Archive for the ‘Transformation Problem’ Category

Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 4)

March 27, 2017

The wave of reactionary racist economic nationalism represented by the British “Brexit” and election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency has drawn attention to the question of world trade. Most capitalist economists are supporters of “free trade.” So-called free-trade policies have been protected and encouraged by what this blog calls the “U.S. world empire”—and what the economists call “the international liberal order”—since 1945. These policies followed an era of intense economic nationalism among the imperialist countries that led to, among other outcomes, Hitler’s fascism and two world wars within a generation.

Bourgeois economists who support free trade—the majority in the imperialist countries—claim that international trade is governed by an economic law called “comparative advantage,” first proposed by the great English economist David Ricardo.

The “law” of comparative advantage makes two basic claims about world trade.

The first is that the less role capitalist nation-states and their governments play in international trade the more the international division of labor will maximize labor productivity.

The second is that regardless of the relative degree of capitalist development among capitalist nation states, all such states benefit equally if they engage in free trade. In terms of government policy, this means that regardless of their degree of capitalist development, the best policy is no protective tariffs, no industrial policies, and no interference in the movement of money from one capitalist country to another.

In contrast, economic nationalists in the imperialist countries both right and left, though they sometimes claim to have nothing against free trade, insist that it must be “fair trade.” For example, President Trump insists that since 1945 global trade has been increasingly unfair to the United States, leading to the collapse of much of U.S. basic industry. Trump promises to change this and wants more government intervention in international trade, such as border taxes and other tariffs to make sure that trade is “fair.” This will, the Trumpists claim, lead to re-industrialization of the United States and the return of good-paying industrial jobs.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt. 2)

November 6, 2016

Profit of enterprise and monopoly profit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy

October 9, 2016

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

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

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

Monopoly stage of capitalism, reality or myth?

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

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

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

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value (Pt 2)

March 29, 2015

Bourgeois value theory after Ricardo

As I explained last month, the rising tide of struggle of the British working class obliged Ricardo’s bourgeois successors to abandon the concept of value based on the quantity of labor necessary on average to produce a commodity of a given use value and quality. They were forced to do this because any concept of labor value implies that profits and rents—surplus value—are produced by the unpaid labor performed by the working class. The challenge confronting Ricardo’s bourgeois successors was to come up with a coherent economic theory that was not based on labor value. Let’s look at some of the options open to them.

Malthus, borrowing from certain passages in Adam Smith, held that the capitalists simply added profit onto their wage costs. Like Smith and Ricardo, Malthus assumed that what Marx was to call constant capital could be reduced to wages if you went back far enough. Therefore, constant capital really consisted of wages with a prolonged turnover period—what the 20th-century “neo-Ricardian” Pierro Sraffa (1898-1983) was to call in his “Commodities Produced by Means of Commodities” “dated labor.”

Malthus held that since capitalists are in business to make a profit, they simply added the profit onto their costs—ultimately reducible to the price of “dated labor,” to use Sraffa’s terminology.

The idea that profits are simply added onto the cost price of a commodity is known as “profit upon alienation.” This notion was first put forward by the mercantilists in the earliest days of political economy. In this period, preceding the industrial revolution, merchant capital still dominated industrial capital. After all, don’t merchants make their profits by buying cheap and selling dear?

But what determined the magnitude of the charge above and beyond the cost of the commodity to the capitalist? And even more devastating for Malthus, since every capitalist was overcharging every other capitalist—as well as working-class consumers who bought the means of subsistence from the capitalists—how could the capitalists as a class make a profit? If Malthus was right, the average rate of profit would be zero!

But perhaps we don’t need the concept of “value” at all? Why not simply say that the natural prices of commodities are determined by the cost of production that includes a profit? But then what determines the prices of the commodities that entered into the production costs of a given commodity? Following this logic to its end, the natural prices of commodities are determined by the natural prices of commodities. This is called circular reasoning.

We haven’t moved an inch forward from our starting point. To avoid a circle, we have to determine the prices of commodities by something other than price. There is no escaping some concept of value after all.

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value

March 1, 2015

This March marks the 30th anniversary of the election of Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of general secretary of the then-ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At first, the election of Gorbachev seemed to involve a long overdue shift of power to a new generation of Soviet leaders. As we now know, it involved a lot more.

A process was unleashed that was soon to be called “Perestroika.” In the name of “radical economic reforms,” the Soviet planned economy was progressively dismantled. Perestroika ended not only with the restoration of capitalism but the breakup of what had been the Soviet federation.

