Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Market power again

by Michael Roberts

In a previous post, I covered the arguments of several mainstream economists who sought to explain the slowdown in productivity and investment growth especially since the beginning of the 2000s as due to market power.

Now there is yet another round of mainstream economic papers trying to explain why investment in the major economies has fallen back since the end of Great Recession in 2009.  And again most of these papers try to argue that it is the rise in ‘market power’ ie monopolistic trends, especially in finance, that has led to profits being accumulated in finance, property or in cash-rich techno giants that do not invest productively or innovatively.

That investment in productive assets has dropped in the US is revealed by the collapse in net investment (that’s after depreciation) relative to the total stock of fixed assets in the capitalist sector.

Note that the fall in this net investment ratio took place from the early 2000s at the same time as financial profits rocketed.  That suggests that a switch took place from productive to financial investment (or into fictitious capital as Marx called it).

In a new paper, Thomas Philippon, Robin Döttling and Germán Gutiérrez looked at data from a group of eight Eurozone countries and the US. They first establish a number of stylised facts. They found that the corporate investment rate was low in both the Eurozone and the US, with the share of intangibles (investment in intellectual property such as computer software and databases or research and development) increasing and the share of machinery and equipment decreasing.  But they also found that investment tracked corporate profits in the Eurozone, but fell below in the US.  In other words, productive investment slipped in the Eurozone because profitability did too.

But there appeared to be an ‘investment gap’ in the US.

But there is an important issue here of measurement.  As I showed in my previous post, these mainstream analyses use Tobin’s Q as the measure of accumulated profit to compare against investment.  But Tobin’s Q is the market value of a firm’s assets (typically measured by its equity price) divided by its accounting value or replacement costs.  This is really a measure of fictitious profits.  Given the credit-fuelled financial explosion of the 2000s, it is no wonder that net investment in productive assets looks lower when compared with Tobin Q profits.  This is not the right comparison.  Where the financial credit and stock market boom was much less, as in the Eurozone, profits and investment movements match.

Nevertheless, mainstream/Keynesian economics continues to push the idea that there is an ‘investment gap’ because the lion’s share of the profits has gone into monopolistic sectors which do not invest but just extract ‘rents’ through their market power.  This argument has even been taken up by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in its latest report.  In chapter seven of its 2017 report, UNCTAD waxes lyrical about the great insights of Keynes about the ‘rentier’ capitalist, who is unproductive, unlike the entrepreneur capitalist who makes things tick. 

UNCTAD’s economists conclude that there has been “the emergence of a new form of rentier capitalism as a result of some recent trends: highly pronounced increases in market concentration and the consequent market power of large global corporations, the inadequacy and waning reach of the regulatory powers of nation States, and the growing influence of corporate lobbying to defend unproductive rents”.

But is the rise of rentier capitalism the main cause of the relative fall in investment?  As I have pointed out above, the rentier appears to play no role in the low investment rate of the Eurozone: it’s just low profitability.  However, there does seem a case for financial market power or financialisation as a cause for low productive investment in the US.

Marx considered that there were two forms of rent that could appear in a capitalist economy.  The first was ‘absolute rent’ where the monopoly ownership of an asset (land) could mean the extraction of a share of surplus value from the capitalist process without investment in labour and machinery to produce commodities.  The second form Marx called ‘differential rent’.  This arose from the ability of some capitalist producers to sell at a cost below that of more inefficient producers and so extract a surplus profit – as long as the low cost producers could stop others adopting even lower cost techniques by blocking entry to the market, employing large economies of scale in funding, controlling patents and making cartel deals.  This differential rent could be achieved in agriculture by better yielding land (nature) but in modern capitalism, it would be through a form of ‘technological rent’; ie monopolising technical innovation.

Undoubtedly, much of the mega profits of the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook are due to their control over patents, financial strength (cheap credit) and buying up potential competitors.  But the mainstream explanations go too far.  Technological innovations also explain the success of these big companies.  Moreover, by its very nature, capitalism, based on ‘many capitals’ in competition, cannot tolerate any ‘eternal’ monopoly, a ‘permanent’ surplus profit deducted from the sum total of profits which is divided among the capitalist class as a whole.  The continual battle to increase profit and the share of the market means monopolies are continually under threat from new rivals, new technologies and international competitors.

The history of capitalism is one where the concentration and centralisation of capital increases, but competition continues to bring about the movement of surplus value between capitals (within a national economy and globally). The substitution of new products for old ones will in the long run reduce or eliminate monopoly advantage.  The monopolistic world of GE and the motor manufacturers did not last once new technology bred new sectors for capital accumulation.  The world of Apple will not last forever.

‘Market power’ may have delivered rental profits to some very large companies in the US, but Marx’s law of profitability still holds as the best explanation of the accumulation process.  Rents to the few are a deduction from the profits of the many. Monopolies redistribute profit to themselves in the form of ‘rent’ but do not create profit.  Profits are not the result of the degree of monopoly or rent seeking, as neo-classical and Keynesian/Kalecki theories argue, but the result of the exploitation of labour.

The key to understanding the movement in productive investment remains its underlying profitability, not the extraction of rents by a few market leaders.  If that is right, the Keynesian/mainstream solution of regulation and/or the break-up of monopolies will not solve the regular and recurrent crises or rising inequality of wealth and income.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

US rate of profit update

by Michael Roberts

The latest data for net fixed assets in the US have been released, enabling me to update the calculations for the US rate of profit a la Marx up to 2016.

Last year, I did the calculations with the help of Anders Axelsson from Sweden, who not only replicated the results to ensure their accuracy (and found mistakes!), but also produced a manual for carrying out the calculations that anybody could use.

As I did last year and in previous years, I have also updated the rate of profit using the method of calculation by Andrew Kliman (AK) that he first carried out in his book, The failure of capitalist production AK measures the US rate of profit based on corporate sector profits only and using the BEA’s historic cost of net fixed assets as the denominator.

I also calculate the US rate of profit with a slight variation from AK’s approach, in that I depreciate gross profits by current depreciation rather than historic depreciation as AK does, but I still use historic costs for net fixed assets.  The theoretical and methodological reasons for doing this can be found here and in the appendix in my book, The Long Depression, on measuring the rate of profit.

The results of the AK calculation and my revised version are obviously much the same as last year – namely that AK’s measure of the rate of profit falls persistently from the late 1970s to a trough in 2001 and then recovers during the credit-fuelled, ‘fictitious capital period’ up to 2006.  The 2006 peak in the rate is higher than the 1997 one.   My revised version of AK’s measure shows a stabilisation of the profit rate at the end of the 1980s, after which profitability does not really rise much (although there are various peaks up to 2006).  What the new data for 2016 do reveal, however, is that profitability (on both measures) has remained below the peak of 2006 (i.e. for the last ten years) and has fallen for the last two.  And, of course, the long-term secular decline in the US rate is confirmed on both measures, some 25-30% below the 1960s.

