Archive for the ‘Long Waves’ Category

Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 8)

July 16, 2017

Engels wrote in “Socialism Utopian and Scientific”: “We have seen that the ever-increasing perfectibility of modern machinery is, by the anarchy of social production, turned into a compulsory law that forces the individual industrial capitalist always to improve his machinery, always to increase its productive force. The bare possibility of extending the field of production is transformed for him into a similarly compulsory law. The enormous expansive force of modern industry, compared with which that of gases is mere child’s play, appears to us now as a necessity for expansion, both qualitative and quantitative, that laughs at all resistance. Such resistance is offered by consumption, by sales, by the markets for the products of modern industry. But the capacity for extension, extensive and intensive, of the markets is primarily governed by quite different laws that work much less energetically. The extension of the markets cannot keep pace with the extension of production. The collision becomes inevitable, and as this cannot produce any real solution so long as it does not break in pieces the capitalist mode of production, the collisions become periodic. Capitalist production has begotten another ‘vicious circle.’”

This famous quote was written when Marx was still alive. It passed his muster. Indeed, throughout their long partnership, the founders of scientific socialism described cyclical capitalist crises as crises of the general relative overproduction of commodities. However, most modern Marxist economists reject this idea. Among them is Anwar Shaikh.

Shaikh, in contrast to Marx and Engels, believes that the limit “modern industry” runs into is not the market but the supply of labor power. Marx and Engels believed that securing an adequate quantity of “free labor power” was crucial to the establishment of the capitalist mode of production. This was the big problem early capitalists faced, which was solved by separating the producers, often through force and violence, from their means of production. But once capitalism was firmly established, it has been the limit imposed by the limited ability of the market to grow relative to production that capitalism regularly runs up against.

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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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Some Observations on the Democratic and Republican Conventions

August 12, 2016

These observations are not meant to be exhaustive. To write an exhaustive analysis of the just-held conventions of the two ruling parties of U.S. capitalism would take up far too much space and take us too far afield from the main subject of the blog, the theory of capitalist crises. In this post, however, I will make some observations on how the economic decline of U.S. capitalism was reflected in the recently held conventions and provide some historical perspective.

Donald Trump becomes official GOP nominee

There were last-ditch attempts by anti-Trump neo-liberal right-wingers to deny Trump the nomination by freeing up the Republican delegates so they could “vote their conscience” and nominate a more acceptable—to Wall Street—Republican. Among those widely mentioned as alternatives were the union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Tea Party supporter Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. But pro-Trump forces handily defeated the “anybody but Trump” movement at the convention, and the New York billionaire racist and reality TV star was duly nominated to run for president of the United States.

Trump chose as his running mate Indiana Governor and Tea Party darling John Pence. This was seen as a gesture to the more traditional neo-liberal right wing of the party. The Tea Party faction strongly supports neo-liberal economics and is thus far more acceptable to Wall Street than is Trump with his pseudo-populist and protectionist demagoguery. The high point—if it can be called that—of the Republican convention was when Senator Ted Cruz addressed the convention delegates but failed to endorse Trump. When it became clear that Cruz was not going to endorse Trump, he was loudly booed.

Media polls taken after the Republican convention showed Trump for the first time with a modest but very real lead over Hillary Clinton. Though it is normal for the Republican and Democratic candidates to have a lead right after their respective conventions, Trump has been increasingly ridiculed in the media ever since it became likely that he would be the Republican nominee. After the Democratic convention, new polls showed Clinton had regained the lead, which indeed is in line with the normal pattern. But Clinton’s lead is not a commanding one, despite the non-stop and escalating anti-Trump propaganda campaign in the media.

One of the reasons Trump is doing as well as he is, despite the opposition of the traditional media, is his use of social media, especially Twitter. The polls show that a Trump upset victory is not yet beyond the range of possibility in November, especially if new scandals hit Hillary Clinton or there is a surprise financial crisis and recession.

As a result, the media campaign against Trump escalated, with articles appearing that suggest that Trump may actually be clinically insane. This goes far beyond the normal mudslinging that occurs during U.S. presidential elections. The Washington Post, one of the leading organs of U.S. imperialism, even ran a special editorial declaring that Trump is a threat to the republic and completely unacceptable as U.S. president.

