According to Justin Fox, a paid apologist for capital at the Harvard Business Review, the difference between the Great Recession and the Great Depression can be summarized in a single chart. Fox explains his perverse reasoning:
“Basically, if you think this downturn was comparable in origin and inherent severity to the other recessions since World War II, then we’ve been the victims of economic-policy bungling of epic proportions. If, on the other hand, you think the proper comparison is the Great Depression, the last U.S. downturn brought on by a severe financial crisis, you’d have to say the White House, Congress, and most of all the Federal Reserve have done an absolutely brilliant job relative to their early-1930s counterparts. I’d lean toward explanation No. 2 — we did actually learn something from the Great Depression, although probably not enough.”
So, apparently, we have a choice of standards by which to measure the severity of the present crisis: the official unemployment data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment during the Great Depression, which involved a greater percentage of the wage labor population than the present depression. Or the level of unemployment in the post-war period, including the depression of the 1970s, when employment actually increased over the whole of the depression.
Guess which one Justin Fox, of the capitalist mouthpiece, the Harvard Business Review, wants to use.
Keynesian economic policies don’t work, but fighting for these policies will?
Guglielmo Carchedi’s essay on the so-called Marxist multiplier has me bugging. He is handing out bad advice to activists in the social movements and telling them this bad advice is based on Marx’s labor theory of value. The bad advice can be summed up concisely: Keynesian policies do not work and cannot work, but the fight for these policies (as opposed to neoliberal policies) can help end capitalism:
From the Marxist perspective, the struggle for the improvement of labour’s lot and the sedimentation and accumulation of labour’s antagonistic consciousness and power through this struggle should be two sides of the same coin. This is their real importance. They cannot end the slump but they can surely improve labour’s conditions and, given the proper perspective, foster the end of capitalism.
Frankly, Carchedi’s advice is the Marxist academy’s equivalent of medical malpractice. (For the record, Michael Robert’s has his own take on the discussion raised by Carchedi’s essay.)
Tags: budget deficit, capital, debt, Depression, economic policy, Employment, falling rate of profit, financial crisis, great depression, Guglielmo Carchedi, inflation, Karl Marx, Keynesian economics, Marxism, neoliberalism, political-economy, unemployment
We have to change the terms of the debate on jobs and debt. We need to insist a job is nothing more than wage slavery and we don’t need Washington’s effort to create more of it by adding to this wage slavery even with more debt slavery. It is not like we have to argue existing jobs need to go away; why is Washington creating more of them, when existing hours can be reduced to solve the problem of unemployment rather than more debt?
2. Monetary Policy, or what happens when a hyperinflationary collapse of the dollar is NOT the worst possible outcome
The media is abuzz with speculation following the Federal reserves announcement of quantitative easing version 3.0. This version calls for the Federal Reserve to pour unlimited quantities of currency created out of nothing into the market, buying up worthless assets on a monthly basis to the tune of $40 billion per month. The result could be the printing of nearly a half trillion dollars in new, freshly produced, token money being forced into the economy every year until further notice.
The implications of this monetary insanity can be understood simply by reading the opinions of any number of economists and market watchers who are very delicately raising the spectre of a Zimbabwe style hyperinflation. Still subdued but growing talk of such an event has moved from the periphery of “financial advisers” and gold bugs into the mainstream argument of some pretty staid experienced players.
Take, for instance, a recent comment by Art Cashin, a veteran of the stock market who has probably seen every high risk moment in the market since well before Nixon closed the gold window in 1971, up to and including witnessing the market plunge 25% in a single day in 1987. Cashin oversees the management of more than $600 billion in assets and is not given to losing his head over every minor fluctuation in the S&P 500. A market crash is not Cashins concern, however — he fears hyperinflation. Cashin notes Weimar Republic hyperinflation did not burst out all at once, but was preloaded by continuous money printing that only made its way into the market over time:
“It (the inflationary spiral) was in fact delayed for a couple of years. But once it started, it could not be taken back. So here in the United States and in the European Union, there are very few, if any, signs of inflation because people are so concerned (that they are hoarding money).
“[You] will have to keep an eye on the velocity of money. Watch figures like, here in the United States, the M2 (figure), and see if it begins to grow through velocity, and get very cautious at that point. There are some potentially eerie parallels (today vs the Weimar Germany era). The United States trauma was unemployment and deflation (in the 30s), but in Germany in the 20s, it was money that ruined an entire society.”
Events are not yet to the point where Cashin is advising his clients to take their worthless fiat currency and sell it for gold, silver and other precious commodities, but he is suggesting there is such a heightened level of potential for a monetary catastrophe at present to warn people should begin to look for indicators of hyperinflation in the data:
“I think you are certainly at a ‘flashing yellow alert.’ You have in place a variety of things that could begin to react somewhat domino-like. As I said, there are measures and items that the listeners (and readers) can look for themselves. Look at, what is the growth in the money supply, M2? It comes out every week.
If [the M2 measure of the money supply] begins to grow rapidly, then the money that the Fed has created will be seen as moving through the system. That will create the high risk of accelerated inflation, and perhaps, God forbid, runaway inflation.”
Even if we discount Cashin’s argument as just another example of fringe hysteria, Zero Hedge recently explained, there are voices within the Federal Reserve’s own research department that echo Cashin’s argument:
Yes, it is ironic that the Fed is talking about “common sense”, we know. But the absolute punchline you will never hear admitted or discussed anywhere else, and the reason why the Fed can no longer even rely on its models is that…
Carlstrom et al. show that the Smets and Wouters model would predict an explosive inflation and output if the short-term interest rate were pegged at the ZLB (Zero Lower Bound) between eight and nine quarters. This is an unsettling finding given that the current horizon of forward guidance by the FOMC is of at least eight quarters.
In short: the Fed’s DSGE models fail when applied in real life, they are unable to lead to the desired outcome and can’t predict the outcome that does occur, and furthermore there is no way to test them except by enacting them in a way that consistently fails. But the kicker: the Fed’s own model predicts that if the Fed does what it is currently doing, the result would be “explosive inflation.”
You read that right: if Bernanke does what he not only intends to do but now has no choice but doing until the bitter end, the outcome is hyperinflation. Not our conclusion: that of Smets and Wouters, whoever they are.
And these are the people who are now in charge of everything.
Is there anything worse than a hyperinflation for capitalism?
The warnings by Cashin and the writers at Zero Hedge suggest Bernanke’s Federal Reserve is engaged in an extremely risky gamble on a policy that could lead to the dollar replacing Kleenex as the preferred method of catching sniffles during cold and flu season. I think it is safe to say the Fed would not be undertaking this gamble just to move unemployment a few points. A high risk gamble on this scale with the world’s reserve currency clearly hints what is at stake is likely much worse than a mere outburst of hyperinflation.
So what is worse than a hyperinflation of the dollar? What threat could there be to capitalism right now that risks reducing the dollar to a worthless piece of scrip with no purchasing power whatsoever? How about, a hyperdeflation, an inverse condition where all prices instead of going to infinity and beyond go to zero?
But there is a big problem with this argument: There is not a single recorded instance of hyperdeflation in history, we are told, and logically it cannot happen. Zero Hedge remarks on the question in a caustically titled post “The Monetary Endgame Score To Date: Hyperinflations: 56; Hyperdeflations: 0″:
We won’t waste our readers’ time with the details of all the 56 documented instances of hyperinflation in the modern, and not so modern, world. They can do so on their own by reading the attached CATO working paper by Hanke and Krus titled simply enough “World Hyperinflations.” Those who do read it will discover the details of how it happened to be that in post World War 2 Hungary the equivalent daily inflation rate of 207%, the highest ever recorded, led to a price doubling every 15 hours, certainly one upping such well-known instance of CTRL-P abandon as Zimbabwe (24.7 hours) and Weimar Germany (a tortoise-like 3.70 days). This and much more. What we will point is that at no time in recorded history did a monetary regime end in “hyperdeflation.” In fact there is not one hyperdeflationary episode of note. Although, we are quite certain, that virtually all of the 56 and counting hyperinflations in the world, were at one point borderline hyperdeflationary. All it took was central planner stupidity to get the table below, and a paper with the abovementioned title instead of “World Hyperdeflations.”
The Cato Institute’s paper presents a very powerful empirical argument against the case for deflation and hyperdeflation. Unfortunately it rests entirely on two fallacies that are hidden in its very title: First, hyperdeflation has nothing to do with the fate of any fiat currency, even the world reserve currency, the US dollar. A hyperdeflation is not the death of any particular currency nor even a series of currency collapses — it is the death of money itself.
The second fallacy in the Cato paper will take a bit longer to explain and once explained will show why it is so important to every anarchist, libertarian and Marxist.
Can there be such a thing as a hyperdeflation?
A hyperdeflation might possibly be defined as a situation where prices of commodities declined even as the supply of money increased. As the Cato Institute paper explains — there is no recorded instance of a hyper-deflation in the historical record. Of course, mild and even very severe deflations did occur several times up until the Great Depression; but history has many more examples of hyperinflations, as the Cato paper argues.
The problem with the Cato paper, however, is that its argument rests on the “quantity theory of money” fallacy — which according the Wikipedia states “that money supply has a direct, proportional relationship with the price level.” Which is to say, the Federal Reserve can force prices to increase — create inflation — if it increases the quantity of currency in circulation. In fact, this theory is wrong. The prices of commodities do not depend on the quantity of money in circulation, but on the quantity of socially necessary labor time required for their production. And here, at least theoretically, the case against hyper-deflation falls apart.
Here is the problem at the end of capitalism’s life: If the Marxist writers Moishe Postone and Robert Kurz are correct, the socially necessary labor time of commodities now have two distinct and contradictory measures: its labor time as a simple commodity and its labor time as a capitalistically produced commodity — yielding two quite different potential prices.
To put this in simpler terms, the price paid in a store for a typical commodity like an iPhone is mostly a reflection of the costs of economically wasted labor. The iPhone itself takes very little direct labor to produce, but, if its production is to be profitable, the accumulated costs of waste within the economy requires a massive mark up in the price you pay for it at the checkout counter.
What is this waste? Well, one source is the overhead created by the costly burden of government at present. Since the government doesn’t produce anything, its entire cost is borne by the rest of society. If, for instance, government accounts for about 50% of GDP, this means every product has a 100% markup just to pay for the operating expense of federal, state and local government. So about half the cost of your iPhone goes to cover things like drone attacks on Afghanistan civilians or corn subsidies to agribusiness. These cost don’t appear anywhere unless it comes directly from your wages in taxes, but even in this case the costs must be passed on in commodity circulation and will accumulate there in the costs of each commodity.
So every commodity essentially has two prices: the one that you pay at the checkout counter, which includes all the wasted economic activity in society, and the other, hidden, true price, which is the actual direct cost of producing to commodity. Surprisingly, this latter price is now only a negligible fraction of the total price of an iPhone, a pair of shoes, or even an automobile — the overwhelming bulk of the price of every product you buy consists of the hidden costs of economic waste within society that has accumulated over the past eighty years.
This is why, as I discussed in part one of this series, it now takes as much as seven dollars of debt, or even more, to create a single dollar of wages through fascist state economic policies designed to create jobs. Simply put, this internal discordance in the price of every commodity is a hyperdeflation weapon of mass destruction just waiting for a triggering event. What is making the Federal Reserve risk even the total collapse of the dollar on an insane gamble is the fact that this implosion can be triggered by the mildest hint of deflation. To prevent this event, the Federal Reserve must restart the failed system of debt accumulation that crashed in the financial meltdown of 2008.
Anarchists, libertarians and Marxists have a chance to put sand in the gears of the fascist state and bring it down along with the entire mode of production. All it requires is for us to change the debate over jobs and debt — opposing both Federal Reserve monetary and Washington fiscal policy aimed at expanding still further the system of wage slavery through policies designed to promote economic waste and debt.
But we can do this only if we are willing to take capital and the state head on by demanding an immediate reduction in hours of work until everyone who wants to work has a job, along with the elimination of all public and private debts, and abolition of all taxes.
Tags: Barack Obama, budget deficit, Depression, economic policy, Employment, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, political-economy, shorter work time, shorter work week, stupid economist tricks, Stupid progressive tricks, stupid Washington tricks, The Economy, Trickle Down Economics, unemployment, Wall Street
We have to change the terms of the debate on jobs and debt. We need to insist a job is nothing more than wage slavery and we don’t need Washington’s effort to create more of it adding to this wage slavery even with more debt slavery. It is not like we have to argue existing jobs need to go away; why is Washington creating more of them, when existing hours can be reduced to solve the problem of unemployment rather than more debt?
1. Fiscal policy, or how to create one job on Main Street by borrowing five jobs from Wall Street
In 2011, a congressman made the argument that Obama’s stimulus program had produced jobs at the cost of $278,000 per job. Although the charge was nothing new, it made its rounds on the conservative GOP talking points circuit, and even ended up in the congressional record. This number, of course, was so outrageous by any measure of efficiency that it had to be analyzed by what we might call “clear thinking persons with no agenda”, i.e., the news media.
One “news source” in particular known for its ability to vet these things is PolitiFact.com, and it went after the congressman’s charge. PolitiFact established that the congressman, a Republican, was deliberately distorting facts against Obama’s stimulus program.
At $666 billion, the bill was estimated by the White house to have “saved or created” between 2.4 to 3.6 million jobs. What the congressman did, was employ the low end of the number of jobs “created or saved” and apply it to the total of the bill.
The Obama administration responded that this was unfair, since the money went to more than just creating jobs, it also invested in infrastructure, energy, education etc. Which is an odd response, since obviously the administration included those “investments” in its estimate of jobs “created or saved”. The Associated Press made the further argument that,
“Any cost-per-job figure pays not just for the worker, but for the material, supplies and that workers’ output — a portion of a road paved, patients treated in a health clinic, goods shipped from a factory floor, railroad tracks laid,”
So what AP is stating is that a job created by economic stimulus must account not just for the labor power directly expended, but also the constant capital used up in the course of this expenditure. But then AP performs an almost unnoticed sleight of hand and counts everything twice. So we count the money spent to build a road in terms of wages and materials, then we count the road as a finished product; we count the wages and material employed to build a clinic, and then we count the clinic as an operating concern.
Once we remove the misleading double counting from our calculation in the argument in the AP version of this story, how this differed from what the congressman said, is unclear. Indeed his criticism was later refined by one conservative media outlet this way:
“He says he never said that $278,000 per job went to salaries, but ‘rather that each job has cost taxpayers $278,000.’”
Five dollars of debt to produce one dollar of wages
So what the worker actually receives of the $278,000 spent to create her job is one thing, and the cost of creating that job is another. Assuming the worker received an average hourly wage of around $19, she would have an annual wage of $38,760, minus taxes. But to receive this $38,760 minus taxes in wages, the taxpayer must pony up $278,000 minus the taxes paid by the worker.
Which is to say, it roughly takes about 7 dollars of spending to create 1 dollar worth of wages using fiscal stimulus. Moreover, this fiscal stimulus must be newly created money, through debt, and, therefore, created out of nothing. If we take the administrations preferred figure of $185,000 per job, this still amounts to 5 dollars of new debt to produce 1 dollar of wages.
Between the GOP and the Democrats, then, there is agreement that it takes somewhere between $5 and $7 of debt to create $1 of wages. For some reason, despite the general validity of the congressman’s claim, PolitiFact.com decided it was not true on a technicality:
“Contrary to Dewhurst’s statement, the cited cost-per-job figure was not aired by the Obama administration. At bottom, his statement leaves the misimpression that the money went solely for jobs rather than a range of projects and programs, including tax breaks. We rate his claim False.”
There is, of course, another way of looking at this from the point of view of Wall Street banksters. From their point of view, it only takes 1 dollar of wages to create 5 dollars of new debt. Since the banksters are only interested in the accumulation of debt, which sits on his book as an asset, this is a fine ratio.
If the fascist state wants to create one job, it has to borrow the equivalent of five jobs to create this one job. The accumulation of the public debt outruns the income of the members of society who must eventually pay off the debt with their income. For every dollar they get in increased income, their debt obligation increases by five dollars. They must work to pay off this debt, requiring a further extension of wage slavery beyond what is required just to satisfy their needs.
Since after the housing market meltdown citizens can no longer be relied upon to accumulate this debt on their own (they have all become subprime borrowers) the state now takes on this obligation on their behalf, and raises the funds to service it by slashing their retirement and health benefits, reducing their access to public services like education, and inflating the prices of commodities by depreciating the currency.
This is how the scam works, folks!
You vote for Obama and the Democrats, and they mortgage your life and labor to banksters. They call this mortgaging of your life “progressive fiscal policy”, and sell it to you as a benefit.
However, since the congressman hails from the GOP, an avowed political opponent of the democrat president, he failed to add this additional fact: The argument does not change if, instead of democrat spending, we substitute GOP tax cuts, except that tax cuts are even more inefficient at “creating jobs” than fiscal spending. With GOP tax cuts, as the research suggest, the actual relation between the debt accumulated and the jobs created is aimless and dispersed and rather a bit more difficult to assess. Rather than aiming at some specific form of wage slavery as the democrats do, GOP tax cuts aim solely at subsidizing all wage slavery.
Tax cuts only have some definite targeted effect to the extent they increase the deficit and the flows of state expenditures into the coffers of banksters. While both spending and tax cuts result in a massive expansion of the public debt, in general, the less targeted the accumulation of the public debt, the more it directly favors only the banksters, who, in any case, underwrite this debt. The question is only one of degree, not result.
With democrat spending, the accumulation of debt takes a specific form — a road, a school, or an industry. It is targeted, and, therefore, can be more precisely applied, no matter that is still wasteful. What’s more, as Democrats and Republicans alike already know, the produced product can now be renamed the Obama Bridge-Tunnel Highway to Nowhere, or the Obama Elementary School, or the Obama Green Energy Research Park, or, as is always inevitable, no matter which party incurs the debt, the USS Obama.
If the outrageous cost of creating unnecessary jobs by fiscal policy is staggering, just wait until I next explain what knowledgeable insiders are saying about the cost of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy.
Tags: Barack Obama, budget deficit, Depression, economic policy, Employment, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, political-economy, shorter work week, stupid economist tricks, Stupid progressive tricks, stupid Washington tricks, The Economy, Trickle Down Economics, unemployment, Wall Street
Here is an interesting chart from Zero Hedge: In data going back to 1980, employment for younger workers aged 20-24 has never increased in the month of September — that is, it has never increased until this year:
I know what you are thinking: the data provided by Washington is a fraud. I am going to show why, even if we take that chart on its face value as genuine, Washington is completely fucked. I am going to subject the entire category “employment” to an analysis using Marx’s labor theory of value. By “employment”. of course, I mean wage slavery; which means, although it is commonly treated as a good, it is actually an evil. But, I intend to treat this “employment” on its own terms, as it is commonly held a some sort of social good.
Let’s begin with this morning’s non-farm payroll report — 114,000 net hires in the economy and an unemployment rate of 7.8%. Both of these numbers are, of course, cooked beyond all credibility, but this is not the point. It doesn’t get us any closer to the actual situation to state (as the GOP will, no doubt) that Washington cooks the unemployment numbers. Dems cook the books when they control Washington, the GOP cooks them when they are in control.
Washington has always cooked the numbers — now the numbers are burnt beyond all recognition.
(First a note about this morning’s serving of cooked data: According Mish Shedlock, the minimum net new hires needed just to keep the unemployment rate flat is 125,000 per month. Last month there were 114,000 net new hires, however the unemployment rate declined from 8.1% to 7.8%. So, before you Obama voters celebrate, you should be aware than the economy did not even provide enough new hires to offset people coming into the labor force looking for jobs.)
Compulsory employment growth and inflation
It is the labor force participation rate that is most revealing in the numbers. The labor force participation rate (the blue line in the chart provided by Calculated Risk below) peaked in 2000-2001 and has been on a slow decline since that recession. From a high of just over 67%, that rate has now fallen to about 64% in this report. This reverses a trend of increasing participation in the labor force — folks actively seeking work — that goes back at least to 1962, according to the data available to me. Since 1962, in other words, as a general rule each year has seen more people trying to get a job than the year before. This trend higher reverses in the 2001 recession, and as a general rule, each year fewer people are participating in the labor force.
Why is this reversal in labor force participation important to analysis? Well, let’s look at this statement by President Truman in 1950 speaking of the military buildup that commenced with the start of the Cold War:
“In terms of manpower, our present defense targets will require an increase of nearly one million men and women in the armed forces within a few months, and probably not less than four million more in defense production by the end of the year. This means that an additional 8 percent of our labor force, and possibly much more, will be required by direct defense needs by the end of the year.
These manpower needs will call both for increasing our labor force by reducing unemployment and drawing in women and older workers, and for lengthening hours of work in essential industries. These manpower requirements can be met. There will be manpower shortages, but they can be solved.”
Following World War II, Washington set it as a priority that the labor force should steadily increase each year, in order to siphon off a portion of this growth for its military expansion. This goal was secretly given legal form as National Security Council Report 68. The goal of “full employment” was made the primary labor policy of Washington in 1946 and renewed in 1978.
“Full employment” in this case should be understood as full employment of labor power resources. In other words, it was the policy of the United States to seek full employment of its labor power resources for its strategic national ends. This “full employment” policy was sold to Americans as Washington’s commitment to providing a job to everyone who needed a job.
Which is fine and dandy, except at the same time, Washington was deliberately debasing the currency, driving up prices, and forcing more folks (particularly women) into the labor force to compensate for falling consumption, and moreover, forcing people to work well past their retirement. So what at first appears to be a benign policy, even an commendable agreement between Washington and its citizens that it would do everything in its power to create jobs, turns out to be a policy of forcing every person under its domination to look for work.
