crisis (the old solutions do not work anymore, creating an
accelerating turnover of political leaders and an inability to find a stable
political consensus), and
- an ideological-cultural crisis (a crisis of moral norms, due to the
breakdown of the old institutions, with the legitimacy of the social order
being increasingly called into question, and increased cynicism and

The question however is to what extent the perception of a crisis is based
on an objective assessment, and to what extent it is more an
emotional-psychological experience - to what extent crisis talk is actually
conducive to anything (including action to resolve problems). It takes real
research, to put that in perspective, and go beyond impressionism.

The old Ernest Mandel - who mustered an array of statistics to illustrate
"the epoch of permanent revolution" - used to say, what typifies modern
decadence is that we shut our eyes to the total amount of suffering in the
world - if we were fully aware of it, we would not psychologically be able
to bear it. But one could also say, well, life is a "vale of tears" anyhow,
if thought about profoundly, but we somehow have to find some happiness in

In reality, possibly the biggest crisis of our time is the growth of a
rheumy conservatism and diminished expectations of life, whereas the task of
a revolutionary or a radical thinker is to make "the impossible possible",
to expand or widen the realm of human possibilities, to inspire confidence
in the ability of self-acting individuals to change their world. If people
are too afraid or overloaded to dare to do anything, speak out, be
adventurous, join together etc. they cannot change society for the better,
can they. You might laugh at me, with my humdrum petty existence, for saying
this, but at least I'm not afraid to moot the idea.


Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you're chewing on life's gristle
Don't grumble, give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best...

And...always look on the bright side of life...
Always look on the light side of life...

If life seems jolly rotten
There's something you've forgotten
And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you're feeling in the dumps
Don't be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle - that's the thing.

And...always look on the bright side of life...
Always look on the light side of life...

- Monthy Python

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