But readers of my blog and other papers know that I prefer to measure the rate of profit a la Marx by looking at total surplus value in an economy against total productive capital employed; so as close as possible to Marx’s original formula of s/c+v.  So I have a ‘whole economy’ measure based on total national income (less depreciation) for surplus value; net fixed assets for constant capital; and employee compensation for variable capital.  Most Marxist measures exclude a measure of variable capital on the grounds that it is not a stock of invested capital but circulating capital that cannot be measured from available data.  I don’t agree and G Carchedi and I have an unpublished work on this point.  Indeed, even inventories (the stock of unfinished and intermediate goods) could be added as circulating capital to the denominator for the rate of profit, but I have not done so here as the results are little different.

Updating the results from 1946 to 2016 on my ‘whole economy’ measure shows more or less the same result as last year, as you might expect.  I measure the rate in both historic and current cost terms.  This shows that the overall US rate of profit has four phases: the post-war golden age of high profitability peaking in 1965; then the profitability crisis of the 1970s, troughing in the slump of 1980-2; then the neoliberal period of recovery or at least stabilisation in profitability, peaking more or less in 1997; then the current period of volatility and eventual decline.  Actually, the historic cost measure shows no recovery in the rate of profit during the neoliberal period.  The current cost measure always shows much greater upward or downward movement.  On this measure, the post-war trough was in 1982 while on the historic cost measure, it is 2009 at the bottom of the Great Recession.

What is new about the 2016 update is that the US rate of profit fell in 2016, after a fall in 2015.  So the rate of profit has fallen in the last two successive years and is now 6-10% below the peak of 2006.
One of the compelling results of the data is that they show that each economic recession in the US has been preceded by a fall in the rate of profit and then by a recovery in the rate after the slump.  This is what you would expect cyclically from Marx’s law of profitability.

In a recent paper, G Carchedi identified three indicators for when crises occur: when the change in profitability; employment; and new value are all negative at the same time.  Whenever that happened (12 times since 1946), it coincided with a crisis or slump in production in the US.  This is Carchedi’s graph.

My updated measure for the US rate of profit to 2016 confirms the first indicator is operating.  The graph above shows that in the last two years there has been a 5%-plus fall.  However, new value growth is slowing but not yet negative; and employment growth continues.  So on the basis of these three (Carchedi) indicators, a new recession in the US economy is not imminent.  Also the mass of profit or surplus value rose (if only slightly) in 2016, and so again does not provide confirmation of an imminent slump.

What the updated data do confirm is my guess last year that 2016 would show a fall in the US rate of profit – and by all the measures mentioned. And, of course, Marx’s law of profitability over the long term is again confirmed.  There has been a secular decline in US profitability, down by 28% since 1946 and 15-20% since 1965; and by 6-10% since the peak of 2006.  So the recovery of the US economy since 2009 at the end of the Great Recession has not restored profitability to its previous level.

Also, the driver of falling profitability has been the secular rise in the organic composition of capital, which has risen nearly 20% since 1965 while the main ‘counteracting factor’, the rate of surplus value, has fallen 4%.  Indeed, even though the rate of surplus value has risen 5% since 1997, the rate of profit has fallen 5% because the organic composition of capital has risen over 12%.

Has the US rate of profit slowed further in 2017?  We can use quarterly data from the US Federal Reserve on the non-financial corporate sector to get a rough idea.  The Fed data suggest that the rate of profit in the first half of 2017 was flat at best.

So, if the rate of profit is a good indicator of an upcoming slump in capitalism, then the jury is out on the likelihood of slump in 2018.  However, the rate of profit is still down from its peaks of 1997 and 2006 and now appears to be flat lining at best.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Facts For Working People (FFWP) Conference Call 11-11-17

Co-founder of this Blog, Richard Mellor, 2nd from right with other workers and members of AFSCME Locals 444/2019 that fought for, negotiated and benefited from the contract in which the clauses on harassment and discrimination (see below) were won.

Main points discussed: Build support for Duluth Labor Group call to open the AFL-CIO AIFLD Files and The need to organize democratic fighting unions to end the epidemic of sexual abuse and discrimination. (read earlier reports here)

A number of topics were covered on the FFWP Conference Call on November 11th. The two most discussed were the Duluth Labor Body resolution to open the AFL-CIO Files and the recent political developments in the US, especially the slap that was delivered to Trump and Trumpism by the mid week elections. Part of this has been the explosive stepping forward of women, and in some cases men and boys, to name and expose the men in positions of power who have abused them. Weinberg, Spacey, Moore and on and on.

On the Duluth Labor Body’s resolution that that the AFL-CIO open its AIFLD files, a number of points were made that had been made on the previous conference call, but it was felt it was important to go over them again. The resolution to open these files is important and comes at a time when it can have a major affect.

There is a mood worldwide and in the USA to open up files, documents and see that their contents are shared, open them on way or another. The recent Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers are an example of this. The world economy is in bad shape. The majority of people’s lives in the capitalist world are getting worse; as we write, a new study claims that 1% of the world’s population have half the world’s wealth. The political parties and the heads of organized labor are showing no way out.

The result is increased frustration and anger. And from this, people in all sorts of institutions are demanding access to what is going on and in many cases taking unofficial action to see that such information is shared. There is also the new technology, which facilitates accessing such information’s by hacking and other means.  It is against this background that the demand is being raised for opening the AFL-CIO, AIFLD Files. The timing is very good.

Most workers and union members do not see how to effectively take on the bosses’ offensive because the union leaders will not lead. In fact, the union leaders actually prevent workers from taking effective action. The last thing they want is victorious strikes as these would demolish their arguments that concessions have to be made; that we cannot win. Any significant victory would embolden workers, would inspire workers to fight for more, to go on the offensive. This would have repercussions not just within organized labor but the entire working class.This would derail their entire strategy of so-called “controlled retreat”, in reality full scale fleeing from the field of battles of the last decades. Victories would also threaten their own leadership in the union movement, their own positions and privileges. This is where this resolution comes in.

At this point, a major movement of organized labor’s ranks has not yet emerged to breach the obstacle of their own leadership and launch an offensive of their own. It seems such a daunting task confronting both the bosses and their own leaders and they don’t see a way to effectively win this battle.

However many trade union members and workers in general will think it is very reasonable, and it is very reasonable, to open these files. All the AFL-CIO leaders have to do is lift the phone and authorize the archivists at the University of Maryland where the files are stored and give the go ahead for them to be made public. Of course, these leaders will only do this is if they are pressed from below. This is what we seek to help accomplish on our weekly FFWP conference calls. We seek organize, to reach out and make contact with as many people as possible to ask them to make contact with many more people and move resolutions to union locals, union bodies, workplaces, colleges, schools and all left activist groups to call on the AFL-CIO leaders to allow the opening of the files. To organize petitions etc. And send all these to the leadership of the AFL-CIO.

