Germany and the U.S. Empire (Pt. 2)

November 8, 2015

As the Soviet army swept westward toward Germany in 1945 and the American and British armies advanced eastward into Germany, soldiers in these armies were in for a shock. They would notice a peculiar smell in the air and then would arrive at one of the Nazi death camps.

These soldiers had been subjected to propaganda designed to portray the German enemy in the worst possible terms. Such wartime propaganda often takes more than a few liberties with the truth. In the case of the Soviet soldiers, they had plenty of experience with “the fascists,” as they called them, and their unspeakable crimes against the peoples of the occupied territories in the Soviet Union. These battle-hardened Soviet soldiers would expect the worst from the Germans.

But nothing could prepare them for what they found in the Nazi death camps. I will not attempt to describe it here. Today it is possible to watch videos of World War II Nazi death camps that are stored in digital form on the Internet. I would, however, advise anybody who is curious to watch these videos on an empty stomach.

A common reaction among the U.S. and British soldiers after they observed—and smelled—the horrors of the death camps was to tell the interviewers that now they knew what they were fighting for. The Soviet soldiers already knew what they were fighting for, but even they were shocked.

The reaction of one British soldier in one of the videos I streamed in preparation for this post unwittingly shed light on what had really happened. Interviewed many years after the war, he expressed amazement that the Germans could do this to “fellow Europeans” who simply practiced a “different faith.” A German Nazi would have explained that this was not true. The people murdered in the camps were not, our Nazi would have explained, Europeans at all. Nor were they murdered because they had a different faith. The death camp victims had to be liquidated because they were a different race.

According to the Nazis, the “great race” of white European Nordic Aryans were merely defending themselves against the racial “aggression” of the Jewish people and other “Asiatic” races such as the Roma—the so-called gypsies. In reality, our Nazi, assuming he was well educated in the “racial science” taught in all the educational institutions of the Third Reich, would explain that the Jews were a bastard Asiatic race mixed with “Negroid” elements. They had come to Europe to destroy the Nordic white Aryan race, who were the only creative race in the world and the hope of all humankind. Certainly, the Nazi would explain, a British soldier of “Nordic Germanic Aryan stock” should understand this in light of their own rich struggle against other races throughout its vast empire.

For 12 years, this lesson that the Jews, appearances to the contrary, were not white Europeans, was driven into the head of every German through the educational system from elementary school right through the universities, on the radio, in “educational” newsreels shown in movie theaters, as well through the various branches of Germany’s boy and girl scout movement—the “Hitler Youth.”

Anybody who wanted to challenge the Nazi “racial science” had no access to any media either printed, motion picture or radio. They would have to settle for word of mouth or illegally reproduced pamphlets. And if you were caught, you ran the risk being thrown into a concentration camp yourself or even being legally executed.

But what about before 1933, when Hitler came to power? Between 1918 and 1933, Germany was a (bourgeois) democracy, and before 1914 the existence of a large well-organized workers’ movement made it possible to legally oppose racist and anti-semitic ideas.

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Germany and the U.S. Empire (Pt. 1)

October 11, 2015

The Volkswagen scandal

It has recently been revealed that the Volkswagen Corporation, the world’s largest automobile producer in terms of revenue in 2014, had installed software in its diesel vehicles designed to circumvent U.S. emissions standards.

Motor vehicles of all types are increasingly controlled by computer software. Volkswagen engineers wrote subroutines in Volkswagen’s control software able to detect whether the vehicle was going through an emissions test or was in normal operation. If the software detected a test situation, the engines would strictly comply with the U.S. government’s Environmental Projection Agency guidelines and the vehicle would pass the test with flying colors. If the software determined the vehicle was in normal operation, the emissions restrictions would be ignored. In this way, buyers of the vehicle could enjoy the benefits of a more powerful vehicle apparently complying with the U.S. government’s emission standards while in practice ignoring them.

