‘Periodizing Capitalism and Capitalist Extinction’ by Richard Westra reviewed by Brendan Harvey

Periodizing Capitalism and Capitalist Extinction

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 270 pp., £85.59 hb
ISBN 9783030143893

Reviewed by Bo Harvey

About the reviewer

Bo Harvey is a writer residing in New York City. He received an MPhil from the Centre for Research …


Richard Westra’s Periodizing Capitalism and Capitalist Extinction is the first in Palgrave’s ‘Insights Into Apocalypse Economics’ series, of which he is also an editor. The series takes as its premise the thesis that neoliberal economic policy dating from the 1980s has not only failed to rejuvenate the prosperity of the post-WWII ‘golden age’ economy, but has generated a widening spectrum of pathologies threatening humanity. Traversing Marx’s Capital, comparative political economy and the philosophy of history, this book however deals fundamentally with two subjects: (1) capitalist periodization (how do we determine the historical periods of capitalist development? What is the period we are in now? Why is the periodization of capitalism important?) and (2) capitalist crisis (why do capitalist crises arise? Does it have a terminal or final crisis? Do crises point towards alternative social forms?) As the title indicates, his conclusion on this final question is a grim one. For Westra, the current ‘widening spectrum of pathologies’ is not so much a threat as much as they are symptoms of an ongoing disintegration of the basic structure of capitalist accumulation hitherto with drastic effects on humanity.

Alongside his analysis of various capitalist periodizations, Westra draws on categories from Marx’s Capital to deepen theoretically the political-economic argument made in his 2012 The Evil Axis of Finance. He attributes the growing chasm between financial markets and economies of trade and production not to conditions derived from economic competition, but to a US-Japan-China axis dependent on the US dollar as world money or hub currency and where, ‘for the cost of running a printing press, the US parlays dollar seigniorage benefits into a mode of domination’ (17). It is, for Westra, this dollar backed ‘mode of domination’ that provides the conditions for the decoupling of capitalist accumulation from its historical byproduct; namely, the reproduction of general norms of economic life which constitute capitalist sociality. Capital allocation guided by financial imperatives leads to both massive misallocation and waste of both capital and social resources. As globalization creates conditions where labor can be remunerated below the costs of its reproduction, no single or even combination of economic principles is able to ensure that general norms of economic life are met. If calling a society capitalist is dependent on meeting general economic norms based on the predominance of the market principle, it is feasible to say global society today can no longer be described as such. ‘Today,’ Westra writes, ‘growth is decoupled from development as development is decoupled from the sequences of industrialization which marked capitalist development heretofore’ (255).

‘Capitalist extinction’ carries with it a double-meaning. First, capitalism is itself extinct insofar as capitalist growth is decoupled from ‘development.’ One might describe this shift in Marxian jargon as an end to the social development that accompanied the rise of industrial capital and has moved to value augmentation via money capital decoupled from an imperative towards social development. Second, twenty-first century society and humanity itself runs the risk of extinction given this process of decoupling.

The book is organized chronologically and compares and contrasts the grounds by which various Marxist and non-Marxist theorists have periodized the history of capitalism. In chapter 2, thinkers discussed include Hilferding, Bukharin and Lenin of the Imperialist era. Baran, Sweezy, John Kenneth Galbraith and Ernest Mandel of the post-war period are addressed in chapter 3. In chapter 4, Daniel Bell, Lash & Urry, Piore & Sabel, as well as Giovanni Arrighi and Carlota Perez are included in his discussion of periodizations offered in the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter 5 sees Westra discuss the work of Michael Aglietta and the French Regulation School, as well as the work of David Gordon, Richard Edwards and Michael Reich of the Social Structures of Accumulation (SSA) school. In chapter 6 we encounter the Sekine-Uno approach, of which Westra counts himself a member. Apart from Westra’s own argument, the book itself doubles as an excellent introduction to the key ideas of each school of thought. Giving a sufficient account of Westra’s analysis of each of these positions certainly outstretches the amount of space here, however Westra deserves serious credit for writing both an effective polemic while giving the perspectives he obviously disagrees with their due.

Westra reads these thinkers through the lens of Japanese Marxist political economist Kozo Uno. This is a school of Marxist political economy that is likely unfamiliar to an English speaking audience. Japanese scholars working in the Marxist tradition already possessed a rich tradition at the turn of the twentieth century, but Kozo Uno’s postwar Principles of Political Economy (1964) started a new wave of research in political economy that stood in opposition both to the more Orthodox Marxist tradition of the Soviet Union and the Japanese Communist Party. It is also an almost criminally understudied standpoint in both Anglo-American Marxism and political economy. Capitalism, for Uno, fundamentally had to be grasped according to different levels of analysis. This ‘levels of analysis approach’ arises out of a tension ‘between the need to grasp the logic of the capitalist economy and simultaneously examine the discrete paths of capitalist historical development’ (149).

Westra – himself a disciple of Uno via Thomas Sekine – draws on Uno’s ‘level of analysis’ approach to confront a problem encountered by both Marxist and non-Marxist critics in their respective periodizations; namely, how to think the law-like tendency of capitalist development alongside the contingency of empirical history. The problem might be phrased in terms of the relationship of capital to its outside. This is certainly a topic not unrelated to vexing questions regarding the historical procession of different forms of society displaying ‘mixed’ characteristics. This goes for both ‘mixed’ modes of production (i.e. feudal societies with capitalist characteristics or vice versa) but also ‘mixed’ economies (i.e. socialist economic forms internal to capitalist economies or, historically, vice versa). For Westra, the lack of theoretical reflection on how to apprehend capitalism in its most pure and general economic form throughout the field of political science, political economy and economics makes articulating the historical determinacy of the economic forms composing various ‘mixes’ at different historical periods particularly difficult to render intelligible. One way for theorists to tie together capitalist development is to turn to purposive historical laws, rendering the development of capitalism itself necessarily teleological. For Westra, this teleological optimism haunts those who periodize based on an invariable essence, while the lack of theoretical reflection of capitalism at its most fundamental haunts does the same for those basing their periodizations on either systematizing empirical history or by identifying this or that trend as definitive of a given period. One of the key tasks of Westra’s book seems to be to simultaneously get Marxists to think separately from this teleological schema, but also for non-Marxists to theorize what capitalism actually is – and therefore to engage seriously with Marx.

