by Mick Brooks
The three chapters on the Law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit, and particularly Chapter 15 (The development of the law’s internal contradictions), provide the only complete explanation provided by Marx of boom and slump as part of a cycle and not, as over-production theorists would have it, as a crash coming out of a clear blue sky. Bearing in mind Rosdolsky’s outline of Marx’s 1865-66 economic ‘project’ referred to earlier, we find it exactly where we would expect it to be in his writings. After dealing with the production and circulation of capital he turns in Capital Volume III to The process of capitalist production as a whole. Crisis theory deals with all the contradictions of capitalist society.
Marx appears to raise the realisation problem in Chapter 15. “The conditions for the immediate exploitation and for the realisation of that exploitation are not identical. Not only are they separate in time and space, they are also separate in theory. The former is restricted only by society’s productive forces, the latter by the proportionality between the different branches of production and by society’s power of consumption.” (Capital Volume III, p. 352)
It is precisely at this stage in his analysis that Marx introduces the concept of over-accumulation. “Over-production of capital and not of individual commodities – though this over-production of capital always involves over-production of commodities – is nothing more than over-accumulation of capital.” (ibid. p. 359)
He goes on, “There would be an absolute over-production of capital as soon as no further additional capital could be employed for the purpose of capitalist production. But the purpose of capitalist production is the valorisation of capital, i.e. appropriation of surplus labour, production of surplus value, of profit.” (ibid. p. 360)
So over-accumulation is over-production of capital, which manifests itself as over-production of commodities. But too much capital is produced only in relation to profit-making potential. And this tendency produces an unseemly scramble among the capitalists for their chance to grab what profit there is.
“Concentration grows…since beyond certain limits a large capital with a lower rate of profit accumulates more quickly than a small capital with a higher rate of profit. This growing concentration leads in turn, at a certain point, to a new fall in the rate of profit. The mass of small fragmented capitals are thereby forced onto adventurous paths: speculation, credit swindles, share swindles, crises. The so-called plethora of capital is always basically reducible to a plethora of that capital for which the fall in the rate of profit is not outweighed by its mass.” (ibid. p. 359)
So Marx sees no contradiction in raising the so-called realisation problem in the middle of a chapter dealing with the falling rate of profit as the fundamental cause of capitalist crisis. It is precisely the fall in the profit rate that produces the crisis, and over-production (over-accumulation) is its form of appearance. To put it another way, the fact of over-producing firms may be regarded as the trigger, while the fall in the rate of profit is the cause of the crisis.
Moreover viewing the crisis as a crisis of profitability enables us to understand how the downturn prepares the basis for a later upswing. The essential mechanism is through the destruction of capital in a recession.
“The periodic devaluation of existing capital, which is a means immanent to the capitalist mode of production for delaying the fall in the profit rate and accelerating the accumulation of capital value by the formation of new capital, disturbs the given conditions in which the circulation and reproduction process of capital takes place, and is therefore accompanied by sudden stoppages and crises in the production process” (ibid. p. 262).
This destruction of capital is not mainly physical destruction and obsolescence. The destruction of capital values in a crisis actually prepares the way for a reduction in the organic composition of capital, and a revival in the rate of profit. In this way we can explain the entire boom-slump cycle.
In a slump unwanted stocks and unused machinery are sold in fire sales of the assets of bankrupt firms. “Secondly, however, the destruction of capital through crises means the depreciation of values which prevents them from later renewing their reproduction process as capital on the same scale. This is the ruinous effect of the fall in the prices of commodities. It does not cause the destruction of any use values…A large part of the nominal capital of the society i.e. of the exchange value of the existing capital is once for all destroyed, although this destruction, since it does not affect the use value, may very much expedite the new reproduction.” (Theories of surplus value Volume II p. 496)
The crisis therefore prepares the way for a new upturn in the same way as naturalists explain that forest fires can actually prepare the woodland for a new period of growth.
Once Marx has explained how the movement in the rate of profit is the mainspring of economic crisis, he can introduce the ancillary factors that play their role in preparing for the individuality and complexity of any particular capitalist crisis.