This was not a question of some accidental damage done by dangerous cost-cutting that is so common throughout capitalist production. The subroutines were not written “by mistake.” Even more than is the case in the U.S., the automotive industry is important for Germany’s industry-centered, export-oriented economy. Unlike the U.S. and Britain, Germany has largely avoided the process of “de-industrialization.” German automobiles are considered among the best in the world. The scandal is therefore a major blow not only to Volkswagen but to the German economy as a whole.

However, what is a loss for Germany is a boon for Germany’s competitors. If the Volkswagen “brand name” should be discredited, or if Volkswagen is forced to reduce its research and development expenditures on the next generation of automobiles because it has to pay costly fines, it could be permanently damaged. In the worst case, it might even go out of business. Rival automobile manufacturers, both present and aspiring ones, including those headquartered in Detroit—and Silicon Valley—are among those who would happily fill the market space vacated by Volkswagen’s demise.

What was the motive of the EPA, an arm of the U.S. government? As far as I know—and I won’t make any allegations I cannot prove—it was the best. Perhaps it wanted to protect the environment from the effects of releasing nitrous oxide, which causes acid rain, threatening countless lifeforms, both plant and animal, on the land and in the sea. Still, an attack on Germany’s export-oriented auto industry, whatever the motive, has the objective effect of undermining Germany’s economy as a whole. And it is also quite in line with Silicon Valley’s plans to invade the auto industry.

Above all, it is quite in accordance with the nature of competition between capitalist nation-states. An important function of a capitalist nation-state is to put its own capitalists in the best possible position relative to rivals headquartered in rival nation-states. A little less than 70 years ago—within the lifetime of many people still living—the efforts of the U.S. to curb Germany’s competitive threat to U.S. industry took the form of open shooting warfare that ended with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Germany. That occupation has never really ended.

Is it possible the U.S. government is using selective enforcement of the law to curb the same economic threat today? In order to explore this question, we should first start with the policies of the U.S. government that made Volkswagen’s crime possible in the first place.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 5)

September 13, 2015

Rudi Dornbusch predicts unending capitalist expansion

“The U.S. economy likely will not see a recession for years to come,” economist Rudi Dornbusch (1942-2001) wrote in 1998. “We don’t want one, we don’t need one, and, as we have the tools to keep the current expansion going, we won’t have one. This expansion will run forever.”

In the late 1990s, the Internet was making rapid progress. Fueled by various technologies including the digital computer, the transistor and electronic circuit board—the “computer on a chip”—and the GNU/Linux computer operating system, world communications were, and are, being revolutionized. And this technological revolution was no illusion.

For the first time, home computer users could connect to the Internet, which now featured its own graphical user interface called the World Wide Web. No longer was the Internet confined to text but would soon include audio and video files. With such a great technological revolution under way, many capitalist economists—and this was echoed by some Marxists as well—foresaw an era of never-ending capitalist expansion. The Clinton boom of the late 1990s was to be just the beginning.

During the Clinton administration, stocks soared on Wall Street while the rise in the NASDAQ stock index—which lists “high-tech” stocks—seemed to know no limit. Goldman-Sachs economist and financial analyst Abby Joseph Cohen’s (1952- ) predictions of continuing soaring stock market prices drew skepticism from many seasoned stock market veterans, yet she continued to be proved right. Until March 2000, that is. Then things began to go horribly wrong as the NASDAQ index sagged and then crashed.

“Her reputation was further damaged when she failed to foresee the great crash of 2008,” Wikipedia writes. “In December 2007, she predicted the S&P 500 index would rally to 1,675 in 2008. The S&P 500 traded as low as 741 by November 2008, 56% below her prediction. On March 8, 2008, Goldman Sachs announced that Abby Joseph Cohen was being replaced by David Kostin as the bank’s chief forecaster for the U.S. stock market.” Although Internet technology continued to make great strides and stock markets both crashed and soared, the world capitalist economy entered into a period of slow growth—interrupted by the the turn-of-the-century recession that included the NASDAQ crash that Cohen missed and then the much deeper “Great Recession.”

