Nb. Since writing this blog, my views have changed. A revised review of the book now appears at http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/reviews-and-culture/monsters-vs-zombies-review-of-phil-mullans-creative-destruction.html Nevertheless I have chosen not to delete this older version since it is still useful in stirring debate and more importantly, was a ‘stage’ in my theoretical development, albeit a negative one dominated by emotion and ‘clearing out.’ That isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Revolutions in practice often contain reactionary and untrue elements – even the widely acclaimed French Revolution saw many participants believing libels against Marie Antoinette that she was having sex with her sons. The challenge then is to overcome the first negativity with a more promising and reasoned ‘second negativity.’
Phil Mullan, business manager and chief economist at the magazine spiked-online is, by his own admission, ‘obsessed with economic growth.’ This goal, alongside others, is also precious to Marxism, and Mullan lifts some of Marx’s arguments to make his case that we are currently living through a ‘Long Depression’ that began with the economic downturn in the 1970s. He makes a convincing case that GDP in Western nations has shrunk in relation to the levels of the post-war boom. Consequently, rises in living standards, which Mullan the humanist cares about, are held back. Appearances of dynamism in things like the stock market are essentially parasitic upon the real, productive economy where value is created. If that is seizing up, then finance is just another bubble like the dot.com bubble waiting to burst. Another Crash like 2008 is imminent in the context of the persisting Long Depression. The escape from the protracted depression, says Mullan, lies in increasing productivity for which it is essential to demolish zombification trends.
This review is divided into three parts. Firstly, I look at Mullan’s take on Marxist crisis theory to preliminarily clarify the issues at stake. Secondly, I probe Mullan’s proposed solution of a new industrial revolution from within capitalism. Finally, I sketch an alternative model of economic growth that I hope salvages what I see as positive in the book, whilst criticising other aspects.
- Mulling Marx
Capitalism has transformed the world immeasurably in terms of creating an abundance of material wealth. This process, however, has never been smooth. Capitalism is prone to economic downturns that occur roughly every ten years. So, growth occurs only in the form of ups and downs. Some downturns are deeper than others, sparking an economic crisis where the system has to destroy some of its own wealth before it can re-accumulate. This doesn’t mean capital literally burns its own commodities (although that sometimes happens.) What becomes important in a crisis isn’t a physical destruction as such, but the destruction of value, the social substance whose body is the physical commodity and itself represents a definite amount of abstract human labour in a congealed form. But why can’t value just grow and grow without periodic crises?
The mechanism for its growth is active (rather than idle) capital, i.e. capital engaged in the production process. When capitalists deploy their money in production in order to gain more, what they seek is the highest rate of profit measured in percentage terms. There’s no point in investing if all you get back is the same, so capitalists are motivated all the time by the possibility of expansion and take risks in order to get that. Capital within the production process takes the form of a ‘constant’ capital (plant and machinery etc.,) and ‘variable’ capital (the amount spent on wages and employee perks). Capital grows as a mass of value when it is able to extract a ‘surplus’ value from the worker. But the mass of value is unmotivating to capitalists compared to the rate of profit. The quantity of the surplus divided by the value embodied in the constant and variable components of capital gives us the rate of profit. In order to increase the rate of profit, capital needs to increase the surplus value in relation to the constant and variable components. There are a number of ways it can do this. It can, for example, cut wages or other employee perks, or intensify the labour process with speed-ups. However, these things are socially unpopular as well as limited in application. More commonly, and especially during a period of growth, a capitalist will technologically innovate in order to increase the productivity of labour. The consequence of this is that more is produced in the same amount of time yet the sale price of the commodity remains temporarily unchanged. So more value is harvested by the capitalist. But when rival capitalists catch up with the entrepreneur and deploy similar technology – and they have to or go bust – then the price of a singular one of those commodities falls as less labour-time is embodied in it. If you sell all of the new increased number of commodities, you only get back the same amount of value as was previously embodied in the lesser number. So, the new situation is that you have spent all this money on increasing technology (part of the constant capital) yet the total product is fetching the same. Therefore, constant capital has increased whilst the surplus value is back to where it was before. Thus, in the ratio of surplus value divided by the constant and variable capital now shows a larger measure in the denominator. The rate of profit has therefore fallen. If the rate of profit falls too much, then employees get laid off and constant capital also needs to be destroyed in one way or another (usually as a written off asset), and this is the economic crisis. Mullan puts it like this:
“The profit arising from the new value created by labour in the production process tends to decline relative to the rising amounts of capital invested in fixed assets and materials. This means that the profit rate measured over all capital deployed – in employing people as well as in fixed assets and other inputs – will also tend to decline. This tendency of the general rate of profit to fall follows as a direct consequence of the development of the social productivity of labour since this is dependent upon increasing amounts of capital investment.”