Now we introduce those economic factors that give each specific historic period its own colour and character. They interact with the general movement of the capitalist economy, based as it is on movements in the rate of profit, accelerating its upswings and deepening its downward drops. The items below are just an indicative list of these epiphenomena.
Wages: One important economic effect of the crisis, of course, is that, by creating mass unemployment, the boss class has the whip hand in trying to drive down the wages of the employed workers. “Stagnation in production makes part of the working class idle and hence places the employed workers in conditions where they have to accept a fall in wages, even beneath the average; an operation that has exactly the same effect for capital as if relative or absolute surplus value had been increased while wages remained at the average.” (Capital Volume III p. 363) The point is that movements in wage levels are based on the bargaining power of the contending classes, which is determined by the level of unemployment – itself dependent on the stage reached in the economic cycle.
Competition: Marx is also aware of the competitive struggle between individual capitalists, and its deleterious effect on their system as a whole, in the teeth of a crisis. Unlike Adam Smith, he does not see competition as the driving force of the falling rate of profit. “Competition, generally this essential locomotive force of the bourgeois economy, does not establish its laws, but is rather their executor. Unlimited competition is therefore not the presupposition for the truth of the economic laws but rather the consequence – the form of appearance in which their necessity reveals itself.” (Grundrisse p. 552)
For Marx the fall in the rate of profit intensifies the pressure on individual capitalists to compete with one another. “(T)he fall in the profit rate that is bound up with accumulation necessarily gives rise to a competitive struggle. Compensation for the fall in the profit rate by an increase in the mass of profit is possible only for the total social capital and for big capitalists who are already established. New and independently operating additional capital finds no compensatory conditions of this kind ready made; it must first acquire them, and so it is the fall in the profit rate that provokes the competitive struggle between capitals and not the reverse”(Capital Volume III p. 365)
Raw material prices: Typically a prolonged upswing will produce a boom in the price of raw materials. We suppose in theory that an increase in the demand for an industrial product is likely to call forth an instant increase in its supply as its price goes up and capitalists, mindful of the profit motive, respond by boosting production. But there are biological and geological limits in the responsiveness of organic and mineral materials’ production to demand conditions. As a result commodity prices are likely to respond spasmodically to changes in demand, with soaring peaks and dizzying drops.
This was most noticeable in the case of oil, which was actually the major basic cheap resource that fuelled capitalism in the ‘golden years’ after the Second World War. Our ‘rigorous’ neoclassical economists descend to the most casual empiricism when they characterise the 1974 crisis as an ‘oil crisis.’ They are incapable of noticing that oil prices generally are determined by the demand for oil, given the supply constraints, and that the demand is provided by capital accumulation in the industrial countries.
Of course, since oil is an important resource for capitalism, if the price of oil rises towards the end of an upswing, that is going to cut into manufacturing costs and therefore profits. And because the rate of profit is likely to be falling by this stage, it is theoretically possible that the oil price hike could help push them over the edge. The important point is to see how commodity prices are located in the cycle of accumulation.
Stocks (Inventories): In a boom the capitalists exude confidence. They develop the belief that ‘this time it’s different’ – this time the boom will last forever. As a result they build up stocks of raw materials, confident in the good times to come. In doing so, of course, they act as excellent customers to the capitalists responsible for producing raw materials. They may also allow stocks of finished goods to accumulate in the warehouses, sure that they will be sold in the fullness of time.
It’s a different story in a slump. Unsold stocks of finished goods are a millstone around their necks. They may well reduce output below what is actually required so as to realise the values of their unsold stocks first. They may be forced to do this because their profits have disappeared and that is the only way to escape bankruptcy. The niggardly approach they develop in the slump to husbanding raw materials hits the capitalists producing these raw materials, for whom this market is the only way they have of making a living.
Expectations: Capitalists have no way of knowing what the future will hold for them. Yet they have to develop a view as to how markets are likely to evolve. Under these conditions capitalists’ expectations can acquire the power of a material force in the economy. Marx gleefully chronicles the swindles carried out by capitalists upon one another. Yet these swindles were indicative of a certain mentality – the belief that anyone with money could make more money. This outlook becomes dominant after a long period of boom because it reflects a certain reality.
