The Real Movement

Communism is free time and nothing else!

Category: Value Criticism

On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – XXIV

Let’s look at that last bizarre chart again:

Chart 1

The chart is a visual representation of the impact of state spending on the gross domestic output of the United States national economy from 1860 to 2020.

The chart appears to be bisected into two periods. In the first period, state expenditures appear as negative values, i.e., they appear as a drag on gross domestic output.

In the second period, state expenditures appear as positive values, i.e., they appear to contribute to gross domestic output.

In both periods, however, state expenditures are entirely superfluous to the production of value and surplus value. The state produces nothing and simply expropriates what it requires from society under the heading of taxation and other revenue.

This expropriation directly translates into a material loss of the productive capacity of society. Bourgeois scribblers may give this expropriation all sorts of justifications after the fact, but we are not distracted by these justifications. The state is a vile parasite on society, ruthlessly bleeding it of its substance and swelling to immense proportions as a result.

But, enough of this petty moralizing, because I’m beginning to sound like a worthless libertarian or even — god forbid — a god-awful untutored anarchist!

Read the rest of this entry »

On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – XXIII

If I don’t get pushback on this post, I will be very surprised for the simple reason that I am about to make a number of what may be considered highly controversial arguments. However, each particular argument will be grounded in statements I have already made in the course of this series. Thus, as controversial as this arguments sound, they should follow logically from the statements I have already made.

Below I again present the last chart from the previous post that tracks combined federal, state and local government spending relative to aggregate United States gross domestic output from 1860 to 2020, according to http://www.usgovernmentspending.com.

Chart 1

It is important to understand that, as I stated in the previous post, I am assuming that all of this federal, state and local spending consists of unproductive consumption, which is to say the state produces no commodities of its own; it is a parasite on society at large. According to Marx and Engels, the economic actor in question must come into money by selling a commodity. State expenditures, however necessary some might consider them, fall under the same category of transfers as quit-rent-corn and tithe-corn the peasant produced for the feudal lord and the parson. As Engels clarified, “To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.” Clearly, taxes and other like state revenue do not fall in this category.

Based on all of this, I have concluded that state revenue and expenditures should not be treated the same way as other elements of United States gross domestic product.

Chart 2

Let me take this one step further and suggest that all federal, state and local government spending is superfluous and involves the expenditure of superfluous labor time — as now shown in the chart above.

This means, we now have a real theoretical problem with the historical data. The data we have been relying on assumes that state expenditures should be added to aggregate output of the national economy. However, we know that, in Marx’s labor theory of value, superfluous labor “does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.”

Chart 3

Which means, and as Chart 3 above shows, federal, state and local government expenditures do not add to the value of United States gross domestic product, but actually subtracts from United States gross domestic product. This is because, not only does the state not add any new value to circulation, it unproductively consumes some definite portion of the existing value already in circulation.

But here is where it gets a bit tricky, because, as we saw in an earlier post, beginning in 1933, Roosevelt’s fascist AAA program basically started paying our poor, historically doomed dirt farmers for labor time that produced no value at all, i.e., superfluous labor time, as a means of exiting the Great Depression.

It is only natural to ask if this bizarre change in behavior on Washington’s part had any effect on how United States GDP is calculated according to Marx’s labor theory of value. Not surprising, we find out that it indeed does have an affect on how federal state and local expenditures are calculated, as is shown in the chart below.

Chart 4

I was looking at historical data on United States GDP and it occurred to me that all of the data before 1933 is suspect, perhaps before 1971 as well. The problem is the way they account for state expenditures in those numbers. Marx’s labor theory of value would count those expenditures as destruction of value, but the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which compiles the figures for United States gross domestic product, counts government expenditures as additional value.

This essentially mean that labor theory differs from bourgeois simpletons in that before 1933 state expenditures count as a drag on the output of the national economy, since these expenditures add nothing to national output and only unproductively consume real capital. Before the breakdown of production based on exchange value this destruction simply would not appear as anything other than a loss of potential GDP in the same way that any unproductive labor time would not be counted in a market exchange. It would, for all intents and purposes, fall under the heading of superfluous labor time, as a portion of labor time that created no value.

But what about after 1933 — after FDR issued Executive Order 6102?

I’m glad you asked, because then it starts to get a bit complicated.

After the breakdown of production based on exchange value, federal, state and local government expenditures are immediately captured as a portion of superfluous labor time that, while still superfluous and creating no value, nevertheless has a price denominated in debased valueless state-issued currency. In other words, this labor time would appear as a component part of GDP under the same heading as the excess unmarketable crops of our poor,. historically doomed dirt farmers that also had no market price prior to the AAA, but acquired a price denominated in the same debased fiat under FDR’s AAA program.

Despite the fact that labor time expended by public employees and vendors in the state sector create no value, this expenditure would appear to have a price denominated in currency and be counted as an aliquot part of gross domestic product of the United States, just as the excess output of the dirt farmers.