The combined process of the restoration of capitalism and breakup of the Soviet federation was accompanied by a massive collapse of both industrial and agricultural production. The living standards and life expectancy of the working class plummeted. A generation later, the economies of not only the Russian federation but the economies of the other former republics are yet to recover.

Perestroika led to a wave of capitalist counterrevolutions that in 1989 swept through eastern Europe with the active support not only of imperialism, as would be expected, but also the Gorbachev government. As part of this process, Germany was reunited on a capitalist basis while staying in NATO. The former socialist countries that had been members of the now dissolved Warsaw Pact joined NATO as did the former Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The Georgia Republic—Stalin’s homeland—is very close to NATO and openly striving to become a formal member, while the new right-wing government in Ukraine has joined NATO in all but name.

Perestroika, therefore, resulted in a massive expansion of the U.S. world empire into the one area of the planet—the Soviet Union and its allies—that remained outside the Empire after World War II.

The destruction of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc and their planned economies would have been enough if that was all that was involved. But it was not. The capitalists and their spokespeople everywhere pointed to the Soviet collapse as final proof that “socialism had failed.” The result was a wave of demoralization that spread through a workers’ movement that was already in retreat before the neoliberal capitalist offensive symbolized by such political figures as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

National liberation movements were also pushed back, though the hopes of political figures such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush that the old-fashioned colonialism that had dominated the world in 1914 would return—with the difference that the United States and not Britain or France would be the chief colonizer—has not been so easy to achieve.

Between November 7, 1917, when the Bolshevik-led Congress of Soviets seized power, and the election of Gorbachev as general secretary of the CPSU Central Committee in March 1985, the peoples of the oppressed nations got accustomed to the idea that they should be independent and not colonial slaves of the West. Therefore, attempts by the U.S. world empire to push these nations and peoples back into something like pre-1914 colonial relationships have met, to the chagrin of the imperialists, unexpected and growing resistance.

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Change of Guard at the Fed, the Specter of ‘Secular Stagnation,’ and Some Questions of Monetary Theory

December 22, 2013

Ben Bernanke will not seek a third term as chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors – “the Fed.” President Obama has nominated, and the U.S. Senate is expected to formally approve, economist Janet Yellen as his successor. The Federal Reserve Board is a government body that controls the operation of the U.S Federal Reserve System.

“The Fed” lies at the heart of the U.S. central banking system, which under the dollar standard is in effect the central bank of the entire world.

A professional central banker

Janet Yellen is currently vice-chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board. She has also served as an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and chaired President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic advisers. She headed the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2004 to 2010, one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks within the Federal Reserve System. If there is such a thing as a professional central banker, Yellen is it.

Yellen will be the first woman to serve as head of the Federal Reserve Board and will hold the most powerful position within the U.S. government ever held by a woman. Yellen’s appointment therefore reflects gains for women’s equality that have been made since the modern women’s liberation movement began around 1969.

Like other social movements that emerged out of the 1960s radicalization, the modern women’s liberation movement began on the radical left. The very name of the movement was inspired by the name of the main resistance organization fighting U.S. imperialism in Vietnam – the National Liberation Front. However, as a veteran bourgeois economist and a long-time major policymaker in the U.S. government, Yellen would not be expected to have much sympathy for the 20th-century revolutions and movements that made her appointment even a remote possibility.

Significantly, Yellen was appointed only after Lawrence Summers, considered like Yellen a major (bourgeois) economist and said to be the favorite of the Obama administration to succeed Bernanke, announced his withdrawal from contention. Summers became notorious when as president of Harvard University he expressed the opinion that women are not well represented in engineering and the sciences because of mental limitations rooted in biology.

Summers was obliged to resign as president of Harvard, and his anti-woman remarks undoubtedly played a role in his failure to win enough support to be appointed Fed chairman. In addition, Summers attacked the African American Professor Cornell West for his work on Black culture and his alleged “grade inflation,” causing West to leave Harvard. This hardly made Summers popular in the African American community. His nomination would therefore have produced serious strains in the Democratic Coalition, so Summers was obliged to withdraw.

Ben Bernanke like Yellen is considered a distinguished (bourgeois) economist. He had devoted his professional life to exploring the causes of the Great Depression, much like Yellen has. Essentially, Bernanke attempted to prove that the Depression was caused by faulty policies of the Federal Reserve System and the government, and not by contradictions inherent in capitalist production – such as, for example, periodic crises of overproduction. Bernanke denied that overproduction was the cause of the Depression.

