How fiat currency killed Marxism

Part One

“I remember quite clearly watching with comrades in a Capital study group on Sunday August 15, 1971 the broadcast of Nixon’s announcement that he had ordered the “closing of the gold window.” Given that we were reading for the previous few months passages like the following from Capital: “money–in the form of precious metal–remains the foundation from which the credit system, by its very nature, can never detach itself” (Marx 1994:606), we left each other that night with the thought that either Capitalism or Marxism was coming to an end before our very eyes! —George Caffentzis, Marxism After the Death of Gold

What crippled and ultimately killed off the Marxian theory was the realization that capitalism, although severely damaged by the Great Depression, did not die. The confidence Marxists felt before the depression that capitalism was a historically limited, relative, mode of production was shattered by the post-depression recovery of the Golden Age of Fascism.

Critical to the difficulties post-war Marxian theory has suffered is it inability to come to grips with the significance of the collapse of the gold standard. That collapse is the subject of this two part series.

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Reply to LK: Notes on the historical and monetary implications of the transformation problem

One of the big problems with a discussion of Marx’s formula for transformation of labor values into capitalistic prices of production is that no one, not Marxists nor bourgeois simpleton economists, seem to understand what he was doing. Now, I will admit this argument is pretty arrogant, because it implies that I, somehow, have figured out what everyone else didn’t, but bear with me and decide for yourself. If my argument doesn’t make sense at the end, please correct me.

As I stated in my last post, the transformation problem expresses an irreconcilable contradiction within the capitalist mode of production. Marxists will not be surprised at this assertion; digital_money_764bourgeois economists, on the other hand, deny the existence of this contradiction and have an ahistorical conception of capital. In their view, the bourgeoisie has invented the ideal state of man which, having been invented, can continue indefinitely unless interrupted by an exogenous event. So, when they look at the transformation formula, they see in it a contradiction and assume Marx has failed to make his case.

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VI: Kliman’s staggering 2009 admission that the rate of profit did not fall before the financial crisis

Can state deficit spending be used to artificially add to the mass of profits? And if so, would deficit spending account for the rather ambiguous (even contradictory) results labor theorists’ produce when they try to empirically substantiate Marx’s thesis on the falling rate of profit?

In his 2013 paper, the Australian labor theorist, Peter Jones, provided a persuasive argument that the fascist state can indeed augment or subsidize the rate of profit through its deficit spending. And he argues this capacity can explain much of the ambiguous results labor theorists have produced over the last three decades as they attempt to empirically demonstrate or disprove Marx’s argument on the role played by the falling rate of profit in capitalist crisis.

According to Jones, government borrowing mystifies economic relations by making it appear as if the state can consume surplus value without reducing either profits or wages. If labor theorists do not account for this false appearance, they are implicitly accepting the Keynesian assumption embedded in mainstream economics that government borrowing can create new surplus value.

In his 2012 paper, “Could Keynes end the slump? Introducing the Marxist multiplier”, Gugliemo Carchedi discussed how Keynesian deficits spending works and, like Jones, concluded this deficit spending cannot create money (or, more accurately, value) out of nothing. However, he went one step further: Carchedi argued that once the state began to repay its debt, it would have to raise taxes for this purpose. Whatever additional ‘demand’ the state created by deficit spending during an economic downturn would turn out only to be deferred taxation on the population. Essentially, since the state is not a producer of commodities, it could only bring spending forward; this credit funded ‘prosperity’ would have to be repaid at some point by higher taxes.

Carchedi’s argument may or may not be correct in the long run, but Jones’ paper suggests Washington has been able to run deficits — and, therefore, artificially prop up profits — over a fairly long period of time without running into the need to balance its budget. For more than thirty years, the US has been able to spend more than it takes in without apparent difficulty or obvious limits.

