Capitalism’s cycles and waves

This post will look at the long-term cycles of the geographical centre of the capitalist economy (during capitalisms existence over the last 600 years), capitalism’s economic waves and cycles and the 10-year capitalist business cycle.

There are several theories of historical cycles that relate to societies or civilisations, these are beyond the scope of this post

Understanding capitalism’s cycles and waves are important to understanding capitalism better to be able to beat it. Also, there looks to be a relationship between capitalism’s cycles and waves, and cycles of worker and social movement expansion, and also related to the gains and concessions these movements get from capitalists.

Long-term cycles of the geographic centre of the capitalist economy

This builds on the phases of capitalism described in a previous post: Mercantile Capitalism, 14th-18th centuries; Classical/Industrial Capitalism, 19th century; Keynesianism or New Deal Capitalism, 20th century; and Finance Capitalism/Neoliberalism, late 20th century.

These ideas were likely first developed by Fernand Braudel, who described the movement of centres of capitalism, initially cities then nation-states. Braudel described them starting in Venice from 1250-1510, then Antwerp from 1500-1569, Genoa from 1557-1627, Amsterdam from 1627-1733, and London/England 1733-1896.

Immanuel Wallerstein describes as part of his ‘world-system theory’ that there have been three countries that have dominated the world system: the Netherlands in the 17th century, Britain in the 19th century and the US after World War I.

Giovanni Arrighi identifies four ‘systemic cycles of accumulation’ in his book The Long Twentieth Century. He describes a ‘structuralist model’ of capitalist world-system development over the last 600 years of four ‘long centuries’, with a different economic centre. Arrighi’s systemic cycles of accumulation were centred around: the Italian city-states in the 16th century, the Netherlands in the 17th century, Britain in the 19th century and the United States after 1945. [1] It looks like the centre is moving Eastwards in the twenty-first century. [2]

George Modelski identified long cycles that connect war cycles, economic dominance, and the political aspects of world leadership, in his 1987 book Long Cycles in World Politics. He argues that war and other destabilising events are a normal part of long cycles. Modelski describes several long cycles since 1500, each lasting from 87 to 122 years: starting with Portugal in the 16th century, the Netherlands in the 17th century, Britain in the 18th and 19th century and the US since 1945.

Capitalism’s economic waves and cycles

Several waves and cycles have been identified in the capitalist economy that relate to periods of economic growth and decline.

Kondratiev waves (also known as Kondratieff waves or K-waves) are 40 to 60-year cycles of capitalism’s economic growth and decline. This is a controversial theory and most academic economists do not recognise it. But then most academic economists think that capitalism is a good idea!

Kondratiev/Kondratieff identified the first wave starting with the factory system in Britain in the 1780s, ending about 1849. The second wave starts in 1849, connected to the global development of the telegraph, steamships and railways. The second waves’ downward phase starts about 1873 and ends in the 1890s. In the 1920s, he believed a third wave was taking place, that had already reached its peak and started its downswing between 1914 and 1920. He predicted a small recovery before a depression a few years later. This was an accurate prediction [3]

Paul Mason in Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future describes the phases of the K-waves:

“The first, up, phase typically begins with a frenetic decade of expansion, accompanied by wars and revolutions, in which new technologies that were invented in the previous downturn are suddenly standardized and rolled out. Next, a slowdown begins, caused by the reduction of capital investment, the rise of savings and the hoarding of capital by banks and industry; it is made worse by the destructive impact of wars and the growth of non-productive military expenditure.

“However, this slowdown is still part of the up phase: recessions remain short and shallow, while growth periods are frequent and strong.

Finally, a down phase starts, in which commodity prices and interest rates on capital both fall. There is more capital accumulated than can be invested in productive industries, so it tends to get stored inside the finance sector, depressing interest rates because the ample supply of credit depresses the price of borrowing. Recessions get worse and become more frequent. Wages and prices collapse, and finally a depression sets in.

