Money, wage-labor and Marx’s ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’

April 20, 2014

This August marks the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I, which forever changed the world. This is the first in a series of posts that will center on the causes and consequences of World War I. The most important consequence was the conquest of political power by the working class of the former Russian Empire. Rosa Luxemburg, along with other Marxists of the time and since, saw that the catastrophe overtaking Europe in 1914 had deep economic roots.

At the beginning of this year—2014—I couldn’t help but wonder if a major new European war could break out on the 100th anniversary of the “Great War,” as it was called, that started in 1914. This seemed extremely unlikely, and indeed history rarely respects anniversaries in this manner. But in light of the crisis in Ukraine, a major new war that would mark the anniversary of the events of August 1914 doesn’t appear as unlikely as it did at the start of the year. Many of the ghosts of the last century seem to be rising from their graves once again.

In the coming months, I will explore the economic roots of the Great War in light of the ideas on crisis theory I have been exploring in this blog. Though the Great War itself was not a crisis of overproduction, it did break out during the 1913-14 global recession and was the greatest crisis by far that capitalist society had experienced up to that time. And we have already seen that the Great War played a crucial role in the development, starting in 1929, of what seemed to be an ordinary cyclical recession into first the super-crisis of 1929-33 and then the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The conquest of political power by the working class of the former Russian Empire began in Petrograd (aka St. Petersburg and Leningrad) with the insurrection of October 25 (old calender) or November 7 (new calender). Here I want to examine the fate of that first serious attempt to build a socialist society in light of Marx’s last—and as we will see perhaps least understood—work “Critique of the Gotha Program.”

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Capitalist Anarchy, Climatic Anarchy, Ukraine and New Threats of War and Fascism

March 23, 2014

The Keystone XL pipeline

President Obama appears to be nearing a decision on approving what is called the Keystone XL pipeline. This proposal by the TransCanada Corporation calls for a pipeline to be built that will, if Obama gives the green light, transport “heavy oil” produced from tar sands in the Canadian province of Alberta to refineries in the U.S. Midwest and along the Gulf Coast.

The U.S. president had indicated that his approval would depend on a State Department report on the proposed pipeline’s effects on the Earth’s climate. Opponents of the pipeline pointed out that the refining of heavy oil releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the refining of “sweet oil” does.

In late January, the State Department released its report, which claimed that the pipeline would have little if any adverse effect on the climate. The State Department reasoned that even if the pipeline was not built, the Alberta tar sands would be used for oil production anyway. The resulting heavy oil, according to the State Department, would in the absence of the XL pipeline be transported by rail. So, the State Department concluded, there would be little adverse effect from the proposed pipeline project. These conclusions put heavy pressure on Obama to approve the construction.

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Big Challenges Facing Janet Yellen

February 23, 2014

Yellen testifies

Janet Yellen gave her first report to the House Financial Services Committee since she became chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board in January. In the wake of the 2008 panic, her predecessor Ben Bernanke had indicated that “the Fed” would keep the federal funds rate—the interest rate commercial banks in the U.S. charge one another for overnight loans—at near zero until the unemployment rate, as calculated by the U.S. Labor Department, fell to 6.5 percent from over 10 percent near the bottom of the crisis in 2009.

However, the Labor Department’s unemployment rate has fallen much faster than most economists expected and is now at “only” 6.6 percent. With the U.S. Labor Department reporting almost monthly declines, it is quite possible that the official unemployment rate will fall to or below 6.5 percent as early as next month’s report.

But there is a catch that the Fed is well aware of. The unexpectedly rapid fall in the official unemployment rate reflects the fact that millions of workers have given up looking for jobs. In effect, what began as a cyclical crisis of short-term mass unemployment has grown into a much more serious crisis of long-term unemployment. As far as the U.S. Labor Department is concerned, when it comes to calculating the unemployment rate these millions might just as well have vanished from the face of the earth.

In reality, the economic recovery from the 2007-09 “Great Recession” has been far weaker than the vast majority of economists had expected. Indeed, a strong case can be made that both in the U.S. and on a world scale—including imperialist countries, developing countries and the ex-socialist countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as oppressed countries still bearing the marks of their pre-capitalist past—the current recovery is the weakest in the history of capitalist industrial cycles.

The continued stagnation of the U.S. economy six and a half years since the outbreak of the last crisis has just been underlined by a series of weak reports on employment growth and industrial production. For example, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, U.S. industrial production as a whole declined 0.3 percent in January, while manufacturing, the heart of industrial production, declined by 0.8 percent.