Cruz is not the only leading Republican to refuse to endorse Trump. A significant section of the Republican leadership has as well, including both George Bush senior and junior. The failure of two ex-President Bushes to endorse Trump, considering the realities of the U.S. two-party system, is in effect a backhanded endorsement of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. The Koch brothers’ family of industrial capitalists, staunch Republicans with extreme right-wing neo-liberal views, have also refused to endorse Trump. This also amounts to a backhanded endorsement of Clinton.

The former billionaire Republican Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, who owns Bloomberg News, which covers the stock market and other financial markets, has not only endorsed Hillary Clinton but went so far as to speak at the Democratic convention. Even the ghosts of ultra-right Senator Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were summoned up from the nether world to denounce Trump. Both Goldwater’s widow and Ronald Reagan’s son claimed that neither Goldwater nor Reagan would have supported Trump if they were alive.

The Democratic convention that officially nominated Hillary Clinton was held appropriately in a hall named after the giant Wells Fargo Bank, one of the most powerful banks in the U.S. Considering the large numbers of Republicans who are either openly endorsing her or giving her bi-partisan support if she wins in November, Clinton will not only be the first female president—itself a sign of social progress—but the most “bipartisan president” since George Washington.

It was also revealed just before the convention that William Kristol and George Wills, major Republican intellectuals, have dropped their registration in the Republican Party and have re-registered “independent.” This indicates that these major figures, not themselves “electoral politicians” but rather “opinion makers” and right-wing political thinkers for the U.S. ruling class, foresee a major reshuffling of the two-party system in the very near future. They are keeping their options open on which party they will identify with in coming years. Will they return to a “post-Trump” Republican Party, become supporters of the Democratic Party, or participate in creating a new right-wing party based on the neo-liberal” principles so dear to them?

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 2)

June 21, 2015

Recently, I have been looking at Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Piketty, a French bourgeois economist, created a sensation by pointing out that over the last 45 years a growing proportion of national income—wages plus surplus value in Marxist terms—has been going to profit at the expense of wages. Piketty is alarmed that if this trend isn’t reversed capitalism will be seriously destabilized.

The title of his book is, of course, inspired by Marx’s great work “Capital,” though it predictably rejects Marx’s anti-capitalist revolutionary conclusions. Naturally, I was interested in what Piketty had to say about Marx.

What I found striking was that Piketty did not understand Marx at all. The reason is that he views Marx through marginalist lenses. Essentially, Piketty treats Marx as a fellow marginalist. Marx’s theory of value and surplus value, so completely at odds with the marginalist theory of value and surplus value, is literally beyond Piketty’s comprehension.

In examining the current debate about “secular stagnation” among economists like Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, we must never forget how deep the gulf between their economic theories and Marxism really is. This is true even when their terminology is similar. This month, I will contrast the theories of two economists of the 20th century, Joseph Schumpeter and John Maynard Keynes, regarding capitalist growth and stagnation. Both men were marginalists, even if not the most “orthodox” ones, and therefore had much more in common with each other than with Marx.

Next month, I will begin to contrast their views with Marx and the views I have been developing in this blog. (1) But before we reach the “Marxist mountains” we will have to slog through the plains of modern bourgeois economics. Only when we begin to ascend into the Marxist mountains will we be able to explore whether any of the ideas of Schumpeter can be integrated into Marxism. I have already dealt with Keynes quite extensively in this blog. (See, for example, six-part series beginning here.)

Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) was the most famous marginalist economist to deal with the question of technological changes, or “innovation,” under capitalism. Schumpeter was an Austrian economist in the sense he came from Austria, though he spent his last years in the United States as a professor at Harvard University. He was certainly influenced by the “Austrian economists” as well as other schools of post-classical bourgeois economics current in his day. Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter preferred to communicate his ideas in natural language as opposed to mathematics.