Given that any further development of the productivity of labour (i.e. producing more with less labour input) is reliant on a healthy rate of profit, if the rate of profit falls too much, then productivity also stagnates leading to a general economic malaise. This is what has happened since the 1970s. Mullan says the annual productivity growth rate in Britain is now down to 1.1%, all things considered. This is not exactly an economy that is unleashing the human potential.
Note, the Marxist explanation of crisis doesn’t mean that each and every crisis is attributable to these reasons. Crises can also occur owing to a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami. The theory is therefore just one possible explanation that stands in need of empirical verification. One’s suspicion’s get raised when conditions are favourable to capital accumulation such as a more muted level of class struggle. When the crisis still takes place in those conditions, it is probable it can be explained with this theory, though it still needs to be empirically proved.
The chapter on this profitability problem is the strongest part of the book. However, there is no place in the book where Mullan explains the distinction between value and use-value. This omission is important because a reader unfamiliar with Marxism may believe that the declining rate at which labour productivity advances implies a falling amount of value in the world. It doesn’t. If the amount of labour-time deployed in a society remains constant, then the amount of value produced in that society also remains constant regardless of whether the quantity of use-values is going up or down. The amount of value in the world is limited by the size of the working population and the length and intensity of the working day. Contrary to commonly held belief, despite mountains of cash reserves, capitalism doesn’t actually increase the amount of value in the world, except to the extent it has drawn more people into production, increased the length of the working day, and increased labour’s intensity. Other than those things which can only be increased to a certain point, labour under capitalism does not produce extra value owing to productivity increases. As Marx says, “The same labour, therefore, performed for the same length of time, always yields the same amount of value, independently of any variations in productivity.” And also: “Take a certain working population of, say, two million. Assume, furthermore, that the length and intensity of the average working day, the level of wages, and thereby the proportion between necessary and surplus labour, are given. In that case the aggregate labour of these two million, and their surplus labour expressed in surplus value, always produces the same magnitude of value.”
There are places in ‘Creative Destruction’ where Mullan seems to be unclear about this point. He says “world output per person was US$467 in the year 1 AD, falling slightly to US$453 1000 years later, and rising to only US$615 by 1700. That’s an average annual growth rate over 17 centuries of 0.02% – effectively zero for influencing people’s life experiences.” It needs to be clarified that the extra value produced per head in the advancing centuries is not because capitalism has some magical value-increasing spell. The value of output per head can only rise if labour becomes more intensive or the working day is lengthened. Indeed, it is these factors that explain the discrepancy between 1 AD and 1700 AD, with bigger leaps since then. Industrial society most definitely does increase labour intensity and lengthen the working day. No rise in the value of output is determined by productivity. Nevertheless, productivity growth does lead to an increase in the quantity of use-values available to society. That is not the same thing as value, but it does justify why productivity growth is important for increasing living standards. Productivity growth disperses the value of an hour of socially necessary labour-time over a greater number of use-values. The number of use-values has increased but each use-value is now the bodily form of a lesser quantity of value.
- The Weak Must Perish!
