Andrew Kliman and the ‘Neo-Ricardian’ Attack on Marxism, Pt 2

Marx, Okishio and Kliman and the rate of profit

The more interesting part of Kliman’s book “Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital’” is actually not his non-treatment of the transformation problem but rather his treatment of the laws that govern the rate of profit. Of special concern for Kliman is the so-called Okishio theorem, which supposedly refutes Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

The Okishio theorem, which was clearly inspired by the “neo-Ricardians,” is named after the Japanese economist Nobuo Okishio, who developed it. Okishio began as a bourgeois marginalist mathematical economist but evolved toward Marx. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he seems to have fallen into the “neo-Ricardian” swamp, which the Japanese economist perhaps confused with Marxism—apologies to Ricardo, who developed the law of labor value as far as he could rather than scrap it like the misnamed “neo-Ricardians” have done.

According to the Okishio theorem, as long as the real wage remains unchanged it will never be in the interest of an individual capitalist to adopt a method of production that will cause the rate of profit to fall. Marx showed that the real wage—the use values of the commodities the workers buy with the money they receive in exchange for their labor power—is determined by what is necessary to reproduce their labor power.

Marx explained that the real wage consists of two fractions. One is an absolute minimum that is required to biologically reproduce the workers’ labor power. The real wage can never fall below this level for any prolonged period of time. If it did, the working class would die out and surplus value production would cease. The second fraction is the historical-moral component, which depends on the history of a given country and the course of the class struggle. The latter fraction of the real wage enables the workers to a certain extent to participate in the fruits of the development of civilization.

By contrast, Okishio assumed that the real wage of the workers would never change. Okishio then went on to prove mathematically that assuming this unchanged real wage it would never be in the interest of an individual capitalist to adopt a method of production that would actually lower the rate of profit. Assuming this unchanged real wage, the only innovations that would be adopted by the capitalists would be those that would raise the rate of profit.

Making these assumptions and using a “neo-Ricardian” model, Okishio drew the conclusion that Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall was internally inconsistent and therefore invalid. Okishio’s conclusion is very disturbing to Andrew Kliman, because Kliman’s theory of crises depends entirely on a falling rate of profit and not on the problem of realizing surplus value. Therefore, from Kliman’s point of view, if the Okishio theorem cannot be disproved, capitalism should be able, at least in theory, to develop without crises.

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Andrew Kliman and the ‘Neo-Ricardian’ Attack on Marxism, Pt 1

[The following is the first of a two-part reply to a reader’s question. Since the reply had to be broken into two parts due to its length, part 2 will be posted two weeks after this part appears. My plan is to return to a monthly schedule after that.]

A while back a reader asked what I thought about the work of Andrew Kliman. Kliman is the author of a book entitled “Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital,’” published in 2007. In this book, Kliman, a professor of economics at Pace University, attempts to answer the claims by the so-called “neo-Ricardian” economists that Marx’s “Capital” is internally inconsistent. According to the “neo-Ricardians,” Marx was not successful in his attempts to solve the internal contradictions of Ricardo’s law of labor value.

The modern “neo-Ricardian” school is largely inspired by the work of the Italian-British economist and Ricardo scholar Piero Saffra (1898-1983). But elements of the “neo-Ricardian” critique can be traced back to early 20th-century Russian economist V. K. Dmitriev. Other prominent economists and writers often associated with this school include the German Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz (1868-1931) and the British Ian Steedman.

The Japanese economist Nobuo Okishio (1927-2003), best known for the “Okishio theorem”—much more on this in the second part of this reply—evolved from marginalism to a form of “critical Marxism” that was strongly influenced by the “neo-Ricardian” school.

In the late 20th century, the most prominent “neo-Ricardian” was perhaps Britain’s Ian Steedman. While Sraffa centered his fire on neoclassical marginalism, Steedman has aimed his at Marx. His best-known work is “Marx after Sraffa.” The “neo-Ricardian” attack on Marx centers on the so-called transformation problem and the Okishio theorem.

The Okishio theorem allegedly disproves mathematically Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The transformation problem is more fundamental than the Okishio theorem, since it involves the truth or fallacy of the law of labor value itself. I will therefore deal with the transformation problem in the first part of this reply and the Okishio theorem in the second part. However, Andrew Kliman seems to be more interested in the Okishio theorem for reasons that will soon become clear.

I have already dealt with the transformation problem in an earlier reply. But here I will take another look at it in the light of Kliman’s work.

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