When the balloon breaks: an analogy

By Justin Aukema

Figure 1: Stock photo of a popped balloon.

In 1929 the Japanese Marxist economist Kawakami Hajime devised a simple analogy for understanding our current condition. Capitalism, he said, is like a balloon that is constantly expanding, but which periodically has spurts of air let out of it, so that it might begin the expansion process once again. The air that goes into the balloon is capital accumulation; it is accumulated surplus value and its crystallization as the means of production, or Productive Forces (PF), themselves. In contrast to this, the spurts of air that are occasionally released from the balloon represent the destruction of capital. These two contradictory actions, the accumulation of air/capital and its release/destruction simultaneously work at cross purposes but also form part of the same unity, the balloon/capitalism. They are one of the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system.

Kawakami was also a firm believer in the orthodox interpretation of dialectical materialism according to Marxism-Leninism. In this view, at each stage of history, the PF eventually develop faster than the productive relations (PR) that contain them. The PR represent the entire socio-economic structure and can roughly be generalized historically in stages such as primitive communism, slave-owning society, feudalism, and capitalism. According to the balloon analogy, then, the PF is, as we have seen, the air (accumulated capital) that goes into the balloon, and the balloon itself is the PR, the socio-economic structure. Although the given PR at first gives rise to the PF, after a certain stage of development, the PR are no longer able to contain those forces and they come into conflict. Think again of the air constantly being blown into the balloon. The balloon has natural and physical limits (e.g., its size and elasticity). Once these are stretched to their breaking point, the balloon pops. Considered in terms of historical development, this equates to the productive forces ushering in a new stage of social development and social relations. Or, put even more simply, it represents the transition from one social stage to the next.

The contradiction, however, is this. Although capitalists benefit from the constant accumulation of capital, they are also threatened by it. Too much capital accumulation (air) threatens to destroy the whole system (the balloon). Capitalism, as Marx aptly noted, creates its own gravediggers. To counter this contradiction, therefore, capitalists must rely on a backup plan; they need a release valve to shut the spigot off and to drain out the excess to create room for more capital to accumulate. Continuing with our current analogy, this is equivalent to purposely letting air out of the balloon.

How and when does this occur? In simplest terms, letting air out of the balloon is the willful destruction of capital. In real world terms, the most common methods for this are economic crises such as inflation, war and invasion, and other forms of violence. Capital can be wiped out by inflation as money and labor thus become devalued. Or, if this is not enough, massive amounts of capital can be spent on amassing huge armies and fighting forces, only for them to be purposely wiped out in war. This is not to mention the human casualties of war who are almost always members of the working class and are themselves the direct source of value creation. Consider, for instance, the massive indiscriminate bombing campaigns of WWII in which entire Japanese and German cities were leveled and burned to ashes. Those countries' industries were completely destroyed by the time the war came to an end. But such actions are absolutely necessary for capitalism, in the long run, because they free up room for further capital expansion. The size of the balloon is purposely reduced so that it can expand again. And this pattern of destruction, moreover, simply repeats itself over and over again as long as the capitalist mode of production remains the dominant one.

The relief of the capitalist system, therefore, comes at the expense of the working class. So, too, does its opposite, the accumulation of capital, which Marx noted is in inverse proportion to workers' suffering. Therefore, capitalism is truly a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. These mechanisms, though, are not always obvious. Sometimes, the expansion or destruction of capital can actually be made to seem appealing through a bourgeois sleight of hand. Consider, for instance, the support 19th century imperialism had among some sectors of workers. Or, conversely, think of the popularity of calls to reduce consumption or ideas like degrowth today. Ironically, these latter two make it their explicit goal to reduce the size of accumulated capital. They are thus akin to letting air out of the balloon following our analogy. But the destruction of capital itself does not hasten the destruction of capitalism. Instead, the exact opposite is true, it prolongs it. On the other hand, approaching this from the opposite end of the spectrum, some accelerationists advocate speeding up the accumulation process until the entire system collapses under its own weight. But is this really the strategy that Marxists propose to overcome capitalism? 

Fortunately for us, the answer is no it is not. Speeding up capital accumulation, as explained, only creates more suffering for workers which, believe it or not, is the opposite of what Marxists want. In order to understand the dilemma of the balloon, therefore, it is necessary first to understand that the PF are already developed enough to enact a fundamental change of the system. The capitalist system is constantly being pushed to its breaking point and thus is accompanied by ever more frequent and severe bouts of crisis and destruction, all of which have negative effects for the working class. But at the same time, the frequency of these also illustrate how capitalist PR are already a restrictive force on the PF of society. Moreover, since these PF are already sufficiently developed to create abundance for the world population many times over and at the same time also to destroy the capitalist system itself, then the solution to the problem becomes a question of how to turn these PF against capitalism itself, how to use them to destroy capitalism from the inside, and how to pop the balloon with the air we have built up. It is neither necessary nor desirable to pursue the destruction of capital by releasing air from the balloon, nor by expanding the balloon further beyond its breaking point. It has already reached this breaking point.

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