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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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 11)

October 8, 2017

John Smith’s ‘Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century’

The year 2016 marks the centenary of V.I. Lenin’s famous pamphlet “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” subtitled “A Popular Outline.” The pamphlet has immensely influenced politics of the last century. This is largely but not only because the author the following year became the leader of the first socialist revolution as well as chief inspirer and de facto leader of the Third (Communist) International—also known as the Comintern. If Lenin had not led the first socialist revolution and/or had not lived to found the Third International, the pamphlet would still have had considerable influence but of course not the influence it has had.

A century after Lenin’s “Imperialism” appeared, Monthly Review Press published “Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century,” by the British Marxist John Smith. As the title indicates, this book aims to do for the Marxist analysis of imperialism in our new century what Lenin’s “Imperialism” did for the last. Smith holds against innumerable critics that Lenin’s basic thesis was not only correct for its own time but also for our own, at least in broad outline.

But Smith’s book is more ambitious than that, and this is what attracted the interest of this blog. Smith is not entirely satisfied with Lenin’s work, which in the Third International, and the more loosely organized international Communist movement that continued after the Third International was dissolved in 1943, was often treated as virtually on a par with Marx’s “Capital.” Smith is dissatisfied with Lenin’s classic pamphlet because, unlike Marx in “Capital,” Lenin does not directly apply value theory. Value analysis is implicit rather than explicit as it is in “Capital.”

Smith in his “Imperialism” attempts to accomplish two tasks. One, he attempts to update Lenin’s “Imperialism.” More ambitiously, he attempts to “complete” Lenin’s work, bringing it into line with Marx’s “Capital,” first published 150 years ago this year. Smith explicitly puts value analysis at the center of his analysis of modern imperialism.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 10)

September 10, 2017

History of interest rates

A chart showing the history of interest rates over the last few centuries shows an interesting pattern — low hills and valleys with a generally downward tendency. During and immediately after World War I, interest rates form what looks like a low mountain range. Then with the arrival of the Great Depression of the 1930s, rates sink into a deep valley. Unlike during World War I, interest rates remain near Depression lows during World War II but start to rise slowly with some wiggles through the end of the 1960s.

But during the 1970s, interest rates suddenly spike upward, without precedent in the history of capitalist production. It is as though after riding through gently rolling country for several hundred years of capitalist history, you suddenly run into the Himalaya mountain range. Then, beginning in the early 1980s, interest rates start to fall into a deep valley, reaching all-time lows in the wake of the 2007-09 Great Recession. Clearly something dramatic occurred in the last half of the 20th century.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 9)

August 14, 2017

Last month, we saw that Shaikh’s view of “modern money” as “pure fiat money” is essentially the same as the “MELT” theory of money. MELT stands for the monetary expression of labor time.

The MELT theory of value, money and price recognizes that embodied labor is the essence of value. To that extent, MELT is in agreement with both Ricardian and Marxist theories of value. However, advocates of MELT do not understand that value must have a value form where the value of a commodity is measured by the use value of another commodity.

Supporters of MELT claim that since the end of the gold standard capitalism has operated without a money commodity. Accordingly, prices of individual commodities can be above or below their values relative to the mass of commodities as a whole. However, by definition the prices of commodities taken as a whole can never be above or below their value.

Instead of the autocracy of gold, MELT value theory sees a democratic republic of commodities where, as far as the functions of money are concerned, one commodity is just as good as another. Under MELT’s democracy of commodities, all commodities are money and therefore no individual commodity is money.

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