Our Conference call concluded that the proposal to open the files would get support if the work is put in and Facts For Working People intends, with its resources which includes our blog and connections we have built over the years in the trade union and socialist movement, to put in the work that our resources allow.

FFWP Conference Calls have also concluded that this initiative could open up other possibilities. If the Files are opened we have no doubt they will show collusion between a section (or possibly all) of the AFL-CIO leadership and the agencies of the US corporations such as the CIA in suppressing radical combative and even just genuine democratic trade unions in other countries. If this is shown it will open other doors. If this has been the role of the union leaders internationally what has been their role at home? It has been the same in this sense: It will prove that they have been working with the bosses and corporations against any combative movement of the US working class. If this is the case, and we are confident that it is, it will open up divisions in the trade union leadership and apparatus. And this in turn will inspire sections of the union membership and the working class as a whole to take action on other issues. They will see an opening.

The numerous strikes that took place in the 1980’s and early nineties that began to take on a national character, PATCO, Hormel, Greyhound, Eastern Airlines, Pittston Decatur and others were all defeated we know, due to the failed policies of the trade union hierarchy. But what collaboration and sabotage occurred behind the scenes?

So Facts For Working People, our Think Tank/conference calls has decided to allot some of its resources, our Blog etc. to be part of this effort. Hopefully enough people will get involved, enough union bodies and working people will get involved, so that a coordinating body for this work can be set up and an organized campaign set in motion. It would be good if any and all resolutions moved and or passed, any petitions signed, if all this information was forwarded to the Duluth Minnesota Central Labor Body at Laborworld@questoffice.net and forwarded also to the FFWP Blog at we_know_whats_up@yahoo.com, where it can be shared. We have created a page to store this information so anyone interested can access it. If you are interested in helping with this and want to come on this Saturday's conference call where it will be the first item on the agenda, contact us at the e mail here, it's also on the right of the blog.

FFWP Blog hopes that enough resources will develop to allow a real coordinating body to be set up to run this campaign. We do not have the resources to do this work. We also believe that this should be a democratic coordinating committee that should guide and organize this work. 

Download this Duluth Labor Body Publication here.

The conclusion that FFWP has drawn that in the past some of us were much too unconditional when trying to see what events lay ahead was emphasized again.  As the Irish poet said: “Things Fall Apart. The Center Cannot Hold”. It is not possible to be too precise either in tempo or in form as to how this falling apart will unfold.

FFWP believes there should be a genuine democratic campaign based on just two p

(1) Open the AFL-CIO AIFLD Files. 

(2) Take this call to the rank and file of the unions, the workplaces, the schools and the colleges. Only by building a movement from the bottom up will the AFL-CIO leaders be forced to open the files.

The other main topic on the Conference Call was the recent political developments where the Republicans who were seen as supporters of Trump were defeated in race after race. You would need to have blood of stone not to rejoice when seeing the transgender candidate defeat the self proclaimed Number one homophobe in Virginia.  FFWP has always said that Trump and company are the whip of the counter-revolution and that at times when there was no fighting mass leadership it was unfortunate but at such times a new movement could only develop when it felt the lash of this whip.  Trump and his Republican backers and enablers and on the economic foreign policy and de-regulating front, the Democrats, constitute this whip also.

In the recent elections in particular but also in the exposure after exposure of rapists and sexual predators and pedophiles such as Moore, Spacey, Weinstein etc., there is the rising of the women. The women and all who have been abused are now speaking out.  On every FFWP conference call since they began, we have had as a main item on the agenda the need to fight against the special oppression of women and the developments on this front both in the US and internationally. (See previous notes on conference calls here) We have been trying to ensure that we do not make the mistakes of the left in general where insufficient attention has been paid to this special oppression. In our discussion on this issue a number of points were made. One was the staggering completeness of the black out of news and discussion on one particular point and the most important point in relation to ending the special oppression, sexual abuse and exploitation. 

Every faction of the mass capitalist and liberal media and it has to be said the left outlets as well which speak of the need to end this abuse, puts forward the one ‘solution’.  This is that this issue must be talked about. This issue must be brought out for all to see.  The abusers must be exposed. It is 100% correct that this must be done. Full support must be given to this. The exposure of the abusers is increasingly happening due to the provocation of the Trump fueled vicious anti-women atmosphere. Trump riding out the Hollywood tape exposure where he boasted of assaulting women and getting away with it has emboldened the backward reactionary elements. But it has also done something else. It has evoked a rage amongst women, and also some men, a rage, a determination that something has to be done.

So we have courageous woman after courageous woman speaking out. We see this with the case of the degenerate predator and racist, Moore in Alabama. This is inspiring.   These women who are speaking out against Moore, all women who are speaking out, and in some cases men and boys also, must be recognized for the heroines and heroes that they are. In Moore’s case it should be noted that the women taking the stand are not celebrity women like those in Hollywood. Of course it is very commendable that the Hollywood women are speaking out also, but in Moore’s case these are working class women without the power and access to publicity and money for expensive lawyers to the same degree. This wave of women standing up and saying enough is enough, I am speaking out, “Me Too”, Squeal on the Pig, as it is known in France, is taking place in many countries in the world. A shift in mass consciousness is taking place.

We support 100% the call to talk openly about this social epidemic of sexual abuse but it should not stop there as a mere conversation piece for tabloids and the mass media. The issue is one of power. Who has the power in society and in the workplace? Either the bosses, the rich, the famous have the power or the working class has the power. What is left out of every news article, every news program, and every talk show is this: The need for workers in the workplace to organize into democratic militant unions to fight for power in the workplace and against the special oppression. 

One recent report about staffers in Congress and the harassment they suffer in that workplace makes this very clear. 1,500 staffers recently signed a letter to the leadership of the House and Senate urging that this leadership, these bosses, put in place mandatory sexual harassment training. Understanding the hopelessness of their letter appealing to the harassers and their colleagues who cover for them, the 1,500 staffers explained their action by saying that they “have no idea where to go when they experienced harassment”. This is exactly the point. If the staffers were organized in their own union, with their own democratically elected leadership and with the ability to strike if necessary they could draw up their demands, present them to their employers and fight for their demands and for a contract which they could enforce by militant action. The same is true for all workers. To fight harassment and special oppression it is necessary to organize into democratic fighting unions. The movie Thelma and Louise was very popular with women as it portrayed woman as tough and not putting up with the crap women have to deal with but they didn’t respond by organizing, they committed suicide. This was no accident, it was consciously thought through.

