A Keynesian Takes on Karl Marx

In this reply, unless otherwise noted, text in italics and in brackets in Marx quotes is carried over from the version taken from the Marxist Internet Archive.

A friend N has asked if there is any difference between “the over-accumulation of capital” and “the overproduction of commodities.” Another friend M sent me a critical article by leading American Keynesian economist Brad DeLong on Chapter 17 of Marx’s “Theories of Surplus Value.” DeLong’s article is titled “Marx’s Half Baked Crisis Theory and His Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 17.”

It so happens that in Chapter 17 Marx deals with the relationship between the “overproduction of capital”—also called the “over-accumulation of capital”—and “the overproduction of commodities.” The economists of Marx’s time—the middle years of the 19th century—admitted the “overproduction of capital”—equivalent to the over-accumulation of capital—while denying the “overproduction of commodities.”

Therefore, DeLong’s critique of Marx and N’s question about the relationship between the overproduction of commodities and the over-accumulation of capital are connected by Chapter 17 of “Theories of Surplus Value,” the target of Brad DeLong. It is therefore possible to deal with DeLong’s critique and N’s question in a single reply.

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Is the Economic Crisis Over?

According to the media, the world capitalist economy has been in a recovery for almost two years. Yet there remains a widespread impression that the economic crisis that began in 2007 is far from over. True, the rate of profit has risen sharply since 2009, and the mass of profits is at record levels. Yet the crisis of mass unemployment persists.

At the current rates of job creation in the U.S. and other imperialist countries, it will be years before the number of jobs returns to the levels that prevailed in 2007 on the eve of the crisis. And even the pre-crisis 2007 levels were far from full employment. Therefore, is the economic crisis that began in 2007 really over?

The passage of a cyclical crisis described

Rosa Luxemburg in “What Is Economics?”—which was written shortly after the economic crisis of 1907-08—gave this vivid description of how a cyclical crisis of overproduction is reflected in the capitalist media:

“…once the crisis is in full swing, then the argument starts about who is to blame for it. The businessmen blame the abrupt credit refusals by the banks, the speculative mania of the stockbrokers; the stockbrokers blame the industrialists; the industrialists blame the shortage of money, etc.”

Though these words were written a century ago shortly after the 1907-08 crisis, they could just as well have been written to describe the crisis that began exactly a century later in 2007.

The recovery

“And when business finally picks up again,” Luxemburg continued, “then the stock exchange and the newspapers note the first signs of improvement with relief, until, at last, hope, peace, and security stop over for a short stay once more.”

“Modern society,” Luxemburg further explained, “notes its [the cyclical crisis—SW] approach with horror; it bows its head trembling under the blows coming down as thick as hail; it waits for the end of the ordeal, then lifts its head once more—at first timidly and skeptically; only much later is society almost reassured again.”

Crisis of 1907-08 in historical perspective

As it turned out, after the crisis of 1907-08 capitalist society had little time to get “reassured again.” If the industrial cycle that began with the crisis of 1907 had followed the typical 10-year course, the next crisis of overproduction would have been due around 1917.

Instead, a new worldwide recession began in 1913, about four years early. In Europe, this new recession did not end with a new upswing that left society “almost reassured again.” Instead, it ended with the “Guns of August”—the outbreak of World War I.

Capitalism ‘celebrates’ the anniversary of 1907 crisis

The capitalist economy “celebrated” the 100-year anniversary of the crisis of 1907 in the most “appropriate” way possible—with yet another crisis. And like its predecessor a century earlier, the crisis that began in 2007 proved to be unusually severe. There is a feeling now that the crisis of 2007-09 is perhaps, like the crisis of 1907-08, no ordinary crisis. Could this crisis, too, be the herald of a far more fundamental crisis of capitalist society?

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