Indeed, the world economy has, since Dornbusch made his prediction of unending capitalist prosperity, seen the worst growth figures since the 1930s Depression. The situation has gotten so bad that some capitalist economists have revived the term “secular stagnation,” last widely used among economists in the late 1930s. What did Cohen and Dornbusch and so many others miss?

They were right about the technological revolution. They left out only one little thing: the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on them. Though both Dornbusch and Cohen were/are highly trained economists, they didn’t learn about the contradictions of capitalism in their university studies. It wasn’t part of their course work. For that, they would have had to turn to the work of Karl Marx, and that they apparently neglected to do.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 4)

August 16, 2015

How gold production drives expansion of the market

Here I assume that gold bullion serves as money material unless I indicate otherwise.

In a previous post, I indicated that there cannot be an overproduction of gold in its role as money material. This has been more or less the received view among Marxist writers over the years.

However, in thinking about this question more carefully I think my earlier post was incorrect on this point. I was correct in stating that from the viewpoint of capitalists as a whole there cannot be “too much” gold as far as the realization of value of (non-gold) commodities is concerned. The more gold there is relative to the quantity of other commodities, everything else remaining equal, the easier it will be for industrial and commercial capitalists to sell their commodities at their prices of production and thus realize the surplus value contained in them in the form of profit.

But what is true for the non-gold producing capitalists is not true for the gold producing capitalists. Indeed, from the viewpoint of an individual industrial capitalist there can never be too much of the commodities produced by their suppliers. As a productive consumer, industrial capitalist A can hope for nothing better than that supplier industrial capitalist B overproduces as much as possible. When B overproduces, all other things remaining equal, A gets to pocket some of the surplus value contained in B’s commodities. But from B’s point of view, the overproduction of B’s commodity is an absolute disaster.

True, the (non)gold producing capitalists do not consume gold, insomuch as gold serves as money material as opposed to raw material. But it is absolutely essential for them that gold is produced in adequate quantities if the value, including the surplus value, contained in their commodities is to be realized.

Even if gold bullion played no role whatsoever as raw material, a certain level of gold production would still be necessary for capitalist expanded reproduction to proceed. And capitalism can only exist as expanded reproduction.

How much gold capitalism needs—with the development of the credit system, banking, clearing houses, and so on being given—depends on the level and vigor of expanded reproduction at a particular time. The greater the possibilities of exploiting wage labor and the higher the rate of surplus value and the potential rate of profit in value terms, the higher the level of gold production must be if the process of expanded capitalist production is to proceed unchecked.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 3)

July 19, 2015

Secular stagnation and the Greek crisis

Many on the left have expressed acute disappointment that the Syriza government has agreed to accept more “austerity” in the wake of the No! vote of the Greek people. We must remember that the Syriza government is not a revolutionary socialist government—a dictatorship of the proletariat—and a socialist revolution is not, or rather is not yet, unfolding in Greece or anywhere else in Europe at the moment. The logic of the class struggle does point in the direction of a European socialist revolution, but we are not yet there. This blog will not attempt to lay out strategy and tactics for Greek revolutionaries during the present acute crisis.

Instead, I am interested in another question: Why is the “troika” so unreasonable in its dealings with the Syriza government? The government leaders have made it clear that they are determined to remain within the European Union and the Eurozone. Their program has always been quite modest—an end to the relentless austerity that has led to a depression worse in terms of both the unemployment rate and duration than the early 1930s super-crisis was in the United States or in Germany.

The super-crisis proper of the early 1930s lasted “only” three and a half years in the U.S. and Germany. The Greek crisis has lasted six years. A brief rise in the Greek GDP late last year had already given way to renewed recession before the crisis that shut down the Greek banking system for two weeks. The agreement between Syriza and the troika for still more austerity in exchange for loans that will enable the gradual reopening of the Greek banks threatens to further prolong the Greek slump.