Children barely off the breast were abandoned to daycare warehouses, so mothers could find work just to pay for daycare; even substitute formulas for the breast were devised, so children could grow up attached to a rubber substitute for their mothers; essential functions within the home like child-rearing were thus commodified. And this, in turn, led to its own set of social ills, as women were assaulted by their bosses, discriminated against in their careers and under-paid — as the nation was convulsed with real or imagined terror of child abuse in day care centers. A generation of children were now referred to as “latch-key kids”, and teenage pregnancies proliferated. The elderly went back into the work force and became greeters at Wal-Mart, as people delayed or altogether gave up on the idea of retirement, unable to amass sufficient savings to stop working. Taking care of the elderly itself became a commodity sold as nursing home care.
Still, labor force participation increased despite these horrors.
Compulsory employment growth and debt: the hidden relationship
Hand in hand with this goes the ever increasing accumulation of consumer debt that working folk used to compensate for stagnant wages, despite the fact that each family was working more hours than their parents had. And all of these ills, which list could be extended almost indefinitely, appeared to have no cause other than the individuals themselves. If someone ended up working in a Wal-Mart at 70, it was because they had not saved enough; if a woman abandoned her child to day care, it was because she or her husband had not spent enough time in college; if teenagers were now getting pregnant at 13, it was because the morals of society were collapsing.
No one looked at Washington and said, “You fuckers are responsible for this!” And, if by chance, someone did say this, it was only in the form: “You democrat fuckers have tied up the economy with your regulations”; or, “You Republican fuckers have crippled Washington to the point that government can’t provide enough stimulus to create full employment.”
No matter what the policy advocated — tax cuts or spending increases — there was always someone to assure us it would create jobs and pay for itself with “increased economic growth”. Through most of the period from at least 1980 until now the growth of employment has always been proportional to the increase in debt. From 1980 until at least 2006, the savings rate of American declined until it went negative entirely in 2004-2005. It is particularly interesting that the saving rate actually touched near zero just as the labor force participation rate reached its peak.
The problem with the latest employment figures, however, is not to be found in the effects of a rising participation rate on working families, either in the form of social ills or the accumulation of debt. It is that, no matter these ills and no matter the accumulation of debt, total hours of labor must increase — the fate of capitalism depends on this growth.
But, it is not increasing.
Why compulsory growth of employment is necessary for Washington
Capitalism is a mode of production where the employment of labor power must constantly increase, no matter what the consequences. This mean, the duration of labor must constantly rise, a duration that is a function of the number of workers times their hours of work. Washington and the political parties always directs our attention to the unemployment rate, which figures are usually cooked, but, what really matters for Washington, is not the unemployment rate, but the duration of the social working day. At least this seems to be what is relevant, from the standpoint of Marx’s theory.
According to the date I have access to, social labor day has fallen only four times in the last 36 years: briefly in 1991 and again in 2001, and in a sustained way from 2007 to 2009. In other words, since this depression began in 2001, the total hours of work has fallen 3 years between 2001 and 2009. The response to this fall the first time, was the Bush tax cuts, Paul Krugman calling for a housing bubble to replace the NASDAQ bubble Bernanke’s speech on deflation, and Alan Greenspan being asked to retire from the Fed.
The second and third times the total social labor day shrank, coincided with the collapse of the financial system and Fed monetary policy.
This argues that this measure of economic activity is more significant than the hype over non-farm payroll numbers would have you believe. Such an argument might be said to be based entirely on coincidence, were it not itself based on the arguments of Postone and Kurz. They suggested the social labor day must constantly expand if existing relations of production are to be maintained.
What is more, each writer comes to this conclusion from different premises, i.e., different and contradictory notions of value. Postone’s argument suggests that the total labor time of society must expand despite the contraction of socially necessary labor time in the forms of value and surplus value; while Kurz suggests the increasingly fictional quality of credit, of fictional claims to future profits, requires the constant expansion of total labor time of society. In either case, Postone in 1993, and Kurz in 1995, using different notions of value, argue the total labor time of society must increase. And when, in fact, this total labor time actually did not increase, first a depression was triggered, then a financial collapse.
But, I hear you: ‘I am still not convinced by the evidence — it could, after all, be a really good scientific wild-assed guess on the part of those writers.’
Good point! Evidence suggests each writer, Postone and Kurx, was familiar with the writings of the other — so this could be just another instance of group-think. Instead of just going from Postone and Kurz to the empirical data, we need to go from Postone and Kurz back to Marx’s argument to establish a logical chain of reasoning, and figure out if, in fact, these guys were just making a wild guess.
In Marx’s argument, capitalism is not just a system of commodity production; it is a system of surplus commodity production, of the production of surplus in the form of commodities, of the production of surplus values. As a system of commodity production that aims always at the production of surplus value, capitalism relentlessly aims toward self-expansion beyond its given limits — as Marx put it, it employs existing value to create surplus value. Both Postone and Kurz employ this argument to uncover the absolute necessity of capitalism, at a certain stage in its development, to produce a sector consisting entirely of superfluous labor. In fact, Marx himself hints at just this result in volume 3, when he writes:
“If, as shown, a falling rate of profit is bound up with an increase in the mass of profit, a larger portion of the annual product of labour is appropriated by the capitalist under the category of capital (as a replacement for consumed capital) and a relatively smaller portion under the category of profit. Hence the fantastic idea of priest Chalmers, that the less of the annual product is expended by capitalists as capital, the greater the profits they pocket. In which case the state church comes to their assistance, to care for the consumption of the greater part of the surplus-product, rather than having it used as capital.”
Marx is clearly suggesting the unproductive consumption of the total social product becomes increasingly necessary when he closes with the wry comment:
“The preacher confounds cause with effect.”
Still later, Marx decries the result of this process:
“In the first place, too large a portion of the produced population is not really capable of working, and is through force of circumstances made dependent on exploiting the labour of others, or on labour which can pass under this name only under a miserable mode of production.”
Which is to say, a growing mass of workers makes its living by subsisting on the surplus value of the productively employed population. So, for me at least, there is a clear line beginning with Marx, through the argument of Postone and Kurz, that is expressed graphically below in the empirical data on the social labor day:
This decline is far more significant than the manipulated data foisted on the population of voters this morning. It suggests there is a real material dysfunction in fascist state economic policy that cannot be altered with a set of misleading stats. Beyond the convenient and willful ignoring of the shrinking labor participation rate, and the mass of unemployed no longer counted, the data suggests a situation that cannot be repaired by confidence tricks designed to keep the two parties in power.
Almost a fifth of the population is now permanently locked out of the labor force — the highest on record — according to Zero Hedge calculations:
If hours of labor do not expand at a sufficient rate to sustain existing relations of production, the entire Ponzi scheme must collapse. This process has probably already begun, which explains the insanely desperate actions of the Federal Reserve over the past month.
Tags: budget deficit, Depression, economic collapse, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, Karl Marx, Moishe Postone, NSC-68, Occupy Wall Street, recession, Robert Kurz, unemployment, value theory, Wall Street
(Or, more importantly, why should anarchists, libertarians and Marxists be as well)
So, has any reader of this blog heard that economists have conceded Marx was right after all? Have you at any time during the past 40 years heard an economist admit that Marx was correct in his transformation argument? I am really confused by this, because although Paul A. Samuelson declared Marx’s labor theory of value irrelevant in 1971, it is still being studied by BIS economists today. If I told you Marx’s theory was being studied by economists because Samuelson was a bald-face liar and a practiced dissembler, you would probably just yawn.
Of course, he was lying — he’s an economist. Economists are paid to lie and distort reality. They are employed by Washington not to explain economic processes, but to obscure them. To call an economist a bald-face liar, is simply to state he is breathing — nothing more.
But, to understand why Samuelson was lying, and why it was necessary that his lie stand unchallenged for forty years, we have to figure out the problem posed by Marx’s so-called “transformation problem”.
Marx’s transformation problem could be called the “paradox of capitalist price”, and we could state it thus:
Simple commodity price is an expression of the value of the commodity, but capitalist profit is the expression of surplus value wrung from labor power. To realize the surplus value wrung from the worker, the realized price of the commodity in the market has to include both the quantity of value created when it was produced plus a quantity of surplus value wrung from the unpaid labor time of the worker — capitalist price is the cost of producing the commodity plus the capitalist’s profit.
However, in the classical labor theory of value, the price of the commodity can only express the value of the commodity alone, not surplus value. Thus, for the price of the commodity to include both its value and a quantity of surplus value wrung from the worker, the capitalist price of the commodity must, of necessity, exceed the value of the commodity. The law of value is thus violated by the realization of capitalist surplus value — capitalist prices of commodities must always exceed the socially necessary labor time required to produce them.
The realization of capitalist profit violates the basic rule of classical economic theory: equal exchange of values in the market — but, as we shall see, this is far from a merely theoretical violation.
Now, Marx provides a number of caveats that work to stabilize the capitalist process of production — he called them “countervailing tendencies”, and they include things like the export of capital, etc. If we ignore all of these countervailing tendencies, however, the result is that prices of commodities must rise above their values, or alternatively money must exchange for these commodities below its value. (By money, I mean here only commodity money, i.e., gold or some other metal.)
What must occur when this happens is that money fails to circulate — the economy experiences a so-called credit, or financial, crisis. So, Marx’s labor theory of value explains why the dollar was debased in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration. It explains why your currency today is worthless pieces of paper or dancing electrons on a computer terminal. Marx’s transformation predicts and explains the debasement of the dollar and all other currencies on the planet.
Given this, how does Samuelson say Marx’s theory has no market predictive power? Because he was an economist — not a scientist, but a propagandist on behalf of the fascist state. I thought we already answered this — are you paying attention?
Eventually, Marx’s labor theory of value stated, gold could no longer serve as money because its function as measure of value conflicted with realization of the surplus value wrung from you — the unpaid labor time you work in addition to the value of your wages. At a certain point, the realization of surplus value — converting this surplus labor into profits — becomes incompatible with commodity money. Prices can only increase to reflect the average rate of profit if the currency is removed from the gold standard.
Samuelson once famously declared Marx’s theory could not explain the American and European economies between 1937 and 1971 — but, I just did, so fuck Samuelson!
Moreover, Marx’s transformation states you now work as many as 36 more hours per week than is necessary. The labor theory of value shows 90 percent of the current work week is being performed solely to maintain the rate of profit. Another way to understand this: essentially the labor time that is necessary under a regime of capitalist prices is about ten-fold that needed if capitalism is abolished.
On the other hand, maintaining such a long work week is the sole cause of inflation in our economy — it is labor wasted on a vast scale. This is why in this crisis the sole concern of Washington has been to maintain or increase the rate of inflation. The conversion of surplus value into profits demands the constant increase in the total hours of labor by the working class. While the unpaid labor time of the working class is the sole source of surplus value, the realization of this surplus requires still more unpaid labor time.
Based on the above, we can make four general statements — which can be empirically substantiated — about the implications of Marx’s labor theory of value and the paradox of capitalist prices. If these turn out to be true, Marx’s theory is vindicated and anti-statists have a weapon with which to change the terms of political debate.
If Marx is right, we should be able to prove:
- prices have generally increased faster than value for the past 40 years — this implies not simply that there was inflation, but that this inflation did not in any way result from an increase in the value of commodities, but increased despite a general decline in the value of commodities.
- total hours of work have increased faster than was socially necessary for the past 40 years — this implies the additional hours of work per person did not result from any cause necessary from the standpoint of social needs, but despite growing social needs.
- total employment has increased faster than productive employment in the past 40 years — this implies the employment of labor has become less efficient over time,despite increased addition of labor saving techniques to production. It also suggests growth has been in those part of the economy where productivity is impossible to measure.
- total output has increased faster than total wages in the past 40 years — this implies output has increased most rapidly in precisely those commodities that do not enter into the consumption of the working class.
Basically, these four general statements come down to one thing with regards to the great mass of society: In the past 40 years, people have had to work more hours, and more of them have been forced to work, even as they have become poorer. We should, in other words, be able to demonstrate beyond question that labor no longer adds any value to the economy, and the increase in output, in hours of work, and in additional jobs, does not increase the living standards of the great mass of society. The more work performed, the greater the increase in poverty.
The “paradox of capitalist price” is the paradox of more work for less real income. The paradox suggests only those measures which reduce the size of government can increase the living standards of the mass of working people. Of course, because, this argument is counter-intuitive — since, theory is only necessary when things are not as commonsense suggests they should be — making this argument requires it be buttressed with considerable empirical support from the anti-statist community.
Moreover, Marx’s labor theory of value has an additional aspect which recommends it even over what I just stated. Since, in Marx’s labor theory of value, socially necessary labor time is the material barrier to the realization of a classless, stateless society — which has been the avowed aim of communists for nearly two hundred years — his theory is also the concrete measure of the extent to which the productive capacity of society has developed to make this aim a realistic possibility. Contained in the labor theory of value is also the material measure of the possibility of society to immediately achieve a stateless and classless society on the basis of the principle of “each according to his need.”
I think every anarchist, libertarian and Marxist should understand Marx’s transformation of surplus value into profits and the paradox of capitalist prices, because in it is the entire argument against the existing state, and all the ugly mess bound up with it.
Tags: bank for international settlements, bieri, Bohm-Bawerk, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, Karl Marx, labor theory, monetary policy, necessary labor, Paul A. Samuelson, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, transformation problem, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis, werner sombart
In reality, there was nothing in Bohm-Bawerk’s argument to be disproved. Bohm-Bawerk had indeed cited the essential contradiction at the core of capitalism. His problem, however, was to imagine the contradiction to be a defect of Marx’s theory, and not a fatal flaw laying at the heart of the capitalist mode of production itself.”
Bohm-Bawerk had inadvertently confirmed the rather grim future arrived at by Marx’s theory: Capitalism would kill the so-called free market, and in so doing, would destroy itself. It was, as Marx argued, creating its own gravediggers, a mass of directly social laborers who did not need it, and would see it as an impediment to their very survival, owing to obstacles it put in the way of its own operation.
By the 1970s, economists finally were forced to acknowledge there was in fact no inconsistency in Marx’s argument. Marx had, just as Bohm-Bawerk accused him, arrived at a theoretical description for why prices, although resting on the socially necessary labor time required to produce commodities, nevertheless appeared to reflect the prices of production of these commodities and not their labor times. It was not, as Werner Sombart feared, that from Marx’s labor theory of value “emerges a ‘quite ordinary’ theory of cost of production”, but precisely that Marx’s theory predicted from the first that the value of commodities must appear in the form of prices of production.
Moreover, Marx had demonstrated his proof almost in real time, so to speak, in front of his audience in a painstakingly detailed series of volumes — subject to the critical purview of his opponents. He had, as it were, made the elephant in the room — socially necessary labor time — disappear before the disbelieving eyes of his skeptical audience. It was a performance so dramatic and unprecedented, it took decades for the skeptics even to figure out what they had just witnessed with their own eyes.
The acknowledgement of Marx’s triumph took the form of a paper by Paul A. Samuelson, and was couched in the form of the complaint echoing that leveled against Marx by Sombart, as previously quoted by Bohm-Bawerk :
“…if I have in the end to explain the profits by the cost of production, wherefore the whole cumbrous apparatus of the theories of value and surplus value?”
Taking a cue from Sombart, Samuelson, in a paper titled “Understanding the Marxian Notion of Exploitation: A summary of the So-Called Transformation Problem Between Marxian Values and Competitive Prices”, introduced his so-called erasure method arguing,
It is well understood that Karl Marx’s model in Volume I of Capital (in which the “values” of goods are proportional — albeit not equal — to the labor embodied directly and indirectly in the goods) differs systematically from Marx’s model in Volume III of Capital, in which actual competitive “prices” are relatively lowest for those goods of highest direct-labor intensity and highest for those goods of low labor intensity (or, in Marxian terminology, for those with highest “organic composition of capital”). Critics of Marxian economics have tended to regard the Volume III model as a return to conventional economic theory, and a belated, less-than-frank admission that the novel analysis of Volume I — the calculation of “equal rates of surplus value” and of “values” — was all an unnecessary and sterile muddle.’
Samuelson gave a simple straightforward explanation of his “erasure method”:
I should perhaps explain in the beginning why the words “so-called transformation problem” appear in the title. As the present survey shows, better descriptive words than “the transformation problem” would be provided by “the problem of comparing and contrasting the mutually-exclusive alternatives of `values’ and `prices’.” For when you cut through the maze of algebra and come to understand what is going on, you discover that the “transformation algorithm” is precisely of the following form: “Contemplate two alternative and discordant systems. Write down one. Now transform by taking an eraser and rubbing it out. Then fill in the other one. Voila!
For all his genius, Samuelson argued, Marx had produced a theory which offered no greater insight into the social process of production than was already present in the form of mainstream economics. It could, for this reason, be entirely ignored.
Ignored also, however, would be the entire point of Marx’s “unnecessary and sterile” detour: namely, to demonstrate in comprehensive and theoretically ironclad fashion why the capitalism mode of production is doomed.
This only deepens the mystery of David Bieri’s interest in a theory routinely dismissed by economists as, at best, a vestigial remnant of classical political-economy. Why would this former bureaucrat of the Bank for International Settlements still be reviewing an obscure technical problem of a long dead theory?
Tags: bank for international settlements, bieri, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, Karl Marx, monetary policy, Paul A. Samuelson, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, transformation problem, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
In the previous blog post, I argued that in each of the three great capitalist catastrophes of the 19th and 20th Centuries — the Long Depression, the Great Depression and the Great Stagflation — economists scurried to bone up on Marx in an effort to understand practical problems of state economic policy confronting them at the time.
Naturally, the connection between these catastrophes and interest in Marx intrigued me, since this guy Bieri is now interested as well. If Bieri were just another Marxian economist I could understand his interest but his connection to the BIS and Bankers Trust, London intrigued me. Bankers Trust, one of the many institutions with which Bieri has been associated, is not exactly your typical local community credit union. It was up to its neck in the dirty dealings that led to financial crisis, and has long been implicated with equally shady dealings in the market in general. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
“In 1995, litigation by two major corporate clients against Bankers Trust shed light on the market for over-the-counter derivatives. Bankers Trust employees were found to have repeatedly provided customers with incorrect valuations of their derivative exposures. The head of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) during this time was later interviewed by Frontline in October 2009: “The only way the CFTC found out about the Bankers Trust fraud was because Procter & Gamble, and others, filed suit. There was no record keeping requirement imposed on participants in the market. There was no reporting. We had no information.” -Brooksley Born, US CFTC Chair, 1996-’99.
Several Bankers Trust brokers were caught on tape remarking that their client [Gibson Greetings and P&G, respectively] would not be able to understand what they were doing in reference to derivatives contracts sold in 1993. As part of their legal case against Bankers Trust, Procter & Gamble (P&G) “discovered secret telephone recordings between brokers at Bankers Trust, where ‘one employee described the business as ‘a wet dream,’ … another Bankers Trust employee said, ‘…we set ‘em up.”
Perhaps I am just being a tad paranoid, but when a guy with these kinds of connections starts sniffing around dusty old volumes of Capital just before the outbreak of the financial crisis of 2008, I begin to wonder what’s up.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, am I not? I have not yet even explained what all the fuss is about. This tale begins with a little known simpleton scribbler, whose name is probably unfamiliar to anyone outside of the field of economics: Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk.
Tags: bank for international settlements, bank of international settlement, bieri, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, Karl Marx, london school of economics, monetary policy, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, transformation problem, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
I’m reading, “The Transformation Problem: A Tale of Two Interpretations”, by David Bieri.
According to his profile,
David studied economics at the London School of Economics and international finance at the University of Durham (UK). In 2006, he started his Ph.D. studies in SPIA.
From 1999 until 2006, David held various senior positions at the Bank for International Settlements, most recently as the Adviser to the General Manager and CEO. From 2002 to 2004, he held the position of Head of Business Development in which capacity he was responsible for new financial products and services and reserve management advisory for central banks. From 2004 to 2005, David worked as an economist in the BIS’ Monetary & Economics Department.
Prior to joining the BIS, David worked as a high-yield analyst at Banker’s Trust in London and in fixed-income syndication at UBS in Zurich.
What caught my attention is the notable resume of this author, which is quite unlike that of the typical Marxian economist. High-yield analyst, central bank bureaucrat, mainstream economist? This is not the sort of person you will find at your local Occupy campsite.
Why, I wondered, is the Bank of International Settlement interested in an obscure technical problem of Marx’s theory? So, I decided to give the paper a read.
Tags: Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, Karl Marx, monetary policy, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
I find it amazing that people will demand Washington create work, but will not demand freedom from unnecessary work created by Washington. The fixation on work is the principal lever of the fascist state. But, the fixation on work is only a reflex of the role fascist state issued currency plays as the mediator of the means of life. The very same means the fascist state employs to satisfy the demand for jobs, currency issue, increases the demand for jobs.
Money, in its function as medium of exchange, acts as mediator between a human need and its satisfaction. Fascist state issued ex nihilo currency takes over this role as mediator, displacing money and its token currency. Unlike state issued token currency, or even inconvertible token, this ex nihilo currency has no definite relation with commodity money. Having no definite relation with money, the ex nihilo currency has no definite relation with commodities in general.
Moreover, since commodities express their value as exchange value, i.e., as a definite sum of money their value is no longer expressed in an exchange involving ex nihilo currency. Value can only be expressed as exchange value; it cannot be expressed directly. If there is no medium for the expression of the value of a commodity in an exchange — an expression that requires the medium itself have a definite value — it is as if it doesn’t exist. Which is to say, in an ex nihilo currency regime value plays no role in the exchange of commodities.
Value, however, is created in the act of production, not exchange — which presents us with a conundrum: If value is created in the act of production, but not expressed in the act of exchange, how do we know it exists? In a commodity money system value created in the act of production imposed itself on capitals after the fact, during the act of exchange. This is because the capitalist has no way of knowing the value of his commodity until he takes it to the market and sells it. The imposition of value on production is only retroactively enforced during the act of exchange as socially necessary labor time.
If value plays no role in the exchange of commodities how can socially necessary labor time play role in the production of the commodities?
Here is a further perplexing problem: in Marx’s theory socially necessary labor time in production is also the term he employs to define the portion of the working day during which the worker produces her own wages. So, at base, when the laws of value regulates capitalist production, capital is indirectly being regulated by the wages of the working class. It follows from this that newly produced surplus value has to seek out new sources of labor power.
