Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 17)

June 3, 2018

Apartheid planet and the new racism

John Smith in his “Imperialism in the 21st Century” sees imperialism as evolving towards a form of global apartheid. Under the rule of the U.S. world empire, the freedom of capital to move across national boundaries in its endless search for the highest rate of profit has expanded. However, workers do not have freedom to cross national borders in search of the highest wage.

Since World War II, the nation-state, the cradle of the capitalist mode of production, has been in decline. One example of this decline is the limited sovereignty of Germany and especially Japan since World War II. Even the sovereignty of countries that were allies of the U.S. in World War II, Britain and France, has been severely restricted within the NATO “alliance,” and in the case of Britain within the “special relationship.”

The U.S. and its imperialist satellite states of Western Europe and Japan have opposed every attempt to establish new strong independent nation-states – though with mixed results – since World War II. In the pre-war era, the then-politically divided imperialist countries sometimes gave limited support to nationalist movements in their rivals’ colonies and semi-colonies. Since World War II, the entire imperialist world has been united against national liberation movements in the oppressed world.

Taking the world economy as a whole, the productive forces have long outgrown the nation-state. This was already shown by the outbreak of World War I more than a hundred years ago. In recent years, the revolution in communications represented by the rise of the Internet and the smartphone is increasingly breaking down global, linguistic, and cultural boundaries.

But the nation-state has refused to peacefully fade away into the sunset as the productive forces have outgrown it. In the period between the two world wars, there emerged within the imperialist world a counter-tendency of resurgent economic nationalism, which found expression in increased tariff and other trade barriers. Economic nationalism was accompanied by growing political nationalism, racist anti-immigrant movements, and racism within the imperialist countries. These trends found their most extreme manifestation in Nazi Germany.

Today in the imperialist countries, we once again see a rise of economic and political nationalism accompanied by anti-immigrant movements and growing racism. This extremely dangerous tendency is currently represented by President Donald Trump and his supporters in the U.S., where it is now in power; the current government of Austria; the National Front in France; the Alternative for Germany in Germany, where it is the official opposition party; and their counterparts in other imperialist countries. Though they are not imperialist countries, similar movements dominate governments of many of the ex-socialist countries of eastern Europe such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic

Trump’s recent decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal” capital was accompanied by Israeli massacres that have left more than a hundred Palestinians dead and thousands wounded in Gaza. Trump’s move cannot be separated from the broader racist trend that Trump personifies.

Israel itself is the product of an earlier wave of racism that accompanied the economic and political nationalism of the period between World War I and World II that ended with Nazi Germany’s attempt to physically exterminate the entire European Jewish population. Zionist Israel, therefore, links the “old racism” with the new.

Is a kind of global apartheid system emerging, as Smith suggests, that is replacing the increasingly outmoded bourgeois nation-state? Today’s political and economic trends suggest the answer could be yes if the coming period does not result in a victory of the global working class.

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The Current U.S. Economic Boom in Historical Perspective (Pt 2)

May 6, 2018

Trump’s attempts to reverse the decline of U.S. capitalism

In April 2018, the U.S. political world was shaken by the news that Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand/Austrian school-inspired Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, would not be running for re-election in this year’s mid-term race. Ryan claimed he was retiring at the age of 48 from politics “to spend more time with my family.”

It is widely believed, however, that Ryan is retiring from Congress because he fears a humiliating defeat at the hands of his Democratic Party opponent, the construction worker, trade unionist, and “Berniecrat” Randy Bryce. Over the last year, many of Ryan’s constituents were no doubt shocked to learn that their handsome, genial congressperson wanted to take away their health insurance.

It seems likely that Ryan, who is believed to harbor presidential ambitions, plans to lie low, make lots of money in the private sector, and count on the public forgetting (with the assistance of the mass media) about his attempt to throw tens of millions of people off their health insurance. At a later day, Ryan will be poised to reenter electoral politics and ride a new Republican wave, perhaps all the way to the White House.

But how could there be another Republican wave in the aftermath of the ever-growing debacle of the Trump presidency and the self-exposure of the Republican Party on the health insurance issue? To assume that a Republican comeback is impossible, would be to ignore the lessons of the last great “progressive” victory in U.S. politics—the election in November 2008 that brought into the White House the first African-American president, combined with solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. However, at the end of Obama’s triumph lurked the racist Donald Trump, backed by Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House.

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Post delayed owing to May Day

April 29, 2018

Part 2 of the analysis of the current phase of the industrial cycle, due to be posted today, will be delayed one week owing to preparations for and participation in May Day 2018, International Workers’ Day.

