Are Marx and Keynes Compatible Pt 8

Sweezy attempts to develop a theory of crises in ‘Theory of Capitalist Development’

In “Monopoly Capital,” Sweezy (and Baran) treated crises and the industrial cycle only in passing. In contrast, in “The Theory of Capitalist Development” Sweezy examined Marxist crisis theory in considerable detail. Even today, “The Theory of Capitalist Development” can be recommended for anybody interested in the development of Marxist crisis theory in the first part of the 20th century.

In his survey, Sweezey examined the writings of such Marxists as Kautsky, Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg and Henryk Grossman. Sweezy found essentially three crisis theories among these early 20th-century Marxists.

One was put forward by Karl Kautksy around the turn of the 20th century. It involved the question of whether capitalism was evolving toward a state of chronic depression.

What is sometimes called the “Great Depression” of 1873-1896 had come to an end, and the world capitalist economy was entering a phase of rapid economic expansion. According to Kautsky, it was the existence of agrarian markets still dominated by pre-capitalist simple commodity production that explained capitalism’s continued ability to grow.

However, as capitalism continued to develop, these markets would be expected to decline in importance and the world capitalist economy would, if socialist revolution did not intervene, sink into a state of more or less permanent depression. This would mark the end of capitalism’s ability to develop the productive forces of humanity.

Therefore, according to Kautsky, the cyclical crises and their associated depressions were heralds of the approaching state of permanent depression. As such, they were reminders that capitalist production was historically limited and would inevitably give way to a higher mode of production.

Later, in 1912, Rosa Luxemburg attempted to prove Kautsky’s turn-of-the-century views in a rigorous way in her “Accumulation of Capital.” Luxemburg believed that she had indeed proven that assuming that all production is capitalist—that is, there are no more simple commodity producers—expanded capitalist reproduction would be a mathematical impossibility. And remember that according to Marx capitalism can only exist as expanded reproduction.

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Are Marx and Keynes Compatible? Pt 7

Last week, I examined the letter Baran sent to Sweezy in 1960 that dealt with the concept of the “economic surplus.” Over the next two weeks, I will examine the letter Sweezy sent to Baran dated September 25, 1962, which deals with monopoly, capitalist stagnation and Keynes.

Sweezy and stagnation

Sweezy described himself as a “stagnationist.” In his mature writings, he came to believe that the “default” condition of monopoly capitalism is a state of “stagnation.” But what exactly did Sweezy mean by “stagnation”? To understand what he meant, we have to understand the traditional marginalism that formed the starting point of Sweezy’s economic studies.

Marginalist, or “neoclassical,” economics claims that a capitalist economy has a strong tendency toward full employment of both the means of production and workers. Remember, the marginalists hold that, assuming there are no unions or social legislation, the capitalist economy will have as its normal condition a situation of full employment of both the means of production and workers.

When Sweezy began his economic studies at Harvard before both the New Deal and the rise of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), there was virtually no social legislation or social insurance of any kind in the United States. The union movement was very weak and, outside of mining, in basic large-scale industries was virtually nonexistent.

Therefore, according to marginalist theory the U.S. economy should have been very close to a situation of full employment of both the means of production and the workers. But in the early 1930s as Sweezy was studying economics at Harvard, the U.S. was facing an extreme crisis of mass unemployment. Clearly, there was something very wrong with the economics that Sweezy was learning.

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Are Marx and Keynes Compatible? Pt 6

In its December 2010 edition, Monthly Review published two letters by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy to one another. One, dated May 2, 1960, by Baran deals with “the economic surplus” and its relationship to Marx’s surplus value. The other letter is by Sweezy to Baran dated September 25, 1962. In his letter to Baran, Sweezy has some very interesting things to say about the work of John Maynard Keynes and about monopoly and economic stagnation. This week, I will examine Baran’s letter to Sweezy, and next week I will deal with Sweezy’s letter to Baran.

Baran’s surplus

In “Monopoly Capital,” Marx’s category of surplus value was replaced by what Baran and Sweezy called the “the economic surplus.” Ever since “Monopoly Capital” was first published in 1966, there has been much confusion over whether “the surplus” is simply another term for surplus value or something else. If “the surplus” is simply another term for surplus value, what is gained by renaming the most important economic category in all of economics? If “the surplus” is something other than surplus value, what exactly is its relationship to surplus value?

Baran’s 1960 letter to Sweezy sheds some light on the question of “the surplus” and how it relates to surplus value. In his letter to Sweezy, Baran writes that the “surplus” was indeed something more than simply another name for surplus value, though he admitted he was having difficulty defining exactly what “the surplus” actually is. “We want to show,” Baran wrote, “that the sum total of profits, interest, rents + (and this is crucial!) swollen costs of distribution + advertising expenses + PR + legal departments + fins and chrome + faux frais [incidental operating expenditures] of product variation and model changes = economic surplus, and that this economic surplus increases both in absolute and relative terms under monopoly capitalism.”

But Baran then admits that he was having trouble defining “the economic surplus” in a precise way. “What it does hinge on, however,” Baran wrote to Sweezy, “is what you have called ‘vision’ combined with conceptual clarity. I think we have the former but I am having a dog’s time now with the latter [emphasis added—SW].”

The problem is, in my view, that Baran was mixing up different ideas under the catch-all concept of the “the economic surplus.” The result was “vision” without “conceptual clarity.”

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