If the exchange of commodities is no longer determined by the law of value, the production of commodities is no longer determined by socially necessary labor time; and, the capitalist mode of production is no longer regulated by the consumption of the working class. All of this makes it appear as though the laws of the capitalist mode of production has been abolished under an ex nihilo currency regime.
In fact, this appearance is misleading. While capital is the ceaseless production of surplus value, or socially necessary labor time in its surplus form, and, therefore, the constant diminution of necessary labor time as a percentage of the working time of the laborer, it also requires the conversion of this newly created surplus labor time into necessary labor time — the constant expansion of socially necessary labor time. Even as socially necessary labor time in one form is diminished, so it is expanded in another form.
Marx argued, “the transformation of what was previously superfluous into what is necessary, as a historically created necessity.– is the tendency of capital.” The capitalist mode of production necessarily involves the “…transfer of its conditions of production outside itself…” At first, this involves merely expansion of markets, the creation of new needs in addition to existing needs, etc.
However, over time, the drive for ever greater profits leads to the expansion of activity that cannot be realized as value, as socially necessary labor time — that is entirely superfluous to society under any given existing basis of production and exchange. This is the necessary consequence of the profit motive itself. Moreover the expansion of entirely superfluous labor increasingly looms over all economic activity as the absolute condition for the realization of surplus value as profit itself. Eventually, capital runs into the limits of even these methods transfers outside itself; and, actually turns on the limits imposed by the law of value itself.
The first of those limits, it seems to me, is that imposed by the two-fold character of the commodity: to have value, a commodity must also be useful object to someone other than the producer. Which is to say, it must be the product of a particular useful expenditure of human labor. If the commodity is not useful, the labor is wasted. Even a commodity that has a use in the abstract (a pair of shoes) but is not presently needed by anyone falls into this category. A product that serves some need, but that is not presently required, is no more a commodity than one that is defective beyond repair.
But, here too, there is a distinction to be made: a product may be needed by someone else, but not in its capitalistic form: which is to say, it is useful as an article to be consumed, but has no use to the capitalist as a means of producing a profit. Just as value and use value are pulled apart, so use value itself has two entirely contradictory expressions: as an object needed for human consumption, and as a means of capital’s self-expansion. While human need can be satisfied by the useful qualities of a commodity, the needs of capital may not necessarily be satisfied by it. And vice versa: there is no law that says what is useful to capital as means of self-expansion must be useful from the standpoint of society. To be a commodity within the capitalist mode of production, the commodity must simultaneously meet both requirements — it must satisfy a definite human need, and it must satisfy capital’s need for constant self-expansion.
During periods of capitalist expansion these two follow as a matter of course, but not during periods of crisis. They follow so seamlessly during expansions, in fact, that it is not entirely obvious Marx had two distinct conceptions of usefulness — one based in the natural qualities of the commodity and another based in its social quality as a value. But, while the capitalist mode of production imposes its own unique expression of usefulness on the preexisting natural usefulness, the distinction between the two is not erased. While the natural usefulness of a commodity are the properties inherent in the object that satisfy some definite human need, the properties of the object that satisfy the needs of capital are general, and non-particular — but, I think, emphatically not abstract: the exchange value of the object is, for the capital, simply a use value employed to expand itself.
The electricity powering my laptop simultaneously must be useful to me as a consumption item, and to the capitalist as capital, as a means of creating profit. And, the exchange between the capitalist and me has to realize both expressions of usefulness at the same time. The fact that both of these things are accomplished in one act of exchange conceals the reality that two forms of usefulness are satisfied.
In normal (simple) commodity exchange value and use value confront each other in the form of buyer and seller. Value and use value appears as polar opposites that change position in the act of exchange. But, in this exchange use value appears on both sides of the exchange: the money, which is the expression of value in the exchange, is no more than a use value for the capitalist, an object to be employed in the expansion of his capital. The capitalistic use value of the money has simply changed form in the process of its self-expansion.
This fundamental alteration of the conditions of commodity exchange does not announce itself to the participants. The money does not jump up and down screaming, “I’m not just value; I am also a use value in capitalist production.” Money is living something of a schizophrenic existence: appearing in simple commodity exchange as value, and in capitalist commodity exchange as use value. This is the difficulty gold-bugs and their critics get into: money is not the aim of capitalist production — not even “more money”. The aim of capitalist production is itself, and money — gold — is only a means to this end.
In the capitalist mode of production money is just another use value, whose specific usefulness is it capacity to assume the form of any other use value. What is, for the mass of society, a condition of its existence and mediator of its necessary interchange with nature, is for capital, just another use value beside all the rest: condoms, trident missile submarines, farm tractors. Each is measured by the same standard: its particular usefulness to capital as means of self-expansion – it is indifferent to them as things.
Moreover, it is indifferent to the activities by which these things come into existence, are produced by particular human activity. It is indifferent as well to the needs of the human beings who produce them. Finally, it is indifferent even to the owner of the capital — who is merely its momentary personification.
The transfer of the conditions of production outside capital is the negation of those conditions of production within capital proper; that is, the negation of the law of value within the capital, as well as that of property relations generally. It seems to me goods circulate within the capital solely as use values, not as values. In the exchange between two capitals, money appears only as a use value on both sides of the exchange, and exchange simply is exchange of use values. However, between capital and worker, money appears on the capitalist’s side as a mere use value, while, on the worker’s side, it appears as exchange value, i.e., as a definite quantity of socially necessary labor time.
This obviously has implications when money is replaced by ex nihilo currency: it effectively annuls the exchange value of the worker’s labor power, while having no effect on the usefulness of this labor power in the operation of capital. The value of the worker’s wage no longer has an independent expression in the form of a money commodity. The worker is a simple commodity seller, and, like all simple commodity sellers, no longer has any idea of the value of her commodity. Far cry from the typical pap spread by Marxists, the abolition of the gold standard was a world historical defeat of the working classes of all countries — a defeat, I think, from which there is no possibility of a recovery within the capitalist mode of production.
Fascist state fiscal and monetary policy, which was enabled by debasing the currency, cannot be anything other than a weapon for beating working people into senseless submission. But, the implications of debasement are far more insidious. According to Nelson, very early in their writings Marx and Engels observed if a thing can’t be sold for money, it is not private property:
…money is ‘the most general form of property’. Money typifies the commodity as an exchangeable product. If it can’t be sold a personal possession is not private property, write Marx and Engels.
One way in which this is obviously true: legally I cannot sell myself into slavery. In view of the law, I am not my own property which ownership can be transferred to another in a monetary exchange. However, in the historical phase of ex nihilo currency this observation has another entirely contrary meaning: I am the common property of the capital class. The absence of a commodity money standard does not do away with property, however. Ex nihilo currency implies not just that I do not own myself, but also that I am owned by the fascist state, acting as manager of the total social capital. Having first been shorn of any independent means of life and now any independent means to express the value of my labor power, I am no more than an object held in common to be employed as necessary in the capitalist production process. Not simply my capacities and talents, but also my wants and desires are no more than the raw materials of the capitalist production process.
These needs, wants and desires have no form through which they might be expressed as an independent power in the act of exchange. Money is the universal commodity, i.e., the universal possibility of inherent in all use values — it is at once, all use values and capable of being converted into any and all use values, limited only by its quantity. The replacement of money by ex nihilo currency, therefore, replaces this universal form with a form fully adapted solely to the use to which it is put by capital. As mediator of the relation between the needs of individuals and nature, the needs of the individual can only be expressed through ex nihilo currency in this capitalistic form.
This is expressed mostly clearly and obviously in the demand for ever more job creation, and the incessant shrill demands for ever more fascist state expenditures. The worker exists only for capital. She is its special product and this product demands constant care and feeding. As a worker, she is fully and completely adapted to the logic of capital, which is the logic of unending wage slavery. She doesn’t demand this or that particular job — a hairdresser or office manager — but JOB itself; i.e., slavery abstracted from any need but that of capital. Her own real palpable human needs play no role in this unceasing whining for state generated employment.
Without the daily and detestable drudgery of labor, she has no existence at all. Merely by degrading the purchasing power of the worthless currency in her bank account, she can be compelled to throw herself into longer hours of work, at the expense of her own health, sanity, and family. In the end, she has been reduced to nothing more than another capitalist use value that eats, shits and reproduces its own kind. In the words of Marx, all the things that make her unique as social being have been transferred outside the conditions of production itself, while she remains a slave trapped inside.
Several things stand out from this argument:
- The problem is not economic policies but the fascist state itself
- The problem is not unemployment and job creation, but labor itself.
- The problem is not income inequality, but money itself.
The problem, in other words, is not the corruption of politics, but the corruption of what it means to be a human being.
Barry Eichengreen makes much of the role the theories of Friedrich Hayek play in Ron Paul’s world view for a reason that becomes immediately clear:
In his 2009 book, End the Fed, Paul describes how he discovered the work of Hayek back in the 1960s by reading The Road to Serfdom. First published in 1944, the book enjoyed a recrudescence last year after it was touted by Glenn Beck, briefly skyrocketing to number one on Amazon.com’s and Barnes and Noble’s best-seller lists. But as Beck, that notorious stickler for facts, would presumably admit, Paul found it first.
The Road to Serfdom warned, in the words of the libertarian economist Richard Ebeling, of “the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning.” Hayek argued that governments were progressively abandoning the economic freedom without which personal and political liberty could not exist. As he saw it, state intervention in the economy more generally, by restricting individual freedom of action, is necessarily coercive. Hayek therefore called for limiting government to its essential functions and relying wherever possible on market competition, not just because this was more efficient, but because doing so maximized individual choice and human agency.
Yes, folks: Ron Paul is a follower of the very same theories recently endorsed by that cheap huckster of gold coin: right wing conspiracy theorist nut job, Glenn Beck.
Indeed, Ron Paul hails from that portion of the libertarian movement that is a reactive response to the growing role of the state in the economic activity of society. While Marxists predict this increasing state role — demanding only that state power must rest in the hands of the workers whose activity it is — libertarians of Paul’s type reject this role entirely and warn it can only have catastrophic implications for human freedom. Thus, these two streams of communist thought diverge less significantly in their respective diagnoses what was taking place in 20th Century than in their respective solution to it.
As Eichengreen points out, Ron Paul sees in the ever increasing interference by the state in economic activity a danger to individual freedom and a growing threat of totalitarian statist power, in which the state attempts to determine the individual and society rather than being determined by them. This has echoes among Marxists, who themselves had nothing but disdain for nationalization of industry, and by Marxist writers, like Raya Dunayevskaya, who, during the same period Hayek was developing his own ideas, observed an inherent tendency of the state to organize society as if it were a factory floor.
“At the same time the constant crises in production and the revolts engendered befuddle the minds of men who are OUTSIDE of the labor process… where surplus labor appears as surplus product and hence PLANLESSNESS. They thereupon contrast the ANARCHY of the market to the order in the factory. And they present themselves as the CONSCIOUS planners who can bring order also into ‘society,’ that is, the market.”
Paraphrasing Marx, Dunayevskaya points to the inherent logic of this process:
If the order of the factory were also in the market, you’d have complete totalitarianism.”
What Eichengreen wants to treat as an observation specific to the “loony right” turns out to be a view held in common by both the followers of Marx and the followers of the Austrian School. Moreover, it is not just the fringes of political thought who warned of growing convergence between the state and capital, the mainstream of political thought also recognized this inherent tendency, Eichengreen acknowledges, by citing President Richard Nixon’s famous quote, “we are all Keynesians now.” What emerges from this is a very different impression than the one Eichengreen wishes us to take away from his tawdry attempt to discredit Paul by noting his affinity with Glenn Beck for the writings of Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian School within bourgeois economics: As Engels predicted, the state was being driven by Capital’s own development to assume the role of social capitalist, managing the process of production and acting as the direct exploiter of labor power.
While mainstream bourgeois political-economy was treating the convergence of Capital and State power as a mere economic fact, the followers of Hayek and the best of the followers of Marx warn not merely of the effect this process would have on economic activity, but the effect it must have on the state itself — as social manager of the process of extraction of surplus value from the mass of society, the state must become increasingly indifferent to its will, must increasingly treat it as a collective commodity, as a mass of labor power, and, therefore, as nothing more than a collective source of surplus value.
Although lacking the tools of historical materialist analysis, that comes from familiarity with Marx’s own methods, libertarians, like Ron Paul, have actually been able to better understand the implications of increasing state control over economic life than Marxists, who, having abandoned Marx’s methods to adopt spurious theories propagated from whatever academic scribbler, still to this day have failed to completely understand the Fascist State.
Eichengreen, worthless charlatan that he is, deftly sidesteps this critique shared by both Austrians and Marxists of the political impact of growing Fascist State control over the production of surplus value, and instead directs our attention to the entirely phony debate of whether gold as money serves society better than ex nihilo currency to abolish the crises inherent in the capitalist mode of production itself. He begins this foray by admitting the failure of of monetary policy to prevent the present crisis, but poses it as a non sequitur:
Why are Ron Paul’s ideas becoming more popular among voters?
The answer, as is Eichengreen’s standard practice in this bullshit hit piece, is to blame Ron Paul’s popularity on Glenn Beck:
BUT IF Representative Paul has been agitating for a return to gold for the better part of four decades, why have his arguments now begun to resonate more widely? One might point to new media—to the proliferation of cable-television channels, satellite-radio stations and websites that allow out-of-the-mainstream arguments to more easily find their audiences. It is tempting to blame the black-helicopter brigades who see conspiracies everywhere, but most especially in government. There are the forces of globalization, which lead older, less-skilled workers to feel left behind economically, fanning their anger with everyone in power, but with the educated elites in particular (not least onetime professors with seats on the Federal Reserve Board).
Only after we get this conspicuously offensive run of personal attacks on Ron Paul’s reputation, does Eichengreen actually admit: Ron Paul’s ideas are gaining in popularity, because the Fascist State is suffering a crisis produced by a decade of depression and financial calamity:
There may be something to all this, but there is also the financial crisis, the most serious to hit the United States in more than eight decades. Its very occurrence seemingly validated the arguments of those like Paul who had long insisted that the economic superstructure was, as a result of government interference and fiat money, inherently unstable. Chicken Little becomes an oracle on those rare occasions when the sky actually does fall.
Ah! But, even now, Eichengreen, forced to admit, finally, the present unpleasantness, cannot help but label Ron Paul a broken clock for having rightly predicted it in the first place. Okay, fine.
So, it turns out that the banksters really do extend credit beyond all possibility of it being repaid; and, it turns out that this over-extension of credit plays some role in overinvestment and the accumulation of debt, and, it turns out prices spiral to previously unimaginable heights during periods of boom — and, finally, it turns out all this comes crashing down around the ears of the capitalist, when, as at present, a contraction erupts suddenly, and without warning.
This schema bears more than a passing resemblance to the events of the last decade. Our recent financial crisis had multiple causes, to be sure—all financial crises do. But a principal cause was surely the strongly procyclical behavior of credit and the rapid growth of bank lending. The credit boom that spanned the first eight years of the twenty-first century was unprecedented in modern U.S. history. It was fueled by a Federal Reserve System that lowered interest rates virtually to zero in response to the collapse of the tech bubble and 9/11 and then found it difficult to normalize them quickly. The boom was further encouraged by the belief that there existed a “Greenspan-Bernanke put”—that the Fed would cut interest rates again if the financial markets encountered difficulties, as it had done not just in 2001 but also in 1998 and even before that, in 1987. (The Chinese as well may have played a role in underwriting the credit boom, but that’s another story.) That many of the projects thereby financed, notably in residential and commercial real estate, were less than sound became painfully evident with the crash.
All this is just as the Austrian School would have predicted. In this sense, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman went too far when he concluded, some years ago, that Austrian theories of the business cycle have as much relevance to the present day “as the phlogiston theory of fire.”
(I think it is rather cute to see Eichengreen present himself as the disinterested referee between the warring factions of bourgeois political-economy, by gently chiding Paul Krugman for going too far in his criticism of the Austrians — after all, the Fascist State will have to borrow heavily from the Austrian School to extricate itself from its present predicament)
Where people like Ron Paul go wrong, Eichengreen warns, is their belief that there is no solution to this crisis but to allow it to unfold to its likely unpalatable conclusion — unpalatable, of course, for the Fascist State, since such an event is its death-spiral as social capitalist. Apparently, without even realizing it, this pompous ass Eichengreen demonstrates the truth of Hayek’s argument: Fascist State management of the economy, once undertaken, must, over time, require ever increasing efforts to control economic events, and, therefore, ever increasing totalitarian control over society itself.
Eichengreen pleads us to understand the Fascist State does not intervene into the economy on behalf of Capital (and itself as manager of the total social capital) but to protect widows and orphans from starvation and poverty:
Society, in its wisdom, has concluded that inflicting intense pain upon innocent bystanders through a long period of high unemployment is not the best way of discouraging irrational exuberance in financial markets. Nor is precipitating a depression the most expeditious way of cleansing bank and corporate balance sheets. Better is to stabilize the level of economic activity and encourage the strong expansion of the economy. This enables banks and firms to grow out from under their bad debts. In this way, the mistaken investments of the past eventually become inconsequential. While there may indeed be a problem of moral hazard, it is best left for the future, when it can be addressed by imposing more rigorous regulatory restraints on the banking and financial systems.
Thus, in order to protect widows and orphans from starvation, the Fascist State is compelled to prop up the profits and asset prices of failed banksters and encourage the export of productive capital to the less developed regions of the world market — not to mention, leave millions without jobs and millions more under threat of losing their jobs. Eichengreen even has the astonishing gall to state the problem of moral hazard identified by Austrians, “is best left for the future, when it can be addressed by imposing more rigorous regulatory restraints on the banking and financial systems.” Eichengreen takes us all for fools — did not Washington deregulate the banksters prior to this depression, precisely when the economy was still expanding? If banks are deregulated during periods of expansion, and they cannot be regulated during periods of depression, when might the time be optimal to address moral hazard?
The question, of course, is rhetorical — and not simply because Eichengreen is only blowing smoke in our face. Eichengreen actually argues that Fascist State intervention prevented a depression!:
…we have learned how to prevent a financial crisis from precipitating a depression through the use of monetary and fiscal stimuli. All the evidence, whether from the 1930s or recent years, suggests that when private demand temporarily evaporates, the government can replace it with public spending. When financial markets temporarily become illiquid, central-bank purchases of distressed assets can help to reliquefy them, allowing borrowing and lending to resume.
And, here we can see the role of the thing serving as money and its relation to the crises inherent in the capitalist mode of production. Ex nihilo currency does not abolish crises, it merely masks them from view: while ex nihilo dollar based measures of economic activity indicate the economy suffered a massive catastrophic financial crisis in 2008, gold indicates this financial crisis is only the latest expression of an even more catastrophic depression that has, so far, lasted more than a decade.
NEXT: The tale of two monies
Tags: Austrian Economics, Barry Eichengreen, Depression, ex nihilo pecunaim, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, gold, Hayek, international financial system, Karl Marx, Libertarianism, monetary policy, Money, political-economy, Raya Dunayevskaya, Ron Paul, Tea Party, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
Washington has a problem, and Barry Eichengreen is doing his bit to save it. The problem’s name is Ron Paul, and this problem comes wrapped in 24 carat gold:
GOLD IS back, what with libertarians the country over looking to force the government out of the business of monetary-policy making. How? Well, by bringing back the gold standard of course.
Last week, Eichengreen published a slickly worded appeal to libertarian-leaning Tea Party voters, who, it appears, are growing increasingly enamored with Ron Paul’s argument against ex nihilo money and the bankster cartel through which Washington effects economic policy.
The pro-gold bandwagon has been present in force in Iowa, home of the first serious test of GOP candidates for that party’s presidential nomination. Supporters tried but failed to force taxpayers in Montana and Georgia to pay certain taxes in gold or silver. Utah even made gold and silver coins minted by Washington official tender in the state. But, the movement is not limited to just the US: several member states of the European Union have made not so quiet noises demanding real hard assets in return for more bailout funds for some distressed members burdened by debt and falling GDP.
No doubt, these developments are a growing concern in Washington precisely because demands for real assets like commodity money threaten to blow up its eighty year old control of domestic and global economic activity through the continuous creation of money out of thin air.
Although Eichengreen invokes the difficulty of paying for a fill up at your local gas station, “with a $50 American eagle coin worth some $1,500 at current market prices”; the real problem posed by a gold (or any commodity) standard for prices is that such a standard sounds a death-knell to a decades long free ride for the very wealthiest members of society, and would end the 40 years of steady erosion of wages for working people here, and in countries racked by inflation and severe austerity regimes around the world.
Make no mistake: Ron Paul is now one of the most dangerous politicians in the United States or anywhere else, because his message to end the Federal Reserve Bank and its control of monetary and employment policy has begun to approach the outer limits of a critical mass of support — if not to end the Fed outright, than at least to bring the issue front and center of American politics.
Eichengreen begins his attack on Ron Paul’s call for an end to the Federal Reserve by choosing, of all things, Ron Paul’s own writings as weapon against him:
Paul has been campaigning for returning to the gold standard longer than any of his rivals for the Republican nomination—in fact, since he first entered politics in the 1970s.
Paul is also a more eloquent advocate of the gold standard. His arguments are structured around the theories of Friedrich Hayek, the 1974 Nobel Laureate in economics identified with the Austrian School, and around those of Hayek’s teacher, Ludwig von Mises. In his 2009 book, End the Fed, Paul describes how he discovered the work of Hayek back in the 1960s by reading The Road to Serfdom.
