Posts Tagged ‘falling rate of profit’

Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 3)

February 26, 2017

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, combined with the rise of similar right-wing demagogues in Europe, has prompted a discussion about the cause of the decline in the number of relatively high-wage, “middle-class,” unionized industrial jobs in the imperialist core countries. One view blames globalization and bad trade deals. The European Union, successor to the (West) European Common Market of the 1960s; the North American Free Trade Area; and the now aborted Trans Pacific Partnership have gotten much of the blame for the long-term jobs crisis.

This position gets support not only from President Trump and his right-hand man Steve Bannon and their European counterparts on the far right but also much of the trade-union leadership and the “progressive” and even socialist left. The solution to the problems caused by disappearing high-paid jobs in industry, according to economic nationalists of both right and left, is to retreat from the global market back into the safe cocoon of the nation-state. Economic nationalists insist that to the extent that world trade cannot be entirely abandoned, trade deals must be renegotiated to safeguard the jobs of “our workers.”

Most professional economists have a completely different explanation for the jobs crisis. They argue that changes in technology, especially the rapid growth of artificial intelligence in general and machine-learning in particular, is making human labor increasingly unnecessary in both industrial production and the service sector. Last year—though it now seems like centuries ago—when I was talking with one of this blog’s editors about possible new topics for future blogs, a suggestion was made that I take up a warning by the famous British physicist Stephan Hawking that recent gains in artificial intelligence will create a massive jobs crisis. This is a good place to examine some of the subject matter that might have been in that blog post if Brexit and Donald Trump had been defeated as expected and the first months of the Hillary Clinton administration had turned out to be a slow news period.

It is a fact that over the last 40 years computers and computer-controlled machines—robots—have increasingly ousted workers from factories and mines. The growth of artificial intelligence and machine learning is giving the “workers of the brain” a run for their money as well. This has already happened big time on Wall Street, where specially programmed computers have largely replaced humans on the trading floors of the big Wall Street banks. No human trader can possibly keep up with computers that can run a complex algorithm and execute trades based on the results of the computation in a fraction of a second.

Wall Street traders are not the only workers of the brain whose jobs are endangered by the further development of AI. Among these workers are the computer programmers themselves. According to an article by Matt Reynolds that appeared in the February 22, 2017, edition of the New Scientist, Microsoft and Cambridge University in the UK have developed a program that can write simple computer programs.

Read more …

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.

Read more …

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.

Read more …

Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 3

September 1, 2013

In this month’s post, I will take a look at Heinrich’s views on value, money and price. As regular readers of this blog should realize by now, the theory of value, money and price has big implications for crisis theory.

As we have seen, present-day crisis theory is divided into two main camps. One camp emphasizes the production of surplus value. This school—largely inspired by the work of Polish-born economist Henryk Grossman, and whose most distinguished present-day leader is Professor Andrew Kliman of Pace University—holds that the basic cause of crises is that periodically an insufficient amount of surplus value is produced. The result is a rate of profit too low for the capitalists to maintain a level of investment sufficient to prevent a crisis.

From the viewpoint of this school, a lack of demand is a secondary effect of the crisis but by no means the cause. If the capitalists find a way to increase the production of surplus value sufficiently, investment will rise and demand problems will go away. Heinrich, who claims there is no tendency of the rate of profit to fall, is therefore anathema to this tendency of Marxist thought.

The other main school of crisis theory puts the emphasis on the problem of the realization of surplus value. This tendency is dominated by the Monthly Review school, named after the magazine founded by U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy and now led by Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster.

The Monthly Review school roots the tendency toward crises/stagnation not in the production of surplus value like the Grossman-Kliman school but rather in the realization of surplus value. The analysis of this school is based largely on the work of the purely bourgeois English economist John Maynard Keynes, the moderate Polish-born socialist economist Michael Kalecki, and the radical U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy.

Kalecki’s views on markets were similar to those of Keynes. Indeed, it is often said that Kalecki invented “Keynesian theory” independently and prior to Keynes himself—with one exception. Kalecki, like the rest of the Monthly Review school, puts great emphasis on what he called the “degree of monopoly.” In contrast, Keynes completely ignored the problem of monopoly.

Needed, a Marxist law of markets

A real theory of the market is necessary, in my opinion, for a complete theory of crises. Engels indicated in his work “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific” that under capitalism the growth of the market is governed by “quite different laws” than govern the growth of production, and that the laws governing the growth of the market operate “far less energetically” than the laws that govern the growth of production. The result is the crises of overproduction that in the long run keep the growth of production within the limits of the market.

