by Claus Offe (1984)
Now, capitalist societies are defined by the fact that in them – on the basis of an unequal distribution of property resulting from precapitalist ‘primitive accumulation’ – the organizational principle of the exchange (of equivalents) is universal. This principle of exchange, which also includes the commodification of labour power, becomes dominant because it is freed from normative and political-coercive restraints. To be sure, a society organized by means of exchange relationships can never be organized solely through exchange relations but, rather, requires ‘flanking subsystems’: even in a purely competitive-capitalist social system, individuals must be socialized in normative structures, while the established rules of social intercourse must be sanctioned by sovereign power. A society based on market exchange cannot function without the family system and the legal system.
If the dominant organizational principle of the social processes of every capitalist society is that of exchange, a theory of the crises of capitalist society can identify those processes which challenge the dominance of this central principle. This, in turn, can be done in two ways.
- The theory of historical materialism attempts to show that processes organized and formed through exchange lead to results that cannot be dealt with by the exchange process itself. Economic crisis theories in a narrow sense, such as the theorem of the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall, reconstruct the processes of self-negation of the exchange principle that potentially result in the revolutionary transformation of the entire ideological and political ‘superstructure’.
- As an alternative to this approach, a theory of the system crises of capitalist societies would examine crisis-prone developments not in the exchange sphere itself (i. e., in the form of an economic crisis theory); rather, it would concentrate on the relationship between the three fundamental organizational principles of society as a whole. Not the self-negation of the exchange principle but its restriction and questioning by the other two organizational principles would serve as the criterion of crisis processes.