Archive for the ‘Long Cycle’ Category

Can the World Market Ever Become Exhausted?

November 29, 2009

A century ago, the belief that the world market was headed for eventual exhaustion was widely accepted among the left wing of the Social Democracy, especially in the German-speaking world. But the refutations of Rosa Luxemburg’s “Accumulation of Capital” and her “Anti-Critique,” based on Marx’s volume II diagrams of capitalist reproduction, pretty much discredited the idea that the world-market could ever face a situation ofpermanent exhaustion.

Cyclical crises were viewed as being caused by disproportions among the various branches of production. Such disproportions were viewed as temporary. In the long run, the limits of the market were seen as the limits of production.

Yet no less a Marxist than Frederich Engels himself apparently shared the idea that the world market could become exhausted. Engels believed this not only in the days of his youth but at the very end of his life. In chapter 31 of volume III of “Capital,” Marx’ used British export data to demonstrate that each successive peak in the industrial cycle exceeded its predecessor. Engels included in brackets this interesting note, which I will quote in full:

“Of course, this holds true of England only in the time of its actual industrial monopoly; but it applies in general to the whole complex of countries with modern large-scale industries, as long as the world-market is still expanding [emphasis added—SW].”

So in 1894—the year before he died—Engels could still imagine a time when the world market would no longer be expanding. It is significant that the above remarks of Engels appear in volume III of “Capital,” nine years after Engels had brought out volume II of “Capital,” the volume that includes Marx’s famous diagrams of simple and expanded reproduction. Therefore, presumably Engels was throughly versed in Marx’s theories and mathematical diagrams of simple and expanded reproduction, but he apparently didn’t draw the conclusion that so many other Marxists drew from them. That conclusion being that as long as the correct proportions were maintained between the various branches of production, the market would only be limited by production.

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The ‘Long Cycle’—Summary and Conclusions

November 1, 2009

In this series of posts, I have examined the question of whether the capitalist economy experiences cycles that are considerably longer than the industrial cycles of approximately 10 years. It’s been proposed by various economists over the last hundred years that in addition to 10-year industrial cycles and shorter “inventory cycles,” there also exists a “long cycle” of approximately 50 years’ duration.

Over the last several months, I have examined the concrete history of the cycles and crises that have occurred in the global capitalist economy from the crisis of 1847 to the crisis of 2007-09. Over these 161 years, we have seen decades when economic growth surged ahead, and other periods dominated by prolonged depression or stagnation.

Changing patterns of cycles and crises

While industrial cycles of approximately 10 years have been a remarkably persistent feature of capitalism, there have been periods when these cycles have been suppressed by world wars and other periods when we have had only partial cycles.

For example, the two world wars of the 20th century suppressed to a considerable degree the entire process of expanded capitalist reproduction. Since industrial cycles arise within the broader process of the expanded reproduction of capital, wartime suppression of expanded capitalist reproduction suppressed the industrial cycle.

After the super-crisis of 1929-33—itself part of the aftermath of the World War I war economy—there was no complete industrial cycle. The brutal deflationary policy of the Roosevelt administration in 1936-37 prevented the cyclical recovery of 1933-37 developing into a real boom. The war economy of World War II replaced the recovery that followed the 1937-38 recession before it could develop into a boom. Therefore, in the years from the super-crisis of 1929-33 until after World War II we saw only partial industrial cycles.

No full industrial cycle between 1968 and 1982

There was also no complete industrial cycle between 1968 and the beginning of the “Volcker shock” in 1982. During the recessions of 1970 and 1974-75, governments and central banks attempted to force recoveries through deficit spending and monetary expansion. Under the conditions prevailing at that time, these repeated attempts to force a recovery simply led to panicky flights from the dollar and paper currencies in general, causing the recoveries to abort. Full industrial cycles of more or less 10-year duration only reappeared after the Volcker shock of 1979-82.

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The Dollar Empire and the ‘Great Moderation’

October 25, 2009

During the “Great Moderation,” the United States became increasingly dependent on imports to maintain its standard of living. When we talk about the standard of living of a nation, we should always be careful to distinguish between the standards of living of the different classes and strata of the population.