On the other hand a crash caused by failed capitalist projects can drag quite reputable and viable capitalist firms and individuals down with it. That is the price capitalists pay for their system. Really the market division of labour makes them all interdependent upon each other and dependent upon the operation of the law of value. But they do not realise this. “(I)n the midst of accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature. In the same way the law of gravity asserts itself when a person’s house collapses on top of him.” (Capital Volume I p.168) After the crash, caution becomes the dominant mood. And of course that caution makes recovery slower.
Finance: When we discussed the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, we made it clear that by ‘profit’ we meant surplus value as a whole and that the rate of profit is calculated as total surplus value divided by total capital invested. Yet surplus value is usually divided into rent, interest and profit (actually there are others who share in this surplus). All three factors can vary against one another.
Traditionally, the share of surplus value going to finance capital is called interest. Interest rates are connected to the boom-slump cycle in a complex way, analysed by Marx in Capital Volume III. We cannot treat the subject fully here.
“If we consider the turnover cycles in which modern industry moves – inactivity, growing animation, prosperity, over-production, crash, stagnation, inactivity, etc.,.. – we find that a low level of interest generally corresponds to periods of prosperity or especially high profit, a rise in interest comes between prosperity and its collapse, while maximum interest up to extreme usury corresponds to a period of crisis.” (Capital Volume III p. 482)
After a recession, interest rates are generally low. Manufacturing capitalists are not making much profit, so they cannot afford to pay the banks much interest. They are not investing in new plant. They are certainly not investing with borrowed money, but gradually trying to cover their losses and restart production on a modest scale with the resources available to them. As production picks up, the demand for loan-capital from manufacturing capitalists rises.
When a crash is looming, “In times of pressure, the demand for loan capital is a demand for means of payment and nothing more than this; in no way is it a demand for money as means of purchase. The interest rate can then rise very high”…just when the industrial capitalists can least afford it. (Capital Volume III p. 647) In a crash everybody needs hard cash. The whole crazy process is about to begin again.
Trade: We would expect that, as profit-making opportunities re-emerge, capitalists would exploit the division of labour to introduce more economies of scale and divide the world ‘rationally’ into areas that can produce goods at the lowest possible cost. This division of labour between capitalist firms is not organised but governed by market forces. We would therefore expect to see trade, including international trade, advance during the upswing and contribute to the strength of that upswing. We would also expect to see trade shrink in the downturn as each capitalist, and each capitalist nation-state, turns on the others, determined to load the burdens of the crisis on anyone but themselves.
As Armstrong (Capitalism since 1945) shows, trade liberalisation did not kick-start
the revival of the European and Japanese economies in the years right after the Second World War. The reason for this was the enormous imbalances in the world economy – in particular the complete dominance of the USA over the capitalist world. All the other advanced countries had massive deficits with America.
“Nor was continued European expansion based on massive import growth from the United States or elsewhere…Indeed, imports fell in 1948 and only regained 1947 levels in 1951. Meanwhile exports steamed ahead and by 1950 had regained prewar levels, with imports still some 10% below.” (pp. 82-3) In other words the increased exports were not a sign of reviving economic health, but served just to repay accumulated debts.
When the road was clear, trade interacted dialectically with profit-making potential in production to push the upswing higher. “The years of the boom saw a phenomenal explosion of trade. Between 1951-3 and 1969-71 the volume of world trade in manufactures grew by 349% whereas the volume of output grew by 194%” (ibid. p. 153).
The slowdown hit trade as well as production. The slowdown in trade made the slowdown in production worse. “The growth of world trade slowed down sharply after 1973, growing at an average 3.8% a year over the period 1973-88, compared to 8.7% per year during the previous decade” (ibid. p. 296). As we shall see later, world trade actually fell in volume terms in the wake of the 1974 crash.
The 1974 recession was the first generalised recession of global capitalism since the Second World War. It marked the end of the ‘golden years’. We look briefly at this event as an example of the processes we have been analysing.
In the first instance bourgeois economists, desperate to show that crisis is not inherent in their system, assert that the 1974 crash was ‘all about inflation.’ Certainly inflation was very high in 1974. In the US it was 11%, in Japan 21%, in Britain, 16%, in Germany 7%, and in Italy 19%.