It has been almost 50 years since the May-June 1968 General Strike in France. The French government of the day, headed by General Charles de Gaulle, largely conceded the economic demands of the strikers in order for the ruling class to hold on to power. The French government was prepared to do this through civil war if necessary. De Gaulle’s willingness to wage civil war to uphold capitalist rule combined with a willingness to make concessions in the economic sphere prevented a prolonged social and political crisis in France in 1968 of the type that is now unfolding in Greece. Why isn’t the troika, the de Gaulle of today, following the same policy for Greece that worked so well for de Gaulle and the French capitalists in 1968?

Last week, in a special post on Greece, I explained that behind the hard-line policies pursued by the troika lies the current “tightening” phase of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board monetary policy. This tightening phase is, in turn, rooted in the extraordinary policy of “quantitative easing” that the Fed followed in response to the near collapse of the U.S. banking system in the fall of 2008. But they could not continue this policy indefinitely without incurring a fatal crisis of the dollar system sooner or later.

As the quantity of U.S, dollars has begun to grow relatively more scarce than in the years of quantitative easing, there have been a few shocks—for example, the recent Chinese stock market panic. But for now, the crisis in Greece is the most dramatic. So in order to understand the deep roots of the Greek crisis and the troika response to it, we have to understand the causes of the crisis of 2008 and the quantitative easing it led to. The “Great Recession” itself was embedded in a more chronic problem of prolonged slowing economic growth that economist Larry Summers calls “secular stagnation.”

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Crisis in Greece Only the Tip of the Iceberg

July 7, 2015

The following is a special post on the current crisis in Greece. I hope now to return to the regular monthly schedule of the blog, subject of course to further developments in Greece or elsewhere. —Sam Williams

On Sunday, July 5, the Greek people gave their answer to the blackmail of the “troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. It was the answer workers and oppressed throughout the world wanted to hear. Oxi! In Greek, no!

The financial markets, so convinced they would have their way, were shocked by the no vote and fell sharply in pre-opening trading. Later, markets were calmed somewhat when Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who had become a symbol of resistance to the troika demands, announced he was resigning in order to smooth the way for renewed negotiations with the troika.

However, the price of oil, which had gradually recovered from its crash late last year, reaching over $60 a barrel, fell sharply on news of the Greek vote, closing at $52.53 on July 6. This indicates fears of a near-term recession and consequent drop in demand for oil. If the price of oil were to remain down, it would increase pressure on the oil-producing countries, especially Russia and Venezuela. The recession in the U.S. oil industry would also deepen.

As is usually the case in a crisis, the interest rate on U.S. government bonds fell as money took refugee in the relative safety of U.S. Treasuries. We can be sure the central banks, led by the U.S. Federal Reserve, have plans to step in if panicky reactions develop in the markets and things seem to be getting out of hand.

The capitalists had figured that with Greek banks closed for a week the threat of starvation—not through lack of food but of money—would teach the Greek people a lesson once and for all. Wall Street and the other big capitalists had been having things go their way at least since the 1980s. But they were not to have their way on July 5.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 2)

June 21, 2015

Recently, I have been looking at Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Piketty, a French bourgeois economist, created a sensation by pointing out that over the last 45 years a growing proportion of national income—wages plus surplus value in Marxist terms—has been going to profit at the expense of wages. Piketty is alarmed that if this trend isn’t reversed capitalism will be seriously destabilized.

The title of his book is, of course, inspired by Marx’s great work “Capital,” though it predictably rejects Marx’s anti-capitalist revolutionary conclusions. Naturally, I was interested in what Piketty had to say about Marx.

What I found striking was that Piketty did not understand Marx at all. The reason is that he views Marx through marginalist lenses. Essentially, Piketty treats Marx as a fellow marginalist. Marx’s theory of value and surplus value, so completely at odds with the marginalist theory of value and surplus value, is literally beyond Piketty’s comprehension.

