The evolution of the rate of surplus value
Kliman’s discussion of the evolution of the rate of surplus value over the last 40 years is, in my opinion, the weakest part of his book. Most Marxists—and non-Marxists, including the great bulk of U.S. workers—would agree that the portion of income going to the rich—the capitalist class—has risen considerably in the U.S. since the early 1970s. This widespread popular belief is clearly reflected in the rise of the Occupy movement.
Kliman strongly disagrees with this. Using U.S. government statistics, he attempts to demonstrate that the share of the U.S. national income going to the workers has risen at the expense of the share going to the capitalists. Or in Marxist terms, the rate of surplus value has actually fallen. A falling rate of surplus value, even if the organic composition of capital remains unchanged, implies a fall in the rate of profit. If a fall in the rate of surplus value is accompanied by a rise in the organic composition of capital, the result will be a marked fall in the general rate of profit.
Which is right: the general popular perception and the view of the Occupy movement that American capitalism and world capitalism is growing more exploitative, or Kliman’s contrary view?
Kliman quotes John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff—leaders of the Monthly Review school: “…wages of private non-agricultural workers in the United States (in 1982 dollars) peaked in 1972 at $8.99 per hour, and by 2006 had fallen to $8.24 (equivalent to the real hourly wage rate in 1967), despite the enormous growth in productivity and profits over the past few decades.” (p. 155)
These figures would seem to clinch the case for a considerable rise in the rate of surplus value in the decades preceding the “Great Recession.” It would seem that on the eve of the Great Recession in 2006, a typical U.S. worker got less in use value terms for each hour of labor power she sold to the capitalists than her mother earned for similar work 34 years earlier. Furthermore, the productivity of human labor has hardly stood still over the last 34 years. This means that the commodities that a worker consumed in 2006 embodied a considerably smaller amount of human labor value than was the case in 1972.
This is true for two reasons. First, the worker in 2006 received less use value for every hour of labor power she sold to the capitalists. Second, each unit of use value she did receive in exchange for her sold labor power represented less embodied abstract human labor—value—than it did in 1972.
This would mean that there has been a marked growth in what Marx called relative surplus value when if the total work day remains unchanged workers will be working a smaller amount of time for themselves and a greater amount of time for the capitalists. This can be the case even if the standard of living of the workers actually increases, if the increased number or quantity of commodities the workers get to consume in exchange for their sold labor power represents a smaller quantity of value.
Kliman disagrees. He thinks that if anything the rate of surplus value, at least in the U.S., has fallen over the last 40 years. In attempting to prove this, he quotes economist Martin Feldstein as an authority. Feldstein wrote that it is a “measurement mistake” to “focus on wages rather than total compensation.” Feldstein complains that this has “led some analysts to conclude that the rise in labor income has not kept up with the growth in productivity.” (p. 153)
Kliman doesn’t inform his readers that Martin Feldstein is an extremely reactionary economist who has dedicated his life to defending and prettifying U.S. capitalism, though he does mention that he was the head of the National Bureau for Economic Research.
Marxists, beginning with Marx, have often quoted bourgeois economists when these economists’ research exposes some of the truths about capitalism and its exploitation of the workers. When the hired apologists for capitalism are obliged to admit a portion of the truth about the exploitative nature of capitalism, it is especially telling. The more reactionary the particular apologetic economist is the better.
But for a Marxist to quote reactionary economists when they use statistical data in a way that actually strengthens their apologetic views of capitalism is rather unusual, to say the least. While we can’t prove that American capitalism has grown more exploitative simply because Feldstein claims it hasn’t, Kliman’s conclusion is strongly in line with Feldstein’s natural ideological bias.