World capitalism had actually thrived on the more moderate inflation, which had become a feature of the whole post-War era, gradually and insidiously increasing over the years. The causes of inflation are complex and cannot be dealt with here. But in Britain, for instance, the government budget deficit was 10% of GDP in 1975. Such deficits have to be paid for, and can contribute to the inflationary spiral.
The main point is that in 1974 inflation ceased to be a stimulant and started to become a major obstacle to economic growth, reflecting imbalances that were making the recession worse. Before 1974 Keynesian economists had perceived inflation as a sign that the economy was growing too fast, while unemployment was evidence that it was going too slow. Now the economy was simultaneously sending out messages that it was running too fast and too slow! The alternative, of course, was that Keynesianism had failed as an explanatory tool and as a remedy for economic problems. Economists started to mutter about ‘stagflation’ and ‘slumpflation’ and to develop alternative theories.
The second illusion spread about 1974 was that it was an ‘oil crisis’. It is true that the price of oil, the basic feedstock of post-War capitalism, quadrupled in less than a year. The oil price hike was not a result of sober economic calculation. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, oil producing Arab nations boycotted western countries because of their perceived pro-Israeli bias. Both they and their customers were then astonished at the economic power they had accumulated.
Itoh and Lapavitsas (Political economy of money and finance) put the oil shock in context. “The world market prices of primary products such as corn, wood, cotton, wool and minerals also began to rise rapidly in the later 1960s, reflecting the relative shortage of these products. The quadrupling of the price of crude oil within a few months in 1973-4 owed much to the fourth Arab-Israeli War, but was also integral to the general shortage of primary products due to the over-accumulation of capital in the advanced countries. The terms of trade relative to manufactures were raised by more than 10 per cent in 1970-3 and by nearly 70 per cent in 1970-4. The price of raw materials for manufacturing nearly doubled within the year prior to the first oil shock.” (p. 193)
All the other epiphenomena mentioned in the abstract in the section above (Ancillary factors) came into play in a concrete and painful manner. At the end of the boom speculation and swindling were rife. More and more resources were devoted to the acquisition of raw materials and of land, the price of which was soaring. This feverish speculation was a product of the mentality that the good times would never end.
Banks had been lending more and more to speculators to buy land, thus creating the perfect bubble. The bubble duly burst at the end of 1974, threatening to take the banks with it.
In Britain a dodgy bunch called secondary banks (really property speculators) had to be saved by a rescue operation launched by the Bank of England. The alternative was that, as they sank beneath the waves, they would take large chunks of the financial establishment with them.
The overheated stock exchanges all over the world had the opportunity to chill out. In London share prices went from a high of 339 to a low of 150 in 1974.
Commodity prices, with the exception of oil, also collapsed. By December 1974 copper had lost 60% of its value, posted in April of the same year. Other commodities recorded similar losses. These dry statistics are actually a trail of tears for the poor people totally dependent on their sale on the world market.
World trade, which had actually grown faster than the national economies throughout the post-War period and was regarded as an ‘engine of growth’ took a hit and fell in absolute terms in 1975. It fell because of a recession located in production and the profit-making engine of the capitalist economy.
The crash actually started in the car industry, and spread and spread. Production fell sharply. From peak to trough over two years industrial production fell 14.4% in the USA, 19.8% in Japan, 11.8% in Germany, 10.1% in Britain, and 15.5% in Italy.
Naturally unemployment soared. By the trough it was 7.9 million in the US, 1.1 million in Japan, 1.1 million in Germany, 1.3 million in Britain and 1.1 million in Italy. The ‘full employment’ era was over.
Capacity utilisation fell in the US from 83% in 1973 to 65% (less than two thirds) in 1975. 1973 was a peak year. But in the 1966 peak 92% of manufacturing capacity was in use. In 1969 it was 86.5%. Measured from peak to peak or from trough to trough capacity utilisation had been falling over the whole post-War period.
Why? Capacity utilisation, investment, output and employment were all falling in line with the rate of profit. Capitalists use manufacturing capacity to the maximum if they think they can make profits. They invest if they think they can make profits. They produce if they think they can make profits. They employ workers if they think they can make profits.
