Cycles of capitalism, cycles of sexuality?
In Paul Mason’s book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future, he presents the thesis that the advent of info-technology, mixed with a range of other social factors (in particular the demise of the labour movement) is causing a fundamental breakage within capitalism that will lead to its final collapse.
In doing so Mason bases his analysis within a deep history of capitalism and in particular the economic cycles of capitalism that were first theorised by the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff. Kondratieff argued that the inherent contradictions within capitalism caused the system to operate within fifty year cycles. Each of these cycles operate as a wave. These waves start with an economic and technological boom, followed by a downswing and crash, which results in twenty to thirty years of stagnation. The struggles of this stagnation, in particular the labour struggles led by the union movement, eventually result in another boom. Mason details what he calls his ‘normative restatement of long-cycle theory’ as such (Pgs. 72 – 73):
"1.) The start of a wave is usually preceded by the build-up of capital in the finance system, which stimulates the search for new markets and triggers the rollout of clusters of new technologies. The initial surge sparks wars and revolutions, leading at some point to the stabilization of the world market around a new set of rules or arrangements.
2.) Once the new technologies, business models and market structures begin to work in synergy — and the new ‘technological paradigm’ is obvious — capital rushes into the productive sector, fuelling a golden age of above-average growth with new recessions. Since profit is everywhere, the concept of allocating it rationally between players becomes popular, as does the possibility of redistributing wealth downwards. The era feels like one of ‘collaborative competition’ and social peace.
3.) Throughout the whole cycle, the tendency to replace labour with machines operates. But in the upswing, any fall in the profit rate is counterbalances by the expanded scale of production, so overall profits rise. In each of the up cycles, the economy has no trouble absorbing new workers into the workforce even as productivity increases. By the 1920s, for example, the glassblower displaced by machinery becomes the projectionist in a cinema, or the worker on a car production line.
4.) When the golden age stalls, it is often because euphoria has produced sectoral over-investment, or inflation, or a hubristic war led by the dominant powers. There is usually a traumatic ‘break point’ — where uncertainty over the future of business models, currency arrangements and global stability becomes general.
5.) Now the first adaptation begins: there is an attack on wages and an attempt to de-skill the workforce. Redistribution projects, such as the welfare state or the public provision of urban infrastructure, come under pressure. Business models evolve rapidly in order to grab what profit there is; the state is urged to organize more rapid change. Recessions become more frequent.
6.) If the initial attempt to adapt fails (as it did in the 1830s, 1870s and 1920s), capital retreats from the productive sector and into the finance systems, so that crises assume a more overtly financial forms. Prices fall. Panic is followed by depression. A search begins for more radical new technologies, business models and new supplies of money. Global power structures become unstable.”
Using this theory Mason outlines 4 – 5 long cycles over the history of capitalism. These waves run from; (1) 1790 to the revolutionary crisis in Europe in 1848, (2) 1848 to the long depression of 1973 – 96, (3) the 1890s to the end of the second world war in 1945, and (4) the late 1940s to the financial crisis of 2008, with the peak being the oil shock of 1973, which was followed by a long period of instability, but no major depression.
Mason then defines a fifth cycle, overlapping with the fourth, beginning in the late 1990s and driven by network technology, but which has stalled compared to previous cycles. The weakness of the trade union movement has stopped any wage growth, whilst the development of info-technology has challenged the profit capacity of many companies, primarily through the spread of free information. Whilst we have seen a technological boom (info-tech) we are not seeing the same sort of economic boom that normally follows it.
Mason’s analysis provides a strong and clear understanding of the nature of the economic cycles of capitalism. It explains the continued booms and busts of the system, ones that we are unable to get ourselves out of.
I would like to contend that these cycles match, at least loosely, with social activities, and in particular, at least for my interests, in the way in which we have sex and form families. In other words while we have cycles of economic activity, we also have definable cycles of sexual activity as well
We can see two of these cycles very clearly matching the cycles of the 20th Century. The first is from the 1890s – 1945. Following the long depression of the late 1800s nuclear family structures in capitalist economies stabilised and flourished. This coincides with the boom period of that era, facilitated by heavy industry and mass production. These boom periods are often ideal for the formation of the nuclear family. Couples have the security to form enduring relationships, women are largely able to stay at home and have children and be comfortable provided for by the pay cheque of their husband, and the state is generally strong enough to be able to enforce social norms and rule. This boom however ended in the 1920s and early 30s with the economic crash that caused the Great Depression. We can see a similar ‘crash’ in the traditional family form, with a sexual revolution that is now colloquially known as the ‘swinging twenties’ or the ‘roaring twenties’. The ‘swinging twenties’ was not just about music and speakeasies, but also encompassed a liberalisation of social mores across the US, Britain and Mainland Europe. Prior to the rise of Nazism for example the late 20s and early 30s were an era of great sexual liberalisation in Germany, with thinkers and practitioners such as Magnus Hirschfeld gaining a name in the increasingly liberal Berlin. The uncertainty of this period allowed for greater flourishing of different sexual practices, leading to new familial forms, facilitated in part as women are forced into the workforce, changing the very nature of the modern family. This then leads, inevitably, to political movements, as those seen in Europe for gay rights at the time.
