Archive for the ‘Stagflation’ 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 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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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 13)

November 11, 2019

Trump faces impeachment

On Oct. 31, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution by a vote of 232 to 196 that established procedures for the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. No articles of impeachment — equivalent to counts in a criminal case — have been passed or even drawn up against Trump. The resolution only establishes the technical procedures under which the impeachment probe in the House will proceed.

The vote was almost entirely along party lines. Two Democrats who come from districts that went for Trump in 2016 voted against the proposed procedures. One congressman, who was until recently a right-wing Republican but is now strongly anti-Trump and calls himself an independent, voted for the resolution.

The vote indicates that Trump will probably be impeached in the House. It is possible that new revelations about Trump’s conduct in office could cause — or provide a pretext for — the Republicans to turn on Trump, forcing him to resign or be removed by a vote of two-thirds of the Senate. This is what happened in August 1974 during the Nixon impeachment crisis. But at this time it appears a long shot. Assuming that Trump is acquitted as expected in a Senate trial, he will be in office until Jan. 20, 2020 — or until Jan. 20, 2024, if he wins a second term.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 6)

April 21, 2019

Storm over the Federal Reserve System

U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated that he will nominate right-wing economic commentator Stephen Moore and businessman Herman Cain to fill two vacancies on the
Federal Reserve System’s Board of Governors – called the Federal Reserve Board for short. If confirmed, both Moore and Cain would serve for 14 years. While Trump’s other nominees to the “Fed” have been conventional conservative Republicans, Moore and especially Cain have been strongly attacked in the media and by economists and some Republicans for being completely unqualified.

Of the two, Cain has drawn the most opposition from within the Republican Party. As of this writing, his confirmation by the U.S. Senate looks unlikely. Republican Senators Mitt Romney (who ran against Obama for president in 2012), Lisa Murkowski, Cory Gardner, and Kevin Cramer have all indicated that they are leaning against voting to confirm Cain. If all them vote no, Cain’s nomination will fail unless he can win over some Democratic senators.

Cain – one of the few African-Americans Trump has nominated for high office – throughout his business career has expressed opposition to even elementary labor rights. In 2016, he briefly ran for president as a Republican on a platform of reforming the federal tax system in an extremely regressive way going beyond Trump’s own tax cut for the rich. Cain was then forced to withdraw from the presidential campaign when several women came forward alleging that he had sexually assaulted them. For Donald Trump, this was not a disqualification but it might be for some U.S. senators who have to face re-election.

Cain has not indicated that he supports inflationary monetary policies. On the contrary, he has said that he would like to see a return to the gold standard. For taking this stand, he has been ridiculed by liberals and progressives as well as mainstream economists. However, Cain does have actual central bank experience having served as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, one of 12 regional banks that make up the Federal Reserve System.

Capitalist opponents of Cain’s nomination – Cain has been a strong supporter of Trump – fear that Cain would do Donald Trump’s bidding on the Fed’s Open Market Committee (1). With the 2020 presidential election approaching, it is widely suspected that Cain would push for an “easy” monetary policy and cuts to the Fed’s target for the federal funds rate in a bid to stave off the looming recession until after the November 2020 election. Not only would such a policy put the dollar-centered international monetary system in danger in the short run, it would also erode the Federal Reserve System’s independence over the long run.

Trump’s other prospective nominee, Stephen Moore, has drawn much criticism from mainstream media and professional economists but so far less from Senate Republicans. Like most of Trump’s nominees for high positions, Moore is white. He is not even a professional economist. Although majoring in economics in college, he does not hold a PhD. Unlike Cain, Moore has never directed either a business enterprise – Cain in addition to serving as head the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City was also head of the Godfather Pizza Chain. However, like Cain, Moore has been accused of mistreating women. This raises the question whether Cain’s race could be a factor in the apparent lack of opposition to Moore on the part of Senate Republicans.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 2)

December 23, 2018

As boom slows, political instability rises in the imperialist countries

As 2018 winds down, political instability is sweeping the Western imperialist countries – both the United States and Western Europe. In the United States, as part of a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer,” pleaded guilty to violating with “Individual 1” U.S. campaign finance laws. Cohen faces three years in prison.

It is no secret that “Individual 1” is one Donald J. Trump, the current president of the United States. According to Cohen’s plea, Trump directed Cohen to break U.S. campaign finance laws in order to pay “hush money” to porn star Stormy Daniels and “Playboy playmate” Karen McDougall. Trump paid the hush money because he didn’t want the headlines of his extramarital affairs to dominate the news in the weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election.

Since these payments violated federal election law, it is clear that Trump committed felonies. These felonies, it should be pointed out, are not connected with the so-called Mueller probe into whether Trump, other members of the Trump family, or other associates violated U.S. laws as part of their alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 elections. That is a separate matter. So far, Mueller and his prosecutors have not presented concrete evidence of law-breaking on the part of Trump in this matter, though there continues to be much speculation about this possibility in the media.

Theoretically, Trump can now be impeached because he committed felonies, which meets the U.S. constitutional standard for impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Some Democrats have suggested that in light of these facts impeachment proceedings against Trump in the House of Representatives should now commence. However, there is also a general feeling that crimes centered on sexual affairs are not sufficient grounds to remove a president from office. After all, who in Washington has not had an affair or two or more? While the Democrats will have a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives beginning in January, they would need a large number of Republican votes in the Senate to reach the two-thirds’ majority necessary to remove Trump from office.

The Republicans are reluctant to remove Trump on impeachment charges. If they do vote to remove him, they will likely lose Trump’s white racist “base,” which continues to adore him. The “Trump base” will be furious if their adored leader is removed over what is essentially a sex scandal. Can Trump – and this is a concern for those ruling-class circles of the “Party of Order” who do not like Trump – be removed from office without splitting the Republican Party in such a way that its continued existence as one of the two “major parties” in the two-party system would be in question?

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 15)

February 4, 2018

Reader Manuel Angeles commented: “In Cambridge (UK) in the 1970s, a whole slew of them rejected marginalist theory. Joan Robinson, in fact, frequently ridiculed it, in spite of Keynes´s chapter in the General Theory.”

Angeles refers to the so-called Cambridge Capital Controversy, which pitted economists from Cambridge, Mass., led by Paul Samuelson against Cambridge UK-based economists led by the Italian-British economist Piero Sraffa (1898-1983). Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), who was considered perhaps the leading (bourgeois) U.S. economist of his generation, defended marginalist theory. Samuelson combined marginalism with a watered-down Keynesianism that he called the “Grand Neoclassical Synthesis.”

Sraffa and his supporters clearly came out on top against the Samuelson-led marginalists. Sraffa’s attack on marginalism is contained in his short book “Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities,” where he exposed logical and mathematical paradoxes in marginalist theory.

But what value theory did Sraffa and his generally left Keynesian supporters propose in place of marginalism? Nothing, really, beyond that, given free competition, prices will tend toward levels where capitals of equal size earn equal profits in equal periods of time. The Sraffians also claimed that, with a given level of productivity of labor, wages and “interest rates”—by which is meant the rate of profit—will vary inversely.

Whatever he may have thought in private about the labor value schools of Ricardo and Marx—Sraffa was a great admirer and scholar of Ricardo and was well acquainted with Marxism having been a sympathizer of the Italian Communist Party in his youth—”neo-Ricardian” followers of Sraffa’s work have often used it against Marx’s labor value and surplus value theory. Once we accept the “neo-Ricardian” “price of production school” in place of Marxist value theory, we are forced to draw the conclusion that constant capital—machines and raw materials—as well as land produce value and surplus value.

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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 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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