‘The Failure of Capitalist Production’ by Andrew Kliman — Part 1

First, I must say I liked this book. I think it is a major contribution to the debate about the nature not only of the latest crisis but of cyclical capitalist crises in general.

This book is a continuation of Kliman’s earlier book “Reclaiming Marx’s Capital” (Lexington Books, 2006), which deals with the so-called “neo-Ricardian” critique of Marx. But “The Failure of Capitalist Production” (Pluto Press, 2012) is more than that. In this book, Kliman deals with crisis theory, the main subject of this blog. He therefore casts a far wider net than he did in the earlier work.

Though Kliman builds on his earlier book, the main target of his critique shifts from “neo-Ricardians” to the “underconsumptionist” school of crisis theory and its main contemporary representative, the Monthly Review school.

Two main schools of crisis theory

I have explained that there are two main theories of the origins of capitalist crises vying with one another among present-day Marxists, both in print and online. One is the theory of underconsumption. The underconsumptionists see the cause of the periodic economic crises under capitalism as lying in the “excessive” exploitation of the workers. In Marxist terms, underconsumptionism attributes crises and capitalist stagnation to a rate of surplus value that is too high.

That is, too high not only from the viewpoint of the workers but even from the standpoint of the interests of the capitalists themselves. According to the underconsumptionists, the capitalists are appropriating plenty of surplus value, but they cannot find enough buyers for the vast quantity of commodities they are capable of producing with the workers they are “excessively” exploiting.

The result is either acute economic crises at periodic intervals or long-term economic stagnation with many workers and machines lying idle, or some combination of both. The giant of underconsumption theory in the last century was the celebrated American Marxist economist Paul Sweezy. Sweezy founded and edited the socialist magazine Monthly Review, from which the Monthly Review school takes its name.

The underconsumptionist school’s main rival attributes periodic crises to Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This school sees the cause of crises as being the exact opposite of what the Monthly Review school and other underconsumptionists claim it is. The falling rate of profit school holds that it is an insufficient rate of surplus value that leads to acute capitalist economic crises and longer-term stagnation. Too little surplus value is produced, not too little from the viewpoint of the workers, of course, but too little relative to the needs of the capitalist system.

The best-known inspirer of the present-day “too little surplus value” school is the Marxist economist Henryk Grossman (1881-1950), who can be seen as the “anti-Sweezy.” The two men were opponents during their lifetimes, and they remain so after their deaths. Kliman does not mention Grossman in this book. However Kliman definitely belongs to the not-enough-surplus-value school of crisis theory.

As I have explained, these two schools of crisis theory are completely opposed to one another. That is, as stated they both can’t be true. I believe that Kliman very much shares this assessment.

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