Posts Tagged ‘Monthly Review school’

The Crisis (Pt 8)

June 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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The Crisis (Pt 7)

June 3, 2020

An unprecedented crisis

The current economic crisis has many unprecedented features. Most importantly, it was triggered by a pandemic and the resulting business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. This led to a sharp decline in the sale of commodities. The result has been a collapse of industrial production, world trade, and employment over a period of a few weeks that is unparalleled in the history of capitalism. Because nothing like this had ever happened before, it is extremely difficult to predict what will happen next.

For example, we don’t know the future course of the pandemic as capitalist governments move, even as the pandemic continues, to lift the shutdowns of nonessential businesses and stay-at-home orders. Will these moves to “reopen the economy for business” cause the pandemic to accelerate? Or will the pandemic decline in the Northern Hemisphere, where the largest capitalist economies are located, as summer conditions set in? Many virus-caused diseases decline in the summer months and accelerate in the fall and winter. Will COVID-19 follow a similar pattern?

Even if we assume the pandemic peters out over the (Northern Hemisphere) summer and doesn’t come back this fall/winter, an extremely optimistic and experts say unwarranted assumption, will the U.S. and world economy revive rapidly in a so-called V-shaped recovery? Or will the recovery be slow and torturous, with Depression levels of unemployment lingering on for years? Or will it be something in between?

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 9)

July 21, 2019

Scandals that rocked the Trump administration this month included sex scandals involving both the current president and former President Bill Clinton. Another scandal involved “detention centers” for immigrants, which are finally being called by their right name — concentration camps. The prisoners held in these camps are desperate people — men, women, children and infants — forced to flee desperate conditions in Central America created by U.S. imperialism under both Republicans and Democrats.

Particularly outrageous is the detention of children and even infants, who are held in cages and go without basic medical care (resulting in some children dying in the camps), toothbrushes, and bathing. The conditions in which these concentration camp victims are held would be scandalous even if they involved adult prisoners convicted after fair trials of terrible crimes. When the victims are children and infants, even the term popularized after the post-WWII Nuremberg Trials of German Nazi leaders for “crimes against humanity” seems somehow trite.

Trump supporters claim it is outrageous to call the detention centers concentration camps, pointing out there are no gas chambers or crematoria in these camps. This much is true. However, there were no gas chambers or crematoria in the Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s. There were also no children in the 1930s-era Nazi concentration camps. That did not prevent the Nazi government, which originally held “only” adult Communists, trade unionists, and some Social Democrats in “protective custody,” from calling them concentration camps. It was only during World War II that non-political women, children and infants — most Jews and Roma people — were taken to concentration camps equipped with gas chambers and crematoria.

As these revelations became known, a growing movement has emerged demanding that the concentration camps be shut down. On July 12, reports circulated that ICE, the U.S. federal secret police agency in charge of enforcing immigration laws, were planning massive raids on Sunday, July 14. In response, a series of demonstrations swept the U.S. demanding that the concentration camps be shut down and immigrants be allowed to stay.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 5)

March 24, 2019

Trump’s Islamophobic demagoguery and the New Zealand massacre

On March 15, the world was shocked when a far-right gunman killed 50 Muslim worshipers and injured many others at two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The gunman hailed U.S. President Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” but complained that he is not a good “policymaker and leader.”

This fascist terrorist mass murderer put his finger on the relationship between “Trumpism” and the growing fascist “white nationalist” movement, which if it should win state power in a major imperialist country would put in the shade the crimes of its 20th-century predecessor.

Trump lacks a mass movement organized not only as a political party but as a mass armed militia based on middle-class youth driven to desperation by a crisis of monopoly capitalism. Such a movement, once it reaches a certain degree of development, is capable of launching a civil war against the organized workers’ movement and its allies as well as “racial” and religious minorities of all classes. Once a fascist movement becomes powerful enough to wage a civil war, it always does so in the interest of its finance-capital masters. From the viewpoint of today’s fascists, since Trumpism is only preparing the way for the real thing, Trump falls short as a “policymaker and leader.”

But Trump is preparing the way for 21st-century fascism through his role as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” not only in the U.S. but in all the imperialist countries. Our hearts must go out to the victims of this unspeakable crime, casualties of Trump’s racism and the capitalist system that breeds it.

We must fight Trumpism and all it stands for with all our strength. But to do this effectively, we must also fight the Party of (the current imperialist world) Order, which is doing all it can to cripple the fight against Trumpism by usurping the leadership of the “resistance” to Trump from within.