There has never been a time when such organizing has been more possible. Women have moved into the paid workforce more than ever before. Women, men transgender, gay, straight all are mixed together in the workplaces more than ever before. FFWP conference call committed itself to use its resources to try to get the word out that in this uprising of the women and all specially oppressed groups against special oppression and abuse, every effort must be made to organize into fighting democratic unions.  Women in the media and celebrity women dominate this discussion. The solution these women and their bosses see for themselves is to get a lawyer who will fight their case. This is not the solution for working class women. The solution for working class women and all specially oppressed groups is to organize into democratic fighting unions. 

The owners of the mass media, the owners of most major corporations, see that they have to take some action against the harassment and abuse. The paid workforce is now so diverse that they have to act. But they are desperate to make sure that the idea of organizing into democratic fighting unions does not in any way enter into this movement that is taking place, into this discussion that is taking place, into this change in consciousness that is taking place. This you see would cut into their profits. The gender wage gap for union members is half that for non-union members. Women in unions make on average $200 per week more than women not in unions. This is what the bosses see and why they use all their propaganda machine, the media, political parties and the pulpit in most cases, to prevent any talk of organizing in unions to be part of this rising of the women, workers in general and all oppressed groups.

This reality must be recognized and every time we watch a news program or read an article on this
Union contract clause on Discrimination and harassment
issue------ remember to ask ourselves why the need to organize into democratic fighting unions not raised. Think about this when you watch or read all the media including the liberal media. The determination all of them have in keeping the alternative of organizing into unions out of the discussion is striking. Organize in unions. Win contracts with not only wage increases, but with equal pay for equal work clauses and also anti discrimination and anti assault and abuse clauses. Weinstein had a contract between himself and his corporation. It had a clause which allowed him to assault women as long as he paid the costs of settling any claims. If Weinstein can have a contract to protect him from his own crimes, women and all workers must have a union contract which protects them from the bosses’ crimes, the crimes of the people with power.

FFWP conference call again turned its attention to the union leadership. Here we have the rising of women and all people oppressed for their gender or sexual orientation and where are the union leaders and the 14 million strong movement they dominate?  Where were they on the women’s marches? Absent. They refused to organize their members as a body, their 14 plus million members to take on the main organizing of the women’s marches. The living standards and working conditions of their own members are being driven backwards.  There should have been waves of union banners and union women and men present. This would have altered the class content of the event and influenced the demands

And today when women and all oppressed minorities are rising up they are again absent. They should be mobilizing all the resources of the unions to explain how organizing in the workplaces is crucial to this battle, they should be mobilizing their forces to organize the tens of millions of women who are demanding change. The strategy should be to unite them with their members whose conditions of life are declining, men and women, all genders and ethnic groups together in the struggle for a decent life.

They should be recognizing that it is the lowest paid women who suffer the most, who have the least power, who are least able to throw back the abusers. And these are the majority of women. It is an utter disgrace that the top union leaders will not lead on this. It is a combination of complete lack of imagination of what is possible and a real fear that if they went out and organized millions of new members, especially women members, demands would be placed on them that they are unwilling to fight for and that they will be accused by the employers of being “unrealistic”.  Women would naturally demand changes not only in how they are treated but also demand increases in wages and benefits and child care facilities and free health – the lot.  People will demand what they need not what is acceptable to the employers or their friends in the Democratic Party.

We have to add here the AFL-CIO leadership’s criminal betrayal of the Native American people who faced a civil war in North Dakota defending their land and the environment on behalf of all of us. Sections of the AFL-CIO leadership openly opposed this struggle. Others supported it but very mildly.

The many struggles and campaigns that are arising terrify the AFL-CIO leadership as the thought of a major strike victory does as they are going along with the bosses’, the capitalist system’s demands that living standards must be cut. Such a new movement into unions would also threaten the privileges of the leaders of the unions. This would never do!

While pointing out and fighting against the concessionary policies of the union leaders, FFWP conference call agreed that rank and file movements must be built. Like the Duluth Labor Body has led on the issue of the opening of the AIFLD Files, local labor bodies, union locals, spontaneously set up groups in the workplaces, can be set up and can take the lead on this issue. March on the women’s marches on the demonstrations against the oppression with your union local’s banner, if you are not in a union make up a banner identifying your workplace, and march behind that, and from the march, demonstration whatever, march straight on down to the local union hall and demand to be signed up and elect your local leaders there and then. This is the way to do it. Fight sexism, fight sexual abuse by organizing into democratic fighting unions.

There was a brief discussion on identity politics. It was agreed that the fight against all special oppressions had to be fought at all times. It was also agreed that while important gains could be made on these fronts such as was the case with the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and the women’s rights movement of that period that these special oppressions were inseparable from capitalism and capitalism had to be fought as part of these fights. It was also agreed that the working class could not be united and could not defeat the bosses and build a new society unless the working class movement aggressively fought against the special oppression marginalized groups face, fought racism, sexism discrimination against the disabled etc. It is in the interest of the working class to fight on these issues as it is in the interest of the movements which focus on these issues to be part of and fight united as part of the working class. 

Time ran put and there was little time for further discussion.

It was pointed out that FFWP conference Calls have been emphasizing that US imperialism is in an economic, military, political and environmental crisis. There was no time to discuss this but an article in the New York Times from Bret Stephens on November 11th was partially along the same lines. He wrote: “Low growth became the norm for the better part of a decade. We fight wars we don’t know how to win and rue the consequences of action (Iraq) and inaction (Syria) alike. We inhabit a culture we despise and see no way of improving. Congress is paralyzed. The parties are broken. The President is a dolt.” He left out the coming world recession or slump and forgot the small detail of the catastrophe of climate change. But for a journalist blinded by his capitalist loyalties he is stumbling in this direction. 

It was mentioned that we should keep in mind two factors that would have a huge affect on the world situation and world consciousness in the period ahead. The timing of these events cannot be predicted.

One is the new world wide economic recession that will hit, perhaps a world slump. This will wipe the grin of the faces of the smug arrogant capitalist classes and their mouthpieces. It will also convince tens and tens of millions of workers that action has to be taken, not for them, but by them. A new era will open up.

The other major event that will come about is that we will see huge spontaneous movements of the working class as a class. France 1968 was mentioned when 10 million workers spontaneously occupied their workplaces, colleges and schools and elected workers’ committees to run these places of work and study. The statement by the “Council for Maintaining of the Occupations” Paris July 1968 was read out on the FFWP Conference Call. It stated: “The Workers’ Councils are manifestly the only solution, since all other forms of revolutionary struggle have ended in the opposite of what they wanted”. There will be such movements in the years ahead as the working class begins to recover from the bruisings and confusions of the last few decades.  Class controlled and ran that city for five days.  They can be easily found on the Internet.

