Keynes on the ‘classical’ marginalist economists
In Chapter 2 of his “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” Keynes provides a summary of the theories of those he called the “classical economists.” Though Keynes uses the same terminology that Marx uses, Keynes is referring to the “classics” of marginalism, not the classical economists in Marx’s sense of the term.
To Marx, the classical economists were those pre-1830 bourgeois economists who lived in a time when the contradiction between the capitalist and working classes was still underdeveloped. Therefore, the bourgeois economists were still able to analyze the laws of capitalist production scientifically, rather than merely apologetically.
Keynes’s “classical economists” were the “classics” of marginalism, especially Keynes’s own teacher Alfred Marshall (1842-1924). In his critique of the “classical” marginalist doctrine, Keynes did not dump marginalism and return to anything like classical economics in the Marxist sense. Instead, he gave marginalism a facelift so it would no longer be in such obvious contradiction with capitalist reality, especially the reality of the Depression years. Keynes’s main aim was to develop a form of marginalism that could explain the existence of persistent mass unemployment under capitalism.
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The ideas of the English economist John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946, achieved their greatest influence during the 1960s and early 1970s. In those days, Keynes was widely credited by his followers among the economists for saving capitalism itself.
The story told by the Keynesian economists went something like this. In the dark days of the Depression of the 1930s, capitalism to all appearances was approaching the end of its road. When the Depression began, the traditional liberal economists, who had long dominated the economics profession, claimed that capitalism would quickly recover from depression without government intervention. Therefore, these economists urged the government to do virtually nothing to encourage economic recovery.
After all, the traditional economists argued, this had always worked in the past. Recovery had always followed recession. But the Depression of the 1930s, the story goes, was different. The economy was showing no signs of recovering on its own. As a result, many young people, including a certain number from the ruling capitalist class itself, were turning toward Marxist ideas. The replacement of capitalism by socialism seemed increasingly likely in the near future.
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Shortly after Ricardo’s death, the crisis of 1825, the first global crisis of overproduction, swept over Britain. In 1837, a second global crisis erupted with far more devastating results. It was followed by years of industrial depression and mass unemployment. Stormy class struggles broke out, and in Britain out of this came the Chartist Movement, the first mass working-class political party. It was during the depression that followed the crisis of 1837 that Marx and Engels were themselves radicalized.
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This is in response to a comment on my post entitled “From Money as Universal Equivalent to Money as Currency.” Scroll to the bottom of that post to read the comment.
I want to thank ‘A’ for taking my blog seriously enough to raise these interesting and important questions.
First, I should clear up some misunderstandings. It’s not correct to say that the amount of token money that can be issued “is limited (if it is to hold its value) by the amount of gold in circulation.” Token money replaces gold in circulation and implies that gold has fallen out of circulation and accumulated in hoards both official and private.
“It seems to me,” ‘A’ writes, that “if the assumption about gold underpinning token money was accurate in the past, I am unsure about its continued accuracy.”
This gets to the heart of the matter. Marx demonstrated that when social labor is broken up into independent private labors, labor embodied in the products must take the form of value. He also showed that value must, in turn, take the form of exchange value. The exchange value of one commodity must always be measured in terms of the use value of another.
With the development of commodity production, one or a few commodities emerge as the universal equivalent that measures the exchange values of other commodities in terms of its own use value. This is the essence of Marx’s theory of value and price.
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Over the last few weeks, I have been examining a “typical” industrial cycle. For sake of simplification, I have assumed the world was a single capitalist nation. In order to do this, I have abstracted the effects on the industrial cycle of the division of the capitalist world into different countries and currencies. But in reality, the capitalist world has always been divided into many nations and currencies. Therefore, no theory of real industrial cycles and crises can be complete without a theory of international trade and exchange rates.
Our starting point will be the theory of international trade put forward by the great English classical economist David Ricardo (1772-1823). The Ricardian theory of international trade is called by the modern bourgeois economists the theory of comparative advantage.
The theory of comparative advantage dominates the theory of international trade taught in the universities to this day. It forms the basis of the claim of neoliberal economists that free trade operates to the advantage of every nation, the capitalistically advanced nations as well as the capitalistically underdeveloped or oppressed nations. It is, therefore, particularly popular among neoliberal economists such as the followers of Milton Friedman. For reasons that will become apparent in the coming weeks, bourgeois economists inspired by the theories of John Maynard Keynes tend to be more critical of “comparative advantage” and “free trade” in general.
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From boom to crisis
Marx sometimes called the stage of the industrial cycle just before the outbreak of the crisis the phase of fictitious prosperity. The economy is going gang-busters, the rate of profit appears to be high, and the mass of profit keeps growing. Unemployment compared to all other phases of the industrial cycle is very low and still falling. At long last, the balance of forces on the labor market are beginning to tilt in favor the working class.
But the continuation of the boom now depends on the increasingly unsustainable inflation of credit. As long as debts can be “rolled over” rather than paid, and terms of payment can be further extended, the boom can go on.
Later, after the boom’s inevitable collapse, the recriminations fly. Why was “regulation” so lax? Why were so many derivatives and exotic credit instruments created? How could so many loans have been extended to people who couldn’t possibly repay them?
But those questions will be asked later. While the phase of fictitious prosperity lasts, it can only be maintained by progressively eliminating regulations designed to prevent the reckless extension of credit and instead encouraging “financial innovation” to unfold without hindrance.
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