For Eichengreen, Paul’s self-identification with Hayek is a godsend, because, as Eichengreen already knows at the outset of his article, Hayek ultimately opposed the gold standard as a solution to monetary crises:
At the end of The Denationalization of Money, Hayek concludes that the gold standard is no solution to the world’s monetary problems. There could be violent fluctuations in the price of gold were it to again become the principal means of payment and store of value, since the demand for it might change dramatically, whether owing to shifts in the state of confidence or general economic conditions. Alternatively, if the price of gold were fixed by law, as under gold standards past, its purchasing power (that is, the general price level) would fluctuate violently. And even if the quantity of money were fixed, the supply of credit by the banking system might still be strongly procyclical, subjecting the economy to destabilizing oscillations, as was not infrequently the case under the gold standard of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Eichengreen pulls off a clever misdirection against Ron Paul by deliberately conflating the problem of financial instability with the problem of limiting Fascist State control over economic activity. Ron Paul’s argument, of course, is not primarily directed at eliminating financial crises, which occur with some frequency no matter what serves as the standards of prices, but at removing from Washington’s control over economic activity not just at home, but wherever the dollar is accepted as means of payment in the world market — and, because the dollar is the world reserve currency, that means everywhere. But, by conflating the question of Fascist State control over the world economy with solving the problem of financial and industrial crises that are endemic to the capitalist mode of production, Eichengreen takes the opportunity to foist an even more unworkable scheme on unsuspecting Ron Paul supporters: privatize money itself:
For a solution to this instability, Hayek himself ultimately looked not to the gold standard but to the rise of private monies that might compete with the government’s own. Private issuers, he argued, would have an interest in keeping the purchasing power of their monies stable, for otherwise there would be no market for them. The central bank would then have no option but to do likewise, since private parties now had alternatives guaranteed to hold their value.
Abstract and idealistic, one might say. On the other hand, maybe the Tea Party should look for monetary salvation not to the gold standard but to private monies like Bitcoin.
It is cheek of monumental — epic — proportion. Even by the standards of the unscrupulous economics profession — a field of “scholarship” having no peer review and no accountability — the sniveling hucksterism of Eichengreen’s gambit is quite breathtaking. However, not to be overly impressed by this two-bit mattress-as-savings-account salesman, in the next section of this response to Barry Eichengreen, I want to spend a moment reviewing his examination of the problem of financial instability, and the alleged role of gold (commodity) money in “subjecting the economy to destabilizing oscillations… under the gold standard of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
Part Two: Money and crises
Tags: Austrian Economics, Barry Eichengreen, Depression, ex nihilo pecunaim, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, gold, Hayek, international financial system, Libertarianism, monetary policy, Money, political-economy, Ron Paul, Tea Party, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis
This is my final installment on the hyperinflationists section of theories of the current crisis for now. As I find in any good examination of a theory out there, I come away from this one with a better understanding of some of the problems of capitalism under conditions of absolute over-accumulation. The hyperinflationist argument forced me to confront several problems from the standpoint of the law of value, including, world market prices versus existing prices; ex nihilo currency and price behavior; definitions of price deflation, inflation and hyperinflation; definitions of depressions and recessions; the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency; and the rivalry between the monetary policies of the various nations states in relation to the Fascist State.
One of my conclusions from this examination is that FOFOA, properly understood, should not be in the hyperinflationist camp. I have no idea why he is advocating for dollar hyperinflation, since he, more than any other writer in the hyperinflationist camp, realizes the relationship between the purchasing power of an ex nihilo currency and the circulation of commodities. In 2010, he wrote:
Gold bids for dollars. If gold stops bidding for dollars (low gold velocity), the price (in gold) of a dollar falls to zero. This is backwardation!
Fekete says backwardation is when “zero [gold] supply confronts infinite [dollar] demand.” I am saying it is when “infinite supply of dollars confronts zero demand from real, physical gold… in the necessary VOLUME.” So what’s the difference? Viewed this way, can anyone show me how we are not there right now? And I’m not talking about your local gold dealer bidding on your $1,200 with his gold coin. I’m talking about Giant hoards of unencumbered physical gold the dollar NEEDS bids from.
Don’t let the term “backwardation” throw you. It is one of those insider terms among commodity traders, which, for our purpose, can be safely ignored, since it adds nothing to FOFOA’s essential argument. What FOFOA is saying in this excerpt is that the purchasing power of an ex nihilo currency rests on the willingness of gold owners to accept it as means of payment in exchange for their commodities. Unfortunately, FOFOA limits his argument to gold and misses the significance of his insight. This is because, for reasons previously mentioned, he articulates the viewpoint of the petty capitalist, who, unable to operate independently, must of necessity hand his meager wealth over to Wall Street investment banksters if it is to operate as capital, or, failing this, accept the depreciation of its dollar purchasing power, or, convert it to a hoard of useless gold.
There is, however, no reason to limit FOFOA’s insight to gold. Having been displaced in circulation as money, gold is simply another commodity whose particular use value is that it serve as a store of value. It is excellent in this regard, but broccoli is excellent as a vegetable, while gold is not. The specific quality of gold is its limited use as mainly a store of value, and, in this regard, it has few substitutes, while broccoli has many substitutes. This, however, should not blind us to the fact that it is now an ordinary commodity like any other. The true significance of FOFOA’s insight is that the purchasing power of any ex nihilo currency is directly a function of the willingness of commodity owners to accept it in exchange for their commodities.
If commodity owners are unwilling to accept an ex nihilo currency in exchange for their commodity, or prefer another currency in exchange for their commodity over that particular currency, its purchasing power will quickly fall toward zero — hyperinflation. This is precisely what happened in the case of the Zimbabwe dollar, which was undermined not only by the profligacy of the state, but also, by the preference of commodity owners for dollars and euros as a result of this profligacy. As FOFOA knows, the dollar is not likely to suffer such a fate, since its purchasing power rests on the fact that it is accepted for any commodity on the world market, and, consequently, is “undervalued” against all other ex nihilo currencies. Even if the purchasing power of a single ex nihilo dollar falls, the purchasing power of the total sum of dollars in circulation is not affected — it is still “undervalued” in relation to all other ex nihilo currencies, and must be undervalued as long as the total quantity of all other currencies is greater than zero.
By the same token, FOFOA’s insight demonstrates why, despite the constant depreciation of a single ex nihilo dollar, the sum of existing prices within the world market must be higher than world market prices denominated in dollars. No matter the depreciation of a single ex nihilo dollar, the sum of world market prices must fall toward world market prices denominated in dollars. Thus, the monetary policies of other nations is determined by the monetary policies of the Fascist State. Any nation wishing to pursue a so-called loose monetary policy, as Zimbabwe did, must find its ex nihilo currency displaced by dollars as commodity owners demand dollars in place of the national currency. On the other hand, the “tightening” of monetary policy by other nations cannot save these national currencies, since such “tightening” only leads them to the same fate as gold itself — they are withdrawn from circulation in a deflation of prices.
The end result, in either case, is the demonetization of all ex nihilo currencies except the dollar, and the equalization of the sum of prices within the world market with world market prices denominated in dollars. Hyperinflation and deflation do occur, but they occur in every other ex nihilo currency except the dollar.
From John Williams and FOFOA, I better understand the likely consequence of Fascist State economic policy — the front-loading of a series of events leading to the collapse of ex nihilo currencies by the fall of the sum of prices within the world market to the price level imposed by the dollar. This is because, as opposed to the deflationists, the hyperinflationists show the Fascist State will not sit by and let its dominant position be threatened by mere accounting identities. It will defend that position even at the expense of all other currencies. FOFOA is clearer on this point than Williams, but Williams implies it as well.
Paradoxically, FOFOA’s argument lends support, not for the hyperinflationist camp, but Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). His insight confirms the assumptions of the modern money theorists that the Fascist State faces no external constraint on its expenditures, since all ex nihilo currencies are only worthless dancing electrons on the computer terminals of central banks. The question raised by Fascist State expenditures is not its effect on national accounting balances, but the effect of these expenditures on other ex nihilo currencies. The accelerated spending of the Fascist State drives all of these currencies out of existence.
I look forward to examining this in a similar survey of modern money theory at another time.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, falling rate of profit, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, FOFOA, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, law of value, Modern Monetary Theory, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
In a recent post, Deflation or Hyperinflation, FOFOA begins the meat of his argument with investment adviser Rick Ackerman (who, until recently, predicted this present crisis will end in a debt deflation) by directly addressing Ackerman’s core deflationist argument, which originally was set forth in a 1976 book by C.V. Myers, The Coming Deflation:
My instincts concerning deflation were hard-wired in 1976 after reading C.V. Myers’ The Coming Deflation. The title was premature, as we now know, but the book’s core idea was as timeless and immutable as the Law of Gravity. Myers stated, with elegant simplicity, that “Ultimately, every penny of every debt must be paid — if not by the borrower, then by the lender.” Inflationists and deflationists implicitly agree on this point — we are all ruinists at heart, as our readers will long since have surmised, and we differ only on the question of who, borrower or lender, will take the hit. As Myers made clear, however, someone will have to pay. If you understand this, then you understand why the dreadnought of real estate deflation, for one, will remain with us even if 30 million terminally afflicted homeowners leave their house keys in the mailbox. To repeat: We do not make debt disappear by walking away from it; someone will have to take the hit.
FOFOA’s response to the deflationist argument was both simple and fatal for the deflationist argument:
Yes, someone will pay. But there is a third option that is missing from Myers’ dictum. “The hit” can be socialized…
What the deflationist miss, says FOFOA, is that Washington will never accept the collapse of its failing economic mechanism. It will create whatever quantity of ex nihilo dollars it takes to socialize the losses of financial institutions, pension funds, etc. — even if this threatens the viability of global financial system and the dollar itself.
Like FOFOA, I want to begin this post by directly addressing the core argument of both camps, that this crisis must end either in the deflation or hyperinflation of dollar prices, or both. As FOFOA has argued, the present crisis will likely end in both hyperinflation and deflation at the same time. I agree with this analysis, but I disagree with his targets. Both hyperinflation and deflation of prices will occur, but they are likely to hit every ex nihilo currency on the planet except the dollar. If other currencies survive at all, they will do so only as boutique items marketed to private collectors, like their predecessor, gold. The deflationary/hyperinflationary hit will be not just socialized, but globalized as well.
Is this argument true? I don’t know for sure. To be honest, there are so many variables in the current crisis that any attempt to make a firm prediction must end in embarrassment for someone — a whole lot of “someones”, in fact. But, let’s assess the probabilities determining the outcome of this crisis using Marx’s Law of Value, rather than Austrian economics:
Zero divided by zero equals ?
To be absolutely clear at the outset, there is no difference between the fundamental facts underlying the dollar and the fundamental facts underlying all other national currencies — they are all worthless and possess infinitely more purchasing power than their actual value. From the standpoint of the law of value, any exchange rate between any two ex nihilo currencies is meaningless, since it is merely the ratio between one object that is entirely worthless and another object that is entirely worthless. For the past decade, the purchasing power of the euro has risen against the dollar despite the absolute worthlessness of either currency. The Zimbabwe dollar is collapsing into hyperinflation, but not so far as to actually represent in circulation its actual value — a Zim$1.00 note has exactly the same value as a Zim$1,000,000,000.00 note (and exactly the same value as a one hundred dollar bill for that matter).
Likewise, prices denominated in any ex nihilo currency are meaningless, since they can never rise to actually reflect the values of the commodities which the ex nihilo money denominates. An increase in the purchasing power of an ex nihilo currency would, in any case, conceal the utter worthlessness of the currency. And as to the fall in the purchasing power of any currency, it suffices to state no matter how far the purchasing power of Zimbabwe dollars fall, Zimbabwe dollar denominated prices of commodities never reflect how worthless the currency really is.
What both the hyperinflationist camp and the deflationist camp need to explain is why, despite the absence of value of all ex nihilo currencies, no major currency was put back on the gold standard after Washington closed the gold window in 1971? Why was gold, despite its value as money, relegated to the basements of major central banks or the private collections of hoarders? Why was it necessary for all major trading nations to remove a commodity standard for the general price level from the world economy? The questions answer themselves: a commodity standard for the general price level is incompatible with an economy founded on capitalist social relations at this stage of its development — absolute over-accumulation. The rather stunning fact presented by gold is this: if prices of commodities were denominated in gold, no commodity would be “worth” the gold standard price quoted for it, i.e., the purchasing power of gold as money would be below its value as a commodity — a situation previously found only during over-production of commodities is now a permanent feature of the capitalist mode of production. It is this situation that initially drove gold from circulation as money, that compelled it to strip off its monetary form.
Without understanding this piece of the puzzle, it is not possible to understand the nature of the present crisis, which, despite appearing as the product of a massive accumulation of worthless debt threatening all existing currencies, is actually the cause of this accumulation of fictitious capital. It is futile to try to understand the current crisis by comparing the attractiveness of various existing or imagined alternative ex nihilo currencies on the world market, since each is worthless, and are as prone to sudden and unexpected hyper-depreciation of their purchasing power as the dollar — and which, moreover, owe their role as money to the fact the gold has ceased to be able to function as money. Since there is nothing about the currencies themselves that set them apart from each other or from the dollar, predictions about their respective fates as currencies must rest, not on the respective attraction of the currencies themselves, but solely on the material relation between respective national states — we must ignore the apparent differences in the purchasing powers of various ex nihilo currencies and delve into the actual economic relations between and among the various states.
World market prices versus existing prices
No matter the differences in the exchange rate between dollars and all other currencies, the following conditions hold: on the one hand, world market prices are denominated in dollars, while, on the other hand, the total sum of present prices throughout the world market as a whole are determined by the ratio of the total sum of currencies of every nation to the total quantity of commodities in circulation throughout the world market. If the dollar was the only currency in circulation there would be no difficulty with regards to world prices and existing prices — they would be identical. However, if we have two currencies — we will call them ex nihilo dollars and an ex nihilo “Rest of the World Currency” (rotwocs) — the situation is changed. Although the dollars and rotwocs are identical — i.e., both are worthless — in circulation the effect on the total sum of world market prices is the ratio between all ex nihilo currency in circulation (X dollars plus Y rotwocs) to the total quantity of commodities in circulation throughout the world market.
Despite this fact, world prices are determined by dollars alone, and under the following circumstances: the dollar is not accepted for all commodities because it is world reserve currency; rather, the situation is precisely the opposite: because it is universally accepted in exchange for any commodity, it is the world reserve currency. This means the dollar’s purchasing power is absolute, while the purchasing power of the rotwoc is only relative — the rotwoc can purchase any commodity whose price is denominated in rotwocs, but to purchase a commodity denominated in dollars, it must be exchanged for dollars before the transaction can be completed. If we assume the world market is divided into two zones — a dollar only zone and a combined dollar/rotwoc zone — of equal size, it is obvious that the existing stock of dollars can readily serve as means of purchase in the entire world market, while the existing stock of rotwocs can serve as means of purchase only in the rotwoc zone. The purchasing power of the stock of dollars is, therefore, twice that of the stock of rotwocs, i.e., there are twice as many commodities available to be purchased by dollars as there are by rotwocs.
It should be obvious now that the sum total of all other ex nihilo currencies provide no additional purchasing power to global demand — they are entirely superfluous. On the other hand, the dollar actually exchanges with all other ex nihilo currencies at a rate significantly below its purchasing power throughout the world market — even against ex nihilo currencies that are, at any given moment, appreciating in purchasing power against it. Since the purchasing power of any ex nihilo currency is not inherent in the currency itself, but depends solely on the total quantity of commodities available to be purchased by it, it follows the purchasing power of the ex nihilo dollar is not limited to the commodities available to be purchased in the dollar zone alone, but all commodities that are available to be purchased by it throughout the world market.
On the other hand, it should be equally obvious that the total sum of prices in the world market must be above world market prices. Since world market prices are here determined solely by the ratio of the total sum of ex nihilo dollars in circulation to the total sum of commodities in circulation within the world market, but the actual sum of prices is determined by the ratio between total sum of dollars in circulation plus the total sum of all other currencies in circulation (x dollars plus y rotwocs) to the total sum of commodities in circulation, any quantity of non-dollar national currencies in circulation above zero results in prices that are above world market prices.
The endpoint of this crisis
The question is how all this works out in the crisis as it is now unfolding. While I don’t have a crystal ball, I will attempt to outline a likely course.
As we have seen in this crisis, no matter how profligate the Fascist State is in its spending on a massive global machinery of repression, and on socialization of the losses of incurred by the failed economic mechanism, the more expenditures it undertakes, the greater the pressure on other national monetary authorities to tighten their own monetary policies in response — to impose naked austerity on their citizens, to further constrain domestic prices in the face of rising global prices. Rising global prices translate into a falling rate of profit in the non-dollar states. To offset this falling rate of profit, the domestic labor forces of the various non-dollar states must be squeezed still further, and the resultant surplus product exported. The profligacy of the Fascist State and the austerity regime of these non-dollar states are only two sides of the same process, feeding on each other, each reinforcing the other.
The two do not merely reinforce each other, however, they also act to make their opposite insufficient in resolving the crisis. Insofar as the profligacy of the Fascist State increases, the pressure on the non-dollar states toward domestic austerity increases, and with this also increases its exports. Insofar as exports increase, global overaccumulation is intensified and the world market settles even more deeply into depression. But, as we have already seen, with an ex nihilo currency regime depressions are now associated not with deflation of prices, but the inflation of prices — so actual prices rise still faster in response to domestic austerity.
A straight-line assumption of the crisis indicates constantly rising world market prices, combined with increasing austerity and monetary policy contraction of non-dollar states. However, living processes do not move in a straight line; in any event non-dollar currencies are likely to experience an existential endpoint — separately, or in groups — since the collapse of any one of them involves fewer complications than replacement of the dollar as world reserve currency. Moreover, replacing the dollar with another currency does not solve the problem that these non-dollar currencies are superfluous. Non-dollar currencies are likely finished; nothing in this crisis appears to offer them another fate.
The question provoked by the above is not “What is the fate of the dollar?” Nor, is it, “What is the fate of non-dollar currencies?” Rather, the real question posed by my analysis is this:
“Why should any of these worthless currencies survive?”
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, falling rate of profit, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, FOFOA, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, law of value, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
I know I promised to examine John Williams’ argument that hyperinflation hinges on an exogenous political event: the rejection of the dollar as world reserve currency by other nations. I will return to this point. But, before I do, I want to respond to Neverfox, who asked me to evaluate the argument of the writer FOFOA’s theory of the imminent hyperinflation catastrophe:
To summarize the argument of John Williams: The economy is spiraling into a severe depression of the 1930s or 1970s type. To meet its various present public obligations, future promises, and prop up the economic mechanism — which, for the moment, we can call debt-driven economic growth — the Federal Reserve is forced to monetize Washington spending. This monetization is itself producing a collapse in the credibility of the dollar. Sooner or later this loss in credibility will result in the outright rejection of the dollar as world reserve currency, triggering a hyperinflationary depression. In the course of this hyperinflationary event, lasting about six months or so, the dollar will become worthless.
To a great extent, although differing on some subtle points with Williams, FOFOA throws light on Williams’ own thinking. In FOFOA’s description of events, the hyperinflation event is front loaded with the essential dry tender: the accumulation of fictitious assets denominated in dollars over an 80 year period produced as a by product of the economic mechanism — debt fueled economic expansion. The event is triggered by a collapse of debtors’ ability to make good on their debts. This, in turn, is followed by an attempt by the Fascist State to rescue the financial institutions on whose books the fictitious assets reside, which produces a loss of confidence in the currency and its rejection as world reserve currency. It is only at this point, government begins printing money to survive and pay its obligations, generating the onset of extremely rapid price increases and the core hyperinflation event..
A deflationary episode can, and probably will, proceed the actual hyperinflation of prices. The hyperinflation episode does not invalidate the arguments of those who predict a deflationary depression; in fact, the hyperinflationary episode will in all likelihood start out as a deflationary episode. Those predicting a deflationary depression, however, miss the response of the Fascist State. Moreover, the deflation does occur just as those who predict deflation assert; only the deflation takes place in gold terms, not dollar terms. Expressed in gold terms, it is a deflation; however, in dollar terms, it is a hyperinflation. FOFOA believes the difference between a deflation measured in gold and a deflation measured in dollars is key to understanding the hyperinflation that is imminent:
“What’s the difference between a deflation denominated in gold versus dollars?” Well, there’s a huge difference to both the debtors and the savers. In a dollar deflation the debtors suffocate but in a gold deflation they find a bit of relief from their dollar-denominated debts. And for the savers, the big difference is in the choice of what to save your wealth in. This is what makes the deflationists so dangerous to savers.
A deflation imposes an extremely heavy burden on debtors, requiring them to repay their debts with ex nihilo denominated debt whose purchasing power is increasing, and which, therefore, requires increasing amounts of effort to repay. By contrast, a hyperinflation reduces the burden of accumulated debt by depreciating the purchasing power and burden of ex nihilo denominated debt. In the thinking of those predicting deflation, as the debt bubble of the last 80 years bursts, the Fascist State will find it impossible to reflate the debt bubble and will be forced to accept deflation. Thus, a full scale debt deflation depression is in the offing.
FOFOA argues that while it is not possible to reflate the debt bubble, the Fascist State can save the paper assets of financial institutions that are the fictitious claims on these debts. Decades of debt fueled growth has swollen dollar-denominated assets held by these institutions to fantastic dimensions. FOFOA argues the Fascist State will not and cannot let these institutions fail because it is merely the political expression of these financial institutions. The aim of Fascist State intervention is not to save the debtors — which it cannot do even if it wanted to — but, as events of the last three years show dramatically — the Fascist State aims to save the the assets of these institutions. FOFOA quotes another writer from whom he derives his own name, FOA:
hyperinflation is the process of saving debt at all costs, even buying it outright for cash. Deflation is impossible in today’s dollar terms because policy will allow the printing of cash, if necessary, to cover every last bit of debt and dumping it on your front lawn! (smile) Worthless dollars, of course, but no deflation in dollar terms! (bigger smile)
The process of actual hyperinflating prices begins with the attempts to monetize bad debts — to socialize the losses of big capital — not with money printing; the money printing only begins in earnest once monetization of bad debt leads to a loss in the credibility of the dollar.
…it is the US Govt. that will make sure this becomes a real Weimar-style hyperinflation when it forces the Fed to monetize any and all US debt. And as dollar confidence continues to fall, that’s when the debt must go exponential just to purchase the same amount of real goods for the government. One month the debt will be a trillion, the next month it will be a quadrillion just to buy the same stuff as the previous month. How long will this last? Less than 6 months is my guess.