We advise workers to read the minutes of the workers committee that ran the Seattle General Strike in 1919 when the working class controlled the city for five days: “ In other cases, workers acted on their own initiative to create new institutions. Milk wagon drivers, after being denied the right by their employers to keep certain dairies open, established a distribution system of 35 neighborhood milk stations. A system of food distribution was also established, which throughout the strike committee distributed as many as 30,000 meals each day. Strikers paid twenty-five cents per meal, and the general public paid thirty-five cents. Beef stew, spaghetti, bread, and coffee were offered on an all-you-can-eat basis”

Explosive events lie ahead. However in this regard the Conference Call repeated its belief that a nuclear war between the US and North Korea was extremely unlikely. It was also mentioned but there was no time to discuss that Trump was getting into deeper and deeper water and shocks in that area were also very likely. The attacks on him at the weekend by Brennan and Clapper were not insignificant.  The view that was shared in the past that we were at the beginning of the fragmenting of the two capitalist party monopoly in the US was stated again. It was also mentioned that great shocks are inherent in the world situation, such as from the affects of climate change, nuclear wars or incidents where crazed groups might get their hands on nuclear weapons.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Grenfell five months on: the trauma continues

Reprinted from  Left Horizons


By Mick Brooks, Ealing Southall CLP, personal capacity

On June 14th a terrible fire swept Grenfell Tower in North Kensington. About 80 people are thought to have died. This was not just an accident. As John McDonnell said, these people were “murdered by political decision.”

Kensington and Chelsea is one of the richest boroughs in the world. Grenfell Tower is part of a working-class enclave in north Kensington around Latimer Road underground station. Although the residents of the Tower were council tenants, the overwhelmingly Tory ‘Royal Borough’ did not directly manage the tower block. The council passed it on to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) to run. The tenants, organised as the Grenfell Action Group, published a website outlining the inadequacies and neglect of the KCTMO over many years and warned of the impending catastrophe.

The Grenfell Action Group commented in 2016: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders...Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.”

There have been warning signs of disaster. The Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009, in which six people died, was followed up by a damning coroner’s report. The coroner indicted the council for botched (sub-contracted) renovation work and a refusal to organise proper inspections and strongly urged that fire regulations needed updating. His recommendations were ignored.

Grenfell Tower had recently been covered in cladding. It is thought that the cladding actually helped spread the fire throughout the block. There is a choice between plastic cladding and fire-retardant, but plastic is cheaper. A fire-retardant core in the cladding for the whole of Grenfell Tower would only have cost an extra £500. Also, gas pipes that were recently installed were not boxed in with fireproof materials.

The refurbishment at Grenfell was carried out by a firm called Rydon. As is usual these days there was a chain of subcontractors, all desperate to save money at all costs and nobody was responsible for the safety and security of the refurbishment as a whole.

Jeremy Corbyn has recently called for the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his forthcoming budget to set aside £1bn for sprinklers to be fitted in all high-rise accommodation. Every resident of a high rise in Britain must have been scared stiff by the Grenfell catastrophe and the way the fire raced through the Tower. Watch this space, but at present the Tories seem more concerned with tax cuts for the rich rather than saving lives.

The Tory attitude was epitomised by a speech by Boris Johnson in 2009, where he asserted, “Health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people.” Johnson as London Mayor closed three fire stations near the Grenfell site. When queried about this, he elegantly told his critics to, “Get stuffed.” The Tories are obsessed with scrapping health and safety rules which they regard as a form of ‘red tape’, holding back the entrepreneurial instincts of business. Scrapping red tape is part of the neoliberal agenda, along with getting the cheapest deal at all costs. The Tories want an unregulated capitalist ‘get rich quick’ race to the bottom, where standards are shredded and working people inevitably suffer the consequences.

Only a handful of families have been properly rehoused – just ten by mid October. Many survivors are still being put up in hotels. Children mope around in hotel rooms with no toys and nowhere to play. With no cooking facilities, people have lived for months on takeouts. Not surprisingly, they feel forgotten.

There is massive trauma among the survivors and in all the surrounding area.  It is reckoned that 11,000 people may suffer mental health issues for years to come. People are understandably reluctant to be rehoused in tower blocks after the conflagration. On the other hand, they need to live in the borough, so that children are still in contact with their friends at school and everyone stays within reach of their relatives and support groups.

The Tory Council has shown a flinty indifference towards the plight of people in North Kensington. There are more than a thousand unoccupied homes in the borough, many left empty by foreign oligarchs as bolt holes. It should not be too much of a problem to satisfy the needs of the homeless – if Tory councillors cared about everyone, not just the rich. The Guardian on September 20th showed empty housing association homes on the Sutton estate in Chelsea. They could have been used to house Grenfell survivors, but the developers think it’s more important to demolish them and build luxury accommodation on the site.

To add insult to injury, the council, which showed incredible indifference and incompetence in the wake of the fire, has decided it can lash out £1 million on 28 PR professionals to burnish the reputation of the borough.

In the wake of the disaster, Jeremy Corbyn correctly called for emergency action to house those made homeless by the fire by opening up empty luxury flats in the wealthy part of the borough. The Economist sternly warned, “British civilisation is based on respect for private property.” It is a pity that ‘British civilisation’ is not based on greater respect for working people’s lives.

The Tory government has set up an inquiry into the causes of the fire chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick. But the terms of reference are to be framed as narrowly as possible, focusing on technical issues, such as the construction of the cladding. Above all, it will try to sweep under the carpet the systematic ignoring of working class tenants which is the essential background to the tragedy.

Disgracefully KCTMO, as an Arms Length Management Organisation, is a private body and can claim ‘commercial confidentiality’ against claims to investigate their conduct under the Freedom of Information Act. So ‘commercial confidentiality’ is more important than finding out why 80 people died and preventing it happening again.

The Grenfell Tower fire is more than just a tragedy for the victims and their friends and relatives. It is an indictment of a Tory council, a Tory government and a system that puts profits first and people nowhere.

Monday, November 13, 2017

In Defense of Marxism, Understanding Dialectics

Karl Marx
Following on Michael Roberts' piece on Marxist economics we are sharing this excellent commentary on dialectics from Michael Zweig. It was originally published in Jewish Currents.

I want to make a personal appeal to not only my co-workers but any worker reading this blog who is struggling to understand how the world works to read this. Marx has been demonized by the 1%, the capitalist class for obvious reasons, so there is this to overcome, but also, our traditions of militancy and socialism and what it really means have been undermined. And lastly, so many academics who study the subject covered below are literally incapable of explaining it to working class people in a way we can understand. This does not mean that we can understand dialectics simply by reading this one piece, hell when I first heard the term it scared me. But it is mostly terms and phrases that are foreign to us, that we are not used to that are the obstacle. These are not obstacles that cannot be easily overcome.  There also has to be discussion on the subject; it's no different to physical exercise, we have to build up to it.  We have conference calls each week where we discuss events, politics and all things that affect working class people and the natural world in which we live.   That's really what politics is.

