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New Left Review I/111, September-October 1978


Giovanni Arrighi

Towards a Theory of Capitalist Crisis

The history of capitalism shows us that the periodic recurrence of crises is not a function of the working class’s strength or combativity, of ‘mistakes’ in economic management, or even of ‘parasitism’ in society. [*] The present article is a shortened version of a study entitled ‘Una nuova crisi generale’, originally published in Rassegna Communista, Nos 2, 3, 4 and 7, Milan 1972. The tendency towards crisis is indissolubly linked to the existence of capitalism itself. It is a result of the contradiction between the goal of capitalist accumulation (the valorization of capital and the appropriation of surplus-value by capital) and the means by which this goal is pursued (growth in social productivity and the development of the social character of production). Social productivity is increased continuously by mechanization and the division and reorganization of labour, not in order to satisfy the needs of the producers, but in order to increase the proportion of the social product which accrues to capital instead of being passed on to the producers. This process has a contradictory effect on society’s ability to consume and produce. Whilst production (whose growth depends principally on the proportion of the social product which goes to the capitalists and is transformed into means of production) tends to increase, consumption (whose growth depends principally on the proportion of the social product which goes to the workers and which is transformed into means of consumption) tends to contract.

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