Archive for the ‘Falling Rate of Profit’ Category

The Crisis (Pt 11)

June 28, 2020

Is capitalism approaching its limits?

In the first years of the 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg expressed great alarm when she discovered that Marx’s formulas of expanded reproduction in Volume II of “Capital” suggested that capitalism can in principle go on forever. These formulas appeared to contradict Marx’s famous Preface in “A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy.” There Marx wrote: “No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed [my emphasis — SW] and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.”

If, however, capitalism can engage in expanded reproduction without limit, how can capitalism ever develop all the productive forces “for which it has room”? Didn’t Marx himself mathematically demonstrate that capitalism can develop the productive forces without limit? However, a closer look reveals this apparent contradiction to be an illusion.

In the Volume II formula, the productive forces expanded only quantitatively but not qualitatively. There is no growth in labor productivity or what Marx called the organic composition of capital — the ratio of constant capital, which does not produce surplus value but merely transfers its value to the commodities it helps produce, and variable capital, the sold labor power of the workers, which replaces its value and produces additional surplus value.

It is also assumed that the correct proportions of production, including the correct proportions between Department I, which produces the means of production, and Department II, which produces the means of consumption, are maintained without explaining how they are maintained. And — almost always overlooked — among the correct proportions between the various branches of production that must be maintained is that between the production of money material and all other branches of commodity production.

In reality, the concrete history of capitalism has been marked by growth in labor productivity. The rate at which productivity grows is largely regulated by the competition between the industrial capitalists and the workers. To maximize their profits, the industrial capitalists as the buyers of labor power try to pay the workers the lowest possible wage. The workers as the sellers of labor attempt to get the highest possible wage right up to the mathematical limit where surplus value — and therefore its monetary form, profit — disappears altogether.

If Marx’s formulas show expanded capitalist reproduction running forever, it must be assumed that the quantity of auxiliary materials and the ores out of which money material is produced, and the supply of labor power that produces the means of subsistence for the workers, must be available in infinite quantities. If this is true — which it obviously is not — then the population, including the fraction of the population that consists of workers, can grow to the mathematical limit of infinity and capitalism can indeed go on forever. Otherwise, it can’t.

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The Crisis (Pt 7)

June 3, 2020

An unprecedented crisis

The current economic crisis has many unprecedented features. Most importantly, it was triggered by a pandemic and the resulting business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. This led to a sharp decline in the sale of commodities. The result has been a collapse of industrial production, world trade, and employment over a period of a few weeks that is unparalleled in the history of capitalism. Because nothing like this had ever happened before, it is extremely difficult to predict what will happen next.

For example, we don’t know the future course of the pandemic as capitalist governments move, even as the pandemic continues, to lift the shutdowns of nonessential businesses and stay-at-home orders. Will these moves to “reopen the economy for business” cause the pandemic to accelerate? Or will the pandemic decline in the Northern Hemisphere, where the largest capitalist economies are located, as summer conditions set in? Many virus-caused diseases decline in the summer months and accelerate in the fall and winter. Will COVID-19 follow a similar pattern?

Even if we assume the pandemic peters out over the (Northern Hemisphere) summer and doesn’t come back this fall/winter, an extremely optimistic and experts say unwarranted assumption, will the U.S. and world economy revive rapidly in a so-called V-shaped recovery? Or will the recovery be slow and torturous, with Depression levels of unemployment lingering on for years? Or will it be something in between?

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 17)

June 3, 2018

Apartheid planet and the new racism

John Smith in his “Imperialism in the 21st Century” sees imperialism as evolving towards a form of global apartheid. Under the rule of the U.S. world empire, the freedom of capital to move across national boundaries in its endless search for the highest rate of profit has expanded. However, workers do not have freedom to cross national borders in search of the highest wage.

Since World War II, the nation-state, the cradle of the capitalist mode of production, has been in decline. One example of this decline is the limited sovereignty of Germany and especially Japan since World War II. Even the sovereignty of countries that were allies of the U.S. in World War II, Britain and France, has been severely restricted within the NATO “alliance,” and in the case of Britain within the “special relationship.”

The U.S. and its imperialist satellite states of Western Europe and Japan have opposed every attempt to establish new strong independent nation-states – though with mixed results – since World War II. In the pre-war era, the then-politically divided imperialist countries sometimes gave limited support to nationalist movements in their rivals’ colonies and semi-colonies. Since World War II, the entire imperialist world has been united against national liberation movements in the oppressed world.

Taking the world economy as a whole, the productive forces have long outgrown the nation-state. This was already shown by the outbreak of World War I more than a hundred years ago. In recent years, the revolution in communications represented by the rise of the Internet and the smartphone is increasingly breaking down global, linguistic, and cultural boundaries.

But the nation-state has refused to peacefully fade away into the sunset as the productive forces have outgrown it. In the period between the two world wars, there emerged within the imperialist world a counter-tendency of resurgent economic nationalism, which found expression in increased tariff and other trade barriers. Economic nationalism was accompanied by growing political nationalism, racist anti-immigrant movements, and racism within the imperialist countries. These trends found their most extreme manifestation in Nazi Germany.

Today in the imperialist countries, we once again see a rise of economic and political nationalism accompanied by anti-immigrant movements and growing racism. This extremely dangerous tendency is currently represented by President Donald Trump and his supporters in the U.S., where it is now in power; the current government of Austria; the National Front in France; the Alternative for Germany in Germany, where it is the official opposition party; and their counterparts in other imperialist countries. Though they are not imperialist countries, similar movements dominate governments of many of the ex-socialist countries of eastern Europe such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic

Trump’s recent decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal” capital was accompanied by Israeli massacres that have left more than a hundred Palestinians dead and thousands wounded in Gaza. Trump’s move cannot be separated from the broader racist trend that Trump personifies.

Israel itself is the product of an earlier wave of racism that accompanied the economic and political nationalism of the period between World War I and World II that ended with Nazi Germany’s attempt to physically exterminate the entire European Jewish population. Zionist Israel, therefore, links the “old racism” with the new.

Is a kind of global apartheid system emerging, as Smith suggests, that is replacing the increasingly outmoded bourgeois nation-state? Today’s political and economic trends suggest the answer could be yes if the coming period does not result in a victory of the global working class.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 10)

September 10, 2017

History of interest rates

A chart showing the history of interest rates over the last few centuries shows an interesting pattern — low hills and valleys with a generally downward tendency. During and immediately after World War I, interest rates form what looks like a low mountain range. Then with the arrival of the Great Depression of the 1930s, rates sink into a deep valley. Unlike during World War I, interest rates remain near Depression lows during World War II but start to rise slowly with some wiggles through the end of the 1960s.

But during the 1970s, interest rates suddenly spike upward, without precedent in the history of capitalist production. It is as though after riding through gently rolling country for several hundred years of capitalist history, you suddenly run into the Himalaya mountain range. Then, beginning in the early 1980s, interest rates start to fall into a deep valley, reaching all-time lows in the wake of the 2007-09 Great Recession. Clearly something dramatic occurred in the last half of the 20th century.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 9)

August 14, 2017

Last month, we saw that Shaikh’s view of “modern money” as “pure fiat money” is essentially the same as the “MELT” theory of money. MELT stands for the monetary expression of labor time.

The MELT theory of value, money and price recognizes that embodied labor is the essence of value. To that extent, MELT is in agreement with both Ricardian and Marxist theories of value. However, advocates of MELT do not understand that value must have a value form where the value of a commodity is measured by the use value of another commodity.

Supporters of MELT claim that since the end of the gold standard capitalism has operated without a money commodity. Accordingly, prices of individual commodities can be above or below their values relative to the mass of commodities as a whole. However, by definition the prices of commodities taken as a whole can never be above or below their value.

Instead of the autocracy of gold, MELT value theory sees a democratic republic of commodities where, as far as the functions of money are concerned, one commodity is just as good as another. Under MELT’s democracy of commodities, all commodities are money and therefore no individual commodity is money.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 7)

July 10, 2017

“The real net rate of profit,” Shaikh writes, “is the central driver of accumulation, the material foundation around which the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalists frisk, with injections of net new purchasing power taking on a major role in the era of fiat money.” This sentence sums both the strengths and the basic flaw in Shaikh’s theory of crises, and without too much exaggeration the whole of his “Capitalism.”

By “net rate of profit,” Shaikh means the difference between the total profit (surplus value minus rent) and the rate of interest, divided by total advanced capital. This is absolutely correct.