As we enter the next long wave we can see a similar cycle. With men returning back from the war women were pushed out of the jobs they held in supporting the war effort. The booming economy required the growth of a new working class, resulting in the ‘baby boom’. Women stayed at home, looking after their families. Rising wages made this possible, with men being able to sustain their entire family and new consumer goods off one wage. In this time we can also see a regression on ‘alternate sexualities’, with ‘abnormal sexualities’ (i.e. homosexuality) being increasingly treated as medical aberrations that needed to be cured in mental asylums and hospitals. Homosexuality and other ‘abnormal sexualities’ provided a threat to the booming capitalist economy and in turn were suppressed.
As the long economic boom started to wane in the 1970s however, so our sexual lives changed. With the economy starting to struggle women moved back into the workforce. Lowering wages required that they take on a chunk of the wage earning of the family. The crisis of the seventies also coincides with the birth of the modern feminist and gay liberation movements, an explosion on to the scene for liberal feminist and queer rights. This was compounded even more by the development of one of the most important pieces of technology ever — the pill. Changes in economic circumstances, alongside technological development, allowed feminists and queers to have a greater capacity to express their voice, and in turn to build stronger movements.
We can likely see these sorts of waves in earlier capitalism as well. For example, Mason describes the third long wave, which ended in the mid 1890s. Mason states that “the wave peaks in the mid 1870s, with financial crisis in the USA and Europe leading to the Long Depression (1873 – 96).” A brief look back and we can see that the economic crisis coincides with what is colloquially known as the “gay nineties” or the “naughty nineties”. This decade (the 1890s) is known for a burst of decadent art, the plays and trial of Oscar Wilde and potentially most importantly for the beginning of the Suffragette Movement.
If sex, and gender and sexual politics work in cycles therefore, we have to ask the questions, why, and how? I argue that, like many other elements of our society, sexuality exists as a contradiction within capitalism. Capitalism created many of the conditions that allows for bursts of sexual freedom (a focus on individuality, increasing urbanisation etc.). However this freedom presents a threat to the system itself. Sexual freedom challenges essential parts of the capitalist system — in particular the privatisation of domestic work, the lineages of inheritance and a focus on family that places an emphasis on breeding the next generation of the working class. Sex and capitalism therefore exist in an uneasy alliance — a contradiction and a balance that must be managed at all times in order for both systems (capitalism and an individualised politics of sexuality) to survive. This is a balance that aims to maintain a promise of sexual freedom, while ensuring that this promise never crosses the boundary to threaten the nature of a system.
As with the other contradictions of capitalism therefore this balance can, and clearly does, get knocked out of whack on a semi-regular basis. The balance can not be maintained at all times and at times must break. As capitalism fluctuates in cycles it is natural that so would our understandings and practices of sex.
On a basic level we can see how these fluctuations work. In the start of the ‘long waves’ that Paul Mason describes, where new technologies lead to economic booms, families become solidified by these economic circumstances. Economic growth leads to stability, leading to couples both desiring and having the capacity to have bigger families. Rising wages would also allow for people to cut their working hours, putting women back into the home to look after their children. This would be backed up by new cultural expectations, primarily that of families being focused on child rearing. The concept of “one for mum, one for dad, and one for the country” becomes the social norm. This cultural reaction would not just affect heterosexual relationships but also have impacts on queers — people who are increasingly seen as not doing their national economic duty.
As economic times start to falter however, the nature of the family changes as well. Women are required to enter the workforce, in turn creating challenges to the stable nuclear family. Families also have fewer children, creating more time for women to be in employment. This challenges the power structures of families, often resulting in people marrying later in life, as well as getting divorced more often. In these economic situations work is also considered to be more important that child-rearing. Here people of ‘deviant sexualities’ can be brought into the capitalist fold, as long as they conduct the required work to help the capitalist economy.
Here we can see a wave. As the global economy booms so does the state of the capitalist nuclear family. As the economy crashes, so goes down these family structures. So we see the interactions between sex and our capitalist society.