So, we get this really bizarre inversion in our chart where, for instance, World War One, located toward the middle of the chart, appears as a rather sharp decrease in U.S. gross domestic product because of the volume of military expenditures, while World War Two appears on our chart as an even sharper increase in gross domestic product, because of the much greater volume of military expenditures just two decades later.

In both case, the expenditures have no value and unproductively consume existing value, but in the second case, the grisly business of war appears for the first time in human history as a ‘productive’ activity, productive of profit to the extent an ever growing mass of excess capital and an ever growing surplus population of wage workers can be set in motion by state expenditures.

On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – XXII

Well, that conclusion was a bit of an anticlimax, wouldn’t you say?

I mean, if all I have to say after this increasingly tedious series is that the chart everyone and her mother thinks is an accurate representation of the state of the United States national economy over the last ninety years is in fact an accurate representation of the state of the United States national economy over the last ninety years — more accurate even than my own fave representation of the state of the United States national capital over the last ninety years based on physical units of gold — then what was the god-damned point of this series?

Well, yeah — sorta — a more accurate representation of what?

What?” was the god-damned point of this series.

Let me explain.

This first chart is a pretty accurate representation of the gross domestic product of the United States national economy — note the term, national economy — over the last ninety years or so.

And this second chart, I believe, is a pretty accurate representation of the gross domestic product of the United States national capital — again, note the term, national capital — over the last ninety years or so.

A lot of writers, even, embarrassingly, a lot of Marxist writers, confuse a national economy with a national capital, but a national economy can and will be populated with many more players than just capitals.

In the Communist Manifesto, for instance, Marx and Engels mention quite an assortment of players who were around in their day: feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs, small manufacturers, shopkeepers, artisans, peasants, tradespeople, landlords, pawnbrokers, and the lumpenproletariat — all of whom exist side by side with capitalists.

One of those players, an increasingly massive one during the twentieth century, has been the nation state. The state too is decidedly not a capital, nor even a commodity producer. For lack of a better term, it can even be thought of (at least provisionally) as an anti-producer, in the sense that it not only does it produce no commodities to sell in the market, it unproductively consumes the commodities others in society have themselves produced.

Also, I opt for the term anti-producer instead of the term consumer for the obvious reason that the latter term tells us nothing. Every member of society who is a producer is also a consumer. This means, for instance, every capital is a consumer, a productive consumer. Production itself, as Marx explained, is also an act of consumption. The state differs from these consumers in that it alone in society consumes while producing nothing.

(NOTE: There may, of course, be exceptions to this rule, but, for the purposes of this post, I assume it holds as the general case.)

But the composition of what we call the economy has changed a lot since the days of the Communist Manifesto. On the one hand, how many feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs, small manufacturers, shopkeepers, artisans, peasants, tradespeople, landlords, pawnbrokers, and lumpenproletarians do you exchange commodities with on a typical day? Personally, I haven’t had lunch with a feudal lord or one of his vassals in like … forever, and the closest thing to a lumpen I know is the guy who may or may not sling drugs on the corner down the street — depending on how well I know you.

The state, on the other hand — what Marx called that “appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores.” — might have been more than a bit player in the economy in Marx’s day, but not much more. In the United States, which enjoyed the freest, most favorable, conditions at that time, in terms of not inheriting a bloated parasitic feudal machine, the federal, state and local governments combined likely accounted for less than five percent of gross domestic output.

As this third chart shows, that same state now accounts for about thirty-five percent of gross domestic output during peacetime — perhaps three times the size of the state relative to the entire economy during the height of a full-blown civil war being fought for its very existence across the entire breadth of its own territory!

I added the usual markers to orient you on the timeline, which, on this chart, goes further back in history than any chart produced for this series so far — 1860, just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. I did this, to provide some long-term perspective on the actual size of the United States state machinery relative to the rest of the so-called national economy.

Let’s look at this timeline, but concentrate only on peacetime expenditures, okay?

  • 1860: Prior to the Civil War, the state absorbed less than five percent of GDP.
  • 1866-1917: After the Civil War, the state increased in size significantly to about seven percent GDP.
  • 1920-1929: After World War One, but prior to the Great Depression, state share of GDP again rose, this time to about twelve percent of GDP.
  • 1930-1941: With the onset of the Great Depression, GDP fell dramatically, of course, but, surprisingly, despite this fall, the state share of GDP nearly doubled to almost twenty percent.
  • 1947-2020: Again, skipping World War Two, we find that, in the post-war period, the state’s claim on a share of US GDP has gradually and steadily crept up from twenty-three percent in 1947 to forty-four percent in 2020 — averaging about about thirty-two percent over the entire period.