Editors

The Current U.S. Economic Boom in Historical Perspective (Pt 1)

April 1, 2018

U.S capitalism has been in decline for decades. Within that long-term trend, U.S. capitalism continues to experience cyclical booms. During its dramatic rise between 1865 and 1929, the U.S. economy experienced three major financial panics—1873, 1893 and 1907—along with numerous lesser recessions. However, the increase of the number of workers employed in manufacturing—which represents the core of capitalist production and the core of the working class—that occurred during the industrial booms of that era was greater than the declines that occurred during recessions. In the years 1945-1979, though the number of workers in manufacturing began to decline relative to overall employment—a symptom of capitalist decay—that number continued to grow in absolute terms.

However, since the recession 1979-82, known as “the Volcker shock,” the pattern has reversed. The U.S. economy has continued to experience cyclical booms—defined as periods of above-average business activity in terms of industrial production, manufacturing, and overall employment and trade—as well as recessions. But the rise in manufacturing employment during booms—if any—has been far less than the declines during recessions. Therefore, the year 1979, which marks the beginning of the Volcker shock recession, represents the most important turning point—not excepting 1929—in the history of U.S. capitalism.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 16)

March 4, 2018

Lenin on the defining features of imperialism

V.I. Lenin in his famous from 1915 pamphlet “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” lists the following five features of what was then the new, imperialist stage of capitalism.

(1) The concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life;

(2) The merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy:

(3) The export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance;

(4) The formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves;

(5) The territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.

How Lenin’s defining features of imperialism have held up a century later

Virtually all Marxist and indeed all serious students of economics accept feature No. 1—the concentration of production and capital—as a fact of life of present-day capitalism. Indeed, the concentration of capital and production is much higher than it was on the eve of World War I, the period Lenin analyzed.

Feature no. 4—the formation of monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves—is accepted by Marxists and indeed many non-Marxists as even more descriptive of today’s conditions, when all large corporations operate on a multinational scale.

Feature no. 5—the territorial division of whole world among capitalist powers—was completed around the turn of the 20th century and is a statement of historical fact accepted by all.

The division of the world among the imperialist powers meant that further expansion of the colonial empires and “spheres of influence” could not occur without the various powers colliding. There was, however, on the eve of the “great war” a school of thought that held that a major war between the imperialist states was unlikely. This was based on the notion that economies had become so intertwined that the capitalist ruling classes would oppose any move toward war. Related to this, a view held that a major war among the imperialist powers was unlikely because it would be financially ruinous.  (1) These arguments, answered by the events of August 1914 and subsequently, are more than a historical curiosity, since occasionally we still run into them today.

Thanks to the Russian Revolution of 1917, a major part of the globe was largely withdrawn from the sphere of capitalist exploitation. (2) However, since the 1990s, as the result of the Russian bourgeois counterrevolution that restored capitalism but not the czarist feudal military empire, combined with the powerful upsurge of capitalist development in China and Vietnam, the world now looks more like that on the eve of World War I than the situation that prevailed during most of the rest of the 20th century.

However, the rest of the 20th century proved to be richer in world wars and revolutions and counterrevolutions than any preceding century in recorded history. As a result of these titanic developments, along with the inevitably uneven nature of capitalist development, the division of the world among the imperialist and other countries engaged in capitalist production has taken quite different forms than those that prevailed on the eve of World War I.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 15)

February 4, 2018

Reader Manuel Angeles commented: “In Cambridge (UK) in the 1970s, a whole slew of them rejected marginalist theory. Joan Robinson, in fact, frequently ridiculed it, in spite of Keynes´s chapter in the General Theory.”

Angeles refers to the so-called Cambridge Capital Controversy, which pitted economists from Cambridge, Mass., led by Paul Samuelson against Cambridge UK-based economists led by the Italian-British economist Piero Sraffa (1898-1983). Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), who was considered perhaps the leading (bourgeois) U.S. economist of his generation, defended marginalist theory. Samuelson combined marginalism with a watered-down Keynesianism that he called the “Grand Neoclassical Synthesis.”

Sraffa and his supporters clearly came out on top against the Samuelson-led marginalists. Sraffa’s attack on marginalism is contained in his short book “Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities,” where he exposed logical and mathematical paradoxes in marginalist theory.

But what value theory did Sraffa and his generally left Keynesian supporters propose in place of marginalism? Nothing, really, beyond that, given free competition, prices will tend toward levels where capitals of equal size earn equal profits in equal periods of time. The Sraffians also claimed that, with a given level of productivity of labor, wages and “interest rates”—by which is meant the rate of profit—will vary inversely.