The decaying U.S. industrial base and the consequent absolute decline in the level of factory employment during the Great Moderation devastated the standard of living of factory workers. Those industrial workers who did maintain their jobs often had to accept wage cuts and worsening working conditions. This was particularly true for the young generation of factory workers. The unions often accepted two-tier contracts that protected the wages and benefits of older workers at the expense of those of new young workers.

The younger workers who found factory jobs during the Great Moderation were lucky. Many young workers, especially workers of color in the inner cities often couldn’t find any jobs—let alone factory jobs. If they could, it was usually in low-wage, non-unionized “service” establishments such as MacDonald’s or Walmart. It is significant that the biggest U.S. corporation in terms of revenues is not an industrial giant such as U.S. Steel, as it was early in the 20th century, or General Motors, at mid-century, but rather a trading company, Walmart.

The growing mass of more or less permanently unemployed, or at most marginally employed, youth has encouraged the growth of inner-city street gangs engaged in the drug trade. This has swollen the U.S. prison population. At any given time, there are now considerably more than 2 million people, disproportionality young people of color, in U.S. prisons and jails. Many more people pass through jails or prisons in the course of a year, or are in other respects “in the system,” fighting criminal charges, on parole or on probation.

It remains important, however, for the U.S. ruling class to maintain a large percentage of the population in a relatively comfortable “middle-class” lifestyle. This is a key difference between the United States as the world’s leading imperialist country and an oppressed “third world” country.

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Does Capitalist Production Have a Long Cycle? (pt 10)

September 6, 2009

The coming of World War II and the end of the Great Depression

According to the conventional wisdom, it was World War II that brought the Depression to an end. At least as far the United States is concerned, it is indeed true that it was the war mobilization that finally ended the mass unemployment that had existed since the fall of 1929.

Mass unemployment that was lingering in the United States as late as 1941 gave way to the “war prosperity” that the United States enjoyed during World War II. As far as many, perhaps most, Americans were concerned—the exception being those who faced actual combat—the wartime shortages and rationing, and even the rigors of military service, were a relief from the chronic idleness and hopelessness that had marked the Depression years.

Lives and careers that had been put on hold through the Depression decade could finally get back on track. People who had not been able to get any meaningful job during the 1930s could finally get jobs, get married, and start to raise families. This is the reason why the United States experienced a baby boom when the war ended.

As I have explained in earlier posts, a full-scale war economy is very different than the boom phase of the industrial cycle, even if both a boom and a war economy reduce or eliminate unemployment. The shift of the United States to an all-out war economy starting in 1942 implied a net consumption of the value of capital in the United States rather than the accumulation of capital that occurs during the boom phase of the industrial cycle.

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Does Capitalist Production Have a Long Cycle? (pt 9)

August 30, 2009

Because the industrial cycles that have occurred since 1945 have unfolded in a very different political environment than those before 1945, I will devote this post to examining these extremely important political changes.

From the recession of 1937-38 to the end of World War II

The upswing in the industrial cycle—interrupted by the Roosevelt deflation—resumed by mid-1938 as the administration and Federal Reserve System quickly reversed their deflationary measures. However, the recovery that began in mid-1938 started at a much lower level than that of mid-1937 when the Roosevelt recession began. Then before the industrial cycle could reach a new boom—or even get very far into the stage of average prosperity—the war economy took over. As we have already seen, a full-scale war economy suppresses the industrial cycle by suppressing the normal process of capitalist expanded reproduction.

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Does Capitalist Production Have a Long Cycle? (pt 8)

August 23, 2009

The United States hardest hit by the super-crisis

Many volumes could be written about the super-crisis of 1929-33 and the Great Depression. Among the subjects that would have to be dealt with would be the nature of European fascism and Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States. I obviously cannot do this in these posts. I will simply highlight the most important economic events of the 1930s with special emphasis on the United States, the leading capitalist—and imperialist—country.

Of all the major capitalist nations, the United States was hardest hit by the super-crisis. Why was this? Before attempting to answer, how do I measure the relative severity of the super-crisis in individual capitalist countries?