Also like the Austrians, he was a hardcore supporter of capitalism, disliked “socialism”—proposals to reform capitalism in the interest of the workers—and was an opponent of the “Keynesian revolution” in bourgeois economic theory of the 1930s. He was what would be called today a “neo-liberal.” Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter took a dim view of democracy, which he was convinced would inevitably lead to socialism. Yet he was a friend of Paul Sweezy and therefore had a certain influence on the Monthly Review school.

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World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (pt 2)

August 24, 2014

Wars rarely turn out the way their initiators expect. In our own time, we can point to many examples. George W. Bush and Tony Blair, when they ordered the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, believed that the U.S.-British forces would defeat Iraq’s armed forces—weakened by years of sanctions, continued military attacks, and forced unilateral disarmament—within weeks with hardly any casualties on the side of the invaders. It would then be “mission accomplished.”

But now in August 2014—100 years to the month since the outbreak of the “Great War”—the U.S. has resumed bombing Iraq as the government it created crumbles. The reason this government is failing is that virtually no Iraqi wants to fight and die for it. Why should an Iraqi fight for a foreign-imposed government?

Nor should we forget the war against Afghanistan launched by the Washington war-makers in October 2001 against the Taliban government, which had no modern armed forces, only a militia. Within weeks, U.S. media were writing about that most unequal war in the past tense. But now, 13 years later, the U.S. is still struggling to find a way to exit that war without the return of the Taliban to power. That war didn’t turn out as the Washington war-makers expected either.

Nor has the air war fought by U.S-NATO against Libya in 2011 turned out the way the Obama administration, which launched that war, expected. And the same will probably be true of the most recent war—if it can even be called a war—launched by Israel, with at least the tacit support of the U.S., against the people of tiny Gaza, which has no army, air force or navy.

This August marks not only the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I but also the 50th anniversary of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Incident. If we were to believe the U.S. propaganda of the time, (North) Vietnam’s tiny navy attacked without any provocation the mightiest navy the world had ever seen! This “incident” occurred—or rather didn’t occur—on August 2, 1964, just two days short of the 50th anniversary of the start of the “Great War.”

The U.S. Congress used this faked incident to grant the Johnson administration cart blanche to wage war against Vietnam, which the administration took full advantage of by launching a series of bombing raids on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that August. This gave way to a steady air bombardment of (North) Vietnam—the South had been subject to steady U.S. bombardment for the preceding five years—the following year after Johnson won re-election as the “peace candidate.”

While the Washington war-makers succeeded in killing millions of Vietnamese people and doing incalculable damage to the environment with Agent Orange and other forms of environmental warfare, in the end the war against Vietnam did not turn out the way the war-makers in the White House, the Pentagon and Congress expected. For example, the renaming of Saigon Ho Chi Minh City was probably not part of Washington’s war plans.

Nor did the war against Korea, which is usually seen as beginning in June 1950 but really began when Washington occupied the southern part of Korea in 1945, turn out exactly as the Washington war-makers intended, though they succeeded in killing millions of Korean people and left no multistory building standing in the northern part of the country.

The rule that wars seldom turn out the way those who start them expect was certainly true of the general European war that began exactly a century ago. To the generation that actually fought, it was known as the “Great War” or “the World War,” ”the war to make the world safe for democracy,” or, most ironic of all, “the war to end all wars.” But as a result of unintended consequences of the war, it had to undergo a name change. It was renamed World War I, a mere prelude to the even greater bloodbath of World War II.

‘Before the leaves fall’

When the general European war commenced on August 4, 1914, each warring imperialist power was convinced that it would be a short war and that it would emerge victorious. Or as was said, the war would be over “before the leaves fall.”

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The ‘Implications’ of Paul Baran, Pt 3

September 30, 2012

Forty-six years after ‘Monopoly Capital’

The special July-August 2012 edition of Monthly Review, devoted to the critique of economics, not only includes Paul Baran’s “Implications” and correspondence between Baran and Sweezy that is invaluable in understanding the past of Marxist political economy and monopoly capitalism. It also contains an article by John Smith of Kingston University in London that points to the kind of Marxist economics that is necessary to understand the monopoly capitalism of the early 21st century.