In the USA industrial (pre-tax) profits were 16.2% in the years 1948-50, 12.9% in 1966-70, and 10.5% in 1973. Then they crashed, and so did the economy.
In Britain our figures are taken from Glyn and Sutcliffe - British capitalism, workers and the profits squeeze. In 1950-54 the rate of pre-tax profit was 16.5%, in 1955-59 14.7%, in 1960-64 13%, in 1965-69 11.7% in 1968 11.6%, in 1969 11.1%, and in 1970 9.7%. As we have seen from Capitalism since 1945 quoted earlier, profits then recovered after the 1974-75 recession, but never regained the levels they achieved in the ‘golden years’.
Brenner’s works confirm that, since the 1974 crash, the good times have gone for good. The rate of profit has been consistently lower in the 1970-1990 (or 1993) period than it was from 1950 to 1970. Within the later period, the rate of profit rose in times of boom and fell as the economy entered a recession, as it did in the 1950 – 1970 period.
More recently Andrew Glyn’s most recent book Capitalism unleashed is mainly concerned with other matters. On page 136 he does briefly suggest that the American capitalist class has achieved a clawback of the rate of profit up to the level of the early 1970s. But for Europe (pp. 145-6) and Japan (p. 141) the picture we have painted remains the same. Likewise Brenner’s 2006 book The economics of global turbulence (an update of his previous work) is subtitled The advanced capitalist economies from long boom to long downturn. It does not challenge the link between movements in the rate of profit and the health of the capitalist economy. The fit is almost perfect.
We conclude that the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as explained by Marx is the key to understanding the cycle of boom and slump in the capitalist economy.
Countervailing tendencies to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Cheapening the elements of constant capital.
The same process of rising productivity that cheapens wage goods can also cheapen capital goods and so reduce the organic composition of capital. Certainly this can happen in practice. But those who have argued that this process can indefinitely offset the tendency for the rate of profit to fall have all too often adopted a false method. The following quotes are taken from a historic debate (The tendency for the rate of profit to fall and post-war capitalism - AG and MB)
“The typical figures used to back up the LTRPF (law for the tendency of the rate of profit to fall) are the huge increase of fixed capital per worker, such as these shown in columns 1-3 below.” (AG)
The author’s Table 1 covers industry for the years 1953-72 and deals in percentage growth rates per year. Column 3 details Capital/Worker and shows the ratio rising by 8.8% (per year over the twenty year period) in the case of Japan, 4.8% for France, 6.0% for Germany, 4.8% for Italy, 4.2% for the UK and 2.2% for the USA.
This would appear fairly clear evidence to most people that the
organic composition of capital did indeed rise over that period. But AG
goes on to argue that, “These statistics for the capital stock at
constant prices are attempts to measure the volume of the capital stock
(i.e. number of machines before taking account of their cheapening due
to productivity growth). They do not simply get rid of the effect of
inflation, but they also ignore productivity growth – the devaluation of
capital, which cheapens machines. We want to get at the value
composition, i.e. what is relevant for the rate of profit which is
calculated on the value of capital – not its physical volume – we have
to account for this devaluation of capital. This I have done in a simple
way by subtracting the growth of productivity (Column 4) from the
growth of the volume of capital per worker to give the growth in the
value of capital per worker.” He is introducing the method pioneered by
neoclassical equilibrium theorists in treating Marx’s economic system as
a set of simultaneous equations.
He then proceeds to subtract the results of the percentage figures of Column 4 from the results in Column 3. A quick glance at the figures for Capital Growth per Worker in Column 3 will show that they show very similar national trends to the Productivity increase in Column 4.
In fact, using this technique, Column 5 (which AG asserts shows the Ratio of Dead to Living Labour) records, in what AG regards as the ‘proper’ measure of the organic composition of capital, that it actually falls over the period in Japan, France, Italy and the USA. Rises in Germany and the UK are insignificant and it seems from Column 5 that overall movements in the organic composition of capital are indeterminate. AG is treating the increase in productivity as causing an instant and equivalent fall in the price of capital goods.
