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Schematically, the Marxist tradition separated into two large tendencies: on the one side, underconsumptionist theories linked or not to theories of disequilibrium between departments of capitalist production in the reproduction of capital; on the other, theories of the value-functioning of capital founded on the overaccumulation of capital vis-à-vis its valorisation, that is to say on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. On the one side, all the social democratic orthodoxy or dissidence from Bernstein to Rosa Luxemburg passing through Kautsky and Hilferding, on the other, a minority of theoretical snipers like Grossman and Paul Mattick. If this crisis obliges us to return to these theories, it is because we are confronted by two obvious facts which seem to contradict each other: on the one hand the only coherent Marxist theory of crises is the one developed by Paul Mattick, i.e. the one based on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall; on the other hand thiscrisis is a crisis of underconsumption(it israther than “appears as” such). Our principal theoretical confrontation, as productive confrontation, can only engage with the theses of overaccumulation of capital vis-à-vis its capacity to valorise itself, i.e. with Mattick and his two main works on the question: Marx and Keynes: The Limits of the Mixed Economy (1969) and Economic Crisis and Crisis Theory(1974).
Mattick affirms the fundamental Marxian thesis on crises but in a one-sided way:
From a Marxian point of view, the various existing theories of crises which categorize the problem as either underconsumption or the overproduction of commodities – the one implying the other and both involving the realization problem – only describe the externals of the capitalist crisis mechanism. The periodic overproduction of the means of production and of commodities prevents the realization of surplus-value is, in Marx’s view, only an overproduction of means of production that cannot serve as capital, that is, cannot serve for the exploitation of labor at a given degree of exploitation. And though the overproduction of commodities is an obvious fact, Marx’s theory is not a theory of underconsumption. According to Marx, capitalist production is, and must always be, at variance with the consuming power it brings forth – in periods of prosperity as well as in periods of depression. It is not a ‘consuming power’ growing in proportion to production which explains the increasing social demand for consumption goods in the upswing period of capital development; it is merely the greater number of workers now employed.
It is true that Mattick is reprising here a paragraph of the chapter on The Internal Contradictions of the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall:
Over-production of capital is never anything more than overproduction of means of production – of means of labour and necessities of life – which may serve as capital, i.e., may serve to exploit labour at a given degree of exploitation; a fall in the intensity of exploitation below a certain point, however, calls forth disturbances, and stoppages in the capitalist production process, crises, and destruction of capital.
We should note that in this reprise Mattick totally neglects the phenomenon of “relative immiseration” inherent to phases of expansion.
However: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as opposed to the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as though only the absolute consuming power of society constituted their limit.”
From the moment when, with the real subsumption of labour under capital, underconsumptionism no longer had any other horizon than the management under different forms of the capitalist mode of production, a revolutionary theory of crises had to be anti-underconsumptionist. Mattick never historicises his point of view, he is content to say that it is the correct Marxian point of view on crises, and that all others are in error. But the “return” to the falling rate of profit is carried out in the critique and the polemic against underconsumptionism and it remains indelibly marked by it in Mattick’s theory. To return in these conditions to the theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall was to develop it in a one-sided way. Mattick thus enclosed himself in an opposition created by himself (in particular historical and ideological conditions). The theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall imposed itself as the only one able to account for the historical character of the capitalist mode of production and of its obsolescence in a situation where exchange with the outside of the system had become marginal and the reproduction of labour-power was integrated into the reproduction of capital.
The choice of this theory didn’t come about by default, it is the only one to resituate the exploitation of the working class at the heart of the contradiction of the system as dynamic and limit of the system itself. The proletariat is understood as a revolutionary class not because it is the suffering class and the best-placed executor of a sentence that the system pronounces against itself, but because it is its own existence and its own role in the system which is at stake in this contradiction which manifests itself in crises. Mattick didn’t go as far as de-objectifying the contradiction which is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, but everything was in place for it to be done.
The problem that we have with Mattick is that he remains locked in within this dichotomy, within this antithetical partition in the theory of crises between the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and workers’ underconsumption (the question of realisation). “The tendency [of the rate of profit to fall] …must at all times appear in the actual events of the market, albeit in modified form”: for Mattick, the question of realisation is always relegated to the manifest realm of appearance vis-à-vis a true essential reality which is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move – these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means – unconditional development of the productive forces of society – comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.”
Marx doesn’t establish here a contradiction between capitalist production and “the real social needs” of society (as Mattick maintains in Economic Crisis and Crisis Theory), he merely establishes that the capitalist mode of production is a transitory one. “Real social needs” are not one term of the contradiction; on the contrary, just for the purposes of clarification as to what is being spoken about here and what is not. The contradiction presented here is internalto the capitalist mode of production: the limits within which the preservation and the increase in value have explicitly as their foundation “the expropriation and immiseration of the great mass of producers”, and these limits enter into conflict with the “unlimited extension of production”.
The relations of distribution and consumption which Marx presents as the other term of the contradiction are explicitly the specific antagonistic relations of capitalist society:
The conditions of direct exploitation, and those of realising it, are not identical. They diverge not only in place and time, but also logically. The first are only limited by the productive power of society, the latter by the proportional relation of the various branches of production and the consumer power of society. But this last-named is not determined either by the absolute productive power, or by the absolute consumer power, but by the consumer power based on antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduce the consumption of the bulk of society to a minimum varying within more or less narrow limits. It is furthermore restricted by the tendency to accumulate, the drive to expand capital and produce surplus-value on an extended scale. […] But the more productiveness develops, the more it finds itself at variance with the narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption rest.
These few lines are essential because here overaccumulation and underconsumption are more than related, they are identified as one single contradictory process. The theory of underconsumption is false if one is content to say that the crisis has as its origin the underconsumption of the masses – i.e. if one doesn’t justify the latter by the tendency of accumulation, i.e. if one maintains the terms of the contradiction in an external relation the one to the other; in fact the tendency to the unlimited character of production and the underconsumption of the masses are each reciprocally the raison d’être of the other: production comes up against the narrow limits of the relations of consumption which are themselves limited by the very characteristics in which the tendency of accumulation is developed. The theory of underconsumption is false and does not permit one to pass to a single theory identifying underconsumption and overaccumulation (the theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall); the theory of overaccumulation is correct, on the condition that it is developed outside the dichotomy of the two theories, and it allows the passage to a single theory.
The development of the social productiveness of labour is manifested in two ways: first, in the magnitude of the already produced productive forces, the value and mass of the conditions of production under which new production is carried on, and in the absolute magnitude of the already accumulated productive capital; secondly, in the relative smallness of the portion of total capital laid out in wages, i.e. , in the relatively small quantity of living labour required for the reproduction and self-expansion of a given capital, for mass production. This also implies concentration of capital.
If we follow attentively the course of development of the social productivity of labour, we notice that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall inherent in this development is identical to the relative decrease of the part paid out as wages, whereas the mass of production and of the surplus-value that it contains increases in proportion with the development of this social productive power. It follows that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is equally a problem of realisation.
Too many means of labour and necessities of life are produced at times to permit of their serving as means for the exploitation of labourers at a certain rate of profit. Too many commodities are produced to permit of a realisation and conversion into new capital of the value and surplus-value contained in them under the conditions of distribution and consumption peculiar to capitalist production, i.e., too many to permit of the consummation of this process without constantly recurring explosions.
As a general rule the theory of overaccumulation is satisfied to limit itself to the first sentence, to the first part of this quote, forgetting the rest, which is, it is true, only a repetition of the first formulation, a repetition which Marx carries out because his aim is to show, against the economists, who accept an overproduction of capital, that a general overproduction of commodities is not only possible in the capitalist mode of production, but further that it is the very same thing as this overproduction of capital. We are not dealing here with a formulation, which, as Mattick suggests with embarrassment, “represents either an error of judgement or unclear writing”.
The growth in the mass of the profit which permits accumulation, and therefore the absolute increase in the number of wage workers despite its relative fall, will continue to make the rate of profit fall. Indeed, it is only exceptionally that accumulation does not affect the relation between constant and variable capital. Accumulation aims at an increase in productivity, and, for a new method of production to increase productivity, it must transfer to the commodity, taken by itself, an additional portion of value for the wear and tear of fixed capital smaller than the portion of value saved by the reduction in living labour.Thus, contrary to appearances, the accumulation made possible by the growth in the mass of profit despite the fall in its rate, even if it multiplies the simultaneous labour days, does not increase workers’ consumption in relation to the total production; indeed this is the case as the rate of profit continues to fall. In the process of accumulation, the fall in the rate of profit is always identicalto the restriction of workers’ consumption. The overaccumulation of capital, that is to say the shortage of surplus-value, in the very mechanism that leads to it, is not only identical, but also has its raison d’être in the necessity of workers’ underconsumption in relation to the increased mass of production. A scarcity of surplus-value on one side simply means a plethora on the other. The scarcity of surplus-value in terms of its accumulation is its plethora in terms of its realisation; there is no primacy, no causal relation between the two: the fall in the rate of profit is the reduction of necessary labour in relation to the increasing mass of capital which is itself necessary to counteract the fall in the rate of profit by increasing its mass.
Too many commodities are produced to permit of a realisation and conversion into new capital of the value and surplus-value contained in them under the conditions of distribution and consumption peculiar to capitalist production…
Marx is in no way speaking of an “absolute power of consumption” here, but rather of the “power of consumption within a given framework of antagonistic conditions of distribution”.
When Mattick explains that one can neither draw from such remarks a crisis theory having an underconsumptionist basis nor make of the realisation of surplus-value the main problem of the capitalist mode of production, he is absolutely right, but only if we accept the separation between the two theses (overaccumulation and overproduction). Within the framework of this separation, Mattick is totally right against the underconsumptionists, but it is the separation that is wrong.
Over-production is specifically conditioned by the general law of the production of capital: to produce to the limit set by the productive forces, that is to say, to exploit the maximum amount of labour with the given amount of capital, without any consideration for the actual limits of the market or the needs backed by the ability to pay; and this is carried out through continuous expansion of reproduction and accumulation, and therefore constant reconversion of revenue into capital, while on the other hand, the mass of the producers remain tied to the average level of needs, and must remain tied to it according to the nature of capitalist production.
Marx might seem to take a purely “underconsumptionist” point of view here, but what is referred to is the overproduction of capitalthrough the “constant conversion of revenue into capital” and the rise in the constantpart of capital (this specification, because it is not explicitly formulated, makes Marx’s argumentation appear as purely “underconsumptionist”) in this conversion because “the mass of producers must necessarily remain limited to an average level of needs because of the nature of capitalist production”. The overproduction of capital isan overproduction of commodities, in relation to the necessary restriction of workers’ consumption that is necessary to increase the accumulated wealth. This restriction is the basis of the overproduction of capital, so long as this restriction is also seen as the continuous growth of constant capital in the “reconversion of revenue into capital”.
It is enough to introduce the parameter c(constant capital) to unify the theory of crises, i.e. to have a single theory of the crisis at the level of individual capitalists and of all the agents of the production and the circulation, and the crisis at the level of the general laws of accumulation of global capital. The contradiction between “production for production’s sake” and “the limited relations of distribution and of consumption” does not simply derive from the fact that “too much revenue was transformed into capital” (that would be a purely underconsumptionist thesis) but from the fact that, in this transformation, the part corresponding to c grows.