Whatever he may have thought in private about the labor value schools of Ricardo and Marx—Sraffa was a great admirer and scholar of Ricardo and was well acquainted with Marxism having been a sympathizer of the Italian Communist Party in his youth—”neo-Ricardian” followers of Sraffa’s work have often used it against Marx’s labor value and surplus value theory. Once we accept the “neo-Ricardian” “price of production school” in place of Marxist value theory, we are forced to draw the conclusion that constant capital—machines and raw materials—as well as land produce value and surplus value.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 14)

January 7, 2018

[Note: In this post when I refer to Smith I mean John Smith, not Adam Smith.]

Smith and value

Unlike Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” and Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital,” Smith in his “Imperialism” has set himself the task of explaining the imperialist—monopolist—phase of capitalism in terms of Marx’s theory of value and surplus value. Smith has set himself the extremely ambitious task of unifying Marx’s “Capital” with Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet. In addition, he seeks to update the Leninist theory of imperialism for the early 21st century. The logical starting point of such an ambitious undertaking is the theory of value.

John Smith, Keynes and left Keynesians on value

“The exchange-value of a commodity,” Smith writes on p. 58 of his “Imperialism,” is determined not by the subjective desires of the buyers and sellers, as both orthodox and heterodox economic theory maintains, but by how much effort it took to make it.” Smith makes an important point here. Both orthodox economists (the so-called neoclassical school and the Austrian school) and heterodox economists (left Keynesians) support or at least do not challenge the marginalist theory of value, which for more the century has dominated academic economic orthodoxy.

The marginalist theory of value holds that value arises from the scarcity of useful objects, which may be products of either human labor or nature, relative to subjective human needs. Instead of beginning with production and labor, as both the classical school and Marx did, marginalists begin with the subjective valuations of the consumer.

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Special announcement

January 3, 2018

This month’s post will be delayed one week as a result of taking a holiday break.

Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 13)

December 3, 2017

The value of labor power

The value of labor power is determined by the value of the means of subsistence workers must consume to reproduce their labor power. This includes the developing labor powers of their children, who in time will replace them on the labor market. At the minimum, the means of subsistence must enable the workers to live and raise their children in the biological sense.

Like all commodities, means of subsistence have three values. One is their use values necessary for the reproduction of human labor power. Among these are food, shelter and clothing. Second is the amount of (abstract) labor, measured in some unit of time, necessary under the prevailing conditions of production to produce the means of subsistence. Finally, the commodities that go into the value of labor power have a value form or money price, called the wage.

Regardless of the epoch, there is always a quantity of the means of subsistence below which human life cannot be sustained. As we saw last month, industrial capitalists operating in southern India can pay a wage so low that their workers will be unable to buy warm clothing and winter heating while still expecting them to survive biologically. However, industrial capitalists operating in Siberia, Russia, must pay a wage sufficient to allow their workers to purchase a winter coat and pay for heating. Otherwise, the workers will perish.

Even if workers are barely able to survive biologically, they might still not be able to produce children and raise the next generation of workers. So the biologically determined minimum wage must in addition cover the costs of bearing and raising children. These factors establish a level of wages below which the real wage cannot fall for any extended period of time.

If wages were to fall below the level necessary to buy food, the working class would be extinct within a few weeks, and so would the capitalist mode of production. Without workers, surplus value cannot be produced, and without the production of surplus value, there can be no profit, and without profit there can be no capitalism.

If bosses paid the workers just enough to maintain the workers’ lives but not enough to raise the next generation of workers, the number of available workers would progressively decline, which would also lead to the extinction of the capitalist mode of production. This biologically determined minimum wage is the level to which capital always attempts to depress the actual wage. In the absence of counter-pressure from the side of the workers, the biologically minimum wage will constitute the actual wage.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 12)

November 5, 2017

John Smith’s ‘Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century’ (Pt 2)

John Smith’s “Imperialism” is aimed against what Smith calls the “Euro-Marxist” or “orthodox Marxist” tendency. This tendency holds that workers in the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan are often more exploited than workers of the “global South”—previously called the colonial and semi-colonial countries and later the Third World—despite the far higher level of real and money wages in the countries of the “global North.”

Marxists who hold this view rest their case, at least in part, on the following quote from Marx that appears in Chapter 17 of Volume I of “Capital”:

” … it will be found, frequently, that the daily or weekly, &tc., wage in the first [more advanced—SW] nation is higher than in the second, whilst the relative price of labour, i.e., the price of labour as compared both with surplus-value and with the value of the product, stands higher in the second [less advanced—SW] than in the first.”

Marx writing in the sixties of the 19th century is saying that English workers could be more exploited than the wage workers of poorly developed capitalist countries. To fully understand the debate around this question, including John Smith’s stand, it is necessary to delve into value theory in general and the theory of surplus value in particular. In doing this, we will explore many questions in regard to both the nature of contemporary imperialism and value theory.

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