Archive for the ‘Money Material’ Category

The Current Industrial Cycle (Pt 1)

July 26, 2020

COVID-19 devastates the U.S.

It has now become clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the U.S. harder than any other large nation — and most smaller ones. The U.S. ruling class and Trump administration have been particularly enraged by China’s ability to largely check the pandemic. China has had far fewer cases, hospitalizations, and deaths despite its far larger population. Though the U.S. has only about 4 percent of the population it has 25 percent of the world’s COVID-19 cases.

Both Trump and the U.S. ruling class as a whole, including Democratic presumptive nominee Joseph Biden, have stepped up their anti-China propaganda — often combined with old-fashioned red-baiting — on numerous fronts. In Trump’s case, the anti-China attacks have an openly racist character. He regularly refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese flu” or the even more racist “Kung flu.” This is typical Trump.

Less commented on is the record of Vietnam. Vietnam acted early and effectively in controlling the pandemic, first reported in its northern neighbor late last year. According to the website Exemplars of Global Health, “Although Vietnam reported its first case of COVID-19 on January 23, 2020, it reported only a little more than 300 cases and zero deaths over the following four months.”

Exemplars reports that Vietnam’s “early success has been attributed to several key factors, including a well-developed public health system, a strong central government, and a proactive containment strategy based on comprehensive testing, tracing, and quarantining.” Not mentioned is the fact that none of the factors that have enabled Vietnam to deal so successfully with the COVID pandemic would have been possible without Vietnam’s successful struggle half a century ago against the attempt by U.S. imperialism to destroy it in the name of “fighting communist aggression.” The Southeast Asian country is still struggling with the effects of the infamous “Agent Orange” defoliation program and other effects of the brutal “American war,” as it is called in Vietnam.

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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 9)

June 15, 2020

After police murder of George Floyd, demonstrations and uprisings sweep U.S.

On June 1, a combined force of military police, park police, and Secret Service brutally cleared an area around the White House of peaceful demonstrators who had been protesting the May 25 murder by Minneapolis police officers of African-American George Floyd. To clear the crowd, these military-police forces used a low-flying helicopter, tear gas, and stun grenades. This was so that President Donald Trump could appear in front of a nearby church Bible in hand.

Trump, who had earlier been sheltering in a special bunker beneath the White House, threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which would permit him to order the military to suppress the massive wave of demonstrations and uprisings that have been sweeping the U.S. since the police murder of Floyd. Trump’s threat to use the military, if carried out, would be a major step towards a military-Bonapartist dictatorship.

Trump’s threats led to a wave of complaints by mostly Democratic politicians and warnings of some retired generals, including Trump’s former Secretary of “Defense” General James “Maddog” Mattis, not to use the military against peaceful demonstrators. Republican leaders, with a few exceptions, either supported Trump or maintained an icy silence.

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The Crisis (Pt 8)

June 7, 2020

The dollar system, gold and the U.S. empire

The current international monetary system is a system of “fiat currency” centered on the U.S. dollar. It is bound up with the financial, political, and military system unofficially called the U.S. empire. To maintain the empire, the U.S. spends about 10 times more on its annual “defense” budget than any other country. Therefore, when it comes to raw military power, especially firepower and the ability to project it around the globe, the U.S. is a military power second to none. Unlike in the pre-1945 world, no other imperialist power can even think of challenging the U.S. militarily.

The U.S. empire in its modern form — in contrast to the North American U.S. proper and the relatively small but growing colonial empire that the U.S. had been building since the Spanish-American War of 1898 — dates to the lopsided victory of the U.S. over Nazi Germany (1) and Imperial Japan in 1945. Thereafter, and this was confirmed in the Suez Crisis of 1956, [link to posts which discuss this] no other imperialist power can undertake a major military operation without U.S. approval.

This emerging situation enabled the U.S. at the Bretton Woods Conference — held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944 — to establish the U.S. dollar as the world currency and the U.S. Federal Reserve System as the world central bank. The dollar remains the world currency even though the U.S. dollar since 1971 has not been convertible into gold.

