As the unemployment figures continue to increase implacably upwards, it is sobering to reflect that the underlying structural crisis of the world capitalist system is now in its tenth year. The recent article by Michel Aglietta (‘World Capitalism in the Eighties’) in nlr 136 (November–December 1982) is undoubtedly a major contribution to a Marxist understanding of why chronic stagnation has dominated the world economy since the end of 1973. Especially stimulating is Aglietta’s emphasis on the dynamics of the international division of labour between the main capitalist economies, and the international monetary relationships and contradictions to which this gives rise. Without observing the concrete motion of the relations among nations each having a specific insertion in the international economy, the global structure of the world economic crisis is not comprehensible. Thus Aglietta is correct to adopt a comparative and historical mode of analysis that rejects abstractions pitched at the level of ‘capital logic’ or the neo-classist fantasy of a homogeneous international economic order.

In my opinion, however, Aglietta bends the stick too far: his very proper emphasis on the international division of labour slips into an analytic position that makes the trade relations among heterogeneous nations the central process of crisis generation. It is especially curious that an author whose principal work, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation (nlb 1976), devoted such priority to the class struggle at the point of production in the etiology of crisis, should now have so little to say about the roles of class relations and capital accumulation. Why are the central problematics of the respective analyses kept so distinct?

The separation of themes reminds me of the implicit procedure of Marx’s ‘Critique of Political Economy’. His master plan, formulated at the end of the 1850s, envisioned the treatment of six major items: Capital, Landed Property, Wage Labour, State, Foreign Trade, and the World Market. As evident in the final form of the finished sections of Capital, the basic principles of the first three themes are initially treatable in abstraction from the latter three. Aglietta’s recent essay raises the question of whether the latter three, especially foreign trade and the world market, can be analysed by themselves. I must register a methodological objection and say no. Even in the most concrete study of phenomena arising from the world economic crisis, it is necessary to refer to the underlying dynamics of accumulation and class struggle which are refracted through the surface of international commercial and financial relations. Otherwise, observations can not help being more or less fragmented, ad hoc and superficial. Likewise, the political implications of such observations will probably be obscured and misleading. Frankly, Aglietta’s essay is not immune from such tendencies.

For example, he symptomatically fails to explain the oil shock waves as an intrinsic factor in the development of the current crisis. Instead they are regarded more or less as external events, obviously because Aglietta believes that the division of labour between the most advanced countries is the privileged locus of crisis formation. Similarly, the role of labour markets in the accumulation process—a focal point, of course, of Marx’s own analysis of the ‘general law of accumulation’—tends to be treated as an extraneous factor. In my view, this approach is incorrect. The very possibility of capitalism’s long wave of expansion from the Korean War to the end of the war in Indochina rested upon the provision of cheap primary products from the Third World and upon the relative elasticity of the supply of labour-power. The ‘virtuous circle’ of reinforcing growth-patterns among the metropolises in the era of American hegemony assumed these two factors as its preconditions.

Conversely, the destruction of the virtuous pattern of accumulation and its transformation into the current tendency toward destabilizing ‘vicious circles’ cannot be explained as simply the consequence of the breakdown of the world trade equilibrium previously maintained under the Bretton Woods system. Although the collapse of Bretton Woods, and the emergence of a volatile monetary ‘float’, certainly amplified the inflationary surge of the late-seventies ‘boom’ (as well as the deflationary plunge of the current depression), the underlying systemic contradiction—i.e. the overaccumulation of capital in relation to the supply elasticity of both labour-power and primary products—would have sooner or later expressed itself as a profits squeeze due to the rise of wages and the price of raw materials. Far from being an external event, the first oil shock was the dramatic expression of the larger process whereby the increasing relative bargaining power of metropolitan trade unions and of certain strategic countries of the South was bringing to an explosive culmination a global overaccumulation of capital.

Certainly the restructuring of the world economy has been made far more protracted and difficult by inflation, unstable economic policies and the threat of financial collapse, but we should not underestimate the fundamental importance of overaccumulation as reflected in the current levels of idle capacity throughout the industrial world. Saturated market demand for consumer durables interacted with the price disequilibria unleashed by the rising cost of energy and tightness of labour markets to bring to a grinding halt the inflationary bubble of the late seventies. Significantly, the signal event was again an oil price shock wave: demonstrating that, even with energy-conserving programmes in place, the maintenance of a modal postwar level of consumption in the North remains far too expensively and wastefully dependent upon energy-intensive technology. Although the current oil ‘glut’ may give the appearance of a capitalist way out of this dilemma, it seems to me that the present situation is but a transition—albeit fraught with massive dangers for the international financial system—towards new energy and resource crises of the future.

Aglietta’s treatment of the role of Japan in the international economic crisis also seems to me inadequate and even one-sided. Because of the primacy that he accords to the advanced capitalist countries’ trade relations, I think he exaggerates the responsibility of Japan in the destabilization of world trade equilibrium and the destruction of the Bretton Woods system. In the first place, the growth of the competitive power of the eec countries, above all Germany, played no less important a role in the undermining of an order historically linked to American hegemony. Secondly, it is important to remember the growth rate of Japan’s share of world trade was higher in the prosperous period through the mid-sixties than in the recessionary period after 1973. Indeed the Japanese share in the import trade of North America or the eec has remained more or less stable since 1973, while Japan’s own share in the import trade from the developing and oil-producing countries in the 1970s grew to more than twice the proportion of her share in total world export trade. Thus the Japanese market has been far from ‘impermeable’ and undoubtedly contributed massively to the stabilization of the trade balances of key new developing countries and oil states—important markets for us and European exports.