But now we come to the devastating weakness of Shaikh’s analysis. Shaikh refers not to the net rate of profit but the real net rate of profit. “Real” refers to the use value of commodities as opposed to their value—embodied abstract human labor—and the form this value must take—money value. While real wages—wages in terms of use values—are what interest workers, the capitalists are interested in profit, which must always consist of and be expressed in the form of exchange value—monetary value (a sum of money).

In modern capitalism, as a practical matter the money that makes up net profit or profit as a whole consists of bank credit money convertible into state-issued legal-tender paper money that represents gold bullion. The fact that legal-tender paper money must represent gold bullion in circulation is an economic law, not a legal law. (More on this in next month’s post.) When Shaikh refers to real net profit, he does not refer to profit at all but rather to the portion of the surplus product that is purchased with the money that makes up the net profit.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 6)

May 21, 2017

Shaikh’s theory of money

Shaikh deals with money in two chapters—one near the beginning of “Capitalism” and one near the end. The first is Chapter 5, “Exchange, Money, and Price.” The other is Chapter 15, “Modern Money and Inflation.” In this post, I will concentrate on Shaikh’s presentation in Chapter 5. In Chapter 15, Shaikh deals with what he terms “modern money.” I will deal with his presentation in this chapter when I deal with Shaikh’s theory of inflation crises that is developed in the last part of “Capitalism.”

In Chapter 5, Shaikh lists three functions of money—considerably fewer than Marx does. The three functions, according to Shaikh, are (1) money as a medium of pricing (p. 183), (2) money as a medium of circulation, and (3) money as a medium of safety. Shaikh deals with money’s function as a means of payment under its role as a means of circulation. The problem with doing this is that money’s role as a means of payment is by no means identical to its role as a means of circulation and should have been dealt with separately.

Anybody who has studied seriously the first three chapters of “Capital” Volume I will be struck by how radically improvised Shaikh’s presentation here is compared to that of Marx. It is in the first three chapters of “Capital” that Marx develops his theory of value, exchange value as the necessary form of value, and money as the highest form of exchange value. He does this before he deals with capital. Indeed, Marx had to, since the commodity and its independent value form, money, is absolutely vital to Marx’s whole analysis of capital.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 3)

February 26, 2017

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, combined with the rise of similar right-wing demagogues in Europe, has prompted a discussion about the cause of the decline in the number of relatively high-wage, “middle-class,” unionized industrial jobs in the imperialist core countries. One view blames globalization and bad trade deals. The European Union, successor to the (West) European Common Market of the 1960s; the North American Free Trade Area; and the now aborted Trans Pacific Partnership have gotten much of the blame for the long-term jobs crisis.

This position gets support not only from President Trump and his right-hand man Steve Bannon and their European counterparts on the far right but also much of the trade-union leadership and the “progressive” and even socialist left. The solution to the problems caused by disappearing high-paid jobs in industry, according to economic nationalists of both right and left, is to retreat from the global market back into the safe cocoon of the nation-state. Economic nationalists insist that to the extent that world trade cannot be entirely abandoned, trade deals must be renegotiated to safeguard the jobs of “our workers.”

Most professional economists have a completely different explanation for the jobs crisis. They argue that changes in technology, especially the rapid growth of artificial intelligence in general and machine-learning in particular, is making human labor increasingly unnecessary in both industrial production and the service sector. Last year—though it now seems like centuries ago—when I was talking with one of this blog’s editors about possible new topics for future blogs, a suggestion was made that I take up a warning by the famous British physicist Stephan Hawking that recent gains in artificial intelligence will create a massive jobs crisis. This is a good place to examine some of the subject matter that might have been in that blog post if Brexit and Donald Trump had been defeated as expected and the first months of the Hillary Clinton administration had turned out to be a slow news period.

It is a fact that over the last 40 years computers and computer-controlled machines—robots—have increasingly ousted workers from factories and mines. The growth of artificial intelligence and machine learning is giving the “workers of the brain” a run for their money as well. This has already happened big time on Wall Street, where specially programmed computers have largely replaced humans on the trading floors of the big Wall Street banks. No human trader can possibly keep up with computers that can run a complex algorithm and execute trades based on the results of the computation in a fraction of a second.