If you are interested in participating in these contact us at the e mail address on the right or though our Facebook page. We can have one on this topic. Thanks to Michael Zweig for sending us this. The quote from the bus driver is classic. Richard Mellor Facts For Working People

In Defense of Marxism

by Michael Zweig
From the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
To read Sam Friedman’s recent “Why I’m (Still) a Marxist” in Jewish Currents, click here. To read Lawrence Bush’s “Why I’m Not (Still) a Marxist,” click here. To read about Jewish Currents’ communist history, click here.

UNTIL I RETIRED in 2016, I taught an undergraduate course on Marxist economics at SUNY Stony Brook for many years. Each first day of class, in addition to sharing the usual logistical information, I wrote four names on the blackboard: Einstein, Darwin, Freud, and Marx.

Each, I explained, had transformed human knowledge and ways of thinking, so that it is impossible to address their areas of interest properly without acknowledging their discoveries. To understand the physical world, one has to appreciate Einstein; to understand the natural world, one has to know Darwin; to understand the human psyche, one has to account for Freud’s insights; and to understand society, it is essential to go through Marx.

For each of these great thinkers, some of what they wrote has turned out to be wrong, and none left us with complete knowledge of their subjects. Still, to take Marx as our example, it is not possible to develop an understanding of capitalist society without absorbing into our thinking much in his work that is profoundly true and remains relevant to our times.

The common complaint that “Marxist” countries have proved Marx’s theories to be wrong because those countries failed to create the workers’ paradise communists promised is misguided. Yet this approach is present in both Jewish Currents essays on Marx in the Summer 2017 issue. It is central to Lawrence Bush’s renunciation of Marxism, and figures also in Sam Friedman’s acknowledgement, in his defense of Marx, that 20th-century communist societies had many problems.

These countries experienced failing economies and did not have even a semblance of democratic accountability to discipline their governments and ruling communist parties. They did not allow their people the freedom of mind and spirit that undergird creativity. I saw all this myself when visiting family in Poland in 1961 and 1963, and traveling in the Soviet Union as a guest of the Communist Party in 1974. In Kiev, I asked a city bus driver (in German, our common language) if he was a communist. He laughed uproariously and exclaimed: “No!  I am not a communist. I am a worker!

Yet that whole line of argument, and the realities on which it is based, are completely irrelevant to an evaluation of Marx’s thinking. Marx wrote almost nothing about socialist society. Whatever he did write, in the Communist Manifesto or Critique of the Gotha Program or other places, was purely speculative, since Marx had no socialist society to analyze. He wrote almost exclusively and most deeply about capitalism, basing his work in meticulous examination of the capitalist labor process and its economic and social arrangements. His three volumes of Capital, three volumes of the Theory of Surplus Value, and the Grundrisse all analyzed capitalism as it operated around him in the mid-19th century. Marx also deeply understood and critiqued the English political economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and others who developed the intellectual framework for explaining and defending the capitalist system as it emerged and triumphed over feudalism and its intellectual framework.

IN HIS REJECTION of Marxism, Bush dismisses such basic elements of Marx’s thought as the central role of class struggle in history, the concept of surplus value, and the method of dialectical materialism. I rise in defense of these elements in the following brief observations.

Marx, as a young philosopher, brought together two thought traditions that were thousands of years old: materialism and dialectics. By infusing materialism — the belief that matter precedes spirit and that an objective material world exists outside the human mind and sense perceptions — with dialectics, Marx was able to analyze society in entirely new ways. One cannot understand his analyses without appreciating this basic method of thought.

I will leave the defense of materialism to another time, confident that most JC readers are largely comfortable with it. Dialectics, on the other hand, could probably use a bit of explanation. Four observations are fundamental to it. First is the claim that the basic state of nature and society is change. Society is in motion. Stability is transitory and always pregnant with change. The most important problem is to understand the processes that drive the changes, to see in the apparent stability of the moment the dynamics that can transform it in one way or another

Second, the basis of change is internal to what is changing. External forces can be important, but they
operate by affecting internal dynamics, which are determinative. No “outside agitator” can come into a plant to organize a union, go into a town to organize a civil rights movement, travel to the Finland Station to organize a revolution, or, for that matter, enter into another’s personal relationship to bust it up, without a deep appreciation of the internal conditions of the shop, town, country, or marriage. And no manager, sheriff, tsar, or bullying partner can long hold the status quo while blind to the conditions in which s/he is enmeshed.

Third, the internal dynamics that guide change are best understood as contradictions. These are sometimes called unities of opposites, suggesting something more than the colloquial use of “contradiction” to mean opposite and irreconcilable propositions like cold and hot, or good and bad. Dialectics turns away from the dualisms that are so common, like mind and body, politics and economics, race and class, theory and practice, matter and energy. Dialectics proposes complex dynamics that unite in one process of change these opposite, yet not fully independent, elements.

Marx analyzes capitalist production as a process uniting the opposite but deeply intertwined social relations and private forces of production. He explores how, while completely distinct in certain ways, they also engage and shape each other to transform capitalist production over time. Marx describes history as a process uniting the opposite, yet deeply intertwined and mutually determined, working and capitalist classes, and the mutually determining, distinct yet not separate, economic base and political superstructure of society. Marx’s insights into capitalism are only superficially understood and too easily dismissed without appreciation of the dialectical meaning of contradiction, clarified by a careful reading of Marx.

Fourth, dialectics proposes that change is not a smooth process but one of periodic leaps that follow relatively long periods of more subtle change. We know this from such colloquial images as “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” or the enraged “That’s IT! I’m leaving” that marks a sharp break in a relationship after a gradual accumulation of grievances. Dialectics proposes that quantitative changes lead, at a certain point, to a qualitative change in the basic situation. Stephen Jay Gould expressed this in his understanding of evolution as a process of punctuated equilibrium. In Marx, economic crises are breaks that arise from gradually accumulating changes in underlying conditions that, as they gather, may not be apparent.

It may seem obvious today that economics and politics are connected, or that economic questions are central to history’s unfolding, or that sociology and economics can be looked at in isolation for only so long before it becomes necessary to unite them in the study of society’s contradictions. But these insights originated with Marx and were largely unknown or ignored before him. Rather than seeing these fields of study as wholly separate, contemporary social science is developing by exploring the mutual determination of its many aspects, breaking down the silos of traditional academic departments.