Continue reading “VI: Kliman’s staggering 2009 admission that the rate of profit did not fall before the financial crisis”

V: How Peter Jones demolished Andrew Kliman’s book in 22 brief pages

Does the collapse of the gold standard and the switch to commodity money have any implications for labor theory? The Brazil labor theorist, Paulani argues it does not:

“when, historically, the umbilical cord that linked the money form to the commodity form was cut (in 1971), the dollar value of goods shifted in relation to other currencies, but they kept between themselves the relations which their labour values (prices of production) produced earlier, backed in gold…”

According to Paulani, then, the prices of commodities may have no longer been convertible into gold after 1971, but they did not shift relative to each other. If, before the collapse of the gold standard, four candy bars exchanged for one pair of teatssocks, this much remained unchanged afterwards. Whether this is true is not the point, since, stated in this simplistic form, it can easily be disproven; however, many such changes can be written off to supply and demand “shocks” of one sort or another. Since any such shock is accidental, Paulani’s argument can be reduced this: whatever change did occur, they were accidental and did not result from the collapse of the gold standard. In fact, since relative prices fluctuated constantly even before the collapse of the gold standard, this is a reasonable explanation.

However this argument by Paulani in her 2014 paper is directly challenged by Peter Jones in his 2013 paper, The Falling Rate of Profit Explains Falling US Growth”. Jones argues the collapse of the gold standard directly explains the difficulty labor theorists are having substantiating Marx’s falling rate of profit thesis.

Continue reading “V: How Peter Jones demolished Andrew Kliman’s book in 22 brief pages”

IV: Simon Mohun’s unproductive effort to identify productive labor

As I explained in my last post, substantiating Marx’s falling rate of profit as the cause of capitalist crises, and, in particular, as the cause of the so-called great financial crisis of 2008, runs into the difficulty that Marx made his argument on the basis of values. The difficulty this poses for analysis is that, since 1971, the various categories of analysis employed in measuring the rate of profit are denominated in inconvertible fiat dollars. Fiat dollars are not money in themselves, but tokens — 2007-10-20-77368474placeholders — for commodity money. Prices denominated in this inconvertible fiat, therefore, are not values in the sense Marx employs this term throughout Capital.

Thus, in order to construct an empirical proof of Marx’s thesis on the causes of capitalist crises using the empirical data, labor theorists are forced to convert inconvertible fiat prices into Marxian values. This is a new problem that did not exist before the period between 1933 and 1971 when the gold standard began to come unraveled. Since the dollar was pegged to some definite quantity of gold, dollars prices represented some definite quantity of gold as well. After the collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971, however, this relationship was severed and the dollar’s exchange rate with gold was allowed to float.

The question immediately arose whether Marx’s theory applied in the case where the currency used in daily transactions no longer had any fixed and definite relation to commodity money. Since the quantity of fiat in circulation has always been determined by the state, not by the values of the commodities in circulation, was it not the case that the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities (value) no longer determined how a capitalistic economy functioned?

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III: How Fred Moseley MELTed Kliman’s argument on the falling rate of profit

One of the little discussed problem with Andrew Kliman’s attempt to empirically verify Marx’s falling rate of profit thesis is that he is working with inconvertible fiat dollars (dollars which no longer can be redeemed for gold) and dollar prices — in the form of GDP, wages, profits, etc. — and these prices are not labor values as Marx defined the term. How Kliman handled this problem in his analysis of the empirical data is a story in itself.

7351347-crisis-finance-the-dollar-symbol-in-melting-ice-devaluated-money-image-symbolizing-the-bankruptcy-1024x939In his paper, “The Law of the Tendential Fall in the Rate of Profit as a Theory of Crises”, Gugliemo Carchedi answered critics who argue the falling rate of profit thesis cannot be empirically substantiated because Marx was discussing values not prices in his thesis. Fiat prices, however, are not values and have no relation to the values or socially necessary labor times required to produce commodities.

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II: How Andrew Kliman crippled his own argument on the rate of profit

The phony debate over investment and the cause of crisis

One of the biggest controversies among labor theorists when it come to calculating the rate of profit is whether the profit rate should be calculated based on the original amount of capital laid out by the capitalists minus depreciation or the current cost of replacing this capital. For example, assume I bought a widget machine for 100 dollars last year. Assume also that since I bought this machine, the price of widget machines fell from 100 dollars to fifty dollars. When I calculate my profit do I do this based on my original investment of 100 dollars or on the basis of the current market price of fifty dollars?

