Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The theory of crisis posted by Richard Seymour
These are not the first examples of ideological disorientation that I have had cause to comment on. Neoliberalism has not been over-ridden as a growth strategy yet, but its intellectual sustenance is increasingly threadbare. Perhaps it is time to go back to marxian first principles. At least, I'd like to do that, as much as to help me process the ideas as anything else. What does marxism tell us about capitalist crisis? Capital enjoins us to start with the things being bought and sold, commodities, and asks us to consider what is novel about them. Any good that you possess, be it a DVD or your ability to perform mental and physical labour, can become a commodity if you just enter it into circulation as a good to be exchanged. You put the DVD on eBay, and advertise your availability and CV on Totaljobs or whatever, and both goods are instantly commodities. And if you do decide to exchange a good, you want to exchange it with something of equivalent value. Marx puts it thus: "To the owner of a commodity, every other commodity is, in regard to his own, a particular equivalent, and consequently his own commodity is the universal equivalent for all the others." If you sell your DVD for a fiver, you figure that the goods which could be bought with that fiver are in some sense equivalent to the good you've just sold.
But this value is a mysterious kind of substance. It isn't the subjective value that a good might have for an individual, as that can hardly be the basis for an exchange of equivalents. It isn't 'use value', in other words. There has to be another 'exchange value' which all commodities have, and which render them commensurable with one another. I was told by teachers that the value of goods traded on the market was determined by supply and demand: a healthy supply and poor demand would reduce prices, and vice versa. Yet, supply and demand merely equilibriates the system: it accounts for price fluctuations but not for the underlying value that they fluctuate around. If you assume perfectly equivalent supply and demand, you still have to account for why the price settles at a particular rate and not another rate. For Marx, as for the classical political economy that he was trying to reformulate, the source of value is in labour. The exchange value of a commodity is determined by the "average amount of socially necessary labour" embodied in it. That is, if a coat is of equal value to a mobile phone, this reflects the total amount of labour that has gone into making each good. A good can be very useful to us without having any exchange-value. Air is obviously a use-value of supreme importance, and it would be difficult to support a mortgage and an average-sized family without it. But to make it saleable, you would have to - in Lockean terms - mix your labour with it, or buy someone else's labour to mix with it. You could, say, make 'air in a can' with certain unique properties not found in nature, thereby producing it in such a way that it would both have an exchange value, and a use value for the potential market that would enable one to realise that exchange value.
It is worth pointing out, en passant, that even at its most abstract, Capital is always historicising. So, for example, Marx traces these conceptual operations - use value, and exchange value - to the historical origins of markets themselves out of barter between different communities. As the productive capacity of each community develops, "the need for foreign objects of utility gradually establishes itself. The constant repetition of exchange makes it a normal social act. In the course of time, therefore, some portion at least of the products of labour must be produced with a special view to exchange. From that moment the distinction becomes firmly established between the utility of an object for the purposes of consumption, and its utility for the purposes of exchange. Its use-value becomes distinguished from its exchange-value."
The money fawcet
If, for the sake of this argument, we accept this account of value, then the mystery only deepens. For we are constantly exhorted to believe in another account of value which clashes with it: the 'golden egg' theory. Save your money, you are told, or invest it, and it will just magically increase in value. Buy a private pension scheme for a fraction of your weekly earnings, and when you retire you can have a lavish, hedonistic lifestyle that would make Jan Moir choke with fury. Better yet, save enough money to use as start-up capital, become a capitalist and one can, with sufficient nous, acquire enough dough to get Lord Mandelson's telephone number. Something very nebulous and mystical about the process of abstaining from immediate consumption, and entering this money into circulation as money-capital, causes it to produce a 'surplus value', above and beyond what was originally invested. In neoclassical accounts, this added value is a reward for abstinence. That might serve as a moral-religious justification for profit, but unless we just assume that God, or Providence, or the Geist actually intervened to produce this bonus, it doesn't actually work as an analysis. The added value must come from somewhere, and we have already accepted that the source of value is labour.
