Kliman versus Harvey: Seven years later, another phony debate among Marxists

by Jehu

were-not-leaving-finance-and-the-ifsc-may-day-fest-2014-8-638One of the biggest influences on my study of labor theory in recent years was this short 2008 article: “The market no longer has all the answers” in, of all places, the Financial Times. In the article, Michael Skapinker announced, with just a hint of schadenfreude, that neoliberalism had finally fallen and couldn’t get up:

“One of the most arresting comments of the past week came from Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank. ‘I no longer believe in the market’s self-healing power,’ he said in a speech in Frankfurt.

You may dismiss this as namby-pamby Euro-speak from the Swiss-born head of a German bank, except that no one, anywhere, appears to believe in the market’s self-healing power any more.”

That was the good news.

However it appeared to Skapinker at the time that the capitalists, despite facing the greatest test of the post-war period, were lucky to have the Left as their enemy. Even in the middle of what would turn out to be the worst crisis since the Great Depression, the Left had no alternatives to capitalism:

“If the Thatcher-Reagan era is at an end, what might replace it? Trawling leftwing and far-left websites is instructive, because they clearly have not got a clue either.

They are not demanding the nationalisation of the banking system, perhaps because that has already happened, either explicitly or implicitly. But they do not seem to be calling for anything else.

In The Nation, the leftwing US magazine, Nicholas von Hoffman lays into ‘our crooked, avaricious, heedless and duplicitous financial system’, but admits: ‘We are in unknown territory facing situations that have never arisen before and taking measures that have never been tried.’

Surely Britain’s Socialist Workers party can do better than that? Not really. ‘Now more than ever, we need to present a different vision of how the world could be run – one in which the needs of the many come before the greed of the few.’ Like what, exactly? Even in crisis, capitalism remains fortunate in its enemies.”

The capitalists, argued Skapinker, were fortunate because the Left had no idea how to address the crisis either; it had no answers and no realistic alternatives. All of its old solutions, whether based on the Keynesianism model or the Soviet model, had failed long before the crisis and 20-30 years later the Left had nothing.

Kliman’s apology

Kliman responded to that opinion piece with his own disjointed ruminations. As he continues to believe today, he thought the roots of the present crisis could be traced to the falling rate of profit. But after devoting almost 250 pages to the subject of capitalist crises and their causes, Kliman arrived at a profound admission: Nothing he had written offered any real answers for the Left:

“I am painfully aware that these reflections are not yet an answer to the ‘Like what, exactly?’ question. Before events of the last couple of years compelled me to turn my attention to an analysis of the economic crisis, I had been exploring that question. Having completed this book, I can now return to it. Since significant attention was not paid to the question until recently, the lack of an answer at this juncture does not seem to me to be cause for despair or evidence that there is no answer. I suspect that we do not yet have credible answers largely because people have looked for answers in the wrong places. I do think that the above reflections help us to look for answers in the right places.”

Four years later, the situation is mostly unchanged: Kliman still has nothing to offer; no alternative. In this, Kliman is not significantly different from David Harvey, with whom he is now engaged in a debate over the cause of capitalist crises. For this reason, there is nothing in the debate that appears to have any real world significance for the Left — it seems today as it was when Kliman wrote his book a purely scholastic exercise: Did Marx say (a) was the cause of crisis or (b)?

Doctor Harvey and the ills of capitalism

Assume, for moment, Harvey is correct and that every crisis has its own cause: How does this help SYRIZA? The crises that is the subject of the debate between Kliman and Harvey has put SYRIZA in power and the radical party is about 3 months from needing an alternative to capitalism in the practical form of next steps. Does Harvey’s argument offer any guide? If every crisis has its own cause, what then should SYRIZA be doing? How should it prepare?

On the other hand, assume Kliman is correct and every crisis is ultimately an expression of the falling rate of profit. If events in Greece today are driven by the falling rate of profit, what does this mean for SYRIZA practically? What should it do now? What is SYRIZA’s next step? How should it position itself?

One method of analysis available to us is to approach the problem of crises as if they were an illness of capitalism. A lot of people in SYRIZA want to treat capitalism as if it is an ill patient who needs medical care. Harvey appears to agree with the people who hold capitalism is an ill patient; the crisis is its sickness to be cured. This may be an unfair characterization, but I see no other interpretation of Harvey’s argument:

“The job of the Marxist diagnostician is to figure out what ails capital this time around: what may threaten its reproduction  and its capacity to rejuvenate and how and why its organic qualities might change or even mutate over time (as they plainly have done).”