According to FOFOA, on the balance sheets of the failed banks there now is more than enough reserves to fuel a sudden burst of hyperinflating prices should society suddenly lose confidence in the dollar. As this base is pulled into circulation by a general demand for goods in the face of rising prices, the Fascist State will be forced to begin printing money to cover its own obligations. Each month the amount of ex nihilo dollars needed to fill the same demand for government spending increases, and with this increase, the amount of new ex nihilo money created will increase. This compounding growth in the supply of ex nihilo currency will provide added impetus to the explosion of prices. The explosion of prices will not be contained short of a new monetary regime in which assets and debt are somehow tied to gold.
The problem is that the present monetary system, in FOFOA’s view, is that lending and saving both take the same form — either a gold backed system or an ex nihilo money system. FOFOA argues money lent out inevitably dilutes the value of money being saved, since they both come out of the same pot:
The problem is that the expanding money supply due to lending always lowers the value of a unit of currency. Even if it is gold. If I loan you a $1 gold money, you now have $1 gold and I have a $1 gold note. The money supply has just doubled, and the value of $1 gold just dropped in half.
This is a fact of money systems. We can try to get rid of it by outlawing lending, but that is like outlawing swimming in the summertime, or beer drinking.
The solution is quite simple. And I didn’t come up with it. The problem is that at the point of collapse, some of the savers are wiped out, whether gold money or fiat. Think about those at the back of the line during the bank runs of the 1930′s. They didn’t get their gold. They lost their money.
Today we don’t have this problem anymore. The guy at the back of the line gets all his money, it’s just worthless in the end. We solved the problem of bank runs (bank failures) but not the problem of value.
This problem, which is often referred to as debt deflation, is inherent in the prevailing monetary system, and will lead to financial crises even if the United States went back to a gold-backed dollar. He proposes instead to bring gold back into the money system, but within strict limits: split the functions of store of value and credit into two separate monetary systems — ex nihilo for lending, and gold for saving — so that ex nihilo currency lent out will indeed be diluted, but the gold-backed value of saving will freely rise to express this dilution:
The solution is that the monetary store of value floats against the currency. It is not the same thing that is lent! It is not expanded through lending and thereby diminished in value. Instead, as $1 is lent, and now becomes $2 ($1 to the borrower + $1 note to you the lender) and the dollar drops to half its value, the saver, the gold holder will see the value of his gold savings rise from $1 to $2.
I don’t want to get into the weeds on this proposal by FOFOA, since it is entirely beside the point of the examination of non-mainstream theories of the current crisis, and, in any case, a non-sequitur from the standpoint of capital. But, he inadvertently touches on a salient point for my examination: suffice it to say, capital is not and cannot be thought of as the accumulation of gold or any other commodity. It is the process of self-enlargement, or self-expansion, of the capital initially laid out in the capitalist process of production. At any given moment, this capital can take the form of money-capital, fixed and circulating capital, wages, and final commodities, but it is not identical with any of these momentary identities — it is relentlessly converted from one form to another constantly — both serially, and simultaneously in what, over time, comes to resemble a vast cloud of interrelated transactions — as it passes through the process of self-expansion. FOFOA’s proposal imagines the point of self-expansion is precisely what it is not: to assume the form of a hoard of gold — or any other store of value. This is true only insofar as we are thinking of capitals that are no longer capable of functioning as capitals — that are incapable of acting on their own as capitals, owing to the ever increasing scale of capitalist production, which renders these petty capitals insufficient to function on their own as capitals. Unable to operate on their own, they must be placed at the disposal of larger agglomerations of capital in order to continue functioning as capital, resulting in great stress for their owners, who now have to turn their otherwise lifeless hoards over to giant vampire squids of the Goldman Sachs type or cease being capitals at all.
This is, in part, what Marx meant by the concentration of capital, which is not simply the concentration of ownership of the means of production, but also the concentration of owners of capital who can continue to operate independently as capitalists. The existence of even very large savings does not permit these owners to operate independently as capitalists, given the scale of productive undertaking now required. Marx described the process 150 years ago:
A drop in the rate of profit is attended by a rise in the minimum capital required by an individual capitalist for the productive employment of labour; required both for its exploitation generally, and for making the consumed labour-time suffice as the labour-time necessary for the production of the commodities, so that it does not exceed the average social labour-time required for the production of the commodities. Concentration increases simultaneously, because beyond certain limits a large capital with a small rate of profit accumulates faster than a small capital with a large rate of profit. At a certain high point this increasing concentration in its turn causes a new fall in the rate of profit. The mass of small dispersed capitals is thereby driven along the adventurous road of speculation, credit frauds, stock swindles, and crises. The so-called plethora of capital always applies essentially to a plethora of the capital for which the fall in the rate of profit is not compensated through the mass of profit — this is always true of newly developing fresh offshoots of capital — or to a plethora which places capitals incapable of action on their own at the disposal of the managers of large enterprises in the form of credit. This plethora of capital arises from the same causes as those which call forth relative over-population, and is, therefore, a phenomenon supplementing the latter, although they stand at opposite poles — unemployed capital at one pole, and unemployed worker population at the other.
FOFOA’s proposal seems to confirm my identification of the social base of the hyperinflationist camp: a motley collection of petty speculative minnows, who are desperately trying to avoid the predation of the very biggest financial sharks and vampire squids — not to mention the Fascist State itself, which represents the interests of these predatory vermin. The hyperinflationists as a group imagine the dollar has reached the end of the line. They imagine this will lead to a revaluation of gold and the creation of a new monetary system to replace the dollar, driven by the dissatisfaction of the majority of the planet with the monetary policies of the United States.
So, we need to move on and examine this thesis.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, FOFOA, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
Even if we assume John Williams’ prediction of a hyperinflationary depression turns out to be correct — and the global economy is plunged into an apocalyptic nightmare as prices rise with blinding rapidity, while economic activity shudders to a standstill — his argument for this outcome is so defective as to merely represent the chimes of an otherwise broken clock for the following reasons:
First, his prediction rests on mere accounting identities, and assumes the Fascist State can be counted on, or forced, to observe these accounting identities. As a counter-argument, I offer the historical evidence of Washington’s behavior over the past 80 years, when it routinely ignored whatever accounting identities as were forced upon it by circumstances and left the rest of American society and the global population as pitiful bag-holders of worthless ex nihilo currency. Williams offers no argument why the Fascist State will act differently in this crisis. In all likelihood, Washington will effectively renounce its debts and continue business as usual — leaving China and other exporters to absorb the impact.
Second, Williams does not understand hyperinflation. His definition of hyperinflation is entirely defective, because he doesn’t realize ex nihilo currency is not made worthless by hyperinflation; rather, it is already a collection of worthless dancing electrons on a computer terminal in the Federal Reserve Bank. Ex nihilo currency was worthless the moment the Fascist State debased the token currency from gold in 1933 and 1971. Hyperinflation and inflation are not the more or less sudden depreciation of money, but the more or less sudden depreciation of the purchasing power of an already worthless money.
Third, Williams does not understand depression, and in particular the Great Depression. Depressions are produced by the overproduction of capital — whether this overproduction is momentary or persistent. They are characterized by a general surfeit of commodities, fixed and circulating capital, and a relative over-population of workers. These are periodic occurrences, owing their genesis not to simple fluctuations of economic activity, but to constraints imposed on consumption by the necessity that all productive activity is carried on, not with the aim of satisfying human needs, but for profit. All depressions result in the sudden devaluation of the existing stock of social capital, of the existing stock of variable and constant capital, which is the absolute precondition for the resumption of self-expansion of the total social capital.
Before the Great Depression, this last point always meant a rather pronounced and sudden deflation of prices. After the Great Depression, this devaluation is accompanied, not by a sudden and spectacular collapse of prices, but a sudden and spectacular explosion of prices. The event itself has not changed — it is still a devaluation of the total social capital. What has changed is the expression of this devaluation in a general fall in the price level. I argue the source of this change was the debasement of national currencies during the Great Depression.
What the three points made above tell me is that Williams and the growing community of hyperinflationists do not understand ex nihilo money; they do not understand how prices behave under an ex nihilo regime; and, finally, they do not understand why ex nihilo money was a necessary result of the Great Depression. They are an odd collection of petty speculative capitalists concerned only with preserving their “wealth” through what are likely to be very interesting times.
Understanding ex nihilo money
Like money in general, ex nihilo money, is not simply a “thing” — a currency without commodity backing — rather, it is a social relation that appears to us in the form of this thing. It is a social relation that takes the form of worthless currency because this social relation itself can only take the form of things. The social relation, of course, is a global social cooperation in the act of labor. Since, this social cooperation does not by any means result from conscious decisions of the members of society and proceed with their conscious direction, the requirements of this social cooperation impose themselves on the members of society as necessities — as the law of value, as the value/prices mechanism.
What is peculiar about ex nihilo money as a form of money is that the relation between value and price has been completely severed — the two most important functions of money have devolved on entirely different objects. By debasing the currency from gold money’s function as standard of price was completely severed from its function as measure of value. This much is acknowledged by the hyperinflationist, who place the blame for this separation on the Fascist State; however, historical research shows impetus behind this separation did not first appear as a matter of State policy, but as a matter of financial common sense.
Every depression begins with money exchanging for commodities below its value, or, what is the same thing, with the prices of commodities at their apex for the cycle. Prices near the top of the cycle rise to unsustainable levels, and the competition to dump commodities on the market under favorable price conditions gets fairly intense. Everyone is optimistic about the economic outlook, profits expand, credit flows freely, workers are hired, factories furiously churn out commodities around the clock, the stocks of goods begin to pile up in the warehouses. And, then, BOOM! — depression erupts just as wages, prices, profits and interest are at their highest, and the purchasing power of money is at its lowest.
As the disorder spreads, profits and prices collapse, credit is choked off, debtors default, factories grind to a halt, millions of workers are laid off… yadda, yadda, yadda — we all know the drill. Side by side with this disorder, money is with drawn from circulation. Gold money disappears into hoards, as capitals attempt to avoid the worst of the devaluation of the existing social capital. The competition at this point is not to see who can sell the most commodities, but who can avoid taking any of the losses that the social capital as a whole must suffer. While this total social capital must take the hit, which capitals actually take this hit is a matter of entirely other circumstances.
As Marx put it:
The class, as such, must inevitably lose. How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, i.e., to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers. The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface, just as previously the identity of these interests operated in practice through competition.
How is this conflict settled and the conditions restored which correspond to the “sound” operation of capitalist production? The mode of settlement is already indicated in the very emergence of the conflict whose settlement is under discussion. It implies the withdrawal and even the partial destruction of capital amounting to the full value of additional capital ΔC, or at least a part of it. Although, as the description of this conflict shows, the loss is by no means equally distributed among individual capitals, its distribution being rather decided through a competitive struggle in which the loss is distributed in very different proportions and forms, depending on special advantages or previously captured positions, so that one capital is left unused, another is destroyed, and a third suffers but a relative loss, or is just temporarily depreciated, etc.
The total social capital is devalued; and, this devaluation takes place both in terms of the values of the capital — prices fall, etc. — and by a winnowing out of the players — some definite portion of the total social capital is pushed out of productive activity altogether. Capitals go bankrupt, factories are shuttered, the reserve army of the unemployed expands. At the lowest point in the ensuing depression, prices and profits have fallen to their lowest point in the cycle, while the purchasing power of money is at its highest point in the cycle. Assets can be snatched up at bargain basement prices, labor power can be had for a wage below its value. If the capitalist has survived the wash out, he stands to accumulate on a prodigious scale, since unemployed productive capacity is just laying around collecting dust.
There was one problem with this scenario during the Great Depression: the economy hit this point and just laid there like the decaying carcass of a beached whale; the condition for the “‘sound’ operation of capitalist production” were never restored, money just sat in hoards as investors, waiting out the crisis for better times, clung to their useless gold stocks for dear life. There was, as usual, a general over-accumulation of capital, i.e., an overproduction of commodities, an excess of fixed and circulating capital, and an excess population of workers, but these excesses were rather persistent. As with any general over-accumulation, it was not a matter of “consumer confidence” returning, but the necessary actual devaluation of the existing total social capital. Absent this devaluation, attempts to increase production would merely result in an over-supply that further forced down prices and profits. Under these circumstances, a portion of the existing stock of commodity money could not circulate until the devaluation of the existing stock of social capital had taken place.
So, it was not the Fascist State that expelled gold from circulation as money; rather, because gold money could no longer circulate as money, the Fascist State was forced to replace it with ex nihilo currency. The Fascist State debased the currency from commodity money, because the circulation of commodity money had already halted. This action was no American exceptionalism, however; within a short period of time all industrialized nations went off the gold standard domestically.
I want to emphasize an extremely important point here, a point that is vital to understanding the present crisis: going off the gold standard did not simply convert money into a worthless, debased, token — entirely fictitious from the standpoint of the law of value — it also changed the behavior of prices, i.e., the behavior of the purchasing power of the currency itself. On this basis alone the Fascist State could take control of the social process of capitalist production.
The behavior of prices under ex nihilo money
Ex nihilo money is not commodity money, it is not token money, it is not fiat money — it is an altogether different animal entirely. For instance, under a commodity money regime an over-accumulation of capital produced falling prices during depressions, while the purchasing power of the commodity money rose. As I will show, ex nihilo currency inverts this relation after the Great Depression — now prices denominated in the debased ex nihilo currency rise as economic activity contracts, while the purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency falls.
So far as I know, there is no instance of a commodity money suffering a hyperinflation. Hyperinflation does not render a currency worthless; rather, the currency is immediately rendered worthless during debasement from a commodity that can serve as standard of price. Debasement can result in hyperinflation, but hyperinflation is not the necessary result of debasement. Hyperinflation must be defined as the extreme and rapid depreciation of the purchasing power of a currency that is already worthless, that already has been debased. Historically, while hyperinflation follows the debasement of the currency from gold, not every debasement of currency from gold has led to hyperinflation. Hyperinflation is historically associated not with commodity money per se, but with ex nihilo currency.
Here a distinction must be made between money — the commodity which performs the function of universal equivalent — and ex nihilo currency, which has no relation to commodity money at all. While this ex nihilo currency can replace commodity money in circulation like token money under certain definite circumstances, what makes it different from token money is that it has no definite relation with a commodity that serves as money — it is not “honest” money, i.e., tokens whose purchasing power is held within limits governed by the laws governing the circulation of commodity money. However, like the circulation of tokens of money, ex nihilo currency is subject to certain laws, the most important of which is it can only represent in circulation the value of the commodity money it replaces.
When we speak of the purchasing power of ex nihilo money, we are in fact only referring to the quantity of commodity money this ex nihilo currency actually represents in circulation. In this case, the commodity money on which I base my discussion is gold; so, the purchasing power of an American ex nihilo dollar represents the quantity of gold having a price of one dollar. If gold has a price of $22.67 an ounce, the purchasing power of one ex nihilo dollar is equal to the value of 0.044 ounce of gold; if gold has a price of $1525, the purchasing power of an ex nihilo dollar is equal to 0.0006557 ounce of gold. If the price of gold falls from $800 per ounce to $250 per ounce, the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency has risen from 0.00125 ounce of gold to 0.004 ounce of gold. If the price of an ounce of gold rises from $250 to $1525, the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency has fallen from 0.004 ounce of gold to 0.0006557 ounce of gold.
In any case, the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency refers only to the quantity of gold that would otherwise be in circulation circulation had not it been replaced by ex nihilo currency. It does not refer to the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency in relation to any other commodity. But, the quantity of gold in circulation at any point is not given — at one point it may be higher, while at another point it is lower. If, despite these fluctuations, the amount of ex nihilo currency in circulation is unchanged, it will, in the first case, represent more commodity money, and, in the latter case, represent less commodity money. The purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency will rise or fall with the fluctuation of economic activity which it denominates in itself. Since, when actually in circulation, the currency of commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities — rising and falling with this circulation — the purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency will only represent this quantity of commodity money irrespective of the absolute quantity of ex nihilo currency in circulation.
The circulation of commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities. Assuming the value of commodities and the velocity of money are fixed, when the circulation of commodities increases, the quantity of commodity money in circulation must increase. When the circulation of commodities decreases, the quantity of commodity money in circulation must decrease. Consequently, a fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency will represent a larger or smaller quantity of commodity money respectively as economic activity expands or contracts. If a fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency is in circulation when the circulation of commodities is increasing, the purchasing power of this fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency must increase. If a fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency is in circulation when the circulation of commodities is decreasing, the purchasing power of this fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency must decrease.
The supply of commodity money and the supply of ex nihilo currency are not the same thing. While the circulation of commodity money is naturally driven by economic activity, the amount of ex nihilo currency available to circulate is always dependent on the State issuance of ex nihilo currency. Moreover, once ex nihilo currency is in circulation, it will tend to remain in circulation. Thus, while the quantity of commodity money in circulation rise or falls with the circulation of commodities, the purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency replacing commodity money tends to increase or decrease with the circulation of commodities instead. For this reason, ex nihilo currency presents us with the paradox that prices tend to fall as economic activity increases and rise with the fall in economic activity.
If all else is given, we are forced to the following conclusion regarding the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency :
- the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency rises during periods of economic expansion, i.e, a given quantity of ex nihilo currency can purchase a greater sum of values. This is precisely the opposite of what we would expect from commodity money. While,
- the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency falls during periods of economic contraction, i.e, a given quantity of ex nihilo currency can purchase a smaller sum of values. Again, this is precisely the opposite of what we would expect from commodity money.
The behavior of prices are the inverse of what we would expect if ex nihilo currency behaved like commodity money. With commodity money, we should expect to find commodities being over-valued during expansions and devalued during periods of contraction. But. with ex nihilo currency, we find instead that commodities are devalued during expansions and over-valued during periods of contraction. Prices denominated in ex nihilo currency fall during expansions and rise during contractions.
When an economic contraction takes place, the sum value of commodities in circulation falls; since the circulation of the commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities, the circulation of commodity money too must fall. A given supply of ex nihilo currency now represents the value of a smaller quantity of commodity money. The values expressed by commodity prices fall, or, what is the same thing, a given value is expressed in higher ex nihilo currency prices. On the other hand, when an economic expansion takes place, the sum value of commodities in circulation rises; since the circulation of the commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities, the circulation of commodity money must rise as well. A given supply of ex nihilo currency now represents the value of a larger quantity of commodity money. The values expressed by commodity prices rise, or, what is the same thing, a given value is expressed in lower ex nihilo currency prices. The result is that, absent a commodity to serve as standard of prices, prices denominated in an ex nihilo currency will tend to rise during periods of economic contraction, but fall during periods of economic expansion.
Moreover, in a pure ex nihilo money economy where no commodity serves as standard of prices, prices of commodities are subject to disturbances in the ratio of the existing supply of ex nihilo money in circulation and the quantities of commodities in circulation that are denominated in the ex nihilo currency.
- Should the quantity of commodities in circulation suddenly increase, while the supply of ex nihilo money remains unchanged, the general price level expressed in ex nihilo money will just as suddenly decrease. Should the quantity of commodities in circulation suddenly decrease, while the supply of ex nihilo money remains unchanged, the general price level expressed in ex nihilo money will just as suddenly increase.
- Should the supply of ex nihilo money in circulation suddenly increase, while the supply of commodities remains unchanged, the general price level of commodities expressed in the ex nihilo money will just as suddenly rise. Should the supply of ex nihilo money in circulation suddenly decrease, while the supply of commodities remains unchanged, the general price level of commodities expressed in the ex nihilo money will just as suddenly fall.
In either case, the sum of prices are not related to the sum of values of commodities, but only to the ratio of the sum of ex nihilo money to the sum of commodities in circulation. In fact I question whether money exists at all. Insofar as money function as a measure and store of value, it cannot circulate within society; insofar as is circulates within society and serves as a standard of prices, it cannot be a measure of value. What is left after the debasement of money is money, the social relation, irretrievably broken.
Actually, we’ve been in a depression since 2001
Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, John Williams’ prediction rests on such a defective theory of money and ex nihilo price formation that his prediction is useless to us. Ex nihilo money appears to allow the formation of so-called monopoly pricing in the economy. By restricting production, monopolies can, in fact, pad their profits, even as society descends into abject scarcity and want under an ex nihilo monetary regime. Rising prices during a depression is not a defect of an ex nihilo monetary regime, but the way prices would be expected to behave under that regime as capital is devalued. From the standpoint of the capitalist mode of production, inflation of ex nihilo prices is to be expected, and is the expression of the mode’s attempt to establish the sound basis for its future operation.
When I look at gold prices, I find evidence that the economy actually has been in a depression since 2001. According to my figures, gold prices bottomed in 2001 at around $271.04, and have been rising steadily for most of the decades after this. This is the first time gold prices have risen so consistently since the 1970s great depression/great stagflation. It follows from this that Williams’ depression, at least, has nothing to do with a hyperinflation of prices itself. At the same time, hyperinflation, in his model, does not coincide with a depression, but hinges on an exogenous political event: the rejection of the dollar as world reserve currency by other nations. To this we will turn next.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
I am examining economist John Williams prediction of an imminent hyperinflationary depression published in March, 2011. Williams’ prediction appears to rest on a rather questionable hypothesis that this hyperinflationary depression is made inevitable by mere accounting identities — that is, by the logic of book-keeping, which suggests the Fascist State will be unable to stop a spiral into depression by depreciating the purchasing power of the US Dollar. Efforts to depreciate the dollar, Williams argues, will lead the world to reject the dollar as world reserve currency; setting into motion a series of events leading to it becoming worthless.
I am a bit skeptical on this point for no other reason than I saw the fate of Argentina when it could no longer pay its bills in 1999. I am forced to ask, since the US had not the slightest sympathy for Argentina in 1999, why would it have any sympathy for its own creditors in 2011? Indeed, Washington showed no hesitation in 1933 when it came to dispossessing society of its gold stocks, nor did it hesitate to close the gold window and renounce its obligations under the Bretton Wood agreement in 1971.The Fascist State sets the rules; there is nothing in the historical record to suggest it observes these rules except when those rules favor it.