There has been a steady upward creep in the share of GDP absorbed by the state even when we abstract from the massive military conflicts fought over the 160 year period since the Civil War. Indeed, each war appears only to accelerate the steady growth in the share of aggregate GDP being absorbed by the state.

Now why might this be significant?

Come on, you know the answer; or, at least, you can guess what I am going to say in the next part.

On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – XXI

If we zoom out from the last chart I showed you in the previous post and look at the entire period from 1929 to 2020, including the projected impact of the emergency measures taken to slow the spread of the CoViD-19 pandemic in the United States, the resulting chart looks something like this:

The chart above is actually a mashup of two different charts. Both show the annual gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States national capital from 1929 to 2020. The first is denominated in commodity money (yellow) and the second is denominated in valueless US currency (green). I threw in a few markers just to help folks figure out what is happening at several points along the time line in the world of bourgeois economics.

Let’s break the two charts out and examine them separately.

In the above chart, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States national capital is denominated in commodity money. (Again, I threw in a few markers just to help folks figure out what happened where in the world of bourgeois economics on the timeline.) We can see that, when expressed in commodity money, GDP has gone through several characteristic phases of extreme capitalistic expansion and contraction during the period from 1929 to 2020 and is still firmly in the grip of its most recent contraction that began in 2001.

What should be surprising about this chart to you is that there is absolutely nothing surprising about this chart.

Since the nineteenth century, we have become accustomed to thinking about the normal cycle of boom and bust characteristic of the capitalist mode of production. Here we have reproduced three such cycles beginning with 1929 and continuing until the present. They differ only in the scale and duration of each bust cycle — the first lasting about four years, the second lasting about ten years and the third lasting, so far, about twenty years. Similarly, the boom cycles, between busts, vary in duration, with the longer of the two lasting from 1934 to 1971 — thirty-seven years — and the shorter lasting from 1981 to 2001 — just twenty years.

Again, there is nothing remarkable about this chart. It is exactly what any scholar of Marx would expect to see, apart, perhaps, from the scale or duration of the cycles, at any point along the timeline of the capitalist mode of production.

It is in fact the lack of anything remarkable about that chart, where GDP is denominated in physical units of gold, against what we know about the normal behavior of the capitalist mode of production that should alert us to the basic incongruity of this second chart, denominated in U.S. dollars, with everything we know about the behavior of the capitalist mode of production.

The chart shows none of the characteristic phases of extreme capitalistic expansion and contraction during the period from 1929 to 2020; there are no cycles of boom and bust, no characteristic explosions when, as Engels put it, “The mode of production is in rebellion against the mode of exchange” — not even evidence of anything as banal as what Schumpeter called, creative destruction — literally nothing. It is as though some Doctor of Economics put capital into a medically-induced coma to prevent its ever-worsening seizures from killing it!

It is exceedingly strange that a mode of production long recognized by Marxist and non-Marxist alike as being characterized by anarchy and catastrophic explosions should have gone for ninety years without a single event like that which occurred with such regularity before the 1930s. In place of those massive economic upheavals, we have mild recessions induced by the central bank and fiscal authorities, the worst of which produced a temporary modest fall in year-on-year GDP in 2009-2010 only after bringing the global financial system to the brink of total collapse.

So, which of these charts is the accurate of the two?

Before you answer, let me remind you that the second chart includes not just the region I labeled socially necessary labor time, but also the region of labor time that I have provisionally labeled capitalistically necessary labor time. This label implies that, for capital, this labor time is as necessary for the mode of production as the region labeled socially necessary labor time. Moreover, according to Marx, capitalistically necessary labor, although superfluous to the production of material wealth, becomes, in growing measure, the condition for the expenditure of socially necessary labor. For capital, it is necessary labor time, labor time that is vital to this peculiar form of social wealth.

The conclusion we are led to inevitably is that, from the standpoint of the normal operation of the mode of production, the second chart has to be the accurate chart — and this despite the fact that we know it to include a massive quantity of absolutely superfluous labor time, labor time that produces no value, labor time that is not required for the production of material wealth. So long as capital is the form of wealth in society, this labor time cannot be abolished.

Marx never thought capital was compatible with commodity production

So, I have been reading Capital, volume 1 again for a project and I came across the opening statement in chapter five, “Contradictions in the General Formula of Capital”, that I probably read a dozen times but never actually studied.

This time for some reason it caught my eye and surprised me:

“The form which circulation takes when money becomes capital, is opposed to all the laws we have hitherto investigated bearing on the nature of commodities, value and money, and even of circulation itself.” Capital, v1, c5

All frigging day, I have been trying to wrap my head around it. Does that statement say what I think it says?

Let me be specific and unambiguous here: Is Marx, in his own understated fashion, asserting that the circulation of capital is opposed to, conflicts with, contradicts, or is incompatible with the law of value?

Am I reading that correctly? If not, what is he saying?