In examining the current debate about “secular stagnation” among economists like Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, we must never forget how deep the gulf between their economic theories and Marxism really is. This is true even when their terminology is similar. This month, I will contrast the theories of two economists of the 20th century, Joseph Schumpeter and John Maynard Keynes, regarding capitalist growth and stagnation. Both men were marginalists, even if not the most “orthodox” ones, and therefore had much more in common with each other than with Marx.

Next month, I will begin to contrast their views with Marx and the views I have been developing in this blog. (1) But before we reach the “Marxist mountains” we will have to slog through the plains of modern bourgeois economics. Only when we begin to ascend into the Marxist mountains will we be able to explore whether any of the ideas of Schumpeter can be integrated into Marxism. I have already dealt with Keynes quite extensively in this blog. (See, for example, six-part series beginning here.)

Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) was the most famous marginalist economist to deal with the question of technological changes, or “innovation,” under capitalism. Schumpeter was an Austrian economist in the sense he came from Austria, though he spent his last years in the United States as a professor at Harvard University. He was certainly influenced by the “Austrian economists” as well as other schools of post-classical bourgeois economics current in his day. Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter preferred to communicate his ideas in natural language as opposed to mathematics.

Also like the Austrians, he was a hardcore supporter of capitalism, disliked “socialism”—proposals to reform capitalism in the interest of the workers—and was an opponent of the “Keynesian revolution” in bourgeois economic theory of the 1930s. He was what would be called today a “neo-liberal.” Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter took a dim view of democracy, which he was convinced would inevitably lead to socialism. Yet he was a friend of Paul Sweezy and therefore had a certain influence on the Monthly Review school.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’

May 24, 2015

A debate has broken out between economist Larry Summers (1954- ), who fears that the U.S. and world capitalist economies are stuck in an era of “secular stagnation” with no end in sight, and blogger Ben Bernanke (1953- ). Blogger Bernanke is, no less, the Ben Bernanke who headed the U.S. Federal Reserve Board between 2006 and 2014. Bernanke claims that the U.S. and world economies are simply dealing with lingering aftereffects of the 2007-2009 “Great Recession,” which broke out while he was head of the Federal Reserve System.

In effect, Bernanke is saying that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with capitalism and that healthy growth and “low unemployment and inflation” will return once the lingering aftereffects of the crisis are fully shaken off. Bernanke is, however, alarmed by the rapid growth of German exports and the growing share of the world market going to German industry.

Last year, we “celebrated” the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Bernanke’s concerns show that the economic fault lines that led to both World War I and II have not disappeared. Instead, they have been joined by new ones as more countries have become industrialized. And the prolonged period of slow growth—and in some countries virtually no growth—that has followed the Great Recession is once again sharpening them. Competition both among individual capitalists and between capitalist countries is much sharper when world markets are growing slowly. World War I itself broke out when the early 20th-century “boom” was running out of steam, while World War II broke out after a decade of the Depression.

The debate between Summers and Bernanke on secular stagnation has been joined by other eminent U.S. economists such as Joseph Stiglitz (1943- ) and Brad DeLong (1960- ). Summers, Stiglitz and DeLong are Keynesian-leaning economists, while Bernanke, a Republican, leans more in the direction of “neoliberalism,” though like most U.S. policymakers, he is thoroughly pragmatic.

The debate began with Summers’ speech to the IMF’s Fourteenth Annual Research Conference in Honor of Stanley Fisher. Summers noted that the panic of 2008 was “an event that in the fall of 2008 and winter of 2009 … appeared, by most of the statistics—GDP, industrial production, employment, world trade, the stock market—worse than the fall of 1929 and the winter of 1930. …”

At the very least, this was a major defeat for “stabilization policies” that were supposed to iron out the capitalist industrial cycle and abolish panics. But the problem extends far beyond the 2008 panic itself.