Nevertheless, I want to give Williams the benefit of the doubt on this. So, I will continue to examine his argument.
Williams on Deflation, Inflation, Hyperinflation and Prices
Williams assumes the standard definition of inflation: a general rise in the prices of commodities. As is typical of this view, he completely neglects both consumption and production of commodities in his definition of inflation. He further defines hyperinflation as a particularly virulent form of inflation where prices rise multiple — hundreds or thousands — times a normal inflation.
Inflation broadly is defined in terms of a rise in general prices usually due to an increase in the amount of money in circulation. The inflation/deflation issues defined and discussed here are as applied to consumer goods and services, not to the pricing of financial assets, unless specified otherwise. In terms of hyperinflation, there have been a variety of definitions used over time. The circumstance envisioned ahead is not one of double- or triple- digit annual inflation, but more along the lines of seven- to 10-digit inflation seen in other circumstances during the last century. Under such circumstances, the currency in question becomes worthless, as seen in Germany (Weimar Republic) in the early 1920s, in Hungary after World War II, in the dismembered Yugoslavia of the early 1990s and most recently in Zimbabwe, where the pace of hyperinflation likely was the most extreme ever seen.
As is the standard thinking on the issue, Williams believes the most significant force behind dollar hyperinflation is the creation of money ex nihilo by Washington, not over-accumulation of capital. While inflation is a moderate expression of the chronic tendency of states with fiat currency to live beyond their means, hyperinflation is only an extreme expression of this chronic tendency.
The historical culprit generally has been the use of fiat currencies—currencies with no hard-asset backing such as gold—and the resulting massive printing of currency that the issuing authority needed to support its spending, when it did not have the ability, otherwise, to raise enough money for its perceived needs, through taxes or other means.
Excessive money creation takes the form of spending by the state that is otherwise unable to borrow from or tax society to the extent needed to fund its operations. In this case, the chief causes identified by Williams are unfunded promises in the form of social programs like retirement, health care and the social safety net, combined with the costs of bailing out the failed economic stabilization mechanism. (Missing, of course, is any reference to either service on the existing public debt, or spending on a massive global machinery of repression.) The point, however, is pretty much unoriginal: inflation begins with government spending, not over-accumulation of capital.
Deflation is simply defined as the opposite of inflation, i.e., “a decrease in the prices of consumer goods and services, usually tied to a contraction of money in circulation“; Hyperinflation is an “extreme inflation, minimally in excess of four-digit annual percent change, where the involved currency becomes worthless.” Thus all three — inflation, deflation and hyperinflation — are merely state driven monetary phenomenon; the result of changes in the supply of money in circulation within the economy provoked by state spending. The source of the changes in the money supply are said to be state monetary and fiscal policy.
However, with regards to hyperinflation, Williams adds one additional, critical, definition, not with regards to prices, but with regards to the currency itself: it becomes worthless. In Williams’ opinion, the currency becomes worthless as a result of rapidly escalating prices. However, both logically and historically the case is precisely the opposite: prices escalate rapidly because the currency is already worthless — because it has already been debased from gold or another money commodity. With the currency debased from gold, prices became a creature of state monetary and fiscal policy pure and simple. Moreover, with the currency worthless as a result of its debasement, prices and their movements no longer transmit meaningful information about market conditions as is generally assumed to be the case.
Williams on Recession, Depression and Great Depression
Williams outlines a similar set of definitions with regards to recession, depression and great depression.
Recession: Two or more consecutive quarters of contracting real (inflation-adjusted) GDP, where the downturn is not triggered by an exogenous factor… Depression: A recession, where the peak-to-trough contraction in real growth exceeds 10%. Great Depression: A depression, where the peak-to-trough contraction in real growth exceeds 25%. On the basis of the preceding, there has been the one Great Depression, in the 1930s. Most of the economic contractions before that would be classified as depressions. All business downturns since World War II—as officially reported —have been recessions.
Williams defines recessions, depressions and great depressions by levels of economic activity. In contrast to his previous definitions for inflation, deflation and hyperinflation, he focuses not on price, but actual output of goods and services. In discussing inflation, deflation and hyperinflation, Williams makes no reference to the general level of production and consumption of commodities; likewise, when discussing recessions, depressions and great depressions, he makes no reference to the general level of prices. But, both recessions and depressions are associated with definite changes in the level of prices in the economy. Historically, depressions clearly have been associated with deflations, or a general fall in the prices of commodities; while recessions clearly have been associated with inflation, or a general rise in prices of commodities.
The significance of this association is revealed if we assume great depressions are associated with hyperinflations — a hyperinflation not understood in the sense of breathtaking annual increases in the price level, but with the currency becoming worthless. Is there a basis for making such an equivalence? Remember, Williams asserts that historically hyperinflation is associated with fiat currencies — currencies that are not backed by some commodity that serves as a standard for prices. These are also currencies that can be created ex nihilo by the state. He associates hyperinflation not just with the general price level rising at a fantastic rate owing to the inability of the state to pay its obligations, but with the nature of the money used to pay those obligations — that is, with the fact that these currencies are not backed by gold or another commodity. It is important to remember in this regard that the US and all industrialized powers debased their monies during the Great Depression. But, just as important, the US also reneged on its obligation to pay its international debts in gold in 1971 — thus imposing on other nations a world reserve currency that was as worthless abroad as it was domestically.
For whatever reason, writers like Williams confuse the issue by treating debasement of the currency and hyperinflation as one and the same thing. In actuality, debasement of the currency — that is, the separation of the currency and gold — has been the signal monetary event of the post-Great Depression period. Hyperinflation — the rapid collapse of the purchasing power of a debased currency — is an entirely rare event. It is not rapidly rising prices that render money worthless, rather, because the money in question is already worthless prices can, under certain circumstances, rise at a fantastic rate.
How is this related to recessions and depressions? Before the Great Depression, and the debasement of the currency, depressions usually resulted in deflations. During the Great Depression, however severe and unprecedented deflation was interrupted by the debasement of all major currencies. In this debasement currency was rendered worthless, i.e., without any definite relation to a commodity which might serve as a standard for the general price level. The definition of worth being simply the dictionary definition of an equivalent in value to a sum or item specified, i.e., a specific quantity of gold or some other money commodity. Gold gave token currency its worth, that is, gave it some definite equivalent to other commodities which could be expressed as prices of those commodities in units of the money. After the Great Depression, and the 1971 abrogation of the Bretton Wood agreement, with money having no definite worth, depressions are now associated not with rapidly falling prices, but with rapidly rising prices — a condition that has been labeled recession.
The economic picture is cleared up once we realize the general price level is irrelevant for analyzing depression-type events after the dollar was debased. Precisely because money was rendered worthless by its debasement, prices, after this debasement, provide little useful information on the actual state of the underlying economy. Prices, at this point, are serving an altogether different function: they are an instrument of state economic policy. On the other hand, hyperinflation of prices does not lead to a worthless currency; instead, the debasement of the currency is a necessary precondition for hyperinflation.
Williams’ historical examples of hyperinflation
While a debased, worthless, currency can lead to hyperinflation, it is obvious that every debasement of the currency does not end in hyperinflation. Today, almost all national currencies are debased, yet hyperinflation occurs only rarely in history. Moreover, the extraordinary hyperinflations of history do not result primarily from the profligacy of the state. The United States, for instance, is by far the most profligate state in history — accounting for nearly half of all military spending. What triggers hyperinflations are definite economic circumstances in addition to this state profligacy.
The economic conditions leading to hyperinflation can be seen most clearly if we compare the current economic environment to historical examples of hyperinflation cited by Williams. Williams’ examination of examples of hyperinflation suffer from defects along the lines of his examinations of inflation/deflation and recessions/depressions. However, while he overlooks obvious connections in the latter cases, in the case of historical examples of hyperinflation he overlooks obvious differences.
Williams recounts the case of the Weimar Republic:
Indeed, in the wake of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was forced to make debilitating reparations to the victors—particularly France—as well as to face loss of territory. From Foster (Chapter 11):
By late 1922, the German government could no longer afford to make reparations payments. Indignant, the French invaded the Ruhr Valley to take over the production of iron and coal (commodities used for reparations). In response, the German government encouraged its workers to go on strike. An additional issue of paper money was authorized to sustain the economy during the crisis. Sensing trouble, foreign investors abruptly withdrew their investments.
During the first few months of 1923, prices climbed astronomically higher, with no end in sight… The nation was effectively shut down by currency collapse. Mailing a letter in late 1923 cost 21,500,000,000 marks.
The worthless German mark became useful as wall paper and toilet paper, as well as for stoking fires.
Germany suffered defeat in a war that left it exhausted and stripped of territory, population and productive capacity by the victors to pay for reparations; it was the scene of intense class conflict and intense economic dislocation. The hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic Germany, therefore, began not with absolute over-accumulation of capital — with overproduction of commodities and a surfeit of labor power — but decidedly the reverse: a massive loss of productive capacity — a loss the government then tried to paper over, without success, by issuing worthless paper. The government sought to stabilize the economy by printing money to offset these crippling economic losses. The subsequent explosion of prices occurs not merely because the Weimar Republic sought to paper over a disaster, but because it was not possible to paper over such catastrophic material losses with money printing. The lesson of the Weimar Republic is obvious: while debasement of the currency can artificially inflate the purchasing power of state issued token currency, it must ultimately fail in an explosion of prices if the state attempts to paper over real material losses.
Where in this litany of disaster are conditions similar to those faced by the United States? Despite Williams’ assertion that, “The Weimar circumstance, and its heavy reliance on foreign investment, was closer to the current U.S. situation…“, in fact, the two have nothing in common. While Germany was systematically stripped of its productive capacity, the US is experiencing capital flight caused by decades of debt-driven inflationary domestic policy, including not only social spending “to assuage social discontent,” but also thoroughly wasteful and excessive national security expenditures and a failed economic stimulus mechanism.
Moreover, it is not merely a question of foreign investors propping up the dollar. While Germany’s ex nihilo currency was not considered money beyond its borders, the dollar is the world reserve currency; commodities world wide are priced in dollars. At the same time, the United States accounts for a quarter of global consumption demand, and this demand takes the form of ex nihilo dollars exclusively. The global producers of commodities are facing severe over-accumulation of capital and insufficient money-demand for their output. They are looking precisely for currencies with the sort of excess money-demand that is typical of inflation driven growth economies. The question is not whether trillions of dollars of social wealth denominated in dollars can withdraw from the dollar in time should there be a crisis; rather, we have to wonder if any exit from the dollar is possible or probable.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
I took some times off to really dig into the competing theories of the present crisis and to see if redwoods are really all that much of a big deal.
- There are a lot of theories about this crisis.
- Most of them are worthless, and
- Redwoods are really huge — I mean HUGE!
John Williams and the imminent hyperinflationary depression
I want to begin this series of posts on various non-mainstream theories of the present crisis by examining some of the assumptions and definition proposed by John Williams, economist at the website Shadow Government Statistics, in his prediction of an imminent hyperinflationary depression. Williams is serious about his prediction — up to, and including, warning his readers to store guns, ammo, gold and six months of basic necessities.
In his recently published special report, Williams — a self-described conservative Republican economist, with libertarian leanings — advances a number of questionable arguments typical of theories of the current crisis floating around out there. The most significant of these questionable arguments is Williams’ assertion that the crisis begins with an unsustainable fiscal and monetary environment, not with over-accumulation. Despite the jarring nature of his prediction, for Williams’ an imminent hyperinflationary depression results purely from rather boring accounting identities:
By 2004, fiscal malfeasance of successive U.S. Administrations and Congresses had pushed the federal government into effective long-term insolvency (likely to have triggered hyperinflation by 2018). GAAP-based (generally accepted accounting principles) accounting then showed total federal obligations at $50 trillion—more than four-times the level of U.S. GDP—that were increasing each year by GAAP-based annual deficits in the uncontainable four- to five-trillion dollar range. Those extreme operating shortfalls continue unabated, with total federal obligations at $76 trillion—more than five- times U.S. GDP—at the end of the 2010 fiscal year. Taxes cannot be raised enough to bring the GAAP- based deficit into balance, and the political will in Washington is lacking to cut government spending severely, particularly in terms of the necessary slashing of unfunded liabilities in government social programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
This crisis, Williams explains, could be avoided if the US were to raise taxes sufficiently, or reduce spending accordingly, or some combination of either; however, these solutions are not possible for purely political reasons. To resolve this impasse, Washington has turned to inflating prices instead.
Key to the near-term timing [of an outbreak of hyperinflation] remains a sharp break in the exchange rate value of the U.S. dollar, with the rest of the world effectively moving to dump the U.S. currency and dollar-denominated paper assets. The current U.S. financial markets, financial system and economy remain highly unstable and increasingly vulnerable to unexpected shocks. At the same time, the Federal Reserve and the federal government are dedicated to preventing systemic collapse and broad price deflation. To prevent any imminent collapse—as has been seen in official activities of the last several years—they will create and spend whatever money is needed, including the deliberate debasement of the U.S. dollar with the intent of increasing domestic inflation.
This response has, in turn, provoked a reaction from the world community that will lead to a rejection of dollars and dollar denominated assets, a circumstance that must end in hyperinflation and depression.
The damage to U.S. dollar credibility has spread at an accelerating pace. Not only have major powers such as China, Russia and France, and institutions such as the IMF, recently called for the abandonment of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency, but also the dollar appears to have lost much of its traditional safe-haven status in the last month. With the current spate of political shocks in the Middle East and North Africa (a circumstance much more likely to deteriorate than to disappear in the year ahead), those seeking to protect their assets have been fleeing to other traditional safe-havens, such as precious metals and the Swiss franc, at the expense of the U.S. currency. The Swiss franc and gold price both have hit historic highs against the dollar in early-March 2011, with the silver price at its highest level in decades, rapidly closing in on its speculative historic peak of January 1980.
According to Williams, existing domestic fiscal commitments and further demands to shore up the current failed economic mechanism cannot be funded under existing political arrangements; these needs can only be satisfied by assuming creation of money ex nihilo by Washington; the assumption of increased ex nihilo money creation to fulfill existing commitments and shore up the failed mechanism is damaging the credibility of the dollar as world reserve currency; the loss of credibility should weaken the dollar and eventually lead to panicked dumping of dollar and of dollar-denominated paper assets, triggering hyperinflation.
When I follow this logic backward, the first question I encounter regards the panicked dumping of dollars and dollar-denominated assets. Assuming hyperinflation is triggered by panicked selling of dollars and dollar-denominated assets, for what is this currency and these assets to be exchanged? Who would step in to buy the assets when everyone else is selling them in a panic? In theory, the Federal Reserve can step in to buy treasuries, but it can only offer dollars in exchange for the treasuries. Other assets, since they are denominated in dollars, can only be exchanged for dollars. Moreover, if the sellers have dollars to dump, they can only use these dollars to buy other currencies, precious metals, or commodities. If they use the dollars to buy other currencies, the dollar’s exchange rate will fall. If they use the dollars to buy precious metals, the prices of the metals will rise. If they use the dollars to buy ordinary commodities, the prices of these commodities will rise still further. If Washington intends to inflate the general price level to fix its problems, creating at least the appearance of a selling panic on the dollar would be precisely the means of accomplishing this aim.
Moreover, what do the sellers of currencies and assets denominated in various currencies seek when it comes to selling? I can only assume they want what everyone else wants: to receive, in return for their asset, the greatest quantity of another currency for the one they are selling, or the greatest quantity of money in any currency for their asset. In a panic, however, the opposite situation obtains: they must accept massive losses on their currency and assets. If they want to sell dollars, for example, they would be selling these dollars for fewer euros. If they were selling euros, they would be selling euros for increasing amounts of dollars. In my assumptions, sellers tend to prefer situations where prices are rising for their commodities, not falling as is assumed under a panic selling situation.
A further problem exists: the dollar is the world reserve currency because world commodities are priced in dollars. To remove the dollar as world reserve currency requires the sellers of commodities to price their commodities in some other currency than dollars. If the dollar is weakening, the prices paid for commodities is rising in dollar terms. Against what currency are these commodities to be priced? Will they be priced in currencies where prices of the commodities are generally falling or currencies where the prices of commodities are generally rising? Assuming general over-accumulation of capital, sellers will be very interested in those currencies where prices are constantly rising not falling. Producers would appear to have a decided interest in seeing inflationary policies by the various national states.
Although Williams’ argues rapid inflation will induce holders of dollars to abandon it, he paints a bleak economic picture where the biggest problem is not rising prices but faltering demand:
Despite pronouncements of an end to the 2007 recession and the onset of an economic recovery, the U.S. economy still is mired in a deepening structural contraction, which eventually will be recognized as a double- or multiple-dip recession. Beyond the politically- and market-hyped GDP reporting, key underlying economic series show patterns of activity that are consistent with a peak-to-trough (so far) contraction in inflation-adjusted activity in excess of 10%, a formal depression (see Recession, Depression and Great Depression). The apparent gains of the last year, reported in series such as retail sales and industrial production, should soften meaningfully in upcoming benchmark revisions. The revised patterns should tend to parallel the recent downside benchmark revision to payroll employment, while the July 2011 annual GDP revisions also are an almost certain bet to show a much weaker economy in recent years than currently is recognized in the markets. (See Section 4—Current Economic and Inflation Conditions in the United States.) Existing formal projections for the federal budget deficit, banking system solvency, etc. all are based on assumptions of positive economic growth, going forward. That growth will not happen, and continued economic contraction will exacerbate fiscal conditions and banking-system liquidity problems terribly.
From Williams’ own analysis, economic conditions are worsening to levels not seen since the Great Depression. He is assuming that global sellers of commodities will face, in addition to weakening demand, increased liquidity problems created by a failed economic mechanism that previously was necessary to maintain economic stability in the face of absolute over-accumulation. If policy actions to reverse this situation are not sufficient to stabilize the global economy, what will be the result? From the point of view of economic policy the danger at this point seems not to be hyperinflation, but a rather pronounced deflation of prices. However, a more nuanced view of the situation is called for to confirm this conclusion.
Tags: Bailout, budget deficit, commodity money, CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT, debt, deflation, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, ex nihilo money, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, great depression, hyperinflation, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, political-economy, recession, stupid economist tricks, The Economy, unemployment
I want to summarize a bit at this point, because I received a comment from one person that my writing style made his head hurt. If, I have made this unnecessarily difficult to understand I apologize for that. In part, this arises from the fact that I am grappling with this material as I write these posts. Writing is the way I best absorb what I am reading.
First, in relation to absolute over-accumulation:
Over-accumulation is sometimes popularly referred to as over-production (although this latter term sometimes means different things to different people). According to Marx, over-accumulation of Capital produces a fall in the rate of profit and the crowding out of a portion of the active capital — some portion of the total social capital has to lie idle. In other words, the entire system experiences a severe crisis. General over-production leads to a mass of commodities that cannot be sold and which only reduce the value of the remaining portion. Prices fall, businesses go bankrupt, millions are unemployed, and factories are shuttered. The portion of the total social capital which is forced to lie idle can not function as capital — it cannot be used to exploit labor power to create surplus value, or can only exploit it on condition it accepts a lower rate of profit or even a loss. Which actual capitals are forced to lie idle is decided by competition over how to share losses among the total social capital. Each capital tries to minimize its own loss and pass the burden of losses on to the rest of the class.
A portion of the old capital has to lie unused under all circumstances; it has to give up its characteristic quality as capital, so far as acting as such and producing value is concerned. The competitive struggle would decide what part of it would be particularly affected. So long as things go well, competition effects an operating fraternity of the capitalist class, as we have seen in the case of the equalisation of the general rate of profit, so that each shares in the common loot in proportion to the size of his respective investment. But as soon as it no longer is a question of sharing profits, but of sharing losses, everyone tries to reduce his own share to a minimum and to shove it off upon another. The class, as such, must inevitably lose. How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, i.e., to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers. The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface, just as previously the identity of these interests operated in practice through competition.
Under conditions of absolute over-accumulation, however, the problem is not simply that one or another capital must lie idle — i.e., no longer function as capital — the total social capital can no longer function as capital. Even the very biggest capitals can no longer realize profits from the production of surplus value. Conditions are such that the production of surplus value no longer leads to the increase in the mass of social capital and the mass of employed labor power, but to the absolute fall in both the mass of social capital and employed labor power. Capital as a mode of production, i.e., as an economic system, has suffered an absolute breakdown from which it cannot recover.
Second, in relation to absolute over-accumulation and the Fascist State:
The Fascist State arises out of conditions of absolute over-accumulation as a political response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. So far as I can tell, the emergence of the Fascist State in the 1930s was not itself a given in the process I am describing. Rather, it is a political development resulting from the unwillingness or inability of society to reduce hours of labor in response to the Great Depression. Because it legally determines what serves as money, the Fascist State can “purchase” the surplus value produced by the total social capital that would otherwise be unsellable and pay for this consumption with entirely worthless ex nihilo pecuniam. The Great Depression could be managed by the use of the state’s power to create money. It also became generally obvious to the ruling elites of the leading industrialized countries that the increase in the mass of surplus value produced by the total social capital could be utilized by the Fascist State to increase its military power — and this opportunity the industrialized countries immediately exploited first by preparing for total war in the run up to World War II.