What is crucial is that it is possible to explain the identity starting from overaccumulation, but that it is also possible to do it starting from workers’ underconsumption. The aim of capitalist production is, with a given mass of wealth, to make the surplus-product or the surplus-value as great as possible. This aim is reached thanks to an increase in constant capital which is relatively faster than the growth in variable capital, or through the setting in motion of the greatest constant capital possible with the smallest variable capital possible. The same cause (the search for the greatest surplus value possible) produces an increase in the mass of profit and a fall in its rate through the reduction of the funds from which workers take their income. In the reproduction of capital, this reduction becomes the cause preventing the conversion of commodities into new means of increasing the exploitation of labour. In this sense, the relation between overproduction and overaccumulation becomes the following: it is because the fund of workers consumption is constantly reduced in relation to the mass of production, thus starting from underconsumption, that we arrive at the overproduction of capital, that is to say the impossibility of renewing the exploitation of labour in an efficient way. We are not referring here to the possibility of an inversion in the direction of causality in the interplay between overproduction and overaccumulation, because there is no causal relation between the two terms: they are the same phenomenon under two different aspects; through each one we are brought face to face with the other.
In the same chapter of Capital dedicated to “the law’s internal contradictions” (a fundamental chapter as far as crisis theory is concerned), Marx writes:
The more productivity develops, the more it comes into conflict with the narrow basis on which the relations of consumption rest,
and a little bit further:
Periodically, however, too much is produced in the way of means of labour and means of subsistence, too much to function as means of exploiting the workers at a given rate of profit. (ibid., p. 367)
What follows this last quote is then explicit:
Too many commodities are produced for the value contained in them, and the surplus-value included in this value, to be realised under the conditions of distribution given by capitalist production, and to be transformed back into new capital, i.e. it is impossible to accomplish this process without ever-recurrent explosions (ibid., p. 367)
If we can produce a unified crisis theory at the level of the static (even if the latter is always a process), we need to put it to the test of the dynamic, i.e. the phases of expansion, reversal and crises, and of “ways out of the crisis”. In the dualistic and confrontational framework in which Mattick functions when he exposes the “true” crisis theory, one of his strong arguments, which he uses several times in Marx and Keynesas well as in Economic Crisis and Crisis Theory, consists in saying that the disproportionality between production and consumption is not only functional during the “normal” course of capitalist accumulation, but also that the “way out of the crisis” is a sharpening of this disproportionality.
In the expansion phase, the fact that the disproportionality is functional means only, as we showed, that the rise in the organic composition of capital is just as much functional. Underconsumption and overproduction of capital are the same contradiction which is immanent to accumulation and which breaks out in crises.
The moment when the cycle of expansion turns into a crisis can first be understood in the relation between rate and mass of profit. If we look at this process in which the fall in the rate is compensated by the increase in capital, one condition for it to succeed is that the mass of total capital must increase faster than the rate of profit falls. Furthermore, not only must the increase in the mass of capital be faster than the fall in the rate of profit, this is not enough. Within a rising organic composition, in order to use as much variable capital, or even better, more variable capital, the constant part of capital must proportionally increase more than the total capital necessary to compensate the fall in the rate of profit by its mass. Therefore, a larger and larger fraction of revenue is transformed into constant capital.
Thus the process of compensating the fall in the rate by increasing the mass of capital, which explains simultaneously the possibility of prosperity and the necessity of it giving way to crisis, is, once more, absolutely identical to the growing disproportionality between production and consumption through which the process can continue, and to this very disproportionality between production and consumption that breaks out in the crisis. The immanent contradiction which had been developing in prosperity breaks out in the crisis. The absolute fall in the profitability of capital breaks out in the crisis: too much revenue has been transformed into capital, and, to be more precise, into constant capital; overaccumulation isoverproduction, overproduction isoveraccumulation.
Sometimes, Mattick comes close to this unification of the crisis theories:
The general competition thus leads to a more rapid growth of the constant versus the variable capital […]. It is this very process that makes possible the realization of surplus value by way of accumulation, without respect for the restriction of consumption this presupposes. Surplus value becomes new capital, which in its turn produces capital. This process, senseless as it is, is actually the consequence of a mode of production oriented exclusively toward the production of surplus value. All good things come to an end, however, and this same process finds its nemesis in the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. At a certain point the realization of surplus value by accumulation is halted, when accumulation ceases to yield the surplus value necessary for the continuation of the process. Then it suddenly becomes apparent that without accumulation a part of the surplus value can not be realized, since demand is insufficient to transform the surplus value lying hidden in the commodities into profit.
But two pages later, Mattick puts forward the following hypothesis:
If the amount of surplus value created in production was great enough to hasten accumulation even more, the increased consumption would be no hindrance to further accumulation but could grow together with it.
It should be said that this hypothesis is not coherent because of “the restriction of consumption this (accumulation) presupposes”. Mattick comes often very close to a unification of the crisis theories, but the fundamental dualism in which he functions always makes him retreat slightly when he thinks he has gone too far.
We must now examine the question of the “way out of the crisis”, because it contains one of Mattick’s main arguments in favour of the pre-eminence of overaccumulation over the overproduction of commodities, the latter seen as a secondary effect.
Against the underconsumptionist theory, Mattick insists on the fact that crises end not by a decrease but by an increase in production and that this increase is due to a heightened exploitation of labour. The realisation of surplus-value takes place through a new impetus given to accumulation and Mattick stresses that the curbing of the crisis takes place through an increased imbalance between the production and the realisation of surplus-value, between production and consumption: “(To overcome the crisis) more of the social labour must fall to capital, less to the workers.”This is for Mattick the definitive argument disqualifying underconsumptionist theories. In a non-unified crisis theory, this argument is peremptory.
It is the parameter c(constant capital) that should be examined because it is the one which unifies the crisis theories. The way out of the crisis implies that, in the crisis itself, two processes are taking place: first, an increase in exploitation, that is to say in the rate of surplus value (s/v), second, a devalorisation of constant capital, both fixed and circulating (raw materials, etc.), a phenomenon to which Mattick does not give the attention it deserves.What results is a restoration of the rate of profit “from both sides”: a rise in surplus value, fall in the value of constant capital and even of variable capital (the crisis has had an effect on the level of wages). The devalorisation of chas no lower limit, and it is possible to take over a company for a token one Euro or Dollar. As for the fall in v, it is limited by the bare survival of the workers. If cand vboth been devalorised, the devalorisation of cis superior to the devalorisation of v. From this results not only a fall in c+v, also a fall in the organic composition of capital, this being reinforced by a very important phenomenon in the way out of the crisis: a concentration of devalorised capital.
A large part of the nominal capital of the society, i.e., of the exchange-value of the existing capital, is once for all destroyed, although this very destruction, since it does not affect the use-value, may very much expedite the new reproduction.
The capacity of capital to absorb a certain quantity of labour and therefore to valorise itself depends on its use value and not on its exchange value. The same capital can have been divided by ten in terms of its exchange value and still set in motion the same quantity of labour. During the crisis, the devalorisation of the two fractions of productive capital do not obey the same laws; the devalorisation of calways tends to be greater than the devalorisation of v.
We previously tried to show that it was the evolution of c(the rising organic composition) which identifies the tendency of the rate of profit to fall with workers’ underconsumption (and vice versa). The way out of the crisis comes through a rise in the rate of exploitation and not through the giving out of money to workers, but the organic composition of capital is modified in favour of v. Accumulation resumes, but the part of revenue that society transforms into constant capital has fallen. Indeed, the way out of the crisis does not come from a increase in workers’ purchasing power, as the underconsumptionists would have it (and this would imply an absurd situation in which workers were able to buy back a part of the surplus value that was extorted from them) but the rate of profit is restored by an increase in the surplus value andby a modification of the organic composition of capital which reduces the part of revenue transformed into constant capital. In this way the disproportionality between consumption and production has not been abolished, but the restoration of the rate of profit is identical to the growth, in relation to total production, of the part of revenue assigned to consumption.
We must now sum up this long discussion on crisis theory. The imbalance between the mass of production (in terms of value) to be realised and the consumptive power of society really is an imbalance to the extent that, if production cannot be realised, that is to say if it cannot function as additional capital (transformed into cand v) at the required rate of profit, the reason for this lies in workers’ underconsumption, i.e. in the relative and/or absolute reduction of v(variable capital) in relation to c(constant capital). The same phenomenon, which is the rise in the organic composition of capital, is on one side a fall in the rate of profit and on the other side a structurally necessary reduction of workers’ consumption. The latter, i.e. the capitalist relations of distribution, the law of the wage, is by definintion the law of the rising organic composition. Workers’ underconsumption (in relation to the value produced) and fall in the rate of profit are absolutely identical. Workers’ underconsumption means the necessity of increasing the part of production necessary for accumulation under the form of constant capital and the reduction of variable capital; that is to say that the very mechanism of capitalist accumulation is by definition a imbalance between the consumptive power of society and the growth in production. This means (to say it in another way) that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is substantially identical to workers’ underconsumption in relation to the growth of production according to the laws of capital.
The question of realisation and the problems of circulation are not a consequence of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall; the halt in accumulation provoked by an increased mass to be valorised is only the growing imbalance between vand cin the division of production between the part that is consumed and the part intended for accumulation, an imbalance that reaches a limit-point. The growth in the part of production intended for accumulation, that is to say, the rise in cand the fall in v, is, on the one hand, the very process of the fall in the rate of profit and, on the other hand, it is this imbalance between the mass of the value produced and the consumptive power of society according to the laws of distribution of the capitalist mode of production that are only the reciprocal movement of cand v(to the extent that society can be said to consist only of productive workers and capitalists, which is not the case, fortunately for the surplus value eaters). This growing imbalance is itself absolutely identical to the rise in the organic composition. The crisis brought about by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is by definition and by cause underconsumptionist crisis which is itself given, i.e. it onlyexists, because it is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. We are here beyond something that isand that manifests itself as(Mattick). What is considered at the level of realisation is nothing else than the rise in the organic composition which itself is nothing else than the result of the growing imbalance between vet c, an imbalance which has its roots in the necessary growth of surplus value which is in its very cause the reduction of v: the root of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
The scarcity of surplus value in relation to accumulation is its plethora in relation to its realisation: there is no primacy here. The fall in the rate of profit is the reduction of necessary labour in relation to the rising mass of capital and the multiplication of production to compensate for the fall in the rate by the mass. Not enough surplus value is produced: this means that this surplus value can not be realised. Indeed, the insufficient production of surplus value means that the conversion into cwas too great, it also means (by definition and simultaneously), absolutely and relatively, that the necessary labour that regulates the consumption of the mass of the producers has fallen relatively and absolutely too low (there is no cause-effect relation between the two, the scarcity of surplus value is identical to its plethora).
The ultimate cause behind all real crises always remains the poverty of the masses and the restriction of their consumption, which is only the fall of the rate of profit when the growth in the rate of surplus value no longer compensates for this fall. The ultimate cause behind all real crises remains always the fall in the rate of profit which is only the poverty of the masses and the restriction of their consumption.
It is fundamental to produce the unity of crisis theories in order to define the current crisis. The current crisis is a crisis of the wage relation, both as the capacity of capital to valorise itself and as the capacity of the reproduction of the working class as such. It is a crisis of realisation, a crisis that exists as underconsumption (exists asrather than manifests itself as). There are three reasons for this: low productivity, a low level of investment, and the modalities of exploitation of labour power. This last point sums up the others because it is the synthesis of all the characteristics of restructured capitalism. Because it is restructured capitalism specifically that has gone into crisis. Whether one considers the transformations in the labour market, the modalities of the exploitation of labour power in the immediate labour process, the social and collective reproduction of this labour power, the financial globalisation of capital, the transformation of surplus value into additional capital, the contradictions and the limits currently exploding are the same ones which previously constituted the dynamic of the system and which defined the conditions of its development. To consider this crisis as the late outcome of the crisis of the beginning of the 70s ignores the restructuring of capital which took place, that is to say the change from one cycle of struggle to the next.
Probably the definitive account of Marx's crisis theory (although it argues that this is a misnomer), Clarke follows the progression of Marx's writings on crisis with an astute eye for the peculiar object and method of Marx's analysis.
Fictitious Capital and the New-Fangled Schemes of Public Credit
The following is a talk given by Michael Egoavil at the Left Forum 2009 panel “Marx’s ‘Capital’ and the Economic Crisis”. It was originally posted at http://marxisthumanistinitiative.org/2009/05/06/fictitious-capital-and-credit-schemes/. Michael can be reached at email@example.com
Today I’m going to be discussing Marx’s theory of fictitious capital and its relation to real capital accumulation. Along the way I’m going to focus on Marx’s seldom-read analysis of a French bank known as the Credit Mobilier, in which this theory played a fundamental role. I’ll conclude with some thoughts on how this relates to socialist politics today.
In the third volume of Capital, Marx discusses what he calls “fictitious capital” – what we know as “securities.” Essentially these are titles to streams of income, which are treated as commodities and bought and sold on financial markets. There are significant differences between types of securities. Some represent corporate debts, as with bonds, some represent consumer debts, as with mortgage backed securities, and others represent capital investments, as with shares of stock. But the common aspect of all these different securities is that they all give their owners a right to a stream of income, hopefully leaving them with more money than they started off with. The security owner therefore looks upon his security as capital.
While securities might seem like capital, there is a key difference. Unlike an investment in real capital, by which I mean, means of production and labor-power, an investment in a security is just the purchase of a legal title. The legal title gives its owner a claim on a stream of income, but doesn’t itself produce any income. The income is produced elsewhere.
Furthermore, this legal title can be resold on a secondary market. So for example, a shareholder might sell his share to a third party. When he does this, no money passes through the hands of the enterprise that originally issued the share of stock. The same thing can be done with a bond or a mortgage-backed security. No new loan or capital investment is made by these subsequent transactions; there is only a transfer of a claim on income to a new person. But because others are willing to pay for these claims on streams of income, they continue to circulate on the market long after their issuers have actually received their capital or their loans.
Marx has three reasons for calling securities “fictitious capital”.
- The first reason is specific to shares of stock. With the creation of shares of stock, it appears as if capital has doubled; as if capital is not only the real capital that firms possess, but also the property titles created to represent that capital. So for Marx, shares of stock are fictitious capital because while they merely represent real capital, they also seem to multiply that capital.
- The second reason Marx calls securities “fictitious capital” is that their value can fluctuate in ways that are entirely independent of the real capital that they represent. A change in interest rates, a rise or fall in profits, the inability of a borrower to repay debt – all of these things lead to a change in the market-value of fictitious capital without at all effecting the value of a firm’s real capital – the cash the firm has on hand, its machinery, buildings, and so forth. The value of all those things can remain constant while the value of a firm’s stocks and bonds rise or fall.
- And lastly, a security may never have represented any capital at all. Take the case of residential mortgage-backed securities. The income that accrues to their holder is derived from the repayment of a home loan. The home was not capital for the homebuyer – he did not create surplus-value with it. It was just a dwelling. So the initial sum of money advanced was never used as capital at all, although the holder of the security views it as his “capital”.
The ideology of the St. Simonians
Now I’m going to turn for a moment to Marx’s writing on one of the world’s first investment banks, the Credit Mobilier. In 19th century France there was a school of socialism based on the thought of Henri de Saint-Simon. St. Simon had a utopian, almost religious view of credit and the way in which it could be used to create socialism. His chief complaint about capitalism was its blind and accidental distribution of the means of production. Essentially he was getting at what Marxists refer to as the “anarchy of the market,” or the fact that production in capitalism does not occur in accordance with a plan. For St. Simon, this lead to inequality and economic crises.
St. Simon’s solution to these problems was to direct investments and distribute means of production in accordance with a plan. For the St. Simonians, the body that would actually distribute the means of production would be what they called a “general system of banks.” Essentially this would be a top-down organization of banks, functioning both as government and as economic planner, owning the means of production and distributing them in the interest of all (or at least what it thought was the interest of all). To this end it would direct credit to industry. It would keep interest rates low, increasing the profits of the industrial capitalists and promoting industrial development. The bankers would react quickly to changes in demand, allocating capital where it was needed and removing capital from industries in which there was an oversupply. Economic crises would be eliminated through bureaucratic oversight.
The Crédit Mobiliér
The founders of the Société Générale du Crédit Mobilier, the brothers Isaac and Emile Pereire, were at one time prominent members of this movement. They had already left it by the time they founded the Mobilier in 1852, but they still retained much of its ideology, especially with regard to credit.
And it is basically with St. Simonian goals in mind, and with Napoleon Bonaparte’s approval, that they created this joint-stock bank. The bank’s name, which translates to the General Society of Mobile Credit, was derived from the notion that it would “mobilize” society’s savings, or “floating capital.” These idle savings were called “floating capital” because they were not tied up (or “fixed”) in any specific enterprise, and therefore could be invested at short notice. At that time in France, the banking and credit systems were relatively underdeveloped. There were large savings, but they were not deposited in banks that could then loan the money where it was needed. The savings were simply hoarded, making credit scarce and interest rates high. So at the same time as there were large amounts of idle savings, capitalists complained of a lack of money with which to fund their investments. The Pereire’s wanted to remedy this situation by directing this “floating capital” into the Mobilier and then advancing it to industry at low rates of interest, using the Mobilier as a conduit between French savers and French industrialists. To do this, the Mobilier would issue stocks and bonds, as well as accept deposits, and then use this borrowed money to buy up the stocks and bonds of industrial enterprises. French savings would thus be “mobilized,” lifting France out of its industrial backwardness.
By purchasing all of French industry’s outstanding stocks and bonds the bank hoped to become the main creditor and proprietor of all of French industry. In place of all the old securities issued by industrial enterprises, the Mobilier would issue its own bonds. There would be no more securities held by the public except those issued by the Mobilier itself. All of the old capitalists would therefore become mere rentiers, receiving the interest payments from the money they loaned to the Mobilier, which would now be France’s sole industrial capitalist.
Marx on the Mobilier
Marx wrote a series of articles on the Mobilier for the New York Tribune in 1856. He argued that because the Mobilier was only allowed to become involved with other joint-stock companies, its influence would hasten the development of new joint-stock companies. He wrote that these companies further developed what he called “the productive powers of association.” They pool together the capital of many individual capitalists, or “associate” them, and place it into the hands of the Board of Directors. This centralization creates the possibility of giant new productions that are beyond the means of individual capitalists.
Furthermore, the Mobilier was an implicitly state-supported bank – while not owned by the government, it was generally assumed that the government would support it if necessary, something like the case of the government-sponsored enterprises today. Marx even predicted that Napoleon would eventually have to nationalize the bank to prevent its collapse. He therefore argued that this centralization of industry into the hands of the Mobilier was simultaneously the centralization of industry into the hands of Bonaparte.
It is worth contrasting Marx’s attitude toward the prospect of nationalization with a view common on the left today. Marx’s view was very common-sense: he was hostile to Bonaparte, so he was hostile to the prospect of nationalization. As the French state was a bourgeois state, its reasons for nationalization would have nothing to do with socialism. In fact, Marx argued that Bonaparte’s reason for nationalizing the credit system would be “to save property from the dangers of Socialism!” (Marx 1856: 16, emphasis added).
On the other hand, much of the left goes in a very different direction. While you’re hard pressed to find supporters of the American state on the left, it’s not at all uncommon to find supporters of the American state nationalizing industry. And while it’s rarely imagined that the state-controlled army and police serve the working class’ interest, there is a common belief that a state-owned banking system would.
But I digress.
As it so happens, the Mobilier’s goal of seizing upon all of French industry never came to fruition. Napoleon never gave the bank the authorization to issue large sums of long-term bonds, and so the bank never obtained enough money to buy up the bulk of French industry. But it nevertheless did play a major role in the French economy, promoting the development of French industry and credit.
In his articles on the Mobilier, Marx used his theory of fictitious capital to explain its economic role. Key to Marx’s analysis is his claim that the bank would not actually “mobilize” France’s floating capital, but would do the opposite, fixing it. His reason for saying this is inherent in his understanding of fictitious capital.
As we’ve seen, the way in which the Mobilier would promote industrial development was through investment in joint-stock companies involved with heavy industry. The Mobilier would buy up stocks and bonds of industrial enterprises, especially railway companies. But because money was invested in industry through the medium of securities, or fictitious capital, there was an illusion that the capital thus invested was “mobile,” or to use the modern terminology, “liquid.” The individual investor can always transform his share of stock into a sum of money – all he has to do is sell it. But Marx pointed out that this has nothing to do with the “mobilization” of society’s real capital. Money invested in heavy industry is fixed. This money only returns as the fixed capital wears out, as it depreciates. This process can take years. The fact that the investor can sell the bonds or shares of stock that represent that fixed capital does nothing to change this fact. The sum of money given to the seller of a share of stock does not come from the capital that the share represents but rather from someone else’sfloating capital – from another saver. All that is mobile is the property title, the share of stock. Therefore, the so-called “liquidity” of capital investment arising from the development of joint-stock companies means nothing more than that a large part of society’s floating capital is pressed into the stock exchange.
For Marx, this stock exchange was inherently speculative. Because a share’s price fluctuates completely independently of the real capital it represents, a shareholder has no inherent interest in his company’s real capital. He is primarily concerned with his shares’ price. In the Mobilier’s case, the directors created new enterprises purely with the intent of speculating on the price of the new shares issued. Real capital investment was thus subordinate to securities speculation.
Altogether, then, the role of the Mobilier was to sink all of French society’s floating capital into heavy industry, for the purpose of speculating on the stock prices of the new companies created.
Marx therefore writes:
“[The Crédít Mobilier’s] tendency is to fix capital, not to mobilize it. What it mobilizes is only the titles of property…The whole mystery of the Crédit Mobilier is to allure capital into industrial enterprises, where it is sunk, in order to speculate on the sale of the shares created to represent that capital.” (Marx 1856: 133)
For Marx, this sinking of French society’s floating capital in order to speculate on the stock market played a fundamental role in the French economic crisis that began in 1856. The savings of small agricultural producers were increasingly transferred to the Mobilier, which pressed this money into the stock and bond markets. This removed capital from agriculture, causing a decline in agricultural productivity. This was exacerbated by bad seasons, causing a spike in the price of agricultural products, and raw material shortages in certain spheres of production. This entire process therefore resulted in disproportions between industries and an overexpansion of fixed capital.
So for Marx, while the development of joint-stock companies did serve to increase overall investment insofar as it associated many individual capitalists, it did not serve to allocate capital in a more flexible or mobile way. It in fact it served to misallocate capital, and to turn real capital investment into nothing more than an accidental byproduct of stock market speculation.
Fictitious Capital today
The way in which the credit system and the development of securities (or fictitious capital) tends to misallocate capital is fundamental to understanding the most recent collapse. The development of fictitious capital based on housing loans – the infamous mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations – these were promoted as a means of making society’s investment in housing more liquid. Banks would be more willing to extend credit to homebuyers, keeping credit cheap, because they wouldn’t have to worry about the long-term prospects of their loans – they could just sell them off to other enterprises. These enterprises would then pool the mortgages together and issue securities on their basis. Other institutions would buy these mortgage-backed securities and create new securities on their basis – the so-called Collateralized Debt Obligations (or CDOs). Other institutions would sometimes buy these CDOs and create CDO2s, or CDOs based on CDOs. And occasionally the process would go even further, giving rise to CDO3s, or CDOs based on CDOs based on CDOs. And here we see what Marx meant when he said in the third volume of Capital that:
“With the development of interest-bearing capital and the credit system, all capital seems to be duplicated, and at some points triplicated, by the various ways in which the same capital, or even the same claim, appears in various hands in different guises.” (Marx 1981: 601)
“… everything in this credit system… is transformed into a mere phantom of the mind.” (Marx 1981: 603)
And we also see why he referred to interest-bearing capital as “the mother of every insane form” (Marx 1981: 603).
