Are Marx and Keynes Compatible? Pt 5

Keynesian economists blame their failure on the trade unions

Keynesian economists in general—and some Marxists influenced by them—blame the failure of the Keynesian policies of the 1970s on the trade unions. Basing themselves on Keynes, they falsely blame the inflation of the 1970s not on the inflationary monetary policies of the central banks that were so strongly supported by Keynesian economists at the time but on the trade unions.

These economists claim that by achieving raises in money wages during the inflation, “over-strong” unions were responsible for the inflation of the 1970s. Supposedly, a “wage-price spiral” pushed money wages relentlessly higher forcing the central banks to periodically raise interest rates to prevent even worse inflation, which in turn led to the recessions and unemployment of the 1970s and early 1980s.

However, in reality it was the trade unions that found themselves increasingly on the defensive as both inflation and unemployment rose during the 1970s and into the early 1980s. What the Keynesian economists call the “wage-price spiral” of the 1970s was really a “price-wage spiral.” The unions were only reacting to the ongoing inflation in their attempts to maintain—not entirely successfully—the living standards of their members.

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Are Marx and Keynes Compatible? Pt 4

The Keynesian revolution in economic policy

Before Keynes, neo-classical marginalist economists believed that capitalism was stable if left to its own devices. These economists held that a capitalist economy tended strongly toward an equilibrium at full employment of both workers and machines. Therefore, if a recession were to occur the response of the authorities should be pretty much confined to having the central bank lower the discount rate. Otherwise, the government should stay out of the way. As long as it did, the marginalists claimed, the capitalist economy would quickly move back to its only possible equilibrium position, “full employment.”

The events that followed World War I, especially the U.S.-centered Great Depression of 1929-1941, discredited this view. Under the influence of Keynes—and more importantly the Depression itself—most of the new generation of (bourgeois) economists believed that it was now the duty of the capitalist government to actively intervene whenever recession threatened.

Bourgeois economics split in two. One branch, purely theoretical, is called “microeconomics.” Microeconomics is simply the old marginalism. The branch that emerged from the Keynesian revolution is called “macroeconomics.”

Macroeconomics tries to explain the movements of the industrial cycle. More importantly, it seeks to arm the capitalist governments and “monetary authorities” with “tools” that will keep the capitalist economy from sinking again into deep depression with the resulting mass unemployment. The new stance of the bourgeois economists was that if the capitalist governments and their monetary authorities use the “tool chest” provided them by macroeconomics correctly, they should be able to maintain “near to full employment with low inflation.”

Full employment was defined by this new generation of (bourgeois) economists not the way workers would define it—everybody who desires a job can quickly find one—but rather as a level of unemployment sufficiently high to keep the wage demands of the workers and their unions in check but low enough to prevent wide-scale unrest that could lead to working-class radicalization and eventually socialist revolution.

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