Yellen, as the serious-minded policymaker she undoubtedly is, is well aware of these facts. She told the House committee:”The unemployment rate is still well above levels that Federal Open Market Committee participants estimate is consistent with maximum sustainable employment. Those out of a job for more than six months continue to make up an unusually large fraction of the unemployed, and the number of people who are working part time but would prefer a full-time job remains very high.”

Over the last several months, the growth of employment, which serious economists consider far more meaningful than the the U.S. Labor Department’s “unemployment rate,” has been far below expectations.

Bad weather

Most Wall Street economists are sticking to the line that the recent string of weak figures on employment growth and industrial production reflect bad weather. The eastern U.S. has experienced extreme cold and frequent storms this winter, though the U.S. West has enjoyed unseasonable warmth and a lack of the usual Pacific storms, resulting in a serious drought in California. So it is possible that bad weather has put a kink in employment growth and industrial production.

But there is also concern—clearly shared by the new U.S. Fed chairperson, notwithstanding rosy capitalist optimism maintained by the cheerleaders that pass for economic writers of the Associated Press and Reuters—that the current global upswing in the industrial cycle has failed to gain anything like the momentum to be expected six years after the outbreak of the preceding crisis.

Two ruling-class approaches

This growing “secular stagnation”–lingering mass unemployment between recessions—has produced a growing split among capitalist economists and writers for the financial press. One school of thought is alarmed by continued high unemployment and underemployment. This school thinks that the government and Federal Reserve System—which, remember, functions not only as the central bank of the U.S. but also of the world under the current dollar-centered international monetary system—should continue to search for ways to improve the situation. Another school of thought, however, believes that all that has to be done is to declare the arrival of “full employment” and prosperity.

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The Fed Tapers as Yellen Prepares to Take Over, and the Unemployed Get Screwed Over

January 19, 2014

In what may be its last official action under Ben Bernanke’s leadership, the Federal Reserve announced in December that it would reduce its purchases of U.S. government bonds and mortgage-backed securities from $85 billion to $75 billion a month as of January 2014. This indicates that the Fed hopes to slow down the growth of the dollar monetary base during 2014 from the 39 percent that it grew in 2013.

Considering that before the 1970s the historical growth rates in the monetary base were 2 to 3 percent, and from the 1970s until the mid-2000s they were around 7 percent, a 39 percent rate of growth in the dollar monetary base is viewed by the Fed as unsustainable in the long run.

The bond market reacted to the announcement in the textbook way, with interest rates on the U.S. 10-year government bonds rising to around 3 percent. The last time interest rates on 10-year bonds were this high was just before the Fed put the U.S. housing market on “life support” in 2011.

It seems likely that the latest move was made to smooth the transition from the Bernanke Fed to the Yellen Fed. Janet Yellen, the newly appointed, and confirmed, chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, is considered a “dove.” That is, she is inclined to follow more expansionary monetary policies than Bernanke in order to push the economy in the direction of “full employment.” As defined by bourgeois economists, this is the optimal level of unemployment from the viewpoint of the capitalists – not unemployed workers. With this move, the money capitalists are “assured” that the Fed will be slowing the rate of growth of the U.S. monetary base despite the new Fed chief’s “dovish” views, while relieving Yellen of having to make a “tightening move” as soon as she takes office.

The gold market, as would be expected, dropped back towards the lows of June 2013, falling below $1,200 an ounce at times, while the yield on the 10-year bond rose to cross the 3 percent level on some days. This reflects increased expectations on the part of money capitalists that the rate of growth in the U.S. dollar monetary base will be slowing from now until the end of the current industrial cycle.

Though the prospect of a slowing growth rate in the monetary base and rising long-term interest rates is bearish for the stock market, all things remaining equal, stocks reacted bullishly to the Fed announcement. The stock market was relieved that a stronger tightening move was not announced. The Fed combined its announcement of a reduction in its purchasing of bond and mortgage-backed securities with assurances that it would keep short-term interest rates near zero for several more years, raising hopes on Wall Street that the current extremely weak recovery will finally be able to gain momentum. As a result, the stock market is still looking forward to the expected cyclical boom.

Long-term unemployed get screwed over

On December 26, Congress approved a measure, incorporated into the U.S. budget, that ended unemployment extensions beyond the six months that unemployment benefits usually last in the U.S., which added to Wall Street’s holiday cheer. During recessions, Congress and the U.S. government generally agree to extended unemployment benefits but end the extension when economic recovery takes hold. It has been six years since the recession began – 60 percent of a normal industrial cycle – and the Republicans and the bosses agreed that it was high time to end the unemployment extensions.