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I: Critical weaknesses in Andrew Kliman’s argument on the falling rate of profit

I have been looking at the numbers in this very interesting paper by Carchedi: “The Law Of The Tendential Fall In The Rate Of Profit As A Theory Of Crises”. I decided to test his 12 reasons why the falling rate of profit is the best explanation for the financial crisis of 2008 — not because I disagree, but because I think he makes a poor case for it. I thought I might go over his material in order to get an idea of how far off his calculations are when measured against a commodity money as Marx used in Capital. The problem, however, is that, so far as I can tell, Carchedi has not published the source data he used to arrive at his conclusions in the paper. (It is possible he published it in a different place, but I just haven’t come across it yet.)

Fortunately, an argument similar to Carchedi’s is also made by Andrew Kliman in his 2011 book, ‘The Failure of Capitalist Production’. And, unlike Carchedi, Kliman generously published a comprehensive spreadsheet of his source material compiled while writing his book. So, with this post, I am going to kick off a comprehensive review of Kliman’s empirical argument for the falling rate of profit thesis.

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Part 3: Pushing On A String? – The puzzle of the composite commodity in neoclassical theory

Lump of labour fallacy: In economics, the lump of labour fallacy … is the contention that the amount of work available to labourers is fixed. It is considered a fallacy by most economists, who hold that the amount of work is not static.

–Wikipedia

In part 2 of this series, I showed why fascist state management of the mode of production is indirect, rather than direct, i.e., why the state seeks to manage the process through its control over money, rather than directly imposing its control over the process of production. This method of management perfectly expresses the way in which crises actually unfold empirically within the mode of production. The first obvious symptoms of crisis are in exchange: unsold commodities, rising unemployment, credit contraction and a fall in GDP. It follows that any attempt to end a crisis will begin with these symptoms, rather than the underlying overaccumulation of capital.

Moreover, this method of approach reflects the problem from the standpoint of capital itself, where the problem, empirically, is not overproduction, but the ‘absence of demand’ for what has already been produced. For capital, the mode of exchange operates as an impediment to the realization of the surplus value already created. By necessity, therefore, the effort of management of the mode of production is directed at overcoming what capital sees as the ‘defects’ of the mode of exchange.

However much we can ridicule the simpletons for taking the result of the process of production for its cause, this much is clear: Between 1933 and 2008, nominal GDP experienced no year over year contraction — that is 75 years of unbroken nominal growth. To give this fact a historical perspective, in the 75 years prior to 1933, the US experienced at least 20 economic dislocations of various types, including depressions and panics. There is no question that fascist state economic management, for all of its silly assumptions, has been an unparalleled success so far as bourgeois economists are concerned. For most of that period, the only contraction in nominal GDP the US experienced were engineered by Washington deliberately to slow nominal growth of money in circulation, of employment and of GDP.

By way of comparison, consider that the Soviet Union experienced about 70 years of unbroken growth employing direct management of production. gorbachevFor all of the success of the Soviet mode of production in this regards, however, year 71 was a motherfucker — the Soviet centralized production system collapsed and the Union quickly broke up. Success along these lines clearly does not in any way guarantee against collapse. In the Soviet Union in 1991 and in the United States in 2008, it was as though 70 years of development was suddenly expressed in a single massive movement of society.

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Part 2: Pushing On A String? – Capitalist crisis from capital’s point of view

Business cycle stabilization: Stabilization can refer to correcting the normal behavior of the business cycle. In this case the term generally refers to demand management by monetary and fiscal policy to reduce normal fluctuations and output, sometimes referred to as “keeping the economy on an even keel.”

— Wikipedia

2. The bourgeois simpleton’s view of crisis

In the first part of my series on how economists see the mode of production they are attempting to manage, I explained how the method of management focuses not on capital, i.e., the production of surplus value, but on the reflexive expressions found in exchange relations. This is sort of like attributing to a sheet of paper the words that are printed on it, rather than the pen in the hand of the writer.

crisisFrom the viewpoint of labor theory, however, this approach is not surprising. A commodity producer only finds validation for the social character of his labor when trying to sell his commodity. His activity, the production of the commodity, is carried on in isolation, but only becomes a social product through exchange. This cannot be emphasized enough: The commodity producer intends to sell his commodity, but he doesn’t even know if there is a market for it.

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