All of this “duplication” and “triplication” certainly made the position of the mortgage lenders more “mobile” and “liquid.” The mortgage lenders were able to continually extend loans and then sell them off to other enterprises, giving them money with which to extend more loans once again. Combined with a housing price bubble, this greatly increased the allocation, and as it turns out, misallocation of capital to the housing industry. Huge numbers of houses were built, the prices of all sorts of fictitious capital soared, and the savings of not only the capitalists, but also the workers, were pressed into the speculative bubble. Today, after the collapse of this bubble, it is obvious that much of this “fictitious capital” was a claim on wealth which never existed and never was to be created. Mortgage-backed securities have been severely devalued, many of the riskier CDOs are literally worthless, and stock prices have fallen by nearly half, while the real capital invested in home construction still sits there in the form of unsold homes clogging the housing market and preventing a recovery in housing prices. The nature of the tremendous “mobilization” of capital in the last several decades can now be seen in its full glory.
The “New-Fangled Schemes of Public Credit”
And lastly I’d like to focus on an idea that has become rather common on the left today, even amongst Marxists, that we need to demand that the US government nationalize the banking system and create new banks run as “public utilities.” The case of the Credit Mobilier provides a lot of insight into this issue.
We should not assume that there is anything inherently socialistic about the nationalization of industry. As Marx pointed, this nationalization may very well represent an attempt to save capitalism. This is what is on the agenda today. While the US government is currently shying away from nationalization, there is no doubt that if it does end up nationalizing major banks this will be nothing more than attempt to save the capitalist system as a whole. It will not represent a creeping socialism. The enterprises will simply be cleaned up and resold. At most it will represent an infringement on the rights of individual share and bondholders, but only to the extent necessary to keep the financial system as a whole from collapsing. Whether or not you support this, there can be no doubt that this has nothing to do with socialism.
As regards the idea that the state should start new banks which lend directly to industry – this is also a misguided goal. There is nothing about a government-backed bank which makes it less inclined toward speculative pursuits than private enterprises. The history of government-backed banks shows this. The Credit Mobilier, as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, were started with the support of the state to promote certain goals which weren’t being accomplished by the free market – whether industrial development or homeownership. The way in which this was done, in both cases, was to increase the liquidity of the lenders by promoting securitization – or in other words, the creation of fictitious capital. This is the way in which interest rates are kept low and there is an abundance of credit for social purposes. But in both cases we see that the markets in fictitious capital are inherently speculative, and that government-backed enterprises act similarly to private enterprises, contenting themselves with participating in the bubble until its inevitable collapse.
This is why the supposedly socialist demand for a re-creation of the credit system is misguided. It completely ignores the inherently speculative nature of fictitious capital, and the fact that fictitious capital arises naturally on the basis of the credit system. It imagines that we can have a credit system without speculation and crises. It commits the same error as the St. Simonians, which Marx said “deluded itself with the dream that all the antagonism of classes must disappear before the creation of universal wealth by some new-fangled scheme of public credit” (Marx 1856: 15). The present crisis is only the most recent demonstration that this dream is in fact a nightmare.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III (Harmondsworth,
Penguin Books, 1981).
Marx, Karl. “The French Crédit Mobilier” (1856), in vol. 15 of Marx and Engels,
Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1986) 8-24.
Marxist Method, Working Class Struggle and Capitalist Crisis
In discussing the Marxist method one has to begin by saying that it applies only to political economy, its history and its philosophy - it would be absurd to argue that there is a Marxist physics, music, art or literature.
We have to re-establish respect for Marxism, given how Stalinism made it an intellectual laughing stock by using it in a caricature form. Stalin’s declaration that the saxophone was a bourgeois instrument is obvious nonsense, but more sophisticated Stalinists were making parallel statements in fields where the nonsense was often accepted, because so few Marxists were able to refute such absurdities.
Even non-Stalinists have produced nonsense in the name of Marxism. In part that arises from the power of Marxism itself. Marxist analyses are able to get to the heart of the matter relatively quickly and painlessly. For that reason Marxists need to be careful. Marxism does not absolve us from making a painstaking study of the question under discussion, obtaining all the relevant facts, reading the various analyses and making sure what we say is coherent.
Two fundamental premises: First, Marxism is realist. It assumes there is a real world beyond our consciousness. It looks to understand that real world and takes the view that there is nothing that we cannot explain. There is nothing unknowable or held only in the mind of a god.
Secondly, Marxism starts from humanity. Gramsci explicitly puts it in terms of a humanity looking at itself in its own interest; a humanity arising out of nature and operating within nature. On the one hand, we are looking at the operation of human society over time and trying to understand it. On the other hand, humanity is the highest expression of the universe - it is the cosmos become conscious of itself. That consciousness is not there in the beginning, as with a god, or with Hegel, but evolves in and through humanity.
Causation and explanationThe concrete is the concrete of many determinations, as Marx says. In other words, everyday empirical reality must be understood as a part of necessary relations, of a chain of causation and of driving causes, or of a redefined teleology. Marxists ask the question why. Why did that happen? Why does this or that exist? What is the meaning of such and such? Why did it come into being? Why did it cease to exist? Marxists are not satisfied with simple description.
What do we mean by causation? Besides simple, efficient causation - A causes B - we also see a driving cause, as for instance the driving cause behind change in society. But we do not start from our conclusion in its entirety. We do argue that society must evolve into one which is planned and that that is preordained, since it is the movement from a spontaneous, random, chaotic, unordered society to one which is consciously planned by everyone in the society. That is the natural order of history moving from unconsciousness to consciousness, from a society governed by nature to one in which nature is controlled in the interests of humanity. However, we do not say that everything in that movement or even in the goal is preordained. The progress to that end has gone through and will go through many more deviations, while the exact form of that society is unknown. It is not like the little tree in the acorn, as Aristotle saw it.
Above all, in looking at explanation we look at the origin of things and their evolution over time. All things come into being, mature, decline and die. In that process a new entity subsumes whatever has ceased to exist. When a star dies it becomes a neutron star or a black hole, and it shoots off much of its substance which then begins life anew as part of a planet. The same is true of society and of all entities.
This means that Marxists argue that, underlying immediate empirical reality, there is an essence which is determining that reality. The essence provides the reason why that empirical reality comes into being and why it is in motion. It governs the motion involved but it does not exhaust the content of what it is governing. It provides limits and a source of movement. The laws of existence are embedded in that essence. It does not mean that one can reduce the empirical reality to those laws. But it does mean that those laws provide the necessary dynamic to all existence. So the law of gravity is crucial to understanding why we can walk and not float, why the earth goes around the sun, etc. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy or the amount of disorder in the universe is increasing.
Similarly the law of value governs capitalism. The production of surplus value and so self-expanding value, capital, provides our understanding of capitalism. However, although we can see the phenomenal form of profit, we cannot immediately see the form of surplus value itself, or understand that it is the basis of capital. The word ‘essence’ implies that there are forces operating below the surface which we have to understand and which we can understand.
Laws, reduction, abstractionBecause we understand change to be a long-term, evolutionary process - coming into being, maturing and ending - we have to discover the laws underlying the process, and hence the contradictions and the poles of those contradictions. Paradoxically that must mean that we have to discover not just the source of change but also its opposite - the source ofstability - of the system, and hence the nature of the system in its movement. Stability and change are necessarily two sides of the same coin.
When we speak of an essence underlying reality, it does not mean that we can reduce the one to the other. They are different levels of operation and understanding. The concept of levels, which are irreducible, is a more general aspect of understanding and method.
We cannot reduce politics to political economy even though we argue that politics and the state can only be understood in terms of political economy and are determined by political economy. The laws of political economy determine the movement of our society, but they do not determine who will be prime minister. They did not determine whether the English Revolution would win or whether there would be a restoration.
Clearly the form of the surplus product - and hence property forms - are important for laws and the theory of laws, but the legal system has its own logic which, for instance, cannot simply be reduced to value.
Laws, are therefore in the essence, as opposed to the phenomena which we see around us. We cannot physically see the laws but we can see their effects. A law is a necessary relation. A law is the working out of the poles of a contradiction. The law of value therefore describes the interrelation between exchange-value and use-value.
Our task is to get to the essence of any part of reality that we are discussing. In other words we have to look at what is crucial or critical to the issue. That will be the thing which provides its dynamic. Just as stars, photons, or the ultimate strings of energy are self-motivating and self-energising forces, so too value and capital are self-motivating and we have to grasp what makes them such, in order to understand political economy.
Marxism is not mono-causal. But it does argue that there is a fundamental set of categories causing the change, which we have to discover. For instance, the Iraq war was not set off by oil, or by the neo-conservatives, though both were necessary. It was the overall political-economic situation which is pre-disposed to war. There is often a trigger for a particular event, which is mistaken for the fundamental cause.
This process of discovery is the process of abstraction. Put simply, it is the finding of the crucial source of change in the entity. Marx contrasts the analytical method and thedeductive method or the method of abstraction.
Why do contradictions provide the necessary motion? Because the poles of the contradiction mesh and interpenetrate. When they conflict, the system crashes, even if for a short time - but it is a necessary aspect of the relationship. The two sides are both antagonistic and necessary to each other and in the process of interacting each is changed. Eventually, the original forms are outdated and have to give way to their own descendants, which mesh together to form a new subsuming entity. The task of Marxism is to discover that contradiction. That is not easy. It cannot be the beginning of the investigation.
In political economy the key is the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value. Marx begins by pointing out this contradiction, one already noted by Ricardo. But unlike Ricardo Marx argues, first, that they are contradictory and, secondly, that they are both forms. Use-value is the form taken by human needs, and exchange-value is the form of value, which in turn is congealed human labour. Underlying these two forms lie the contradiction between concrete and abstract labour.
More simply, in investigating history or political economy we first and foremost try to find the particular form, as Aristotle and Marx put it, or the category which is particular to the mode of production or phase of that mode of production. We already have Marx’s injunction that it is the particular form of the extraction of the surplus product which is the clue to the mode of production. In other words, we look at the class relation and try to find the way in which the ruling class exploits the lower classes, showing how that relation changes and what effects the changes have. No one has done that for any mode of production other than capitalism.
Base and superstructureHow would this relate to the superstructure of society? If one was exploring the politics, law, art, music, etc? The answer is that Marxism does not argue that there is a Marxist music, as Stalinism did. It also does not claim that there is a Marxist physics or chemistry, although it does argue that it stands on a realist philosophy and so rejects the positivism of much of modern physics. Only a physicist could develop a Marxist cosmological theory or such a theory consistent with Marxism.
The same principle applies. The source of change in thought and social institutions lies in the changing form of the surplus product and its various results. Classes emerge from the nature of exploitation and the social and political forms and rules which are introduced and maintained follow from that. Does that mean that the superstructural forms are determined by the base in the last instance, as Althusser put it? No, that is ridiculous. There is no meaning to ‘last instance’, or at any rate the term is so broad as to leave the concept of determination contentless. The base will determine the fundamental parameters within which thought and art can function and will determine the sources of crucial changes in the disciplines. Thus the state is the organ of repression precisely because it is there to maintain the existing form of exploitation, and a change in political economy leads to changes in the state - becoming more bureaucratic, more repressive, inventing new forms of authoritarian rule, etc.
In the case of art, it follows its own rules and is far more complex, but it has historically been bound within various forms of authoritarianism, as under the clericalism of feudalism or under Stalinism. In capitalism, the individual is bound within a repressive psychology manufactured by the capitalist environment and hence art must reflect that fact in its own way. We cannot say that this or that poet or violinist is a capitalist poet or violinist. Artists will transcend their background to reflect the real emotions and relations in the society, which in turn are determined by capitalism.