I AM A MARXIST because I value these developments. I am a Marxist because I have found that the method of dialectical materialism, as applied to society, is more fruitful of understanding and a better guide to progressive practice than any other way of thinking I have encountered.

I am also a Marxist because I have found the concepts of exploitation and surplus value useful in understanding the capitalist economy in which I have grown up. The idea of an economic surplus is unquestionably relevant and simple. Surplus is everything produced beyond the survival requirements of the producers. These requirements are determined by customary living standards that result in part from the ability of producers to win from their exploiters whatever comforts might go beyond the biological minimum for bare subsistence.

Classes arise when one group of people, not the producers, systematically take for themselves the surplus produced by others, the producers. This taking, which Marx called exploitation, is enforced through violent means and organized and explained in various ways in different societies, all designed to justify why takers may properly take from those who make.

Marx was not the first to discover classes, nor the first to say that capitalists take the surplus produced by workers as the basis of their profits. Adam Smith taught us all that decades before Marx was born. But Marx was able to explain the particular mechanisms by which the exploitation process works in capitalism, in part by explaining that surplus in capitalist societies takes the form of surplus value.

Bush is correct to say that classes are relatively new in human society. That’s because the human productivity required to create any surplus is relatively recent. Bush takes this recent arrival of classes to reject Marx’s claim that class struggle is the motor force of history and that the working class is the most transformative element in capitalist dynamics. Whatever governed the development of human society in the hundred millennia before we could produce a surplus and classes came into being, it seems nevertheless reasonable to think that social dynamics changed qualitatively when that time finally arrived and became Marx’s field of study.

If the working class is not the main agent of change, what is? Bush is silent on the matter, but as an activist completely fed up with the capitalism I see around me, I require an answer. The working class is, after all, the majority of the population in the U.S. and around the developed capitalist world. It seems to me that any hope for a democratic transition to post-capitalist life must start with the identification and mobilization of that class. This is not wishful thinking or an assertion just to have an answer. It is based on Marx’s analysis of the material operations of capitalism and their economic, political, and cultural effects.

We live today in an era of capitalism triumphant across the planet. While capitalism today is radically different from capitalism of the mid-19th century, and capitalism in the United States is different in important ways from capitalism in China or Argentina or France, all these economies today are still capitalist. This is not the time to discard Marx. It is a time to develop Marxist analysis more deeply.

Marx had no actual post-capitalist society to evaluate. But now we do have those experiences, which should be subject to Marxist analysis with the tools appropriate to the investigation of capitalism. Ironically, Marxism has had a stunted development in capitalist and communist countries alike. In capitalist societies, the ruling class suppressed it as dangerously threatening. In communist societies, the ruling communist parties subordinated free economic thinking to the political needs of the party, subjecting economic claims to strict, and sometimes deadly, ideological control that broke the connection between theory and actual social experience.

Now is the time to invigorate Marxist study for concrete analysis of the new “precarious” labor process; of globalization; of 20th-century socialist experiments; of all that has come after Marx but is still usefully subject to a Marxist analysis. We need a rigorous investigation of actual conditions and relationships among capitals, between capital and labor, among sections of the working class.

I am a Marxist because I believe that the dialectical materialist method and the analytic categories Marx proposed offer the best hope of understanding what is going on in ways that suggest the effective transformative politics we need to get beyond the terrible mess we are in.

Michael Zweig is emeritus professor of economics and founding director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at SUNY Stony Brook. His most recent book is The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (Cornell University ILR Press, 2nd ed. 2012). Reach him at michaelzweig1942@gmail.com.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Value, class and Capital

by Michael Roberts

This year’s Historical Materialism conference in London focused on the Russian revolution as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of Marx’s Volume One of Capital.  Naturally, I concentrated
on presentations that flowed from the latter rather than the former.

Indeed, the main plenary at HM was on Marx’s theory of value and class – and the annual winner of the Isaac Deutscher book prize announced at the HM was William Clare Roberts’ Marx’s Inferno, which seemed to be a ‘political theory’ of capital seen through the prism of Dante’s famous poem.  Maybe, more on that later.

The plenary speakers were Moishe Postone, Michael Heinrich and David Harvey – an impressive line-up of heavyweight Marxist academics.  Postone is co-director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory and faculty member of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies.  His 30-min speech was difficult to understand, being couched in polysyllabic academic jargon. But I think the gist of it was that we cannot consider the class struggle under capitalism as just between exploited workers and capitalists any longer, as it now involves race, creed and gender and a new populism of the right.  So we need to rethink Marx’s theory of class.

For this reason, “orthodox Marxism” is a hindrance.  The old meaning of class struggle is not essential.  As for Marx’s theory of value, it is specific to capitalism, but it has changed and exploitation is now over the amount of time we all have rather than over the production of surplus value.  Now I think that is the gist of what he said, but frankly, I cannot be sure because Postone’s exposition was so incomprehensible.

The next speaker was Michael Heinrich, the well-known German expert of Marx’s Capital and close researcher of Marx’s original writings in the so-called MEGA project.  Now readers of this blog will know that Heinrich and I have debated before on whether Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit is logical and whether Marx himself dropped it; and we published on this issue.

In his presentation, Heinrich agreed with Postone that value is a category specific to capitalism, but he reckons that Marx changed his conception of both class and value over his lifetime.  So it is not possible to pull quotes from Marx like random rocks in a stone quarry.  Each quote must be placed in its context and time.  For example, Marx’s definition of class struggle as found in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 differs with his later definitions of class at the end of Capital Volume 3.

Similarly, Marx’s concept of value changed over time.  Early on, value is seen to come from the production process and the exploitation of labour power by capital.  Later on, Marx revised this view to argue that value was only created at the point of exchange into money.  Similarly, Marx thought that a rising organic composition of capital would lead to a fall in the rate of profit, but later he recognised that more machines could raise the rate of surplus value and so the rate of profit may not fall.

Heinrich has the advantage over us in reading Marx’s original words in German, but they remind his interpretations of Marx’s meaning. Heinrich, in effect, argues that value is not a material substance, namely the expenditure of human energy in labour that can be measured in labour time, but only exists in the form of money.  In my view and in the view of many other Marxists, this denies the role of exploitation of labour in production, which comes first.  Yes, you can only see value in the form of money, but then you cannot see electricity until the light comes on, but that does not mean it does not exist before the light glows.  For an excellent critique of Heinrich’s interpretation of Marx’s value theory, see G Carchedi’s book, Behind the Crisis, chapter 2).