For the United States, which as a result of World War II was the last nation standing with its productive capacity completely intact and in fact greatly increased, the ability to absorb an unlimited amount of unsellable surplus output produced not just domestically but throughout the World Market resulted in the accelerated expansion of its unprecedented political, military, and economic power in relation to all other nations. It also resulted in the fact that the accelerating concentration and centralization of capital, which must accompany absolute over-accumulation, proceeds under conditions which gives a competitive advantage to American capital, and forces the capitals of other nations to absorb the losses. The flow of completely worthless American ex nihilo pecuniam into the World Market, generated by massive trade deficits and massive public spending deficits, are, in reality, not an “unsustainable burden” on the U.S. economy, as economists like to pretend, but amounts to the continuous extraction of surplus value from entire nations — who are converted into additional sources of surplus value through this process — and from the World Market generally. The American Empire is, therefore, the realization of the Fascist State — its perfection — as was only dreamed of by failed attempts like Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
The result of the first process is a catastrophic breakdown of exchange, and a has implications for both production and consumption. Taxes aside, the Fascist State pays out its obligations not by the equal exchange of values, but by offering worthless ex nihilo pecuniam in exchange for the goods it consumes. It is true that taxes are already unequal exchange, but this form of unequal exchange was necessarily limited by the obvious impact of increased taxes on society. Taxes imposed on society result directly in the loss of individual consumption power — a loss which is both obvious and which have on occasion been the spur of rebellions throughout history. Moreover, absent tribute, the State was limited to imposing the burden of its parasitic existence on those territories over which it actually was sovereign.
With ex nihilo pecuniam, there are no such limits: the burden of Fascist State expenditures have no direct impact on society. Rather, society experiences this burden indirectly in constant and pervasive rising prices as the purchasing power of money depreciates — a burden the unscrupulous economist is only too willing to ascribe to a host of other causes — supply or demand shocks, rising labor costs, etc. (Offering an endless list of such “causes” for events so as to obscure THE cause is standard operating procedure for these paid apologists of the Fascist State.) As Keynes observed, within certain limits continuous pervasive inflation of prices, while just as effective as taxation in reducing the consumption power of the mass of society and increasing Fascist State expenditures, also traps the members of society in a false choice pitting the purchasing power of their wages against the possibility of being unemployed altogether:
Thus it is fortunate that the workers, though unconsciously, are instinctively more reasonable economists than the classical school, inasmuch as they resist reductions of money-wages, which are seldom or never of an all-round character, even though the existing real equivalent of these wages exceeds the marginal disutility of the existing employment; whereas they do not resist reductions of real wages, which are associated with increases in aggregate employment and leave relative money-wages unchanged, unless the reduction proceeds so far as to threaten a reduction of the real wage below the marginal disutility of the existing volume of employment. Every trade union will put up some resistance to a cut in money-wages, however small. But since no trade union would dream of striking on every occasion of a rise in the cost of living, they do not raise the obstacle to any increase in aggregate employment which is attributed to them by the classical school.
A kind of perverse “communism” emerged within the World Market as a whole in which the contribution to the common wealth of society is indeed detached from consumption but in a rather bizarre manner: Nations, like China, who produce very large quantities of commodities for export, receive nothing in return for this labor — their exports are essentially provided gratis to the Fascist State.
The result of the second process is the World Historical defeat of the Proletarian Revolution — the challenge by the proletarian class majority of society to capitalist class rule and the almost constant contention between the two classes over which would control the state power. The absolute over-accumulation of capital, since it leads directly to the breakdown of the process of production and exchange, presented the proletarian majority of society with the opportunity to raise itself to political rulers of society. But, this required the reduction in hours of labor for the mass of society and a successful effort to bring the total process of production under conscious management.
Mind you, these required steps were not optional for the working class majority of society. Under conditions of absolute over-accumulation, the profit motive no longer serves as the impetus of productive activity; it no longer performs the function of setting the social capital in motion for the simple reason that, with the breakdown of exchange, the realization of the produced surplus value has broken down as well. The social capital could only be placed in motion under premises that are altogether incompatible with the capitalist mode of production. In Marx’s theoretical model, I believe, the failure to assume control of the production process and reduce hours of labor during the Great Depression was a catastrophic World Historical event from which the Proletariat as a class cannot recover.
The very emergence of the Fascist State in the form of an American Empire presupposes the concentration and centralization of capital into a global capital under the control of the American Fascist State, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the division of the great mass of proletarians along every possible line and, in first place, their division into numerous inconsequential national working classes — split up into nation states. I think the consciousness of the class as a class, which cannot be anything but a political consciousness, is necessarily confined to the nation state and the contest over power within the nation state. But, it is just this nation state which is converted into a hollow shell with the emergence of the American Empire. Although formally a sovereign power and answerable to no other authority than its own self, the nation state is, in fact, stripped of all sovereignty by the growing influence of the World Market on its internal economic life. Even if, as Marxists continue to insist, the project of the proletariat remains the capture of state power, it is self-evident that exercising this state power as a class is now impossible. There is no way any single national proletariat, or group of national proletariats, can bring the social process of production under their control as the entire social process of production has completely escaped national control. The era of Proletarian Revolutions is over.
The communist movement of society begins on these premises.
Tags: Absolute Over-Accumulation, budget deficit, capital, debt, deficit spending, Depression, economic policy, ex nihilo pecunaim, inflation, job creation, Karl Marx, over-production, prices, profit, Proletarian Revolution, public employment, shorter work week, surplus value, the death of politics, the Fascist State, THE GREAT DEPRESSION, Trickle Down Economics, unemployment, value, wages, world market
In its fully developed form, the Fascist State is an American empire imposed by the United States on all other national states, in which each of these national states are no more than its local (national) subsidiary. The emergence of this Fascist State became the condition for the further development of the World Market bound up with Capital.
Over-accumulation of capital results from the fact that capital is founded on scarcity and can only exist on this premise. This fact leads us to the export of surplus capital into what Marx referred to as the outlying field of production within the world market, where it can be employed at a higher rate of profit. But, absolute over-accumulation in the complete meaning of this term, presupposes absolute over-accumulation not only in one or a few nations, but in all nations together. Thus, it also leads to the universal — and not merely national — competition between capitals, aimed at concentration of the total global social capital and the elements of capital into fewer hands, and the global centralization of this social capital, along with the emergence of a global finance capital — the problem presented by the conversion of the mass of surplus value into a mass of profits within the World Market as a whole.
The question how the concentration and centralization of national capitals is to proceed is settled in the manner of such disputes between nations — i.e., by armed conflict in which one national state emerges victorious — a condition most notably expressed in the eruption of predatory total war between nation states during the Great Depression whose bloody power had been swollen by the sheer mass of social labor time that could be converted into unproductive military expenditures on a truly horrific scale. World War II was the systematic destruction not merely of armies on the battlefield, but of the industrial capacity of the belligerents and the civilian populations who could place that capacity in motion. From this point forward, when I speak of absolute over-accumulation I shall be referring to absolute over-accumulation within the World Market as a whole; and, when I speak of the Fascist State, I will be speaking of the American empire.
In the preceding section, I have suggested that under conditions of absolute over-accumulation of capital, it becomes necessary for society to reduce total hours of labor, and thus bring its productive activity under its conscious control. If this is not done, or is done insufficiently, the Fascist State emerges as a symptom of the unwillingness or inability of society to realize the general reduction of total labor time. I have further argued that this unwillingness or inability to reduce total hours of labor leads to an expansion of total social labor time in relation to socially necessary labor time, i.e., to an increase in superfluous labor time. This expansion of total social labor time in proportion to necessary labor time leads to a general rise in prices of commodities even as the value of the commodities fall. Side by side with this general rise in prices, we see also the forcible withdrawal of gold standard money from circulation as money and its replacement by American ex nihilo pecuniam, along with the constant increase in the supply of this fictitious money.
It is not the increase in the supply of this fictitious money that leads to inflation, i.e., to a general rise in the prices of commodities, to the depreciation of the purchasing power of the money generally, but the increase in the proportion of total labor time to socially necessary labor time that leads to both the increase in the supply of money and the general increase in prices. If taxes are assumed to be zero, the growth of the Fascist State, of superfluous labor in the form of a grotesquely bloated and constantly expanding state, consists precisely in the issuance of ex nihilo pecuniam to pay for its expenditures. Its growth and the growth of the money supply are identical.
At the same time, the growth of the Fascist State is also the unproductive consumption of the superfluous portion of the surplus value produced by the total social capital, of the mass of surplus value that cannot be employed productively by the social capital as additional capital for the purpose of self-expansion. The expansion of the Fascist State is, therefore, also the expansion of fictitious profits, or profits “realized” on surplus value that no longer exists and has been consumed unproductively by the Fascist State.
But, socially necessary labor time is only that portion of the working day during which the mass of workers produce the value of their wages. The duration of labor time beyond this is surplus value, which, under condition of absolute over-accumulation, cannot be sold at a profit — actually realized according to the law of value — and, which, therefore, must be unproductively consumed (destroyed) entirely by the Fascist State. It is logically impossible to assume, as do the various statist ideologues, that an increase in Fascist State expenditures can lead to an increase in the wages of the working class, or an improvement in their conditions. The opposite is actually the case: the increase in Fascist State expenditures presupposes the increase in the mass of surplus value, in the mass of labor time expended by society beyond that labor time required for the production of the commodities consumed by the working class. This expansion only results in the further impoverishment of the great mass of society.
Thus the constant increase in Fascist State outlays, even for social services, result only in the deterioration of the mass of society; in their increasing impoverishment; in the actual decline in “real” wages; and in the general rise in both prices and unemployment. Yet, moderation of prices and unemployment during periods of expansion bring no more than the slightest moderation of this immiseration — the stagnation rather than outright decline of wages, and stagnant, desultory, job growth rather than outright increases in unemployment.
The absolute over-accumulation of Capital presupposes that all the contradictions of capitalist society comes to its surface in a rather spectacular fashion and on a global scale. A rampant speculative binge of remarkable proportions is unleashed as even the very largest capitals find it impossible to realize the surplus value extracted from the mass of employed labor power and thus are forced into speculative financial pyramid schemes. Competition between capitals explode, but no increase in the concentration and centralization of capital suffices to reduce the costs of production sufficiently to enable realization of the gains of this concentration and centralization — indeed, the problem of realization only becomes more difficult and profound as the concentration and centralization of capital proceeds at an accelerated rate. Wages are too high, but also too low — thus even as the reduction in the value of labor power accelerates by export into the least developed regions of the World Market where wages can be paid amounting to a fraction of the most developed regions, and by accelerated application of machinery, science and technology to still further reduce the expenditure of labor power and increase its surplus producing capacity, the successful reduction of the value of labor power only creates the necessity for its further reduction.
The ferocity with which Capital attacks the value of wages increases in proportion as each successful assault on the value of wages necessarily creates a demand for the next wave of assaults. Governments are converted directly into an instrument for the creation of fictitious profit and speculative financial schemes. The Fascist State is an agent for increasing the rate of surplus value, for an increase in the mass of surplus value produced, and, therefore, for an increase in its own mass as consumer of the entirety of the surplus value produced and the creator of fictitious profits on an even greater scale. The magnitude of the insatiable lust for profit increases, and, simultaneously with this increase in magnitude, the effort by the state to satisfy this lust by reducing the tax rate on capital (which continues to exist only as a formality, a fig leaf to provide political cover for Washington’s absolute corruption); promoting increased export of capital; ripping up regulations or altogether ignoring them; deliberately exposing the mass of society to environmental disasters and the ever expanding despoiling of nature; the routine introduction of dangerous materials into the food chain; the promotion of dangerous products etc., all for the purpose of gaining an insignificant increase in the rate of surplus value.
The Fascist State is premised on the world historical political defeat of the Proletariat in its struggle for power against the Bourgeoisie. It is the actual political-economy of this defeat in the form of a globally dominant parasitic mass that grows in proportion as the political defeat of the Proletariat becomes the very premise and condition of the Proletariat’s own political activity — to the extent, therefore, that its complete and final subjugation to Capital is the premise not merely of its productive activity, but of its political activity as well; that political activity itself offers only to increase its impoverishment — its absolute degradation and absolute immiseration — and the constant expansion of its own capacity for self-governance in the form of an alien power confronting it and ruthlessly dominating it. The very political power of the proletarian majority of society looms as a merciless tyrannical social power over it that is absolutely indifferent to it.
On what other basis can the emergence of the Fascist State in a society founded on universal suffrage be premised other than those under which the actual proletarian majority of society express their own divisions in the form of this Fascist State? And, under what conditions should we expect these divisions to be most pronounced other than universal competition within the proletarian majority of society; under which each member of this class is thrown into absolute competition with the rest of the class, where every member of the class is set in absolute competition against every other member, and, therefore, under such condition as the class more or less assumes the form of a mass of petty commodity sellers under the most extreme competition, i.e., under conditions of an absolute and growing excess population of laborers? Marx argues that over-accumulation of capital consists precisely of this absolute excess population of laborers along with an absolute excess of capital.
It follows that the question is not whether the working class is split into adherents of greater Fascist State deficit spending, or a reduction of Fascist State deficit spending — that they oppose each other as Democrat versus Republican, progressive versus Tea Party, liberal versus conservative, public employee versus private employee, black versus white, male versus female, undocumented versus citizen, employed versus unemployed, etc. All such distinctions between and among the various factions within the Proletariat are of no significance whatsoever — are merely incidental to the outcome of the process I have described. It is not a question of the political prejudices or particular circumstances of the various members of the working class, but of politics itself: that Fascist State, no matter its specific composition and periodic reshuffling, is indifferent to this class, hostile to its interests, and exists only to further degrade and impoverish it.
The Fascist State signifies that politics is dead! That the class struggle is dead! That the class struggle has been settled decisively in favor of the Bourgeoisie and against the Proletariat — a class struggle that ended with the world historical defeat of the Proletariat. That the struggle against present day society must henceforth proceed on a different basis.
Tags: Absolute Over-Accumulation, budget deficit, capital, debt, deficit spending, Depression, economic policy, inflation, job creation, Karl Marx, prices, profit, public employment, shorter work week, surplus value, the death of politics, the Fascist State, THE GREAT DEPRESSION, Trickle Down Economics, unemployment, value, wages, world market
The constant expansion of the Fascist State presupposes the constant expansion of capital which can no longer function as capital, which can no longer employ labor power for purposes of the self-expansion of capital; which, in other words, seeks its self-expansion, not by augmenting the productive capacity of society but by exploiting the wholesale destruction of this productive capacity through fictitious profits.
Of superfluous labor, Moishe Postone writes:
It should be clear that “superfluous” is not an unhistorical category of judgment developed from a position purportedly outside of society. It is, rather, an immanent critical category that is rooted in the growing contradiction between the potential of the developed forces of production and their existent social form. From this point of view, one can distinguish labor time necessary for capitalism from that which would be necessary for society were it not for capitalism. As my discussion of Marx’s analysis has indicated, this distinction refers not only to the quantity of socially necessary labor but also to the nature of social necessity itself. That is, it points not only toward a possible large reduction in total labor time but also toward the possible overcoming of the abstract forms of social compulsion constituted by the value form of social mediation. Understood in these terms, “superfluous” is the historically generated, immediate opposite of “necessary,” a category of contradiction that expresses the growing historical possibility of distinguishing society from its capitalist form, and, hence, of separating out their previous necessary connection. The basic contradiction of capitalism, in its unfolding, allows for the judgment of the older form and the imagination of a newer one. My analysis of the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution has shown that, according to Marx, historical necessity cannot, in and of itself, give rise to freedom. The nature of capitalist development, however, is such that it can and does give rise to its immediate opposite—historical nonnecessity—which, in turn, allows for the determinate historical negation of capitalism. This possibility can only be realized, according to Marx, if people appropriate what had been constituted historically as capital.
Although Capital is founded on scarcity, it nevertheless has a tendency toward the absolute development of the productive forces — toward, in other words, realization of abundance. But, the development of the productive forces occurs wholly within the limits of scarcity — a limit against which Capital constantly strains yet is continually thrown back by its own inherent contradictions. The productive forces develop to a staggering extent — as can be seen in American agriculture where the labor of 0.6% of the population suffices to feed the remaining 99.4%, yet, hunger persists, and grows; prices continually inflate; and the war on the consumption power of society extends even to routinized crop destruction by using it for fuel.
Capital’s problem is not how to abolish hunger and want, but how to dispose of massive quantities of output without abolishing hunger and want. The productive forces have grown to such scale that truly insignificant quantities of labor can produce astounding quantities of output. The question posed to political-economy — to “economic policy makers” — is how to maintain profitability by destroying this abundance. Capital’s tendency to absolutely develop the productive forces comes down to a tendency toward absolute expansion of the Fascist State.
The law of the tendency toward a falling rate of profit not only presupposes export of capital, it presupposes export is absolutely insufficient. It presupposes the export of capital only intensifies the absolute over-accumulation of capital. Thus, alongside the export of capital, the Fascist State grows and must grow at an accelerated rate. Or, put in terms that might be understood by the Modern Monetary Theorist:
“Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” –Dick Cheney
What matters isn’t the completely fictional accumulation of public debts but that ever increasing quantities of excess capital is destroyed. The expansion of the Fascist State and the destruction of capital is, for this reason, only two sides of the same process. It is the annihilation of value in the perverse form that socially necessary labor time shrinks, even as labor time grows absolutely. This requires not simply the destruction of new surplus value but also the devaluation of the existing variable and constant capital.
The perversity of the requirement: All of this destruction of value and surplus value must be profitable for Capital. Thus Capital in its necessary form must be replaced by Capital in its purely superfluous form. This, of course, is impossible: Capital is value, and value is socially necessary labor time alone. Hence, superfluous Capital is not Capital at all, but merely accumulated superfluous labor time operating as if it is necessary labor time. The logic of the Fascist State is, for this reason, I think, identical with the logic of Capital itself, but with a profoundly different aim. If, for whatever reason, society is unable or unwilling to reduce its hours of labor, the Fascist State is the necessary result. It is the necessity for a reduction of hours of labor expressed in the perverse form of an increasingly intolerable Fascist State.
Thus, the Fascist State is only a symptom of the absolute nature of the contradictions at the heart of capitalist relations of production under conditions of absolute over-accumulation, and as a consequence of a general failure on the part of society to liberate itself from labor — a consequence of society’s failure to reduce the social hours of labor, and thus bring its activity under its conscious control. It is the accumulation of entirely unnecessary labor, superfluous labor, performed by society, in the form of a grotesquely overgrown, and constantly expanding, State power.
That the diminishing application of living labor to production results, and must result, in the extension of hours of superfluous labor in the form of the Fascist State explains why the rise of this state occurs simultaneously with the withdrawal of gold money from circulation as legal money in the United States in 1933, and the subsequent end of the dollar peg to a specific quantity of gold in 1971. The claim by economists like Ben Bernanke and Christina Romer that the Great Depression was caused by the restriction on the supply of money imposed by the gold standard is a crock, an admission that Capital, if it is to continue to dominate society under conditions of absolute over-accumulation, requires the decoupling of money from the commodity serving as measure of value and standard of price — that prices must no longer be constrained to express only the socially necessary labor time embodied in commodities generally, and, specifically, in labor power, the capitalist commodity par excellence, the commodity without which capital cannot become capital, cannot expand its value.
The subsequent explosion of the price of gold, and prices generally, gave evidence of the extent to which the magnitude of the existing quantity of capital in circulation denominated in the legally established gold standard dollar had diverged from its actual value — the extent to which the magnitude of this capital denominated in pre-1971 dollars had already diverged from its actual magnitude denominated in so many billions of ounces of gold. The replacement of money by ex nihilo pecuniam — by money created out of thin air — did not itself lead to inflation, to the depreciation of the purchasing power of money, but only expressed the growing divergence between the shrinking socially necessary labor time of society and the ever expanding total labor time of society. This divergence presupposes the growing divergence between the value of commodities and their prices: even as the value of commodities shrink, the prices of these same commodities increase. The sum of prices must constantly increase in proportion as the sum of values fall. It is not the increase in the supply of money that leads to the increase in prices of commodities, but the increase in the total hours of social labor in proportion to the socially necessary labor time of society that requires both the increase in the supply of money and the increasing prices of commodities.
The stupidity of liberals and progressives, and the mass of Marxists theorists following them, is that they imagine the Fascist State by directly employing the labor power of society can overcome the inherent tendency toward the formation of a surplus population of workers. What they always overlook in their fascination with this fascist idea is that value is socially necessary labor time — the duration of labor time during which the worker reproduces the value of her own wages. The Fascist State, however, is composed of the surplus of labor time over this quantity of hours. It follows from this that even if the mass of unemployed is provided jobs by Fascist State spending, the new sum of wages including the increase in wages by this additional employment is, and must be, offset by the further contraction in the value of individual wages; that the new sum of wages amount to no more, or even less, than the value of the sum of wages before the unemployed are given public jobs. The average daily wage decreases in value as the mass of employed workers increase. The impoverishment of the individual worker is thereby accelerated; but in this case it is not owing to improvements in the productivity of labor, but owing to the sharing of the meager quantity of means of consumption — to which the workers are limited by Capital itself — among a larger number of hungry mouths.
A vicious circle is thus created: Capital creates surplus value by limiting the consumption of the worker. This surplus value, however, must then be unproductively consumed in its entirety by the Fascist State to maintain the conditions under which it was created, i.e., to maintain the limited consumption of the worker. The new value, having been consumed by the Fascist State, is replaced in circulation by ex nihilo pecuniam having no value whatsoever; and, which only devalues the existing employed variable and constant capital — or, what is the same thing, inflates the prices of the commodities composing both variable and constant capital. Finally, the purely monetary devaluation of the variable and constant capital increases the pressure on Capital to increase the rate of surplus value in order to maintain and increase the mass of surplus value, i.e., to further increase the productivity of labor by reducing still further the consumption of the mass of society.
This has political consequences to which I turn next.
Tags: Absolute Over-Accumulation, Ben Bernanke, budget deficit, capital, Christina Romer, debt, deficit spending, Depression, economic policy, inflation, job creation, Karl Marx, political-economy, prices, profit, public employment, shorter work week, stupid economist tricks, stupid Marxist tricks, Stupid progressive tricks, surplus value, the Fascist State, THE GREAT DEPRESSION, Trickle Down Economics, unemployment, value, wages, world market
(Shown in the above chart is the historical correlation between the change in debt and the rate of unemployment. Courtesy of economist Steve Keen and chrismartenson.com)
Libertarians, anarchists and communists who sincerely favor a stateless society must realize that the present crisis is not merely, nor even primarily, an economic crisis — it is a crisis of the State itself. There is no exit for the State from this crisis, and it must result in the collapse of the State.