Whilst capitalism is crisis-prone, this doesn’t mean it collapses of its own accord. It has counter-acting tendencies that automatically activate when production is breaking down. Through these counter-acting tendencies, the system destroys some of its value through, for example, writing off assets, and is then able to regrow. One way of conceptualising the crisis was captured in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. There, the animals build a windmill, only for it to be burnt down the next day. Then they rebuild it and once again it is destroyed, and so on. The process of the accumulation of capital is much like this – it grows up to a certain point, then self-destructs, only to inflate again later, etc. Each post-recovery peak is slightly lower than the previous peak. It doesn’t exactly correspond therefore to a society in which the economy is genuinely progressing. Although the mass of use-values rises, in value terms the system is just jumping up and down on the same spot.
There are other counter-acting tendencies in capitalism such as intensifying or extending the working day that effectively increase the surplus in relation to capital investment, or slashing the wage bill which decreases variable capital. It is worth noting that with more women in the workforce now, a family unit conceived as a single entity now works for longer than in the 19th century. Back then, workers scored a victory with the 10 hours’ bill, but now in Britain a woman and her husband will often be found working 14 hours a day in total, excluding any overtime. Of course, gender equality is an important achievement of the Women’s Liberation movement, my point is only significant for noting that capital has effectively increased the length of the working day.
A counter-acting tendency that Mullan finds particularly appealing is that of ‘creative destruction.’ This is when the unprofitable companies go bankrupt and their assets are sold off cheaply (devaluing the constant capital) to a more profitable company who then is able to keep production going, or even elevate it to a higher technological level. The process of creative destruction is a healing, purifying mechanism for capital. By destroying some of the constant component of capital that has overaccumulated, a new round of production is able to get going. So ‘creative destruction’ is what it says: both destructive and creative.
However, Mullan’s originality as an author on the crisis consists here: he argues that the ‘normal’ processes of creative destruction are being held back by the state. Mullan argues the state is giving too many subsidies to unprofitable companies to keep them afloat, when really it should let them die. The state is propping up a zombie form of capitalism, says Mullan. If instead the unprofitable companies are left to die, then the state could invest its money on driving forward newer production at a higher technological level. Note, Mullan doesn’t think the job can be left to capitalists because they are too concerned with short-term profit whereas the high-tech stuff is risky and costly. In the absence of other collectivities in society then, Mullan wants the state to take a commanding role in rejuvenating the economy and he thinks this will create real progress. He has conceded this will mean the state borrowing a few extra trillion to fund this progress.
His ideas for progress involve employing the youth (who have suffered higher rates of unemployment since the 2008 Crash) in tasks such as building new aircraft made out of the new compound graphene which is lighter than the current metals. Furthermore, he wants more investment in driverless cars, quantum technology for, among other things, faster computers, and virtual reality. Production in these areas will create ‘decent jobs’, he believes. He says people who don’t want to go down this route of a high-tech state capitalism have a ‘loss of belief in progress.’ Whilst he recognises he holds a minority view, he thinks strong leaders will emerge that promote these ideas and ensure they have democratic approval.
Sadly, Mullan’s optimism is delusional. Firstly, the level of destruction he is proposing is so high, people are unlikely to go for it. “There are no pain-free routes out of the Long Depression. The processes of creative destruction will mean economic ruin, adding to areas already severely affected by deindustrialisation.”  Yay, economic ruin! To be fair, Mullan believes such ruin will just be a short-term part of the transition to a high-tech state capitalist society and also the people affected will receive welfare benefits as they learn the new skills required to become a quantum computing scientist. So, we are invited to sing ‘Kum-by-ya’ as millions get laid off.
The second criticism concerns Mullan’s notion of ‘decent jobs.’ Is there such a thing? Even if the fellow designing a quantum circuit board experiences this as rewarding because he is deploying a high level of skill, the production of enough quantum computers for the world requires hundreds of thousands more low-paid assemblers on the factory line. They are unlikely to feel particularly rewarded.
The third criticism is that Mullan is only tinkering around with one particular counter-acting tendency, that of ‘creative destruction.’ With the fundamental social relations of capitalism remaining intact, the new high tech state capitalism will still be crisis-prone. Indeed, with such a high level of constant capital, when its Crash comes, it will be incredibly severe, making 2008 look like a tea party. What’s worse is that if the employer is the state, all hell could break loose. No matter how much representative democracy you have, you will find the state qua capitalist-in-recession is going to be quite vicious in attacking variable capital when the crisis breaks. Note Mullan is recommending his model for all the Western economies. So, you have North American, European, Japanese and Australasian state capitalisms all crashing down. I’m sorry, but this is just a recipe for war. Mullan, who argues the Manhattan project to develop the atom bomb pushed science forward, will surely come to regret the recommendations he has made here.
It’s probably best for the time being that we stick with zombie capitalism, until such a point arises that revolutionary humanist theory has gripped the masses such that they are well-equipped to change the world in the interests of human liberation. Even though living standards may only be rising at 1.1% under zombie capitalism, this is little different to what it was in 1860 (a period Mullan thinks was ‘dynamic’ and ‘enlightened’). For the time being, we should stick with it rather than go down the Mullanite route of playing with fire. Ultimately, we need a radically different alternative, so it is to that I now turn.
- Changing The Mode of Production
Mullan’s explanation for why he now backs capitalism (albeit rejuvenated), makes about as much sense as a chocolate teapot. He says:
“There are still some on the radical left who argue for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This had meaning when the working class existed as a political force. But the working class’s demise brought that era of possibilities to an end. The question remains of how the existing system of production can be organised, or transformed, or transcended in such a way as to advance the best interests of humanity. Once we have escaped the Long Depression, the resulting phase of economic expansion would not be forever. Economic growth would at some time hit limits, just as the post-war boom did. Working out how to overcome the limitations of a profit-driven economy is not today’s priority.”
But some of us don’t want to live in either zombie capitalism, nor the 1950s. Mullan’s problem here is premised upon a misinterpretation of what the best bits of the Enlightenment were. He assumes its message of ‘progress’ dictates we stick with capitalism. In actual fact, many different traditions emerged from the Enlightenment which is unsurprising if you realise that the most dominant theme in the Enlightenment (as a diffuse body of philosophy) was that we have freewill and can choose our fate. Mullan’s commitment to capitalism is therefore a choice. It is not the case ‘there is no alternative,’ it all depends on what system we think has the most going for it. The truth-value of the ideas is therefore the most important thing, not the status of contemporary working class politics. If we focus instead on truth, and circulate those ideas, who knows what it might animate in the future? Indeed, ideas often have a ‘trickle down’ effect. The positive moments of the 20th century, although rarely ‘orthodox-Marxist’, were influenced by his raising of the stakes. Mini-socialism, e.g. the British Labour Party or social democracy in Europe, would not have happened without the effect of Marx trickling-down. The task then is for intellectuals to constantly seek truth, and refresh and renew truths discovered historically. Therefore, the contemporary status of working class politics is logically irrelevant to whether or not we decide to pursue Marxist ideas and attempt to circulate them. Mullanism is also unlikely to be implemented directly, but tragically a trickled-down Mullanism might pervade in the short-term, i.e. more Trumpism – a pro-capitalism that has disregarded the humanist bits in Mullan’s book. We have a mammoth responsibility to the future and therefore it is necessary to have the best ideas possible so that even if they are not directly implemented, at least some progress could occur in their trickled-down form. For these reasons, the rest of this section is dedicated to a Marxist alternative to the arguments put forward by Mullan. The reader is invited to decide at the end which vision he or she prefers.
Zombie capitalism really represents capitalism on its last legs. This doesn’t mean that one day it will spontaneously collapse – as Mullan notes, the system is highly resilient. What it does mean however, is that its failure to durably increase living standards for all, its failure to turn the increasing social productivity of labour into a shortening of the working day, its failure to make labour rewarding and creative rather than burdensome and monotonous, its failure to overcome brutalised and alienated social relations, its failure to overcome its crisis-prone nature, the persistence of famine and war, and the general sense that human beings are not in control of their own affairs – yeah, it seems capitalism is a pretty messed-up system. Mullan’s attempts to reform the beast, even if they worked on their own terms, wouldn’t solve many of these problems, but as I have argued, they wouldn’t work even on their own terms – high-tech state capitalism would end up being even worse than its zombie form. So, what we need is a different mode of production. Before we can work out how to get there, we need to probe a little deeper into the fundamental basis of capitalism. If we analyse that, then we can work out how to change the whole thing.
Various Marxist categories deployed in this review – e.g. capital, constant capital, variable capital, surplus value, wages, use-value and value – have as their basis commodities. Commodities are the basic unit of wealth in a capitalist society. Capitalism specifically is about the production of commodities. Any attempt to change capitalism into something else must therefore tackle what is specific to commodity production. Revolutions that have failed to change commodity production into something else have themselves always eventually failed.
The commodity has a dual character – the use-value side, which is the way in which it satisfies a concrete need, and its value side, i.e. how much it is worth, which can be expressed in terms of money or indeed any other commodity. Hence it is possible to say an apple is worth the same as a pencil, or each are worth 20 pence. Value is a representation of how much socially necessary human labour has gone into the production of the commodity, as an amount of time. Capital (privately accumulated mass of value), is the most dialectically developed commodity, but the fact it is also on its last legs, demands from us we understand both it, and the simple commodity.
As a privately accumulated mass of value, capital is therefore an appropriation of the labour-time of others. The nature of capitalism and all the attendant problems follow from this private appropriation of the labour of society. The problems are based therefore, not on personal character traits, but the very fact that persons are not in conscious control of their affairs. Even the capitalist isn’t free because he has to work under certain economic laws in order to survive as a capitalist. The private appropriation of labour has lowered the status of all human beings.
Hence value, from which capital springs, has to be regarded as an estranged form. It is a social substance that has become a threat to our very wellbeing. Thus, we need to get rid of it and turn the product of labour into just an article of use that is stripped of the value form.
To get rid of commodity production therefore requires that the first task is simultaneously to seize back the appropriated value that has been taken from us, and also, in order to prevent new value being taken from us, stop labour existing in the form of labour-power, i.e. as a commodity. Labour-power is a unique commodity because it is incorporated into a human being who is conscious. Thus, it is the only commodity that hypothetically can commence the chain reaction of getting rid of all commodities. To refuse point blank to sell your labour-power is therefore key, but it cannot be done alone. Workers of the world must unite as a giant collective and initiate a worldwide general strike at the same time as expropriating the expropriators, taking back what is rightfully ours. One of the slogans of the revolution is therefore “I AM A MAN, not a commodity.” This slogan immediately raises the dignity of the individual which is, as we shall see, the ultimate key to undo all commodity production. But this is only the first step.
Expropriating the expropriators certainly makes everyone a little more wealthy, but more importantly some of what the capitalists had expropriated from us exists in the form of constant capital. Therefore the collective taking back also involves taking the means of production into social ownership. The post-revolutionary society is now at the start of the lower phase of communism and can start to work towards the task of undoing commodity production. Labour has already self-emancipated in the sense that the commodity labour-power no longer exists. Furthermore, it has got rid of capital in all its forms.
That now permits the communist mode of production to begin to take shape. The working population now produces directly for society and individuals are compensated according to how many hours of labour they have put in. This constitutes an assault on the capitalistic law of value, and therefore an assault on commodity production. Whereas under capitalism the wage represents the value of the goods needed to reproduce you as a worker, i.e. chiefly your ability to regenerate yourself in order to resell your labour power the next day, the new compensation is a moral standard, i.e. a fair share in the social bounty. Value isn’t being measured but the amount of what you do is.