This, however, is not a complete crisis theory, because Engels did not explain exactly what the laws are that govern the growth of the market. Unfortunately, leaving aside hints found in Marx’s writings, Marxists—with the exception of Paul Sweezy—have largely ignored the laws that govern the growth of the market. This, I think, would be a legitimate criticism of what Heinrich calls “world view Marxism.” As a result, the theory of what does govern the growth of the market has been left to the anti-Marxist Keynes, the questionably Marxist Kalecki and the strongly Keynes- and Kalecki-influenced Sweezy.

Read more …

Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 2

August 4, 2013

In this post, I examine two questions: One is whether Heinrich’s critique of Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—TRPF—is valid. After that, I will examine Heinrich’s claim that Marx had actually abandoned, or was moving toward abandoning, his theory of the TRPF.

The determination of the rate of profit

If we assume the turnover period of variable capital is given and assume no realization difficulties—all commodities that are produced are sold at their prices of production—the rate of profit will depend on two variables. One is the rate of surplus value—the ratio of unpaid to paid labor. This can be represented algebraically by the expression s/v. The other variable is the ratio of constant to variable capital, or c/v—what Marx called the composition of capital.

Composition of capital versus organic composition of capital

The composition of capital will change if wages, measured in terms of values—quantities of abstract labor measured in some unit of time—changes. For example, if wages fall in terms of value, everything else remaining unchanged, there will be relatively more constant capital and less variable capital than before. The composition of capital c/v will have risen.

However, though less variable capital relative to constant capital will have been used than before, a given quantity of variable capital will now produce more surplus value. All else remaining equal, a rise in the composition of capital produced by a fall in the value of the variable capital will result in a rise in the rate of profit.

Suppose, however, that the capitalists replace some of their variable capital—workers—with machines. Remember, we are measuring the machines here in terms only of their value. Here, in contrast to the first case, we assume the value of variable capital and the rate of surplus value s/v remains unchanged.

Now, more of the total productive capital will consist of constant capital, which produces no surplus value, and less will consist of variable capital, which does produce surplus value. Since here, unlike in the first example, the rate of surplus value has remained unchanged, the fall in the portion of the capital that produces surplus value will produce a fall in the rate of profit.

In order to differentiate between these two very different cases, which produce opposite effects on the rate of profit, Marx called a rise in the composition of capital produced by a rise in the use of machinery a rise in the organic composition of capital.

Capitalist competition forces the individual industrial capitalists to do all they can to lower the cost price of the commodities they produce. The term cost price refers the cost to the industrial capitalist of producing a given commodity, not the cost to society of producing it. (1) The cost price represents the amount of (abstract) labor that the industrial capitalists actually pay for. It is in the interest of the industrial capitalists to reduce as much as possible the amount of labor that they pay for while increasing as much as possible the amount of the labor that the industrial capitalists do not pay for—surplus value.

The cost price of the commodity is, therefore, the capital—constant plus variable—that industrial capitalists must productively consume to produce a given commodity of a given use value and quality.

As capitalism develops, the amount of capital that is used to produce a given commodity of a given use value and quality progressively declines. But capitalist production is a process of the accumulation of capital. Leaving aside temporary crises, the quantity of capital defined in terms of value must progressively increase over the life span of the capitalist mode of production.

Therefore, the fall in the capital used to produce the individual commodities must be compensated for by a rise in the total quantity of commodities produced if the value of total social capital is to grow. Outside of crises and a war economy, the history of capitalist production sees a continuous rise in the total quantity of commodities produced. This is why the capitalists must find new markets or enlarge old ones if capitalism is to continue. Contrary to Say’s Law, the increase in commodity production does not necessarily equal an increase in markets.

Read more …

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.

Read more …

John Bellamy Foster’s Latest Attempt To Reconcile Marx and Kalecki

May 12, 2013

In the “Review of the Month,” entitled “Marx, Kalecki, and Socialist Strategy,” in the April 2013 edition of Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster once again attempts to show that the views of economist Michal Kalecki (1899-1970) are fully compatible with Marx. Foster even quotes Marx’s “Value, Price and Profit” to show that Marx agreed with Kalecki—and Keynes—that higher wages lead to higher prices.

Foster writes, “Although a general rise in the money-wage level, Marx indicated, would lead to a decrease in the profit share, the economic effect would be minor since capitalists would be enabled to raise prices ‘by the increased demand.’”

Foster’s promotion of the theory that higher money wages cause prices to rise is so out of line with Marx’s whole body of work in general and “Value, Price and Profit” in particular that I could not let it pass without comment.

Read more …

The September 2012 Unemployment Numbers and the ‘Surplus Population’

October 28, 2012

This post concentrates on the U.S. economy. However, the basic trends are the same in all imperialist countries.