To many readers who have followed this discussion so far, it is probably not surprising to find that productivity rises as capital per worker increases – as the reason for increasing the organic composition of capital is usually to raise the productivity of labour. But do input prices fall instantly and at the same rate?
AG’s method in ‘depreciating’ the rise in capital per worker by using productivity increases was criticised at the time in the course of the debate. AG is a scrupulous economic statistician. But this method is one that generations of conventional economists have used to try to assimilate Marx into neoclassical economic theory.
They in effect regard the economy as a set of simultaneous equations and Marx as an equilibrium theorist like them.
Marx on the other hand regarded accumulation as a process that takes place in real time. Marx was well aware that rises in productivity in the industries producing the elements of constant capital could lead to a fall in their unit price. But he regarded this adjustment of relative prices to be a messy and protracted result of competition between individual capitalists, not as an instantaneous outcome.
Marx also knew that what are outputs for one capitalist are inputs for another. He raised precisely that issue in his reproduction tables in Capital Volume II. The fall in the prices of these inputs through rising productivity will eventually be reflected throughout the economic system. But these commodity prices are devalorised (depreciated) in real time. This is not the same as the way a mathematician ‘solves’ a set of simultaneous equations, a method applied by neoclassical economists to their ‘model’ of the economy.
More recently, Andrew Kliman has trenchantly denounced this tendency to turn Marx into an equilibrium theorist (Reclaiming Marx’s Capital). Neoclassical economists have for a century accused Marx of ‘inconsistency’, beginning with von Bohm Bawerk’s Karl Marx and the close of his system in 1896. In Capital Volume I, they say, Marx deals in values. In Volume III he introduces prices of production as modified values. Von Bohm Bawerk regarded this as a ‘contradiction.’
As we have indicated earlier Marx uses this procedure because after dealing with the production of capital in Volume I and its circulation in Volume II, he comes to The process of capitalist production as a whole in Volume III. This is where the formation of a general rate of profit is properly dealt with. Until he has derived the general rate of profit, Marx cannot move on to the formation of prices of production from values, so this too belongs in Volume III.
Following von Bortkiewicz’s 1906-07 papers, neoclassical economists have dealt with what they call the contradiction in Marx by using simultaneous equations to transform an economic ‘system’ made up of values into a system of prices. Not surprisingly, they arrive at different results from Marx in the process.
Kliman is an advocate of what is called the temporal single system interpretation (TSSI) of Marx’s economics. By ‘temporal,’ TSSI theorists mean that economic processes take place in real time, unlike the simultaneous equations that instantly devalue output prices as input prices for other capitalists.
The ‘single system’ is contrasted to a dual system, where values have to be transformed into prices in the manner suggested by von Bortkiewicz. In fact prices and values are interdependent. As Kliman explains (p. 33), “First, prices of production and average depend on the general (value) rate of profit s/C, so there is no distinct price system. Second, prices influence value magnitudes, so there is no distinct value system either. The constant capital advanced and the value transferred depend upon the prices, not the values, of means of production.”
When capitalists consider the costs of inputs in calculating their profits, there are three possibilities. (Kliman Chapter 6):
The example Kliman uses is that of apples used to make apple sauce – costing $0.60 when the apple is picked, falling to $0.50 when the apple sauce is made and $0.45 when the apple sauce is cooked and available for sale. It is unfortunate for the capitalist that the price of his input is continually falling in this way, but he can’t buy apples as the cost of an input at 2pm ($0.45) when he actually starts making the sauce at 1pm – when apples cost $0.50. Yet that is the miracle that simultaneous equations perform when they turn output prices instantaneously into input prices!
Is it not obvious that the relevant cost of inputs is this pre-production reproduction cost? This remains the case even if the value of that constant capital later depreciates, and replacement costs therefore fall, as a result of technical progress in the production of means of production.
AG is therefore entirely wrong when he uses increases in productivity to instantaneously depreciate capital values, and thus produce a corresponding fall in the organic composition of capital and increase in the rate of profit, in his Column 5. Yet this procedure is at the heart of his ‘rebuttal’ of Marx’s tendency for the rate of profit to fall, as it has been for generations of neoclassically trained economists.
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