Wall Street traders are not the only workers of the brain whose jobs are endangered by the further development of AI. Among these workers are the computer programmers themselves. According to an article by Matt Reynolds that appeared in the February 22, 2017, edition of the New Scientist, Microsoft and Cambridge University in the UK have developed a program that can write simple computer programs.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt. 2)

November 6, 2016

Profit of enterprise and monopoly profit

As we saw last month, Marx’s prices of production are not identical to the marginal cost = equilibrium prices of “orthodox” bourgeois microeconomics. The biggest difference is that prices of production include not only the cost price and interest on capital but also the profit of enterprise. Modern bourgeois microeconomic orthodoxy holds that in “general equilibrium” any profit in excess of interest will be eliminated by “perfect competition.”

In contrast, Marx—and the classical economists before him—did not believe that competition had any tendency to eliminate the profit of enterprise. Instead, they believed that in addition to interest, there is an additional profit of enterprise that is appropriated by the commercial and industrial capitalists. Profit of enterprise is defined as total profit minus interest. The profit of enterprise must not be confused with monopoly profits. The only monopoly necessary for the profit of enterprise is the monopoly of the means of production by the capitalist class.

True monopoly profits do exist. But within the classical-Marxist tradition, monopoly profit is an addition to the profit of enterprise. Anwar Shaikh affirms that monopoly profits exist but he has little to say about them in his “Capitalism.” Instead, Shaikh is interested in “real competition,” which quickly eliminates any profit beyond the profit of enterprise.

Shaikh’s failure to analyze monopoly profit is in full accord with his rejection of the Monthly Review and heterodox post-Keynesian schools, which often treat any profit, or at least any profit beyond interest, as monopoly profit.

Shaikh’s lumping together of these two quite different theories of a monopoly capitalist stage—the Hilferding-Lenin and the “Monopoly Capital” theories—is in my opinion a legitimate criticism of Shaikh’s “Capitalism” and his “fundamentalist school” in general. In “Monopoly Capital,” Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy were quite clear that they were not simply repeating or writing yet another popularization of the Hilferding-Lenin theory of monopoly capitalism. They found that theory inadequate and developed another, quite different theory of monopoly capitalism.

I believe that Shaikh is correct in seeing the influence of the Leon Walras-inspired theory of perfect competition in “Monopoly Capital” and other theories of modern capitalism influenced or inspired by Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital.”

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy

October 9, 2016

The year 2016 will be remembered for an exceptionally toxic U.S. election cycle. More positively, it will also be remembered for a series of new books on Marxist political economy. Among these, two stand out. Oxford University Press published “Capitalism, Competition and Crises” by Professor Anwar Shaikh of the New School. Monthly Review Press published John Smith’s “Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.” Smith, unlike Shaikh, has spent most of his adult life as a political activist and trade unionist in Britain.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital.” Monthly Review writers, led by editor John Bellamy Foster, treat this book as a modern-day classic playing the role for monopoly capitalism that Karl Marx’s “Capital” played for classical competitive capitalism. Monthly Review magazine devoted its special two-month summer edition to marking the anniversary.

Shaikh’s “Capitalism,” published 50 years after “Monopoly Capital,” can be viewed, at least in part, as the “anti-Monopoly Capital.” In sharp contrast to the Monthly Review school, Shaikh has held throughout his career that the basic laws of motion governing today’s capitalist economy are the same as those that governed the capitalism of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Marx. This is what Shaikh attempts to prove in his “Capitalism” and what Baran and Sweezy denied. We can expect that Shaikh’s “Capitalism” and Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital” will be dueling it out in the years to come.

Monopoly stage of capitalism, reality or myth?

Shaikh rejects the idea that there is a monopoly stage of capitalism that succeeded an earlier stage of competitive capitalism. He rejects Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which Lenin summed up as the monopoly stage of capitalism. According to Shaikh, the basic mistake advocates of this view make is to confuse real competition with “perfect competition.”

Real competition, according to Shaikh, is what exists in real-world capitalism. This was the competition Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo and Marx meant when they wrote about capitalist “free competition.” The concept of perfect competition that according to Shaikh is taught in university microeconomic courses is a fiction created by post-classical bourgeois marginalist economists. Nothing, according to him, even approximating perfect competition ever existed or could have existed during any stage in the development of capitalist production.

In this month’s post, I will take another look at Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital” and contrast it with Shaikh’s “Capitalism.” I will hold off on reviewing John Smith’s book, since his book is in the tradition of Lenin’s “Imperialism” published exactly 100 years ago, which Shaikh considers severely flawed. There are other important books on Marxist economics that have recently been published, and I hope to get to them next year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

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