Some Democrats dependent on workers’ votes have said that they are for a further extension of emergency unemployment benefits. President Obama claims to oppose the end of the extended benefits but signed the budget agreement all the same. The budget agreement as it stands basically says to the unemployed, it is now time to take any job at any wage you can find. If you still can’t find a job, tough luck.

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Change of Guard at the Fed, the Specter of ‘Secular Stagnation,’ and Some Questions of Monetary Theory

December 22, 2013

Ben Bernanke will not seek a third term as chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors – “the Fed.” President Obama has nominated, and the U.S. Senate is expected to formally approve, economist Janet Yellen as his successor. The Federal Reserve Board is a government body that controls the operation of the U.S Federal Reserve System.

“The Fed” lies at the heart of the U.S. central banking system, which under the dollar standard is in effect the central bank of the entire world.

A professional central banker

Janet Yellen is currently vice-chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board. She has also served as an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and chaired President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic advisers. She headed the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2004 to 2010, one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks within the Federal Reserve System. If there is such a thing as a professional central banker, Yellen is it.

Yellen will be the first woman to serve as head of the Federal Reserve Board and will hold the most powerful position within the U.S. government ever held by a woman. Yellen’s appointment therefore reflects gains for women’s equality that have been made since the modern women’s liberation movement began around 1969.

Like other social movements that emerged out of the 1960s radicalization, the modern women’s liberation movement began on the radical left. The very name of the movement was inspired by the name of the main resistance organization fighting U.S. imperialism in Vietnam – the National Liberation Front. However, as a veteran bourgeois economist and a long-time major policymaker in the U.S. government, Yellen would not be expected to have much sympathy for the 20th-century revolutions and movements that made her appointment even a remote possibility.

Significantly, Yellen was appointed only after Lawrence Summers, considered like Yellen a major (bourgeois) economist and said to be the favorite of the Obama administration to succeed Bernanke, announced his withdrawal from contention. Summers became notorious when as president of Harvard University he expressed the opinion that women are not well represented in engineering and the sciences because of mental limitations rooted in biology.

Summers was obliged to resign as president of Harvard, and his anti-woman remarks undoubtedly played a role in his failure to win enough support to be appointed Fed chairman. In addition, Summers attacked the African American Professor Cornell West for his work on Black culture and his alleged “grade inflation,” causing West to leave Harvard. This hardly made Summers popular in the African American community. His nomination would therefore have produced serious strains in the Democratic Coalition, so Summers was obliged to withdraw.

Ben Bernanke like Yellen is considered a distinguished (bourgeois) economist. He had devoted his professional life to exploring the causes of the Great Depression, much like Yellen has. Essentially, Bernanke attempted to prove that the Depression was caused by faulty policies of the Federal Reserve System and the government, and not by contradictions inherent in capitalist production – such as, for example, periodic crises of overproduction. Bernanke denied that overproduction was the cause of the Depression.

Like Milton Friedman, Bernanke blamed the Depression on the failure of the Federal Reserve System to prevent a contraction of money and credit. Bernanke put the emphasis on credit, while Friedman put the emphasis on the money supply. Blaming crises on currency and credit, according to Marx, is the most shallow and superficial crisis theory of all.

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Some Observations on ‘Obamacare’ and the NSA Spying Scandal

November 24, 2013

Two events have dominated the news over the past few months. One has been the “Obamacare” reform in the United States. The Republican Party, which controls the U.S. House of Representatives, threatened to default on the debts of the federal government unless Obamacare was repealed.

The other big story has been the continuing revelations of Edward Snowden about the widespread spying by the U.S. National Security Agency. Snowden’s revelations have lifted a corner of the curtain that hides the extent of U.S. spying on its European NATO “allies”—both the governments and the peoples of Europe.

This spying included the NSA’s tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone. More important has been the revelation that hundreds of millions of phone calls of people in Europe have been monitored by the NSA. As a result, Washington’s recent campaign against spying by the Chinese government on users of the Internet in that country has fallen flat. The world’s biggest “computer cracker”—someone who breaks into computers or computer networks with malicious intent—turns out be Uncle Sam himself.

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Capitalism and ‘High Tech’

October 27, 2013

A reader has asked why many of the examples I have given are from the “high-tech” industry. Actually, there are good reasons to use examples from high tech to illustrate the laws that govern the capitalist economy.

