Posts Tagged ‘economist Paul Baran’

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

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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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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Capitalism and ‘High Tech’

October 27, 2013

A reader has asked why many of the examples I have given are from the “high-tech” industry. Actually, there are good reasons to use examples from high tech to illustrate the laws that govern the capitalist economy.

Capitalist production develops unevenly, not only from country to country but from industry to industry. Marx makes clear in “Capital” that not all industries made the transition from handcraft to manufacture and from manufacture proper to “machinofacture” at the same time.

In the 19th century, what Marx and Engels called “modern industry” meant the industries that had adopted steam as their main source of motive power. By this definition, the textile industry, both spinning and weaving, was during the first three-quarters of the 19th century the most modern of modern industries. Consequently, in the early and middle 19th century—the time of Marx—the textile industry was the industry where the laws of motion of capitalism showed themselves most clearly. Understanding the development of the textile industry was (and is) crucial to understanding the politics of the 19th century.

The main center of textile production was in Britain, centered on the industrial city of of Manchester. Frederick Engels, Marx’s co-worker, worked there for many years managing his family’s textile factory. The main raw material for the 19th-century textile industry—cotton—was produced in the United States, not by wage labor but by the labor of African slaves.

During the 19th century, the U.S. was developing its own textile industry, based in the New England states, then the center of U.S. industry. Like the British textile industry, the U.S. textile industry was dependent on cotton produced by slave labor in the southern states of the U.S.

At the time of the American war of independence of 1775-1783, which represents the first phase of the U.S. bourgeois-democratic revolution, slavery, which existed in both southern and northern states, appeared to be dying out. But the invention of the cotton gin, combined with the dramatic rise of the steam-powered textile industry in both Britain and New England, gave a new lease on life to slavery in the southern states of the U.S.

The issue of whether the U.S. would be dominated by the free labor—wage labor—system or chattel slavery moved to the center of U.S. and even world politics, where it was to remain until it was finally resolved by force in the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865 and then the post-Civil War Reconstruction that ended in 1876.

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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 4

September 29, 2013

Heinrich on crises—some background

A century ago, a discussion occurred in the Second International about the “disproportionate production” theory of crisis. This theory holds that crises arise because of disproportions between the various branches of industry, especially between what Marx called Department I, which produces the means of production, and Department II, which produces the means of personal consumption.

This led to speculation on the part of some Social Democrats that the growing cartelization of industry would be able to limit and eventually eliminate the crisis-breeding disproportions. This could, these Social Democrats speculated, give birth to a crisis-free capitalism, at least in theory. The revisionist wing of the International, led by such figures as Eduard Bernstein—the original revisionist—put its hopes in just such a development.

Assuming a rising organic composition of capital, Department I will grow faster than Department II. The Ukrainian economist and moderate socialist Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky (1865-1919), who was influenced by Marxism, claimed there was no limit to the ability of capitalism to develop the productive forces as long as the proper relationship between Department I and Department II is maintained. The more capitalist industry grew and the organic composition of capital rose the more the industrial capitalists would be selling to their fellow industrial capitalists and relatively less “wage-goods” to the workers.

Tugan-Baranovsky held that capitalism would therefore never break down economically. Socialism, if it came at all, would have to come because it is a morally superior system, not because it is an economic necessity. This put Tugan-Baranovsky sharply at odds with the “world-view Marxists” of the time, who stressed that socialism would replace capitalism because socialism becomes an economic necessity once a certain level of economic development is reached.

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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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The ‘Implications’ of Paul Baran, Pt 2

September 2, 2012

Today, as in the past, the marginalist supporters of the “free market” claim that only the market can rationally assign the labor available to society among the various branches of production. Why? Because only the market can price commodities of different use values according to their relative scarcities. They even have a term for it—“consumer sovereignty.” Under capitalism, these bourgeois economists proclaim, the consumer is king.

Among the supporters of this view was John Maynard Keynes. Not just the young economic liberal Keynes, but the Keynes of the “General Theory.”

He wrote in the last chapter:

“…I see no reason to suppose that the existing system seriously misemploys the factors of production which are in use. There are, of course, errors of foresight; but these would not be avoided by centralising decisions. When 9,000,000 men are employed out of 10,000,000 willing and able to work, there is no evidence that the labour of these 9,000,000 men is misdirected. The complaint against the present system is not that these 9,000,000 men ought to be employed on different tasks, but that tasks should be available for the remaining 1,000,000 men. It is in determining the volume, not the direction, of actual employment that the existing system has broken down.”

Paul Baran in the “Implications” strongly disagreed with Keynes on this point as far as monopoly capitalism was concerned, though he seemed to believe it was more or less true for competitive capitalism. According to Baran, even if monopoly capitalism could achieve, with the help of “Keynesian” government spending, something like “full employment” of workers and machines, it would not come close to meeting the rational needs of consumers. In contrast to Keynes, Baran believed that under monopoly capitalism whether nine million out of 10 million workers are employed or the full 10 million are employed, their labor will to a considerable extent be misdirected.

Why did Baran believe that this was so? During the epoch of “free competition”—according to Baran, corresponding to the time of Adam Smith through the time of Karl Marx—the wages of labor were close to biological subsistence, just enough to keep the workers alive and allow them to raise the next generation and little more. This meant that the workers’ consumption was extremely limited. What commodities the workers did get to consume had simple straightforward use values that met their needs to stay alive and raise a new generation. If they hadn’t, capitalism wouldn’t have been possible at all. To this extent, the market mechanism did its job.

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