Does any of this matter, you might say?  Are we not just discussing how many angels are there on the head of a needle, as medieval Catholic theologians did?  Well, yes.  But I think there are some consequences from deciding that value is only created in exchange and also that class struggle is not really centred (any longer) on workers and capitalists in the production process.  For me, such theories lead to the idea that crises under capitalism are caused by faults in the ‘circulation of money and credit’ and not in the contradictions of capitalism between productivity and profitability in the production of surplus value, as I think Marx argued.  And the revisions of the nature of class struggle could lead to the removal of the working class as the agent for socialist change.

There is a similar problem with David Harvey’s presentation.  Again, Harvey has made a massive contribution to expounding and defending Marx’s ideas as expressed in Capital to explain the workings of the capitalist mode of production.  I have presented my critique of Harvey’s more novel propositions on this blog before and he has also criticised my ‘orthodox’ view.

In his presentation, Harvey again looked to be ‘innovatory’ in an attempt to raise new categories in Capital.  Yes, value is ‘phantom-like’ (can’t be seen), but objective (i.e. real) and only appears as money.  But Harvey wants us to consider new terms like ‘anti-value’.  What does Harvey mean by this?  Apparently, money and credit can be created without the backing of value.  Marx called this ‘fictitious capital’ because it was not real capital based on the production of value and surplus value by the exploitation of labour, but merely the title to assets that may or may not be supported by new value.  In that sense, investment in financial assets produces fictitious profits.

Now Harvey wants to change the name of this category to ‘anti-value’ because he thinks that in doing so it can show that there are obstacles to the flow of capital (value) in the realisation of value.  Thus crises can originate or be caused from breaks in the circuit of capital outside the production process itself.  Similarly, Harvey came up with what he called ‘value regimes’.  ‘World money’ as represented by gold no longer controls the value of fiat money (money ‘printed’ and backed by governments), particularly after the US dollar came off the gold standard in 1971.  So now we have ‘value regimes’ like the dollar area, the euro and more recently, the Chinese yuan.  Again, I think all this was saying was that various economic national state powers are trying gain the biggest shares of global value and in so far as they are successful, their currencies will be stronger relative to others over time.  I failed to see why we needed new terms or concepts to ‘explain’ this.  But there we are.

Of course, things have changed over the last 150 years since Marx formulated his critique of capitalism and political economy and published Capital.  Capitalism is now global, finance capital has expanded dramatically, imperialist power blocs have developed and capital has become ever more concentrated and centralised.  But it seems to me that the laws of motion in the capitalist mode of production have not so fundamentally changed that we need new categories to explain them; or we need to drop Marx’s basic value theory or his main law of the contradiction between productivity and profitability to explain crises and instead search for other explanations in the money and credit circuit.
If we do that, then we also reduce the role of the proletariat as the main agency for revolutionary change.  And in my view, it still is, if only by the absence of success in the last 150 years. 

Revolutions based on the peasantry (China) or isolated in one country (Russia) have not delivered socialism even if they have removed capitalism, for a while.  Only the global proletariat in unity can do that.

The idea that Marx’s theory of value and crises is out of date and needed amending was the theme of my own paper at HM.  I quoted John Maynard Keynes in commenting that Capital was “an obsolete textbook which I know to be not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world”.  I wanted to defend Marx against this view of Keynes, which is still prevalent not only in bourgeois analysis, but also in recent biographies of Marx by former Marxist historians who claim that Marx was a man of 19th century with little to tell us about the 21st.

My paper above all aimed to show that Keynesian ideas have nothing in common with Marx’s critique of capitalism and are thoroughly designed to restore capitalism in crisis and make it work better.  HM London November 2017 This, I think, is important, because Keynesian theory and policies dominate the minds of the labour movement everywhere, as though they were a workable and radical alternative, while Marxist theory is ignored.

Of course, this is no accident because if you accept Marx’s critique of capitalism, you are compelled to require a revolutionary transformation of the capitalist mode of production – something that remains frightening, not just to the leaders of the labour movement, but also to many activists who fear the risks involved in revolutionary change.

My paper argued that, contrary to Keynes’ view, the labour theory of value provides a logical and empirically verifiable explanation of the capitalist mode of production, while, in contrast, the mainstream ‘marginalist’ theory is false, indeed unfalsifiable.  Marx’s great discovery about capitalism is that it is a system of exploitation of labour power to appropriate value produced by workers as surplus value or profit through sale on the market for commodities.  That is where profit comes from.  Keynes, like all mainstream economics, denied profit is the result of unpaid labour.  For him, profit is the marginal return on investment and justified to the capitalist.

Marx’s theory of crises means that rising productivity of labour through increased investment in means of production relative to labour will lead to the contradictory fall in profitability, engendering recurring crises.  Keynes, instead, saw slumps or depressions as due to a collapse in the ‘animal spirits’ of entrepreneurs and/or to too high interest rates charged by financiers. Crises are a ‘technical problem’ that can be corrected by boosting the ‘confidence’ of capitalists and lowering interest rates, or in the extreme, getting governments to spend to prime the pump of private industry.

For Keynes, once such measures are used to deal with these occasional slumps, then capitalism will be set fair for a golden future where hours of toil will fall dramatically with the use of technology; scarcity and poverty would disappear; and the main problem would be how to use our leisure time.  Well, now 80 years after Keynes argued this, more than 2bn people are in dire poverty, inequality has never been greater, technology is threatening to take away many jobs and the average working life has not fallen at all.  Moreover, the Keynesian prescriptions of easy money (QE) and government spending have signally failed to revive capitalism in the major economies since the Great Recession.  The Long Depression, as I have called it, remains.

Indeed, in my session, veteran French Marxist Francois Chesnais presented his thoughts from his book, Finance Capital Today, which was short listed for the Deutscher prize.  Chesnais argued that the current depression would never end.  The rate of profit globally is still falling and global debt is steadily rising.  The Great Recession has not ‘cleansed’ the system. And now global warming threatens to destroy the planet.

Now I am not quite so ‘pessimistic’ (or is it optimistic?) that capitalism is in its last throes.  But it is possible that capitalism could sink into ‘barbarism’ or the collapse of living standards, as the Roman slave empire did after 400AD, without being replaced by a new mode of production.  As Carchedi put it in a recent paper at the Capital.150 symposium, ‘the old is dying but the new cannot be born’ (Gramsci).  But capitalism could also stagger on with some revival in profitability after new slumps and the renewed opportunity to exploit new sources of labour in Africa and the periphery.  It will require the action of the global working class to achieve socialism.  It won’t come just because capitalism flounders economically.

Marx’s Capital provides us with the clearest and most compelling analysis of the nature of the capitalist mode of production and also its irreconcilable contradictions that show why capitalism is transient and cannot last forever, contrary to what the apologists for capital claim.

I don’t think we need to invent new and often confusing terms or categories to explain modern capitalism 150 years since Capital was published; or deny the role of exploitation in the creation of value at the heart of capitalism; or reduce the role of the global proletariat in ending it.