“Monopoly Capital” was published 56 years after Rudolf Hilferding’s “Finance Capital” and 50 years after Lenin’s pamphlet “Imperialism.” The period of time that now separates us from “Monopoly Capital” is approximately the same as that separating Rudolf Hilferding’s “Finance Capital” and Lenin’s Imperialism from Marx’s “Capital.”

The world of ‘Monopoly Capital’

As we have seen, “Monopoly Capital” was very much a book of its time. It reflected the changes that had occurred between the era of Hilferding and Lenin and the time that “Monopoly Capital” was written in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Let’s review what those changes were.

The most important was the impact of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which proved to be the defining event of the entire 20th century. For the first time in history, the working class seized and held state power for a substantial period of time. The working class held power long enough to embark on the construction of socialism. As a result, for the first time world capitalism faced a rival economic system that proved in practice, not just in theory, that capitalists are not necessary for modern industrial production.

The other defining event of the last century was the great Chinese Revolution of 1949. Only today can we fully appreciate the significance of this revolution. It began a process of shifting the center of human civilization from Europe and its “white colonies”—including the United States—toward Asia. The days of using the term “Asiatic” as a synonym for backwardness are gone for good.

These revolutions—and there were many others—forced the capitalist classes to make unheard-of concessions to the working classes of the imperialist countries in order to maintain capitalist rule. These revolutions also completely undermined the old European colonial empires—most importantly the British Empire. In contrast, the European empires were near the peak of their power when Hilferding published “Finance Capital” in 1910.

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Gold as Money and the Role of the National Question in the Current Crisis

July 8, 2012

Nikos, a good friend of this blog, has asked two questions—one involving monetary theory and the other regarding the role of the national question in the current crisis.

Nikos’ first question relates to a proposal made last year by the German Council of Economic Experts that the Greek government and other highly indebted European governments put up a portion of their foreign exchange reserves—gold and foreign currency holdings—as collateral for what would amount to loans in the form of euros. The proposal was rejected at the time by the Merkel government but supported by the Social Democratic and Green opposition parties.

Nikos actually has two questions about this proposal. First, does it indicate that gold is still money? And second, does this movement toward using gold as collateral point to a return to the gold standard?

Gold as world money

I would answer yes to the first question and no to the second. Among gold’s basic monetary roles is its role as world money. Traditionally, paper or banknote currencies circulated only within nation states. Insomuch as currencies were made not out of paper and ink but of gold coins—and silver coins in earlier times—these currencies were literally made out of money material. The coins could be converted into bullion—pure money material—by simply melting them down. In this way, gold and or silver bullion would wear the “uniform” of a national currency.

Because gold and silver coins were made of money material and could easily be melted down into bullion, they could circulate internationally. Their role as money did not depend on their being “legal tender” in any particular country.

Origins of the U.S. dollar

Indeed, what became the U.S. dollar had its origins in a Spanish silver coin—called the dollar—that circulated widely in Britain’s North American colonies. Now, because of the U.S. world empire, today’s paper dollar currency enjoys a sphere of circulation far beyond the borders of the U.S. itself. This is true even though the U.S. dollar is legal tender only within the U.S., Panama, Ecuador and the so-called “Commonwealth” of Puerto Rico.

But, in fact, the U.S. dollar has invaded the circulation of many other countries even where it is not officially legal tender. The role of the U.S. dollar as the world currency is shown by the fact that basic commodities and gold itself are priced in terms of dollars. As a result, more Federal Reserve Notes—U.S. currency units—are circulating outside the boundaries of the U.S. than within them.

U.S. world empire

What I call the dollar system—the widespread acceptability of the U.S. dollar as a means of payment well beyond the formal borders of the United States—is inseparable from the U.S. world empire. If the empire were to fall, the U.S. dollar would certainly cease to be the world’s currency. Similarly, any crisis of the U.S. dollar, defined as a sudden sharp loss of gold value, would bring into question the continued existence of the U.S. world empire.

Gold retains its role as world money under the dollar system

Under the dollar standard, gold fully retains its role as world money. The U.S. global empire has existed only since World War II, while gold’s role as world money goes back thousands of years. In addition, as we have explained many times in this blog, the U.S. dollar cannot act as a universal measure of value independently of gold, since the law of value requires that the value of a commodity be measured in the use value of another commodity.

