This discussion at the Brecht Forum last month between Robert Brenner and Sam Gindin gives a good intro to two major strands of Marxish political economic thinking about what’s happening. The videos stop before each speaker is finished unfortunately, but there’s enough there to get the picture. Otherwise, if you prefer not to stuff around with Google Video, Louis Proyect helpfully supplies links to both sides’ arguments in print.
To the extent they disagree, I’m firmly on Gindin’s side. In the long run, capitalism has been pretty healthy on its own terms these last couple of decades. The ‘credit crunch’ may well trigger a major recession, especially in the US. But it’s pretty unlikely to be a systemic crisis.
Brenner is right to focus on the profit rate and to suggest its fall was a major link in the chain of the 1970s crisis. But his explanation for the decline – “the onset and persistence of chronic overcapacity in world manufacturing” – is not very convincing. And as Gindin points out, it’s the postwar boom that was the real exception in capitalism’s history, not the less impressive performance since. Not too much should be made of the failure of mature capitalism to maintain a long boom forever. Brenner’s hypothesis about the replacement of state debt by private debt is really interesting, though, but he is not entirely clear about how it has happened.
Gindin’s argument is the one he has been making for quite a few years along with Leo Panitch. You can read a lengthy version here, and I highly recommend it. The gist is this: the neoliberal turn of the 1980s has been very successful in re-establishing capital’s social dynamism. Of course economic cycles and financial crises are going to recur, but they are not systemically threatening – without a political alternative, with capitalism firmly naturalised in the political consciousness, crisis in fact makes a good excuse for restructuring and it is easy to pass the real costs onto labour. The real crisis is still for the left, and economic crisis is no short cut.