“… in the four years since financial normalization,” Summers observed, “the share of adults who are working has not increased at all and GDP has fallen further and further behind potential, as we would have defined it in the fall of 2009.”

The highly misleading unemployment rate calculated by the U.S. Department of Labor notwithstanding, there has been a massive growth in long-term unemployment in the U.S. in the wake of the crisis, as shown by the declining percentage of the U.S. population actually working.

In the days before the “Keynesian revolution” in the 1930s, the “classical” neoclassical marginalist economists, whose theories still form the bedrock of the economics taught in U.S. universities, were willing to concede that some “outside shock” to the economic system (for example, a major policy blunder by the central bank or a major harvest failure) might occasionally create a severe recession and considerable amount of “involuntary unemployment.” But these learned economists insisted that since a “free market economy” naturally tends toward an equilibrium with full employment of both workers and machines, the capitalist system should quickly return to “full employment” if a severe recession occurs.

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value (Pt 3)

April 26, 2015

The Cuban Revolution

As the Cuban presidential and congressional elections of 1952 approached, it appeared that the democratic-nationalist Party of the Cuban People, more commonly known as the Orthodox Party, was about to capture the Cuban presidency. This set off alarm bells in Washington. The U.S. government feared the election of a democratic-nationalist government in Cuba would encourage democratic anti-imperialist forces throughout Latin America. In response, Washington supported a coup d’etat by another presidential candidate, one who had no chance of winning a democratic presidential election.

That was Colonial Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973). Batista had headed the Cuban military during the 1930s and 1940s, dominating the Cuban government from behind the scenes. Between 1940 and 1944, Batista served one term as elected legal president of Cuba. After completing his term, Batista left Cuba and moved to the United States. He later returned to Cuba to run what appeared to be a doomed presidential bid. In reality, Batista was preparing with Washington’s support to seize power illegally to block a victory by the Orthodox Party. Batista’s coup cut off any hope for democratic change in Cuba through electoral methods.

The young Fidel Castro (1926-), a former radical student leader, had run for Congress on the Orthodox ticket during the aborted 1952 election campaign. Castro, a lawyer by profession, then sued Batista for overthrowing the legal government of Cuba, but that failed to dislodge the dictator. Fidel then organized, along with other young Cubans, an uprising on July 26, 1953, at the Moncada Barracks, hoping it would develop into an island-wide insurrection that would bring down the Batista dictatorship. Many of Castro’s associates were killed in the abortive uprising, but Fidel survived.

The Batista government then tried Castro on the charge of attempting to overthrow the Cuban government by force and violence. Castro’s defense was brilliant. At the trial, he pointed out that the Batista government itself was guilty of precisely the charge that it made against him. Fidel’s defense was published under the title “History Will Absolve Me” and circulated within Cuba.

While Batista’s judges found Castro guilty and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, Batista effectively lost the case before the Cuban people. As a result, in 1955 the Batista government was forced to release Castro. Unable to do much within the legality of the Batista dictatorship, Castro went into exile, where he was to meet a young left-wing Argentinian medical doctor named Ernesto Guevara (1928-1967). Guevara went by his Argentinian nickname “Che”.

The young Guevara had been in Guatemala when the democratically elected government of Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (1913-1971) was overthrown in a Washington-organized coup in 1954. President Arbenz, who had won the 1951 Guatemalan elections, had attempted to carry out a land-reform program that was bitterly opposed by the infamous U.S.-based United Fruit Company. United Fruit had long dominated the Guatemalan economy and was bitterly opposed to President Árbenz’s reforms.

In response, Washington falsely claimed that the democratically elected Arbenz government was “communist.” The CIA-organized coup that overthrew him resembled the Cuban coup of 1952. The result was decades of brutal dictatorship that cost the lives of thousands of Guatemalans. The experience of witnessing a Washington-organized coup against a democratically elected government further radicalized the young Che Guevara.