How we approach this crisis can spell the difference between a long drawn out process of collapse, or a much shorter one.
The two great issues facing Washington in this crisis are the rising public debt and the rising population of persons who cannot find work. Since World War II, Washington has been able to enjoy a trade off between these two symptoms of capitalist breakdown by encouraging the accumulation of private and public debt to offset the tendency toward a fall in productive employment of labor power.
The growth in public and private debt has allowed Washington to perform its essential role in a period of capitalist relative breakdown: to maintain generally stable conditions for the purchase and sale of labor power. This role corresponds to the needs of both the working and capitalist classes insofar as we only consider them as poles within capitalist relations of production.
In the face of falling demand for the productive employment of labor power, Washington has encouraged and facilitated the expansion of unproductive employment based on various forms of consumer debt in particular — mortgage, credit cards, auto loans, etc. — but also public debt, including ever increasing levels of federal debt. This debt, since it can never be repaid and sits on the books of financial institutions as fictitious assets, must be succeeded by increasing levels of new debt. It is a classic Ponzi scheme that had to unravel eventually and finally did in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.
Since 2008, Washington has attempted to stabilize the economy by accumulating massive amounts of debt in its own right, hoping for its stimulative interventions in the economy to trigger a new round of debt accumulation by consumers. Consumers, who have been hit hard by the loss of millions of jobs in 2008 and 2009 have not responded to Washington’s stimulative interventions, and appear to be having an increasingly hard time even servicing existing debt.
The central problem facing Washington is that massive amounts of new debt must be created each year to absorb those who lost their jobs in 2008-2009. Moreover, this new debt must be sufficient not only to absorb those who lost their jobs, but also more than a million new workers who enter the labor force each year looking for work, and those who continue to be displaced from productive employment because of improving productivity. If consumers (who are, overwhelmingly, those workers who still are employed) are not able to carry a sufficient new debt burden to absorb this huge mass of new and existing unemployed, plus offset the falling demand for employment of labor power resulting from improvements in productivity, Washington will face an ever increasing mass of unemployed persons who are living on the edge of starvation.
At the same time, since Washington has been trying to compensate for inadequate consumer debt accumulation by running massive deficits in 2009, 2010, and 2011, a broad section of the population has been growing uneasy with the seemingly endless river of red ink in the federal budget. It doesn’t take a degree in economics to figure out that the massive accumulation of new federal debt must in time be offset by equally massive increases in the tax burden on the population and severe austerity of the type already evident in many European countries.
The result must be the steady conversion of public taxes into debt service to line the pockets of the big holders of federal debt, even as Washington tries to maintain its completely superfluous expenditures on military adventures, while the social safety net is ruthlessly eviscerated; leaving large segments of the population to starve. In its extremity, the fascist State consists solely of an ever increasing mass of new debt undertaken to maintain itself as an aggressive military machine.
Washington is thus trapped in an intractable crisis of rising public debt coupled with rising unemployment and an increasingly naked militaristic posture, even as it fails to address its most basic function: maximizing the purchase and sale of labor power. To an extent not seen in the post-World War II period, we are seeing the formation of permanent unemployable mass on the scale previously experienced only during the Great Depression. Despite two massive stimulus injections of nearly $1 trillion each, unprecedented zero interest rates for more than two years, and Federal Reserve money printing on a scale never seen before in history, unemployment has not fallen to anything approaching pre-crisis levels.
Washington is vulnerable to attack by those who favor a stateless society on both fronts. I would suggest libertarians, anarchists and communists pursue these points of agitation in their work:
- Debt and deficit spending: Oppose any attempt by Congress to increase the debt ceiling. It is clear that the Obama administration is working with both the GOP controlled House and the Democratic controlled Senate to slip through another increase in the debt ceiling this Spring. Libertarians, anarchists and communists should not stand aloof from this fight. They must combine efforts to ensure a NO vote on raising the debt ceiling, and to identify those Republican and Democratic Party representatives and senators who are conspiring with the Obama administration to saddle the nation with more debt.
- Unemployment and hours of labor: To the charge by apologists for Washington that deficit spending is necessary to combat rising unemployment, we should answer that it is not necessary. The unemployment crisis is solely the result of the refusal by Washington to reduce hours of labor. Those who stand for a stateless society should point out that increasing productivity of labor has made the reduction of hours of labor the pressing issue of our time. Any attempt to substitute State intervention in the economy for this reduction can only lead to further accumulation of debt without solving the problem of unemployment.
Washington is caught in a cul-de-sac from which there is no exit. Now is the time to strike a deathblow to it, and pave the way for a stateless society. If we fail to take advantage of this opportunity, we will have only ourselves to blame.
Tags: Barack Obama, budget, budget deficit, Depression, economic collapse, economic policy, financial crisis, great depression, international financial system, political-economy, recession, shorter work week, stupid Washington tricks, The Economy, unemployment, Wall Street Crisis, war
Is it possible to get rid of government, either by abolishing it outright or gradually reducing it, without, at the same time, ridding society of Labor? This is a question posed by libertarians and marxists who declare their opposition to abolishing one or the other.
First, let’s define what I mean by Labor. As I am using the word, Labor is not work; I define work as any form of productive activity during which we create some useful object by mixing our human effort with natural objects. It is the metabolism of life: the exchange between nature and humans which is essential to life itself. Labor, on the other hand, does the above as well, but the aim of the activity is to create value — a commodity with a price.
Among Marxists, one would think this question had already been settled by the experience of the Soviet Union. There, despite Marxist expectations that the State would whither away once wage slavery was thought to be abolished, the State never even shrank. It continued to expand up until the point it collapsed entirely. Even if we accept the idea that the Soviet Union was confronted by an implacable enemy, it is hard to accept this as an explanation for the Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe, its massive accumulation of troop and military power, and the willingness of Moscow to sacrifice basic material standards of living of the country, when the United States is presently bogged down and slowly being defeated by isolated bands of mostly illiterate guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan — much as the USSR was previously. How, under any reasonable scenario, was the US supposed to occupy and pacify a population of freely associated, well-educated, highly skilled persons, spread over one sixth of the planet’s surface and eleven time zones?
But, marxists seem unable to absorb this lesson of history. Among libertarians, I am often in conversation with, and reading the posts of, those who are quite seriously opposed to the State, but fierce opponents of any limitation on hours of Labor.
In all honesty, folks, how is this supposed to work?
Total federal, state, and local government employment (not including the military) in 2008 stood at 22.46 million persons according to the Census Bureau (pdf). At the same time, total employment in the US stood at 145.36 million persons (pdf). Government provided approximately 15 percent of all direct employment — and this does not even begin to take into account those persons who owed their jobs directly or indirectly to government expenditures: those employed as a result of contracts with various agencies of federal, state, and local bodies — Blackwater, GE, Raytheon, and the entire Fortune 500 come to mind — and those whose jobs are at least in part the result of demand generated by various transfer programs, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, school lunch programs, etc.
If we could remove all of these expenditures overnight by means of a magic wand, what would happen to the economy and the tens of millions of other jobs only indirectly affected by this? Where would all of the goods produced for this massive body of entirely superfluous laborers be sold? Even if we did not remove it entirely, but only limited it by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and preventing the expenditure of some 3 trillion additional dollars by Washington over the next two years, what now fills that void?
If libertarians and others who are seriously determined to get rid of the State have no answer to these questions, what answer will your congressperson have when Obama and Boehner grab them by the lapel and show them, in very graphic terms, exactly what their vote against raising the debt ceiling will do to employment?
The argument can be made that any limitation on hours of labor requires State coercion and limitations on the individual’s right to enjoy her property — every wage contract is a voluntary agreement between two property-owners, even if one of the parties has no choice but to make the agreement. However, thirty, forty, or fifty percent unemployment is also the coercive application of market competition. If some make the argument that capitalist coercion is somehow more “natural” than State coercion, I need only remind them that the State, having been around for thousands of years longer than Capital, is clearly far more “natural” than the latter.
I am not for coercion in any form — political or economic. I am not trying to abolish State coercion in order to allow the mechanisms of economic coercion room to expand, further intensifying the already Hobbesian environment of Civil Society. The vast majority of the population of the United States is dependent on selling their Labor Power — even those who are self-employed. The idea that they will come to see Washington as a greater threat to their well-being than the Koch brothers, WalMart, or BP is laughably naive. Start abolishing regulations, reducing the minimum wage, breaking pension plans, and slashing Social Security, and you will see how little love folks have for a stateless society that leaves them at the mercies of the owners of capital.
This really doesn’t require a doctorate in economics: those who are really serious about a stateless society, and not simply using it as a screen to advance their own agenda, will understand that State coercion cannot be abolished without also abolishing the coercion of the market in Labor Power.
Update: Courtesy of Zero Hedge, a list of Russell Index companies that generate 50 to 100 percent of their revenue from the federal government.
Update 2: Someone asked me a good question: Am I suggesting there should be no reduction in the size of government until hours of work can be reduced? Absolutely not. It would be a mistake not to do the two together, but the biggest mistake would be to do nothing until both can be done together. If the debt ceiling increase can be voted down today, it should be voted down; in time it will be obvious that hours of work must also be reduced.
Tags: afghanistan, budget deficit, capital, debt ceiling, deficit spending, Employment, hours of labor, labor, labor power, Marxism, shorter work week, soviet union, Stateless Society, stupid Marxist tricks, The State, unemployment, war
We can now restate Marx’s theory in a way which will make it easily digestible by those who stand full square for a completely stateless society, as well as the various and sundry people who seem intent on getting him completely wrong in every possible variation — including the imbeciles who count themselves among his followers:
Marx came to the conclusion that capital was abolishing the need for labor and this abolition had profound, far-reaching, implications for the whole of society, and the social relations within which individuals carried on their activity.
Moishe Postone writes:
Until this historical stage of capitalism, according to Marx’s analysis, socially necessary labor time in its two determinations [necessary labor time and surplus labor time] defined and filled the time of the laboring masses, allowing nonlabor time for the few. With advanced industrial capitalist production, the productive potential developed becomes so enormous that a new historical category of “extra” time for the many emerges, allowing for a drastic reduction in both aspects of socially necessary labor time, and a transformation of the structure of labor and the relation of work to other aspects of social life. But this extra time emerges only as potential: as structured by the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution, it exists in the form of “superfluous” labor time. The term reflects the contradiction: as determined by the old relations of production it remains labor time; as judged in terms of the potential of the new forces of production it is, in its old determination, superfluous.
By concentrating property into fewer and fewer hands; ripping the mass of society out of its long historical practice of carrying on its activities in relative isolation employing crude instruments of production for a meager material standard of living that just barely ensured their survival; and, converting the mass of society into directly social laborers, capital was making it possible to apply the latest technological breakthroughs, advancing scientific knowledge, and economies of scale to the task of producing a basic minimal standard of living with as little labor as possible given the level of development of the productive capacities of the laborers themselves and the tools they employed.
No aspect of this process was being consciously undertaken by any member of society, any group of its members, nor even by the members of society as a whole. No one consciously declared their intention to abolish labor. Each person in society was only engaged in self-interested activity in pursuit of private ends: the proletarian, for whom the sale of her labor power was a matter of simple survival — a matter of life and death, the capitalist, for whom continuation as owner of property required the ever increasing surplus producing capacity of the capital under his control. No where in society was the abolition of labor the expressed aim of anyone engaged in this mean, brutal process.
Indeed, as mankind actually crosses the threshold, the event horizon, where it is no longer possible for the demand for productive labor to increase, despite the increasing social demand for new, previously unimaginable, forms of material consumption, the members of society actually experience this incredible historical event as a loss — a terrifying regression to an earlier period of starvation and want — against which the whole of society blindly struggles, employing for this purpose all the instruments at its disposal, including the State, for the purpose of increasing the demand for labor where no productive employment of this additional labor exists, or can exist.
The human and material capacities of entire continents are laid to waste in an unceasing series of ever more barbaric wars; entire industries spring up overnight not for the creation of new means of production and consumption, but solely to destroy existing means; ever more terrible engines of self-extinction appear, and with them, a mass of proletarians whose sole purpose is to devise and create ever newer versions of these insane commodities. Alongside these industries, and essential to their existence, rises an entire industry of financial engineers, a class of public and private debtors, and the cancerous growth of fictitious capital and financial instruments.
Organizing, expanding and directing this obscenity, the State: that wholly superfluous organ of society, whose long bloody history of aggression, repression, and conquest, stands alone as the single greatest, longest running, continuing conspiracy against the rest of mankind, as well as its chief tormentor, torturer, and parasite in every age and in every epoch — a vile, filthy, parasitic collection of drones whose sole purpose in life has, always and everywhere, been to suck the life from society for its own enlargement — becomes, in the Orwellian world of Hobbesian chaos, the very instrument by which the members of society seek to stave off the results of their own activity.
In tandem with the ever diminishing material demand for productive labor, the social demand for labor in any and every form emerges as the rallying cry from every part of the society. In tandem as the State increases its invasive penetration into, and totalitarian control over, hitherto private and common activities, the Hobbesian chaos reigning within society intensifies, gains a more pervasive character, and further reduces each member of society more completely to an anonymous set of abstract data-points which can be identified, sifted and measured by the high priests of economic policy — converted into the raw material of policy recommendations for potential State action over a shorter or longer period of time. The parameters of this potential State policy action itself becomes the focus of the mass of the members of society and subjected to the Hobbesian chaos of society as interests line up on each side of the debate and seek to gain control of the lever of State power. In turn, as this body of parasitic drones master the control of society and gains knowledge of how it can maximize the expansion of purely superfluous labor, its policy parameters narrow — not employment, but the “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment”; not free trade, but “free trade agreements”; not economic growth, but “low-inflation economic growth”. In this way, State economic policy is gradually converted into those policies which maximize not the expansion of superfluous labor in general, but the expansion of the State itself as a completely superfluous, cancerous growth on society.
It is precisely this State which, Marx argues, cannot on any account serve as the foundation of the new society. It cannot be salvaged, it cannot be reformed, it cannot be utilized to emancipate society in any fashion. It must be broken: discarded by society; and, with it, Labor itself, and all the remnants of the existing order. The abolition of Labor, and the age-old division of labor that has for so long chained humanity to a set of alien, inhuman relations, increasingly becomes bound up with the question of the abolition of the State, and the abolition of the State is increasingly dependent on the abolition of superfluous labor in every form.
Tags: abolition of labor, abstract individual, abundance, aggregate demand, capital, capitalists, Civil Society, class interest, class society, Classes, deficit spending, economic policy, fascism, Federal Reserve, fiscal policy, free trade, full employment, gdp, general interest, hours of labor, interest, Karl Marx, labor power, law of value, Marxism, Moishe Postone, monetary policy, NAIRU, productive forces, productivity, profit, Proletarians, Property, public debt, rent, scarcity, superfluous labor, surplus value, The State, unemployment, value, voluntary association, wages, war
I recently came across this excerpt from a short paper by the Marxist writer, Raya Dunayevskaya. The argument is a very dense consideration of a fundamental point of Marx’s theory. If it appears obscure and incomprehensible, that is okay; I offer it only as a reference for those familiar with the more arcane points of Marx’s theory. For everyone else, you can skip below, where I will address it directly in a way that makes its import both obvious and rather astounding:
Let me state right here that we have greatly underestimated Volume III of CAPITAL, which deals with these transformations. It is true that we caught its ESSENCE when from the start we put our finger on the spot and said the DECLINE in the rate of profit is crucial; the average rate of profit is completely secondary. Look at the mess we would have been in if we had not seen THAT and suddenly found ourselves, as did the Fourth [International], tailending the Stalinists’ sudden “discovery” (which had been precisely the PERVERSION with which the Second International PLANNERS had long ago tried to corrupt Marxism) that it was the AVERAGE rate of profit which was the “law of capitalism.”
Good, we saw the essence, but that is insufficient, and because that is completely insufficient, we were incapable of being sharp enough even here. For it is insufficient merely to state that the decline [in the] rate of profit, not the average, is crucial for understanding VOLUME III. The full truth is: JUST AS MARX’S THEORY OF VALUE IS HIS THEORY OF SURPLUS VALUE, SO HIS THEORY OF SURPLUS VALUE IS IN REALITY THE THEORY OF THE DECLINING RATE OF PROFIT.
Why couldn’t we state it this simply before? It is because we have been too busy showing that profit is only a disguise which surplus value wears and must be removed, again to see “the real essence”: exploitation of labor. Because the opponents we were facing were Workers Party underconsumptionists, we had to overemphasize this EVIDENT truth. But to overemphasize the obvious means to stand on the ground the opponents have chosen. Freed from these opponents and faced with PLANNERS WHO ARE NOT UNDERCONSUMPTIONISTS the greater truth of what Marx was saying suddenly hits us in the eyes with such force that now we can say: How could we have not seen what Marx was saying? It is all so clear: Since the realization of surplus value IS the decline in the rate of profit, the poor capitalist MUST search for profits.
The argument Dunayevskaya is making here is simple: Marx proposed that capitalism would be increasingly hamstrung by a decline in the rate of profit. This decline was not an accident or aberration, since it rested on a fundamental feature of the economy: On the one hand, the capitalist was always seeking to maximize his profits by reducing labor costs. This drive leads businesses to produce more output with fewer workers. On the other hand, the source of profits were the unpaid labor time of the employed workers. Thus, even as the capitalist tried to maximize profit by reducing its work force, its success at reducing its work force reduced the pool of unpaid labor time that was the source of its profits.
So far, not much of interest, right? Just another cat fight among the followers of Marx over interpretation of his theory; and Marxists are, if anything, more prone to cat fights than a bag of wet cats. But, then Raya does something jarring: she throws in that sentence at the end and changes the entire nature of the argument:
Since the realization of surplus value IS the decline in the rate of profit, the poor capitalist MUST search for profits.
Let me perform an intellectual shortcut here: Although it may not be obvious what she has just done, Raya has just stated that Marx is setting the reader up, not for an explanation why prices of goods reflect the values of those goods, but why they can never reflect the values of those goods. On a micro-level, Marx is explaining why that $600 iPad you got for Christmas probably cost no more than $3 to manufacture in China.
To put this another way: Marx was describing why the actual labor time expended in a capitalist economy must always and increasingly be greater than what is socially necessary. The tendency built into a capitalist economy toward a secular decline in the rate of profit produces its opposite: a mad scramble on the part of each capital, and all of them together, to find every avenue to maintain profitability in the face of this tendency; and this tendency can only be countered by effort to extend the social work day beyond what is actually required by society. As we have argued elsewhere, if Marx is correct in his analysis, there is a vast pool of superfluous labor within existing society that can be abolished without touching on the material living standard of society.
To put it bluntly, Marx’s law of the tendency toward a fall in the rate of profit predicts that if total debt, total consumption and total hours of labor don’t constantly increase capitalism will collapse. The social relation is not only incapable of achieving equilibrium, but it becomes increasingly self-disequilibrating as the productivity of labor increases. Assuming Raya was saying what I understand her to be saying, I think this self-induced, self-reinforcing, disequilibrium results in, at least, the following 5 symptoms:
- The Market for output must constantly expand.
- Total employment must always rise more quickly than productive employment. And, total hours of labor must always increase more quickly than productive hours of labor.
- Because of the above, total consumption must always increase more rapidly than necessary consumption (i.e., production). Which is to say, waste and unnecessary consumption becomes a matter of life or death for the economy.
- Since waste becomes a permanent feature of the economy and the rising cost of wasted effort must be borne by society, total prices must always increase more rapidly than total value.
- Since, wasted effort itself produces no new value, exchange itself is increasingly founded on debt; hence, the financial sector must always increase more rapidly than the industrial sector, and debt more rapidly than equity — leverage, which is, at root, only the relation between the sum total of social labor to the sum total of productively employed labor, must always increase.
Assuming I am correct about Raya’s comments about Marx’s third volume of Capital, and, that she is correct in her reading of the volume — two very big ifs, I admit — in his third volume of Capital, Marx is setting us up to understand how the State becomes an absolutely critical and absolutely necessary feature of capitalist society — a matter of life and death for capital. Each of the five symptoms of modern society I cited above are no more than functions taken on by the State to manage capitalist society through its increasingly devastating cycles of booms and busts.
Marx’s law of the tendency toward a decline in the rate of profit is, in reality, a theory of the State. To extend Raya’s statement: Marx’s theory of value is the foundation for his theory of surplus value; his theory of surplus value is the foundation for his theory of the decline in the rate of profit; and, finally, his theory of a decline in the rate of profit is the foundation for his theory of the modern State.
Powerful support for my interpretation of Raya’s argument can be found simply by looking at the title of the paper from which the above quote was drawn: “The despotic plan of capital vs. freely associated labor”. In this paper, Raya counterposes the modern State to the free association of individuals, explicitly arguing that planning arrived at by free association is completely incompatible with the various forms of State management of the economy with which we are familiar: everything from the centralized planning of the Soviet type to the fiscal and monetary levers of neoliberal political-economy. In 1950, with the ink still drying on National Security Council Report 68, Raya was making the argument that, in her words, “If the order of the factory were also in the market, you’d have complete totalitarianism.”
Effort by the State to manage the economy, as envisioned by the Truman administration, had to lead to an increasingly totalitarian reorganization of society. This, apart even from consideration of the aim of that management — which, for Truman, was a means of accruing the resources for a long-term conflict with the Soviet Union — implies the subjugation of the whole of social relationships to the despotism of capital.
Marxists and progressives who see in the increasing entanglement of the State in the economy — as borrower, lender, consumer and employer of last resort — some realization of the possibility for a humane society are not only wrong, but dangerously misguided in their approach to every social issue from the present intractable unemployment, to poverty, to every form of inequality, the environment and global relations. They are trying to use as a solution the very instrument of society which maintains those evils and makes their continuation possible.
Tags: Depression, economic policy, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, fiscal policy, inflation, international financial system, Karl Marx, Marxism, monetary policy, National Security Council Memorandum, NSC-68, planned economy, political-economy, Raya Dunayevskaya, recession, soviet union, The Economy, underconsumption, unemployment, voluntary associaton, war