(I find it interesting that David Harvey, in his abbreviated discussion of this chapter (see 30 minutes in), completely ignores the chapter’s opening statement.)

(The folks at Zero Books discussed the chapter, but didn’t notice the statement either. Then again, it doesn’t appear they notice much of anything.)

(Surprisingly, this guy, Rhizome, seems to get the point Marx is making in the opening statement of the chapter. I don’t know who he is, but he is likely an offspring of Land, or, at least, the accelerationist prophets, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. )

Let me add one other interesting statement — this time by Engels — in his supplement to volume 3:

“…the Marxian law of value holds generally, as far as economic laws are valid at all, for the whole period of simple commodity production — that is, up to the time when the latter suffers a modification through the appearance of the capitalist form of production.” Capital, v3, Supplement

In other words, according to Engels, once the capitalist form of commodity production appears, prices of commodities more or less begin to diverge from their values until, we can assume, production based on exchange value breaks down completely.

In short, there is no contradiction between volume one and volume three of capital, because at the opening of chapter five of volume one Marx already states that the form taken by the circulation of capital is incompatible with the law of value. He is, in effect, telling us that capital undermines its own premises.

On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – XX

I want to take another look a the data supporting Peter Jones claim that federal deficits may be, in some way, fostering the illusion that state borrowing can create surplus value.

To begin with, I want to truncate the timeline and reorient the chart I presented in the last post.

Here is the original chart:

And here is the truncated and reoriented chart I will reference in this post:

Although the differences may be obvious, let me point them out.

First, I truncated the timeline, beginning with 1992, instead of 1970.

Second, I inverted the data, so the values now are showing mostly as negative balances.

Third, I have highlighted three periods (the blue arrows) where federal deficits went into multi-year declines:

  • 1992 to 2000,
  • 2004 to 2007 and
  • 2009 to 2015.

So, what can we see?

Well, consistent with Peter Jones’ argument, when the federal deficit declined from 1992 to 2000, we find the sort of economic event we might expect when the rate of profit falls: namely, economic crises of one sort or another.

During the first fiscal deficit reduction event, from 1992 to 2000, a series of currency crises swept the world market, global stock markets crash and the world market was plunged into a global recession. Further, United States gross domestic product, measured in gold, after expanding unsteadily for two decades, began to contract. A depression erupted in 2001, alongside the recession, that has lasted long after the initial recession ended, despite vigorous intervention by the fascist state.

However, the second fiscal deficit reduction event, from 2004 to 2007, does not unambiguously show up on my chart. The likely reason this event does not show up may be that the US national capital was already in a steep and prolonged contraction when the second fiscal deficit reduction takes place. There is some slight evidence of a modest acceleration in the rate of contraction of the national capital between 2005 and 2006, but I wouldn’t bet my life on the cause. What does occur during this period, however, is the final and long expected breakdown of monetary policy, as the Federal Reserve finally ran head first into the zero lower bound when the financial system came to the point of near collapse.

The third fiscal deficit reduction event, from 2009 to 2015, is less ambiguous than the second and, by far, the largest of the three. After the financial crisis erupted, the US national capital and the world economy was in free fall. Washington initially intervened with a multi-year massive deficit spending program in an effort to prevent the mode of production from rolling over. But the intervention was designed to be tapered off in the following years. Not only did the intervention address the immediate financial crisis, as the chart show, it was large enough to temporarily halt the contraction phase of the depression by 2012, much like FDR’s intervention did in 1933. A modest expansion begins in 2013 that continued through 2015 until more or less flatlining in 2016, as Washington deficit spending fell below some definite level. This situation more or less held until the emergence of the CoViD-19 pandemic in 2020.

*****

So, is Peter Jones right about deficits and the rate of profit?

Well, maybe, sorta.

But who cares, right?

I mean, you didn’t really think I went through all of this to test Peter Jones’ hypothesis, did you?

You’re not that stupid, are you?

Come on, nobody actually cares what Peter Jones wrote about the impact of fascist state deficit spending on the rate of profit, except me and a handful of other geek commies, people who even other commies don’t want to invite to their sparsely attended lectures, because we ask disturbingly awkward questions about obscure points of methodology and assumptions.

What you are really interested in testing is the mainstream hypothesis that the Great Depression of the 1930s began as a mild recession, but turned into a prolonged depression because monetary policy was hampered by the limitations of the gold standard.

Even Marxists believe that crap.

In 2002, for instance, future Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, wrote:

“When William Jennings Bryan made his famous “cross of gold” speech in his 1896 presidential campaign, he was speaking on behalf of heavily mortgaged farmers whose debt burdens were growing ever larger in real terms, the result of a sustained deflation that followed America’s post-Civil-War return to the gold standard. The financial distress of debtors can, in turn, increase the fragility of the nation’s financial system–for example, by leading to a rapid increase in the share of bank loans that are delinquent or in default. … Closer to home, massive financial problems, including defaults, bankruptcies, and bank failures, were endemic in America’s worst encounter with deflation, in the years 1930-33–a period in which (as I mentioned) the U.S. price level fell about 10 percent per year.”