Yet, we have also said that exchanges in the market take place as an exchange between equivalents. If that's true, no one should end up with more value than they started with. We can't have it both ways. So, if a capitalist employs labour, he buys a person's labour power for eight hours a day for precisely its exchange value (setting aside odd examples of de facto slavery, partially voluntary wage systems involving tips, etc.), no more and no less. But what is the exchange value of labour power? On the basis of what we have said, it must be the amount of labour required to reproduce it, ie the socially necessary labour embodied in that combination of goods and services that will enable a worker to return to work the next day and perform her duties in a normal way. So, where does this surplus value come from? How does one extract value from the consumption of a commodity?
Marx's answer, of course, is that labour is a unique kind of commodity in that it has the capacity to produce more value than it is actually worth on the market. You know how that goes. If you're employed in medium-sized service sector company that supplies goods, say market research, to other companies, they typically include the cost of your labour in the bill. If you ever see this bill, and the breakdown, you're likely to find that the cost of your labour is substantially higher than your wages. Merely as an anecdotal example, in a firm I worked for some years ago I discovered that when I was seconded to a sister organisation for a week or so, they charged that sister organisation £40 an hour for my services. I wasn't being paid £40 an hour, though I was being paid the correct market rate for my labour power (which was less than £10 an hour). So, there was a gap between the exchange value of my labour power and the value produced by my labour.
Class struggle, and the composition of capital
This distinction between labour-power, the "aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being", and labour, which is the exercise of those capacities, is clear enough. It is the former which the capitalist purchases, and the latter which produces his surplus value. That is the exploitative basis of the labour-capital relationship, the main axis of class relations in a capitalist society, and of course the basis for constant struggle. This struggle isn't just collective, in the sense of trade union bargaining over wages, or left-wing political struggle for reform or revolution. It is more often than not individual, in the sense of cutting off work early, taking long breaks, arriving late, throwing sickies, working slow, wasting time on the internet, etc. Parenthetically, the latter comes with a certain kind of shifty, guilt-ridden disavowal. I recall at a previous workplace, where individualism and competitiveness predominated, if someone was caught skiving by the boss they would always try to rationalise it to the rest of us. They either didn't understand that everyone but the most deluded and dedicated workhorse was doing exactly the same things, or they maintained the pretence of being part of a 'team' because they were careerists. Anyway, the basis of surplus value and thus of profits is labour. The largely notional values that circulate in the stock market, are all derivative of values produced by labour.
Yet, there's another problem right away. Capitalists wouldn't be capitalists if they didn't want to augment that value as much as possible. They operate in a competitive system, and they have to invest some of their profits in new means of increasing their surplus value throughout each cycle of production. They can find ways to make the workers go faster, labour harder, and so on, though always at the risk that some of them might get truculent. Here, another distinction is of use: between constant capital (machines, equipment etc used in the production process) and variable capital, which is the human input. If investment in a labour-saving device will enable a capitalist to produce more goods and vie for a greater market share, while expending less on that variable capital (labour power), then this is the sensible thing to do. This drives technological innovation, though it also drives job losses - eg, while American commentators have been given to blaming job cuts on international competition and outsourcing to China and Mexico, the major source of job losses in recent years has been downsizing by American companies. Yet, if every capitalist acts in this way, as it seems to be sensible for them to do, then the aggregate amount of socially necessary labour embodied in the goods they produce is depressed, thus depressing their exchange value. This means that there will be a tendency for capitalists to find it increasingly difficult to realise their original investment plus surplus. In the long term, profits are likely to decline as the ratio of constant to variable capital (which Marx calls "the organic composition of capital") increases. This can be offset by various factors. Among these are the opening up of new avenues for investment and thus new deployment for labour, and financialisation, which can equilibriate the system by redistributing investment and supporting consumption. Financial innovation also opens up new investment opportunities, with speculation on future profits, speculation on that speculation, the sale of debt, speculation on the profits from the sale of debt, speculation on that speculation, etc. Yet, if these countervailing tendencies prove insufficient to offset the overall tendency of the rate of profit to fall, then investment will decrease, employment will fall, consumption of all goods will decline, and the economy will cease to grow. Without growth, capitalism is in crisis. The only way to restore growth is to destroy capital - through war or protracted depression - and resume the whole process of accumulation.