One of the really pressing problems SYRIZA is facing right now is the assumption that it is in power to fix the defects in the European Union. How far does this assumption go in explaining why SYRIZA is having great difficulty finding a way forward? Although Harvey’s reply to Kliman is, in large part, about how metaphors can both help and impede our analysis; he apparently never asks himself what is implied in his “sick patient” approach to capitalist crises. Is it really the job of a ‘Marxist diagnostician’ to treat the illness that threatens capitalistic rejuvenation? More precisely, is it the job of a radical party, having gained power, to cure capitalism of an illness that threatens its reproduction? I hate gotchas, so Harvey really should be asked to clarify his position here: Are we trying to cure capitalism of its maladies or kill it?

How Kliman’s argument limply falls to earth

On the other hand, borrowing his metaphors from the natural sciences, Kliman sees in crises an expression of the laws of capitalist development in some sense very similar to natural laws. However this argument produces problems for his analysis that he apparently doesn’t even recognize. First, Kliman says of the falling rate of profit:

“The issue is simple. If I appeal to the universal law of gravitation in order to explain why apples have a tendency to fall off trees, without mentioning other factors that can make them fall, like the blowing of the wind, or counteracting factors, like air resistance, I am not assuming that these other things don’t exist.”

Here Kliman likens the falling rate of profit to gravity — no matter what other causes a crisis may have, this one is fundamental. However, in part 2 of his reply to Harvey, Kliman makes essentially the same argument about the restricted consumption of the working class.

“Harvey then quoted from and summarised much of the passage in question, in order to make clear that the shortfall in demand that characterises economic crises is not due to the restricted consumption of ‘the masses’ or ‘exploited labour’, since their consumption is always restricted––crisis or no crisis. Thus, blaming the crisis on the masses’ restricted consumption is like blaming an airplane crash on gravity (which always exists, crash or no crash). “

What Kliman has presented us with here is a picture of capitalist relations in which the rate of profit is ALWAYS falling and the consumption of the working class is ALWAYS constrained. In Kliman’s argument, both the falling rate of profit and underconsumption are like gravity in the capitalist mode of production, i.e., always present within the capitalist mode of production. If restricted consumption of the working class is never an explanation for capitalist crises, how can the falling rate of profit be a cause? To say one of these is the cause of capitalistic crises and not the other is silly. It is clear that both forces are operating simultaneously over the whole of the capitalistic epoch.

Although it appears the two Marxist writers have contradictory assessments of the cause of the present crisis, in truth, both the declining consumption power of society that Harvey points to and the falling rate of profit that Kliman points to result from the same cause: the rising organic composition of capital. It is not that one explanation contradicts the other, but each is the flip side of the other. To put this another way: the rising organic composition of capital continuously reduces both the rate of profit of capital and the subsistence of the working class. And it renders both a growing mass of capital and labor power superfluous to the production of capitalist wealth. As Marx argued, superfluous capital arises from the same causes as those which call forth superfluous workers, and adds to it — “unemployed capital at one pole, and unemployed worker population at the other.”

Do we want to save capitalism or kill it?

If a doctor diagnoses an illness in order to create a plan of treatment, which follows directly from her diagnosis and a natural scientist describes natural laws so as to enable society to put these laws to work, what should the Marxist be doing? Can I suggest we are in the middle of a class war and the only job of the Marxist analyst is to uncover the hidden vulnerabilities of the class enemy?

I prefer this analogy. We are not treating capitalist crisis as an illness of a patient that is to be cured, but as a vulnerability of our enemy that is to be exploited. The question of the day is how can we exploit this vulnerability to drive a bayonet through our enemy’s heart? Neither Harvey nor Kliman (nor Roberts) offers us any assessment of how to exploit the vulnerabilities of capitalism in order to kill it. Their approaches do nothing for SYRIZA at a time when it needs answers, not debate on texts.

We want to kill capitalism, not cure it of its defects. And labor theory suggests the fastest route to this goal lies along the process of reducing the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities. By forcing capital to increase its organic composition, i.e., by reducing the labor time available to capital for production of surplus value, we can drive the capitalist mode of production headlong to demise.