The statement is almost hilarious.

That this poor simpleton actually believed the long depression of the late 19th century and the Great Depression of the 1930s could, somehow, be blamed on the gold standard is really quite laughable. That someone put this guy in charge of the entire banking system of the United States is — well — understandable, since they are all simpletons.

Bernanke was so confident the 21st century threat of deflation — depression — could be prevented by aggressive monetary policy because he had this amazing new 21st century super-secret weapon, a computer terminal, that could create trillions of dollars at will:

“the U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. By increasing the number of U.S. dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the U.S. government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services, which is equivalent to raising the prices in dollars of those goods and services. We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation.”

So how did this super-secret weapon work in practice?

Well, between 2004 and 2007, Congress reduced the deficit almost 40% and left it to the Federal Reserve to handle the consequences. Again, as happened with the earlier Clinton-Gingrich deficit reduction deal, the so-called economy rolled over into recession. But this time, instead of simply taking out a bunch of foreign currencies, a hedge fund or two, and some 401(k)s, it took out the entire over-leveraged housing market, a good chunk of the global financial system and finally broke conventional monetary policy forever.

Oh, and it didn’t stop there.

As you can see in the above chart, the US national capital continued to contract sharply, despite Bernanke’s confident assurances that he had the tools for exactly this worst-case scenario.

Yeah, turns out he had nothing.

To ultimately stop the contraction of the US national capital that began in 2001, after a catastrophic financial implosion and the collapse of monetary policy in 2007-2008, it took four more years and the injection of deficit spending equal to the total accumulated federal debt of the previous 40 years.

And even this was only sufficient to bring real output, measured in commodity money, back to where it had been in 2009. In the end, the output, as measured in exchange value, was about 40% of where it had been in 2001.

In November, 2013, almost eleven years to the day after Bernanke’s speech on deflation, Larry Summers, former chief economist under President Obama, gave his own speech openly admitting the world had entered a new era of secular stagnation.

On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – XIX

August 1997: Speaker Newt Gingrich smiles as President Bill Clinton signs the balanced-budget agreement that ultimately sent the US national capital into its third depression in 90 years.

***

In my last post, I left you with this this chart:

The chart is a snapshot of the United States national capital up to the year 2000, the eve of the event that is today known as the bursting of the dotcom bubble.

It is also the eve of the third Great Depression in the last ninety years, although few observers realize this.

Most of the political events of that period don’t concern us except a very interesting conflict that began during the period from 1982 or so to 2000 as Washington struggled to constrain an uninterrupted series of federal budget deficits that began under the Reagan administration. This rather bizarre conflict may explain a lot of what happens over the next twenty years after 2000, until today.

I say a bizarre conflict over federal deficit spending, because there is at least one Marxist out there who, like me, thinks federal deficit spending has been at least a significant contributing factor to maintaining the rate of profit since 1971 and the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement.

That Marxist, Peter Jones, has produced an interesting thought experiment that goes something like this:

Suppose, instead of taxing the rich, the federal government just borrowed what it needed to finance its operation from them. Essentially, the rich would keep their billions of dollars of assets, while the government would finance its spending largely by borrowing from them. For example, If the government wanted to finance tax cuts for the rich, it could just borrow the necessary cash from the rich to finance the tax cuts. With their new tax cuts, the rich and corporations could go on a spending spree, handing out bonuses to executives, dividends to shareholders, running buybacks to inflate share prices, bribing colleges to accept their snotty privileged rugrats, etc. Profits would swell, although no new surplus value was being created anywhere.

[NOTE: Modern money theory argues that the state would not even have to borrow the cash from the rich to do this. As the sovereign issuer of currency, it could just create the currency on a computer terminal and mail out tax cuts to the rich to force the currency into circulation that way. But I will stick to Jones’ example. — Jehu]

Jones argues that this method of financing government expenditures has big implications for labor theory:

The important point here is that this could be a real effect of a shift towards deficit financing. But it is not one that Marx’s law is designed to explain. In the example above, there is no change in either the socially necessary labour time performed by productive workers, productive workers’ consumption (or their wages), or the expenditure of surplus value by any sector. So there is no change in the production or distribution of value. Nor is there any change in the rate of growth. But this measure of the rate of profit nevertheless increases, along with dividends.

To paraphrase, Jones warns that this sort of deficit spending by the state makes it appear the state can basically “create money out of nothing”, i.e., to spend surplus value as revenue without producing it or deducting it from the profits of capital or indirectly squeezing it from the wages of the working class. This creates the illusion that government borrowing itself can create or add to the mass of surplus value or profits.