On the other hand, there is nothing to stop profoundly reactionary artists, like Leni Riefenstahl, producing great technical work with a repulsive content. A reactionary like Balzac did in fact produce novels of great genius, as Marx noted. However, we should note that, although Balzac wanted to go back to before the French Revolution, his work is profoundly humanist and is a genuine reflection of the emotional and generally human problems faced by humankind. That is because art is not political economy. It is not a consistent analysis, but something quite different. Art is art, following its own rules and its own forms, but they evolve within a particular socio-economic formation, with all its profound and complex consequences.
Within modern capitalism an artist who is profound - as opposed to a technical genius - can come from any class and have a wide range of views. The most profound work will be a deep critique of the present, looked at purely from the perception of the artist as an artist, as in the case of Balzac. To truly understand such an artist one has to fully understand the art itself. From this point of view there is nothing wrong with the slogan, ‘art for art’s sake’, since it must lead to the same result as an art which sets out to understand and remake society, as long as the latter is the real motivation of the artist and is not imposed on the artist. The point, quite simply, is that all great art of the present time and indeed all great contemporary thought has to be critical, if it is independent, and follows the trend of thought to its conclusions. From this analysis it follows that the method of analysis of the non-social science disciplines in the superstructure are not the same as that of political economy.
Marxists have been much confused around this question of base and superstructure. According to the Althusserian answer, that the base determines the superstructure in the last instance, anything can happen without any relation to the base except in some final way, which is itself undetermined or unknown. So artists have their horizon broadened by the invention of new pigments, new canvases and the opportunity for new travel in modern capitalism, as well as the coming into being of new arts like photography and cinema. That is true but it is not at the heart of the problem.
Clearly artists, like everyone else, are influenced by the prevailing moods, ideas and political swings of the times. It is easy to see how Courbet was influenced to the left but the reverse - the period of reaction - which succeeds the defeat of the Paris Commune, which sees the rise of the impressionists, cannot simply be said to produce a reactionary art. That would be a nonsense. It is not hard to see how artists might prefer a different form in such a period but the exact relation requires an artist, or an expert on art, to analyse it.
However, there clearly is a relation between the period and the superstructure, and hence the political economy and the superstructure, and it is ongoing, but complex. When we say that there is a two-way interrelation, but the political economy is determining, then we are saying that the dynamic comes from the political economy. It is obvious that the politics of the governing party might shift the political economy one way or another. In other words, consciousness plays an important role, but it can only do so within limited parameters. That was made clearest in Stalinism, where the slogan of putting politics in command used by Stalin and more explicitly by Mao was a refusal to accept the real limits of ‘socialism in one country’.
Socialism does alter this situation and hence, the closer we get to socialism, the more the subject-object relation changes. In other words, more and more of the society becomes amenable to conscious change. It becomes increasingly true that the market is subject to organised control or proto-planning. Technology itself becomes increasingly ‘planned’ and controlled. Nature itself is increasingly moulded by humankind. That is clear in both a positive and negative sense.
In other words, any analysis of superstructure is extraordinarily complex, requiring to understand firstly the political-economic dynamic of the period; secondly the prevailing moods and swings in consciousness and their relationship to the first aspect; thirdly an analysis of the subject in its own terms; and finally the putting together of the whole.
Generalisation versus abstractionThis approach must be contrasted with the bourgeois method of generalisation (models are series of generalisations). Generalisations have their place, but subordinate to that of abstraction as defined. The limitation of simple generalisations is that they provide a static snapshot of the society or part of the society or entity at any one time. The snapshot may or may not provide the information needed for a profound understanding. It is a matter of luck. Why? Generalisations take a period of time or a series of situations and look at what is common and then strip the rest of the variables out of the equation. That does provide some information, but everything then depends on whether one has a period of time or a series of situations which are typical of the entity. If they are not the generalisation is dubious.
If we take the period 1940-76 in western Europe as typical of capitalism and generalise on that basis, we end up with the welfare state, growth and full employment as necessary features of capitalism. If we take generalisations over the last 200 years we might conclude that capitalism raises the standard of living but imprisons more and more people. Everything depends on what we understand by capitalism, and its mainspring.
If we start from the proposition that it is the extraction of surplus value and so self-expanding capital, then we say that we cannot produce such generalisations because the form of capital itself has changed over time, not least under the influence of the class struggle. In other words, we cannot easily produce a generalisation across different phases of capitalism and it is certainly very difficult to do so when we are talking of a capitalism in transition away from capitalism itself.
Paul Sweezy in his Theory of capitalist development argues that the method of abstraction is that of the method of successive approximations. The latter is a series of progressively more limited generalisations. In contrast, Marxism has to examine the causation of change by looking at the different causes and then deciding which was crucial. The causes themselves must relate to Marxist categories and they, in their turn, to contradictions and so laws.
The fact that Marxism looks for the driving cause, the crucial factor causing change does not mean that it argues for a single cause for everything and anything. There will usually be particular conditions which allow the driving cause to operate and they are part of the change of causation, even if they are not crucial. Thus, as I stated earlier with regard to the Iraq war, oil, the neo-conservatives advisors around Bush, al Qa’eda, etc were all important in helping cause the war, but in themselves, separately or combined, were not crucial. It was the necessary drive of the political-economic system towards war which propelled it to find a weak enemy.
Marxist method has, therefore, a hierarchy of causes. Without this, the result is an eclecticism which paralyses thought.
Critical viewpointMarxists reject the value-free approach. We say there is no such thing. Why? Because there is always an implied goal in any analysis of society. It might be the maintenance of the status quo, which looks neutral because it is not advocating change, or it might be the restoration of what formerly existed, which is regarded as the preordained nature of things and therefore natural and not ideological. All aspects of present-day society have some function and hence one can argue that they are not parasitic or declining or wasteful. If one abolishes advertising then most newspapers and news outlets will fold, so one can argue that advertising is necessary for the production of news. It is true that within modern capitalism it is necessary.
However, if one starts with a critical approach to reality, to modern society, arguing that all things must decline, be overthrown over time and be replaced, we can argue that there are alternatives ways of organising society in which advertising is unnecessary. Of course some things are trivially related to capitalism and can be abolished within capitalism itself and a so-called unbiased attitude might reject those things as wasteful. But even in that case there is an implied value judgement that waste is wrong.
The second reason to reject the value-free approach is that Marxism argues that our values are derived from our analysis of society itself. Of course, we start from the assumption that human society ought to be ordered in the interests of humanity. Beyond that everything else follows. Humanity is necessarily social. It necessarily in its own interests engages in social labour and has evolved a human nature which requires social labour. Hence a society that allows labour to become humanity’s prime want is both desirable and necessary. Contrariwise, those who talk of a value-free analysis have to reject an approach based on the needs of humankind and smuggle in a series of class-based values.
Here lies the importance of history and political economy. If one starts from a simple, superficial description rather than looking for the sources of changing reality, one will miss the real historical function of categories and aspects of society. Marxists, therefore, reject positivism and pragmatism and always look at the historical evolution of the society or part of the society. Marxists have to look at historical evolution - history and political economy - in order to understand society.
We cannot understand the present without its history. The political economy of the present is based on the political economy of the past and future. A purely technical political economy which describes a kind of perfected if repulsive set of social relations is simply nonsense. In the Soviet Union, in the early 20s there was precisely such a debate - whether one had to look at political economy in an historical perspective or not. At the same time, a simple empirical reading of history without political economy is rudderless and often worthless. A history of kings and queens can tell you very little. The critical variable in all history is the form of the extraction of the surplus product, from the point where it came into existence.
Categories and class struggleMarxists have to look at the way in which the class struggle has intertwined with the evolution of the political-economic categories. Any attempt to emphasise the importance of one over the other leads to a false understanding of reality. The class struggle must play the crucial role in overthrowing the old social order, but it is the decay of the categories themselves that permits that. Of course, the categories do not act by themselves.
Capital is a social relation, but the form of capital itself evolves from the petty bourgeois artisan, away from merchant capital, away from agricultural capital to industrial capital and then to finance capital. Abstract labour only reaches its full form in industrial capital. The evolution of the serf payment from labour service or in kind to the money form is crucial. On the other hand, without the bourgeoisie actually taking power in its own name after Charles I and finally, in 1688, eliminating the conservative forces of the time, capitalism would not have been able to evolve. We can see that in the case of Spain, which remained mired in an early form of capitalism. While humanity’s struggle with nature - technology - permits the development of new social forms, they do not evolve automatically.
It is not easy, therefore, to write a Marxist history. Marx gives an example in the last chapters of capital. At first sight history might appear relatively easy, involving the recording of events over a period of time. It would require much detailed sifting and checking of records, but for a Marxist that would only be one stage of many in which the crucial driving categories and their operation would have to be revealed. And they would have to be shown operating in relation to the class struggle. Equally it is not easy to write a good political economy of the present time because the changes of the form of the surplus product have to be discovered, described and their relationship to other categories identified. This is both historical and analytical (that word not being used in a philosophical sense).
Unfortunately much so-called Marxism is either Stalinism and its derivatives or mumbo-jumbo. One cannot simply call up dialectics and fit things into it. One has to know the entity involved and discover what is driving it and then consider how that relates to the categories of the contradiction and how they interpenetrate. Unless one has a thorough knowledge of the subject, as well as a good understanding of Marxist method, one will produce either nonsense or at best a very tentative stab at the subject.
A few brief examples:
Sweezy, mentioned above, rejects dialectics and so produces a mechanical Marxism in which the quantity of socially necessary labour time, and so prices, underlie a crisis theory of underconsumption. Contradiction plays no role. The theory is left Keynesian in method as well as in content.
Mandel was a Marxist. In Late capitalism he outlines his method. He provides a list of crucial categories like the rate of profit, etc, all of which play a role in movement of the economy. He does not prioritise them. They are all operative, in his view. What is missing is an attempt to show how they relate to the laws of capitalism and how they relate to each other. It is not possible to avoid a statement as to what is dominant in the period of which he is writing. Lenin effectively argued that it was the decline of capitalism that was the chief feature driving it to action: that meant the rise of monopoly, the fall in the rate of profit, disproportionality, underconsumption, finance capital, etc. In other words, he has a series of features, but they are subsumed into the dialectics of capital. Mandel is adrift - with an eclectic method.
Preobrazhensky in his work also discusses method. He argues the need for abstraction: the need to look at capitalism in the first instance in its pure form, abstracting from the other forms existing; the need to abstract in order to discover the essence of things. In a non-capitalist economy the division between essence and appearance is not there and hence the method is different.
An example of pure nonsense is the work of Stalin. On the one hand, he produced apologetics on the Soviet Union, but on the other he and the Stalinists had to justify it with a crude view of Marxism - so we get a simplistic view of crisis. Stalinists like Maurice Dobb produced a more sophisticated version. Note that Stalin’s writings, with their vicious attacks on the real Marxists could not convince anyone who was an honest intellectual, but they did serve an emotional role which continues to the present day. The antagonism to Trotsky, among some Marxists, cannot be explained as being rational but is rather a leftover from the earlier period.
Popper makes great play of the argument that Marxist propositions are not susceptible to disproof. That is nonsense. For instance, the statement that the socio-economic formation in Russia was semi-Asiatic, as argued by Trotsky, is provable or not by, firstly, whether it provides explanations of historical changes which are superior to others; secondly, whether its consequences lead to predictions which prove true; thirdly, whether the theory is internally consistent and coherent; and, fourthly, in comparison with alternatives, whether the theory is superior in the first three.