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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 7)

July 10, 2017

“The real net rate of profit,” Shaikh writes, “is the central driver of accumulation, the material foundation around which the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalists frisk, with injections of net new purchasing power taking on a major role in the era of fiat money.” This sentence sums both the strengths and the basic flaw in Shaikh’s theory of crises, and without too much exaggeration the whole of his “Capitalism.”

By “net rate of profit,” Shaikh means the difference between the total profit (surplus value minus rent) and the rate of interest, divided by total advanced capital. This is absolutely correct.

But now we come to the devastating weakness of Shaikh’s analysis. Shaikh refers not to the net rate of profit but the real net rate of profit. “Real” refers to the use value of commodities as opposed to their value—embodied abstract human labor—and the form this value must take—money value. While real wages—wages in terms of use values—are what interest workers, the capitalists are interested in profit, which must always consist of and be expressed in the form of exchange value—monetary value (a sum of money).

In modern capitalism, as a practical matter the money that makes up net profit or profit as a whole consists of bank credit money convertible into state-issued legal-tender paper money that represents gold bullion. The fact that legal-tender paper money must represent gold bullion in circulation is an economic law, not a legal law. (More on this in next month’s post.) When Shaikh refers to real net profit, he does not refer to profit at all but rather to the portion of the surplus product that is purchased with the money that makes up the net profit.

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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.

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Prospects for the Economy Under Trump

January 1, 2017

This article will come in two parts. This month, I examine policies of the Federal Reserve and Trump’s domestic policies. Next month, I will end this series with an examination of Trump’s global economic policies.

The Federal Reserve and Donald Trump

On December 14, 2016, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee announced that it had finally decided to raise the federal funds rate—the rate that commercial banks, not the Fed itself, charge each other for overnight loans—by a quarter of one percent. Instead of targeting a rate of 0.25 to 0.50 percent like it did between December 2015 and December 2016, its new target is 0.50 to 0.75 percent.

Since Trump’s victory on November 8, long-term interest rates have risen sharply. This combined with the decision of the Fed to finally nudge up the fed funds rate indicates that the money market has tightened since Trump’s election. In the course of the industrial cycle, once the money market starts to tighten it is only a matter of time before recession arrives. The recession marks the end of one industrial cycle and the beginning of the next.

As it became increasingly likely that Trump could actually win the Republican nomination, the Fed put on hold its earlier plans to raise the fed funds rate multiple times in the course of 2016. The normal practice is for the Federal Reserve System to raise the fed funds rate repeatedly in the later stages of the industrial cycle. Indeed, this is central banking 101. These policies are designed to hold in check credit-fueled “over-trading” (overproduction), as well as stock market, land and primary-commodity speculation that can end in a crash with nasty consequences.

If the central bank resists raising interest rates too long by flooding the banking system with newly created currency, this leads sooner or later to a run on the currency, which is what happened in the 1970s. The result back then was stagflation and deep recessions with interest rates eventually rising into the double digits, which effectively wiped out the profit of enterprise—defined as the difference between the total profit and the rate of interest. At the end of the stagflation in the early 1980s came the explosion of credit, sometimes called “financialization,” the aftereffects of which are still with us today.

Under the present dollar-centered international monetary system, the repeated failure of the Federal Reserve System to push up interest rates would lead to the collapse of the U.S. dollar and the dollar system. The inevitable result would be a financial crash and thus the military and political crash of the U.S. world empire, which has held the capitalist world together since 1945.

In this cycle, however, the Federal Reserve waited more than eight years after the outbreak of the crisis in August 2007 before it began to push up the federal funds rate. The reason for the prolonged delay is that the current U.S. economic expansion, which began in 2009—representing the rising phase of the current industrial cycle—has been the slowest on record.

During this extraordinarily feeble expansion, the U.S. GDP has grown, with some fluctuations, at a rate of only about 2 percent a year. This performance contrasts sharply with the double-digit U.S. GDP rates of growth that occurred during the expansion of 1933-1937 and again after the severe but brief recession of 1937-1938 during the Great Depression. Far more than in the 1930s, the current era has been marked by “secular stagnation” in the U.S. as well as Europe and Japan.

Beginning with the panic that broke out with the failure of the giant Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, the Federal Reserve engineered an explosion in the dollar-denominated monetary base designed to stave off a new super-crisis that could have been much worse than the one in 1929-1933. This effort succeeded in preventing the crisis from reaching the extremes the earlier super-crisis did in most countries—but not all. For example, the crisis/depression that began in the U.S. in 2007 has been far worse in Greece than the crisis of the 1930s was in that country. But even in countries where a full-scale repeat of the 1930s Depression was avoided, the post-crisis stagnation has been far more stubborn than anything seen in the 1930s.

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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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