While I completely disagree with the part about Marx’s law being able to explain this and intend to show the opposite, I think Peter Jones is on to something very important here. What Jones is pointing to fits neatly in with Postone’s argument on the hollowing out of working society.

I love that picture of Gingrich and Clinton at the top of this post, because it confirms Jones argument beyond the fondest wishes of any Marxist economist. If deficits are being used to prop up the rate of profit, a Marxist economist might ask, what would happen if the deficits went away?

Jones might argue that the rate of profit would fall. And the orthodox response to that suggestion would be that if the rate of profit fell, this would produce a huge crisis — an economic contraction, a depression.

So is Jones right about deficits and the rate of profit?

The Clinton-Gingrich deal in 1997 answered that question pretty conclusively.

Even before the deal was finally signed, the dollar began to strengthen and the Asia crisis exploded.

The contagion swept Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Philippines, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore and Japan, because many of these countries had pegged their currencies to the dollar.

The next round of currency crises hit Russia, Brazil and Argentina.

And when a currency crisis hit Russia, it helped bring down Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund run by a couple of Nobel laureate simpletons, who decided to put their vast knowledge of economics to work feathering their nests and in the process almost caused the collapse of the entire U.S. financial system.

Then the chickens came home to roost, when the dotcom bubble burst.

By 2002, the Federal Reserve and just about everyone else was talking about imminent deflation and the zero lower bound on monetary policy.

The Clinton-Gingrich deal and its aftermath confirmed that not only are the fascists using deficit spending to prop up the rate of profit, as the charts below shows, when the fascists finally got second thoughts about the implications of this behavior and tried to balance the budget, as during the Clinton administration …

… the United States national capital almost immediately rolled over like a sinking garbage scow into the third depression in the last 90 years — a depression that has, so far, lasted 20 years:

Oh, you didn’t know we have been in a depression since 2000?

It’s not just you. A lot of dumb Marxists, like Andrew Kliman, have been arguing on behalf of the role of the falling rate of profit in crises and don’t realize we have been in a depression for precisely this reason for two decades. You are a member of a very big club.

Who knew it was as easy to fool poor dumb Marxists with valueless currency as it was to fool poor, historically doomed dirt farmers — even in the middle of a depression that has lasted two decades now?

On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – XVIII

So let’s get some tedious chart stuff out of the way. Once we do this I can return to the subject at hand; namely, Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society.

In my last post, I left you with this chart, so let’s begin there:

The chart shows the run up to one of the least understood events of the 20th century, the depression of the 1970s. What makes the depression difficult to understand is that it doesn’t take the form most people expect it to take. The depression wasn’t characterized by mass unemployment like the Great Depression of the 1930s. As the above chart demonstrates, instead there was an immense swelling of the expenditure of superfluous labor time in the United States economy.

This is important to understand, because it was the malignant expansion of superfluous labor time in the 1970s that gave the depression its peculiar inflationary character.

Stripping away the layer of superfluous labor time on the chart, allows us to see some of the critical landmarks in the development of the mode of production; landmarks which are not evident if we confine our analysis to the level of state issued currency data.

Having established that I can at least make an argument for the validity of the empirical data I am using, I now want to extend this data further to include the period from 1980 to 2000 as in the chart below:

Here now, I include the period of the so-called Great Stagflation, i.e., the second Great Depression of the 20th century, which, as far as I know, is acknowledged by no authority, either officially or unofficially, but which plainly appears in commodity money measures of United States gross domestic product in the historical record. Also appearing in this chart is the subsequent expansion from 1981 to 2000, that is far from stable, but which eventually exceeds the previous peak reached in 1970.

Let me point out a few things you won’t find, if you stick to the government data that is based on state issued dollar currency:

Chart 1

Chart 1: The foot print of the recession of 1973-1975 in the historical record

In chart 1, that odd protuberance in the middle of the 1970s depression is actually formed by the so-called “oil shock recession of 1973-1975”. Now you might ask yourself why a recession results in an increase in the production of socially necessary labor time? I don’t have an answer at this point in this discussion. All I can say is that this recession followed the second largest stock crash since the Great Depression. The largest crash was in 2008.

Not surprising, when stated in valueless state issued dollar currency, United States gross domestic product, year over year, shows no evidence that this event ever occurred.

Chart 2

Chart 2: The Volcker shock (double-dip) recession and the end of the Second Great Depression of the 20th Century.

In chart 2, the second great depression of the 20th century ends with a double-dip recession when then Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, Paul Volcker, raised the monetary policy interest rate, ultimately to 20%, in an effort to extinguish inflation that was then running at nearly 15%. Again, why did this recession, one of the worst in post-war history, result in an increase in the production of value? Again, I don’t have an answer at this point in the discussion.

Not surprising, in this case as well, when stated in valueless state issued dollar currency, United States gross domestic product, year over year, shows no evidence that this event ever occurred either.