In this instance, it involves a comparison with the alternative theory - that Russia was feudal. Feudalism was not generally highly centralised, with an autocratic despot. Here we see the difference between Marxism and bourgeois method. For Marxism, feudalism has to be defined by its mature form. Russia simply did not fit into the usual categories, so had to be described sui generis, which is what Marx, Plekhanov and Trotsky did. Stalin, however, needed it to be called feudal, because he was afraid of the comparisons with Stalinism itself.
In the frontiers of the sciences today, there is no absolute proof in the sense that an object can be isolated and its qualities tested. Instead there is an indirect proof shown by predictions of experimental results which become possible over time. Theories rest on their explanatory power above all, which then leads to predictions. However, it can be very difficult to disprove such theories until there is an alternative paradigm or some new fact of the universe proves inexplicable within the theory.
Marxist theory has this kind of proof or disproof.
Potential for working class struggle
Let us begin with a very brief history of the labour theory of value.
Adam Smith used a particular labour theory of value - a command theory, in which the value of the product is determined by the labour-time the finished product could command. This confuses the labour-time required for the production of the item and wages paid to workers, and hence is tautological. It also obfuscates costs and profit, and so the question of exploitation.
Ricardo produced a more logical labour theory of value, based on labour-time expended on production, but he did not have a theory of labour-power or an explanation of profits. The next logical development was a relation between labour-time/value and wages/profits and so payment of labour-power and the origins of profit and exploitation.
A labour theory of value necessarily leads to a humanist and critical view of the economy and indeed various writers after Ricardo attempted to argue the need for workers to receive a reward commensurate with their full labour input. Ricardo himself was in favour of a wide extension of the suffrage.
Hegel and MarxMarx, in the first edition of Capital, begins by talking of use-value and exchange-value: “The crucially important task, however, was to discover the inner necessary interrelationship between the form of value, the substance of value and the magnitude of value” (quoted by II Rubin Abstract labour and value in Marx’s system www.marxists.org/archive/rubin/abstract-labour.htm). He uses the word “form” in its philosophical sense, originally derived from Aristotle. But he is using Hegel’s concept of contradiction - the antagonistic poles or forms interpenetrating one another. There is here a difference in interpretation, with some people arguing along Aristotle’s lines rather than Hegel’s. This is, of course, very different from Ricardo, who also saw the two different sides of the commodity, without seeing a contradiction between them.
There is a further difference between those who go along with Hegel’s concept of contradiction and those who take Marx’s derivation. Marx’s most Hegelian-like work is theGrundrisse. It is also his most profound. Rosdolsky, in writing The making of Marx’s ‘Capital’, provided an important service to humanity, but his work is more Hegelian than is warranted. What do we mean by that? Hegel sees an evolution of ideas through the operation of contradiction over time - ultimately beginning and ending up with a god, Idea or prime mover. Marx begins with the contradiction between humanity and nature, and between humanity’s social form and its needs, and ends up with humanity mastering nature and so returning to it in a state where an adequate social form has been found.
This is not cyclical, unlike in Hegel. It does not begin and end in the same place although there is the same drive at the beginning and the end. Thus there is a real working out of the categories, resulting in unpredictable stages and forms.
For Hegel it is a logical movement of ideas. There is not the same logic for Marx. A does not lead to B and so to C and D, etc. For Hegel the German state was the ultimate end. Communism is not the end, but a crucial precondition for further development, and its exact forms, as opposed to many features, are unknown.
In other words, progress is not neat and logical, but involves a series of unpredictable mediations. Put another way, there is no simple ‘capital logic’. There is an underlying system, contradictions and interacting, interpenetrating categories and laws in operation, but they do not follow an exact, inherently predictable path. Rosdolsky, like the capital logic school and others, tended to turn capital into a concept without materiality.
EssentialsThe essence of the labour theory of value can be put this way. The commodity form is the external appearance of capitalism. The essential basis of that form is that it is a product which is exchanged and hence has exchange-value. However, in order for it to be exchanged and hence demanded it must have use-value. So we have the two forms - the historical form of use-value common to all human products, and exchange-value, which is specific to capitalism as the dominant form of human production.
Each form has its own content and each stands as polar opposite to the other in the commodity. Human need and wants drive production, but the specific form of production under capitalism is driven by exchange-value, which subordinates human need to its control. Exchange-value determines prices. So what determines exchange-value? The answer is value, and value is determined by labour-time or, more accurately, socially necessary labour-time.
In explaining the labour theory of value, we start with humanity and not with nature. For human society - humanity working on nature - there is only one variable, and that is labour-time. All other variables are reducible to this.
Marx contends that value can be measured through socially necessary labour-time - by which he means labour-time that is at the typical level of technology of a given period. Labour-time itself is variable. It can be at different levels of intensity - people can work harder or less hard; there can be more skills or less skills. It is obvious that workers can be completely different.
In the Soviet Union, as I have pointed out, that was the case. You could not say that abstract labour existed there, because workers worked at their own rate in each factory, and each factory would work at a different rate.
Within capitalism, however, one has to assume, firstly, that there is an average level of technology. But the word ‘average’ here needs to be interpreted. This does not mean that you simply add up the machines and then divide by the number of firms. There is a typical level of technology, towards which all firms are pulled. Secondly, skills may have to be reduced to some measure to which the whole population of workers could be assigned. In other words, skilled labour is counted as worth so much more than unskilled labour. Thirdly, a typical intensity of labour, where workers work at a particular rate, is assumed.
For the labour theory of value to work at all there must be competition among capitals. Competition must exist to enforce the law of value, otherwise there would be monopoly pricing. The fact is that competition today has been radically reduced, and that has had a series of important consequences as to what kind of capitalism exists. Competition is not in the essence. Contrary to what Bob Brenner asserts, competition enforces the laws and is essential for the laws to operate, but it is not itself the laws. Marx makes this very clear in theGrundrisse.
Fluidity of labour is also essential to the labour theory of value. Workers must be able to move from one firm to another. In other words, there must be an atomisation of the workforce. Along with that there must be a reserve army of labour, otherwise the workforce cannot be controlled. Thus there is a homogeneous human labour-time, without which the concepts of labour-time and abstract labour are meaningless.
Marx’s theory of value is not about trying to work out what the capitalist’s profit is, or what the price of any particular commodity is. Nor is it usable for planning (although the elite tried to use it in this way in the Soviet Union). Nor is it meant for running a firm. Hence it is unusable by orthodox economists, directors of companies or planners.
What it is intended for, and only intended for, is to understand modern capitalism - how it is developing and how it can be overthrown. That was Marx’s intention in developing his theory.
Abstract labourAbstract labour is the most fundamental concept in Marxist political economy. It represents the reduction of the individual worker into someone operating at a similar rate and under similar conditions to other workers over the whole economy. It is only in this way that labour-time can actually be measured. Critically, abstract labour is the particular social form of labour under capitalism, as opposed to the social form of labour that existed before capitalism or what would exist under socialism. What is crucial in this - something not inherent in the labour process itself - derives from the need of the capitalist to quantify costs in order to exchange products at a particular value. It is an imposition on the worker in a particular form.
Abstract labour stands in direct contradiction to concrete labour, so underlying the contradiction between exchange-value and use-value - and that, of course, is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism.
Capitalists need to make a particular rate of profit and thus must obtain the requisite quantity of surplus value. To obtain value they must employ workers and the one aspect of their labour which is quantifiable is time worked. Hence the need for a given quantity of profit leads to a need for particular quantities of labour-time, with set proportions divided between capital and labour.
However, such quantities of labour-time must be comparable one with another. One worker must work in a similar way to another and where there are differences they must be reducible to a common standard. Without this condition workers would work at their own rate and labour-time would not be comparable. In that case profit would be arbitrary between enterprises, since both space and time would alter the accounting capacity of labour-time.
Hence workers are compelled to work in a manner established by the capitalist system itself, rather than in a way they would prefer. It is not their concrete ability to work, but rather their undifferentiated capacity to work, that counts. The ideal worker works quickly and efficiently, but also has the ability to change jobs flexibly. The logic of abstract labour is precisely this reduction of the worker to the level of a machine, operating tirelessly and perfectly over a given period and, with suitable adjustments, changing tasks or form of work as and when required. Not surprisingly, if capitalists are able to do so, they will usually replace workers with machines.
Concrete labour exists under all social formations. Abstract Labour is technically free labour, and by comparison the social form of labour in previous formations is unfree labour or directly dependent labour. Concrete labour maintains its form of individual concreteness throughout all social formations, although the exact form of that individual concreteness changes. Only under socialism can the individual fully master the concreteness of social labour: ie, use their talents to master nature to the full.
The point is that what is occurring here is the quantification of labour-time. Labour-time is not inherently quantifiable, but it has to be made so in order to give the capitalist a particular quantity of profit. So, to repeat, workers have to work in a similar way, so that they can be comparable. This is far from straightforward and the innovation is very recent.
Capitalism in its early formation, in my view at least, comes into being around the 12th century in the process of transition away from feudalism. In the earlier period down to the 15th century, there were few machines, but there was the individual production of artisans. Under those conditions, workers would work at their own rate - that was the nature of such production - and it would be very hard for any capitalist to ensure that they worked at the same rate, even if grouped together in the same warehouse, as it were. These small enterprises would be comparable one to another only to a very limited degree.
In other words, abstract labour comes into being under developing capitalism. Capitalism does not begin with abstract labour. When Adam Smith talked about the division of labour, he was actually describing the emergence of abstract labour in the latter half of the 17th century, when machine production was just beginning on a considerable scale. It is clear that abstract labour in its full form comes into being with machine production - in other words, only in the mature form of capitalism in the 19th century do we see the emergence of the full form of abstract labour.
In this new situation, the machine controls the worker and the worker is subject to the machine. On the production line the machine determines the speed of work and everything else.
It might be argued that production lines are now less common and that most people are now white collar workers. But the increasing integration of production as a whole (‘production’ being used in a very wide sense) does force people such as teachers, doctors and lecturers to work in increasingly similar ways. It is not an accident that they too are being proletarianised. It is above all the integration of production, along with the employment of machinery and technology, which allows that control, and the subjection of the individual to the economy itself - workers are compelled to work in a way that satisfies the capitalist system, rather than in a way which they would prefer.
As Hegel himself indicated, logic, therefore, leads to the replacement of the abstract labourer by the machine and hence to the ultimate abolition of the abstract labourer. Under capitalism that ultimate point is unlikely to be reached, but the increasing replacement of men by machines is part of the process of the socialisation of labour, which Marx, of course, regards as the underlying contradiction of the system.
That, in its turn, implies that labour is both more abstract and less abstract. On the one hand, the increasing mechanisation of production enforces the process of abstract labour, while, on the other, the elimination of workers from production puts workers in control of production instead of being subject to it.
Crucial aspectsAs a category, abstract labour is crucial in four respects.
First, because workers are reduced to the level of an abstraction, they are alienated both from their product and from the labour process. In other words, the concept of alienation which Marx put forward in 1844 is subsumed under the concept of abstract labour. Abstract labour is a form of alienation. Workers are alienated from their species-being: ie, estranged from themselves and so from their existence as human beings, from humanity. They are also alienated from nature itself.
Secondly, every worker is placed in a similar position within the capitalist system and within the division of labour. Hence the potentiality of a collectivity - the working class - is established. In other words, abstract labour establishes the class and is essential to the class. Collectivity cannot be established by fiat, by the declaration of any political party. It has to be made possible and Marx argued that this collectivity is established by capitalism itself, thus creating its own gravedigger, and it is abstract labour which performs this task.
Thirdly, as already mentioned, abstract labour is the basis of value itself. Alienation, the working class and value are the three fundamental categories which flow from abstract labour, in my view.
There is a fourth consequence: that under socialism abstract labour will be abolished and hence value. As I have argued, there can be no such thing as ‘market socialism’. The market, necessarily, must have abstract labour, otherwise it is not a market. If abstract labour and hence value are abolished, then ‘market socialism’ simply cannot exist. As a concept, it can be compared to fried ice.