Originally, the U.S. built up a huge gold hoard by running balance of trade surpluses that were the result of the superior productivity of its industrial, extractive and agricultural enterprises. The size of the U.S. gold hoard was further increased in the 1930s when with a new European war looming, European capitalists moved much of their gold to the U.S. in exchange for U.S. dollars. Some European governments moved their gold reserves to the U.S. for safekeeping as well.

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The Crisis (Pt 6)

May 24, 2020

U.S. unemployment hits Depression levels

In April, the U.S. Labor Department U-3 measure of unemployment hit 14.7 percent. The U-3 rate had been used over the last year or so to claim that unemployment was the lowest since 1969. In fact, it is designed to greatly underestimate the real level of unemployment. Even some Federal Reserve Board officials admit that the real rate of unemployment is over 20 percent and fast approaching the all-time quasi-official estimate of 24.9 percent that occurred at the very bottom of the Depression in March 1933. Nobody denies that the number of unemployed in the U.S. is in the tens of millions — around 50 million if you believe AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

However, it is claimed by Trump and most economists that the current unemployment crisis is the result of the deliberate shutting down of the economy made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic. What is occurring, according to this logic, is not the long-feared Depression II but the “Great Suppression.” Though unemployment generally declined after March 1933 — except for the sharp but short-lived Roosevelt recession of 1937-38 — “full employment” did not return until the U.S. had entered World War II in 1941. This time, it is claimed by Trump and many economists, in contrast to 1933 there is no underlying economic crisis. Therefore, “full employment” will return much more quickly. The pandemic will have run its course within months, as Trump claims, or at most within several years, as claimed by more cautious economists.

Therefore, the argument goes, while still a terrible situation it is not quite Depression II. Though unemployment may be as bad as during the Depression, it won’t last nearly as long. Anyway, Depression-level unemployment is the necessary price we have to pay to stave off the much greater evil of millions of deaths in the U.S. alone from COVID-19. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump, who had been planning on running on “prosperity and full employment” as shown by the Labor Department’s U-3 unemployment rate, is leading the charge to “open America for business.”

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The Crisis (Pt 5)

May 17, 2020

U.S. infection rates rise as states move to reopen

More and more U.S. states are moving to reopen non-essential businesses though there is no sign the COVID-19 epidemic is dying down. “Take the New York metropolitan area’s progress against the coronavirus out of the equation, Nicky Forster, Carla K. Johnson, and Mike Stobbe wrote May 4 in an Associated Press article, “and the numbers show the rest of the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction, with the known infection rate rising even as states move to lift their lockdowns. … ”

According to a leaked CDC document that appeared in The New York Times and Washington Post, the government projects that new COVID-19 cases will increase 225,000 a day by June, with deaths climbing to 3,000 per day. In early May, when this is being written, new cases are only 25,000 with deaths a mere 2,000. This despite all the social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

With President Trump leading the charge to reopen America for business, state and local governments are competing with one another for which one can lift the social distancing and stay-in-place orders the fastest. So far, these are the only policies that have slowed the pandemic in some areas.

In reality, the pandemic is still gaining momentum nationwide. Thanks to Trump and various state and local governments, the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. could very well accelerate further in the coming months. A similar pattern is emerging in other capitalist countries. Of course, the growth of the pandemic in one country, particularly one as large as the U.S., is a threat to people of all other countries, since the virus does not respect national boundaries.

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The Crisis (Pt 4)

May 10, 2020

May Day strikes

On May 1, International Workers’ Day, a wave of worker and renter strikes swept the United States. Workers protested the dangerous conditions in which they are forced to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the companies struck were Amazon, Walmart, FedEx, Target, Instacart, Shipt, and Whole Foods. The May Day strikes show the increasing influence the internationalist traditions of the world workers’ movement is having on the U.S. working class, especially among the lowest paid and most exploited workers. The current medical-biological-economic-employment crisis has only deepened this tendency.