Like Milton Friedman, Bernanke blamed the Depression on the failure of the Federal Reserve System to prevent a contraction of money and credit. Bernanke put the emphasis on credit, while Friedman put the emphasis on the money supply. Blaming crises on currency and credit, according to Marx, is the most shallow and superficial crisis theory of all.

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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 1

July 7, 2013

The April 2013 edition of Monthly Review published an article entitled “Crisis Theory, the Law of the Tendency of the Profit Rate to Fall, and Marx’s Studies in the 1870s” by German Marxist Michael Heinrich. This is the same issue that published John Bellamy Foster’s “Marx, Kalecki, and Socialist Strategy,” which I examined the month before last.

Michael Heinrich teaches economics in Berlin and is the managing editor of “PROKLA A Journal for Critical Science.” His “new reading” of Marx apparently dominates the study of Marx in German universities.

The publication of Heinrich’s article brought about a wave of criticisms on the Internet from Marxists such as Michael Roberts who base their crisis theory precisely on Marx’s law of the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall,” or TRPF for short.

Today on the Internet, partisans of two main theories of capitalist crisis—or capitalist stagnation—are struggling with one another. One theory attributes crisis/stagnation to Marx’s law of the TRPF that Marx developed in “Capital” Volume III. The rival theory is associated with the Monthly Review school, which is strongly influenced by John Maynard Keynes and even more by Michael Kalecki. Unlike the supporters of a falling rate of profit theory of crisis, the Monthly Review school, like Kalecki, puts the question of monopoly and monetarily effective demand at the center of its explanation of capitalist crisis/stagnation.

In addition to publishing Heinrich’s attempt to prove that there is in fact no tendency for the rate of profit to fall, Monthly Review Press published an English translation of Heinrich’s “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital,” originally published in German under the title (in English) “Critique of Political Economy—an Introduction.”

Is Michael Heinrich a new recruit to the Monthly Review school? In fact, we will see later that the Monthly Review school and Heinrich have radically different views on the questions of capitalist monopoly and imperialism. So at this point, it is more a question of an “alliance” between the Monthly Review school and Heinrich’s “new reading of Marx” trend against the TRPF school, whose leading academic representative today is Andrew Kliman, a professor of economics at Pace University.

The first thing I must say about Heinrich is that it is clear that he knows his Marx at least as well as any writer whose works have been published in English. He is also a remarkably clear writer. This reflects the fact that he has thoroughly mastered his material. This does not mean that Heinrich agrees with Marx on all questions. Indeed, Heinrich is more than willing to express his disagreements with Marx. And as we will see, Heinrich disagrees with Marx on some very important issues.

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Reply to Comments by Andrew Kliman and Doug Henwood

May 13, 2012

Andrew’s comments to my extended review of the “The Failure of Capitalist Production” has clarified both the points of agreement and the differences that exist between us in the field of Marxist economics.

First, the agreements. We both agree that the Keynesian-Marxism of the Monthly Review school as it stands is inadequate both as an analysis of monopoly capitalism and as a response to the current historic crisis of the capitalist system that began with the onset of the “Great Recession” in 2007.

We also agree as against Sweezy and Monthly Review that Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is necessary both to understand the laws of motion of the capitalist system and the problem of capitalist crisis. We agree that Marx and not Keynes provides the answers.

We also agree that the “neo-Ricardian” claim that there are basic inconsistencies in Marx’s theory is value is incorrect. We both uphold Marx’s law of labor value.

We have important differences, however, on our interpretation of Marx’s law of value. I believe that Marx’s law of labor value requires the existence of commodity money, notwithstanding the end of the gold standard at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. Andrew disagrees. This difference of opinion affects both our interpretation of capitalist crises and our approach to the transformation problem.

In addition, I think there are some misunderstandings on Andrew’s part on what defines a capitalist that should be clarified. In addition, I need to say a little more on the evolution of the rate of surplus value since the end of the post-World II prosperity 40 years ago.

Despite my differences with Andrew, I want to stress what I said at the beginning of this extended review. I liked “The Failure of Capitalist Production” and recommend it to all serious students of the Marxist critique of political economy and students of the present extended economic crisis of capitalism, which is increasingly becoming a grave political crisis—as the recent elections in France and especially Greece reveal.