Indeed, this binary between essentialist and ‘ideal type’ approaches serves as a guiding thread throughout the book. The first – more explicitly but not solely Marxist – identifies capitalism as being driven by an inner logic or transhistorical dynamic, focusing on the explanatory links between this logic and transmutations of capitalist forms (3). On the one hand, ‘the merit of these approaches,’ Westra writes, ‘is that they seek to ground their analysis of capitalist change on some “essence” or constant of capitalism [that] shapes capitalist development notwithstanding the dramatic historical recasting it undergoes across its major stages and phases’ (3). One can include here Lenin, Bukharin, Hilferding, Mandel and Arrighi. On the other, Westra believes this tendency miscarries first because of what is identified as the prime mover itself (disagreements here depend on various readings and interpretations of Capital) and second because of this tendency’s theoretical inclination (and here he repeats what have become common criticisms of orthodox or ‘crude’ Marxism) to ‘box in historical difference, contingency, and agency’ (3). Westra’s discussion of Karl Kautsky is particularly important in this context, for it was the theoretical precedence set by Kautsky’s teleological frame that, for Westra, determined the analyses of so much subsequent Marxist theorizing. It is little remembered that it was Kautsky – not Marx – who is largely responsible for the codification of the various parts of Marx’s work that were published and available at the time into a Marxism that fit the mold of the late nineteenth century positivism with which he is coterminous; into, in other words, a transhistorical theory of history termed ‘Historical Materialism’ applicable not only to capitalism but to all of human history.

The second camp – a more common one among thinkers in the latter half of the twentieth century – eschews explanations of capitalist transmutations as being bound to a law or essence, periodizing capitalism instead based on ‘systematizations of empirical history’ (4). All Westra means here is what he describes as a sort of ‘stylized facts’ or ‘ideal type’ analysis that arranges historical periods based on institutional, economic or political trends that stand apart from any fundamental transhistorical drive linking historical change. This leaves them analytically deficient from the get-go. Westra describes the analytical advantage of this second camp, at least when taken from a Marxist or neo-Marxist standpoint, as offering more refined analyses of capitalist regulation, ‘of how, notwithstanding crisis tendencies inhering in capitalism, a pattern of relatively stable accumulations over decades is nevertheless managed’ (4). This is the case, for example, in the work of Aglietta and the French Regulation School, particularly when it comes to the way various institutional arrangements mediate and regulate the various social and economic conditions of continued capitalist accumulation. Arguments of the second camp were particularly common in a postwar context and, for Westra, followed from a broader move of political economic theory away from abstractions addressing the invariable substance of capitalism and more towards an emphasis on the empirical history, contingency and accounting for difference that Marxism was accused of lacking. However, ‘in the end,’ Westra writes, ‘it left periodizing capitalism at the mercy of ad hob constructions of stylized facts based upon this or that salient feature of the age’ (4). This goes for the theorizations of Daniel Bell, Scott Lash & John Urry, as well as Michael Piore and Charles Sabel. This trend largely continues today.

For Westra, capitalism proper ends with the end of consumerism (i.e. fordism or ‘late capitalism’), ‘where capitalist production congeals around a use value complex of standardized mass producible consumer durables’ at the same time that it gets ‘pushed to its historical limits with the matrix of non-capitalist, non-economic supports it calls forth [i.e. the powers of the state and international system]’ (254). Neoliberal ideology believed it could reinvigorate the vast powers of capitalist accumulation – often via the state – when really, ‘as capitalism is increasingly dismantled in its substantive workings by globalization and financialization’, it has lead to ‘fomenting the ruination of society in a global movement toward a future of untold barbarism’ (10). Importantly, Westra follows Sekine in differing from standard Marxist interpretations of financialization and globalization. Where standard interpretations entail a determinist breakdown, for Westra and Sekine history is rather an indeterminate process leading to either the constitution of a new viable mode of accumulation or the disintegration of capitalism. Financialization should be understood not as a form of crisis due to market disturbances or even due to business cycles, but rather as a global structural crisis that makes possible the unraveling the logic of capital where money capital frees itself from the realm of production.

I have only scratched the surface of Westra’s penetrating and sweeping analysis, and while certainly meant for those with a basic fluency in political economic and Marxist jargon, stylistically Westra could be much more impenetrable than he is given the subject matter. The book is filled with useful graphics and manages to discuss Marx in a way that is obviously fluent for the initiated but not completely alienating for those who might not have a familiarity with the three volumes of Capital. From an intellectual historical perspective, this is a valuable contribution to the English-lanugage legacy of the thought of Kozo Uno – an almost criminally underrated school of thought. The only criticism that might said isn’t so much criticism as it is a curiosity about Westra’s own views of later value-form theorists (such as those of the Neue Marx-Lektüre or the work of Christopher J. Arthur) and its implications for the study of political economy, although this very likely falls outside the scope of the work. A truly penetrating and urgent work analyzing both the history of capitalist periodizations as well as contemporary capitalism itself, Westra has written a book for Marxists and non-Marxists alike with truly existential implications.

20 February 2020

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