Destruction of capital
So, here we are in this disastrous consummation of neoliberalism, which itself was negotiated and imposed as a solution to a crisis of profitability that emerged in the 1970s. Profitability throughout the neoliberal era has been sustained by repressing real wages (in the leading industrial economy, they didn't rise in real terms for thirty years), breaking down the bargaining power of labour, increasing the crude rate of exploitation (longer working hours, productivity deals, etc.), and financialisation. Lower wages meant consumption had to be supported through debt, and financialisation meant that investment was increasingly dependent on Wall Street. That debt/speculation arrangement is what has just collapsed. According to Andrew Kliman (paper with detailed empirical evidence here [pdf], some further arguments here), the underlying problem that arose in the 1970s was not resolved. Insufficient capital was destroyed in the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, in contrast to the immense destruction of the Depression and WWII which resulted in the prolonged post-war boom. In that sense, the current crisis was merely deferred for a generation.
Kliman is interesting on the theory of crisis for a whole number of reasons, but mainly because he is one of the few economists to defend the labour theory of value in its marxian variant. I said earlier that, for the sake of argument, we would accept that Marx's theory of value was correct and proceed from there. One outstanding problem with the theory, though, has always been the 'transformation problem'. How do we get from exchange values, which we don't see on a daily basis, to prices, which we do? This is a crucial question. Bear in mind that the account of crisis that I have just sketched, with a pained and slightly comical expression on my face, depends on the idea that the prices of the goods sold on the market will not be sufficient to recoup the original investment, as the 'organic composition of capital' rises. To establish this, we need an account of how exchange values become prices. Many economists argue that no function can be established that will transform exchange values into prices. If that is the case, then Marx's crisis theory is presented with a serious problem. Prices may be decoupled from values in such a way as to render the latter a merely metaphysical construct with no relation to the real economy.
Marx's answer was presented in Capital Volume III, chapter 9. In it, he dealt with an issue arising from his previous analysis: if the organic rate of capital differs from industry to industry, the profit rates should vary considerably Yet, the observable tendency is for profits to equalise across economies. Marx argues that this is because investment flows between capital sectors to the most profitable areas - thus increasing the amont of goods produced, reducing prices, and lowering the overall profit rate - and away from the less profitable areas - thus decreasing the amounts of goods produced, raising prices and profits. While surplus value is redistributed through market transactions and realised in different ways, a 'general rate of profit' is formed. Thus, capitalists determine the price of their goods by looking at their input costs and adding a mark-up based on the general rate of profit obtained in that economy. In aggregate, then, the total price of commodities produced will equal their total value; the total profits will equal the total amount of surplus value produced. Thus, a wholistic view of the economy gives us the basis for transforming exchange values into prices. This account has been subject to numerous criticisms, mainly on the grounds that Marx inconsistently applies the transformation, failing to transform the values of inputs (constant and variable capital) into prices. Kliman defends Marx's account against these charges, though, arguing for what he maintains is an internally consistent picture of Capital that also conserves the argument concerning profit rates.
I raise all that, aware that Kliman's account remains controversial. Resolving such issues is far from my competence, but it's worth being acquainted with these arguments because if we are going to account for this 'age of austerity' that we face (actually an age of naked class war in which the rich are trying to place the burden of this crisis on us), we have to develop a consistent and viable theory of capitalist crisis. Despite the aporiae of marxian political economy, no other competing theory has come close to accounting for the empirical evidence of the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism.