June 2012        

Opinion

Explaining the crisis: A response


In the April and May issues of Socialist Voice an opinion article raised a number of questions about an article on economics in the January issue. It proposed that the review of Andrew Kliman’s book The Failure of Capitalist Production counterposed the “declining rate of profit” thesis with the Monthly Review thesis of “financialisation.” It proposed in turn that distinctions between the competing explanations are exaggerated and are reconcilable. Yet this misses important points of demarcation. Furthermore, the subsequent counter-explanation advanced has a number of shortcomings for understanding crisis in capitalism.

Too much or too little surplus value?

The first matter is whether there is indeed a significant difference between the Monthly Review approach and those scholars who emphasise profit cycles. Fundamentally, the Monthly Review thesis represents a theory of “under-consumption.” As a consequence, this thesis views the cause of economic crisis in capitalism as emanating from the excessive exploitation of workers: that is, crisis and stagnation are a result of the rate of surplus value being too high. According to the “under-consumptionist” thesis, capital has appropriated lots of surplus value but it cannot ultimately find enough buyers for the vast quantity of commodities it is able to produce; the spread between surplus and variable capital is highly skewed towards the former.
     So it is a problem of investment realisation. The result is either acute economic crisis at periodic intervals or long-term economic stagnation, with many workers and machines lying idle. This is pretty close to the Monthly Review thesis, although it should be noted that in their explanatory framework they do not use core Marxist economic categories such as surplus value or indeed the labour theory of value. In contrast, other radical economists, from Henryk Grossman to Andrew Kliman and Alan Freeman, have tended to emphasise a different set of variables in explaining capitalist crisis.
     Crucially, this school sees the cause of crises as being the exact opposite of what the Monthly Review school and other under-consumptionists claim it is. The “falling rate of profit” school holds that it is an insufficient rate of surplus value that leads to acute capitalist economic crises. Too little, as opposed to too much, surplus value is being produced for the needs of the capitalist system. The problem is not that there is too much surplus value, with few profitable investment outlets, but the realisation of surplus value itself.

Conceptual demarcations matter

Conceptually, these two theses of crisis theory are completely opposed to one another. Furthermore, the two theses might lead to quite different political conclusions.
     The “under-consumption” thesis implies that if a more equal distribution of the national income can be achieved under capitalism—a lower rate of surplus value—the problem of crises and mass unemployment can be overcome within the capitalist system.
     This indeed was the position of Paul Sweezy, the intellectual founder of the Monthly Review school. Writing in 1995, he argued:
           If my analysis of the performance of the U.S. economy during the last sixty years is accepted, to what policy conclusions does it point? . . . Public ownership of the means of production and planning to meet the needs of all the people [won’t be] a serious option . . . any time soon. The question should therefore be reformulated: what could be done within the framework of the private-enterprise system to make it work better?
     The second indispensable change needed to make the private-enterprise economy work better is a redistribution of wealth and income towards greater equality. We live in a period in which an unprecedented and growing share of society’s income accrues to corporations and wealthy rentiers, while the share of the underlying population stagnates or declines.
     This implies a permanent imbalance between society’s potential for adding to its stock of capital and its flagging consumer power . . . Would the capitalist class as a whole, in extremis, be willing to give up half of what it has to save the other half? I have a feeling that the fate of the private-enterprise system may depend on the answer to this question. [“Reminiscences,” Monthly Review, May 1995.]
     There is indeed continuity with this political stance in the current efforts of Monthly Review to project a “21st-century socialism” that, unpacked, is more radical social democracy rather than Marxian socialism. The “falling rate of profit” thesis, in contrast, implies that the only way out of a capitalist crisis is through an increase in the rate of exploitation of workers.
     Here too the crisis problem might in theory be overcome within the framework of capitalism, but only by greatly increasing the rate of surplus value. This, however, implies an explosive intensification of the class struggle (which is precisely what we are seeing now in Ireland and beyond).

Misspecifying demand

Aside from this, other issues are evident in the opinion article that are worth revisiting. One is the argument advanced about the notion of falling consumption capacity on the part of the working class, which in time—admittedly in confluence with other variables—leads to a generalised crisis of capitalism. Intuitively, there is some logic to this argument: if workers’ pay or share of income (or both) are falling, personal consumption demand will tend to fall (unless it is offset by something else, such as credit).
     This reduces profits, and sets the stage for an economic crisis or recession. However, this thesis is problematic when we consider that a decline in personal consumption demand can be offset by a rise in another component of demand, for example investment demand. Investment demand consists of spending by businesses to build such things as factories, machinery, and so on.
     So if investment demand rises, and the increase is large enough to offset the fall in personal consumption demand, a decline in wages, or workers’ share of income, does not lead to a decline in total demand and therefore does not lead to an economic crisis.
     Of course “under-consumptionists” would counter that investment demand cannot grow faster than personal consumption demand in the long run: ultimately, consumers have to buy the stuff. This, however, ignores the fact that a significant section of demand within capitalism is internal to capital, i.e. capitalists selling to each other within “closed circuits.” Mining companies, for example, sell iron to companies that use the iron to make steel; steel companies sell the steel to companies that use it to build mining equipment; companies that build mining equipment sell to the mining companies.
     The production of consumer goods and the demand for them typically rises less rapidly than the production of and demand for investment goods. Indeed, if we take the empirical evidence from the world’s largest capitalist economy—the United States—this is what has happened. Since the 1980s (and up to 2009) real investment demand or productive demand grew 73-fold; personal consumption only 15-fold (Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, www.bea.gov). So investment demand grew five times as rapidly as consumption demand. Thus consumption demand is not wholly pivotal to the workings of capitalist crisis.
     Furthermore, productive investment has not stagnated irreversibly since the late 1960s but has fluctuated in line with wider profit cycles.

Financialisation, fictitious value, and the dangers of one case

Questions might be raised about the idea that capitalism has reached a new stage, defined not by commodity production but by money simply creating more money (M—M′). If this is so, then we are no longer living in a capitalist mode of production.
     Capitalism is commodity production (which is why the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital begins with commodities). If capitalism is not predominantly characterised by M—C—M′ exchange, then it ceases to exist as we know it. If we live in an economy predominated by M—M′ then we live in a fairyland of fictitious value, where everything is ethereal and no value is created.
     Of course the only reason M—M′ can exist is if it is grounded on M—C—M′. No economy can exist on M + M′ alone: fictitious value at some point must have recourse to real value in the economy, real value being based on commodity production. In any case, much of the financialisation activity over the last twenty years or so has been rooted in actual productive investment, in utilities such as telecoms, for example, which belies the notion that financialisation must exclusively be indicative of some profit strategy at odds with real production.
     Ultimately, financialisation and financial crisis have always accompanied capitalism (tulip mania in 1637, for example). Financialisation at some level indeed is necessary for lubricating the system of productive capitalism. To claim that it represents a new stage is to simply conflate what has been a process of intensification brought about not by stagnant productive investment (which is subject to cyclical waves) but by the deregulation of capital flows in the search for greater profitability.
     Of course it is well known that financialisation profits have risen sharply compared with non-financials in the United States; but there has been an even more significant increase in profits from overseas production. Profits from productive sectors overseas have quadrupled since the 1950s, while financial profits have only doubled. (Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, www.bea.gov).
     In any case, we should be cautious about extrapolating evidence from the single case of the United States to make wider generalisations about the trajectory of international capitalism. Capitalism at the global level operates unevenly; and while American capitalism might be faced with a secular decline in profitability, this is hardly true of some of the other large economies in the world: India, Brazil, Russia, or China.

Conclusion

The thesis advanced in the opinion article, while containing much validity, is not without problems. Firstly, the conceptual demarcations between the Monthly Review school and the “falling rate of profit” thesis are not as superficial as implied. This is true at both the conceptual and the political level.
     Secondly, the wider argument about the trajectory of contemporary capitalism and the genesis of the present crisis is based on three problematic features. The first is arguably based on a misspecification of effective demand by inflating the importance of personal consumption to capitalist growth.
     The second problem is arguably based on misconceptualising fictitious value within capitalism; the third is based on an exaggeration of the significance of financialisation as a new stage within the development of capitalism. [NC]

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