I also found Doug Henwood’s remarks to be useful as well, since it sheds light on my critique of the attempts to mix Marx and Keynes.

I must stress that the aim of this blog is not to destroy or crush other Marxists with whom I disagree on one and other point, but to advance Marxist economic science in order to get nearer to the truth.

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‘The Failure of Capitalist Production’ by Andrew Kliman — Part 2

March 18, 2012

Measuring the mass and rate of profit

As Andrew Kliman correctly emphasizes, the rate of profit is the most important economic variable under the capitalist mode of production. Capitalist production is production for profit and only for profit.

But exactly how do we define profit, and in what medium is profit measured? As we will see, there is no general agreement among present-day Marxists on exactly what profit is and how it should be measured. And if we lack a precise definition of profit, we will obviously have difficulties in understanding the significance of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the role that this historical tendency plays in real-world capitalist economic crises.

Should we use historical or current prices in calculating the rate and mass of profit?

Kliman strongly supports the use of historical prices rather than current prices to measure the rate of profit. But other Marxists believe that profits are more meaningfully measured in terms of current prices, or what comes to the same thing, replacement costs.

Suppose after an industrial capitalist has purchased the means of production that are necessary for him to carry out the production of his commodity, a sharp fall in prices of the means of production occurs. If we measure profits in terms of historical prices, we may find that our industrial capitalist has not made a profit at all but rather a loss.

However, since the purchasing power of money has risen relative to the means of production used by our capitalist, he will be able to purchase a greater quantity of the means of production than before. Therefore, in real terms he will be able to carry out production on an expanded scale. In that case, hasn’t our capitalist made a profit after all?

Suppose the fall in the level of prices reflects a fall in labor values of the commodities that make up the means of production. In terms of value—abstract human labor embodied in commodities measured in terms of time—he will be in possession of less value than when he started. In value terms, he will have made a loss, but in terms of material use values he will have made a profit.

As we know, capitalists are forced under the pressure of competition among themselves to maximize their accumulation of capital and not means of personal consumption, nor in terms of means of production used to produce means of personal consumption. Instead, each individual capitalist, according to Marx, is forced to maximize the accumulation of capital in terms of value.

Therefore, if an industrial capitalist is losing wealth as measured in value terms, won’t he be losing capital, not accumulating it? And if this continues, won’t he lose all his capital? That is, at a certain point won’t he cease to be a capitalist? Kliman, if I understand him correctly, would strongly agree with this argument.

However, not all economists would agree. For example, the “neo-Ricardians”—or “physicalists” as Kliman likes to call them—claim that labor values have no relationship to prices. The physicalist economists therefore deny that labor value has any importance at all to the capitalist economy. According to these economists, the accumulation of capital cannot therefore be measured in terms of labor values; it must be measured in terms of the accumulation of material use values.

Our physicalists would argue—and the physicalists here include not only “neo-Ricardians” but economists of the neo-classical and Austrian persuasions—that once the effects of deflation—falling prices—have been taken into account, our industrial capitalist has indeed made a profit.

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Are Marx and Keynes Compatible? Pt 7

February 13, 2011

Last week, I examined the letter Baran sent to Sweezy in 1960 that dealt with the concept of the “economic surplus.” Over the next two weeks, I will examine the letter Sweezy sent to Baran dated September 25, 1962, which deals with monopoly, capitalist stagnation and Keynes.

Sweezy and stagnation

Sweezy described himself as a “stagnationist.” In his mature writings, he came to believe that the “default” condition of monopoly capitalism is a state of “stagnation.” But what exactly did Sweezy mean by “stagnation”? To understand what he meant, we have to understand the traditional marginalism that formed the starting point of Sweezy’s economic studies.

Marginalist, or “neoclassical,” economics claims that a capitalist economy has a strong tendency toward full employment of both the means of production and workers. Remember, the marginalists hold that, assuming there are no unions or social legislation, the capitalist economy will have as its normal condition a situation of full employment of both the means of production and workers.

When Sweezy began his economic studies at Harvard before both the New Deal and the rise of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), there was virtually no social legislation or social insurance of any kind in the United States. The union movement was very weak and, outside of mining, in basic large-scale industries was virtually nonexistent.

Therefore, according to marginalist theory the U.S. economy should have been very close to a situation of full employment of both the means of production and the workers. But in the early 1930s as Sweezy was studying economics at Harvard, the U.S. was facing an extreme crisis of mass unemployment. Clearly, there was something very wrong with the economics that Sweezy was learning.

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