Varying viewsHaving outlined the concept of abstract labour, which is the core of the labour theory of value, I want to discuss briefly some of the other theories and say why I think they are wrong.
To summarise my own view: abstract labour is real and has a physical existence. Work is reduced to homogeneous human labour-time. Capital as a quantitative entity trying to expand itself is constantly driving the homogenisation of human labour-time in its attempt to squeeze ever more surplus labour-time and hence surplus value out of the worker. This view - the physical existence of abstract labour and the fact that it is the basis of class - is contested. However, if it is not accepted, then some other basis for the existence of class must be provided, it has to be said.
The point of view that is most well known is familiar from the work of II Rubin - that abstract labour is not physical, that it only comes into being at the point of exchange. I cannot understand this argument. If it is not just in the mind, the material form by which abstract labour is formed in exchange has to be explained.
It has to be remembered that Rubin was writing during the period of the new economic policy in the USSR and that he was a former Menshevik. This meant, in this context, that he saw the USSR as capitalist. So for him the mass of small producers - peasants and artisans - were the basis of capitalism. Hence he defines capitalism as atomised production (a very peculiar definition). Such a form of capitalism could not have measurable and interchangeable quantities of labour-time in the same way as mass producing manufacturing industry. To maintain his definition, he, therefore, talks of abstract labour being established only at the point of exchange.
This, in my view, is wrong. In reality, in the USSR at the time the law of value was operating very imperfectly and in conflict with attempts to plan or organise the economy. The contrast is with an industrial economy with large numbers of workers subjected to the machine and each firm tightly integrated into the division of labour. In the latter situation workers are increasingly forced to work at similar rates - that is the nature of an industrial economy. It is not simply physiological, but socio-physiological, in that work rates are socially determined by the pressure of the ruling class and the resistance of the working class.
Rubin’s viewpoint has now been picked up quite extensively among Marxists. Logically, if it is argued that abstract labour only exists at the point of exchange itself, then it seems to me that it has to be argued that it is a concept imposing itself - and that is what people like Chris Arthur, for example, do argue. At that point, one might query his Marxism, but at least he has taken this view to its logical conclusion. Others do not go that far, but they insist that Marx is ambiguous and they too understand abstract labour as some sort of category that manifests itself at the point of exchange. They do not explain why this is so, but I mention it because their views have become quite influential.
The autonomists, on the other hand, try to marry class struggle with value. They effectively identify the category with the class, rather than associating or intertwining them. In this view, there is not, in fact, much room for abstract labour. For the autonomists, who contend that value is directly connected with class struggle, it is not a question of value coming into existence and workers then fighting for higher wages as against profits. This viewpoint is not really surprising, since the autonomist is really a type of anarchist.
Now, there is no question that class struggle is involved, but the question is how it is involved. I argue that abstract labour can exist without class struggle but its magnitude is determined through class struggle. Its form is not so determined and nor is its ontological status as the substance of value.
There is also a mechanical view of value, which identifies it with quantity of measurable, social necessary labour-time and then argues that short-term prices can be derived from that. This is a common viewpoint, one that is quite dominant among people attempting to understand Marxism, especially in the United States, because it is the kind of view associated with people like Paul Sweezy.
Finally, Moishe Postone has produced his own view which, in my opinion, is functionalist. Instead of labour being the subject as it evolves, he sees capital as the subject. The result is that abstract labour in fact dominates use-value and so concrete labour. For Marx there is a contradiction between concrete labour and abstract labour, but for Postone the latter dominates. So he is arguing that capital is the subject, not the working class. But if this is the case there is no reason for capitalism to come to an end.
These are some of the views expressed about abstract labour and the labour theory of value. However, for Marx, it is the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value that reflects the real contradiction between concrete and abstract labour, which in turn is a reflection of a longer running evolutionary perspective, in which the form of labour stands in contradiction with the needs of humanity.
This is, in my view, the correct perspective: that the law of value is the movement of exchange-value and use-value in their conflict and interpenetration.
Capitalist CrisisTo begin with, we must note that the term ‘crisis’ has been overused to a considerable degree. So much so that it is often not clear what it actually means. Many so-called ‘crises’ should really just be called downturns, or examples of political/economic instability - or else it may simply mean that the person using the term does not like capitalism.
I understand the term ‘crisis’ to define a situation in which the poles of a given contradiction have become so antagonistic, so pulled apart, that they cannot interpenetrate. This is the way in which Marx theorises crisis in the fourth volume of Capital - ie, the second volume of Theories of surplus value - where he describes the way in which the poles of the contradiction stand directly opposed to one another: the pulling apart of use-value and exchange-value, and their derivatives, such as sale and purchase, reaches a point where the logical result is that different parts of the economy can no longer mesh with one another and the economy begins to disintegrate until forms of mediation are established. This, of course, can never be an automatic process, because underlying it all are class relations and so class struggle.
DistinctionsIt seems to me that broadly you can speak about four forms of crisis. The first is the form of crisis which I have just described - a genuine crisis of the system itself. The term ‘crisis’ should really be confined to this phenomenon.
Secondly, people have described more and more regular cyclical movements in terms of crisis. I do not believe that capitalism is simply subject to a technical cycle of movement. In the last 50 or 60 years there have been cyclical movements which have not been crises. Engels in the 1890s spoke of cyclical downturns growing ever more deep. And he was right, of course, in terms of the great depression. Nonetheless, it is important to make the distinction between a genuine crisis and a downturn, which might or might not turn into a crisis.
Thirdly, there is the concept of the ‘long wave’, which is put forward by Trotsky in some detail - a concept which Mandel took up and propagated in his writings on late capitalism. I think there is a lot to it.
Fourthly, in my view, there are the crises induced by the decline of capitalism. They arise from the increasing difficulty of finding forms of mediation. This is often referred to as the ‘epochal crisis of capitalism’, or what the Stalinists used to call the ‘general crisis of capitalism’.
The crisis proper has to be understood as composed in the first instance of a triggering or immediate cause, which is normally accidental, such as an oil price rise or the collapse of so-called sub-prime mortgages. But underlying the trigger you find the fundamental causes of crises themselves: underconsumption, disproportionality and the falling rate of profit. These constitute a totality within the system, which is normally held together by finance capital. At the present time the evolution of finance capital has become highly extended, due to the tremendous over-expansion of credit. This can last for some time, but eventually the bubble must burst.
The present day has to be understood in terms of the switch to finance capital in the 1970s, followed by the massive downturn of 1981, with Reagan, in turn, vastly increasing expenditure on arms, using the excuse that the west had to squeeze the USSR. This excuse was nonsense - the USSR was consistently in a defensive posture. But Reagan’s action worked. The economy did take off. By 1986 some eight percent of GDP was being spent on arms.
In 1987, however, came the stock market crash, a genuinely frightening one, the first of its kind since the great depression of 1929. This crash was obviously linked to the ending of the cold war. Greenspan, who always understood that the system could go down, intervened by offering the market total financial support. But of course the underlying contradictions remained. In 1989 there was another downturn, from which Japan in terms of its deflationary impact has never really recovered.
Despite a subsequent upturn in the global economy in 1992-93, sustained through the manipulation of interest rates, the end of the cold war was decisive in terms of the fall in arms expenditure, which by 1997 had sunk to three percent of GDP. There were now huge levels of surplus capital, swinging from one thing to another - Asia, Russia, new technology, all of which crashed in their turn. This situation was partially alleviated with the Iraq war and another steep rise in arms expenditure.
Nevertheless, there remains a fantastic overhang of surplus capital, for which there is no solution. There is nowhere to invest all the capital at a reasonable rate of return. Consequently investment takes an ever more abstract and unproductive form. That is where we are today.
UnderconsumptionMarx discusses crisis in the first volume of Capital in the chapter on accumulation. He describes how the economy grows, the reserve army of labour is progressively depleted, wages increase and consequently profits decline. The capitalist class then replaces workers with machines and workers are fired, returning to the reserve army of labour. Profits go up. Workers are controlled, therefore, through unemployment. This paradigm is accepted by the capitalist class itself.
The immediate problem, it appears, is that if workers are fired, how are they going to buy the goods? This thinking can lead to a simplistic notion of underconsumption. In fact, so long as the surplus value generated by capital goes into fresh investment, it continues to create demand. Marx does in fact write that the source of crisis can be found in the fact that the workers get less than their product, but he puts the argument in a much more sophisticated form.
His argument simply focuses on the fact that workers are exploited. Of course, an underconsumption theory is not limited to Marxists like Luxemburg. It also fits with Keynes and reformism in general, with which it has always been historically associated - though it does not automatically follow that if working class partisans hold to the underconsumption theory they are reformists.
The idea is that the crisis is resolved by increasing wages, but what kind of capitalist is it that keeps increasing wages? Of course, one could argue that the way out of underconsumption is to increase public spending on such things as a welfare state, raising the standard of living and thus overcoming the problem of buying back the product, as it were. This argument is reformist and clearly totally unrealistic. The capitalist class is not going to pay workers higher wages voluntarily. It simply would not be capitalism if it started doing that.
To the degree to which this happened in the period between the 1940s and 1970, which saw the growth of the welfare state, higher wages reflected higher productivity. Profits remained high. When profits fell, the capitalists pulled the plug. They also saw that this was no solution, because it gave the working class a degree of confidence and control which the capitalists could not accept.
In other words, reformist nostrums based on underconsumption theory can only work for a very limited period of time.
DisproportionalityThe theory of disproportionality was held by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Preobrazhensky discussed it in great detail. We have the model of two departments: department I - investment, particularly, though not exclusively, in heavy industry; and department II - consumer goods.
It is department II that relates to the ideas of underconsumption that we have discussed above. The idea behind disproportionality is that department I will tend to grow out of control at the expense of department II. Clearly, investment in department I can take a considerable time before it produces results. This stands in direct opposition to the nature of finance capital, which is short-termist, and equally clearly the long-term nature of investment in department I means that the divergences between the two departments takes time to become apparent. The fact that the capitalist class will tend to put surplus value into department I will produce a constraint in consumption by workers, as the two departments diverge.
This is Lenin’s theory. Unlike the theory of underconsumption, the solution of which in a sense is inherently rooted in capitalism, as it were, the theory of disproportionality argues that the only way to overcome a systemic crisis is through planning on the basis of a socialist society. That is the revolutionary theory of the Bolsheviks.
Falling rate of profitThe theory of the falling rate of profit is in Marx, but the idea of an automatically declining rate of profit playing a dominant role in capitalist crisis is actually quite new and has taken quite a dogmatic form. Of course, it is true that it is in the nature of capitalism to replace men with machines, and the logic of this (in terms of the labour theory of value) is that value will cease to exist. And if value ceases to exist, there can no longer be profit. That is the logical conclusion - which will clearly never be reached. Nevertheless, in these terms a decline in the rate of profit is automatic, but this is a tendency, not a law.
Automation produces more goods for less in terms of input. So the result can be that, with consumer goods costing less, wages can actually go up in use-value terms, though not in pay, which means that profits can go up too. This also applies to department I production in terms of higher productivity, and equally a fall in the price of raw materials as part of the cost of constant capital can have the same result. So in principle the process that produces a declining rate of profit also leads to a rise in productivity. It is clear what the secular trend is, but other factors can offset the declining rate of profit.
However, they are not “counteracting factors”. The rise in productivity, as we see in Marx, is an automatic and necessary consequence of the process of the rise in the organic composition of capital. The textbooks make it appear that two separate processes are going on. That simply is not true.