The relative severity can be measured by the level of industrial production in 1932—the global trough of the economic cycle—as a percentage of the industrial production of 1929, which represented the peak of the 1920-1929 international industrial cycle.

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Does Capitalist Production Have a Long Cycle? (pt 7)

August 14, 2009

Eightieth anniversary of start of super-crisis

To understand the policies that are being followed by the governments and central banks today as they combat the aftermath of the panic of last fall and winter, you need to understand the events of 80 years ago. The current governments and central bankers are very much haunted by the ghost of the Depression.

Several weeks ago, I explained how World I and its war economy had led to a huge divergence between prices and values. This contradiction reached it peak in the spring of 1920 and was partially resolved by the deflationary recession of 1920-21. Why then didn’t the Great Depression begin with the deflation of 1920 rather than in 1929?

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Does Capitalist Production Have a Long Cycle? (pt 6)

August 7, 2009

Germany and the super-crisis of 1929-33

The super-crisis of 1929-33 is eminently bound up with events, both economic and political, in Germany. Let’s review the events that were to end with the transformation of the German Wiemar Republic into the Third Reich. The roots of these terrible events lie deep in the years before World War I.

For many decades before the outbreak of World War I, there had been a steady erosion of Britain’s industrial powerrelative to the industrial power of the other major capitalist powers, especially Germany and the United States. At a certain point, the continued financial, military and political domination of Britain was in such contradiction to the vastly reduced weight of its industry, British overlordship simply could not continue. Something had to give.

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Does Capitalist Production Have a Long Cycle? (pt 5)

July 31, 2009

History of gold production from the ‘gold rush’ to 1914

In the years 1840-1844, 146 metric tons of gold are estimated by the World Gold Council to have been produced worldwide. Between 1855 and 1859, estimated gold production rose to 1,011 metric tons. This is an increase of 590 percent in a 15-year period. In terms of percentages, this is by far the greatest increase in gold production in the period that reasonable data on world gold production is available.

The reason for this amazing increase was the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and in Australia in 1851. It was this huge mass of newly mined and refined gold that drowned the hopes of Marx and Engels for a socialist revolution in Europe during the 1850s.

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Does Capitalist Production Have a Long Cycle? (pt 4)

July 24, 2009
The Great Depression that began in 1929 and lasted until World War II holds a unique place in economic history.
“The Great Depression,” wrote bourgeois economist J. Bradford DeLong, “has central place in 20th century economic history.” He explained: “In its shadow, all other depressions are insignificant. Whether assessed by the relative shortfall of production from trend, by the duration of slack production, or by the product—depth times duration—of these two measures, the Great Depression is an order of magnitude larger than other depressions: it is off the scale. All other depressions and recessions are from an aggregate perspective (although not from the perspective of those left unemployed or bankrupt) little more than ripples on the tide of ongoing economic growth. The Great Depression cast the survival of the economic system, and the political order, into serious doubt.”
The economic crisis of 1929-33 though it was in some ways just another cyclical crisis of overproduction clearly involved other factors that converted a “normal” cyclical economic crisis into something quite different. What was it? In order to distinguish the crisis of 1929-33 from normal capitalist cyclical crises, I will call it the super-crisis.

The Great Depression of the 20th century

The Great Depression that began in 1929 and lasted until World War II holds a unique place in economic history.

“The Great Depression,” wrote bourgeois economist J. Bradford DeLong, “has central place in 20th century economic history.” He explained: “In its shadow, all other depressions are insignificant. Whether assessed by the relative shortfall of production from trend, by the duration of slack production, or by the product—depth times duration—of these two measures, the Great Depression is an order of magnitude larger than other depressions: it is off the scale. All other depressions and recessions are from an aggregate perspective (although not from the perspective of those left unemployed or bankrupt) little more than ripples on the tide of ongoing economic growth. The Great Depression cast the survival of the economic system, and the political order, into serious doubt.”

The economic crisis of 1929-33 though it was in some ways just another cyclical crisis of overproduction clearly involved other factors that converted a “normal” cyclical economic crisis into something quite different. What was it? In order to distinguish the crisis of 1929-33 from normal capitalist cyclical crises, I will call it the super-crisis.

Read more …