Capitalist production develops unevenly, not only from country to country but from industry to industry. Marx makes clear in “Capital” that not all industries made the transition from handcraft to manufacture and from manufacture proper to “machinofacture” at the same time.

In the 19th century, what Marx and Engels called “modern industry” meant the industries that had adopted steam as their main source of motive power. By this definition, the textile industry, both spinning and weaving, was during the first three-quarters of the 19th century the most modern of modern industries. Consequently, in the early and middle 19th century—the time of Marx—the textile industry was the industry where the laws of motion of capitalism showed themselves most clearly. Understanding the development of the textile industry was (and is) crucial to understanding the politics of the 19th century.

The main center of textile production was in Britain, centered on the industrial city of of Manchester. Frederick Engels, Marx’s co-worker, worked there for many years managing his family’s textile factory. The main raw material for the 19th-century textile industry—cotton—was produced in the United States, not by wage labor but by the labor of African slaves.

During the 19th century, the U.S. was developing its own textile industry, based in the New England states, then the center of U.S. industry. Like the British textile industry, the U.S. textile industry was dependent on cotton produced by slave labor in the southern states of the U.S.

At the time of the American war of independence of 1775-1783, which represents the first phase of the U.S. bourgeois-democratic revolution, slavery, which existed in both southern and northern states, appeared to be dying out. But the invention of the cotton gin, combined with the dramatic rise of the steam-powered textile industry in both Britain and New England, gave a new lease on life to slavery in the southern states of the U.S.

The issue of whether the U.S. would be dominated by the free labor—wage labor—system or chattel slavery moved to the center of U.S. and even world politics, where it was to remain until it was finally resolved by force in the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865 and then the post-Civil War Reconstruction that ended in 1876.

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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 4

September 29, 2013

Heinrich on crises—some background

A century ago, a discussion occurred in the Second International about the “disproportionate production” theory of crisis. This theory holds that crises arise because of disproportions between the various branches of industry, especially between what Marx called Department I, which produces the means of production, and Department II, which produces the means of personal consumption.

This led to speculation on the part of some Social Democrats that the growing cartelization of industry would be able to limit and eventually eliminate the crisis-breeding disproportions. This could, these Social Democrats speculated, give birth to a crisis-free capitalism, at least in theory. The revisionist wing of the International, led by such figures as Eduard Bernstein—the original revisionist—put its hopes in just such a development.

Assuming a rising organic composition of capital, Department I will grow faster than Department II. The Ukrainian economist and moderate socialist Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky (1865-1919), who was influenced by Marxism, claimed there was no limit to the ability of capitalism to develop the productive forces as long as the proper relationship between Department I and Department II is maintained. The more capitalist industry grew and the organic composition of capital rose the more the industrial capitalists would be selling to their fellow industrial capitalists and relatively less “wage-goods” to the workers.

Tugan-Baranovsky held that capitalism would therefore never break down economically. Socialism, if it came at all, would have to come because it is a morally superior system, not because it is an economic necessity. This put Tugan-Baranovsky sharply at odds with the “world-view Marxists” of the time, who stressed that socialism would replace capitalism because socialism becomes an economic necessity once a certain level of economic development is reached.

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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 3

September 1, 2013

In this month’s post, I will take a look at Heinrich’s views on value, money and price. As regular readers of this blog should realize by now, the theory of value, money and price has big implications for crisis theory.

As we have seen, present-day crisis theory is divided into two main camps. One camp emphasizes the production of surplus value. This school—largely inspired by the work of Polish-born economist Henryk Grossman, and whose most distinguished present-day leader is Professor Andrew Kliman of Pace University—holds that the basic cause of crises is that periodically an insufficient amount of surplus value is produced. The result is a rate of profit too low for the capitalists to maintain a level of investment sufficient to prevent a crisis.

From the viewpoint of this school, a lack of demand is a secondary effect of the crisis but by no means the cause. If the capitalists find a way to increase the production of surplus value sufficiently, investment will rise and demand problems will go away. Heinrich, who claims there is no tendency of the rate of profit to fall, is therefore anathema to this tendency of Marxist thought.

The other main school of crisis theory puts the emphasis on the problem of the realization of surplus value. This tendency is dominated by the Monthly Review school, named after the magazine founded by U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy and now led by Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster.

The Monthly Review school roots the tendency toward crises/stagnation not in the production of surplus value like the Grossman-Kliman school but rather in the realization of surplus value. The analysis of this school is based largely on the work of the purely bourgeois English economist John Maynard Keynes, the moderate Polish-born socialist economist Michael Kalecki, and the radical U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy.