Analysing crisisTo understand crisis, It is essential to examine all three aspects outlined above, as they occur over time. In other words, a crisis occurs when there is no way of mediating these three aspects. Capitalism in decline has found forms of maintaining stability - but only at the expense of further undermining the system itself, which, in fact, creates new forms of instability based on the same contradictions. The absence of all mediation inevitably must result in a systemic crisis.
When a downturn occurs, the result is not automatic. It is not a technical question. Obviously the capitalist class has to fire people, reduce wages, close factories and increase the level of unemployment. So this becomes an immediate question of class struggle. If the working class is strong, it resists and in that case there is open class warfare.
That is what Marx meant by a crisis for capitalism - a situation in which the working class is strong enough to take power. When the system begins to break down, class relations are openly revealed and the normal class interrelationship has itself broken down. The capitalist class will try to reassert its dominance in the phenomenal form of trying to re-establish the rate of profit. I do not think Marx was wrong in anticipating a crisis-driven revolution in 1857. The working class did not take power, but Marx was basically correct.
However, the situation since 1940 in particular is completely different. The capitalist class has learned from 1917 and it does not want a repeat. It therefore accepts that there will have to be growth and it sees to it that the reserve army of labour is not very big. Instead it goes for a kind of Keynesian military solution - that is what it boils down to. It works up to a point, but only up to that point when the working class is no longer contained by Stalinism, by the history of fascism, by war and by the residual effect of social democracy.
Military-industrial complexCrises can be contained or delayed through vast increases in military expenditure, as has occurred in the United States. In this way the state apparatus can provide the necessary means to ensure growth, low unemployment and rising wages.
The three aspects of crisis are all mediated. Underconsumption is taken care of because workers’ wages, at least in use-value terms, have risen far ahead of what would be expected from classical capitalism. In the period between 1940 and 1970 wages rose more than in the previous 150 years. Capitalism is not about the rising standard of living, but it has provided it as a concession in order to maintain itself.
Disproportionality is not a problem because the military sector takes care of that. The military sector is ideal, because demand for its product is underwritten. Arms are produced, which are later declared obsolete, leading to further arms production. And, just as there is no problem about demand, there is no problem about profit, because it is the state that orders and pays for the product.
Arms are said to be necessary because of the awful threat of the enemy. More and more must be produced to a greater degree of sophistication. Here is a ‘nationalised’ solution, which is ideal at the present stage - the military sector is ‘nationalised’ in a form that is the least opposed to capitalism. In this way the military sector takes care of the whole problem of disproportionality in the United States. In fact, if anything, the problem is inverted, because arms production sucks in enormous resources and in theory can be infinite.
The US remains the dominant world power - not just politically, but economically. But now the world economy is threatened because banks in the United States had been lending to companies which could not pay the money back. As a result European banks are in trouble too. The problem is internationalised, but it was and is the US that is crucial.
Outside the United States capitalism has been stabilised by public spending on the welfare state - health, housing, etc. But after the cold war came to an end, there were new problems. In 1990, the US celebrated, but in fact it had shot itself in the foot. It was far better that it had this enemy which was no enemy at all, because now there was no longer any excuse to prepare for war. When the arms budget was slashed, the ability to offset crisis in this way was removed. Without the previous role of the military-industrial complex, disproportionality became a real possibility. The consequence was that all three aspects of crisis began to come to the fore once more. The capitalist class was no longer clear where it was going to invest and for the first time since 1940 there was a vast, constantly growing surplus of capital.
Effectively the capitalists were bailed out in 2003 by the Iraq war - and in my view this whole pressure of the build-up of surplus capital was probably the major factor leading to the war itself. However, the expenditure on Iraq - although bigger than most people, including myself, expected - still is not enough. A large surplus of capital remains, which means that all the aspects of crisis are in play. If all this surplus capital were deployed, the rate of profit would plunge.
Finance capitalThe capitalist class is not prepared to expand the economy as it did before, because that would result in inflation. The policy of the welfare state - the concentration on industry, full employment and so forth - has been reversed and there has been a huge switch to finance capital. Finance, not production, is now dominant. This did not happen for technical reasons, but as part of the class struggle. Capital does not want to be in a position where the working class could demand more, could strike and could get results.
So state expenditure was cut, a whole doctrine about the ‘necessity to balance the budget’ was developed, when there is actually no necessity to do so. The idea was to control wages and ensure that the economy would not expand too quickly, thus retaining a reserve army of labour. Today, the numbers of genuinely unemployed, as opposed to the figures produced by Brown, amount to somewhere between 16% and 20%. These people are not, of course, living in workhouses. They live on some form of pension or benefits of one kind or another. There are perhaps three million people who have been declared disabled but are in reality unemployed, so that they would not show up in the unemployment statistics. So there is a non-classical reserve army of labour, which, of course, helps to control the working class.
It is a working class that is obviously much better off than in Marx’s day - but one nonetheless that is under the control of the capitalist class. The question is always discussed in terms of ‘the need to control inflation’, but what is meant is the need to control the working class. The capitalists will no longer go for growth by investing in and developing industry. That just will not happen, even though that might ease their problems - the result would be the strengthening of the working class. The ruling class understands the nature of the crisis it faces, but it will continue to talk in terms of balancing the budget and thus maintaining the reserve army of labour.
The financial aspect has become more and more important. The superdominance of finance capital, as discussed by Hilferding (though his politics were justifiably attacked by Lenin), reveals that the key problem is abstract capital - abstracted from its location and from people.
This superdominance of finance capital means that it can go anywhere in the world. Globalisation is the globalisation of finance capital, first and foremost. This has been central to the current crisis all over the world. In a sense this is new in three ways. Firstly, finance capital is globalised in time and globalised in location. What happens in the United States affects China and Japan, Britain and Germany. Secondly, the intensity of the current crisis also represents a qualitative change, involving trillions of dollars. The third thing that has changed is the way in which the process is obscured by so-called financial packages and instruments, such as sub-prime mortgages. Nobody really knows what is happening and this too is new - certainly to this extent.
Why is this important? Precisely because nobody knows what is happening, confidence is low. Derivatives trading, of which the sub-prime mortgage collapse has highlighted just one example, accounts not for billions, but trillions of dollars - perhaps $400 trillion, compared to a US GDP of $12 trillion. This is a fantastic figure, yet nobody can know where, what or how. Will the capitalist class be able to bail it out? That too is unknown.
If the capitalists were worried in 1987, then they must be much more worried today. Of course, they know what could happen and they have plans, but what is unknown is whether they can hold out and how long they can cope. The situation is much more unstable now than it has been during the entire period since 1979.
Finance capital is necessarily unproductive - that is why Lenin calls it parasitic. The interesting feature of the present time is that it is not just parasitic: it is cannibalistic. The current craze for private equity acquisitions and asset-stripping is conducted in a much more vicious way than has been seen before.
To conclude, the development of finance capital has progressed to a new stage. It is no longer simply a question of withdrawing money from industry: it is a question of undermining the whole system. That is why the current crisis is more dangerous for capitalism than previous crises.
This chapter discusses capitalist crises as "disequilibrium" crises or "social stability" crises. This is a useful distinction, as the current crisis can be understood in the latter terms. It also maps out crises as a mechanism for capitalist reproduction and discusses the danger/opportunities of capitalist governance to deal with these crises.
Excellent (if at times, especially in the first half, slow) paper from 1985 stressing significance of finance to Marx's own crisis theory. Merges theorization of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall with a fragile contract-credit system, and thus attempts to respond to critics who point out that TRPF may merely lead to lower growth rates rather than crisis.
Also worth checking out just for the incredible Marx quotes on credit and crisis...
In a system of production, where the entire continuity of the reproduction
process rests upon credit, a crisis must obviously occur -- a tremendous rush for
means of payment -- when credit suddenly ceases and only cash payments have
validity. At first glance, therefore, the whole crisis seems to be merely a
credit and money crisis. And in fact it is only a question of the convertibility
of bills of exchange into money. But the majority of these bills represent
actual sales and purchases, whose extension far beyond the needs of society is,
after all, the basis of the whole crisis. At the same time, an enormous quantity
of these bills of exchange represents plain swindle, which now reaches the light
of day and collapses; furthermore, unsuccessful speculation with the capital of
other people; finally, commodity-capital which has depreciated or is completely
unsaleable, or returns that can never more be realised again. The entire
artificial system of forced expansion of the reproduction process cannot, of
course, be remedied by having some bank, like the Bank of England, give to all
the swindlers the deficient capital by means of its paper and having it buy up
all the depreciated commodities at their old nominal values. Incidentally,
everything here appears distorted, since in this paper world, the real price and
its real basis appear nowhere, but only bullion, metal coin, notes, bills of
exchange, securities. Particularly in centres where the entire money business of
the country is concentrated, like London, does this distortion become apparent;
the entire process becomes incomprehensible; it is less so in centres of
Incidentally in connection with the superabundance of industrial capital
which appears during crises the following should be noted: commodity-capital is
in itself simultaneously money-capital, that is, a definite amount of value
expressed in the price of the commodities. As use-value it is a definite quantum
of objects of utility, and there is a surplus of these available in times of
crises. But as money-capital as such, as potential money-capital, it is subject
to continual expansion and contraction. On the eve of a crisis, and during it,
commodity-capital in its capacity as potential money-capital is contracted. It
represents less money-capital for its owner and his creditors (as well as
security for bills of exchange and loans) than it did at the time when it was
bought and when the discounts and mortgages based on it were transacted. If this
is the meaning of the contention that the money-capital of a country is reduced
in times of stringency, this is identical with saying that the prices of
commodities have fallen. Such a collapse in prices merely balances out their
The incomes of the unproductive classes and of those who live on fixed
incomes remain in the main stationary during the inflation of prices which goes
hand in hand with over-production and over-speculation. Hence their consuming
capacity diminishes relatively, and with it their ability to replace that
portion of the total reproduction which would normally enter into their
consumption. Even when their demand remains nominally the same, it decreases in
It should be noted in regard to imports and exports, that, one after
another, all countries become involved in a crisis and that it then becomes
evident that all of them, with few exceptions, have exported and imported too
much, so that they all have an unfavourable balance of payments. The
trouble, therefore, does not actually lie with the balance of payments. For
example, England suffers from a drain of gold. It has imported too much. But at
the same time all other countries are over-supplied with English goods. They
have thus also imported too much, or have been made to import too much. (There
is, indeed, a difference between a country which exports on credit and those
which export little or nothing on credit. But the latter then import on credit;
and this is only then not the case when commodities are sent to them on
consignment.) The crisis may first break out in England, the country which
advances most of the credit and takes the least, because the balance of
payments, the balance of payments due, which must be settled immediately, is
unfavourable, even though the general balance of trade is favourable.
This is explained partly as a result of the credit which it has granted, and
partly as a result of the huge quantity of capital loaned to foreign countries,
so that a large quantity of returns flow back to it in commodities, in addition
to the actual trade returns. (However, the crisis has at times first broken out
in America, which takes most of the commercial and capital credit from England.)
The crash in England, initiated and accompanied by a gold drain, settles England’s
balance of payments, partly by a bankruptcy of its importers (about which more
below), partly by disposing of a portion of its commodity-capital at low prices
abroad, and partly by the sale of foreign securities, the purchase of English
securities, etc. Now comes the turn of some other country. The balance of
payments was momentarily in its favour; but now the time lapse normally existing
between the balance of payments and balance of trade has been eliminated or at
least reduced by the crisis: all payments are now suddenly supposed to be made
at once. The same thing is now repeated here. England now has a return flow of
gold, the other country a gold drain. What appears in one country as excessive
imports, appears in the other as excessive exports, and vice versa. But
over-imports and over-exports have taken place in all countries (we are not
speaking here about crop failures, etc., but about a general crisis); that is
over-production promoted by credit and the general inflation of prices that goes
(Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 30, Money-Capital and Real Capital, I. pp. 478-9)