Also, and this should be noted, the internationalist implications of the global May Day holiday stand in complete opposition to the traditional AFL-CIO union leaders, Bernie Sanders, and many progressives and newly minted “democratic socialists” going down the disastrous road of economic nationalism and China bashing. Trump and the other economic nationalists, both Democrats and Republicans, are trying to divert attention from the disastrous mishandling of the pandemic by the U.S. government — both federal and state — to China. More on this in the coming weeks.

‘Party of Order’ versus Sanders

As we saw last week, Bernie Sanders has for many years operated well within the limits of capitalist, or — to use traditional Marxist language — bourgeois, politics. He has done nothing to organize an independent workers’ party or an independent workers’ media, either print, radio-TV or Internet. Nor is he internationalist like the working-class leaders of the past, such as Sanders’ personal hero Eugene Debs. Rather, Sanders is an economic nationalist and an imperialist dove.

Why then is the Party of Order so hostile to Sanders? As its leaders know full well, capitalism has in many countries survived presidents and prime ministers far more radical than Bernie Sanders. No knowledgeable person believes that U.S. capitalism would be in danger of being abolished under a Sanders administration.

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The Crisis (Pt 3)

May 3, 2020

The king of commodities

On April 20 (2020), the May futures contract for the delivery of oil fell to a negative $37 per barrel. Since the 1970s, some have suggested that oil has replaced gold as the money commodity, reflected in the term petrodollars. We can now see that this idea is based on a misunderstanding. Oil as the commodity that stores energy as well as serving as a raw material is perhaps the king of commodities as far as its use value is concerned. However, this doesn’t mean that oil is the money commodity, which in terms of its use value measures the value of all other commodities.

What would happen if global production and circulation suddenly became paralyzed? We are now finding out. With production and transportation sharply curtailed around the globe, what is the use value of oil now? Marx explained in Chapter 3, Volume I of “Capital”: “Whenever there is a general and extensive disturbance of this mechanism [credit — SW], no matter what its cause, money becomes suddenly and immediately transformed, from its merely ideal shape of money of account, into hard cash. Profane commodities [such as oil — SW] can no longer replace it. The use-value of commodities becomes valueless, and their value vanishes in the presence of its own independent form. On the eve of the crisis, the bourgeois, with the self-sufficiency that springs from intoxicating prosperity, declares money to be a vain imagination. Commodities alone are money.”

Since oil has storage costs, the owners of May 2020 oil futures contracts were for a day willing to pay buyers to take it off their hands to free themselves of those costs. This shows that not oil but money is the king of commodities. In the words of Marx, the value of oil has vanished in the presence of its independent value form. Even Trump’s move to buy all the oil that the U.S. government can physically store has not prevented the oil price collapse.

When the value of a commodity as important as oil vanishes — though it isn’t only oil that is being affected — in the presence of its own value form, the credit system is thrown into crisis. Credit is based on the assumption of a given price structure. When commodities become unsalable or at least unsalable at the expected price, the credit system begins to break at a thousand and one places. For example, banks lend money to oil companies. If the oil companies can’t sell their oil at profitable prices, they will not be able to pay the banks. How will the banks pay their creditors, which include their depositors? And what about the pension funds loaded up with oil and bank stocks?

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 15)

January 12, 2020

Trump orders assassination of top Iranian general

On Jan. 2, 2020, Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that the next day assassinated among others General Qassem Soleimani, considered Iran’s leading general and one of the most powerful and popular leaders of the Islamic Republic. Soleimani was killed at the Baghdad airport while on a diplomatic mission aimed at improving relations among Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia and the United States on the other. The murder of such an important military and political leader while on a peaceful diplomatic mission has few if any precedents in the history of diplomatic relations stretching back over thousands of years. Rather, Trump’s action is straight out of the history of the 20th-century New York mob.

This has brought the U.S. to the brink of full-scale military war with Iran, and frankly, as I write these lines it is hard to see how this war can be avoided. The U.S. is already at war with Iran in the economic and political sense. Iraq’s Parliament has now demanded that the U.S. withdraw its 5,000 troops in the country, which are supposedly there to fight ISIS, though the U.S. has announced it has now “suspended” its war with ISIS.