Chart 3

Chart 3: That day the Earth stood still, but traders shit their pants, aka, “Black Monday”

In chart 3, we have October 19, 1987. It was a day that began like any other Monday. Before it ended, it had acquired the infamous tag, “Black Monday”. As the trading day crossed the international dateline and opened in Australia and New Zealand, this tag morphed into “Black Tuesday”.

So it goes.

The chart above suggest that Black Monday began long before that Monday in October. There is clear evidence that GDP measured in gold plateaued between 1984 and 1985 and then fell in 1986 and again in 1987. The culprit in this case may have been two measures designed to contain the growing Reagan-era budget deficits: Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 and the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Reaffirmation Act of 1987. Together these measures are known as Gramm-Rudman. Which is to say, the market crash on Black Monday likely began as an attempt to control the federal deficit — a side-effect we will see again later on a much larger scale.

For the third time, it is not surprising that when stated in valueless state issued dollar currency, United States gross domestic product, year over year, shows no evidence that this event ever occurred either.

Chart 4

Chart 4: There was a brief recession from July 1990 to March 1991, but this was accompanied by a real falling off in the production of value for the period 1990-1992.

In chart 4, we have the fourth and final event: a real drop in the expenditure of socially necessary labor time from 1990 through 1992. The culprit again appears to be an attempt to contain the budget deficit through a measure known as the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990. According to Wikipedia, roughly $500 billion in savings was achieved over five years through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. As can be seen, the effect on the production of value was almost immediate, with socially necessary labor time contracting.

Needless to say, as with all the other events above, when stated in valueless state issued dollar currency, United States gross domestic product, year over year, shows no evidence that this event ever occurred either.

*****

But all of the charts above at trivial. I mean, they are important to me, because I actually care about labor theory of value. Most people don’t care about it and I can understand that.

In any case, the most amazing thing about the above charts is that when I set all of those developments against the change in the valueless state issued dollar currency measure of United States gross domestic product, you can see how those changes are almost imperceptible against the truly monstrous explosion of superfluous labor time since 1971:

Chart 5

Chart 5: Depression? What depression?

The historical data based on commodity money is literally buried in an ever growing mountain of expenditures of empty labor time, of labor time that creates no value. By 2000, the labor time that is socially necessary for the production of material wealth, as measured in a commodity money, has increased perhaps 33% — again, it forms that thin sliver of gold at the very bottom of the chart — while the actual labor time expended, as measured in state issued currency, has increased 955%, and was going parabolic by 2000.

The tedious part is over.

Let’s get back to Postone’s argument.

On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – Second Interlude

If the Great Depression of the 1930s signaled the collapse of production based on exchange value, as I have argued here, it also signaled the short-lived era of the state as manager of the national capital. This era, like the collapse of production based on exchange value that preceded it, had been predicted by Marx and Engels fifty years before it occurred, in 1880.

Here I quote the most significant of their insights on this subject from Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

In these crises, the contradiction between socialized production and capitalist appropriation ends in a violent explosion. The circulation of commodities is, for the time being, stopped. Money, the means of circulation, becomes a hindrance to circulation. All the laws of production and circulation of commodities are turned upside down. The economic collision has reached its apogee. The mode of production is in rebellion against the mode of exchange. (My emphasis.)

This rebellion leads to the further socialization of the management of the accumulation process:

This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognized, forces the capital class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions. The period of industrial high pressure, with its unbounded inflation of credit, not less than the crash itself, by the collapse of great capitalist establishments, tends to bring about that form of the socialization of great masses of the means of production which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies. Many of these means of production and of distribution are, from the outset, so colossal that, like the railways, they exclude all other forms of capitalistic expansion. At a further stage of evolution, this form also becomes insufficient. The producers on a large scale in a particular branch of an industry in a particular country unite in a “Trust”, a union for the purpose of regulating production. They determine the total amount to be produced, parcel it out among themselves, and thus enforce the selling price fixed beforehand. But trusts of this kind, as soon as business becomes bad, are generally liable to break up, and on this very account compel a yet greater concentration of association. The whole of a particular industry is turned into one gigantic joint-stock company; internal competition gives place to the internal monopoly of this one company.

And, ultimately, to the state itself being forced to take control of this process:

In any case, with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication — the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.

In a footnote to this passage, Marx and Engels make clear that they were only talking about a situation where the state was forced by economic circumstances to assume this new role; thrust upon it, because capitalist accumulation would have outgrown every form of private management. This step would be economically inevitable, even if accomplished by the bourgeois state, and would mark an economic advance toward communism.

In other words (and putting this in terms that might be understood by our bonehead Marxists), at some point in the development of the forces of social production, there would be no alternative to some form of social management of the economy. If the proletarians were unable to take power, for whatever reason, the existing state would still find it necessary to assume this role. This assumption of economic management of the national capital by the existing state would not be “socialism’; just the opposite: the state would actually become the national capitalist:

“The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over.”