On October 5, the U.S. Labor Department issued its monthly estimate of unemployment for September 2012. Much to the surprise of most observers, the figures showed a drop of unemployment from 8.1 to 7.8 percent. For the first time in 44 months, unemployment dropped below the psychologically significant level of 8 percent.

The reported drop in unemployment gave a much needed shot in the arm for the Obama reelection campaign, which had been reeling in the wake of the president’s poor performance in his first debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. As could be expected, Democrats were delighted by the unemployment report, which at first glance seemed to indicate that the lagging recovery from the 2007-09 “Great Recession” was finally gaining momentum.

Republicans, on the other hand, were disappointed, and some could hardly hide their anger. Jack Welch, the former head of the General Electric Company and a staunch Republican, infamous for his “downsizing” and layoffs when he was head of GE, even hinted that the unemployment report was deliberately falsified by the Obama administration to boost the president’s chances of reelection.

Is it possible that Welch is right? As we will see, of far greater importance is what the Labor Department’s rate of unemployment actually measures.

Read more …

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.

Read more…

‘The Failure of Capitalist Production’ by Andrew Kliman — Part 3

April 15, 2012

The evolution of the rate of surplus value

Kliman’s discussion of the evolution of the rate of surplus value over the last 40 years is, in my opinion, the weakest part of his book. Most Marxists—and non-Marxists, including the great bulk of U.S. workers—would agree that the portion of income going to the rich—the capitalist class—has risen considerably in the U.S. since the early 1970s. This widespread popular belief is clearly reflected in the rise of the Occupy movement.

Kliman strongly disagrees with this. Using U.S. government statistics, he attempts to demonstrate that the share of the U.S. national income going to the workers has risen at the expense of the share going to the capitalists. Or in Marxist terms, the rate of surplus value has actually fallen. A falling rate of surplus value, even if the organic composition of capital remains unchanged, implies a fall in the rate of profit. If a fall in the rate of surplus value is accompanied by a rise in the organic composition of capital, the result will be a marked fall in the general rate of profit.

Which is right: the general popular perception and the view of the Occupy movement that American capitalism and world capitalism is growing more exploitative, or Kliman’s contrary view?

Kliman quotes John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff—leaders of the Monthly Review school: “…wages of private non-agricultural workers in the United States (in 1982 dollars) peaked in 1972 at $8.99 per hour, and by 2006 had fallen to $8.24 (equivalent to the real hourly wage rate in 1967), despite the enormous growth in productivity and profits over the past few decades.” (p. 155)

These figures would seem to clinch the case for a considerable rise in the rate of surplus value in the decades preceding the “Great Recession.” It would seem that on the eve of the Great Recession in 2006, a typical U.S. worker got less in use value terms for each hour of labor power she sold to the capitalists than her mother earned for similar work 34 years earlier. Furthermore, the productivity of human labor has hardly stood still over the last 34 years. This means that the commodities that a worker consumed in 2006 embodied a considerably smaller amount of human labor value than was the case in 1972.

This is true for two reasons. First, the worker in 2006 received less use value  for every hour of labor power she sold to the capitalists. Second, each unit of use value she did receive in exchange for her sold labor power represented less embodied abstract human labor—value—than it did in 1972.

This would mean that there has been a marked growth in what Marx called relative surplus value when if the total work day remains unchanged workers will be working a smaller amount of time for themselves and a greater amount of time for the capitalists. This can be the case even if the standard of living of the workers actually increases, if the increased number or quantity of commodities  the workers get to consume in exchange for their sold labor power represents a smaller quantity of value.

Kliman disagrees. He thinks that if anything the rate of surplus value, at least in the U.S., has fallen over the last 40 years. In attempting to prove this, he quotes economist Martin Feldstein as an authority. Feldstein wrote that it is a “measurement mistake” to “focus on wages rather than total compensation.” Feldstein complains that this has “led some analysts to conclude that the rise in labor income has not kept up with the growth in productivity.” (p. 153)

Kliman doesn’t inform his readers that Martin Feldstein is an extremely reactionary economist who has dedicated his life to defending and prettifying U.S. capitalism, though he does mention that he was the head of the National Bureau for Economic Research.

Marxists, beginning with Marx, have often quoted bourgeois economists when these economists’ research exposes some of the truths about capitalism and its exploitation of the workers. When the hired apologists for capitalism are obliged to admit a portion of the truth about the exploitative nature of capitalism, it is especially telling. The more reactionary the particular apologetic economist is the better.

But for a Marxist to quote reactionary economists when they use statistical data in a way that actually strengthens their apologetic views of capitalism is rather unusual, to say the least. While we can’t prove that American capitalism has grown more exploitative simply because Feldstein claims it hasn’t, Kliman’s conclusion is strongly in line with Feldstein’s natural ideological bias.

Read more …