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Europe’s Decline and Its Sovereign Debt and Currency Crisis

December 18, 2011

Reader Jon B writes that I should build on my “analysis of the U.S. empire and the dollar-centered international monetary system by writing on the European debt/euro crisis, the possible outcomes for the world economy, and whether U.S. global domination is likely to be boosted or undercut.”

On November 30, it was announced that the world’s major central banks were extending their “swap agreements” in an attempt to control the growing European credit crisis centered on the “sovereign debts” of European governments. The announcement indicated that the crisis may be coming to a head, and that the U.S. Federal Reserve System stands ready to pump U.S. dollars into Europe in a bid to stave off a full-scale financial panic such as occurred when the Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed in September 2008.

A few weeks earlier, the Greek government had agreed to a vicious austerity package. The government of Prime Minister George Papandreou, which had briefly threatened to hold a referendum on the austerity package, instead meekly resigned in favor of a so-called “technocratic government” headed by Lucas Papademos a former vice president of the European Central Bank. The new Greek bankers’ government, in order to broaden its base beyond the bankers, includes the racist LAOS party.

The European leaders, finally admitting that the Greek government couldn’t possibly pay its debts, agreed to a 50 percent write-down of Greece’s bonded debt.

This is similar to what happens when a U.S. corporation goes bankrupt under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law. In addition to the corporation getting out of any contracts it has signed with its workers, a portion of its bonded debt is written down. The “reorganized corporation” is then given another shot at making profits for its stockholders and bondholders.

The U.S. media proclaimed that this “agreement” indicated that the European crisis was finally on its way to being resolved—as the media have repeatedly done whenever top European leaders get together and announce “agreements.” They do add, just to cover themselves, that “much still has to be done” to fully resolve the crisis. Nor did the U.S. media—who pretend to support democracy all over the world—hide their delight that a government of unelected bankers had replaced the elected government of Greece.

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Crises Real and Artificial, and Why a New ‘New Deal’ is Not Feasible

August 21, 2011

I had originally planned to answer questions by Mike on exchange rates, which were partially taken up in my critique of an article by Dean Baker. While the factors that determine exchange rates are an important question in economics, especially for the theory of world trade, events over the last few weeks dictate that my reply to Mike’s questions be postponed.

These events include the threatened default of the U.S. government on its debt payments, the decision of the Obama administration to accept a compromise that includes no tax increases for the rich, a wave of panic selling on Wall Street and other world stock exchanges, a new plunge of the dollar against gold, the downgrading of the U.S. debt from AAA to AA+ by Standard and Poor’s, and a rare split vote by the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee on what to do next concerning the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy.

Any one of these events would probably have necessitated the decision to postpone the reply to Mike’s questions on exchange rates. However, the events of the last few weeks are closely intertwined with and relate to questions that this blog has been examining since its inception in the January following the late 2008 panic. In order to keep this reply within reasonable limits, I will concentrate on the question of the debt of the U.S. federal government and the threatened default by that government.

Debt default crisis a political and not a true financial crisis

Since World War I, the maximum debt that the U.S. government could carry has been determined by law. Every so often as the maximum debt limit was approached, Congress routinely voted to raise the debt limit. But this year the Republican-controlled House balked. The Republican majority threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless the Obama administration agreed not to raise taxes on the rich and corporations or even close tax loopholes that have often enabled the rich and corporations to pay no taxes at all.

The U.S. Treasury warned that if the debt limit was not raised by August 2, it would not have enough cash on hand to pay all its bills coming due, forcing it to default. The crisis was purely a legal and political one, since the U.S. government has been having no trouble recently selling its notes and bonds. Indeed, the federal government was able to sell them at prices that yielded some of the lowest interest rates it has ever had to pay. This would hardly be the case if there was a real threat of a federal default.

The media were taking the default threat seriously, but the markets—the capitalists in the know—were not. The markets were right. Over the weekend of July 30-August 1, the Democratic and Republican parties came up with a deal that raised the debt limit and averted the “danger” that the U.S. government would run out of money and default on payments on its huge debt.

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