This brings us to 1980, 100 years after the publication of Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. If, in that short pamphlet, Marx and Engels predicted that there would be no alternative to the state assuming the role of the national capitalist, 1980 seems to point to the watershed period when “There is no alternative.” comes to symbolize the beginning of what many, dumb Marxists among them, mistook to be a historical regression:

The toppling over of the state-manage national capital.

So, let’s continue.

On Postone’s concept of the hollowing out of working society – XVII

As I wrote in the previous post, in volume 3 Marx seems to suggest that, by combining the growing mass of excess capital with the growing surplus population of workers, after production based on exchange value had finally collapsed, Keynesian programs like FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s war of aggression could, at least in theory, increase the mass of surplus value produced by the total national capital of a country.

But Marx also warned this effort to extend the shelf-life of capital would only succeed at the cost of further intensifying the contradiction between the conditions under which the additional surplus value was produced and the conditions under which it was realized. The result of such a strategy, which necessarily involves extra-economic intervention by the state, would be to increase the real productive power of social labor, even as the real consumption power of society was further narrowed.

Accumulation would accelerate, as would the expansion of the national capital, to produce additional surplus value on an extended scale. The policies we now refer to as Keynesian deficit spending stimulus would not solve the problem of absolute overaccumulation of capital, but actually exacerbate it. It is probably not hyperbole to state that crisis would become a permanent feature of the mode of production.

But, and this is what seems to get lost in a lot of the analysis that takes place particularly after 1971, this is a crisis of a peculiar sort: it is a crisis where the so-called economy paradoxically is stuck in a permanent state of overdrive, or hyper-accumulation of excess capital.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s start with the chart we used in the previous post:

What follows here is not going to be pretty; in fact, you may find it hard to accept.

Don’t be concerned, lots of Americans don’t accept the idea of evolution, yet they eat bananas and climb trees just like their evolutionary ancestors.

*****

Now, let’s strip off the layer of superfluous labor time, to leave only the underlying socially necessary labor time:

This gives us an idea of the trajectory of capital during what is fondly remembered as the golden age of the social welfare state — the period from the end of World War II to about 1971.

Is this a credible picture of what is taking place in the so-called economy at the time?

Well, let’s check.

One way to double check that we are actually seeing real useful information and not just useless noise might be if we can detect events that previously were not readily evident to us using traditional historical empirical datasets. For this reason, I want to bring your attention to the two weird notches in the chart above that I have highlighted in the chart below:

Interestingly, those notches coincide with dates NBER researchers have identified as the effective beginning and end of full convertibility of currencies under the Bretton Woods fixed exchange system that was initially established in 1944. Most writing on the Bretton Woods system point to the 1944 date, but NBER researchers focus on 1959-1968 because this was the period of full convertibility. The dataset I am using, based on actual commodity money, indicates that a monetary disturbance of some sort actually took place during those time periods. After 1968, according to the NBER researchers, the Bretton Woods system effectively collapsed into a chronic dollar currency crisis, and the United States gave up trying to manage the crisis altogether in 1971. In this chart, those dates stand out like twin beacons, as does the date Nixon effectively ended US participation.

We capture all three dates on this one chart:

Once Nixon ends effective US participation in Bretton Woods, the value of United States gross domestic product, as measured in gold, falls off the cliff, producing the crisis of the 1970s that most radical Leftists and Marxists agree happened, but which cause they have mostly never been able to explain.

 

Radical and Marxist economists are unable to explain the crisis, because, according to official data, it never happened. Yes, there were some pretty bad recessions. And an oil shock or two. And a lot of inflation. But these folks mean more than just that.

They want to say there was a crisis, like the Great Depression was a crisis. Only, between 1971 and 1980, with the end of the dollar peg to gold, when the so-called U.S. economy slumped into a deep depression, there was no replay of the Great Depression in terms of massive unemployment of the working class. Paradoxically, superfluous labor time, rather than being shed, and converted into mass unemployment of the Great Depression type, simply expanded to monstrous proportions.

Another way to say this is that the existing US national capital was temporarily devalued to a fraction of the value it had prior to the crisis — roughly 17.4% of its former value, or about 3.4% of the total labor day. At the same time, the portion of the labor day that was superfluous to the production of value expanded to 96.6% of the working day by 1980.

And no one can explain how or why this happened; and they couldn’t even explain what had happened, because, in currency terms, nothing of what was happening appeared in official government data!

*****

The collapse of Bretton Woods is a critical watershed moment because, unlike with FDR’s devaluation in 1933, once it is gone there is no practical limit on the portion of the total working day that can be superfluous to the production of exchange value. By 1980, the working day in the United States was almost entirely hollowed out, emptied of exchange value producing labor.