In all this, there is no claim as to the exact timing of events, and no claim that the waves are regular.” [4]

Mason describes his theory of a fourth wave starting in 1945 and peaking in 1973 when oil-exporting Arab countries introduced an oil embargo on the USA and reduced oil output. The global oil price quadrupled, resulting in several nations going into recession. Mason argues that the fourth wave did not end but was extended and is still ongoing. The downswing of the previous three cycles ended by capitalists innovating their way out of the crisis using technology. This was not the case in the current fourth cycle because the defeat of organised labour (trade unions) by neoliberal governments in the 1980s, has resulted in little or no wage growth and atomization of the working class. [5]

In On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War Kim Moody used data from three sources (Mandel, Kelly, Shaikh) to identify his theory of a third (1893-1945), fourth (1945-1982) and fifth (1982-present) long waves. The third upswing from 1893-1914, then downswings from 1914-1940. The fourth upswing from 1945-1975, downswings from 1975-1982. The fifth upswing from 1982-2007, downswings from 2007-?. [6]

Joseph Schumpeter identified several smaller cycles have been combined to form a ‘composite waveform’ that sit under the K-waves.

The Kuznets swing is a 15-25 year cycle related to infrastructure investment, construction, land and property values.

The Juglar cycle is a 7-11 year cycle related to the fluctuations in the investment in fixed capital. Fixed capital are real, physical things used in the production of goods, such as buildings or machinery.

The Kitchin cycle is a 3-5 year cycle caused by the delay it takes the management of businesses to decide to increase or decrease the production of goods based on information from the marketplaces where they sell their goods.

Business cycle

This is the roughly 10-year boom and slump cycle of the global capitalist economy. It is also known as the (economic cycle, boom-slump cycle, industrial cycle). Mainstream economics view shocks to the economy as random and therefore not cycles. There are several theories of what causes business cycles and economic crises that I will look at in a future post. Theories about the business cycle have been developed by Karl Marx, Clément Juglar, Knut Wicksell, Joseph Schumpeter, Michał Kalecki, John Maynard Keynes. Schumpeter identified four stages of the business cycle: expansion crisis, recession, recovery.

So what are the dates of the business cycle? I’ll go through the information on business cycles in the US and UK since 1945 and there is no clear agreement on the number. Something to come back to.

Howard J. Sherman in The Business Cycle Growth and Crisis under Capitalism argues that the best dates are those provided by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). He explains that they’re not ideal but the best available and they go back a long way. Since 1945, the US has had recession in the years 1949, 1954, 1958, 1961, 1970, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1991, 2001, 2009. That is ten business cycles, eleven if you include the one that started in the last ten years. The Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) uses these dates as well.

Sam Williams at the blog Critique of Crisis Theory is critical of the NBER dates and argues that there have only been five business cycles since 1945. He measures them based on the point they peaked rather than a recession: 1948-1957, 1957-1968, 1982-1990, 1990-2000, 2000-2007. He describes the period from 1968-1982 as one long crisis. A sixth business cycle could be added from 2007-2020.

D fisher identified 9 cycles from 1945-1991.

For the UK, I found three different sets of information of when the business cycles have been. Each indicates a different number of business cycles since 1945.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research list UK business cycles since 1945 as peak 1951, trough 1952; peak 1955, trough 1958; peak 1961, trough 1963; peak 1964, trough 1967; peak 1968, trough 1971, peak 1973, trough 1975; peak 1979, trough 1982; peak 1984, trough 1984; peak 1988, trough 1992. So that’s nine business cycles from 1945-1992.

The Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) identifies UK business cycles since 1945 to be: trough 1952; peak 1974, trough 1975; peak 1979, trough 1981; peak 1990, trough 1992; peak 2008, trough 2010. The ECRI chart does not list anything for the current crisis but I think it it’s safe to assume that 2020 was the peak. That is five business cycles from 1945-2020.

Wikipedia lists recession in the UK since 1945 taking place in: 1956, 1961, 1973, 1975, 1980-1, 1990-1, 2008-9 and 2020-? That is seven business cycles from 1945-2020.

Endnotes

  1. Giovanni Arrighi: Systemic Cycles of Accumulation, Hegemonic Transitions, and the Rise of China, William I. Robinson, 2011, page 6/7, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254325075_Giovanni_Arrighi_Systemic_Cycles_of_Accumulation_Hegemonic_Transitions_and_the_Rise_of_China/link/54f4dbd80cf2ba6150642647/download
  2. Giovanni Arrighi: Systemic Cycles of Accumulation, Hegemonic Transitions, and the Rise of China, page 10
  3. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Paul Mason, 2015, page 35/6
  4. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, page 36
  5. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, CH4
  6. On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, Kim Moody, 2018, page 72