Nevertheless, there is still the problem that the products of emancipated labour still represent abstract human labour, i.e. they have economic value. The new products of labour aren’t strictly speaking commodities, but it would still be possible in the mind to think “1 apple = 1 pencil.” Really for value to disappear completely, such a thing needs to seem absurd, just as ancient religions seem absurd to the skeptic today. The persistence of value in the mind is a hangover from capitalism that will fade when the new society is metaphorically sober. Some logical steps will help the sobering up process occur. When you collect what you need with your labour certificate that says how much you are entitled to, you are not making a trade. You are not exchanging a commodity (money) for goods in a supermarket. You are simply collecting (or ordering via the internet or virtual reality) your goods. Thus, the products of labour are no longer strictly commodities, although they still bear value as a hangover. But what happens if some individuals start accumulating things in one way or another? – they would be amassing value which could become a threat to individuals within the collective. The problem wouldn’t exist if these objects were just use-values, but remember they still bear value. We didn’t just go through the risky business of emancipating ourselves from wage-slavery just to have someone re-accumulate value and thereby possibly seek to employ us. The new society therefore develops a constitution containing several features. The two that are pertinent here are ‘1: No individual is to sell their labour to anyone else. 2: While we have this problem whereby the products of labour still bear value, no member of the commune is to exchange their goods for anyone else’s. You can give the products to someone else (e.g., a child), but you are not allowed to make a trade. Our commune’s exchanges with other communes will only take place under strict control of participatory democracy.’ This policy enactment to be agreed by the communal participatory democracy should be sufficient to buy us enough time whereby the value embodied in the product of labour has finally withered away. But more developments that spontaneously arise from the new society ensure its victory in finally ridding the products of labour of value in order to complete the broader human liberation.
The equalization of different concrete labours represented in the fact that now 1 hour of brain surgery = 1 hour of smart phone assembly in a factory, in relation to the quantity of products you get back, raises the level of dignity of all labours. Far from being an underpaid oppressed creature, spending some time assembling the smart phones, (and rotating who does that), makes the experience far more pleasurable and rewarding. You are now an equally valued member of society. Knowing you are doing something vital and precious to the collective society, it follows the happy individual is likely to show more initiative and creativity. Meanwhile the dignity of the brain surgery has not decreased. If they save a child’s life, they will likely receive gifts from many members of society. Furthermore, training for skilled labour is compensated with a generous student package. So, they are still rewarded and prized by society without that desire impinging on the new fairness.
Meanwhile, the urge to technologically innovate also gets a boost in relation to the sluggish rate of technological progress under capitalism. The latter mainly only innovates when a company wants to gain the market edge. And when it isn’t profitable to do so, innovation slows. But under communism the thirst for new tech knows no bounds. Communism innovates on the basis of two motivations: i) because it is inherently rewarding work ii) to develop the productivity of labour that allows for even more creativity to be enjoyed by workers and a shortened working day.
As the lower phase of communism develops and happier people with more rewarding work, more products to enjoy, and tech that has become beneficial, human solidarity jumps light years. It develops to such a high point that eventually it becomes possible for society to successfully jump into the higher phase of communism. Herein, labour time ceases to be the measure by which you get your goods. People now put into society what they can, and take out what they need. For an analogy, it is like a family in a capitalist society. Unless it is dysfunctional and requires a written rota, family chores are usually shared nowadays without ‘exchange’ needing to take place or a sense of ‘what do I get out of it.’ You just do the cooking, someone else does the washing up, someone does the cleaning. Under the higher phase of communism, humanity becomes one giant family. But note, it is impossible to jump from capitalism straight to this phase. We are so used to putting a price on everything that takes place, human relations are too estranged and you cannot expect the milk of human kindness to be substantial enough, even after a revolution, to accomplish the goal. But this Marxist road-map shows the logical steps needed – revolution then reasoned evolution towards the good society.
You can buy ‘Creative Destruction: How to Start an Economic Renaissance’ here.
 Mullan, P. (2017) “Creative Destruction: How to Start an Economic Renaissance” (Policy Press), p.124
 Ibid., p.60
 Marx, K. “Capital Volume 1” (London: Penguin), p,137
 Marx, K. “Capital Volume 3” (Lawrence & Wishart), pp.216-7
 Mullan, p.207
 Ibid., p. 272
 Ibid., p.273
 Ibid., pp.265-6