Kalecki’s views on markets were similar to those of Keynes. Indeed, it is often said that Kalecki invented “Keynesian theory” independently and prior to Keynes himself—with one exception. Kalecki, like the rest of the Monthly Review school, puts great emphasis on what he called the “degree of monopoly.” In contrast, Keynes completely ignored the problem of monopoly.

Needed, a Marxist law of markets

A real theory of the market is necessary, in my opinion, for a complete theory of crises. Engels indicated in his work “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific” that under capitalism the growth of the market is governed by “quite different laws” than govern the growth of production, and that the laws governing the growth of the market operate “far less energetically” than the laws that govern the growth of production. The result is the crises of overproduction that in the long run keep the growth of production within the limits of the market.

This, however, is not a complete crisis theory, because Engels did not explain exactly what the laws are that govern the growth of the market. Unfortunately, leaving aside hints found in Marx’s writings, Marxists—with the exception of Paul Sweezy—have largely ignored the laws that govern the growth of the market. This, I think, would be a legitimate criticism of what Heinrich calls “world view Marxism.” As a result, the theory of what does govern the growth of the market has been left to the anti-Marxist Keynes, the questionably Marxist Kalecki and the strongly Keynes- and Kalecki-influenced Sweezy.

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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 2

August 4, 2013

In this post, I examine two questions: One is whether Heinrich’s critique of Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—TRPF—is valid. After that, I will examine Heinrich’s claim that Marx had actually abandoned, or was moving toward abandoning, his theory of the TRPF.

The determination of the rate of profit

If we assume the turnover period of variable capital is given and assume no realization difficulties—all commodities that are produced are sold at their prices of production—the rate of profit will depend on two variables. One is the rate of surplus value—the ratio of unpaid to paid labor. This can be represented algebraically by the expression s/v. The other variable is the ratio of constant to variable capital, or c/v—what Marx called the composition of capital.

Composition of capital versus organic composition of capital

The composition of capital will change if wages, measured in terms of values—quantities of abstract labor measured in some unit of time—changes. For example, if wages fall in terms of value, everything else remaining unchanged, there will be relatively more constant capital and less variable capital than before. The composition of capital c/v will have risen.

However, though less variable capital relative to constant capital will have been used than before, a given quantity of variable capital will now produce more surplus value. All else remaining equal, a rise in the composition of capital produced by a fall in the value of the variable capital will result in a rise in the rate of profit.

Suppose, however, that the capitalists replace some of their variable capital—workers—with machines. Remember, we are measuring the machines here in terms only of their value. Here, in contrast to the first case, we assume the value of variable capital and the rate of surplus value s/v remains unchanged.

Now, more of the total productive capital will consist of constant capital, which produces no surplus value, and less will consist of variable capital, which does produce surplus value. Since here, unlike in the first example, the rate of surplus value has remained unchanged, the fall in the portion of the capital that produces surplus value will produce a fall in the rate of profit.

In order to differentiate between these two very different cases, which produce opposite effects on the rate of profit, Marx called a rise in the composition of capital produced by a rise in the use of machinery a rise in the organic composition of capital.

Capitalist competition forces the individual industrial capitalists to do all they can to lower the cost price of the commodities they produce. The term cost price refers the cost to the industrial capitalist of producing a given commodity, not the cost to society of producing it. (1) The cost price represents the amount of (abstract) labor that the industrial capitalists actually pay for. It is in the interest of the industrial capitalists to reduce as much as possible the amount of labor that they pay for while increasing as much as possible the amount of the labor that the industrial capitalists do not pay for—surplus value.

The cost price of the commodity is, therefore, the capital—constant plus variable—that industrial capitalists must productively consume to produce a given commodity of a given use value and quality.

As capitalism develops, the amount of capital that is used to produce a given commodity of a given use value and quality progressively declines. But capitalist production is a process of the accumulation of capital. Leaving aside temporary crises, the quantity of capital defined in terms of value must progressively increase over the life span of the capitalist mode of production.

Therefore, the fall in the capital used to produce the individual commodities must be compensated for by a rise in the total quantity of commodities produced if the value of total social capital is to grow. Outside of crises and a war economy, the history of capitalist production sees a continuous rise in the total quantity of commodities produced. This is why the capitalists must find new markets or enlarge old ones if capitalism is to continue. Contrary to Say’s Law, the increase in commodity production does not necessarily equal an increase in markets.

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