In 1955, in Mexico, Guevara met Fidel Castro, who had just been released from prison in Cuba. In 1956, the two men and a few supporters including Fidel’s younger brother Raul rented a yacht called the Granma. They set sail to Cuba with the intention of launching a guerrilla war aimed at overthrowing the Batista dictatorship. To accomplish this, Fidel had organized a multi-class organization, the July 26 movement, that combined militant young workers and bourgeois democrats who were prepared to struggle arms in hand against the dictatorship.

At first, the landing proved to be a disaster, but Fidel, Raul, Che and few other survivors managed to escape into the Sierra Maestra mountain range and began to organize the peasants who lived there into a rebel army.

Though in terms of numbers and arms the guerrilla forces were no match for the far more numerous professionally trained forces of Batista’s army, the latter had one disadvantage that was to prove fatal to them. Most of the rank and file had no desire to die for the cause of the Cuban “pseudo-republic,” which had lost all pretext of legitimacy as a result of Batista’s 1952 coup. As a result, toward the end of 1958 Batista’s army began to disintegrate. As New Year’s Eve approached, the dictator prepared to flee the island with as much loot as he could take with him.

There were last-minute attempts to save the Cuban military and police apparatus by setting up a junta that would negotiate with the rebel army. However, Fidel insisted on the dismantling of the so-called Cuban army that failed to defend Cuba from its only real enemy—the United States—but instead served as a police force—and a very brutal and corrupt one at that—for U.S. imperialism. Therefore, when Batista fled on New Year’s Eve, not only did Batista’s personal dictatorship collapse but the entire, thoroughly rotten, military-police apparatus of the Cuban bourgeois state as well.

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value (Pt 2)

March 29, 2015

Bourgeois value theory after Ricardo

As I explained last month, the rising tide of struggle of the British working class obliged Ricardo’s bourgeois successors to abandon the concept of value based on the quantity of labor necessary on average to produce a commodity of a given use value and quality. They were forced to do this because any concept of labor value implies that profits and rents—surplus value—are produced by the unpaid labor performed by the working class. The challenge confronting Ricardo’s bourgeois successors was to come up with a coherent economic theory that was not based on labor value. Let’s look at some of the options open to them.

Malthus, borrowing from certain passages in Adam Smith, held that the capitalists simply added profit onto their wage costs. Like Smith and Ricardo, Malthus assumed that what Marx was to call constant capital could be reduced to wages if you went back far enough. Therefore, constant capital really consisted of wages with a prolonged turnover period—what the 20th-century “neo-Ricardian” Pierro Sraffa (1898-1983) was to call in his “Commodities Produced by Means of Commodities” “dated labor.”

Malthus held that since capitalists are in business to make a profit, they simply added the profit onto their costs—ultimately reducible to the price of “dated labor,” to use Sraffa’s terminology.

The idea that profits are simply added onto the cost price of a commodity is known as “profit upon alienation.” This notion was first put forward by the mercantilists in the earliest days of political economy. In this period, preceding the industrial revolution, merchant capital still dominated industrial capital. After all, don’t merchants make their profits by buying cheap and selling dear?

But what determined the magnitude of the charge above and beyond the cost of the commodity to the capitalist? And even more devastating for Malthus, since every capitalist was overcharging every other capitalist—as well as working-class consumers who bought the means of subsistence from the capitalists—how could the capitalists as a class make a profit? If Malthus was right, the average rate of profit would be zero!

But perhaps we don’t need the concept of “value” at all? Why not simply say that the natural prices of commodities are determined by the cost of production that includes a profit? But then what determines the prices of the commodities that entered into the production costs of a given commodity? Following this logic to its end, the natural prices of commodities are determined by the natural prices of commodities. This is called circular reasoning.

We haven’t moved an inch forward from our starting point. To avoid a circle, we have to determine the prices of commodities by something other than price. There is no escaping some concept of value after all.

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