Trump responded by saying he will refuse this demand unless Iraq repays the U.S. for the “aid” it has given Iraq and threatened Iraq with vicious sanctions if it does not withdraw the demand. For its part, Iran has announced it is finally pulling out of the nuclear accord it signed under Obama that exchanged intrusive inspections for promises by the U.S. and its imperialist satellites to relax economic sanctions — dial back economic warfare. These events have raised the chilling possibility that the year 2020 could be for this century what 1914 was to the last.

Trump’s action should remove the illusions shared apparently by the government of Russia and even a few progressives that, however racist and reactionary he is, in other ways Trump is part of some right-wing “isolationist” anti-war tradition that opposes the “Wilsonian” imperialism that has long dominated the Democratic Party, and since at least 1940 the Republican Party as well. In reality, Trump’s economic and political nationalism has always pointed in the direction of war, not peace, whether Trump personally wants war or not. History shows that the beginning of a major war brings with it a “rallying around the commander in chief.” Such an effect could considerably increase Trump’s chances of reelection. True, as the experience of many countries shows, as wars drag on public support for the war and the government turns into its opposite. But by then, Trump may be thinking, the election of 2020 will be far behind him.

In general, there seems to be an unofficial rule that U.S. presidents don’t start major military campaigns in election years. Otherwise, every president facing dubious reelection prospects would be tempted to start a war. But Trump’s Bonapartist and autocratic tendencies mean that he does not feel bound by such a rule, any more than he feels bound by the rule that the president should not criticize the Federal Reserve System.

However, while Trump’s unstable personality and autocratic tendencies are extremely dangerous factors in the current crisis, it is not the main factor behind the current war danger. The roots of the current war crisis can be traced back to George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq — supported by Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden — on March 19, 2003. The Bush administration intended to create a new Iraqi puppet government that would provide a thin veneer over what would amount to U.S. colonial control of Iraq.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 11)

September 15, 2019

Trump versus the Fed

On Sept. 3, the U.S. Institute of Supply Management reported that its widely watched index, based on a survey of industrial purchasing managers, had dropped to 49.1 percent. Any number below 50 indicates a declining trend in U.S. industrial production. The index has not been so low since September 2009, when the U.S. industrial economy was near the trough of the Great Recession.

The ISM reports: “Falling orders among foreign clients dragged on overall new business growth and producer confidence. The degree of optimism about the year ahead hit a fresh seven-year series low amid growing business uncertainty. As such, employment was broadly unchanged and spare capacity was used to clear backlogs of work.”

This is just the latest in a series of reports indicating that the U.S. and world capitalist economies are on the brink of recession. The Trump White House and the electoral wing of the Republican Party fear that Trump will face the reelection in November 2020 amidst full-scale recession conditions, dramatically reducing Trump’s chances of winning a second term.

Trump has responded by stepping up his public attacks on Jerome Powell, the conservative Republican banker Trump himself nominated to head the Federal Reserve System. In the wake of the annual August meeting of bankers at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Trump declared Jerome Powell to be worse for the U.S. economy than even Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump is pursuing two aims here. First, he hopes that the Federal Reserve and its Open Market Committee will lower its target for federal funds and flood the banking system with newly created U.S. dollar reserves that will at least postpone the arrival of a full recession and mass cyclical unemployment until after November 2020. If this happens, Trump will be able to run as a “prosperity president.” Experience shows that U.S. presidents have a tough time winning second terms when they have to run for reelection near the low point of the industrial cycle.

Secondly, if a recession does arrive by election day, Trump wants to be able to point to a scapegoat — in this case, the Federal Reserve Board and the “international financial elites” out to destroy his nationalist “Make American Great Again” policies.

Jerome Powell, for his part, has promised that he will act “as appropriate” to keep the expansion going. The key words here are “as appropriate.” Powell is indicating to the markets that he will not jeopardize the dollar and the dollar system in an attempt to “keep the expansion going” like Trump is demanding. Somewhat reassured, investors caused the dollar price of gold to fall after Powell’s remarks, while interest rates on government bonds have rebounded.

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